Edward Williams takes aim at Alexander Pope and the absurdities of "Golden Age" pastoral, asserting that the primary business of the pastoral poet is to follow nature. Williams intersperses a series of brief essays among his verse that collectively develop his program for bardic poetry. While it is apparent that he was familiar with both the theory and practice of eighteenth-century poetry (he follows Pope's own Guardian essay in attacking Pope's improprieties), it was Williams's general intention to attack classical and English critics, substituting for their authority the ancient bardic wisdom surviving in Welsh manuscripts. There is nothing unconventional in the essay save the source from which the critic draws the ammunition used to triumph over Samuel Johnson (with whom Williams had had an unsatisfactory personal exchange in the 1770s).
In a second essay Williams extols Shenstone's Pastoral Ballad as a more natural form of pastoral than neoclassical eclogues in heroic measures; shepherds, after all, are expected to sing, and therefore should sing in lyric verse. The example of the ancients should not be binding on British pastoral.
Williams, who adopted the bardic name "Owen Morganwg," was a journey-mason and one of several autodidact-poets taking pride in the antiquary's knowledge of texts unfamiliar to the learned fraternity. Like Chatterton, he was not afraid to forge ancient manuscripts to suit his purposes, which is apparently the case with the Welsh "Triades" from which he draws his critical doctrine: "Have any of the great Manufacturers of Poets, from the days of Aristotle to the present time, ever said any thing more to the purpose? But the Poetic Triades will never emerge from their deep obscurity in the Welsh Language: they contain some of the most just, because the most natural, rules of Criticism that are to be met with in any language" 1:176.
The Author thinks Pastoral a species of Poetry that admits of as great a variety of subjects as any other whatever; and that it is not necessary, in the manner of modern Poets, to confine it solely to Love, and make his "whining swains" ring perpetual changes on the names of
And cold Amarillis, &c. &c.
A Poet in the character of a Shepherd, an occupation the most proper of all others to represent primeval simplicity and virtue, describes objects as they naturally present themselves to the senses, and affect the mind; or utters sentiments that spring from the simple notions and inborn feelings of those that are unaquainted with the abstractions of philosophy, and the complex ideas derived from art. The shepherd, who is the representative and pupil of Nature, has, for his rural song, at least as great a diversity of themes as the more philosophic rhimer can boast of; who, if he pleases, may take to himself the fine things of art, provided he leave the sylvan Bard in full possession of Nature.
There are some Critics "who (as Dr. Johnson observes, and the cap often fits his own head) love to talk of what they do not know," that affect to ridicule Pastoral Poetry: their misconceptions of its nature are, most probably, occasioned by the absurd and unnatural rhapsodies that many have given us under the name of Pastoral; the sentiments highly fantastical, with descriptions of what no climate of this globe affords but that of Grub-street; where, among many rare things, are to be seen, the violet of March and the rose of June blowing in the same time, as we are told by Mr. POPE, in his first Pastoral:
Here, on green banks, the "blushing" vi'lets glow,
Here western winds on breathing roses blow.
And, in the second he says,
The Naiads wept in ev'ry "wat'ry" bow'r,
And Jove consented in a silent show'r.
In the fourth we have the following lines:
Here shall I try the sweet Alexis' strain,
That call'd the list'ning "Dryads" to the plain:
Thames heard the numbers as he flow'd along,
And bade his willows learn the moving song.
What wonder is it that such "sweet ALEXIS' strains" as these, with the curious RULES given us by Poet makers, who talk of the Golden Age, and we know not what, should induce many to think meanly of Pastoral Poetry.
It would, perhaps, not be amiss if our modern Critics and Poets would take into consideration the following maxim of the Welsh Bards, from their Poetic Triades.
Tri phrif anhepeor awen,
Llygad yn gweled Anian,
Calon teimlo Anian,
A glewder a faidd gydfyned ag Anian.
The three primary and indispensible requisites of poetic genius are,
An eye that can see Nature,
A heart that can feel Nature,
And a resolution that dares follow Nature.
Quaere? Have any of the great Manufacturers of Poets, from the days of Aristotle to the present time, ever said any thing more to the purpose? But the Poetic Triades will never emerge from their deep obscurity in the Welsh Language: they contain some of the most just, because the most natural, rules of Criticism that are to be met with in any language....
The Reader will observe, that the term "Lyric Pastoral" has often been used, and will, perhaps, ask, for what reason? — It is this — We often observe Shepherds, and other rural characters, diverting themselves with songs, which are always, in the proper sense of the word, "sung" to a "tune"; the verse of course must be Lyric; SHENSTONE'S Pastoral Ballads are, for this reason, amongst others, far more natural than the Bucolics of Theocritus, Virgil, and many more that could be named; this at least is a Welsh Bard's opinion, who admits of no authority but that of NATURE. We often hear the fields resound with Chevy Chace, Tweed Side, and such popular songs. Shepherds, Ploughmen, and Goatherds, will often write verses to favourite tunes in praise of their Phillidas, their Annies, and their Delias. But we never meet with them spouting heroics, "sub tegmine fagi." At least it is thus in every part of BRITAIN. But some, it seems, are of opinion that we should write for other countries, climates, and times, rather than our own. Bravo! my good Critics!