Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Henry Austin Dobson
Matthew Green (16961737)
[Matthew Green was born in 1696. He came of a Dissenting family; held a post in the Custom House; and died a bachelor at a lodging in Nags Head Court, Gracechurch Street, in 1737. His first poem The Grotto was published in 1732; The Spleen, his chief work, appeared in 1737. In 1796 it was published in a volume with some additional pieces and a preface by Dr. Aikin.]
TO most people the name of Matthew Green, if it suggests anything, suggests a line in his longest poem,the familiar
Fling but a stone, the giant dies,
which occurs in his general plea for physical exercise. It would almost appear as if the first discoverer of this happily concise precept, exhausted by the effort, had rested from further enquiry, for it is not often that one hears reference made to any other part of the poem. And yet The Spleen is full of things almost if not quite as good, and marked in all cases by distinct originality and a fresh and unfettered mode of utterance. Now it is a clever simile, as when poetasters are spoken of as those who
buzz in rhyme, and, like blind flies,
Err with their wings for want of eyes;
now a picture-couplet, such as this of the divine
in whose gay red-lettered face,
We read good living more than grace;
now a perfectly poetic line like
Brown fields their fallow sabbaths keep;
or lastly such a pleasantly ingenious passage as that in which the effect of blue eyes on the old is compared to the miracle of St. Januarius:
Shine but on age, you melt its snow;
Again fires long-extinguished glow,
And, charmed by witchery of eyes,
Blood long congealèd liquefies!
True miracle, and fairly done
By heads which are adored while on.
But to multiply quotations would be practically to reproduce the entire poem, which is not long. Green suffered really or poetically from the fashionable eighteenth-century disorder which Pope has so well described in The Rape of the Lock, and in this motley piece, as he calls it, he sets forth the various expedients which he employed to evade his enemy. Taken altogether, his precepts constitute a code of philosophy not unlike that advocated in more than one of the Odes of Horace. To observe the religion of the body; to cultivate cheerfulness and calm; to keep a middle course, and possess his soul in quiet; content, as regards the future, to ignore what Heaven withholds,such are the chief features of his plan. But, in developing his principles he takes occasion to deal many a side-long stroke at imperfect humanity, and not always at those things only which are opposed to his theory of conduct. Female education, faction, law, religious sects, reform, speculation, place-hunting, poetry, ambition,all these are briefly touched, and seldom left unmarked by some quivering shaft of ridicule. Towards the end of the poem comes an ideal picture of rural retirement, which may be compared with the joint version by Pope and Swift of Horaces sixth satire in the second book; and the whole closes with the writers views upon immortality and a summary of his practice. Regarded as a whole, we can recall few discursive poems which contain so much compact expression and witty illustration. The author was evidently shrewd and observant, and unusually gifted in the detection of grotesque aspects and remote affinities. He must have been more than fairly read, and although at the outset of his task he appears to disclaim scholarship,1 he must have been familiar with classical commonplaceswitness, for instance, the line See better things and do the worst; although for this and other examples he may have gone no farther than that eighteenth-century repertory of ready-made learning, the mottoes of the Spectator. In his verse, notwithstanding that he occasionally makes use of such hideous Latinisms as nefandous and fecundous, his vocabulary is fresh and exact, and remarkably free from the conventionalism of contemporary poetic diction.
Of Greens remaining pieces, The Grotto, and the lines On Barclays Apology for the Quakers are the most noteworthy. Both of these are characterised by the same qualities which are exhibited in The Spleen. The Seeker is a humorous little picture of the different professors of religion.