An Account of the Greatest English Poets (complete)

Original Text: 
The Annual Miscellany: for the year 1694. (London: R.E. for Jacob Tonson, 1694). B-10 4946, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
2A short account of all the muse possess'd;
3That, down from Chaucer's days to Dryden's times,
4Have spent their noble rage in British rhymes;
5Without more preface, wrote in formal length,
6To speak the undertaker's want of strength,
7I'll try to make their sev'ral beauties known,
8And show their verses' worth, though not my own.
9      Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,
12And many a story told in rhyme and prose.
13But age has rusted what the poet writ,
14Worn out his language, and obscur'd his wit:
15In vain he jests in his unpolish'd strain,
16And tries to make his readers laugh in vain.
19An age that yet uncultivate and rude,
20Where-e'er the poet's fancy led, pursu'd
21Through pathless fields, and unfrequented floods,
22To dens of dragons, and enchanted woods.
23But now the mystic tale, that pleas'd of yore,
24Can charm an understanding age no more;
26While the dull moral lies too plain below.
27We view well-pleas'd at distance all the sights
28Of arms and palfreys, battles, fields and fights,
29And damsels in distress, and courteous knights.
30But when we look too near, the shades decay,
31And all the pleasing landscape fades away.
33O'errun with wit, and lavish of his thought:
35He more had pleas'd us had he pleas'd us less.
36One glitt'ring thought no sooner strikes our eyes
37With silent wonder, but new wonders rise.
38As in the Milky Way a shining white
39O'erflows the heav'ns with one continu'd light;
40That not a single star can show his rays,
41Whilst jointly all promote the common blaze.
42Pardon, great poet, that I dare to name
43Th' unnumber'd beauties of thy verse with blame;
44Thy fault is only wit in its excess,
45But wit like thine in any shape will please.
46What muse but thine could equal hints inspire;
48Pindar, whom others in a labour'd strain,
49And forc'd expression, imitate in vain?
50Well-pleas'd in thee he soars with new delight,
51And plays in more unbounded verse, and takes a nobler flight.
52      Blest man! whose spotless life and charming lays
54Blest man! who now shall be for ever known,
55In Sprat's successful labours and thy own.
57Unfetter'd in majestic numbers walks;
58No vulgar hero can his muse engage;
59Nor Earth's wide scene confine his hallow'd rage.
60See! see, he upward springs, and tow'ring high
61Spurns the dull province of mortality;
62Shakes Heav'n's eternal throne with dire alarms,
64Whate'er his pen describes I more than see,
65Whilst ev'ry verse, array'd in majesty,
66Bold, and sublime, my whole attention draws,
67And seems above the critics' nicer laws.
68How are you struck with terror and delight,
70When great Messiah's outspread banner shines,
71How does the chariot rattle in his lines!
72What sounds of brazen wheels, what thunder, soar,
73And stun the reader with the din of war!
74With fear my spirits and my blood retire
75To see the seraphs sunk in clouds of fire;
76But when, with eager steps, from hence I rise,
78What tongue, what words of rapture can express
79A vision so profuse of pleasantness.
81To varnish o'er the guilt of faithless men;
82His other works might have deserv'd applause!
83But now the language can't support the cause,
84While the clean current, though serene and bright,
85Betrays a bottom odious to the sight.
86      But now my muse a softer strain rehearse.
87Turn ev'ry line with art, and smooth thy verse;
89Muse tune thy verse, with art, to Waller's praise.
90While tender airs and lovely dames inspire
91Soft melting thoughts, and propagate desires;
92So long shall Waller's strains our passion move,
93And Sacharissa's beauties kindle love.
94Thy verse, harmonious bard, and flatt'ring song,
95Can make the vanquish'd great, the coward strong.
96Thy verse can show ev'n Cromwell's innocence,
98Oh had thy muse not come an age too soon,
100How had his triumphs glitter'd in thy page,
101And warm'd thee to a more exalted rage!
102What scenes of death and horror had we view'd,
103And how had Boyne's wide current reek'd in blood!
105In smoother numbers and a softer verse;
106Thy pen had well describ'd her graceful air,
110Rules whose deep sense and heav'nly numbers show,
111The best of critics, and of poets too.
113While Cooper's Hill commands the neighb'ring plains.
115Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev'n in years.
116Great Dryden next! whose tuneful muse affords
117The sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.
118Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs
119She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
120If satire or heroic strains she writes,
121Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.
122From her no harsh, unartful numbers fall,
123She wears all dresses, and she charms in all:
124How might we fear our English poetry,
125That long has flourish'd, should decay with thee,
126Did not the Muses' other hope appear,
127Harmonious Congreve, and forbid our fear.
128Congreve! whose fancies' unexhausted store
129Has given already much, and promis'd more.
130Congreve shall still preserve thy fame alive,
132      I'm tir'd with rhyming, and would fain give o'er,
133But justice still demands one labour more:
135For wit, for humour, and for judgment fam'd;
137In numbers such as Dorset's self might use.
138Now negligently graceful he unreins
139His verse, and writes in loose familiar strains;
140How Nassau's godlike acts adorn his lines,
141And all the hero in full glory shines.
142We see his army set in just array,
145Nor rapid Xanthus' celebrated flood:
146Shall longer be the poet's highest themes,
147Though gods and heroes fought, promiscuous in their streams.
149He aids the hero, whom before he prais'd.
150      I've done, at length, and now, dear friend, receive
151The last poor present that my muse can give.
152I leave the arts of poetry and verse
153To them that practise 'em with more success.
154Of greater truths I'll now prepare to tell,
155And so at once, dear friend and muse, farewell.


