Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by William Thomas Arnold
William Browne (c. 1590c. 1645)
[William Browne was born at Tavistock. He went to Oxford as a member of Exeter College; entered the Inner Temple in 1612; published his elegy on Prince Henry in a volume along with another by his friend Christopher Brooke in 1613; the first book of his Britannias Pastorals in the same year; his Shepherds Pipe in 1614; and the second book of his Pastorals in 1616, the year of the death of Shakspeare. The third book of his Britannias Pastorals was unknown till 1851, when it was published for the Percy Society from a manuscript in the Cathedral Library at Salisbury. The most complete edition of Browne is that published in the Roxburghe Library by Mr. W. Carew Hazlitt in 1868.]
BROWNE was fortunate in his friends. His life at the Inner Temple brought him into contact not only with his intimate friend Wither and Charles Brooke, but also with such a man as Selden, who wrote commendatory verses to the first book of his Pastorals. He was too, apparently, one of that knot of brilliant young men who called themselves the sons of Ben Jonson, and there are some interesting verses, of warm yet not extravagant praise, prefixed by Ben Jonson to the second book of the same poem. With Drayton he appears to have been on cordial and intimate terms. Some verses by Browne are prefixed to the second edition of the Polyolbion, and some of the most charming commendatory verses that were ever written were penned by Drayton in honour of Britannias Pastorals. Chapman too the learned Shepherd of fair Hitching Hill, was, as more than one indication sufficiently proves, intimate with our poet, and Browne was not only familiar with his friends Iliad and Odyssey, but also, we may be very sure, knew well that golden book of poetry, the Hero and Leander. With such contemporary influences, and with the fullest knowledge of and reverence for such of his predecessors as Sidney and Spenser, Browne had every advantage given to his genius, and every help to enable him to float in the full and central stream of poetic tradition.
Browne was apparently a diligent student of our early poetry. In his Shepherds Pipe he gives in full a long story from Occleve, a poet about whom probably, at the time he wrote, no one but himself knew anything whatever. He also, though he nowhere refers to him by name, had undoubtedly studied Chaucer to some purpose. The following passage
As when some malefactor judged to die
For his offence, his execution nigh,
Casteth his sight on states unlike to his
And weighs his ill by others happiness,
reveals its origin at once to anyone familiar with the Knightes Tale. The description of the Cave of Famine, again, is transparently studied from Chaucers description of the temple of Mars; though Brownes poverty in what the critics of the last century called invention makes him compare ill with his prototype in passages of this kind. Still more familiar to Browne than the Canterbury Tales were Shakspeares plays and poems. Reminiscences of Shakspeare might easily be pointed out in his heroic verse, and a still closer study is apparent in certain of the songs scattered about his Britannias Pastorals. The two poets, however, to whom Browne owed most, and whose praises he has most gratefully recorded are Spenser and Sidney. The influence of the formers Aeglogues as well as of the Faerie Queene upon Brownes style and manner is very perceptible. For Sidney he had that enthusiastic and affectionate reverence which was commonly felt by all the poets of that time for the poet and the author of the Defence of Poesie. The passages on Spenser and Sidney are, besides their literary interest, of poetic value in themselves, and will therefore be found among the following selections. Between Browne and Wither there existed a very intimate friendship, and in Withers youth their work ran to a certain extent upon the same lines. The hand of the author of the Shepherds Hunting can apparently be traced in several passages of the Shepherds Pipe, and in his own poems Wither speaks in the most affectionate and respectful terms of the singer of the Western main.
Of Brownes possible relation to Milton it is unnecessary to speak at length. Milton certainly had read Brownes poems and read them carefully, and it is interesting to compare the Inner Temple Masque with Comus and the elegies contained in the Pastorals and the Shepherds Pipe with Lycidas. The little song entitled the Charme in the former poem bears a strong likeness, as Warton has pointed out, to a well-known passage in Comus, and the general design of the two poems is similar enough to excite attention. But while it is right to think of Milton as a friendly reader of our poet, it would be a mistake to ascribe to Browne any great share in his poetic development. What is certain is that both poets felt and showed in their different ways the combined and contending influences of classical and Puritan feeling. Browne is at once a pagan and a Protestant.
