Writing from Cambridge, Edward Smedley presents an annotated catalogue of writers intended for use by a female friend of his sister. The list is explicitly confined to "Les Belles Lettres," broken out by French, Italian and English writers, poetry and prose. The choices reflect the taste for "pure poetry" introduced by the Wartons half a century earlier: the English poets include Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Akenside, Collins, Gray, Scott, and Campbell; Pope and French writers are expressly demoted, as in Warton. While Smedley is fond of romances, the English novelists are excluded from the list, as is Chaucer (Smedley, an advocate for expurgated texts, recommends Dryden's adaptations).
He writes, "Among our poets, I shall begin with Spenser, not as the first who ought to be read, but as the earliest in date whose perusal I would recommend. Whether he is to be read at all must depend upon the quantity of chivalric taste to which I have before alluded: — with me he holds an extremely high rank" pp. 280-81. He adds, "When I speak of Milton, it is perhaps necessary to add that I mean his minor poems, as well as the Paradise Lost: they cannot be too much studied. Warton's edition is one of my favorite books" p. 281.
Edward Smedley is a good representative of establishment taste in literature; the son of a longtime usher at Westminster School, he would later work as a tutor and editor, contributing largely to the reviews. His expurgated edition of Spenser was never published.
Rowland E. Prothero: "The Rev. Edward Smedley (1788-1836) editor from 1822 of the Encyclopedia Metropolitana, was a voluminous writer of prose and poetry" Letters and Journals (1898-1901) 5:94-95n.
Trin. Coll., Cambridge, February 5th, 1811.
MY DEAR ANNA,
It is scarcely possible to execute the task which you have given me in any manner which shall not be exposed to a variety of objections. The particular course of reading, and the favorite bias in which a single mind has indulged, — association, prejudice, deficiency of information, perversion of taste, — these, and a thousand other causes must conspire to render any scheme which shall be proposed more or less imperfect. I will endeavour, as far as is in my power, to recommend some of those authors with whom, upon actual perusal, I have been pleased, or by whom I have been instructed. To these I shall confine myself, as I in great measure consider it a matter of duty, not to place in the hands of those who apply to me for advice, writings with whose nature and tendency I myself am only acquainted by common report. In the outset I shall presume that your friend is acquainted with French and Italian; the former as a matter of course, the latter (if not a present) certainly a future acquirement; and here, as I only speak upon my own judgment, she must not be surprised if I say that I am not pleased with the French tragic writers. This is partly national taste, and partly individual feeling; but I should do wrong if I were to say they are not to be read. It is ignorance to be unacquainted with them; it is only difference of opinion to dislike them. The ten tragedies of Racine should all be read; and to a woman whose education is conducted on a different plan from ours, they will be of particular use, from the relation which most of them bear to classical history. With Corneille I am very slightly acquainted. I only know Le Cid, which certainly ought to be read. Voltaire is so voluminous, and so little unequal, that a selection from his theatre may securely be left to accident. The comic theatre affords an inexhaustible fund of amusement. Moliere is throughout pre-eminent for his wit. Les Plaideurs of Racine is excellent, and many of our own best plays are borrowed from T. Corneille. Boileau is the only other poet I should think it worth while to add to my stock. His is the only style of poetry adapted to the genius of the French language, which appears to me utterly unfit for the higher classes. Of this La Henriade is a striking instance; a composition which should still be read, both for its connexion with history, and from its being the only French "epique." In the higher walks of history the French are equally inferior to ourselves. Mezeray is the author I have used: he is tedious, but always of good authority. In memoirs of particular periods, all the biographical part of history, the privacy and tittle-tattle of great men, the French abound. Many of these are highly unfit for general perusal. The two which I would recommend, both for entertainment and as specimens, are Philippe de Comines, who details the crimes and the reign of his master, Louis XI.; and Sully, the most virtuous minister, and one of the pleasantest writers that ever lived. The French are our superiors in the eloquence of the pulpit, more impassioned, and therefore more impressive. Massillon stands foremost. "Les Lettres Provinciales" and "Les Pensees de Pascal" will be read with unmixed pleasure. This last is the only controversial writer who has taken away all the bitterness of argument without diminishing its energy. Of the lighter writers, Florian is pretty, more particularly in his little Harlequinades, which should be read as illustrative of the original character of Harlequin, the great simple booby-boy man whom, on our stage, we have converted into a dancing conjuror. Fenelon and Fontenelle must both be known. The classical novel of the former will be useful for reasons mentioned previously, and "Les Entretiens sur la Pluralite des Mondes" of the latter has blended imagination with science, without detriment to either.
