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To the right worshipful my singular good friend M. Gabriell Harvey, Doctor of the Laus.
HARVEY, the happy above happiest men
I read : that sitting like a looker-on
The sharp dislikes of each condition;
Ne fawnest for the favour of the Great;
Of faulty men, which danger to thee threat;
Like a great Lord, of peerless liberty,
For life and death is in thy doomful writing :
Dublin, July 18, 1586.
It has been remarked, that in the charge of coarseness and virulence which we apply to these Letters, we do not make sufficient allowance for the manners of the age. If, indeed, it be true that all controversies and all personalities were then carried on in language equally broad and unrefined, no peculiar stigma ought to be fixed on Dr. HARVEY. But the remark does not appear to be altogether justified by the general cast of the satirical writings of that brilliant æra. There is an overflowing malice and revenge in HARVEY's mind, which distinguishes him from his cotemporaries.
If he really held GREENE in the smallest portion of the contempt which he expresses for him, SPENSER’s commendation might well have preserved his temper from being ruffled at the attacks of one whom he affected to term an ignorant, contemptible, and infamous scribbler. But he probably felt (at least through the medium of public opinion, what perhaps his want of natural sensibility might have prevented his being originally impressed with), that there was in Greene's productions a charm beyond the reach of art, the charm of simple and touching genius, which haste could not destroy, which dissolute habits could not extinguish, and which the prejudices of an immoral and degraded name could not withdraw from the public favour.
It must not lightly be admitted as an universal or even general truth, that popular favour is an unequivocal proof of merit; and still less that the absence of it is a proof of the contrary. But there must be something of very powerful attraction in those compositions, which in spite of the author's bad name, in spite of his poverty and low habits of life, find their way to every one's closet, and a passage through every one's lips.
If we give credit to the degrading stories divulged by these Letters, the extent of which it must be remembered was strongly denied by T. Nash, the companion and defender of Greene, we cannot peruse the relation without a poignant mixture of sorrow and disgust. Nor can we contemplate such an exhibition of the frailties and inconsistencies of the human character, without astonishment as well as pity. It is, however, but an anticipation of the stories of Richard Savage, Samuel Boyse, and Thomas Dermody.
“ How he departed,” says Harvey, “ his ghostly mother Isam can truliest, and will favourabliest report! How he lived, London remembereth! Oh, what a lively picture of vanity! but, oh, what a deadly image of misery! and, oh, what a terrible caveat for such
and such! I am not to extenuate or prejudice his wit, which could not any way be great, though some way not the least of our vulgar writers, and many ways very ungracious : but who ever esteemed him either wise, or learned, or honest, or any way credible? How many gentlemen and other say of him, “ Let the paltry fellow go.' Lord, what a lewd companion was he! What an egregious makeshift! Where should coney-catchers have gotten such a secretary? How shall Cosenage do for a new register; or Phantasticality for a new author? They wrong him much with their epitaphs and other solemn devices, that entitle him not at the least the second toy of London, the stale of Paul's, the ape of Euphues, the vice of the stage, the mocker of the simple world, the flouter of his friends, the foe of himself, and so forth. What durst not he utter with his tongue, or divulge with his pen, or countenance with his face? Or whom cared he for, but a careless crew of his own associates ?” &c.
“ Greene, vile Greene!” he says in another place,“ would thou werest half so honest as the worst of the four whom thou upbraidest; or half so learned as the unlearnedest of the three! Thank other for thy borrowed and filched plumes of some little Italianated bravery, and what remaineth but flat impudency and
gross detraction, the proper ornaments of thy sweet utterance ?"
Here is a direct charge against Greene as a plagiarist from the Italians, from whom probably the stories of some of his novels were taken : a charge, which, if true, he only incurred in common with the most eminent of his countrymen, both of his own time, and preceding ages.
Thomas Nash is exposed to little less of the vengeance of the enraged orator. Several pages are employed in an attack and ridicule of that writer's pamphlet, entitled, “ Pierce Pennilesse's Supplication to the Devil.”
“ Lo,” says Harvey, “ his inwardest companion, that tasted of the fatal herring, cruelly pinched with want, vexed with discredit, tormented with other men's felicity, and overwhelmed with his own misery, in a raving and frantic mood most desperately exhibiteth his Supplication to the Devil !” &c.
Nash answered; and Harvey replied by his “ Pierce's Superogation,” which is now curious, not so much for the subject that
gave rise to it, as for the numerous notices which it contains of the literature of the day: on which account a reprint of it is intended hereafter to form a portion of ARCHAICA.
Yet in the present Letters it is clear that Harvey was anxious to conciliate Nash. For in another place, after speaking of the fine models of Orpheus, Homer, Pindar, and the excellentest wits of Greece—and then of the Psalms of David, translated by Buchanan, he cordially recommends “such lively springs of streaming eloquence to the dear lovers of the Muses; and namely, to the professed sons of the same, Edmund Spenser, Richard Stanyhurst, Abraham France, Thomas Watson, Samuel Daniell, Thomas Nash, and the rest, whom he affectionately thanks for their studious endeavours, commendably employed in enriching and polishing their native tongue, never so furnished or embellished as of late.”
As to the SONNETS annexed to these Letters, they never ap
proach to poetry: with the exception of the 18th, which has justly been commended by Mr. Israeli'. On the contrary, the verses inserted in Nash's Supplication are often animated, and marked with poetical feeling and poetical expression.
But what can art and learning do towards producing poetry without the native inspiration of the Muse? How little a way will the most ingenious theories of Criticism advance to it? How often does a composition charm in defiance of all the Critic's rules? And how often is that, which is in strict conformity to all his canons, dull, lifeless, and without a particle of attraction ? Animated feelings; affecting sentiment; glowing imagery—what cold critic can reason away the delight which the delineation of these can convey; or the fame which shall follow it? Or how shall all his puny endeavours confer on the laborious accuracy of the artificial writer the popularity and lustre which can only be attained by the unborrowed force of genuine and unsophisticated genius?
See Calamities of Authors. See also Quarrels of Authors, for an account of the controversy between Harvey and Nash.