At the conclusion of an essay on the uses and abuses of imitation Samuel Johnson takes aim at Spenser imitations: "To imitate the Fictions and Sentiments of Spencer can incur no Reproach, for Allegory is perhaps one of the most pleasing Vehicles of Instruction. But I am very far from extending the same Respect to his Diction or his Stanza.... Perhaps, indeed, the Stile of Spencer might by long Labour be justly copied, but Life is surely given us for higher Purposes than to gather what our Ancestors have wisely thrown away, and to learn what is of no Value but because it has been forgotten." The charges that Johnson makes against Spenser's "diction" and "stanza" were all quite traditional, perhaps deliberately "imitated" from earlier critics.
1751 was a remarkable year for imitations of Spenser, then at the peak of his popularity. In addition to being provoked by the very recent poems by Gilbert West and Moses Mendez, Johnson may have been led to write on this subject by several essays on Spenser imitation that had appeared in the London Advertiser for 8, 10, and 29 April. While Johnson's aesthetic distaste for antiquarian imitation is beyond dispute, the criticism here is couched in moral terms, as an affected display of merely verbal learning which a lexicographer can easily puncture. It would be a mistake to reduce these mid-century Spenser imitations to mere philological display, though it was characteristic of them to burlesque Spenser's style with more attention to detail than at any time before or since.
Johnson's strictures had weight enough to depress the number of Spenser imitations for decades. But they may have had a positive effect as later poets learned to imitate Spenser in more creative, less literal ways. Beginning in the 1790s, following the lead of James Beattie's The Minstrel (1771, 1774), a younger generation struck out in new directions predicated on various kinds of aesthetizing or historicizing doctrine. These later imitations took rise less from Spenser than from the innovative qualities in the mid-century burlesques Johnson criticizes as lacking in originality. As the number of poems in the stanza multiplied exponentially after 1790, the stanza Johnson objects to became gradually naturalized. A reviewer in the Monthly Magazine eventually described it as "the noblest rhymed measure in the world" 51 (May 1821) 334.
George Birkbeck Hill: "In 1780, Hannah More records (Memoirs, 1. 174): — 'Johnson told me he had been with the King that morning, who enjoined him to add Spenser to his Lives of the Poets.' It is strange that, so far as I know, this interview is not mentioned by any one else. It is perhaps alluded to, post. Dec. 1784, when Mr. Nichols told Johnson that he wished 'he would gratify his sovereign by a Life of Spenser" note in Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791); ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 2:48.
William Lyon Phelps: "Dr. Johnson thought it was time to speak out. The Spenserians were having things altogether too much their own way, and he was alarmed at such tendencies in the direction of Romanticism. He relieved his mind in the Rambler for May 15, 1751.... Dr. Johnson's emphatic protest is the most conclusive evidence as to the strength which the movement had gained by the middle of the century" Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (1893) 81-82.
George Saintsbury: "Of the remaining critical papers in the Rambler it is very important to notice No. 121, 'On the Dangers of Imitation, and the Impropriety of imitating Spenser.' Johnson's acuteness was not at fault in distrusting, from his point of view, the consequences of such things as the Castle of Indolence or even the Schoolmistress; and he addresses a direct rebuke to 'the men of learning and genius' who have introduced the fashion. In so far as his condemnation of 'echoes' goes he is undoubtedly not wrong, and he speaks of the idol of Neo-Classicism, Virgil, with an irreverent 'parrhesia' which, like many other things in him, shows his true critical power. But on Spenser himself the other idols — the 'idola specus' rather than 'fori' — blind him. In following his namesake in the condemnation of Spenser's language he is, we may think, wrong; yet this at least is an arguable point. But in regard to the Spenserian stanza things are different. Johnson calls it 'at once difficult and unpleasing; tiresome to the ear from its uniformity, and to the attention by its length,' while he subsequently goes off into the usual error about imitating the Italians. No truce is here possible. That the Spenserian is not easy may be granted at once, but Johnson was certainly scholar enough to anticipate the riposte that, not here only, it is 'hard to be good.' As for 'unpleasing,' so much the worse for the ear which is not pleased by the most exquisite harmonic symphony in the long and glorious list of stanza-combinations. As for monotony, it is just as monotonous as flowing water. While as for the Italian parallel, nothing can probably be more to the glory of Spenser than this; just as nothing can be more different than the pretty, but cloying, rhyme even of Tasso, nay, sometimes even of Ariosto, and the endless unlaboured beauty of Spenser's rhyme-sound. It is no valid retort that this is simply a difference of taste. If a man, as some men have done, says that Spenser is pleasing and Dryden and Pope are not, then the retort is valid. When the position is taken that both rhythms are pleasing, both really poetical, but poetical in a different way, the defender of it may laugh at all assailants" History of English Criticism (1911) 215-16.
