Read CHAPTER III - The Spenserians of A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century, free online book, by Henry A. Beers, on

Dissatisfaction with a prevalent mood or fashion in literature is apt to express itself either in a fresh and independent criticism of life, or in a reversion to older types.  But, as original creative genius is not always forthcoming, a literary revolution commonly begins with imitation.  It seeks inspiration in the past, and substitutes a new set of models as different as possible from those which it finds currently followed.  In every country of Europe the classical tradition had hidden whatever was most national, most individual, in its earlier culture, under a smooth, uniform veneer.  To break away from modern convention, England and Germany, and afterward France, went back to ancient springs of national life; not always, at first, wisely, but in obedience to a true instinct.

How far did any knowledge or love of the old romantic literature of England survive among the contemporaries of Dryden and Pope?  It is not hard to furnish an answer to this question.  The prefaces of Dryden, the critical treatises of Dennis, Winstanley, Oldmixon, Rymer, Langbaine, Gildon, Shaftesbury, and many others, together with hundreds of passages in prologues and epilogues to plays; in periodical essays like the Tatler and Spectator; in verse essays like Roscommon’s, Mulgrave’s and Pope’s; in prefaces to various editions of Shakspere and Spenser; in letters, memoirs, etc., supply a mass of testimony to the fact that neglect and contempt had, with a few exceptions, overtaken all English writers who wrote before the middle of the seventeenth century.  The exceptions, of course, were those supreme masters whose genius prevailed against every change of taste:  Shakspere and Milton, and, in a less degree, Chaucer and Spenser.  Of authors strictly mediaeval, Chaucer still had readers, and there were reprints of his works in 1687, 1721, and 1737, although no critical edition appeared until Tyrwhitt’s in 1775-78.  It is probable, however, that the general reader, if he read Chaucer at all, read him in such modernized versions as Dryden’s “Fables” and Pope’s “January and May.”  Dryden’s preface has some admirable criticism of Chaucer, although it is evident, from what he says about the old poet’s versification, that the secret of Middle English scansion and pronunciation had already been lost.  Prior and Pope, who seem to have been attracted chiefly to the looser among the “Canterbury Tales,” made each a not very successful experiment at burlesque imitation of Chaucerian language.

Outside of Chaucer, and except among antiquarians and professional scholars, there was no remembrance of the whole corpus poetarum of the English Middle Age:  none of the metrical romances, rhymed chronicles, saints’ legends, miracle plays, minstrel ballads, verse homilies, manuals of devotion, animal fables, courtly or popular allegories and love songs of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries.  Nor was there any knowledge or care about the masterpieces of medieval literature in other languages than English; about such representative works as the “Nibelungenlied,” the “Chanson de Roland,” the “Roman de la Rose,” the “Parzival” of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the “Tristan” of Gottfried of Strasburg, the “Arme Heinrich” of Harmann von Aue, the chronicles of Villehardouin, Joinville, and Froissart, the “Morte Artus,” the “Dies Irae,” the lyrics of the troubadour Bernart de Ventadour, and of the minnesinger Walter von der Vogelweide, the Spanish Romancero, the poems of the Elder Edda, the romances of “Amis et Amile” and “Aucassin et Nicolete,” the writings of Villon, the “De Imitatione Christi” ascribed to Thomas a Kempis.  Dante was a great name and fame, but he was virtually unread.

There is nothing strange about this; many of these things were still in manuscript and in unknown tongues, Old Norse, Old French, Middle High German, Middle English, Mediaeval Latin.  It would be hazardous to assert that the general reader, or even the educated reader, of to-day has much more acquaintance with them at first hand than his ancestor of the eighteenth century; or much more acquaintance than he has with Aeschuylus, Thucydides, and Lucretius, at first hand.  But it may be confidently asserted that he knows much more about them; that he thinks them worth knowing about; and that through modern, popular versions of them through poems, historical romances, literary histories, essays and what not he has in his mind’s eye a picture of the Middle Age, perhaps as definite and fascinating as the picture of classical antiquity.  That he has so is owing to the romantic movement.  For the significant circumstance about the attitude of the last century toward the whole medieval period was, not its ignorance, but its incuriosity.  It did not want to hear anything about it. Now and then, hints Pope, an antiquarian pedant, a university don, might affect an admiration for some obsolete author: 

    “Chaucer’s worst ribaldry is learned by rote,
    And beastly Skelton heads of houses quote: 
    One likes no language but the ‘Faery Queen’;
    A Scot will fight for ‘Christ’s Kirk o’ the Green.’"

But, furthermore, the great body of Elizabethan and Stuart literature was already obsolescent.  Dramatists of the rank of Marlowe and Webster, poets like George Herbert and Robert Herrick favorites with our own generation prose authors like Sir Thomas Browne from whom Coleridge and Emerson drew inspiration had fallen into “the portion of weeds and outworn faces.”  Even writers of such recent, almost contemporary, repute as Donne, whom Carew had styled

    “ a king who ruled, as he thought fit,
    The universal monarch of wit”: 

Or as Cowley, whom Dryden called the darling of his youth, and who was esteemed in his own lifetime a better poet than Milton; even Donne and Cowley had no longer a following.  Pope “versified” some of Donne’s rugged satires, and Johnson quoted passages from him as examples of the bad taste of the metaphysical poets.  This in the “Life of Cowley,” with which Johnson began his “Lives of the Poets,” as though Cowley was the first of the moderns.  But,

    “Who now reads Cowley?”

asks Pope in 1737. The year of the Restoration (1660) draws a sharp line of demarcation between the old and the new.  In 1675, the year after Milton’s death, his nephew, Edward Philips, published “Theatrum Poetarum,” a sort of biographical dictionary of ancient and modern authors.  In the preface, he says:  “As for the antiquated and fallen into obscurity from their former credit and reputation, they are, for the most part, those that have written beyond the verge of the present age; for let us look back as far as about thirty or forty years, and we shall find a profound silence of the poets beyond that time, except of some few dramatics.”

