Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE

LIFE OF SPENSER,

BY MR. CHALMERS.

Although the language of the great poet whose works are now before us is less obsolete than that of Chaucer, yet it may be doubted whether Spenser has been much more a favourite with those who read to be entertained, and whose demand for entertainment is too urgent to admit of previous learning, or fixed attention. That he has been read and studied by poets in all ages, is only saying that he has been read and studied by men to whom the history of their art cannot be indifferent, and who have found in Spenser whatever can animate and invigorate their powers. But however tedious the perusal of Spenser may be to a frivolous taste, his works must necessarily compose an essential part of every BODY OF ENGLISH POETRY, not only upon account of their transcendent merit, not only because in the powers of imagination he excells all others, but because he was the founder of a school more numerous than any other, a school of which it is sufficient praise that Cowley, Milton, and Dryden acknowledged their obligations to it, and that in more recent times it has conferred celebrity on Prior, Gray, Akenside, and Beattie'.

Of the life of Spenser, as of the lives of men of literature in general before the serenteenth century, our accounts are very defective. Modern biographers have generally been content to copy the few particulars within their reach, and to transmit them in varied styles, without examining very scrupulously whether what they had was correct, or what they had not was recoverable. Of late, however, Spenser has met with a biographer worthy of him, one who unites the taste of the poet to the skill of the antiquary. Those who have perused Mr. Todd's Spenser need not be told that it is to

“ I am sur

Dt. Beattie's experience in imitating Spenser has probably been that of his brethren. prised to find the structure of (Spenser's) complicated stanza so little troublesome, I was always fond of it, for I think it the most barmonious that ever was contrived. It admits of more variety of pauses than either the couplet, or the alternate rhyme: and it concludes with a pomp and majesty of sound, which, to my ear, is wonderfully delightful. It seems also very well adapted to the genius of our language, which, from its irregularity of inflexion and number of monosyllables, abounds in diversified terminations, and conseqnently renders our poetry susceptible of an endless variety of legitimate rhymes." Forbes' Life of Beattie. The present collection of English poetry will show that the names mentioned above do not include abore half of the poets who have practised the stanza of Spenser. C.

him I owe all that is valuable in the following sketch, and will be pleased to hear that the text used in this edition is that which he has so ably corrected and harmonized.

EDMUND SPENSER, descended from the ancient and honourable faniily of Spencer, was born in London in East Smithfield by the Tower, probably about the year 1553. In what school he received the first part of his education has not been ascertained, nor is of great consequence, as at that time much knowledge was not to be obtained in any lesser seminaries, previous to academical studies. He was, however, admitted, as a sizer, of Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, May 20, 1569, proceeded to the degree of bachelor of arts, January 16, 1572-3, and to that of master of arts, June 26th, 1576. Of his proficiency during this time, a favourable opinion may be drawn from the many classical allusions in his works, while their moral tendency, which if not uniform was more general than that of the writings of his contemporaries, incline us to hope that his conduct was irreproachable.

At Cambridge he formed an intimacy with Gabriel Harvey, first of Christ's College, afterwards of Trinity Hall, who became doctor of laws in 1585, and survived his friend more than thirty years. Harvey was a scholar, and a poet of no mean estimation in his own time. He appears also as a critic to whose judgment Spenser frequently appeals, looking up to him with a reverence for which it is not easy to account. We are, however, much indebted to his correspondence with Spenser, for many interesting particulars relating to the life and studies of the latter, although some of them afford little more than probable conjectures.

It is now fully disproved that Spenser was an unsuccessful cardidate for a fellowship in Pembroke Hall, in competition with Andrews, afterwards successively bishop of Chichester, Ely, and Winchester. The rival of Andrews was Thomas Dore, afterwards bishop of Peterborough. But from one of Harvey's letters to Spenser it appears that some disagreement had taken place between our poet and the master or tutor of the society to which he belonged, which terminated his prospects of further advancement in it, without lessening his veneration for the university at large, of which he always speaks with filial regard.

When he lett Cambridge, he is supposed to have gone to reside with some friends in the north of England, probably as a tutor. At wbat time he began to display his poetical powers is uncertain, but as genius cannot be long concealed, it is probable that he was already known as a votary of the Muses among bis fellow-students. There are several poems in the Theatre for Worldlings, a collection published in the year in which he became a member of the university, which are thought to have come from his pen.

The Visions in this work were probably the first sketch of those which now form a part of his acknowledged productions. Absolute certainty, however, caunot be obtained in fixing the chronology of his early poems; but it may be conjectured with great probability that his Muse would not be neglected at an age when it is usual to court her favours, and at which he had much leisure, the scenery of nature before his eyes, and no serious

There is a good portrait of Spenser in the common room of Pembroke Hall, to which the society have ever looked up with reverence, and it was by their liberality that the monument iu Westminster Abbey was restored in 1778. C.

