Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 10. Its design

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XI. The Poetry of Spenser

§ 10. Its design

A certain ambiguity and confusion is here visible, showing that Spenser had not clearly thought out his design according to the fundamental principles of his art. It is possible to please, as well as teach by an allegory of action, if the conduct of the story be kept as clear and consistent as it is in The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is possible to teach, as well as please, by epic example, because the imagination may be lifted into a heroic atmosphere of valour and virtue; but, in order to achieve such a result, the poet must charm the reader, as Homer does, into a belief in the reality of his narrative. A history like that in The Faerie Queene, which, ex hypothesi, is allegorical, and, therefore, cannot be real, destroys the possibility of illusion. Spenser was confronted by a difficulty which, in a less formidable shape, had presented itself even to Tasso, when devising the structure of Gerusalemme Liberata, one of the poems which Spenser selects as a proof that it is possible to teach in poetry by means of the historical “en-sample.” The Italian poet sought to solve the problem by combining with the real action of history the marvellous machinery of romance, which Ariosto had employed in Orlando Furioso, and which was demanded, as an indispensable element in medieval epic poetry, by the public taste. It cannot be said that his solution was entirely successful. It is impossible to persuade the average reader of the reality of an action in which the historical personages of Godfrey and Bohemund are blended with the romantic figures of Herminia and Clorinda, and in which we have to travel in fancy from actual battles under the walls of Jerusalem to the fabulous gardens of the enchantress Armida. Professed history and obvious fiction cannot be harmonised so as to produce a completely credible effect; and credibility is out of the question when romance itself is proclaimed, as it is by Spenser, to be only symbolical. How, for example, can we believe that the historical prince Arthur ever came to the allegorical house of Pride, or really fought with the abstract personage, Disdain?