« PreviousContinue »
trated passion of Dante ; every sentence is not so full of matter, nor the style so removed from the indifference of prose ; yet you are charmed with a truth of another sort, equally characteristic of the writer, equally drawn from nature, and substituting a healthy sense of enjoyment for intenser emotion. Exclusiveness of liking for this or that mode of truth, only shows, either that a reader's perceptions are limited, or that he would sacrifice truth itself to his favorite form of it. Sir Walter Raleigh, who was as tranchant with his pen as his sword, hailed the Faerie Queene of his friend Spenser in verses in which he said that “ Petrarch” was thenceforward to be no more heard of ; and that in all English poetry, there was nothing he counted “ of any price” but the effusions of the new author. Yet Petrarch is stili living ; Chaucer was not abolished by Sir Walter; and Shakspeare is thought somewhat valuable. A botanist might as well have said, that myrtles and oaks were to disappear, because acacias had come up. It is with the poet's creations, as with nature's, great or small. Wherever truth and beauty, whatever their amount, can be worthily shaped into verse, and answer to some demand for it in our hearts, there poetry is to be found; whether in productions grand and beautiful as some great event, or some mighty, leafy solitude, or no bigger and more pretending than a sweet face or a bunch of violets; whether in Homer's epic or Gray's Elegy, in the enchanted gardens of Ariosto and Spenser, or the very pot-herbs of the Schoolmistress of Shenstone, the balms of the simplicity of a cottage. Not to know and feel this, is to be deficient in the universality of Nature herself, who is a poetess on the smallest as well as the largest scale, and who calls upon us to admire all her productions : not indeed with the same degree of admiration, but with no refusal of it, except to defect.
I cannot draw this essay towards its conclusion better than with three memorable words of Milton; who has said, that poetry, in comparison with science, is “ simple, sensuous, and passionate." By simple, he means unperplexed and self-evident; by sensuous, genial and full of imagery; by passionate, excited and enthusiastic. I am aware that different constructions have been put on some of these words; but the context seems to me to necessitate those before us. I quote, however, not from the original, but from an extract in the Remarks on Paradise Lost by Richardson.
What the poet has to cultivate above all things is love and truth ;—what he has to avoid, like poison, is the fleeting and the false. He will get no good by proposing to be “ in earnest at the moment.” His earnestness must be innate and habitual; born with him, and felt to be his most precious inheritance.X“ I expect neither profit nor general fame by my writings," Coleridge, in the Preface to his Poems ;
66 and I consider myself as having been amply repaid without either. Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward :' it has soothed my afflictions ; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude ; and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me.”,-- Pickering's edition, p. 10. X X“ Poetry,” says Shelley, “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. It reproduces all that it represents; and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it co-exists. The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively ; he must put himself in the place of another, and of many
others : the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is imagination ; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.”—Essays and Letters, vol i., p. 16.
I would not willingly say anything after perorations like these ; but as treatises on poetry may chance to have auditors who think themselves called upon to vindicate the superiority of what is termed useful knowledge, it may be as well to add, that if the poet may be allowed to pique himself on any one thing more than another, compared with those who undervalue him,
it is on that power of undervaluing nobody, and no attainments different from his own, which is given him by the very faculty of imagination they despise. The greater includes the less. They do not see that their inability to comprehend him argues the smaller capacity. No man recognizes the worth of utility more than the poet: he only desires that the meaning of the term may not come short of its greatness, and exclude the noblest necessities of his fellow-creatures. He is quite as much pleased, for instance, with the facilities for rapid conveyance afforded him by the railroad, as the dullest confiner of its advantages to that single idea, or as the greatest two-idead man who varies that single idea with hugging himself on his “ but
or his good dinner. But he sees also the beauty of the country through which he passes, of the towns, of the heavens, of the steam-engine itself, thundering and fuming along like a magic horse, of the affections that are carrying, perhaps, halt the passengers on their journey, nay, of those of the great twoidead man; and, beyond all this, he discerns the incalculable amount of good, and knowledge, and refinement, and mutual consideration, which this wonderful invention is fitted to circulate over the globe, perhaps to the displacement of war itself, and certainly to the diffusion of millions of enjoyments.
