Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Richard William Church
Edmund Spenser (1552?1599)
[Edmund Spenser was born in London about 1552. He was educated at Merchant Taylors School: his first poetical performances, translations from Petrarch and Du Bellay, published without his name in a miscellaneous collection, belong to the time of his leaving school in 1569. From that year to 1576 he was at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. In 1579 he was in London, acquainted with Philip Sidney, and in Lord Leicesters household. In 1580 was published, but without his name, The Shepheards Calender; and in the autumn of that year he went to Ireland with Lord Grey of Wilton, as his private secretary. The remainder of his life, with the exception of short visits to England, was spent in Ireland, where he held various subordinate offices, and where he settled on a grant of forfeited land at Kilcolman in the county of Cork. In 1589 he accompanied Sir Walter Ralegh to London, and in 1590 published the first three books of The Faerie Queene. In 1591 he returned to Ireland, and a miscellaneous collection of compositions of earlier and later dates (Complaints) was published in London. In June 1594 he married, and the next year, 1595, he again visited London, and in Jan. 15956 published the second instalment of The Faerie Queene (ivvi). With the same date, 1595, were published his Colin Clouts Come Home again, an account of his visit to the Court in 158990, and his Amoretti Sonnets, and an Epithalamion, relating to his courtship and marriage. At the end of 1598 his house was sacked and burnt by the Munster rebels, and he returned in great distress to London. He died at Westminster, Jan. 16, 15989, and was buried in the Abbey.]
SPENSER was the first who in the literature of England since the Reformation made himself a name as a poet which could be compared with that of Chaucer, or of the famous Italians who then stood at the head of poetical composition. National energy had revived under the reign of Elizabeth, and with it had come a burst of poetical enthusiasm. Many persons tried their hand at poetry. Versification became a fashion. It was encouraged in the Court circles. The taste for poetry shows itself in a popular shape in ballads, and among scholars in translation; and amid a good deal of bad poetry there was some written which was genuine and beautiful, and which has survived to charm us still. The poetical spirit and feeling came out most naturally in short love poems, of which many of great grace and fire are preserved in the collections of the time; the other form which it took at this time was the expression of the pathetic incidents and conditions of human greatness and fortune. Sir Philip Sidney, one of the most accomplished and most rising of the young men about the Court, encouraged an interest in poetry in his circle of friends, and some of them, Edward Dyer and Fulke Greville, have, like Sidney himself, left poems of merit. But while there was much poetical writing, and not a little poetical power even among men engaged in the business and wars of the time, such as Walter Ralegh, no successful attempt had been made to produce a great poetical work which might challenge comparison with the Canterbury Tales at home, or the Orlando Furioso abroad. Spenser was the first who had the ambition and also the power for such an enterprise. His earliest work, The Shepherds Calendar, a series of what were called pastoral poems, after the fashion of the Italian models and some English imitators, partly original, partly translated or paraphrased, though very immature and very unequal in its composition, was at once felt to be something more considerable as a poetical achievement than anything which the sixteenth century had yet seen in England. The new poet became almost a recognised title for the man who had shown, not merely by a few spirited fugitive stanzas, but in a sustained work, that he could write so sweetly and so well. The fame and the associations of The Shepherds Calendar clung to him even to the end of his career. To the end he had a predilection for its pastoral colouring and scenery; to the end he liked to give himself the rustic name by which he had represented himself in its dialogues, and called himself Colin Clout.
But The Faery Queen was something beyond the expectations raised by The Shepherds Calendar. In its plan, its invention, and its execution, it took the world of its day by surprise. It opened a new road to English poetry, and new kingdoms to be won by it. The name of Spenser stands in point of time even before that of Shakespeare in the roll of modern English poets. A discoverer of something new to be done, he first did what all were trying to do, and broke down the difficulties of a great and magnificent art.
But the first are not always the greatest in poetry, any more than in painting, in music, in science, in geographical discovery: they lead the way and make it possible to greater men and greater things. Spenser delighted Shakespeare: he was the poetical master of Cowley and then of Milton, and, in a sense, of Dryden and even Pope. None but a man of strength, of originality, of rare sense of beauty and power of imagination and music, could have been this. But he was the great predecessor of yet greater successors. The Faery Queen is a noble and splendid work. When we think that it was the first of its kind, and that Spenser had no master of English, except in antiquity, to show him how to write, it is an astonishing one. But it has the imperfections and shortcomings of most original attempts to do what is new and hard, and what none have yet succeeded in; and it has the imperfections which actually belonged to the genius, the mind and character of the writer.
