A History of English Literature;- all about English Literature

A History of English Literature

A History of English Literature;- all about English Literature

FROM TOTTEL’S “MISCELLANY” TO SPENSER

In a work like the present, forming part of a larger whole and preceded by another part, the writer has the advantage of being almost wholly free from a difficulty which often presses on historians of a limited and definite period, whether of literary or of any other history. That difficulty lies in the discussion and decision of the question of origins—in the allotment of sufficient, and not more than sufficient, space to a preliminary recapitulation of the causes and circumstances of the actual events to be related. Here there is no need for any but the very briefest references of the kind to connect the present volume with its forerunner, or rather to indicate the connection of the two.

There has been little difference of opinion as to the long dead-season of English poetry, broken chiefly, if not wholly, by poets Scottish rather than English, which lasted through almost the whole of the fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth centuries. There has also been little difference in regarding the remarkable work (known as Tottel’s Miscellany, but more properly called Songs and Sonnets, written by the Right Honourable Lord Henry Howard, late Earl of Surrey, and other) which was published by Richard Tottel in 1557, and which went through two editions in the summer of that year, as marking the dawn of the new period. The book is, indeed, remarkable in many ways. The first thing, probably, which strikes the modern reader about it is the fact that great part of its contents is anonymous and only conjecturally to be attributed, while as to the part which is more certainly known to be the work of several authors, most of those authors were either dead or had written long before. Mr. Arber’s remarks in his introduction (which, though I have rather an objection to putting mere citations before the public, I am glad here to quote as a testimony in the forefront of this book to the excellent deserts of one who by himself has done as much as any living man to facilitate the study of Elizabethan literature) are entirely to the point—how entirely to the point only students of foreign as well as of English literature know. “The poets of that age,” says Mr. Arber, “wrote for their own delectation and for that of their friends, and not for the general public. They generally had the greatest aversion to their works appearing in print.” This aversion, which continued in France till the end of the seventeenth century, if not later, had been somewhat broken down in England by the middle of the sixteenth, though vestiges of it long survived, and in the form of a reluctance to be known to write for money, may be found even within the confines of the nineteenth. The humbler means and lesser public of the English booksellers have saved English literature from the bewildering multitude of pirated editions, printed from private and not always faithful manuscript copies, which were for so long the despair of the editors of many French classics. But the manuscript copies themselves survive to a certain extent, and in the more sumptuous and elaborate editions of our poets (such as, for instance, Dr. Grosart’s Donne) what they have yielded may be studied with some interest. Moreover, they have occasionally preserved for us work nowhere else to be obtained, as, for instance, in the remarkable folio which has supplied Mr. Bullen with so much of his invaluable collection of Old Plays. At the early period of Tottel’s Miscellany it would appear that the very idea of publication in print had hardly occurred to many writers’ minds. When the book appeared, both its main contributors, Surrey and Wyatt, had been long dead, as well as others (Sir Francis Bryan and Anne Boleyn’s unlucky brother, George Lord Rochford) who are supposed to be represented. The short Printer’s Address to the Reader gives absolutely no intelligence as to the circumstances of the publication, the person responsible for the editing, or the authority which the editor and printer may have had for their inclusion of different authors’ work. It is only a theory, though a sufficiently plausible one, that the editor was Nicholas Grimald, chaplain to Bishop Thirlby of Ely, a Cambridge man who some ten years before had been incorporated at Oxford and had been elected to a Fellowship at Merton College. In Grimald’s or Grimoald’s connection with the book there was certainly something peculiar, for the first edition contains forty poems contributed by him and signed with his name, while in the second the full name is replaced by “N. G.,” and a considerable number of his poems give way to others. More than one construction might, no doubt, be placed on this curious fact; but hardly any construction can be placed on it which does not in some way connect Grimald with the publication. It may be added that, while his, Surrey’s, and Wyatt’s contributions are substantive and known—the numbers of separate poems contributed being respectively forty for Surrey, the same for Grimald, and ninety-six for Wyatt—no less than one hundred and thirty-four poems, reckoning the contents of the first and second editions together, are attributed to “other” or “uncertain” authors. And of these, though it is pretty positively known containing the verses “For age with stealing steps,” known to every one from the gravedigger in Hamlet. Nor is this the only connection of Tottel’s Miscellany with Shakespere, for there is no reasonable doubt that the “Book of Songs and Sonnets,” to the absence of which Slender so pathetically refers in The Merry Wives of Windsor, is Tottel’s, which, as the first to use the title, long retained it by right of precedence. Indeed, one of its authors, Churchyard, who, though not in his first youth at its appearance, survived into the reign of James, quotes it as such, and so does Drayton even later. No sonnets had been seen in England before, nor was the whole style of the verse which it contained less novel than this particular form.

As is the case with many if not most of the authors of our period, a rather unnecessary amount of ink has been spilt on questions very distantly connected with the question of the absolute and relative merit of Surrey and Wyatt in English poetry. In particular, the influence of the one poet on the other, and the consequent degree of originality to be assigned to each, have been much discussed. A very few dates and facts will supply most of the information necessary to enable the reader to decide this and other questions for himself. Sir Thomas Wyatt, son of Sir Henry Wyatt of Allington, Kent, was born in 1503, entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1515, became a favourite of Henry VIII., received important diplomatic appointments, and died in 1542. Lord Henry Howard was born (as is supposed) in 1517, and became Earl of Surrey by courtesy (he was not, the account of his judicial murder says, a lord of Parliament) at eight years old. Very little is really known of his life, and his love for “Geraldine” was made the basis of a series of fictions by Nash half a century after his death. He cannot have been more than thirty when, in the Reign of Terror towards the close of Henry VIII.’s life, he was arrested on frivolous charges, the gravest being the assumption of the royal arms, found guilty of treason, and beheaded on Tower Hill on 19th January 1547. Thus it will be seen that Wyatt was at Cambridge before Surrey was born, and died five years before him; to which it need only be added that Surrey has an epitaph on Wyatt which clearly expresses the relation of disciple to master. Yet despite this relation and the community of influences which acted on both, their characteristics are markedly different, and each is of the greatest importance in English poetical history.

In order to appreciate exactly what this importance is we must remember in what state Wyatt and Surrey found the art which they practised and in which they made a new start. Speaking roughly but with sufficient accuracy for the purpose, that state is typically exhibited in two writers, Hawes and Skelton. The former represents the last phase of the Chaucerian school, weakened not merely by the absence of men of great talent during more than a century, but by the continual imitation during that period of weaker and ever weaker French models—the last faint echoes of the Roman de la Rose and the first extravagances of the Rhétoriqueurs. Skelton, on the other hand, with all his vigour, represents the English tendency to prosaic doggerel. Whether Wyatt and his younger companion deliberately had recourse to Italian example in order to avoid these two dangers it would be impossible to say. But the example was evidently before them, and the result is certainly such an avoidance. Nevertheless both, and especially Wyatt, had a great deal to learn. It is perfectly evident that neither had any theory of English prosody before him. Wyatt’s first sonnet displays the completest indifference to quantity, not merely scanning “harber,” “banner,” and “suffer” as iambs (which might admit of some defence), but making a rhyme of “feareth” and “appeareth,” not on the penultimates, but on the mere “eth.” In the following poems even worse liberties are found, and the strange turns and twists which the poet gives to his decasyllables suggest either a total want of ear or such a study in foreign languages that the student had actually forgotten the intonation and cadences of his own tongue. So stumbling and knock-kneed is his verse that any one who remembers the admirable versification of Chaucer may now and then be inclined to think that Wyatt had much better have left his innovations alone. But this petulance is soon rebuked by the appearance of such a sonnet as this: —

(The lover having dreamed enjoying of his love complaineth that the dream is not either longer or truer.)

The result in fact may have been certain but it was not immediate, being delayed for nearly a quarter of a century; and the next remarkable piece of work done in English poetry after Tottel’s Miscellany—a piece of work of greater actual poetical merit than anything in that Miscellany itself—was in the old forms, and showed little if any influence of the new poetical learning. This was the famous Mirror for Magistrates, or rather that part of it contributed by Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. The Mirror as a whole has bibliographical and prosodic rather than literary interest. It was certainly planned as early as 1555 by way of a supplement to Lydgate’s translation of Boccaccio’s Fall of Princes. It was at first edited by a certain William Baldwin, and for nearly half a century it received additions and alterations from various respectable hacks of letters; but the “Induction” and the “Complaint of Buckingham” which Sackville furnished to it in 1559, though they were not published till four years later, completely outweigh all the rest in value. To my own fancy the fact that Sackville was (in what proportion is disputed) also author of Gorboduc (see Chapter III.) adds but little to its interest. His contributions to The Mirror for Magistrates contain the best poetry written in the English language between Chaucer and Spenser, and are most certainly the originals or at least the models of some of Spenser’s finest work. He has had but faint praise of late years. According to the late Professor Minto, he “affords abundant traces of the influence of Wyatt and Surrey.” I do not know what the traces are, and I should say myself that few contemporary or nearly contemporary efforts are more distinct. Dean Church says that we see in him a faint anticipation of Spenser. My estimate of Spenser, as I hope to show, is not below that of any living critic; but considerations of bulk being allowed, and it being fully granted that Sackville had nothing like Spenser’s magnificent range, I cannot see any “faintness” in the case. If the “Induction” had not been written it is at least possible that the “Cave of Despair” would never have enriched English poetry.

Thomas Sackville was born at Buckhurst in Sussex, in the year 1536, of a family which was of the most ancient extraction and the most honourable standing. He was educated at Oxford, at the now extinct Hart Hall, whence, according to a practice as common then as it is uncommon now (except in the cases of royal princes and a few persons of difficult and inconstant taste), he moved to Cambridge. Then he entered the Inner Temple, married early, travelled, became noted in literature, was made Lord Buckhurst at the age of thirty-one, was for many years one of Elizabeth’s chief councillors and officers, was promoted to the Earldom of Dorset at the accession of James I., and died, it is said, at the Council table on the 19th of April 1608.

We shall deal with Gorboduc hereafter: the two contributions to The Mirror for Magistrates concern us here. And I have little hesitation in saying that no more astonishing contribution to English poetry, when the due reservations of that historical criticism which is the life of all criticism are made, is to be found anywhere. The bulk is not great: twelve or fifteen hundred lines must cover the whole of it. The form is not new, being merely the seven-line stanza already familiar in Chaucer. The arrangement is in no way novel, combining as it does the allegorical presentment of embodied virtues, vices, and qualities with the melancholy narrative common in poets for many years before. But the poetical value of the whole is extraordinary. The two constituents of that value, the formal and the material, are represented with a singular equality of development. There is nothing here of Wyatt’s floundering prosody, nothing of the well-intentioned doggerel in which Surrey himself indulges and in which his pupils simply revel. The cadences of the verse are perfect, the imagery fresh and sharp, the presentation of nature singularly original, when it is compared with the battered copies of the poets with whom Sackville must have been most familiar, the followers of Chaucer from Occleve to Hawes. Even the general plan of the poem—the weakest part of nearly all poems of this time—is extraordinarily effective and makes one sincerely sorry that Sackville’s taste, or his other occupations, did not permit him to carry out the whole scheme on his own account. The “Induction,” in which the author is brought face to face with Sorrow, and the central passages of the “Complaint of Buckingham,” have a depth and fulness of poetical sound and sense for which we must look backwards a hundred and fifty years, or forwards The two constituents of that value, the formal and the material, are represented with a singular equality of development. There is nothing here of Wyatt’s floundering prosody, nothing of the well-intentioned doggerel in which Surrey himself indulges and in which his pupils simply revel. The cadences of the verse are perfect, the imagery fresh and sharp, the presentation of nature singularly original, when it is compared with the battered copies of the poets with whom Sackville must have been most familiar, the followers of Chaucer from Occleve to Hawes. Even the general plan of the poem—the weakest part of nearly all poems of this time—is extraordinarily effective and makes one sincerely sorry that Sackville’s taste, or his other occupations, did not permit him to carry out the whole scheme on his own account. The “Induction,” in which the author is brought face to face with Sorrow, and the central passages of the “Complaint of Buckingham,” have a depth and fulness of poetical sound and sense for which we must look backwards a hundred and fifty years, or forwards nearly five and twenty. Take, for instance, these stanzas.

EARLY ELIZABETHAN PROSE

The history of the earlier Elizabethan prose, if we except the name of Hooker, in whom it culminates, is to a great extent the history of curiosities of literature—of tentative and imperfect efforts, scarcely resulting in any real vernacular style at all. It is, however, emphatically the Period of Origins of modern English prose, and as such cannot but be interesting. We shall therefore rapidly survey its chief developments, noting first what had been done before Elizabeth came to the throne, then taking Ascham (who stands, though part of his work was written earlier, very much as the first Elizabethan prosaist), noticing the schools of historians, translators, controversialists, and especially critics who illustrated the middle period of the reign, and singling out the noteworthy personality of Sidney. We shall also say something of Lyly (as far as Euphues is concerned) and his singular attempts in prose style, and shall finish with Hooker, the one really great name of the period. Its voluminous pamphleteering, though much of it, especially the Martin Marprelate controversy, might come chronologically within the limit of this chapter, will be better reserved for a notice in Chapter VI. of the whole pamphlet literature of the reigns of Elizabeth and James—an interesting subject, the relation of which to the modern periodical has been somewhat overlooked, and which indeed was, until a comparatively recent period, not very easy to study. Gabriel Harvey alone, as distinctly belonging to the earlier Elizabethans, may be here included with other critics.

