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truth, surely divine and enduring. The ideals of chivalry he separated from the actual age which gave them birth, in which they had never, indeed, been more than counsels of perfection, and set forth the celestial pattern as a thing of unceasing worth. It is his peculiar, his crowning glory that he, beyond all other poets, or for that matter philosophers, perceived the splendour of that immense structure of mediæval idealism, perceived beyond orders of knighthood, courts of love, crusades and quests and mysteries the true import of the visionary scheme. Then, as never before in history, he believed, imagination had been at work transforming life, philosophy had been summoned from heaven, where she lost her time,” to reign over terrestrial affairs, in the effort to mould society according to a spiritual design the soul had given convincing proof of its divine origin. Magic had for him no marvel, enchantments no wonder, the mind expanding to its august dimensions was matter for more consuming admiration.
Chivalry, the costly and magnificent plaything of Ariosto, had lost all but a plaything's value. Decorated with poetic art and spiced with humour it served as agreeable entertainment for the elegant society in the Renaissance courts. Ariosto perceived in it no element of truth and professed no serious purpose. In the mind of Spenser, though the outward forms
. of chivalry, like its weapons and armour, might be outworn, the ideas which inspired and governed it were everlasting. If no longer true it revealed truth. Looking beyond its mundane attachments, its mere historical aspect, he desired to draw the essential pattern, the perfect form, chivalry seen, as it were, through the brain of a disciple of Plato.
Obviously a poem so inward, so enskied, is not epic if we place restrictions upon the word. It forms, as Voltaire complained of the Lusiad, “a sort of epic poetry unheard of before.” The modern critic will not indeed urge against it Voltaire's objection to the work of Camoens, “No heroes are wounded a thousand different ways, no woman enticed away and the world overturned for her cause." The head and front of Spenser's offence is the plentiful lack of unity displayed by his poem. He himself
foresaw that it might well be charged with tediousness and confusion, and since too the Renaissance demanded a theoretical justification for all new forms of art, he had double cause to attempt in prose a defence of his design. He avoided indeed the unfortunate expedient of Tasso, who submitted his poem for criticism to a committee of scholars, each of whom placed a candid finger upon some conspicuous fault, so that nothing from title to conclusion, in plot or diction, escaped censure. Nor did he adopt the bolder and perhaps wiser course of defying criticism, like the Elizabethan dramatist whose prologue announced
' By God, 'tis good, and if you lik't, you may." In his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh he urges that though the historiographer “discourseth of things orderly as they were done,” the “ poet thrusteth into the middest,” and that the
, unity of his design will in the end—an end that never came become apparent. It does not appear that Spenser found serious objection to the allegory. It was indeed a necessity. Allegory in the Middle Ages sat enthroned over theology, philosophy, poetry. The habit of rejecting the literal for the symbolic sense, supported by antiquity, had become fixed and almost ineradicable. Before Plato allegorical interpretations of Homer were common, Plato and the Neo-Platonists, Plotinus, Porphyry and their followers freely employed it. Philo of Alexandria in the first century, who had made the rivers of Eden typify cardinal virtues, lent to the method the weight of his immense theological authority. Origen, who taught that the expulsion of Adam from Paradise was to be understood as a fall from primitive simplicity, held that the Bible was of little use to those who read it literally. The patristic writings were charged with allegory. St. Augustine and Gregory the Great used it continually for the elucidation of difficulties in a literal reading of the Scripture texts, or to corroborate New Testament history by symbolical interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. Virgil, as well as Homer, it was universally believed, shadowed forth more excellent things under the veil of his mundane history. Dante's Divine Comedy, the greatest poem of the Middle Ages,
was throughout plainly a palace of symbols. In the Roman de la Rose, the most celebrated of the romances, where the mediæval spirit is, if anywhere, fully revealed, an elaborate symbolic scheme is developed of the utmost complexity and ingenuity. For centuries allegory subdued all ways of thought, all forms of mental activity to its peculiar temper. The desire for the wonderful, the mysterious, and miraculous fostered it. In the mist all objects loomed greater. Works not in themselves arresting excited curiosity if they claimed to be occult or cabalistic. The sixteenth century was not prepared to allow high importance to mere historical or poetic narrative. It was imperative for Spenser, if he desired a hearing, to distinguish his work from popular story-telling, the pastime of the vulgar, from trivial ballads and romances without philosophical significance. His was a serious and therefore a mystical poem, dealing with the great matters, the soul and life and love," the excellency of the beauty of supernal and intellectual things.” 1 He fancied too that the poem would not stand or fall by his conduct of the “ dark conceit” contained in it, and he was right. Probably no one ever read The Faerie Queene for the allegory alone, and few have followed the story with close attention. How many readers have been aware, for example, that at a certain point in each book, the eighth canto, Arthur appears, , representing divine assistance, a kind of Deus ex Machina, to support his vassal knight? How many have observed that as the poem proceeds the allegorical intention becomes more and more obscured, and in the later books—whether from its difficulty
1“ I account of Poetrie, as of a more hidden and divine kind of Philosophy, enwrapped in blind Fables and dark stories, wherein the principles of more excellent Arts and morall precepts of manners, illustrated with divers examples of other kingdomes and countries are contained; for amongst the Grecians there were Poets, before there were any Philosophers, who embraced entirely the studie of wisdome, as Cicero testifieth in his Tusculanes.” Nash: The Anatomie of Absurditie, p. 36 (Huth Library). Reynolds in his Mythomystes censures those who never look further into
golden fictions for any higher sense, or anything diviner in them infoulded and hid from the vulgar, but (are) lulled with the marvellous expression and artful contexture of their fables.” Critical Essays of the Seventeenth century, ed. by J. E. Spingarn, vol. I, p. 149. See also Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie.
