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and higher taste prevails ; learning is stripped of pedantry, and made to clothe itself in the garb of common sense.
We are of opinion, that Spenser is better understood and more justly appreciated at present, than he has been at any time since the days of Queen Elizabeth. In this respect, we must venture to differ from an accomplished writer of the present day in England.
6. The admiration of this great poem,” says Mr. Hallam,* speaking of the “ Faerie Queene,” 66 was unanimous and enthusiastic. No academy had been trained to carp at his genius with minute cavilling ; no recent popularity, no traditional fame, (for Chaucer was rather venerated than much in the hands of the reader,) interfered with the immediate recognition of his supremacy. The Faerie Queene' became, at once, the delight of every accomplished gentleman, the model of every poet, the solace of
In the course of the next century, by the extinction of habits derived from chivalry, and the change, both of taste and language, which came on with the civil wars and the Restoration, Spenser lost something of his attraction and much more of his influence over literature ; yet, in the most phlegmatic temper of the general reader, he seems to have been one of our most popular writers. Time, however, has gradually wrought its work ; and, notwithstanding the more imaginative cast of poetry in the present century, it may be well doubted, whether the Faerie Queene' is as much read, or as highly esteemed, as in the days of Anne.”
The literary taste of England, which had been perverted and dazzled by the splendor of the age of Louis the Fourteenth, and degraded by the profane and ribald spirit of the court of Charles the Second, began to rise, in the days of Anne, from the infamy into which it had been plunged. The criticisms of Addison upon Milton, and of Hughes upon Spenser, in the “ Spectator,” and the paraphrase of the story of Amoret, in the “ Tatiler,” all published within the first filteen years of Anne's reign, show a great advance in the taste for English literature beyond the preceding century. Dryden, who was the boldest' defender of Spenser in bis time, if not the only critic who dared to praise him at all, says, “ His obsolete language, and the ill choice of his stanza,
Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries. VOL. L. No. 106.
are faults but of the second magnitude ; for notwithstanding the first, he is still intelligible, at least after a little practice; and for the last, he is the more to be admired, that, laboring under such a difficulty, his verses are so numerous, so various, and so harmonious, that only Virgil, whom he professedly imitated, has surpassed him among the Romans, and only Mr. Waller among the English.” It would be difficult, in the range of our literature, to select a passage which condenses more bad taste than this. The praise bestowed by a critic, who speaks of “the ill choice" of the Spenserian stanza, and who ranks Waller above Ben Jonson, Shakspeare, and Milton, loses all value.
The relative merits of our poets began to be better understood in the succeeding century ; Waller was no longer accourted the first of English versifiers, nor Milton looked upon as a monstrous and unintelligible compound of Puritanism, chivalry, and classic erudition. It was discovered, that high treason was committed against Nature, when Bullock or Penkethman attempted to “mend a noble play of Shakspeare or Jonson ;” that Spenser's style " is very poetical,” his words are all true English and numbers exquisite;" that there is “great justness and variety” in his epithets ; and that he had “ an admirable talent in representations” of allegorical characters. The essay of Hughes upon allegorical poetry, and his remarks on the “Faerie Queene,"contain many just and sensible observations ; though at the same time they prove plainly enough, that that writer was incapable of forming a proper estimate of the merits of the poem. They do not reach the higher walks of criticism ; they discuss the outward form and model of the poem ; the fertility and richness of imagination it displays ; its resemblance to classical poems, and to the poems of Italy; the impropriety of laying the scene in Fairy land ; of introducing Fairies as large as human beings, and of confounding the two together, and of representing Arthur as only a private gentleman and a minor, instead of giving us a portion of his history as a king. But there is no attempt made in this critique to analyze ihe various leading characters ; to measure the depth of the poet's wisdom ; the sound tone of morals which pervades the work ; the power of thought displayed ; the pathos, the tenderness, delicacy, refinement, and loveliness, and at the same time the individuality and distinctness, of the heroines; the different kinds of strength and valor which mark the heroes ; – these pass almost utterly unnoticed by Hughes. Mr. Hallam would surely rank the critique in “ Blackwood,” which he praises so highly, far above any thing that was written about Spenser in the days of Anne. For ourselves, we should consider his own condensed and excellent remarks upon the “Faerie Queene" as indicating a far more just appreciation of the old poet, than any period of the eighteenth century could boast of.
The critical writings of the last century abound in notices of Spenser ; but we know of none on the whole, which secm to rate him so highly as he is regarded by the writers of the present day. Johnson wrote an essay in the “Rambler” upon the danger and impropriety of imitating Spenser ; he observes, “ To imitate the fictions and sentiments of Spenser can incur no reproach, for allegory is, perhaps, one of the most pleasing vehicles for instruction. But I am very far from extending the same respect to his diction or his stanza. His style was, in his own time, allowed to be vicious, so darkened with old words and peculiarities of phrase, and so remote from common use, that Jonson boldly pronounces him to have written no language. His stanza is at once difficult and unpleasing ; tiresome to the ear by its uniformity, and to the attention by its length. Perhaps, however, the style of Spenser might by long labor be justly copied ; but life is surely given us for higher purposes, than to gather what our ancestors have wisely thrown away, and to learn what is of no value but because it has been forgotten.”
