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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

IV. Lesser Caroline Poets

§ 1. William Chamberlayne; Pharonnida

WE have to deal in this chapter with a group of poets in regard to the treatment of whom opposite dangers present themselves. Most, if not all of them, from a time immediately succeeding their own, have been very little known, and there are literary histories of repute which contain none, or hardly one, of their names. The school to which, almost without exception, they belong has been constantly attacked and rarely defended. Some of them came in for early ridicule at the hands of the two greatest satirists of their own later years—two of the greatest in English literature—Dryden and Butler. Another generation saw their school as illustrating the “false wit” of Addison; and, in yet another, that school provided subjects for Johnson’s dissection of “metaphysical” poetry. They received little, though they did receive some, attention from the greater critics and poets of the romantic revival; and no one has ever bestowed upon their class—very seldom has any one bestowed upon an individual member of it—the somewhat whimsical and excessive, but by no means impotent, and sometimes rather contagious, enthusiasm which, for instance, was bestowed by Charles Lamb upon Wither. Until very recently, none of the group has been easily accessible to the general reader—while some have been absolutely inaccessible, except to those who have time, energy and opportunity to frequent the largest public libraries, or time and means to procure them in the second-hand book-market. Indeed, it is believed that neither the British Museum, nor either of the libraries of the two great English universities, possesses a complete collection of the work which forms the subject of this survey.

There is a certain type of critic who is apt to say, in such circumstances, that neglect proves worthlessness; but this is always a begging of the question, and it can be easily shown that, in the present case, the questions begged are not unimportant. That the poets here grouped are not worthless can be affirmed with confidence by one who has impartially examined them; indeed, the affirmation is made almost unnecessary, or, from another point of view, is strongly corroborated, by the fact that all anthologists of competence, from Ellis and Campbell downwards, have drawn, to some extent, upon them. That, as a class, they have numerous faults, may be granted without the slightest difficulty. But it so happens that their faults as well as their merits are of the greatest historical value. It may fearlessly be laid down that, without some study of these poets, neither the characteristics of the great Elizabethan period which preceded them and of which, in fact, they were the twelfth hour, nor those of the reaction which, rising with and against them, overcame and stifled their kind, can be fully comprehended. The cast of thought and style and feeling which, when the genius of the man is at its height and the fostering of the hour at its full, produces Spenser and Shakespeare, turns out, when the genius is abated and the hour at its wane, the work of Chamberlayne and Kynaston. The revulsion (sometimes after actual indulgence in them) from the extravagances of Benlowes and of Cleiveland shapes and confirms the orderly theory and practice of Dryden and of Pope.

Nor, though this, of itself, would suffice to warrant treatment of these poets here, is it their only claim thereto. It so happens that they include authors of almost every example (the chief exception being D’Avenant’s Gondibert) of the English heroic romance in verse. It is impossible, therefore, without taking them into account, to appreciate the effect of the very curious, and far too little studied, heroic influence on our literature. It is further the case that they contribute very largely to the illustration of one form of the great decasyllabic couplet—the form which, partly from its own weakness, but partly, also, from its association with their extravagances of diction and thought and narrative ordonnance, succumbed to its rival—the closer knit and robuster distich of Waller and Dryden. And this leads to yet another point of historical interest about them—the fact, sometimes denied but fairly certain for all that, of their having served as models and teachers to Keats in his revival of their own form. Helots and caricatures of the great poetry of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; gibbeted warnings, who prescribed to the late seventeenth and the eighteenth the ways they should not go; ancestors of some of the most characteristic, and not the least charming, features of the poetry of the nineteenth—these curious persons have woven themselves into the poetic history of the country in a fashion inseparable though not indistinguishable—a fashion that may be ignored, but only at the cost of corresponding ignorance. It will be already evident, perhaps, that, although some of them possess individual interest, their collective interest, both as a group and as practitioners of particular styles and kinds, is superior. Consequently, with a very few exceptions, they may be advantageously treated here in relation to those kinds or styles—romantic narrative, short lyric, overlapping couplet verse, “metaphysical” and “conceited” diction and thought—as well as by a reasoned catalogue of the poets, and a chronological list, accompanied by criticism, of the works.

The group of romantic narratives, or heroic poems, is headed and not inadequately represented by the Pharonnida (1659) of William Chamberlayne. Little is known of its author except that he was born, lived (practising as a physician), died and was buried at Shaftesbury on the Wiltshire and Dorset border; and that he served with the royalist army, especially at the second battle of Newbury (1644), when the composition of his poem was interrupted. It did not appear till fifteen years afterwards. Besides Pharonnida, he wrote a play, Love’s Victory (1658), reprinted as Wits led by the Nose (1678), and given with the romance by Singer, and a short poem on the restoration, England’s Jubile, which has been almost unknown until recently. Many years afterwards, and after his death in 1683, a very brief prose romance, disproportionately abstracted from Pharonnida, appeared under the title Eromena, but nothing is known about its authorship or editorship. The play contains some interesting, and even fine, things, but is chaotic and not of much value as a whole.

