Writing over the signature "M. C. S.," William Bagshaw Stevens praises the verse of Phineas Fletcher and promises to send future essays on Francis Quarles and other forgotten poets. The letter opens with some poisonous remarks on Hugh Blair's just-published Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, which mistakenly claimed that Sannazzaro erred in inventing the piscatory eclogue, claiming that "the innovation was so unhappy that he has gained no followers." Stevens points out as contrary examples Moses Browne (whose eclogues were indeed well-known in the eighteenth century) and Phineas Fletcher. (Stevens does not point it out, but Blair had also omitted any discussion of Spenser whatsoever.)
He does not discuss Fletcher's eclogues, however, instead dwelling on some attractive passages from the Purple Island (cantos 6 and 12; the modernized text is perhaps from the edition just published in 1783) and "Elisa, or An Elegie upon the unripe Decease of Sr. Antonie Irby." The first quotation from the Purple Island is compared to Collins's Ode on the Passions: "Every body knows and admires the very beautiful manner in which the person of Pity is introduced, and her tender offices described, in Collins's Ode for Music. Let the lovers of true poetry and those who in matters of taste and imagination dare to think for themselves, compare the passage alluded to in Collins, to the following extract from Phineas Fletcher" p. 932.
Stevens, who had recently graduated from Magdalen College in Oxford, was a schoolmaster in remote Derbyshire. Apparently he had been purchasing books as an undergraduate.
It has been already observed, that Dr. Blair, in his late elaborate publication, has lapsed into more inaccuracies and inelegancies, than are pardonable in a master of the Belles Lettres, and a lecturer of rhetoric by profession. In his account of Cowley's writings, he observes, without the least qualifying of the expression, that Cowley is at "all" times harsh. In a succeeding sentence we are told that his Anacreontic Odes are "smooth and elegant." If they are smooth and elegant, can they be harsh? And as they undoubtedly are of his composition, how can he be said to have been at "all" times harsh? — Having mentioned, in his Essay on Pastoral Poetry, that Sannazarius, in the age of Leo X, had changed the scene from woods to the sea, he adds, that "the innovation was so unhappy that he has gained no followers." Is it not strange, that the learned Doctor should hazard such a peremptory and and unwarranted assertion? Is it not strange, that a critical writer on the subject of poetry should never have seen, or heard of, Browne's Piscatory Eclogues; or those of that elder bard, Phineas Fletcher? The compositions of this poet, notwithstanding they are frequently degraded by a rude grossness or a quaint playfulness of thought and expression, abound in melody, imagery, pathos, and simplicity. His Piscatory Eclogues have been republished within these twenty years. Every body knows and admires the very beautiful manner in which the person of Pity is introduced, and her tender offices described, in Collins's Ode for Music. Let the lovers of true poetry and those who in matters of taste and imagination dare to think for themselves, compare the passage alluded to in Collins, to the following extract from Phineas Fletcher, and I shall leave them to make their own comments:
Forth stept the just Dicaea, full of rage;
(The first-born daughter of th' almighty king)
Ah sacred maid, thy kindled ire assuage?
Who dare abide thy dreadful thundering!
Soon as her voice but "father" only spake,
The faultless heavens, like leaves in autumn, shake;
And all that glorious throng with horrid palsies quake.
Heard you not late, with what loud trumpet sound
Her breath awak'd her father's sleeping ire?
The heavenly armies flam'd, earth shook, hell frown'd,
And heaven's dread King call'd for his three-fork'd fire.
Hark! how the powerful words strike through the ear;
The frighted sense shoots up the staring hair,
And shakes the trembling soul with fright and shuddering fear.
But see how, 'twixt her sister and her sire,
Soft-hearted Mercy sweetly interposing,
Settles her panting breast against his fire,
Pleading for grace, and chains of death unloosing:
Hark, from her lips the melting honey flows;
The striking thunderer recalls his blowes,
And every armed soldier down his weapon throws.
Some of the fairest flowers of English Poesy might be culled from this amiable author, who abounds in a flowing ease of expression and naivete of sentiment, that do not frequently occur in more modern poets. In a very distant number (I forget the date) of the Gent. Mag. appeared, from this author, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and a charming morsel of genuine poetry it is! If I was not unwilling to burden your valuable pages with extracts, I could lay before your readers some very uncommon beauties from this almost forgotten author. I am tempted to transcribe the following short stanza, which concludes an engaging picture of a shepherd's tranquil life. The whole account is replete with those tender and natural touches with which truth and simplicity interest the human heart:
His bed of wool yields safe and quiet sleeps,
While by his side his faithful spouse hath place;
His little son into his bosom creeps,
The lively image of his father's face;
Never his humble house or state torment him,
Less he could like, if less his God had sent him;
And when he dies, green turfs with grassy tomb content him.
I earnestly recommend the whole of Phineas Fletcher's productions to the attentive perusal of your poetical readers. — To Fletcher, perhaps, rather than to Passerat (vide Johnson's Life of L. Rochester) Rochester is indebted for the idea of his excellent poem on Nothing. In Fletcher's Miscellanies there is a poem on that subject.
Doctor Johnson has observed that "Cowley has given one example of representative versification, which perhaps no other English line can equal." This famous line is a translation of Horace's "Labitur & labetur in omne volubilis aevum."
Which runs, and, as it runs, for ever shall run on!
Dr. Hurd has likewise made his observations on this celebrated line; and he forsooth tells us, that, "considering it as a translation, it is indeed no unfaithful vehicle of the sense of Horace, but it is deficient in elegance." Therefore he proposes what he esteems a better in its stead. Take it, "Flows the full stream, and shall for ever flow!" I quote from memory. Is it not strange that these two learned Doctors should differ so very widely in their opinion of one poor line? What must the unlearned think of the infallibility of criticism! "Who shall decide when Doctors disagree!" I have often thought that it would be very useful to young students, if the discordant assertions, as positive as gratuitous, of first-rate critics should be gathered together, and presented to their disciples in one view, that they might perceive the conflict of jarring opinions, to acquire the art of judging for themselves. See in Warton's Essay on Pope the praise lavished on Akenside's Odes, and see Mason's and Johnson's very different judgement of them. If, however, we agree with Dr. Johnson, that the line above quoted from Cowley is super-excellent, shall we not give the same praise of happy construction to the following line from Fletcher?
Else had that endless pit too quickly caught me,
That endless pit, where it is easier never
"To fall, than being fallen, to cease from falling ever."
Compare this line with Cowley's, and you must allow that his representative harmony can be equaled, because it has been equaled.
An ingenious critic, Mr. Jackson, author of Thirty Letters, has treated us with some beautiful extracts from that once admired, then derided author, Quarles. The two-fold pleasure of seeing justice done to the manes of an honest man, and the pleasure of reading some beautiful verses, new as it were from their antiquity, will induce me, with your permission, to attempt, from time to time, the entertainment of your readers, by extracts from authors in the poetical line, who have scarcely been honoured with other notice than that of the antiquary. It will be seen that many a precious pearl has been involved in obscurity by surrounding dust.