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Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 1 Post by :Eliot_Proud Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :3683

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Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 1

SPENSER. Continues 1

Spenser once more visited England, bringing with him three more books of the "Faery Queen," in 1595. He is supposed to have remained there during the two following years.(279)

In 1594 he had been married to the lady celebrated in his somewhat artificial _amoretti_. By her he had four children. He was now at the height of his felicity; by universal acclaim the first poet of his age, and the one obstacle to his material advancement (if obstacle it was) had been put out of the way by the death of Lord Burleigh, August, 1598. In the next month he was recommended in a letter from Queen Elizabeth for the shrievalty of the county of Cork. But alas for Polycrates! In October the wild kerns and gallowglasses rose in no mood for sparing the house of Pindarus. They sacked and burned his castle, from which he with his wife and children barely escaped.(280) He sought shelter in London and died there on the 16th January, 1599, at a tavern in King Street, Westminster. He was buried in the neighboring Abbey next to Chaucer, at the cost of the Earl of Essex, poets bearing his pall and casting verses into his grave. He died poor, but not in want. On the whole, his life may be reckoned a happy one, as in the main the lives of the great poets must have commonly been. If they feel more passionately the pang of the moment, so also the compensations are incalculable, and not the least of them this very capacity of passionate emotion. The real good fortune is to be measured, not by more or less of outward prosperity, but by the opportunity given for the development and free play of the genius. It should be remembered that the power of expression which exaggerates their griefs is also no inconsiderable consolation for them. We should measure what Spenser says of his worldly disappointments by the bitterness of the unavailing tears be shed for Rosalind. A careful analysis of these leaves no perceptible residuum of salt, and we are tempted to believe that the passion itself was not much more real than the pastoral accessories of pipe and crook. I very much doubt whether Spenser ever felt more than one profound passion in his life, and that luckily was for his "Faery Queen." He was fortunate in the friendship of the best men and women of his time, in the seclusion which made him free of the still better society of the past, in the loving recognition of his countrymen. All that we know of him is amiable and of good report. He was faithful to the friendships of his youth, pure in his loves, unspotted in his life. Above all, the ideal with him was not a thing apart and unattainable, but the sweetener and ennobler of the street and the fireside.

There are two ways of measuring a poet, either by an absolute aesthetic standard, or relatively to his position in the literary history of his country and the conditions of his generation. Both should be borne in mind as coefficients in a perfectly fair judgment. If his positive merit is to be settled irrevocably by the former, yet an intelligent criticism will find its advantage not only in considering what he was, but what, under the given circumstances, it was possible for him to be.

The fact that the great poem of Spenser was inspired by the Orlando of Ariosto, and written in avowed emulation of it, and that the poet almost always needs to have his fancy set agoing by the hint of some predecessor, must not lead us to overlook his manifest claim to originality. It is not what a poet takes, but what he makes out of what he has taken, that shows what native force is in him. Above all, did his mind dwell complacently in those forms and fashions which in their very birth are already obsolescent, or was it instinctively drawn to those qualities which are permanent in language and whatever is wrought in it? There is much in Spenser that is contemporary and evanescent; but the substance of him is durable, and his work was the deliberate result of intelligent purpose and ample culture. The publication of his "Shepherd's Calendar" in 1579 (though the poem itself be of little interest) is one of the epochs in our literature. Spenser had at least the originality to see clearly and to feel keenly that it was essential to bring poetry back again to some kind of understanding with nature. His immediate predecessors seem to have conceived of it as a kind of bird of paradise, born to float somewhere between heaven and earth, with no very well defined relation to either. It is true that the nearest approach they were able to make to this airy ideal was a shuttlecock, winged with a bright plume or so from Italy, but, after all, nothing but cork and feathers, which they bandied back and forth from one stanza to another, with the useful ambition of _keeping it up as long as they could. To my mind the old comedy of "Gammer Gurton's Needle" is worth the whole of them. It may be coarse, earthy, but in reading it one feels that he is at least a man among men, and not a humbug among humbugs.

The form of Spenser's "Shepherd's Calendar," it is true, is artificial, absurdly so if you look at it merely from the outside,--not, perhaps, the wisest way to look at anything, unless it be a jail or a volume of the "Congressional Globe,"--but the spirit of it is fresh and original We have at last got over the superstition that shepherds and shepherdesses are any wiser or simpler than other people. We know that wisdom can be on only by wide commerce with men and books, and that simplicity, whether of manners or style, is the crowning result of the highest culture. But the pastorals of Spenser were very different things, different both in the moving spirit and the resultant form from the later ones of Browne or the "Piscatory Eclogues" of Phinehas Fletcher. And why? Browne and Fletcher wrote because Spenser had written, but Spenser wrote from a strong inward impulse--an instinct it might be called--to escape at all risks into the fresh air from that horrible atmosphere into which rhymer after rhymer had been pumping carbonic-acid gas with the full force of his lungs, and in which all sincerity was on the edge of suffocation. His longing for something truer and better was as honest as that which led Tacitus so long before to idealize the Germans, and Rousseau so long after to make an angel of the savage.

