Among My Books
James Russell Lowell
Part 3 out of 6
and the commentary upon it, and some to which his experience of life
must have given an intenser meaning. The writer of that book also
personifies Wisdom as the mistress of his soul: "I loved her and
sought her out from my youth, I desired to make her my spouse, and I
was a lover of her beauty." He says of Wisdom that she was "present
when thou (God) madest the world," and Dante in the same way
identifies her with the divine Logos, citing as authority the
"beginning of the Gospel of John." He tells us, "I perceived that I
could not otherwise obtain her except God gave her me," and Dante
came at last to the same conclusion. Again, "For the very true
beginning of her is the desire of discipline; and the care of
discipline is love. And love is the keeping of her laws; and the
giving heed unto her laws is the assurance of incorruption." But who
can doubt that he read with a bitter exultation, and applied to
himself passages like these which follow? "When the righteous _fled
from his brothers wrath, she guided him in right paths showed him the
kingdom of God, and gave him knowledge of holy things_. She defended
him from his enemies and kept him safe from those that lay in wait,
... that he might know that godliness is stronger than all.... She
forsook him not, but delivered him from sin; _she went down with him
into the pit_, and left him not in bonds till she brought him the
sceptre of the kingdom, ... and gave him perpetual glory." It was,
perhaps, from this book that Dante got the hint of making his
punishments and penances typical of the sins that earned them.
"Wherefore, whereas men lived dissolutely and unrighteously, thou
hast tormented them with their own abominations." Dante was intimate
with the Scriptures. They do even a scholar no harm. M. Victor Le
Clerc, in his "Histoire Litteraire de la France au quatorzieme
siecle" (Tom. II. p. 72), thinks it "not impossible" that a passage
in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, paraphrased by Dante, may have been
suggested to him by Rutebeuf or Tristan, rather than by the prophet
himself! Dante would hardly have found himself so much at home in the
company of _jongleurs_ as in that of prophets. Yet he was familiar
with French and Provencal poetry. Beside the evidence of the _Vulgari
Eloquio_, there are frequent and broad traces in the Commedia of the
_Roman de la Rose_, slighter ones of the _Chevalier de la Charette,
Guillaume d'Orange,_ and a direct imitation of Bernard de Ventadour.
 Convito, Tr. I. c. 12.
 Purgatorio, XXII. 115, 116.
 That Dante loved fame we need not be told. He several times
confesses it, especially in the De Vulgari Eloquio, I. 17. "How
glorious she [the Vulgar Tongue] makes her intimates [_familiares_,
those of her household], we ourselves have known, who in the
sweetness of this glory put our exile behind our backs."
 Dante several times uses the sitting a horse as an image of
rule. See especially Purgatorio, VI. 99, and Convito, Tr. IV. c. 11.
 "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge
of God!" Dante quotes this in speaking of the influence of the stars,
which, interpreting it presently "by the theological way," he
compares to that of the Holy Spirit "And thy counsel who hath known,
except thou give wisdom and send thy Holy Spirit from above?" (Wisdom
of Solomon, ix. 17.) The last words of the Convito are, "her
[Philosophy] whose proper dwelling is in the depths of the Divine
mind". The ordinary reading is _ragione_ (reason), but it seems to us
an obvious blunder for _magione_ (mansion, dwelling).
 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 28.
 He refers to a change in his own opinions (Lib II. sec. 1), where
he says, "When I knew the nations to have murmured against the
preeminence of the Roman people, and saw the people imagining vain
things _as I myself was wont_." He was a Guelph by inheritance, he
became a Ghibelline by conviction.
 It should seem from Dante's words ("at the time when much
people went to see the blessed image," and "ye seem to come from a
far off people") that this was some extraordinary occasion, and what
so likely as the jubilee of 1300? (Compare Paradiso, XXXI. 103-108.)
Dante's comparisons are so constantly drawn from actual eye-sight,
that his allusion (Inferno, XIII. 28-33) to a device of Boniface
VIII. for passing the crowds quietly across the bridge of Saint
Angelo, renders it not unlikely that he was in Rome at that time, and
perhaps conceived his poem there as Giovanni Villani his chronicle.
That Rome would deeply stir his mind and heart is beyond question
"And certes I am of a firm opinion that the stones that stand in her
walls are worthy of reverence, and the soil where she sits worthy
beyond what is preached and admitted of men." (Convito, Tr. IV. c.
 _Beatrice, loda di Dio vera_, Inferno, II. 103. "Surely vain
are all men by nature who are ignorant of God, and could not out of
the good things that are seen know him that is, neither by
considering the works did they acknowledge the work-master.... For,
being conversant in his works, they search diligently and believe
their sight, because the things are beautiful that are seen. Howbeit,
neither are they to be pardoned." (Wisdom of Solomon, XIII. 1, 7, 8.)
_Non adorar debitamente, Dio_. "For the invisible things of him from
the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the
things that are made, even his eternal power and godhead; so that
they are without excuse." It was these "invisible things" whereof
Dante was beginning to get a glimpse.
 Convito, Tr. I. c. 7.
 "And here we would have forgiven Mr. Captain if he had not
betrayed him (_traido, traduttore traditore_) to Spain and made him a
Castilian, for he took away much of his native worth, and so will all
those do who shall undertake to turn a poem into another tongue; for
with all the care they take and ability they show, they will never
reach the height of its original conception," says the Curate,
speaking of a translation of Ariosto. (Don Quixote, P. I. c. 6.)
 In his own comment Dante says, "I tell whither goes my thought,
calling it by the name of one of its effects."
 _Spirito_ means in Italian both breath (_spirto ed acqua
fessi_, Purgatorio, XXX. 98) and spirit.
 By _visione_ Dante means something seen waking by the inner
eye. He believed also that dreams were sometimes divinely inspired,
and argues from such the immortality of the soul. (Convito, Tr. II.
 Paradiso, XXV. 1-3.
 De Monarchia, Lib. III. sec. _ult_. See the whole passage in
Miss Rossetti, p 39. It is noticeable that Dante says that the Pope
is to _lead_ (by example), the Emperor to _direct_ (by the enforcing
of justice) The duty, we are to observe, was a double but not a
divided one. To exemplify this unity was indeed one object of the
"What Reason seeth here
Myself [Virgil] can tell thee; beyond that await
For Beatrice, since 'tis a work of Faith."
_Purgatorio_, XVIII. 46-48.
