Tradition: transmitting Practices, Texts, and Characters.

This project examines how Spenser and his literary descendants shaped the character and institutions of modern English poetry during its formative era. Tradition, which means "passing down," can be a difficult term to define with any precision because the nature of tradition varies widely according to the how and the what and the who involved in the passing. Discussions of tradition quickly tend towards particulars. While tradition is quite properly associated with continuous identity over time, literary traditions are both complex and mutable. They interact with other traditions and evolve through processes of innovation and variation that complicate their identities.

Continuity and Change.

In the early modern era the chief basis for tradition in English poetry was imitation, which can be considered in terms of the transmission of texts, practices, and characters. Because the what and the how of transmission changed considerably over the course of the two and a half centuries covered by the archive, finding appropriate selection criteria has been a challenge. In order to accommodate the welter of variation within and between eras it has seemed best to cast a wide net:

• The archive collects series of genetically related poems: imitations of Spenser, imitations of imitations of Spenser, and series of related poems. Assembling the archive involves not only selecting appropriate poems but selecting appropriate series of poems.

• Since ideas about what might count as an imitation, a pastoral poem, or a Spenserian stanza varied over time, selections have been made using descriptive rather than prescriptive criteria.

• Rather than presenting tradition as a retrospectively-defined whole, the aim has been to regard it as an evolving process in which contemporaneous differences are as important as trans-historical continuities.

• The archive strives for comprehensiveness because failed, indifferent, and ephemeral works are as important to tradition-building as the few literary monuments the tradition chooses to remember.

Imitation tends towards variation, and variation often leads to innovation. While this unruly process makes for great complexity at the micro-level, at the macro-level something like a regular progression begins to appear out of the chaos. To begin with, poets writing in English used imitation to recreate the Latin classics in the vernacular language. They then set about creating a specifically British literature by imitating the vernacular writers becoming established as English classics. Finally, poets began to pursue originality by imitating the spirit rather than the letter of these elder poets, an enterprise that substituted for humanist practices new ones based on innovative ideas about genius and culture. All of these developments were worked out in imitations and criticism of Spenser, who at various stages in the process was regarded as the English Virgil, the father of English poetry, and "the Poet's Poet."

Continuity in the tradition was sustained by personal, social, political, and professional relationships that encouraged shared habits of reading and interpretation. Continuity was also sustained by the biographies, prefaces, and reference books that the tradition of letters used to keep track of where it had been. Various kinds of information were collected; of particular importance were the moral evaluations used to group poets into types ("mad poet," "libertine," "starving genius," "pedant," "sycophant," "visionary"). Relationships among writers and institutions were mediated by these moral types — "characters" as they were called — which were also an important factor in determining who, what, and how to imitate. The tradition was comprised of various kinds of poems, but also of various kinds of poets whose lives were passed down along with their poems.

Transmitting Texts.

Literary traditions obviously require the transmission of texts as much as skills and information. Spenser (in contrast to Donne and Shakespeare) was the first major English poet to cast his lot with print; at a time when manuscript publication was the norm, early Spenserians, preferring weight to wit, tended to publish books. Print entailed a loss of courtly prestige, but also ensured dissemination and survivability in troubled times. Spenser's writings were collected and republished in the second decade of the seventeenth century — during the first of several "Spenserian revivals" — but were not reprinted until 1679, a gap of nearly seventy years. Over the course of this long interval several notable imitations of Spenser's poetry appeared, including Phineas Fletcher's Purple Island (1633), Poems of Mr. John Milton (1645), Joseph Beaumont's Psyche (1645), and Henry More's Philosophical Poems (1647). Such challenging and unfashionable works found few readers and the Spenserian tradition nearly stalled during the Restoration: Spenser was often praised but seldom imitated. The comparative scarcity of imitations at this time can be attributed in part to the fact that few people had access to the poems. This began to change after the appearance of the Spenser folio of 1679, and especially after the publication of John Hughes's six-volume duodecimo edition in 1715. By the middle of the eighteenth century Spenser's works were readily available in a variety of formats, and the Spenserian-Miltonic mode became the dominant tradition in English poetry.

