1782
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Preface to An Archaeological Epistle.

An Archaeological Epistle to the Reverend and Worshipful Jeremiah Milles, D.D. Dean of Exeter, President of the Society of Antiquaries, and Editor of a superb Edition of the Poems of Thomas Rowley, Priest. To which is annexed a Glossary, extracted from that of the learned Dean.

Rev. William Mason


William Mason, writing anonymously, ridicules Chatterton and his admirers by proposing that the "archaeological" style become the basis for a new school of poetry. Mason's censure seems to have had some effect, for Chatterton's manner (as opposed to his matter) never became so popular as had that of Macpherson's Ossian a few years earlier. Implicit throughout the preface is a comparison of Chatterton's way with diction to that of Spenser's imitators, and one notes that while the Spenserian stanza was becoming more popular in the latter decades of the eighteenth century, Spenserian diction, taken from glossaries such as that Mason proposes, was largely abandoned or reserved for satire and burlesque.

Mason presents his epistle to Milles as an attempt to emulate his own satirical Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers (1773) in a new, Heroico-Archaeological manner, and that if the Rowleian manner should catch on, he can claim to be the father of a new kind of modern poetry (Chatterton being merely the discoverer of the old poet). He proposes, to this end, the publication of a rhyming dictionary in the manner of Bysshe, to be edited by Samuel Johnson. The new mode will make verse much easier to write, for (among other reasons ) "the poet will be almost entirely emancipated from the vile shackles of grammar; a point so clear, that the reader has only to cast his eye on any page in my Exemplar, to find Priscian's head broken by the poet, and healed by his commentator with equal facility. As to orthography, there is only one rule, and that the most simple that can be imagined (which, however, it is not necessary constantly to regard) and this is, to put as many letters as you can possibly croud into a word, and then rest assured, that that word will look truly Archaeological" pp. 7-8. Mason demonstrates the virtues of the new system by translating passages of Milton and Shakespeare into "archeological" diction.

The preface is notable for its very personal attack on the Tory Johnson, who is accused of Jacobitism, pandering to booksellers, hypocrisy, and prejudice against Milton. This apparently did not sit well with later readers, and after its initial success the Archeological Epistle was not reprinted.

Robert Potter to Edward Jerningham: "I am very impatient to see Mr. Bryant's proof of the authenticity of Rowlie's poems, and shall not wonder if he demonstrates them to be descended from two of the unclean beasts that coupled in the Ark" 9 December 1781; in Lewis Bettany, Edward Jerningham and his Friends (1919) 335.

Critical Review: "The preface is highly humorous. The author claims the 'fee simple right' of this mode of writing, if the disputed poems should be proved spurious. We have no objection to contribute our labours to his success; but fear that a 'caveat' will appear in favour of Mr. Malone, whose archaeological attempts were prior to those now before us. The gentlemen of Westminster-hall must then decide; and we would recommend the reverend etymologist, Mr. Horne, either as sollicitor or advocate. Dr. Johnson shares also the ridicule of our lively author, who seems scarcely able to forgive his disrespect for Milton's political tenets, and the 'venal' direliction of his own; but this subject would lead us from our path. We confess that we felt a peculiar pleasure from the animated little piece of the present author; we were wearied with solemn farce and sounding trifles; and were disgusted even with the prospect of victory, in a trifling contest" 54 (1782) 19.




As Archaeological science most certainly excells Chinese gardening, and as a President of the Society of Antiquaries takes precedence (at least on English ground) of a Knight of the Polar star, I flatter myself, that in point of subject, and choice of the personage to whom I address myself, I may vie with the inimitable author of the celebrated Heroic Epistle. I shall, however, forbear to enter the lists with him as a poet, or march in the rear of his numerous host of imitators: my modesty prevents the one, and my vanity the other. Instead therefore of writing heroically, I shall write Archaeologically; or, to speak more properly, Heroico-Archaelogically, employing a style and a manner, of which there is at present only one exemplar in the known world, and of which, I trust, the following epistle will be found an absolute facsimile. And I am the rather inclined to do this, because I am creditably informed, that many formidable critics are still attempting to disprove the authenticity of my original. Now, should they succeed in this attempt, the reader easily perceives, that I may claim a kind of fee-simple right to this style by way of direct inheritance: for, should all the old chests in all the parish churches of the kingdom, after a pregnancy of four centuries, choose to bring forth a tuneful progeny of pastorals, tragedies, epic poems, and what not, it cannot be imagined, that the said chests will ever pretend, that they were impregnated in the same wonderful manner, and by the same occult personage, with that of St. Mary Redclift. I must, therefore, if her pretty bantlings be proved suppositious, or illegitimate, necessarily rise up the first Archaeological Poet in Great Britain.