Beatrice here evidently impersonates Theology. It would be
interesting to know what was the precise date of Dante's theological
studies. The earlier commentators all make him go to Paris, the great
fountain of such learning, after his banishment. Boccaccio indeed
says that he did not return to Italy till 1311. Wegele (Dante's
"Leben und Werke," p. 85) puts the date of his journey between 1292
and 1297. Ozanam, with a pathos comically touching to the academic
soul, laments that poverty compelled him to leave the university
without the degree he had so justly earned. He consoles himself with
the thought that "there remained to him an incontestable erudition
and the love of serious studies." (Dante et la philosophic
catholique, p. 112.) It _is_ sad that we cannot write _Dantes
Alighierius, S. T. D._! Dante seems to imply that he began to devote
himself to Philosophy and Theology shortly after Beatrice's death.
(Convito, Tr. II. c. 13.) He compares himself to one who, "seeking
silver, should, without meaning it, find gold, which an occult cause
presents to him, not perhaps without the divine command." Here again
apparently is an allusion to his having found Wisdom while he sought
Learning. He had thought to find God in the beauty of his works, he
learned to seek all things in God.
 In a more general view, matter, the domain of the senses, no
doubt with a recollection of Aristotle's [Greek: hylae].
 As we have seen, even a sigh becomes _He_. This makes one of
the difficulties of translating his minor poems. The modern mind is
incapable of this subtlety.
 Purgatorio, III. 122,123.
 Purgatorio, III. 122,123.
 Purgatorio, V. 107.
 Inferno, III. 17, 18 (_hanno perduto_ = thrown away).
 Convito, Tr. II. c. 14.
 Purgatorio, XXIII. 121, 122.
 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 7.
 Inferno, XXXIII. 118, et seq.
 Inferno, I. 116, 117.
 Mr. Longfellow's _for_, like the Italian _per_, gives us the
same privilege of election. We "freeze for cold," we "hunger for
 Inferno, V. 67.
 Paradiso, XVIII. 46. Renoard is one of the heroes (a rudely
humorous one) in "La Bataille d'Alischans," an episode of the
measureless "Guillaume d'Orange." It was from the graves of those
supposed to have been killed in this battle that Dante draws a
comparison, Inferno, IX. Boccaccio's comment on this passage might
have been read to advantage by the French editors of "Alischans."
 We cite this comment under its received name, though it is
uncertain if Pietro was the author of it. Indeed, we strongly doubt
it. It is at least one of the earliest, for it appears, by the
comment on Paradiso, XXVI., that the greater part of it was written
before 1341. It is remarkable for the strictness with which it holds
to the spiritual interpretation of the poem, and deserves much more
to be called Ottimo, than the comment which goes by that name. Its
publication is due to the zeal and liberality of the late Lord
Vernon, to whom students of Dante are also indebted for the
parallel-text reprint of the four earliest editions of the Commedia.
 See Wegele, _ubi supra_, p. 174, et seq. The best analysis of
Dante's opinions we have ever met with is Emil Ruth's "Studien ueber
Dante Alighieri," Tuebingen, 1853. Unhappily it wants an index, and
accordingly loses a great part of its usefulness for those not
already familiar with the subject. Nor are its references
sufficiently exact. We always respect Dr. Ruth's opinions, if we do
not wholly accept them, for they are all the results of original and
 See the second book of the De Vulgari Eloquio. The only other
Italian poet who reminds us of Dante in sustained dignity is Guido
Guinicelli. Dante esteemed him highly, calls him maximus in the De
Vulgari Eloquio, and "the father of me and of my betters," in the
XXVI. Purgatorio. See some excellent specimens of him in Mr. D. G.
Rossetti's remarkable volume of translations from the early Italian
poets. Mr. Rossetti would do a real and lasting service to literature
by employing his singular gift in putting Dante's minor poems into
 The old French poems confound all unbelievers together as
pagans and worshippers of idols.
 Dante is an ancient in this respect as in many others, but the
difference is that with him society is something divinely ordained.
He follows Aristotle pretty closely, but on his own theory crime and
sin are identical.
 Purgatorio, XVIII. 73. He defines it in the De Monarchia (Lib.
I. sec. 14). Among other things he calls it "the first beginning of our
liberty." Paradiso, V. 19, 20, he calls it "the greatest gift that in
his largess God creating made." "Dico quod judicium medium est
apprehensionis et appetitus." (De Monarchia, _ubi supra_.)
"Right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides."
_Troilus and Cressida._
 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 22.
 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 7. "Qui descenderit ad inferos, non
ascendet." Job vii. 9.
 But it may he inferred that he put the interests of mankind
above both. "For citizens," he says, "exist not for the sake of
consuls, nor the people for the sake of the king, but, on the
contrary, consuls for the sake of citizens, and the king for the sake
of the people."
 Paradiso, VIII. 145, 146.
 Purgatorio, XVI. 106-112.
 De Monarchia, sec. _ult_.
 De Monarchia Lib III sec. 10. "Poterat tamen Imperator in
patrocinium Eccelesiae patrimonium et alia deputare immoto semper
superiori dominio cujus unitas divisio non patitur. Poterat et
Vicarius Dei recipere, non tanquam possessor, sed tanquam fructuum
pro Eccelesia proque Christi pauperibus dispensator." He tells us
that St. Dominic did not ask for the tithes which belong to the poor
of God. (Paradiso, XII. 93, 94.) "Let them return whence they came,"
he says (De Monarchia, Lib II. sec. 10); "they came well, let them
return ill, for they were well given and ill held."
 Inferno, XIX. 53; Paradiso, XXX. 145-148.
 Purgatorio, XX. 86-92.
 Purgatorio, XX. 86-92.
 Purgatorio, XIX. 134, 135.
 This results from the whole course of his argument in the
second book of De Monarchia, and in the VI. Paradiso he calls the
Roman eagle "the bird of God" and "the scutcheon of God." We must
remember that with Dante God is always the "Emperor of Heaven," the
barons of whose court are the Apostles. (Paradiso, XXIV. 115; Ib.,
 Dante seems to imply (though his name be German) that he was of
Roman descent He makes the original inhabitants of Florence (Inferno,
XV. 77, 78) of Roman seed, and Cacciaguida, when asked by him about
his ancestry, makes no more definite answer than that their dwelling
was in the most ancient part of the city (Paradiso, XVI. 40.)
 Man was created, according to Dante (Convito, Tr. II. c. 6), to
supply the place of the fallen angels, and is in a sense superior to
the angels, inasmuch as he has reason, which they do not need.
 De Monarchia, Lib I. sec. 5.
 Purgatorio, VI. 83, 84.
 De Monarchia, Lib. I. sec. 16.
 De Monarchia, Lib. I. sec. 5.
 De Monarchia, Lib II. sec. 7.
 Purgatorio, XVI. 67, 68.
