William Hazlitt.

Lectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. online

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That the uoice to angels was most like.'

There is here no affected rapture, no flowery sentiment : the
whole is an ebullition of natural delight 'welling out of the heart,' like
water from a crystal spring. Nature is the soul of art : there is a
strength as well as a simplicity in the imagination that reposes entirely
on nature, that nothing else can supply. It was the same trust in
nature, and reliance on his subject, which enabled Chaucer to describe
the grief and patience of Griselda; the faith of Constance ; and the



heroic perseverance of the little child, who, going to school through
the streets of Jewry,

' Oh Alma Redemptoris mater, loudly sung/

and who after his death still triumphed in his song. Chaucer has
more of this deep, internal, sustained sentiment, than any other writer,
except Boccaccio. In depth of simple pathos, and intensity of con-
ception, never swerving from his subject, I think no other writer comes
near him, not even the Greek tragedians. I wish to be allowed
to give one or two instances of what I mean. I will take the
following from the Knight's Tale. The distress of Arcite, in conse-
quence of his banishment from his love, is thus described :

' Whan that Arcite to Thebes comen was,
Ful oft a day he swelt and said Alas,
For sene his lady shall be never mo.
And shortly to concluden all his wo,
So mochel sorvve hadde never creature,
That is or shall be, while the world may dure.
His slepe, his mete, his drinke is him byraft.
That lene he wex, and drie as is a shaft.
His eyen holwe, and grisly to behold,
His hewe salwe, and pale as ashen cold,
And solitary he was, and ever alone,
And wailing all the night, making his mone.
And if he herde song or instrument,
Than wold he wepe, he mighte not be stent.
So feble were his spirites, and so low,
And changed so, that no man coude know
His speche ne his vois, though men it herd.'

This picture of the sinking of the heart, of the wasting away of the
body and mind, of the gradual failure of all the faculties under the
contagion of a rankling sorrow, cannot be surpassed. Of the same
kind is his farewel to his mistress, after he has gained her hand and
lost his life in the combat :

1 Alas the wo ! alas the peines stronge,
That I for you have suffered, and so longe !
Alas the deth ! alas min Emilie !
Alas departing of our compagnie :
Alas min hertes quene ! alas my wif !
Min hertes ladie, ender of my lif !
What is this world ? what axen men to have ?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Alone withouten any compagnie.'



The death of Arcite is the more affecting, as it comes after triumph
and victory, after the pomp of sacrifice, the solemnities of prayer, the
celebration of the gorgeous rites of chivalry. The descriptions of
the three temples of Mars, of Venus, and Diana, of the ornaments
and ceremonies used in each, with the reception given to the offerings
of the lovers, have a beauty and grandeur, much of which is lost in
Dryden's version. For instance, such lines as the following are not
rendered with their true feeling.

' Why shulde I not as well eke tell you all
The purtreiture that was upon the wall
Within the temple of mighty Mars the rede —
That highte the gret temple of Mars in Trace
In thilke colde and frosty region,
Ther as Mars hath his sovereine mansion.
First on the wall was peinted a forest,
In which ther wonneth neyther man ne best,
With knotty knarry barrein trees old
Of stubbes sharpe and hideous to behold ;
In which ther ran a romble and a swough,
As though a storme shuld bresten every bough.*

And again, among innumerable terrific images of death and slaughter
painted on the wall, is this one :

' The statue of Mars upon a carte stood
Armed, and looked grim as he were wood.
A wolf ther stood beforne him at his fete
With eyen red, and of a man he etc'

The story of Griselda is in Boccaccio ; but the Clerk of Oxen-
forde, who tells it, professes to have learned it from Petrarch. This
story has gone all over Europe, and has passed into a proverb. In
spite of the barbarity of the circumstances, which are abominable, the
sentiment remains unimpaired and unalterable. It is of that kind,
' that heaves no sigh, that sheds no tear ' ; but it hangs upon the
beatings of the heart ; it is a part of the very being ; it is as
inseparable from it as the breath we draw. It is still and calm as the
face of death. Nothing can touch it in its ethereal purity: tender as
the yielding flower, it is fixed as the marble firmament. The only
remonstrance she makes, the only complaint she utters against all the
ill-treatment she receives, is that single line where, when turned back
naked to her father's house, she says,

'Let me not like a worm go by the way.*


The first outline given of the character is inimitable :

Nought fer fro thilke paleis honourable,
Wher as this markis shope his mariage,
Ther stood a thorpe, of sighte delitable,
In which that poure folk of that village
Hadden hir bestes and her herbergage,
And of hir labour toke hir sustenance,
After that the earthe yave hem habundance.

