Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Quadrio’s Account of English Poetry.

It is, perhaps, somewhat mortifying in our literary researches to discover that our own literature has been only known to the other nations of Europe comparatively within recent times. We have at length triumphed over our continental rivals in the noble struggles of genius, and our authors now see their works printed even at foreign presses, while we are furnishing with our gratuitous labours nearly the whole literature of a new empire; yet so late as in the reign of Anne, our poets were only known by the Latin versifiers of the “Musæ Anglicanæ;” and when Boileau was told of the public funeral of Dryden, he was pleased with the national honours bestowed on genius, but he declared that he never heard of his name before. This great legislator of Parnassus has never alluded to one of our own poets, so insular then was our literary glory! The most remarkable fact, or perhaps assertion, I have met with, of the little knowledge which the Continent had of our writers, is a French translation of Bishop Hall’s “Characters of Virtues and Vices.” It is a duodecimo, printed at Paris, of 109 pages, 1610, with this title Charactères de Vertus et de Vices; tirés de l’Anglois de M. Josef Hall. In a dedication to the Earl of Salisbury, the translator informs his lordship that “ce livre est la première traduction de l’Anglois jamais imprimée en aucun vulgaire”— the first translation from the English ever printed in any modern language! Whether the translator is a bold liar, or an ignorant blunderer, remains to be ascertained; at all events it is a humiliating demonstration of the small progress which our home literature had made abroad in 1610!

I come now to notice a contemporary writer, professedly writing the history of our Poetry, of which his knowledge will open to us as we proceed with our enlightened and amateur historian.

Father Quadrio’s Della Storia e dell’ ragione d’ ogni Poesia, — is a gigantic work, which could only have been projected and persevered in by some hypochondriac monk, who, to get rid of the ennui of life, could discover no pleasanter way than to bury himself alive in seven monstrous closely-printed quartos, and every day be compiling something on a subject which he did not understand. Fortunately for Father Quadrio, without taste to feel, and discernment to decide, nothing occurred in this progress of literary history and criticism to abridge his volumes and his amusements; and with diligence and erudition unparalleled, he has here built up a receptacle for his immense, curious, and trifling knowledge on the poetry of every nation. Quadrio is among that class of authors whom we receive with more gratitude than pleasure, fly to sometimes to quote, but never linger to read; and fix on our shelves, but seldom have in our hands.

I have been much mortified, in looking over this voluminous compiler, to discover, although he wrote so late as about 1750, how little the history of English poetry was known to foreigners. It is assuredly our own fault. We have too long neglected the bibliography and the literary history of our own country. Italy, Spain, and France have enjoyed eminent bibliographers — we have none to rival them. Italy may justly glory in her Tiraboschi and her Mazzuchelli; Spain in the Bibliothecas of Nicholas Antonio; and France, so rich in bibliographical treasures, affords models to every literary nation of every species of literary history. With us, the partial labour of the hermit Anthony for the Oxford writers, compiled before philosophical criticism existed in the nation; and Warton’s History of Poetry, which was left unfinished at its most critical period, when that delightful antiquary of taste had just touched the threshold of his Paradise — these are the sole great labours to which foreigners might resort, but these will not be found of much use to them. The neglect of our own literary history has, therefore, occasioned the errors, sometimes very ridiculous ones, of foreign writers respecting our authors. Even the lively Chaudon, in his “Dictionnaire Historique,” gives the most extraordinary accounts of most of the English writers. Without an English guide to attend such weary travellers, they have too often been deceived by the mirages of our literature. They have given blundering accounts of works which do exist, and chronicled others which never did exist; and have often made up the personal history of our authors, by confounding two or three into one. Chaudon, mentioning Dryden’s tragedies, observes, that Atterbury translated two into Latin verse, entitled Achitophel and Absalom!1

Of all these foreign authors, none has more egregiously failed than this good Father Quadrio. In this universal history of poetry, I was curious to observe what sort of figure we made, and whether the fertile genius of our original poets had struck the foreign critic with admiration or with critical censure. But little was our English poetry known to its universal historian. In the chapter on those who have cultivated “la melica poesia in propria lingua tra, Tedeschi, Fiamminghi e Inglesi,”2 we find the following list of English poets.

“Of John Gower; whose rhymes and verses are preserved in manuscript in the college of the most Holy Trinity, in Cambridge.

“Arthur Kelton, flourished in 1548, a skilful English poet: he composed various poems in English; also he lauds the Cambrians and their genealogy.

“The works of William Wycherly, in English prose and verse.”

These were the only English poets whom Quadrio at first could muster together! In his subsequent additions he caught the name of Sir Philip Sidney with an adventurous criticism, “le sue poesie assai buone.” He then was lucky enough to pick up the title — not the volume, surely — which was one of the rarest; “Fiori poetici de A. Cowley,” which he calls “poesie amorose:” this must mean that early volume of Cowley’s, published in his thirteenth year, under the title of “Poetical Blossoms.” Further he laid hold of “John Donne” by the skirt, and “Thomas Creech,” at whom he made a full pause, informing his Italians that “his poems are reputed by his nation as ‘assai buone.’” He has also “Le opere di Guglielmo;” but to this Christian name, as it would appear, he had not ventured to add the surname. At length, in his progress of inquiry, in his fourth volume (for they were published at different periods), he suddenly discovers a host of English poets — in Waller, Duke of Buckingham, Lord Roscommon, and others, among whom is Dr. Swift; but he acknowledges their works have not reached him. Shakspeare at length appears on the scene; but Quadrio’s notions are derived from Voltaire, whom, perhaps, he boldly translates. Instead of improving our drama, he conducted it a totale rovina nelle sue farse monstruose, che si chiaman tragedie; alcune scene vi abbia luminose e belle e alcuni tratti si trovono terribili e grandi. Otway is said to have composed a tragic drama on the subject of “Venezia Salvata;” he adds with surprise, “ma affatto regolare.” Regularity is the essence of genius with such critics as Quadrio. Dryden is also mentioned; but the only drama specified is “King Arthur.” Addison is the first Englishman who produced a classical tragedy; but though Quadrio writes much about the life of Addison, he never alludes to the Spectator.

