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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

§ 18. Summary view of Spenser’s genius

To sum up the foregoing sketch of the poetry of Spenser, it will be seen that he differed from the great European poets who preceded or immediately succeeded him, in that he made no attempt to represent in his verse the dominant moving spirit in the world about him. Chaucer and Shakespeare, the one in the fabliau, the other in the romantic drama, held “the mirror up to nature” and showed “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Ariosto, by blending the opposite forms of the fabliau and the roman, reflected the genius of knight errantry as it appeared to the sceptical onlooker in courts. Milton succeeded in telling the Christian story of the loss of Eden in the form of the pagan epic. While Dante, like Spenser, made allegory the basis of his poetical conception, no more vivid picture can be found of contemporary life and manners in Italian cities under the Holy Roman Empire than in The Divine Comedy. But, in the conduct of his story, Spenser never seems to be in direct touch with his times: his personages, knights or shepherds, wear plainly the dress of literary masquerade; and, though the fifth book of The Faerie Queene, published in 1596, deals allegorically with such matters as the revolt of the Netherlands and the recantation of protestantism by Henri IV of France, it contains no allusion to the Spanish armada.

But the very absence of clear drift and purpose in the allegory of The Faerie Queene made it a faithful mirror of the spirit of the age. Through all the early portion of Elizabeth’s reign, in which the poetical genius of Spenser formed itself, the nation, in its most influential elements, showed the doubt and hesitancy always characteristic of times of transition. A clergy, halting between catholic tradition and the doctrines of the reformers; a semi-absolute queen, coquetting in her foreign policy between a rival monarch and his revolted subjects; a court, in which the chivalrous manners of the old nobility were neutralised by the Machiavelian statecraft of the new courtiers; a commercial enterprise, always tending to break through the limits of ancient and stable custom: these were the conditions which made it difficult for an English poet, in the middle of the sixteenth century, to form a view, at once clear and comprehensive, of life and action.

Spenser himself evidently sympathised strongly with the old order that was passing away. He loved the time-honoured institutions of chivalry, closely allied to catholic ritual; he reverenced its ideals of honour and courtesy, its exalted woman-worship, its compassion for the poor and suffering. But, at the same time, he was strongly impelled by two counter-movements tending to undermine the ancient fabric whose foundations had been laid by Charles the Great: the zeal of the protestant reformer, and the enthusiasm for letters of the European humanist. The poetical problem he had to solve was, how to present the action of these antagonistic forces in an ideal form, with such an appearance of unity as should satisfy the primary requirements of his art.

To fuse irreconcilable principles in a directly epic or dramatic mould was impossible; but it was possible to disguise the essential oppositions of things by covering them with the veil of allegory. This was the method that Spenser adopted. The unity of his poetical creations lies entirely in the imaginative medium through which he views them. His poetical procedure is closely analogous to that of the first Neo-Platonists in philosophy. Just as these sought to evolve out of the decayed forms of polytheism, by means of Plato’s dialectic, a new religious philosophy, so, in the sphere of poetry, Spenser attempted to create, for the English court and the circles immediately connected with it, from the perishing institution of chivalry, an ideal of knightly conduct. Glimpses of real objects give an air of actuality to his conception; his allegory, as he himself declares in his preface to The Faerie Queene, has reference to “the most excellent and glorious person of our Soveraine the Queen.” Viewed in the crude light of fact, the court of Elizabeth might be, as the poet himself describes it in Mother Hubberd’s Tale, full of petty intrigue, low ambitions, corrupt dealings, Machiavelian statecraft, shameless licence; but, exalted into the kingdom of Gloriana, clothed with the purple atmosphere of romance and the phantasms of the golden age, the harsh realities of life were veiled in a visionary scene of knights and shepherds, sylvan nymphs and satyrs, pagan pageants and Christian symbols; the ruling society of England was transformed into the “delightful land of Faerie.”

The diction and the versification of Spenser correspond felicitously with the ideal character of his thought. As in the later case of Paradise Lost, what has been justly called the “out-of-the-world” nature of the subject required, in The Faerie Queene, a peculiar vehicle of expression. Though it be true that, in affecting the obsolete, Spenser “writ no language”; though, that is to say, he did not attempt to amplify and polish the living language of the court, yet his mixture of Old English words with classical syntax, in metres adapted from those used by Chaucer, produces a remarkably beautiful effect. Native oppositions of style disappear in the harmonising art of the poet. Though ill-qualified to be the vehicle of epical narrative, the Spenserian stanza has firmly established itself in the language, as a metre of admirable capacity for any kind of descriptive or reflective poetry; and it is a striking illustration of what has been said in the foregoing pages that it has been the instrument generally chosen by poets whose genius has approached nearest to the art of the painter, or who have sought to put forward ideas opposed to the existing condition of things. It is employed by Thomson in The Castle of Indolence, by Keats in The Eve of St. Agnes, by Shelley in The Revolt of Islam and by Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. To have been the poetical ancestor of the poetry of these illustrious writers shows how deeply the art of Spenser is rooted in the imaginative genius of his country, and he needs no better monument than the stanza in his own Ruines of Time:

  • For deeds doe die, however noblie donne,
  • And thoughts of men do as themselves decay;
  • But wise wordes, taught in numbers for to runne,
  • Recorded by the Muses, live for ay;
  • Ne may with storming showers be washt away,
  • Ne bitter-breathing windes with harmfull blast,
  • Nor age, nor envie, shall them ever wast.