Both as a language itself, and as to the authors who have written in it, I rank Italian far higher than French. With the exception of Greek (which your friend is not likely to know, and which she may think me a pedant for mentioning), there is no language so poetical. Of course it is in this branch they have excelled. For a beginner, Dante is far too difficult; and I would advise that he should be postponed. When the period of enjoyment does come, I heartily envy any body who reads and enters into the sublimity of his spirit for the first time. I would recommend a similar treatment to Petrarch. Tasso cannot be read too much or too often: he should be the companion of the fireside, of the pillow, and (where it is used) of the pocket. If other people loved genuine chivalric romance as well as I do, Ariosto would be used much in the same manner (of him there is an expurgata edition, to be had at Dulau's, which I would recommend); you, who are now reading Don Quixote, cannot tell the high additional pleasure which you would receive from an acquaintance with the original adventures, of which his are parodies. The Italian romances are so numerous and so entertaining. that it is difficult to set a limit to reading. My own has been confined to Orlando Innamorato, Orlando Furioso, and Morgante: of these the second is the best, and the first next. Of their tragic theatre there is a good historical account by Mr. Walker, which will point out its excellency better than my imperfect knowledge of it can do. The Merope of Maffei, and the Aristodemo of Monti, are two of the grandest plays I know: they are both, I believe, printed with others, in three small volumes of Il Teatro Italiano, to be had at Dulau's. There is also a similar selection from Goldoni, their great comic writer, who is too voluminous to be perused entire. Metastasio is no great favorite with me: — he is too sugary, too languishing, and too uniformly like himself: as a specimen, I would recommend Artaserse and La Clemenza di Tito. I must not omit the pastoral drama, which seems peculiar to the Italians: the Pastor Fido of Guarini, and the Aminta of Tasso, are jewels in their kind. Alfieri has fine passages, and has become better known to us lately; but he is too studied, and too like the French school for my taste. This, if we add Mr. Matthias's Componimenti Lirici, and the Aggiunta ai Comp. Lir, the most elegant selection which has appeared in any language, will form a tolerable outline of Italian poetry. Guicciardini and Davila are historians of a most interesting period, and the last is unrivalled in his style; but they are perhaps too voluminous to be read. The literary stock of Italian is inexhaustible; but I am afraid of having already devoted too much to my favorite language: an intimate acquaintance with its poetry is absolutely necessary, where there are any pretensions to taste and information; and with this your friend may for the present be contented.
The most difficult part of my task is now before me. In the languages of other nations, it is not probable that a foreigner will be acquainted with any but works of the most distinguished reputation, and he may safely recommend what general consent has established as the first in its kind. This is not the case with his own: the stores are more freely unlocked to him, and he has a greater variety from which he may choose; his difficulties, where there are many possessing equal merit, is rather what to refuse than what to select; and the chances of error are multiplied against him in proportion to the extent of his information, — a singular case, in which the more we know, the more probable it is that we shall be wrong. I shall confine myself within very bounded limits, and run the hazard of appearing common-place, in the hope that I may not be entirely useless. Among our poets, I shall begin with Spenser, not as the first who ought to be read, but as the earliest in date whose perusal I would recommend. Whether he is to be read at all must depend upon the quantity of chivalric taste to which I have before alluded: — with me he holds an extremely high rank. It is almost absurd to mention the obvious necessity of a most intimate acquaintance with Shakspeare and Milton: my only fear is that I should have called up the "petit rougeur" of indignation, by supposing that they are not already a part of your friend's mind. When I speak of Milton, it is perhaps necessary to add that I mean his minor poems, as well as the Paradise Lost: they cannot be too much studied. Warton's edition is one of my favorite books. Dryden's Fables are a model of perfect versification; they are also of high interest, from the nature of their stories, and they supply the gap which is only to be filled otherwise by the labour of encountering Chaucer; a task of which I do not repent, but which for your friend is unnecessary. I do not know that I would at present recommend any other