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" In woods, in waves, in wars, she wonts to dwell,

And will be found with peril and with pain,

Ne can the man that moulds in idle cell

Unto her happy mansion attain ;

Before her gate high God did Sweat ordain,

And wakeful watches ever to abide ;

But easy is the way and passage plain

To pleasure's palace ; it may soon be spied,
And day and night her doors to all stand open wide." 1

Spenser's mind always demands this large elbow-
room. His thoughts are never pithily expressed,
-but with a stately and sonorous proclamation, as if
under the open sky, that seems to me very noble.
For example,

" The noble heart that harbors virtuous thought
And is with child of glorious-great intent
Can never rest until it forth have brought
The eternal brood of glory excellent." 2

One's very soul seems to dilate with that last verse.
And here is a passage which Milton had read and
remembered :

" And is there care in Heaven ? and is there love
In heavenly spirits to these creatures base,
That may compassion of their evils move ?
There is : else much more wretched were the case
Of men than beasts : but 0, the exceeding grace
Of highest God, that loves his creatures so,
And all his works with mercy doth embrace,
That blessed angels he sends to and fro,

To serve to wicked man, to serve his wicked foe I

' ' How oft do they their silver bowers leave,
To come to succor us that succor want 1

1 Faery Queen, B. II. c. iii. 40, 41.

2 Ibid., I. c. v. J.



334 SPENSER

How oft do they with golden pinions cleaye
The fleeting skies like flying pursuivant,
Against foul fiends to aid us militant !
They for us fight, they watch and duly ward,
And their bright squadrons round about us plant ;
And all for love and nothing for reward ;
O, why should heavenly God to men have such regard ? " l

His natural tendency is to shun whatever is sharp
and abrupt. He loves to prolong emotion, and lin
gers in his honeyed sensations like a bee in the
translucent cup of a lily. So entirely are beauty
and delight in it the native element of Spenser,
that, whenever in the " Faery Queen " you come
suddenly on the moral, it gives you a shock of un
pleasant surprise, a kind of grit, as when one's
teeth close on a bit of gravel in a dish of straw
berries and cream. He is the most fluent of our
poets. Sensation passing through emotion into
revery is a prime quality of his manner. And to
read him puts one in the condition of revery, a
state of mind in which our thoughts and feelings
float motionless, as one sees fish do in a gentle
stream, with just enough vibration of their fins to
keep themselves from going down with the current,
while their bodies yield indolently to all its sooth
ing curves. He chooses his language for its rich
canorousness rather than for intensity of meaning.
To characterize his style in a single word, I should
call it costly. None but the daintiest and nicest
phrases will serve him, and he allures us from one
to the other with such cunning baits of alliteration,
and such sweet lapses of verse, that never any word

1 Faery Queen, II. c. viii. 1, 2.



SPENSER 335

seems more eminent than the rest, nor detains the
feeling to eddy around it, but you must go on to
the end before you have time to stop and muse
over the wealth that has been lavished on you.
But he has characterized and exemplified his own
style better than any description could do :

" For round about the walls yclothed were

With goodly arras of great majesty,

Woven with gold and silk so close and near

That the rich metal lurked privily

As f aining to be hid from envious eye ;

Yet here and there and everywhere, unwares

It showed itself and shone unwillingly

Like to a discolored snake whose hidden snares
Through the green grass his long bright-burnished back
declares." 1

And of the lulling quality of his verse take this as
a sample :

" And, more to lull him in his slumber soft,
A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down
And ever drizzling rain upon the loft,
Mixt with the murmuring wind much like the soun
Of swarming bees did cast him in a swoon.
No other noise, nor peoples' troublous cries,
As still are wont to annoy the walled town,
Might there be heard : but careless quiet lies

Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemies." 2

In the world into which Spenser carries us there
is neither time nor space, or rather it is outside of
and independent of them both, and so is purely
ideal, or, more truly, imaginary ; yet it is full of
form, color, and all earthly luxury, and so far, if
not real, yet apprehensible by the senses. There
are no men and women in it, yet it throngs with

1 Faery Queen, III. o. xi. 28. 2 Ibid., I. c. L 41.



336 SPENSER

airy and immortal shapes that have the likeness of
men and women, and hint at some kind of fore
gone reality. Now this place, somewhere between
mind and matter, between soul and sense, between
the actual and the possible, is precisely the region
which Spenser assigns (if I have rightly divined
him) to the poetic susceptibility of impression,

" To reign in the air from the earth to highest sky."

