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her Tasso, whose Gerusalemme Liberata drew its plot and some of its characters from the authentic history of the Crusades. Heroic, romantic, serio-comic, satirical, burlesque-narrative poetry in all these kinds has been included among the epics. Italy invented that peculiar type of narrative poetry which, if we except Tasso, was cultivated, each in his own manner, by the poets just mentioned, the type which, exchanging the lofty for the familiar strain, dealt with elevated subjects in a humorous or derisive key. For this mixture of tone—the ironical with the serious, the playful with the heroic, the satirical with the sublime, the ludicrous with the pathetic-parallels may be found in other literatures, but in no other is poetry of this kind at all comparable either in bulk or brilliance with the Italian. To account for it we are asked to remember that the Carolingian romances, when they passed from France into Italy, were rejected by the learned and became the possession of the vulgar. In default of national epic the improvisatori converted the Chansons de Geste into agreeable entertainment for the marketplace. The marvellous became more marvellous, while the finer spirit of the legends vanished at the rude touch of the irresponsible levity and practical philosophy of burgher and artisan. Thus to their loss the chivalric romances had already passed through the distorting medium of the popular fancy, and fallen from their high seriousness before they emerged into the light and air of fashionable favour and were introduced by the sixteenth-century poets to the circles of culture. These poets, while they elevated the style, preserved the tone of the popular narratives, and thus the comic humour of the Italian romantic poems “arises from the contrast between the constant endeavours of the writers to adhere to the forms and subjects of the popular story-tellers, and the efforts made at the same time by the genius of these writers to render such material interesting and sublime.” 1 The very choice of the Italian rather than the Latin language sufficed in that age to indicate the absence of serious intention.
1 The Narrative and Romantic Poems of the Italians, by Ugo Foscolo, Quarterly Review, for April 1819.
The chivalric epic of Italy bears, then, the ineffaceable stamp of its association with the people. But what it lost on the side of sincerity it gained on the side of art. No more artificial form of literature exists or is imaginable. None the less it proved highly agreeable to a cultivated age whose æsthetic sensibilities and educated scepticism were gratified by its skilful artistry and ironical humour. Chaucer at an earlier moment had caught the tone of the chivalric epic by his smiling treatment of a lofty theme in The Knight's Tale, and had he been a man of the sixteenth century might have rivalled Ariosto in humorous epic. The poet who fell heir to Italian culture in England was, however, of an altogether different temper. At the cradle of" the
and serious Spenser” the Graces attended, but the more irreverent spirits were absent. In his hands the chivalric poem, though it followed Italian models, preserved at the cost of greater monotony the grand manner of unbending superiority. In The Faerie Queene, therefore, we have still another kind of epic, to which no exact parallel can be cited, a kind which substitutes moral allegory for ironical humour. This substitution will be praised or deplored in accordance with the temperament and preferences of the critic. Ruskin need not be expected to share the opinions of Hume.1 So much is clear: Spenser, the disciple of Plato, philosophising in the vein of his master as interpreted by the Cambridge of that day, secures at a respectful distance admiration and esteem, Spenser the artist the more flattering attention of an audience.
If one shares Ben Jonson's mind—“Spenser's stanzas pleased him not, nor the matter”_nothing is easier than to prepare a brief for the Advocatus diaboli, to charge his poem with utter lack of unity, to complain that neither man nor woman appears in it, that lifeless phantoms flit there through landscapes as unreal as themselves, that the coming and going of the characters is wholly aimless and irrational, that only by their names can we distinguish one from another, for every lady is "the fairest ever seen,” and every knight an exact mirror of chivalry; that so leisurely is the poet's foot-pace, so broken and confused the
1 See Hume's History and Ruskin's Stones of Venice.
narrative, that no reader, however unsophisticated, will be held from sleep by the story; that as for the "continued allegory and dark conceit” imbedded in The Faerie Queene, by which the author laid such store, so perplexed and vague is it, so confused, too, the attempted explanation of that and of his general aim—“I labour to pourtray in Arthur before he was king the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private moral virtues as Aristotle hath devised ”—that none can follow either one or other, the less so since they are not as Aristotle devised," nor did he devise twelve such virtues; that, though we are told these paladins represent each a desirable virtue—Sir Calidore, Courtesy, Sir Guyon, Temperance-none will suffer surprise or hurt if Sir Calidore's name be anywhere substituted for Sir Guyon's, or Sir Scudamour change places with Sir Artegal. If it be answered that against an undertaking like Spenser's these objections have no weight, there remain more damaging accusations. How, it may be asked, can we reconcile the high pretensions of his philosophy and spiritual creed with the sensuous and relaxing atmosphere of the whole poem, as close and languorous as a summer's day, where the music of the flutes of pleasure is heard above the trumpet of duty? There is here surely nothing to alarm the sinner, nothing of the sternness of Dante, the saeva indignatio of Swift, the sorrowful impeachment of Langland. The slothful or indifferent may wander light-hearted and at ease in these Epicurean gardens, steeped in luxurious and enervating emotion, peopled by beauties naked and unashamed, provocative “of love's delights," the air perfume-laden from the fields of ancient or amorous legend. Nor is the form of the poem more bracing than the content, in grammar and spelling lawless, in language and rime licentious in every articulation of its limbs. Can this be the highest region of poetry when the human voice is never once heard, nor authentic cry of the heart uttered? If so what praise remains to give when we read poetry which is, in Bacon's phrase, “ drenched with flesh and blood," Macbeth's
To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow," or Virgil's “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”?
