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world are at any given moment endangered. It is
a sad discovery that history is so mainly made by
ignoble men.

"Vide questo globo

Tal ch'ei sorrise del suo vil sernbiante."

In his " Colin Clout," written just after his return
to Ireland, he speaks of the court in a tone of con
temptuous bitterness, in which, as it seems to me,
there is more of the sorrow of disillusion than of
the gall of personal disappointment. He speaks,
so he tells us,

" To warn young shepherds' wandering wit
Which, through report of that life's painted bliss,
Abandon quiet home to seek for it
And leave their lambs to loss misled amiss ;
For, sooth to say, it is no sort of life
For shepherd fit to live in that same place,
Where each one seeks with malice and with strife
To thrust down other into foul disgrace
Himself to raise ; and he doth soonest rise
That best can handle his deceitful wit
In subtle shifts . . .

To which him needs a guileful hollow heart
Masked with fair dissembling courtesy,
A filed tongue f urnisht with terms of art,



SPENSER 289

No art of school, but courtiers' schoolery.

For arts of school have there small countenance,

Counted but toys to busy idle brains,

And there professors find small maintenance,

But to be instruments of others' gains,

Nor is there place for any gentle wit

Unless to please it can itself apply.



Even such is all their vaunted vanity,

Naught else but smoke that passeth soon away.

So they themselves for praise of fools do sell,
And all their wealth for painting on a wall.

Whiles single Truth and simple Honesty
Do wander up and down despised of alL" x

And again in his "Mother Hubberd's Tale,"
in the most pithy and masculine verses he ever
wrote :

" Most miserable man, whom wicked Fate
Hath brought to Court to sue for Had-I-wist
That few have found and many one hath mist!
Full little knowest thou that hast not tried
What hell it is in suing long to bide ;
To lose good days that might be better spent,
To waste long nights in pensive discontent,
To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow,
To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow,
To have thy prince's grace yet want her Peers',
To have thy asking yet wait many years,
To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares,
To eat thy heart through comfortless despairs,
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.

Whoever leaves sweet home, where mean estate
In safe assurance, without strife or hate,

1 Compare Shakespeare's LXVI. Sonnet.



290 SPEXSER

Finds all things needful for contentment meek,
And will to court for shadows vain to seek,

That curse God send unto mine enemy ! "' 1

When Spenser had once got safely back to the
secure retreat and serene companionship of his
great poem, with what profound and pathetic exul
tation must he have recalled the verses of Dante I

" Chi dietro a jura, e chi ad aforismi
Sen giva, e chi seguendo sacerdozio,
E chi regnar per f orza o per sofismi.
E chi rubare. e chi civil negozio,
Chi nei diletti della came involto
S' affaticava, e chi si dava all' ozio,
Qnando da tiitte queste cose sciolto,
Con Beatrice m' era suso in cielo
Cotanto gloriosamente accolto." *

"What Spenser says of the indifference of the
court to learning and literature is the more remark
able because he himself was by no means an un
successful suitor. Queen Elizabeth bestowed on
him a pension of fifty pounds, and shortly after he
received the grant of lands already mentioned. It
is said, indeed, that Lord Burleigh in some way

1 This poem, published in 1591, was, Spenser tells us in his
dedication, "long sithens composed in the raw conceit of my
youth." But he had evidently retouched it. The verses quoted
show a firmer hand than is generally seen in it, and we are safe in
assuming that they were added after his visit to England. Dr.
Johnson epigrammatized Spenser's indictment into

' There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail,"

but I think it loses in pathos more than it gains in point

2 Paradiso, XL 4-12. Spenser was familiar with the Divina
Commedia, though I do not remember that his commentators have
pointed out his chief obligations to it.