This event was facilitated by several eighteenth-century developments in the transmission of printed texts. The first was the appearance of critical editions, accompanied by explanatory essays and notes. These made Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton available and intelligible to later readers, bestowing on English poets the status of vernacular classics at just the moment when English poets were beginning to be taught in school and imitated in the manner of Latin poets. Another development was the use of anthologies to establish the reputations of writers and coteries of writers. The collections of contemporary verse Dryden edited for Tonson were reprinted for decades, as were their equivalents edited by Robert Dodsley in the eighteenth century. The Spenserian imitations collected in these anthologies were frequently imitated so long as these anthologies remained in print. Still later the anthologies of British poets published by Bell (1778), Johnson (1779), Anderson (1795), and Chalmers (1810) made English literature available in a chronological format that enabled readers to perceive it as an evolving tradition. These collections, with those devoted specifically to old poets edited by Cooper (1737), Headley (1787), and Ellis (1790), made Elizabethan poetry generally available for the first time: it was no longer necessary to have access to the private library of a great house or university college. Schoolbooks like Knox's Elegant Extracts (1789) became yet another important means by which Spenser and imitations of Spenser were transmitted through print. A third development was periodical publication. Journals and magazines circulated poetry old and new, but also vast quantities of information about poetry, criticism, literary biography, literary history, and bibliography. The rapid expansion of the print medium in the eighteenth century encouraged young writers to imitate Spenser and Milton as English "classics."

Transmitting Practices.

Literary practices are skills, fostered by institutions and typically, though by no means always, learned in school. In our period writing poetry was a regular part of a liberal arts curriculum that involved instruction in composition, rhetorical figures, and practice in metrics. Poets learned to write through exercises in translation and imitation that communicated not only literary skills, but knowledge of the classical pantheon, history, geography, and ethics. A substantial number of poets were employed as tutors, schoolmasters, college fellows, secretaries, journalists, and clergy; learning to compose poetry was preparation for institutional life, and institutional life was, not coincidentally, a primary topic of the occasional and minor poetry in which traditions would talk about themselves. The importance of academic instruction for the transmission of literary skills can hardly be overstated: even poets whose education did not extend beyond dame school or Sunday school typically had their verses corrected by someone taught by a schoolmaster. But there were other venues where literary practices could be conveyed from person to person and generation to generation: coffee-houses, clubs, Sunday-schools, and provincial societies for the propagation of knowledge. The literary journals and magazines (which often originated in such informal institutions) disseminated literary knowledge and skills wherever English was read.

Literary practices evolved over time. Translation was essential so long as the object was to create a vernacular equivalent to literature in Latin, Italian or French. That goal having been achieved or superseded, writers turned their attention to using imitation to regularize the diction and syntax of the native tongue. This involved considerable study of the classical English poets — writers of the last age understood to be best in their "class." Later still, imitators responded to emergent ideas about genius and culture by substituting for the generalities of class the peculiarities of personal, regional, and national differences. Particular literary practices would wax or atrophy according to these kinds of priorities. The skills required to construct an interlaced stanza or romance declined precipitously with the development of philosophical theories about probable representation; when the sonnet and gothic romance were later revived these elder genres assumed strange new forms. The practice of allegory, which had gone somewhat into abeyance, was revived as a mode of practical instruction in the eighteenth century, first in the Tatler and Spectator, and afterwards in a host of books intended for young readers. The practice of studying older writers in and out of school encouraged a romantic generation fascinated by historicity to experiment with a multiplicity of faux-traditional genres, styles, and modes.

Transmitting Characters.