Underneath every one of the senses lies the soul
and spirit of it, dormant till they are magnetized
by some powerful emotion. Then whatever is im
perishable in us recognizes for an instant and
claims kindred with something outside and distinct
from it, yet in some inconceivable way a part of it,
that flashes back on it an ideal beauty which im
poverishes all other companionship. This exalta
tion with which love sometimes subtilizes the nerves
of coarsest men so that they feel and see, not the
thing as it seems to others, but the beauty of it,
the joy of it, the soul of eternal youth that is in
it, would appear to have been the normal condition
of Spenser. While the senses of most men live in
the cellar, his " were laid in a large upper chamber
which opened toward the sunrising."

' ' His birth was of the -womb of morning dew,
And his conception of the joyous prime."

The very greatest poets (and is there, after all,
more than one of them ?) have a way, I admit, of
getting within our inmost consciousness and in
a manner betraying us to ourselves. There is in
Spenser a remoteness very different from this, but



SPENSER 337

it is also a seclusion, and quite as agreeable, per
haps quite as wholesome in certain moods when we
are glad to get away from ourselves and those im
portunate trifles which we gravely call the realities
of life. In the warm Mediterranean of his mind
everything

" Suffers a sea-change
Into something rich and strange."

He lifts everything, not beyond recognition, but to
an ideal distance where no mortal, I had almost
said human, fleck is visible. Instead of the ordi
nary bridal gifts, he hallows his wife with an Epi-
thalamion fit for a conscious goddess, and the
" savage soil " 1 of Ireland becomes a turf of Ar-
cady under her feet, where the merchants' daugh
ters of the town are no more at home than the
angels and the fair shapes of pagan mythology
whom they meet there. He seems to have had a
common-sense side to him, and could look at things
(if we may judge by his tract on Irish affairs) in
a practical and even hard way; but the moment
he turned toward poetry he fulfilled the condition
which his teacher Plato imposes on poets, and had
not a particle of prosaic understanding left. His
fancy, habitually moving about in worlds not real
ized, unrealizes everything at a touch. The critics
blame him because in his Prothalamion the sub-

1 This phrase occurs in the sonnet addressed to the Earl of Or-
mond and in that to Lord Grey de Wilton in the series prefixed to
the Faery Queen. These sonnets are of a much stronger build
than the Amoretti, and some of them (especially that to Sir John
Norris) recall the firm tread of Milton's, though differing in struc
ture.



338 SPENSER

jects of it enter on the Thames as swans and leave
it at Temple Gardens as noble damsels ; but to
those who are grown familiar with his imaginary
world such a transformation seems as natural as in
the old legend of the Knight of the Swan.

" Come now ye damsels, daughters of Delight,

Help quickly her to dight :
But first come ye, fair Hours, which were begot
In Jove's sweet paradise of Day and Night, . . .
And ye three handmaids of the Cyprian Queen,
The which do still adorn her beauty's pride,
Help to adorn my beautif ulest bride.

Crown ye god Bacchus with a coronal,

And Hymen also crown with wreaths of vine,

And let the Graces dance unto the rest,

For they can do it best.
The whiles the maidens do their carols sing,
To which the woods shall answer and their echo ring."

The whole Epithalamion is very noble, with an
organ-like roll and majesty of numbers, while it is
instinct with the same joyousness which must have
been the familiar mood of Spenser. It is no su
perficial and tiresome merriment, but a profound
delight in the beauty of the universe and in that
delicately surfaced nature of his which was its mir
ror and counterpart. Sadness was alien to him,
and at funerals he was, to be sure, a decorous
mourner, as could not fail with so sympathetic a
temperament ; but his condolences are graduated
to the unimpassioned scale of social requirement.
Even for Sir Philip Sidney his sighs are regulated
by the official standard. It was in an unreal world
that his affections found their true object and vent,
and it is in an elegy of a lady whom he had never



SPENSER 339

known that he puts into the mouth of a husband
whom he has evaporated into a shepherd the two
most naturally pathetic verses he ever penned :

" I hate the day because it lendeth light
To see all things, but not my love to see." 1

In the Epithalamion there is an epithet which has
been much admired for its felicitous tenderness :

" Behold, whiles she before the altar stands,
Hearing the holy priest that to her speakes
And blesseth her with his two happy hands. "

But the purely impersonal passion of the artist
had already guided him to this lucky phrase. It
is addressed by Holiness a dame surely as far
abstracted from the enthusiasms of love as we can
readily conceive of to Una, who, like the vision
ary Helen of Dr. Faustus, has every charm of
womanhood except that of being alive, as Juliet
and Beatrice are.

