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BORN, PROBABLY, ABOUT THE YEAR 1553-
THREE things must be conceded to the objectors against this divine poet; first, that he wrote a good deal of allegory; second, that he has a great many superfluous words; third, that he was very fond of alliteration. He is accused also (by little boys) of obsolete words and spelling; and it must be added, that he often forces his rhymes; nay, spells them in an arbitrary manner on purpose to make them fit. In short, he has a variety of faults, real or supposed, that would be intolerable in writers in general. This is true. The answer is, that his genius not only makes amends for all, but overlays them, and makes them beautiful, with "riches fineless." When acquaintance with him is once begun, he repels none but the anti-poetical. Others may not be able to read him continuously; but more or less, and as an enchanted stream" to dip into," they will read him always.
In Spenser's time, orthography was unsettled. Pronunciation is always so. The great poet, therefore, sometimes spells his words, whether rhymed or otherwise, in a manner apparently arbitrary, for the purpose of inducing the reader to give them the sound fittest for the sense. Alliteration, which, as a ground of melody, had been a principle in Anglo-Saxon verse, continued such a favorite with old English poets whom Spenser loved, that, as late as the reign of Edward the Third, it stood in the place of rhyme itself. Our author turns it to beautiful account. Superfluousness, though eschewed with a fine instinct by Chaucer in some of his latest works, where the narrative was fullest f action and character, abounded in his others; and, in spite of
the classics, it had not been recognized as a fault in Spenser's time, when books were still rare, and a writer thought himself bound to pour out all he felt and knew. It accorded also with his genius; and in him is not an excess of weakness, but of will and luxury. And as to allegory, it was not only the taste of the day, originating in gorgeous pageants of church and state, but in Spenser's hands it became such an embodiment of poetry itself, that its objectors really deserve no better answer than has been given them by Mr. Hazlitt, who asks, if they thought the allegory would "bite them." The passage will be found a
little further on.
Spenser's great characteristic is poetic luxury. If you go to him for a story, you will be disappointed; if for a style, classical or concise, the point against him is conceded; if for pathos, you must weep for personages half-real and too beautiful; if for mirth, you must laugh out of good breeding, and because it pleaseth the great, sequestered man, to be facetious. But if you love poetry well enough to enjoy it for its own sake, let no evil reports of its "allegory" deter you from his acquaintance, for great will be your loss. His allegory itself is but one part allegory, and nine parts beauty and enjoyment; sometimes an excess of flesh and blood. His forced rhymes, and his sentences written to fill up, which in a less poet would be intolerable, are accompanied with such endless grace and dreaming pleasure, fit to
Make heaven drowsy with the harmony,
that although it is to be no more expected of anybody to read him through at once, than to wander days and nights in a forest, thinking of nothing else, yet any true lover of poetry, when he comes to know him, would as soon quarrel with repose on the summer grass. You may get up and go away, but will return next day at noon to listen to his waterfalls, and to see, half-shut eye," his visions of knights and nymphs, his gods and goddesses, whom he brought down to earth in immortal beauty.
Spenser, in some respects, is more southern than the south itself. Dante, but for the covered heat which occasionally con
centrates the utmost sweetness as well as venom, would be quite northern compared with him. He is more luxurious than Ariosto or Tasso, more haunted with the presence of beauty. His wholesale poetical belief, mixing up all creeds and mythologies, but with less violence, resembles that of Dante and Boccaccio; and it gives the compound the better warrant in the more agreeable impression. Then his versification is almost perpetual honey.
Spenser is the farthest removed from the ordinary cares and haunts of the world of all the poets that ever wrote, except perhaps Ovid; and this, which is the reason why mere men of business and the world do not like him, constitutes his most bewitching charm with the poetical. He is not so great a poet as Shakspeare or Dante ;—he has less imagination, though more fancy, than Milton. He does not see things so purely in their elements as Dante; neither can he combine their elements like Shakspeare, nor bring such frequent intensities of words, or of wholesale imaginative sympathy, to bear upon his subject as any one of them; though he has given noble diffuser instances of the latter in his Una, and his Mammon, and his accounts of Jealousy and Despair.