There is another English poet of a later day with whom Browne may fairly be brought into some sort of comparison. That poet is Keats.1 It is unnecessary to say that Browne is a poet of a quite different and lower rank; but he is like Keats in being before all things an artist, he has the same intense pleasure in a fine line or a fine phrase for its own sake, and he further resembles Keats in possessing very little pure constructive or narrative power. One thinks of Keats passing a fine phrase over his mental palate with an almost sensual pleasure; I look upon fine phrases like a lover, he himself says in one passage; and in a lesser degree one can fancy much the same of Browne. There is one passage which is here quoted, the value of which depends almost wholly on the masterly use of proper names. Their beauty of sound and delicate appropriateness to the place they occupy in the linealliteration and such like expedients being freely employedhelp out the historical and literary associations which make such names as Coos or Cilicia in themselves poetical. So in what may be called a colour-passage, a rare control of the resources of our tongue and a rare feeling for and discrimination in shades of colour go to make up a description of real beauty and power. Browne is something of a literary epicure, and however feeble or disconnected may be his narrative of events, he rarely gives us a line which has not been tried and allowed by a taste far more delicate than common. It is consistent with this that he should be a warm defender of poetry.
Tis not the rancour of a cankered heart
That can debase the excellence of art,
he says in one passage; and how easily one might fancy Keats, transplanted to the age of James I, the author of these most characteristic lines:
In lieu of hounds that make the wooded hills
Talk in a thousand voices to the rills,
I like the pleasing cadence of a line,
Struck by the consort of the sacred Nine.
Brownes natural tendency is to be copious and glowing in description, and his warm fancy is always tending to run away with him. He wants to be luscious and sweet. So he appeals to the blessed Muses:
But with all this he feels strongly the force of the flowing Puritan tide, and spoils his poetry here and there, as Keats never does, by his resolution to improve the occasion. Browne is a staunch Protestant, and uses plain language about nuns and nunneries, Spain and Rome. All this does his poetry no good. We can imagine him passionate and powerful enough if he had lived a generation earlier. As it is, one has the feeling in reading him that he is living between two worlds of poetry without vital hold on either. His is neither the ardent muse of the young Shakspeare, nor the pure august muse of the great Puritan poet who was to follow him.
The rare qualities of Brownes work cannot blind us to the fact that he is almost destitute of constructive or narrative power. As a narrative poem Britannias Pastorals is deplorable. The reader is perpetually passing from the woes of one fair one to those of another, and has great difficulty in making it clear to himself at any given time whether he is reading about Marina or Idya or Celia. The third book ends without any particular conclusion, and there is no reason why Browne should not have gone on in the same strain for half a dozen books more. On the other hand, as pastoral poetry, the work is not without peculiar excellences. It is true that the attempts to keep up the pastoral illusion are sometimes of a desperate character,as for instance when the poet addresses his readers as swaines,but Brownes very accurate knowledge of his native county, and his loving enthusiasm for it, give his work a special value, and stamp much of it with the character of a direct personal impression. The allusions to Devonshire are innumerable. Browne had a peculiar love for his native streams, and the waters of his own Tavy are ever murmuring musically through his song. Just as Wordsworth said that he had made thousands of verses as he strolled by his beloved Rotha, so Browne speaks of
We owe to this knowledge and love of the country those pictures of the shepherd wending his early way to his days work, of the shepherd boy sitting alone on the fell top and piping as he watches his sheep,a charming mixture, the whole passage, of literal fact and classical reminiscence;of the country maid straying through the fields to make her nosegay, of the boys searching the woods for birds eggs or hunting the squirrel from tree to tree. It is in such pictures that the reader of Britannias Pastorals finds his chief pleasure. Browne cannot be said to have victoriously overcome the inherent difficulties of pastoral poetry, but his genuine delight in country sights and sounds makes him less unreal than any other English poetif we except perhaps Ramsay,who has tried this form of composition. He, again like Wordsworth, must be read in selections, if he is to be read with unmixed enjoyment; but in his best passagesand they are not fewhe will send to the listener wafts of pure and delightful music as the young figure steps across the moors,