Spenser himself supremely overlooks the whole chasm between himself and Chaucer, as Dante between himself and Virgil. He called Chaucer master, as Milton was afterwards to call _him_. And, even while he chose the most artificial of all forms, his aim--that of getting back to nature and life--was conscious, I have no doubt, to himself, and must be obvious to whoever reads with anything but the ends of his fingers. It is true that Sannazzaro had brought the pastoral into fashion again, and that two of Spenser's are little more than translations from Marot; but for manner he instinctively turned back to Chaucer, the first and then only great English poet. He has given common instead of classic names to his personages, for characters they can hardly be called. Above all, he has gone to the provincial dialects for words wherewith to enlarge and freshen his poetical vocabulary.(281)

I look upon the "Shepherd's Calendar" as being no less a conscious and deliberate attempt at reform than Thomson's "Seasons" were in the topics, and Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads" in the language of poetry. But the great merit of these pastorals was not so much in their matter as their manner. They show a sense of style in its larger meaning hitherto displayed by no English poet since Chaucer. Surrey had brought back from Italy a certain inkling of it, so far as it is contained in decorum. But here was a new language, a choice and arrangement of words, a variety, elasticity, and harmony of verse most grateful to the ears of men. If not passion, there was fervor, which was perhaps as near it as the somewhat stately movement of Spenser's mind would allow him to come. Sidney had tried many experiments in versification, which are curious and interesting, especially his attempts to naturalize the _sliding rhymes of Sannazzaro in English. But there is everywhere the uncertainty of a 'prentice hand. Spenser shows himself already a master, at least in verse, and we can trace the studies of Milton, a yet greater master, in the "Shepherd's Calendar" as well as in the "Faery Queen." We have seen that Spenser, under the misleading influence of Sidney(282) and Harvey, tried his hand at English hexameters. But his great glory is that he taught his own language to sing and move to measures harmonious and noble. Chaucer had done much to vocalize it, as I have tried to show elsewhere,(283) but Spenser was to prove

"That no tongue hath the muse's utterance heired
For verse, and that sweet music to the ear
Struck out of rhyme, so naturally as this."

The "Shepherd's Calendar" contains perhaps the most picturesquely imaginative verse which Spenser has written. It is in the eclogue for February, where he tells us of the

"Faded oak
Whose body is sere, whose branches broke,
Whose naked arms stretch unto the fire."

It is one of those verses that Joseph Warton would have liked in secret, that Dr. Johnson would have proved to be untranslatable into reasonable prose, and which the imagination welcomes at once without caring whether it be exactly conformable to _barbara or _celarent_. Another pretty verse in the same eclogue,

"But gently took that ungently came,"

pleased Coleridge so greatly that he thought it was his own. But in general it is not so much the sentiments and images that are new as the modulation of the verses in which they float. The cold obstruction of two centuries' thaws, and the stream of speech, once more let loose, seeks out its old windings, or overflows musically in unpractised channels. The service which Spenser did to our literature by this exquisite sense of harmony is incalculable. His fine ear, abhorrent of barbarous dissonance, his dainty tongue that loves to prolong the relish of a musical phrase, made possible the transition from the cast-iron stiffness of "Ferrex and Porrex" to the Damascus pliancy of Fletcher and Shakespeare. It was he that

"Taught the dumb on high to sing,
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly
That added feathers to the learned's wing,
And gave to grace a double majesty."

I do not mean that in the "Shepherd's Calendar" he had already achieved that transmutation of language and metre by which he was afterwards to endow English verse with the most varied and majestic of stanzas, in which the droning old alexandrine, awakened for the first time to a feeling of the poetry that was in him, was to wonder, like M. Jourdain, that he had been talking prose all his life,--but already he gave clear indications of the tendency and premonitions of the power which were to carry it forward to ultimate perfection. A harmony and alacrity of language like this were unexampled in English verse:--

"Ye dainty nymphs, that in this blessed brook
Do bathe your breast,
Forsake your watery bowers and hither look
At my request....
And eke you virgins that on Parnass dwell,
Whence floweth Helicon, the learned well,
Help me to blaze
Her worthy praise,
Which in her sex doth all excel."

Here we have the natural gait of the measure, somewhat formal and slow, as befits an invocation; and now mark how the same feet shall be made to quicken their pace at the bidding of the tune:--

"Bring here the pink and purple columbine,
With gilliflowers;
Bring coronations and sops in wine,
Worne of paramours;
Strow me the ground with daffadowndillies,
And cowslips and kingcups and loved lilies;
The pretty paunce
And the chevisance
Shall match with the fair flowerdelice."(284)

The argument prefixed by E.K. to the tenth Eclogue has a special interest for us as showing how high a conception Spenser had of poetry and the poet's office. By Cuddy he evidently means himself, though choosing out of modesty another name instead of the familiar Colin. "In Cuddy is set forth the perfect pattern of a Poet, which finding no maintenance of his state and studies, complaineth of the contempt of Poetry and the causes thereof, specially having been in all ages, and even amongst the most barbarous, always of singular account and honor, _and being indeed so worthy and commendable an art, or rather no art, but a divine gift and heavenly instinct not to be gotten by labor and learning, but adorned with both, and poured into the wit by a certain Enthousiasmos and celestial inspiration_, as the author hereof elsewhere at large discourseth in his book called THE ENGLISH POET, which book being lately come into my hands, I mind also by God's grace, upon further advisement, to publish." E. K., whoever he was, never carried out his intention, and the book is no doubt lost; a loss to be borne with less equanimity than that of Cicero's treatise _De Gloria_, once possessed by Petrarch. The passage I have italicized is most likely an extract, and reminds one of the long-breathed periods of Milton. Drummond of Hawthornden tells us, "he (Ben Jonson) hath by heart some verses of Spenser's 'Calendar,' about wine, between Coline and Percye" (Cuddie and Piers).(285) These verses are in this eclogue, and are worth quoting both as having the approval of dear old Ben, the best critic of the day, and because they are a good sample of Spenser's earlier verse:--

"Thou kenst not, Percie, how the rhyme should rage;
O, if my temples were distained with wine,
And girt in garlands of wild ivy-twine,
How I could rear the Muse on stately stage
And teach her tread aloft in buskin fine
With quaint Bellona in her equipage!"

