Gosse's Gossip - A CENSOR OF POETS

A CENSOR OF POETS

THE LIVES OF THE MOST FAMOUS ENGLISH POETS, or the Honour of Parnassus; in a Brief Essay of the Works and Writings of above Two Hundred of them, from the Time of K. William the Conqueror, to the Reign of His Present Majesty King James II. Written by William Winstanley. Licensed June 16, 1686. London, Printed by H. Clark, for Samuel Manship at the Sign of the Black Bull in Cornhil, 1687.

            A maxim which it would be well for ambitious critics to chalk up on the walls of their workshops is this: never mind whom you praise, but be very careful whom you blame. Most critical reputations have struck on the reef of some poet or novelist whom the great censor, in his proud old age, has thought he might disdain with impunity. Who recollects the admirable treatises of John Dennis, acute, learned, sympathetic? To us he is merely the sore old bear, who was too stupid to perceive the genius of Pope. The grace and discrimination lavished by Francis Jeffrey over a thousand pages, weigh like a feather beside one sentence about Wordsworth's Excursion, and one tasteless sneer at Charles Lamb. Even the mighty figure of Sainte-Beuve totters at the whisper of the name Balzac. Even Matthew Arnold would have been wiser to have taken counsel with himself before he laughed at Shelley. And the very unimportant but sincere and interesting writer, whose book occupies us to-day, is in some respects the crowning instance of the rule. His literary existence has been sacrificed by a single outburst of petulant criticism, which was not even literary, but purely political.

            The only passage of Winstanley's Lives of the English Poets which is ever quoted is the paragraph which refers to Milton, who, when it appeared, had been dead thirteen years. It runs thus:

"John Milton was one whose natural parts might deservedly give him a place amongst the principal of our English Poets, having written two Heroick Poems and a Tragedy, namely Paradice Lost, Paradice Regain'd, and Sampson Agonista. But his Fame is gone out like a Candle in a Snuff, and his Memory will always stink, which might have ever lived in honourable Repute, had not he been a notorious Traytor, and most impiously and villanously bely'd that blessed Martyr, King Charles the First."

            Mr. Winstanley does not leave us in any doubt of his own political bias, and his mode is simply infamous. It is the roughest and most unpardonable expression now extant of the prejudice generally felt against Milton in London, after the Restoration—a prejudice which even Dryden, who in his heart knew better, could not wholly resist. This one sentence is all that most readers of seventeenth-century literature know about Winstanley, and it is not surprising that it has created an objection to him. I forget who it was, among the critics of the beginning of this century, who was accustomed to buy copies of the Lives of the English Poets wherever he could pick them up, and burn them, in piety to the angry spirit of Milton. This was certainly more sensible conduct than that of the Italian nobleman, who used to build MSS. of Martial into little pyres, and consume them with spices, to express his admiration of Catullus. But no one can wonder that the world has not forgiven Winstanley for that atrocious phrase about Milton's fame having "gone out like a candle in a snuff, so that his memory will always stink." No, Mr. William Winstanley, it is your own name that—smells so very unpleasantly.

            Yet I am paradoxical enough to believe that poor Winstanley never wrote these sentences which have destroyed his fame. To support my theory, it is needful to recount the very scanty knowledge we possess of his life. He is said to have been a barber, and to have risen by his exertions with the razor; but, against that legend, is to be posed the fact that on the titles of his earliest books, dedicated to public men who must have known, he styles himself "Gent." The dates of his birth and death are, I believe, a matter of conjecture. But the Lives of the English Poets is the latest of his books, and the earliest was published in 1660. This is his England's Worthies, a group of what we should call to-day "biographical studies." The longest and the most interesting of these is one on Oliver Cromwell, the tone of which is almost grossly laudatory, although published at the very moment of Restoration. Now, it is a curious, and, at first sight, a very disgraceful fact, that in 1684, when the book of England's Worthies was re-issued, all the praise of republicans was cancelled, and abuse substituted for it. And then, in 1687, came the Lives of the English Poets, with its horrible attack on Milton. The character of Winstanley seems to be as base as any on literary record. I have come to the conclusion, however, that Winstanley was guilty, neither of retracting what he said about Cromwell, nor of slandering Milton. The black woman excused her husband for not answering the bell, "'Cause he's dead," and the excuse was considered valid. I hope that when these interpolations were made, poor Winstanley was dead.

