Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

а

a

always been, that a museum has not the severe laws of a temple; that there, whatever is curious, interesting, or rare, may be admitted— Pan's pipe leaning on the foot of the true cross, Apollo's flute and David's lyre standing side by side, and the quenched thunderbolts of Jove resting peacefully near the fiery chariot of Elijah-and that the plan of the "Paradise Lost" constitutes it a work of high and catholic art, as well as a book of religious purpose. The vindication of Spenser is easier still; for while some may contend that Milton's poem is a temple, not a museum, or at least is more a didactic than an artistic work, few will venture to say the same of “ The Faerie Queene." It is a mazy wilderness; and who in such a scene wonders though he finds in one corner a crucifix, and in another the statue of a Jove-here a martyr, and there a Mars—here a Virgin Mary, and there a Venus ? Nevertheless, Spenser's mazy wilderness is not a common or unclean place; for while, for the sake of art, of beauty, of poetry, classical figures are permitted, the awe of the Christian idea lies gently upon the ground, quelling, if not consecrating, the alien objects, and changing them from idols to worship into illustrations to adorn. Besides his references to the authors of Greece and Rome, his poem abounds in allusions to the science of his day—to its philosophy, to its discoveries—as well as to the hoarded wisdom, in all departments, of the ages which had gone before him. Jle was one of Buchanan's "doctorum poetûm;" and indeed, except Buchanan himself, Milton, and Dante, there are few in the list of great poets who can in learning, or in the exquisite purpose to which he turns it, vie with Edmund Spenser.

Not the least remarkable perfection or peculiarity in the poetry of Spenser is its language. Like his genius and its productions, it is unique in literature. His is one of the richest of vocabularies, and one of the most varied withal. Words the smoothest and the strongest, the simplest and the most recondite, the shortest and the longest, the most recent and the most obsolete, are employed to express the teeming thoughts and fluctuating fancies of his mind. Seldom did a genius, from its “forgetive" qualities, more require a subtle and flexible expression; and what it required it has abundantly found. His language is, indeed, rather behind than before his age, and archaisms are frequently intro

[ocr errors]

duced; but these are in admirable keeping with the solemn theme and the antique manners of the poem. His style, besides, is enriched and adorned with phrases from many of the ancient and modern languages of Europe. It was, we think, Foster who, comparing the styles of Robert Hall and Coleridge, says that Hall dealt with words as an emperor, and Coleridge as a magician. In Hall, the words march, in large, yet orderly multitudes, and to the sound of graceful music; in Coleridge, they fly, like ministering spirits, to do their lord's pleasure—now in the vasty deep, now in the veins of the earth, and now in the curled clouds of heaven. And what is true of Coleridge is truer still of Shakspeare and of Spenser. The multitudes ruled by an emperor are limited, but the spirits controlled by a magician are "numbers without number, numberless;" and so with the infinite legions of winged words which do the bidding of Burke, Coleridge, Jeremy Taylor, and the two great poets of the “ Tempest and “ The Faerie Queene."

To complete the sum of qualifications befitting the author of such a poem, not only imagination, picturesque power, learning, and language were requisite, but also the music of a rich and peculiar versification. And this element, too, was not awanting to our all-accomplished poet. He chose a stanza which, on the whole, was best adapted to his purpose, and which has produced miracles of melody, being at once soft and sounding, simple yet elaborate, varied in pause and voluminous in general effect; and which, while never swift in its course, rolls on with a lingering, long-drawn out, luxurious swell of music, producing the effect of enchantment, and reminding you of the melody heard sometimes in morning dreams. This stanza consists of a strophe of eight decasyllabic lines and an Alexandrine and has a threefold rhyme—the first and third verses forming one, the second, fourth, fifth, and seventh another, and the sixth, eighth, and ninth the third. It is now universally called the Spenserian stanza, for the reason that Spenser modified, if not made it, and was the first to use it in a lengthened poem. Previous writers—both in Italy and England—such as Boccacio, Ariosto, Tasso, and Chaucer, had used the ottava rima, or stanza of eight lines, although Chaucer's is not strictly so; and Tasso and Ariosto

have in their rima only three similar endings, alternately rhyming, the two last lines forming a distinct rhyme. Spenser, on the other hand, adds an Alexandrine as a ninth line, and repeats the second rhyme four times, and the third three. He has unquestionably, in this way, created difficulties for himself which he does not always overcome. Sometimes, as Warton shews, he is led to trilling and tedious circumlocutions in expressing a very small idea; sometimes, when matter fails him at the close of a stanza, he runs into a ridiculous redundancy and repetition of words, as in “The Faerie Queene” (Book II., Canto IX., Stanza XXXIII.), where he says,

“In which was nothing poúrtrayed nor wrought;

Not wrought nor poúrtrayed, but easy to be thought.” Sometimes he introduces an impertinent or puerile idea to make out his complement of rhymes, and often he employs harsh ellipses and inversions. Still the marvel is, that in such a long poem he has failed so seldom. We remember, for instance, in the course of the whole “Faerie Queene," no such lame and impotent conclusion as the following from Byron's “ Childe Harold "-subject, “ Address to the Ocean :”—

