« ZurückWeiter »
almost always in it. The poorest of it is distinguished from prose by something more than the mere sound.
The three authors of the poems of most pretension, with the exception of the Fairy Queen, that appeared during the period now under review, are Warner, Drayton, and Daniel. William Warner is supposed to have been born about the year 1558; he died in 1609. He has told ushimself (in his Eleventh Book, chapter 62), that his birthplace was London, and that his father was one of those who sailed with Chancellor to Muscovy, in 1555 : this, he says, was before he himself was born.
Warner's own profession was the not particularly poetical one of an attorney of the Common Pleas. According to Anthony Wood, who makes him to have been a Warwickshire man, he had before 1586 written several pieces of verse,
whereby his name was cried up among the minor poets ;” but this is probably a mistake ; none of this. early poetry imputed to Warner is now known to exist; and in the Preface to his Albion's England, he seems to intimate that that was his first performance in verse. “ Written,” he says, “ have I already in prose,
allowed [that is, with the approbation] of some; and now offer I verse, attending indifferent censures [impartial judgments]. In his Dedication to Henry Carey, the first Lord Ilunsdon, he speaks of a former book, which he had dedicated to the son of that Lord" To him that from your honour deriveth his birth.” This, we suppose, must be his prose work entitled 'Syrinx, or a Sevenfold History, pleasant and profitable, comical and
tragical,' of which the only edition known to exist is dated 1597, but which was licensed in 1584, and was probably first printed about that time. In the Dedication to his poem he explains the meaning of the title, which is not very obvious : ." This our whole island,” he observes, “anciently called Britain, but more antiently Albion, presently containing two kingdoms, England and Scotland, is cause (right honourable) that, to distinguish the former, whose only occurrents [occurrences] I abridge from our history, I entitle this
my book Albion's England.” “Albion's England 'first appeared, in thirteen Books, in 1586: and was reprinted in 1589, in 1592, in 1596, in 1597, and in 1602. In 1606 the author added a “ Continuance," or continuation, in three Books; and the whole work was republished (without, however, the last three Books having been actually reprinted) in 1612. In this last edition it is described on the title-page as “now revised, and newly enlarged [by the author] a little before his death.” It thus appears that, so long as its popularity lasted, Albion's England was one of the most popular long poems ever written. But that was only for about twenty years : although the earlier portion of it had in less than that time gone through half a dozen editions, the Continuation, published in 1606, sold so indifferently that enough of the impression still remained to complete the book when the whole was republished in 1612, and after that no other edition was ever called for, till the poem was reprinted in Chalmers's collection in our own day. The entire neglect into which it so soon fell, from the height of celebrity and popular favour, was probably brought about by various causes. Warner, according to Anthony Wood,
was ranked by his contemporaries on a level with Spenser, and they were called the Homer and Virgil of their
age. If he and Spenser were ever equally admired, it must have been by very different classes of readers. 'Albion's England' is undoubtedly a work of very remarkable talent of its kind. It is in form a history of England, or Southern Britain, from the Deluge to the reign of James I., but may fairly be said to be, as the title-page of the last edition describes it, “not barren in variety of inventive intermixtures.” Or, to use the author's own words in his Preface, he certainly, as he hopes, has no great occasion to fear that he has grossly failed “ in verity, brevity, invention, and variety, profitable, pathetical, pithy, and pleasant.” In fact, it is one of the liveliest and most amusing poems ever written. Every striking event or legend that the old chronicles afford is seized hold of, and related always clearly, often with very considerable spirit and animation. But it is far from being a mere compilation ; several of the narratives are not to be found any where else, and a large proportion of the matter is Warner's own, in every sense of the word. In this, as well as in other respects, it has greatly the advantage over the Mirror for Magistrates, as a rival to which work it was perhaps originally produced, and with the popularity of which it could scarcely fail considerably to interfere. Though a long poem (not much under 10,000 verses), it is still a much less ponderous work than the Mirror, absolutely as well as specifically. Its variety, though not obtained by any very artificial method, is infinite: not only are the stories it selects, unlike those in the Mirror, generally of a merry cast, and much more briefly and smartly told, but the reader is never kept long even on the same track or ground : all subjects, all departments of human knowledge or speculation, from theology down to common arithmetic, are intermixed, or rather interlaced, with the histories and legends in the most extraordinary manner. The verse is the favourite fourteen syllable line of that age, the same in reality - with that which has in modern times been commonly divided into two lines, the first of eight, the second of six syllables, and which in that form is still most generally used for short compositions in verse, more especially for those of a narrative or otherwise popular character. What Warner was chiefly admired for in his own day
was his style. Meres in his. Wit's Treasury' mentions him as one of those by whom the English tongue in that age had been “
mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and resplendent habiliments." And for fluency, combined with precision and economy
of diction, Warner: is probably unrivalled among the · writers of English verse. We do not know whether his professional studies and habits may have contributed to give this character to his style; but, if the poetry of attorneys be apt to take this curt, direct, lucid, and at the same time flowing shape, it is a pity that we had not a little more of it. His command of the vulgar tongue, in particular, is wonderful. This indeed is perhaps his most remarkable poetical characteristic; and the tone which was thus given to his poem (being no doubt that of his own mind) may be conjectured to have been in great part the source both of its great popularity for a time, and of the neglect and oblivion into which it was afterwards allowed to drop. That Warner's poetry and that of Spenser could have ever come in one another's way is impossible. · Albion's England' must from the first have been a book rather for the many than the few,- for the kitchen rather than the hall; its spirit is not, what it has been sometimes called, merely naïve, but essentially coarse and vulgar.
We do not allude so much to any particular abundance of warm description, or freedom of language, as to the low note on which the general strain of the composition is pitched. With all its force and vivacity, and even no want of fancy, at times, and graphic descriptive power, it is poetry with as little of high imagination in it as any that was ever written. Warner's is only at the most a capital poetical business style. Its positive offences, however, in the way of broadness and indecency of allusion are also very considerable --and are more pervading, run more through its whole texture, than the same thing will be found to do in the writing of any other eminent poet of that time. When the poem was first produced, the middle classes in general, for whom we must suppose it to have been principally intended, were still unrefined enough not to be scared or offended by this grossness, but rather to relish and enjoy it; this is proved by the eagerness with which so many editions were called for in so short a time; we do not therefore believe that, as has been said, “ its publication was at one time interdicted by the Star-Chamber for no other reason, that can now be assigned, but that it contains some love-stories more simply than delicately related.” The prohibition by the Star-Chamber was of the first edition, and apparently before it had been published; and the ground seems to have been merely the invasion of the property of one printer by another
* Campbell, Specimens, p. 71 (edit. of 1814).