« ZurückWeiter »
DISADVANTAGE OF BEING INTERMINABLE.
should read Spenser like Pope's old lady, who, when she had listened to a canto, described herself as having been carried through a gallery of pictures. A second canto would have dulled the vision. When the exhibition lasts too long the eye is wearied. In the “Faerie Queene" you are always wishing for the event, which never comes. Rather, it opens
into another. The reader finds himself in the midst of dissolying views. Does this peculiar style explain in any degree the delight of Chatham, whose sister tells us that he seldom or never read any other book?
Bunyan has been called the Spenser of the people, and we have often met the “Pilgrim ” in the cottages of the poor, dog-eared and thumbworn. But a boy Cowley will now rarely find the “Faerie Queene” in his mother's window. The poem never had a universal fame. Contrast it with that of the “Orlando.” Bernardo Tasso, who followed Ariosto after an interval of forty years, declared that there was not an old person, a workman, a boy, who had not read the “Orlando” again and again. The freezing traveller sunned himself in its stanzas, and the girl seemed to bind her hair with its flowers. The street and the field were alive with the song. Even the defects of Ariosto increased his popularity. He neither possessed nor sought the harmony of combination. The scholar might complain, but the ignorant rejoiced. A composition that hangs loose always takes the vulgar, and in this respect a poem fares like a sermon. Any odds on Spurgeon against Barrow, at the "Elephant.” The solemnity of Spenser was the block in his path. The moral tone cast a far off and pervading shadow. Macaulay's calculation is not far wrong, that few readers of the first canto out of ten ever reach the end of the first book. How many, he inquires, work their way through the poem, and are in at the death of the blatant beast? Who shall answer? We suspect that Walter Scott, who was accustomed to read the “ Orlando through in every year, has bequeathed his patient and delighted industry to few descendants. Southey is known in early life to have collected every hint of what Spenser meant to have introduced in the progress of his poem, and to have planned the remaining legends. If he had completed his scheme the “Faerie Queene” would never have survived. Solitude and neglect must have killed her. Antediluvian life was needed for such a journey of verse. Jeffrey, indeed, asserted that
Clarissa” and “Grandison ” owed their attraction to their length, and said that an abstract of either would be unintelligible. To abridge the “Faerie Queene” requires the genius which composed it. What an interesting essay might be written on the text—“Where to stop.” Beattie wisely destroyed a third canto, which he had written, of the “Minstrel.” The proprietors of "Robinson Crusoe" would have rejoiced to suppress the second part, for their gains would have been larger. Does any one remember the letter which "Daddy Cripps" sent to Fanny Burney while writing “Cecilia ?” He told his "Fannikin” that the finest apricots which he ever tasted came from a tree having on it at one time 1800 dozens. The crop was thinned to about 700, and the rich life swelled into the big fruit. Think of the “Faerie Queene” reduced by the author! the “ Paradise Tree” thinned of its clusters! We certainly would not have trusted Harvey to lop the branches. And the example of Tasso is a warning board, set high in the poetical garden. We think the larger portion of the MS. of the “ Faerie Queene” was consumed in the conflagration of Kilcolman. Anyhow the readers of Spenser may rejoice. We do not suppose that the poem was ready for the press; but we have not the slightest doubt that a large part of it was written. The two crowning excellences of Spenser were music and painting. The construction of his stanza out of the common ballad metre was a marvel of creative genius. The enchanting shape was moulded from rude clay. Perhaps at no other time would the harmony have been so well understood and appreciated. The printing press had done little, but music did much. During the reign of Elizabeth a taste for it was universal, and the want of it branded a man. The famous passage in Shakspeare ends
“Let not such man be trusted."
Music was not confined to any particular class. Gentry and tradesfolk enjoyed it equally. The lute was indispensable in a barber's shop, and a box of lute strings was an acceptable new-year's gift to a lady. But the following illustration is the most remarkable that can be afforded. The city of London advertised the musical qualities of boys from Bridewell and Christ's Hospital, and we are told that a would-be shoemaker was detected for an impostor by the simple fact that he could neither sing nor play on the lute. Such ears must have been quick to enjoy the skill manifested in tying the intricate knot of the Spenserian stanza. James Montgomery thought it as compact as the Italian sonnet, only with this difference—that the stanza was single, whereas the sonnet was double. If we join to the music of Spenser his mastery over colour, we have pointed out the two distinguishing features of his genius. Campbell happily pronounced him to be the Rubens of English poets.
The disciples of Spenser have been worthy of their master. He turned two boys into poets before they were twelve years old-Cowley and Pope. The former, in his essay “Of Myself,” tells us of his infinite pleasure in the knights and giants and monsters and brave houses which he found everywhere. He had read Spenser entirely before the completion of his twelfth year. Pope preceded Cowley in his poetical raptures. Ogilby's translation of “Homer," the large edition with
pictures, charmed the child of eight. He read the “Faerie Queene" at twelve. Other children have looked up to their poetical father in veneration and love. Dryden acknowledged his relationship to Spenser. He said, “We have our lineal descents and clans.” It is sufficient to speak of Fletcher, and Thomson, and Beattie, and Gray, and Collins. Gray told Nicholls that he never sat down to compose poetry without reading Spenser for a considerable time previously. There was once reason to expect that the delight of Pope would have taken a distincter shape. He never fulfilled his intention of writing a Persian tale, in which he meant to give unrestrained loose to description and fancy. He amplified the thought in a letter, where he talks of a vision confined to no rule of probability, but with an apparent moral. He seems to have had in view something between Chaucer and Spenser. The machinery of the “Rape of the Lock” suggests the skill that might have managed such a fable, and the charms that it would have furnished.
An essay might be written on the works of Spenser which are not. We have not space to name even those which are preserved. Of the smaller remains of Spenser, which are before us, we would lay the finger for a moment on “Mother Hubbard's Tale,” which Hughes regards as an excellent imitation of Chaucer and a specimen of the writer's talent in satire. The view of the good courtier is thought to embody Spenser's estimate of Sidney. Hazlitt, in his positive way, denied the manifestation of any comic power, except in the “Shepherd's Calendar;" but we think that several passages in “Mother Hubbard" exceed in humour anything in the “Calendar." The following lines are an instance. The ape and fox wandering through the world, come to a forest,
“Lo! where they stride. Now, in a gloomy glade,
The Lion sleeping lay in secret shade,
Is not the reader reminded of some grotesque extravagance of Dickens? Certainly the song which we hear is for the most part of a higher mood. Speaking of humour, Addison blamed Spenser for the want of it; yet Pope had heard him say that he never read Spenser until
after he wrote his character. The lesson should not be lost on many critics equally confident, and alike ignorant of what they are writing about. Shenstone was as far from the truth when he contrasted the landscape of Thomson with the simplicity of Spenser.
A SUMMER EVENING REVERIE.
I sat in the silent churchyard ; the sunbeams were fading fast,
lent, To enhance the last moments of daylight; and the breeze bore to me
the scent Of the sweet blossomed bean, as I lay there, the village down under
With its rude unartistic houses, and its long and straggling street.
stone, Reared above me to tell the inquirer that I to my friends had gone. And I shuddered to think, how I'd suffered my days to pass idly by, Nor heeded the fleeting moments, nor culled from their history The warnings I should have taken, the lessons I should have learned; And the words of many a friend departed, so strangely spurned. And I said—'Tis no time to trifle, there is work, hard work to be done, I have many a sin to master, and my days may soon have gone.