Herbert E. Cory: "In the Rambler for May 14, 1751, Johnson proved that imitation, not Spenser, was his aversion by a well-directed attack on the ideal of imitation in general. In a spirit far from Augustan he strikes at the very roots of the matter.... Imitation, he thinks, is ruinous to the imagination. Even Virgil is shown to have been often seduced into blemishes in his imitations of Homer because he was too eager to use all of Homer's material. The doctor then turns to the pestiferous Spenserian imitation. 'To imitate the fictions and sentiments of Spenser can incur no reproach, for allegory is perhaps one of the most pleasing vehicles of instruction. But I am far from extending the same respect to his diction or his stanza. His style was in his own time allowed to be vicious, so darkened with old words, peculiarities of phrase, and so remote from common use, that Jonson boldly pronounces him to have written no language.' Outside of the attack on imitation, Johnson is here purely neoclassical. He praises the moral allegory and damns the stanza and diction. Yet in the Preface to his Dictionary, compiled at the same time he was at work upon the Rambler, he cites Spenser's language as standard for its time" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 154.
A. A. Jack: "Altogether, these mock-imitations — Akenside, Cambridge, Mendez — go some way to justify Johnson's impatience" Chaucer and Spenser (1920) 285.
Harko Gerrit De Maar: "In attacking the Spenserians, [Johnson] has the same charge [from Rymer] of the repetition of rhymes, with the usual reference to the Italians, a charge which was echoed three years later by Thomas Warton in his Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser. It is instructive to find Johnson, the successor of Pope, and Thomas Warton, his detractor, in the same boat. Here there is no divergence between the stoutest defender of the neo-classical school, and the most cogent advocate of the romantic school" History of Modern English Romanticism (1924) 40.
Richard Frushell: "Despite such animadversions, imitating Spenser occupied the talents of a wide range of poets, all of whom were perhaps content to fall short of 'the praise of genius,' but whose work is nonetheless an extraordinary testimony to the 'great industry and great nicety of observation' of the age" Edmund Spenser in the Early Eighteenth Century (1999) 50.
For a contrasting view, see Vicesimus Knox, "On the Old English Poets" in Essays Moral and Literary (1779) 1:290-99.
O Imitatores fervum Pecus!
I have been informed by a Letter from one of the Universities, that among the Youth from whom the next Swarm of Reasoners is to learn Philosophy, and the next Flight of Beauties to hear Elegies and Sonnets, there are many who, instead of endeavouring by Books and Meditation to form their own Opinions, content themselves with the secondary Knowledge which a convenient Bench in a Coffee-house can supply, and without any Examination or Distinction adopt the Criticisms and Remarks which happen to drop from those who have risen by Merit or Fortune to Reputation and Authority.
These humble Retailers of Knowledge my Correspondent stigmatizes with the Name of Echoes, and seems desirous that they should be made ashamed of implicit confidence, and lazy Submission, and animated to Attempts after new Discoveries, and original Sentiments.