There is perhaps no reply but to abate the claim for Spenser, and to place him with the masters of the poetic art rather than with the masters of the soul. In artistry if not unrivalled he is at least without superiors. This supremacy in art gained for him the undivided allegiance of his successors. Jonson is almost singular, for the majority are on his side. No English poet of any age won more immediate and universal acceptance, an acceptance the more striking if we recall the exceptions. Who stood outside his circle? Locke, who preferred Blackmore, and Stubbes, who thought Gondibert superior to The Faerie Queene; probably all those also who, like Newton, regard poetry as a kind of ingenious nonsense.' Leave aside his immediate imitators, like the Fletchers; Drayton was persuaded that since Homer no one had appeared fitter to undertake a similar task, “ I know not what more excellent or exquisite poem may be written," said Meres, Nash styled him the “heavenly Spenser," Browne " the Muses' highest glory," Camden Anglicorum poetarum nostri saeculi facile princeps, Milton confessed " that Spenser was his original," "Faerie Spenser still ranks highest among the poets," said Hurd, “No man was ever born with a greater genius,” said Dryden, “ I had read him all before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet,” confessed Cowley, “There is something in Spenser," wrote Pope," that pleases one as strongly in old age as it did in one's youth.” For Lamb he was " the poet's poet," Coleridge speaks of his " indescribable sweetness," it was "The Faerie Queene' that awakened the genius of Keats," when he
beheld Belphoebe in a brook, And lovely Una in a leafy nook,
And Archimago leaning o'er his book.” To Spenser's credit stands also indubitably the most brilliant metrical invention of our literature, the famous stanza which bears his name; a measure, as its history shows, comparable to blank verse in the range and variety of its harmonies, and superior in liquid and lingering charm, in sheer romantic and musical sweetness.
1 Byron confessed, however, that he "could make nothing of him," and Landor admits that Spenser“ mostly sent him to bed.”
No one can sufficiently explain the commanding influence of this poet by saying that he represents the Renaissance, its glory of colour, its richness of fancy, its passionate adoration of beauty, though this is true. All sensuous lovelinesses are gathered in The Faerie Queene, as they are gathered in Italian painting, the bewildering delight of " flowers and founts and nymphs and demi-gods” massed by the author's " noble and most artful hands" within these imperishable stanzas. Spenser magnificently represents Renaissance magnificence, its profusion and princeliness, but it is still more true to say that he seems to represent not a phase of art, not an age of poetry, but to be in some sense the genius of poetry itself, its spirit incarnate. This is his secret. He is entranced, and the Muse has taken possession of the bodily organ. The prosaic elements in life have been distilled away, the crude matter burnt out in the crucible, and what remains is the pure sublimated essence. Doubtless it is not life, for life is three parts prose and reason, but with these the Muse was not concerned. And if we consent to omit the prose, and with the prose the tragedy, what of essential poetry remains outside Spenser? It was his ambition
to overgo Ariosto," and he succeeds by gathering into a single poem—such is his proud design-all that had pleased in song and story since the dawn of art among all peoples and at every point of time. So wide he cast it that nothing escaped the meshes of his net. The mood of the Renaissance made possible the tangled texture of old and new.1 Spenser's chivalry merges into Olympus. He is at ease with the knights and the abstractions, with Sir Tristram, Mammon, and Disdain, as with imagination's elder children, all the unfading hierarchy, the Graces and Goddesses, Cupid and Diana and Apollo. He is an unconditioned poet. There are for him no geographical frontiers, no nations, no space or time. This anthologist, this chooser of the
, 1“ There is, inside Ara Coeli—itself_commemorating the legend of Augustus and the Sibyl—the tomb of Dominus Pandulphus Sabelli, its borrowed vine-garlands and satyrs and Cupids surmounted by mosaic crosses and Gothic inscriptions; and outside the same church, on a ground of green and gold, a Mother of God looking down from among gurgoyles and escutcheons on to the marble river-god of the yard of the Capitol below."-Vernon Lee, Renaissance Fancies and Studies, p. 165.