' ' happy earth,
Whereon thy innocent feet do ever tread ! " 2

Can we conceive of Una, the fall of whose foot
would be as soft as that of a rose-leaf upon its
mates already fallen, can we conceive of her
treading anything so sordid ? No ; it is only on
some unsubstantial floor of dream that she walks
securely, herself a dream. And it is only when
Spenser has escaped thither, only when this gla
mour of fancy has rarefied his wife till she is grown
almost as purely a creature of the imagination as
the other ideal images with which he converses,

1 Daphnaida, 407, 408.

2 Faery Queen, I. c. x. 9.



340 SPENSER

that his feeling becomes as nearly passionate as
nearly human, I was on the point of saying as
with him is possible. I am so far from blaming
this idealizing property of his mind, that I find it
admirable in him. It is his quality, not his defect.
Without some touch of it life would be unendur
able prose. If I have called the world to which he
transports us a world of unreality, I have wronged
him. It is only a world of unrealism. It is from
pots and pans and stocks and futile gossip and
inch-long politics that he emancipates us, and makes
us free of that to-morrow, always coming and never
come, where ideas shall reign supreme. 1 But I am
keeping my readers from the sweetest idealization
that love ever wrought :

" Unto this place whenas the elfin knight
Approached, him seemed that the merry sound
Of a shrill pipe, he playing heard on height,
And many feet fast thumping the hollow ground,
That through the woods their echo did rebound ;
He nigher drew to wit what it mote be.
There he a troop of ladies dancing found
Full merrily and making gladf ul glee ;
And in the midst a shepherd piping he did see.

" He durst not enter into the open green
For dread of them unwares to be descried,
For breaking of their dance, if he were seen ;
But in the covert of the wood did bide
Beholding all, yet of them unespied ;
There he did see that pleased so much his sight

1 Strictly taken, perhaps his world is not much more imaginary
than that of other epic poets, Homer (in the Iliad) included. He
who is familiar with mediaeval epics will be extremely cautious in
drawing inferences as to contemporary manners from Homer. He
evidently archaizes like the rest.



SPENSER 341

That even he himself his eyes envied,
A hundred naked maidens lily-white,
All ranged in a ring and dancing in delight.

' ' All they without were ranged in a ring,
And danced round ; but in the midst of them
Three other ladies did both dance and sing,
The while the rest them round about did hem,
And like a garland did in compass stem.
And in the midst of these same three was placed
Another damsel, as a precious gem
Amidst a ring most richly well enchased,
That with her goodly presence all the rest much graced.

' Look how the crown which Ariadne wove
Upon her ivory forehead that same day,
That Theseus her unto his bridal bore,
(When the bold Centaurs made that bloody fray,
With the fierce Lapithes, that did them dismay)
Being now placed in the firmament,
Through the bright heaven doth her beams display,
And is .unto the stars an ornament,
Which round about her move in order excellent ;

" Such was the beauty of this goodly band,
Whose sundry parts were here too long to tell,
But she that in the midst of them did stand,
Seemed all the rest in beauty to excel,
Crowned with a rosy garland that right well
Did her beseem. And, ever as the crew
About her danced, sweet flowers that far did smell,
And fragrant odors they upon her threw ;

But most of all those three did her with gifts endue.

' ' Those were the graces, Daughters of Delight,
Handmaids of Venus, which are wont to haunt
Upon this hill and dance there, day and night ;
Those three to men all gifts of grace do grant
And all that Venus in herself doth vaunt
Is borrowed of them ; but that fair one
That in the midst was placed paravant,



342 SPENSER

Was she to whom that shepherd piped alone,
That made him pipe so merrily, as never none.

