Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
By Thomas Warton (17281790)
From the History of English Poetry
AS to internal arguments, an unnatural affectation of ancient spelling and of obsolete words not belonging to the period assigned to the poems, strikes us at first sight. Of these old words combinations are frequently formed, which never yet existed in the unpolished state of the English language: and sometimes the antiquated diction is most inartificially misapplied by an improper contexture with the present modes of speech. The attentive reader will also discern, that our poet sometimes forgets his assumed character, and does not always act his part with consistency: for the chorus, or interlude, of the damsel who drowns herself, which I have cited at length from the Tragedy of Ella, is much more intelligible, and free from uncouth expressions, than the general phraseology of these compositions. In the Battle of Hastings, said to be translated from the Saxon, Stonehenge is called a Druidical temple. The battle of Hastings was fought in the year 1066. We will grant the Saxon original to have been written soon afterwards; about which time, no other notion prevailed concerning this miraculous monument, than the supposition which had been delivered down by long and constant tradition, that it was erected in memory of Hengists massacre. This was the established and uniform opinion of the Welsh and Armorican bards, who most probably received it from the Saxon minstrels: and that this was the popular belief at the time of the battle of Hastings, appears from the evidence of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote his history not more than eighty years after that memorable event. And in this doctrine Robert of Gloucester and all the monkish chroniclers agree. That the Druids constructed this stupendous pile for a place of worship was a discovery reserved for the sagacity of a wiser age, and the laborious discussion of modern antiquaries. In the Epistle to Lydgate, prefixed to the Tragedy, our poet condemns the absurdity and impropriety of the religious dramas, and recommends some great story of human manners, as most suitable for theatrical representation. But this idea is the result of that taste and discrimination which could only belong to a more advanced period of society.
But, above all, the cast of thought, the complexion of the sentiments, and the structure of the composition, evidently prove these pieces not ancient. The Ode to Ella, for instance, has exactly the air of modern poetry; such, I mean, as is written at this day, only disguised with antique spelling and phraseology. That Rowlie was an accomplished literary character, a scholar, an historian, and an antiquarian, if contended for, I will not deny. Nor is it impossible that he might write English poetry. But that he is the writer of the poems which I have here cited, and which have been so confidently ascribed to him, I am not yet convinced.
On the whole, I am inclined to believe, that these poems were composed by the son of the schoolmaster before mentioned; who inherited the inestimable treasures of Cannynges chest in Radcliffe Church, as I have already related at large. This youth, who died at eighteen, was a prodigy of genius; and would have proved the first of English poets, had he reached a maturer age. From his childhood, he was fond of reading and writing verses; and some of his early compositions, which he wrote without any design to deceive, have been judged to be most astonishing productions by the first critic of the present age. From his situation and connections, he became a skilful practitioner in various kinds of handwriting. Availing himself therefore of his poetical talent, and his facility in the graphic art, to a miscellany of obscure and neglected parchments, which were commodiously placed in his own possession, he was tempted to add others of a more interesting nature, and such as he was enabled to forge, under these circumstances, without fear of detection. As to his knowledge of the old English literature, which is rarely the study of a young poet, a sufficient quantity of obsolete words and phrases were readily attainable from the glossary to Chaucer, and to Percys Ballads. It is confessed that this youth wrote the Execution of Sir Charles Baldwin; and he who could forge that poem, might easily forge all the rest .
Those who have been conversant in the works even of the best of our old English poets, well know that one of their leading characteristics is inequality. In these writers, splendid descriptions, ornamental comparisons, poetical images, and striking thoughts, occur but rarely; for many pages together they are tedious, prosaic, and uninteresting. On the contrary, the poems before us are everywhere supported: they are throughout poetical and animated; they have no imbecilities of style or sentiment. Our old English bards abound in unnatural conceptions, strange imaginations, and even the most ridiculous absurdities; but Rowlies poems present us with no incongruous combinations, no mixture of manners, institutions, customs, and characters: they appear to have been composed after ideas of discrimination had taken place, and when even common writers had begun to conceive, on most subjects, with precision and propriety. There are indeed, in the Battle of Hastings, some great anachronisms; and practices are mentioned which did not exist till afterwards; but these are such inconsistencies as proceeded from fraud as well as ignorance: they are such as no old poet could have possibly fallen into, and which only betray an unskilful imitation of ancient manners. The verses of Lydgate and his immediate successors are often rugged and unmusical; but Rowlies poetry sustains one uniform tone of harmony; and if we brush away the asperities of the antiquated spelling, conveys its cultivated imagery in a polished and agreeable strain of versification. Chatterton seems to have thought, that the distinction of old from modern poetry consisted only in the use of old words. In counterfeiting the coins of a rude age, he did not forget the usual application of an artificial rust; but this disguise was not sufficient to conceal the elegance of the workmanship.