3 Harvey was rather a Latin than an English poet: but there is mention of his English bexameters in his correspondence with Spenser. He is supposed to have been the same Gabriel Harvey, LL. D. who died in 1630, when be must have been nearly ninety years old. Phillipps' Theatrum, edit. 1800. C.

cares to disturb his enthusiasm. His Shepheard's Calender was published in 1579. The tenderness of complaint in this elegant poem, appears to have been inspired by a mistress whom he has recorded under the name of Rosalind“, and who, after trifling with his affection, preferred his rival. He is supposed also to allude to the cruelty of this same lady in Book VI. of the Faerie Queene, under the name of Mirabella.

The year preceding the publication of this poem, he had been advised by his friend Harvey to remove to London, where he was introduced to sir Philip Sidney, and by him recommended to his uncle, the earl of Leicester. There is a wide difference of opinion, however, among Spenser's biographers, as to the time and mode of the former of these events. Some suppose that his acquaintance with sir Philip Sidney was the consequence of his having presented to him the ninth canto of the Faerie Queene. Others think that his first introduction was owing to the dedication of the Shepheard's Calender; but a long letter from Spenser to Harvey, which Mr. Todd has preserved, proves that he was known to Sidney previous to the publication of the Shepheard's Calender in 1579.

It is certain that in consequence of this introduction, by whatever means procured, he became a welcome guest in sir Philip's family, and was invited to their seat at Penshurst in Kent, where it is conjectured that he wrote, at least, the ninth eclogue. Under such patronage, the dedication of the Calender, when finished, to "Maister Philip Sidney," became a matter of course, as a mark of respectful acknowledgment for the kindness he had received. The praise, however, bestowed on this poem was but moderate, and the name of the author appears to have been for some time not generally known. Dove, whose translation of it into Latin is extant in the library of Caius College, Cambridge, speaks of it, not only as an “ unowned" poem, but as almost buried in oblivion. On the other hand, Abraham Fraunce, a barrister as well as a poet of that time, selected from it examples to illustrate his work entitled The Lawier's Logike; but Fraunce, it may be said, was the friend of sir Philip Sidney, and would naturally be made acquainted, and perhaps induced to admire, the productions of a poet whom he favoured.

The patronage of men of genius in Spenser's age was frequently exerted in procuring for them public employments, and Spenser, we find, was very early introduced into the business of active life. In July 1580, when Arthur, lord Grey of Wilton departed from England, as lord lieutenant of Ireland, Spenser was appointed his secretary, probably on the recommendation of the earl of Leicester. Although the office of secretary was not at that time of the same importance it is now, and much might not be expected in official business from a scholar and a poet, yet Spenser appears to have entered with zeal into political affairs, as far as they were connected with the character of the lord lieutenant. In his View of the State of Ireland, which was written long after, he takes frequent opportunities to vindicate the measures and reputation of that nobleman, and has, indeed, evidently studied the politics of Ireland with great success.

After holding this situation about two years, lord Grey returned to England, and probably accompanied by his secretary. Their connection was certainly not dissolved, for in 1586, Spenser obtained, by his lordship's interest and that of Leicester and Sidney, a grant of three thousand and twenty eight acres in the county of Cork, out of the

+ Warton was of opinion that Rosalind is an anagram, and the letters of which it is composed will make out her true name. This I think doubtful. Spenser was indeed an anagrammatist in many of his names, as when he makes Algrind out of Grindal, and Morel out of Elmer. But he must have been pecu'sarly fortunate to find a name which he could anagrammatize into Rosalind. C.

forfeited lands of the earl of Desmond. As far as sir Philip Sidney was concerned, this was the last act of his kindness to our poct, for he died in October of the same year, « praised, wept, and honoured” by every man of genius or feeling.

Such were the terms of the royal patent, that Spenser was now obliged to return to Ireland, in order to cultivate the land assigned him. He accordingly fixed his residence at Kilcolman, in the county of Cork, a place which topographers have represented as admirably accommodated to the taste of a poet by its romantic and diversified scenery. Here he was visited by sir Walter Raleigh, with whom he had formed an intimacy on his first arrival in Ireland, who proved a second Sidney to his poetical ardour, and appears to have urged him to that composition which constitutes his highest fame. In 1590 he published The Faerie Queene; disposed into Twelve Books, fashioning XH. Morall Vertues.

This edition contains only the first three books. To the end of the third were annexed, besides the letter to Raleigh, the poetical commendations of friends to whose judgment the poem had been submitted. The names of Raleigh and Harvey are discernible, but the others are concealed under initials. These are followed by his own Sonnets to various persons of distinction, the number of which is augmented in the edition of 1596. Mr. Todd remarks that in that age of adulation, it was the custom of the author to present, with a copy of his publication, a poetical address to his superiors. It was no less the custom also to print them afterwards, and, we may readily suppose, with the full consent of the parties to whom they were addressed.