England’s Jubile, vigorously enough written, is chiefly noticeable for the strong opposition of its style and verse to the verse and style of Pharonnida. To this, therefore, we may confine our detailed notice.

When its date, and the circumstances of English and European literature at the time are duly remembered, Pharonnida presents itself in a double aspect. On the one hand, it is an evidence of the somewhat groping quest for the novel, and, also, an instance of a particular stage of the long poem. The world-wide popularity of Ariosto and, still more, of Tasso, reinforcing and reinforced by that of the Amadis adaptations of medieval romance and of translations of Greek, supplied the principal determinants of this form both in France and in England; but verse romance preserved its attraction longer in England than in France. Pharonnida, in fact, may be described as an early attempt at an unhistorical novel, couched in verse instead of in prose. Although Argalia the hero is, in essence, a knight errant, he is, perhaps unconsciously, but considerably, modernised—made much nearer to Stukely and Grenville, Ralegh and Cumberland, than to Lancelot or Gawain, Amadis or Galaor. Pharonnida the heroine has not much character; but she is very prominent in the action, and, if not so real as Malory’s Guinevere or the heroine of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, is much more so than Oriana or Polisarda. The adventures, on the whole, are free from the sameness which is usually, and not always unjustly, charged against earlier romance; and some of the episodes, especially that of the frail Janusa’s passion for Argalia, are remarkably vivid.

Unfortunately, Chamberlayne, regarding him, for the time, as a tale-teller merely, has, as teller of a continuous tale, almost everything to learn. It has been said that the composition of his poem was, apparently, interrupted; and this (with, perhaps, an uncompleted attempt at revision of the earlier part) may, by very charitable persons, be taken as a possible excuse for the incoherence of the story, for the bewildering confusion of names in respect to the same persons and places and for the author’s apparent uncertainty whether his action is going on in the Morea or in Sicily. Nevertheless, it seems much more probable that he gave himself no trouble whatever either in original planning or in subsequent revision, but wrote his fourteen thousand lines “overthwart and endlong,” as older romances themselves picture the riding of their knights, indulging in battles and sieges and imprisonments and escapes and adventures by land and sea, till, at last, he was tired, and graciously allowed his hero and heroine to marry and be happy ever after.

If this were so, his poetical peculiarities, to which we may now turn, certainly lent themselves—and, indeed, may be said to have tempted him—both to extravagance and to incoherence. His poetical vehicle here is the decasyllabic couplet, excessively overlapped or enjambed—a form which, found, like its definite opposite, and almost all varieties between them, in Chaucer, had been taken up and developed in the generation before Chamberlayne by Browne and others, and was now provoking reaction in the opposite way. Chamberlayne sets at defiance the principles already formulated by Sir John Beaumont, and long afterwards indignantly objected to in Keats by his Quarterly reviewer. He will run a sentence on for nearly a page, and that not in the orderly periodic fashion of his contemporary Milton’s verse, but in more than the jointed accumulation of Milton’s prose, and in a welter of construction which hopelessly defies analysis. Meanwhile, the rime is, as it were, left to take care of itself, or, at most, so arranged as to supply a sort of irregular musical accompaniment to what is, rhetorically speaking, a vast paragraph of prose arranged with great rhythmical, and even metrical, beauty, but observing no kind of necessary correspondence between the rhythm and the sense, and disregarding altogether the “punctuating”—the “warning bell”—office of rime.

It is impossible that such a process as this should not affect—and that prejudicially—the sense itself. It is not merely that grammatical analysis of themeticulous kind is impossible—this often happens, even in the best writers, before the eighteenth century, and, nearly as often, the sense is not a jot the worse for it. The construction justifies itself [char], and there is little or no doubt what that [char] is. But, in Chamberlayne, there by no means seldom is doubt. He has allowed a fresh thought, a fresh image, or even a fresh incident, to arise in his mind before he has finished dealing with the last, and he simply does not finish—but drops his old partner’s arm and puts his own round the new partner’s waist without ceremony, and without stopping the dance movement of verse and phrase. After a time, with tolerable alacrity of mind, some patience and a little goodwill, it is possible to accommodate oneself in reading to what, at first, causes mere bewilderment, and, perhaps, in the majority of readers, mere disgust. That disgust was certainly felt by younger contemporaries, of whom Dryden was to be the most distinguished representative. But it had not been felt by their elders—we have the direct testimony of Izaak Walton as to Chalkhill a minor Chamberlayne in almost every way. And those who, while fully appreciating the faults and their lessons, can prevent these from blinding them to the accompanying beauties, will find not a few such beauties in Pharonnida.