Among this poure folk ther dwelt a man,
Which that was holden pourest of hem all :
But highe God sometime senden can
His grace unto a litel oxes stall :
Janicola men of that thorpe him call.
A doughter had he, faire ynough to sight,
And Grisildis this yonge maiden hight.

But for to speke of vertuous beautee,
Than was she on the fairest under Sonne :
Ful pourely yfostred up was she :
No likerous lust was in hire herte yronne ;
Ful offer of the well than of the tonne
She dranke, and for she wolde vertue plese,
She knew wel labour, but non idel ese.

But though this mayden tendre were of age,

Yet in the brest of hire virginitee

Ther was enclosed sad and ripe corage ;

And in gret reverence and charitee

Hire olde poure fader fostred she :

A few sheep spinning on the feld she kept,

She wolde not ben idel til she slept.

And whan she homward came she wolde bring

Wortes and other herbes times oft,

The which she shred and sethe for hire living,

And made hire bed ful hard, and nothing soft :

And ay she kept hire fadres lif on loft

With every obeisance and diligence,

That child may don to fadres reverence,

Upon Grisilde, this poure creature,
Ful often sithe this markis sette his sye,
As he on hunting rode paraventure :
And whan it fell that he might hire espie,
He not with wanton loking of folie
His eyen cast on hire, but in sad wise
Upon hire chere he wold him oft avise,


Commending in his herte hire womanhede
And eke hire vertue, passing any wight
.) yong age, as wel in cherc as dede.
For though the people have no gret insight
In venue, he considered ful right
Hire bountee, and disposed that he wold
Wedde hire only, if ever he wedden shoid

Grisilde of this (God wot) ful innocent,
That for hire shapen was all this array,
To fetchen water at a welle is went,
And cometh home as sone as ever she may.
For wel she had herd say, that thilke day
The markis shulde wedde, and, if she might,
She wolde fayn han seen som of that sight.

She thought, '■ I wul with other maidens stond,
That ben my felawes, in our dore, and see
The markisesse, and therto wol I fond
Ion at home, as sone as it may be,
The labour which longeth unto me,
And than I may at leiser hire behold,
If she this way unto the castel hold."

And she wolde over the threswold gon,
The markis came and gan hire for to call,
And she set doun her water-pot anon
le the threswold in an oxes stall,
And doun upon hire knees she gan to fall.
And with sad countenance kneleth still,
Till she had herd what was the lordes will.'

The tory of the little child slain in Jewry, (which is told by the
Prioress, and worthy to be told by her who was ' all conscience and
tender heart,') is not less touching than that of Griselda. It is
simple and heroic to the last degree. The poetry of Chaucer has a
religious sanctity about it, connected with the manners and supersti-
tions of the age. It has all the spirit of martyrdom.

It has also all the extravagance and the utmost licentiousness of
comic humour, equally arising out of the manners of the time. In
this too Chaucer resembled Boccaccio that he excelled in both styles,
and could pass at will * from grave to gay, from lively to severe '
be never confounded the two styles together (except from that
untary and unconscious mixture of the pathetic and humorous,
which is almost always to be found in nature,) and was exclusively
taken up with what he set about, whether it was jest or earnest. The
Wife of Bath'i Prologue (which Pope has very admirably modern-