This testimony is the more convincing, since Philips was something of a laudator temporis acti.  He praises several old English poets and sneers at several new ones, such as Cleaveland and Davenant, who were high in favor with the royal party.  He complains that nothing now “relishes so well as what is written in the smooth style of our present language, taken to be of late so much refined”; that “we should be so compliant with the French custom, as to follow set fashions”; that the imitation of Corneille has corrupted the English state; and that Dryden, “complying with the modified and gallantish humour of the time,” has, in his heroic plays, “indulged a little too much to the French way of continual rime.”  One passage, at least, in Philips’ preface has been thought to be an echo of Milton’s own judgment on the pretensions of the new school of poetry.  “Wit, ingenuity, and learning in verse; even elegancy itself, though that comes nearest, are one thing.  True native poetry is another; in which there is a certain air and spirit which perhaps the most learned and judicious in other arts do not perfectly apprehend, much less is it attainable by any study or industry.  Nay, though all the laws of heroic poem, all the laws of tragedy were exactly observed, yet still this tour entrejeant this poetic energy, if I may so call it, would be required to give life to all the rest; which shines through the roughest, most unpolished, and antiquated language, and may haply be wanting in the most polite and reformed.  Let us observe Spenser, with all his rusty, obsolete words, with all his rough-hewn clouterly verses; yet take him throughout, and we shall find in him a graceful and poetic majesty.  In like manner, Shakspere in spite of all his unfiled expressions, his rambling and indigested fancies the laughter of the critical yet must be confessed a poet above many that go beyond him to literature some degrees.”

The laughter of the critical!  Let us pause upon the phrase, for it is a key to the whole attitude of the Augustan mind toward “our old tragick poet.”  Shakspere was already a national possession.  Indeed it is only after the Restoration that we find any clear recognition of him, as one of the greatest as perhaps himself the very greatest of the dramatists of all time.  For it is only after the Restoration that criticism begins.  “Dryden,” says Dr. Johnson, “may be properly considered as the father of English criticism, as the writer who first taught us to determine, upon principles, the merit of composition. . .  Dryden’s ’Essay of Dramatic Poesy’ was the first regular and valuable treatise on the art of writing." The old theater was dead and Shakspere now emerged from amid its ruins, as the one unquestioned legacy of the Elizabethan age to the world’s literature.  He was not only the favorite of the people, but in a critical time, and a time whole canons of dramatic art were opposed to his practice, he united the suffrages of all the authoritative leader of literacy opinion.  Pope’s lines are conclusive as to the veneration in which Shakspere’s memory was held a century after his death.

    “On Avon’s banks, where flowers eternal blow,
    If I but ask, if any weed can grow;
    One tragic sentence if I dare deride
    Which Betterton’s grave action dignified . . . 
    How will our fathers rise up in a rage,
    And swear, all shame is lost in George’s age."

The Shaksperian tradition is unbroken in the history of English literature and of the English theater.  His plays, in one form or another, have always kept the stage even in the most degenerate condition of public taste. Few handsomer tributes have been paid to Shakspere’s genius than were paid in prose and verse, by the critics of our classical age, from Dryden to Johnson.  “To begin then with Shakspere,” says the former, in his “Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” “he was the man who, of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.”  And, in the prologue to his adaptation of “The Tempest,” he acknowledges that

    “Shakspere’s magic could not copied be: 
    Within that circle none durst walk but he.”

“The poet of whose works I have undertaken the revision,” writes Dr. Johnson, “may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration."

    “Each change of many-colored life he drew,
    Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new."

Yet Dryden made many petulant, and Johnson many fatuous mistakes about Shakspere; while such minor criticasters as Thomas Rymer and Mrs. Charlotte Lenox uttered inanitiés of blasphemy about the finest touches in “Macbeth” and “Othello.”  For if we look closer, we notice that everyone who bore witness to Shakspere’s greatness qualified his praise by an emphatic disapproval of his methods.  He was a prodigious genius, but a most defective artist.  He was the supremest of dramatic poets, but he did not know his business.  It did not apparently occur to anyone except, in some degree, to Johnson that there was an absurdity in this contradiction; and that the real fault was not in Shakspere, but in the standards by which he was tried.  Here are the tests which technical criticism has always been seeking to impose, and they are not confined to the classical period only.  They are used by Sidney, who took the measure of the English buskin before Shakspere had begun to write; by Jonson, who measured socks with him in his own day; by Matthew Arnold, who wanted an English Academy, but in whom the academic vaccine, after so long a transmission, worked but mildly.  Shakspere violated the unities; his plays were neither right comedies nor right tragedies; he had small Latin and less Greek; he wanted art and sometimes sense, committing anachronisms and Bohemian shipwrecks; wrote hastily, did not blot enough, and failed of the grand style.  He was “untaught, unpractised in a barbarous age”; a wild, irregular child of nature, ignorant of the rules, unacquainted with ancient models, succeeding when he did succeed by happy accident and the sheer force of genius; his plays were “roughdrawn,” his plots lame, his speeches bombastic; he was guilty on every page of “some solecism or some notorious flaw in sense."

Langbaine, to be sure, defends him against Dryden’s censure.  But Dennis regrets his ignorance of poetic art and the disadvantages under which he lay from not being conversant with the ancients.  If he had known his Sallust, he would have drawn a juster picture of Cæsar; and if he had read Horace “Ad Pisones,” he would have made a better Achilles.  He complains that he makes the good and the bad perish promiscuously; and that in “Coriolanus” a play which Dennis “improved” for the new stage he represents Menenius as a buffoon and introduces the rabble in a most undignified fashion. Gildon, again, says that Shakspere must have read Sidney’s “Defence of Posey” and therefore, ought to have known the rules and that his neglect of them was owing to laziness.  “Money seems to have been his aim more than reputation, and therefore he was always in a hurry . . . and he thought it time thrown away, to study regularity and order, when any confused stuff that came into his head would do his business and fill his house."