In this eclogue he gives hints of that spacious style which was to distinguish him, and which, like his own Fame,

"With golden wings aloft doth fly
Above the reach of ruinous decay,
And with brave plumes doth beat the azure sky,
Admired of base-born men from far away."(286)

He was letting his wings grow, as Milton said, and foreboding the "FaeryQueen":--

"Lift thyself up out of the lowly dust
* * * * *
"To 'doubted knights whose woundless armor rusts
And helms unbruised waxen daily brown:
There may thy Muse display her fluttering wing,
And stretch herself at large from East to West."

Verses like these, especially the last (which Dryden would have liked), were such as English ears had not yet heard, and curiously prophetic of the maturer man. The language and verse of Spenser at his best have an ideal lift in them, and there is scarce any of our poets who can so hardly help being poetical.

It was this instantly felt if not easily definable charm that forthwith won for Spenser his never-disputed rank as the chief English poet of that age, and gave him a popularity which, during his life and in the following generation, was, in its select quality, without a competitor. It may be thought that I lay too much stress on this single attribute of diction. But apart from its importance in his case as showing their way to the poets who were just then learning the accidence of their art and leaving them a material to work in already mellowed to their hands, it should be remembered that it is subtle perfection of phrase and that happy coalescence of music and meaning, where each reinforces the other, that define a man as poet and make all ears converts and partisans. Spenser was an epicure in language. He loved "seld-seen costly" words perhaps too well, and did not always distinguish between mere strangeness and that novelty which is so agreeable as to cheat us with some charm of seeming association. He had not the concentrated power which can sometimes pack infinite riches in the little room of a single epithet, for his genius is rather for dilatation than compression.(287) But he was, with the exception of Milton and possibly Gray, the most learned of our poets. His familiarity with ancient and modern literature was easy and intimate, and as he perfected himself in his art, he caught the grand manner and high bred ways of the society he frequented. But even to the last he did not quite shake off the blunt rusticity of phrase that was habitual with the generation that preceded him. In the fifth book of the "Faery Queen," where he is describing the passion of Britomart at the supposed infidelity of Arthegall, he descends to a Teniers-like realism,(288)--he whose verses generally remind us of the dancing Hours of Guido, where we catch but a glimpse of the real earth and that far away beneath. But his habitual style is that of gracious loftiness and refined luxury.

He shows his mature hand in the "Muiopotmos," the most airily fanciful of his poems, a marvel for delicate conception and treatment, whose breezy verse seems to float between a blue sky and golden earth in imperishable sunshine. No other English poet has found the variety and compass which enlivened the octave stanza under his sensitive touch. It can hardly be doubted that in Clarion the butterfly he has symbolized himself, and surely never was the poetic temperament so picturesquely exemplified:--

"Over the fields, in his frank lustiness,
And all the champain o'er, he soared light,
And all the country wide he did possess,
Feeding upon their pleasures bounteously,
That none gainsaid and none did him envy.

"The woods, the rivers, and the meadows green,
With his air-cutting wings he measured wide,
Nor did he leave the mountains bare unseen,
Nor the rank grassy fens' delights untried;
But none of these, however sweet they been,
Mote please his fancy, or him cause to abide;
His choiceful sense with every change doth flit;
No common things may please a wavering wit.

"To the gay gardens his unstaid desire
Him wholly carried, to refresh his sprights;
There lavish Nature, in her best attire,
Pours forth sweet odors and alluring sights,
And Art, with her contending doth aspire,
To excel the natural with made delights;
And all that fair or pleasant may be found,
In riotous excess doth there abound.

"There he arriving, round about doth flie,
From bed to bed, from one to the other border,
And takes survey with curious busy eye,
Of every flower and herb there set in order,
Now this, now that, he tasteth tenderly,
Yet none of them he rudely doth disorder,
Ne with his feet their silken leaves displace,
But pastures on the pleasures of each place.

"And evermore with most variety
And change of sweetness (for all change is sweet)
He casts his glutton sense to satisfy,
Now sucking of the sap of herbs most meet,
Or of the dew which yet on them doth lie,
Now in the same bathing his tender feet;
And then he percheth on some branch thereby
To weather him and his moist wings to dry.

"And then again he turneth to his play,
To spoil (plunder) the pleasures of that paradise;
The wholesome sage, the lavender still gray,
Rank-smelling rue, and cummin good for eyes,
The roses reigning in the pride of May,
Sharp hyssop good for green wounds' remedies
Fair marigolds, and bees-alluring thyme,
Sweet marjoram and daisies decking prime,

"Cool violets, and orpine growing still,
Embathed balm, and cheerful galingale,
Fresh costmary and breathful camomill,
Dull poppy and drink-quickening setuale,
Vein-healing vervain and head-purging dill,
Sound savory, and basil hearty-hale,
Fat coleworts and comforting perseline,
Cold lettuce, and refreshing rosemarine.(289)

"And whatso else of virtue good or ill,
Grew in this garden, fetched from far away,
Of every one he takes and tastes at will,
And on their pleasures greedily doth prey;
Then, when he hath both played and fed his fill,
In the warm sun he doth himself embay,
And there him rests in riotous suffisance
Of all his gladfulness and kingly joyance.

