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When we open the pages of Shirley, again, a man of very fine poetic fancy, with an excellent turn for the light comedy of manners, we are tempted to suppose that we must, by mistake, have stumbled on some of the foulest births that appeared in the reign of Charles the Second. Vice is no longer held up as a mere picture: it is indicated, and sometimes directly recommended, as a fit example. When the drama was at length suppressed, the act destroyed a moral nuisance.
That there was curiosity and cunning,
THE AGE OF SPENSER, SHAKSPEARE, BACON, AND MILTON
A, D. 1558-A.D. 1660.
SECTION FIFTH: THE NON-DRAMATIC POETRY.
SPENSER'S POETRY. 1. His Genius–His Minor Poems.--2. Spenser's Faerie Queene
Its Design.-3. Allegories of the Faerie Queene--Its Poetical Character.-4. The Stories of the Six Books of the Faerie Qneene.—MINOR Poets. _5. The Great Variety in the Kinds of Poetry-Classification of them.-6. Metrical Translations-Marlowe Chapman Fairfax-Sandys.—7. Historical Narrative Poems-Shakspeare-Daniel - Drayton-Giles and Phineas Fletcher.–8. Pastorals—Pastoral Dramas of Fletcher and Jonson-Warner-Drayton-Wither-Browne.-9. Descriptive Poems-Drayton's Poly-Olbion-Didactic Poems—Lord Brooke and Davies-Herbert and Quarles --Poetical Satires-Hall-Marston-Donne.-10. Earlier Lyrical Poems-Shakspeare, Fletcher and Jonson-Ballads—Sonnets of Drummond and Daniel.-11. Lyrical Poems of the Metaphysical School-Donne and Cowley-Lyrics and other Poems of a Modern Cast-Denham and Waller.-Milton's POETRY. 12. His Life and Works 18. His Minor Poems-L'Allegro and Il Penseroso—Comus–Lycidas-Ode on the Nativity-Later Poems—Paradise Regainod and Samson Agonistes.-14. The Para- . dise Losto
THE POETRY OF EDMUND SPENSER.
6. 1558. 1. In our study of the Non-Dramatic Poetry of this pe
riod, the first name we require to learn is that of Spenser, a word of happy omen, one of the most illustrious names in the literary annals of Europe; the name of
-That gentle Bard,
With the moon's beauty and the moon's soft pace. Among English poets he stands lower only than Shakspeare, and Chaucer, and Milton : and, if we extend the parallel to the continent, his masterpiece is not unworthy of companionship with its Italian model, the chivalrous epic of Ariosto. But no comparison is needed for endearing, to the pure in heart, works which unite, as few such unite, rare genius with moral purity; or for recommending, to the lovers of poetry, poems which exhibit at once exquisite sweetness and felicity of language, a luxuriant beauty
of imagination which has hardly ever beert surpassed, and a tenderness of feeling never elsewhere conjoined with an imagination so vivid.
Spenser's earliest works broke in on what may be considered, in the history of our poetry, as a pause in the march of improvement. Since the middle of the century, no more decisive advance had taken place than that which is shown by the homely satire and personal narrative of Gascoigne. In his “Shepherd's Calendar," Spenser, while he exhibited some fruits of his foreign studies, purposely adopted, as a means of gaining truth to nature, a rusticity both of sentiment and of style, which, though ardently admired at the time, does not now seem to have presaged the ideality of his later works. His Italian tastes were further proved by an elaborate series of sonnets; and several other poems of greater extent may, with these, be summarily passed over.
2. We must make ourselves acquainted more closely with his greatest work, a Narrative Poem, which, though it contains many thousand lines, is nevertheless incomplete, no more than half of the original design being executed. It is asserted, on doubtful authority, that the latter half was written, but perished by shipwreck. The diction is not exactly that of the poet's time, being, by an unfortunate error of judgment, studded purposely with phrases and forms that had already become antiquated ; and odd expressions are also forced sometimes on the author by the difficulties of the measure he adopted, that fine but complex stanza of nine lines which all of us know in Childe Harold.
His magnificent poem is called “The Faerie Queene.” The title does in some degree signify the contents; but the notion which it tends to convey is considerably different from the reality. The Fairy Land of Spenser is not the region which we are accustomed to understand by that term. It is indeed a realm of marvels; and there are elves and other supernatural beings among its inhabitants : but these are only its ornaments. It is rather the Land of Chivalry, a country not laid down on any map; a scene in which heroic daring and ideal purity are the objects chiefly presented for our admiration; and in which the principal personages are knights achieving perilous adventures, and ladies rescued from frightful miseries, and enchanters, good and evil, whose spells affect the destiny of those human persons.