It is very natural for young Men to be vehement, acrimonious, and severe. For, as they seldom comprehend at once all those Consequences of a Position by which cooler and more experienced Reasoners are generally restrained from overbearing Confidence, they form their Conclusions with great Precipitance; as they see nothing that can darken or embarrass the Question, they expect to find their own Opinion universally prevalent, and are inclined to impute Uncertainty and Hesitation to Want of Honesty rather than of Knowledge. I may, perhaps, therefore be reproached when it shall be found that I have no Inclination to persecute these Collectors of fortuitous Knowledge with the Severity required; yet, as I am now too old to be much terrified or pained by hasty Censure, I shall not be afraid of taking into Protection those whom I think condemned without a sufficient Knowledge of their Cause.
He that adopts the Sentiments of another, whom he has reason to believe wiser than himself, is only to be blamed when he claims the Honours which are not due but to the Author, and endeavours to deceive the World into Praise and Veneration. For, to learn is the proper Business of Youth, and whether we encrease our Knowledge by Books or by Conversation we are equally indebted to foreign Assistance.
The greater Part of Students are not born with Abilities to improve Systems or advance Reason, nor can have any Hope beyond that of becoming intelligent Hearers in the Schools of Art, of being able to comprehend what others discover, and to remember what others teach. Even those to whom Providence has allotted greater Strength of Understanding, can expect only to improve some single Science. In every other Part of Learning they must be content to follow Opinions which they are not able to examine, and even in that which they claim as peculiarly their own can seldom add more than some small Particle of Knowledge to the hereditary Stock devolved to them from ancient Times, the collective Labour of a thousand Intellects.
In Science, which being fixed and Limited admits of no other Variety than such as arises from new Methods of Distribution or new Arts of Illustration, the Necessity of following the Traces of our Predecessors is indisputably evident, but there appears no Reason why Imagination should be subject to the same Restraint. It might be conceived that of those who profess to forsake the narrow Paths of Truth, every one may deviate towards a different Point, since though Rectitude is uniform and fixed, Obliquity may be infinitely diversified. The Fields of Science are narrow, so that those who travel them must either follow or meet one another; but in the boundless Regions of Possibility which Fiction claims for her Dominion, there are surely a thousand Recesses unexplored, a thousand Flowers unplucked, a thousand Fountains unexhausted, Combinations of Imagery yet unobserved, and Inhabitants with Qualities not hitherto described.
Yet, whatever Hope may persuade, or Reason evince, Experience can boast of very few Additions to ancient Fable. The Wars of Troy and the Travels of Ulysses have furnished almost all succeeding Poets with Incidents, Characters, and Sentiments. The Romans are confessed to have attempted little more than to display in their own Tongue the Fictions of the Greeks. There is in all their Writings such a perpetual Recurrence of Allusions to the Tales of the fabulous Age, that they must be confessed often to want that Power of giving Pleasure which Novelty supplies; nor can we wonder that they excelled so much in the Graces of Diction, when we consider how little they were employed in Search of new Thoughts.
