William Browne by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Essay

April 21, 1894. William Browne of Tavistock.

It has been objected to the author of Britannia’s Pastorals that their perusal sends you to sleep. It had been subtler criticism, as well as more amiable, to observe that you can wake up again and, starting anew at the precise point where you dropped off, continue the perusal with as much pleasure as ever, neither ashamed of your somnolence nor imputing it as a fault to the poet. For William Browne is perhaps the easiest figure in our literature. He lived easily, he wrote easily, and no doubt he died easily. He no more expected to be read through at a sitting than he tried to write all the story of Marina at a sitting. He took up his pen and composed: when he felt tired he went off to bed, like a sensible man: and when you are tired of reading he expects you to be sensible and do the same.

A placid life.

He was born at Tavistock, in Devon, about the year 1590; and after the manner of mild and sensible men cherished a particular love for his birth-place to the end of his days. From Tavistock Grammar School he passed to Exeter College, Oxford–the old west-country college–and thence to Clifford’s Inn and the Inner Temple. His first wife died when he was twenty-three or twenty-four. He took his second courtship quietly and leisurely, marrying the lady at length in 1628, after a wooing of thirteen years. “He seems,” says Mr. A.H. Bullen, his latest biographer, “to have acquired in some way a modest competence, which secured him immunity from the troubles that weighed so heavily on men of letters.” His second wife also brought him a portion. More than four years before this marriage he had returned to Exeter College, as tutor to the young Robert Dormer, who in due time became Earl of Carnarvon and was killed in Newbury fight. By his fellow-collegians–as by everybody with whom he came into contact–he was highly beloved and esteemed, and in the public Register of the University is styled, “vir omni humana literarum et bonarum artium cognitione instructus.” He gained the especial favor of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, whom Aubrey calls “the greatest Mæcenas to learned men of any peer of his time or since,” and of whom Clarendon says, “He was a great lover of his country, and of the religion and justice, which he believed could only support it; and his friendships were only with men of those principles,”–another tribute to the poet’s character. He was familiarly received at Wilton, the home of the Herberts. After his second marriage he moved to Dorking and there settled. He died in or before the year 1645. In the letters of administration granted to his widow (November, 1645) he is described as “late of Dorking, in the county of Surrey, Esquire.” But there is no entry of his death in the registers at Dorking or Horsham: so perhaps he went back to lay his bones in his beloved Devon. A William Browne was buried at Tavistock on March 27th, 1643. This may or may not have been our author. “Tavistock,–Wilton,–Dorking,” says Mr. Bullen,–“Surely few poets have had a more tranquil journey to the Elysian Fields.”

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An amiable poet.

As with his life, so with his poetry–he went about it quietly, contentedly. He learned his art, as he confesses, from Spenser and Sidney; and he took it over ready-made, with all the conventions and pastoral stock-in-trade–swains languishing for hard-hearted nymphs, nymphs languishing for hard-hearted swains; sheep-cotes, rustic dances, junketings, anadems, and true-love knots; monsters invented for the perpetual menace of chastity; chastity undergoing the most surprising perils, but always saved in the nick of time, if not by an opportune shepherd, then by an equally opportune river-god or earthquake; episodes innumerable, branching off from the main stem of the narrative at the most critical point, and luxuriating in endless ramifications. Beauty, eluding unwelcome embraces, is never too hotly pressed to dally with an engaging simile or choose the most agreeable words for depicting her tribulation. Why indeed should she hurry? It is all a polite and pleasant make-believe; and when Marina and Doridon are tired, they stand aside and watch the side couples, Fida and Remond, and get their breath again for the next figure. As for the finish of the tale, there is no finish. The narrator will stop when he is tired; just then and no sooner. What became of Marina after Triton rolled away the stone and released her from the Cave of Famine? I am sure I don’t know. I have followed her adventures up to that point (though I should be very sorry to attempt a précis of them without the book) through some 370 pages of verse. Does this mean that I am greatly interested in her? Not in the least. I am quite content to hear no more about her. Let us have the lamentations of Celadyne for a change–though “for a change” is much too strong an expression. The author is quite able to invent more adventures for Marina, if he chooses to, by the hour together. If he does not choose to, well and good.

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Was the composition of Britannia’s Pastorals then, a useless or inconsiderable feat? Not at all: since to read them is to taste a mild but continuous pleasure. In the first place, it is always pleasant to see a good man thoroughly enjoying himself: and that Browne thoroughly “relisht versing”–to use George Herbert’s pretty phrase–would be patent enough, even had he not left us an express assurance:–

“What now I sing is but to pass away
A tedious hour, as some musicians play;
Or make another my own griefs bemoan–“

–rather affected, that, one suspects:

“Or to be least alone when most alone,
In this can I, as oft as I will choose,
Hug sweet content by my retirèd Muse,
And in a study find as much to please
As others in the greatest palaces.
Each man that lives, according to his power,
On what he loves bestows an idle hour.
Instead of hounds that make the wooded hills
Talk in a hundred voices to the rills,
I like the pleasing cadence of a line
Struck by the consort of the sacred Nine.
In lieu of hawks …”

–and so on. Indeed, unless it be Wither, there is no poet of the time who practised his art with such entire cheerfulness: though Wither’s satisfaction had a deeper note, as when he says of his Muse–

“Her true beauty leaves behind
Apprehensions in the mind,
Of more sweetness than all art
Or inventions can impart;
Thoughts too deep to be express’d,
And too strong to be suppressed.”

Yet Charles Lamb’s nice observation–

“Fame, and that too after death, was all which hitherto the poets had promised themselves from their art. It seems to have been left to Wither to discover that poetry was a present possession as well as a rich reversion, and that the muse had promise of both lives–of this, and of that which was to come.”

–must be extended by us, after reading his lines quoted above, to include William Browne. He, at least, had no doubt of the Muse as an earthly companion.

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As for posthumous fame, Browne confides to us his aspirations in that matter also:–

“And Time may be so kind to these weak lines
To keep my name enroll’d past his that shines
In gilded marble, or in brazen leaves:
Since verse preserves, when stone and brass deceives.
Or if (as worthless) Time not lets it live
To those full days which others’ Muses give,
Yet I am sure I shall be heard and sung
Of most severest eld and kinder young
Beyond my days; and maugre Envy’s strife,
Add to my name some hours beyond my life.”

This is the amiable hope of one who lived an entirely amiable life in

“homely towns,
Sweetly environ’d with the daisied downs:”

and who is not the less to be beloved because at times his amiability prevents him from attacking even our somnolence too fiercely. If the casual reader but remember Browne as a poet who had the honor to supply Keats with inspiration,[A] there will always be others, and enough of them, to prize his ambling Muse for her own qualities.


[A] Cf. his lament for William Ferrar (brother of Nicholas Ferrar, of Little Gidding), drowned at sea–

“Glide soft, ye silver floods,
And every spring:
Within the shady woods
Let no bird sing….”

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