Did anyone notice when Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s Early Modern English became Modern English?

[ … ] “In the mean time, ‘tis a surprizing Reflection, that between what Spencer wrote last [1599?], and Waller first [ca. 1625?], there should not be much above twenty years distance: and yet one’s Language, like the Money of that time, is as currant now as ever; whilst the other’s words are like old Coyns, one must go to an Antiquary to understand their true meaning and value. Such advances may a great Genius make, when it undertakes any thing in earnest.

Some Painters will hit the chief Lines, and master strokes of a Face so truly, that through all the differences of Age, the Picture shall still bear a Resemblance. This Art was Mr. Waller’s; he sought out, in this flowing Tongue of ours, what parts would last, and be of standing use and ornament; and this he did so successfully, that his Language is now as fresh as it was at first setting out. Were we to judge barely by the wording, we would not know what was wrote at twenty, and what at fourscore. He complains indeed of a Tyde of words that comes in upon the English Poet, o’reflows whate’re he builds: but this was less his case than any mans, that ever wrote; and the mischief on’t is, this very complaint will last long enough to constitute it self. For though English be mouldring Stone, as he tells us there, yet he has certainly pick’d the best out of a bad Quarry.” Sig. A4v-5v.

Francis Atterbury (1663-1732), ‘The Preface,’ The Second Part of Mr. Waller’s Poems. Containing, His Alteration of the MAIDS TRAGEDY, And whatever of his is yet unprinted: Together with some other Poems, Speeches &c. that were Printed severally, and never put into the First Collection of his Poems. London: Printed for Tho. Bennet, at the Half-Moon in St. Pauls Church-yard. MDC XC [1690].

To be scrupulously accurate, Spenser also was a self-conscious archaizer who imported Middle English freely into his works in imitation of Chaucer.  As Ben Jonson said of him,  “ Spencer, in affecting the Ancients writ no language.“ Though Atterbury attributes the “currency” of Waller’s language to his “genius” rather than the fortunes of large-scale language change, he was quite right in using Waller’s early and late works to demarcate the era in which Early Modern English changed and began its long life as ModE..  Waller’s “Long and Short Life” nicely illustrates his accessibility even in a highly compressed rhyming aphorism.

Author: Professor Arnold Sanders, Emeritus Professor of English (2015) – Goucher College.

*Note: The materials below are provided by Goucher Special Collection & Archives.