Johnson undoubtedly had reason for giving this caution ; a better taste was apparently springing up with regard to English literature ; and the autocratic Doctor might have felt, perhaps, that, with the growth of more pure and liberal criticism, bis own influence in the republic of letters would be lessened. We learn from a paper published in the “ Connoisseur,” about the same time with the above remarks of Johnson, that the attention of literary men was beginning to be directed to the purification of the language. “A friend of mine," says this writer, “ lately gave me an account of a set of gentlemen, who meet together once a week under the name of the English Club. The title with which they dignify their society, arises from the chief end of their meeting, which is to culiivate their mother tongue. They employ half the time of their assembling in hearing some of our best classics read to them, which generally furnishes them with conversation for the rest of the evening. They have instituted annual festivals in honor of Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, &c., in each of which, an oration, interspersed with encomiums on the English language, is spoken in praise of the author, who, in the phrase of the Almanac, gives the red letter to the day. They have established a fund froin which handsome rewards are allotted to those, who shall supply the place of any exotic terms, that have been smuggled into our language, by homespun British words equally significant and expressive. Their proceedings, it must, however, be confessed, are somewhat unfashionable, for the English tongue is become as little the general care as English beef or English honesty.”
Goldsmith, however, with all his fine genius, failed to discover the merits of Spenser. In his review of Church's edition, he remarks ; “It is, it must be owned, somewhat surprising, that Spenser, who was so well acquainted with Virgil, should not have adopted the Eneid of the Roman poet, rather than the Romans of the Wises and Jongleurs, his more immediate predecessors. It is true, he has endeavoured to soften this defect by forming his work into an allegory ; however, the pleasure we receive from this species of composition, though never so finely balanced between truth and fiction, is but of a subordinate nature, as we have always two passions opposing each other ; a love of reality, which represses the fights of fancy, and a passion for the marvellous, which would leave reflection behind.” Goldsmith seems, however, to have had some dawning notion, that Spenser was not appreciated as he ought to be. A ray of light, perhaps, did now and then shoot from that sun of brightness, and pierce the murky clouds which were rolling up from the earth, and obscuring the heavens, and a vague promise of a brighter day did sometimes cheer the hearts of the prophets of those times.
Later than the middle of the eighteenth century, we find Hume publishing these remarks upon Spenser. “This poet contains great beauties, a sweet and harmonious versification, easy elocution, and a fine imagination. Yet does the perusal of his work become so tedious, that one never finishes it from the mere pleasure which it affords; it soon becomes a kind of task reading ; and it requires some effort and resolution to carry us on to the end of his long performance.” " The tediousness of continued allegory, and that too, seldom striking or ingenious, has also contributed to render the · Faerie Queene' peculiarly tiresome; not to mention the too great frequency of its descriptions, and the languor of its stanza. Upon the whole, Spenser maintains his place upon the shelves among our English classics ; but he is seldom seen on the table ; and there is scarcely any one, if he dares to be ingenuous, but will confess, that, notwithstanding all the merit of the poet, he affords an entertainment with which the palate is soon satiated.”
The noblest tribute that was offered to the memory of Spenser during the eighteenth century, was undoubtedly Thomson's imitation of the “ Faerie Queene,” the “ Castle of Indolence.” Shenstone adopted the same stanza, and affected something of the antique style in his “ School Mistress.” Beattie used the Spenserian stanza in his “ Minstrel,” though in other respects the poem can scarcely be called an imitation. The “Castle of Indolence,” in style and spirit, approaches the “Faerie Queene” much nearer than the poems of Shepstone and Beattie. Yet no one can compare the two without instantly feeling the immeasurable superiority of the old bard of chivalry. Thomson's imitation of Spenser reminds us of the mimic sounds of a theatre compared with the burst of a martial band echoing among the rocks and hills, or the full swell of a cathedral organ. It is delightful, and we wish for nothing better till we listen to the original. Shenstone's “School Mistress," as a poem, is agreeable, fanciful, and interesting ; as an imitation of Spenser, it is beneath notice. A better taste would lead to the adoption of the stanza without any pretence at imitation. This Burns has done in his “ Cotter's Saturday Night.” This is no imitation. The stanza is no departed form, raised from the grave and galvanized into life, again, when its purpose is accomplished, to sink in death. Burns uses the stanza as if he had created it. It ought not to be called Spenserian in his hands, for it has nothing of Spenser but the number and arrangement of lines and rhymes ; it is not merely inspired with life, it is life; the rolling and ethereal mist of words, like the delicate vapor, that assumed by degrees the form of the White Lady of Avenel, gracefully gathers into fair proportions, and beams upon us with the radiance of Genius.
We are well aware, that praise and admiration go a good deal by fashion. A few leading minds,
A few leading minds, in every community, give the watchword to the rest ; and it may undoubtedly be asserted with truth, that there is no absurdity so monstrous, that it may not become the rage, if a few men of genius are determined that it shall. There are fashions in literature as in