"What more felicity can fall to creature
Than to enjoy delight with liberty,
And to be lord of all the works of nature?
To reign in the air from earth to highest sky,
To feed on flowers and weeds of glorious feature,
To take whatever thing doth please the eye?
Who rests not pleased with such happiness,
Well worthy he to taste of wretchedness."

The "Muiopotmos" pleases us all the more that it vibrates in us a string of classical association by adding an episode to Ovid's story of Arachne. "Talking the other day with a friend (the late Mr. Keats) about Dante, he observed that whenever so great a poet told us anything in addition or continuation of an ancient story, he had a right to be regarded as classical authority. For instance, said he, when he tells us of that characteristic death of Ulysses, ... we ought to receive the information as authentic, and be glad that we have more news of Ulysses than we looked for."(290)

We can hardly doubt that Ovid would have been glad to admit this exquisitely fantastic illumination into his margin.

No German analyzer of aesthetics has given us so convincing a definition of the artistic nature as these radiant verses. "To reign in the air" was certainly Spenser's function. And yet the commentators, who seem never willing to let their poet be a poet pure and simple, though, had he not been so, they would have lost their only hold upon life, try to make out from his "Mother Hubberd's Tale" that he might have been a very sensible matter of-fact man if he would. For my own part, I am quite willing to confess that I like him none the worse for being _un_practical, and that my reading has convinced me that being too poetical is the rarest fault of poets. Practical men are not so scarce, one would think, and I am not sure that the tree was a gainer when the hamadryad flitted and left it nothing but ship-timber. Such men as Spenser are not sent into the world to be part of its motive power. The blind old engine would not know the difference though we got up its steam with attar of roses, nor make one revolution more to the minute for it. What practical man ever left such an heirloom to his countrymen as the "Faery Queen"?

Undoubtedly Spenser wished to be useful and in the highest vocation of all, that of teacher, and Milton calls him "our sage and serious poet, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas." And good Dr. Henry More was of the same mind. I fear he makes his vices so beautiful now and then that we should not be very much afraid of them if we chanced to meet them; for he could not escape from his genius, which, if it led him as philosopher to the abstract contemplation of the beautiful, left him as poet open to every impression of sensuous delight. When he wrote the "Shepherd's Calendar" he was certainly a Puritan, and probably so by conviction rather than from any social influences or thought of personal interests. There is a verse, it is true, in the second of the two detached cantos of "Mutability,"

"Like that ungracious crew which feigns demurest grace,"

which is supposed to glance at the straiter religionists, and from which it has been inferred that he drew away from them as he grew older. It is very likely that years and widened experience of men may have produced in him their natural result of tolerant wisdom which revolts at the hasty destructiveness of inconsiderate zeal. But with the more generous side of Puritanism I think he sympathized to the last. His rebukes of clerical worldliness are in the Puritan tone, and as severe a one as any is in "Mother Hubberd's Tale," published in 1591.(291) There is an iconoclastic relish in his account of Sir Guyon's demolishing the Bower of Bliss that makes us think he would not have regretted the plundered abbeys as perhaps Shakespeare did when he speaks of the winter woods as "bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang";--

"But all those pleasant bowers and palace brave
Guyon broke down with rigor pitiless,
Ne ought their goodly workmanship might save
Them from the tempest of his wrathfulness,
But that their bliss he turned to balefulness;
Their groves he felled, their gardens did deface,
Their arbors spoil, their cabinets suppress,
Their banquet-houses burn, their buildings rase,
And of the fairest late now made the foulest place."

But whatever may have been Spenser's religious opinions (which do not nearly concern us here), the bent of his mind was toward a Platonic mysticism, a supramundane sphere where it could shape universal forms out of the primal elements of things, instead of being forced to put up with their fortuitous combinations in the unwilling material of mortal clay. He who, when his singing robes were on, could never be tempted nearer to the real world than under some subterfuge of pastoral or allegory, expatiates joyously in this untrammelled ether:--

"Lifting himself out of the lowly dust
On golden plumes up to the purest sky."

Nowhere does his genius soar and sing with such continuous aspiration, nowhere is his phrase so decorously stately, though rising to an enthusiasm which reaches intensity while it stops short of vehemence, as in his Hymns to Love and Beauty, especially the latter. There is an exulting spurn of earth in it, as of a soul just loosed from its cage. I shall make no extracts from it, for it is one of those intimately coherent and transcendentally logical poems that "moveth altogether if it move at all," the breaking off a fragment from which would maim it as it would a perfect group of crystals. Whatever there is of sentiment and passion is for the most part purely disembodied and without sex, like that of angels,--a kind of poetry which has of late gone out of fashion, whether to our gain or not may be questioned. Perhaps one may venture to hint that the animal instincts are those that stand in least need of stimulation. Spenser's notions of love were so nobly pure, so far from those of our common ancestor who could hang by his tail, as not to disqualify him for achieving the quest of the Holy Grail, and accordingly it is not uninstructive to remember that he had drunk, among others, at French sources not yet deboshed with _absinthe_.(292) Yet, with a purity like that of thrice-bolted snow, he had none of its coldness. He is, of all our poets, the most truly sensuous, using the word as Milton probably meant it when he said that poetry should be "simple, sensuous, and passionate." A poet is innocently sensuous when his mind permeates and illumines his senses; when they, on the other hand, muddy the mind, he becomes sensual. Every one of Spenser's senses was as exquisitely alive to the impressions of material, as every organ of his soul was to those of spiritual beauty. Accordingly, if he painted the weeds of sensuality at all, he could not help making them "of glorious feature." It was this, it may be suspected, rather than his "praising love," that made Lord Burleigh shake his "rugged forehead." Spenser's gamut, indeed, is a wide one, ranging from a purely corporeal delight in "precious odors fetched from far away" upward to such refinement as

