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Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 2 Post by :patato Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :3306

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Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 2

SPENSER. Continues 2

The 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, not beyond recognition, but to an ideal distance where no mortal, I had almost said human, fleck is visible. Instead of the ordinary bridal gifts, he hallows his wife with an Epithalamion fit for a conscious goddess, and the "savage soil"(315) of Ireland becomes a turf of Arcady under her feet, where the merchants' daughters of the town are no more at home than the angels and the fair shapes of pagan mythology whom they meet there. He seems to have had a common-sense side to him, and could look at things (if we may judge by his tract on Irish affairs) in a practical and even hard way; but the moment he turned toward poetry he fulfilled the condition which his teacher Plato imposes on poets, and had not a particle of prosaic understanding left. His fancy, habitually moving about in worlds not realized, unrealizes everything at a touch. The critics blame him because in his Prothalamion the subjects of it enter on the Thames as swans and leave it at Temple Gardens as noble damsels; but to those who are grown familiar with his imaginary world such a transformation seems as natural as in the old legend of the Knight of the Swan.

"Come now ye damsels, daughters of Delight,
Help quickly her to dight:
But first come ye, fair Hours, which were begot
In Jove's sweet paradise of Day and Night, ...
And ye three handmaids of the Cyprian Queen,
The which do still adorn her beauty's pride,
Help to adorn my beautifulest bride.
* * * * *
"Crown ye god Bacchus with a coronal,
And Hymen also crown with wreaths of vine,
And let the Graces dance unto the rest,--
For they can do it best.
The whiles the maidens do their carols sing,
To which the woods shall answer and their echo ring."

The whole Epithalamion is very noble, with an organ-like roll and majesty of numbers, while it is instinct with the same joyousness which must have been the familiar mood of Spenser. It is no superficial and tiresome merriment, but a profound delight in the beauty of the universe and in that delicately surfaced nature of his which was its mirror and counterpart. Sadness was alien to him, and at funerals he was, to be sure, a decorous mourner, as could not fail with so sympathetic a temperament; but his condolences are graduated to the unimpassioned scale of social requirement. Even for Sir Philip Sidney his sighs are regulated by the official standard. It was in an unreal world that his affections found their true object and vent, and it is in an elegy of a lady whom he had never known that he puts into the mouth of a husband whom he has evaporated into a shepherd, the two most naturally pathetic verses he ever penned:--

"I hate the day because it lendeth light
To see all things, but not my love to see."(316)

In the Epithalamion there is an epithet which has been much admired for its felicitous tenderness:--

"Behold, whiles she before the altar stands,
Hearing the holy priest that to her speakes
And blesseth her with his two _happy hands."

But the purely impersonal passion of the artist had already guided him to this lucky phrase. It is addressed by Holiness--a dame surely as far abstracted from the enthusiasms of love as we can readily conceive of--to Una, who, like the visionary Helen of Dr. Faustus, has every charm of womanhood, except that of being alive as Juliet and Beatrice are.

"O happy earth,
Whereon thy innocent feet do ever tread!"(317)

Can we conceive of Una, the fall of whose foot would be as soft as that of a rose-leaf upon its mates already fallen,--can we conceive of her treading anything so sordid? No; it is only on some unsubstantial floor of dream that she walks securely, herself a dream. And it is only when Spenser has escaped thither, only when this glamour of fancy has rarefied his wife till she is grown almost as purely a creature of the imagination as the other ideal images with which he converses, that his feeling becomes as nearly passionate--as nearly human, I was on the point of saying--as with him is possible. I am so far from blaming this idealizing property of his mind, that I find it admirable in him. It is his quality, not his defect. Without some touch of it life would be unendurable prose. If I have called the world to which he transports us a world of unreality, I have wronged him. It is only a world of unrealism. It is from pots and pans and stocks and futile gossip and inch-long politics that he emancipates us, and makes us free of that to-morrow, always coming and never come, where ideas shall reign supreme.(318) But I am keeping my readers from the sweetest idealization that love ever wrought:--

"Unto this place whenas the elfin knight
Approached, him seemed that the merry sound
Of a shrill pipe, he playing heard on height,
And many feet fast thumping the hollow ground,
That through the woods their echo did rebound;
He nigher drew to wit what it mote be.
There he a troop of ladies dancing found
Full merrily and making gladful glee;
And in the midst a shepherd piping he did see.