The imaginary world of the poem, and the doings and sufferings of its denizens, are, in a word, those of the chivalrous romances : and the idea of working up such subjects into poems worthy of a cultivated audience, had already been put in act in the romantic epics of Italy. Our great poet would not, proba bly, have written exactly as he did write, if Ariosto had not written before him; nor is it unlikely that he was guided also to some extent by the more recent example of Tasso. But his design was, in several striking features, nobler and more arduouş than that of either. His deep seriousness is thoroughly unlike the mocking tone of the Orlando Furioso; he rose still higher than the Jerusalem Delivered in his earnest moral enthusiasm ; and he aimed at something much beyond either of his masters, but unfortunately at something which marred the poetic effect of his work, when he framed it so that it should be really a series of ethical allegories.
3. The leading story, doubtless, is based, not on allegory, but on traditional history. Its hero is the chivalrous Arthur of the British legends. But even he was to be wrapt up in a cloud of symbols: Gloriana, the Queen of Faerie, who gave name to the poem, and who was to be the object of the prince's reverent love, was herself an emblem of virtuous renown; while, to confuse us yet more, she was also respectfully designed to represent in some way or other the poet's sovereign, Elizabeth. If this part of the plan was to be elaborated much in the latter half of the poem, we may regret the less that we have missed it.
In the parts which we have, Arthur emerges only at rare intervals, to take a decisive but passing share in some of the events in which the secondary personages are involved. It is in the narration of those events that the poem is chiefly occupied ; and in them allegory reigns supreme.
All the incidents are significant of moral truths; of the moral dangers which beset the path of man, of the virtues which it is the duty of man to cherish. The personages
, too, are allegories, quite as strictly as those of Bunyan's pilgrim story. Indeed the anxiety with which the double meaning is kept up, is the circumstance that chiefly removes the poem from ordinary sympathies. Yet, regarded . merely as stories, the adventures possess an interest, which is almost everywhere lively and sometimes becomes intense. We often forget the hidden meaning, in the delight with which we contemplate the pictures by which it is veiled. Solitary forests spread out their glades around us; enchanted palaces and fairy gardens gleam suddenly on the
of tournaments glitters on vast plains; touching and sublime sentiments, couched in language marvellously sweet, are now presented as the attributes of the human personages of the tale, and now wrapt up in the disguise of gorgeous pageants.
4. The adventures of the characters, connected by no tie except the occasional interposition of Arthur, form really six inde
pendent Poetic Tales. These are related in our six extant Books, each containing twelve Cantos.
The First Book, by far the finest of all, both in idea and in execution, relates the Legend of the Red-Cross Knight, who is the type of Holiness. He is the appointed champion of the persecuted Lady Una, the representative of Truth, the daughter of a king whose realm, described in shadowy phrases, receives in one passage the name of Eden. In her service he penetrates into the labyrinth of Error, and slays the monster that inhabited it. But, under the temptations of the enchanter Archimago, who is the emblem of Hypocrisy, he is enticed away by the beautiful witch Duessa, or Falsehood, on whom the wizard has bestowed the figure of her pure rival. This separation plunges the betrayed Knight into severe suffering; and it exposes the unprotected lady to many dangers, in the description of which occurs some of the most exquisite poetry of the work. At length, in the House of Holiness, the Knight is taught Repentance. Purified and strengthened, he vanquishes the Dragon which was Una's enemy, and is betrothed to her in her father's kingdom.
In the Second Book we have the Legend of Sir Guyon, illustrating the virtue of Temperance, that is, of resistance to all allurements sensual and worldly. This part of the poem abounds, beyond all the rest, in exquisite painting of picturesque landscapes; in some of which, however, imitation of Tasso is obvious. The Legend of Britomart, or of Chastity, is the theme of the Third Book, in which, besides the heroine, are introduced Belphoebe and Amoret, two of the most beautiful of those female characters whom the poet takes such pleasure in delineating. Next comes the Legend of Friendship, personified in the knights Cambel and Triamond. In it is the tale of Florimel, a version of an old tale of the romances, embellished with an array of fine imagery, which is dwelt on with admiring delight in one of the noblest odes of Collins. Yet this Fourth Book, and the two which follow, are generally allowed to be on the whole inferior to the first three. The falling off is most perceptible when we pass to the Fifth Book, containing the Legend of Sir Artegal, who is the emblem of Justice. This story indeed is told, not only with a strength of moral sentiment unsurpassed elsewhere by the poet, but also with some of his most striking exhibitions of personification : the interest, however, is weakened by the constant anxiety to bring out that subordinate signification, in which the narrative was intended to celebrate the government of Spenser's patron Lord Grey in Ireland. The Sixth Book, the Legend of Sir Calidore or of Courtesy, is apt to dissatify us through its want