Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 10. Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XI. Platonists and Latitudinarians

§ 10. Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche

Taken as a whole, More’s poem is entitled to the praise of being a highly ingenious series of arguments, adorned by fancy and clothed in poetic diction, in support of his several theories. When compared with the Psyche of Joseph Beaumont, which appeared in the following year, it must be pronounced altogether superior; and, in fact, the difference between the two compositions is such that a comparison is almost impossible. Beaumont was a native of Hadleigh in Suffolk and had received his education at the grammar school in that town. He subsequently entered at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he gained a fellowship, from which he was ejected in 1644. On his ejection, he retired to Hadleigh, where, “for the avoiding of mere idleness,” and being “without the society of books,” as he himself tells us, he began the composition of his poems—an endeavour to represent “a soul led by Divine Grace and her Guardian Angel through the assaults of lust, pride, heresie, and persecution.” This singular production, conceived in imitation of Spenser, but written in the six-line stanza, extends to twenty cantos, or some thirty thousand lines, and, although it is said to have been commended by Pope, produces in the modern reader little else than wonderment. Even the author’s son (himself a fellow of Peterhouse), when re-editing it for the press in 1702, deemed it so far capable of improvement that he left hardly a stanza unaltered. Genius itself, indeed, in essaying to depict the career of a pure and devout nature, assailed at every stage by temptations designed to effect the ruin alike of its earthly and of its spiritual happiness, might well fail in the attempt to impart variety to the incessant recurrence of doleful circumstance or impending peril. But Beaumont was neither an Edmund Spenser nor a John Bunyan; and the latter, when, a quarter of a century later, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, may unhesitatingly be acquitted of having borrowed anything from the pages of Psyche. Few readers have ever felt disposed to nod over Bunyan’s masterpiece, while Beaumont’s poem belongs very much to that order of literature which induces the slumber not infelicitously described by its author in the following stanza:

  • In this soft calm, when all alone the Heart
  • Walks through the shades of its own silent Breast,
  • Heaven takes delight to meet it, and impart
  • Those blessed Visions, which pose the best
  • Of waking eyes, whose beams turn all to night,
  • Before the looks of a spiritual sight.
  • If, however, Beaumont cannot be numbered among those poets of whom Cambridge is proud, he was a master to whom Peterhouse has reason to be grateful. He was not only a “painful” regius professor of divinity, but he also approved himself an industrious and careful guardian of the college archives, which he reduced to order, indexing the register of admissions, and compiling a volume of personal memoranda useful as illustrating the college life of the period.