“ And a button-maker, after all, invented it !” cries our friend.
Pardon me—it was a nobleman. A button-maker may be a very excellent, and a very poetical man, too, and yet not have been the first man visited by a sense of the gigantic powers of the combination of water and fire. It was a nobleman who first thought of this most poetical bit of science. It was a nobleman who first thought of it, —a captain who first tried it—and a button-maker who perfected it. And he who put the nobleman on such thoughts, was the great philosopher, Bacon, who said that poetry had “ something divine in it," and was necessary to the satisfaction of the human mind.
BORN, PROBABLY, ABOUT THE YEAR 1553—
l'hree things must be conceded to the objectors against this divine poet; first, that he wrote a good deal of allegory; second, that he has a great many superfluous words; third, that he was very fond of alliteration. He is accused also (by little boys) of obsolete words and spelling; and it must be added, that he often forces his rhymes ; nay, spells them in an arbitrary manner on purpose to make them fit. In short, he has a variety of faults, real or supposed, that would be intolerable in writers in general. This is true. The answer is, that his genius not only makes amends for all, but overlays them, and makes them beautiful, with “riches fineless.” When acquaintance with him is once begun, he repels none but the anti-poetical. Others may not be able to read him continuously ; but more or less, and as an enchanted stream “ to dip into,” they will read him always.
In Spenser's time, orthography was unsettled. Pronunciation is always so. The great poet, therefore, sometimes spells his words, whether rhymed or otherwise, in a manner apparently arbitrary, for the purpose of inducing the reader to give them the sound fittest for the sense. Alliteration, which, as a ground of melody, had been a principle in Anglo-Saxon verse, continued such a favorite with old English poets whom Spenser loved, that, as late as the reign of Edward the Third, it stood in the place of rhyme itself. Our author turns it to beautiful account. Superfluousness, though eschewed with a fine instinct by Chaucer in some of his latest works, where the narrative was fullest faction and character, abounded in his others; and, in spite of the classics, it had not been recognized as a fault in Spenser's time, when books were still rare, and a writer thought himself bound to pour out all he felt and knew. It accorded also with his genius ; and in him is not an excess of weakness, but of will and luxury. And as to allegory, it was not only the taste of the day, originating in gorgeous pageants of church and state, but in Spenser's hands it became such an embodiment of poetry itself, that its objectors really deserve no better answer than has been given them by Mr. Hazlitt, who asks, if they thought the allegory would “ bite them.” The passage will be found a little further on.
Spenser's great characteristic is poetic luxury. If you go to him for a story, you will be disappointed ; if for a style, classical or concise, the point against him is conceded; if for pathos, you must weep
for personages half-real and too beautiful ; if for mirth, you must laugh out of good breeding, and because it pleaseth the great, sequestered man, to be facetious. But if you love poetry well enough to enjoy it for its own sake, let no evil reports of its “allegory” deter you from his acquaintance, for great will be your loss. His allegory itself is but one part allegory, and nine parts beauty and enjoyment; sometimes an excess of flesh and blood. His forced rhymes, and his sentences written to fill up, which in a less poet would be intolerable, are accompanied with such endless grace and dreaming pleasure, fit to
Make heaven drowsy with the harmony,
that although it is to be no more expected of anybody to read him through at once, than to wander days and nights in a forest, thinking of nothing else, yet any true lover of poetry, when he comes to know him, would as soon quarrel with repose on the .summer grass. You may get up and go away, but will return next day at noon to listen to his waterfalls, and to see, 66 with half-shut eye,” his visions of knights and nymphs, his gods and goddesses, whom he brought down to earth in immortal beauty.
Spenser, in some respects, is more southern than the south itself. Dante, but for the covered heat which occasionally con