It was an inevitable result of the discovery of printing that the cultivation of the vernacular for purposes of all work—that is to say, for prose—should be largely increased. Yet a different influence arising, or at least eked out, from the same source, rather checked this increase. The study of the classical writers had at first a tendency to render inveterate the habit of employing Latin for the journey-work of literature, and in the two countries which were to lead Western Europe for the future (the literary date of Italy was already drawing to a close, and Italy had long possessed vernacular prose masterpieces), is, however, emphatically the Period of Origins of modern English prose, and as such cannot but be interesting. We shall therefore rapidly survey its chief developments, noting first what had been done before Elizabeth came to the throne, then taking Ascham (who stands, though part of his work was written earlier, very much as the first Elizabethan prosaist), noticing the schools of historians, translators, controversialists, and especially critics who illustrated the middle period of the reign, and singling out the noteworthy personality of Sidney. We shall also say something of Lyly (as far as Euphues is concerned) and his singular attempts in prose style, and shall finish with Hooker, the one really great name of the period. Its voluminous pamphleteering, though much of it, especially the Martin Marprelate controversy, might come chronologically within the limit of this chapter, will be better reserved for a notice in Chapter VI. of the whole pamphlet literature of the reigns of Elizabeth and James—an interesting subject, the relation of which to the modern periodical has been somewhat overlooked, and which indeed was, until a comparatively recent period, not very easy to study. Gabriel Harvey alone, as distinctly belonging to the earlier Elizabethans, may be here included with other critics.

It was an inevitable result of the discovery of printing that the cultivation of the vernacular for purposes of all work—that is to say, for prose—should be largely increased. Yet a different influence arising, or at least eked out, from the same source, rather checked this increase. The study of the classical writers had at first a tendency to render inveterate the habit of employing Latin for the journey-work of literature, and in the two countries which were to lead Western Europe for the future (the literary date of Italy was already drawing to a close, and Italy had long possessed vernacular prose masterpieces), it was not till the middle of the sixteenth century that the writing of vernacular prose was warmly advocated and It was an inevitable result of the discovery of printing that the cultivation of the vernacular for purposes of all work—that is to say, for prose—should be largely increased. Yet a different influence arising, or at least eked out, from the same source, rather checked this increase. The study of the classical writers had at first a tendency to render inveterate the habit of employing Latin for the journey-work of literature, and in the two countries which were to lead Western Europe for the future (the literary date of Italy was already drawing to a close, and Italy had long possessed vernacular prose masterpieces), it was not till the middle of the sixteenth century that the writing of vernacular prose was warmly advocated and systematically undertaken. The most interesting monuments of this crusade, as it may almost be called, in England are connected with a school of Cambridge scholars who flourished a little before our period, though not a few of them, such as Ascham, Wilson, and others, lived into it. A letter of Sir John Cheke’s in the very year of the accession of Elizabeth is the most noteworthy document on the subject. It was written to another father of English prose, Sir Thomas Hoby, the translator of Castiglione’s Courtier. But Ascham had already and some years earlier published his Toxophilus, and various not unimportant attempts, detailed notice of which would be an antedating of our proper period, had been made. More’s chief work, Utopia, had been written in Latin, and was translated into English by another hand, but his History of Edward V. was not a mean contribution to English prose. Tyndale’s New Testament had given a new and powerful impulse to the reading of English; Elyot’s Governor had set the example of treating serious subjects in a style not unworthy of them, and Leland’s quaint Itinerary the example of describing more or less faithfully if somewhat uncouthly. Hall had followed Fabyan as an English historian, and, above all, Latimer’s Sermons had shown how to transform spoken English of the raciest kind into literature. Lord Berners’s translations of Froissart and of divers examples of late Continental romance had provided much prose of no mean quality for light reading, and also by their imitation of the florid and fanciful style of the French-Flemish rhétoriqueurs (with which Berners was familiar both as a student of French and as governor of Calais) had probably contributed not a little to supply and furnish forth the side of Elizabethan expression which found so memorable an exponent in the author of Euphues.

For our purpose, however, Roger Ascham may serve as a starting-point. His Toxophilus was written and printed as early as 1545; his Schoolmaster did not appear till after his death, and seems to have been chiefly written in the very last days of his life. There is thus nearly a quarter of a century between them, yet they are not very different in style. Ascham was a Yorkshire man born at Kirbywiske, near Northallerton, in 1515; he went to St. John’s College at Cambridge, then a notable seat of learning, in 1530; was elected scholar, fellow, and lecturer, became public orator the year after the appearance of Toxophilus, acted as tutor to the Princess Elizabeth, went on diplomatic business to Germany, was Latin secretary to Queen Mary, and after her death to his old pupil, and died on the 30th December 1568. A treatise on Cock-fighting (of which sport he was very fond) appears to have been written by him, and was perhaps printed, but is unluckily lost. We have also Epistles from him, and his works, both English and Latin, have been in whole or part frequently edited. The great interest of Ascham is expressed as happily as possible by his own words in the dedication of Toxophilus to Henry VIII. “Although,” he says, “to have written this book either in Latin or Greek … had been more easier and fit for my trade in study, yet … I have written this English matter in the English tongue for Englishmen”—a memorable sentence none the worse for its jingle and repetition, which are well in place. Until scholars like Ascham, who with the rarest exceptions were the only persons likely or able to write at all, cared to write “English matters in English tongue for Englishmen,” the formation of English prose style was impossible; and that it required some courage to do so, Cheke’s letter, written twelve years later, shows.[12]

have attempted, experiments in the literary power of English itself. A slight sense of its not being so “easy” to write in English as in Latin, and of the consequent advisableness of keeping to a sober beaten path, to a kind of style which is not much more English (except for being composed of good English words in straightforward order) than it is any literary language framed to a great extent on the classics, shows itself in him. One might translate passage after passage of Ascham, keeping almost the whole order of the words, into very good sound Latin prose; and, indeed, his great secret in the Schoolmaster (the perpetual translation and retranslation of English into the learned languages, and especially Latin) is exactly what would form such a style. It is, as the following examples from both works will show, clear, not inelegant, invaluable as a kind of go-cart to habituate the infant limbs of prose English to orderly movement; but it is not original, or striking, or characteristic, or calculated to show the native powers and capacities of the language.

“I can teach you to shoot fair, even as Socrates taught a man once to know God. For when he asked him what was God? ‘Nay,’ saith he, ‘I can tell you better what God is not, as God is not ill, God is unspeakable, unsearchable, and so forth. Even likewise can I say of fair shooting, it hath not this discommodity with it nor that discommodity, and at last a man may so shift all the discommodities from shooting that there shall be left nothing behind but fair shooting. And to do this the better you must remember how that I told you when I described generally the whole nature of shooting, that fair shooting came of these things of standing, nocking, drawing, holding and loosing; the which I will go over as shortly as I can, describing the discommodities that men commonly use in all parts of their bodies, that you, if you fault in any such,
may know it, and go about to amend it. Faults in archers do exceed the number of archers, which come with use of shooting without teaching. Use and custom separated from knowledge and learning, doth not only hurt shooting, but the most weighty things in the world beside. And, therefore, I marvel much at those people which be the maintainers of uses without knowledge, having no other word in their mouth but this use, use, custom, custom. Such men, more wilful than wise, beside other discommodities, take all place and occasion from all amendment. And this I speak generally of use and custom.”

“Time was when Italy and Rome have been, to the great good of us who now live, the best breeders and bringers up of the worthiest men, not only for wise speaking, but also for well-doing in all civil affairs that ever was in the world. But now that time is gone; and though the place remain, yet the old and present manners do differ as far as black and white, as virtue and vice. Virtue once made that country mistress over all the world: vice now maketh that country slave to them that before were glad to serve it. All man [i.e. mankind] seeth it; they themselves confess it, namely such as be best and wisest amongst them. For sin, by lust and vanity, hath and doth breed up everywhere common contempt of God’s word, private contention in many families, open factions in every city; and so making themselves bond to vanity
and vice at home, they are content to bear the yoke of serving strangers abroad. Italy now is not that Italy it was wont to be; and therefore now not so fit a place as some do count it for young men to fetch either wisdom or honesty from thence. For surely they will make others but bad scholars that be so ill masters to themselves.”

This same characteristic, or absence of characteristic, which reaches its climax—a climax endowing it with something like substantive life and merit—in Hooker, displays itself, with more and more admixture of raciness and native peculiarity, in almost all the prose of the early Elizabethan period up to the singular escapade of Lyly, who certainly tried to write not a classical style but a style of his own. The better men, with Thomas Wilson and Ascham himself at their head, made indeed earnest protests against Latinising the vocabulary (the great fault of the contemporary French Pléiade), but they were not quite aware how much they were under the influence of Latin in other matters. The translators, such as North, whose famous version of Plutarch after Amyot had the immortal honour of suggesting not a little of Shakespere’s greatest work, had the chief excuse and temptation in doing this; but all writers did it more or less: the theologians (to whom it would no doubt have been “more easier” to write in Latin), the historians (though the little known Holinshed has broken off into a much more vernacular but also much more disorderly style), the rare geographers (of whom the chief is Richard Eden, the first English writer on America), and the rest. Of this rest the most interesting, perhaps, are the small but curious knot of critics who lead up in various ways to Sidney and Harvey, who seem to have excited considerable interest at the time, and who were not succeeded, after the early years of James, by any considerable body of critics of English till John Dryden began to write in the last third of the following century. Of these (putting out of sight Stephen Gosson, the immediate begetter of Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, Campion, the chief champion of classical metres in English, and by a quaint contrast the author of some of the most charming of English songs in purely romantic style, with his adversary the poet Daniel, Meres, etc.), the chief is the author of the anonymous Art of English Poesie, published the year after the Armada, and just before the appearance of The Faërie Queene. This Art has chiefly to be compared with the Discourse of English Poetrie, published three years earlier by William Webbe. Webbe, of whom nothing is known save that he was a private tutor at one or two gentlemen’s houses in Essex, exhibits that dislike and disdain of rhyme which was an offshoot of the passion for humanist studies, which was importantly represented all through the sixteenth and early seventeenth century in England, and which had Milton for its last and greatest exponent. The Art of English Poesie, which is attributed on no grounds of contemporary evidence to George Puttenham, though the book was generally reputed his in the next generation, is a much more considerable treatise, some four times the length of Webbe’s, dealing with a large number of questions subsidiary to Ars Poetica, and containing no few selections of illustrative verse, many of the author’s own. As far as style goes both Webbe and Puttenham fall into the rather colourless but not incorrect class already described, and are of the tribe of Ascham. Here is a sample of each.


THE FIRST DRAMATIC PERIOD

It does not belong to the plan of this division of the present book to trace the earliest beginnings of the English theatre, or those intermediate performances by which, in the reigns of the four first Tudors, the Mystery and Morality passed into the Interlude. Even the two famous comedies of Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle stand as it were only at the threshold of our period in this chapter, and everything before them is shut out of it. On the other hand, we can take to be our province the whole rise, flourishing, and decadence of the extraordinary product, known somewhat loosely as the Elizabethan drama. We shall in the present chapter discuss the two comedies or rather farces just mentioned, and notice on the one hand the rather amorphous production which, during the first thirty years of Elizabeth, represented the influence of a growing taste for personal and lively dramatic story on the somewhat arid soil of the Morality and Interlude, and, on the other, the abortive attempt to introduce the regular Senecan tragedy—an attempt which almost immediately broke down and disappeared, whelmed in the abundance of chronicle-play and melodrama. And finally we shall show how the two rival schools of the university wits and the actor playwrights culminated, the first in Marlowe, the second in the earlier and but indistinctly and conjecturally known work of Shakespere. A second chapter will show us the triumph of the untrammelled It does not belong to the plan of this division of the present book to trace the earliest beginnings of the English theatre, or those intermediate performances by which, in the reigns of the four first Tudors, the Mystery and Morality passed into the Interlude. Even the two famous comedies of Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle stand as it were only at the threshold of our period in this chapter, and everything before them is shut out of it. On the other hand, we can take to be our province the whole rise, flourishing, and decadence of the extraordinary product, known somewhat loosely as the Elizabethan drama. We shall in the present chapter discuss the two comedies or rather farces just mentioned, and notice on the one hand the rather amorphous production which, during the first thirty years of Elizabeth, represented the influence of a growing taste for personal and lively dramatic story on the somewhat arid soil of the Morality and Interlude, and, on the other, the abortive attempt to introduce the regular Senecan tragedy—an attempt which almost immediately broke down and disappeared, whelmed in the abundance of chronicle-play and melodrama. And finally we shall show how the two rival schools of the university wits and the actor playwrights culminated, the first in Marlowe, the second in the earlier and but indistinctly and conjecturally known work of Shakespere. A second chapter will show us the triumph of the untrammelled English play in tragedy and comedy, furnished by Marlowe with the mighty line, but freed to a great extent from the bombast and the unreal scheme which he did not shake off. Side by side with Shakespere himself we shall have to deal with the learned sock of Jonson, the proud full style of Chapman, the unchastened and ill-directed vigour of Marston, the fresh and charming, if unkempt grace of Dekker, the best known and most remarkable members of a crowd of unknown or half-known playwrights. A third division will show us a slight gain on the whole in acting qualities, a considerable perfecting of form and scheme, but at the same time a certain decline in the most purely poetical merits, redeemed and illustrated by the abundant genius of Beaumont and Fletcher, of Middleton, of Webster, of Massinger, and of Ford. And the two latest of these will conduct us into the fourth or period of decadence where, round the voluminous work and still respectable fame of James Shirley, are grouped names like Brome, Glapthorne, Suckling, and others, whose writing, sometimes remarkable and even brilliant, gradually loses not only dramatic but poetical merit, till it drops into the formless plots, the unscannable verse, the coarseness unredeemed by passion, the horrors unlit by any tragic force, which distinguish the last plays before the closing of the theatres, and reappear to some extent at a period beyond ours in the drama (soon to be radically changed in almost every possible characteristic) of the Restoration. The field of survey is vast, and despite the abundant labour which has been bestowed upon it during the nineteenth century, it is still in a somewhat chaotic condition. The remarkable collection of old plays which we owe to Mr. A. H. Bullen shows, by sample only and with no pretence of being exhaustive, the amount of absolutely unknown matter which still exists. The collection and editing of texts has proceeded on the most widely different principles, and with an almost complete absence of that intelligent partition of labour which alone can reduce chaos to order in such a case. To give but one instance, there is actually no complete collection, though various attempts have been made at it, which gives, with or without sufficient editorial apparatus to supplement the canon, all the dramatic adespota which have been at one time or another attributed to Shakespere. These at present the painful scholar can only get together in publications abounding in duplicates, edited on the most opposite principles, and equally troublesome either for library arrangement or for literary reference. The editions of single authors have exhibited an equal absence of method; one editor admitting doubtful plays or plays of part-authorship which are easily accessible elsewhere, while another excludes those which are difficult to be got at anywhere. It is impossible for any one who reads literature as literature and not as a matter of idle crotchet, not to reflect that if either of the societies which, during the nineteenth century, have devoted themselves to the study of Shakespere and his contemporaries, had chosen to employ their funds on it, a complete Corpus of the drama between 1560 and 1660, edited with sufficient, but not superfluous critical apparatus on a uniform plan, and in a decent if not a luxurious form, might now be obtainable. Some forty or fifty volumes at the outside on the scale of the “Globe” series, or of Messrs. Chatto’s useful reprints of Jonson, Chapman, and other dramatists, would probably contain every play of the slightest interest, even to a voracious student—who would then have all his material under his hand. What time, expense, and trouble are required to obtain, and that very imperfectly, any such advantage now, only those who have tried to do it know. Even Mr. Hazlitt’s welcome, if somewhat uncritical, reprint of Dodsley, long out of print, did not boldly carry out its principle—though there are plans for improving and supplementing it.

