« AnteriorContinuar »
English party, and rather perhaps on authority of not very good precedents in our history than of sound general reasoning, became in the course of the next generation almost equally the creed of the other, whose long exclusion from government taught them to solicit the people's favour; and by the time that Jacobitism was extinguished, had passed into received maxims of English politics. None at least would care to call them in question within the walls of Parliament; nor have their opponents been of much credit in the paths of literature.
INTRODUCTION TO HISTORY OF LITERATURE.
We have reserved to the last the chief boast of this period, the Faery Queen. Spenser, as is well known, composed the greater part of his poem in Ireland, on the banks of his favourite Mulla. The first three books were published in 1590; the last three did not appear till 1596. It is a perfectly improbable supposition that the remaining part, or six books required for the completion of his design, have been lost. The short interval before the death of this great poet was filled up by calamities sufficient to wither the fertility of any mind.
The first book of the Faery Queen is a complete poem, and far from requiring any continuation, is rather injured by the useless re-appearance of its hero in the second. It is generally admitted to be the finest of the six. In no other is the allegory so clearly conceived by the poet, or so steadily preserved, yet with a disguise so delicate, that no one is offended by that servile setting forth of a moral meaning we frequently meet with in allegorical poems; and the reader has the gratification that good writing in works of fiction always produces, that of exercising his own ingenuity without perplexing it. That the red cross knight designates the militant Christian, whom Una, the true Church, loves, whom Duessa, the type of Popery, seduces, who is reduced almost to despair, but rescued by the intervention of Una, and the assistance of Faith, Hope, and Charity, is what no one feels any difficulty in acknowledging, but what every one may easily read the poem without perceiving or remembering. In an allegory conducted with such propriety, and concealed or revealed with so much art, there can surely be nothing to repel our taste; and those who read the first book of the Faery Queen without pleasure, must seek (what others perhaps will be at no loss to discover for them) a different cause for their indifference than the tediousness or insipidity of allegorical poetry. Every canto of this book teems with the choicest beauties of imagination : he came to it in the freshness of his genius, which shines throughout with an uniformity it does not always afterwards maintain, unsullied by flattery, unobstructed by pedantry, and unquenched by languor.
In the following books we have much less allegory; for the personification of abstract qualities, though often confounded with it, does not properly belong to that class of composition : it requires a covert sense beneath an apparent fable, such as the first book contains. But of this I do not discover many proofs in the second or third, the legends of Temperance and Chastity; they are contrived to exhibit these virtues and their opposite vices, but with little that is not obvious upon the surface. In the fourth and sixth books there is still less; but a different species of allegory, the historical, which the commentators have, with more or less success, endeavoured to trace in other portions of the poem, breaks out unequivocally in the legend of Justice, which occupies the fifth. The friend and patron of Speuser, Sir Arthur Grey, Lord Deputy of Ireland, is evidently portrayed in Arthegal; and the latter cantos of this book represent, not always with great felicity, much of the foreign and domestic history of the times. It is sufficiently intimated by the poet himself, that his Gloriana, or Faery Queen, is the type of Elizabeth; and he has given her another representative in the fair huntress Belphcebe. Spenser's adulation of her beauty (at some fifty or sixty years of age) may be extenuated, we can say no more, by the practice of wise and great men, and by his natural tendency to clothe the objects of his admiration in the hues of fancy; but its exaggeration leaves tha servility of the Italians far behind.
It has been justly observed by a living writer of the most ardent and enthusiastic genius, whose eloquence is as the rush of mighty waters, and has left it for others almost as invidious to praise in terms of less rapture, as to censure what he has borne along in the stream of unhesitating eulogy, that "no poet has ever had a more exquisite sense of the beautiful than Spenser." In Virgil and Tasso this was not less powerful; but even they, even the latter himself, do not hang with such a tenderness of delight, with such a forgetful delay, over the fair creations of their fancy. Spenser is not averse to images that jar on the mind by exciting horror or disgust, and sometimes his touches are rather too strong; but it is on love and beauty, on holiness and virtue, that he reposes with all the sympathy of his soul. The slowly sliding motion of his stanza, " with many a bout of linked sweetness long drawn out," beautifully corresponds to the dreamy enchantment of his description, when Una, or Belphcebe, or Florimel, or Amoret, is present to his mind. In this varied delineation of female perfectness, no earlier poet had equalled him; nor, excepting Shakspeare, has he had, perhaps, any later rival.