It would be easy, but it would be tedious, to multiply proofs of this patronizing attitude toward Shakspere.  Perhaps Pope voices the general sentiment of his school, as fairly as anyone, in the last words of his preface. “I will conclude by saying of Shakspere that, with all his faults and with all the irregularity of his drama, one may look upon his works, in comparison of those that are more finished and regular, as upon an ancient, majestic piece of Gothic architecture compared with a neat, modern building.  The latter is more elegant and glaring, but the former is more strong and solemn. . .  It has much the greater variety, and much the nobler apartments, though we are often conducted to them by dark, odd and uncouth passages.  Nor does the whole fail to strike us with greater reverence, though many of the parts are childish, ill-placed and unequal to its grandeur.”  This view of Shakspere continued to be the rule until Coleridge and Schlegel taught the new century that this child of fancy was, in reality, a profound and subtle artist, but that the principles of his art as is always the case with creative genius working freely and instinctively were learned by practice, in the concrete, instead of being consciously thrown out by the workman himself into an abstract theoria; so that they have to be discovered by a reverent study of his work and lie deeper than the rules of French criticism.  Schlegel, whose lectures on dramatic art were translated into English in 1815, speaks with indignation of the current English misunderstanding of Shakspere.  “That foreigners, and Frenchmen in particular, who frequently speak in the strangest language about antiquity and the Middle Age, as if cannibalism had been first put an end in Europe by Louis XIV., should entertain this opinion of Shakspere might be pardonable.  But that Englishmen should adopt such a calumniation . . . is to me incomprehensible."

The beginnings of the romantic movement in England were uncertain.  There was a vague dissent from current literary estimates, a vague discontent with reigning literary modes, especially with the merely intellectual poetry then in vogue, which did not feed the soul.  But there was, at first, no conscious, concerted effort toward something of creative activity.  The new group of poets, partly contemporaries of Pope, partly successors to him Thomson, Shenstone, Dyer, Akenside, Gray, Collins, and the Warton brothers found their point of departure in the loving study and revival of old authors.  From what has been said of the survival of Shakspere’s influence it might be expected that his would have been the name paramount among the pioneers of English romanticism.  There are several reasons why this was not the case.

In the first place, the genius of the new poets was lyrical or descriptive, rather than dramatic.  The divorce between literature and the stage had not yet, indeed, become total; and, in obedience to the expectation that every man of letters should try his hand at play-writing, Thomson, at least, as well as his friend and disciple Mallet, composed a number of dramas.  But these were little better than failures even at the time; and while “The Seasons” has outlived all changes of taste, and “The Castle of Indolence” has never wanted admirers, tragedies like “Agamemnon” and “Sophonisba” have been long forgotten.  An imitation of Shakspere to any effective purpose must obviously have take the shape of a play; and neither Gray nor Collins nor Akenside, nor any of the group, was capable of a play.  Inspiration of a kind, these early romanticists did draw from Shakspere.  Verbal reminiscences of him abound in Gray.  Collins was a diligent student of his works.  His “Dirge in Cymbeline” is an exquisite variation on a Shaksperian theme.  In the delirium of his last sickness, he told Warton that he had found in an Italian novel the long-sought original of the plot of “The Tempest.”  It is noteworthy, by the way, that the romanticists were attracted to the poetic, as distinguished from the dramatic, aspect of Shakspere’s genius; to those of his plays in which fairy lore and supernatural machinery occur, such as “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Again, the stage has a history of its own, and, in so far as it was now making progress of any kind, it was not in the direction of a more poetic or romantic drama, but rather toward prose tragedy and the sentimental comedy of domestic life, what the French call la tragédie bourgeoise and la comedie larmoyante.  In truth the theater was now dying; and though, in the comedies of Goldsmith and Sheridan, it sent up one bright, expiring gleam, the really dramatic talent of the century had already sought other channels in the novels of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett.

After all, a good enough reason why the romantic movement did not begin with imitation of Shakspere is the fact that Shakspere is inimitable.  He has no one manner that can be caught, but a hundred manners; is not the poet of romance, but of humanity; nor medieval, but perpetually modern and contemporaneous in his universality.  The very familiarity of his plays, and their continuous performance, although in mangled forms, was a reason why they could take little part in a literary revival; for what has never been forgotten cannot be revived.  To Germany and France, at a later date, Shakspere came with the shock of a discovery and begot Schiller and Victor Hugo.  In the England of the eighteenth century he begot only Ireland’s forgeries.

The name inscribed in large letters on the standard of the new school was not Shakspere but Spenser.  If there is any poet who is par excellence the poet of romance, whose art is the antithesis of Pope’s, it is the poet of the “Faerie Queene.”  To ears that had heard from childhood the tinkle of the couplet, with its monotonously recurring rhyme, its inevitable caesura, its narrow imprisonment of the sense, it must have been a relief to turn to the amplitude of Spencer’s stanza, “the full strong sail of his great verse.”  To a generation surfeited with Pope’s rhetorical devices antithesis, climax, anticlimax and fatigued with the unrelaxing brilliancy and compression of his language; the escape from epigrams and point (snap after snap, like a pack of fire-crackers), from a style which has made his every other line a proverb or current quotation the escape from all this into Spenser’s serene, leisurely manner, copious Homeric similes, and lingering detail must have seemed most restful.  To go from Pope to Spenser was to exchange platitudes, packed away with great verbal cunning in neat formulas readily portable by the memory, for a wealth of concrete images:  to exchange saws like,

    “A little learning is a dangerous thing,”

for a succession of richly colored pictures by the greatest painter among English poets.  It was to exchange the most prosaic of our poets a poet about whom question has arisen whether he is a poet at all for the most purely poetic of our poets, “the poet’s poet.”  And finally, it was to exchange the world of everyday manners and artificial society for an imaginary kingdom of enchantment, “out of space, out of time.”