It does not belong to the plan of this division of the present book to trace the earliest beginnings of the English theatre, or those intermediate performances by which, in the reigns of the four first Tudors, the Mystery and Morality passed into the Interlude. Even the two famous comedies of Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle stand as it were only at the threshold of our period in this chapter, and everything before them is shut out of it. On the other hand, we can take to be our province the whole rise, flourishing, and decadence of the extraordinary product, known somewhat loosely as the Elizabethan drama. We shall in the present chapter discuss the two comedies or rather farces just mentioned, and notice on the one hand the rather amorphous production which, during the first thirty years of Elizabeth, represented the influence of a growing taste for personal and lively dramatic story on the somewhat arid soil of the Morality and Interlude, and, on the other, the abortive attempt to introduce the regular Senecan tragedy—an attempt which almost immediately broke down and disappeared, whelmed in the abundance of chronicle-play and melodrama. And finally we shall show how the two rival schools of the university wits and the actor playwrights culminated, the first in Marlowe, the second in the earlier and but indistinctly and conjecturally known work of Shakespere. A second chapter will show us the triumph of the untrammelled English play in tragedy and comedy, furnished by Marlowe with the mighty line, but freed to a great extent from the bombast and the unreal scheme which he did not shake off. Side by side with Shakespere himself we shall have to deal with the learned sock of Jonson, the proud full style of Chapman, the unchastened and ill-directed vigour of Marston, the fresh and charming, if unkempt grace of Dekker, the best known and most remarkable members of a crowd of unknown or half-known playwrights. A third division will show us a slight gain on the whole in acting qualities, a considerable perfecting of form and scheme, but at the same time a certain decline in the most purely poetical merits, redeemed and illustrated by the abundant genius of Beaumont and Fletcher, of Middleton, of Webster, of Massinger, and of Ford. And the two latest of these will conduct us into the fourth or period of decadence where, round the voluminous work and still respectable fame of James Shirley, are grouped names like Brome, Glapthorne, Suckling, and others, whose writing, sometimes remarkable and even brilliant, gradually loses not only dramatic but poetical merit, till it drops into the formless plots, the unscannable verse, the coarseness unredeemed by passion, the horrors unlit by any tragic force, which distinguish the last plays before the closing of the theatres, and reappear to some extent at a period beyond ours in the drama (soon to be radically changed in almost every possible characteristic) of the Restoration. The field of survey is vast, and despite the abundant labour which has been bestowed upon it during the nineteenth century, it is still in a somewhat chaotic condition. The remarkable collection of old plays which we owe to Mr. A. H. Bullen shows, by sample only and with no pretence of being exhaustive, the amount of absolutely unknown matter which still exists. The collection and editing of texts has proceeded on the most widely different principles, and with an almost complete absence of that intelligent partition of labour which alone can reduce chaos to order in such a case. To give but one instance, there is actually no complete collection, though various attempts have been made at it, which gives, with or without sufficient editorial apparatus to supplement the canon, all the dramatic adespota which have been at one time or another attributed to Shakespere. These at present the painful scholar can only get together in publications abounding in duplicates, edited on the most opposite principles, and equally troublesome either for library arrangement or for literary reference. The editions of single authors have exhibited an equal absence of method; one editor admitting doubtful plays or plays of part-authorship which are easily accessible elsewhere, while another excludes those which are difficult to be got at anywhere. It is impossible for any one who reads literature as literature and not as a matter of idle crotchet, not to reflect that if either of the societies which, during the nineteenth century, have devoted themselves to the study of Shakespere and his contemporaries, had chosen to employ their funds on it, a complete Corpus of the drama between 1560 and 1660, edited with sufficient, but not superfluous critical apparatus on a uniform plan, and in a decent if not a luxurious form, might now be obtainable. Some forty or fifty volumes at the outside on the scale of the “Globe” series, or of Messrs. Chatto’s useful reprints of Jonson, Chapman, and other dramatists, would probably contain every play of the slightest interest, even to a voracious student—who would then have all his material under his hand. What time, expense, and trouble are required to obtain, and that very imperfectly, any such advantage now, only those who have tried to do it know. Even Mr. Hazlitt’s welcome, if somewhat uncritical, reprint of Dodsley, long out of print, did not boldly carry out its principle—though there are plans for improving and supplementing it.

Nevertheless, if the difficulties are great so are the rewards. It has been the deliberate opinion of many competent judges (neither unduly prejudiced in favour of English literature nor touched with that ignorance of other literature which is as fatal to judgment as actual prejudice) that in no time or country has the literary interest of a short and definite period of production in one well-defined kind approached in value the interest of the Elizabethan drama. Other periods and other countries may produce more remarkable work of different kinds, or more uniformly accomplished, and more technically excellent work in the same kind. But for originality, volume, generic resemblance of character, and individual independence of trait, exuberance of inventive thought, and splendour of execution in detached passages—the Elizabethan drama from Sackville to Shirley stands alone in the history of the world. The absurd overestimate which has sometimes been made of its individual practitioners, the hyperbole of the language which has been used to describe them, the puerile and almost inconceivable folly of some of their scholiasts and parasitic students, find a certain excuse in this truth—a truth which will only be contested by those who have not taken the very considerable trouble necessary to master the facts, or who are precluded by a natural inability from savouring the goût du terroir of this abundant and intoxicating wine. There are those who say that nobody but an enthusiast or a self-deceiver can read with real relish any Elizabethan dramatist but Shakespere, and there are those who would have it that the incommunicable and uncommunicated charm of Shakespere is to be found in Nabbes and Davenport, in Glapthorne and Chettle. They are equally wrong, but the second class are at any rate in a more saving way of wrongness. Where Shakespere stands alone is not so much in his actual faculty of poetry as in his command of that faculty. Of the others, some, like Jonson, Fletcher, Massinger, had the art without the power; others, like Chapman, Dekker, Webster, had flashes of the power without the art. But there is something in the whole crew, jovial or saturnine, which is found nowhere else, and which, whether in full splendour as in Shakespere, or in occasional glimmers as in Tourneur or Rowley, is found in all, save those mere imitators and hangers-on who are peculiar to no period.

This remarkable quality, however, does not show itself in the dramatic work of our present period until quite the close of it. It is true that the period opens (according to the traditional estimate which has not been much altered by recent studies) with three plays of very considerable character, and of no inconsiderable merit—the two comedies already named and the tragedy of Gorboduc, otherwise Ferrex and Porrex. Ralph Roister Doister was licensed and is thought to have been printed in 1566, but it may have been acted at Eton by 1541, and the whole cast of the metre, language, and scenario, is of a colour older than Elizabeth’s reign. It may be at least attributed to the middle of the century, and is the work of Nicholas Udall, a schoolmaster who has left at two great schools a repute for indulgence in the older methods of instruction not inferior to Busby’s or Keate’s. Ralph Roister Doister, though a fanciful estimate may see a little cruelty of another kind in it, is of no austere or pedagogic character. The author has borrowed not a little from the classical comedy—Plautine or even Aristophanic rather than Terentian—to strengthen and refine the domestic interlude or farce; and the result is certainly amusing enough. The plot turns on the courtship of Dame Christian Custance [Constance], a widow of repute and wealth as well as beauty, by the gull and coxcomb, Ralph Roister Doister, whose suit is at once egged on and privately crossed by the mischievous Matthew Merrygreek, who plays not only parasite but rook to the hero. Although Custance has not the slightest intention of accepting Ralph, and at last resorts to actual violence, assisted by her maids, to get rid of him and his followers, the affair nearly breeds a serious quarrel between herself and her plighted lover, Gawin Goodluck; but all ends merrily. The metre is the somewhat unformed doggerel couplet of twelve syllables or thereabouts, with a strong cæsura in the middle, and is varied and terminated by songs from Custance’s maids and others. Indeed the chief charm of the piece is the genuine and unforced merriment which pervades it. Although Merrygreek’s practices on Ralph’s silliness sometimes tend a little to tediousness, the action on the whole moves trippingly enough, and despite the strong flavour of the “stock part” in the characters they have considerable individuality. The play is, moreover, as a whole remarkably free from coarseness, and there is no difficulty in finding an illustrative extract.

This remarkable quality, however, does not show itself in the dramatic work of our present period until quite the close of it. It is true that the period opens (according to the traditional estimate which has not been much altered by recent studies) with three plays of very considerable character, and of no inconsiderable merit—the two comedies already named and the tragedy of Gorboduc, otherwise Ferrex and Porrex. Ralph Roister Doister was licensed and is thought to have been printed in 1566, but it may have been acted at Eton by 1541, and the whole cast of the metre, language, and scenario, is of a colour older than Elizabeth’s reign. It may be at least attributed to the middle of the century, and is the work of Nicholas Udall, a schoolmaster who has left at two great schools a repute for indulgence in the older methods of instruction not inferior to Busby’s or Keate’s. Ralph Roister Doister, though a fanciful estimate may see a little cruelty of another kind in it, is of no austere or pedagogic character. The author has borrowed not a little from the classical comedy—Plautine or even Aristophanic rather than Terentian—to strengthen and refine the domestic interlude or farce; and the result is certainly amusing enough. The plot turns on the courtship of Dame Christian Custance [Constance], a widow of repute and wealth as well as beauty, by the gull and coxcomb, Ralph Roister Doister, whose suit is at once egged on and privately crossed by the mischievous Matthew Merrygreek, who plays not only parasite but rook to the hero. Although Custance has not the slightest intention of accepting Ralph, and at last resorts to actual violence, assisted by her maids, to get rid of him and his followers, the affair nearly breeds a serious quarrel between herself and her plighted lover, Gawin Goodluck; but all ends merrily. The metre is the somewhat unformed doggerel couplet of twelve syllables or thereabouts, with a strong cæsura in the middle, and is varied and terminated by songs from Custance’s maids and others. Indeed the chief charm of the piece is the genuine and unforced merriment which pervades it. Although Merrygreek’s practices on Ralph’s silliness sometimes tend a little to tediousness, the action on the whole moves trippingly enough, and despite the strong flavour of the “stock part” in the characters they have considerable individuality. The play is, moreover, as a whole remarkably free from coarseness, and there is no difficulty in finding an illustrative extract.

“THE FAËRIE QUEENE” AND ITS GROUP

“Velut inter ignes luna minores”

There is no instance in English history of a poet receiving such immediate recognition, and deserving it so thoroughly, as did Edmund Spenser at the date of The Shepherd’s Calendar. In the first chapter of this volume the earlier course of Elizabethan poetry has been described, and it will have been seen that, with great intention, no very great accomplishment had been achieved. It was sufficiently evident that a poetic language and a general poetic spirit were being formed, such as had not existed in England since Chaucer’s death; but no one had yet arisen who could justify the expectation based on such respectable tentatives. It seems from many minute indications which need not be detailed here, that at the advent of The Shepherd’s Calendar all the best judges recognised the expected poet. Yet they could hardly have known how just their recognition was, or what extraordinary advances the poet would make in the twenty years which passed between its publication and his death.