            Anyone who reads the Lives of the English Poets carefully, will be impressed with two facts: first, that the author had an acquaintance with the early versifiers of Great Britain, which was quite extraordinary, and which can hardly be found at fault by our modern knowledge; while, secondly, that he shows a sudden and unaccountable ignorance of his immediate contemporaries of the younger school. Except Campion, who is a discovery of our own day, not a single Elizabethan or Jacobean rhymester of the second or third rank escapes his notice. Among the writers of a still later generation, I miss no names save those of Vaughan, who was very obscure in his own lifetime, and Marvell, who would be excluded by the same prejudice which mocked at Milton. But among poets of the Restoration, men and women who were in their full fame in 1687, the omissions are quite startling. Not a word is here about Otway, Lee, or Crowne; Butler is not mentioned, nor the Matchless Orinda, nor Roscommon, nor Sir Charles Sedley. A careful examination of the dates of works which Winstanley refers to, produces a curious result. There is not mentioned, so far as I can trace, a single poem or play which was published later than 1675, although the date on the title-page of the Lives of the English Poets is 1687. Rather an elaborate list of Dryden's publications is given, but it stops at Amboyna (1673). On this I think it is not too bold to build a theory, which may last until Winstanley's entry of burial is discovered in some country church, that he died soon after 1675. If this were the case, the recantations in his English Worthies of 1684 would be so many posthumous outrages committed on his blameless tomb, and the infamous sentence about Milton may well have been foisted into a posthumous volume by the same wicked hand. If we could think that Samuel Manship, at the Sign of the Black Bull, was the obsequious rogue who did it, that would be one more sin to be numbered against the sad race of publishers.

            In studying old books about the poets, it sometimes occurs to us to wonder whether the readers of two hundred years ago appreciated the same qualities in good verse which are now admired. Did the ringing and romantic cadences of Shakespeare affect their senses as they do ours? We know that they praised Carew and Suckling, but was it "Ask me no more where June bestows," and "Hast thou seen the down in the air," which gave them pleasure? It would sometimes seem, from the phrases they use and the passages they quote, that if poetry was the same two centuries ago, its readers had very different ears from ours. Of Herrick Winstanley says that he was "one of the Scholars of Apollo of the middle Form, yet something above George Withers, in a pretty Flowry and Pastoral Gale of Fancy, in a vernal Prospect of some Hill, Cave, Rock, or Fountain; which but for the interruption of other trivial Passages, might have made up none of the worst Poetick Landskips," and then he quotes, as a sample of Herrick, a tiresome "epigram," in the poet's worst style. This is not delicate or acute criticism, as we judge nowadays; but I would give a good deal to meet Winstanley at a coffee-house, and go through the Hesperides with him over a dish of chocolate. It would be wonderfully interesting to discover which passages in Herrick really struck the contemporary mind as "flowery," and which as "trivial." But this is just what all seventeenth-century criticism, even Dryden's, omits to explain to us. The personal note in poetical criticism, the appeal to definite taste, to the experience of eye and ear, is not met with, even in suggestion, until we reach the pamphlets of John Dennis.

            The particular copy of Winstanley which lies before me is a valuable one; I owe it to the generosity of a friend in Chicago, who hoards rare books, and yet has the greatness of soul sometimes to part with them. It is interleaved, and the blank pages are rather densely inscribed with notes in the handwriting of Dr. Thomas Percy, the poetical Bishop of Dromore. From his hands it passed into those of John Bowyer Nichols, the antiquary. Percy's notes are little more than references to other authorities, memoranda for one of his own useful compilations, yet it is pleasant to have even a slight personal relic of so admirable a man. Mr. Rivière has bound the volume for me, and I suppose that poor rejected Winstanley exists nowhere else in so elegant a shape.

 

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