1682
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

An Essay upon Poetry.

An Essay upon Poetry.

John Sheffield


After Horace's Ars Poetica: writing anonymously, the earl of Mulgrave sets forth rules for judging the poetical kinds: song, elegy, ode, satire, tragedy, and epic. Edmund Spenser is mentioned in the concluding couplet of the poem in a passage went through some curious alterations: "Must above Cowley, nay, and Milton too prevail, | Succeed where great Torquato, and our greater Spencer fail" (1682); then: "Must above Milton's lofty flights prevail | Succeed where Spenser and even Torquato fail" (1713) and finally: "Must above Tasso's lofty flights prevail, | Succeed where Spencer, and even Milton fail" (1723). Was the last version was contributed by Sheffield's editor, Alexander Pope?

Giles Jacob: "My Lord, in this admirable Poem, has not only shewn his very great Wit, but, as Mr. Pope observes, restor'd Wits fundamental Laws, it containing the best Rules for Poetry of any Piece written in the English Language" in Historical Account of the Lives and Writings of our most considerable English Poets (1720) 182.

Oliver Goldsmith: "This work, by the duke of Buckingham, is enrolled among our great English productions. The precepts are sensible, the poetry not indifferent, but it has been praised more than it deserves" Beauties of English Poesy (1767) 2:163.

John Nichols: "His writings were splendidly printed in 2 volumes, 4to in 1723; and again (but much castrated) in 2 vols. 8vo, 1729. His Poetry, though commended by Roscommon, Dryden, Lansdown, Prior, Garth, and Pope, has incurred the censure of Warton and Walpole" Note in Original Works of William King (1776) 3:139n.

Samuel Johnson: "His Essay on Poetry is the great work, for which he was praised by Roscommon, Dryden, and Pope, and doubtless by many more whose eulogies have perished. Upon this piece he appears to have set a high value; for he was all his life improving it by successive revisals, so that there is scarcely any poem to be found of which the last edition differs more from the first.... At the time when this work first appeared, Milton's fame was not yet fully established, and therefore Tasso and Spenser were set before him. The two last lines were these. The Epick Poet, says he, 'Must above Milton's lofty flights prevail, | Succeed where great Torquato, and where greater Spenser fail.' The last line in succeeding editions was shortened, and the order of names continued; but now Milton is at last advanced to the highest place, and the passage thus adjusted, 'Must above Tasso's lofty flights prevail, | Succeed where Spenser, and ev'n Milton fail.' Amendments are seldom made without some token of a rent: 'lofty' does not suit Tasso so well as Milton" "Life of Sheffield" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 2:175-76.

Edmund Gosse: "Mulgrave circulated in 1679 an Essay on Satire, and published in 1682 an Essay on Poetry, both in heroic verse. These pieces were anonymous, and they were so cleverly versified that the town insisted on thinking that Dryden was their author.... Mulgrave's Essay on Poetry contains some terse and effective lines, one or two of which have passed into current use. He lays down sensible rules for practitioners in the various departments of poetic art, but he was not very successful himself in the composition of odes, tragedies, and epistles" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 31.

Herbert E. Cory: "John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave and Duke of Buckinghamshire, published in 1682 a very clever Essay on Poetry in the last couplet of which he asserted that the ideal poet 'Must above Cowley, nay, and Milton too, prevail | Succeed where great Torquato and our greater Spenser fail.' In the edition of 1713 he revised these lines, significantly striking out the name of Cowley, who had then been dashed from the firmament of poets. Here he decided that the poet 'Must above Milton's lofty flights prevail | Succeed where Spenser and even Torquato fail.' In 1723 the couplet was made to read: 'Must above Tasso's lofty flights prevail, Succeed where Spenser and even Milton fail.' Dr. Johnson was the first to comment on these revisions as a mark of the increase of Milton's fame. But they have another importance as well. The names of Tasso, Spenser, and Milton were plainly not marshalled merely to make a high-sounding couplet, but the shifts in the order and the omission of Cowley indicate that these men were carefully selected because of their eminence and, most probably, with a shrewd eye to their popular eminence" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 124.

Compare the Soame-Dryden translation of Boileau's Art of Poetry, which also concludes with an allusion to Spenser: "Let mighty Spencer raise his reverend head, | Cowley and Denham start up from the dead" (1683) 66.