"He durst not enter into the open green
For dread of them unwares to be descried,
For breaking of their dance, if he were seen;
But in the covert of the wood did bide
Beholding all, yet of them unespied;
There he did see that pleased so much his sight
That even he himself his eyes envied,
A hundred naked maidens lily-white,
All ranged in a ring and dancing in delight.

"All they without were ranged in a ring,
And danced round; but in the midst of them
Three other ladies did both dance and sing,
The while the rest them round about did hem,
And like a garland did in compass stem.
And in the midst of these same three was placed
Another damsel, as a precious gem
Amidst a ring most richly well enchased,
That with her goodly presence all the rest much graced.

"Look how the crown which Ariadne wove
Upon her ivory forehead that same day,
That Theseus her unto his bridal bore,
(When the bold Centaurs made that bloody fray,
With the fierce Lapithes, that did them dismay)
Being now placed in the firmament,
Through the bright heaven doth her beams display,
And is unto the stars an ornament,
Which round about her move in order excellent;

"Such was the beauty of this goodly band,
Whose sundry parts were here too long to tell,
But she that in the midst of them did stand,
Seemed all the rest in beauty to excel,
Crowned with a rosy garland that right well
Did her beseem. And, ever as the crew
About her danced, sweet flowers that far did smell,
And fragrant odors they upon her threw;
But most of all those three did her with gifts endue.

"Those were the graces, Daughters of Delight,
Handmaids of Venus, which are wont to haunt
Upon this hill and dance there, day and night;
Those three to men all gifts of grace do grant
And all that Venus in herself doth vaunt
Is borrowed of them; but that fair one
That in the midst was placed paravant,
Was she to whom that shepherd piped alone,
That made him pipe so merrily, as never none.

"She was, to weet, that jolly shepherd's lass
Which piped there unto that merry rout;
That jolly shepherd that there piped was
Poor Colin Clout; (who knows not Colin Clout?)
He piped apace while they him danced about;
Pipe, jolly shepherd, pipe thou now apace,
Unto thy love that made thee low to lout;
Thy love is present there with thee in place,
Thy love is there advanced to be another Grace."(319)

Is there any passage in any poet that so ripples and sparkles with simple delight as this? It is a sky of Italian April full of sunshine and the hidden ecstasy of larks. And we like it all the more that it reminds us of that passage in his friend Sidney's _Arcadia_, where the shepherd-boy pipes "as if he would never be old." If we compare it with the mystical scene in Dante,(320) of which it is a reminiscence, it will seem almost like a bit of real life; but taken by itself it floats as unconcerned in our cares and sorrows and vulgarities as a sunset cloud. The sound of that pastoral pipe seems to come from as far away as Thessaly when Apollo was keeping sheep there. Sorrow, the great idealizer, had had the portrait of Beatrice on her easel for years, and every touch of her pencil transfigured the woman more and more into the glorified saint. But Elizabeth Nagle was a solid thing of flesh and blood, who would sit down at meat with the poet on the very day when he had thus beatified her. As Dante was drawn upward from heaven to heaven by the eyes of Beatrice, so was Spenser lifted away from the actual by those of that ideal Beauty whereof his mind had conceived the lineaments in its solitary musings over Plato, but of whose haunting presence the delicacy of his senses had already premonished him. The intrusion of the real world upon this supersensual mood of his wrought an instant disenchantment:--

"Much wondered Calidore at this strange sight
Whose like before his eye had never seen,
And, standing long astonished in sprite
And rapt with pleasance, wist not what to ween,
Whether it were the train of Beauty's Queen,
Or Nymphs, or Fairies, or enchanted show
With which his eyes might have deluded been,
Therefore resolving what it was to know,
Out of the woods he rose and toward them did go.

"But soon as he appeared to their view
They vanished all away out of his sight
And clean were gone, which way he never knew,
All save the shepherd, who, for fell despite
Of that displeasure, broke his bagpipe quite."

