Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Spenser as the Painter’s Poet
By Leigh Hunt (1784–1859)
 
From Imagination and Fancy

IT has been a whim of late years with some transcendental critics, in the excess of the reaction of what may be called spiritual poetry against material, to deny utterly the old family relationship between poetry and painting. They seem to think, that because Darwin absurdly pronounced nothing to be poetry which could not be painted, they had only to avail themselves of the spiritual superiority of the art of the poet, and assert the contrary extreme. Now, it is granted that the subtlest creations of poetry are neither effected by a painter-like process, nor limited to his powers of suggestion. The finest idea the poet gives you of anything is by what may be called sleight of mind, striking it without particular description on the mind of the reader, feeling and all, moral as well as physical, as a face is struck on a mirror. But to say, nevertheless, that the poet does not include the painter in his more visible creations, is to deprive him of half his privileges, nay, of half of his very poems. Thousands of images start out of the canvas of his pages to laugh at the assertion. Where did the great Italian painters get half of the most bodily details of their subjects but out of the poets? and what becomes of a thousand landscapes, portraits, colours, lights and shades, groupings, effects, intentional and artistical pictures, in the writings of all the poets inclusive, the greatest especially?
  1
  I have taken opportunity of this manifest truth to introduce under one head a variety of the most beautiful passages in Spenser, many of which might otherwise have seemed too small for separate exhibition; and I am sure that the more poetical the reader, the more will he be delighted to see these manifestations of the pictorial side of poetry. He will not find them destitute of that subtler spirit of the art, which pictures cannot express.  2
  “After reading,” said Pope, “a canto of Spenser two or three days ago to an old lady, between seventy and eighty years of age, she said that I had been showing her a gallery of pictures. I don’t know how it is, but she said very right. There is something in Spenser that pleases one as strongly in old age as it did in one’s youth. I read the Faerie Queene, when I was about twelve, with infinite delight; and I think it gave me as much, when I read it over about a year or two ago.”—Spence’s Anecdotes.  3
  The canto that Pope here speaks of was probably one of the most allegorical sort, very likely that containing the Mask of Cupid. In the one preceding it, there is a professed gallery of pictures supposed to be painted upon tapestry. But Spenser’s allegorical pictures are only his most obvious ones: he has a profusion of others, many of them still more exquisitely painted. I think that if he had not been a great poet, he would have been a great painter; and in that case there is ground for believing that England would have possessed, and in the person of one man, her Claude, her Annibal Caracci, her Correggio, her Titian, her Rembrandt, perhaps even her Raphael. I suspect that if Spenser’s history were better known, we should find that he was a passionate student of pictures, a haunter of the collections of his friends Essex and Leicester. The tapestry just alluded to he criticises with all the gusto of a connoisseur, perhaps with an eye to pictures in those very collections. In speaking of a Leda, he says, bursting into an admiration of the imaginary painter
        O, wondrous skill and sweet wit of the man,
That her in daffodillies sleeping made,
From scorching heat her dainty limbs to shade!
And then he proceeds with a description full of life and beauty, but more proper to be read with the context than brought forward separately. The colouring implied in these lines is in the very core of the secret of that branch of the art; and the unpainted part of the tapestry is described with hardly less beauty.
            For, round about, the walls yclothed were
    With goodly arras of great majesty,
    Woven with gold and silk so close and near,
    That the rich metal lurkèd privily,
    As feigning to be hid from envious eye;
    Yet here, and there, and every where, unwares
    It show’d itself, and shone unwillingly;
    Like to a discolour’d snake, whose hidden snares
Through the green grass his long bright burnish’d back declares.
  4
  Spenser should have a new set of commentators,—the painters themselves. They might do for him in their own art, what Warton did in his,—trace him among his brethren. Certainly no works would “illustrate” better than Spenser’s with engravings from the old masters (I should like no better amusement than to hunt him through the print shops!), and from none might a better gallery be painted by new ones. I once wrote an article on the subject in a magazine; and the late Mr. Hilton (I do not know whether he saw it) projected such a gallery, among his other meritorious endeavours. It did not answer to the originals, either in strength or sweetness; but a very creditable and pleasing specimen may be seen in the National Gallery,—Serena rescued from the Savages by Sir Calepine.  5
  In corroboration of the delight which Spenser took in this more visible kind of poetry, it is observable that he is never more free from his superfluousness than when painting a picture. When he gets into a moral, or intellectual, or narrative vein, we might often spare him a good deal of the flow of it; but on occasions of sheer poetry and painting, he is too happy to wander so much from his point. If he is tempted to expatiate, every word is to the purpose. Poetry and painting indeed would in Spenser be identical, if they could be so; and they are more so, too, than it has latterly been the fashion to allow; for painting does not deal in the purely visible. It deals also in the suggestive and the allusive, therefore in thoughts beyond the visible proof of the canvas; in intimations of sound; in references to past and future. Still the medium is a visible one, and is at the mercy of the spectator’s amount of comprehension. The great privilege of the poet is, that, using the medium of speech, he can make his readers poets; can make them aware and possessed of what he intends, enlarging their comprehension by his details, or enlightening by a word. A painter might have the same feeling as Shakespeare respecting the moonlight “sleeping” on a bank; but how is he to evince it? He may go through a train of the profoundest thoughts in his own mind; but into what voluminous fairy circle is he to compress them? Poetry can paint whole galleries in a page, while her sister art requires heaps of canvas to render a few of her poems visible.  6
 
 
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