Thomas Rymer challenges Rapin's assertion that the English lack good poets by discussing the claims to heroic verse of Spenser, Davenant, and Cowley — Milton is not mentioned. Despite general praise, the longish passage on Spenser became the locus classicus for much negative criticism of design, allegory, and stanza in the Faerie Queene: "we must blame the Italians for debauching great Spencer's judgement; and they cast him on the unlucky choice of the Stanza, which is in now wise proper for our Language" Sig. A6v.
Thomas Rymer's objections to the lack of probability in Spenser's story may account for John Milton's decision to abandon King Arthur as the subject of his epic poem.
George Saintsbury: "Had Rymer done nothing more than this in criticism it would indeed be absurd to call him our best critic, but it would be still more absurd to call him our worst. There is fair knowledge, there is fair common-sense judgment; the remarks on Chaucer are merely what might be expected, and on Spenser rather better than might be expected; the detailed censure is correct enough; and though there cannot be said to be any great appreciation of poetry, there is interest in it. Above all, if the piece stood alone, we should hardly think of detecting in it even a murmur of the pedantic snarl which is the one unpardonable sin of a critic" History of English Criticism (1911) 133-34.
Herbert E. Cory: "Thomas Rymer interests us because he was an important man in his own day, because lie espoused neo-classicism, in an age of struggle and doubt, with an uncompromising faith, and because he shows how readily the Augustans reconciled Spenser, on the whole, with their ideals. In his preface to the translation of Rapin's Reflections on Aristotle's Treatise of Poesie (1674) he wrote: 'Spencer, I think, may be reckon'd the first of our Heroick Poets; he had a large spirit, a sharp judgement, and a Genius for Heroick Poesie, perhaps above any that ever writ since Virgil. But our misfortune is, he wanted a true Idea, and lost himself by following an unfaithful guide. Though besides Homer and Virgil, he had read Tasso, yet he rather suffer'd himself to be misled by Ariosto; with whom blindly rambling on marvellous adventures he makes no conscience of Probability'" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 120-21.
Harko Gerrit De Maar: "We find for the first time the idea that Spenser's stanza is 'nowise proper for our language'. The mistake is due to Ariosto, says Rymer. This theory that the stanza on account of its repetition of rhymes is unfit for the English language, though it may be suitable for Italian, led a vigorous existence for over a century" History of Modern English Romanticism (1924) 34.
H. T. Swedenberg: "Rymer considers the authors of three English epics — Spenser, Davenant, and Cowley — and in his remarks shows clearly that he is applying his theories of common sense to his critical judgments. Though he admits that Spenser had a genius for heroic poetry, he sees several faults in his work" Theory of the Epic in England (1944) 47.
In Tragedies of the Last Age (1678), Thomas Rymer insists that Spenser "will ever be sacred to me."
The Artist would not take pains to polish a Diamond, if none besides himself were quick-sighted enough to discern the flaw; And Poets would grow negligent, if the Criticks had not a strict eye over their miscarriages. Yet it often happens, that this eye is so distorted by envy or ill nature, that it sees nothing aright. Some Criticks are like Wasps, that rather annoy the Bees, than terrifie the Drones.