"She was, to weet, that jolly shepherd's lass
Which piped there unto that merry rout ;
That jolly shepherd that there piped was
Poor Colin Clout ; (who knows not Colin Clout ?)
He piped apace while they him danced about ;
Pipe, jolly shepherd, pipe thou now apace,
Unto thy love that made thee low to lout ;
Thy love is present there with thee in place,
Thy love is there advanced to be another Grace. ' ' 1

Is there any passage in any poet that so ripples
and sparkles with simple delight as this ? It is a
sky of Italian April full of sunshine and the hid
den ecstasy of larks. And we like it all the more
that it reminds us of that passage in his friend
Sidney's Arcadia, where the shepherd-boy pipes
"as if he would never be old." If we compare it
with the mystical scene in Dante, 2 of which it is a
reminiscence, it will seem almost like a bit of real
life ; but taken by itself it floats as unconcerned
in our cares and sorrows and vulgarities as a sunset
cloud. The sound of that pastoral pipe seems to
come from as far away as Thessaly when Apollo
was keeping sheep there. Sorrow, the great ideal-
izer, had had the portrait of Beatrice on her easel
for years, and every touch of her pencil transfig
ured the woman more and more into the glorified
saint. But Elizabeth Nagle was a solid thing of
flesh and blood, who would sit down at meat with
the poet on the very day when he had thus beati-

1 Faery Queen, VI. c. x. 10-16.

2 Purgatorio, XXIX., XXX.



SPENSER 343

fied her. As Dante was drawn upward from heaven
to heaven by the eyes of Beatrice, so was Spenser
lifted away from the actual by those of that ideal
Beauty whereof his mind had conceived the linea
ments in its solitary musings over Plato, but of
whose haunting presence the delicacy of his senses
had already premonished him. The intrusion of
the real world upon this supersensual mood of his
wrought an instant disenchantment :

' ' Much wondered Calidore at this strange sight
Whose like before his eye had never seen,
And, standing long astonished in sprite
And rapt with pleasance, wist not what to ween,-
Whether it were the train of Beauty's Queen,
Or Nymphs, or Fairies, or enchanted show
With which his eyes might have deluded been,
Therefore resolving what it was to know,

Out of the woods he rose and toward them did go.

" But sboii as he appeared to their view
They vanished all away out of his sight
And clean were gone, which way he never knew,
All save the shepherd, who, for fell despite
Of that displeasure, broke his bagpipe quite."

Ben Jonson said that " he had consumed a
whole night looking to his great toe, about which
he had seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Car
thaginians, fight in his imagination " ; and Cole
ridge has told us how his "eyes made pictures
when they were shut." This is not uncommon, but
I fancy that Spenser was more habitually possessed
by his imagination than is usual even with poets.
His visions must have accompanied him " in glory
and in joy" along the common thoroughfares of
life and seemed to him, it may be suspected, more



344 SPENSER

real than the men and women he met there. His
" most fine spirit of sense " would have tended to
keep him in this exalted mood. I must give an
example of the sensuousness of which I have
spoken :

' ' And in the midst of all a fountain stood
Of richest substance that on earth might be,
So pure and shiny that the crystal flood
Through every channel running one might see ;
Most goodly it with curious imagery
Was overwrought, and shapes of naked boys,
Of which some seemed with lively jollity
To fly about, playing their wanton toys,
Whilst others did themselves embay in liquid joys.

" And over all, of purest gold was spread

A trail of ivy in his native hue ;

For the rich metal was so colored

That he who did not well avised it view

Would surely deem it to be ivy true ;

Low his lascivious arms adown did creep

That themselves dipping in the silver dew

Their fleecy flowers they tenderly did steep,
Which drops of crystal seemed for wantonness to weep.

' ' Infinite streams continually did well
Out of this fountain, sweet and fair to see,
The which into an ample laver fell,
And shortly grew to so great quantity
That like a little lake it seemed to be
Whose depth exceeded not three cubits' height,
That through the waves one might the bottom see
All paved beneath with jasper shining bright,
That seemed the fountain in that sea did sail upright.

" And all the margent round about was set
With shady laurel-trees, thence to defend
The sunny beams which on the billows bet,
And those which therein bathed mote offend.



SPENSER 345

As Guyon happened by the same to wend
Two naked Damsels he therein espied,
Which therein bathing seemed to contend
And wrestle wantonly, ne cared to hide
Their dainty parts from view of any which them eyed

" Sometimes the one would lift the other quite
Above the waters, and then down again
Her plunge, as overmastered by might,
Where both awhile would covered remain,
And each the other from to rise restrain ;
The whiles their snowy limbs, as through a veil,
So through the crystal waves appeared plain :
Then suddenly both would themselves unhele,
And the amorous sweet spoils to greedy eyes reveal.