The life of Spenser is very little known, and here and elsewhere the conditions of this book preclude the reproduction or even the discussion of the various pious attempts which have been made to supply the deficiency of documents. The chief of these in his case is to be found in Dr. Grosart’s magnificent edition, the principal among many good works of its editor. That he belonged to a branch—a Lancashire branch in all probability—of the family which produced the Le Despensers of elder, and the Spencers of modern English history, may be said to be unquestionable. But he appears to have been born about 1552 in London, and to have been educated at Merchant Taylors’, whence in May 1569 he matriculated at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar. At or before this time he must have contributed (though there are puzzles in the matter) certain translations of sonnets from Petrarch and Du Bellay to a book called The Theatre of Voluptuous Worldlings, published by a Brabanter, John van der Noodt. These, slightly changed from blank verse to rhyme, appeared long afterwards with his minor poems of 1590. But the original pieces had been claimed by the Dutchman; and though there are easy ways of explaining this, the thing is curious. However it may be with these verses, certainly nothing else of Spenser’s appeared in print for ten years. His Cambridge life, except for some vague allusions (which, as usual in such cases, have been strained to breaking by commentators and biographers), is equally obscure; save that he certainly fulfilled seven years of residence, taking his
“O! forbear,
For other talk for us far fitter were.
But if you be importunate to know
The way to him, and where to find him out,
Then list to me, and I’ll resolve your doubt.
There is a path upon your left hand side,
That leadeth from a guilty conscience
Unto a forest of distrust and fear—
A darksome place and dangerous to pass.
There shall you meet with melancholy thoughts
Whose baleful humours if you but uphold,
It will conduct you to despair and death.
Whose rocky cliffs when you have once beheld
Within a hugy dale of lasting night—
That, kindled with the world’s iniquities,
Doth cast up filthy and detested fumes—
Not far from thence, where murderers have built
An habitation for their cursed souls,
There is a brazen cauldron fixed by Jove
In his fell wrath upon a sulphur flame.
Yourselves shall find Lorenzo bathing him
In boiling lead and blood of innocents.”
But nothing, except citation of whole scenes and acts, could show the extraordinary jumble of ghosts, blood, thunder, treachery, and horrors of all sorts which these plays contain.

Now for a very different citation:—

“If all the pens that ever poets held
Had fed the feeling of their masters’ thoughts,
And every sweetness that inspir’d their hearts,
Their minds, and muses, on admired themes;
If all the heavenly quintessence they ‘still
From their immortal flowers of poesy,
Wherein as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit;
If these had made one poem’s period,
And all combined in beauty’s worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder at the least
Which into words no virtue can digest.”
It is no wonder that the whole school has been dwarfed in the general estimation, since its work was critically considered and isolated from other work, by the towering excellence of this author. Little as is known of all the band, that little becomes almost least in regard to their chief and leader. Born (1564) at Canterbury, the son of a shoemaker, he was educated at the Grammar School of that city, and at Benet (afterwards Corpus) College, Cambridge; he plunged into literary work and dissipation in London; and he outlived Greene only to fall a victim to debauchery in a still more tragical way. His death (1593) was the subject of much gossip, but the most probable account is that he was poniarded in self-defence by a certain Francis Archer, a serving-man (not by any means necessarily, as Charles Kingsley has it, a footman), while drinking at Deptford, and that the cause of the quarrel was a woman of light character. He has also been accused of gross vices not to be particularised, and of atheism. The accusation is certain; and Mr. Boas’s researches as to Kyd, who was also concerned in the matter, have thrown some light on it; but much is still obscure. The most offensive charges were due to one Bame or Baines, who was afterwards hanged at Tyburn. That Marlowe was a Bohemian in the fullest sense is certain; that he was anything worse there is no evidence whatever. He certainly was acquainted with Raleigh and other distinguished persons, and was highly spoken of by Chapman and others.

But the interest of Marlowe’s name has nothing to do with these obscure scandals of three hundred years ago, though it may be difficult to pass them over entirely. He is the undoubted author of some of the masterpieces of English verse; the hardly to be doubted author of others not much inferior. Except the very greatest names—Shakespere, Milton, Spenser, Dryden, Shelley—no author can be named who has produced, when the proper historical estimate is applied to him, such work as is to be found in Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward the Second, in one department; Hero and Leander and the Passionate Shepherd in another. I have but very little doubt that the powerful, if formless, play of Lust’s Dominion is Marlowe’s, though it may have been rewritten, and the translations of Lucan and Ovid and the minor work which is more or less probably attributed to him, swell his tale. Prose he did not write, perhaps could not have written. For the one characteristic lacking to his genius was measure, and prose without measure, as numerous examples have shown, is usually rubbish. Even his dramas show a singular defect in the architectural quality of literary genius. The vast and formless creations of the writer’s boundless fancy completely master him; his aspirations after the immense too frequently leave him content with the simply unmeasured. In his best play as a play, Edward the Second, the limitations of a historical story impose something like a restraining form on his glowing imagination. But fine as this play is, it is noteworthy that no one of his greatest things occurs in it. The Massacre at Paris, where he also has the confinement of reality after a fashion, is a chaotic thing as a whole, without any great beauty in parts. The Tragedy of Dido (to be divided between him and Nash) is the worst thing he ever did. But in the purely romantic subjects of Tamburlaine, Faustus, and The Jew of Malta, his genius, untrammelled by any limits of story, showed itself equally unable to contrive such limits for itself, and able to develop the most marvellous beauties of detail. Shakespere himself has not surpassed, which is equivalent to saying that no other writer has equalled, the famous and wonderful passages in Tamburlaine and Faustus, which are familiar to every student of English literature as examples of the ne plus ultra of the poetic powers, not of the language but of language. The tragic imagination in its wildest flights has never summoned up images of pity and terror more imposing, more moving, than those excited by The Jew of Malta. The riot of passion and of delight in the beauty of colour and form which characterises his version of Hero and Leander has never been approached by any writer. But Marlowe, with the fullest command of the apeiron, had not, and, as far as I can judge, never would have had, any power of introducing into it the law of the peras. It is usual to say that had he lived, and had his lot been happily cast, we should have had two Shakesperes. This is not wise. In the first place, Marlowe was totally destitute of humour—the characteristic which, united with his tragic and imaginative powers, makes Shakespere as, in a less degree, it makes Homer, and even, though the humour is grim and intermittent, Dante. In other words, he was absolutely destitute of the first requisite of self-criticism. In the natural course of things, as the sap of his youthful imagination ceased to mount, and as his craving for immensity hardened itself, he would probably have degenerated from bombast shot through with genius to bombast pure and simple, from Faustus to Lust’s Dominion, and from Lust’s Dominion to Jeronimo or The Distracted Emperor. Apart from the magnificent passages which he can show, and which are simply intoxicating to any lover of poetry, his great title to fame is the discovery of the secret of that “mighty line” which a seldom-erring critic of his own day, not too generously given, vouchsafed to him. Up to his time the blank verse line always, and the semi-couplet in heroics, or member of the more complicated stanza usually, were either stiff or nerveless. Compared with his own work and with the work of his contemporaries and followers who learnt from him, they are like a dried preparation, like something waiting for the infusion of blood, for the inflation of living breath. Marlowe came, and the old wooden versification, the old lay-figure structure of poetic rhythm, was cast once for all into the lumber-room, where only poetasters of the lowest rank went to seek it. It is impossible to call Marlowe a great dramatist, and the attempts that have been made to make him out to be such remind one of the attempts that have been made to call Molière a great poet. Marlowe was one of the greatest poets of the world whose work was cast by accident and caprice into an imperfect mould of drama; Molière was one of the greatest dramatists of the world who was obliged by fashion to use a previously perfected form of verse. The state of Molière was undoubtedly the more gracious; but the splendour of Marlowe’s uncut diamonds of poetry is the more wonderful.

The characteristics of this strange and interesting school may be summed up briefly, but are of the highest importance in literary history. Unlike their nearest analogues, the French romantics of the 1830 type, they were all of academic education, and had even a decided contempt (despite their Bohemian way of life) for unscholarly innovators. They manifested (except in Marlowe’s fortuitous and purely genial discovery of the secret of blank verse) a certain contempt for form, and never, at least in drama, succeeded in mastering it. But being all, more or less, men of genius, and having the keenest sense of poetry, they supplied the dry bones of the precedent dramatic model with blood and breath, with vigour and variety, which not merely informed but transformed it. David and Bethsabe, Doctor Faustus, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, are chaotic enough, but they are of the chaos that precedes cosmic development. The almost insane bombast that marks the whole school has (as has been noticed) the character of the shrieks and gesticulations of healthy childhood, and the insensibility to the really comic which also marks them is of a similar kind. Every one knows how natural it is to childhood to appreciate bad jokes, how seldom a child sees a good one. Marlowe and his crew, too (the comparison has no doubt often been used before), were of the brood of Otus and Ephialtes, who grew so rapidly and in so disorderly a fashion that it was necessary for the gods to make an end of them. The universe probably lost little, and it certainly gained something.

Side by side with this learned, extravagant, gifted, ill-regulated school, there was slowly growing up a very different one, which was to inherit all the gifts of the University Wits, and to add to them the gifts of measure and proportion. The early work of the actor school of English dramatists is a difficult subject to treat in any fashion, and a particularly difficult subject to treat shortly. Chronology, an important aid, helps us not very much, though such help as she does give has been as a rule neglected by historians, so that plays before 1590 (which may be taken roughly as the dividing date), and plays after it have been muddled up ruthlessly. We do not know the exact dates of many of those which are (many of the plays of the earlier time are not) extant; and of those which are extant, and of which the dates are more or less known, the authors are in not a few most important cases absolutely undiscoverable. Yet in the plays which belong to this period, and which there is no reason to attribute wholly to any of the Marlowe group, or much reason to attribute to them under the guidance, or perhaps with the collaboration of practical actors (some at least of whom were like Shakespere himself, men of no known regular education), there are characteristics which promise at least as well for the future as the wonderful poetic outbursts of the Marlowe school itself. Of these outbursts we find few in this other division. But we find a growing knowledge of what a play is, as distinguished from a series of tableaux acted by not too lifelike characters. We find a glimmering (which is hardly anywhere to be seen in the more literary work of the other school) of the truth that the characters must be made to work out the play, and not the play be written in a series of disjointed scenes to display, in anything but a successful fashion, the characters. With fewer flights we have fewer absurdities; with less genius we have more talent. It must be remembered, of course, that the plays of the university school itself were always written for players, and that some of the authors had more or less to do with acting as well as with writing. But the flame of discord which burns so fiercely on the one side in the famous real or supposed dying utterances of Greene, and which years afterwards breaks out on the other in the equally famous satire of The Return from Parnassus,[22] illuminates a real difference—a difference which study of the remains of the literature of the period can only make plainer. The same difference has manifested itself again, and more than once in other departments of literature, but hardly in so interesting a manner, and certainly not with such striking results.

[22] The outburst of Greene about “the only Shakescene,” the “upstart crow beautified with our feathers,” and so forth, is too well known to need extracting here. The Return from Parnassus, a very curious tripartite play, performed 1597-1601 but retrospective in tone, is devoted to the troubles of poor scholars in getting a livelihood, and incidentally gives much matter on the authors of the time from Shakespere downward, and on the jealousy of professional actors felt by scholars, and vice versâ.

“THE FAËRIE QUEENE” AND ITS GROUP

“Velut inter ignes luna minores”

There is no instance in English history of a poet receiving such immediate recognition, and deserving it so thoroughly, as did Edmund Spenser at the date of The Shepherd’s Calendar. In the first chapter of this volume the earlier course of Elizabethan poetry has been described, and it will have been seen that, with great intention, no very great accomplishment had been achieved. It was sufficiently evident that a poetic language and a general poetic spirit were being formed, such as had not existed in England since Chaucer’s death; but no one had yet arisen who could justify the expectation based on such respectable tentatives. It seems from many minute indications which need not be detailed here, that at the advent of The Shepherd’s Calendar all the best judges recognised the expected poet. Yet they could hardly have known how just their recognition was, or what extraordinary advances the poet would make in the twenty years which passed between its publication and his death.

