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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 specimens 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 hint, 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
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.
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 not 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 FAWN, &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.
DRYDEN stands nearly at the head of the second class of English poets, viz. the artificial, or those who describe the mixed modes of artificial life, and convey general precepts and abstract ideas. He had invention in the plan of his Satires, very little fancy, not much wit, no humour, immense strength of character, elegance, masterly ease, indignant contempt approaching to the sublime, not a particle of tenderness, but eloquent declamation, the perfection of uncorrupted English style, and of sounding, vehement, varied versification. The Alexander's Feast, his Fables and Satires, are his standard and lasting works.
ROCHESTER, as a wit, is first-rate: but his fancy is keen and caustic, not light and pleasing, like Suckling or Waller. His verses cut and sparkle like diamonds.
ROSCOMMON excelled chiefly as a translator; but his translation of Horace's Art of Poetry is so unique a specimen of fidelity and felicity, that it has been adopted into this collection.
POMFRET left one popular poem behind him, THE CHOICE; the attraction of which may be supposed to lie rather in the subject than in the peculiar merit of the execution.
Lord DORSET, for the playful ease and elegance of his verses, is not surpassed by any of the poets of that class.
J. PHILIPS'S SPLENDID SHILLING makes the fame of this poet-it is a lucky thought happily executed.
HALIFAX (of whom two short poems are here retained) was the least of the Minor poets-one of " the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease."
The praise of PARNELL'S poetry is, that it was moral, amiable, with a tendency towards the pensive; and it was his fortune to be the friend of poets.
PRIOR is not a very moral poet, but the most arch, piquant, and equivocal of those that have been admitted into this collection. He is a graceful narrator, a polished wit, full of the delicacies of style amidst gross allusions.
POPE is at the head of the second class of poets, viz. the describers of artificial life and manners. His works are a delightful, never-failing fund of good sense and refined taste. He had high invention and fancy of the comic kind, as in the Rape of the Lock; wit, as in the Dunciad and Satires; no humour; some beautiful descriptions, as in the Windsor Forest; some exquisite delineations of character (those of Addison and Villiers are master-pieces); he is a model of elegance every where, but more particularly in his eulogies and friendly epistles; his ease is the effect of labour; he has no pretensions to sublimity, but sometimes displays an indignant moral feeling akin to it; his pathos is playful and tender, as in his Epistles to Arbuthnot and Jervas, or rises into power by the help of rhetoric, as in the Eloisa, and Elegy on the Death of an Unfortunate Lady; his style is polished and almost faultless in its kind; his versification tires by uniform smoothness and harmony. He has been called "the most sensible of poets:" but the proofs of his sense are to be looked for in his single observations and hints, as in the Essay on Criticism and Moral Epistles, and not in the larger didactic reasonings of the Essay on Man, which is full of verbiage and bombast.
If good sense has been made the characteristic of Pope, good-nature might be made (with at least equal truth) the characteristic of GAY. He was a satirist without gall. He had a delightful placid vein of invention, fancy, wit, humour, description, ease and elegance, a happy style, and a versification which seemed to cost him nothing. His Beggar's Opera indeed has stings in it, but it appears to have left the writer's mind without any.
The GRAVE of BLAIR is a serious and somewhat gloomy poem, but pregnant with striking reflections and fine fancy.
SWIFT'S poetry is not at all equal to his prose. He was actuated by the spleen in both. He has however sense, wit, humour, ease, and even elegance when he pleases, in his poetical effusions. But he trifled with the Muse. He has written more agreeable nonsense than any man. His Verses on his own Death are affecting and beautiful.
AMBROSE PHILIPS'S Pastorals were ridiculed by Pope, and their merit is of an humble kind. They may be said rather to mimic nature than to imitate it. They talk about rural objects, but do not paint them. His verses descriptive of a NORTHERN WINTER are better.