April 18th

William Winstanley’s Lives of The English Poets, or the Honour of Parnassus, published in 1687, attempted to bring together a compendium of sorts of England’s greatest poets, from William the Conqueror almost directly up to Winstanley’s moment.

It is hardly surprising that Shakespeare should receive the mention that he does, but the way Winstanley chooses to differentiate them points the way forward to the broader cultural imagination, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of Shakespeare as the writer of spontaneous genius, as opposed to Ben Jonson’s less agile learning:

“Many were the Wit combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson,” Winstanley writes, “which two we may compare to a Spanish Galleon, and an English Man of War; Mr. Jonson (like the former), was built far higher in Learning, solid, but slow in his performances; Shakespeare, with the English Man of War, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all Tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his Wit and Invention.”

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