The life of Spenser is very little known, and here and elsewhere the conditions of this book preclude the reproduction or even the discussion of the various pious attempts which have been made to supply the deficiency of documents. The chief of these in his case is to be found in Dr. Grosart’s magnificent edition, the principal among many good works of its editor. That he belonged to a branch—a Lancashire branch in all probability—of the family which produced the Le Despensers of elder, and the Spencers of modern English history, may be said to be unquestionable. But he appears to have been born about 1552 in London, and to have been educated at Merchant Taylors’, whence in May 1569 he matriculated at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar. At or before this time he must have contributed (though there are puzzles in the matter) certain translations of sonnets from Petrarch and Du Bellay to a book called The Theatre of Voluptuous Worldlings, published by a Brabanter, John van der Noodt. These, slightly changed from blank verse to rhyme, appeared long afterwards with his minor poems of 1590. But the original pieces had been claimed by the Dutchman; and though there are easy ways of explaining this, the thing is curious. However it may be with these verses, certainly nothing else of Spenser’s appeared in print for ten years. His Cambridge life, except for some vague allusions (which, as usual in such cases, have been strained to breaking by commentators and biographers), is equally obscure; save that he certainly fulfilled seven years of residence, taking his Bachelor’s Degree in 1573, and his Master’s three years later. But he did not gain a fellowship, and the chief discoverable results of his Cambridge sojourn were the thorough scholarship which marks his work, and his friendship with the notorious Gabriel Harvey—his senior by some years, a Fellow of Pembroke, and a person whose singularly bad literary taste, as shown in his correspondence with Spenser, may be perhaps forgiven, first, because it did no harm, and secondly, because without him we should know even less of Spenser than we do. It is reasonably supposed from the notes of his friend, “E. K.” (apparently Kirke, a Pembroke man), to The Shepherd’s Calendar, that he went to his friends in the north after leaving Cambridge and spent a year or two there, falling in love with the heroine, poetically named Rosalind, of The Calendar, and no doubt writing that remarkable book. Then (probably very late in 1578) he went to London, was introduced by Harvey to Sidney and Leicester, and thus mixed at once in the best literary and political society. He was not long in putting forth his titles to its attention, for The Shepherd’s Calendar was published in the winter of 1579, copiously edited by “E. K.,” whom some absurdly suppose to be Spenser himself. The poet seems to have had also numerous works (the titles of which are known) ready or nearly ready for the press. But all were subsequently either changed in title, incorporated with other work, or lost. He had already begun The Faërie Queene, much to the pedant Harvey’s disgust; and he dabbled in the fashionable absurdity of classical metres, like his inferiors. But he published nothing more immediately; and powerful as were his patrons, the only preferment which he obtained was in that Eldorado-Purgatory of Elizabethan ambition—Ireland. Lord Grey took him as private secretary when he was in 1580 appointed deputy, and shortly afterwards he received some civil posts in his new country, and a lease of abbey lands at Enniscorthy, which lease he soon gave up. But he stayed in Ireland, notwithstanding the fact that his immediate patron Grey soon left it. Except a few bare dates and doubtful allusions, little or nothing is heard of him between 1580 and 1590. On the eve of the latter year (the 1st of December 1589) the first three books of The Faërie Queene were entered at Stationers’ Hall, and were published in the spring of the next year. He had been already established at Kilcolman in the county Cork on a grant of more than three thousand acres of land out of the forfeited Desmond estates. And henceforward his literary activity, at least in publication, became more considerable, and he seems to have been much backwards and forwards between England and Ireland. In 1590 appeared a volume of minor poems (The Ruins of Time, The Tears of the Muses, Virgil’s Gnat, Mother Hubbard’s Tale, The Ruins of Rome, Muiopotmos, and the Visions), with an address to the reader in which another list of forthcoming works is promised. These, like the former list of Kirke, seem oddly enough to have also perished. The whole collection was called Complaints, and a somewhat similar poem, Daphnaida, is thought to have appeared in the same year. On the 11th of June 1594 the poet married (strangely enough it was not known whom, until Dr. Grosart ingeniously identified her with a certain Elizabeth Boyle alias Seckerstone), and in 1595 were published the beautiful Amoretti or love sonnets, and the still more beautiful Epithalamion describing his courtship and marriage, with the interesting poem of Colin Clout’s Come Home Again; while in the same year (old style; in January 1596, new style) the fourth, fifth, and sixth books of The Faërie Queene were entered for publication and soon appeared. The supposed allusions to Mary Stuart greatly offended her son James. The Hymns and the Prothalamion followed in the same year. Spenser met with difficulties at Court (though he had obtained a small pension of fifty pounds a year), and had like other Englishmen troubles with his neighbours in Ireland; yet he seemed to be becoming more prosperous, and in 1598 he was named Sheriff of Cork. A few weeks later the Irish Rebellion broke out; his house was sacked and burnt with one of his children; he fled to England and died on the 16th of January 1599 at King Street, Westminster, perhaps not “for lack of bread,” as Jonson says, but certainly in no fortunate circumstances. In the year of his misfortune had been registered, though it was never printed till more than thirty years later, his one prose work of substance, the remarkable View of the Present State of Ireland; an admirable piece of prose, and a political tract, the wisdom and grasp of which only those who have had to give close attention to Irish politics can fully estimate. It is probably the most valuable document on any given period of Irish history that exists, and is certainly superior in matter, no less than in style, to any political tract in English, published before the days of Halifax eighty years after.

It has been said that The Shepherd’s Calendar placed Spenser at once at the head of the English poets of his day; and it did so. But had he written nothing more, he would not (as is the case with not a few distinguished poets) have occupied as high or nearly as high a position in quality, if not in quantity, as he now does. He was a young man when he published it; he was not indeed an old man when he died; and it would not appear that he had had much experience of life beyond college walls. His choice of models—the artificial pastorals in which the Renaissance had modelled itself on Virgil and Theocritus, rather than Virgil and Theocritus themselves—was not altogether happy. He showed, indeed, already his extraordinary metrical skill, experimenting with rhyme-royal and other stanzas, fourteeners or eights and sixes, anapæsts more or less irregular, and an exceedingly important variety of octosyllable which, whatever may have been his own idea in practising it, looked back to early Middle English rhythms and forward to the metre of Christabel, as Coleridge was to start it afresh. He also transgressed into religious politics, taking (as indeed he always took, strange as it may seem in so fanatical a worshipper of beauty) the Puritan side. Nor is his work improved as poetry, though it acquires something in point of quaint attractiveness, by good Mr. “E. K.’s” elaborate annotations, introductions, explanations, and general gentleman-usherings—the first in English, but most wofully not the last by hundreds, of such overlayings of gold with copper. Yet with all these drawbacks The Shepherd’s Calendar is delightful. Already we can see in it that double command, at once of the pictorial and the musical elements of poetry, in which no English poet is Spenser’s superior, if any is his equal. Already the unmatched power of vigorous allegory, which he was to display later, shows in such pieces as The Oak and the Briar. In the less deliberately archaic divisions, such as “April” and “November,” the command of metrical form, in which also the poet is almost peerless, discovers itself. Much the same may be said of the volume of Complaints, which, though published later than The Faërie Queene, represents beyond all question very much earlier work. Spenser is unquestionably, when he is not at once spurred and soothed by the play of his own imagination, as in The Queene, a melancholy poet, and the note of melancholy is as strong in these poems as in their joint title. It combines with his delight in emblematic allegory happily enough, in most of these pieces except Mother Hubbard’s Tale. This is almost an open satire, and shows that if Spenser’s genius had not found a less mongrel style to disport itself in, not merely would Donne, and Lodge, and Hall, and Marston have had to abandon their dispute for the post of first English satirist, but the attainment of really great satire in English might have been hastened by a hundred years, and Absalom and Achitophel have been but a second. Even here, however, the piece still keeps the Chaucerian form and manner, and is only a kind of exercise. The sonnets from and after Du Bellay and others are more interesting. As in the subsequent and far finer Amoretti, Spenser prefers the final couplet form to the so-called Petrarchian arrangement; and, indeed, though the most recent fashion in England has inclined to the latter, an impartial judgment must pronounce both forms equally good and equally entitled to place. The Amoretti written in this metre, and undoubtedly representing some, at least, of Spenser’s latest written work, rank with the best of Sidney’s, and hardly below the best of Shakespere’s; while both in them and in the earlier sonnets the note of regret mingled with delight—the special Renaissance note—sounds as it rarely does in any other English verse. Of the poems of the later period, however (leaving The Faërie Queene for a moment aside), the Epithalamion and the Four Hymns rank undoubtedly highest. For splendour of imagery, for harmony of verse, for delicate taste and real passion, the Epithalamion excels all other poems of its class, and the Four Hymns express a rapture of Platonic enthusiasm, which may indeed be answerable for the unreadable Psyches and Psychozoias of the next age, but which is itself married to immortal verse in the happiest manner.

Still, to the ordinary reader, Spenser is the poet of The Faërie Queene, and for once the ordinary reader is right. Every quality found in his other poems is found in this greatest of them in perfection; and much is found there which is not, and indeed could not be, found anywhere else. Its general scheme is so well known (few as may be the readers who really know its details) that very slight notice of it may suffice. Twelve knights, representing twelve virtues, were to have been sent on adventures from the Court of Gloriana, Queen of Fairyland. The six finished books give the legends (each subdivided into twelve cantos, averaging fifty or sixty stanzas each) of Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy; while a fragment of two splendid “Cantos on Mutability” is supposed to have belonged to a seventh book (not necessarily seventh in order) on Constancy. Legend has it that the poem was actually completed; but this seems improbable, as the first three books were certainly ten years in hand, and the second three six more. The existing poem comprehending some four thousand stanzas, or between thirty and forty thousand lines, exhibits so many and such varied excellences that it is difficult to believe that the poet could have done anything new in kind. No part of it is as a whole inferior to any other part, and the fragmentary cantos contain not merely one of the most finished pictorial pieces—the Procession of the Months—to be found in the whole poem, but much of the poet’s finest thought and verse. Had fortune been kinder, the volume of delight would have been greater, but its general character would probably not have changed much. As it is, The Faërie Queene is the only long poem that a lover of poetry can sincerely wish longer.

It deserves some critical examination here from three points of view, regarding respectively its general scheme, its minor details of form in metre and language, and lastly, its general poetical characteristics. The first is simple enough in its complexity. The poem is a long Roman d’Aventure (which it is perhaps as well to say, once for all, is not the same as a “Romance of Chivalry,” or a “Romance of Adventure”), redeemed from the aimless prolixity incident to that form by its regular plan, by the intercommunion of the adventures of the several knights (none of whom disappears after having achieved his own quest), and by the constant presence of a not too obtrusive allegory. This last characteristic attaches it on the other side to the poems of the Roman de la Rose order, which succeeded the Romans d’Aventures as objects of literary interest and practice, not merely in France, but throughout Europe. This allegory has been variously estimated as a merit or defect of the poem. It is sometimes political, oftener religious, very often moral, and sometimes purely personal—the identifications in this latter case being sometimes clear, as that of Gloriana, Britomart, and Belphœbe with Queen Elizabeth, sometimes probable, as that of Duessa with Queen Mary (not one of Spenser’s most knightly actions), and of Prince Arthur with Leicester, and sometimes more or less problematical, as that of Artegall with Lord Grey, of Timias the Squire with Raleigh, and so forth. To those who are perplexed by these double meanings the best remark is Hazlitt’s blunt one that “the allegory won’t bite them.” In other words, it is always perfectly possible to enjoy the poem without troubling oneself about the allegory at all, except in its broad ethical features, which are quite unmistakable. On the other hand, I am inclined to think that the presence of these under-meanings, with the interest which they give to a moderately instructed and intelligent person who, without too desperate a determination to see into millstones, understands “words to the wise,” is a great addition to the hold of the poem over the attention, and saves it from the charge of mere desultoriness, which some, at least, of the other greatest poems of the kind (notably its immediate exemplar, the Orlando Furioso) must undergo. And here it may be noted that the charge made by most foreign critics who have busied themselves with Spenser, and perhaps by some of his countrymen, that he is, if not a mere paraphrast, yet little more than a transplanter into English of the Italian, is glaringly uncritical. Not, perhaps, till Ariosto and Tasso have been carefully read in the original, is Spenser’s real greatness understood. He has often, and evidently of purpose, challenged comparison; but in every instance it will be found that his beauties are emphatically his own. He has followed his leaders only as Virgil has followed Homer; and much less slavishly.

It is strange to find English critics of this great if not greatest English poem even nowadays repeating that Spenser borrowed his wonderful stanza from the Italians. He did nothing of the kind. That the ottava rima on the one hand, and the sonnet on the other, may have suggested the idea of it is quite possible. But the Spenserian stanza, as it is justly called, is his own and no one else’s, and its merits, especially that primal merit of adaptation to the subject and style of the poem, are unique. Nothing else could adapt itself so perfectly to the endless series of vignettes and dissolving views which the poet delights in giving; while, at the same time, it has, for so elaborate and apparently integral a form, a singular faculty of hooking itself on to stanzas preceding and following, so as not to interrupt continuous narrative when continuous narrative is needed. Its great compass, admitting of an almost infinite variety of cadence and composition, saves it from the monotony from which even the consummate art of Milton could not save blank verse now and then, and from which no writer has ever been able to save the couplet, or the quatrain, or the stanzas ending with a couplet, in narratives of very great length. But the most remarkable instance of harmony between metrical form and other characteristics, both of form and matter, in the metrist has yet to be mentioned. It has been said how well the stanza suits Spenser’s pictorial faculty; it certainly suits his musical faculty as well. The slightly (very slightly, for he can be vigorous enough) languid turn of his grace, the voluptuous cadences of his rhythm, find in it the most perfect exponent possible. The verse of great poets, especially Homer’s, has often been compared to the sea. Spenser’s is more like a river, wide, and deep, and strong, but moderating its waves and conveying them all in a steady, soft, irresistible sweep forwards. To aid him, besides this extraordinary instrument of metre, he had forged for himself another in his language. A great deal has been written on this—comments, at least of the unfavourable kind, generally echoing Ben Jonson’s complaint that Spenser “writ no language”; that his dialect is not the dialect of any actual place or time, that it is an artificial “poetic diction” made up of Chaucer, and of Northern dialect, and of classicisms, and of foreign words, and of miscellaneous archaisms from no matter where. No doubt it is. But if any other excuse than the fact of a beautiful and satisfactory effect is wanted for the formation of a poetic diction different from the actually spoken or the ordinarily written tongue of the day (and I am not sure that any such excuse is required) it is to be found at once. There was no actually spoken or ordinarily written tongue in Spenser’s day which could claim to be “Queen’s English.” Chaucer was obsolete, and since Chaucer there was no single person who could even pretend to authority. Every writer more or less endowed with originality was engaged in beating out for himself, from popular talk, and from classical or foreign analogy, an instrument of speech. Spenser’s verse language and Lyly’s prose are the most remarkable results of the process; but it was, in fact, not only a common but a necessary one, and in no way to be blamed. As for the other criterion hinted at above, no one is likely to condemn the diction according to that. In its remoteness without grotesqueness, in its lavish colour, in its abundance of matter for every kind of cadence and sound-effect, it is exactly suited to the subject, the writer, and the verse.

