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In this eclogue he gives hints of that spacious style which was to distinguish him, and which, like his own Fame,
“With golden wings aloft doth fly
Admired of base-born men from far away."* He was letting his wings grow, as Milton said, and foreboding the “Faery Queen” :
“Lift thyself up out of the lowly dust
To 'doubted knights whose woundless armour rusts
Verses like these, especially the last (which Dryden would have liked), were such as English ears had not yet heard, and curiously prophetic of the maturer man. The language and verse of Spenser at his best have an ideal lift in them, and there is scarce any of our poets who can so hardly help being poetical.
It was this instantly felt if not easily definable charm that forthwith won for Spenser his never-disputed rank as the chiet English poet of that age, and gave him a popularity which, during his life and in the following generation, was, in its select quality, without a competitor. It may be thought that I lay too much stress on this single attribute of diction. But apart from its importance in his case as showing their way to the poets who were just then learning the accidence of their art, and leaving them a material to work in already mellowed to their hands, it should be remembered that it is subtle perfection of phrase and that happy coalescence of music and meaning, where each reinforces the other, that define a man as poet and
“Ruins of Time.” It is, perhaps, not considering too nicely to remark how often this image of wings recurred to Spenser's mind. A certain aerial latitude was essential to the large circlings of his style.
make all ears converts and partisans. Spenser was an epicure in language. He loved “seldseen costly” words perhaps too well, and did not always distinguish between mere strangeness and that novelty which is so agreeable as to cheat us with some charm of seeming association. He had not the concentrated power which can sometimes pack infinite riches in the little room of a single epithet, for his genius is rather for dilatation than compression.* But he was, with the exception of Milton and possibly Gray, the most learned of our poets. His familiarity with ancient and modern literature was easy and intimate, and as he perfected himself in his art, he caught the grand manner and high-bred ways of the society he frequented. But even to the last he did not quite shake off the blunt rusticity of phrase that was habitual with the generation that preceded him. In the fifth book of the “Faery Queen," where he is describing the passion of Britomart at the supposed infidelity of Arthegall, he descends to a Teniers-like realismt
Perhaps his most striking single epithet is the “sea-shouldering whales," B. II. 12, xxiii. His ear seems to delight in prolongations. For example, he makes such words as glorious, gratious, joyeous, havior, chapelet dactyles, and that, not at the end of verses, where it would not have been unusual, but in the first half of them. Milton contrives a break (a kind of heave, as it were) in the uniformity of his verse by a practice exactly the opposite of this. He also shuns a hiatus which does not seem to have been generally displeasing to Spenser's ear, though perhaps in the compound epithet bees-alluring he intentionally avoids it by the plural form.
“Like as a wayward child, whose sounder sleep
He would doubtless have justified himself by the familiar example of Homer's comparing Ajax to a donkey in the eleventh book of the Iliad. So also in the “Epithalamion” it grates our nerves to hear,
he whose verses generally remind us of the dancing Hours of Guido, where we catch but a glimpse of the real earth, and that far away beneath. But his habitual style is that of gracious loftiness and refined luxury.
He first shows his mature hand in the “Muiopotmos," the most airily fanciful of his poems, a marvel for delicate conception and treatment, whose breezy verse seems to float between a blue sky and golden earth in imperishable sunshine. No other English poet has found the variety and compass which enlivened the octave stanza under his sensitive touch. It can hardly be doubted that in Clarion, the butterfly, he has symbolised himself, and surely never was the poetic temperament so picturesquely exemplified :
“ Over the fields, in his frank lustiness,
And all the champain o'er, he soarëd light,
That none gainsaid and none did him envy.
With his air-cutting wings he measured wide,
No common things may please a wavering wit.
Him wholly carried, to refresh his sprights;
“ Pour not by cups, but by the bellyful,
Pour out to all that wull." Such examples serve to show how strong a dose of Spenser's aurum potabile the language needed.
“ There he arriving, round about doth flie,
From bed to bed, from one to the other border,
“ And evermore with most variety
And change of sweetness (for all change is sweet)
" And then again he turneth to his play,
To spoil (plunder] the pleasures of that paradise ;
" Cool violets, and orpine growing still,
Embathëd balm, and cheerful galingale,
* I could not bring myself to root out this odourous herb-garden, though it make my extract too long. It is a pretty reminiscence of his master Chaucer, but is also very characteristic of Spenser himself. He could not help planting a flower or two among his serviceable plants, and after all this abundance he is not satisfied, but begins the next stanza with " And whatso else."
“And whatso else of virtue good or ill,
Grew in this garden, fetched from far away,
“What more felicity can fall to creature
Than to enjoy delight with liberty,
The “Muiopotmos" pleases us all the more that it vibrates in us a string of classical association by adding an episode to Ovid's story of Arachne. "Talking the other day with a friend (the late Mr. Keats) about Dante, he observed that whenever so great a poet told us anything in addition or continuation of an ancient story, he had a right to be regarded as classical authority. For instance, said he, when he tells us of that characteristic death of Ulysses . . . we ought to receive the information as authentic, and be glad that we have more news of Ulysses than we looked for."* We can hardly doubt that Ovid would have been glad to admit this exquisitely fantastic illumination into his margin.
No German analyser of æsthetics has given us so convincing a definition of the artistic nature as these radiant verses. “To reign in the air” was certainly Spenser's function. And yet the commentators, who seem never willing to let their poet be a poet pure and simple, though, had he not been so, they would have lost their only hold upon life, try to make out from his “Mother Hubberd's Tale” that he might have been a very sensible matter-of-fact man if he would. For my own part, I
* Leigh Hunt's Indicator, xvii.