Thursday, November 10, 2016

Samuel Wesley's "Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry," 1700.

Title page of Samuel Wesley's
"Epistle to a Friend"
It may be mere self-distraction to spend part of the evening after election day writing about a book more than three hundred years old, older by a good deal than the American democracy itself. But books, I remind myself, endure, as long as they are not exposed to more than their fair share of fire, water, and other destructive forces. And in them, we can be reminded, in all the best and most wonderful ways, of the record of human striving: for greatness, for excellence, for worthiness. These things, too, remain.

So today, it was an especial delight to open the mail and find this book, bound within an early eighteenth-century volume labeled "TRACTS" on the spine. 

I bought the book because it seemed unusual, and literary books like this one are always harder to find and more interesting (to me at least) than the religious books one encounters more frequently. 

When I opened the book, I knew nothing of Samuel Wesley, nor his poem "An Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry." though he's well enough known that one can discover something about him, and the reception of this work, on his Wikipedia page. Presented as a response to a friend who had inquired about how one might go about achieving fame through poetry, the "Epistle" is, it turns out, a poetic discussion of poets, style, criticism, and composition, and it very much must have served as a context, if not a model, for Alexander Pope's far more famous Essay on Criticism, published eleven years later. 

from p. 12
Pope's Essay, of course, is a poem I have often taught, though it's somewhat difficult to persuade students these days to value it. And Pope, though he makes some comments about classical authors, makes no attempt at all to address the criticism, or even the meter, of Old English verse, a topic near and dear to my own heart. 

But Wesley, remarkably, did at least make the attempt.

After brief discussions of Chaucer ("Of CHAUCER'S Verse we scarce the Measures know /So rough the lines, and so unequal flow") and Spenser ("more smooth and neat, and none than He / Could better skill of English Quantity"), Wesley moves on to more recent figures. Accusing the Frenchified Alexandrines of Chapman (translator of Homer) and Sternhold (translator of the Psalms) of weakness and lack of variety, Wesley then attempts to praise Pentameter instead, and appears to describe the verse of his "Saxon fathers" as a "strong" meter.

Page 13.
What he means by "strong" here is somewhat difficult to tell, but it is appealing to note that some modern-day discussions of Germanic meter describe it as a "strong stress meter," which I usually take to mean a metrical system defined by the placements of stressed syllables, rather than "feet" in the classical formulation.

In the footnote, Wesley cites some contemporary writing on the origins of the English people, which in turn, cites or mis-cites a bit of Eddic verse from the Havamal on runes. Though some Old English verse had, of course, been printed by this time, it was still little understood and Beowulf had not yet even been mentioned in print, in Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts. 

In suggesting the Edda is built upon "Mysterious Rhimes, [ones] horrid to the sight" Wesley seems to miss the alliteration that structures these Eddic lines, and his claim that Taliessin might have used the same "rough Numbers" as the Eddic poem seems pretty far off.

Regardless, Wesley's understanding that "runic staves" might survive for long indeed "on Rocks engraved" is right on the money. 

Pope, coming along a decade later, must have known this poem well, I think. Where Pope reminds us that "the sound must seem an echo to the sense," Wesley says:

Nor equal Numbers will for all suffice,
The Sock creeps low, the Tragic Buskins rise:
None knew this Art so well, so well did use
As did the Mantuan Shepherd's Heavenly Muse:
He marry's Sound and Sense, at odds before,
We hear his Scylla bark, Charybdis roar; (ll. 497-502)

Perhaps my sense of humor is too obvious, but I can hardly keep from laughing at the image of the sock falling and the leggings riding up, the clash of directions leading to a sense of the tragic as surely as the clash between monosyllables and disyllables.

But Pope, of course, covering some of this same ground, uses some of these same words, telling us, for example that "ten low words oft creep in one dull line." And using "roar" to indicate the effective use of meter: "the hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar."

Pope, for better or worse, resists any temptation to address the specifics of any of the ancients as Wesley here does: and Pope, it is probably fair to say, is a better poet than Wesley. But what a surprise and a pleasure it was to find this little gem, an attempt to consider the field of English verse and English criticism in the early eighteenth century, which seems to give Pope some of his own more famous language, and also at least makes the attempt to trace the genealogy of English verse back farther than Chaucer. 

And if Wesley misunderstands his Eddic text and its meter, who are we to laugh, when he at least has made the attempt? 

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