Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Francis James Child (18251896)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1825. Died there, 1896. From a Memoir in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser. 185560.]
THE BETTER part of Spensers life was spent in Ireland, in what must be regarded as seclusion. Some time was given to business, some to study. Lodowick Bryskett says he was not only perfect in the Greek tongue, but also very well read in Philosophy, both moral and natural. Of course he was a scholar, and had a well-stored mind, but his learning has been greatly overstated. There is nothing in his poetry, or in the man, which should lead us to think that he regretted the loss of society. He was a faithful friend to Harvey, and at forty became an ardent lover; but it strikes us that his sympathies were contracted, and his affections not very active. His acquaintance seems to have lain among courtiers, scholars, and book-characters. Mankind he may have understood, for we are assured that he was versed in moral philosophy; but men he had not profoundly studied, not even his own heart. There are few, if any, traces of self-discipline, of a struggle with nature, in all his writings; which requires explanation in so contemplative a poet. He seems never to have known a great sorrow. The atmosphere of mild melancholy which hangs over his compositions is deceptive. It is in part an illusion produced on the reader by the habitually pensive attitude of his mind, or by the melody of his verse: we can never be merry when we hear such sweet music. Some of it is a humorous sadness, nor does it appear in any great degree to have sprung from a rooted discontent with his position and prospects in life, or with himself. His passions gave him very little trouble. He knew them in a general way, but not as a man knows his mortal enemy when he has grappled with him. He could give an outside view of any one of them, but could not depict the complex as it exists in human hearts. He had not dramatic perception or power: his men and women are mere abstractions, and, roughly speaking, they are all alike. He probably consulted well for his reputation in suppressing his juvenile comedies, for his comic vein was extremely thin, and adapted only to satire. His acquaintance with the material world was as superficial as his knowledge of character. There is a forest and there is a garden in the Fairy Queen, and his verse is thick bestrewn with flowers; but there are no traces that Nature and he had often been together. He has his primroses, his daisies and daffodils, but not the dew-filled primroses of Herrick, the mountain daisy of Burns, or the golden daffodils of Wordsworth. In connection with these peculiarities must be noticed the coldness of his temperament. If we admire his tranquil health and uniform vigor, we miss the intense nervous energy and the fine frenzy of poets compact of more fiery substance. He often affects enthusiasm, indeed, but seldom feels it. Only twice has he risen far above his ordinary calm level; in Mother Hubberds Tale and in his Marriage Song. In the one case, disappointment, and perhaps insult, had stung him into hearty indignation; in the other, his entire being, liver, brain, and heart, was possessed and stimulated by the new-born passion of love. Of power he exhibits no lack,who has not felt his strength, though wielded with such grace, in the allegory of Despair?but it is power for the most part too much diffused to produce great effects. He has few of those pregnant lines, those quintessential abridgments of thought and feeling, which, once read, stick forever in the memory, and gradually become adopted into the language itself. Three or four phrases of the sort have a currency in more elegant literature; not one has taken its place among the proverbs of the people. A similar want of concentration is the fault of his descriptions, which are often lively and splendid, seldom striking and picturesque. They do not seize on the characteristic feature of the subject, and consequently make only a vague impression on persons of ordinary imagination. His pictures are vivid without being sharply defined, and are adapted less to the focus of common vision than to that of the poetical eye, which is naturally constituted to correct such a defect.
But if Spensers imagination was not comprehensive, precise, and bold, it was fertile, rich, and various. If he was destitute of profound passion and warm sympathy with his kind, he manifests a natural gentleness, a noble sentiment, and an exquisite moral purity, which thoroughly engage our interest and esteem. The most characteristic quality of his mind is undoubtedly sensibility to beauty. This may account for whatever want of originality there may seem to be in his compositions, and for his dealing so little with real human concerns. Such a susceptibility would lead him to repose, rather than to action; to accept readily traditions of all sorts; to stand aloof from the harsh and vulgar facts of actual life; to linger among the mellow scenes of the past and in the twilight realms of fancy; to dream over the ruins of time, obsolete institutions, and creeds outworn. Most peculiar is the modification which this faculty, combined with moral purity, gives to his love of woman. Voluptuous though this be, it is ever controlled and chastened by a predominant feeling of the beauty of holiness.
Spensers most extraordinary power is that of language, the power of conveying impressions by sounds. It is through the ear more than the eye that he achieves his triumphs, and he makes up by his mastery over this art for many other deficiencies. The pathos of his verse affects us when his sentiments do not. In him more than in any other of our poets do music and sweet poetry agree; one of the arts is complementary to the other, and he produces some of the effects of both. No instrument known before his time was capable of expressing his deep and complex harmonies, and he invented one which many a genius has since touched skilfully, but none with the hand of the master, who, through nearly four thousand stanzas, adapted it to a great variety of subjects and proved it equal to all. If we consider that a peculiar organization is necessary for the appreciation of melody, we shall not wonder at the widely different estimate which is put upon Spenser even by persons of poetical taste. He has most justly been called the poets poet. Historically, nothing can be more true. Milton, Dryden, Cowley, Thomson, Pope, Gray, Southey, Keats, and we know not how many more, formed or nourished themselves on his strains. It was not so much for the visions he unveiled to their eyes as for the deep delight his music gave to ears so finely touched.