“ Thou send'st him, shivering in thy playful spray,
"And howling to his gods, where haply lies

His petty hope, in some near port or bay,

And dashest him again to earth : there let him lay (!)” Nor do we know of any other species of verse, that would have been so congenial to the spirit of the poet and of the poem. In blank verse, "The Faerie Queene " had been intolerable, and that variety of expression which distinguishes the Spenserian stanza, and admits equally of the pathetic or the grotesque—the tender or the satirical—the sentimental or the descriptive, would have been quite lost. The majestic swing and incessant echo of the heroic couplet, which suits an epic poem so well, would, in a romantic riddle or “dark conceit,” like Spenser's poem, have

“ seemed tedious, monotonous, and insipid. The verse of even “Elois and Abelard,” or the “Pleasures of Hope,” could not have adequately rendered the languishing sweetness and the luxuriant fancy of many portions of “The Faerie Queene.”

[ocr errors]

Coleridge, Poe, and others, have constructed fantastic rhythms of their own, reminding you of the “ treble of a fay," and which sufficiently convey short messages from the region of Fairyland, but which, in a longer flight, would have melted and sunk like the wings of Icarus. On the whole, there seems a pre-established harmony between Spenser's soul and subject, and his verse. Indeed, his stanza is a very Proteus. When he means to be weighty and powerful, it is strong—when he becomes sentimental and love-sick, it languishes in sympathy-when he darkens into sublimity, it can give back frown for frown—when he trembles into pathos, it can wail in concert, when he assumes an elephantine gaiety, it can “wreathe its lithe proboscis,” and lead its heavy dance—when he gets coarse, it too trails in, and gathers a thick coating from the mire—and when he is ethereal in spirit and elevated in joy, it shoots out airy branches,

“ And seems to dance for jollity,
Like to an almond tree, ymounted high
On top of green Selinis, all alone,
With blossoms brave bedecked daintily,

Whose tender locks do tremble every one,

At every little breath that under heaven is blown.” Gallop, indeed, his verse can hardly do, but he seldom, if ever, requires it for that end—his steps are always measured and majestical, and those of his stanza are in constant keeping; even in its “motion there is rest," and its very dance of rapture is subdued, like that of a painted Bacchante.

The best proof, perhaps, of the beauty and power of the Spenserian stanza, as well as of Spenser's poem, lies in the many imitations of it, which have come from the pens of genuine

With a few exceptions (such as Dryden, Pope, Goldsmith, and Johnson, &c.) the most of our bards, both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, have tried to draw this Ulysses bow. Shenstone, in his “Schoolmistress," has attempted to reproduce its quaint phraseology and the infantile spirit which distinguishes certain parts of it. Thomson, in his Castle of Indolence," has emulated the repose which broods over the “ Bower of Bliss” and the “Idle Lake," and has not emulated it in vain-the opening description in the first canto answers to them, as perfectly as the Heaven below the summer lake to the Heaven above it. Beattie, in his “Minstrel,” has sought to drink into the spirit of Spenser's more didactic and more moral portions. Wordsworth, in his “Lines omitted in the Castle of Indolence,” where occurs his celebrated description of Coleridge as the noticeable man with large gray eyes," who, after some absence from the valley of enchantment,

poets since.

“Came back to us a withered flower," has improved on even Thomson's repose, imposed silence on the landscape with a stiller sound, and changed the quiet of painted into that of sculptured sleep. Campbell, in his “ Gertrude of Wyoming,” has chastened down the luxuriance of the style of him whom he calls “the Rubens of poets,” and substituted a transatlantic for a tropical warmth. Byron and Shelley have identified two of their highest efforts with the use of the verse of Spenser. Byron's "Childe Harold,” next to “The Faerie Queene,” is the greatest poem written in that stanza in our language. Yet, the two how different! The pervasive spirit of " The Faerie Queene” is, notwithstanding all its battles and wild adventures, that of peace-peace seen, not as come, but as coming, like the blue sky through the breaks in a thick forest; the spirit of “Childe Harold " is unrest, an unrest which seems unappeasable even by death, and which proclaims its poet, in very deed, the “ Pilgrim of Eternity,” for there are

“Wanderers o'er eternity “Whose bark drives on and on, and anchor'd ne'er shall be." “ The Faerie Queene” is, in essence, a religious poem—the god is there, although often hidden by the draperies, and often lost amidst the leaves; in “Childe Harold” there is no God, only a convulsive and fitful attempt here and there to grasp at Him. “The Faerie Queene” is an outflow, sweet and spontaneous as one of Nature's gums—Childe Harold is an effort, although a gigantic one,—its richest and noblest thoughts come forth as he describes in his own “Dying Gladiator:”

"
« Through his side the last drops, ebbing slow,
From the red gash, fall heavy one by one,
Like the first of a thunder shower."

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
« ПредишнаНапред »