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names of his contemporaries, they excited an eager and wholesome curiosity amongst better judges than themselves; and this, of course, led to the discovery that the wits of Queen Anne's time, with all their sprightliness and polish, were by no means in the highest rank of British genius. We had become so thoroughly Frenchifted in our literature, that one of the best writers of the day had incurred the dishonour of Voltaire's admiration, who wondered how a nation that had produced the tragedy of Cato, could endure the dramas of that “drunken savage,” William Shakespeare. We had been intellectually enslaved by a foreign nation, ever since the return of the second Charles.
We conquered France, but felt our captive's charms,
But as soon as the English people were recalled to a sense of the merits of their own elder writers, they felt the superiority of truth and nature over that flippant wit, and smartness of manner, which form the characteristics of the majority of the popular writers who for so long a period completely hood-winked the public judgment. Bishop Percy, with his collection of old English Ballads, gave a strong additional impulse to the re-action; and Warton, with his History of Poetry, and Cowper, with his fine idiomatic diction and manly simplicity of thought and feeling, almost consummated the revolution. Campbell and Crabbe and Rogers still lingered on the confines of the French School; but Wordsworth and his disciples have sometimes carried the revival of the ancient English simplicity to an objectionable extreme. Those readers, who are ignorant of our old English writers, are apt to look upon the free versification of Leigh Hunt and Barry Cornwall, and the bare simplicity of some of Wordsworth's lyrical ballads, as a modern novelty; whereas they are nothing more than a return to our ancient manners, to which, however,
they have added an incongruous mixture of the artifices and refinements of the present period. Their poetry is, after all, of a composite order, a kind of modern antique. Amongst the least known but not the least pleasing of our elder poets is William Browne, the author of Brittania's Pastorals, a writer whom Milton appears to have studied with so much delight that he paid him the compliment of imitation. A poem by Browne, on the story of Circe and Ulysses, called the Inner Temple Masque, is thought by Warton to have suggested to Milton some hints for his Masque of Comus. The following song, which Circe sings as a charm to drive away sleep from Ulysses, is quoted from Browne by Warton, who observes that it reminds
him of some favorite touches in Milton's poem —
Sonne of Erebus and Nighte 2
Browne's Brittania's Pastorals, which he published in his
twenty-third year, display not only great richness and originality of fancy, but a turn for observation and reflection not a little remarkable in so young a man. Pope's Pastorals were published in his twenty-first year, though it is said they were written somewhat earlier. It would be an interesting task, to compare minutely the eclogues of these two writers, so essentially opposed in their cast of mind, and born at different periods, when such opposite styles of poetry were in fashion. There is an air of greater learning in those of Pope, and of more truth and originality in those of Browne. In the former there is not a single new image, but there are many ingenious imitations of the Greek and Roman Classics; in the latter there are abundance of fresh transcripts from nature, and very few echoes of other poets. Pope is artful and elegant; Browne is natural and free. If a critic were disposed to compliment them both, he might say that Pope was the British Virgil, and Browne the British Theocritus. The Pastorals of Pope are in point of versification the most polished of all his works. The ear of a young poet is maturer than his mind. Pope seems to have entertained a false notion, that a poet should study books more than nature; and he himself avows, that if his Pastorals have any merit, it is to be attributed “to some good old authors, whose works, as he had leisure to read, so he had not wanted care to imitate them.” Well might Dr. Johnson tell us, that the poet in his Pastorals seemed more anxious to show his literature than his wit. That he should have sat down to describe rural scenes without once thinking of going beyond his book-shelves, is a strong illustration of the unhappy system of poetry then in vogue. It is not to be wondered at that he gave us no new pictures of nature, and that he jumbled together a chaotic mixture of Greek, Roman, and British persons, scenes and manners. Pope, in his own discourse on Pastorals, has told us that the fable, manners, thoughts and expressions should be “full of the greatest simplicity in nature;” and yet there are no compositions in the language more thoroughly arti
* This line recals a passage in Shakespeare :—
ficial than his own. But it is easier to point out the right way than to follow it. It is curious enough that in his ironical paper in the Guardian, he taunts Philips with having introduced wolves in England, though he had once inserted in his own “Pastorals” the following line, which, on second and better thoughts, he had omitted :—
“And listening wolves grow milder as they hear.”
Browne's Pastorals are open to almost as many objections as those of Pope, but the faults are of a very different kind. In the smoothness of his versification and in the elegance of his diction, Pope has infinitely surpassed his predecessor. His plan also is better conceived, and more judiciously conducted. There is no regularity or completeness in Browne, whose merit consists in the excellence of particular passages. The reader is often disgusted with his tedious minuteness, his occasional abruptness, his confusion, and his want of refinement. But his flowers of fancy are so fresh and vivid, and are strown about in such magnificent heaps and with such a lavish hand, that a genuine lover of poetry can overlook a great deal of less agreeable matter for the sake of such rare enjoyments. Browne is not a poet for the people. He is, like Spenser, a poet's poet. They who read him for his story will meet with certain disappointment. His fable is always singularly uninteresting. We turn to him not to enjoy his subject matter, but his illustrations. His ornaments are like jewels upon an ungainly personage, and lose nothing by an abstraction from the body, and a separate examination. On this account, I propose to select a few detached passages, and, without further preface, lay them before the reader.
After his great master, Spenser, Browne occasionally indulges in allegorical description. He has given us a portrait of RIoT almost worthy of the author of The Fairy Queen.
SoMETHING appear'd, which seem'd farre off a man,
But when the eyes their object's masters were,
Which howle and shoute against the lights of Heaven.
His hands, (if hands they were) like some dead corse,