"Upon her eyelids many graces sate
Under the shadow of her even brows,"

where the eye shares its pleasure with the mind. He is court-painter in ordinary to each of the senses in turn, and idealizes these frail favorites of his majesty King Lusty Juventus, till they half believe themselves the innocent shepherdesses into which he travesties them.(293)

In his great poem he had two objects in view: first the ephemeral one of pleasing the court, and then that of recommending himself to the permanent approval of his own and following ages as a poet, and especially as a moral poet. To meet the first demand, he lays the scene of his poem in contemporary England, and brings in all the leading personages of the day under the thin disguise of his knights and their squires and lady-loves. He says this expressly in the prologue to the second book:--

"Of Faery Land yet if he more inquire,
By certain signs, here set in sundry place,
He may it find; ...
And thou, O fairest princess under sky,
In this fair mirror mayst behold thy face
And thine own realms in land of Faery."

Many of his personages we can still identify, and all of them were once as easily recognizable as those of Mademoiselle de Scudery. This, no doubt, added greatly to the immediate piquancy of the allusions. The interest they would excite may be inferred from the fact that King James, in 1596, wished to have the author prosecuted and punished for his indecent handling of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, under the name of Duessa.(294) To suit the wider application of his plan's other and more important half, Spenser made all his characters double their parts, and appear in his allegory as the impersonations of abstract moral qualities. When the cardinal and theological virtues tell Dante,

"Noi siam qui ninfe e in ciel siamo stelle,"

the sweetness of the verse enables the fancy, by a slight gulp, to swallow without solution the problem of being in two places at the same time. But there is something fairly ludicrous in such a duality as that of Prince Arthur and the Earl of Leicester, Arthegall and Lord Grey, and Belphoebe and Elizabeth.

"In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall."

The reality seems to heighten the improbability, already hard enough to manage. But Spenser had fortunately almost as little sense of humor as Wordsworth,(295) or he could never have carried his poem on with enthusiastic good faith so far as he did. It is evident that to him the Land of Faery was an unreal world of picture and illusion,

"The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil,"

in which he could shut himself up from the actual, with its shortcomings and failures.

"The ways through which my weary steps I guide
In this delightful land of Faery
Are so exceeding spacious and wide,
And sprinkled with such sweet variety
Of all that pleasant is to ear and eye,
That I, nigh ravisht with rare thoughts' delight,
My tedious travail do forget thereby,
And, when I 'gin to feel decay of might,
It strength to me supplies, and cheers my dulled spright."

Spenser seems here to confess a little weariness; but the alacrity of his mind is so great that, even where his invention fails a little, we do not share his feeling nor suspect it, charmed as we are by the variety and sweep of his measure, the beauty or vigor of his similes, the musical felicity of his diction, and the mellow versatility of his pictures. In this last quality Ariosto, whose emulous pupil he was, is as Bologna to Venice in the comparison. That, when the personal allusions have lost their meaning and the allegory has become a burden, the book should continue to be read with delight, is proof enough, were any wanting, how full of life and light and the other-worldliness of poetry it must be. As a narrative it has, I think, every fault of which that kind of writing is capable. The characters are vague, and, even were they not, they drop out of the story so often and remain out of it so long, that we have forgotten who they are when we meet them again; the episodes hinder the advance of the action instead of relieving it with variety of incident or novelty of situation; the plot, if plot it may be called,

"That shape has none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,"

recalls drearily our ancient enemy, the Metrical Romance; while the fighting, which, in those old poems, was tediously sincere, is between shadow and shadow, where we know that neither can harm the other, though are tempted to wish he might. Hazlitt bids us not mind the allegory, and says that it won't bite us nor meddle with us if we do not meddle with it. But how if it bore us, which after all is the fatal question? The truth is that it is too often forced upon us against our will, as people were formerly driven to church till they began to look on a day of rest as a penal institution, and to transfer to the Scriptures that suspicion of defective inspiration which was awakened in them by the preaching. The true type of the allegory is the Odyssey, which we read without suspicion as pure poem, and then find a new pleasure in divining its double meaning, as if we somehow got a better bargain of our author than he meant to give us. But this complex feeling must not be so exacting as to prevent our lapsing into the old Arabian Nights simplicity of interest again. The moral of a poem should be suggested, as when in some mediaeval church we cast down our eyes to muse over a fresco of Giotto, and are reminded of the transitoriness of life by the mortuary tablets under our feet. The vast superiority of Bunyan over Spenser lies in the fact that we help make his allegory out of our own experience. Instead of striving to embody abstract passions and temptations, he has given us his own in all their pathetic simplicity. He is the Ulysses of his own prose-epic. This is the secret of his power and his charm, that, while the representation of what may happen to all men comes home to none of us in particular, the story of any one man's real experience finds its startling parallel in that of every one of us. The very homeliness of Bunyan's names and the everydayness of his scenery, too, put us off our guard, and we soon find ourselves on as easy a footing with his allegorical beings as we might be with Adam or Socrates in a dream. Indeed, he has prepared us for such incongruities by telling us at setting out that the story was of a dream. The long nights of Bedford jail had so intensified his imagination, and made the figures with which it peopled his solitude so real to him, that the creatures of his mind become _things_, as clear to the memory as if we had seen them. But Spenser's are too often mere names, with no bodies to back them, entered on the Muses' musterroll by the specious trick of personification. There is likewise, in Bunyan, a childlike simplicity and taking-for-granted which win our confidence. His Giant Despair,(296) for example, is by no means the Ossianic figure into which artists who mistake the vague for the sublime have misconceived it. He is the ogre of the fairy-tales, with his malicious wife; and he comes forth to us from those regions of early faith and wonder as something beforehand accepted by the imagination. These figures of Bunyan's are already familiar inmates of the mind, and, if there be any sublimity in him, it is the daring frankness of his verisimilitude. Spenser's giants are those of the later romances, except that grand figure with the balances in the second Canto of Book V., the most original of all his conceptions, yet no real giant, but a pure eidolon of the mind. As Bunyan rises not seldom to a natural poetry, so Spenser sinks now and then, through the fault of his topics, to unmistakable prose. Take his description of the House of Alma,(297) for instance:--