The Faery Queen is, as every one knows, an allegorical poem; and in this it differs from the Italian models then talked of and famous, from the works of Ariosto and Tasso, as well as from Chaucer. The idea and framework was taken from them; the machinery, like theirs, was borrowed from the days, or rather the literature, of chivalry; and like theirs, the story rolled on in stanzas, and Spenser invented for his purpose a new form of stanza, one of nine lines, instead of the eight-line one of the Italians. But, unlike them, Spenser avowedly designed to himself a moral purpose and meaning in his poem. It was not merely a brilliant and entertaining series of adventures, like the Orlando. It was not merely a poetical celebration of a great historical legend, a religious epic, like the Gerusalemme. It professed to be a veiled exposition of moral philosophy. It was planned, and all its imaginative wealth unfolded, in order to portray and recommend the virtues, and to exhibit philosophical speculations. It was intended to be a book, not for delight merely, but for instruction. Such a view of poetry was characteristically in harmony with the serious spirit of the time in England, which welcomed heartily all intellectual efforts, but which expected in them a purpose to do more than amuse, and had fashion on its side in putting the note of frivolity on what did not bear this purpose distinctly in view. Spenser thought it right to declare to his friends, and to set down in writing, the aim and intention of his poem. He described it as a work which is in heroical verse under the title of a Faery Queen to represent all the moral virtues, assigning to every virtue a knight as the patron and defender of the same, in whose actions and feats of arms and chivalry the operations of that virtue, whereof he is the protector, are to be expressed, and the vices and unruly appetites that oppose themselves against the same, to be beaten down or overcome. And in a letter to Sir Walter Ralegh, written to give the key to the poem, he says that the general end of his Allegory or dark conceit, and of all his book, is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline. He indeed sees this purpose and intention in the antique poets historical. Homer meant to represent a good governor and virtuous man in Agamemnon and Ulysses, Virgil meant the same in Aeneas, Ariosto in Orlando. Tasso dissevered them, representing the Ethical part of Moral Philosophy, or the virtues of a private man, in Rinaldo; the other, named Politicé, the public virtues of a governor in Goffredo. In King Arthur, Spenser meant once more to join both. By example of which excellent poets, he says, I labour to pourtray in Arthur, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the XII private moral virtues, as Aristotle hath devised; the which is the purpose of these first twelve books; which if I find to be well accepted, I may be perhaps encouraged to frame the other part of politick virtues in his person, after that he came to be king.
Of this large design of twenty-four books, each of twelve cantos, little more than a fourth part was accomplished, or at any rate has survived. The first three books were published in 1590; three more, books iv, v, vi, were added to them in a second edition in 1596. Two cantos, with a couple of stray stanzas, were published after his death. The political part of the design does not seem to have even come into sight of the poet.
The poem was designed in England, but it was mostly written in Ireland, amid scenes of disorder and wretchedness, which sorely tested not only the courage, but the justice, the wisdom, and the humanity of the Englishmen who had any share in the government of the most unfortunate of the Queens dominions. It needed indeed to be a knight as perfect in strength and goodness as the ideal Arthur, to deal with the evils of Ireland. Spenser, as men do in trying times, thought he saw the virtues partially realised in the friends engaged in the difficult tasks round him: we, at our point of view, are obliged to see how far the best and noblest of them was from the poets ideal. But the presence and actual sight of all this energy, struggle, danger, courage, doubtless gave life to Spensers conception of the life of warfare which he proposed to portray. It was before him on the spot; and The Faery Queen is the reflection of it, tempered and sobered by the poets purpose, to make it represent his conception of all that makes a man great and true in his resistance to the vices and evils of the world.