For this sort of Learning, our Neighbour Nations have got far the start of us; in the last Century, Italy swarm'd with Criticks, where, amongst many of less note, Castelvetro opposed all comers; and the famous Academy La Crusca was alwayes impeaching some or other of the best Authors. Spain, in those dayes, bred great Wits, but, I think, was never so crowded, that they needed to fall out and quarrel amongst themselves. But from Italy, France took the Cudgels; and though some light strokes passed in the dayes of Marot, Baif, &c. yet they fell not to it in earnest, nor was any noble Contest amongst them, till the Royal Academy was founded and Cardinal Richlieu encouraged and rallied all the scattered Wits under his Banner. Then Malherb reform'd their ancient licentious Poetry; and Corneille's Cid rais'd many Factions amongst them. At this time with us many great Wits flourished, but Ben Johnson I think, had all the Critical learning to himself; and till of late years England was as free from Criticks, as it is from Wolves, that a harmless well-meaning Book might pass without any danger. But now this priviledge, whatever extraordinary Talent it requires, is usurped by the most ignorant: and they who are least acquainted with the game, are aptest to bark at every thing that comes in their way. Our fortune is, Aristotle, on whom our Author makes these Reflections, came to this great work better accomplished. He who Criticis'd on the ancient and his contemporary Philosophers; on Pythagoras, Democritus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Epicharmus, Parmenides, Xenophanes, Melissus, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Eudoxus, Solon, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Plato, Speusippus; who examin'd and censur'd the Laws and Polities of Minos, Lycurgus Solon, Hippodamus, Phaleas, and all the other Commonwealths, 'tis he, I say, that undertakes this Province, to pass a judgment on the Poets, and their Works; and him Antiquity first honoured with the name of Critick.
It is indeed suspected that he dealt not alwayes fairly with the Philosophers, misreciting sometimes, and misinterpreting their opinions. But I find him not tax'd of that injustice to the Poets, in whose favour he is so ingenious, that to the disadvantage of his own profession, he declares, That Tragedy more conduces to the instruction of Mankind, than even Philosophy it self. And however cryed down in the Schools, and vilified by some modern Philosophers since Men have had a taste for good sense, and could discern the beauties of correct writing, he is prefer'd in the politest Courts of Europe, and by the Poets held in great veneration. Not that these can servilely yield to his Authority, who, of all men living, affect liberty. The truth is, what Aristotle writes on this Subject, are not the dictates of his own magisterial will, or dry deductions of his Metaphysicks: But the Poets were his Masters, and what was their practice, he reduced to principles. Nor would the modern Poets blindly resign to this practice of the Ancients, were not the Reasons convincing and clear as any demonstration in Mathematicks. 'Tis only needful that we understand them, for our consent to the truth of them. The Arabians, 'tis confess'd, who glory in their Poets and Poetry, more than all the world besides; and who, I suppose, first brought the art of Riming into Europe, observe but little these Laws of Aristotle: yet Averois rather chooses to blame the practice of his Countreymen as vicious, than to allow any imputation on the doctrine of this Philosopher as imperfect. Fancy with them is predominant, is wild, vast and unbridled, o're which their judgment has little command or authority: hence their conceptions are monstrous, and have nothing of exactness, nothing of resemblance or proportion.
The Author of these Reflections is as well known amongst the Criticks, as Aristotle to the Philosophers: never man gave his judgment so generally, and never was judgment more free and impartial. He might be thought an enemy to the Spaniards, were he not as sharp on the Italians; and he might be suspected to envy the Italians, were he not as severe on his own Countreymen. These Nations make it a Problem, whether a Dutchman or German may be a Wit or no; and our Author finds none worthy of his Censure amongst them, except Heinsius and Grotius. Amongst us he gives Buchanan a particular Character: but for such as writ in the English Tongue, he has not, I presume, understood the language so well, to pass a judgment on them: onely in general he confesses, that we have a Genius for Tragedy above all other people; one reason he gives we cannot allow of, viz. The disposition of our Nation, which, he saith, is delighted with cruel things. 'Tis ordinary to judge of Peoples manners and inclinations, by their publick diversions; and Travellers, who see some of our Tragedies, may conclude us certainly the cruellest minded people in Christendom.
In another place this Author sayes of us, That we are men in an Island, divided from the rest of the world, and that we love blood in our sports. And, perhaps, it may be true, that on our Stage are more Murders than on all the Theatres in Europe. And they who have not time to learn our Language, or be acquainted with our Conversation, may there in three hours time behold so much bloodshed as may affright them from the inhospitable shore, as from the Cyclops Den. Let our Tragedy-makers consider this, and examine whether it be the disposition of the People, or their own Caprice that brings this Censure on the best natur'd Nation under the Sun.
His other Reason is our Language, which, he sayes, is proper for great expressions. The Spanish is big and fastuous, proper only for Rodomontades, and compar'd with other Languages, is like the Kettle-drum to Musick.