It is this singular and complete adjustment of worker and implement which, with other peculiarities noted or to be noted, gives The Faërie Queene its unique unicity, if such a conceit may be pardoned. From some points of view it might be called a very artificial poem, yet no poem runs with such an entire absence of effort, with such an easy eloquence, with such an effect, as has been said already, of flowing water. With all his learning, and his archaisms, and his classicisms, and his Platonisms, and his isms without end, hardly any poet smells of the lamp less disagreeably than Spenser. Where Milton forges and smelts, his gold is native. The endless, various, brightly-coloured, softly and yet distinctly outlined pictures rise and pass before the eyes and vanish—the multiform, sweetly-linked, softly-sounding harmonies swell and die and swell again on the ear—without a break, without a jar, softer than sleep and as continuous, gayer than the rainbow and as undiscoverably connected with any obvious cause. And this is the more remarkable because the very last thing that can be said of Spenser is that he is a poet of mere words. Milton himself, the severe Milton, extolled his moral teaching; his philosophical idealism is evidently no mere poet’s plaything or parrot-lesson, but thoroughly thought out and believed in. He is a determined, almost a savage partisan in politics and religion, a steady patriot, something of a statesman, very much indeed of a friend and a lover. And of all this there is ample evidence in his verse. Yet the alchemy of his poetry has passed through the potent alembics of verse and phrase all these rebellious things, and has distilled them into the inimitably fluent and velvet medium which seems to lull some readers to inattention by its very smoothness, and deceive others into a belief in its lack of matter by the very finish and brilliancy of its form. The show passages of the poem which are most generally known—the House of Pride, the Cave of Despair, the Entrance of Belphœbe, the Treasury of Mammon, the Gardens of Acrasia, the Sojourn of Britomart in Busirane’s Castle, the Marriage of the Thames and Medway, the Discovery of the False Florimel, Artegall and the Giant, Calidore with Melibœus, the Processions of the Seasons and the Months—all these are not, as is the case with so many other poets, mere purple patches, diversifying and relieving dullness, but rather remarkable, and as it happens easily separable examples of a power which is shown constantly and almost evenly throughout. Those who admire them do well; but they hardly know Spenser. He, more than almost any other poet, must be read continuously and constantly till the eye and ear and mind have acquired the freedom of his realm of enchantment, and have learnt the secret (as far as a mere reader may learn it) of the poetical spells by which he brings together and controls its wonders. The talk of tediousness, the talk of sameness, the talk of coterie-cultivation in Spenser shows bad taste no doubt; but it rather shows ignorance. The critic has in such cases stayed outside his author; he speaks but of what he has not seen.

The comparative estimate is always the most difficult in literature, and where it can be avoided it is perhaps best to avoid it. But in Spenser’s case this is not possible. He is one of those few who can challenge the title of “greatest English poet,” and the reader may almost of right demand the opinion on this point of any one who writes about him. For my part I have no intention of shirking the difficulty. It seems to me that putting Shakespere aside as hors concours, not merely in degree but in kind, only two English poets can challenge Spenser for the primacy. These are Milton and Shelley. The poet of The Faërie Queene is generally inferior to Milton in the faculty of concentration, and in the minting of those monumental phrases, impressive of themselves and quite apart from the context, which often count highest in the estimation of poetry. His vocabulary and general style, if not more remote from the vernacular, have sometimes a touch of deliberate estrangement from that vernacular which is no doubt of itself a fault. His conception of a great work is looser, more excursive, less dramatic. As compared with Shelley he lacks not merely the modern touches which appeal to a particular age, but the lyrical ability in which Shelley has no equal among English poets. But in each case he redeems these defects with, as it seems to me, far more than counterbalancing merits. He is never prosaic as Milton, like his great successor Wordsworth, constantly is, and his very faults are the faults of a poet. He never (as Shelley does constantly) dissolves away into a flux of words which simply bids good-bye to sense or meaning, and wanders on at large, unguided, without an end, without an aim. But he has more than these merely negative merits. I have seen long accounts of Spenser in which the fact of his invention of the Spenserian stanza is passed over almost without a word of comment. Yet in the formal history of poetry (and the history of poetry must always be pre-eminently a history of form) there is simply no achievement so astonishing as this. That we do not know the inventors of the great single poetic vehicles, the hexameter, the iambic Senarius, the English heroic, the French Alexandrine, is one thing. It is another that in Spenser’s case alone can the invention of a complicated but essentially integral form be assigned to a given poet. It is impossible to say that Sappho invented the Sapphic, or Alcæus the Alcaic: each poet may have been a Vespucci to some precedent Columbus. But we are in a position to say that Spenser did most unquestionably invent the English Spenserian stanza—a form only inferior in individual beauty to the sonnet, which is itself practically adespoton, and far superior to the sonnet in its capacity of being used in multiples as well as singly. When the unlikelihood of such a complicated measure succeeding in narrative form, the splendid success of it in The Faërie Queene, and the remarkable effects which have subsequently been got out of it by men so different as Thomson, Shelley, and Lord Tennyson, are considered, Spenser’s invention must, I think, be counted the most considerable of its kind in literature.

But it may be very freely admitted that this technical merit, great as it is, is the least part of the matter. Whosoever first invented butterflies and pyramids in poetry is not greatly commendable, and if Spenser had done nothing but arrange a cunning combination of eight heroics, with interwoven rhymes and an Alexandrine to finish with, it may be acknowledged at once that his claims to primacy would have to be dismissed at once. It is not so. Independently of The Faërie Queene altogether he has done work which we must go to Milton and Shelley themselves to equal. The varied and singularly original strains of The Calendar, the warmth and delicacy combined of the Epithalamion, the tone of mingled regret and wonder (not inferior in its characteristic Renaissance ring to Du Bellay’s own) of The Ruins of Rome, the different notes of the different minor poems, are all things not to be found in any minor poet. But as does not always happen, and as is perhaps not the case with Milton, Spenser’s greatest work is also his best. In the opinion of some at any rate the poet of Lycidas, of Comus, of Samson Agonistes, even of the Allegro and Penseroso, ranks as high as, if not above, the poet of Paradise Lost. But the poet of The Faërie Queene could spare all his minor works and lose only, as has been said, quantity not quality of greatness. It is hardly necessary at this time of day to repeat the demonstration that Macaulay in his famous jibe only succeeded in showing that he had never read what he jibed at; and though other decriers of Spenser’s masterpiece may not have laid themselves open to quite so crushing a retort, they seldom fail to show a somewhat similar ignorance. For the lover of poetry, for the reader who understands and can receive the poetic charm, the revelation of beauty in metrical language, no English poem is the superior, or, range and variety being considered, the equal of The Faërie Queene. Take it up where you will, and provided only sufficient time (the reading of a dozen stanzas ought to suffice to any one who has the necessary gifts of appreciation) be given to allow the soft dreamy versicoloured atmosphere to rise round the reader, the languid and yet never monotonous music to gain his ear, the mood of mixed imagination and heroism, adventure and morality, to impress itself on his mind, and the result is certain. To the influence of no poet are the famous lines of Spenser’s great nineteenth-century rival so applicable as to Spenser’s own. The enchanted boat, angel-guided, floating on away, afar, without conscious purpose, but simply obeying the instinct of sweet poetry, is not an extravagant symbol for the mind of a reader of Spenser. If such readers want “Criticisms of Life” first of all, they must go elsewhere, though they will find them amply given, subject to the limitations of the poetical method. If they want story they may complain of slackness and deviations. If they want glorifications of science and such like things, they had better shut the book at once, and read no more on that day nor on any other. But if they want poetry—if they want to be translated from a world which is not one of beauty only into one where the very uglinesses are beautiful, into a world of perfect harmony in colour and sound, of an endless sequence of engaging event and character, of noble passions and actions not lacking their due contrast, then let them go to Spenser with a certainty of satisfaction. He is not, as are some poets, the poet of a certain time of life to the exclusion of others. He may be read in childhood chiefly for his adventure, in later youth for his display of voluptuous beauty, in manhood for his ethical and historical weight, in age for all combined, and for the contrast which his bright universe of invention affords with the work-day jejuneness of this troublesome world. But he never palls upon those who have once learnt to taste him; and no poet is so little of an acquired taste to those who have any liking for poetry at all. He has been called the poet’s poet—a phrase honourable but a little misleading, inasmuch as it first suggests that he is not the poet of the great majority of readers who cannot pretend to be poets themselves, and secondly insinuates a kind of intellectual and æsthetic Pharisaism in those who do admire him, which may be justly resented by those who do not. Let us rather say that he is the poet of all others for those who seek in poetry only poetical qualities, and we shall say not only what is more than enough to establish his greatness but what, as I for one believe, can be maintained in the teeth of all gainsayers.[23]

[23] Of Spenser as of two other poets in this volume, Shakespere and Milton, it seemed to be unnecessary and even impertinent to give any extracts. Their works are, or ought to be, in all hands; and even if it were not so, no space at my command could give sample of their infinite varieties.

The volume, variety, and vigour of the poetical production of the period in which Spenser is the central figure—the last twenty years of the sixteenth century—is perhaps proportionally the greatest, and may be said to be emphatically the most distinguished in purely poetical characteristics of any period in our history. Every kind of poetical work is represented in it, and every kind (with the possible exception of the semi-poetical kind of satire) is well represented. There is, indeed, no second name that approaches Spenser’s, either in respect of importance or in respect of uniform excellence of work. But in the most incomplete production of this time there is almost always that poetical spark which is often entirely wanting in the finished and complete work of other periods. I shall, therefore, divide the whole mass into four groups, each with certain distinguished names at its head, and a crowd of hardly undistinguished names in its rank and file. These four groups are the sonneteers, the historians, the satirists, and lastly, the miscellaneous lyrists and poetical miscellanists.

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Although it is only recently that its mass and its beauty have been fully recognised, the extraordinary outburst of sonnet-writing at a certain period of Elizabeth’s reign has always attracted the attention of literary historians. For many years after Wyatt and Surrey’s work appeared the form attracted but little imitation or practice. About 1580 Spenser himself probably, Sidney and Thomas Watson certainly, devoted much attention to it; but it was some dozen years later that the most striking crop of sonnets appeared. Between 1593 and 1596 there were published more than a dozen collections, chiefly or wholly of sonnets, and almost all bearing the name of a single person, in whose honour they were supposed to be composed. So singular is this coincidence, showing either an intense engouement in literary society, or a spontaneous determination of energy in individuals, that the list with dates is worth giving. It runs thus:—In 1593 came Barnes’s Parthenophil and Parthenophe, Fletcher’s Licia, and Lodge’s Phillis. In 1594 followed Constable’s Diana, Daniel’s Delia,[24] the anonymous Zepheria, Drayton’s Idea, Percy’s Cœlia, and Willoughby’s Avisa; 1595 added the Alcilia of a certain J. C., and Spenser’s perfect Amoretti; 1596 gave Griffin’s Fidessa, Lynch’s Diella, and Smith’s Chloris, while Shakespere’s earliest sonnets were probably not much later. Then the fashion changed, or the vein was worked out, or (more fancifully) the impossibility of equalling Spenser and Shakespere choked off competitors. The date of Lord Brooke’s singular Cœlica, not published till long afterwards, is uncertain; but he may, probably, be classed with Sidney and Watson in period. The life of Spenser is very little known, and here and elsewhere the conditions of this book preclude the reproduction or even the discussion of the various pious attempts which have been made to supply the deficiency of documents. The chief of these in his case is to be found in Dr. Grosart’s magnificent edition, the principal among many good works of its editor. That he belonged to a branch—a Lancashire branch in all probability—of the family which produced the Le Despensers of elder, and the Spencers of modern English history, may be said to be unquestionable. But he appears to have been born about 1552 in London, and to have been educated at Merchant Taylors’, whence in May 1569 he matriculated at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar. At or before this time he must have contributed (though there are puzzles in the matter) certain translations of sonnets from Petrarch and Du Bellay to a book called The Theatre of Voluptuous Worldlings, published by a Brabanter, John van der Noodt. These, slightly changed from blank verse to rhyme, appeared long afterwards with his minor poems of 1590. But the original pieces had been claimed by the Dutchman; and though there are easy ways of explaining this, the thing is curious. However it may be with these verses, certainly nothing else of Spenser’s appeared in print for ten years. His Cambridge life, except for some vague allusions (which, as usual in such cases, have been strained to breaking by commentators and biographers), is equally obscure; save that he certainly fulfilled seven years of residence, taking his Bachelor’s Degree in 1573, and his Master’s three years later. But he did not gain a fellowship, and the chief discoverable results of his Cambridge sojourn were the thorough scholarship which marks his work, and his friendship with the notorious Gabriel Harvey—his senior by some years, a Fellow of Pembroke, and a person whose singularly bad literary taste, as shown in his correspondence with Spenser, may be perhaps forgiven, first, because it did no harm, and secondly, because without him we should know even less of Spenser than we do. It is reasonably supposed from the notes of his friend, “E. K.” (apparently Kirke, a Pembroke man), to The Shepherd’s Calendar, that he went to his friends in the north after leaving Cambridge and spent a year or two there, falling in love with the heroine, poetically named Rosalind, of The Calendar, and no doubt writing that remarkable book. Then (probably very late in 1578) he went to London, was introduced by Harvey to Sidney and Leicester, and thus mixed at once in the best literary and political society. He was not long in putting forth his titles to its attention, for The Shepherd’s Calendar was published in the winter of 1579, copiously edited by “E. K.,” whom some absurdly suppose to be Spenser himself. The poet seems to have had also numerous works (the titles of which are known) ready or nearly ready for the press. But all were subsequently either changed in title, incorporated with other work, or lost. He had already begun The Faërie Queene, much to the pedant Harvey’s disgust; and he dabbled in the fashionable absurdity of classical metres, like his inferiors. But he published nothing more immediately; and powerful as were his patrons, the only preferment which he obtained was in that Eldorado-Purgatory of Elizabethan ambition—Ireland. Lord Grey took him as private secretary when he was in 1580 appointed deputy, and shortly afterwards he received some civil posts in his new country, and a lease of abbey lands at Enniscorthy, which lease he soon gave up. But he stayed in Ireland, notwithstanding the fact that his immediate patron Grey soon left it. Except a few bare dates and doubtful allusions, little or nothing is heard of him between 1580 and 1590. On the eve of the latter year (the 1st of December 1589) the first three books of The Faërie Queene were entered at Stationers’ Hall, and were published in the spring of the next year. He had been already established at Kilcolman in the county Cork on a grant of more than three thousand acres of land out of the forfeited Desmond estates. And henceforward his literary activity, at least in publication, became more considerable, and he seems to have been much backwards and forwards between England and Ireland. In 1590 appeared a volume of minor poems (The Ruins of Time, The Tears of the Muses, Virgil’s Gnat, Mother Hubbard’s Tale, The Ruins of Rome, Muiopotmos, and the Visions), with an address to the reader in which another list of forthcoming works is promised. These, like the former list of Kirke, seem oddly enough to have also perished. The whole collection was called Complaints, and a somewhat similar poem, Daphnaida, is thought to have appeared in the same year. On the 11th of June 1594 the poet married (strangely enough it was not known whom, until Dr. Grosart ingeniously identified her with a certain Elizabeth Boyle alias Seckerstone), and in 1595 were published the beautiful Amoretti or love sonnets, and the still more beautiful Epithalamion describing his courtship and marriage, with the interesting poem of Colin Clout’s Come Home Again; while in the same year (old style; in January 1596, new style) the fourth, fifth, and sixth books of The Faërie Queene were entered for publication and soon appeared. The supposed allusions to Mary Stuart greatly offended her son James. The Hymns and the Prothalamion followed in the same year. Spenser met with difficulties at Court (though he had obtained a small pension of fifty pounds a year), and had like other Englishmen troubles with his neighbours in Ireland; yet he seemed to be becoming more prosperous, and in 1598 he was named Sheriff of Cork. A few weeks later the Irish Rebellion broke out; his house was sacked and burnt with one of his children; he fled to England and died on the 16th of January 1599 at King Street, Westminster, perhaps not “for lack of bread,” as Jonson says, but certainly in no fortunate circumstances. In the year of his misfortune had been registered, though it was never printed till more than thirty years later, his one prose work of substance, the remarkable View of the Present State of Ireland; an admirable piece of prose, and a political tract, the wisdom and grasp of which only those who have had to give close attention to Irish politics can fully estimate. It is probably the most valuable document on any given period of Irish history that exists, and is certainly superior in matter, no less than in style, to any political tract in English, published before the days of Halifax eighty years after.

