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Spenser's poetry was a continuous, endless flow of indescribable beauties, like the galaxy or milky way:—Dr. Knox has “taken him and cut him out in little stars,” which was repugnant to the genius of his writings. I have made it my aim to exhibit the
characteristic and striking features of English poetry and English
genius; and with this view have endeavoured to give such speci
mens from each author as shewed his peculiar powers of mind and the peculiar style in which he excelled, and have omitted those which were not only less remarkable in themselves, but were common to him with others, or in which others surpassed him, who were therefore the proper models in that particular way. Cuique tribuitur suum. In a word, it has been proposed to retain those passages and pieces with which the reader of taste and feeling would be most pleased in the perusal of the original works, and to which he would wish oftenest to turn again—and which consequently may be conceived to conduce most beneficially to form the taste and amuse the fancy of those who have not leisure or industry to make themselves masters of the whole range of English poetry. By leaving out a great deal of uninteresting and commonplace poetry, room has been obtained for nearly all that was emphatically excellent. The reader, it is presumed, may here revel and find no end of delight, in the racy vigour and manly characteristic humour, or simple pathos of Chaucer's Muse, in the gorgeous voluptuousness and romantic tenderness of Spenser, in the severe, studied beauty and awful majesty of Milton, in the elegance and refinement and harmony of Pope, in the strength and satire and sounding rhythm of Dryden, in the sportive gaiety and graces of Suckling, Dorset, Gay, and Prior, in Butler's wit, in Thomson's rural scenes, in Cowper's terse simplicity, in Burns's
laughing eye and feeling heart (among standard and established
reputations)—and in the polished tenderness of Campbell, the buoyant, heart-felt levity of Moore, the striking, careless, picturesque beauties of Scott, the thoughtful humanity of Wordsworth, and Byron's glowing rage (among those whose reputation seems less solid and towering, because we are too near them to perceive its height or measure its duration). Others might be men
tioned to lengthen out the list of poetic names
“That on the steady breeze of honour sail
“In long procession, calm and beautiful:”—
but from all together enough has been gleaned to make “a perpetual feast of nectar'd sweets, where no crude surfeit reigns.” Such at least has been my ardent wish; and if this volume is not pregnant with matter, both “rich and rare,” it has been the fault of the compiler, and not of the poverty or niggardliness of the
A CRITICAL LIST
AUTHORS CONTAINED IN THIS VOLUME.
CHAUCER is in the first class of poetry (the natural) and one of the first. He describes the common but individual objects of nature and the strongest and most universal, because spontaneous workings of the heart. In invention he has not much to boast, for the materials are chiefly borrowed (except in some of his comic tales); but the masterly execution is his own. He is remarkable for the degree and variety of the qualities he possesses—excelling equally in the comic and serious. He has little fancy, but he has great wit, great humour, strong manly sense, great power of description, perfect knowledge of character, occasional sublimity, as in parts of the Knight's Tale, and the deepest pathos, as in the story of Griselda, Custance, the Flower and the Leaf, &c. In humour and spirit, the Wife of Bath is unequalled.
SPENSER excels in the two qualities in which Chaucer is most deficient—invention and fancy. The invention shewn in his allegorical personages is endless, as the fancy shewn in his description of them is gorgeous and delightful. He is the poet of romance. He describes things as in a splendid and voluptuous dream. He has displayed no comic talent, except in his Shepherd's Calendar. He has little attempt at character, an occasional visionary sublimity, and a pensive tenderness approaching to the finest pathos. Nearly all that is excellent in the Faery Queen is contained in the three first Books. His style is sometimes ambiguous and
affected; but his versification is to the last degree flowing and harmonious.
vi CRITICAL LIST OF AUTHORS.
Sir PHILIP SIDNEY is an affected writer, but with great power of thought and description. His poetry, of which he did not write much, has the faults of his prose without its recommendations.
DRAYTON has chiefly tried his strength in description and learned narrative. The plan of the Poly-Olbion (a local or geographical account of Great Britain) is original, but not very happy. The descriptions of places are often striking and curious, but become tedious by uniformity. There is some fancy in the poem, but little general interest. His Heroic Epistles have considerable tenderness and dignity; and, in the structure of the verse, have served as a model to succeeding writers.
DANIEL is chiefly remarkable for simplicity of style, and natural tenderness. In some of his occasional pieces (as the Epistle to the Countess of Cumberland) there is a vast philosophic gravity and stateliness of sentiment.
Sir JOHN SUCKLING is one of the most piquant and attractive of the Minor poets. He has fancy, wit, humour, descriptive talent, the highest elegance, perfect ease, a familiar style and a pleasing versification. He has combined all these in his Ballad on a Wedding, which is a masterpiece of sportive gaiety and goodhumour. His genius was confined entirely to the light and agreeable.
GEORGE WITHER is a poet of comparatively little power; though he has left one or two exquisitely affecting passages, having a personal reference to his own misfortunes.
WALLER belonged to the same class as Suckling—the sportive, the sparkling, the polished, with fancy, wit, elegance of style, and easiness of versification at his command. Poetry was the plaything of his idle hours—the mistress, to whom he addressed his verses, was his real Muse. His lines on the Death of Oliver Cromwell are however serious, and even sublime.
MILTON was one of the four great English poets, who must certainly take precedence over all others, I mean himself, Spenser, Chaucer, and Shakespear. His subject is not common or natural indeed, but it is of preternatural grandeur and unavoidable interest. He is altogether a CRITICAL LIST OF AUTHORS. vii
serious poet; and in this differs from Chaucer and Shakespear, and resembles Spenser. He has sublimity in the highest degree: beauty in an equal degree; pathos in a degree next to the highest; perfect character in the conception of Satan, of Adam and Eve; fancy, learning, vividness of description, stateliness, decorum. He seems on a par with his subject in Paradise Lost; to raise it, and to be raised with it. His style is elaborate and powerful, and his versification, with occasional harshness and affectation, superior in harmony and variety to all other blank verse. It has the effect of a piece of fine music." His smaller pieces, Lycidas, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, the Sonnets, &c. display proportionable excellence, from their beauty, sweetness, and elegance.
COWLEY is a writer of great sense, ingenuity, and learning, but as a poet, his fancy is quaint, far-fetched, and mechanical, and he has no other distinguishing quality whatever. To these objections his Anacreontics are a delightful exception. They are the perfection of that sort of gay, unpremeditated, lyrical effusion. They breathe the very spirit of love and wine. Most of his other pieces should be read for instruction, not for pleasure.
MARVELL is a writer almost forgotten: but undeservedly so. His poetical reputation seems to have sunk with his political party. His satires were coarse, quaint, and virulent; but his other productions are full of a lively, tender, and elegant fancy. His verses leave an echo on the ear, and find one in the heart. See those entitled Bermudas, To His Coy Mistress, ON THE DEATH of A FAw N, &c.
BUTLER (the author of Hudibras) has undoubtedly more wit than any other writer in the language. He has little besides to recommend him, if we except strong sense, and a laudable contempt of absurdity and hypocrisy. He has little story, little character, and no great humour in his singular poem. The invention of the fable seems borrowed from Don Quixote. He has however prodigious merit in his style, and in the fabrication of his rhymes.
Sir JOHN DENHAM'S fame rests chiefly on his Cooper's Hill. This poem is a mixture of the descriptive and didactic, and has given birth to many poems on the same plan since. His forte is strong, sound sense, and easy, unaffected, manly verse.