 "Troilus and Cressida," Act I. s. 3. The whole speech is very
remarkable both in thought and phrase.
 Purgatorio, I. 71.
 De Monarchia, Lib. I. sec. 14.
 De Monarchia, Lib. I. sec. 18.
 De Monarchia, Lib. I. sec. 14.
 Paradiso, IX.
 Inferno, XXXVIII; Purgatorio, XXXII.
 See the poems of Walter Mapes (who was Archdeacon of Oxford);
the "Bible Guiot," and the "Bible au seignor de Berze," Barbezan and
 De Monarchia, Lib. III. sec. 8.
 Purgatorio, III. 133, 134.
 Paradiso, XXVII. 22.
 Purgatorio, XXVII. 18; Ottimo, Inferno, XXVIII. 55.
 Inferno, IX. 63; Purgatorio, VIII. 20.
 Purgatorio, XXIX. 131, 132.
 Inferno, XXII. 13, 14.
 De Monarchia, Lib. II. sec. 4.
 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 4; Ib., c. 27; Aeneid, I. 178, 179; Ovid's
 Inferno, XXXI. 92.
 Purgatorio, VI. 118, 119. Pulci, not understanding, has
parodied this. ("Morgante," Canto II. st. 1.)
 See, for example, Purgatorio, XX. 100-117.
 We believe that Dante, though he did not understand Greek, knew
something of Hebrew. He would have been likely to study it as the
sacred language, and opportunities of profiting by the help of
learned Jews could not have been wanting to him in his wanderings. In
the above-cited passage some of the best texts read _I s' appellava_,
and others _Un s' appellava_. God was called I (the _Je_ in Jehovah)
or _One_, and afterwards _El_,--the strong,--an epithet given to many
gods. Whichever reading we adopt, the meaning and the inference from
it are the same.
 Inferno, IV.
 Dante's "Limbo," of course, is the older "Limbus Patrum."
 De Monarchia, Lib. II. sec. 8.
 Faith, Hope, and Charity. (Purgatorio, XXIX. 121.) Mr.
Longfellow has translated the last verse literally. The meaning is,
"More than a thousand years ere baptism was."
 In which the _celestial Athens_ is mentioned.
 Purgatorio, XXVII. 139-142.
 "I conceived myself to be now," says Milton, "not as mine own
person, but as a member incorporate into that truth whereof I was
"But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love that moves the sun and other stars."
Paradiso, XXXIII., closing verses of the Divina Commedia.
 Dante seems to allude directly to this article of the Catholic
faith when he says, on entering the Celestial Paradise, "to signify
transhumanizing by words could not be done," and questions whether he
was there in the renewed spirit only or in the flesh also:--
"If I was merely _what of me thou newly
Createdst_, Love who governest the heavens,
Thou knowest who didst lift me with thy light."
Paradiso, I. 70-75.
 Paradiso, II. 7. Lucretius makes the same boast:--
"Avia Pieridum peragro loca nullius ante
 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 15.
 Purgatorio, XVI. 142. Here is Milton's "Far off his coming
 Purgatorio, XV. 7, et seq.
 See, for example, Inferno, XVII. 127-132; Ib. XXIV. 7-12;
Purgatorio, II. 124-129; Ib., III. 79-84; Ib., XXVII. 76-81;
Paradiso, XIX. 91-93; Ib. XXI. 34-39; Ib. XXIII. 1-9.
 Inferno, XXXI. 136-138.
"And those thin clouds above, in fakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars."
Coleridge, "Dejection, an Ode."
See also the comparison of the dimness of the faces seen around him
in Paradise to "a pearl on a white forehead." (Paradiso, III. 14.)
 Inferno, X. 35-41; Purgatorio, VI. 61-66; Ib., X. 133.
 For example, Cavalcanti's _Come dicesti egli ebbe_? (Inferno,
X. 67, 68.) Anselmuccio's _Tu guardi si, padre, che hai_? (Inferno,
 To the "bestiality" of certain arguments Dante says, "one would
wish to reply, not with words, but with a knife." (Convito, Tr. IV.
 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 2.
 Paradiso, XXII. 132-135; Ib., XXVII. 110.
Chaucer 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 that dance of joyous spray which for a moment catches and holds
From the two centuries between 1400 and 1600 the indefatigable Ritson in
his _Bibliographia Poetica_ has made us a catalogue of some six hundred
English poets, or, more properly, verse-makers. Ninety-nine in a hundred
of them are mere names, most of them no more than shadows of names, some
of them mere initials. Nor can it be said of them that their works have
perished because they were written in an obsolete dialect; for it is the
poem that keeps the language alive, and not the language that buoys up
the poem. The revival of letters, as it is called, was at first the
revival of _ancient_ letters, which, while it made men pedants, could do
very little toward making them poets, much less toward making them
original writers. There was nothing left of the freshness, vivacity,
invention, and careless faith in the present which make many of the
productions of the Norman Trouveres delightful reading even now. The
whole of Europe during the fifteenth century produced no book which has
continued readable, or has become in any sense of the word a classic. I
do not mean that that century has left us no illustrious names, that it
was not enriched with some august intellects who kept alive the apostolic
succession of thought and speculation, who passed along the still
unextinguished torch of intelligence, the _lampada vitae_, to those who
came after them. But a classic is properly a book which maintains itself
by virtue of that happy coalescence of matter and style, that innate and
exquisite sympathy between the thought that gives life and the form that
consents to every mood of grace and dignity, which can be simple without
being vulgar, elevated without being distant, and which is something
neither ancient nor modern, always new and incapable of growing old. It
is not his Latin which makes Horace cosmopolitan, nor can Beranger's
French prevent his becoming so. No hedge of language however thorny, no
dragon-coil of centuries, will keep men away from these true apples of
the Hesperides if once they have caught sight or scent of them. If poems
die, it is because there was never true life in them, that is, that true
poetic vitality which no depth of thought, no airiness of fancy, no
sincerity of feeling, can singly communicate, but which leaps throbbing
at touch of that shaping faculty the imagination. Take Aristotle's
ethics, the scholastic philosophy, the theology of Aquinas, the Ptolemaic
system of astronomy, the small politics of a provincial city of the
Middle Ages, mix in at will Grecian, Roman, and Christian mythology, and
tell me what chance there is to make an immortal poem of such an
incongruous mixture. Can these dry bones live? Yes, Dante can create such
a soul under these ribs of death that one hundred and fifty editions of
his poem shall be called for in these last sixty years, the first half of
the sixth century since his death. Accordingly I am apt to believe that
the complaints one sometimes hears of the neglect of our older literature
are the regrets of archaeologists rather than of critics. One does not
need to advertise the squirrels where the nut-trees are, nor could any
amount of lecturing persuade them to spend their teeth on a hollow nut.
