James Russell Lowell.

The writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) online

. (page 19 of 28)
Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 19 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

ground again with all despatch. The first duty of
the Muse is to be delightful, and it is an injury
done to all of us when we are put in the wrong by
a kind of statutory affirmation on the part of the
critics of something to which our judgment will not
consent, and from which our taste revolts. A col
lection of poets is commonly made up, nine parts
in ten, of this perfunctory verse-making, and I
never look at one without regretting that we have
lost that excellent Latin phrase, Corpus poetarum.
In fancy I always read it on the backs of the vol
umes, a body of poets, indeed, with scarce one
soul to a hundred of them.

One genuine English poet illustrated the early
years of the sixteenth century, John Skelton.
lie had vivacity, fancy, humor, and originality.
Gleams of the truest poetical sensibility alternate
in him with an almost brutal coarseness. He was
truly Rabelaisian before Rabelais. But there is a
freedom and hilarity in much of his writing that
gives it a singular attraction. A breath of cheer-


fulness runs along the slender stream of his verse,
under which it seems to ripple and crinkle, catch
ing and casting back the sunshine like a stream
blown on by clear western winds.

But Skelton was an exceptional blossom of au
tumn. A long and dreary winter follows. Surrey,
who brought back with him from Italy the blank-
verse not long before introduced by Trissino, is to
some extent another exception. He had the sen
timent of nature and unhackneyed feeling, but he
has no mastery of verse, nor any elegance of dic
tion. We have Gascoigne, Surrey, Wyatt, stiff, pe
dantic, artificial, systematic as a country cemetery,
and, worst of all, the whole time desperately in
love. Every verse is as flat, thin, and regular as a
lath, and their poems are nothing more than bun
dles of such tied trimly together. They are said to
have refined our language. Let us devoutly hope
they did, for it would be pleasant to be grateful to
them for something. But I fear it was not so, for
only genius can do that ; and Sternhold and Hop
kins are inspired men in comparison with them.
For Sternhold was at least the author of two noble
stanzas :

" The Lord descended from above
And bowed the heavens high,
And underneath his feet he cast
The darkness of the sky ;

" On cherubs and on chernbims

Full royally he rode,
And on the wings of all the winds
Came flying all abroad."

But Gascoigne and the rest did nothing more than


put the worst school of Italian love poetry into an
awkward English dress. The Italian proverb says,
" Inglese italianizzato, Diavolo incarnato," that an
Englishman Italianized is the very devil incarnate,
and one feels the truth of it here. The very titles
of their poems set one yawning, and their wit is the
cause of the dulness that is in other men. " The
lover, deceived by his love, repenteth him of the
true love he bare her." As thus :

" Where I sought heaven there found I hap ;

From danger unto death,
Much like the mouse that treads the trap

In hope to find her food,
And bites the bread that stops her breath,
So in like case I stood."

"The lover, accusing his love for her unfaithful
ness, proposeth to live in liberty." He says :

'.' But I am like the beaten fowl
That from the net escaped,
And thou art like the ravening owl
That all the night hath waked."

And yet at the very time these men were writing
there were simple ballad-writers who could have
set them an example of simplicity, force, and
grandeur. Compare the futile efforts of these poet
asters to kindle themselves by a painted flame,
and to be pathetic over the lay figure of a mistress,
with the wild vigor and almost fierce sincerity of
the " Twa Corbies " : -

" As I was walking all alone
I heard twa corbies making a moan.
The one unto the other did say,
Where shall we gang dine to-day ?
In beyond that old turf dyke


I wot there lies a new-slain knight ;

And naebody kens that he lies there

I] ut his hawk and his honnd and his lady fair.

His honnd is to the hunting gone,

His hawk to fetch the wild fowl home,

His lady has ta'en another mate,

So we may make ou> dinner sweet.

O'er his white bones as they lie hare

The wind shall blow forevermair."

There was a lesson in rhetoric for our worthy
friends, could they have understood it. But they
were as much afraid of an attack of nature as of
the plague.