The Italian is fittest for Burlesque, and better becomes the mouth of Petrolin and Arloquin in their Farces, than any Heroick character. The perpetual termination in vowels is childish, and themselves confess, rather sweet than grave.
The French wants sinews for great and heroick Subjects, and even in Love-matters, by their own confession, is a very Infant; the Italians call it the Kitchin-language, it being so copious and flowing on those occasions.
The German still continues rude and unpolisht, not yet filed and civiliz'd by the commerce and intermixture with strangers to that smoothness and humanity which the English may boast of.
The dissyllable Rimes force the Italians and Spaniards on the Stanza in Heroicks; which, besides many other disadvantages, renders the Language unfit for Tragedy.
The French now onely use the long Alexandrins, and would make up in length what they want in strength and substance, yet are they too faint and languishing, and attain not that numerosity which the dignity of Heroick Verse requires, and which is ordinary in an English Verse of ten syllables. But I shall not here examine the weight, the fulness, the vigour, force, gravity, and the fitness of the English for Heroick Poesie above all other Languages; the world expecting these matters learnedly and largely discussed in a particular Treatise on that Subject.
But from our Language proceed to our Writers, and with the freedom of this Author, examine how unhappy the greatest English Poets have been through their ignorance or negligence of these fundamental Rules and Laws of Aristotle. I shall leave the Author of the Romance of the Rose (whom Sir Richard Baker makes an Englishman) for the French to boast of, because he writ in their Language. Nor shall I speak of Chaucer, in whose time our Language, I presume, was not capable of any Heroick Character. Nor indeed was the most polite Wit of Europe in that Age sufficient for a great design. That was the Age of Tales, Ballads, and Roundelays. Petrarch in those days attempted the Epick strain in his Africa; but though most happy in his Sonnets and Madrigals, was far too feeble for a work of that weight and importance.
Spencer, I think, may be reckon'd the first of our Heroick Poets; he had a large spirit, a sharp judgment, and a Genius for Heroick Poesie, perhaps above any that ever writ since Virgil. But our misfortune is, he wanted a true Idea; and lost himself, by following an unfaithful guide. Though besides Homer and Virgil he had read Tasso, yet he rather suffer'd himself to be misled by Ariosto; with whom blindly rambling on marvellous Adventures, he makes no Conscience of Probability. All is fanciful and chimerical, without any uniformity, without any foundation in truth; his Poem is perfect Fairy-land.
They who can love Ariosto, will be ravish'd with Spencer; whilst men of juster thoughts lament that such great Wits have miscarried in their Travels for want of direction to set them in the right way. But the truth is, in Spencer's time, Italy it self was not well satisfied with Tasso; and few amongst them would then allow that he had excell'd their divine Ariosto. And it was the vice of those Times to affect superstitiously the Allegory; and nothing would then be currant without a mystical meaning. We must blame the Italians for debauching great Spencer's judgment; and they cast him on the unlucky choice of the Stanza, which in no wise is proper for our Language.
The next for Epick Poesie, is Sir William D'avenant, his Wit is well known; and in the Preface to his Gondibert, appear some strokes of an extraordinary judgment. He is for unbeaten tracks, and new wayes of thinking; but certainly in his untry'd Seas he is no great discoverer.
One design of the Epick Poets before him was to adorn their own Countrey, there finding their Heroes, and patterns of Virtue; whose example (as they thought) would have greatest influence and power over Posterity; but this Poet steers a different course, his Heroes are all Forreigners: He cultivates a Countrey that is nothing akin to him, 'tis Lombardy that reaps the honour of all.
