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The Anti-Quarles Bias

The new Cambridge History of English Literature has received a fairly tepid review by Clive Wilmer. Among other things, Wilmer mentions the omission of various less-than-first-rank poets from the book’s pages.

What has happened to Miles Coverdale, Barnabe Googe, Arthur Golding, John Marston, Fulke Greville, Francis Quarles, Thomas Traherne, Charles Wesley, William Shenstone, Charles Churchill, William Barnes, Edward FitzGerald, Ivor Gurney, F. T. Prince, C. H. Sisson, Christopher Middleton and others, who are simply not mentioned?

Wilmer’s focus is on the book’s dismissal of poetry in translation. My attention was drawn to two names. One of these was Miles Coverdale, the Bible translator who finally created an English version of the Bible that wouldn’t get him executed. The second is Francis Quarles. For some reason, unrelated to either artistic merit or enduring popularity, Quarles seems to receive little consideration as a significant poet these days. Never mind that his most esteemed work, Emblems, enjoyed a long popularity, remaining in print well into the nineteenth century.

I would not claim Quarles as the equal of Donne or Milton, but his stature vis a vis a poet like Andrew Marvell seems not clearly inferior. Like so many versifiers, Quarles has his high and low moments. While his lines typically possess cadence and imagery that we might expect from a poet, their profundity is uneven. The same might be said for Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens or even Shakespeare. An example demonstrates his competence with verse.

How shall my tongue express that hollow’d fire
Which heav’n has kindled in my ravished heart
What Muse shall I invoke that will inspire
My lowly Quill to act a lofty part.

Clearly this guy could write passable iambic pentameter. Incompetence does not explain his neglect.

I would suggest two possible reasons for Quarles’ lowered reputation in modern circles. First, Quarles wrote exclusively religious verse unlike his contemporaries Donne and Marvell who wrote both religious and secular works. I don’t suggest that contemporary readers necessarily discriminate against religious themes. However, they do not necessarily recognize the depth and significance of the work.

The other possible explanation is Quarles’ association with the emblem-book genre. In a culture that privileges the block-of-text book over all other expressions, that attempts to present Blake meaningfully without the attendant images, Quarles can be seen as little more than a caption writer. Pope seems to have followed this route, ascribing Quarles’ popularity more to the emblems in the books than to the poetry supporting them.

The unfortunate result of the Anti-Quarles Bias is that the writer’s work is neglected. Very little seventeenth century remains easily accessible to the contemporary reader. Any further impediments to his reception can only diminish his import more.

Posted in English Literature, Neo-Classicism.

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