Such was the poetical inheritance of style and
diction into which Spenser was born, and which he
did more than any one else to redeem from the
leaden gripe of vulgar and pedantic conceit. Sir
Philip Sidney, born the year after him, with a
keener critical instinct, and a taste earlier emanci
pated than his own, would have been, had he lived
longer, perhaps even more directly influential in
educating the taste and refining the vocabulary of
his contemporaries and immediate successors. The
better of his pastoral poems in the " Arcadia " are,
in my judgment, more simple, natural, and, above
all, more pathetic than those of Spenser, who some
times strains the shepherd's pipe with a blast that
would better suit the trumpet. Sidney had the
good sense to feel that it was unsophisticated senti
ment rather than rusticity of phrase that befitted
such themes. 1 He recognized the distinction be
tween simplicity and vulgarity, which Wordsworth

1 In his Defence of Poesy he condemns the archaisms and pro
vincialisms of the Shepherd's Calendar.


was so long in finding out, and seems to have
divined the fact that there is but one kind of Eng
lish that is always appropriate and never obsolete,
namely, the very best. 1 With the single exception
of Thomas Campion, his experiments in adapting
classical metres to English verse are more success
ful than those of his contemporaries. Some of his
elegiacs are not ungrateful to the ear, and it can
hardly be doubted that Coleridge borrowed from
his eclogue of Strephon and Klaius the pleasing
movement of his own Catullian Hendecasyllabics.
Spenser, perhaps out of deference to Sidney, also
tried his hand at English hexameters, the introduc
tion of which was claimed by his friend Gabriel
Harvey, who thereby conceived that he had assured
to himself an immortality of grateful remembrance.
But the result was a series of jolts and jars, prov
ing that the language had run off the track. He
seems to have been half conscious of it himself,
and there is a gleam of mischief in what he writes
to Harvey : " I like your late English hexameter
so exceedingly well that I also enure my pen some
time in that kind, which I find indeed, as I have
often heard you defend in word, neither so hard
nor so harsh but that it will easily yield itself to
our mother-tongue. For the only or chiefest hard
ness, which seemeth, is in the accent, which some-

1 " There is, as you must have heard Wordsworth point out, a
language of pure, intelligible English, which was spoken in Chau
cer's time, and is spoken in ours; equally understood then and
now ; and of which the Bible is the written and permanent stand
ard, as it has undoubtedly been the great means of preserving it."
(Southey's Life and Correspondence, iii. 193, 194.)


time gapeth, and, as it were, yawneth ill-favoredly,
coming short of that it should, and sometime ex
ceeding the measure of the number, as in Carpen
ter ; the middle syllable being used short in speech,
when it shall be read long in verse, seemeth like a
lame gosling that draweth one leg after her ; and
Heaven being used short as one syllable, when it is
in verse stretched out with a diastole, is like a
lame dog that holds up one leg." l It is almost in
conceivable that Spenser's hexameters should have
been written by the man who was so soon to teach
his native language how to soar and sing, and to
give a fuller sail to English verse.

One of the most striking facts in our literary
history is the preeminence at once so frankly and
unanimously conceded to Spenser by his contempo
raries. At first, it is true, he had not many rivals.
Before the " Faery Queen " two long poems were
printed and popular, the "Mirror for Magis
trates " and Warner's " Albion's England," and
not long after it came the " Polyolbion " of Dray-
ton and the " Civil Wars " of Daniel. This was
the period of the saurians in English poetry, inter
minable poems, book after book and canto after
canto, like far-stretching vertebrce, that at first

1 Nash, who has far better claims than Swift to be called the
English Rabelais, thus at once describes and parodies Harvey's
hexameters in prose, "that drunken, staggering kind of verse,
which is all up hill and down hill, like the way betwixt Stamford
and Beechfield, and goes like a horse plunging through the mire
in the deep of winter, now soused up to the saddle, and straight
aloft on his tiptoes." It was a happy thought to satirize (in this
inverted way) prose written in the form of verse, for the last
twelve words make a hexameter.


sight would seem to have rendered earth unfit for
the habitation of man. They most of them sleep
well now, as once they made their readers sleep,
and their huge remains lie embedded in the deep
morasses of Chalmers and Anderson. We wonder
at the length of face and general atrabilious look
that mark the portraits of the men of that genera
tion, but it is no marvel when even their relaxations
were such downright hard work. Fathers when
their day on earth was up must have folded down
the leaf and left the task to be finished by their
sons, a dreary inheritance. Yet both Drayton
and Daniel are fine poets, though both of them in
their most elaborate works made shipwreck of their
genius on the shoal of a bad subject. Neither of
them could make poetry coalesce with gazetteering
or chronicle-making. It was like trying to put a
declaration of love into the forms of a declaration
in trover. The " Polyolbion " is nothing less than
a versified gazetteer of England and Wales, for
tunately Scotland was not yet annexed, or the poem
would have been even longer, and already it is the
plesiosaurus of verse. Mountains, rivers, and even
marshes are personified, to narrate historical epi
sodes, or to give us geographical lectures. There
are two fine verses in the seventh book, where,
speaking of the cutting down some noble woods, he

