« PreviousContinue »
English Poetry. This is signalized above all others, in the history of English literature, as a POETICAL AGE; as an age “propitious to the operations of original and true poetry, when the coyness of fancy was not always proof against the approaches of reason, when genius was rather directed than governed by judgment, and when taste and learning had so far only disciplined imagination, as to suffer its excess to pass without censure or control, for the sake of the beauties to which they were allied.” Taste and reason, the creative and the critical faculties, had attained the states, and sustained such relations to one another as were most propitious to the production of pure poetry.
This age is characterized too, for the abundance, as well as the element of its poetry : during the single reign of Elizabeth, more poetry was produced than all that had been written in the English language, previous to this time. A race of vigorous, independent thinkers arose; the materials of fiction were abundant, and all the causes now existed which were calculated to call forth genius and exercise the imagination.
The customs and institutions of the middle ages had not yet ceased to exercise an influence. The pageants, the ceremonies and processions of those ages that were friendly to imagery, were still perpetuated ; romance engendered by gothic devotion did not at once depart. The Catholic worship, in its picturesque appendages and poetic associations, so disposed the mind to love deception that it engendered every species of credulity; its visions, legends and miracles propagated a propensity for the marvelous, confirming the belief in specters and incantations; and these illusions, heightened by the capricious heroism of baronial manners, and the genius of the feudal policy, formed the rich materials for the minstrel's muse, upon which Spenser so greatly improved, reflecting its departing glories in his Fairy Queen.
Thus Spenser lived in the most poetic age of English literature, and he has proved himself worthy of his nativity. The spirit of personification and allegory which he has carried to excess, "needs no defense:" it is attributable to the times in which he lived. Fancy, fable and fiction; a prevailing taste for pathetic events and romantic adventures, form the prominent features in the facts, the doings, as well as the poetry of these times.
The causes of this characteristic distinction, are found in the blending of all the various elements of romance, operating as they did, under the rising influence of taste and learning. The mind, just roused from the lethargy of the middle ages, was buoyant and elastic with new life, but the reformation had not yet destroyed every delusion, nor broken the enchantments of superstitious credulity. Every specter did not vanish immediately in the morning beams of science; a few spirits lingered still, and haunted the enchanted ground: some of the rugged features of gothic romance were softened, and some illusions had vanished, but credulity was consecrated by the name of science, and men still easily believed that spirits yet hovered around, who brought with them
Airs from heaven or blasts from hell.?
The alchemist and astrologer yet held their pretended intercourse with supernatural beings, who were obsequious to their call; they pretended to evoke the queen of Fairies in the solitude of the gloomy grove, where preceded by the murmur of the winds and the rustling of the leaves, she appeared with winning smiles, and in robes of transcendent luster.
Gothic romance was thus softened and blended with classic fiction; the complicated machineries of giants, dragons, and enchanted castles, were now employed by the epic muse, and the fertility of genius was displayed in the management of ærial beings and imaginary characters. These ideal personages exercised and quickened the creative faculty which had given them birth, and reflected back what poetry had first bestowed.
Taste and criticism had not yet risen and laid down the canons of composition, and genius was not awed with the fear of arraignment before their tribunal. The poet and the minstrel's art were again united : musical studies formed a part of general education, and a flowing and musical modulation was infused into poetry.
Such was the position of Spenser, who surpassed all the poets that preceded him, in fancy and invention, and in the music of his verse.
His poetry is a pure creature of the imagination; independent of time and space, he transports us into an ideal world, where the most perfect forms of grace and beauty are conceived, and charms and visions control the action of natural laws. While in his enchanted realms, “we walk a new earth, beneath new heavens, which are lit up with a light that never was on sea or land,” and we hear such music as was never heard before by mortal ear.
Spenser possesses supreme dominion over the world of fiction ; none but his imagination could throw such beauty and vitality into his misty moral type. He catches the elements of all forms, and possesses the power of combining them, and of re-producing the modifications of his mind; and he is capable of attaching them to such objects as are suitable to constitute the most perfect beauty, or deformity.
He aids truth in the embellishment of nature: he renders nature more touching, more pathetic, more pleasing, by adorning the object he portrays with all those beauties which can be properly associated with it. It is true indeed, that his creations are mostly ideal beings; nevertheless, they move us with such a delightful enchantment, that the illusions are forgiven on account of the pleasure they have bestowed.
He aims at spirituality, the embodiment of what does not properly fall under the cognizance of the senses: the obscure and abstract are made palpable, and organization and vitality are given to the images of the mind; and in the incarnation of these shadowy creations, the fertility of his genius is happily displayed.
He possesses a luxuriant imagination, with rare descriptive powers, but is wanting in a profound knowledge of human character. He does not enter within the shrine, and disclose the secret imaginations of the
heart, or reveal the fine springs of action; nor does he exhibit those flashes of wit and humor which wake the more fanciful associations of the mind. He rises above the observation of manners and common life, and does not sketch the varied lights and fine shades of character.
His heart is all kindness, and he does not delight in pungent satire; nor has he any of that mighty energy of thought and passion which concentrates a world of meaning into a single word, and that a word of lightning. Withdrawn from the ordinary cares and haunts of men, he is always calm and discursive: and although he is seldom illusive or suggestive, he is highly poetical in imagery, association, and expression, while his style is natural and his verse flows with as much ease as his crystal stream that proceeds from the sacred fountain.
He does not display a universal genius in portraying every thing as it is, but impresses his own image upon every thing he touches; his creations are all tinged with the hues of his own mind, and in all there is a tender sensibility, and pleasing melancholy, that endear to the heart even his highest fictions. So agreeable are they in this respect, we forget that we are on enchanted ground. His generous and noble heart beats through every line, and this is the cause of the great animation and healthful glow of his creations: he has transfused into them his own soul.
Spenser is delicately sensitive to the impression of beauty, and it is uncommon to find so much tenderness, sensibility, and purity of feeling in his age, as