Other Poets chose some Action or Heroe so illustrious, that the name of the Poem prepared the Reader, and made way for its reception: but in this Poem none can divine, what great action he intended to celebrate; nor is the Reader obliged to know whether the Heroe be Turk or Christian. Nor do the first lines give any light or prospect into his design. Methinks, though his Religion could not dispense with an Invocation, he needed not have scrupled at the Proposition: yet he rather chooses to enter in at the top of an house, because the mortals of mean and satisfied minds go in at the door. And I believe the Reader is not well pleas'd to find his Poem begin with the praises of Aribert, when the Title had promised a Gondibert. But before he falls on any other business, he presents the Reader with a description of each particular Heroe, not trusting their actions to speak for them; as former Poets had done. Their practice was fine and artificial, his (he tells us) is a new way. Many of his Characters have but little of the Heroick in them; Dalga is a Jilt, proper onely for Comedy; Birtha for a Pastoral; and Astragon, in the manner here described, yields no very great ornament to an Heroick Poem; nor are his Battels less liable to Censure, than those of Homer.
He dares not, as other Heroick Poets, heighten the action by making Heaven and Hell interess'd, for fear of offending against probability; and yet he tells of
—Threads by patient Parcae slowly spun.
And for being dead, his phrase is,
Heaven call'd him, where peacefully he rules a Star.
And the Emerald he gives to Birtha, has a stronger tang of the Old Woman, and is a greater improbability than all the enchantments in Tasso. A just medium reconciles the farthest extremes, and due preparation may give credit to the most unlikely Fiction. In Marino, Adonis is presented with a Diamond Ring, where; indeed, the stone is much-what of the same nature; but this Present is made by Venus: and from a Goddess could not be expected a gift of ordinary virtue.
Although a Poet is oblig'd to know all Arts and Sciences, yet he ought discreetly to manage this knowledge. He must have judgment to select what is noble or beautiful, and proper for his occasion. He must by a particular Chymistry extract the essence of things, without soiling his Wit with the gross and trumpery. But some Poets labour to appear skilful with that wretched affectation, they dote on the very terms and jargon: exposing themselves rather to be laught at by the Apprentices, than to be admir'd by Philosophers: But whether D'Avenant be one of those, I leave others to examine.
The sort of Verse he makes choice of, might, I suppose, contribute much to the vitiating of his stile; for thereby he obliges himself to stretch every period to the end of four lines. Thus the sense is broken perpetually with parentheses, the words jumbl'd in confusion, and a darkness spread over all; that the sense is either not discern'd, or found not sufficient for one just Verse, which is sprinkl'd on the whole tetrastick.
In the Italian and Spanish, where all the Rimes are dissyllable, and the percussion stronger, this kind of Verse may be necessary; and yet to temper that grave march, they repeat the same Rime over again, and then they close the Stanza with a Couplet further to sweeten the severity. But in French and English, where we rime generally with onely one syllable, the Stanza is not allow'd, much less the alternate Rime in long Verse; for the sound of the monosyllable Rime is either lost ere we come to its correspondent, or we are in pain by the so long expectation and suspense.
This alternate Rime, and the downright Morality throughout the whole Canto's together, shew him better acquainted with the quatrains of Pybrach, which he speaks of, than with any true Models of Epick Poesie.
After all, he is said to have a particular Talent for the Manners: his thoughts are great, and there appears something roughly Noble throughout this fragment; which, had he been pleased to finish it, would, doubtless, not have been left so open to the attack of Criticks.
A more happy Genius for Heroick Poesie, appears in Cowley. He understood the purity, the perspicuity, the majesty of stile, and the vertue of numbers. He could discerne what was beautiful and pleasant in Nature, and could express his Thoughts without the least difficulty or constraint. He understood to dispose of the matters, and to manage his Digressions. In short, he understood Homer and Virgil, and as prudently made his advantage of them.
Yet as it may be lamented, that he carried not on the work so far as he design'd, so it might be wish'd that he had lived to revise what he did leave us: I think the Troubles of David is neither title nor matter proper for an Heroick Poem; seeing it is rather the actions, than his sufferings, that make an Heroe: nor can it be defended, by Homer's Oddyseis, since Ulysses's sufferings conclude with one great and perfect action.