The Faery Queen purports to be a story, and the outline of the story, which was to bind it together, is given in the poets explanatory letter to Sir Walter Ralegh, now prefixed to the poem. He imagines the Faery Queen, by whom he shadows forth Elizabeth, holding a great festival, on occasion of which twelve of her knights, each the example and champion of some particular virtue, undertake separate enterprises at her appointment and in her honour; while Prince Arthur, in whom is represented the comprehensive Aristotelic virtue of magnificence, or greatness of soul, is to fall in with them one by one in his quest of his fated bride the Faery Queen, helping and saving them by the superior power of his virtue and his knightly skill. The adventures of the twelve knights were to furnish the Legends of the twelve books of the first portion of his design, the ethical portion. He thought it inartificial for a poet to begin from the occasion and starting-point of these various adventures: A Poet, he said, thrusteth himself into the middest, even when it most concerneth him, and there recoursing to the things forepast, and divining of things to come, maketh a pleasant analysis of all. So he starts in the middle of one of the adventures, reserving his poetical account of the origin of them all, till he should have brought all his Knights back again to the Faery Queens Court in the last book. The arrangement was an awkward one, and the Twelfth Book was never reached. Though we know the framework of the story, we do not know it from the poem itself. And as he went on with his work, the main story is soon lost in the separate ones, and the poem becomes a succession of adventures, stories, pictures, and allegories, with little attempt to keep them together.
In the First Book, the story and the allegory,the dangers, the combats, the defeats, the final victory of the Red Cross Knight of Holiness, the champion of the Virgin Una with her milk-white lamb,and that which all this shadowed, the struggle of true religion and godliness with its foes, its vicissitudes, and its triumph, both in the visible scene of the worlds history, and in the heart of man, are both carried on clearly and consecutively. The Second Book, which takes the Knight of Temperance through his contest with violence, with the falsehood of extremes, with the madness of uncontrolled temper, with the temptations of Mammon, of riches and ambition, to the closing achievement, the conquest over all that Pleasure could present to allure and fascinate him, is straightforward and distinct in its construction. But after this the poets hold over his story relaxes. The legend of Chastity in the next book presents the same idea as that of the second, but exhibited in the persons of the lady knight Britomart, and the virgin huntress Belphbe, both of them in various aspects imaging the sacred saint of the poets worship. In the three later books, the legend of Justice is marked by its strong and definite representations of some great historical events of Spensers age, the administration of Lord Grey of Wilton in Ireland, the blows dealt at the Spanish power in the Channel and in the Netherlands, the fate of Mary Queen of Scots. The legends of Friendship and Courtesy certainly exhibit examples of friendship and courtesy. But when we think of what friendship is, we wonder that Spenser has so little to say about it, and that his imagination found nothing more to work upon than the companionship in love or war, sometimes loyal, sometimes false, of men-at-arms: and so many other interests and incidents come in besides, that it seems rather arbitrary to assign the legends specially to these virtues. And then, with the exception of the fragment on Mutability, which is part of a projected legend of Constancy, the poem stops, and with it all our knowledge of the way in which it was to be carried forward.
The moral picture is of the ideal of noble manliness in Elizabeths time. Besides the writers and the thinkers, the statesmen and the plotters, the traders and the commons, of that fruitful and vigorous age, there were the men of action: the men who fought in France and the Netherlands and Ireland, the men who created the English navy, and showed how it could be used: the men who tried for the north-west passage with Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and sailed round the world with Sir Francis Drake, and planted colonies in America with Sir Walter Ralegh: the men who chased the Armada to destruction, and dealt the return buffet to Spanish pride in the harbour of Cadiz; men who treated the sea as the rightful dominion of their mistress, and seeking adventures on it far and near, with or without her leave, reaped its rich harvests of plunder, from Spanish treasure ships and West Indian islands, or from the exposed towns and churches of the Spanish coast. They were at once men of daring enterprise and sometimes very rough execution; and yet men with all the cultivation and refinement of the time, courtiers, scholars, penmen, poets. These are the men whom Spenser had before his eyes in drawing his knightstheir ideas of loyalty, of gallantry, of the worth and use of life,their aims, their enthusiasm, their temptations, their foes, their defeats, their triumphs. In his tales of perpetual warfare, of perpetual resistance to evil, of the snares and desperate dangers through which they have to fight their way, there is a picture of the conditions which affect the whole life of man. The allegory may be applied, and was intended to be applied generally, to the difficulties which beset his course and the qualities necessary to overcome them. But it specially exhibits the ideals and standards and aspirationsthe characteristic virtues and the characteristic imperfections, the simple loyalty and the frank selfishness, of the brilliant and high-tempered generation, who are represented by men like Philip Sidney and Walter Ralegh, and Howard of Effingham and Richard Grenville, or by families like those of Vere and Norreys and Carew.