It has been said that The Shepherd’s Calendar placed Spenser at once at the head of the English poets of his day; and it did so. But had he written nothing more, he would not (as is the case with not a few distinguished poets) have occupied as high or nearly as high a position in quality, if not in quantity, as he now does. He was a young man when he published it; he was not indeed an old man when he died; and it would not appear that he had had much experience of life beyond college walls. His choice of models—the artificial pastorals in which the Renaissance had modelled itself on Virgil and Theocritus, rather than Virgil and Theocritus themselves—was not altogether happy. He showed, indeed, already his extraordinary metrical skill, experimenting with rhyme-royal and other stanzas, fourteeners or eights and sixes, anapæsts more or less irregular, and an exceedingly important variety of octosyllable which, whatever may have been his own idea in practising it, looked back to early Middle English rhythms and forward to the metre of Christabel, as Coleridge was to start it afresh. He also transgressed into religious politics, taking (as indeed he always took, strange as it may seem in so fanatical a worshipper of beauty) the Puritan side. Nor is his work improved as poetry, though it acquires something in point of quaint attractiveness, by good Mr. “E. K.’s” elaborate annotations, introductions, explanations, and general gentleman-usherings—the first in English, but most wofully not the last by hundreds, of such overlayings of gold with copper. Yet with all these drawbacks The Shepherd’s Calendar is delightful. Already we can see in it that double command, at once of the pictorial and the musical elements of poetry, in which no English poet is Spenser’s superior, if any is his equal. Already the unmatched power of vigorous allegory, which he was to display later, shows in such pieces as The Oak and the Briar. In the less deliberately archaic divisions, such as “April” and “November,” the command of metrical form, in which also the poet is almost peerless, discovers itself. Much the same may be said of the volume of Complaints, which, though published later than The Faërie Queene, represents beyond all question very much earlier work. Spenser is unquestionably, when he is not at once spurred and soothed by the play of his own imagination, as in The Queene, a melancholy poet, and the note of melancholy is as strong in these poems as in their joint title. It combines with his delight in emblematic allegory happily enough, in most of these pieces except Mother Hubbard’s Tale. This is almost an open satire, and shows that if Spenser’s genius had not found a less mongrel style to disport itself in, not merely would Donne, and Lodge, and Hall, and Marston have had to abandon their dispute for the post of first English satirist, but the attainment of really great satire in English might have been hastened by a hundred years, and Absalom and Achitophel have been but a second. Even here, however, the piece still keeps the Chaucerian form and manner, and is only a kind of exercise. The sonnets from and after Du Bellay and others are more interesting. As in the subsequent and far finer Amoretti, Spenser prefers the final couplet form to the so-called Petrarchian arrangement; and, indeed, though the most recent fashion in England has inclined to the latter, an impartial judgment must pronounce both forms equally good and equally entitled to place. The Amoretti written in this metre, and undoubtedly representing some, at least, of Spenser’s latest written work, rank with the best of Sidney’s, and hardly below the best of Shakespere’s; while both in them and in the earlier sonnets the note of regret mingled with delight—the special Renaissance note—sounds as it rarely does in any other English verse. Of the poems of the later period, however (leaving The Faërie Queene for a moment aside), the Epithalamion and the Four Hymns rank undoubtedly highest. For splendour of imagery, for harmony of verse, for delicate taste and real passion, the Epithalamion excels all other poems of its class, and the Four Hymns express a rapture of Platonic enthusiasm, which may indeed be answerable for the unreadable Psyches and Psychozoias of the next age, but which is itself married to immortal verse in the happiest manner.

It has been said that The Shepherd’s Calendar placed Spenser at once at the head of the English poets of his day; and it did so. But had he written nothing more, he would not (as is the case with not a few distinguished poets) have occupied as high or nearly as high a position in quality, if not in quantity, as he now does. He was a young man when he published it; he was not indeed an old man when he died; and it would not appear that he had had much experience of life beyond college walls. His choice of models—the artificial pastorals in which the Renaissance had modelled itself on Virgil and Theocritus, rather than Virgil and Theocritus themselves—was not altogether happy. He showed, indeed, already his extraordinary metrical skill, experimenting with rhyme-royal and other stanzas, fourteeners or eights and sixes, anapæsts more or less irregular, and an exceedingly important variety of octosyllable which, whatever may have been his own idea in practising it, looked back to early Middle English rhythms and forward to the metre of Christabel, as Coleridge was to start it afresh. He also transgressed into religious politics, taking (as indeed he always took, strange as it may seem in so fanatical a worshipper of beauty) the Puritan side. Nor is his work improved as poetry, though it acquires something in point of quaint attractiveness, by good Mr. “E. K.’s” elaborate annotations, introductions, explanations, and general gentleman-usherings—the first in English, but most wofully not the last by hundreds, of such overlayings of gold with copper. Yet with all these drawbacks The Shepherd’s Calendar is delightful. Already we can see in it that double command, at once of the pictorial and the musical elements of poetry, in which no English poet is Spenser’s superior, if any is his equal. Already the unmatched power of vigorous allegory, which he was to display later, shows in such pieces as The Oak and the Briar. In the less deliberately archaic divisions, such as “April” and “November,” the command of metrical form, in which also the poet is almost peerless, discovers itself. Much the same may be said of the volume of Complaints, which, though published later than The Faërie Queene, represents beyond all question very much earlier work. Spenser is unquestionably, when he is not at once spurred and soothed by the play of his own imagination, as in The Queene, a melancholy poet, and the note of melancholy is as strong in these poems as in their joint title. It combines with his delight in emblematic allegory happily enough, in most of these pieces except Mother Hubbard’s Tale. This is almost an open satire, and shows that if Spenser’s genius had not found a less mongrel style to disport itself in, not merely would Donne, and Lodge, and Hall, and Marston have had to abandon their dispute for the post of first English satirist, but the attainment of really great satire in English might have been hastened by a hundred years, and Absalom and Achitophel have been but a second. Even here, however, the piece still keeps the Chaucerian form and manner, and is only a kind of exercise. The sonnets from and after Du Bellay and others are more interesting. As in the subsequent and far finer Amoretti, Spenser prefers the final couplet form to the so-called Petrarchian arrangement; and, indeed, though the most recent fashion in England has inclined to the latter, an impartial judgment must pronounce both forms equally good and equally entitled to place. The Amoretti written in this metre, and undoubtedly representing some, at least, of Spenser’s latest written work, rank with the best of Sidney’s, and hardly below the best of Shakespere’s; while both in them and in the earlier sonnets the note of regret mingled with delight—the special Renaissance note—sounds as it rarely does in any other English verse. Of the poems of the later period, however (leaving The Faërie Queene for a moment aside), the Epithalamion and the Four Hymns rank undoubtedly highest. For splendour of imagery, for harmony of verse, for delicate taste and real passion, the Epithalamion excels all other poems of its class, and the Four Hymns express a rapture of Platonic enthusiasm, which may indeed be answerable for the unreadable Psyches and Psychozoias of the next age, but which is itself married to immortal verse in the happiest manner. interesting. As in the subsequent and far finer Amoretti, Spenser prefers the final couplet form to the so-called Petrarchian arrangement; and, indeed, though the most recent fashion in England has inclined to the latter, an impartial judgment must pronounce both forms equally good and equally entitled to place. The Amoretti written in this metre, and undoubtedly representing some, at least, of Spenser’s latest written work, rank with the best of Sidney’s, and hardly below the best of Shakespere’s; while both in them and in the earlier sonnets the note of regret mingled with delight—the special Renaissance note—sounds as it rarely does in any other English verse. Of the poems of the later period, however (leaving The Faërie Queene for a moment aside), the Epithalamion and the Four Hymns rank undoubtedly highest. For splendour of imagery, for harmony of verse, for delicate taste and real passion, the Epithalamion excels all other poems of its class, and the Four Hymns express a rapture of Platonic enthusiasm, which may indeed be answerable for the unreadable Psyches and Psychozoias of the next age, but which is itself married to immortal verse in the happiest manner.

Still, to the ordinary reader, Spenser is the poet of The Faërie Queene, and for once the ordinary reader is right. Every quality found in his other poems is found in this greatest of them in perfection; and much is found there which is not, and indeed could not be, found anywhere else. Its general scheme is so well known (few as may be the readers who really know its details) that very slight notice of it may suffice. Twelve knights, representing twelve virtues, were to have been sent on adventures from the Court of Gloriana, Queen of Fairyland. The six finished books give the legends (each subdivided into twelve cantos, averaging fifty or sixty stanzas each) of Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy; while a fragment of two splendid “Cantos on Mutability” is supposed to have belonged to a seventh book (not necessarily seventh in order) on Constancy. Legend has it that the poem was actually completed; but this seems improbable, as the first three books were certainly ten years in hand, and the second three six more. The existing poem comprehending some four thousand stanzas, or between thirty and forty thousand lines, exhibits so many and such varied excellences that it is difficult to believe that the poet could have done anything new in kind. No part of it is as a whole inferior to any other part, and the fragmentary cantos contain not merely one of the most finished pictorial pieces—the Procession of the Months—to be found in the whole poem, but much of the poet’s finest thought and verse. Had fortune been kinder, the volume of delight would have been greater, but its general character would probably not have changed much. As it is, The Faërie Queene is the only long poem that a lover of poetry can sincerely wish longer.

It deserves some critical examination here from three points of view, regarding respectively its general scheme, its minor details of form in metre and language, and lastly, its general poetical characteristics. The first is simple enough in its complexity. The poem is a long Roman d’Aventure (which it is perhaps as well to say, once for all, is not the same as a “Romance of Chivalry,” or a “Romance of Adventure”), redeemed from the aimless prolixity incident to that form by its regular plan, by the intercommunion of the adventures of the several knights (none of whom disappears after having achieved his own quest), and by the constant presence of a not too obtrusive allegory. This last characteristic attaches it on the other side to the poems of the Roman de la Rose order, which succeeded the Romans d’Aventures as objects of literary interest and practice, not merely in France, but throughout Europe. This allegory has been variously estimated as a merit or defect of the poem. It is sometimes political, oftener religious, very often moral, and sometimes purely personal—the identifications in this latter case being sometimes clear, as that of Gloriana, Britomart, and Belphœbe with Queen Elizabeth, sometimes probable, as that of Duessa with Queen Mary (not one of Spenser’s most knightly actions), and of Prince Arthur with Leicester, and sometimes more or less problematical, as that of Artegall with Lord Grey, of Timias the Squire with Raleigh, and so forth. To those who are perplexed by these double meanings the best remark is Hazlitt’s blunt one that “the allegory won’t bite them.” In other words, it is always perfectly possible to enjoy the poem without troubling oneself about the allegory at all, except in its broad ethical features, which are quite unmistakable. On the other hand, I am inclined to think that the presence of these under-meanings, with the interest which they give to a moderately instructed and intelligent person who, without too desperate a determination to see into millstones, understands “words to the wise,” is a great addition to the hold of the poem over the attention, and saves it from the charge of mere desultoriness, which some, at least, of the other greatest poems of the kind (notably its immediate exemplar, the Orlando Furioso) must undergo. And here it may be noted that the charge made by most foreign critics who have busied themselves with Spenser, and perhaps by some of his countrymen, that he is, if not a mere paraphrast, yet little more than a transplanter into English of the Italian, is glaringly uncritical. Not, perhaps, till Ariosto and Tasso have been carefully read in the original, is Spenser’s real greatness understood. He has often, and evidently of purpose, challenged comparison; but in every instance it will be found that his beauties are emphatically his own. He has followed his leaders only as Virgil has followed Homer; and much less slavishly.