In this eventful moment, therefore, of literary suspence, let not any rash reader presume to say, that I imitate Rowley; for then another will as peremptorily answer, that I imitate Chatterton. And if, on the contrary, he asserts that I emulate Chatterton, the learned personage, whom I address, will be in gratitude bound to prove, that I emulate Rowley; which I own, indeed, I should like best, because then I should run a fair chance of excelling Homer, Theocritus, and the best poets of antiquity. But, be this as it may, I only say of myself simply and modestly, that I write Archaelogically; and, as a most profound etymologist has lately proved that a writer must know his own meaning (a comfortable truth to know, in an age, in which so many authors write without any meaning) resting on his great authority, and taking for granted that I do know my own meaning, I profess only to write in common plain English first, and afterwards to unspell it, and unanglicize it, by means of that elaborate glossary, which Dr. Milles has fabricated for the use of the readers of my original. Pity! great pity, indeed, it is, that while he was doing this, he did not also fabricate another for his imitators. Had he done this, and placed the modern words before the Archaeological ones, it is certain the greatest part of my labour had been saved.

To supply this great desideratum, it is my intention (after my own fame is by my present production fully established) to write a complete Art of Archaelogical poetry in the manner of Mr. Bysshe; and not only this, but to add to it a complete Anglo-Gothico-Saxonico-Chattertonic dictionary for the use of tiros. For this latter work I shall, however, order my bookseller to article with Dr. Johnson, or any other writer in the trade (the Doctor, having been a dictionary-maker, might perhaps be the fittest) who, for a specified sum, or sheet by sheet, as they shall agree, may transpose Dr. Milles's glossary in the way above-mentioned, so that for any given English word the Gothico-Saxonico-Chattertonic, or any thing but English synonyme, may be immediately found. When this dictionary is duly formed, I will be bold to say, that this mode of writing will be found so easy, that every miss and master in the kingdom will be enabled to puzzle not only our old Society of Antiquaries here in England, but also that new Scotch one, which either is, or is about to be founded under the auspices of the Earl of Buchan.

On hinting this scheme to one of my friends, he told me it was not likely that Dr. Johnson would undertake the task, because were this style to become the fashion, it would eclipse his own. The objection seemed plausible at first, but, on reflection, I can see little weight in it. The merit of the Doctor's style is known to consist in his long words, hard words, and stiffly-constructed sentences. Now the style, which I have the honour to recommend, although there are a few long words in it, such as "amenused," "cherisaunied," &c. &c. yet they are not nearly so long, or so numerous, as those of the Doctor's own coinage. Hard words too, I own, are to be found in it; but these only because they are obsolete, and not like his, brought in through affectation, but from sheer necessity. Then, as to the construction of whole sentences, nothing in the world is so totally dissimilar, as the Lexiphanic and Archaeological manner: the one is "swotie," "mole," and "fetive"; the other "rugose," "cacophonous," and "dentrifrangent."

Another reason, which my friend gave, why the Doctor would probably not undertake this employment was, that he entertained heterodox notions concerning my Archetype, the immortal Rowley [author's note: His reason for this heterodoxy is probably this, that Rowley having never had any life at all, there was no probability that any bookseller would ever pay him for becoming his biographer]. But what then? Did not the Doctor once entertain heterodox notions concerning the right of the Hanover succession? And if a pension from the Treasury could cure him of the latter, why may not a pension from my bookseller cure him of the former? My money is as good as a Prime Minister's, and as (according to the old proverb) money makes the mare to go, so will it make his spavined pen flounder over any ground, dirty or clean, provided only that it be excused form taking that road, which leads to the real interests of his Sovereign, or the constitutional liberty of his fellow subjects. Taking it, therefore, for granted that, if we come up to his price (which, I trust, the sale of the present work will enable me to do) the Doctor will engage in the task, I shall point out, with much brevity, a few of the many advantages that will accrue to the rising generation of poets, if, quitting a mode of versifying already grown threadbare, they would adopt this, which both by example and exhortation I have recommended to them. In the first place let me assure them, that they will hereby find rimes as plenty as blackberries; for as Archaeology introduces a whole regiment of new-old words, and gives one leave either to use them or not, just as we please, it is plain that now it will be full as easy to write in rime as in blank verse, or even in plain prose. And, to shew that I do not make a false assertion, I will produce one instance out of a thousand from my original, and that from the famous Songe to Aella. The poet had in one line written:

Beesprengedd all the "mees" wythe gare.