Spenser and Milton wrote poems that suited the public medium of print, but also the public character cultivated in an emergent republic of letters. While the importance to tradition of transmitting texts and practices is perhaps obvious enough, the transmission of characters requires more comment. In our period this word denoted at once a writer's style or manner, their personality or moral tendencies, and their status or reputation. Character is closely related to what rhetoricians call "ethos." So long as imitation was a predominate concern in the literary system (which it was down to 1830), criticism was based on "character." Having a recognizable character determined how a writer should be imitated, where and when they should be imitated, and by whom. The writers most frequently imitated were those with the strongest characters, in all senses of the word: Spenser, Milton, Pope, Gray, Collins, the Wartons, Cowper, Burns, Byron. Laurence Eusden and William Whitehead may have been poets laureate, but lacking a marked character they had few followers. Poets and critics seldom distinguished between a writer's aesthetic and moral character: Spenser was "simple," Milton "sublime," Gray "difficult."

The importance of character is indicated by the fact that the great bulk of criticism written before 1830 is moral and biographical; poetry reviews (beginning in earnest with the founding of the Monthly Review in 1749) were generally concerned with a writer's character, even when the author was anonymous. There was not much literary criticism in the modern sense; for one thing, most criticism appeared in verse rather than in prose. For another, the primary form of criticism in verse was "implicit criticism," criticism by practice rather than exposition. Literary imitation always involves implicit criticism: insofar as it singles out a work or author for emulation or burlesque, it involves criticism; insofar as a poem selects some elements of its source for emulation, development, or ridicule, it involves criticism. Imitation enabled English poetry assume of much its modern form prior to the advent of sophisticated anthologies, critical reviewing, and literary histories. The selection and ordering of literature was carried out by a tradition whose critical practices were largely implicit in the choices made by poets. Being more responsive to changes in taste and fashion, literary practices sometimes operated independently of what was being taught officially in school or codified in manuals, handbooks, and critical treatises. Poets could make their implicit choices more obvious by imitating a strongly marked character.

The potency of implicit criticism is perhaps most obvious when choices were made against the grain of what was popular or acceptable at a given moment. Second generation Spenserians imitated Spenser's mannerisms in order to identify themselves as a group committed to Elizabethan ideals during the reign of James, keeping the memory of the master green while making a statement at once aesthetic, moral, and political. The Spenserian poems in Milton's 1645 volume imitated those earlier imitations to make a similar point. In 1706 Matthew Prior thumbed his nose at the French in an ode celebrating the Battle of Ramillies by imitating Horace "in Spencer's Stile" — the character of the verse intended to convey a message about the character of the nation that produced Marlborough. At mid-century, James Thomson and a swarm of lesser writers burlesqued Spenser's manner in poems intended to contrast "simple" virtue with court corruption. At the century's end Robert Southey and William Wordsworth challenged the claims of modernity and empire in "English eclogues" and "lyrical ballads" whose studiously cultivated simplicity emulated the Shepheardes Calender. As different as they are in other respects, all of these poems worked as implicit criticism: they rejected the reigning modes in literature and politics by embracing the character of Spenserian poetics.

Characters were also explicit topics of conversation in poetry. The "character" became a recognized literary genre after it was formally reintroduced by Joseph Hall's imitations of Theophrastus in Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608). But the characters of vernacular authors were already being discussed in Elizabethan satires in prose and verse. In the seventeenth century, epigram became the dominant form of literary character-writing; several thousand epigrams were written on the characters of writers, sometimes treating anonymous types, sometimes particular individuals. A good epigram united significant particulars with a general type in a highly condensed utterance easy to memorize, circulate, and collect. In this shifting forest of epigrams (some of the best are collected in Jonson's Underwood) the literary tradition discussed its practitioners and priorities. Before long epigrammatic characters were being collected into longer utterances, verse epistles and didactic poems, that cultivated more elaborate comparisons and a sense of chronological sequence. In the period between 1650 and 1750 "verse catalogues" consisting of linked epigrammatic characters became a primary means by which the tradition collected and sorted its canon of writers. Catalogues of names became a constituent part of many literary kinds — satire, georgic, epistle, narrative; in the eighteenth century it even became fashionable to imitate a poet's verse in writing their character. While the series of epigrammatic characters continued unabated into the nineteenth century, after 1750 the characters of poets became more of a prose preoccupation. Characters of the poets were assembled and variously organized in prefaces and notes in the new anthologies, in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries, and in the periodicals, where obituary-writing came to be cultivated as a high art. In the nineteenth century writers like Coleridge, Campbell, and Hazlitt earned a living by lecturing on the characters of the poets; many of the lectures found their way into print.

