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THOMAS GRAY, c. 1752, 1770
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
On that of the Goths; its introduction into these islands by the Saxons
& Danes, & its duration. on the origin of rhyme among the Franks,
the Saxons, & Provenỗaux. some account of the Latin rhyming poetry
from its early origin down to the 15th Century.
On the School of Provence, wch rose about the year 1100, & was
soon followed by the French & Italians. their heroic poetry, or
romances in verse, Allegories, fabliaux, syrvientes, comedies, farces,
canzoni, sonnets, balades, madrigals, sestines, &c:
Of their imitators the French, & of the first Italian School
(commonly call’d the Sicilian) about the year 1200 brought to
perfection by Dante, Petrarch, Boccace, & others.
State of Poetry in England from the Conquest (1066) or
rather from Henry 2 d’s time (1154) to the reign of Edward the
3 d (1327).
On Chaucer who first introduced the manner of the Provenỗaux
improved by the Italians into our country. his character & merits at
large; the different kinds in wch he excell’d. Gower, Occleve, Lydgate,
Hawes, G: Douglas, Lindsay, Bellenden, Dunbar, &c:
Second Italian School (of Ariosto, Tasso, &c:) an improvement on
the first, occasion’d by the revival of letters [at] the end of the 15th
century. The lyric poetry of this & the former age introduced from
Italy by Ld Surrey, Sr T.Wyat, Bryan, Ld Vaux, &c: in the beginning
of the 16th century.
Spenser, his character. Subject of his poem allegoric & romantic,
of Provenỗal invention: but his manner of [treating] it borrow’d from
the Second Italian School. Drayton, Fairfax, Phin: Fletcher, Golding,
Phaer, &c: this school ends in Milton.
A third Italian School, full of conceit, begun in Q: Elizabeths
reign, continued under James, & Charles the first by Donne,
Crawshaw, Cleveland; carried to its height by Cowley, & ending
perhaps in Sprat.
School of France, introduced after the Restoration. Waller,
Dryden, Addison, Prior, & Pope, wch has continued down to our
87. Dr Thomas Birch
Birch (1705–66) was successively rector of a number of churches
in England and Wales. He was a historian and biographer, and a
Fellow of the Royal Society, serving as secretary of the society
for some thirteen years. He mentioned Donne in a Life of
Archbishop Tillotson, when he described Tillotson’s election to
‘the place of preacher of Lincoln’s-Inn’ (The Life of the Most
Reverend Dr John Tillotson (1752), 1753, pp. 26–7).
His predecessors in this post had been generally men of the greatest
eminence for learning; and among these were…Dr. JOHN DONNE,
Dean of St. Paul’s…whose poetical works shew a prodigious fund of
genius under the disguise of an affected and obscure style and a most
88. Theophilus Cibber/Robert Shiels
Cibber (1703–58), actor and playwright, was the son of Colley
Cibber. He was known as a writer, but the work from which the
following extract is taken, though it bears his name on the title
page, was mainly compiled by Robert Shiels (d. 1753). It is a
collection of biographies of the British poets, which includes a
life of Donne culled from Walton and a list of Donne’s writings.
Donne’s ‘A Hymne to God the Father’ is given entire in the course
of the life and introduced with a critical comment, the only such
recognition of Donne’s claim to be considered as a poet (The
Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, 1753, i, p. 211).
The piece from whence I shall take the following quotation, is called
a Hymn to God the Father, was composed in the time of his sickness,
which breathes a spirit of fervent piety, though no great force of
poetry is discoverable in it [sic].
89. David Hume
Hume (1711–76), philosopher, historian, and diplomat, appended
to his history of England in the reigns of James I and Charles I an
account of the state of literature in the seventeenth century. He
argued that Renaissance writers reproduced the decadent elements
of ancient culture in its decline and that the writers of the age of
James I exemplify the prevailing bad taste. He essayed an
analytical account of the history of literary taste, drawing on
ancient and modern examples (The History of England (1754–
62), 1813, vi, pp. 171–5).
Though the age was by no means destitute of eminent writers, a very
bad taste in general prevailed during that period; and the monarch
himself was not a little infected with it.
On the origin of letters among the Greeks, the genius of poets and
orators, as might naturally be expected, was distinguished by an
amiable simplicity, which, whatever rudeness may sometimes attend
it, is so fitted to express the genuine movements of nature and passion,
that the compositions possessed of it must ever appear valuable to
the discerning part of mankind. The glaring figures of discourse, the
pointed antithesis, the unnatural conceit, the jingle of words; such
false ornaments were not employed by early writers; not because
they were rejected, but because they scarcely ever occurred to them.
An easy unforced strain of sentiment runs through their compositions;
though at the same time we may observe, that amidst the most elegant
simplicity of thought and expression, one is sometimes surprised to
meet with a poor conceit, which had presented itself unsought for,
and which the author had not acquired critical observation enough
to condemn. A bad taste seizes with avidity these frivolous beauties,
and even perhaps a good taste, ere surfeited by them: They multiply
every day more and more in the fashionable compositions: Nature
and good sense are neglected: Laboured ornaments studied and
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
admired: And a total degeneracy of style and language prepares the
way for barbarism and ignorance. Hence the Asiatic manner was
found to depart so much from the simple purity of Athens. Hence
that tinsel eloquence which is observable in many of the Roman
writers, from which Cicero himself is not wholly exempted, and which
so much prevails in Ovid, Seneca, Lucan, Martial, and the Plinys.