It is strange to find English critics of this great if not greatest English poem even nowadays repeating that Spenser borrowed his wonderful stanza from the Italians. He did nothing of the kind. That the ottava rima on the one hand, and the sonnet on the other, may have suggested the idea of it is quite possible. But the Spenserian stanza, as it is justly called, is his own and no one else’s, and its merits, especially that primal merit of adaptation to the subject and style of the poem, are unique. Nothing else could adapt itself so perfectly to the endless series of vignettes and dissolving views which the poet delights in giving; while, at the same time, it has, for so elaborate and apparently integral a form, a singular faculty of hooking itself on to stanzas preceding and following, so as not to interrupt continuous narrative when continuous narrative is needed. Its great compass, admitting of an almost infinite variety of cadence and composition, saves it from the monotony from which even the consummate art of Milton could not save blank verse now and then, and from which no writer has ever been able to save the couplet, or the quatrain, or the stanzas ending with a couplet, in narratives of very great length. But the most remarkable instance of harmony between metrical form and other characteristics, both of form and matter, in the metrist has yet to be mentioned. It has been said how well the stanza suits Spenser’s pictorial faculty; it certainly suits his musical faculty as well. The slightly (very slightly, for he can be vigorous enough) languid turn of his grace, the voluptuous cadences of his rhythm, find in it the most perfect exponent possible. The verse of great poets, especially Homer’s, has often been compared to the sea. Spenser’s is more like a river, wide, and deep, and strong, but moderating its waves and conveying them all in a steady, soft, irresistible sweep forwards. To aid him, besides this extraordinary instrument of metre, he had forged for himself another in his language. A great deal has been written on this—comments, at least of the unfavourable kind, generally echoing Ben Jonson’s complaint that Spenser “writ no language”; that his dialect is not the dialect of any actual place or time, that it is an artificial “poetic diction” made up of Chaucer, and of Northern dialect, and of classicisms, and of foreign words, and of miscellaneous archaisms from no matter where. No doubt it is. But if any other excuse than the fact of a beautiful and satisfactory effect is wanted for the formation of a poetic diction different from the actually spoken or the ordinarily written tongue of the day (and I am not sure that any such excuse is required) it is to be found at once. There was no actually spoken or ordinarily written tongue in Spenser’s day which could claim to be “Queen’s English.” Chaucer was obsolete, and since Chaucer there was no single person who could even pretend to authority. Every writer more or less endowed with originality was engaged in beating out for himself, from popular talk, and from classical or foreign analogy, an instrument of speech. Spenser’s verse language and Lyly’s prose are the most remarkable results of the process; but it was, in fact, not only a common but a necessary one, and in no way to be blamed. As for the other criterion hinted at above, no one is likely to condemn the diction according to that. In its remoteness without grotesqueness, in its lavish colour, in its abundance of matter for every kind of cadence and sound-effect, it is exactly suited to the subject, the writer, and the verse.

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It is this singular and complete adjustment of worker and implement which, with other peculiarities noted or to be noted, gives The Faërie Queene its unique unicity, if such a conceit may be pardoned. From some points of view it might be called a very artificial poem, yet no poem runs with such an entire absence of effort, with such an easy eloquence, with such an effect, as has been said already, of flowing water. With all his learning, and his archaisms, and his classicisms, and his Platonisms, and his isms without end, hardly any poet smells of the lamp less disagreeably than Spenser. Where Milton forges and smelts, his gold is native. The endless, various, brightly-coloured, softly and yet distinctly outlined pictures rise and pass before the eyes and vanish—the multiform, sweetly-linked, softly-sounding harmonies swell and die and swell It is this singular and complete adjustment of worker and implement which, with other peculiarities noted or to be noted, gives The Faërie Queene its unique unicity, if such a conceit may be pardoned. From some points of view it might be called a very artificial poem, yet no poem runs with such an entire absence of effort, with such an easy eloquence, with such an effect, as has been said already, of flowing water. With all his learning, and his archaisms, and his classicisms, and his Platonisms, and his isms without end, hardly any poet smells of the lamp less disagreeably than Spenser. Where Milton forges and smelts, his gold is native. The endless, various, brightly-coloured, softly and yet distinctly outlined pictures rise and pass before the eyes and vanish—the multiform, sweetly-linked, softly-sounding harmonies swell and die and swell again on the ear—without a break, without a jar, softer than sleep and as continuous, gayer than the rainbow and as undiscoverably connected with any obvious cause. And this is the more remarkable because the very last thing that can be said of Spenser is that he is a poet of mere words. Milton himself, the severe Milton, extolled his moral teaching; his philosophical idealism is evidently no mere poet’s plaything or parrot-lesson, but thoroughly thought out and believed in. He is a determined, almost a savage partisan in politics and religion, a steady patriot, something of a statesman, very much indeed of a friend and a lover. And of all this there is ample evidence in his verse. Yet the alchemy of his poetry has passed through the potent alembics of verse and phrase all these rebellious things, and has distilled them into the inimitably fluent and velvet medium which seems to lull some readers to inattention by its very smoothness, and deceive others into a belief in its lack of matter by the very finish and brilliancy of its form. The show passages of the poem which are most generally known—the House of Pride, the Cave of Despair, the Entrance of Belphœbe, the Treasury of Mammon, the Gardens of Acrasia, the Sojourn of Britomart in Busirane’s Castle, the Marriage of the Thames and Medway, the Discovery of the False Florimel, Artegall and the Giant, Calidore with Melibœus, the Processions of the Seasons and the Months—all these are not, as is the case with so many other poets, mere purple patches, diversifying and relieving dullness, but rather remarkable, and as it happens easily separable examples of a power which is shown constantly and almost evenly throughout. Those who admire them do well; but they hardly know Spenser. He, more than almost any other poet, must be read continuously and constantly till the eye and ear and mind have acquired the freedom of his realm of enchantment, and have learnt the secret (as far as a mere reader may learn it) of the poetical spells by which he brings together and controls its wonders. The talk of tediousness, the talk of sameness, the talk of coterie-cultivation in Spenser shows bad taste no doubt; but it rather shows ignorance. The critic has in such cases stayed outside his author; he speaks but of what he has not seen.

The comparative estimate is always the most difficult in literature, and where it can be avoided it is perhaps best to avoid it. But in Spenser’s case this is not possible. He is one of those few who can challenge the title of “greatest English poet,” and the reader may almost of right demand the opinion on this point of any one who writes about him. For my part I have no intention of shirking the difficulty. It seems to me that putting Shakespere aside as hors concours, not merely in degree but in kind, only two English poets can challenge Spenser for the primacy. These are Milton and Shelley. The poet of The Faërie Queene is generally inferior to Milton in the faculty of concentration, and in the minting of those monumental phrases, impressive of themselves and quite apart from the context, which often count highest in the estimation of poetry. His vocabulary and general style, if not more remote from the vernacular, have sometimes a touch of deliberate estrangement from that vernacular which is no doubt of itself a fault. His conception of a great work is looser, more excursive, less dramatic. As compared with Shelley he lacks not merely the modern touches which appeal to a particular age, but the lyrical ability in which Shelley has no equal among English poets. But in each case he redeems these defects with, as it seems to me, far more than counterbalancing merits. He is never prosaic as Milton, like his great successor Wordsworth, constantly is, and his very faults are the faults of a poet. He never (as Shelley does constantly) dissolves away into a flux of words which simply bids good-bye to sense or meaning, and wanders on at large, unguided, without an end, without an aim. But he has more than these merely negative merits. I have seen long accounts of Spenser in which the fact of his invention of the Spenserian stanza is passed over almost without a word of comment. Yet in the formal history of poetry (and the history of poetry must always be pre-eminently a history of form) there is simply no achievement so astonishing as this. That we do not know the inventors of the great single poetic vehicles, the hexameter, the iambic Senarius, the English heroic, the French Alexandrine, is one thing. It is another that in Spenser’s case alone can the invention of a complicated but essentially integral form be assigned to a given poet. It is impossible to say that Sappho invented the Sapphic, or Alcæus the Alcaic: each poet may have been a Vespucci to some precedent Columbus. But we are in a position to say that Spenser did most unquestionably invent the English Spenserian stanza—a form only inferior in individual beauty to the sonnet, which is itself practically adespoton, and far superior to the sonnet in its capacity of being used in multiples as well as singly. When the unlikelihood of such a complicated measure succeeding in narrative form, the splendid success of it in The Faërie Queene, and the remarkable effects which have subsequently been got out of it by men so different as Thomson, Shelley, and Lord Tennyson, are considered, Spenser’s invention must, I think, be counted the most considerable of its kind in literature.

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But it may be very freely admitted that this technical merit, great as it is, is the least part of the matter. Whosoever first invented butterflies and pyramids in poetry is not greatly commendable, and if Spenser had done nothing but arrange a cunning combination of eight heroics, with interwoven rhymes and an Alexandrine to finish with, it may be acknowledged at once that his claims to primacy would have to be dismissed at once. It is not so. Independently of The Faërie Queene altogether he has done work which we must go to Milton and Shelley themselves to equal. The varied and singularly original strains of The Calendar, the warmth and delicacy combined of the Epithalamion, the tone of mingled regret and wonder (not inferior in its characteristic Renaissance ring to Du Bellay’s own) of The Ruins of Rome, the different notes of the different minor poems, are all things not to be found in any minor poet. But as does not always happen, and as is perhaps not the case with Milton, Spenser’s greatest work is also his best. In the opinion of some at any rate the poet of Lycidas, of Comus, of Samson Agonistes, even of the Allegro and Penseroso, ranks as high as, if not above, the poet of Paradise Lost. But the poet of The Faërie Queene could spare all his minor works and lose only, as has been said, quantity not quality of greatness. It is hardly necessary at this time of day to repeat the demonstration that Macaulay in his famous jibe only succeeded in showing that he had never read what he jibed at; and though other decriers of Spenser’s masterpiece may not have laid themselves open to quite so crushing a retort, they seldom fail to show a somewhat similar ignorance. For the lover of poetry, for the reader who understands and can receive the poetic charm, the revelation of beauty in metrical language, no English poem is the superior, or, range and variety being considered, the equal of The Faërie Queene. Take it up where you will, and provided only sufficient time (the reading of a dozen stanzas ought to suffice to any one who has the necessary gifts of appreciation) be given to allow the soft dreamy versicoloured atmosphere to rise round the reader, the languid and yet never monotonous music to gain his ear, the mood of mixed imagination and heroism, adventure and morality, to impress itself on his mind, and the result is certain. To the influence of no poet are the famous lines of Spenser’s great nineteenth-century rival so applicable as to Spenser’s own. The enchanted boat, angel-guided, floating on away, afar, without conscious purpose, but simply obeying the instinct of sweet poetry, is not an extravagant symbol for the mind of a reader of Spenser. If such readers want “Criticisms of Life” first of all, they must go elsewhere, though they will find them amply given, subject to the limitations of the poetical method. If they want story they may complain of slackness and deviations. If they want glorifications of science and such like things, they had better shut the book at once, and read no more on that day nor on any other. But if they want poetry—if they want to be translated from a world which is not one of beauty only into one where the very uglinesses are beautiful, into a world of perfect harmony in colour and sound, of an endless sequence of engaging event and character, of noble passions and actions not lacking their due contrast, then let them go to Spenser with a certainty of satisfaction. He is not, as are some poets, the poet of a certain time of life to the exclusion of others. He may be read in childhood chiefly for his adventure, in later youth for his display of voluptuous beauty, in manhood for his ethical and historical weight, in age for all combined, and for the contrast which his bright universe of invention affords with the work-day jejuneness of this troublesome world. But he never palls upon those who have once learnt to taste him; and no poet is so little of an acquired taste to those who have any liking for poetry at all. He has been called the poet’s poet—a phrase honourable but a little misleading, inasmuch as it first suggests that he is not the poet of the great majority of readers who cannot pretend to be poets themselves, and secondly insinuates a kind of intellectual and æsthetic Pharisaism in those who do admire him, which may be justly resented by those who do not. Let us rather say that he is the poet of all others for those who seek in poetry only poetical qualities, and we shall say not only what is more than enough to establish his greatness but what, as I for one believe, can be maintained in the teeth of all gainsayers.[23]

Although it is only recently that its mass and its beauty have been fully recognised, the extraordinary outburst of sonnet-writing at a certain period of Elizabeth’s reign has always attracted the attention of literary historians. For many years after Wyatt and Surrey’s work appeared the form attracted but little imitation or practice. About 1580 Spenser himself probably, Sidney and Thomas Watson certainly, devoted much attention to it; but it was some dozen years later that the most striking crop of sonnets appeared. Between 1593 and 1596 there were published more than a dozen collections, chiefly or wholly of sonnets, and almost all bearing the name of a single person, in whose honour they were supposed to be composed. So singular is this coincidence, showing either an intense engouement in literary society, or a spontaneous determination of energy in individuals, that the list with dates is worth giving. It runs thus:—In 1593 came Barnes’s Parthenophil and Parthenophe, Fletcher’s Licia, and Lodge’s Phillis. In 1594 followed Constable’s Diana, Daniel’s Delia,[24] the anonymous Zepheria, Drayton’s Idea, Percy’s Cœlia, and Willoughby’s Avisa; 1595 added the Alcilia of a certain J. C., and Spenser’s perfect Amoretti; 1596 gave Griffin’s Fidessa, Lynch’s Diella, and Smith’s Chloris, while Shakespere’s earliest sonnets were probably not much later. Then the fashion changed, or the vein was worked out, or (more fancifully) the impossibility of equalling Spenser and Shakespere choked off competitors. The date of Lord Brooke’s singular Cœlica, not published till long afterwards, is uncertain; but he may, probably, be classed with Sidney and Watson in period.

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