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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIV. Elizabethan Criticism

§ 7. William Webbe’s Discourse of English Poetrie

The Discourse of English Poetrie which William Webbe, a Cambridge graduate and private tutor in the house of an Essex squire, published in 1586, is far below Sidney’s in learning, in literary skill and, above all, in high sympathy with the poetic spirit. But Webbe is enthusiastic for poetry according to his lights; he has the advantage of writing later; and his dealings with his subject are considerably less “in the air.” He even attempts a historical survey—the first thing that ought to have been done and the last that actually was done—but deficiency of information and confusion of view are wofully evident in this. Gower is the first English poet that he has heard of; though he admits that Chaucer may have been equal in time. But it does not seem that he had read anything of Gower’s, though that poet was easily accessible in print. He admires Chaucer, but in a rather suspiciously general way; thinks Lydgate “comparable with him for meetly good proportion of verse” and “supposes that Piers Ploughman was next.” Of the supposed author of this poem, he makes the strange, but very informing, remark that he is “the first who observed the quantity of our verse without the curiosity of rhyme.” He knows Skelton; does not, apparently, know Wyatt; speaks again strangely of “the old earl of Surrey”; but, from Gascoigne onwards, seems fairly acquainted with the first Elizabethans, especially commending Phaer, Golding and Googe, and thinking Anthony Munday’s work “very rare poetry” in giving “the sweet sobs of Shepherds,” an estimate which has had much to do with the identification of Munday and “Shepherd Tony.” But Webbe’s judgment is too uncertain to be much relied on.

Still, it must be to his eternal honour that he admires Spenser, lavishly and ungrudgingly, while not certain that the author of The Shepheards Calender is Spenser. He is deeply bitten with the mania for “versing”; and a great part of the tractate is occupied with advice and experiments in relation to it and with abuse of rime. He actually tries to “verse” some of the most beautiful lines of the Calender itself, and hopes that Spenser and Harvey (whom he evidently thinks Spenser’s equal) will “further that reformed kind of poetry.” So that, once more, though Webbe is not to be compared with Sidney in any other way, we find a strange and almost laughable similarity in their inability to “orientate” themselves—to put themselves at the real English point of view. If one had had his way, we should have had no Shakespeare; if the other had had his, we should never have had the true Spenser.