SPENSER 291

hindered the advancement of the poet, who more
than once directly alludes to him either in reproach
or remonstrance. In " The Ruins of Time," after
speaking of the death of Walsingham,

" Since whose decease learning lies unregarded,
And men of annes do wander unrewarded,"

he gives the following reason for their neglect :

" For he that now wields all things at his will.
Scorns th' one and th' other in his deeper skill.
O grief of griefs ! O gall of all good hearts,
To see that virtue should despised be
Of him that first was raised for virtuous parts,
And now, broad-spreading like an aged tree,
Lets none shoot up that nigh him planted be :
O let the man of whom the Muse is scorned
Nor live nor dead be of the Muse adorned ! "

And in the introduction to the fourth book of the
" Faery Queen," he says again :

" The rugged forehead that with grave foresight
Wields kingdoms' causes and affairs of state,
My looser rhymes, I wot, doth sharply wite
For praising Love, as I have done of late,

By which frail youth is oft to folly led

Through false allurement of that pleasing bait,

That better were in virtues discipled

Than with vain poems' weeds to have their fancies fed,

" Such ones ill judge of love that cannot love
Nor in their frozen hearts feel kindly flame ;
Forthy they ought not thing unknown reprove,
Ne natural affection faultless blame
For fault of few that have abused the same :
For it of honor and all virtue is
The root, and brings forth glorious flowers of fame
That crown true lovers with immortal bliss,
The meed of them that love and do not live amiss."



292 SPENSER

If Lord Burleigh could not relish such a dish of
nightingales' tongues as the "Faery Queen," he
is very much more to be pitied than Spenser. The
sensitive purity of the poet might indeed well be
wounded when a poem in which he proposed to
himself "to discourse at large " of "the ethick part
of Moral Philosophy " 1 could be so misinterpreted.
But Spenser speaks in the same strain and without
any other than a general application in his " Tears
of the Muses," and his friend Sidney undertakes
the defence of poesy because it was undervalued.
But undervalued by whom ? By the only persons
about whom he knew or cared anything, those
whom we should now call Society and who were
then called the Court. The inference I would draw
is that, among the causes which contributed to the
marvellous efflorescence of genius in the last quar
ter of the sixteenth century, the influence of direct
patronage from above is to be reckoned at almost
nothing. 2 Then, as when the same phenomenon

1 His own words as reported by Lodowick Bryskett. (Todd's
Spenser, I. Ix. ) The whole passage is Tery interesting as giving
us the only glimpse we get of the living Spenser in actual contact
with his fellow-men. It shows him to us, as we could wish to see
him, surrounded with loving respect, companionable and helpful.
Bryskett tells us that he was " perfect in the Greek tongue," and
" also very well read in philosophy both moral and natural." He
encouraged Bryskett in the study of Greek, and offered to help
him in it. Comparing the last verse of the above citation of the
Faery Queen with other passages in Spenser, I cannot help think
ing that he wrote, " do not love amiss."

" And know, sweet prince, when you shall come to know,

That 't is not in the power of kings to raise

A spirit for verse that is not born thereto ;

Nor are they born in every prince's days."

Daniel's Dedic. Trag. of Philotas.



SPENSER 293

has Happened elsewhere, there must have been a
sympathetic public. Literature, properly so called,
draws its sap from the deep soil of human nature's
common and everlasting sympathies, the gathered
leaf-mould of countless generations (ofy irep <f>vX\u>v
yeveT/), and not from any top-dressing capriciously
scattered over the surface at some master's bid
ding. 1 England had long been growing more truly
insular in language and political ideas when the
Reformation came to precipitate her national con
sciousness by secluding her more completely from
the rest of Europe. Hitherto there had been Eng
lishmen of a distinct type enough, honestly hating
foreigners, and reigned over by kings of whom
they were proud or not as the case might be, but
there was no England as a separate entity from
the sovereign who embodied it for the time being. 2
But now an English people began to be dimly
aware of itself. Their having got a religion to
themselves must have intensified them much as
the having a god of their own did the Jews. The

1 Louis XIV. is commonly supposed in some miraculous way to
have created French literature. He may more truly be said to
have petrified it so far as his influence went. The French re
naissance in the preceding century was produced by causes similar
in essentials to those which brought about that in England not
long after. The grand siecle grew by natural processes of devel
opment out of that which had preceded it, and which, to the
impartial foreigner at least, has more flavor, and more French
flavor too, than the Gallo-Roman usurper that pushed it from its
stool. The best modern French poetry has been forced to temper
its verses in the colder natural springs of the ante-classic period.

2 In the Elizabethan drama, the words "England" and
"France" are constantly used to signify the kings of those
countries.



