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The four greatest of England's poets are undoubtedly Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton. A considerable number of luminaries have since their time arisen in the poetical heaven; but still these four old stars shine on undimmed, clustering close rogether in the very zenith of fame, and seeming to become brighter and larger as the ages roll on. And yet, although they outshine all others, and stand near each other in their proud position, they are exceedingly diverse. Chaucer excels in freshness and raciness, in sunniness of spirit, in simple sinewy strength, in brawny masculine muscle, combined with child-like simplicity —not of "imagination all compact,” he can, nevertheless, like his own Cambuscan, mount at times a horse of brass, and career through the firmament of fancy; his real home, however, is the dewy greensward of England, and his great strength lieth in depicting the manners and the men of a primitive age, and the rough picturesque features of a half-cultivated nature. Shak. speare was the universal man transfigured into the universal poet; nay, he was, as has elsewhere been said, an Englishman by accident, a man by condescension, a cosmopolitan by courtesy, while by nature he belonged to the universe, in the broadest sense of that term. Milton's power and mission chiefly was to cut out, in colossal statuary, high moral and theological truth; he appears to many a "giant-angel” rather than a man, and his sympathies were more with
“Hell, Hades, Heaven, the eternal Ilúw and Where,
than with earth. Whereas to Spenser was given all power over the fairy lands of imagination—to satisfy that “thirst for a wilder beauty than earth supplies,” which has been called the essence of poetry-to “lay us on the lap of a lovelier nature, by stiller streams and greener meadows"-to change all substances into shadows, and all realities into dreams-to create, by the sheer force of his fancy, ideal wildernesses and worlds grander and richer than all the mythologies of the past, or than all the fantasies of the combined Arabian genius in the “ Thousand and One Nights ”—to plant and nourish to maturity a great forest of poetry, in which all men have since delighted to lose themselves, and as they plunged into its divine darkness, chequered with gleams of intense light, have forgot earth, their own identity, everything, wandering on in sweet bewilderment, and wishing that they might awake and return to common life no more for ever! Shakspeare in his “ Tempest ” and “ Midsummer-Night's Dream,” and Milton in his “Comus," have performed feats of creative fancy similar in kind, and equally beautiful; but, while their structures are comparatively small, Spenser's is vasttheirs are but turrets, while “ The Faerie Queene" is a “castle in the clouds," complete in every part of its aerial architecture, with drawbridge, battlements, moat, arches, court-yard, and all -complete, we mean, so far as plan is concerned, for, owing to its author's premature death, it is in point of execution a great fragment.
Such a "new thing in the earth " is Spenser's wondrous poem. There is but one other allegory extant that can be compared to it in beauty, power, and imagination, and that is-need we say ?-the “Pilgrim's Progress.” Yet, although both these works discover genius of the highest order, and genius in some respects kindred as well as commensurate, the points of diversity are numerous. Neither “The Faerie Queene," nor the "Pilgrim's Progress," can be considered a perfect allegory. Indeed, (unless we, with Edgar Poe, except the “Undine” of De La Motte Fouqué, where he says, “the allegory is properly handled, judiciously subdued, seen only as a shadow, or by suggestive glimpses, and making its nearest approach to truth in a not obtrusive and therefore not unpleasant APPOSITENESS,') we doubt if there be a perfect allegory in the whole world of literature. “It is difficult," says one, "to make an allegory go on all fours."
on all fours.” Another writer thus ingeniously reasons, “The deepest emotion aroused within us by the happiest allegory as allegory, is a very imperfectly satisfied sense of the writer's ingenuity in overcoming a difficulty we should have preferred his not having attempted to overcome. The fallacy of the idea that allegory, in any of its moods, can be made to enforce a truth, could be promptly demonstrated. One thing at least is clear, that if allegory ever establishes a fact, it is by dint of overturning a fiction. Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious one in a VERY profound current, so as never to interfere with the upper one without our own volition—so as never to shew itself unless CALLED to the surface, there only for the proper uses of fictitious narrative, is it available at all? Under the best circumstances, it must always interfere with that unity of effect which, to the artist, is worth all the allegory in the world. Its vital injury, however, is rendered to the most important point in fiction—that of earnestness or verisimilitude."