Ben Jonson said that "he had consumed a whole night looking to his great toe, about which he had seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians, fight in his imagination"; and Coleridge has told us how his "eyes made pictures when they were shut" This is not uncommon, but I fancy that Spenser was more habitually possessed by his imagination than is usual even with poets. His visions must have accompanied him "in glory and in joy" along the common thoroughfares of life and seemed to him, it may be suspected, more real than the men and women he met there. His "most fine spirit of sense" would have tended to keep him in this exalted mood. I must give an example of the sensuousness of which I have spoken :--

"And in the midst of all a fountain stood
Of richest substance that on earth might be,
So pure and shiny that the crystal flood
Through every channel running one might see;
Most goodly it with curious imagery
Was overwrought, and shapes of naked boys,
Of which some seemed with lively jollity
To fly about, playing their wanton toys,
Whilst others did themselves embay in liquid joys.

"And over all, of purest gold was spread
A trail of ivy in his native hue;
For the rich metal was so colored
That he who did not well avised it view
Would surely deem it to be ivy true;
Low his lascivious arms adown did creep
That themselves dipping in the silver dew
Their fleecy flowers they tenderly did steep,
Which drops of crystal seemed for wantonness to weep.

"Infinite streams continually did well
Out of this fountain, sweet and fair to see,
The which into an ample laver fell,
And shortly grew to so great quantity
That like a little lake it seemed to be
Whose depth exceeded not three cubits' height,
That through the waves one might the bottom see
All paved beneath with jasper shining bright,
That seemed the fountain in that sea did sail upright.

"And all the margent round about was set
With shady laurel-trees, thence to defend
The sunny beams which on the billows bet,
And those which therein bathed mote offend.
As Guyou happened by the same to wend
Two naked Damsels he therein espied,
Which therein bathing seemed to contend
And wrestle wantonly, ne cared to hide
Their dainty parts from view of any which them eyed.

"Sometimes the one would lift the other quite
Above the waters, and then down again
Her plunge, as overmastered by might,
Where both awhile would covered remain,
And each the other from to rise restrain;
The whiles their snowy limbs, as through a veil,
So through the crystal waves appeared plain:
Then suddenly both would themselves unhele,
And the amorous sweet spoils to greedy eyes reveal.

"As that fair star, the messenger of morn,
His dewy face out of the sea doth rear;
Or as the Cyprian goddess, newly born
Of the ocean's fruitful froth, did first appear;
Such seemed they, and so their yellow hear
Crystalline humor dropped down apace.
Whom such when Guyon saw, he drew him near,
And somewhat gan relent his earnest pace;
His stubborn breast gan secret pleasance to embrace.

"The wanton Maidens him espying, stood
Gazing awhile at his unwonted guise;
Then the one herself low ducked in the flood,
Abashed that her a stranger did avise;
But the other rather higher did arise,
And her two lily paps aloft displayed,
And all that might his melting heart entice
To her delights, she unto him bewrayed;
The rest, hid underneath, him more desirous made.

"With that the other likewise up arose,
And her fair locks, which formerly were bound
Up in one knot, she low adown did loose,
Which flowing long and thick her clothed around,
And the ivory in golden mantle gowned:
So that fair spectacle from him was reft,
Yet that which reft it no less fair was found;
So hid in locks and waves from lookers' theft,
Naught but her lovely face she for his looking left.

"Withal she laughed, and she blushed withal,
That blushing to her laughter gave more grace,
And laughter to her blushing, as did fall.
* * * * *
"Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound,
Of all that mote delight a dainty ear,
Such as at once might not on living ground,
Save in this paradise, be heard elsewhere:
Right hard it was for wight which did it hear
To read what manner music that mote be;
For all that pleasing is to living ear
Was there consorted in one harmony;
Birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters, all agree.

"The joyous birds, shrouded in cheerful shade,
Their notes unto the voice attempered sweet;
The angelical soft trembling voices made
To the instruments divine respondence mete;
The silver-sounding instruments did meet
With the base murmur of the water's fall;
The water's fall with difference discreet,
Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call;
The gentle warbling wind low answered to all."