English poetry has oscillated between the poles of Spenser and Pope.  The poets who have been accepted by the race as most truly national, poets like Shakspere, Milton, and Byron, have stood midway.  Neither Spenser nor Pope satisfies long.  We weary, in time, of the absence of passion and intensity in Spenser, his lack of dramatic power, the want of actuality in his picture of life, the want of brief energy and nerve in his style; just as we weary of Pope’s inadequate sense of beauty.  But at a time when English poetry had abandoned its true function the refreshment and elevation of the soul through the imagination Spenser’s poetry, the poetry of ideal beauty, formed the most natural corrective.  Whatever its deficiencies, it was not, at any rate, “conceived and composed in his wits.”

Spenser had not fared so well as Shakspere under the change which came over public taste after the Restoration.  The age of Elizabeth had no literary reviews or book notices, and its critical remains are of the scantiest.  But the complimentary verses by many hands published with the “Faerie Queene” and the numerous references to Spenser in the whole poetic literature of the time, leave no doubt as to the fact that his contemporaries accorded him the foremost place among English poets.  The tradition of his supremacy lasted certainly to the middle of the seventeenth century, if not beyond.  His influence is visible not only in the work of professed disciples like Giles and Phineas Fletcher, the pastoral poet William Browne, and Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, but in the verse of Jonson, Fletcher, Milton, and many others.  Milton confessed to Dryden that Spenser was his “poetical father.”  Dryden himself and Cowley, whose practice is so remote from Spenser’s, acknowledged their debt to him.  The passage from Cowley’s essay “On Myself” is familiar:  “I remember when I began to read, and to take some pleasure in it, there was wont to lie in my mother’s parlour (I know not by what accident, for she herself never read any book but of devotion but there was wont to lie) Spenser’s works.  This I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of the knights and giants and monsters and brave houses which I found everywhere there (thought my understanding had little to do with all this), and, by degrees, with the tinkling of the rime and dance of the numbers; so that I think I had read him all over before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet as irremediably as a child is made an eunuch.”  It is a commonplace that Spenser has made more poets than any other one writer.  Even Pope, whose empire he came back from Fairyland to overthrow, assured Spence that he had read the “Faerie Queene” with delight when he was a boy, and re-read it with equal pleasure in his last years.  Indeed, it is too readily assumed that writers are insensible to the beauties of an opposite school.  Pope was quite incapable of appreciating it.  He took a great liking to Allan Ramsay’s “Gentle Shepherd”; he admired “The Seasons,” and did Thomson the honor to insert a few lines of his own in “Summer.”  Among his youthful parodies of old English poets is one piece entitled “The Alley,” a not over clever burlesque of the famous description of the Bower of Bliss.

As for Dryden, his reverence for Spenser is qualified by the same sort of critical disapprobation which we noticed in his eulogies of Shakspere.  He says that the “Faerie Queene” has no uniformity:  the language is not so obsolete as is commonly supposed, and is intelligible after some practice; but the choice of stanza is unfortunate, though in spite of it, Spenser’s verse is more melodious than any other English poet’s except Mr. Waller’s. Ambrose Philips Namby Pamby Philips whom Thackeray calls “a dreary idyllic cockney,” appealed to “The Shepherd’s Calendar” as his model, in the introduction to his insipid “Pastorals,” 1709.  Steele, in N of the Spectator (November 19, 1712), printed some mildly commendatory remarks about Spenser.  Altogether it is clear that Spenser’s greatness was accepted, rather upon trust, throughout the classical period, but that this belief was coupled with a general indifference to his writings.  Addison’s lines in his “Epistle to Sacheverel; an Account of the Greatest English Poets,” 1694, probably represent accurately enough the opinion of the majority of readers: 

    “Old Spenser next, warmed with poetic rage,
    In ancient tales amused a barbarous age;
    An age that, yet uncultivated and rude,
    Wher’er the poet’s fancy led, pursued,
    Through pathless fields and unfrequented floods,
    To dens of dragons and enchanted woods. 
    But now the mystic tale, that pleased of yore,
    Can charm an understanding age no more. 
    The long-spun allegories fulsome grow,
    While the dull moral lies too plain below,
    We view well pleased at distance all the sights
    Of arms and palfreys, battles, fields and fights,
    And damsels in distress and courteous knights,
    But when we look too near, the shades decay
    And all the pleasing landscape fades away.”

Addison acknowledged to Spence that, when he wrote this passage, he had never read Spenser!  As late as 1754 Thomas Warton speaks of him as “this admired but neglected poet," and Mr. Kitchin asserts that “between 1650 and 1750 there are but few notices of him, and a very few editions of his works." There was a reprint of Spenser’s works being the third folio of the “Faerie Queene” in 1679, but no critical edition till 1715.  Meanwhile the title of a book issued in 1687 shows that Spenser did not escape that process of “improvement” which we have seen applied to Shakspere:  “Spenser Redivivus; containing the First Book of the ’Faery Queene.’  His Essential Design Preserved, but his Obsolete Language and Manner of Verse totally laid aside.  Delivered in Heroic Numbers by a Person of Quality.”  The preface praises Spenser, but declares that “his style seems no less unintelligible at this day than the obsoletest of our English or Saxon dialect.”  One instance of this deliverance into heroic numbers must suffice: 

“By this the northern wagoner had set
His sevenfold team behind the steadfast star
That was in ocean waves yet never wet,
But firm is fixed, and sendeth light from far
To all that in the wide deep wandering are.”


