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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By William Browne (c. 1590–c. 1645)

AMONG the English poets famous for their imaginative interpretation of nature, high rank must be given to William Browne, who belongs in the list headed by Spenser, and including Thomas Lodge, Michael Drayton, Nicholas Breton, George Wither, and Phineas Fletcher. Although he shows skill and charm of style in various kinds of verse, his name rests chiefly upon his largest work, ‘Britannia’s Pastorals.’ This is much wider in scope than the title suggests, if one follows the definition given by Pope in his ‘Discourse on Pastoral Poetry.’ He says:—“A Pastoral is an imitation of the action of a shepherd or one considered under that character. The form of this imitation is dramatic, or narrated, or mixed of both; the fable simple, the manners not too polite nor too rustic; the thoughts are plain, yet admit a little quickness and passion…. If we would copy Nature, it may be useful to take this Idea along with us: that Pastoral is an image of what they call the Golden Age. So that we are not to describe our shepherds as shepherds at this day really are, but as they may be conceived then to have been when the best of men followed the employment…. We must therefore use some illusion to render a Pastoral delightful, and this consists in exposing the best side only of a shepherd’s life, and in concealing its miseries.”

In his ‘Shepherd’s Pipe,’ a series of ‘Eclogues,’ Browne follows this plan; but ‘Britannia’s Pastorals’ contains rambling stories of Hamadryads and Oreads; figures which are too shadowy to seem real, yet stand in exquisite woodland landscapes. When the story passes to the yellow sands and “froth-girt rocks,” washed by the crisped and curling waves from “Neptune’s silver, ever-shaking breast,” or when it touches the mysteries of the ocean world, over which “Thetis drives her silver throne,” the poet’s fancy is as delicate as when he revels in the earthy smell of the woods, where the leaves, golden and green, hide from sight the feathered choir; where glow the hips of scarlet berries; where is heard the dropping of nuts; and where the active bright-eyed squirrels leap from tree to tree.

The loves, hardships, and adventures of Marina, Celadyne, Redmond, Fida, Philocel, Aletheia, Metanoia, and Amintas do not hold the reader from delight in descriptions of the blackbird and dove calling from the dewy branches; crystal streams lisping through banks purple with violets, rosy with eglantine, or sweet with wild thyme; thickets where the rabbits hide; sequestered nooks on which the elms and alders throw long shadows; circles of green grass made by dancing elves; rounded hills shut in by oaks, pines, birches, and laurel, where shepherds pipe on oaten straws, or shag-haired satyrs frolic and sleep; and meadows, whose carpets of cowslip and mint are freshened daily by nymphs pouring out gentle streams from crystal urns. Every now and then, huntsmen in green dash through his somber woods with their hounds in full cry; anglers are seated by still pools, shepherds dance around the May-pole, and shepherdesses gather flowers for garlands. Gloomy caves appear, surrounded by hawthorn and holly that “outdares cold winter’s ire,” and sheltering old hermits, skilled in simples and the secret power of herbs. Sometimes the poet describes a choir where the tiny wren sings the treble, Robin Redbreast the mean, the thrush the tenor, and the nightingale the counter-tenor, while droning bees fill in the bass; and shows us fairy haunts and customs with a delicacy only equaled by Drayton and Herrick.

Several lyric songs of high order are scattered through the ‘Pastorals,’ and the famous ‘Palinode on Man’ is imbedded in the Third Book as follows:—

