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ESSAYS ON SPENSER
From HAZLITT'S Lecture
On Chaucer and Spenser
Lectures on the English Poets, 1818 SPENSER, as well as Chaucer, was engaged in active life; but the genius of his poetry was not active : it is inspired by the love of ease, and relaxation from all the cares and business of life. Of all the poets, he is the most poetical. Though much later than Chaucer, his obligations to preceding writers were less. He has in some measure borrowed the plan of his poem (as a number of distinct narratives) from Ariosto; but he has engrafted upon it an exuberance of fancy, and an endless voluptuousness of sentiment, which are not to be found in the Italian writer. Further, 10 Spenser is even more of an inventor in the subject-matter. There is an originality, richness, and variety in his allegorical personages and fictions, which almost vies with the splendour of the ancient mythology. If Ariosto transports us into the regions of romance, Spenser's poetry is all fairy-land. In Ariosto, we walk upon the ground, in a company, gay, fantastic, and adventurous enough. In Spenser, we wander in another world, among ideal beings. The poet takes and lays us in the lap of a lovelier nature, by the sound of softer streams, among greener hills and 20 fairer valleys. He paints nature, not as we find it, but as we expected to find it; and fulfils the delightful promise of our youth. He waves his wand of enchantment-and at once embodies airy beings, and throws a delicious veil over all actual objects. The two worlds of reality and of fiction are poised on the wings of his imagination. His ideas, indeed, seem more distinct than his perceptions. He is the painter of abstractions, and describes them with dazzling minuteness. In the Mask of Cupid he makes the
God of Love 'clap on high his coloured winges twain': and it is said of Gluttony, in the Procession of the Passions,
In green vine leaves he was right fitly clad. At times he becomes picturesque from his intense love of beauty; as where he compares Prince Arthur's crest to the appearance of the almond tree :
Upon the top of all his lofty crest,
A bunch of hairs discolour'd diversely
Did shake and seem'd to daunce for jollity;
On top of green Selinis all alone,
Whose tender locks do tremble every one
inexhaustible imagination. He luxuriates equally in scenes 20 of Eastern magnificence; or the still solitude of a hermit's cell—in the extremes of sensuality or refinement.
In reading the Faery Queen, you see a little withered old man by a wood-side opening a wicket, a giant, and a dwarf lagging far behind, a damsel in a boat upon an enchanted lake, wood-nymphs, and satyrs; and all of a sudden you are transported into a lofty palace, with tapers burning, amidst knights and ladies, with dance and revelry, and song, ‘and mask, and antique pageantry.'
What can be more solitary, more shut up in itself, than his 30 description of the house of Sleep, to which Archimago sends for a dream : And more to lull him in his slumber soft
A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down, And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,
Mix'd with a murmuring wind, much like the sound Of swarming Bees, did cast him in a swound.
No other noise, nor people's troublous cries That still are wont ťannoy the walled town
Might there be heard ; but careless Quiet lies Wrapt in eternal silence, far from enemies. It is as if 'the honey-heavy dew of slumber' had settled on his pen in writing these lines. How different in the subject (and yet how like in beauty) is the following description of the Bower of Bliss :
Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound
Of all that mote delight a dainty ear;
Save in this Paradise, be heard elsewhere :
To tell what manner musicke that mote be ;
Was there consorted in one harmonee :
Their notes unto the voice attempred sweet :
To th' instruments divine respondence meet.
With the base murmur of the water's fall;
Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call ; The gentle warbling wind low answered to all. The remainder of the passage has all that voluptuous · pathos, and languid brilliancy of fancy, in which this writer excelled : The whiles, some one did chaunt this lovely lay ;
Ah! see, whoso fayre thing dost fain to see, In springing flower the image of thy day!
Ah! see the virgin rose, how sweetly she Doth first peep forth with bashful modesty,
That fairer seems the less ye see her may !
Her bared bosom she doth broad display ;
So passeth in the passing of a day
Of mortal life the leaf, the bud, the flower ;
That erst was sought to deck both bed and bower
Gather therefore the rose whilst yet is prime,
Gather the rose of love whilst yet is time,
The finest things in Spenser are, the character of Una, in the first book ; the House of Pride; the Cave of Mammon, and the Cave of Despair ; the account of Memory, of whom it is said, among other things,
The wars he well remember'd of King Nine,
Of old Assaracus and Inachus divine ; the description of Belphebe; the story of Florimel and the Witch's son; the Gardens of Adonis, and the Bower of Bliss; the Mask of Cupid ; and Colin Clout's vision,
in the last book. But some people will say that all this 20 may be very fine, but that they cannot understand it on
account of the allegory. They are afraid of the allegory, as if they thought it would bite them : they look at it as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them. Without minding it at all, the whole is as plain as a pike-staff. It might as well be pretended that we cannot see Poussin's pictures for the allegory, as that
the allegory prevents us from understanding Spenser. For 30 instance, when Britomart, seated amidst the young
warriors, lets fall her hair and discovers her sex, is it
Was for like need enforc'd to disarray.
Her golden locks that were in trammels gay
Upbounden, did themselves adown display,
And raught unto her heels like sunny beams That in a cloud their light did long time stay ;
Their vapour faded, shew their golden gleams, And through the persant air shoot forth their azure streams. Or is there any mystery in what is said of Belphoebe, that her hair was sprinkled with flowers and blossoms which had been entangled in it as she fled through the woods ? Or is it necessary to have a more distinct idea of Proteus, than that which is given of him in his boat, with the 10 frighted Florimel at his feet, while
the cold icicles from his rough beard Dropped adown upon her snowy breast!' Or is it not a sufficient account of one of the sea-gods that pass by them, to say
That was Arion crowned :
So went he playing on the watery plain. Or to take the Procession of the Passions that draw the coach of Pride, in which the figures of Idleness, of Gluttony, of Lechery, of Avarice, of Envy, and of Wrath speak, one 20 should think, plain enough for themselves, such as this of Gluttony : And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
Deformed creature, on a filthy swine ; His belly was up blown with luxury ;
And eke with fatness swollen were his eyne ;
With which he swallowed up excessive feast,
30 For other clothes he could not wear for heat : And on his head an ivy garland had,
From under which fast trickled down the sweat : Still as he rode, he somewhat still did eat.
And in his hand did bear a bouzing can,
His drunken corse he scarce upholden can ;