Spenser, in one of his letters to Harvey, had said, "Why, a God's name, may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language?" This is in the tone of Bellay, as is also a great deal of what is said in the epistle prefixed to the "Shepherd's Calendar." He would have been wiser had he followed more closely Bellay's advice about the introduction of novel words: "Fear not, then, to innovate somewhat, particularly in a long poem, with modesty, however, with analogy, and judgment of ear; and trouble not thyself as to who may think it good or bad, hoping that posterity will approve it,--she who gives faith to doubtful, light to obscure, novelty to antique, usage to unaccustomed, and sweetness to harsh and rude things." Spenser's innovations were by no means always happy, as not always according with the genius of the language, and they have therefore not prevailed. He forms English words out of French or Italian ones, sometimes, I think, on a misapprehension of their true meaning; nay, he sometimes makes new ones by unlawfully grafting a scion of Romance on a Teutonic root. His theory, caught from Bellay, of rescuing good archaisms from unwarranted oblivion, was excellent; not so his practice of being archaic for the mere sake of escaping from the common and familiar. A permissible archaism is a word or phrase that has been supplanted by something less apt, but has not become unintelligible; and Spenser's often needed a glossary, even in his own day.(321) But he never endangers his finest passages by any experiments of this kind. There his language is living, if ever any, and of one substance with the splendor of his fancy. Like all masters of speech, he is fond of toying with and teasing it a little; and it may readily be granted that he sometimes "hunted the letter," as it was called, out of all cry. But even where his alliteration is tempted to an excess, its prolonged echoes caress the ear like the fading and gathering reverberations of an Alpine horn, and one can find in his heart to forgive even such a debauch of initial assonances as

"Eftsoones her shallow ship away did slide,
More swift than swallow shears the liquid sky."

Generally, he scatters them at adroit intervals, reminding us of the arrangement of voices in an ancient catch, where one voice takes up the phrase another has dropped, and thus seems to give the web of harmony a firmer and more continuous texture.

Other poets have held their mirrors up to nature, mirrors that differ very widely in the truth and beauty of the images they reflect; but Spenser's is a magic glass in which we see few shadows cast back from actual life, but visionary shapes conjured up by the wizard's art from some confusedly remembered past or some impossible future; it is like one of those still pools of mediaeval legend which covers some sunken city of the antique world; a reservoir in which all our dreams seem to have been gathered. As we float upon it, we see that it pictures faithfully enough the summer-clouds that drift over it, the trees that grow about its margin, but in the midst of these shadowy echoes of actuality we catch faint tones of bells that seem blown to us from beyond the horizon of time, and looking down into the clear depths, catch glimpses of towers and far-shining knights and peerless dames that waver and are gone. Is it a world that ever was, or shall be, or can be, or but a delusion? Spenser's world, real to him, is real enough for us to take a holiday in, and we may well be content with it when the earth we dwell on is so often too real to allow of such vacations. It is the same kind of world that Petrarca's Laura has walked in for five centuries with all ears listening for the music of her footfall.

The land of Spenser is the land of Dream, but it is also the land of Rest. To read him is like dreaming awake, without even the trouble of doing it yourself, but letting it be done for you by the finest dreamer that ever lived, who knows how to color his dreams like life and make them move before you in music. They seem singing to you as the sirens to Guyon, and we linger like him:--

"O, thou fair son of gentle Faery
That art in mighty arms most magnified
Above all knights that ever battle tried,
O, turn thy rudder hitherward awhile,
Here may thy storm-beat vessel safely ride,
This is the port of rest from troublous toil,
The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil.(322)

"With that the rolling sea, resounding swift
In his big bass, them fitly answered,
And on the rock the waves, breaking aloft,
A solemn mean unto them measured,
The whiles sweet Zephyrus loud whisteled
His treble, a strange kind of harmony
Which Guyon's senses softly tickeled
That he the boatman bade row easily
And let him hear some part of their rare melody."