"The master cook was cald Concoctioen,
A careful man, and full of comely guise;
The kitchen-clerk, that hight Digestion,
Did order all the achates in seemly wise."

And so on through all the organs of the body. The author of Ecclesiastes understood these matters better in that last pathetic chapter of his, blunderingly translated as it apparently is. This, I admit, is the worst failure of Spenser in this kind; though, even here, when he gets on to the organs of the mind, the enchantments of his fancy and style come to the rescue and put us in good-humor again, hard as it is to conceive of armed knights entering the chamber of the mind, and talking with such visionary damsels as Ambition and Shamefastness. Nay, even in the most prosy parts, unless my partiality deceive me, there is an infantile confidence in the magical powers of Prosopopoeia which half beguiles us as of children who _play that everything is something else, and are quite satisfied with the transformation.

The problem for Spenser was a double one: how to commend poetry at all to a generation which thought it effeminate trifling,(298) and how he, Master Edmund Spenser, of imagination all compact, could commend _his poetry to Master John Bull, the most practical of mankind in his habitual mood, but at that moment in a passion of religious anxiety about his soul. _Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci was not only an irrefragable axiom because a Latin poet had said it, but it exactly met the case in point. He would convince the scorners that poetry might be seriously useful, and show Master Bull his new way of making fine words butter parsnips, in a rhymed moral primer. Allegory, as then practised, was imagination adapted for beginners, in words of one syllable and illustrated with cuts, and would thus serve both his ethical and pictorial purpose. Such a primer, or a first instalment of it, he proceeded to put forth; but he so bordered it with bright-colored fancies, he so often filled whole pages and crowded the text hard in others with the gay frolics of his pencil, that, as in the Grimani missal, the holy function of the book is forgotten in the ecstasy of its adornment. Worse than all, does not his brush linger more lovingly along the rosy contours of his sirens than on the modest wimples of the Wise Virgins? "The general end of the book," he tells us in his Dedication to Sir Walter Raleigh, "is to fashion a gentleman of noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline." But a little further on he evidently has a qualm, as he thinks how generously he had interpreted his promise of cuts: "To some I know this method will seem displeasant, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts or sermoned at large,(299) as they use, than thus cloudily enwrapped in allegorical devices." Lord Burleigh was of this way of thinking, undoubtedly, but how could poor Clarion help it? Has he not said,

"And whatso else, _of virtue good or ill,_
Grew in that garden, fetcht from far away,
Of every one he takes and tastes at will,
And on their pleasures greedily doth prey"?

One sometimes feels in reading him as if he were the pure sense of the beautiful incarnated to the one end that he might interpret it to our duller perceptions So exquisite was his sensibility,(300) that with him sensation and intellection seem identical, and we "can almost say his body thought." This subtle interfusion of sense with spirit it is that gives his poetry a crystalline purity without lack of warmth. He is full of feeling, and yet of such a kind that we can neither say it is mere intellectual perception of what is fair and good, nor yet associate it with that throbbing fervor which leads us to call sensibility by the physical name of heart.

Charles Lamb made the most pithy criticism of Spenser when he called him the poets' poet. We may fairly leave the allegory on one side, for perhaps, after all, he adopted it only for the reason that it was in fashion, and put it on as he did his ruff, not because it was becoming, but because it was the only wear. The true use of him is as a gallery of pictures which we visit as the mood takes us, and where we spend an hour or two at a time, long enough to sweeten our perceptions, not so long as to cloy them. He makes one think always of Venice; for not only is his style Venetian,(301) but as the gallery there is housed in the shell of an abandoned convent, so his in that of a deserted allegory. And again, as at Venice you swim in a gondola from Gian Bellini to Titian, and from Titian to Tintoret, so in him, where other cheer is wanting, the gentle sway of his measure, like the rhythmical impulse of the oar, floats you lullingly along from picture to picture.

"If all the pens that ever poet held
Had fed the feeling of their master's thoughts,
And every sweetness that inspired their hearts
Their minds and muses on admired themes,
If all the heavenly quintessence they still
From their immortal flowers of poesy,
If these had made one poem's period,
And all combined in beauty's worthiness;
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder at the best,
Which into words no virtue can digest."(302)

Spenser, at his best, has come as near to expressing this unattainable something as any other poet. He is so purely poet that with him the meaning does not so often modulate the music of the verse as the music makes great part of the meaning and leads the thought along its pleasant paths. No poet is so splendidly superfluous as he; none knows so well that in poetry enough is not only not so good as a feast, but is a beggarly parsimony. He spends himself in a careless abundance only to be justified by incomes of immortal youth.