On the whole, the Scottish poetry of the fifteenth century has more meat
in it than the English, but this is to say very little. Where it is meant
to be serious and lofty it falls into the same vices of unreality and
allegory which were the fashion of the day, and which there are some
patriots so fearfully and wonderfully made as to relish. Stripped of the
archaisms (that turn every _y_ to a meaningless _z_, spell which
_quhilk_, shake _schaik_, bugle _bowgill_, powder _puldir_, and will not
let us simply whistle till we have puckered our mouths to _quhissill_) in
which the Scottish antiquaries love to keep it disguised,--as if it were
nearer to poetry the further it got from all human recognition and
sympathy,--stripped of these, there is little to distinguish it from the
contemporary verse-mongering south of the Tweed. Their compositions are
generally as stiff and artificial as a trellis, in striking contrast with
the popular ballad-poetry of Scotland (some of which possibly falls
within this period, though most of it is later), which clambers,
lawlessly if you will, but at least freely and simply, twining the bare
stem of old tradition with graceful sentiment and lively natural
sympathies. I find a few sweet and flowing verses in Dunbar's "Merle and
Nightingale,"--indeed one whole stanza that has always seemed exquisite
to me. It is this:--
"Ne'er sweeter noise was heard by living man
Than made this merry, gentle nightingale.
Her sound went with the river as it ran
Out through the fresh and flourished lusty vale;
O merle, quoth she, O fool, leave off thy tale,
For in thy song good teaching there is none,
For both are lost,--the time and the travail
Of every love but upon God alone."
But except this lucky poem, I find little else in the serious verses of
Dunbar that does not seem to me tedious and pedantic. I dare say a few
more lines might be found scattered here and there, but I hold it a sheer
waste of time to hunt after these thin needles of wit buried in unwieldy
haystacks of verse. If that be genius, the less we have of it the better.
His "Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins," over which the excellent Lord
Hailes went into raptures, is wanting in everything but coarseness; and
if his invention dance at all, it is like a galley-slave in chains under
the lash. It would be well for us if the sins themselves were indeed such
wretched bugaboos as he has painted for us. What he means for humor is
but the dullest vulgarity; his satire would be Billingsgate if it could,
and, failing, becomes a mere offence in the nostrils, for it takes a
great deal of salt to keep scurrility sweet. Mr. Sibbald, in his
"Chronicle of Scottish Poetry," has admiringly preserved more than enough
of it, and seems to find a sort of national savor therein, such as
delights his countrymen in a _haggis_, or the German in his
_sauer-kraut_. The uninitiated foreigner puts his handkerchief to his
nose, wonders, and gets out of the way as soon as he civilly can.
Barbour's "Brus," if not precisely a poem, has passages whose simple
tenderness raises them to that level. That on Freedom is familiar.
But its highest merit is the natural and unstrained tone of manly courage
in it, the easy and familiar way in which Barbour always takes chivalrous
conduct as a matter of course, as if heroism were the least you could ask
of any man. I modernize a few verses to show what I mean. When the King
of England turns to fly from the battle of Bannockburn (and Barbour with
his usual generosity tells us he has heard that Sir Aymer de Valence led
him away by the bridle-rein against his will), Sir Giles d'Argente
"Saw the king thus and his menie
Shape them to flee so speedily,
He came right to the king in hy [hastily]
And said, 'Sir, since that is so
That ye thus gate your gate will go,
Have ye good-day, for back will I:
Yet never fled I certainly,
And I choose here to bide and die
Than to live shamefully and fly.'"
The "Brus" is in many ways the best rhymed chronicle ever written. It is
national in a high and generous way, but I confess I have little faith in
that quality in literature which is commonly called nationality,--a kind
of praise seldom given where there is anything better to be said.
Literature that loses its meaning, or the best part of it, when it gets
beyond sight of the parish steeple, is not what I understand by
literature. To tell you when you cannot fully taste a book that it is
because it is so thoroughly national, is to condemn the book. To
say it of a poem is even worse, for it is to say that what should be
true of the whole compass of human nature is true only to some
north-and-by-east-half-east point of it. I can understand the nationality
of Firdusi when, looking sadly back to the former glories of his country,
he tells us that "the nightingale still sings old Persian"; I can
understand the nationality of Burns when he turns his plough aside to
spare the rough burr thistle, and hopes he may write a song or two for
dear auld Scotia's sake. That sort of nationality belongs to a country of
which we are all citizens,--that country of the heart which has no
boundaries laid down on the map. All great poetry must smack of the soil,
for it must be rooted in it, must suck life and substance from it, but it
must do so with the aspiring instinct of the pine that climbs forever
toward diviner air, and not in the grovelling fashion of the potato. Any
verse that makes you and me foreigners is not only not great poetry, but
no poetry at all. Dunbar's works were disinterred and edited some thirty
years ago by Mr. Laing, and whoso is national enough to like thistles may
browse there to his heart's content. I am inclined for other pasture,
having long ago satisfied myself by a good deal of dogged reading that
every generation is sure of its own share of bores without borrowing from
A little later came Gawain Douglas, whose translation of the Aeneid is
linguistically valuable, and whose introductions to the seventh and
twelfth books--the one describing winter and the other May--have been
safely praised, they are so hard to read. There is certainly some poetic
feeling in them, and the welcome to the sun comes as near enthusiasm as
is possible for a ploughman, with a good steady yoke of oxen, who lays
over one furrow of verse, and then turns about to lay the next as
cleverly alongside it as he can. But it is a wrong done to good taste to
hold up this _item_ kind of description any longer as deserving any other
credit than that of a good memory. It is a mere bill of parcels, a
_post-mortem_ inventory of nature, where imagination is not merely not
called for, but would be out of place. Why, a recipe in the cookery-book
is as much like a good dinner as this kind of stuff is like true
word-painting. The poet with a real eye in his head does not give us
everything, but only the _best_ of everything. He selects, he combines,
or else gives what is characteristic only; while the false style of which
I have been speaking seems to be as glad to get a pack of impertinences
on its shoulders as Christian in the Pilgrim's Progress was to be rid of
his. One strong verse that can hold itself upright (as the French critic
Rivarol said of Dante) with the bare help of the substantive and verb, is
worth acres of this dead cord-wood piled stick on stick, a boundless
continuity of dryness. I would rather have written that half-stanza of
Longfellow's, in the "Wreck of the Hesperus," of the "billow that swept
her crew like icicles from her deck," than all Gawain Douglas's tedious
enumeration of meteorological phenomena put together. A real landscape is
never tiresome; it never presents itself to us as a disjointed succession
of isolated particulars; we take it in with one sweep of the eye,--its
light, its shadow, its melting gradations of distance: we do not say it
is this, it is that, and the other; and we may be sure that if a
description in poetry is tiresome there is a grievous mistake somewhere.