After all the heavy Censures that jointly from all Criticks have fall'n on Lucan, I do a little wonder that this Author should choose History for the Subject of his Poem; and a History where he is so strictly ty'd up to the Truth. Aristotle tells us, That Poetry is something more excellent, and more philosophical, than History, and does not inform us what has been done; but teaches what may, and what ought to be done. And since many particulars in Sacred Story are neither Heroick, nor indeed consistent with the common principles of Morality, but of a singular, extraordinary, and unaccountable dispensation; and since in the principal actions all is carried on by Machine; how can these examples be propos'd for great persons to imitate? or what foundation for their hopes in impossibilities? Poetry has no life, nor can have any operation without probability: it may indeed amuse the People, but moves not the Wise, for whom alone (according to Pythagoras) it is ordain'd.
Instead of one illustrious and perfect action, which properly is the subject of an Epick Poem; Cowley proposes to adorn some several particulars of David's life: and these particulars have no necessary relation to the end, nor in any wise lead to the great revolution; David is made King, but this is the work of Heaven, not any atchievement of his own. He neither did, nor ought to lift a finger for gaining the Crown: he is amongst the Amalekites, whilst his work is done without him. This ill choice of a Subject forces the Poet (how excellent otherwise soever) perpetually on digressions: and David is the least part of the Poem.
Some, perhaps, may object, That he begins not his Poem with all the art and address as might be desired. Homer would make us believe the drawing of Achilles, adorn'd with all his glorious actions, a design too vast and impossible: and therefore only proposes his resentment of the affront given him by Agamemnon; as if any one particular of his life were sufficient to employ the greatest humane Wit with all its Muses and divine assistance. Achilles could not be angry, but Heaven and Earth are engaged, and just matter given for an Heroick Poem. Thus whilst he proposes but one passage, we conceive a greater Idea of the rest than any words could express; and whilst he promises so little, his performances are the more admirable and surprising. But in the Davideis we have all the Heroe at the first: in the Proposition, he is the best Poet, and the best King; now, all the Author could do afterwards, is onely to make good his word, and make us conceive of his Heroe the same Idea at the end of the Poem, which was given us in the beginning; whereas Homer calls the man he designs to celebrate barely Achilles, son of Peleus, and recording his actions, leaves others to conclude from them what a great Captain, Prince and Heroe this Achilles was.
Tasso left the Episode of Sophonia out of his Poem, because it was Troppo Lyrico. Yet Mr. Cowley is not content to mix matters that are purely lyrical in this Heroick Poem, but employs the measures also.
Yet, notwithstanding what has been said, we cannot now approve the reason (which Sir Philip Sidney gives) why Poets are less esteem'd in England, than in the other famous Nations, to be want of merit: nor be of their opinion, who say, that Wit and Wine are not of the growth of our Countrey. Valour they allow us; but what we gain by our Arms, we lose by the weakness of our Heads: our good Ale, and English Beef, they say, may make us Soldiers; but are no very good Friends to Speculation. Were it proper here to handle this Argument, and to make comparisons with our Neighbors, it might easily, by our Poetry, be evinced, that our Wit was never inferior to theirs, though, perhaps, our honesty made us worse Polititians. Wit and Valor have alwayes gone together, and Poetry been the companion of Camps. The Heroe and Poet were inspired with the same Enthusiasm, acted with the same heat, and both were crown'd with the same laurel. Had our Tongue been as generally known, and those who felt our blows, understood our Language; they would confess that our Poets had likewise done their part, and that our Pens had been as successful as our Swords. And certainly if Sir Philip Sidney had seen the Poets who succeeded him, he would not have judg'd the English less deserving than their Neighbors. In the Davideis (fragment and imperfect as it is) there shines something of a more fine, more free, more new, and more noble air, than appears in the Hierusalem of Tasso, which for all his care, is scarce perfectly purg'd from Pedantry. But in the Lyrick way however, Cowley far exceeds him, and all the rest of the Italians: though Lyrick Poesie is their principal glory, and Pope Urban VIII, had the honour a little before him to enrich modern Poesie with the Pindarick strains. Many the greatest Wits of France have attempted the Epick, but their performance answer'd not expectation; our fragments are more worth than their finish'd pieces. And though, perhaps, want of encouragement has hinder'd our labours in the Epic, yet for the Drama, the World has nothing to be compared with us. But a debate of this importance is not the work of a Preface: I shall only here on the behalf of our English Poetry, give one single instance, and leave the Reader to judge of Hercules by his foot.