The practice of assembling catalogues of names deserves particular notice. In the era before modern anthologies, reviews, textbooks, and literary history, lists of names appearing in prose and verse (but mostly verse) were the primary means by which traditions organized themselves into genres, schools, and genealogical sequences. The constitution of such catalogues of names — ancient, modern, ancient and modern mixed; arranged by genre, nationality, chronology, or status — conveys perhaps better than anything else the priorities at work among imitators working within a tradition. The hundreds and thousands of such catalogues buried away in forgotten and minor and occasional poetry speak volumes about who was being read and imitated, by whom, and why. The first appearance of women's names in such catalogues, or of Americans, or of untutored writers, are events worthy of note, as is the first appearance of catalogues consisting exclusively of names of women, or Americans, or untutored writers. The appearance of such a list is tantamount to the recognition of a tradition.

Imitation and character-writing operated reciprocally. Poets and critics used character-writing to organize the tradition of English literature according to priorities set by the practices of contemporary writers. Writers imitated earlier poetry based on information gleaned from character-writing. Since the tradition of English literature was always of several minds about who should be imitated and how, there was much play in a system that evolved considerably over time. The reciprocal relationship between character-writing and imitation, however, remained constant from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth. A brief sketch of Spenser's reception will suggest how this worked.

In the early years verse characters, in like poetical modes, were based on comparisons with classical models; thus Thomas Freeman's epigram in Rubbe, and a great Cast (1614): "Virgil from Homer, th' Italian from him, | Spenser from all, and all of these I weene, | Were borne when Helicon was full to th' brim, | Witnes their works, witnes our Faiery Queene." Spenser was praised as the English Virgil, and in the seventeenth century his un-classical mannerisms were seldom imitated. Character-writers began to present Spenser as a primitive stage in the progress of English literature towards refinement; thus Knightly Chetwood in addressing the Earl of Roscommon (1684): "Such was the case when Chaucer's early toyl | Founded the Muses Empire in our Soyl. | Spencer improv'd it with his painful hand | But lost a Noble Muse in Fairy-land." This sort of character did not encourage imitation. Matters began to change during the wars of William and Anne when opposition to France and French neoclassicism raised the status of Elizabethan literature. Thus an anonymous poet praising Matthew Prior for adopting Spenser's character in his ode on Ramillies (1706): "But Prior does in Spencer's Style endite, | With the same spirit that the English Fight. | Thought so sublime, Expression so correct | Ever more Honour, than they give, reflect." The martial character of Spenser's poetry could be seen as reflecting the character of the English nation.

As imitations became more common, characters of Spenser emphasized the capacity of Spenser to inspire genius in others. Thus Elizabeth Cooper in The Muses Library (1737): "with all his Imperfections, no Writings have such Power as his, to awake the Spirit of Poetry in others: And 'tis probable many Geniuses, beside Cowley's, have ow'd their Inspiration, to the reflected Fire, they caught originally from Him." Writing in the Universal Visitor (1756) Christopher Smart declares, "in description he was rich, in embellishment lavish, and was the father of more English poets than any other writer whatsoever." "Father" Spenser became the arch-poet whose creative imagination expressed the very genius of poetry. Later critics were more inclined to differentiate; in Coleridge's famous character, Spenser's "mind is fancy under the conditions of imagination, as an ever-present but not always active power. He has an imaginative fancy, but he has not imagination, in kind or degree, as Shakspeare and Milton have." The exercise of discrimination became more elaborate as romantics made the character of the character-writer an aspect of character-writing: we have Coleridge's Spenser, Hunt's Spenser, Wilson's Spenser. The equivalent phenomenon appears in poetry: where eighteenth-century imitations Spenser can seem like peas in a pod, in their nineteenth-century equivalents the personal mannerisms of the imitator are often put on display.