In 1715 John Hughes published his edition of Spenser’s works in six volumes.  This was the first attempt at a critical text of the poet, and was accompanied with a biography, a glossary, an essay on allegorical poetry, and some remarks on the “Faerie Queene.”  It is curious to find in the engravings, from designs by Du Guernier, which illustrate Hughes’ volumes, that Spenser’s knights wore the helmets and body armor of the Roman legionaries, over which is occasionally thrown something that looks very much like a toga.  The lists in which they run a tilt have the façade of a Greek temple for a background.  The house of Busyrane is Louis Quatorze architecture, and Amoret is chained to a renaissance column with Corinthian capital and classical draperies.  Hughes’ glossary of obsolete terms includes words which are in daily use by modern writers:  aghast, baleful, behest, bootless, carol, craven, dreary, forlorn, foray, guerdon, plight, welkin, yore.  If words like these, and like many which Warton annotates in his “Observations,” really needed explanation, it is a striking proof, not only of the degree in which our older poets had been forgotten, but also of the poverty to which the vocabulary of English poetry had been reduced by 1700.

In his prefatory remarks to the “Faerie Queene,” the editor expresses the customary regrets that the poet should have chosen so defective a stanza, “so romantick a story,” and a model, or framework for the whole, which appears so monstrous when “examined by the rules of epick poetry”; makes the hackneyed comparison between Spenser’s work and Gothic architecture, and apologizes for his author, on the ground that, at the time when he wrote, “the remains of the old Gothick chivalry were not quite abolished.”  “He did not much revive the curiosity of the public,” says Johnson, in his life of Hughes; “for near thirty years elapsed before his edition was reprinted.”  Editions of the “Faerie Queene” came thick and fast about the middle of the century.  One (by Birch) was issued in 1751, and three in 1758; including the important edition by Upton, who, of all Spenser’s commentators, has entered most elaborately into the interpretation of the allegory.

In the interval had appeared, in gradually increasing numbers, that series of Spenserian imitations which forms an interesting department of eighteenth-century verse.  The series was begun by a most unlikely person, Matthew Prior, whose “Ode to the Queen,” 1706, was in a ten-lined modification of Spenser’s stanza and employed a few archaisms like weet and ween, but was very unspenserian in manner.  As early as the second decade of the century, the horns of Elfland may be heard faintly blowing in the poems of the Rev. Samuel Croxall, the translator of Aesop’s “Fables.”  Mr. Gosse quotes Croxall’s own description of his poetry, as designed “to set off the dry and insipid stuff” of the age with “a whole piece of rich and glowing scarlet.”  His two pieces “The Vision,” 1715, and “The Fair Circassian,” 1720, though written in the couplet, exhibit a rosiness of color and a luxuriance of imagery manifestly learned from Spenser.  In 1713 he had published under the pseudonym of Nestor Ironside, “An Original Canto of Spenser,” and in 1714 “Another Original Canto,” both, of course, in the stanza of the “Faerie Queene.”  The example thus set was followed before the end of the century by scores of poets, including many well-known names, like Akenside, Thomson, Shenstone, and Thomas Warton, as well as many second-rate and third-rate versifiers.

It is noteworthy that many, if not most, of the imitations were at first undertaken in a spirit of burlesque; as is plain not only from the poems themselves, but from the correspondence of Shenstone and others. The antiquated speech of an old author is in itself a challenge to the parodist:  teste our modern ballad imitations.  There is something ludicrous about the very look of antique spelling, and in the sound of words like eftsoones and perdy; while the sign Ye Olde Booke Store, in Old English text over a bookseller’s door, strikes the public invariably as a most merry conceited jest; especially if the first letter be pronounced as a y, instead of, what it really is, a mere abbreviation of th.  But in order that this may be so, the language travestied should not be too old.  There would be nothing amusing, for example, in a burlesque imitation of Beowulf, because the Anglo-Saxon of the original is utterly strange to the modern reader.  It is conceivable that quick-witted Athenians of the time of Aristophanes might find something quaint in Homer’s Ionic dialect, akin to that quaintness which we find in Chaucer; but a Grecian of to-day would need to be very Attic indeed, to detect any provocation to mirth in the use of the genitive in-oio, in place of the genitive in-.  Again, as one becomes familiar with an old author, he ceases to be conscious of his archaism:  the final e in Chaucer no longer strikes him as funny, nor even the circumstance that he speaks of little birds as smale fowles.  And so it happened, that poets in the eighteenth century who began with burlesque imitation of the “Faerie Queen” soon fell in love with its serious beauties.

The only poems in this series that have gained permanent footing in the literature are Shenstone’s “Schoolmistress” and Thomson’s “Cast of Indolence.”  But a brief review of several other members of the group will be advisable.  Two of them were written at Oxford in honor of the marriage of Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1736:  one by Richard Owen Cambridge; the other by William Thompson, then bachelor of arts and afterward fellow of Queen’s College.  Prince Fred, it will be remembered, was a somewhat flamboyant figure in the literary and personal gossip of his day.  He quarreled with his father, George II, who “hated boetry and bainting,” and who was ironically fed with soft dedication by Pope in his “Epistle to Augustus”; also with his father’s prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, “Bob, the poet’s foe.”  He left the court in dudgeon and set up an opposition court of his own where he rallied about him men of letters, who had fallen into a neglect that contrasted strangely with their former importance in the reign of Queen Anne.  Frederick’s chief ally in this policy was his secretary, George Lord Lyttelton, the elegant if somewhat amateurish author of “Dialogues of the Dead” and other works; the friend of Fielding, the neighbor of Shenstone at Hagley, and the patron of Thomson, for whom he obtained the sinecure post of Surveyor of the Leeward Islands.