As a work of art The Faery Queen at once astonishes us by the wonderful fertility and richness of the writers invention and imagination, by the facility with which he finds or makes language for his needs, and above all, by the singular music and sweetness of his verse. The main theme seldom varies: it is a noble knight, fighting, overcoming, tempted, delivered; or a beautiful lady, plotted against, distressed, in danger, rescued. The poets affluence of fancy and speech gives a new turn and colour to each adventure. But besides that under these conditions there must be monotony, the poets art, admirable as it is, gives room for objections. Spensers style is an imitation of the antique; and an imitation, however good, must want the master charm of naturalness, reality, simple truth. And in his system of work, with his brightness and quickness and fluency, he wanted self-restraintthe power of holding himself in, and of judging soundly of fitness and proportion. There was a looseness and carelessness, partly belonging to his age, partly his own. In the use of materials, nothing comes amiss to him. He had no scruples as a copyist. He took without ceremony any piece of old metal,word, or story, or imagewhich came to his hand, and threw it into the melting-pot of his imagination, to come out fused with his own materials, often transformed, but often unchanged. The effect was sometimes happy, but not always so.
With respect to his diction, it must ever be remembered that the language was still in such an uncertain and unfixed state as naturally to invite attempts to extend its powers, and to enrich, supple, and colour it. Spenser avowedly set himself to do this. The editor of his first work, The Shepherds Calendar, takes credit on his behalf for attempting to restore, as to their rightful heritage, such good and natural English words, as have been long time out of use, and almost clean disherited. Spenser draws largely on Chaucer, both for his vocabulary and his grammar: and his authority and popularity have probably saved us a good many words which we could ill afford to lose. And some of his words we certainly have forgotten to our losssuch words as ingate (like insight,) glooming, fool-happy, overgone, and his many combinations with en-empeopled, engrieved, enrace. But it is not to enrich a language but to confuse and spoil it, when a writer forces on it words which are not in keeping with its existing usages and spirit, and much more when he arbitrarily deals with words to make them suit the necessities of metre and rime: and there is much of this in Spenser. He overdoes, especially in his earlier books, the old English expedient of alliteration, or hunting the letter, as it was called, which properly belongs to a much earlier method of versification, and which the ear of his own generation had already learned to shrink from in excess. He not only revives old words, but he is licentiousas far as we are able to trace the usages of the timein inventing new ones. He is unscrupulous in using inferior forms for better and more natural ones, not for the sake of the word, but for the convenience of the verse. The transfer of wordsadjectives and verbsfrom their strict use to a looser one,the passage from an active to a neuter sense,the investing a word with new associations,the interchange of attributes between two objects, with the feelings or phrase which really belong to one reflected back upon the otherare, within limits, part of the recognised means by which language, and especially poetical language, extends its range. But Spenser was inclined to make all limits give way to his convenience, and the rapidity of his work. It is not only to us that his language is both strange and affectedly antique; it looked the same to the men of his own time. It is a drawback to the value of Spenser as a monument of the English of his day, that it is often uncertain whether a form or a meaning of word may not be due simply to his own wayward and arbitrary use of it.
The Faery Queen has eclipsed all Spensers other writings: but his other writings alone would be enough to place him, as his contemporaries placed him, at the head of all who had yet attempted English poetry. The Shepherds Calendar, as has been said, with all its defects and affectations, showed force, skill, command of language and music as yet unknown. In it were shown the beginnings of two powers characteristic of Spenser: the power of telling a story, as in the fables of The Oak and Briar, and The Fox and Kid; and the power of satire, a power which he used both there and afterwards in Mother Hubberds Tale, to lash the Church abuses of the time and the manners of the Court, and in using which he is in strong contrast, in his sobriety and self-restraint, to the coarse extravagance of such writing in his time. The Fox and Ape of Mother Hubberds Tale is much nearer to the satire of Dryden and Pope, than it is to such writers as Donne and Hall. He did his necessary share of work in writing poems of salutation or congratulation for the great, or of lamentation for their misfortunes and sorrows. The Prothalamion celebrates the marriage of two ladies of the Worcester family; and he bewailed the death of Sir Philip Sidney and the Earl of Leicester. Much of this poetry was conventional. But in it appear fine and beautiful passages. The Prothalamion has great sweetness and grace. The Dirges never fail to show his deep and characteristic feeling for the vicissitudes of our human state. Finally, his own love and courtship inspired a series of Sonnets, and a Wedding Hymn. The Sonnets on the whole are disappointing. There is warmth and sincerity in them; but they want the individual stamp which makes such things precious. On the other hand, the Wedding Hymn, the Epithalamion, is one of the richest and most magnificent compositions of the kind in any language.