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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 25. The Dispensary: Significance of its Versification and Diction

There need be no such speculation in considering the cheerful, craftsmanlike and, on its own schemes, almost fully adequate, verse of Garth—during the whole of his life, it would seem, a “prosperous gentleman,” in the full meaning of both adjective and noun, though, perhaps, a little unlucky after his death. For Pope’s well-known compliment of his being “the best good Christian without knowing it” shows the risk of having an epigrammatist for a friend. His few minor pieces, Claremont, a poem of a place in the Cooper’s Hill style, some prologues, epilogues, dedications, Kit-cat glass-pieces, and so forth, are well enough, but unimportant. The Dispensary, Garth’s magnum opus (or opusculum majus) obtains for him the description above awarded to his muse. It is a burlesque, not so much in the manner of Macflecknoe (to which Garth could not rise) as in the manner of Boileau’s Lutrin; and its subject is a quarrel between members of the college of physicians about the supply of medicines to a dispensary established some years before. The poem was very popular, and was frequently reprinted during the author’s life, always in a revised and enlarged form; the alterations, as is not always the case, being, almost invariably, improvements. Like all pieces of the kind, it requires, perhaps, on the part of posterity, a rather trying effort to understand its personal and temporal allusions, situations and parodies. But, even as supplying a sidelight on the ways of so exceptionally interesting a time as that of William III and Anne may surely be called, it is valuable. To the student of English literature and English poetry, however, it has a far more cogent appeal. It represents, as a sort of practical Ars Poetica or object lesson, the stage between Dryden and Pope, and, without exaggeration, may be said to be the first draft—and not a very rough first draft—of the couplet versification and the poetic diction which were to dominate the whole eighteenth century. There was nothing in Garth even distantly approaching the genius of Dryden or the genius of Pope; but he had learnt from Dryden all that Dryden could teach to a younger contemporary of more than ordinary talent, and he anticipated Pope in most things that did not require Pope’s special gifts. The smooth running couplets with a clinching stamp at the close; the well-marked pause in the centre of each line; the balanced epithets in the respective halves, sometimes achieving epigram, but too frequently tempting to “pad”—all these things appear. And, in some passages, such as Horoscope’s flight to Teneriffe and the descent of Hygeia to the shades, the method is shown almost within reach of its best, though its defects, too, already appear.