Amongst the common places (by which Scaliger, and before him Macrobius, Agellius, and the other Criticks have compared the Poets, and examin'd their worth) none has been more generally, and more happily handled, and in none have the Noblest wits both ancient and modern more contended with each other for victory, than in the description of the night. Yet in this the English has the advantage, and has even outdone them where they have outdone themselves. The first, I meet with, who had the lucky hit, is Apollonius in his Argonautiques [Greek quotation omitted].
Here we have variety of matter, yet rather many, than choice thoughts. He gives us the face of things both by Land and Sea, City and Countrey, the Mariner, the Traveller, the Door-keeper, the Mistress of the Family, her Child and Dog; but loses himself amongst his particulars, and seems to forget for what occasion he mentions them. He would say that all the world is fast asleep but onely Medea; and then his Mariners, who are gazing from their ships on Helice and Orion, can serve but little for his purpose; unless they may be supposed to sleep with their eyes open. Neither dares he say that the Traveller and Porter are yet taking a Nap, but onely that they have a good mind to't. And after all, we find none but the good Woman who has lost her Child (and she is indeed fast) asleep, unless the Dogs may likewise be supposed so, because they had left off barking. And these, methinks, were scarce worthy to be taken notice of in an Heroick Poem, except we may believe that in the old time, or that in Greek they bark Heroically. Scaliger, as his manner is, to prefer Virgil, calls this description mean and vulgar. Virgil well saw the levity and trifling of the Greeks, and from him we may expect something better digested [quotes Aeneid 1.4].
Against this may be objected, That sleep being of such a soft and gentle nature, that 'tis said to steal upon our senses, the word [carpebant] suits but ill with it; this word seeming to imply a force, and might rather express the violence of Robbers, than the slieness of a Thief. Nor can it be pretended that [sopor] signifies a kind of violent and snoring sleep, for here we have it "placidum soporem." Instead of "Woods" and "Seas," Tasso rather chooses to joyn "Winds" and "Seas," as of a nearer relation, and going more naturally together; the Commentators being certainly mistaken, who would have a Metonymie in this place. The third Verse I can scarce believe legitimate: the words speak nothing but motion, and the numbers are so ratling, that nothing can be more repugnant to the general repose and silence which the Poet describes: or, if any Copies might favour the conjecture, I should rather read
—Cum medio librantur sydera cursu.
For nothing can be more Poetical, than to suppose the Stars rest (as it were poiz'd) in their Meridian; and this would not only express it to be Midnight, but heighten the Poet's design, which by the common reading is absolutely destroy'd. The fifth line seems to bear a doubtful face, and looks not unlike something of equivocation: an ordinary Grammarian would seek no further than the antecedent [volucres] to refer these relatives to; and might construe Wild ducks, and Woodcocks, what the Poet intended for Fish in the Sea, and the wild Beasts of the Forest.
Besides this, I find none amongst the Latins that deserves to be brought into comparison. In the Italian, Ariosto (whose every description is said to be a master-piece) in this is not over-fortunate; he is easie and smooth, but produces nothing of his own invention. He only enlarges on a thought of Virgil's; which yet he leaves without that turn which might give it perfection. What I think is more considerable, is this of Tasso [quotation omitted].
Tasso, when he reform'd his Poem, could mend nothing in this description, but repeats it entire in his Hierusalem liberata, without any alteration. 'Tis well nigh word for word taken out of Virgil, and (to give it its due) is a most excellent Translation. He most judiciously leaves out that Hemstick, "volvantur sydera lapsu," the place whereof is (perhaps from Statius) supply'd with "parea muto il mondo." Yet on the other hand, here seems to be some superfluity of Fish; those in the Sea, and those at the bottom of the Lakes, are more by half than Virgil, or, perhaps than Tasso had occasion for in this place.
