1775
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Review of Spenser's Fairy Queen attempted in Blank Verse. Canto I.

Monthly Review 52 (February 1775) 111-13.

Rev. John Langhorne


John Langhorne, the principal reviewer of poetry for the Monthly Review, damns this early adaptation of the Faerie Queene for semiliterate readers: "there may be many whom, as the Author intimates, the cheapness of the book and the familiarity of the language may induce to purchase it. And if such can persuade themselves that they here read Spenser, we have no objection" p. 112. The treatment of the hapless adapter's grammar is typical of early periodical reviews, which took inspiration from the schoolhouse. Undeterred, the transposer published three additional cantos in 1783 before giving up the project.

All reviews in the Monthly and Critical Reviews were anonymous; Langhorne's contributions can be identified from a surviving annotated copy.




"The Transposer of the following Canto has undertaken this work with a view to render the Poem of the Fairy Queen more intelligible, having met with many persons of understanding and a taste for reading, who, whilst they admire the imagery, invention, and sentiments of the Author, do not chuse to be at the pains to seek for them amongst his uncouth phrases and obsolete stile: if this Specimen is approved by the indulgent Public, the remainder of the Poem is ready for the press, and the whole will be comprised in one neat pocket volume, which as it will give the Reader the substance of four volumes at a much less expence, will not, it is presumed, hide from his view one real beauty of this valuable work, the Editor having attended to the original as much as possible, and scarcely ventured (except the versification) to make any material alteration in a plan formed by such a great master of Nature."

Such is the Author's prefatory advertisement, and though it be hard to attack any man in his apology, yet we who are concerned in maintaining the purity of English composition, cannot withhold our censure, whenever that is neglected. In the above short advertisement there are no fewer than three inaccuracies of expression. "If this specimen, says the Author, is approved by the indulgent Public, the remainder of the poem 'is" ready for the press, 'and the' whole will be," &c. instead of, "being" ready for the press, "the" whole, &c. for the remainder is ready for the press, whether the specimen is approved or not. — Instead of "except the versification," he should have written, except "in" the versification; and for "such a great master," so great a master.

To find fault with trifling errors, merely for the sake of criticising, is no part of our intention; when we censure an inaccurate, or a slovenly style, we mean to put future writers upon their guard gainst these defects, and thereby to preserve the precision of our language.

As this Writer has re-versified the whole Fairy Queen, his labour must have been considerable; and we shall, therefore, neither hurt his interest nor offend his hopes by inviting the Public to accede to our opinion; for, how absurd however it may appear to us, to strip the ancient allegory of its primeval trappings (perhaps the most respectable circumstances belonging to it) and to pin upon a tapestry-hero a maccaroni's straw-hat and white apron, there may be many whom, as the Author intimates, the cheapness of the book and the familiarity of the language may induce to purchase it. And if such can persuade themselves that they here read Spenser, we have no objection.

The following forest-piece will shew the manner in which this work is executed:

SPENSER.
Much 'gan they praise the Trees so straight and high,
The sailing Pine, the Cedar proud and tall,
The Vine-prop Elm, the Poplar never dry,
The builder Oak, sole King of Forrests all,
The Aspine good for Staves, the Cypress Funeral.

The Laurel, Meed of mighty Conquerors
And Poets sage, the Firr that weepeth still,
The Willow, worn of forlorn Paramours,
The Ewe, obedient to the Bender's will,
The Birch for Shafts, the Sallow for the Mill,
the Mirrhe, sweet bleeding in the bitter Wound,
The warlike Beech, the Ash for nothing ill,
The fruitful Olive, and the Platane round,
The Carver Holme, the Maple seldom inward sound.

THE TRANSPOSER.
Much did they praise the trees so straight and tall,
The sailing pine, the cedar's tow'ring top,
The vine prop'd elm, the poplar never dry,
The builder oak, (the sov'reign of the woods)
The aspine strong, the cypress funeral,
The laurel, (crown of mighty conquerors,
And poets sage) the fir that weepeth still,
The willow worn by disappointed love,
An oft by genius: the obedient yew,
The birch for shafts, the sallow for the mill,
The myrrhe sweet bleeding in the bitter wound,
The warlike beach, the ash for nought unfit,
The fruitful olive and the round plantain,
The carver holme, the maple seldom sound.

The "vine-prop'd" elm is erroneous; it is not the vine that props the elm: Spenser's expression is right. That poet does not call the aspine good for staves on account of its strength, but its smoothness and fine polish, it should therefore have been the aspine "smooth." "Plaintain" is an herb, and not the "platane" of Spenser. The modern name of that is "planetree." There is indeed a tree in the West Indies called the Plantain tree, but that is not remarkably round, nor the tree meant here.


[pp. 111-13]