Page images

And, as one careless of suspicion,
Ne fawnest for the favour of the great ;
Ne fearest foolish reprehension
Of faulty men, which danger to thee threat;
But freely dost, of what thee list, entreat,
Like a great lord of peerless liberty ;
Lifting the good up to high honour's seat,
And the evil damning ever more to die;
For life and death is in thy doomful writing ;

So thy renown lives ever by enditing.
Dublin, this xviii. of July, 1586. Your devoted friend, during life,


Between Cambridge and Spenser's appearance in London, there is a short but obscure interval. What is certain is, that he spent part of it in the North of England; that he was busy with various poetical works, one of which was soon to make him known as a new star in the poetical heaven; and lastly, that in the effect on him of a deep but unrequited passion, he then received what seems to have been a strong and determining influence on his character and life. It seems likely that his sojourn in the north, which perhaps first introduced the London-bred scholar, the “Southern Shepherd's Boy," to the novel and rougher country life of distant Lancashire, also gave form and local character to his first considerable work. But we do not know for certain where his abode was in the north ; of his literary activity, which must have been considerable, we only partially know the fruit; and of the lady whom he made so famous, that her name became a consecrated word in the poetry of the time, of Rosalind, the “ Widow's Daughter of the Glen," whose refusal of his suit, and preference for another, he lamented so bitterly, yet would allow no one else to blame, we know absolutely nothing. She would not be his wife; but apparently, he never ceased to love her through all the chances and temptations, and possibly errors of his life, even apparently in the midst of his passionate admiration of the lady whom, long afterwards, he did marry. To her kindred and condition, various clues have been suggested, only to provoke and disappoint us. Whatever her condition, she was able to measure Spenser's powers : Gabriel Harvey has preserved one of her compliments—“Gentle Mistress Rosalind once reported him to have all the intelligences at commandment; and at another, christened him her Signior Pegaso." But the unknown Rosalind had given an impulse to the young poet's powers, and a colour to his thoughts, and had enrolled Spenser in that band and order of poets,—with one exception, not the greatest order,—to whom the wonderful passion of love, in its heights and its depths, is the element on which their imagination works, and out of which it moulds its most beautiful and characteristic creations.

But in October, 1579, he emerges from obscurity. If we may trust the correspondence between Gabriel Harvey and Spenser, which was published at the time, Spenser was then in London.' It was the time of the crisis of the Alençon courtship, while the Queen was playing fast and loose with her Valois lover, whom she playfully called her frog; when all about her, Burghley, Leicester, Sidney, and Walsingham, were dismayed, both at the plan itself, and at her vacillations; and just when the Puritan pamphleteer, who had given expression to the popular disgust at a French marriage, especially at a connexion with the family which had on its hands the blood of St. Bartholomew, was sentenced to lose his right hand as a seditious

| Published in June, 1580. Reprinted incompletely in Haslewood, Ancient Critical Essays (1815), ii. 255. Extracts given in editions of Spenser by Hughes, Todd, and Morris. The letters are of April, 1579, and October, 1580.

libeller. Spenser had become acquainted with Philip Sidney, and Sidney's literary and courtly friends. He had been received into the household of Sidney's uncle, Lord Leicester, and dates one of his letters from Leicester House. Among his employments he had written, “Stemmata Dudleiana.He is doubting whether or not to publish,“ to utter,” some of his poetical compositions : he is doubting, and asks Harvey's advice, whether or not to dedicate them to His Excellent Lordship, “ lest by our much cloying their noble ears he should gather contempt of myself, or else seem rather for gain and commodity to do