3 2


ised) is, perhaps, unequalled as a comic story. The Cock and the
Fox is also excellent for lively strokes of character and satire.
Januaiy and May is not so good as some of the others. Chaucer's
versification, considering the time at which he wrote, and that
versification is a thing in a great degree mechanical, is not one of his
east merits. It has considerable strength and harmony, and its
.pparent deficiency in the latter respect arises chiefly from the altera-
: ons which have since taken place in the pronunciation or mode of
scenting the words of the language. The best general rule for
ading him is to pronounce the final e, as in reading Italian.
It was observed in the last Lecture that painting describes what
.e object is in itself, poetry what it implies or suggests. Chaucer's
poetry is not, in general, the best confirmation of the truth of this
distinction, for his poetry is more picturesque and historical than
almost any other. But there is one instance in point which I cannot
help giving in this place. It is the story of the three thieves who go
in search of Death to kill him, and who meeting with him, are
entangled in their fate by his words, without knowing him. In the
printed catalogue to Mr. West's (in some respects very admirable)
picture of Death on the Pale Horse, it is observed, that ' In poetry
ie same effect is produced by a few abrupt and rapid gleams of
iption, touching, as it were with fire, the features and edges of a
1 mass of awful obscurity ; but in painting, such indistinctness
id be a defect, and imply that the artist wanted the power to
pourtray the conceptions of his fancy. Mr. West was of opinion
that to delineate a physical form, which in its moral impression
would approximate to that of the visionary Death of Milton, it was
necessary to endow it, if possible, with the appearance of super-human
strength and energy. He has therefore exerted the utmost force and
perspicuity of his pencil on the central figure.' — One might suppose
from this, that the way to represent a shadow was to make it as
substantial as possible. Oh, no! Pai .ting has its prerogatives, (and
high ones they are) but they lie in representing the visible, not the
invisible. The moral attributes of D?ath are powers and effects of
an infinitely wide and general description, which no individual or
physical form can possibly represent, but by a courtesy of speech, or
by a distant analogy. The moral impression of Death is essentially
isionary ; its reality is in the mind's eye. Words are here the only
things ; and things, physical forms, che mere mockeries of the under-
standing. The less definite, the less bodily the conception, the more
vast, unformed, and unsubstantial, the nearer does it approach to some
resemblance of that omnipresent, lasting, universal, irresistible principle,
which every where, and at some time or other, exerts its power over
B 33


nil things. Death is a mighty abstraction, like Night, or Space, or
Time. He is an ugly customer, who will not be invited to supper,
or to sit for his picture. He is with us and about us, but we do not
see him. He stalks on before us, and we do not mind him : he

.vs us close behind, and we do not turn to look back at him.
We do not see him making faces at us in our life-time, nor perceive
him afterwards sitting in mock-majesty, a twin-skeleton, beside us,
tickling our bare ribs, and staring into our hollow eye-balls ! Chaucer
knew this. He makes three riotous companions go in search of

:i to kill him, they meet with an old man whom they reproach
with his age, and ask why he does not die, to which he answers

'Ne Deth, alas ! ne will not han my lit'.
Thus walke I like a restless caitiff,
And on the ground, which is my modres g:t f e,
I knocke with my staf, erlich and late,
And say to hire, " Leve mother, let me in.
Lo, how I vanish, flesh and blood and skin,
Alas ! when shall my bones ben at reste ?
Mother, with you wolde I changen my cheste,
That in my chambre longe time hath be,
Ye, for an heren cloute to wrap in me."
But yet to me she will not don that grace,
For which ful pale and welked is my face.'

They then ask the old man where they shall find out Death tc
kill him, and he sends them on an errand which ends in the death of
!1 three. We hear no more of him, but it is Death that they have
encountered !

The interval between Chaucer and Spenser is long and dreary

The ing to fill up the chasm but the names of Occleve,

4 ancient Gower,' Lydgate, Wyatt, Surry, and Sackville. Spenser

flourished in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and was sent with Sir John