1] The poem is inscribed ."To Mr. H. S. Ap. 3d. 1694.." The dedicatee was Addison's younger contemporary at Magdelen College, Oxford, Henry Sacheverell (1674-1724), later to become a clergyman and highly controversial proponent of the rights of the Church of England. Back to Line
10] tuneful Nine: in classical mythology, the nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory). Back to Line
11] Chaucer: Speght's edition of Chaucer (1598-1602) had been reprinted in 1687, but Chaucer was still regarded as a rather crude jester. Back to Line
17] Spenser: Addison treats The Faerie Queene as the expression of the time in which it was written rather than as a literary achievement. Back to Line
18] antic: grotesque, bizarre. Back to Line
25] fulsome: excessive, and therefore distasteful. Back to Line
32] Cowley: Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), published his first collection of lyrics, Poetical Blossoms in 1633, and confirmed his reputation with a second, The Mistress, in 1647. Back to Line
34] turns: turns of phrase designed to impress the reader; "less" in the next line means "less frequently." Back to Line
47] Pindar: ancient Greek poet, whose odes, designed for choral presentation, seemed quite irregular to most seventeenth-century readers. Cowley pioneered the "irregular ode" in English; his Pindarique Odes, containing versions of odes by Pindar and original poems in the same manner, were first published in his Poems, 1656. Back to Line
53] tuneful prelate: Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), who had written an ode celebrating Cowley as "the English Ovid" in 1657, and had, as Cowley's literary executor, edited Cowley's English poems in 1668, prefaced by an account of the poet's life and writings. Sprat was appointed Dean of Westminster Abbey in 1683 and Bishop of Rochester in 1684. Back to Line
56] Milton: as a poet, here treated exclusively as the author of Paradise Lost, first published in 1667. Back to Line
63] thunderer: one of Satan's epithets for the God he prefers not to name; e.g., 2: 28 Back to Line
69] in fight: the war in heaven, in Book 6 of Paradise Lost; for the Messiah's intervention, seee 746ff. Back to Line
77] Paradise: in Book 4. Back to Line
80] profan'd his pen: during the Interregnum (1649-60), by writing numerous books and pamphlets in justification of the execution of Charles I. Back to Line
88] Waller: Edmund Waller (1606-1687), highly esteemed by his contemporaries for his lyrics, many inspired by Lady Dorothy Sidney under the poetical name of Sacharissa. Back to Line
97] Cromwell: Waller, who was Oliver Cromwell's brother-in-law, praised him at length in A Panegyrick to My Lord Protector in 1655, and wrote a short poetical account of this death on 3 September 1658, relating it to the great storm that swept over England on that day. Back to Line
99] Nassau: William of Orange, who was also Count of Nassau-Dillenburg in Germany. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William and his wife Mary, daughter of James Ii by his first marriage, became joint sovereigns as William III and Mary II. In 1690 James II returned from exile to lead a rising in Ireland. He was defeated by William on July 1, 1690, at the batttle of the river Boyne, about twenty-five miles north of Dublin, and returned to exile in France. Back to Line
104] Maria: Mary II. Back to Line
107] Gloriana: Mary II (Spenser introduces Queen Elizabeth into Faerie Queene under this name). Back to Line
108] Roscommon: Wentworth Dillon, fourth Earl of Roscommon (1637-1685), translator of Horace'sArs Poetica (i>Horace's Art of Poetry, 1679), and author of An Essay on Translated Verse, 1684. Back to Line
109] rules: of literary composition. Back to Line
112] Denham: Sir John Denham (1615-1669); his Cooper's Hill (1642, revised 1655), was a hugely popular poem that drew moral and political implications from the historical sites visible from a hill in the Thames valley near London. Back to Line
114] Dryden: John Dryden (1631-1700) had lost his position as Poet Laureate in 1689 because he remained loyal to James II; Addison restricts his praise to the characteristics of Dryden's verse, and tactfully omits any reference to politics. Back to Line
131] shall in his friend survive: Dryden had hailed William Congreve (1670-1729) as his poetical son and worthy successor in his poem "To My Dear Friend Mr. Congreve on His Comedy Call'd The Double-Dealer," published early in 1694. Back to Line
134] Montagu: Charles Montagu, Earl of Halifax (1661-1715), who had first made his mark with his precocious literary talent and became one of the most influential politicians of the 1690s; it was his patronage that later enabled Addison to go on the Grand Tour of Europe. Back to Line
136] Dorset: Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset (1643-1706), friend of the Earl of Rochester and author of several popular poems, had promoted the political careers of Matthew Prior and Charles Montagu, both being accomplished poets. In September 1690 Montagu published a poetical epistle addressed to Dorset, then Lord Chamberlain, "Occasioned by His Majesty's Victory in Ireland." Back to Line
143] run purple to the sea: Milton, Paradise Lost i. 450-51: "While smooth Adonis from his native rock/Ran purple to the sea." Back to Line
144] Simois: a tributary of the river Xanthus, in the vicinity of Troy, both frequently mentioned in the Iliad. Back to Line
148] now: in May 1694 Montagu was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer and was sworn as a member of the Privy Council. Since this date is later than that prefixed to the poem, the paragraph on Montague may be an addition to the poem as originally written Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
N. J. Endicott; John D. Baird
RPO Edition: 
2RP 1. 537
Special Copyright: 

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