294 SPENSER

exhilaration of relief after the long tension of anx
iety, when the Spanish Armada was overwhelmed
like the hosts of Pharaoh, while it confirmed their
assurance of a provincial deity, must also have
been like sunshine to bring into flower all that
there was of imaginative or sentimental in the
English nature, already just in the first flush of its
spring.

( " The yonge sonne
Had in the Bull half of his course yronne.")

And just at this moment of blossoming every breeze
was dusty with the golden pollen of Greece, Rome,
and Italy. If Keats could say, when he first
opened Chapman's Homer,

" Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken ;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise,"

if Keats could say this, whose mind had been un
consciously fed with the results of this culture,
results that permeated all thought, all literature,
and all talk, fancy what must have been the
awakening shock and impulse communicated to
men's brains by the revelation of this new world of
thought and fancy, an unveiling gradual yet sud
den, like that of a great organ, which discovered
to them what a wondrous instrument was in the
soul of man with its epic and lyric stops, its deep
thunders of tragedy and its passionate vox Jiumana !
It might almost seem as if Shakespeare had typified
all this in Miranda, when she cries out at first sight
of the king and his courtiers,



SPENSER ' 295

" O, wonder !

How many goodly creatures are there here !
How beauteous mankind is ! O, brave new world
That hath such people in 't I "

The civil wars of the Roses had been a barren
period in English literature, because they had been
merely dynastic squabbles, in which no great prin
ciples were involved which could shake all minds
with controversy and heat them to intense convic
tion. A conflict of opposing ambitions wears out
the moral no less than the material forces of a
people, but the ferment of hostile ideas and convic
tions may realize resources of character which
before were only potential, may transform a merely
gregarious multitude into a nation proud in its
strength, sensible of the dignity and duty which
strength involves, and groping after a common
ideal. Some such transformation had been wrought
or was going on in England. For the first time a
distinct image of her was disengaging itself from
the tangled blur of tradition and association in the
minds of her children, and it was now only that her
great poet could speak exultingly to an audience
that would understand him with a passionate sym
pathy, of

" This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
England, bound in with the triumphant sea ! "

Such a period can hardly recur again, but some
thing like it, something pointing back to similar
producing causes, is observable in the revival of



296 SPENSER

English imaginative literature at the close of the
last and in the early years of the present century.
Again, after long fermentation, there was a .war of
principles, again the national consciousness was
heightened and stung by a danger to the national
existence, and again there was a crop of great poets
and heroic men.

Spenser once more visited England, bringing
with him three more books of the " Faery Queen,"
in 1595. He is supposed to have remained there
during the two following years. 1 In 1594 he had
been married to the lady celebrated in his some
what artificial amoretti. By her he had four chil
dren. He was now at the height of his felicity ;
by universal acclaim the first poet of his age, and
the one obstacle to his material advancement (if
obstacle it was) had been put out of the way by
the death of Lord Burleigh, August, 1598. In the
next month he was recommended in a letter from
Queen Elizabeth for the shrievalty of the county
of Cork. But alas for Polycrates ! In October
the wild kerns and gallowglasses rose in no mood
for sparing the house of Pindarus. They sacked
and burned his castle, from which he with his wife
and children barely escaped. 2 He sought shelter

1 I say supposed, for the names of his two sons, Sylvanus and
Peregrine, indicate that they were born in Ireland, and that Spen
ser continued to regard it as a wilderness and his abode there as
exile. The two other children are added on the authority of a
pedigree drawn up by Sir W. Betham and cited in Mr. Hales's
Life of Spenser prefixed to the Globe edition.