and some sweetness that I have already tasted." Yet, he thinks, that when occasion is so fairly offered of estimation and preferment, it may be well to use it : "while the iron is hot, it is good striking; and minds of nobles vary, as their estates.” And he was on the eve of starting across the sea to be employed in Leicester's service, on some permanent mission in France, perhaps in connexion with the Alençon intrigues. He was thus launched into what was looked upon as the road of preferment; in his case, as it turned out, a very subordinate form of public employment, which was to continue almost for his lifetime. Sidney had recognized his unusual power, if not yet his genius. He brought him forward ; perhaps he accepted him as a friend. Tradition makes him Sidney's companion at Penshurst; in his early poems, Kent is the county with which he seems most familiar. But Sidney certainly made him known to the queen; he probably recommended him as a promising servant to Leicester : and he impressed his own noble and beautiful character deeply on Spenser's mind. Spenser saw and learned in him what was then the highest type of the finished gentleman. He led Spenser astray. Sidney was not without his full share of that affectation, which was then thought refinement. Like Gabriel Harvey, he induced Spenser to waste his time on the artificial versifying which was in vogue.

But such faults and mistakes of fashion, and in one shape or another they are inevitable in all ages, were as nothing, compared to the influence on a highly receptive nature, of a character so elevated and pure, so genial, so brave and true. It was not in vain that Spenser was thus brought so near to his “ Astrophel.”

These letters tell us all that we know of Spenser's life at this time. During these anxious eighteen months, and connected with persons like Sidney and Leicester, Spenser only writes to Harvey on literary subjects. He is discreet, and will not indulge Harvey's "desire to hear of my late being with her Majesty." According to a literary fashion of the time, he writes and is addressed as M. Immerito, and the great business which occupies him and fills the letters is the scheme devised in Sidney's Areopagus for the “general surceasing and silence of bald Rymers, and also of the very best of them too; and for prescribing certain laws and rules of quantities of English syllables for English verse.” Spenser “is more in love with his English versifying than with ryming,”—“which," he says to Harvey, “I should have done long since, if I would then have followed your counsel.” Harvey, of course, is delighted ; he thanks the good angel which puts it into the heads of Sidney and Edward Dyer, “the two very diamonds of her Majesty's court," our very Castor and Pollux,” to “help forward our new famous enterprise for the exchanging of barbarous rymes for artificial verses ;" and the whole subject is discussed at great length between the two friends ; " Mr. Drant's” rules are compared with those of “Mr. Sidney,” revised by “Mr. Immerito ;” and examples, highly illustrative of the character of the “famous enterprise " are copiously given. In one of Har vey's letters we have a curious account of changes of fashion in studies and ideas at Cambridge. They seem to have changed since Spenser's time.

I beseech you all this while, what news at Cambridge. Tully and Demosthenes nothing so much studied as they were wont: Livy and Sallust perhaps more, rather than less : Lucian never so much : Aristotle much named but little read : Xenophon and Plato reckoned amongst discoursers, and conceited superficial fellows; much verbal and sophistical jangling; little subtle and effectual disputing. Machiavel a great man: 1 Castilio, of no small repute: Petrarch and Boccace in every man's mouth : Galateo and Guazzo never so bappy: but some acquainted with Unico Aretino : the French and Italian highly regarded : the Latin and Greek but lightly. The Queen Mother at the beginning or end of every conference: all in. quisitive after news : new books, new fashions, new laws, new officers, and some after new elemerts, some after new heavens and hells too. Turkish affairs familiarly known : castles built in the air : much ado, and little help: in no age so little so much made of; every one highly in his own favour. Something made of nothing, in spight of Nature : numbers made of cyphers, in spight of Art. Oxen and asses, notwithstanding the absurdity it seemed to Plautus, drawing in the same yoke: the Gospel taught, not learnt; Charity cold; nothing good, but by imputation ;

the Ceremonial Law in word abrogated, the Judicial in effect disannull'd, the Moral abandon'd; the Light, the Light in every man's lips, but mark their


will say they are rather like owls than eagles. As of old books, so of ancient virtue, honesty, fidelity, equity, new abridgments; every day spawns new opinions : heresy in divinity, in philosophy, in humanity, in manners, grounded upon hearsay ; doctors contemn'd; the devil not so hated as the pope ; many invectives, but no amendment. No more ado about caps and surplices ; Mr. Cartwright quite forgotten.

« PreviousContinue »