Despite Spenser's instinctive tendency to idealize, and his habit of distilling out of the actual an ethereal essence in which very little of the possible seems left, yet his mind, as is generally true of great poets, was founded on a solid basis of good-sense. I do not know where to look for a more cogent and at the same time picturesque confutation of Socialism than in the Second Canto of the Fifth Book. If I apprehend rightly his words and images, there is not only subtile but profound thinking here. The French Revolution is prefigured in the well-meaning but too theoretic giant, and Rousseau's fallacies exposed two centuries in advance. Spenser was a conscious Englishman to his inmost fibre, and did not lack the sound judgment in politics which belongs to his race. He was the more English for living in Ireland, and there is something that moves us deeply in the exile's passionate cry:--

"Dear Country! O how dearly dear
Ought thy remembrance and perpetual band
Be to thy foster-child that from thy hand
Did common breath and nouriture receive!
How brutish is it not to understand
How much to her we owe that all us gave,
That gave unto us all whatever good we have!"

His race shows itself also where he tells us that

"chiefly skill to ride seems a science
Proper to gentle blood,"

which reminds one of Lord Herbert of Cherbury's saying that the finest sight God looked down on was a fine man on a fine horse.

Wordsworth, in the supplement to his preface, tells us that the "Faery Queen" "faded before" Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas. But Wordsworth held a brief for himself in this case, and is no exception to the proverb about men who are their own attorneys. His statement is wholly unfounded. Both poems, no doubt, so far as popularity is concerned, yielded to the graver interests of the Civil War. But there is an appreciation much weightier than any that is implied in mere popularity, and the vitality of a poem is to be measured by the kind as well as the amount of influence it exerts. Spenser has _coached more poets and more eminent ones than any other writer of English verse. I need say nothing of Milton, nor of professed disciples like Browne, the two Fletchers, and More. Oowley tells us that he became "irrecoverably a poet" by reading the "Faery Queen" when a boy. Dryden, whose case is particularly in point because he confesses having been seduced by Du Bartas, tells us that Spenser had been his master in English. He regrets, indeed, comically enough, that Spenser could not have read the rules of Bossu, but adds that "no man was ever born with a greater genius or more knowledge to support it." Pope says, "There is something in Spenser that pleases one as strongly in one's old age as it did in one's youth. I read the _Faery Queen when I was about twelve with a vast deal of delight; and I think it gave me as much when I read it over about a year or two ago." Thomson wrote the most delightful of his poems in the measure of Spenser; Collins, Gray, and Akenside show traces of him; and in our own day his influence reappears in Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Landor is, I believe, the only poet who ever found him tedious. Spenser's mere manner has not had so many imitators as Milton's, but no other of our poets has given an impulse, and in the right direction also, to so many and so diverse minds; above all, no other has given to so many young souls a consciousness of their wings and a delight in the use of them. He is a standing protest against the tyranny of Commonplace, and sows the seeds of a noble discontent with prosaic views of life and the dull uses to which it may be put.

Three of Spenser's own verses best characterize the feeling his poetry gives us:--

"Among wide waves set like a little nest,"
"Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemies,"
"The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil."

We are wont to apologize for the grossness of our favorite authors sometimes by saying that their age was to blame and not they; and the excuse is a good one, for often it is the frank word that shocks us while we tolerate the thing. Spenser needs no such extenuations. No man can read the "Faery Queen" and be anything but the better for it. Through that rude age, when Maids of Honor drank beer for breakfast and Hamlet could say a gross thing to Ophelia, he passes serenely abstracted and high, the Don Quixote of poets. Whoever can endure unmixed delight, whoever can tolerate music and painting and poetry all in one, whoever wishes to be rid of thought and to let the busy anvils of the brain be silent for a time, let him read in the "Faery Queen." There is the land of pure heart's ease, where no ache or sorrow of spirit can enter.

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Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 3. Footnotes 263 - 322 Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 3. Footnotes 263 - 322

Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 3. Footnotes 263 - 322
SPENSER. Continues 3. Footnotes 263 - 322(263) Though always misapplied in quotation, as if he had used the word in that generalized meaning which is common now, but which could not without an impossible anachronism have been present to his mind. He meant merely freedom from prison.(264) In his "Defence of Poesy" he condemns the archaisms and provincialisms of the "Shepherd's Calendar."(265) "There is, as you must have heard Wordsworth point out, a language of pure, intelligible English, which was spoken in Chaucer's time, and is spoken in ours; equally understood then and now; and of which the Bible is the

Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 1 Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 1

Among My Books - Second Series - SPENSER. Continues 1
SPENSER. Continues 1Spenser 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