2 Ben Jonson told Drummond that one child perished in the
flames. But he was speaking after an interval of twenty-one



SPENSER 297

in London, and died there on the 16th January,
1599, at a tavern in King Street, Westminster.
He was buried in the neighboring Abbey next to
Chaucer, at the cost of the Earl of Essex, poets
bearing his pall and casting verses into his grave,,
He died poor, but not in want. On the whole, his
life may be reckoned a happy one, as in the main
the lives of the great poets must have commonly
been. If they feel more passionately the pang of
the moment, so also the compensations are incalcu
lable, and not the least of them this very capacity
of passionate emotion. The real good fortune is to
be measured, not by more or less of outward pros-
years, and, of course, from hearsay. Spenser's misery was exag
gerated by succeeding poets, who used him to point a moral, and
from the shelter of his tomb launched many a shaft of sarcasm at
an unappreciative public. Phineas Fletcher in his Purple Island
(a poem which reminds us of the Faery Queen by the supreme
tediousness of its allegory, but in nothing else) set the example in
the best verse he ever wrote :

" Poorly, poor man, he lived ; poorly, poor man, he died."
Gradually this poetical tradition established itself firmly as au
thentic history. Spenser could never have been poor, except by
comparison. The whole story of his later days has a strong savor
of legend. He must have had ample warning of Tyrone's rebel
lion, and would probably have sent away his wife and children to
Cork, if he did not go thither himself. I am inclined to think
that he did, carrying his papers with him, and among them the
two cantos of Mutability, first published in 1611. These, it is
most likely, were the only ones he ever completed, for, with all
his abundance, he was evidently a laborious finisher. When we
remember that ten years were given to the elaboration of the first
three books, and that five more elapsed before the next three were
ready, we shall waste no vain regrets on the six concluding books
supposed to have been lost by the carelessness of an imaginary
servant on their way from Ireland.



298 SPENSER

perity, but by the opportunity given for the devel
opment and free play of the genius. It should be
remembered that the power of expression which
exaggerates their griefs is also no inconsiderable
consolation for them. We should measure what
Spenser says of his worldly disappointments by the
bitterness of the unavailing tears he shed for Rosa-
linde. A careful analysis of these leaves no per
ceptible residuum of salt, and we are tempted to
believe that the passion itself was not much more
real than the pastoral accessories of pipe and crook.
I very much doubt whether Spenser ever felt more
than one profound passion in his life, and that
luckily was for his " Faery Queen." He was for
tunate in the friendship of the best men and women
of his tune, in the seclusion which made him free
of the still better society of the past, in the loving
recognition of his countrymen. All that we know
of him is amiable and of good report. He was
faithful to the friendships of his youth, pure in his
loves, unspotted in his life. Above all, the ideal
with him was not a thing apart and unattainable,
but the sweetener and ennobler of the street and
the fireside.

There are two ways of measuring a poet, either
by an absolute aesthetic standard, or relatively to
his position in the literary history of his country
and the conditions of his generation. Both should
be borne in mind as coefficients in a perfectly fair
judgment. If his positive merit is to be settled ir
revocably by the former, yet an intelligent criticism
will find its advantage not only in considering what



SPENSER 299

he was, but what, under the given circumstances,
it was possible for him to be.

The fact that the great poem of Spenser was in
spired by the Orlando of Ariosto, and written in
avowed emulation of it, and that the poet almost
always needs to have his fancy set agoing by the
hint of some predecessor, must not lead us to over
look his manifest claim to originality. It is not
what a poet takes, but what he makes out of what
he has taken, that shows what native force is in
him. Above all, did his mind dwell complacently
in those forms and fashions which in their very
birth are already obsolescent, or was it instinctively
drawn to those qualities which are permanent in
language and whatever is wrought in it? There
is much in Spenser that is contemporary and eva
nescent ; hut the substance of him is durable, and
his work was the deliberate result of intelligent

O

purpose and ample culture. The publication of
his "Shepherd's Calendar" in 1579 (though the
poem itself be of little interest) is one of the epochs
in our literature. Spenser had at least the origi
nality to see clearly and to feel keenly that it was
essential to bring poetry back again to some kind
of understanding with nature. His immediate pre
decessors seem to have conceived of it as a kind
of bird of paradise, born to float somewhere be
tween heaven and earth, with no very well defined
relation to either. It is true that the nearest ap
proach they were able to make to this airy ideal
was a shuttlecock, winged with a bright plume or
so from Italy, but, after all, nothing but cork and



300 SPENSER

feathers, which they bandied back and forth from
one stanza to another, with the useful ambition of
keeping it up as long as they could. To my mind
the old comedy of " Gammer Gurton's Needle "
is worth the whole of them. It may be coarse,
earthy, but in reading it one feels that he is at
least a man among men, and not a humbug among
humbugs.

