« PreviousContinue »
court of Elizabeth, and was led there by Sydney, the very genius of romance and heroism. He next visited the Continent, then vivid with arts and arms; and, as the envoy of Lord Leicester, visited it in a rank which gave him the most fortunate opportunities. In Ireland he next saw the contrast of a people naked of the arts and indulgences of life, but exhibiting singular boldness and love of country; a rude magnificence of thought and habit; a stately superstition ; and a spirit of proud and melancholy romance, cherished by the circumstances, climate, and landscape of their soil. To those influences on the poet's mind may be attributed some of the characteristics of his poetry, for in Ireland, and in the midst of its most delicious scenery, he completed the “Fairy Queen.”
The faults of this celebrated poem are obvious, and must be traced to Spencer's admiration of the Italian poets. The attempt to personify the passions, and the prominent characters of his time, involves the story in confusion. Continued allegory exhausts and defeats the imagination. But his excellence is in his language ; and few can think of the story, in the incomparable sweetness and variegated beauty of his lines. To this hour Spencer is a spring of English inexhaustible, from which all the leading poets have drawn, and which is still fresh and sparkling as ever.
Panegyric sinks before the name of Shakespeare. * His dramatic fame has become proverbial, and is now beyond increase or diminution by posterity. If the conduct of his plays be sometimes dilatory, perplexed, and improbable; no man ever redeemed those errors by such triumphant power over the difficulties character and poetry. His knowledge of the workings of the human breast in all the varieties of passion, gives us the idea that he had either felt and registered every emotion of our being, or had attained the knowledge by some faculty restricted to himself. He is, above all poets, the poet of passion; not merely of the violent and gloomy distortion into which the greater trials of life may constrain the mind, but of the whole range of the simple, the lovely, and the sublime. His force and flow have the easy strength of the tide; and his lights and shadows are thrown with the rich negligence, yet with the intensity and grandeur of the colours of heaven on the ocean.
Shakespeare's fertility increases the surprise at this accumulation of poetic power. Within twenty-three years he produced thirty plays, indisputably genuine ; and contributed largely to five more, if he did not altogether write them. Of the thirty, twelve are
· Born at Stratford upon Avon, 1564-died, 1616
master-pieces, whose equals are not to be found in the whole compass of the living languages, nor perhaps of the dead. Yet, susceptible as he must have been of the poet's delight in praise, he seems to have utterly disregarded fame. He left his writings to the false and garbled copies of the theatre. It is not known that he even cared whether they ever passed to posterity. He retired from active life—from the pleasures of general society, which he must have been eminently capable of enjoying—and from authorship, a still severer sacrifice,—while he was yet in the prime of years, and gave himself up to the quiet obscurity of the country, without allowing us room for a suspicion that he ever regretted his abandonment of the world.
No man ever seems to have been so signally unconscious of what mighty things he was doing, or of the vast space that he must fill in the eyes of the future. And this unconsciousness, the rarest distinction and clearest evidence of great minds, crowns his supremacy; for it must have proceeded from either the creative facility that made all effort trivial, or the still nobler faculty, that sense of excellence, which makes all that genius can do feeble and dim, to the vivid and splendid form of perfection perpetually glowing before the mind.
Milton's* genius was equal to his theme, and his theme comprehended the loftiest, loveliest, and most solemn subjects that touch the heart or elevate the understanding of man. We live at too remote a period to discover how far his powers may have been excited or trained by his time. But the characteristic of the poetic mind is, to be impressed by all influences, to be laying up its treasures from every event and vicissitude, to be gathering its materials of future brilliancy and power from the highest and lowest sources, from the visible and the invisible, till it coerces those vaporous and unformed things into shape, and lifts them up for the admiration of the world, with the buoyancy and radiance of a cloud painted by the sun. The stern superstitions of the republicans, the military array of the land, the vast prayer meetings, and the fierce and gloomy assemblages, whether for war, council, or worship, are to be traced in Milton ; and the most unrivalled fragments of the · Paradise Lost,' may be due to his having lived in the midst of an age of public confusion, of sorrow and of slaughter. .
Milton was the most learned of poets. Learning oppresses the nerveless mind, but invigorates the powerful one. The celestial armour of the Greek hern,
* Born in London, 1603. diod 1674.
which let in death to his feeble friend, only gave celes. tial speed and lightness to the limbs of the chosen champion. But the true wonder is, the faculty by which Milton assimilates his diversified knowledge, and makes the most remote subscrvient to his theme. His scholarship is gathered from all times and all languages; and he sits in the midst of this various and magnificent treasure from the thousand provinces of wisdom, with the majesty of a Persian king.
Dryden* revived poetry in England, after its anathe ma by the Puritans, and its corruption by the French taste of Charles II, and his court. He was the first who tried the powers of the language in satire to any striking extent: and his knowledge of life, and his masculine and masterly use of English, placed him at the summit of political poets, a rank which has never been lowered. No English poet wrote more volumi. nously, and none retained a more uncontested superiority during life. By a singular fortune, his vigour and fame increased to the verge of the grave.
A rapid succession of Poets followed, of whom Pope retains the pre-eminence. His animation and poig. nancy made him the favourite of the higher ranks; a favour which seldom embodies itself with the permanent
• Born, 1631, died 1700.