All the pictorial adjectives in the dictionary will not bring it a
hair's-breadth nearer to truth and nature. The fact is that what we see
is in the mind to a greater degree than we are commonly aware. As
"O lady, we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone doth Nature live!"
I have made the unfortunate Dunbar the text for a diatribe on the subject
of descriptive poetry, because I find that this old ghost is not laid
yet, but comes back like a vampire to suck the life out of a true
enjoyment of poetry,--and the medicine by which vampires were cured was
to unbury them, drive a stake through them, and get them under ground
again with all despatch. The first duty of the Muse is to be delightful,
and it is an injury done to all of us when we are put in the wrong by a
kind of statutory affirmation on the part of the critics of something to
which our judgment will not consent, and from which our taste revolts. A
collection of poets is commonly made up, nine parts in ten, of this
perfunctory verse-making, and I never look at one without regretting that
we have lost that excellent Latin phrase, _Corpus poetarum_. In fancy I
always read it on the backs of the volumes,--a _body_ of poets, indeed,
with scarce one soul to a hundred of them.
One genuine English poet illustrated the early years of the sixteenth
century,--John Skelton. He had vivacity, fancy, humor, and originality.
Gleams of the truest poetical sensibility alternate in him with an almost
brutal coarseness. He was truly Rabelaisian before Rabelais. But there is
a freedom and hilarity in much of his writing that gives it a singular
attraction. A breath of cheerfulness runs along the slender stream of his
verse, under which it seems to ripple and crinkle, catching and casting
back the sunshine like a stream blown on by clear western winds.
But Skelton was an exceptional blossom of autumn. A long and dreary
winter follows. Surrey, who brought back with him from Italy the
blank-verse not long before introduced by Trissino, is to some extent
another exception. He had the sentiment of nature and unhackneyed
feeling, but he has no mastery of verse, nor any elegance of diction. We
have Gascoyne, Surrey, Wyatt, stiff, pedantic, artificial, systematic as
a country cemetery, and, worst of all, the whole time desperately in
love. Every verse is as flat, thin, and regular as a lath, and their
poems are nothing more than bundles of such tied trimly together. They
are said to have refined our language. Let us devoutly hope they did, for
it would be pleasant to be grateful to them for something. But I fear it
was not so, for only genius can do that; and Sternhold and Hopkins are
inspired men in comparison with them. For Sternhold was at least the
author of two noble stanzas:--
"The Lord descended from above
And bowed the heavens high,
And underneath his feet he cast
The darkness of the sky;
On cherubs and on cherubims
Full royally he rode,
And on the wings of all the winds
Came flying all abroad."
But Gascoyne and the rest did nothing more than put the worst school of
Italian love poetry into an awkward English dress. The Italian proverb
says, "Inglese italianizzato, Diavolo incarnato," that an Englishman
Italianized is the very devil incarnate, and one feels the truth of it
here. The very titles of their poems set one yawning, and their wit is
the cause of the dulness that is in other men. "The lover, deceived by
his love, repenteth him of the true love he bare her." As thus:--
"Where I sought heaven there found I hap;
From danger unto death,
Much like the mouse that treads the trap
In hope to find her food,
And bites the bread that stops her breath,--
So in like case I stood."
"The lover, accusing his love for her unfaithfulness, proposeth to live
in liberty." He says:--
"But I am like the beaten fowl
That from the net escaped,
And thou art like the ravening owl
That all the night hath waked."
And yet at the very time these men were writing there were simple
ballad-writers who could have set them an example of simplicity, force,
and grandeur. Compare the futile efforts of these poetasters to kindle
themselves by a painted flame, and to be pathetic over the lay figure of
a mistress, with the wild vigor and almost fierce sincerity of the "Twa
"As I was walking all alone
I heard twa corbies making a moan.
The one unto the other did say,
Where shall we gang dine to-day?
In beyond that old turf dyke
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there
But his hawk and his hound and his lady fair.
His hound is to the hunting gone,
His hawk to fetch the wild fowl home,
His lady has ta'en another mate,
So we may make our dinner sweet.
O'er his white bones as they lie bare
The wind shall blow forevermair."
There was a lesson in rhetoric for our worthy friends, could they have
understood it. But they were as much afraid of an attack of nature as of
Such was the poetical inheritance of style and diction into which Spenser
was born, and which he did more than any one else to redeem from the
leaden gripe of vulgar and pedantic conceit. Sir Philip Sidney, born the
year after him, with a keener critical instinct, and a taste earlier
emancipated than his own, would have been, had he lived longer, perhaps
even more directly influential in educating the taste and refining the
vocabulary of, his contemporaries and immediate successors. The better of
his pastoral poems in the "Arcadia" are, in my judgment, more simple,
natural, and, above all, more pathetic than those of Spenser, who
sometimes strains the shepherd's pipe with a blast that would better suit
the trumpet. Sidney had the good sense to feel that it was
unsophisticated sentiment rather than rusticity of phrase that befitted
such themes. He recognized the distinction between simplicity and
vulgarity, which Wordsworth was so long in finding out, and seems to have
divined the fact that there is but one kind of English that is always
appropriate and never obsolete, namely, the very best. With the
single exception of Thomas Campion, his experiments in adapting classical
metres to English verse are more successful than those of his
contemporaries. Some of his elegiacs are not ungrateful to the ear, and
it can hardly be doubted that Coleridge borrowed from his eclogue of
Strephon and Klaius the pleasing movement of his own _Catullian
Hendecasyllabics_. Spenser, perhaps out of deference to Sidney, also
tried his hand at English hexameters, the introduction of which was
claimed by his friend Gabriel Harvey, who thereby assured to himself an
immortality of grateful remembrance. But the result was a series of jolts
and jars, proving that the language had run off the track. He seems to
have been half conscious of it himself, and there is a gleam of mischief
in what he writes to Harvey: "I like your late English hexameter so
exceedingly well that I also enure my pen sometime in that kind, which I
find indeed, as I have often heard you defend in word, neither so hard
nor so harsh but that it will easily yield itself to our mother-tongue.