The warmest Admirers of the great Mantuan Poet can extol him for little more than the Skill with which he has, by making his Hero both a Traveller and a Warrior, united the Beauties of the Iliad and Odyssey in one Composition; yet his Judgment was perhaps sometimes overborn by his Avarice of the Homeric Treasures, and for fear of suffering a sparkling Ornament to be lost, has inserted it where it cannot shine with its original Splendor. When Ulysses visited the infernal Regions, he found among the Heroes who died at Troy, his Competitor Ajax, who, when the Arms of Achilles were adjudged to Ulysses, died by his own Hand in the Madness of Disappointment. He still appeared to resent, as on Earth, his Loss and Disgrace. Ulysses endeavoured to pacify him with Praises and Submission; but Ajax walked away without Reply. This Passage has always been considered as eminently beautiful, because Ajax the haughty Chief, the unlettered Soldier, of unshaken Courage, of immoveable Constancy, but without the Power of recommending his own Virtues by Eloquence, or enforcing his Assertions by any other Argument than the Sword, had no way of making his Resentment known but by gloomy Sullenness and dumb Ferocity. He therefore naturally showed his Hatred of a Man whom he conceived to have defeated him only by Volubility of Tongue, by Silence more contemptuous and affecting than any Words that so rude an Orator could have found, and which gave his Enemy no Opportunity of exerting the only Power in which he was superior. When Aeneas is sent by Virgil into the Regions below, he meets with Dido the Queen of Carthage, whom his Perfidy had hurried to the Grave; he accosts her with Tenderness and Excuses, but the Lady turns away like Ajax in mute Anger. She turns away like Ajax, but she resembles him in none of those Qualities which give either Dignity or Propriety to Silence. She might, without any Departure from the Tenour of her Conduct, have burst out like other injured Ladies into Clamour, Reproach, and Denunciation; but Virgil had his Imagination full of Ajax, and therefore could not prevail on himself to teach Dido any other Mode of Resentment.
If Virgil could be thus seduced by Imitation there will be little Hope that common Wits should escape; and accordingly we find, that besides the universal and acknowledged Practice of copying the Ancients, there has prevailed in every Age a particular Species of Fiction. At one Time all Truth was conveyed in Allegory; at another nothing was seen but in a Vision; at one Period all the Poets followed Sheep, and every Event produced a Pastoral; at another they busied themselves wholly in giving Directions to a Painter.
It is indeed easy to conceive why any Fashion should prevail by which Idleness is favoured, and Imbecility assisted; but surely no Man can much applaud himself for repeating a Tale with which the Audience is already tired, and which certainly could bring no Honour to any but its Inventor.
There are, I think, two Schemes of Writing, on which the Wits of the present Age empty their Faculties. One is the Adaptation of Sense to all the Rhimes which our Language can supply to some particular Word; but this, as it has been only used in a kind of amorous Burlesque, can scarcely be censured with much Acrimony. The other is the Imitation of Spencer, which, by the Influence of some Men of Learning and Genius, seems likely to gain upon the Age, and therefore deserves to be more attentively considered.
To imitate the Fictions and Sentiments of Spencer can incur no Reproach, for Allegory is perhaps one of the most pleasing Vehicles of Instruction. But I am very far from extending the same Respect to his Diction or his Stanza. His Diction was in his own Time allowed to be vicious, darkened with old Words and Peculiarities of Phrase, and so remote from common Use, that Johnson boldly pronounces him to have written no Language. His Stanza is at once difficult and unpleasing; tiresome to the Ear by its Uniformity, and to the Attention by its Length. It was at first formed in Imitation of the Italian Poets, without due Regard to the Genius of our Language. The Italians have so little Variety of Terminations, that they were forced to contrive a Stanza which may admit the greatest Number of similar Rhimes; but our Words end with so much Diversity, that it is seldom convenient for us to bring more than two of the same Sound together. If it be justly observed by Milton, that Rhime obliges Poets to express their Thoughts in improper Words, these Improprieties must always be multiplied, as the Difficulty of Rhime is encreased by long Concatenations.
The Imitators of Spencer are indeed not very rigid Censors of themselves, for they seem to conclude that when they have disfigured their Lines with a few obsolete Syllables they have accomplished their Design, without considering that the Laws of Imitation are broken by every Word introduced since the Time of Spencer, as the Character of Hector is violated by quoting Aristotle in the Play. It would indeed be difficult to exclude from a long Poem all modern Phrases, though it is easy to sprinkle it with Gleanings of Antiquity. Perhaps, indeed, the Stile of Spencer might by long Labour be justly copied, but Life is surely given us for higher Purposes than to gather what our Ancestors have wisely thrown away, and to learn what is of no Value but because it has been forgotten.