Volume XXVII · Number 1 · Winter 1971-1972
Æthelstan Owen Discovered
-- JAMES WILLIAM JOHNSON
Professor of English, University of Rochester
The manuscript volume of the previously unknown poems of Æthelstan Owen, recently acquired by the Rare Book Department of Rush Rhees Library through the Wilson Family Fund, provides a unique opportunity for students of English Neo-Classical verse. This collection of poems in various meters treating a familiar range of Restoration topics is an octavo volume, entirely in the author's script. It is thus one of the specimens of "private" compositions which survived anonymity from the seventeenth century until they were unearthed by latter day bibliophiles. Æthelstan Owen now must be added to those other Restoration figures obscured by the altered taste of their Augustan successors. Like Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, Thomas Traherne, and John Wilmot the Earl of Rochester, Owen presents aspects of thought and literary practice in the late seventeenth century that were previously unknown or deliberately ignored. His poems were never printed, and it is by rare good luck that the sole manuscript copy survived until now. Dated 1693, the holograph poems disclose interesting changes being rung on established verse forms during the era of William and Mary, a period frequently dismissed by literary historians and critics.
As his resounding name suggests, Æthelstan Owen was a native of Wales, probably Montgomeryshire; several of his poems have Welsh settings. He probably matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in July 1693, as a Gentleman Commoner and armiger (Esquire); and it may have been there that he studied the classics that hold a prominent place in his works. Owen certainly had a close knowledge of Propertius, Ovid, Horace, Virgil, and Catullus; he translated or closely paraphrased them all. At one point he contemplated entering the army and apparently did so. It may have been during his period of service that he met George Farquhar, another "outlander" from Ireland, who eventually used Owen as the model of Worthy in The Recruiting Office (1705). Either during his army days or before, he cut something of a figure as a rake and man about London; but his fortunes eventually forced him back to the countryside of Wales, where he waxed nostalgic over his salad days in such semi-autobiographical poems as "Matter of Fact." In his later days, he mellowed into a country gentleman, much as Addison's Sir Roger de Coverley altered from a Restoration gallant to a respectable country squire as youth gave way to age.
It was de rigueur for any young man-about-town to scribble verse as proof of his wit; and Æthelstan Owen, Esq., willingly followed the stylish conventions. Most of his poems treat the eternally fascinating topics of coy ladies, importunate swains, and the divine bliss of lovemaking. Echoes of Herrick and Marvell are to be found in such poems as "A Song" transcribed below. Owen's metaphoric imagination is not equal to theirs; but his verse is generally deft in its metrics and its smooth if somewhat bland diction. He experimented with the pentameter couplets that had been polished to satiric brilliance by Rochester and Dryden during the 1670's and 80's; but such longer verse epistles as "To Larissa," though they are successful explorations of the ingenious, classically allusive poetic discourse favored still later by Pope, do not measure up to the standards of Owen's great contemporaries. It is only in "Matter of Fact" that Owen strikes the vigorously bawdy, scatological notes that characterize the lyrics of his Restoration predecessors: Dorset, Sedley, Mulgrave, Scroop. And only in "To Morania upon Happiness" does Owen sustain a long, satiric commentary on contemporary behavior that clearly owes to Rochester's "A Satyr against Reason and Mankind."
It is, in fact, in his "correctness" that Owen seems particularly interesting as a transitional writer linking the poetic practices of Rochester, Marvell, and Dryden with those of Prior, Addison, and Pope. Owen's academic training left its mark: his spelling and punctuation are far more consistent than those of Rochester, for example; and Owen's classical references are always accurate, sometimes at a cost to his originality. Furthermore, his poems lack the pungent diction that still shocks readers of unexpurgated Restoration verse. The holograph manuscript shows that Æthelstan Owen revised his youthful verse at a later period: he even cut out entire pages and poems that displeased him once youth's fond fire had begun to flicker, and he revised others. The total effect of the volume is one of palliation: experience tempered by judgment, excess pruned out by reflection. Æthelstan Owen's poems show graphically -- as only minor poetry can -- how the passionate sensuality of the Restoration Era became slowly attenuated into the poetic decorum pleasing to that new sensibility termed "Augustan." The three poems given here suggest the pattern of that alteration, while showing both the virtues and the limitations of Æthelstan Owen as poet.
