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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

§ 27. The Spectator Group: John Philips; Broome and Fenton; Edmund (“Rag”) Smith; Hughes

Among the remaining verse-writers, a convenient sub-section may be formed of those who belong more particularly to what may be called the Spectator division—not that they were in all cases contributors to that periodical, though some were—the two Philipses, Edmund (or “Rag”) Smith, William Broome, Elijah Fenton, John Hughes and Laurence Eusden. All these were in, more or less, close connection with Addison, or Pope, or both; while, to them, we may add, though they were outliers in this respect, Joseph Trapp, who was born nearly as far back in the seventeenth century as Addison, and much earlier than Pope, outlived even the latter, and nearly reached the middle of the eighteenth; together with Henry Brooke, author of The Fool of Quality, who was a poet before he was a novelist, and David Mallet, who, to one doubtful, adds another certain, claim for something more than catalogue rank. It is in this group that we reach what we may call full eighteenth-century character, with little or nothing of “the last age” in them. Yet it is most noticeable, and to be missed only at the risk of missing, with it, the continuity of English verse, that, in them, we find two notes of the future which, in some degree, recall that last age itself. John Philips, long before Thomson, and with hardly any predecessors except Roscommon, reintroduced blank verse, the very Trojan horse of the citadel of the couplet. Ambrose Philips, “Namby-Pamby”—the poet of society verse far below Prior, of pastorals pastoralised to the most artificial-trivial extent possible, of pale translations and second-hand things in various rococo styles—introduces a second fatalis machina, a machine more fatal than the former, in the shape of the three volumes of Ballads published in 1723. And Mallet, in William and Margaret, gives the first remarkable and influential example of that ballad pastiche which has been disdained or abused for a century past, but which, perhaps, was very much more effective as a shoe-horn to draw on the romantic revival than, to that age, would have been the genuine antiquities themselves.

John Philips, almost exactly a contemporary of Ambrose so far as birth went, was an Oxford man of the Christ Church set noteworthy at the junction of the centuries, and a tory; while Ambrose was of St. John’s college, Cambridge, and a whig. Although there does not seem to have been any personal enmity between John Philips and Addison—indeed they had a common intimacy through “Rag” Smith, and Addison praised The Splendid Shilling highly—Philips, rather unluckily for himself, was chosen to be pitted against Addison in celebrating Blenheim. The burlesque of Milton in The Splendid Shilling is good-humoured, not in the least offensive, amusing and by no means critically unjust; while the credit of the serious blank verse of Cyder (for John Philips was the first well-known writer after Milton to make this metre his chief vehicle) need not depend on the certificate received by Johnson from “the great gardener and botanist” Miller, to the effect that there was more truth in it than in many prose treatises on the same subject. Blenheim is that most terrible of failures, an unconscious burlesque. But it must be remembered, in Philips’s excuse, first, that Milton’s description of the battles in Heaven is not exactly the finest art of Paradise Lost and, secondly, that “Rag” Smith’s regret at its not having been written in Latin means more than it directly conveys. Undoubtedly, Philips thought the poem more in the way of a prize composition in a learned language than as anything original and vernacular; and, had he written it thus, it would probably, to retort and enlarge Macaulay’s sneering comparison, have been quite as good as most of Silius Italicus, and perhaps not so very much worse than parts of Lucan. As it is, the other two poems set men on the recovery of one of the greatest instruments of English versification; and, if he was the author of the “Bacchanalian song” printed with them, he gave some hints to the latest, and almost the best, of our practitioners in that cheerful kind—Thomas Love Peacock.

Why Pope, in commiserating his own “ten whole years” of collaborative translation, should have been more unkind to William Broome than to Elijah Fenton, when both were his collaborators, has not, I believe, been discovered: for jealousy of superior scholarship, the commonly imputed cause, would have applied to both. Possibly there is no other reason than that one presents a convenient, the other a very unlikely, rime. There is, indeed, said to have been a contrast in temper—Broome being rough, in that respect, and Fenton easy-going. But, what might hardly have been expected, even had both been of amiable dispositions, the pair of lieutenants were perfectly good friends. It is curious that both of them attempted blank verse translations of Homer, though the only permanent fame that either was to achieve was as coadjutors in Pope’s couplet-manufactory, and as “hands” so “skilled” that, from the first, it was difficult to isolate the work of any of the three by mere reading. Except for this connection with Pope and for this early demonstration of the fatal facility of, at least, part of his method, neither deserves much notice here. Both “pindarised”; both, in their lighter moods, tried the licensed levities of octosyllabic tale and of lyric, more or less prim or arch. Both, but especially Broome, exhibit, in their blank verse, that fatal tendency to stiff and stopped central pauses which was to reach its height in Glover. Johnson perceived, though admitting that he could not define, a peculiarity in Fenton’s versification; but the present writer, though somewhat to this manner used, has neither discovered the secret—nor, indeed, the fact.

Edmund or “Rag” Smith and John Hughes were both friends of Addison. The first, whose Phaedra and Hippolitus bears about the same relation to Phèdre as Philips’s Distressed Mother does to Andromaque, was a typical example of the ne’er-do-well scholar. His work has smuggled itself into the British Poets; but the assistance of his friends and the long suffering of his college could not profit him, and his loose living carried him off before he experienced actual want. He must have had real humour—his Latin analysis of Pocock is one of the best things of the kind; and Addison’s reply to his objection “What am I to do with Lord Sunderland?” (Smith being asked to write a whig History of the Revolution) “When were you drunk last, Rag?” is singularly defective in moral logic. The absurd panegyric of Oldisworth (in his memoir of Smith), cited by Johnson, ought not to be reckoned against wits which everyone seems to have acknowledged. But he has left us hardly any material for deciding whether he could have been a poet had he chosen. John Hughes put in more documents. That he edited, and showed some, though no complete, appreciation of Spenser, does not bring him within our range, but near it. It is noteworthy that Addison actually thought of him as a collaborator in Cato; and his own selection of the subject of his Siege of Damascus from so unusual a quarter as the early history of Islam argues a really poetical taste. Nor is it absolutely necessary to accept Swift’s decision that Hughes was “among the mediocrists,” and Pope’s that he “wanted genius.” They were not altogether in the wrong; but this chapter is a chapter of “mediocrists,” and there are things in Hughes’s verse which neither Pope nor Swift was very well qualified to recognise. The “contents” of it would read not unlike those of Broome’s and Fenton’s; but the quality is sometimes superior. He seems to have been a special admirer and follower of Dryden’s lyrical work, which he was even unwise enough sometimes to refashion, and he has succeeded in catching something, if not much, of that touch of the older magic which Dryden’s lyre could give forth.