The form of Spenser's " Shepherd's Calendar,"
it is true, is artificial, absurdly so if you look at it
merely from the outside, not, perhaps, the wisest
way to look at anything, unless it be a jail or a
volume of the " Congressional Globe," but the
spirit of it is fresh and original. We have at last
got over the superstition that shepherds and shep
herdesses are any wiser or simpler than other peo
ple. We know that wisdom can be won only by
wide commerce with men and books, and that sim
plicity, whether of manners or style, is the crowning
result of the highest culture. But the pastorals of
Spenser were very different things, different both in
the moving spirit and the resultant form from the
later ones of Browne or the " Piscatory Eclogues "
of Phinehas Fletcher. And why ? Browne and
Fletcher wrote because Spenser had written, but
Spenser wrote from a strong inward impulse an
instinct it might be called to escape at all risks
into the fresh air from that horrible atmosphere into
which rhymer after rhymer had been pumping car
bonic-acid gas with the full force of his lungs, and
in which all sincerity was on the edge of suffocation.
His longing for something truer and better was as



SPENSER 301

honest as that which led Tacitus so long before to
idealize the Germans, and Eousseau so long after
to make an angel of the savage.

Spenser himself supremely overlooks the whole
chasm between himself and Chaucer, as Dante be
tween himself and Virgil. He called Chaucer mas
ter, as Milton was afterwards to call him. And,
even while he chose the most artificial of all forms,
his aim that of getting back to nature and life
was conscious, I have no doubt, to himself, and
must be obvious to whoever reads with anything
but the ends of his fingers. It is true that Sannaz-
zaro had brought the pastoral into fashion again,
and that two of Spenser's are little more than
translations from Marot ; but for manner he in
stinctively turned back to Chaucer, the first and
then only great English poet. He has given com
mon instead of classic names to his personages,
for characters they can hardly be called. Above
all, he has gone to the provincial dialects for words
wherewith to enlarge and freshen his poetical vo
cabulary. 1 I look upon the " Shepherd's Calen-

1 Sir Philip Sidney did not approve of this. ' ' That same fram
ing 1 of his style to an old rustic language I dare not allow, since
neither Theocritus in Greek, Virgil in Latin, nor Sannazzaro in
Italian did affect it." (Defence of Poesy.) Ben Jonson, on the
other hand, said that Guarini ' ' kept not decorum in making
shepherds speak as well as himself could." (Conversations with
Drummond.) I think Sidney was right, for the poets' Arcadia
is a purely ideal world, and should be treated accordingly. But
whoever looks into the glossary appended to the Calendar by
E. K., will be satisfied that Spenser's object was to find unhack
neyed and poetical words rather than such as should seem more on
a level with the speakers. See also the Epistle Dedicatory. I
cannot help thinking that . K. was Spenser himself, with occa-



802 SPENSER

dar " as being no less a conscious and deliberate at
tempt at reform than Thomson's " Seasons " were
in the topics, and Wordsworth's " Lyrical Ballads "
in the language of poetry. But the great merit
of these pastorals was not so much in their mat
ter as their manner. They show a sense of style
in its larger meaning hitherto displayed by no
English poet since Chaucer. Surrey had brought
back from Italy a certain inkling of it, so far as
it is contained in decorum. But here was a new
language, a choice and arrangement of words, a
variety, elasticity, and harmony of verse most
grateful to the ears of men. If not passion, there
was fervor, which was perhaps as near it as the
somewhat stately movement of Spenser's mind
would allow him to come. Sidney had tried many
experiments in versification, which are curious and
interesting, especially his attempts to naturalize the
sliding rhymes of Sannazzaro in English. But
there is everywhere the uncertainty of a 'prentice
hand. Spenser shows himself already a master, at
least in verse, and we can trace the studies of Mil
ton, a yet greater master, in the " Shepherd's Cal
endar " as well as in the " Faery Queen." We
have seen that Spenser, under the misleading in
fluence of Sidney 1 and Harvey, triect his hand at
English hexameters. But his great glory is that
he taught his own language to sing and move to
measures harmonious and noble. Chaucer had

sional interjections of Harvey. Who else could have written such


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Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 20 of 28)