? Except in Bk. III. which being of Chastity, the representative of that virtue, Britomart, was in the mediæval view beyond the reach of evil.
or the author's inadvertence_almost wholly disappears? The allegory occasions no reader of this poetry any real discomfort.
critics have been gravely concerned by the absence of beginning, middle, and end, or of any solid core to the narrative. Again and again have prepossessions in favour of the forms of art already known and esteemed blinded the judgment against high poetic excellence. Faults which detract little from pleasure in the composition are discovered by the comparative method, and the poet is often blamed not because he has failed to delight but because he has dared to be original. There exist nevertheless principles which to violate is to court failure, and of these the principle of unity is probably the most important, a kind of eternal law. It must be allowed that the unity of The Faerie Queene is not a conspicuous unity, but it may very well be argued that it possesses unity of a kind, and that kind suitable and sufficient for the author's purposes. Bishop Hurd advanced by far the most reasonable defence of Spenser on this count. Judge of The Faerie Queene, he contended, from your acquaintance with classical models, and you are shocked with its disorder, consider it with an eye to its Gothic original and you find it regular. In the days of knight-errantry it was not unusual for the prince at some court festival to assign adventures to his vassals, to charge them with the task of redressing the wrongs of distressed subjects who asked for their monarch's assistance. Upon this idea Spenser laid his foundations. "If you ask then, what is this Unity of Spenser's poem? I say, it consists in the relation of its several adventures to one common original, the appointment of The Fairy Queen ; and to one common end, the completion of The Fairy Queen's injunctions. ... This, it is true, is not the classic Unity, which consists in the representation of one entire action; but it is an unity of another sort, an unity resulting from the respect which a number of related actions have to one common purpose. In other words, it is an unity of design, and not of action.” 1
The objections are perhaps idle and the defence unnecessary. Pedantry may demand adherence to an approved pattern, but discard prepossessions and recognise that the unity resides in the spirit of the composition rather than in the structure, remember that the English poet followed Ariosto, who, if more successful in the management of his story, was equally indifferent to classical laws, and yet had achieved a triumph, bear in mind finally that romantic art aims to interest by multiplicity of detail, by profusion and splendour, and to secure its end must sacrifice that simplicity and precision of form which distinguish and ennoble the great works of antiquity, and it will remain possible to admire and enjoy Spenser without violation of one's literary conscience. It may be allowed that Phidias was wholly right without admitting that the builders of St. Marks or of Chartres were wholly wrong. To confess that the art of Sophocles is beyond reproach is not to say that the art of Shakespeare is indefensible.
1 Hurd's Works, vol. ii. p. 300.
Epic in all ages and at all stages of culture reflects the life and manners, the tastes and pursuits of the ruling class. Beowulf mirrors the aristocratic society of the pre-Christian English, Virgil is the poet of the imperial court of Augustus, Ariosto of the Renaissance circles of culture which met in ducal palaces. Spenser is equally a court poet. He wrote for the learned and brilliant coterie that surrounded and worshipped Elizabeth. To the Queen the poem is dedicated, " to live with the eternitie of her fame." She is at once Gloriana, the Queen of Fairyland, and
-“ in some places else I do also shadow her ”—she is Belphoebe and Mercilla. The poem itself was recommended to Elizabethan fashionable society in a series of sonnets, seventeen in number, to Essex, the Queen's favourite, to the Lord Chancellor, to Burleigh, High Treasurer, to Earls and Knights, and finally " To all the gratious and beautifull ladies in the Court”
“ If all the world to seek I overwent,
A fairer crew yet nowhere could I see
That the world's pride seems gathered there to be." Sixteenth century England, fully conscious that she had taken her place among the great nations, that she might lack nothing of national splendour and dignity, required her epic. Mindful that Virgil had turned from pastoral to sing his country's glory,