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It is a fortunate circumstance that Traherne has given parallel expression to his leading ideas both in verse and in prose, as it affords an opportunity of estimating which medium was the better at his command. His mind was poetic and imaginative rather than philosophic and logical, and yet it may be urged, with some confidence, that he achieved more unquestionable success with his prose than with his verse. Even the opening poems on the thoughts of childhood, beautiful as they are, have nothing so striking as the corresponding prose passage, which begins: "The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.' Again, the poems on Thoughts, as being every man's 'substantial treasures,' are less flowing and musical than such lines as these:
I can visit Noah in his ark, and swim upon the waters of the deluge. I can see Moses with his rod, and the children of Israel passing through the sea.... I can visit Solomon in his glory, and go into his temple, and view the sitting of his servants, and admire the magnificence and glory of his kingdom. No creature but one like unto the Holy Angels can see into all ages.... It is not by going with the feet, but by journeys of the Soul, that we travel thither. Such writing as this has some of the magical quality and personal note of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici.
As a poet, Traherne has not mastered his technique. His poems are often diffuse and full of repetitions. He is obsessed with the rime, 'treasures' and 'pleasures,' using it on page after page; and, even for an age that was not careful of such things, the proportion of defective rimes is high. The categorical habit, also, has had disastrous effects, in unbroken strings of fifteen nouns in one poem, thirteen adjectives in another, fourteen participles in a third. In other poems, the didactic purpose gets the upper hand, and we hear the preacher's voice: 'This, my dear friends, this was my blessed case.' In spite of such poems as Wonder, News, Silence and The Ways of Wisdom, he wrote nothing in verse that is so arresting as his rhetorical prose:
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.
The success of Herbert's Temple inevitably produced a crop of imitations, ranging from Christopher Harvey's Synagogue, which, by being bound up with The Temple in many editions from 1640 onwards, achieved a reputation beyond its deserts,
down to the doggerel and wholesale plagiarism of Samuel Speed's Prison Pietie (1677). Vaughan rightly complained of these facile imitators that 'they cared more for verse than perfection.' Those of Herbert's contemporaries who attempted sacred verse without falling under his influence deserve more consideration. To right and to left of Herbert stand William Habington and Francis Quarles. Both belong by birth to the country gentry; but the former found readers only among his own class, while the latter was more successful than any writer of his time in gauging the protestant religious feeling of Englishmen at large. Habington's associations from birth onwards were with the Roman Catholic minority. He was born at Hindlip hall near Worcester, a house famous for its concealment of priests, on the very day on which the Gunpowder plot was discovered in consequence (so tradition has said) of his mother's letter to lord Monteagle. His father was an antiquary, whose History of Edward IV the son completed and published in 1640. William Habington, after being educated at St Omer and Paris with a view to his becoming a priest, returned to England and, probably in the early months of 1633, married Lucy Herbert, youngest daughter of the first baron Powis. Her praises he celebrated in Castara, which he published anonymously in 1634. The two parts of which it then consisted contain poems of courtship and of marriage. A new edition of Castara, a year later, revealed the author's name, and added to the second part a set of eight elegies on his friend, George Talbot, which would more properly have constituted a third part, and three characters of a mistress, a wife and a friend, introducing the three sections. In 1640, a third edition included an entirely new third part, consisting of a character of 'A Holy Man,' and a collection of sacred poems. The author recognises that he may be thought 'a Precisian' for his unfashionable praise of chastity, but he would not win even 'the spreadingst laurell' 'by writing wanton or profane.' In the third part, he leaves the theme of earthly love 'to the soft silken youths at Court,' and is full of self-accusation that he should ever have handled the theme, however purely. There is a sombre and monotonous strain running through this third part. Advancing death, empty fame and decay of the tomb itself are its constant subjects. Unlike Traherne, he hardly finds life worth enjoying, with death awaiting him:
And should I farme the proudest state,
I 'me Tennant to uncertaine fate.
There is grim humour in the description of his deathbed, where
he seems to be a mourner at his own obsequies. He can put no trust in the predictions of astrologer or doctor :
They onely practise how to make
A mistery of each mistake.
In most of the poems there are occasional fine lines, as in the welcome to death as a safe retreat,
Where the leane slave, who th' Oare doth plye,
Soft as his Admirall may lye.
More sustained excellence is found in the poems Nox nocti indicat Scientiam, Et exultavit Humiles and Cupio dissolvi. But, in many of these meditative and frigid poems, the thought is commonplace and uncommended by graceful expression, or accent of sincerity. Defects of workmanship rather than of taste mar his work; he judged himself rightly, when he admitted in his preface that he needed to spend 'more sweate and oyle,' if he would aspire to the name of poet. Greater pains might have eliminated his excessive use of the expletive 'do,' many weak rime-endings, clumsy syntax and harsh elisions (e.g. 'th' An'chrits prayer,' "mid th' horrors,' 'sh' admires,' 'so 'bhors'). In the same year as the complete Castara, appeared The Queene of Arragon. A Tragi-Comedie. The author died in 1654 and was buried 'where my forefathers ashes sleepe.' His own modest estimate of his verses will not be challenged, that they are 'not so high, as to be wondred at, nor so low as to be contemned.'
