1749
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sonnet to T. Edwards, Esq.

Kentish Poets, A Series of Writers in English Poetry, Natives of or Residents in the County of Kent; with Specimens of their Compositions, and some Account of their Lives and Writings. Rowland Freeman, ed.

Susanna Duncombe


In this posthumously published poem Susanna Duncombe addresses Thomas Edwards, who had recently revived the sonnet "In numbers like thy own." At the time of composition Duncombe, daughter of the painter Joseph Highmore, was a member of Samuel Richardson's circle, through which she would later meet her husband, the poet John Duncombe. Thomas Edwards was then contemplating an edition of Spenser's poems. Compare the sonnet to Edwards written by Hester Mulso Chapone, "Occasioned by reading Sonnets written in the Stile and Manner of Spencer, by T. Edwards, Esq." which was also written about this time and which was likewise belatedly published from manuscript. Most of Edwards's own sonnets were written to mark friendships and social occasions.

A second sonnet addressed by Susanna Duncombe to Edwards survives in manuscript in which she requests that he avoid Spenser's archaisms: "Sweet was the music Spencer's Lyre express'd, | And sweet thy Imitations Edwards flow; | Yet let thy Verse enraptur'd, sometimes glow | In modern Measure, modern Language dress'd. | This Boon thy humble Pupil dares request; | Since all thy Sonnets useful Lessons show, | Well fit for Innocence unlearn'd to know, | Why sings thy Muse with ancient Rules opprest? | On ev'ry Theme thy Muse her Voice can raise, | Then let her through the flow'ry Garden rove | Unchain'd, in Poetry's luxuriant Ground; | Trust thy own Skill, and know thy genuine Lays, | Ages to come shall copy and approve, | And not thy Spencer's Works be more renown'd" (Forster Collection: FM XII, 1, f. 106; also FM XVI, 2, f. 55).

To this later sonnet Thomas Edwards responded in a 1754 letter addressed to Samuel Richardson: "I hope I shall never be ashamed of imitating such great originals as Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, whom to imitate with any degree of success is no small praise. But why is my writing of sonnets, imitation any more than theirs? At least, it is not imitating them, but the same authors whom they imitated. I have indeed taken the liberty to revive a good old word from them and other of our classic authors, where I could not think of a modern word equally expressive, or to raise the diction above prose. But this has always been allowed lawful, and I wish it were more practised, so it be done with judgment: it would enrich our language with a better ore than we can have from the French mint, which is so much in fashion" 18 July 1754; in Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, ed. Barbauld (1804) 3:92.



Edwards, to thee my grateful thanks are due;—
In numbers like thy own I fain would praise
Thy kind indulgence to my humble lays:—
By thee encourag'd and instructed too,
The lure of poesy I now pursue,
But dare not even hope my song to raise
Equal to thine, whose every verse conveys
Sense, strength, and harmony, and judgment true.
But that thy candour, — modest, — gentle bard,
I know is equal to thy power in song,
Or with a muse so weak, so young as mine,
I should not on presumptuous wings have dar'd
To imitate, with my unhallow'd tongue,
Numbers like Spenser's, Milton's, or like thine.

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