Faith Lemnia if thou'lt have me serve,
Give me ye wages I deserve;
Each minute lett us kiss,
And then to farther bliss.
When I at midnight serenade
Sure ye starv'd Fidler must be paid,
Or when to restless floods
And ye far-ecchoing woods
I chaunt of thy immortal name,
The Poet must be brib'd for Fame.
I think no task too hard
If thou art the reward.
Sweet Interest reigns; most Musick plays
For coin, most Poets write for praise,
But I in softer Love
Will all my Interest prove,
For if I still am slave to thee,
Thy arms and heart my prison be.
upon her immoderate greif for ye death of her husband
Most passions in extent of time decay
And wisely to succeeding joys give way,
Constant in sorrows you alone can prove,
Your raging greif is endless as my Love.
The sky when wrapt in clouds distills it's rain,
Shakes of[f] ye dusky mask & smiles again;
Storms doe not always rage; nor is above
The thunder always in ye hand of Jove;
Nor can ye Winter always shoot it's cold,
And ye sad earth in frozen fetters hold:
You ye same melancholly fair appeare, }
Through all ye seasons of ye rowling yeare, }
Tho' Nature change, still true to woes & care.}
The Queen of Love when the impartial Boar,
The tender limbs of her Adonis tore,
Wept & lamented o're ye luckless boy
And seem'd to banish all ye thoughts of joy;
But when hard Fate she could not reconcile,
Compos'd her suff'ring locks & wore a smile,
The Goddess in ye next bright fountain view'd }
Disorder'd charms, but soon those charms renew'd }
To conquer Gods & be herself subdu'd: }
So you, cold as your husbands marble tomb,
Warm as your Lover's wishes should become;
And for those wounds yt you profusely give,
Unsteel your guarded mind & wounds receive.
Old surly Time yt travels on apace,
Will blast ye glories of a beauteous face;
But Greif prevents bold Time's too sudden doom,
And makes green youth look wither'd in it's bloom.
Larissa lett your Spring in pleasures burn,
And in your sickly Autumn learn to mourn.
As April flowers lament ye absent Sun
In nightly dew, & widdow'd seem wn he is gone,
Yet blow their sweets all ye next springing day
When fresher beams sip their moist tears away
So you no longer your sett Lord deplore
When dawning Lovers offer to adore.
Lett Him that's void of love, his search give o're
If he ye paths of happiness explore,
All else is shamm wch has the world betray'd
To magick errour & delusive shade:
Groping, Philosophers take pains enough,
And in wide forrests play att blindman's buff
And whatsoever in their way they find
They grasp, but still ye wrong & still are blind.
Some peirce ye womb of earth dark mazes tread
And trace the winding serpite to his bed,
The Center reach, thinking ye grave assign'd
To hide ye Summum bonum of mankind:
Some send their thoughts on board ye clouds, and try
The visionary voyage of the sky
To ask ye silent Starrs if they can tell
Where that great stranger Happiness does dwell:
Some think in martial feilds & fords of blood
Triumphant evil is ye cheifest good,
The trumpet they, others ye pulpit, sound;
And both too often their Religion wound,
Nothing so much as Jargon here does reign
The State, the Church, the Law does it mantain:
Crowns doe wth crowns, Mitres wth mitres jarr;
(The Praelates discord makes ye harmony of War)
Most by consent to fi'ry quarrels move:
But o! lett me be warm'd wth force of Love;
Then lett old book-worms rack ye restless brain,
They true foelicity can never gain,
Tho' they of all ye Elements enquire
They miss ye treasure they so much desire,
Tho' in Hope's limbeck they wth spells devout
Distill ye Essence of ye Monster Doubt,
Or turn ye Pocketts of Invention out,
The beautious Dame ye learned dotards flies
And beggs a lodging in Morania's eyes;
Refulgent there adoring Lovers see
The very marrow of Philosophy.