« PreviousContinue »
minster, in 1598, and was buried as he desired near Chaucer in Westminster-Abbey. His obsequies were attended by several of his poetical contemporaries, who paid the last honours to his memory. Several copies of verses were thrown into his grave with the pens that wrote them, and his monument was erected at the charge of Robert Devereux, the unfortunate Earl of Essex.*
That we have so few anecdotes of the private life of this great poet, must be a mortification to all lovers of the Muses, as he was one of the ornaments of the age in which he lived. No writer ever found a nearer way to the heart. His verses, indeed, have the peculiar faculty of recommending the author to our friendship, as well as of exciting our admiration. One cannot read him without fancying one's-self transported into Fairy-Land, and there conversing with the graces of
elivered upon pone intimate correspoton, particular
* This is the account, given by the editor of his works, of the death of Spenser; and he is supported in it by the authority of Camden. But, in a work of reputation, we find a different relation delivered upon probable grounds. Drummond of Haw. thornden maintained an intimate correspondence with all the contemporary literati who resided in London, particularly Ben Jonson, who even spent some time with him at his house in Scotland. Upon his departure, Drummond, with a view of preserving what had passed between them, wrote down the heads of their conversation ; which he published with his Poems and History of the Five Jameses, Kings of Scotland. Among other particulars is the following: “ Ben Jonson told me, that Spenser's goods were robbed by the Irish in Desmond's rebellion, his house and a little child of his burnt, and he and his wife Dearly escaped : that he afterward died in King-street, Dublin, by absolute want of bread; and that he refused twenty pieces sent him by the Earl of Essex, and gave this answer to the person who brought them, “That he was sure he had no time to spend them.""
that enchanted region. In elegance of thinking and fertility of imagination, few of our English authors have approached him, and no one was ever able so powerfully to awaken the spirit of poetry in others. From him Cowley owns, that he derived all his inspiration : Thomson, justly esteemed one of our best descriptive poets, used to aver, that he had formed himself upon Spenser's model : how closely indeed he pursued, and how nobly he has imitated him, his
Castle of Indolence' affords a satisfactory proof. And by Addison, in his · Characters of the English Poets' addressed to Mr. Sacheverell, he is thus charactérised:
• Old Spenser next, warm'd with poetic rage,
From different accounts, it appears that he was of an amiable disposition, and an extremely generous nature. Beside the · Fairy Queen, and his “Shepherd's Calendar,' he wrote several other pieces, many of which are lost. Among these, the most considerable were nine comedies, in imitation of the comedies of his favourite Ariosto, inscribed with the names of the · Nine Muses. The rest, which we find mentioned in his letters and those of his friends, are his. Dying Pelican,' his · Pageants; • Dudleyana,' The Canticles Paraphrased, Ecclesiastes, “Seven Psalms, • House of our Lord; “Sacrifice of a Sinner,' • Purgatory,' “A Seven Nights' Slumber,' the Court of. Cupid, and the 'Hell of Lovers. He composed, likewise, it is said, a treatise in prose, entitled, “The English Poet. The “Epithalamium, Thamesis,' and his · Dreams,'* mentioned by himself in one of his letters, are (as Mr. Hughes thinks) still preserved, though under different names.
The extant poems of Spenser will never perish. Though he has unnecessarily introduced into them many obsolete terms, they contain a flow of poetry, an elegance of sentiment, a fund of imagination, and glowing enthusiasm, which will infallibly secure to him the applauses of the remotest posterity. Of his family it is recorded,t that his great grandson, Hugolin Spenser, on the restoration of Charles II., was invested by the Court of Claims with so much of the lands, as could be ascertained to have belonged to his ancestor. There is another remarkable passage, of which, says Hughes, I can give the reader much better assurance: a person came over from Ireland, in King William's time, to solicit the same affair, and brought with him letters of recommendation as a descendent of Spenser. His name procured him a favourable reception, and Congreve in particular generously recommended him to the favour of the
# It appears, from what is said of the Dreams' by his friend Hervey, that they were in imitation of Petrarch's Visions.
t In a few particulars of his Life, prefixed to the last folio edition of his Works."
Earl of Halifax, then at the head of the treasury, by whose means he obtained his suit. This man was somewhat advanced in years, and might be the person before-mentioned, who had possibly recovered only some part of his estate at first, or had been disturbed in the possession of it. He could give no account of the works of his ancestor which are wanting, and which are therefore, in all probability, irrecoverably lost. · It would be an injury to Spenser's memory, to dismiss his Life without a few remarks upon that masterly performance, which has placed him among the foremost of our poets, his · Fairy Queen.” Sir William Temple, in his . Essay on Poetry,' observes, “ That the religion of the Gentiles had been woven into the contexture of all the ancient poetry with an agreeable mixture, which made the moderns affect to give that of Christianity a place also in their poems; but the true religion was not found to become fictions so well as the false one had done, and all their attempts of this kind seemed rather to debase religion, than heighten poetry. Spenser endeavoured to supply this with morality, and to make instruction, instead of story, the subject of an epic poem. His execution was excellent, and his flights of fancy very noble and high. But his design was poor; and his moral lay so bare, that it lost the effect. It is true, the pill was gilded, but so thin, that the colour and the taste were easily discovered.”
Mr. Thomas Rymer asserts, that Spenser may be · reckoned the first of our heroic poets. “He had,"
says he, “a large spirit, a sharp judgement, and a genius for heroic poetry, perhaps above any that ever wrote since Virgil; but our misfortune is, he wanted
a true idea, and lost himself by following an unfaithful guide. Though beside Homer and Virgil he had read Tasso, yet he rather suffered himself to be misled by Ariosto, with whom blindly rambling on mar: vels and adventures, he makes no conscience of probability: all is fanciful and chimerical, without any uniformity, or without any foundation in truth; in a word, his poem is perfect Fairy-Land.” .. :
Dryden, in the splendid dedication of his translation of Juvenal, thus proceeds: “ The English have only to boast of Spenser and Milton in heroic poetry, who neither of them wanted either genius or learning to have been perfect poets, and yet both of them are liable to many censures : for there is no uniformity in the design of Spencer; he aims at the accomplishment of no one action; he raises up a hero for every one of his adventures, and endows each of them with some particular moral virtue, which renders them all equal, without subordination or preference. Every one is valiant in his own legend: only we must do him the justice to observe, that magnanimity, which is the character of Prince Arthur, shines throughout the whole poem, and succours the rest when they are in distress. The original of every knight was then living in the court of Queen Elizabeth, and he attributed to each of them that virtue, which he thought most conspicuous in them; an ingenious piece of flattery, though it turned not much to his account. Had he lived to have finished his poem in the remaining legends, it had certainly been more of a piece; but it could not have been perfect, because the model was not true. But Prince Arthur, or his chief patron Sir Philip Sidney, dying before him, deprived the poet both of means and spirit to accomplish his design.