ito Ireland, or which he has left behind him some tender

'ections in his description of the bog of Allan, and a record in

bly written paper, containing observations on the state of that

country and the means of improving it, which remain in full force to

the present day. Spin er died at an obscure inn in London, it is

supposed in distressed circumstances. The treatment he received

from Burleigh is well known. Spenser, as well as Chaucer, was

■ed in active life ; but the genius of his poetry was not active : it

ipired by the love of case, and relaxation from all the cares and

bu mess of lite. Of all the poets, he is the most poetical. Though

much later than Chaucer, his obligations to preceding writers were



less. He has in some measure borrowed the plan of his poem (as a
number of distinct narratives) from Ariosto ; but he has engrafted
upon it an exuberance of fancy, and an endless voluptuousness of
sentiment, which are not to be found in the Italian writer. Farther,
Spenser is even more of an inventor in the subject-matter. There is
an originality, richness, and variety in his allegorical personages and
fictions, which almost vies with the splendor of the ancient mythology.
If Ariosto transports us into the regions of romance, Spenser's poetry
is all fairy-land. In Ariosto, we walk upon the ground, in a
company, gay, fantastic, and adventurous enough. In Spenser, we
wander in another world, among ideal beings. The poet takes and
lays us in the lap of a lovelier nature, by the sound of softer streams,
among greener hills and fairer valleys. He paints nature, not as we
find it, but as we expected to find it ; and fulfils the delightful
promise of our youth. He waves his wand of enchantment — and at
once embodies airy beings, and throws a delicious veil over all actual
objects. The two worlds of reality and of fiction are poised on the
wings of his imagination. His ideas, indeed, seem more distinct than
his perceptions. He is the painter of abstractions, and describes them
with dazzling minuteness. In the Mask of Cupid he makes the God
of Love 'clap on high his coloured winges twain' : and it is said of
Gluttony, in the Procession of the Passions,

' In green vine leaves he was right fitly clad.'

At times he becomes picturesque from his intense love of beauty ; as
where he compares Prince Arthur's crest to the appearance of the
almond tree :

' Upon the top of all his lofty crest,

A bunch of hairs discoloufd diversely
With sprinkled pearl and gold full richly dic^t
Did shake and seem'd to daunce for jollity ;
Like to an almond tree ymounted high

On top of green Selenis all alone,
With blossoms brave bedecked daintily;
Her tender locks do tremble every one
At every little breath that under heav'n is blown.'

The love of beauty, however, and not of truth, is the moving principle
of his mind ; and he is guided in his fantastic delineations by no rule
but the impulse of an inexhaustible imagination. He luxuriates
equally in scenes of Eastern magnificence ; or the still solitude of a
hermit's cell — in the extremes of sensuality or refinement.

In reading the Faery Queen, you see a little withered old man by
a wood-side opening a wicket, a giant, and a dwarf lagging far behind,



a damsel in a boat upon an enchanted lake, wood-nymphs, and satyrs :
and all of a sudden you are transported into a lofty palace, with tapers
burning, amidst knights and ladies, with dance and revelry, and song,
'and mask, and antique pageantry.' What can be more solitary,
more shut up in itself, than his description of the house of Sleep, to
which Archimago sends for a dream :

' And more to lull him in his slumber soft

A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down,
And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,

Mix'd with a murmuring wind, much like the sound
Of swarming Bees, did cast him in a swound.
No other noise, nor people's troublous cries.
That still are wont t' annoy the walled town
Might there be heard; but careless Quiet lies
Wrapt in eternal silence, far from enemies.'

It is as if ' the honey-heavy dew of slumber ' had settled on his pen
in writing these lines. How different in the subject (and yet how
like in beauty) is the following description of the Bower of Bliss :

1 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 tell what manner musicke that mote be ;
For all that pleasing is to living eare
Was there consorted in one harmonee :
Birds, voices, instruments, windes, waters, all agree.

The joyous birdes shrouded in chearefuli shade

Their notes unto the voice attempred sweet :
The angelical soft trembling voices made

To tif iiwruments divine respondence meet.
The silver sounding instruments did meet

With the base murmur of the water's fall ;
The water's tall with difference discreet,

Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call ;

gentle warbling wind low answered to all.'

The remainder of the passage has all that voluptuous pathos, and
lid brilliancy of fancy, in which this writer excelled :

1 Tlu- whiles some one did chaunt this lovely lay;
Ah ! see, whoso fayre thing dost thou fain to see,
In springing flower the image of thy day!
Ah I tee the virgin rose, how sweetly she


Doth first peep forth with bashful modesty,
That fairer seems the less ye see her may !

Lo ! see soon after, how more bold and free
Her bared bosom she doth broad display ;
Lo ! see soon after, how she fades and falls away !

So passeth in the passing of a day

Of mortal life the leaf, the bud, the flower;
Ne more doth flourish after first decay,

That erst was sought to deck both bed and bower
Or many a lady and many a paramour!

Gather therefore the rose whilst yet is prime,
For soon comes age that will her pride deflower ;

Gather the rose of love whilst yet is time,
Whilst loving thou mayst loved be with equal crime. *

He ceased ; and then gan all the quire of birds

Their divers notes to attune unto his lay,
As in approvance of his pleasing wordes.

The constant pair heard all that he did say.
Yet swerved not, but kept their forward way

Through many covert groves and thickets close,
In which they creeping did at last display 2

That wanton lady with her lover loose,
Whose sleepy head she in her lap did soft dispose.