Cambridge’s spousal verses were in a ten-lined stanza.  His “Archimage,” written in the strict Spenserian stanza, illustrates the frequent employment of this form in occasional pieces of a humorous intention.  It describes a domestic boating party on the Thames, one of the oarsmen being a family servant and barber-surgeon, who used to dress the chaplain’s hair: 

    “Als would the blood of ancient beadsman spill,
    Whose hairy scalps he hanged in a row
    Around his cave, sad sight to Christian eyes, I trow.”

Thompson’s experiments, on the contrary, were quite serious.  He had genuine poetic feeling, but little talent.  In trying to reproduce Spenser’s richness of imagery and the soft modulation of his verse, he succeeds only in becoming tediously ornate.  His stanzas are nerveless, though not unmusical.  His college exercise, “The Nativity,” 1736, is a Christmas vision which comes to the shepherd boy Thomalin, as he is piping on the banks of Isis.  It employs the pastoral machinery, includes a masque of virtues, Faith, Hope, Mercy, etc., and closes with a compliment to Pope’s “Messiah.”  The preface to his “Hymn to May,” has some bearing upon our inquiries:  “As Spenser is the most descriptive and florid of all our English writers, I attempted to imitate his manner in the following vernal poem.  I have been very sparing of the antiquated words which are too frequent in most of the imitations of this author. . .  His lines are most musically sweet, and his descriptions most delicately abundant, even to a wantonness of painting, but still it is the music and painting of nature.  We find no ambitious ornaments or epigrammatical turns in his writings, but a beautiful simplicity which pleases far above the glitter of pointed wit.”  The “Hymn to May” is in the seven-lined stanza of Phineas Fletcher’s “Purple Island”; a poem, says Thompson, “scarce heard of in this age, yet the best in the allegorical way (next to ‘The Fairy Queen’) in the English language.”

William Wilkie, a Scotch minister and professor, of eccentric habits and untidy appearance, published, in 1759, “A Dream:  in the Manner of Spenser,” which may be mentioned here not for its own sake, but for the evidence that it affords of a growing impatience of classical restraints.  The piece was a pendant to Wilkie’s epic, the “Epigoniad.”  Walking by the Tweed, the poet falls asleep and has a vision of Homer, who reproaches him with the bareness of style in his “Epigoniad.”  The dreamer puts the blame upon the critics,

    “Who tie the muses to such rigid laws
    That all their songs are frivolous and poor.”

Shakspere, indeed,

    “Broke all the cobweb limits fixed by fools”;

but the only reward of his boldness

    “Is that our dull, degenerate age of lead
    Says that he wrote by chance, and that he scare could read.”

One of the earlier Spenserians was Gilbert West, the translator of Pindar, who published, in 1739, “On the Abuse of Travelling:  A Canto in Imitation of Spenser." Another imitation, “Education,” appeared in 1751.  West was a very tame poet, and the only quality of Spenser’s which he succeeded in catching was his prolixity.  He used the allegorical machinery of the “Faerie Queene” for moral and mildly satirical ends.  Thus, in “The Abuse of Traveling,” the Red Cross Knight is induced by Archimago to embark in a painted boat steered by Curiosity, which wafts him over to a foreign shore where he is entertained by a bevy of light damsels whose leader “hight Politessa,” and whose blandishments the knight resists.  Thence he is conducted to a stately castle (the court of Louis XV. whose minister perhaps Cardinal Fleury? is “an old and rankled mage"); and finally to Rome, where a lady yclept Vertu holds court in the ruins of the Colosseum, among mimes, fiddlers, pipers, eunuchs, painters, and ciceroni.

Similarly the canto on “Education” narrates how a fairy knight, while conducting his young son to the house of Paidia, encounters the giant Custom and worsts him in single combat.  There is some humor in the description of the stream of science into which the crowd of infant learners are unwillingly plunged, and upon whose margin stands

    “A birchen grove that, waving from the shore,
    Aye cast upon the tide its falling bud
    And with its bitter juice empoisoned all the flood.”

The piece is a tedious arraignment of the pedantic methods of instruction in English schools and colleges.  A passage satirizing the artificial style of gardening will be cited later.  West had a country-house at Wickham, in Kent, where, says Johnson, “he was very often visited by Lyttelton and Pitt; who, when they were weary of faction and debates, used at Wickham to find books and quiet, a decent table and literary conversation.  There is at Wickham, a walk made by Pitt.”  Like many contemporary poets, West interested himself in landscape gardening, and some of his shorter pieces belong to that literature of inscriptions to which Lyttelton, Akenside, Shenstone, Mason, and others contributed so profusely.  It may be said for his Spenserian imitations that their archaisms are unusually correct if that be any praise a feature which perhaps recommended them to Gray, whose scholarship in this, as in all points, was nicely accurate.  The obligation to be properly “obsolete” in vocabulary was one that rested heavily on the consciences of most of these Spenserian imitators.  “The Squire of Dames,” for instance, by the wealthy Jew, Moses Mendez, fairly bristles with seld-seen costly words, like benty, frannion, etc., which it would have puzzled Spenser himself to explain.

One of the pleasantest outcomes of this literary fashion was William Shenstone’s “Schoolmistress,” published in an unfinished shape in 1737 and, as finally completed, in 1742.  This is an affectionate half-humorous description of the little dame-school of Shenstone’s and of everybody’s native village, and has the true idyllic touch.  Goldsmith evidently had it in memory when he drew the picture of the school in his “Deserted Village." The application to so humble a theme of Spenser’s stately verse and grave, ancient words gives a very quaint effect.  The humor of “The Schoolmistress” is genuine, not dependent on the more burlesque, as in Pope’s and Cambridge’s experiments; and it is warmed with a certain tenderness, as in the incident of the hen with her brood of chickens, entering the open door of the schoolhouse in search of crumbs, and of the grief of the little sister who witnesses her brother’s flogging, and of the tremors of the urchins who have been playing in the dame’s absence: 

    “Forewarned, if little bird their pranks behold,
    ’Twill whisper in her ear and all the scene unfold.”