Of Things in which Mankind does most excell,
Nature's chief Master-piece is writing well;
And of all sorts of Writing none there are
That can the least with Poetry compare;
No kind of work requires so nice a touch,
And if well done, there's nothing shines so much;
But Heav'n forbid we should be so prophane,
To grace the vulgar with that sacred name;
'Tis not a Flash of Fancy which sometimes
Dasling our Minds, sets off the slightest Rimes,
Bright as a blaze, but in a moment done;
True Wit is everlasting, like the Sun,
Which though sometimes beneath a cloud retir'd,
Breaks out again, and is by all admir'd.
Number, and Rime, and that harmonious sound,
Which never does the Ear with harshness wound,
Are necessary, yet but vulgar Arts,
For all in vain these superficial parts
Contribute to the structure of the whole
Without a Genius too, for that's the Soul;
A Spirit which inspires the work throughout,
As that of Nature moves this World about;
A heat that glows in every word that's writ,
That's something of Divine, and more than Wit;
It self unseen, yet all things by it shown
Describing all men, but describ'd by none;
Where dost thou dwell? what caverns of the Brain
Can such a vast and mighty thing contain?
When I at idle hours in vain thy absence mourn,
O where dost thou retire? and why dost thou return,
Sometimes with powerful charms to hurry me away
From pleasures of the night and business of the day?
Ev'n now, too far transported, I am fain
To check thy course, and use the needfull rein;
As all is dullness, when the Fancy's bad,
So without Judgment, Fancy is but mad;
And Judgment has a boundless influence,
Not upon words alone, or only sence,
But on the world, of manners, and of men:
Fancy is but the Feather of the Pen;
Reason is that substantial, useful part,
Which gains the Head, while t' other wins the Heart.

Here I should all the differing kinds reherse
Of Poetry with various sorts of Verse;
But who that task can after Horace do,
That mighty Master and Example too?
Ecchoes at best, all we can say is vain,
Dull the design, and fruitless were the pain.
'Tis true, the Ancients we may rob with ease,
But who with that sad shift himself can please,
Without an Actor's pride? A Players Art
Is more than his who writes the borrow'd part.
Yet modern Laws are made for later Faults,
And new Absurdities inspire new thoughts;
What need has Satyr then to live on theft,
When so much fresh occasion still is left?
Folly abounds, nay, flourishes at Court,
Where on its sphere it finds a kind support;
But hold, White-Hall has nothing now to fear,
'Tis Wit and Sence that is the Subject here.
Defects of witty Men deserve a Cure,
And those who are so, will the worst endure.

First then of Songs, that now so much abound:
Without his Song no Fop is to be found,
A most offensive Weapon which he draws
On all he meets, against Apollo's Laws:
Though nothing seems more easy, yet no part
Of Poetry requires a nicer Art;
For as in rows of richest Pearl there lyes
Many a blemish that escapes our Eyes,
The least of which Defects is plainly shewn
In some small Ring, and brings the value down;
So Songs should be to just perfection wrought;
Yet where can we see one without a fault,
Exact propriety of words and thought?
Th' expression easy, and the fancy high,
Yet that not seem to creep, nor this to fly;
No words transpos'd, but in such just cadence,
As, though hard wrought, may seem the effect of chance;
Here, as in all things else, is most unfit
Bawdry barefac'd, that poor presence to Wit;
Such nauseous Songs as the late Convert made,
Which justly call this censure on his Shade;
Not that warm thoughts of the transporting joy
Can shock the Chastest or the Nicest cloy,
But obscene words, too gross to move desire,
Like heaps of Fuel do but choak the Fire.
That Author's Name has undeserved praise,
Who pall'd the appetite he meant to raise.

Next, Elegie, of sweet but solemn voice,
And of a Subject grave, exacts the choice,
The Praise of Beauty, Valour, Wit contains,
And there too oft despairing Love complains;
In vain, alas, for who by Wit is moved?
That Phoenix-she deserves to be beloved;
But Noisy Nonsence, and such Fops as vex
Mankind, take most with that fantastick Sex:
This to the praise of those who better knew,
The many raise the value of the few.
But here, as I too oft, alas, have tryed,
Women have drawn my wandering thoughts aside.
Their greatest fault, who in this kind have writ,
Is neither want of words, nor dearth of wit;
But though this Muse harmonious numbers yield,
And every Couplet be with fancy fill'd,
If yet a just coherence be not made
Between each thought, and the whole model layed
So right that every step may higher rise,
As in a Ladder, till it reach the Skies;
Trifles like these perhaps of late have past,
And may be lik'd awhile, but never last;
'Tis Epigram, 'tis Point, 'tis what you will,
But not an Elegie, nor writ with skill,
No Panegyrick, nor a Coopers Hill.