This sketch suggests the reciprocal relation between characters and imitation, but also how the tradition variously conceived its relation to the past: as a source of normative models, as a progress of historical refinement, as a presiding spirit, as a pretext for the display of personal genius. What this sketch does not suggest is just how various the relationship between character and imitation might be at any given moment. One can find Spenser's mannerisms being imitated at the height of neoclassicism in the seventeenth century, and rejected by his greatest admirers in the eighteenth. Romantic poets, and particularly women, might cultivated a corporate rather than an individual manner in Spenser imitation. This kind of variety, which has not always been appreciated in histories of English literature or Spenserian poetry, seems to me to be vital to understanding how the literary system worked in the era of "criticism before criticism." Insofar as we can speak of English literature or Spenserian poetry as traditions, they were traditions amenable to change and open to competition.

One Tradition or Many?

Since poems derive their forms, diction, and topics from earlier exemplars, many writers cultivate an acute sense of tradition, innovative writers perhaps most of all. Spenserian poets, who were often antiquaries to begin with, were particularly given to cultivating older literature as a source of innovation and challenge to contemporary taste. This dialectic of old and new is especially obvious in the pastoral poems writers used to announce their programs. E. K. praises the "new poete" of the Shepheardes Calender by admiring his appropriations of Virgil and Chaucer; Pope calls attention to his sources in a subtle echo of Spenser's "Prothalamion": "Fair Thames flow gently from thy sacred Spring, | While on thy Banks Sicilian Muses sing." Wordsworth validates his experiment in Lyrical Ballads by comparing his poems on rural life to "the invaluable works of our elder writers." Working within an established genre the poet discovers "new" old matter to imitate (Chaucer, Spenser, ballads) that in turn leads to innovations within pastoral. The shock of the old is well expressed in Keats's sonnet "On first looking into Chapman's Homer." At such moments a tradition reaches outside or beyond itself, implying that traditions are not only recursive but multiform. There are multiple traditions within English poetry, and multiple traditions in Spenserian poetry.

These are not always easy to identify several hundred years later, though by studying the archive one can get a sense of what was traditional, when, how, and for whom. One learns that not only Thomas Warton, but Cowper and Charles Lamb had been reading Chapman's Homer before Keats. How original, then, was this "discovery"? The more one learns about the specifics of literary transmission the more fractured and complex the idea of tradition is likely to become. Knowledge and taste were not uniformly distributed. While it was once conventional wisdom that Spenser was little esteemed and less understood in Pope's era, the evidence is equivocal: Spenser's works received both high praise and strong criticism, sometimes from the same writers. If there were relatively few imitations, there were more than before, suggesting a positive change in Spenser's status as a model. Later readers have not seen much resemblance to Spenser in neoclassical works like Pope's Pastorals, despite the fact that they are often closer to Spenser's humanist poetics than many poems conventionally thought of as "Spenserian." In cases where Spenserian poetry does not seem very Spenserian one must make allowance for the fact that traditions evolve. One should also consider the possibility that common elements may not derive from a common tradition; diction in Scottish pastoral may derive from Spenser, but then again it may derive from the local vernacular.

Can a multiform and discontinuous series of works be regarded as a tradition? Spenserian writers and coteries, scattered across space and time, pursued widely various genres, modes, and literary programs. While it is convenient to refer to the body of poems collectively as "Spenserian," it is worth noting that this word came into common usage only in the second decade of the nineteenth century and that the idea of a continuous Spenserian tradition is later still. Most writers imitating Spenser did not think of themselves as writing in a Spenserian tradition (they might imitate all manner of writers); some, like Phineas Fletcher and Robert Southey, obviously did. Retrospectively, of course, critics could and did define a tradition based on family resemblances among texts written over a long stretch of time. The first collection of Spenser imitations appeared in Bell's Classical Arrangement of Fugitive Poetry (1789-97); it was at this time that one begins to find mentions of a Spenserian school of poetry. We look at the small clutch of eighteenth-century burlesques and wonder at the grand claims contemporary critics were making for Spenser as the fount of British poetry

