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

VII. Robert Southwell. Samuel Daniel

§ 7. Daniel’s Civil Wars

In a less marked degree, Daniel took the Miltonic view of the poet’s office. The poet was not only to delight, but to instruct and fortify; and, perhaps unwisely, Daniel regarded epic as the best form of poetry for the purpose. Guided always by principle rather than by passion, he adopted the poetic theory followed two centuries later by Wordsworth, and worked something on Wordsworth’s lines, believing in the will and the message rather than in the inspiration. It is a tribute to the force of his mind and the fineness of his taste that The Civil Wars is as interesting as an unprejudiced reader must find it. At the worst, it can only be regarded as a mistake, in that it occupied time which the poet might have devoted to other kinds of poetry. There are, no doubt, long stretches of dulness in the eight books; there is too much chronicle and too little drama; but the subject, though of little importance to the world outside England, was, in Daniel’s view, of immense importance to the Englishmen through whom the world was to be civilised. The whole poem is grave, dignified and wise; it never falls below a very creditable level of matter and execution; and those who wish it away may be classed as critics with the writer who recently declared that “we have no time now for The Excursion and The Prelude.” Wordsworth, it should be added, was an admirer of Daniel’s poetry, and The Excursion owes more to it than the fine couplet which Wordsworth borrowed whole:

  • And that unless above himself he can
  • Erect himself, how poor a thing is Man!
  • The eight books of The Civil Wars contain nearly 900 stanzas of eight lines each. The first book tells the story of England from the Conquest to the return of Hereford against Richard II; the other seven describe the wars of the Roses down to the accession of Edward IV and his marriage to Elizabeth Grey. The poet does not hesitate to draw the moral from these events, as from the story of Rosamond or of Octavia, and the poem becomes particularly interesting in book VI, where Daniel ascribes Cade’s rebellion to the spread of knowledge and the invention of artillery. In his desire to prove himself “the remnant of another time” and to celebrate the good days that are gone, Daniel seems here almost to contradict his own views on the importance of culture and letters; but in his day the ideals of Thomas Love Peacock’s “learned friend” were unknown. Democracy was not even a name, and discontent was not yet called “divine.” “Swelling sciences” were “the gifts of griefe,” and the political absolutist who told James I that “the weight of all seems to rely Wholly upon thine own discretion” put the spread of knowledge and the increase of discontent together as unqualified evils. Indeed, like all the writers of his day in whom the spirit of the age of chivalry still lingered—like Shakespeare himself—Daniel had no sympathy with “the mob.” Yet the patriotism which his epic was written to inspire was none the less lofty and sincere because he regarded it, with knowledge and culture, as the province of the knight and the noble only.

    Ben Jonson, who (for a reason that will probably never be discovered now, but may have been not unconnected with Daniel’s opposition to the Latinists) never appreciated his work, not only parodied Daniel’s verses in Everyman in his Humour (act V) and The Staple of News (act V, sc. I), but said bitter things about him to Drummond of Hawthornden. “An honest man, but no poet,” was his phrase. “He wrote Civil Wars and yet had not one battle in all his book.” “Too much historian in verse,” said Drayton in his epistle to Henry Reynolds Of Poets and Poesy, and added that “his manner better fitted prose.” Both Jonson and Drayton hit upon weak spots in Daniel’s Civil Wars, regarded as an epic: neither, perhaps, took sufficiently into account the ethical purpose with which Daniel wrote. Daniel’s model, undoubtedly, was the Pharsalia of Lucan; and Guilpin, in his Skialetheia, states that he was called by some “a Lucanist.” It may be allowable, perhaps, to find him nearer to Vergil than Lucan. Admitting that the work has little of Vergil’s dramatic power, its sweetness and the simplicity and purity of its style resemble rather the Augustan poet than the Neronian. Daniel’s object was not so much to interest and excite his readers as to rouse in them, by presenting their national history in a moral and philosophic light, a spirit of wise patriotism; and the wisdom, gravity and sincerity of his epic atone for its lack of vivid incident and dramatic force. If, like his masques, it is “too serious,” the fault was deliberately committed.

    In some ways, the epic is Daniel’s most characteristic work: as poetry, it falls short of such poems as his Epistles (to Sir Thomas Egerton, lord Henry Howard, lady Anne Clifford and others), his letter from Octavia to Marcus Antonius, the charming little lyrics in Hymens’ Triumph, or the two which later taste has selected as the best of his shorter poems, the Epistle to the Lady Margaret, countesse of Cumberland, and the “ballad”—or, rather, the discussion upon honour—called Ulisses and the Syren. If the sonnets, beautiful as they are, savour a little of an exercise in poetry, if the masques are “too serious” and the epic shows him “too much historian in verse,” in these two poems he completely proves his title to the “something … though not the best” he modestly claimed, and almost to the eulogies accorded to him by others of his contemporaries besides Spenser.

    The most glowing tribute of all came from Francis Davison, who said in the Poetical Rapsody that Daniel’s “Muse hath surpassed Spenser” and headed his poem: “To Samuel Daniel Prince of English poets, upon his three several sorts of poesie. Lyrical, in his Sonnets. Tragical, in Rosamond and Cleopatra. Heroicall, in his Civill Warres.” The last verse of the poem states that as Alexander conquered Greece, Asia and Egypt, so Daniel conquered all poets in these fields. “Thou alone,” says Davison, “art matchlesse in them all.” From praise so extravagant as this, it is pleasant to turn to the comments of the author of The Returne from Parnassus, part II (acted 1601–2) who speaks (act I, sc. 2) of “sweet honey-dropping D[aniel.]” The remainder of Judicio’s remarks on this poet seem to imply that he knew little or nothing of Daniel’s work besides the sonnets to Delia; for, after stating that he

  • doth wage
  • War with the proudest big Italian,
  • That melts his heart in sugared sonneting,
  • he goes on to warn him that he should
  • more sparingly make use
  • Of other’s wit, and use his own the more;
  • That well may scorn base imitation.
  • We know from the dedication to Cleopatra that one of Daniel’s wishes was to break free from Italian influence. He aspires to make

  • the melody of our sweet isle
  • … heard to Tyber, Arne and Po,
  • That they might know how far Thames doth outgo
  • The music of declinëd Italy.