Apart from this objection, which contains a portion of truth, although it is somewhat overstrained-since what book, in many parts, produces more of the effect of earnestness and verisimilitude than the "Pilgrim's Progress?”—no allegorist has ever been able to form a thorough amalgamation of the moral and the fable. Spenser, as we saw in our first paper, is perpetually losing the thread of his purpose--his work is always a mighty maze, and often without a plan—sometimes it resembles those buildings referred to by Gray, with their
“Rich windows that exclude the light,
And passages that lead to nothing;” and although in many places, as in the account of Sir Walter Raleigh's “ Amour” (Book IV., Canto VII.), it admirably preserves that " verisimilitude” which is desiderated; yet in others there is either no definite meaning at all, or it lies so deep, that when “called” up to the surface, like Glendower's spirits, it will not come when you do call for it. Macaulay, in his well-known paper on Bunyan in the “Edinburgh Review,” has pointed out some discrepancies in the “Pilgrim's Progress,” such as Faithtul's not passing through the wicket-gate, although it is asserted that all the pilgrims required to pass it, and Ignorance and others are sent to hell for neglecting to pass, &c.; and he might have multiplied similar instances by scores.
Such blunders seem to us not to detract from, but to add to the interest and the charm of an allegory, which, being essentially a dream, should exhibit here and there dream-like abruptness, incoherence, and phantasmagorial shiftings of scenery. Seldom can you say of dreams what was said of Joseph's, “ The dream is one.”
Certainly neither Bunyan's nor Spenser's is, although from the simpler structure of the “ Pilgrim's Progress," and the greater religious earnestness of its author, it possesses far more unity, as well as clearness, than "The Faerie Queene.” It is upon this principle that we would vindicate Spenser against Hallam's criticism. He objects to the much-admired description of a forest
“The sailing pine, the cedar proud and tall,
The aspen, good for staves, the cypress funeral ;" because, forsooth, a natural forest never contains such a variety of species; and Ruskin, in alluding to the same passage, says,
Spenser's wood is the Wood of Error," intimating that the poet was wrong in so describing it. We beg leave to prefer the poet's instinct to the dictates of his critics. Spenser knew very well that he was writing, not an inventory or catalogue, but describing a piece of dream-scenery; writing, not as a woodforester, but as a poet. In dreams no man is a pre-Raphaelite. He gets, indeed, the bare materials of his visions from nature, but he wields them at the will, or rather under the control, of his own imagination. The structures which arise before his view are not his altogether, nor nature’s altogether, but created between them in the might of that peculiar inspiration which comes in sleep. Alps piled on Alps, like Ossa of old on Pelion, form the mountains; oceans are there, as the Atlantic broad, and as the Pacific calm; valleys ampler and richer than any on earth repose around nobler rivers, aftd under crags more rugged and austere; rainbows, which might bridge the sun instead of the earth, flush the sky; clouds of ten thousand colours are piled up like pyramids against the horizon, and another and brighter sun rales over a diviner day. Such are the powers and habitudes of all imaginative spirits in dreams, and they constitute the prerogatives of the poet even in his waking hours. Hear the exquisite words of Addison, “The poet is not obliged to attend Nature in the slow advances she makes from one season to another, or to observe her conduct in the successive production of plants and flowers; he may draw into his description all the beauties of spring and autumn, and make the whole year contribute something to render it more agreeable. His rose-trees, woodbines, and jessamines may flower together, and his beds be covered at the same time with lilies, violets, and amaranths. His soil is not restrained to any particular set of plants, but is proper either for oaks or myrtles, and adapts itself to the products of every climate. Oranges may grow wild in it, myrrh may be met in every hedge, and if he thinks it proper to have a grove of spices, he can quickly command sun enough to raise it. Nay, he can make several new species of flowers, with richer scents and higher colours than any that grow in the gardens of nature. His concerts of birds may be as full and harmonious, and his woods as thick and gloomy, as he pleases. He is at no more expense in a long vista than in a short one, and can as easily throw his cascades from a precipice of half-a-mile high, as from one of twenty yards. He has his choice of the winds, and can turn the course of his rivers in all the variety of meanders that are most delightful to the reader's imagination.” Of course there must be some method in this fine madness, and the charter thus conferred by the Spectator applies chiefly to the more ethereal kinds of poetry; but surely if ever poem can claim such privileges, it must be “ The Faerie Queene."
Bunyan and Spenser resemble each other, not only in the blended ingenuity and imperfections of their allegory, but in the intense realising power of their imagination. They are both for the time the dupes of their own fancies. Their personifications, as well as their persons, are to them living, moving, and speaking beings. Una (the Church) is as real to Spenser as Belphæbe (Queen Elizabeth); and that “man of hell named Despair," as Timias (Sir Walter Raleigh). And so in Bunyan, Goodwill, or the Love of God, is as picturesquely portrayed as