Quarles was as little affected as was Habington by the school of Donne. His chief literary idol was Phineas Fletcher, 'the Spenser of this age.' He was born in 1592 at his father's manor house of Stewards, near Romford in Essex. After studying at Cambridge and Lincoln's inn, he went abroad, like his contemporary Ferrar, in the train of the princess Elizabeth, on her marriage with the elector palatine. After his return to England, he seems to have lived partly in Essex, and partly in Ireland as secretary to Ussher. In 1639, he became chronologer to the city of London. His advocacy of the king's cause in a series of pamphlets led to his property being sequestrated, his manuscripts burnt and his character traduced in a petition to parliament. This last misfortune, according to his widow, worried him into his grave (1644). literary career began in 1620 with A Feast for Wormes, a paraphrase of the book of Jonah. He gauged popular taste accurately in employing a facile, straightforward style, much familiar wisdom and pious allegory, an abundance of metaphors and similes from common life, but no difficult conceits of the fashionable kind. Divine Fancies (1632) gave a better taste of his quality, and
anticipated, in The World's a Theater, some of the success which attended Emblemes (1635), the most famous English example of a class of writing which began with the Milanese doctor, Alciati, a century earlier. 'Visible poetry... catching the eye and fancy at one draught' had a fascination for most religious writers. When Herbert moralised on the speckled church-floor, he was near falling under this influence. Crashaw designed his own emblems for his last volume; while Silex Scintillans took its name from the frontispiece of a flinty heart struck with a thunderbolt, and began with a poem, Authoris de se Emblema. It is fortunate that these writers, who could do better things, escaped lightly from this misleading fashion. It is as fortunate that Quarles found in it the means of doing his best work. Most of the woodcut illustrations, and much of the moralising, he took straight from the Jesuit Herman Hugo's Pia Desideria (1624). But Quarles had something better to give than wit at the second hand.' If his ingenuity and his morality are commonly better than his poetry, at times he rises above his mere task-work to original and forcible writing, as in False World, thou ly'st, or in the picturesque comparison of the weary soul with 'the haggard, cloister'd in her mew.' Sometimes, he reveals an unexpectedly musical quality, as in the skilful use which he makes of the refrain, 'Sweet Phosphor, bring the day,' and his least attractive pages are brightened by some daring epithet or felicitous turn of expression. His liveliness and good sense, his free use of homely words and notions and his rough humour are enough to account for, and to justify, his popularity.
Of all these writers it may be said that their sacred themes did not lead them to avoid the literary fashions of their day: they and the secular poets trod the same paths. They enjoyed the same delight in ingenuity, the same fearless use of hyberbole, the same passion for finding likenesses and unlikenesses in all manner of unrelated things; and they escaped the commoner faults of religious poetry, its obviousness, its reliance upon stock phrases, its tameness. Nor, with all their artificiality, is their sincerity open to suspicion. They were sacred poets, not from fashion or interest, but from choice and conviction. "The very outgoings of the soule' are to be found alike in Herbert's searching of heart, in Crashaw's ecstasy and in Vaughan's mystical rapture.
WRITERS OF THE COUPLET
No dogma of Dryden and the critics who were his contemporaries is more familiar than that which gave Edmund Waller the credit of bringing about a revolution in English verse. Dryden wrote, in 1664 :
the excellence and dignity of it [i.e. rime] were never fully known till Mr Waller taught it; he first made writing easily an art; first showed us to conclude the sense, most commonly in distichs, which, in the verse of those before him, runs on for so many lines together, that the reader is out of breath to overtake it1.
The author of the preface to the second part of Waller's poems (1690) indulged in eulogy without qualification:
The reader needs be told no more in commendation of these Poems, than that they are Mr Waller's; a name that carries everything in it that is either great or graceful in poetry. He was, indeed, the parent of English verse, and the first that showed us our tongue had beauty and numbers in it.... The tongue came into his hands like a rough diamond: he polished it first, and to that degree, that all artists since him have admired the workmanship, without pretending to mend it.
These words represent the general conviction of an age in which smoothness of rhythm and terseness of language were indispensable conditions of poetry. The self-contained couplet became the universal medium to which these tests were applied; and in Waller's couplets the age found the earliest form of verse which answered them satisfactorily. Waller, during the last thirty years of his life, must have been thoroughly familiar with the reputation which he enjoyed as the improver of our numbers; but it would be difficult to discover any set purpose or novel poetical theory underlying the form of the poems which made him famous. The decasyllabic couplet had been employed very generally, among other forms, by Elizabethan writers; and, in
1 Dedication of The Rival Ladies (Works, ed. Scott [Saintsbury's ed.], vol. m, p. 187). See, also, preface to Fables, 1700 (ibid. vol. x1, pp. 209, 210).