" Their trunks like aged folk now bare and naked stand, 1
As for revenge to heaven each held a withered hand " ;

and there is a passage about the sea in the twen-

1 Probably suggested by a verse of Spenser cited infra.


tieth book that comes near being fine ; but the far
greater part is mere joiner-work. Consider the
life of man, that we flee away as a shadow, that
our days are as a post, and then think whether we
can afford to honor such a draft upon our time as
is implied in these thirty books all in alexandrines !
Even the laborious Selden, who wrote annotations
on it, sometimes more entertaining than the text,
gave out at the end of the eighteenth book. Yet
Drayton could write well, and had an agreeable
lightsomeness of fancy, as his " Nymphidia " proves.
His poem " To the Cambrio-Britons on their Harp "
is full of vigor ; it runs, it leaps, clashing its verses
like swords upon bucklers, and moves the pulse to
a charge.

Daniel was in all respects a man of finer mould.
He did indeed refine our tongue, and deserved the
praise his contemporaries concur in giving him of
being " well-languaged." 1 Writing two hundred
and fifty years ago, he stands in no need of a glos
sary, and I have noted scarce a dozen words, and
not more turns of phrase, in his works, that have
become obsolete. This certainly indicates both re
markable taste and equally remarkable judgment.
There is a conscious dignity in his thought and

1 Edmund Bolton in his Hypercritica says, " The works of Sam
Daniel contained somewhat a flat, but yet withal a very pure and
copious English, and words as warrantable as any man's, and Jitter
perhaps for prose than measure." I have italicized his second
thought, which chimes curiously with the feeling Daniel leaves
in the mind. (See Haslewood's Ancient Crit. Essays, vol. ii.)
Wordsworth, an excellent judge, much admired Daniel's poem to
the Countess of Cumberland.


sentiment such as we rarely meet. His best poems
always remind me of a table-land, where, because
all is so level, we are apt to forget on how lofty a
plane we are standing. I think his " Musophilus "
the best poem of its kind in the language. The
reflections are natural, the expression condensed,
the thought weighty, and the language worthy of
it. But he also wasted himself on an historical
poem, in which the characters were incapable of
that remoteness from ordinary associations which
is essential to the ideal. Not that we can escape
into the ideal by merely emigrating into the past
or the unfamiliar. As in the German legend the
little black Kobold of prose that haunts us in
the present will seat himself on the first load of
furniture when we undertake our flitting, if the
magician be not there to exorcise him. No man
can jump off his own shadow, nor, for that matter,
off his own age, and it is very likely that Daniel
had only the thinking and languaging parts of a
poet's outfit, without the higher creative gift which
alone can endow his conceptions with enduring life
and with an interest which transcends the parish
limits of his generation. In the prologue to his
" Masque at Court " he has unconsciously defined
his own poetry :

" Wherein no wild, no rude, no antic sport,
But tender passions, motions soft and grave,
The still spectator must expect to have."

And indeed his verse does not snatch you away
from ordinary associations and hurry you along
with it as is the wont of the higher kinds of poetry,


but leaves you, as it were, upon the bank watching
the peaceful current and lulled by its somewhat
monotonous murmur. His best-known poem, blun
deringly misprinted in all the collections, is that
addressed to the Countess of Cumberland. It is an
amplification of Horace's Integer Vitce, and when
we compare it with the original we miss the point,
the compactness, and above all the urbane tone of
the original. It is very fine English, but it is the
English of diplomacy somehow, and is never down
right this or that, but always has the honor to be
so or so, with sentiments of the highest consider
ation. Yet the praise of well-languaged, since it
implies that good writing then as now demanded
choice and forethought, is not without interest for
those who would classify the elements of a style
that will wear and hold its colors well. His dic
tion, if wanting in the more hardy evidences of
muscle, has a suppleness and spring that give proof
of training and endurance. His " Defence of
Rhyme," written in prose (a more difficult test than
verse), has a passionate eloquence that reminds
one of Burke, and is more light-armed and mod
ern than the prose of Milton fifty years later. For
us Occidentals he has a kindly prophetic word :

" And who in time knows whither we may vent

The treasure of our tongue ? to what strange shores

The gain of our best glory may be sent

To enrich unknowing nations with our stores ?