A higher flight, and of a happier force,
Are Odes, the Muses most unruly Horse,
That bounds so fierce the Rider has no rest,
But foams at mouth, and speaks like one possest.
The Poet here must be indeed Inspired,
And not with fancy, but with fury fired.
Cowley might boast to have perform'd this part,
Had he with Nature joyn'd the rules of Art;
But ill expression gives too great Allay
To that rich Fancy which can ne're decay.
Though all appears in heat and fury done,
The Language still must soft and easy run.
These Laws may seem a little too severe,
But Judgment yields, and Fancy governs there,
Which, though extravagant, this Muse allows,
And makes the work much easier than it shews.

Of all the ways that Wisest Men could find
To mend the Age, and mortify Mankind,
Satyr well writ has most successful prov'd,
And cures because the remedy is lov'd.
'Tis hard to write on such a Subject more,
Without repeating things said oft before.
Some vulgar Errors only Lets remove
That stain this Beauty, which we chiefly love.
Of well-chose words some take not care enough,
And think they may be, as the Subject, rough.
This great work must be more exactly made,
And sharpest thoughts in smoothest words convey'd:
Some think if sharp enough, they cannot fail,
As if their only business was to rail;
But 'tis mens Foibles nicely to unfold,
Which makes a Satyr different from a Scold.
Rage you must hide, and prejudice lay down:
A Satyr's Smile is sharper than his Frown.
So while you seem to scorn some Rival Youth,
Malice it self may pass sometimes for Truth.
The Laureat here may justly claim our praise,
Crown'd by Mac-Fleckno with immortal Bays;
Though prais'd and punish'd for another's Rimes,
His own deserve that glorious fate sometimes,
Were he not forc'd to carry now dead weight,
Rid by some Lumpish Minister of State.

Here rest, my Muse, suspend thy cares awhile,
A greater Enterprize attends thy toil;
And as some Eagle that intends to fly
A long and tedious Journy through the Sky,
Considers first the perils of her case,
Over what Lands and Seas she is to pass,
Doubts her own strength so far, and justly fears
That lofty Road of Airy Travellers;
But yet incited by some great design,
That does her hopes beyond her fears incline,
Prunes every feather, views her self with care,
Then on a sudden flounces in the Air;
Away she flies so strong, so high, so fast,
She lessens to us, and is lost at last:
So greater things my Muse prepares to sing,
Things that will Malice, and may Envy bring;
Yet why should Truth offend, when only told
T' inform the Ignorant, and warn the Bold?
On then, my Muse, adventrously engage
To give Instructions that concern the Stage.
The Unities of Action, Time, and Place,
Which, if observed, give Plays so great a grace,
Are, though but little practis'd, too well known
To be taught here, where we pretend alone
From nicer faults to purge the present Age,
Less obvious Errors of the English Stage.

First then, Soliloquies had need be few,
Extreamly short, and spoke in passion too.
Our Lovers talking to themselves, for want
Of others, make the Pit their Confidant;
Nor is the matter mended much, if thus
They trust a friend only to tell it us.
Th' occasion should as naturally fall,
As when Bellario confesses all.

Figures of Speech, which Poets think so fine,
Art's needless Varnish to make Nature shine,
Are all but Paint upon a beauteous Face,
And in Descriptions only claim a place.
But to make Rage declame, and Grief discourse,
From Lovers in despair fine things to force,
Must needs succeed, for who can chuse but pity
To see poor Hero's miserably witty?
But O the Dialogues, where jest and mock
Is held up like a rest at Shittle-cock!
Or else like Bells eternally they Chime,
Men dye in Simile, and live in Rime.
What things are these who would be Poets thought,
By Nature not inspir'd, nor Learning taught?
Some Wit they have, and therefore may deserve
A better way than this by which they starve:
But to write Plays? why, 'tis a bold presence
To Language, Breeding, Fancy, and good Sense;
Nay, more, for they must look within to find
Those secret turns of Nature in the mind;
Without this part in vain would be the whole,
And but a Body all without a Soul.
All this together yet is but a part
Of Dialogue, that great and powerful Art,
Now almost lost, which the old Grecians knew,
From whence the Romans fainter Copies drew,
Scarce comprehended since by but a few.
Plato and Lucian are the best Remains
Of all the wonders which this art contains;
Yet to our selves we Justice must allow,
Shakespear and Fletcher are the wonders now:
Consider them, and read them o're and o're,
Go see them play'd, then read them as before.
For though in many things they grosly fail,
Over our Passions still they so prevail,
That our own grief by theirs is rocks asleep,
The dull are forc'd to feel, the wise to weep.
Their Beauties Imitate, avoid their faults;
First on a Plot employ thy carefull thoughts,
Turn it with time a thousand several waies,
This oft alone has given success to Plays.
Reject that vulgar error which appears
So fair, of making perfect characters;
There's no such thing in Nature, and you'l draw
A faultless Monster which the world ne're saw;
Some faults must be, that his misfortunes drew,
But such as may deserve compassion too.
Besides the main Design, composed with Art,
Each moving Scene must be a Plot a part;
Contrive each little turn, mark every place,
As Painters first chalk out the future face,
Yet be not fondly your own slave for this,
But change hereafter what appears amiss.
Think not so much where shining thoughts to place,
As what a man would say in such a case.
Neither in Comedy will this suffice;
The Actor too must be before your eyes;
And though 'tis Drudgery to stoop so low,
To him you must your utmost meaning show.
Expose no single Fop, but lay the load
More equally, and spread the Folly broad;
The other way's too common: oft we see
A fool derided by as bad as he;
Hawks fly at nobler game, but in his way,
A very Owl may prove a Bird of prey;
Some Poets so will one poor Fop devour;
But to Collect, like Bees from every flower,
Ingredients to compose that precious juice,
Which serves the world for pleasure and for use,
In spite of faction this will favour get,
But Falstaff seems unimitable yet.