For the only or chiefest hardness, which seemeth, is in the accent, which
sometime gapeth, and, as it were, yawneth ill-favoredly, coming short of
that it should, and sometime exceeding the measure of the number, as in
_Carpenter_; the middle syllable being used short in speech, when it
shall be read long in verse, seemeth like a lame gosling that draweth one
leg after her; and _Heaven_ being used short as one syllable, when it is
in verse stretched out with a diastole, is like a lame dog that holds up
one leg." It is almost inconceivable that Spenser's hexameters
should have been written by the man who was so soon to teach his native
language how to soar and sing, and to give a fuller sail to English
One of the most striking facts in our literary history is the
pre-eminence at once so frankly and unanimously conceded to Spenser by
his contemporaries. At first, it is true, he had not many rivals. Before
the "Faery Queen" two long poems were printed and popular,--the "Mirror
for Magistrates" and Warner's "Albion's England,"--and not long after it
came the "Polyolbion" of Drayton and the "Civil Wars" of Daniel. This was
the period of the saurians in English poetry, interminable poems, book
after book and canto after canto, like far-stretching _vertebrae_, that
at first sight would seem to have rendered earth unfit for the habitation
of man. They most of them sleep well now, as once they made their readers
sleep, and their huge remains lie embedded in the deep morasses of
Chambers and Anderson. We wonder at the length of face and general
atrabilious look that mark the portraits of the men of that generation,
but it is no marvel when even their relaxations were such downright hard
work. Fathers when their day on earth was up must have folded down the
leaf and left the task to be finished by their sons,--a dreary
inheritance. Yet both Drayton and Daniel are fine poets, though both of
them in their most elaborate works made shipwreck of their genius on the
shoal of a bad subject. Neither of them could make poetry coalesce with
gazetteering or chronicle-making. It was like trying to put a declaration
of love into the forms of a declaration in trover. The "Polyolbion"
is nothing less than a versified gazetteer of England and
Wales,--fortunately Scotland was not yet annexed, or the poem would have
been even longer, and already it is the plesiosaurus of verse. Mountains,
rivers, and even marshes are personified, to narrate historical episodes,
or to give us geographical lectures. There are two fine verses in the
seventh book, where, speaking of the cutting down some noble woods, he
"Their trunks like aged folk now bare and naked stand,
As for revenge to heaven each held a withered hand";
and there is a passage about the sea in the twentieth book that comes
near being fine; but the far greater part is mere joiner-work. Consider
the life of man, that we flee away as a shadow, that our days are as a
post, and then think whether we can afford to honor such a draft upon our
time as is implied in these thirty books all in alexandrines! Even the
laborious Selden, who wrote annotations on it, sometimes more
entertaining than the text, gave out at the end of the eighteenth book.
Yet Drayton could write well, and had an agreeable lightsomeness of
fancy, as his "Nymphidia" proves. His poem "To the Cambro-Britons on
their Harp" is full of vigor; it runs, it leaps, clashing its verses like
swords upon bucklers, and moves the pulse to a charge.
Daniel was in all respects a man of finer mould. He did indeed refine our
tongue, and deserved the praise his contemporaries concur in giving him
of being "well-languaged." Writing two hundred and fifty years ago,
he stands in no need of a glossary, and I have noted scarce a dozen
words, and not more turns of phrase, in his works, that have become
obsolete. This certainly indicates both remarkable taste and equally
remarkable judgment. There is an equable dignity in his thought and
sentiment such as we rarely meet. His best poems always remind me of a
table-land, where, because all is so level, we are apt to forget on how
lofty a plane we are standing. I think his "Musophilus" the best poem of
its kind in the language. The reflections are natural, the expression
condensed, the thought weighty, and the language worthy of it. But he
also wasted himself on an historical poem, in which the characters were
incapable of that remoteness from ordinary associations which is
essential to the ideal. Not that we can escape into the ideal by _merely_
emigrating into the past or the unfamiliar. As in the German legend the
little black Kobold of prose that haunts us in the present will seat
himself on the first load of furniture when we undertake our flitting, if
the magician be not there to exorcise him. No man can jump off his own
shadow, nor, for that matter, off his own age, and it is very likely that
Daniel had only the thinking and languaging parts of a poet's outfit,
without the higher creative gift which alone can endow his conceptions
with enduring life and with an interest which transcends the parish
limits of his generation. In the prologue to his "Masque at Court" he has
unconsciously defined his own poetry:--
"Wherein no wild, no rude, no antic sport,
But tender passions, motions soft and grave,
The still spectator must expect to have."
And indeed his verse does not snatch you away from ordinary associations
and hurry you along with it as is the wont of the higher kinds of poetry,
but leaves you, as it were, upon the bank watching the peaceful current
and lulled by its somewhat monotonous murmur. His best-known poem,
blunderingly misprinted in all the collections, is that addressed to the
Countess of Cumberland. It is an amplification of Horace's _Integer
Vitae_, and when we compare it with the original we miss the point, the
compactness, and above all the urbane tone of the original. It is very
fine English, but it is the English of diplomacy somehow, and is never
downright this or that, but always has the honor to be so or so, with
sentiments of the highest consideration. Yet the praise of
_well-languaged_, since it implies that good writing then as now demanded
choice and forethought, is not without interest for those who would
classify the elements of a style that will wear and hold its colors well.
His diction, if wanting in the more hardy evidences of muscle, has a
suppleness and spring that give proof of training and endurance. His
"Defence of Rhyme," written in prose (a more difficult test than verse),
has a passionate eloquence that reminds one of Burke, and is more
light-armed and modern than the prose of Milton fifty years later. For us
Occidentals he has a kindly prophetic word:--
"And who in time knows whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue? to what strange shores
The gain of our best glory may be sent
To enrich unknowing nations with our stores?
What worlds in the yet unformed Occident
May come refined with accents that are ours?"