In a subsequent stanza he writes:

Orr feest the hatchedd stede
Ypraunceyng o'er the "mead."

Now "mees" being the Archeological word, and "mead" the modern English one, it is plain he thought himself at liberty to write modern English, whenever rime required him to do so. Another benefit is, that the poet will be almost entirely emancipated from the vile shackles of grammar; a point so clear, that the reader has only to cast his eye on any page in my Exemplar, to find Priscian's head broken by the poet, and healed by his commentator with equal facility. As to orthography, there is only one rule, and that the most simple that can be imagined (which, however, it is not necessary constantly to regard) and this is, to put as many letters as you can possibly croud into a word, and then rest assured, that that word will look truly Archaeological.

But the last and best thing I shall mention is that great and unspeakable emolument, which the Anglo-Saxon prefix "y" brings to a necessitated versifier: as "yprauncing" for "prauncing," ymenging" for "menging," &x. &c. By having this always at his beck, that poet, who cannot write a smooth line in any given number of syllables, deserves, in my opinion, never to write a line at all. For this dear little "y" comes and goes just as one pleases, and may truly be called the Archaeological Poet's Toad-Eater. In short, with a little variation, we may apply that eulogy to it, which Dryden has given to St. Caecilia's music: it hath

Enlarg'd the former narrow bounds,
And added length to any sounds.

Such, with a great many more, are the advantages, that attend this style of poetry. It is not, therefore, I think, greatly to be wondered at, that either a priest of the fifteenth century, or that a boy at fifteen years of age (that which you please) should write with greater facility at least, if not greater spirit, than those miserable vernacular poets, who are so poor, comparatively, in point of rime, that they have not one to throw at a dog; who are tied so tight to the whipping-post of grammar, and fixed in the stocks of orthography, that they have hardly an idea at liberty; and, which is worst of all, cannot eke out a halting line by any other method, than a totally different expression. Oh! if you reflect coolly on these things, my dear brethren of the quill, I am fully persuaded that all of you, like me, will turn Archaeologists.

Having thus cursorily shewn what great benefits this style confers upon writers, I might now proceed to prove what superior delectation it affords to readers. But here I am forestalled by the learned Dean, who, in his preliminary and all his other masterly dissertations on the works of my predecessor, has irrefragably proved the point. Indeed, as president of the Society of Antiquaries, and editor of their valuable "Archaeologia," he has, I think, an absolute prescriptive right to dissert on this subject. I am not therefore without my hopes, that he will one day comment on the following epistle, which, if it want any thing, I am bold to say, wants only the illustrative notes of so sagacious an editor.

P.S. I have lately conceived that, as Dryden, Pope, &c. employed their great talents in translating Virgil, Homer, &c. that it would be a very commendable employment for the poets of the present age to treat some of the better sort of their predecessors, such as Shakspeare and Milton, in a similar manner, by putting them into Archaeological language. This, however, I would not call "translation," but "transmutation," for a very obvious reason. It is, I believe, a settled point among the critics, with Dr. Johnson at their head, that the greatest fault of Milton (exclusive of his political tenets) is, that he writ in blank verse. See then and admire how easily this might be remedied.

PARADISE LOST, Book I.
Offe manners fyrste bykrous volunde wolle I singe,
And offe the fruicte offe yatte caltysnyd tre
Whose fethal taste into thys worlde dydde brynge
Bothe morthe and tene to all posteritie.

How very near also (in point of dramatic excellence) would Shakspeare come to the author of Aella, if some of his best pieces were thus transmuted! As, for instance the soliloquy of Hamlet, "To be, or not to be."

To blynne or not to blynne the denwere is;
Gif it be bette wythin the spryte to beare
The bawsyn floes and tackles of dystresse
And by forloynyng amenuse them clere.

But I throw these trifles out, only to whet the appetite of the reader, for what he is to feast on in the subsequent pages.

Vale & fruere.
Mile-End,
March 15th, 1782.

[pp. 3-10]