Another fault which often does befall,
Is when the wit of some great Poet shall
So overflow, that is, be none at all,
That all his fools speak sence, as if possest,
And each by Inspiration breaks his jest;
If once the Justness of each part be lost,
Well may we laugh, but at the Poets cost.
That silly thing men call sheer Wit avoid,
With which our Age so nauseously is cloy'd;
Humour is all, and 'tis the top of wit
T' express agreeably a thing that's fit.
But since the Poets we of late have known,
Shine in no dress so well as in their own,
The better by example to convince,
Lets cast a view on this wrong side of sence.

First a Soliloquie is calmly made,
Where every reason is most nicely weigh'd;
At the end of which most opportunely comes
Some Hero frighted at the noise of Drums,
For her dear sake whom at first sight he loves,
And all in Metaphor his passion proves,
But some sad accident, that's yet unknown,
Parting this pair, to leave the man alone,
He's Jealous presently, we know not why,
Then, to oblige his Rival needs must dy;
But first he makes a Speech, wherein he tells
The absent Nymph how much his flame excells,
And yet bequeaths her generously now
To that dear Rival whom he does not know,
Who, coming in, sent sure by Fate's command,
Too late alas withholds his hasty hand,
Which now has given that most lamented stroke,
At which this very Stranger's heart is broke;
Who, more to his new friend than Mistress kind,
Mourns the sad Fate of being left behind,
Most naturally prefers those dying Charms
To Love and living in his Ladyes Arms.
How shamefull, and what monstrous things are these?
And then they rail at th' Age they cannot please,
Conclude us only partial for the dead,
And grudge the Sign of old Ben. Johnson's head;
When the Intrinsick value of the Stage
Can scarce be judg'd but by the following Age;
For Dances, Flutes, Italian Songs, and rime
May keep up sinking Nonsence for a time;
But that will fail which now so much o're rules,
And sence no longer will submit to fools.

By painfull steps we are at last got up
Pernassus hill, upon whose Airy top
The Epick Poets so divinely show,
And with just pride behold the rest below.
Heroick Poems have a just presence
To be the chief effort of humane sence,
A work of such inestimable worth,
There are but two the world has yet brought forth,
Homer and Virgil: with what awfull sound
Each of those names the trembling Air does wound?
Just as a Changeling seems below the rest
Of men, or rather is a two legg'd beast,
So those Gigantick souls, amaz'd, we find
As much above the rest of humane kind.
Nature's whole strength united; endless fame,
And universal shouts attend their name.
Read Homer once, and you can read no more,
For all things else will seem so dull and poor,
You'l wish 't unread; but oft upon him look,
And you will hardly need another book.
Had Bossu never writ, the world had still
Like Indians view'd this wondrous piece of Skill;
As something of Divine the work admired,
Hoped not to be Instructed, but Inspired;
Till he, disclosing sacred Mysteries,
Has shewn where all the mighty Magick lyes,
Describ'd the Seeds, and in what order sown,
That have to such a vast proportion grown.
Sure from some Angel he the secret knew,
Who through this Labyrinth has given the clue.
But what, alas, avails it poor Mankind
To see this promised Land, yet stay behind?
The way is shewn, but who has strength to go?
Who can all Sciences exactly know?
Whose fancy flyes beyond weak reason's sight,
And yet has Judgment to direct it right?
Whose nice distinction, Virgil-like, is such,
Never to say too little nor too much?
Let such a man begin without delay;
But he must do much more than I can say,
Must above Cowley, nay, and Milton too prevail,
Succeed where great Torquato, and our greater Spencer fail.

[pp. 1-21]