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Introduction . . . . . . .
From Hazlitt's Lecture on Chaucer and Spenser .
E. K. (probably Edward Kirke)
Ben Jonson . .
John Milton. .
An ambitious young poet of the fifteen-sixties and seventies, seeking guidance in his art, would find little to his purpose in the English poetry of his own century. The only notable work-Sackville's solemn Induction in a mediaeval survival, the Myrrour for Magistrates, and the Songes and Sonettes which represent the lyrical energy and the sporadic culture of the noisy, showy court of Henry VIII-was dwarfed, as earlier poets also were dwarfed, by the great figure of Chaucer, the only personality clearly expressed in poetry before the Renaissance. Every age has its own way of reading as well as of writing, and the Chaucer studied by the serious undergraduate Spenser was not the humorist whose naïve and genial common sense endeared him to the mature Dryden a century later. Where Dryden hailed a kindred spirit, Spenser sat at the feet of a master, the one indubitable master in English poetry. For in contrast to a Skelton or a Wyatt, there was nothing tentative or experimental in Chaucer's work; he moved with the ease of strength and confidence, with that secure grace we call style, in which the earlier sixteenth century was most conspicuously lacking. Style, again, was the peculiar virtue of that other master, Virgil, taught as a cult by the humanists in school and university. To be the Chaucer of his day was the natural ambition of the young Englishman, to be its Virgil the natural ambition of the young scholar.
The academic teachers who fostered the ambition showed him also the way to satisfy it. For them, students of style above all things, the chief method in learning and the main interest in their own neo-Latin literature was imitation. To write prose like Cicero's, verse like Virgil's, was the ideal that
animated them ; Greece and Rome had produced the great masters of poetry, by following in whose footsteps great poetry could still be written. It is the doctrine also of La Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Françoyse, the clearest parallel to, and probably a main source of Spenser's artistic theories, published thirty years before The Shepheardes Calender by Joachim du Bellay, whom Spenser translated and praised as the
first garland of free Poesie
That France brought forth. But du Bellay and his friend Ronsard, and after them Spenser, interpreted ' imitatio’ freely. Recognizing the pre-eminence of Greeks and Romans, they did not despise the good poets of the modern tongues, and regarded themselves as apprentices, not as copyists, not as slaves to a tradition, as if the knowledge and art of poetry had been lost when the Empire fell, but as heirs and successors, entering into an inheritance to enjoy it, to make of what the past had achieved a foundation upon which to build new monuments of poetry in the new tongues. Thus Spenser's poems are full of echoes—reminiscences, allusions, direct quotations and translations—of all the poets from Homer to du Bartas; and it is well to realize, what a century of 'romantic' criticism has obscured, that this was deliberate. Spenser was 'the new poet ', but he was twenty-seven years of age, in a time when men grew rapidly, and Master of Arts, when The Shepheardes Calender was published. He was adventuring—the presence of E. K.'s gloss shows how self-consciously,—but the new poetry was based on the old and on the practice of the best moderns, and it was adorned with jewels gathered from far and near.
From his studies in ancient and modern poetry, unhampered by any thought of the possible incompatibility of varying fashions and tempers, Spenser gained a vast body of poetic material; his academic training in the more or less systematic