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To spend, to give, to want, to be undonne.
That doth his life in so long tendance spend!” It is not often that we are permitted to get so close to Spenser as in these words. They give us a glimpse into the true meaning of his experience. We see how he hated his exile in Ireland when we see what trouble he took to end it; and we can estimate more justly the effect of that dreary banishment on Spenser and his work. Shut out from all the excitement and rush of life that crowded Shakespeare's London, he turned from the repulsive coarseness and violence about him, to delight his soul in the languor and beauty of the Italy of the Renaissance. He withdrew into himself and into the world of fair imaginings, and he wove his gorgeous fancies into the Faërie Queene.
Spenser returned to Ireland in 1591, and wrote his Colin Clout's Come Home Again. In 1594 he married Elizabeth Boyer, “ an Irish country lass,” and paid her a poet's tribute in his Amoretti, or love sonnets, and in the splendid Epithalamion, or marriage hymn, a poem filled with a rich and noble music. Here also he wrote three more books of the twelve that were to make up the first part of the Faërie Queene. These Spenser took to London and published them in 1596. But Ireland seems to have been Spenser's doom. In 1598 he returned again to that misgoverned and perilous country which necessity had made his home. Shortly after, the miserable natives again rose in rebellion, and hordes of desperate men ravaged Munster. Spenser's castle was sacked and burnt. He and his wife managed to escape, and Spenser soon afterward went to London as bearer of despatches. Here he died (1599) in a lodging-house, a ruined and broken-hearted man.
As Poet. One of the greatest poets of a great age, Spenser has little in common with his fellows but their love of beauty and their mastery of poetic expression. He lived in a time of great deeds and stirring events, when the brilliant and crowded procession of Elizabethan life, one would think, would have compelled the attention of every mind. But from this world of action Spenser was far removed. Not only the circumstances of his life, but his genius, led him into an unreal world of the imagination, an Arcadia where figures are shadowy and unsubstantial, — the figments of a poet's brain. Chaucer, whom Spenser called master, had, with the shrewdest of eyes, studied and painted to the life real men and women of fourteenth-century England. His Knight in the Canterbury Tales rode a good horse and
a short cassock that had been soiled by his armor; the Prioress
if that she saugh a mous;” the Plowman“ wolde thresshe, and therto dyke and delve." Shakespeare, too, with all his poetry, kept ever close to reality; his characters are nothing if they are not human. But Spenser leads us into a world of shining knights and distressed damsels, of dragons, fairies, and enchanters. In his work he follows many of the conventions of the old poets and the old romancers, and seems to look at life through art rather than at life itself. A great poet standing at the threshold of the modern world, Spenser turned to medieval allegory with its abstract figures, and to medieval romance with its endless adventures, when all about him his greatest contemporaries were giving their reading of life in the concrete forms and close-knit action of the drama.
The Faërie Queene. This limitation is the more noticeable because in his great masterpiece, the Faërie Queene, Spenser aimed to be a teacher. He proposed
to show in an allegory the conflict between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, self-indulgence and selfcontrol. The different personages of the story represent the abstract virtues and vices; and the general purpose of the poem is “to fashion a perfect gentleman " by exhibiting a pattern of noble manhood and by showing the beauty of goodness and its final triumph. The poem is a long one, its six completed books occupying approximately four hundred pages of ninety lines each. In the first book, Falsehood, or Duessa, is overthrown, and the Red Cross Knight, the "righteous man," is united to truth, or Una. The remaining books are devoted to man's conquest of himself; to the conflict between his higher and his lower nature. But besides showing the general warfare between good and evil, which is common to all times, Spenser aimed to portray the specific form which that conflict had taken in his own age. The allegory is thus confused and complicated by the introduction of contemporary issues. Thus the struggle between the saintly Una and the dissembling Duessa represents both the eternal warfare between Truth and Falsehood, and the contemporary struggle between the Church of England and the Church of Rome. From time to time we dimly perceive the image of some great personage under this double veil of allegory, - of Mary, Queen of Scots, of Lord Grey, or Sir Philip Sidney, — until, in pure bewilderment, we often abandon all attempt to follow the poet's inner meaning and wander careless and delighted as in a world of dreams.
The Poet of Beauty. — Indeed, Spenser's poetry is memorable to-day for its descriptive beauty, its music, its wonderful richness and fluency of poetic utterance, rather than for the strength of its story or for its appli
cability to life. Spenser lacked the dramatic instinct, and therefore his poem is, as a narrative, a failure. But this is not to deny it other merits. Spenser's genius was essentially pictorial; and in the Faërie Queene we are fascinated by the beauty, splendor, gloom, or grotesqueness, of a slowly moving pageant. It is, as some one called it, "a gallery of pictures." Spenser was a student of Plato, with a touch of Puritan severity; but he had, above all, the warm and beauty-loving temper of the Renaissance. Although there are passages that sound like trumpet-calls to high endeavor, passages full of lofty enthusiasm and of deep spiritual insight, the prevailing mood of the poem is that of sensuous delight in color, form, and music. No poet before Spenser had called out such sweet and stately music from our English speech, and none had so captivated by an appeal to the pure sense of beauty. Both of these elements are to be found in almost any stanza:
“And more to lulle him in his slumber soft,
A trickling streame from high rock tumbling downe,
Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
No other noyse, nor peoples troublous cryes,
Might there be heard; but carelesse Quiet lyes
1 This quotation is an example of the famous Spenserian stanza, a poetic form invented by Spenser and since used by some of the greatest of English poets. The student should examine its structure, - the number of accents in each line, the sequence of the rimes, — and should note particularly the length of the last line, which is called an Alexandrine. It is upon this last line, which prolongs the sound and seems at the same time to give unity and finish to the whole, that much of the music of the stanza depends.
These qualities make Spenser "the poet's poet." With him the mind can enter the land of faërie, the realm of dreams, and, luxuriating in beauty, steep itself in forgetfulness of the world's harsh and ugly realities. Though Spenser's remoteness from life makes his poetry less effective and less satisfying as the mind matures, we can always find in its loveliness a refreshing stimulus to the imagination, and the calming, refining influence of exquisite art.
THE ENGLISH DRAMA BEFORE SHAKESPEARE
Shakespeare is so much a part of our English civilization, we accept his gift to us so easily, and are so familiar with his greatness, that it is well to remind ourselves of his place as the king of all literature. Thomas Carlyle wrote of him: “I think the best judgment, not of this country only but of Europe at large, is pointing to the conclusion that Shakespeare is the chief of all poets hitherto; the greatest intellect, who, in our recorded world, has left a record of himself in the way of literature; ” and Emerson says, speaking for our own branch of the English people: “Of all books dependent upon their intrinsic excellence, Shakespeare is the one book of the world. Out of the circle of religious books, I set Shakespeare as the one unparalleled mind.” Criticism cannot explain how or why the country-bred son of a Warwickshire trader should have possessed this supreme gift; it is the miracle of genius; but we can partly understand how surrounding conditions favored the expression of Shakespeare's genius through a dramatic form. Let us look at Shakespeare in the light of some of those surroundings in which his genius worked.