"Pensier canuto ne molto ne poco
Si puo quivi albergare in alcun cuore;
Non entra quivi disagio ne inopia,
Ma vi sta ogn'or col corno pien la Copia."(303)

This delicious abundance and overrunning luxury of Spenser appear in the very structure of his verse. He found the _ottava rima too monotonously iterative; so, by changing the order of his rhymes, he shifted the let from the end of the stave, where it always seems to put on the brakes with a jar, to the middle, where it may serve at will as a brace or a bridge; he found it not roomy enough, so first ran it over into another line, and then ran that added line over into an alexandrine, in which the melody of one stanza seems forever longing and feeling forward after that which is to follow. There is no ebb and flow in his metre more than on the shores of the Adriatic, but wave follows wave with equable gainings and recessions, the one sliding back in fluent music to be mingled with and carried forward by the next. In all this there is soothingness indeed, but no slumberous monotony; for Spenser was no mere metrist, but a great composer. By the variety of his pauses--now at the close of the first or second foot, now of the third, and again of the fourth--he gives spirit and energy to a measure whose tendency it certainly is to become languorous. He knew how to make it rapid and passionate at need, as in such verses as,

"But he, my lion, and my noble lord,
How does he find in cruel heart to hate
Her that him loved and ever most adored
As the God of my life? Why hath he me abhorred?"(304)

or this,

"Come hither, come hither, O, come hastily!"(305)

Joseph Warton objects to Spenser's stanza, that its "constraint led him into many absurdities." Of these he instances three, of which I shall notice only one, since the two others (which suppose him at a loss for words and rhymes) will hardly seem valid to any one who knows the poet. It is that it "obliged him to dilate the thing to be expressed, however unimportant with trifling and tedious circumlocutions, namely, Faery Queen, II. ii. 44:--

"'Now hath fair Phoebe with her silver face
Thrice seen the shadows of this nether world,
Sith last I left that honorable place,
In which her royal presence is enrolled.'

"That is, it is three months since I left her palace."(306) But Dr. Warton should have remembered (what he too often forgets in his own verses) that, in spite of Dr. Johnson's dictum, poetry is not prose, and that verse only loses its advantage over the latter by invading its province.(307) Verse itself is an absurdity except as an expression of some higher movement of the mind, or as an expedient to lift other minds to the same ideal level. It is the cothurnus which gives language an heroic stature. I have said that one leading characteristic of Spenser's style was its spaciousness, that he habitually dilates rather than compresses. But his way of measuring time was perfectly natural in an age when everybody did not carry a dial in his poke as now. He is the last of the poets, who went (without affectation) by the great clock of the firmament. Dante, the miser of words, who goes by the same timepiece, is full of these roundabout ways of telling us the hour. It had nothing to do with Spenser's stanza, and I for one should be sorry to lose these stately revolutions of the _superne ruote_. Time itself becomes more noble when so measured; we never knew before of how precious a commodity we had the wasting. Who would prefer the plain time of day to this?

"Now when Aldebaran was mounted high
Above the starry Cassiopeia's chair";

or this?

"By this the northern wagoner had set
His seven-fold team behind the steadfast star
That was in ocean's waves yet never wet,
But firm is fixt and sendeth light from far
To all that in the wide deep wandering are";

or this?

"At last the golden oriental gate
Of greatest heaven gan to open fair,
And Phoebus, fresh as bridegroom to his mate,
Came dancing forth, shaking his dewy hair
And hurls his glistening beams through dewy air."

The generous indefiniteness, which treats an hour more or less as of no account, is in keeping with that sense of endless leisures which it is one chief merit of the poem to suggest. But Spenser's dilatation extends to thoughts as well as to phrases and images. He does not love the concise. Yet his dilatation is not mere distension, but the expansion of natural growth in the rich soil of his own mind, wherein the merest stick of a verse puts forth leaves and blossoms. Here is one of his, suggested by Homer:(308)

"Upon the top of all his lofty crest
A bunch of hairs discolored diversly,
With sprinkled pearl and gold full richly drest,
Did shake, and seemed to dance for jollity;
Like to an almond-tree mounted high
On top of green Selinus all alone
With blossoms brave bedecked daintily,
Whose tender locks do tremble every one
At every little breath that under heaven is blown."

And this is the way he reproduces five pregnant verses of Dante:--

"Seggendo in piume
In fama non si vien, ne sotto coltre,
Senza la qual chi sua vita consuma,
Cotal vestigio in terra di se lascia
Qual fumo in aere ed in acqua la schiuma."(309)

"Whoso in pomp of proud estate, quoth she,
Does swim, and bathes himself in courtly bliss,
Does waste his days in dark obscurity
And in oblivion ever buried is;
Where ease abounds it's eath to do amiss:
But who his limbs with labors and his mind
Behaves with cares, cannot so easy miss.
Abroad in arms, at home in studious kind,
Who seeks with painful toil shall Honor soonest find.