" As that fair star, the messenger of morn,
His dewy face out of the sea doth rear ;
Or as the Cyprian goddess, newly born
Of the ocean's fruitful froth, did first appear ;
Such seemed they, and so their yellow hear
Crystalline humor dropped down apace.
Whom such when Guyon saw, he drew him near,
And somewhat gan relent his earnest pace ;
His stubborn breast gan secret pleasance to embrace-

" The wanton Maidens him espying, stood
Gazing awhile at his unwonted guise ;
Then the one herself low ducked in the flood,
Abashed that her a stranger did avise ;
But the other rather higher did arise,
And her two lily paps aloft displayed,
And all that might his melting heart entice
To her delights, she unto him bewrayed ;
The rest, hid underneath, him more desirous made.

" With that the other likewise up arose,
And her fair locks, which formerly were bonnd
Up in one knot, she low adown did loose,
Which flowing long and thick her clothed around
And the ivory in golden mantle gowned :



346 SPENSER

So that fair spectacle from him was reft,
Yet that which reft it no less fair was found ;
So hid in locks and waves from lookers' theft,
Naught but her lovely face she for his looking left.

"Withal she laughed, and she blushed withal,
That blushing to her laughter gave more grace,
And laughter to her blushing, as did fall.

Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound,
Of all that mote delight a dainty ear,
Such as at once might not on living ground,
Save in this paradise, be heard elsewhere :
Right hard it was for wight which did it hear
To read what manner music that mote be ;
For all that pleasing is to living ear
Was there consorted in one harmony ;
Birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters, all agree*

" The joyous birds, shrouded in cheerful shade,
Their notes unto the voice attempered sweet ;
The angelical soft trembling voices made
To the instruments divine respondence mete ;
The silver-sounding instruments did meet
With the base murmur of the water's fall ;
The water's fall with difference discreet,
Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call ;

The gentle warbling wind low answered to all."

Spenser, in one of his letters to Harvey, had
said, " Why, a God's name, may not we, as else the
Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language ? "
This is in the tone of Bellay, as is also a great deal
of what is said in the epistle prefixed to the " Shep
herd's Calendar." He would have been wiser had
he followed more closely Bellay's advice about the
introduction of novel words: "Fear not, then, to
innovate somewhat, particularly in a long poem,
with modesty, however, with analogy, and judg-



SPENSER 847

ment of ear ; and trouble not thyself as to who
may think it good or bad, hoping that posterity
will approve it, she who gives faith to doubtful,
light to obscure, novelty to antique, usage to unac
customed, and sweetness to harsh and rude things."
Spenser's innovations were by no means always
happy, as not always according with the genius of
the language, and they have therefore not pre
vailed. He forms English words out of French or
Italian ones, sometimes, I think, on a misapprehen
sion of their true meaning ; nay, he sometimes
makes new ones by unlawfully grafting a scion of
Romance on a Teutonic root. His theory, caught
from Bellay, of rescuing good archaisms from un
warranted oblivion, was excellent ; not so his prac
tice of being archaic for the mere sake of escaping
from the common and familiar. A permissible
archaism is a word or phrase that has been sup
planted by something less apt, but has not become
unintelligible ; and Spenser's often needed a glos
sary, even in his own day. 1 But he never endangers
his finest passages by any experiments of this kind.
There his language is living, if ever any, and of
one substance with the splendor of his fancy. Like
all masters of speech, he is fond of toying with and
teasing it a little ; and it may readily be granted
that he sometimes "hunted the letter," as it was
called, out of all cry. But even where his allitera-

1 I find a goodly number of Yankeeisms in him, such as idee
(not as a rhyme) ; but the oddest is his twice spelling dew deow,
which is just as one would spell it who wished to phonetize its
sound in rural New England.



848 SPENSER

tion is tempted to an excess, its prolonged echoes
caress the ear like the fading and gathering rever
berations of an Alpine horn, and one can find in
his heart to forgive even such a debauch of initial
assonances as

" Eftsoones her shallow ship away did slide,
More swift than swallow shears the liquid sky."

Generally, he scatters them at adroit intervals, re
minding us of the arrangement of voices in an an
cient catch, where one voice takes up the phrase
another has dropped, and thus seems to give the
web of harmony a firmer and more continuous tex
ture.

Other poets have held their mirrors up to nature,
mirrors that differ very widely in the truth and
beauty of the images they reflect; but Spenser's is


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Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 23 of 28)