  • “I truly know
  • How men are born and whither they shall go;
  • I know that like to silkworms of one year,
  • Or like a kind and wrongèd lover’s tear,
  • Or on the pathless waves a rudder’s dint,
  • Or like the little sparkles of a flint,
  • Or like to thin round cakes with cost perfum’d,
  • Or fireworks only made to be consum’d:
  • I know that such is man, and all that trust
  • In that weak piece of animated dust.
  • The silkworm droops, the lover’s tears soon shed,
  • The ship’s way quickly lost, the sparkle dead;
  • The cake burns out in haste, the firework’s done,
  • And man as soon as these as quickly gone.”
  • Little is known of Browne’s life. He was a native of Tavistock, Devonshire; born, it is thought, in 1591, the son of Thomas Browne, who is supposed by Prince in his ‘Worthies of Devon’ to have belonged to a knightly family. According to Wood, who says “he had a great mind in a little body,” he was sent to Exeter College, Oxford, “about the beginning of the reign of James I.” Leaving Oxford without a degree, he was admitted in 1612 to the Inner Temple, London, and a little later he is discovered at Oxford, engaged as private tutor to Robert Dormer, afterward Earl of Carnarvon. In 1624 he received his degree of Master of Arts from Oxford. He appears to have settled in Dorking, and after 1640 nothing more is heard of him. Wood thinks he died in 1645, but there is an entry in the Tavistock register, dated March 27th, 1643, and reading “William Browne was buried” on that day. That he was devoted to the streams, dales, and downs of his native Devonshire is shown in the Pastorals, where he sings:—

  • “Hail, thou my native soil! thou blessèd plot
  • Whose equal all the world affordeth not!
  • Show me who can, so many crystal rills,
  • Such sweet-cloth’d valleys or aspiring hills;
  • Such wood-ground, pastures, quarries, wealthy mines;
  • Such rocks in whom the diamond fairly shines.”
  • And in another place he says:—

  • “And Tavy in my rhymes
  • Challenge a due; let it thy glory be
  • That famous Drake and I were born by thee.”
  • The First Book of ‘Britannia’s Pastorals’ was written before its author was twenty, and was published in 1631. The Second Book appeared in 1616, and both were reprinted in 1625. The Third Book was not published during Browne’s life. The ‘Shepherd’s Pipe’ was published in 1614, and ‘The Inner Temple Masque,’ written on the story of Ulysses and Circe, for representation in 1614, was first published in Thomas Davies’s edition of Browne’s works (3 vols., 1772). Two critical editions of value have been brought out in recent years: one by W. Carew Hazlitt (London, 1868–69); and the other by Gordon Goodwin and A. H. Bullen (1894).

    “In the third song of the Second Book,” says Mr. Bullen in his preface,—

  • “There is a description of a delightful grove, perfumed with ‘odoriferous buds and herbs of price,’ where fruits hang in gallant clusters from the trees, and birds tune their notes to the music of running water; so fair a pleasaunce
  • ‘that you are fain
  • Where you last walked to turn and walk again.’
  • A generous reader might apply that description to Browne’s poetry; he might urge that the breezes which blew down these leafy alleys and over those trim parterres were not more grateful than the fragrance exhaled from the ‘Pastorals’; that the brooks and birds babble and twitter in the printed page not less blithely than in that western Paradise. What so pleasant as to read of May-games, true-love knots, and shepherds piping in the shade? of pixies and fairy-circles? of rustic bridals and junketings? of angling, hunting the squirrel, nut-gathering? Of such subjects William Browne treats, singing like the shepherd in the ‘Arcadia,’ as though he would never grow old. He was a happy poet. It was his good fortune to grow up among wholesome surroundings whose gracious influences sank into his spirit. He loved the hills and dales round Tavistock, and lovingly described them in his verse. Frequently he indulges in descriptions of sunrise and sunset; they leave no vivid impression, but charm the reader by their quiet beauty. It cannot be denied that his fondness for simple, homely images sometimes led him into sheer fatuity; and candid admirers must also admit that, despite his study of simplicity, he could not refrain from hunting (as the manner was) after far-fetched outrageous conceits.”

    Browne is a poet’s poet. Drayton, Wither, Herbert, and John Davies of Hereford, wrote his praises. Mrs. Browning includes him in her ‘Vision of Poets,’ where she says:—

  • “Drayton and Browne,—with smiles they drew
  • From outward Nature, still kept new
  • From their own inward nature true.”
  • Milton studied him carefully, and just as his influence is perceived in the work of Keats, so is it found in ‘Comus’ and in ‘Lycidas.’ Browne acknowledges Spenser and Sidney as his masters, and his work shows that he loved Chaucer and Shakespeare.