But the only one among the professed scholars of Spenser who caught the glow and splendor of the master was James Thomson.  It is the privilege of genius to be original even in its imitations.  Thomson took shape and hue from Spenser, but added something of his own, and the result has a value quite independent of its success as a reproduction.  “The Castle of Indolence,” 1748, is a fine poem; at least the first part of it is, for the second book is tiresomely allegorical, and somewhat involved in plot.  There is a magic art in the description of the “land of drowsy-head,” with its “listless climate” always “atween June and May," its “stockdove’s plaint amid the forest deep,” its hillside woods of solemn pines, its gay castles in the summer clouds, and its murmur of the distance main.  The nucleus of Thomson’s conception is to be found in Spenser’s House of Morpheus ("Faerie Queene,” book i. canto , and his Country of Idlesse is itself an anticipation of Tennyson’s Lotus Land, but verse like this was something new in the poetry of the eighteenth century: 

    “Was nought around but images of rest: 
    Sleep-soothing groves and quiet lawns between;
    And flowery beds that slumberous influence kest,
    From poppies breathed; and beds of pleasant green,
    Where never yet was creeping creatures seen.

    “Meantime unnumbered glittering streamlets played
    And hurled everywhere their waters sheen;
    That, as they bickered through the sunny glade,
    Though restless still themselves, a lulling murmur made.”

“The Castle of Indolence” had the romantic iridescence, the “atmosphere” which is lacking to the sharp contours of Augustan verse.  That is to say, it produces an effect which cannot be wholly accounted for by what the poet says; an effect which is wrought by subtle sensations awakened by the sound and indefinite associations evoked by the words.  The secret of this art the poet himself cannot communicate.  But poetry of this kind cannot be translated into prose as Pope’s can any more than music can be translated into speech, without losing its essential character.  Like Spenser, Thomson was an exquisite colorist and his art was largely pictorial.  But he has touches of an imagination which is rarer, if not higher in kind, than anything in Spenser.  The fairyland of Spenser is an unreal, but hardly an unearthly region.  He seldom startles by glimpses behind the curtain which hangs between nature and the supernatural, as in Milton’s

    “Airy tongues that syllable men’s names
    On sands and shores and desert wildernesses.”

There is something of this power in one stanza, at least, of “The Castle of Indolence:” 

    “As when a shepherd of the Hebrid Isles,
    Placed far amid the melancholy main
    (Whether it be lone fancy him beguiles,
    Or that aerial beings sometimes deign
    To stand embodied to our sense plain),
    The whilst in ocean Phoebus dips his wain,
    A vast assembly moving to and fro,
    Then all at once in air dissolves the wondrous show.”

It may be guessed that Johnson and Boswell, in their tour to the Hebrides or Western Islands, saw nothing of the “spectral puppet play” hinted at in this passage the most imaginative in any of Spenser’s school till we get to Keats’

    “Magic casements opening on the foam
    Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn.”

William Julius Mickle, the translator of the “Lusiad,” was a more considerable poet than any of the Spenserian imitators thus far reviewed, with the exception of Thomson and the possible exception of Shenstone.  He wrote at least two poems that are likely to be remembered.  One of these was the ballad of “Cumnor Hall” which suggested Scott’s “Kenilworth,” and came near giving its name to the novel.  The other was the dialect song of “The Mariner’s Wife,” which Burns admired so greatly: 

    “Sae true his heart, sae smooth his speech,
      His breath like caller air,
    His very foot has music in’t,
      As he comes up the stair,
    For there’s nae luck about the house,
      There is nae luck at a’,
    There’s little pleasure in the house
      When our gudeman’s awa’,"

Mickle, like Thomson, was a Scotchman who came to London to push his literary fortunes.  He received some encouragement from Lyttelton, but was disappointed in his hopes of any substantial aid from the British Maecenas.  His biographer informs us that “about his thirteenth year, on Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ falling accidentally in his way, he was immediately struck with the picturesque descriptions of that much admired ancient bard and powerfully incited to imitate his style and manner." In 1767 Mickle published “The Concubine,” a Spenserian poem in two cantos.  In the preface to his second edition, 1778, in which the title was changed to “Syr Martyn,” he said that:  “The fullness and wantonness of description, the quaint simplicity, and, above all, the ludicrous, of which the antique phraseology and manner of Spenser are so happily and peculiarly susceptible, inclined him to esteem it not solely as the best, but the only mode of composition adapted to his subject.”

“Syr Martyn” is a narrative poem not devoid of animation, especially where the author forgets his Spenser.  But in the second canto he feels compelled to introduce an absurd allegory, in which the nymph Dissipation and her henchman Self-Imposition conduct the hero to the cave of Discontent.  This is how Mickle writes when he is thinking of the “Faerie Queene”: 

    “Eke should he, freed from fous enchanter’s spell,
    Escape his false Duessa’s magic charms,
    And folly quaid, yclept an hydra fell
    Receive a beauteous lady to his arms;
    While bards and minstrels chaunt the soft alarms
    Of gentle love, unlike his former thrall: 
    Eke should I sing, in courtly cunning terms,
    The gallant feast, served up by seneschal,
    To knights and ladies gent in painted bower or hall.”

