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eonceptions of any class. The revival of letters had not as yet produced in Europe the revival of that pure and natural taste which distinguished the best periods of Greece and Rome. A passion for marvellous adventure, carried to the limits of the absurd and burlesque, and a disposition to veil truth under the disguise of allegory, characterized the writers who were the favourites of the day. Spenser did not possess that rare elevation of genius which places a man above the level of the age ; but he had the richness of invention, and the warmth of feeling, which present the manner of the
age in its highest form. His first performance the Shepheard's Calender did not, however, indicate a marked superiority over the contemporary poets of his country.
The Faery Queene, the inseparable companion of Spenser's fame, is one of the most singular poems extant in our language; and, from the unfinished state in which we possess it, we should probably have found it impossible to form a clear conception of the author's plan in writing it, had he not, in a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, prefixed to the publication of the first three books, given its general argument. We there learn, that his leading purposema truly noble one-was to train a person of rank in "virtuous and gentle discipline," by exhibiting a perfect example of the twelve private moral virtues, as they are enumerated by Aristotle. This is done in a continued allegory or dark conceit," rendered more dark than the usual obscurity of allegorical fiction, by an extraordinary involution of the plot. The general hero, or image of perfect excellence, is the British prince Arthur, so renowned in legendary history; yet each several book has its particular hero, whose adventures allegorically display the exercise of that virtue which is the proper subject of the book. In order, therefore, to preserve the unity of the whole,
Prince Arthur is occasionally introduced as an auxiliary of these allegorical knights, in their most dangerous adventures. The quality peculiarly attributed to him is magnificience, which, in modern language, would perhaps rather be termed magnanimity, or greatness of soul, as being the sum and perfection of all the other virtues. He is enamoured in a vision with the beauty of the Faery Queene, and comes to seek her in Faery Land; and this is the grand fable of the piece. But while the Faery Queene represents glory in the general intention, she is also, in the particular meaning, a type of Queen Elizabeth, whose dominion is the Faery Land. Arthur, then, wooes glory in his proper person; and the time of the fable is repre. sented to be that of the real commencement of his history, part of which is here copied from Geoffrey of Monmouth. But Queen Elizabeth, or Gloriana, is likewise identified by circumstances in her real history; and the great persons in her court are frequently alluded to in the characters of the fairy or allegorical knights. And, as if all this confusion were not sufficient to perplex the reader, Spenser had thought proper to reserve till the twelfth or last book, the developement of the occasion which puts all his knights in motion; and which, it seems, was to be an annual feast kept by the Faery Queene for twelve days; on each of which, in conformity to the manners of chivalry, some distressed damsel, orphan, or other sufferer under injustice and oppression, appears as a suitor for aid, and receives from the queen a champion. The reason given by the poet for delaying this piece of information is, that he might imitate his epic predecessors, in breaking at once into the action, without the for. mality of an historical introduction. But to suffer the whole action to elapse, before the reader is made properly acquainted with the actors, and the cause in which they are engaged, is surely a vio
lent sacrifice to a principle, the justness of which, even in a much more sober application, may be questioned. On commencing the Faery Queene, it is now impossible, without consulting the author's prefatory epistle, to conceive that it is to have any other subject than the adventures of the Red Cross Knight; or to form any notion concerning the title of the poem, and the connection this imaginary Queen is to have with its persons and events.
From this view of the plans of Spenser's great poem, it will probably appear that its merit consists rather in affording a boundless field for the range of fancy, than in that concentration of the interest upon some one important point, which is the essential character of the genuine epic. Were each book, indeed, to be regarded as a separate and complete piece, having its own distinct hero, this effect might be said to be in some measure produced; but such was not the author's intention, since he avowedly aims at connecting the whole by means of his general hero, Prince Arthur. But this personage, who seldom appears but as a subordinate and auxiliary character, and in some of the books absolutely performs nothing, can only, in the theory of the poem be regarded as serving this purpose ; in the practice, he is found to excite little either of curiosity or interest. Relinquishing, therefore, any further consideration of plan or design, we shall proceed to consider Spencer's character as an allegorical painter, in the detached figures and groups which strike the eye in ranging through his gallery of pictures.
The groundwork of all Spenser's fictions is the system of chivalry, as displayed in the romances of the time, and in the principal productions of Italian poetry. Knights wandering in search of adventures, distressed ladies, giants, Saracens, savages, dragons, enchantments, forests, and castles, were, the materials with which these creations of the fancy were fabricated. Some of them professed to be histories, or real narrations; but in many “more was meant than met the ear," and moral or meta. physical ideas were darkly presented under the garb of visible beings. So meritorious was thought this alliance of a secret meaning with an obvious one,
that Tasso, after he had formed a noble epic poem on the basis of true history, and indeed with an uncommon attention to reality in Nianners and characters, thought it advisable to add a key to the whole, by which it was turned into a theological allegory: Fortunately, this appears to have been a mere afterthought, which had no influence upon the plan and conduct of the poem. Ariosto, on the other hand, who is generally a simple narrator of adventures, giren as real, however extravagant, occasionally intermixed fictions of pure allegory. But Spenser is throughout allegorical in bis design, except as far as he meant to interweave the legendary tales of ancient British history, on account of their connection with his human hero, Prince Ar. thur. All his other heroes are virtues personified by knights-errant; and this uniformity of fiction would have produced a tiresome sameness in the action, had not the poet possessed that uncommon fertility of invention, and force of description, which are his characteristics. In all the records of poetry, no author can probably be found who ap. proaches him in the facility with which he embodies abstract ideas, and converts them into actors in his fable. It is true, he found in the extensive regions of romance a vast variety of forms ready to assume the moral characters most appropriated to their natures; nor was he very nice in the choice of these beings, or very careful to preserve consistency in their figures or employment. Yet, on the whole, he may be reckoned the greatest master of personification that ever existed; and more original
delineations of this kind are to be met with in the Faery Queene, than, perhaps, in all other poems united. Some of these are truly excellent, and are wrought into scenes of wonderful power. The allegory of Despair, in the first book, may be placed almost at the head of all such fictions, as well for just conception and skilful management, as for unrivalled strength of description.
It may readily be conceived, that this variety of delineation will produce occasional inconsistencies; that action and passion will often be confounded; and that the manner in which the fancy-formed beings are employed, will frequently be unsuitable to their nature. These are defects, from which complex and continued allegory, can never be free. To create a new system of things is too great an effort of the imagination to be long uniformly supported; and Spenser, as the the most copious of allegorists, is perhaps the most exuberant in faults. His forms are often grotesque and disgusting, sometimes impossible; and he not unfrequently makes a breach in the personification, by intermixing the ideas of reality with those of fiction. In a critical commentary it might be proper to point out all these imperfections ; but in a preliminary essay it is sufficient to apprise the reader of taste that they exist, and leave the detection of them to his own attentive research. He will find them exemplified not only in Spenser, but in every other writer who has ventured fär into the perilous regions of allegory.
Though there is a large fund of original matter in the Faery Queene, there is also much imitation, and even translation. Various passages from the classics, and still more from the Italian poets, are closely copied. The stores of ancient mythology are freely ransacked; nor is Spenser more carelul than his Italian masters, in avoiding the incongruity of mixing Heathen with christian ideas. To conVol. II.