In fact, formal imitations of the Faerie Queene were but one fiber in the cable of Spenserian traditions. There were other strands, tightly or loosely wound into the pastoral, satirical, lyric, elegiac, and allegorical modes that constituted the main stream of poetic literature. This broader tradition was chronologically continuous, even as it was formally and programmatically discontinuous. These are the two conditions necessary for innovations of the sort described above: a repertoire of older texts to draw upon, and a literary system in which alternative genres, modes, and literary programs could coexist and compete. Innovations taken up in one part of the spectrum of kinds and modes could and did spread to others, through burlesque and parody as well as imitation and adaptation. The remarkable thing about Spenser imitations is not that they constitute a continuous tradition, but that over a long stretch of time they repeatedly, in very different ways, modified and were modified by other kinds of poetry through reciprocal exchanges of forms and topics. The cumulative effect of the innovations, recursions, passing-downs, and exchanges involving Spenser imitations was, if complex, diffuse, and implicit, quite profound.

The Major Importance of Minor Poems.

A database orders its materials along the lines of the cable metaphor: selecting a temporal cross section ("poems published in 1753"), one observes the diversity of the strands. Pulling out a single strand for observation ("pastoral elegy"), one is usually struck by its temporal continuity: in eighteenth century pastoral, for instance, one can follow a series of poems extending from Pope to Southey that evolves through small, incremental changes. The database leaves one with the impression that English poetry consists of a bundle of largely independent traditions. Examined more closely however, the independent threads are seen to be related: changes in the sonnet have parallels in the series of odes and epistles. Broad distinctions, like that between neoclassical and romantic modes, become perplexed: "Horatian Spenserianism" may seem like an oxymoron, but examples abound. Within the welter of minor verse one discovers many hybrids, including some apparently not capable of reproduction. Cross-connections in minor verse have mattered little to historians whose business it has been to articulate poetry into clearly defined genres, schools, and periods identified with major figures. But there is reason to believe that the flux and complexity of minor verse played a major role in the dynamics of literary change.

The historical agency of minor poetry tends to fall beneath the critical radar because it involves large numbers of seemingly insignificant texts, texts at once monotonously repetitious and dauntingly complex in their range of small variations. There was, and is, simply too much to know: the knowledge commanded by individuals is necessarily limited compared to the collective knowledge dispersed in a tradition. Similarly, the agency of tradition goes unnoticed because it cannot be identified with any particular agent. If Spenser, Milton, Pope, Johnson, and Wordsworth affected the course of English literature, it was not through the wholesale adoption of their literary program by the next generation. Literary legacies become subject to the rule of unintended consequences when multiple followers select and adapt according to unforeseen circumstances. As with reception, so with sources: major figures owe more than is often recognized to minor poets. The belated Elizabethans writing during the reign of James set the literary agenda for young John Milton; Warton, Beattie, and Bowles identified the issues and established the modes taken up by later romantics. A defining quality of major poetry is its capacity to use tradition effectively, gathering up dispersed knowledge and bringing it to effectively to bear on issues often scouted in minor verse.

One tends to think of traditions as stands of stately oaks serving as navigation marks for later generations, not as an underwood where young shrubs compete for light and air. In fact they are both. Consider the sublime emotion Keats felt in the presence of Chapman, one of the older, if not taller, trees in the forest. Today Keats's poem towers over the thicket of contemporary sonnets, itself a monument. But to see it peeping out from the densely-printed newspaper in which it first appeared — looking inconsequential enough — is to sense something significant about its origin. Periodicals were then replete with similar sonnets, forgotten poems that whetted the romantic appetite for obsolete poetry. Was not such newsprint ephemera as much a part of this poem's genesis as the encounter with Chapman's ancient folio? Traditions live their first life, the one in which they grow and develop, under just such conditions. The complex, busy, mundane, seemingly inconsequential realm of ephemeral poetry is as vital to their ecology as the old growth deposited by former ages. To overlook the underbrush is to fail to see the forest for the trees.

July 2006