"In woods, in waves, in wars, she wonts to dwell,
And will be found with peril and with pain,
Ne can the man that moulds in idle cell
Unto her happy mansioen attain;
Before her gate high God did Sweat ordain,
And wakeful watches ever to abide;
But easy is the way and passage plain
To pleasure's palace; it may soon be spied,
And day and night her doors to all stand open wide."(310)

Spenser's mind always demands this large elbow-room. His thoughts are never pithily expressed, but with a stately and sonorous proclamation, as if under the open sky, that seems to me very noble. For example,--

"The noble heart that harbors virtuous thought
And is with child of glorious-great intent
Can never rest until it forth have brought
The eternal brood of glory excellent."(311)

One's very soul seems to dilate with that last verse. And here is a
passage which Milton had read and remembered:--

"And is there care in Heaven? and is there love
In heavenly spirits to these creatures base,
That may compassion of their evils move?
There is: else much more wretched were the case
Of men than beasts: but O, the exceeding grace
Of highest God, that loves his creatures so,
And all his works with mercy doth embrace,
That blessed angels he sends to and fro,
To serve to wicked man, to serve his wicked foe!

"How oft do they their silver bowers leave,
To come to succor us that succor want!
How oft do they with golden pinions cleave
The fleeting skies like flying pursuivant,
Against foul fiends to aid us militant!
They for us fight, they watch and duly ward,
And their bright squadrons round about us plant;
And all for love and nothing for reward;
O, why should heavenly God to men have such regard?"(312)

His natural tendency is to shun whatever is sharp and abrupt. He loves to prolong emotion, and lingers in his honeyed sensations like a bee in the translucent cup of a lily. So entirely are beauty and delight in it the native element of Spenser, that, whenever in the "Faery Queen" you come suddenly on the moral, it gives you a shock of unpleasant surprise, a kind of grit, as when one's teeth close on a bit of gravel in a dish of strawberries and cream. He is the most fluent of our poets. Sensation passing through emotion into revery is a prime quality of his manner. And to read him puts one in the condition of revery, a state of mind in which our thoughts and feelings float motionless, as one sees fish do in a gentle stream, with just enough vibration of their fins to keep themselves from going down with the current, while their bodies yield indolently to all its soothing curves. He chooses his language for its rich canorousness rather than for intensity of meaning. To characterize his style in a single word, I should call it _costly_. None but the daintiest and nicest phrases will serve him, and he allures us from one to the other with such cunning baits of alliteration, and such sweet lapses of verse, that never any word seems more eminent than the rest, nor detains the feeling to eddy around it, but you must go on to the end before you have time to stop and muse over the wealth that has been lavished on you. But he has characterized and exemplified his own style better than any description could do:--

"For round about the walls yclothed were
With goodly arras of great majesty,
Woven with gold and silk so close and near
That the rich metal lurked privily
As faining to be hid from envious eye;
Yet here and there and everywhere, unwares
It showed itself and shone unwillingly
Like to a discolored snake whose hidden snares
Through the green grass his long bright-burnished back declares."(313)

And of the lulling quality of his verse take this as a sample:--

"And, more to lull him in his slumber soft,
A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down
And ever drizzling rain upon the loft,
Mixt with the murmuring wind much like the soun
Of swarming bees did cast him in a swoon.
No other noise, nor peoples' troublous cries,
As still are wont to annoy the walled town,
Might there be heard: but careless quiet lies
Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemies."(314)

In the world into which Spenser carries us there is neither time nor space, or rather it is outside of and independent of them both, and so is purely ideal, or, more truly, imaginary; yet it is full of form, color, and all earthly luxury, and so far, if not real, yet apprehensible by the senses. There are no men and women in it, yet it throngs with airy and immortal shapes that have the likeness of men and women, and hint at some kind of foregone reality. Now this place, somewhere between mind and matter, between soul and sense, between the actual and the possible, is precisely the region which Spenser assigns (if I have rightly divined him) to the poetic susceptibility of impression,--

"To reign in the air from the earth to highest sky."

Underneath every one of the senses lies the soul and spirit of it, dormant till they are magnetized by some powerful emotion. Then whatever is imperishable in us recognizes for an instant and claims kindred with something outside and distinct from it, yet in some inconceivable way a part of it, that flashes back on it an ideal beauty which impoverishes all other companionship. This exaltation with which love sometimes subtilizes the nerves of coarsest men so that they feel and see, not the thing as it seems to others, but the beauty of it, the joy of it, the soul of eternal youth that is in it, would appear to have been the normal condition of Spenser. While the senses of most men live in the cellar, his "were laid in a large upper chamber which opened toward the sunrising."

"His birth was of the womb of morning dew,
And his conception of the joyous prime."

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Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 2 Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 2

Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 2
SPENSER. Continues 2The very greatest poets (and is there, after all, more than one of them?) have a way, I admit, of getting within our inmost consciousness and in a manner betraying us to ourselves. There is in Spenser a remoteness very different from this, but it is also a seclusion, and quite as agreeable, perhaps quite as wholesome in certain moods when we are glad to get away from ourselves and those importunate trifles which we gravely call the realities of life. In the warm Mediterranean of his mind everything"Suffers a sea change Into something rich and strange."He lifts everything,

Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER

Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER
SPENSERChaucer had been in his grave one hundred and fifty years ere England had secreted choice material enough for the making of another great poet. The nature of men living together in societies, as of the individual man, seems to have its periodic ebbs and floods, its oscillations between the ideal and the matter-of-fact, so that the doubtful boundary line of shore between them is in one generation a hard sandy actuality strewn only with such remembrances of beauty as a dead sea-moss here and there, and in the next is whelmed with those lacelike curves of ever-gaining, ever-receding foam, and