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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

§ 4. Spenser and Ficino

Among these, Platonism, as was natural, shows itself most crudely in his youthful love poetry. After taking his B.A. degree in 1573, and proceeding to his M.A. degree in 1576, he seems to have left the university, and to have paid a visit of some length to his relatives in Lancashire. There, he probably made the acquaintance of the unknown lady who, in his correspondence with Gabriel Harvey, in The Shepheards Calender and in Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, is celebrated under the name of Rosalind. There is nothing in the pastoral allusions to her indicating that Spenser’s attachment involved feelings deeper than were required for literary panegyric. Since the time of Petrarch, every woman commemorated by Italian or English poets had been of one type, beautiful as Laura, and “cruel” enough to satisfy the standing regulations prescribed by the old courts of love. In the lyrics of the troubadours, and even in the sonnets of Petrarch, there is genuine ardour, but these were the fruit of days when it was still possible to breathe in society the chivalrous atmosphere of the crusades. The fall in the temperature of love poetry in the sixteenth century reveals itself unmistakably in the art of Spenser. His Amoretti or sonnets, written in praise of the lady whom he married towards the close of his life, are no better than the average compositions of the class then fashionable. The “cruelty” of Rosalind, probably not much more really painful to the poet than that caused in his later years by “Elisabeth,” was recorded in a more original form, in so far as it gave him an opportunity of turning his training in Platonic philosophy to the purposes of poetical composition. His two Hymnes in honour of Love and Beautie, though not published till 1596, were, he tells us, the product of his “green youth,” and it may reasonably be concluded that they were among the earliest of his surviving works. They show no novelty of invention, being, from first to last, merely the versification of ideas taken from Plato’s Symposium, read in the light of Ficino’s commentary. The poet, however, by showing how truly he himself comprehended the philosophy of Love and felt his power, conveyed an ingenious compliment to his mistress:

  • Love, that long since hast to thy mighty powre
  • Perforce subdude my poor captivëd hart,
  • And, raging now therein with restlesse stowre,
  • Doest tyrannize in everie weaker part;
  • Faine would I seeke to ease my bitter smart
  • By any service I might do to thee,
  • Or ought that else might to thee pleasing bee.
  • Love, he thinks, would doubtless be best pleased with an exposition of the doctrines of true love: hence his elaborate analysis of the passion, in which he follows, step by step, the Symposium of Plato, or, rather, Ficino’s commentary on that dialogue. Ficino himself had not sought originality any more than Spenser. Like all the men of the early renascence, he submitted his own opinions to those of the authors of antiquity as if these were inspired. Whatever was written in the Symposium he accepted as revealed truth; and, since the views of Plato’s imaginary speakers were often at variance with each other, he took pains to reconcile them. He had studied Plato in the light of ideas propagated through the teaching of the Neo-Platonists, who had absorbed into their philosophy many elements of oriental magic: accordingly, the process of reconciliation ended in a new development of Plato’s original theory by Ficino, whom Spenser followed, with as little desire to question his authority as the Italian philosopher had shown in his interpretation of the Greek text. In the Symposium, for example, where the whole texture of the dialogue is humorous and dramatic, Phaedrus, whose theory is, of course, quite opposed to that of Socrates, speaks of Love as the eldest of the gods, and is contradicted by Agathon, who calls Love the youngest god. Ficino tries to harmonise these two ideas by introducing into the theory a Christian element derived from the Neo-Platonism of the pseudo-Dionysius. He says that the Love, guiding the Creator, was, indeed, older than the creation of the universe; but that God afterwards created the order of angels, and that Love turned the angelic intelligences towards God; so that Love may be called at once the youngest, and the eldest, of the divine powers. Spenser, taking up Ficino’s reasoning about the two ages of Love, combines it with the mythological account of Love’s birth reported by Socrates from Diotima in the Symposium.
  • Great God of Might, that reignest in the mynd,
  • And all the bodie to thy hest doest frame,
  • Victor of gods, subduer of mankynd,
  • That doest the Lions and fell Tigers tame,
  • Making their cruell rage thy scornefull game,
  • And in their roring taking great delight;
  • Who can express the glorie of thy might?
  • Or who alive can perfectly declare
  • The wondrous cradle of thine infancie,
  • When thy great mother Venus first thee bare,
  • Begot of Plentie and of Penurie,
  • Though elder then thine owne nativitie,
  • And yet a chyld, renewing still thy yeares,
  • And yet the eldest of the heavenly Peares?
  • Ficino is followed with equal closeness in the Hymne in honour of Beautie. Like him, Spenser describes the blending of the soul with corporeal matter, and, like him, refutes the doctrine that beauty is merely proportion of parts and harmony of colour; he imitates the Italian in describing the descent of the soul from heaven to form the body, and the correspondence between the beautiful soul and the beautiful body; the reason why a beautiful soul sometimes forms only an ugly body; the attraction of one beautiful soul to another by means of celestial influences; the mode in which the passion of love begins. To show that the whole is intended as a compliment to Rosalind, he breathes the hope:

  • It may so please, that she at length will streame
  • Some deaw of grace into my withered hart,
  • After long sorrow and consuming smart.
  • As the foundations of Spenser’s imaginative thought were thus laid in Platonic philosophy, it was almost inevitable that, when his genius expanded, he should also look to Plato for his instrument of poetic expression, and should illustrate his abstract doctrine by the aid of concrete myths.