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In old Greece and Rome the Poet was regarded as a species of Prophet, and called by the same name; both were held to be alike divinely inspired; but there are not many unveilings of the distant future in poetry so remarkable as this anticipation and refutation of the Liberty and Equality philosophism of the end of the eighteenth century in the end of the sixteenth. Nor has the kernel of that false philosophy ever perhaps been so acutely detected as it is in these verses, by the exposure, first, of the assumption involved in the original notion that equality is any where a law or principle of nature ; secondly, of the impossibility of either establishing true equality, or even of ascertaining its existence, by such rude, superficial, almost mechanical methods as human legislation has alone at its command. The essence or reality of things will not be weighed in any scales which its hand can hold.
The “prophetic strain” is rightly spoken of by Milton as the fruit, not of youthful ardour, but rather of “old experience;” and the greatest poets have for the most part produced their greatest works in their latter years. Spenser's latest was perhaps his loftiest song of all; and the subject was also in singular accordance with the beautiful old fable, that the dying song of the swan was its hymn of joy in praise of death and anticipation of immortal bliss—as Cicero tells us, after Plato, “Ita commemorat, ut cygni, qui non sine causa Apollini dicati sint, sed quod ab eo divinationem habere videantur, qua, providentes quid in morte boni sit, cum cantu et voluptate moriantur:” “sic,” he adds, “omnibus et bonis et doctis esse faciendum.” [That swans, who are held sacred to Apollo, not for no reason, but because from him they
seem to have the gift of divination, by which they foresce what of good there is in death, die therefore singing and rejoicing; and so likewise ought all good and wise men.] We will give as our concluding specimen of Spenser this his last published and probably last written poem, his Hymn of Heavenly Beauty:
Rapt with the rage of mine own ravished thought,
Through contemplation of those goodly sights
And glorious images in heaven wrought,
Whose wondrous beauty, breathing sweet delights
Do kindle love in high-conceited sprites,
I fain" to tell the things that I behold,
But feel my wits to fail, and tongue to fold.
Vouchsafe then, O thou most Almighty Sprite
From whom all gifts of wit and knowledge flow,
To shed into my breast some sparkling light
Of thine eternal truth, that I may show
Some little beams to mortal eyes below
Of that immortal beauty there with thee,
Which in my weak distraughted mind I see;
That with the glory of so ly sight
The hearts of men, which fondly here admire
Fair-seeming shews, and feed on vain delight,
Transported with celestial desire
Of those fair forms, may lift themselves up higher,
And learn to love, with zealous humble duty,
The eternal fountain of that Heavenly Beauty.
Beginning then below, with the easy view
Of this base world, subject to fleshly eye,
From thence to mount aloft by order 3.
To contemplation of the immortal sky;
Of the soar falcon so I learn to fly,
That flags awhile her fluttering wings beneath,
Till she herself for stronger flight can breathe.
Then look, who list thy gazeful eyes to feed
With sight of that is fair, look on the frame
Of this wide universe, and therein read
The endless kinds of creatures which by name
Thou canst not count, much less their nature's aim,
All which are made with wondrous wise respect,
And all with admirable beauty decked.
First, the earth, on adamantine pillars founded
Amid the sea, engirt with brazen bands,
Then the air, still flitting, but yet firmly bounded
On every side with piles of flaming brands,
Never consumed, nor quenched with mortal hands,
And last, that mighty shining crystal wall
Wherewith he hath encompassed this all.
By view whereof it plainly may appear
That still as every thing doth upward tend,
And further is from earth, so still more clear
And fair it grows, till to his perfect end
Of purest beauty it at last ascend;
Air more than water, fire much more than air,
And heaven than fire, appears more pure and fair.
Look thou no further, but affix thine eye
On that bright, shiny, round, still moving mass,
The house of blessed gods, which men call sky,
All sowed with glistering stars more thick than grass,
Whereof each other doth in brightness pass,
But those two most, which, ruling night and day,
As king and queen the heaven's empire sway;
And tell me then, what hast thou ever seen
That to their beauty may compared be?
Or can the sight that is most sharp and keen
Endure their captain's flaming head to see?
How much less those much higher in degree,
And so much fairer, and much more than these,
As these are fairer than the land and seas 2
For far above these heavens which here we see
Be others far exceeding these in light,
Not bounded, not corrupt, as these same be,
But infinite in largeness and in height,
Unmoving, uncorrupt, and spotless bright,
. That need no sun to illuminate their spheres,
But their own native light, far passing theirs.
And, as these heavens still by degrees arise,
Until they come to their First Mover's bound,
That in his mighty compass doth comprise
And carry all the rest with him around,
So those likewise do by degrees redound
And rise more fair, till they at last arrive
To the most fair, whereto they all do strive.
Fair is the heaven where happy souls have place,
In full enjoyment of felicity,
Whence they do still behold the glorious face
Of the divine eternal majesty:
More fair is that where those idees on high
Enranged be which Plato so admired,
And pure intelligences from God inspired.
Yet fairer is that heaven in which do reign
The sovereign powers and mighty potentates .
Which in their high protections do contain
All mortal princes and imperial states;
And fairer yet, whereas” the royal seats
And heavenly dominations are set,
From whom all earthly governance is fet. ,
Yet far more fair be those bright cherubims,
Which all with golden wings are overdight,
And those eternal burning seraphims,
Which from their faces dart out fiery light:
Yet fairer than they both, and much more bright,
Be the angels and archangels, which attend
On God's own person without rest or end.
These thus in fair each other far excelling,
As to the highest they approach more near,
Yet is that brightness, far beyond all telling,
Fairer than all the rest which there appear,
Though all their beauties joined together were;
How then can mortal tongue hope to express
The image of such endless perfectness?
Cease then, my tongue! and lend unto my mind Leave to bethink how great that beauty is
Whose utmost parts so beautiful I find;
How much more these essential parts of his,
His truth, his love, his wisdom, and his bliss,
His grace, his doom, his mercy, and his might,
By which he lends us of himself a sight!
Those unto all he daily does display,
And shew himself in the image of his grace,
As in a looking-glass, through which he may
Be seen of all his creatures vile and base,
That are unable else to see his face,
His glorious face, which glistereth else so bright
That the angels themselves cannot endure his sight.
But we, frail wights! whose sight cannot sustain
The sun's bright" beams when he on us doth shine,
But that their points rebutted back again
Are dulled, how can we see with feeble eyne
The glory of that majesty divine
In sight of whom both sun and moon are dark,
Compared to his least resplendent spark?
The means, therefore, which unto us is lent
Him to behold is on his works to look,
Which he hath made in beauty excellent,
And in the same, as in a brazen book,
To read enregistered in every nook
His goodness, which his beauty doth declare;
For all that’s good is beautiful and fair.
Thence gathering plumes of perfect speculation,
To imp the wings of thy high-flying mind,
Mount up aloft through heavenly contemplation
From this dark world, whose damps the soul do blind,
And, like the native brood of eagles' kind,
On that bright Sun of Glory fix thine eyes,
Cleared from gross mists of frail infirmities.
Humbled with fear and awful reverence,
Before the footstool of his majesty
Throw thyself down with trembling innocence,
Ne dare look up with corruptible eye
On the drad" face of that great Deity,
e Commonly printed “sun-bright.” d Dread.