And this is how he writes when he drops his pattern: 

    “Awake, ye west winds, through the lonely dale,
    And, Fancy, to thy faerie bower betake! 
    Even now, with balmy freshness, breathes the gale,
    Dimpling with downy wing the stilly lake;
    Through the pale willows faltering whispers wake,
    And evening comes with locks bedropt with dew;
    On Desmond’s moldering turrets slowly shake
    The trembling rye-grass and the harebell blue,
    And ever and anon fair Mulla’s plaints renew.”

A reader would be guilty of no very bad guess who should assign this stanza which Scott greatly admired to one of he Spenserian passages that prelude the “Lady of the Lake.”

But it is needless to extend this catalogue any farther.  By the middle of the century Spenserian had become so much the fashion as to provoke a rebuke from Dr. Johnson, who prowled up and down before the temple of the British Muses like a sort of classical watch-dog.  “The imitation of Spenser,” said the Rambler of May 14, 1751, “by the influence of some men of learning and genius, seems likely to gain upon the age. . .  To imitate the fictions and sentiments of Spenser can incur no reproach, for allegory is perhaps one of the most pleasing vehicles of instruction.  But I am very far from extending the same respect to his diction or his stanza.  His style was, in his own words and peculiarities of phrase, and so remote from common use that Jonson boldly pronounces him to have written no language.  His stanza is at once difficult and unpleasing:  tiresome to the ear by its uniformity, and to the attention by its length. . .  Life is surely given us for other purposes than to gather what our ancestors have wisely thrown away and to learn what is of no value but because it has been forgotten." In his “Life of West,” Johnson says of West’s imitations of Spenser, “Such compositions are not to be reckoned among the great achievements of intellect, because their effect is local and temporary:  they appeal not to reason or passion, but to memory, and presuppose an accidental or artificial state of mind.  An imitation of Spenser is nothing to a reader, however acute, by whom Spenser has never been perused.”

The critic is partly right.  The nice points of a parody are lost upon a reader unacquainted with the thing parodied.  And as for serious imitations, the more cleverly a copyist follows his copy, the less value his work will have.  The eighteenth-century Spenserians, like West, Cambridge, and Lloyd, who stuck most closely to their pattern, oblivion has covered.  Their real service was done in reviving a taste for a better kind of poetry than the kind in vogue, and particularly in restoring to English verse a stanza form, which became so noble an instrument in the hands of later poets, who used it with as much freedom and vigor as if they had never seen the “Faerie Queene.”  One is seldom reminded of Spenser while reading “Childe Harold" or “Adonais” or “The Eve of Saint Agnes”; but in reading West or Cambridge, or even in reading Shenstone and Thomson, one is reminded of him at every turn.  Yet if it was necessary to imitate anyone, it might be answered to Dr. Johnson that it was better to imitate Spenser than Pope.  In the imitation of Spenser lay, at least, a future, a development; while the imitation of Pope was conducting steadily toward Darwin’s “Botanic Garden.”

It remains to notice one more document in the history of this Spenserian revival, Thomas Warton’s “Observations on the Faerie Queen,” 1754.  Warton wrote with a genuine delight in his subject.  His tastes were frankly romantic.  But the apologetic air which antiquarian scholars assumed, when venturing to recommend their favorite studies to the attention of a classically minded public, is not absent from Warton’s commentary.  He writes as if he felt the pressure of an unsympathetic atmosphere all about him.  “We who live in the days of writing by rule are apt to try every composition by those laws which we have been taught to think the sole criterion of excellence.  Critical taste is universally diffused, and we require the same order and design which every modern performance is expected to have, in poems where they never were regarded or intended. . .  If there be any poem whose graces please because they are situated beyond the reach of art . . . it is this.  In reading Spenser, if the critic is not satisfied, yet the reader is transported.”  “In analyzing the plan and conduct of this poem, I have so far tried it by epic rules, as to demonstrate the inconveniences and incongruities which the poet might have avoided, had he been more studious of design and uniformity.  It is true that his romantic materials claim great liberties; but no materials exclude order and perspicacity.”  Warton assures the reader that Spenser’s language is not “so difficult and obsolete as it is generally supposed to be;” and defends him against Hume’s censure, that “Homer copied true natural manners . . . but the pencil of the English poet was employed in drawing the affectations and conceits and fopperies of chivalry.”

Yet he began his commentary with the stock denunciations of “Gothic ignorance and barbarity.”  “At the renaissance it might have been expected that, instead of the romantic manner of poetical composition . . . a new and more legitimate taste of writing would have succeeded. . .  But it was a long time before such a change was effected.  We find Ariosto, many years after the revival of letters, rejecting truth for magic, and preferring the ridiculous and incoherent excursions of Boiardo to the propriety and uniformity of the Grecian and Roman models.  Nor did the restoration of ancient learning produce any effectual or immediate improvement in the state of criticism.  Beni, one of the most celebrated critics of the sixteenth century, was still so infatuated with a fondness for the old Provencal vein, that he ventured to write a regular dissertation, in which he compares Ariosto with Homer.”  Warton says again, of Ariosto and the Italian renaissance poets whom Spenser followed, “I have found no fault in general with their use of magical machinery; notwithstanding I have so far conformed to the reigning maxims of modern criticism as to recommend classical propriety.”  Notwithstanding this prudent determination to conform, the author takes heart in his second volume to speak out as follows about the pseudo-classic poetry of his own age:  “A poetry succeeded in which imagination gave way to correctness, sublimity of description to delicacy of sentiment, and majestic imagery to conceit and epigram.  Poets began now to be more attentive to words than to things and objects.  The nicer beauties of happy expression were preferred to the daring strokes of great conception.  Satire, that bane of the sublime, was imported from France.  The muses were debauched at court; and polite life and familiar manners became their only themes.”

By the time these words were written Spenser had done his work.  Color, music, fragrance were stealing back again into English song, and “golden-tongued romance with serene lute” stood at the door of the new age, waiting for it to open.