During the period when Spenser was getting his artistic training a great
change was going on in our mother-tongue, and the language of literature
was disengaging itself more and more from that of ordinary talk. The
poets of Italy, Spain, and France began to rain influence and to modify
and refine not only style but vocabulary. Men were discovering new worlds
in more senses than one, and the visionary finger of expectation still
pointed forward. There was, as we learn from contemporary pamphlets, very
much the same demand for a national literature that we have heard in
America. This demand was nobly answered in the next generation. But no
man contributed so much to the transformation of style and language as
Spenser; for not only did he deliberately endeavor at reform, but by the
charm of his diction, the novel harmonies of his verse, his ideal method
of treatment, and the splendor of his fancy, he made the new manner
popular and fruitful. We can trace in Spenser's poems the gradual growth
of his taste through experiment and failure to that assured
self-confidence which indicates that he had at length found out the true
bent of his genius,--that happiest of discoveries (and not so easy as it
might seem) which puts a man in undisturbed possession of his own
individuality. Before his time the boundary between poetry and prose had
not been clearly defined. His great merit lies not only in the ideal
treatment with which he glorified common things and gilded them with a
ray of enthusiasm, but far more in the ideal point of view which he first
revealed to his countrymen. He at first sought for that remoteness, which
is implied in an escape from the realism of daily life, in the
pastoral,--a kind of writing which, oddly enough, from its original
intention as a protest in favor of naturalness, and of human as opposed
to heroic sentiments, had degenerated into the most artificial of
abstractions. But he was soon convinced of his error, and was not long in
choosing between an unreality which pretended to be real and those
everlasting realities of the mind which seem unreal only because they lie
beyond the horizon of the every-day world and become visible only when
the mirage of fantasy lifts them up and hangs them in an ideal
atmosphere. As in the old fairy-tales, the task which the age imposes on
its poet is to weave its straw into a golden tissue; and when every
device has failed, in comes the witch Imagination, and with a touch the
miracle is achieved, simple as miracles always are after they are
Spenser, like Chaucer a Londoner, was born in 1553. Nothing is known
of his parents, except that the name of his mother was Elizabeth; but he
was of gentle birth, as he more than once informs us, with the natural
satisfaction of a poor man of genius at a time when the business talent
of the middle class was opening to it the door of prosperous preferment.
In 1569 he was entered as a sizar at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and in due
course took his bachelor's degree in 1573, and his master's in 1576. He
is supposed, on insufficient grounds, as it appears to me, to have met
with some disgust or disappointment during his residence at the
University. Between 1576 and 1578 Spenser seems to have been with
some of his kinsfolk "in the North" It was during this interval that he
conceived his fruitless passion for the Rosalinde, whose jilting him for
another shepherd, whom he calls Menalcas, is somewhat perfunctorily
bemoaned in his pastorals Before the publication of his "Shepherd's
Calendar" in 1579, he had made the acquaintance of Sir Philip Sidney, and
was domiciled with him for a time at Penshurst, whether as guest or
literary dependant is uncertain. In October, 1579, he is in the household
of the Earl of Leicester. In July, 1580 he accompanied Lord Grey de
Wilton to Ireland as Secretary, and in that country he spent the rest of
his life, with occasional flying visits to England to publish poems or in
search of preferment. His residence in that country has been compared to
that of Ovid in Pontus. And, no doubt, there were certain outward points
of likeness. The Irishry by whom he was surrounded were to the full as
savage, as hostile, and as tenacious of their ancestral habitudes as the
Scythians who made Tomi a prison, and the descendants of the earlier
English settlers had degenerated as much as the Mix-Hellenes who
disgusted the Latin poet. Spenser himself looked on his life in Ireland
as a banishment. In his "Colm Clout's come Home again" he tells us that
Sir Walter Raleigh, who visited him in 1589, and heard what was then
finished of the "Faery Queen,"--
"'Gan to cast great liking to my lore
And great disliking to my luckless lot,
That banisht had myself, like wight forlore,
Into that waste, where I was quite forgot
The which to leave thenceforth he counselled me,
Unmeet for man in whom was aught regardful,
And wend with him his Cynthia to see,
Whose grace was great and bounty most rewardful."
But Spenser was already living at Kilcolman Castle (which, with 3,028
acres of land from the forfeited estates of the Earl of Desmond, was
confirmed to him by grant two years later), amid scenery at once placid
and noble, whose varied charm he felt profoundly. He could not complain,
"Non liber hie ullus, non qui mihi commodet aurem,"
for he was within reach of a cultivated society, which gave him the
stimulus of hearty admiration both as poet and scholar. Above all, he
was fortunate in a seclusion that prompted study and deepened meditation,
while it enabled him to converse with his genius disengaged from those
worldly influences which would have disenchanted it of its mystic
enthusiasm, if they did not muddle it ingloriously away. Surely this
sequestered nest was more congenial to the brooding of those ethereal
visions of the "Faery Queen" and to giving his "soul a loose" than
"The smoke, the wealth, and noise of Rome,
And all the busy pageantry
That wise men scorn and fools adore."
Yet he longed for London, if not with the homesickness of Bussy-Rabutin
in exile from the Parisian sun, yet enough to make him joyfully accompany
Raleigh thither in the early winter of 1589, carrying with him the first
three books of the great poem begun ten years before. Horace's _nonum
prematur in annum_ had been more than complied with, and the success was
answerable to the well-seasoned material and conscientious faithfulness
of the work. But Spenser did not stay long in London to enjoy his fame.
Seen close at hand, with its jealousies, intrigues, and selfish
basenesses, the court had lost the enchantment lent by the distance of
Kilcolman. A nature so prone to ideal contemplation as Spenser's would be
profoundly shocked by seeing too closely the ignoble springs of
contemporaneous policy, and learning by what paltry personal motives the
noble opportunities of the world are at any given moment endangered. It
is a sad discovery that history is so mainly made by ignoble men.
"Vide questo globo
Tal ch'ei sorrise del suo vil sembiante."
In his "Colin Clout," written just after his return to Ireland, he speaks
of the Court in a tone of contemptuous bitterness, in which, as it seems
to me, there is more of the sorrow of disillusion than of the gall of
personal disappointment. He speaks, so he tells us,--
"To warn young shepherds' wandering wit
Which, through report of that life's painted bliss,
Abandon quiet home to seek for it
And leave their lambs to loss misled amiss;
For, sooth to say, it is no sort of life
For shepherd fit to live in that same place,
Where each one seeks with malice and with strife
To thrust down other into foul disgrace
Himself to raise; and he doth soonest rise
That best can handle his deceitful wit
In subtle shifts....
To which him needs a guileful hollow heart
Masked with fair dissembling courtesy,
A filed tongue furnisht with terms of art,
No art of school, but courtiers' schoolery.
For arts of school have there small countenance,
Counted but toys to busy idle brains,
And there professors find small maintenance,
But to be instruments of others' gains,
Nor is there place for any gentle wit
Unless to please it can itself apply.
* * * * *
"Even such is all their vaunted vanity,
Naught else but smoke that passeth soon away.
* * * * *
"So they themselves for praise of fools do sell,
And all their wealth for painting on a wall.
* * * * *
"Whiles single Truth and simple Honesty
Do wander up and down despised of all."
And again in his "Mother Hubberd's Tale," in the most pithy and masculine
verses he ever wrote:--
"Most miserable man, whom wicked Fate
Hath brought to Court to sue for _Had-I-wist_
That few have found and many one hath mist!
Full httle knowest thou that hast not tried
What hell it is in suing long to bide;
To lose good days that might be better spent,
To waste long nights in pensive discontent,
To speed to day, to be put back to-morrow,
To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow,
To have thy prince's grace yet want her Peers',
To have thy asking yet wait many years,
To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares,
To eat thy heart through comfortless despairs,
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.
