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

XI. The Poetry of Spenser

§ 15. His Complaints

As his years advanced, Spenser seems to have felt more and more that his allegorical conception of court chivalry, founded on Platonism, protestantism and romance, had little correspondence with the actual movement of things. First of all, in 1586 died Philip Sidney, the “president of nobleness and chivalrie,” an irreparable loss to the cause of knighthood in high places, which is lamented in the pastoral elegy, Astrophel. Besides this, the poet’s expectations of his own preferment at court had been sadly disappointed: the queen had favoured his suit, but the way was barred by Burghley, who seems to have borne him a grudge, probably on account of his early connection with Burghley’s rival, Leicester. In 1591, a volume of his collected poems was published with the significant title Complaints. An air of deep melancholy runs through most of the contents. In The Ruines of Time, dedicated to the countess of Pembroke, he makes the female genius of the ruined city Verulam lament, in touching stanzas, the death of Sidney, from which he passes to indignant reflections on the neglect of poetry by the great, in evident allusion to his own treatment by Burghley:

  • O griefe of griefes! O gall of all good heartes!
  • To see that vertue should dispised bee
  • Of him, that first was raisde for vertuous parts,
  • And now, broad spreading like an aged tree,
  • Lets none shoot up that nigh him planted bee:
  • O let the man, of whom the Muse is scorned,
  • Nor alive nor dead be of the Muse adorned!
  • The same strain is taken up in The Tears of the Muses, where the nine sisters are made in turn to bewail the degraded state of the stage and the different forms of literary poetry. Of their laments, the most characteristic, as showing Spenser’s lack of sympathy with the development of the English drama, is that of Thalia:

  • And him beside sits ugly Barbarisme,
  • And brutish Ignorance, ycrept of late
  • Out of dredd darknes of the deepe Abysme,
  • Where being bredd, he light and heaven does hate:
  • They in the mindes of men now tyrannize,
  • And the faire Scene with rudenes foule disguize.
  • All places they with follie have possest,
  • And with vaine toyes the vulgare entertaine;
  • But me have banished, with all the rest
  • That whilome wont to wait upon my traine,
  • Fine Counterfesaunce, and unhurtfull Sport,
  • Delight, and Laughter, deckt in seemly sort.
  • Here, doubtless, he alludes to the growing popularity of the plays of Greene and Marlowe, as compared with the classical “court comedies” of “pleasant Willy” (Lyly), who ceased to write for the stage about 1590, and who, therefore, is spoken of as “dead of late.” But the most direct utterance of Spenser’s spleen against the time is to be found in his Prosopopoia or Mother Hubberd’s Tale, which, in its groundwork, he calls “the raw conceipt of my youth,” but which, in its existing form, must have been polished and altered to suit the change of circumstances. Founded on the precedent of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, in the Canterbury pilgrimage, it contains, in the story of the ape and the fox, a bitter attack on the customs of the court. Besides the famous lines, beginning “How little knowest thou that has not tried”—which we may well suppose were added, in 1590, to the first cast of the poem—we have the picture of the “brave courtier,” evidently intended for a portrait of Philip Sidney, and its striking contrast in the description of the ape, whose manners are copied from all the corruptions of Italy. Once more, the poet employs his invective against the great men (personified by the ape) who disdain learning.

  • And whenso love of letters did inspire
  • Their gentle wits, and kindle wise desire,
  • That chieflie doth each noble minde adorne,
  • Then he would scoffe at learning, and eke scorne
  • The Sectaries thereof, as people base
  • And simple men, which never came in place
  • Of worlds affaires, but, in darke corners mewd,
  • Muttred of matters as their bookes them shewd,
  • Ne other knowledge ever did attaine,
  • But with their gownes their gravitie maintaine.
  • In all this he seems to be aiming at Burghley, the type of the newly risen courtier, who is unfavourably contrasted with the older nobility. The latter, he says,

  • for povertie,
  • Were forst their auncient houses to let lie,
  • And their olde Castles to the ground to fall,
  • Which their forefathers, famous over-all,
  • Had founded for the Kingdomes ornament,
  • And for their memories long moniment.