On the revival of letters, when the judgment of the public is yet raw
and uninformed, this false glitter catches the eye, and leaves no room,
either in eloquence or poetry, for the durable beauties of solid sense
and lively passion. The reigning genius is then diametrically opposite
to that which prevails on the first origin of arts. The Italian writers, it
is evident, even the most celebrated, have not reached the proper
simplicity of thought and composition; and in Petrarch, Tasso Guarini,
frivolous witticisms and forced conceits are but too predominant. The
period during which letters were cultivated in Italy, was so short as
scarcely to allow leisure for correcting this adulterated relish.
The more early French writers are liable to the same reproach.
Voiture, Balzac, even Corneille, have too much affected those
ambitious ornaments, of which the Italians in general, and the least
pure of the ancients, supplied them with so many models. And it was
not till late, that observation and reflection gave rise to a more natural
turn of thought and composition among that elegant people.
A like character may be extended to the first English writers; such as
flourished during the reigns of Elizabeth and James, and even till long
afterwards. Learning, on its revival in this island, was attired in the
same unnatural garb which it wore at the time of its decay among the
Greeks and Romans. And, what may be regarded as a misfortune, the
English writers were possessed of great genius before they were endowed
with any degree of taste, and by that means gave a kind of sanction to
those forced turns and sentiments which they so much affected. Their
distorted conceptions and expressions are attended with such vigour of
mind, that we admire the imagination which produced them, as much
as we blame the want of judgment which gave them admittance.
In Donne’s satires, when carefully inspected, there appear some
flashes of wit and ingenuity; but these totally suffocated and buried
by the hardest and most uncouth expression that is any where to be
If the poetry of the English was so rude and imperfect during that
age, we may reasonably expect that their prose would be liable still
to greater objections.
90. Samuel Johnson
Johnson’s account of Donne and the ‘metaphysical’ poets, in the
Life of Cowley, was long taken as a definitive dismissal and his
analysis of the ‘metaphysical’ style is still sometimes offered for
received truth. Recent commentators have argued that far from
lacking sympathy with Donne’s poetry and dismissing it, Johnson
knew it intimately, admired it, and was trying to establish new
criteria for its appraisal. (See W.B.C.Watkins, Johnson and English
Poetry before 1660, Princeton, 1936, pp. 7, 78–84, 96–9;
W.R.Keast, ‘Johnson’s Criticism of the Metaphysical Poets’, ELH,
xvii, 1950, pp. 59–70; A.D.Atkinson, ‘Donne Quotations in
Johnson’s Dictionary’, NQ, September 1951, pp. 387–8; W.J.Bate,
Criticism: The Major Texts, New York, 1952, pp. 204 and 217–
19; D.Perkins, ‘Johnson on Wit and Metaphysical Poetry’, ELH,
xx, 1953, pp. 200–17.)
The evidence is set out below.
(i) In his Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, Johnson
sometimes illustrates words with a quotation from. Donne’s poetry.
W.B.C. Watkins has counted ninety-seven such quotations from
Donne’s poems under the letters Q, R, S; he says that Johnson quotes
from eleven of the Songs and Sonnets, three Elegies, two
Epithalamions, two Satyres, seven verse letters, and six funeral poems.
But he points out that the catalogue of Johnson’s library lists no
copy of Donne’s poems. A.D.Atkinson notes 384 quotations ascribed
to Donne in the whole of the Dictionary, 375 of them from Donne’s
poems. He gives the following table of frequency:
Songs and Sonnets
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
The first Anniversary
The second Anniversary
Epicedes and Obsequies
Johnson quotes some passages several times, for various words in
them—lines 220–2 of The first Anniversary occur five times, as do
lines 31–5 of Elegie xi; lines 25–30 of ‘A Valediction; of my Name in
the Window’ occur four times; lines 14–15 of ‘A Nocturnall upon S.
Lucies Day’ occur three times. But Johnson himself never notes the
poem from which he quotes, merely ascribing the lines to Donne.
These figures need to be placed in perspective, and in the frame of
reference that Johnson himself is careful to provide. They argue no more
than that Johnson had used a copy of Donne’s poems as a wordquarry.
In the Preface to the Dictionary Johnson expressly warns against the
kind of inference that Watkins and Atkinson make. He advises us
(a) that he has been obliged to take words where he could find them,
and at times ‘from writers who were never mentioned as masters of
elegance or models of style’
(b) that he was soon forced to abandon his scheme of including what
was ‘pleasing or useful in English literature’ and to reduce his
transcripts ‘very often to clusters of words, in which scarcely any
meaning is retained’. Many of his quotations ‘serve no other purpose,
than that of proving the bare existence of words’
(c) that he has deliberately eschewed all living and recent writings
and confined his choice of illustrations to the period of English writing
from Sidney to the Restoration—a matter of some eighty years.
But Johnson does not, in fact, quote frequently from Donne. In
the first ten pages of the Dictionary—from A to ACE—the relative
frequency of quotation is as follows:
Shakespeare 79 quotations
In the following forty pages of the Dictionary there are a further five
quotations from Donne, still leaving him with just over half of what