But when you are "over-informed" with thought and passion in Shakspeare, when Milton's mighty grandeurs oppress you, or are found mixed with painful absurdities, or when the world is vexatious and tiresome, and you have had enough of your own vanities or struggles in it, or when "house and land themselves are "gone and spent," and your riches must lie in the regions of the "unknown," then Spenser is "most excellent." His remoteness from every-day life is the reason perhaps why Somers and Chatham admired him; and his possession of every kind of imaginary wealth completes his charm with his brother poets. Take him in short for what he is, whether greater or less than his fellows, the poetical faculty is so abundantly and beautifully predominant in him above every other, though he had passion, and thought, and plenty of ethics, and was as learned a man as Ben Jonson, perhaps as Milton himself, that he has always been felt by his countrymen to be what Charles Lamb called him, the "Poet's Poet." He has had more idolatry and
imitation from his brethren than all the rest put together. The old undramatic poets, Drayton, Browne, Drummond, Giles and Phineas Fletcher, were as full of him as the dramatic were of Shakspeare. Milton studied and used him, calling him the "sage and serious Spenser ;" and adding, that he "dared be known to think him a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas." Cowley said that he became a poet by reading him. Dryden claimed him for a master. Pope said he read him with as much pleasure when he was old, as young. Collins and Gray loved him; Thomson, Shenstone, and a host of inferior writers, expressly imitated him; Burns, Byron, Shelley, and Keats made use of his stanza; Coleridge eulogized him; and he is as dear to the best living poets as he was to their predecessors. Spenser has stood all the changes in critical opinion; all the logical and formal conclusions of the understanding, as opposed to imagination and lasting sympathy. Hobbes in vain attempted to depose him in favor of Davenant's Gondibert. Locke and his friend Molyneux to no purpose preferred Blackmore! Hume, acute and encroaching philosopher as he was, but not so universal in his philosophy as great poets, hurt Spenser's reputation with none but the French (who did not know him); and, by way of involuntary amends for the endeavor, he set up for poets such men as Wilkie and Blacklock! In vain, in vain. "In spite of philosophy and fashion," says a better critic of that day (Bishop Hurd), "Faerie Spenser' still ranks highest amongst the poets; I mean with all those who are either of that house, or have any kindness for it. Earth-born critics may blaspheme;
But all the gods are ravish'd with delight
Of his celestial song and music's wondrous might."
Remarks on the Plan and Conduct of the Faerie Queene (in Todd's edition of Spenser, vol. ii., p. 183).
"In reading Spenser," says Warton, "if the critic is not satisfied, yet the reader is transported." (Id., p. 65.)
"Spenser," observes Coleridge, has the wit of the southern, with the deeper inwardness of the northern genius. Take especial note of the marvellous independence and true imaginative absence of all particular space or time in the Faerie Queene.
It is in the domains neither of history nor geography: it is ignorant of all artificial boundary, all material obstacles; it is truly in land of Faerie, that is, of mental space. The poet has placed you in a dream, a charmed sleep: and you neither wish nor have the power to inquire, where you are, or how you got there." Literary Remains, vol. i., p. 94.
"In reading the Faerie Queene," says Hazlitt, "you see a little withered old man by a wood-side opening a wicket, a giant, and a dwarf lagging far behind, a damsel in a boat upon an enchanted lake, wood-nymphs and satyrs: and all of a sudden you are transported into a lofty palace, with tapers burning, amidst knights and ladies, with dance and revelry, and song,' and mask and antique pageantry.'-But some people will say that all this may be very fine, but they cannot understand it on account of the allegory. They are afraid of the allegory, as if they thought it would bite them; they look at it as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think that it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them. Without minding it at all the whole is as plain as a pike-staff. It might as well be pretended, that we cannot see Poussin's pictures for the allegory, as that the allegory prevents us from understanding Spenser." Lectures on the English Poets (Templeman's Edi tion, 12mo., p. 67).