Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 4. The Masque in Spenser

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIII. Masque and Pastoral

§ 4. The Masque in Spenser

When we reach the reign of Elizabeth, Spenser’s poetry, even more adequately than Hall’s prose, reflects and revives the glory of the medieval masque and pageant. His genius, in some of its most characteristic aspects, was exactly fitted to describe and appreciate the world just beyond the real world with which the masque dealt. The masque of the Seven Deadly Sins and the masque of Cupid are magnificent examples of the processional masque. The former shows that the antimasque is implicit in the masque from the beginning. The house of Temperance and the attack upon it recall the knights’ onslaught on the castle of the ladies described above. Such famous descriptions as the cave of Mammon and the bower of Bliss are like the set pieces which Inigo Jones tried to make real to the eye when the masque became a fixture at the end of the great hall. There are cantos in The Faerie Queene in which we seem in spirit to follow the procession until it reaches the hall where the full device is displayed before us in all its intricacy. Spenser’s abstractions, Coelia, Fidelia, Speranza, Charissa, the porter Humilta of the house of Holiness and scores of others, are just such as meet us in masques; but a line of description like “bitter Penaunce with an yron whip,” calls up the figure before us more effectually than Jonson’s most exact prose; and Spenser’s poem abounds in similar vivid lines and stanzas. The poem, again, like almost every masque, is an elaborate compliment. Its relation to Elizabeth is precisely that of Jonson’s masques to James or Charles. Spenser’s poem, it should be remembered, greatly influenced Ben Jonson and other writers of masque—Ben Jonson in especial.