Verse > Anthologies > William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. > The Book of Restoration Verse
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William Stanley Braithwaite, ed.  The Book of Restoration Verse.  1910.
 
An Account of the Greatest English Poets
By Joseph Addison (1672–1719)
 
SINCE, dearest Harry, you will needs request
A short account of all the muse-possest,
That, down from Chaucer’s days to Dryden’s times,
Have spent their noble rage in British rhymes;
Without more preface, writ in formal length,        5
To speak the undertaker’s want of strength,
I’ll try to make their several beauties known,
And show their verses worth tho’ not my own.
  Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,
Nor felt the raptures of the tuneful Nine,        10
Till Chaucer first, a merry bard, arose,
And many a story told in rhyme and prose.
But age has rusted what the poet writ,
Worn out his language, and obscured his wit;
In vain he jests in his unpolished strain,        15
And tries to make his readers laugh in vain.
  Old Spenser next, warmed with poetic rage,
In ancient tales amused a barb’rous age;
An age that yet uncultivate and rude,
Where’er the poet’s fancy led, pursu’d        20
Through pathless fields, and unfrequented floods,
To dens of dragons, and enchanted woods.
But now the mystic tale that pleased of yore,
Can charm an understanding age no more;
The long-spun allegories fulsome grow,        25
While the dull moral lies too plain below.
We view well-pleased at distance all the sights
Of arms and palfreys, battles, fields, and fights,
And damsels in distress, and courteous knights.
But when we look too near the shades decay,        30
And all the pleasing landscape fades away.
  Great Cowley then (a mighty genius) wrote,
O’er-run with wit, and lavish of his thought;
His turns too closely on the reader press:
He had more pleased us had he pleased us less.        35
One glittering thought no sooner strikes our eyes
With silent wonder, but new wonders rise,
As in the milky-way a shining white
O’erflows the heav’ns with one continued light;
That not a single star can shew his rays,        40
Whilst jointly all promote the common blaze.
Pardon, great poet, that I dare to name
Th’ unnumbered beauties of thy verse with blame;
Thy fault is only wit in its excess,
But wit like thine in any shape will please.        45
What muse but thine can equal hints inspire,
And fit the deep-mouthed Pindar to thy lyre:
Pindar, whom others in a laboured strain,
And forced expression imitate in vain.
Well-pleased in thee he soars with new delight,        50
And plays in more unbounded verse, and takes a nobler flight.
  Blest man! whose spotless life and charming lays
Employed the tuneful prelate in thy praise:
Blest man! who now shalt be for ever known
In Sprat’s successful labours and thy own.        55
  But Milton, next, with high and haughty stalks,
Unfettered in majestic numbers walks;
No vulgar hero can his muse engage,
Nor earth’s wide scene confine his hallow’d rage.
See! see, he upward springs, and towering high        60
Spurns the dull province of mortality,
Shakes heaven’s eternal throne with dire alarms,
And sets the Almighty thunderer in arms.
Whate’er his pen describes I more than see,
Whilst every verse arrayed in majesty,        65
Bold and sublime, my whole attention draws,
And seems above the critic’s nicer laws.
How are you struck with terror and delight,
When angel with arch-angel copes in fight!
When great Messiah’s out-spread banner shines,        70
How does the chariot rattle in his lines!
What sounds of brazen wheels, what thunder, scare,
And stun the reader with the din of war!
With fear my spirits and my blood retire,
To see the seraphs sunk in clouds of fire;        75
But when, with eager steps, from hence I rise,
And view the first gay scenes of Paradise,
What tongue, what words of rapture can express
A vision so profuse of pleasantness.
Oh had the poet ne’er profaned his pen,        80
To varnish o’er the guilt of faithless men;
His other works might have deserved applause,
But now the language can’t support the cause.
While the clean current, though serene and bright,
Betrays a bottom odious to the sight.        85
  But now my muse a softer strain rehearse,
Turn every line with art, and smooth thy verse;
The courtly Waller next commands thy lays:
Muse tune thy verse with art, to Waller’s praise.
While tender airs and lovely dames inspire        90
Soft melting thoughts and propagate desire,
So long shall Waller’s strains our passions move,
And Sacharissa’s beauties kindle love.
Thy verse, harmonious bard, and flatt’ring song,
Can make the vanquished great, and coward strong;        95
Thy verse can show ev’n Cromwell’s innocence,
And compliment the storms that bore him hence.
Oh had thy muse not come an age too soon,
But seen great Nassau on the British throne!
How had his triumphs glittered in thy page,        100
And warmed thee to a more exalted rage.
What scenes of death and horror had we view’d,
And how had Boyne’s wide current reek’d in blood.
Or, if Maria’s charms thou would’st rehearse
In smoother numbers and a softer verse,        105
Thy pen had well described her graceful air,
And Gloriana would have seemed more fair.
  Nor must Roscommon pass neglected by,
That makes ev’n rules a noble poetry;
Rules, whose deep sense and heav’nly numbers show        110
The best of critics and of poets too.
Nor Denham, must we e’er forget thy strains,
While Cooper’s Hill commands the neighb’ring plains.
  But see where artful Dryden next appears
Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev’n in years.        115
Great Dryden next, whose tuneful muse affords
The sweetest numbers and the fittest words.
Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs
She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
If satire or heroic strains she writes,        120
Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.
From her no harsh unartful numbers fall,
She wears all dresses and she charms in all.
How might we fear our English poetry,
That long has flourished, should decay with thee,        125
Did not the muse’s other hope appear,
Harmonious Congreve, and forbid our fear.
Congreve! whose fancy’s unexhausted store
Has given already much, and promised more.
Congreve shall still preserve thy fame alive,        130
And Dryden’s muse shall in his friend survive.
  I’m tired with rhyming, and would fain give o’er,
But justice still demands one labour more:
The noble Montagu remains unnamed,
For wit, for humour, and for judgment famed;        135
To Dorset he directs his artful muse,
In numbers such as Dorset’s self might use.
How negligently graceful he unreins
His verse, and writes in loose familiar strains;
How Nassau’s godlike acts adorns his lines,        140
And all the hero in full glory shines.
We see his army set in just array,
And Boyne’s dyed waves run purple to the sea.
Nor Simois choked with men, and arms, and blood;
Nor rapid Xanthus’ celebrated flood,        145
Shall longer be the poet’s highest themes,
Though gods and heroes fought promiscuous in their streams.
But now, to Nassau’s secret councils raised,
He aids the hero whom before he praised.
  I’ve done at length: and now, dear friend, receive        150
The last poor present that my muse can give.
I leave the arts of poetry and verse
To them that practise ’em with more success.
Of greater truths I’ll now prepare to tell,
And so at once, dear friend and muse, farewell.        155
 
 
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