Reference > Cambridge History > Renascence and Reformation > The Poetry of Spenser > Spenser as a word-painter and as a metrical musician
  The knight in the social organism His Complaints  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XI. The Poetry of Spenser.

§ 14. Spenser as a word-painter and as a metrical musician.

The medium of allegory through which he viewed the institution of knighthood, while it deprived The Faerie Queene of human interest and unity of action, gave fine scope for the exercise of the imaginative powers peculiar to the poet. As a poetical painter, using words and rhythms in the place of external form and colour, he is, perhaps, unrivalled. We pass through his scenes, laid in the “delightful land of Faerie,” as through an enchanted landscape, in which a dream-like succession of pageants, and dissolving views of forests, lakes, castles, caves and palaces, each suggesting some spiritual meaning, and, at the same time, raising in the fancy a concrete image, relieve the tedium of the journey. “An ampler ether, a diviner air,” diffused by his imagination over the whole prospect, blends the most dissimilar objects in a general effect of harmony; and so exquisite is the chiaroscuro of the composition that no sense of discord is felt in the transition from the celestial hierarchy to “Cupido on the Idaean hill,” from woodland satyrs to the mount of heavenly contemplation, from Una, the abstract symbol of Christian truth, to Belphoebe, the half-pagan anti-type of the chaste Elizabeth. At the same time, each portion of the picture is brought into relief by the firmness of the outlines and the richness of the colouring, fine examples of which are the cave of Despair and the masque of the Seven Deadly Sins, in the first book, the house of Mammon and the bower of Bliss in the second. In these two books, as the spiritual sense is more emphatic, the allegorical imagery abounds: with the progress of the poem, the allegory dwindles, and adventures become proportionately more frequent; but, even in the third and fourth books, the poet always seems to diverge with pleasure into picturesque descriptions, such as that of the witch’s cottage, in canto VII of book III, or the marriage of the Thames and the Medway, in canto XI of book IV. As a specimen of the mingled propriety and sublimity of allegorical painting, nothing finer can be found than the description, in the fragmentary legend of Constancy, of the Titaness Mutability in the moon—an image well fitted to exhibit the truths of Christian doctrine under the veil of pagan mythology:
And now, when all the earth she thus had brought
To her behest, and thralled to her might,
She gan to cast in her ambitious thought
T’ attempt the empire of the heavens hight,
And Jove himselfe to shoulder from his right.
And first, she past the region of the ayre
And of the fire, whose substance thin and slight,
Made no resistance, ne could her contraire,
But ready passage to her pleasure did prepaire.
Thence to the Circle of the Moone she clambe,
Where Cynthia raignes in everlasting glory,
To whose bright shining palace straight she came,
All fairely deckt with heavens goodly storie;
Whose silver gates (by which there sat an hory
Old aged Sire, with hower-glasse in hand,
Hight Time) she entred, were he liefe or sory;
Ne staide till she the highest stage had scand,
Where Cynthia did sit, that never still did stand.
Her sitting on an Ivory throne shee found,
Drawne of two steeds, th’ one black, the other white,
Environd with tenne thousand starres around
That duly her attended day and night;
And by her side there ran her Page, that hight
Vesper, whom we the Evening-starre intend;
That with his Torche, still twinkling like twylight,
Her lightened all the way where she should wend,
And joy to weary wandring travailers did lend.
  Besides the imagination of a great word-painter, Spenser brought to the expression of his allegory the gifts of a skilful metrical musician. As in The Shepheards Calender, so in The Faerie Queene, it was his object to invent a kind of poetical dialect suitable to the unreal nature of his subject. Effects of strangeness and antiquity, mingled with modern elegance, are produced, in the later poem, partly by the revival of old words and the importation of foreign ones, partly by the musical disposition of words in the line, partly by combinations of rime, in a stanza of his own invention, constructed, by the addition of an alexandrine verse, out of the ten-syllabled eight-lined stanza used by Chaucer. The character of his vocabulary and of his syntax may be exemplified in the following stanza:
And therewithall he fiersly at him flew,
And with importune outrage him assayld;
Who, soone prepared to field, his sword forth drew,
And him with equall valew countervayld:
Their mightie strokes their haberjeons dismayld,
And naked made each other manly spalles;
The mortall steele despiteously entayld
Deepe in their flesh, quite through the yron walles,
That a large purple streame adowne their giambeux falles. 11 
  The idea of simplicity mingled with archaism here aimed at is also raised by the avoidance of anything like a precise search for epithets in those classical combinations of adjective and substantive which he frequently employs. His epithets are generally of the conventional kind—“busy care,” “bloody might,” “huge great balance,” etc. He also uses deliberately archaic forms, such as “to achieven” for “to achieve,” “worldës” for “world’s,” and the like. The frequent use of inversions, such as “him assayld,” “his sword forth drew,” is, in part, the result of conscious archaism; but it is also the natural consequence of the recurrence of rime. This recurrence, again, suggested to Spenser many characteristic effects of sound: he saw, for example, that the immediate sequence of rime in the fourth and fifth lines provided a natural half-way house for a turn in the rhetoric of the sentence; so that the fifth line is used, generally, either as the close of the first stage in the stanza, or the beginning of the second; but he is very skilful in avoiding monotony, and will often run a single sentence through the stanza, or will break up the stanza into as many parts as there are lines, e.g.
Behinde him was Reproch, Repentaunce, Shame;
Reproch the first, Shame next, Repent behinde:
Repentaunce feeble, sorrowfull, and lame;
Reproch despightfull, carelesse, and unkinde;
Shame most ill-favourd, bestiall, and blinde:
Shame lowrd, Repentaunce sighd, Reproach did scould;
Reproch sharpe stings, Repentaunce whips entwinde,
Shame burning brond-yrons in her hand did hold:
All three to each unlike, yet all made in one mould. 12 
  These metrical combinations and permutations are often employed very beautifully in pathetic passages:
Ye Gods of seas, if any Gods at all
Have care of right, or ruth of wretches wrong,
By one or other way me, woefull thrall,
Deliver hence out of this dungeon strong,
In which I daily dying am too long:
And if ye deeme me death for loving one
That loves not me, then doe it not prolong,
But let me die and end my days attone,
And let him live unlov’d, or love him selfe alone.
But if that life ye unto me decree,
Then let mee live as lovers ought to do,
And of my lifes deare love beloved be:
And if he should through pride your doome undo,
Do you by duresse him compell thereto,
And in this prison put him here with me;
One prison fittest is to hold us two.
So had I rather to be thrall then free;
Such thraldome or such freedome let it surely be.
But O vaine judgement, and conditions vaine,
The which the prisoner points unto the free!
The whiles I him condemne, and deeme his paine,
He where he list goes loose, and laughes at me.
So ever loose, so ever happy be!
But where so loose or happy that thou art,
Know, Marinell, that all this is for thee.  13 
  Throughout the various examples here given, it will be noticed that alliteration plays an important part in the composition of the general effect. Spenser would not have deigned to include himself among those whom his commentator E. K. calls “the rakehelly rout of our ragged rymers (for so themselves use to hunt the letter)”; but he knew that alliteration was in the genius of the English language, and he was the first to show its capacities for those liquid sequences of labial letters, carried through a rhythmical sentence, by means of which Milton afterwards produced his effects of verbal harmony.   45

Note 11. Book II, canto VI, stanza 29. [ back ]
Note 12. Book III, canto XII, stanza 24. [ back ]
Note 13. Book IV, canto XII, stanzas 9–11. [ back ]

  The knight in the social organism His Complaints  
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