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SPENSER AND SHAKSPEARE, AND THEIR POETIC CONTEM
As the influence of Italy is to be traced in the mental history of Chaucer, so is it equally manifest in that of the Earl of Surrey, to whom we have already adverted, and in Spenser. Surrey was called the English Petrarch, Spenser also was designated the English Ariosto. The “ Orlando Furioso” of the distinguished Italian went through sixty editions in the sixteenth century. Its story of knightly achievements and chivalrous gallantry was peculiarly agreeable at a time when the romantic traditions and heroics of the institutions of chivalry were rendered more bewitching and seductive by the halo of antiquity that began to spread around them. Spenser ministered to this taste by adopting the machinery of knight errantry, and the sentiments of chivalry, in his wonderful poem of the “Faëry Queen.” His descriptive powers and his moral purpose have been admitted by all critics. Even those who disliked his allegory as too involved and his descriptions as too tedious, do justice to the beauty and variety of his pictures and the moral purpose of his stanzas.
Of his Italian model — Ariosto, Dryden says, — “he neither designed justly, nor observed any unity of action, or compass of time, or moderation in the vastness of his draught: his style is luxurious, without majesty or decency; and his adventures are without the compass of nature and possibility.
Some of these faults have been ascribed to Spenser, but his beauties so far outnumber his defects, that it is difficult to find the latter, while the former lie thick on every page.
He intended to personify the cardinal virtues in his great poem; and therefore there is no regular hero or consecutive narrative. Each book, as “ Temperance," “ Chastity,” “Magnificence,” &c. has a separate hero or heroine intended to embody the virtue he wishes to present.
The finest of the six books is the first. There the Red Cross Knight is the Militant Christian, beloved by Una, the true Church, and seduced by Deussa, the type of Popery; and when reduced i to despair, he is rescued by Una, assisted by Faith, Hope, and Charity. Yet, while this is the meaning, the poem may be, and often is, read without any reference to the allegory, simply for its exquisite beauty,
The chief difficulty to a modern reader arises from the fact that Spenser did not write the
* Dryden's dedicatory Letter to the Earl of Dorset, prefixed to his translation of Juvenal,
poetic language of his own time, but imitated a more ancient style. He was a profound admirer of Chaucer, and chose to use many words of that earlier period: so that when we compare his verse with that of Shakspeare, his great contemporary, it is difficult to think that they both lived in the same age.
Spenser enriched our poetic literature with a new measure, to which his name has been given, and in which he composed his “Faëry Queen."
Italian Ottave Rime, or stanza of eight lines of Tasso and Ariosto. To these eight lines, a ninth is added in the English measure.
It is remarkable that many poets of the succeeding age disliked and condemned the stanza of Spenser as multiplying difficulties by the recurrence of so many similar rhymes in one verse. Modern taste, however, has concurred with Spenser. Thomson wrote his “Castle of Indolence” (his best, though not his most popular poem) in this stanza ;
as did Beattie his “ Minstrel,” Mrs. Tighe her “Psyche,” Mrs. Hemans her “Forest Sanctuary,” Lord Byron his “ Childe Harold.” Many living poets have also adopted it, and by their triumphs have entirely vindicated Spenser from the charge of having introduced a cumbersome and difficult measure unsuited to our language,
The “ Faëry Queen,” long as it is, is but a fragment: six books are said to have been lost or destroyed when the poet escaped from Ireland. The incidents of Spenser's life are most affecting. Queen Elizabeth, who was not insensible to the honour of being celebrated by so exquisite a poet, had patronised him. One of her few acts of munificence was that of ordering him a sum of money; which her treasurer, Lord Burleigh, knowing her usual economy, and having no sympathy himself with poets, ventured to grumble at, saying “so much for a song!” Few things in Elizabeth's personal history redound more to her honour than that gift. Subsequently the poet had a grant of three thousand acres of land in the county of Cork. Here he wrote his great allegorical poem. The rebellion of the Earl of Tyrone broke out, and Kilcolman Castle, the residence of Spenser, was burned, he, his wife and family, escaping in such haste and peril, that his infant child was left behind, and perished in the flames. The poet never recovered this calamity : he returned to England broken in heart and fortune, and died a year after.
No genuine lovers of descriptive poetry will complain at the absence of unity in the design of the “Faëry Queen,” they will read on and on, forgetful of every thing but the exceeding beauty of the descriptions. Indeed, it is evident that Spenser
never intended to fetter himself with a distinct narrative, but followed on wherever imagination led him, exclaiming —
“ The ways through which my weary steps I guide,
In this delightful land of Faërie,
Spenser's two poems of Heavenly Love, and Heavenly Beauty, abound in passages the Christian must delight in. James Montgomery, indeed, says, that these contain the germ of Milton's “Great Argument.”* The following description is peculiarly fine of
“ There in his bosom Sapience † doth sit,
* Montgomery's Christian Poet.