* * * * *
"Whoever leaves sweet home, where mean estate
In safe assurance, without strife or hate,
Finds all things needful for contentment meek,
And will to court for shadows vain to seek,
* * * * *
"That curse God send unto mine enemy!"
When Spenser had once got safely back to the secure retreat and serene
companionship of his great poem, with what profound and pathetic
exultation must he have recalled the verses of Dante!--
"Chi dietro a jura, e chi ad aforismi
Sen giva, e chi seguendo sacerdozio,
E chi regnar per forza e per sofismi,
E chi rubare, e chi civil negozio,
Chi nei diletti della carne involto
S' affaticava, e chi si dava all' ozio,
Quando da tutte queste cose sciolto,
Con Beatrice m' era suso in cielo
Cotanto gloriosamente accolto."
What Spenser says of the indifference of the court to learning and
literature is the more remarkable because he himself was by no means an
unsuccessful suitor. Queen Elizabeth bestowed on him a pension of fifty
pounds, and shortly after he received the grant of lands already
mentioned. It is said, indeed, that Lord Burleigh in some way hindered
the advancement of the poet, who more than once directly alludes to him
either in reproach or remonstrance. In "The Ruins of Time," after
speaking of the death of Walsingham,
"Since whose decease learning lies unregarded,
And men of armes do wander unrewarded,"
he gives the following reason for their neglect.--
"For he that now wields all things at his will,
Scorns th' one and th' other in his deeper skill.
O grief of griefs! O gall of all good hearts,
To see that virtue should despised be
Of him that first was raised for virtuous parts,
And now, broad spreading like an aged tree,
Lets none shoot up that nigh him planted be:
O let the man of whom the Muse is scorned
Nor live nor dead be of the Muse adorned!"
And in the introduction to the fourth book of the "Faery Queen," he says
"The rugged forehead that with grave foresight
Wields kingdoms' causes and affairs of state,
My looser rhymes, I wot, doth sharply wite
For praising Love, as I have done of late,--
* * * * *
"By which frail youth is oft to folly led
Through false allurement of that pleasing bait,
That better were in virtues discipled
Than with vain poems' weeds to have their fancies fed.
"Such ones ill judge of love that cannot love
Nor in their frozen hearts feel kindly flame;
Forthy they ought not thing unknown reprove,
Ne natural affection faultless blame
For fault of few that have abused the same:
For it of honor and all virtue is
The root, and brings forth glorious flowers of fame
That crown true lovers with immortal bliss,
The meed of them that love and do not live amiss."
If Lord Burleigh could not relish such a dish of nightingales' tongues as
the "Faery Queen," he is very much more to be pitied than Spenser. The
sensitive purity of the poet might indeed well be wounded when a poem in
which he proposed to himself "to discourse at large" of "the ethick part
of Moral Philosophy" could be so misinterpreted. But Spenser speaks
in the same strain and without any other than a general application in
his "Tears of the Muses," and his friend Sidney undertakes the defence of
poesy because it was undervalued. But undervalued by whom? By the only
persons about whom he knew or cared anything, those whom we should now
call Society and who were then called the Court. The inference I would
draw is that, among the causes which contributed to the marvellous
efflorescence of genius in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, the
influence of direct patronage from above is to be reckoned at almost
nothing. Then, as when the same phenomenon has happened elsewhere,
there must have been a sympathetic public. Literature, properly so
called, draws its sap from the deep soil of human nature's common and
everlasting sympathies, the gathered leaf-mould of countless generations
([Greek: oiae per phullon geneae]), and not from any top-dressing
capriciously scattered over the surface at some master's bidding.
England had long been growing more truly insular in language and
political ideas when the Reformation came to precipitate her national
consciousness by secluding her more completely from the rest of Europe.
Hitherto there had been Englishmen of a distinct type enough, honestly
hating foreigners, and reigned over by kings of whom they were proud or
not as the case might be, but there was no England as a separate entity
from the sovereign who embodied it for the time being. But now an
English people began to be dimly aware of itself. Their having got a
religion to themselves must have intensified them much as the having a
god of their own did the Jews. The exhilaration of relief after the long
tension of anxiety, when the Spanish Armada was overwhelmed like the
hosts of Pharaoh, while it confirmed their assurance of a provincial
deity, must also have been like sunshine to bring into flower all that
there was of imaginative or sentimental in the English nature, already
just in the first flush of its spring.
("The yonge sonne
Had in _the Bull_ half of his course yronne.")
And just at this moment of blossoming every breeze was dusty with the
golden pollen of Greece, Rome, and Italy. If Keats could say, when he
first opened Chapman's Homer,--
"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise,"
if Keats could say this, whose mind had been unconsciously fed with the
results of this culture,--results that permeated all thought, all
literature, and all talk,--fancy what must have been the awakening shock
and impulse communicated to men's brains by the revelation of this new
world of thought and fancy, an unveiling gradual yet sudden, like that of
a great organ, which discovered to them what a wondrous instrument was in
the soul of man with its epic and lyric stops, its deep thunders of
tragedy, and its passionate _vox humana!_ It might almost seem as if
Shakespeare had typified all this in Miranda, when she cries out at first
sight of the king and his courtiers,
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O, brave new world
That hath such people in't!"
The civil wars of the Roses had been a barren period in English
literature, because they had been merely dynastic squabbles, in which no
great principles were involved which could shake all minds with
controversy and heat them to intense conviction. A conflict of opposing
ambitions wears out the moral no less than the material forces of a
people, but the ferment of hostile ideas and convictions may realize
resources of character which before were only potential, may transform a
merely gregarious multitude into a nation proud in its strength, sensible
of the dignity and duty which strength involves, and groping after a
common ideal. Some such transformation had been wrought or was going on
in England. For the first time a distinct image of her was disengaging
itself from the tangled blur of tradition and association in the minds of
her children, and it was now only that her great poet could speak
exultingly to an audience that would understand him with a passionate
"This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
England, bound in with the triumphant sea!"
Such a period can hardly recur again, but something like it, something
pointing back to similar producing causes, is observable in the revival
of English imaginative literature at the close of the last and in the
early years of the present century. Again, after long fermentation, there
was a war of principles, again the national consciousness was heightened
and stung by a danger to the national existence, and again there was a
crop of great poets and heroic men.
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.
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. 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.
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 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, 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
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
"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,
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."
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). 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."
He was letting his wings grow, as Milton said, and foreboding the "Faery
"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. 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,--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
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.
"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
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. 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_. 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.
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
"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. 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, 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
"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, 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, for
"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, 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, 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, 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
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