The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IX. The Successors of Spenser

§ 3. William Browne

William Browne also shared Wither’s joy in life, though the circumstances of his career formed a strong antithesis to those of his friend’s stormy life. For Browne seems to have lived as peacefully and gracefully as he wrote. He was born at Tavistock not later than 1591 of a good Devon family. About 1603, he went from the grammar school of Tavistock to Exeter college, Oxford, and, leaving the university without taking a degree, he came to Clifford’s inn and then settled at the Inner Temple (November, 1611). Little is known of his life, which was without great incident. Browne was twice married. Of his first wife, no record remains. In 1628, he married Tymothy Eversfield, daughter of Sir Thomas Eversfield, after a courtship of some thirteen years. He owed his position chiefly to the patronage of the Herberts and to the fact that he coached Robert Dormer, the future earl of Carnarvon. He died about the year 1645.

Browne’s first printed poem, like that of Wither and of Drummond, was concerned with the death of prince Henry. It appeared in 1613, with an elegy by Christopher Brooke. In the same year was published the first book of Britannia’s Pastorals, his longest and most famous work. It tells the story of the loves of Marina and Redmond and Celand. The story is elusive and unimportant, and serves chiefly as a means of singing the praises of England and of his own Devon. The charm of the poem lies in its simplicity of thought and diction. No rural incident is too trivial to be recorded, and, though this triviality, especially in metaphor, is sometimes a little farfetched, the metaphors are often most effective, and give an atmosphere of delicacy which is real and refreshing. For simple beauty, there are few passages to equal that which describes how Marina, trapped in a cave, was fed on strawberries and cherries by a robin redbreast; and it is impossible to forget the two little brothers who were scared by the angry bull, or the little lad who,

  • gotten new
  • to play his part amongst a skilful crew
  • of choice musicians.
  • was obliged to emphasise his presence by a loud and sudden noise. His poems show a capacity for warm affection; and he had many friends among the many poets of his day. With Drayton, Wither, Christopher Brooke, Davies, Ben Jonson, he was on terms of intimacy; and the fact that they were his friends did not prevent him from celebrating in verse their achievements, for which he had great and discerning admiration. But Spenser was his master, as he is proud to avow, and, in a less degree, Sidney. That is to say, in the great view of life which is expressed in Spenser’s poetry, the homeliest affairs of everyday existence have their place as surely as the heights of life’s imagined possibilities; and Browne was strengthened in his love of these everyday affairs by Spenser’s treatment of them. If the nature of influence be pressed too closely, a false conception is quickly produced. For the influence lies in the time in which the men lived: the time inspired each man according to his capacity, though the smaller men were strengthened by the utterance of the bigger man.

    Browne ends the first song of the second book of Britannia’s Pastorals with a eulogy of Spenser. He never missed an occasion for giving voice to his love and admiration of Spenser, but this is the most notable passage, and it seems to imply that a plan for erecting a monument in honour of Spenser was thwarted by “suborn’d, curs’d Avarice.” This slight wrought upon Browne to compose lines almost unrecognisably fierce in denunciation of “that gulf-devouring offspring of a devil”—“my busied pen Shall jerk to death this infamy of men.” But he returns at the beginning of the second song to his gentle vein, and passes in review the English poets. In his praises of them, he shows his discernment. He writes of “all-loved” Drayton, “a genuine note of all the nymphish trains began to tune”; of Ben Jonson, “One so judicious, so well knowing and A man whose least worth is to understand”; of “well-languag’d” Daniel; and of Brooke, “whose polish’d lines Are fittest to accomplish high designs.”

    For Browne was a scholar and could discriminate. He was interested in old MSS. and printed a poem of Occleve with his Shepherd’s Pipe (1614); “as this shall please,” he wrote, “I may be drawn to publish the rest of his works.” However, it did not please, and others of Occleve’s works remained in Browne’s possession. This trait probably accounts for the small care he took about the publishing of his own works. The first book of Britannia’s Pastorals was published, as has been said, in 1613, the second in 1616, and the two were reissued together in 1625; but the third book remained during his lifetime in manuscript, and was not published till 1852. The same is true of the Inner Temple Masque which was performed on 13 January, 1614/15, and which was not printed till 1772, from a manuscript in the library of Emmanuel college, Cambridge.