It appears certain that these three books of the Faerie Queene were written in Ireland. In a conversation, extracted from his friend Ludowick Bryskett's Discourse of Civill Life, and which is said to have passed in that country, Spenser is made to say,

« I have already undertaken a work in heroical verse, under the title of a Faerie Queene, tending to represent all the moral virtues, assigning to every virtue a knight, to be patron and defender of the same; in whose actions feats of arms and chivalry, the operations of that virtue, whereof he is the protector, are to be expressed, and the vices and unruly appetites that oppose themselves against the same, to be beaten downe and overcome.”

Such was his original design in this undertaking, and having prepared three books for the press, it is probable that he accompanied Raleigh to England, with a view to publish it. Raleigh afterwards introduced him to queen Elizabeth, whose favour is supposed by some to have extended to his being appointed poet laureate, but Elizabeth, as Mr. Malone has accurately proved, had no poet laureate. Indeed in February 1590-1, she copferred on Spenser a pension of fifty pounds a year, the grant of which was discovered some years ago in the chapel of the Rolls, and this pension be enjoyed till his death, but the title of laureate was not given in his patent, nor in that of his two immediate suc

eessors.

The discovery of this patent, by Mr. Malone, is of further importance, as tending to rescue the character of lord Burleigh from the imputation of being hostile to our poet. The oldest date of this reproach is in Fuller's Worthies, a book published at the distance of more than seventy years, and on this authority, which has been copied by almost all the biographers of Spenser, it has been said that Burleigh intercepted the pension, as too much to be given “ to a ballad-maker,” and that when the queen, upon Spenser's present. ing some poems to her, ordered him the gratuity of one hundred pounds, Burleigh asked, “What! all this for a song!” on which the queen replied, “ Then give him what is reason.” The story concludes, that Spenser having long waited in vain for the fulfilment of the royal order, presented to her the following ridiculous memorial :

I was promised on a time
To have reason for my rhime;
From that time unto this season
I receiv'd nor rhime nor reason ;

on which he was immediately paid; but for the whole of this representation, there appears neither foundation nor authority.

After the publication of the Faerie Queene, Spenser returned to Ireland. During his absence, in the succeeding year, the fame he had now obtained, induced his bookseller 10 collect and print his smaller pieces, one of which only is said to have been a republication The title of this collection is, Complaints, containing sundrie small Poems of the World's Vanitie, viz. 1. The Ruines of Time. 2. The Teares of the Muses. 3. Virgils Guat. 4. Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubbards Tale. 5. The Ruines' of Rome, by Bellay, 6. Muiopotmos, or the Tale of the Butterflie. 7. Visions of the Worlds Vanitie. 8. Pellayes Visions. 9. Petrarches Visions.

Spenser appears to have returned to London about the end of 1591, as his next pube lication, the beautiful elegy on Douglass Howard, daughter of Henry lord Howard, entitled Daphnaida, is dated Jan. 1, 1591-2. From this period there is a long interval in the history of our poet, which was probably passed in Ireland, but of which we have no account. It would appear, however, that he did not neglect those talents of which he had already given such favourable specimens. In 1595, he published the pastoral of Colin Clouts come Home again, the dedication to which bears date Dec. 27, 1591, but this Mr. Todd has fully proved to be an errour. The pastoral elegy of Astrophel, devoted entirely to the memory of sir Philip Sidney, and perhaps written on the immediate occasion of his death, was published along with this last mentioned piece.

It is conjectured that in the same year appeared his Amoretti, or Sonnets, in which the poet gives the progress of his addresses to a less obdurate lady than Rosalind, and wbom he afterwards married, if the Epithalamion, published along with the Sonnels, is allowed to refer to that event. Mr. Todd deduces from various passages that his mistress's name was Elizabeth, and that the marriage took place in Ireland, on St. Barnabas day, 1594. Other biographers seem to be of opinion that he had lost a first wife, and that the courtship of a second inspired the Amoretti. Where we have no other evidence than the expression of a man's feelings, and that man a poet of excursive imagination, the balance of probabilities may be equal. Spenser was now at the age of fortyone, somewhat too late for the ardour of youthful passion so feelingly given in his Sonnets; but on the other hand, if he had a first wife, we have no account of her, and the children he left are, I think, universally acknowledged to have been by the wife he now married.

The Four Hymns on Love and Beauty, which the author informs us were written in his youth, as a warning to thoughtless lovers, and the Prothalamion, in honour of the double marriages of the ladies Elizabeth and Catherine Somerset to H. Gilford and W. Peter; esqrs. were published in 1596. In the same year the second part of the Faerie Queene appeared, with a new edition of the former part accompanying it. This contained the fourth, fifth, and sixth books. Of the remaining six, which were to complete the original design, two imperfect cantos of Mutabilitie only bave been recovered, and were tirst in

« PreviousContinue »