But that we may have something new from the Italians on this Subject, Marino has taken care in his Adonis, Canto 13 [quotation omitted].
In these we have more of the fancy, than of the judgment; variety of matter, rather than exquisite sense. Marino is perfectly himself throughout; the thoughts diurnal motion, I fear, will scarce pass for a very pathetical expression, nor will it satisfie, that he makes Zephyrus and the South-wind silent; if he particularize these, he should also name the rest, otherwise the East-wind and Boreas have leave to bluster. But, above all, he tells us that the Clocks have got the better of the Sun-dials. A thought purely New, and strangely Heroick. What could come more sudden or surprising? in the latter part of the Stanza, we have some strokes of Ariosto, but far more lame and imperfect than the original. Neither ought he in this place to speak of any expecting the return of the light; "omnia noctis erant."
But I hasten to the French, amongst whom none more eminent than Chapelain, nor was ever a Poem of greater expectation. His description is thus [omitted].
This description is perfect French. There is scarce any coming at a little sense, 'tis so encompassed about with words. What Virgil or Tasso would have dispatch'd in half a Verse, here fills out the measures of two whole Alexandrins. . . .
We have seen what the noblest Wits both ancient and modern, have done in other Languages, and observ'd that in their very Master-pieces they sometimes trip, or are however liable to Cavils. It now remains that our English be expos'd to the like impartial Censure.
All things are hush'd, as Nature's self lay dead,
The Mountains seem to Nod their drowsie head,
The little Birds in dreams their Songs repeat,
And sleeping flowers beneath the Night-dew sweat,
Even Lust and Envy sleep.
[In the Conquest of Mexico.]
In this description, four lines yield greater variety of matter, and more choice thoughts than twice the number of any other Language. Here is something more fortunate than the boldest fancy has yet reached, and something more just, than the severest reason has observed. Here are the flights of Statius and Marino temper'd with a more discerning judgment, and the judgment of Virgil and Tasso animated with a more sprightly Wit. Nothing has been said so expressive and so home in any other Language as the first Verse in this description. The second is Statius improv'd.
Saith Statius, where simulant is a bold word in comparison of our English word "seem," being of an active signification; and "cacumina" may as well be taken for the tops of Trees, as the tops of Mountains, which doubtful meaning does not so well content the Reader, as the certainty.
In the third Verse, 'tis not said that the Birds sleep, but what is more new, and more Poetical, their sleep is imply'd, by their dreams. Somewhat like the Fourth we have in Marino.
—E languidetti i fiori
Giaceano a 1' herba genitrice in seno.
[Adonis Canto 20.]
Which is a pretty image, but has not so near a resemblance with truth, nor can so generally be apply'd to all flowers. Our Author here dares not say directly that the flowers sleep, which might sound a little harsh, but slurs it over in the participle, as taken for granted, and affirms only that they sweat, which the Night-dew makes very easie.
In the last Half-verse, we may see how far our Author has outdone Apollonius. 'Twas no such strange thing in the sorrowful Woman when she had spent her tears, for sleep to close her eyes: but here we have the most raging and watchful passions Lust and Envy. And these too instead of the lustful and the envious, for the greater force and emphasis, in the abstract.
Some may object, That the third Verse does contradict the first. How can all things be hush'd, if Birds in dreams repeat their Songs? Is not this like the indiscretion of Marino, who says, "That the Winds and all things are husht, and the Seas so fast asleep, that they snore." [Canto 20.]
It may be answer'd, That in this place 'tis not the Poet that speaks, but another person; and that the Poet here truly represents the nature of man, whose first thoughts break out in bold and more general terms, which by the second thoughts are more correct and limited. As if one should say, all things are silent, or asleep however; if there is any noise, 'tis still but the effect of sleep, as the dreams of Birds, &c. This comparison might be much further improved to our advantage, and more observations made, which are left to the Readers ingenuity.