Spenser is naturally compared with Ariosto. "Fierce wars and faithful loves did moralize the song " of both poets. But in the constitution of their minds, in the character of their poetry, they were almost the reverse of each other. The Italian is gay, rapid, ardent; his pictures shift like the hues of heaven; even while diffuse, he seems to leave in an instant what he touches, and is prolix by the number, not the duration, of his images. Spenser is habitually serious; his slow stanza seems to suit the temper of his genius; ho loves to dwell on the sweetness and beauty which his fancy portrays. The ideal of chivalry, rather derived from its didactic theory than from the precedents of romance, is always before him; his morality is pure, and even stern, with nothing of the libertine tone of Ariosto. He worked with far worse tools than the bard of Ferrara, with a language not quite formed, and into which he rather injudiciously poured an unnecessary archaism, while the style of his contemporaries was undergoing a rapid change in the opposite direction. His stanza of nine lines is particularly inconvenient and languid in narration, where the Italian octave is sprightly and vigorous; though even this becomes ultimately monotonous by its regularity—a fault from which only the ancient hexameter and our blank verse are exempt.
Spenser may be justly said to excel Ariosto in originality of invention, in force and variety of character, in strength and vividness of conception, in depth of reflection, in fertility of imagination, and above all, in that exclusively poetical cast of feeling which discerns in everything what common minds do not perceive. In the construction and arrangement of their fable neither deserve much praise; but the siege of Paris gives the Orlando Furioso, spite of its perpetual shiftings of the scene, rather more unity in the reader's apprehension than belongs to the Faen/ Queen. Spenser is, no doubt, decidedly inferior in ease and liveliness of narration, as well as clearness and felicity of language. But, upon thus comparing the two poets, we have little reason to blush for our countryman. Yet the fame of Ariosto is spread through Europe, while Spenser is almost unknown out of England; and even in this age, when much of our literature is so widely diffused, I have not observed proofs of much acquaintance with him on the Continent.
The language of Spenser, like that of Shakspeare, is an instrument manufactured for the sake of the work it was to perform. No other poet had written like either, though both have had their imitators. It is rather apparently obsolete by his partiality to certain disused forms, such as the y before the participle, than from any close resemblance to the diction of Chaucer or Lydgate. The enfeebling expletives do and did, though certainly very common in our early writers, had never been employed with such an unfortunate predilection as by Spenser. Their everlasting recurrence is among the great blemishes of his style. His versification is in many passages beautifully harmonious; but he has frequently permitted himself, whether for the sake of variety, or from some other cause, to balk the ear in the conclusion of a stanza.
The inferiority of the last three books to the former is surely very manifest. His Muse gives gradual signs of weariness; the imagery becomes less vivid, the vein of poetical description less rich, the digressions more frequent and verbose. It is true that the fourth book is full of beautiful inventions, and contains much admirable poetry; yet even here we perceive a comparative deficiency in the quantity of excelling passages, which becomes far more apparent as we proceed, and the last book falls very short of the interest which the earlier part of the Faery Queen had excited. There is perhaps less reason than some have imagined, to regret that Spenser did not complete his original design. The Faery Queen is already in the class of longest poems. A double length, especially if, as we may well suspect, the succeeding parts would have been inferior, might have deterred many readers from the perusal of what we now possess. It is felt already in Spenser, as it is perhaps even in Ariosto, when we read much of either, that tales of knights and ladies, giants and salvage men, end in a satiety which no poetical excellence can overcome. Ariosto, sensible of this intrinsic defect in the epic romance, has enlivened it by great variety of incidents, and by much that carries us away from the peculiar tone of chivalrous manners. The world he lives in is before his eyes, and to please it is his aim. He plays with his characters as with puppets that amuse the spectator and himself. In Spenser, nothing is more remarkable than^ the steadiness of his apparent faith in the deeds of knighthood. He had little turn for sportiveness; and in attempting it, as in the unfortunate instance of Malbecco, and a few shorter passages, we find him dull as well as coarse. It is in the ideal world of pure and noble virtues, that his spirit, wounded by neglect, and weary of trouble, loved to refresh itself without reasoning or mockery: he forgets the reader, and cares little for his taste, while he can indulge the dream of his own delighted fancy. It may be here also observed, that the elevated and religious morality of Spenser's poem would secure it, in the eyes of every man of just taste, from the ridicule which the mere romances of knight-errantry must incur, and against which Ariosto evidently guarded himself by the gay tone of his narration. The Orlando Furioso and the Faery Queen are each in the spirit of its age; but the one was for Italy in the days of Leo, the other for England under Elizabeth, before, though but just before, the severity of the Reforma