What worlds in the yet unformed Occident

May come refined with accents that are ours ? "

During the period when Spenser was getting his
artistic training, a great change was going on in


our mother-tongue, and the language of literature
was disengaging itself more and more from that of
ordinary talk. The poets of Italy, Spain, and
France began to rain influence and to modify and
refine not only style but vocabulary. Men were
discovering new worlds in more senses than one, and
the visionary finger of expectation still pointed for
ward. There was, as we learn from contemporary
pamphlets, very much the same demand for a na
tional literature that we have heard in America.
This demand was nobly answered in the next gen
eration. But no man contributed so much to the
transformation of style and language as Spenser ;
for not only did he deliberately endeavor at re
form, but by the charm of his diction, the novel
harmonies of his verse, his ideal method of treat
ment, and the splendor of his fancy, he made the
new manner popular and fruitful. We can trace
in Spenser's poems the gradual growth of his taste
through experiment and failure to that assured
self-confidence which indicates that he had at
length found out the true bent of his genius,
that happiest of discoveries (and not so easy as it
might seem) which puts a man in undisturbed pos
session of his own individuality. Before his tune
the boundary between poetry and prose had not
been clearly defined. His great merit lies not
only in the ideal treatment with which he glorified
common things and gilded them with a ray of en
thusiasm, but far more in the ideal point of view
which he first revealed to his countrymen. He at
first sought for that remoteness, which is implied in


an escape from the realism of daily life, in the pas
toral, a kind of writing which, oddly enough,
from its original intention as a protest in favor of
naturalness, and of human as opposed to heroic
sentiments, had degenerated into the most artificial
of abstractions. But he was soon convinced of his
error, and was not long in choosing between an un
reality which pretended to be real and those ever
lasting realities of the mind which seem unreal
only because they lie beyond the horizon of the
every-day world, and become visible only when the
mirage cf fantasy lifts them up and hangs them in
an ideal atmosphere. As in the old fairy-tales, the
task which the age imposes on its poet is to weave
its straw into a golden tissue ; and when every
device has failed, in comes the witch Imagination,
and with a touch the miracle is achieved, simple as
miracles always are after they are wrought.

Spenser, like Chaucer a Londoner, was born in
1553. 1 Nothing is known of his parents, except
that the name of his mother was Elizabeth; but
he was of gentle birth, as he more than once in
forms us, with the natural satisfaction of a poor
man of genius at a time when the business talent
of the middle class was opening to it the door of
prosperous preferment. In 1569 he was entered

1 Mr. Hales, in the excellent memoir of the poet prefixed to
the Globe edition of his works, puts his birth a year earlier, on
the strength of a line in the sixtieth sonnet. But it is not estab
lished that this sonnet was written in 1593, and even if it were,
a sonnet is not upon oath, and the poet would prefer the round
number forty, which suited the measure of his verse, to thirty-
nine or forty-one, which might have been truer to the measure of
his days.


as a sizar at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and in
due course took his bachelor's degree in 1573, and
his master's in 1576. He is supposed, on insuffi
cient grounds, as it appears to me, to have met
with some disgust or disappointment during his
residence at the University. 1 Between 1576 and
1578 Spenser seems to have been with some of his
kinsfolk " in the North." It was during this in
terval that he conceived his fruitless passion for
the Rosalinde, whose jilting him for another shep
herd, whom he calls Menalcas, is somewhat per
functorily bemoaned in his pastorals. 2 Before the

1 This has been inferred from a passage in one of Gabriel Har-
yey's letters to him. But it would seem more natural, from the
many allusions in Harvey's pamphlets against Nash, that it was
his own wrongs which he had in mind, and his self-absorption
would take it for granted that Spenser sympathized with him in
all his grudges. Harvey is a remarkable instance of the refining
influence of 'classical studies. Amid the pedantic farrago of his
cram-sufficiency (to borrow one of his own words) we come sud
denly upon passages whose gravity of sentiment, stateliness of
movement, and purity of diction remind us of Landor. These
lucid intervals in his overweening vanity explain and justify the
friendship of Spenser. Yet the reiteration of emphasis with
which he insists on all the world's knowing that Nash had called
him an ass, probably gave Shakespeare the hint for one of the
most comic touches in the character of Dogberry.