of Dryden's original works. Thomson, from the fidelity and vivacity of his natural pictures, must always please. Collins's Odes stand very high in my estimation; few of our own poets have equal splendour of imagination. The Odes of Akenside are of a different cast, but not less to be admired. Gray has magnificence of diction, and unrivalled wildness of transition: the life of him, by Mason, was put into my hands at a very early age, and I never shall forget the delight I felt in reading it; I recommend it very strongly. You will, perhaps, be surprised at the place which I have given to Pope, the most polite of all our writers — an acquaintance with him is absolutely necessary; those who prefer the artificial beauties of the Parisian coquette to the natural and unstudied graces of the Swiss paysanne, will think him injured by being placed at the bottom in such company. I always read him with pleasure, but I never feel the high and glowing enthusiasm which the poets after my own heart excite. Among our living poets, you know that Walter Scott and Campbell (except in his Gertrude) are my favorites. I would advise the entire perusal of Hume and Robertson, for I am no friend to summaries of history. Roscoe's Lorenzo de' Medici is an admirable account of a very interesting period: this, indeed, (I mean details of particular and detached periods) is a very useful, and always a very entertaining course of study. There is a little octavo thin volume, without the author's name, printed for Cadell and Davies in 1798, entitled "An Introduction to the Literary History of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries:" it is not as well known as it deserves: it contains an abstract of almost all the information which Gibbon has given on the subject, without the contamination of his principles. I had almost forgotten translations. Our language abounds in good ones, and women are enabled by their means to acquire no inadequate stock of classical information. Dryden and Pope stand highest, and will open an ample source of instruction. The Greek tragic writers (if this is a sort of study which your friend is inclined to pursue) have been well translated by Franklin and Potter; and both the Greek and Latin historians by a variety of writers, among whom Murphy, in his Tacitus, stands pre-eminent. I do not advise the perusal of translations from modern languages in general, but as an exception, I would mention Mickle's version of the Luciad of Camoens, a beautiful poem in a language not of common acquirement. Now there is a certain class of books of such standard celebrity, that it is necessary they should be read: I mean the original Periodicals, with some of those of late date, many detached pieces of various authors, &c., all which it is impossible to enumerate, and it is perfectly easy to find. All that Johnson has written is worth reading. Though I differ from many of his critical opinions on our poets, it is right to know the judgment of so celebrated a man, and though the Rambler is occasionally heavy, it is frequently superior to any of its predecessors. Rasselas is perfect, and all his detached Philological and Critical Papers are manuals of taste. If, as can hardly fail to be the case, the private life of a man who has contributed so largely to literature, excites our interest, there is no book so well calculated to gratify unbounded curiosity as Boswell's Life. Boswell was a weak man, who wrote badly and thought worse; but he was nearly thirty years about Johnson, with the sole intention of compiling all which he could pick up in regard to him. Of course he has succeeded in producing a great deal which is entertaining, among a vast jumble of trash.
Thus, my dear Anna, I have endeavoured to meet your wishes: you will see that I have written as if to yourself, (for it is the course of reading which I should also point out for you and Eliza;) but I would advise you to send my letter, as it is, "with all its imperfections on its head," to your friend. It is, indeed, a very scanty and defective outline, formed from recollection, and, of course, not much to be depended upon. If, however, there are any points upon which farther information may be wished, or any author on whose merits my poor opinion may be consulted, you and your friend may command me to the extent of my ability: in return, may I take the liberty of requesting that she will not continue anonymous? She will more than double the honour she has already conferred, by allowing me to know with more certainty (for I have my suspicions) to whom I am to be grateful.
Believe me, My dear Anna, Ever most affectionately your's,
P.S. — I have confined my account to Les Belles Lettres: my reason has been, that in elementary works of science there is not much choice, and little necessity for selection; but, if it is supposed that I can be of any use in this way, I need scarcely add that you will oblige me by saying so.