We come now to a more curious point. Whether Quadrio had read our comedies may be doubtful; but he distinguishes them by very high commendation. Our comedy, he says, represents human life, the manners of citizens and the people, much better than the French and Spanish comedies, in which all the business of life is mixed up with love affairs. The Spaniards had their gallantry from the Moors, and their manners from chivalry; to which they added their tumid African taste, differing from that of other nations. I shall translate what he now adds of English comedy.

“The English, more skilfully even than the French, have approximated to the true idea of comic subjects, choosing for the argument of their invention the customary and natural objects of the citizens and the populace. And when religion and decorum were more respected in their theatres, they were more advanced in this species of poetry, and merited not a little praise, above their neighbouring nations. But more than the English and the French (to speak according to pure and bare truth) have the Italians signalised themselves.” A sly, insinuating criticism! But, as on the whole, for reasons which I cannot account for, Father Quadrio seems to have relished our English comedy, we must value his candour. He praises our comedy; “per il bello ed il buono;” but, as he is a methodical Aristotelian, he will not allow us that liberty in the theatre which we are supposed to possess in parliament — by delivering whatever we conceive to the purpose. His criticism is a specimen of the irrefragable. “We must not abandon legitimate rules to give mere pleasure thereby; because pleasure is produced by, and flows from, the beautiful; and the beautiful is chiefly drawn from the good order and unity in which it consists!”

Quadrio succeeded in discovering the name of one of our greatest comic geniuses; for, alluding to our diversity of action in comedy, he mentions in his fifth volume, page 148 — “Il celebre Benjanson, nella sua commedia intitolato Bartolommeo Foicere, e in quella altra commedia intitolato Ipsum Veetz.” The reader may decipher the poet’s name with his Fair; but it required the critical sagacity of Mr. Douce to discover that by Ipsum Veetz we are to understand Shadwell’s comedy of Epsom Wells. The Italian critic had transcribed what he and his Italian printer could not spell. We have further discovered the source of his intelligence in St. Evremond, who had classed Shadwell’s comedy with Ben Jonson’s. To such shifts is the writer of an universal history d’ ogni Poesia miserably reduced!

Towards the close of the fifth volume we at last find the sacred muse of Milton — but, unluckily, he was a man “di pochissima religione,” and spoke of Christ like an Arian. Quadrio quotes Ramsay for Milton’s vomiting forth abuse on the Roman Church. His figures are said to be often mean, unworthy of the majesty of his subject; but in a later place, excepting his religion, our poet, it is decided on, is worthy “di molti laudi.”

Thus much for the information the curious may obtain on English poetry from its universal history. Quadrio unquestionably writes with more ignorance than prejudice against us: he has not only highly distinguished the comic genius of our writers, and raised it above that of our neighbours, but he has also advanced another discovery, which ranks us still higher for original invention, and which, I am confident, will be as new as it is extraordinary to the English reader.

Quadrio, who, among other erudite accessories to his work, has exhausted the most copious researches on the origin of Punch and Harlequin, has also written, with equal curiosity and value, the history of Puppet-shows. But whom has he lauded? whom has he placed paramount, above all other people, for their genius of invention in improving this art! — The English! and the glory which has hitherto been universally conceded to the Italian nation themselves, appears to belong to us! For we, it appears, while others were dandling and pulling their little representatives of human nature into such awkward and unnatural motions, first invented pulleys, or wires, and gave a fine and natural action to the artificial life of these gesticulating machines!

We seem to know little of ourselves as connected with the history of puppet-shows; but in an article in the curious Dictionary of Trevoux, I find that John Brioché, to whom had been attributed the invention of Marionnettes, is only to be considered as an improver; in his time (but the learned writers supply no date) an Englishman discovered the secret of moving them by springs, and without strings; but the Marionnettes of Brioché were preferred for the pleasantries which he made them deliver. The erudite Quadrio appears to have more successfully substantiated our claims to the pulleys or wires, or springs of the puppets, than any of our own antiquaries; and perhaps the uncommemorated name of this Englishman was that Powell, whose Solomon and Sheba were celebrated in the days of Addison and Steele; the former of whom has composed a classical and sportive Latin poem on this very subject. But Quadrio might well rest satisfied that the nation which could boast of its Fantoccini, surpassed, and must ever surpass the puny efforts of a doll-loving people!

1 Even recently, il Cavaliere Onofrio Boni, in his Eloge of Lanzi, in naming the three Augustan periods of modern literature, fixes them, for the Italians, under Leo the Tenth; for the French, under Louis the Fourteenth, or the Great; and for the English, under Charles the Second!

2 Quadrio, vol. ii. p. 416.

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