Upon a bed of roses she was laid

As faint through heat, or dight to pleasant sin 5
And was arrayed or rather disarrayed,

All in a veil of silk and silver thin,
That hid no whit her alabaster skin,

But rather shewed more white, if more might be:
More subtle web Arachne cannot spin ;

Nor the fine nets, which oft we woven see
Of scorched dew, do not in the air more lightly flee.

Her snowy breast was bare to greedy spoil

Of hungry eyes which n' ote therewith be fill'd,
And yet through languor of her late sweet toil

Few drops more clear than nectar forth distill'd,
That like pure Orient perles adown it trill'd j

And her fair eyes sweet smiling in delight
Moisten'd their fiery beams, with which she thrill'd

Frail hearts, yet quenched not ; like starry light,
Which sparkling on the silent waves does seem more bright.*

1 Taken from Tasso.

2 This word is an instance of those unwarrantable freedoms which Spenser some-
times took with language.



The finest things in Spenser are, the character of Una, in the first
book ; the House of Pride ; the Cave of Mammon, and the Cave
of Despair ; the account of Memory, of whom it is said, among other

'The wars he well remember'd of King Nine,
Of old Assaracus and Inachus divine';

the description of Belphcebe ; the story of Florimel and the Witch's
son ; the Gardens of Adonis, and the Bower of Bliss ; the Mask of
Cupid ; and Colin Clout's vision, in the last book. But some people
will say that all this may be very fine, but that they cannot understand
it on account of the allegory. They are afraid of the allegory, as if
they thought it would bite them : they look at it as a child looks at
.1 painted dragon, and think it will strangle them in its shining folds.
This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the
allegory will not meddle with them. Without minding it at all, the
whole is as plain as a pike-staff. It might as well be pretended that,
we cannot see Poussin's pictures for the allegory, as that the allegory
prevents us from understanding Spenser. For instance, when Brito-
mart, seated amidst the young warriors, lets fall her hair and discovers
hex sex, is it necessary to know the part she plays in the allegory, to
understand the beauty of the following stanza ?

• And eke that stranger knight amongst the rest
Was for like need enforc'd to disarray.
Tho when as vailed was her lofty crest,

Her golden locks that were in trammels gay
Upbounden, did themselves adown display,

And raught unto her heels like sunny beams
That in a cloud their light did long time stay ;
Their vapour faded, shew their golden gleams,
And through the persant air shoot forth their azure Streams.

Or is there any mystery in what is said of Belphcebe, that her hair
was sprinkled with Mowers and blossoms which had been entangled in
it as she fled through the woods ? Or is it necessary to have a more
distinct idea of Proteus, than that which is given of him in his boat,
with the frighted Florimel at his feet, while

' the cold icicles from his rough beard

Dropped adown upon her snowy breast ! '

Or is it not a sufficient account of one of the sea-gods that pass by
them, to say —

' I hat was Arion crowned ; —
So went he playing on the watery plain.'


Or to take the Procession of the Passions that draw the coach of
Pride, in which the figures of Idleness, of Gluttony, of Lechery, of
Avarice, of Envy, and of Wrath speak, one should think, plain
enough for themselves ; such as this of Gluttony :

' And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
Deformed creature, on a filthy swine ;
His belly was up blown with luxury;

And eke with fatness swollen were his eyne ;
And like a crane his neck was long and fine,
With which he swallowed up excessive feast,
For want whereof poor people oft did pine.

In green vine leaves he was right fitly clad ;

For other clothes he could not wear for heat:
And on his head an ivy garland had,

From under which fast trickled down the sweat:
Still as he rode, he somewhat still did eat.

And in his hand did bear a bouzing can,
Of which he supt so oft, that on his seat

His drunken corse he scarce upholden can;
In shape and size more like a monster than a man.'

Or this ot Lechery :

' And next to him rode lustfull Lechery

Upon a bearded goat, whose rugged hair
And whaly eyes (the sign of jealousy)

Was like the person's self whom he did bear:
Who rough and black, and filthy did appear.

Unseemly man to please fair lady's eye :
Yet he of ladies oft was loved dear,

When fairer faces were bid standen by :
O ! who does know the bent of woman's fantasy?

In a green gown he clothed was full fair,

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 4 of 38)