Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Spenser and Ariosto
By Henry Hallam (17771859)
From Literature of Europe
SPENSER is naturally compared with Ariosto. Fierce wars and faithful loves did moralise 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; he 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 deserves much praise; but the siege of Paris gives the Orlando Furioso, spite of its perpetual shiftings of the scene, rather more unity in the readers apprehension than belongs to the Faerie Queene. 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 Shakespeare, 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 baulk the ear in the conclusion of a stanza.