2 The late Major C. G. Halpine, in a very interesting essay,
makes it extremely probable that Rosalinde is the anagram of
Rose Daniel, sister of the poet, and married to John Florio. He
leaves little doubt, also, that the name of Spenser's wife (hitherto
unknown) was Elizabeth Nagle. (See Atlantic Mottihly, vol. ii.
674, November, 1858.) Mr. Halpine informed me that he found
the substance of his essay among the papers of his father, the
late Rev. N. J. Halpine, of Dublin. The latter published in the
series of the Shakespeare Society a sprightly little tract entitled
Oberon, which, if not quite convincing, is well worth reading for
its ingenuity and research.


publication of his " Shepherd's Calendar " in 1579,
he had made the acquaintance of Sir Philip Sidney,
and was domiciled with him for a time at Penshurst,
whether as guest or literary dependant is uncertain.
In October, 1579, he is in the household of the
Earl of Leicester. In July, 1580, he accompanied
Lord Grey de Wilton to Ireland as Secretary, and
in that country he spent the rest of his life, with
occasional flying visits to England to publish poems
or in search of preferment. His residence in that
country has been compared to that of Ovid in Pon-
tus. And, no doubt, there were certain outward
points of likeness. The Irishry by whom he was
surrounded were to the full as savage, as hostile,
and as tenacious of their ancestral habitudes as
the Scythians 1 who made Tomi a prison, and the
descendants of the earlier English settlers had de
generated as much as the Mix-Hellenes who dis
gusted the Latin poet. Spenser himself looked
on his life in Ireland as a banishment. In his
" Colin Clout 's come Home again " he tells us
that Sir Walter Raleigh, who visited him in 1589,
and heard what was then finished of the " Faery

" 'Gan to cast great liking to my lore
And great disliking to my luckless lot,
That banisht had myself, like wight f orlore,
Into that waste, where I was quite forgot.
The which to leave thenceforth he counselled me,
Unmeet for man in whom was aught regardful,
And wend with him his Cynthia to see,
Whose grace was great and bounty most rewardful."

1 In his prose tract on Ireland, Spenser, perhaps with some
memory of Ovid in his mind, derives the Irish mainly from the


Bat Spenser was already living at Kilcolman Cas
tle (which, with 3,028 acres of land from the for
feited estates of the Earl of Desmond, was con
firmed to him by grant two years later), amid
scenery at once placid and noble, whose varied
charm he felt profoundly. He could not complain,
with Ovid,

" Non liber hie ullus, non qui mihi commodet aurem,"

for he was within reach of a cultivated society,
which gave him the stimulus of hearty admiration
both as poet and scholar. Above all, he was fortu
nate in a seclusion that prompted study and deep
ened meditation, while it enabled him to converse
with his genius disengaged from those worldly in
fluences which would have disenchanted it of its
mystic enthusiasm, if they did not muddle it inglo-
riously away. Surely this sequestered nest was
more congenial to the brooding of those ethereal
visions of the " Faery Queen " and to giving his
" soul a loose " than

" The smoke, the wealth, and noise of Rome,

And all the busy pageantry
That wise men scorn and fools adore."

Yet he longed for London, if not with the home
sickness of Bussy-Rabutin in exile from the Paris
ian sun, yet enough to make him joyfully accom
pany Raleigh thither in the early winter of 1589,
carrying with him the first three books of the great
poem begun ten years before. Horace's nonum
prematur in annum had been more than complied
with, and the success was answerable to the well"


seasoned material and conscientious faithfulness of
the work. But Spenser did not stay long in Lon
don to enjoy his fame. Seen close at hand, with
its jealousies, intrigues, and selfish basenesses, the
court had lost the enchantment lent by the distance
of Kilcolman. A nature so prone to ideal contem
plation as Spenser's would be profoundly shocked
by seeing too closely the ignoble springs of contem
poraneous policy, and learning by what paltry
personal motives the noble opportunities of the

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 19 of 28)