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THERE is much truth in the subjoined remarks by Hazlitt with reference to the long-continued neglect of our earlier writers :-"It is the present fashion," he observes, “to speak with veneration of old English literature; but the homage we pay to it is more akin to the rites of superstition than the worship of a true religion. Our faith is doubtful; our love cold; our knowledge little or none. We now and then repeat the names of some of the older writers by rote; but we are shy of looking into their works. Though we seem disposed to think highly of them, and to give them every credit for a masculine and original view of thought, as a matter of literary courtesy and enlargement of taste, we are afraid of coming to the proof, as too great a trial of our caudour and patience. Dr. Johnson said of those writers generally, that they were ght after because they were scarce, and would not have been scarce had they beeu much esteemed. His decision is neither true history nor sound criticism. They were esteemed, and deserved to be so."
There is no author who flourished in the brilliant era of English poetry, which we have referred to in the preceding sketches, to whom the foregoing observations apply with more force than to William Browne. He was one of the sweetest descriptive poets of his time, especially in the department of pastoral composition. While he was living, he had “troops of friends” to flatter and encourage his literary performances. Ben Jonson wrote complimentary verses in commendatiou
of his poetry, and the learned Selden, Drayton, and Wither, were among the most ardent of his panegyrists. A few years only elapsed, after the shepherd bard was gathered to his fathers, when his pastorals, which he composed at the age of twenty years, were consigned to the tomb of unmerited oblivion. In later times, his poems have met with readers of taste to admire, and judicious critics to appreciate their richness and beauty.
There were no events of marked interest in the life of this neglected English poet. His father, Thomas Browne, was a gentleman of respectability, and resided in Tavistock, a town of some extent in Devonshire, where his son William was born in the year 1590. He received the rudiments of his education in the grammar school of his native place, and subsequently entered the University of Oxford, soon after the ascension of James I. to the English throne. On leaving college, he became a student at the Inner Temple in London; and while there he entered upon his career as an author, having published the first part of his “Britannia's Pastorals” in 1613, and the second, in 1616. This poem was reprinted in a complete form in 1625, accompanied by complimentary verses from the pen of Michael Drayton, John Selden, Christopher Cook, and other literary friends of the writer. The " Shepherd's Pipe," in seven eclogues, a pastoral poem of inferior character, appeared in 1614. Browne also composed an elegy on the death of Prince Henry, the eldest son of King James I., a piece called the "Inner Temple Masque," which was produced at Court, and several other poems, the names of which are uncertain, and none of which are now extant.
According to an account given of the poet by an old biographer, Thomas Wood, he returned to Exeter College, Oxford, in 1624; obtained the degree of A.M., and accepted the office of tutor to Robert Dormer, Earl of Caernarvon. After the death of that nobleman, who was killed at the battle of Newbury in 1643, he entered the family of the Earl of Pembroke; and succeeded, though by what means is not known, in accumulating a fortune, with which he purchased an estate of considerable value. He is supposed to have died at Ottery, St.
Mary, in Devonshire, about the year 1645. Only a few particulars have been published concerning his private character, habits, and manners. In the public register of the University, he is styled “a man well skilled in all kinds of polite literature, and useful arts." His works afford undoubted proofs of his refined and cultivated taste. Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney were his favourite authors, whose works he studied with the warmest admiration, and carefully imitated. His love of literature induced him to abandon the profession of the law for the cultivation of the muses. He appears to have spent a tranquil uneventful life in the contemplation of the beauties of nature, and the pursuit of intellectual enjoyments. Dr. Farmer brought out the first edition of Browne's poems in 1772. The Rev. Thomas Warton bestowed upon them the highest commendation, ana was an active agent in introducing them to the favourable notice of the public. He is of opinion that Milton borrowed from Browne's “Britannia's Pastorals” some of the beautiful images contained in the morning landscape, so charmingly described in the "L'Allegro."
Scattered through the writings of Browne are frequent allusions to his own private feelings; and whenever this occurs, the poet always appears in an amiable point of view. The lines prefixed as a motto to this summary of his life were composed by himself; and, to adopt the language of an able writer, in the second volume of “The Retrospective Review,”“nowhere is a disinterested attachment to the muses expressed in so noble a vein. Nowhere is the assured confidence which genius always feels, of being appreciated by posterity, more modestly, more sublimely set forth; and the ease and felicity of the versification are as remarkable as the self-possessed loftiness of the sentiment.” The same critic quotes various extracts from Browne's poems, illustrative of his melodious versification, liis richness of description, and his beauty of imagery. Among these selections from his works, there are several landscape scenes, drawn with the pen of a master: his charming descriptions of morning and night have been but feebly imitated by our modern poets. “We have claimed
for William Browne," says his impartial and judicious reviewer, “no very lofty praise for bim; but some share of the attention of the lovers of English poetry, and of those interested in the history of our noble language, we are bure he deserves. He is merely a descriptive poet, and has not attempted to reach the higher walks of poetry. There is no passion of any kind in his productions, nor is there either pathos or humour. His invention, which is esteemed the soul of poetry, gives birth to but a tame and languid progeny of characters and incidents. Yet, with all this, he is an amiable and pleasing poet, and his faults and vices are chiefly attributable to the want of taste, judgment, and knowledge of mankind, incident to the very early age at which he wrote. He seems to have observed the face of nature with the quick eye of a lover; and the scenes and incidents which he could draw from actual experience, he has developed with a natural and lively pen. Had he trusted to nature more confidently, and more implicitly followed the bent of his own genius, strengthened by time, he would have excelled in the ethical cast of poetry in which Cowper is 80 eminent a master; and would, like him, have made rural descriptions the ornaments, and not the staple, of his poetry. On the whole, his muse cannot be said to possess either the soaring ambition of the eagle, nor yet the equable dignity of the majestic swan; but she is not without the meek and placid beauty of the dove, and, like her, affects the woods, and sends from their recesses many a deep and tender note.”
As a pleasing specimen of Browne's talent in describing rural objects, the author of the extract we have quoted selects the following verses as an example, and compares them with a lovely picture of a morning landscape, from the pen of Leigh Hunt, an author of real genius, whether regarded as a critic, a poet, or an essayist.
And as within a landskip that doth stand
A huntsman here followes his cry of hounds,
Make the beholder's eyes to take no rest. The lines which follow, from Leigh Hunt's story of “Rimini,” show the different style in which rural objects are described by that natural poet.
The sun is up, and 'tis a morn of May
And chase the whistling brine, and swirl into the bay. Campbell, Hallam, Chambers, Craik, and other critics who have passed their judgment on the poetical character of Browne, concur in opinion, on all leading points, in their estimate of his genius. Southey observes : “that Browne was a poet who produced no slight effect upon his contemporaries. George Wither, in his happiest pieces,