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THOMAS GRAY, c. 1752, 1770

THOMAS GRAY, c. 1752, 1770

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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.

P: 1

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).

P: 2

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:

P: 3

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.

P: 4

School of France, introduced after the Restoration. Waller,

Dryden, Addison, Prior, & Pope, wch has continued down to our

own times.


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

inharmonious versification….


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



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

met with.

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

1755–c. 1785

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




89 quotations

56 ”

16 ”

51 ”



Verse letters

The first Anniversary

The second Anniversary

Epicedes and Obsequies

Divine Poems


88 ”

36 „

21 „

17 „

1 quotation


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


60 ,,


41 „


15 „


15 „


3 „

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


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THOMAS GRAY, c. 1752, 1770

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