Sayfadaki görseller
PDF
ePub
[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

SPENSER'S greatness, and his permanent place in Poetry, are to be sought mainly in the Faerie Queene, which is criticized elsewhere in this edition. But for the development and the varied resources of his genius, and for many of the new poetical forms by which he has influenced English literature from his age to our own, we must look to those other poems, which the editor has committed to my diffident and reluctant hands. In the separate Prefaces it is intended to note the growth of Spenser's genius, and the quality of each production, with such attention to chronology as their often-conjectural dates of writing may allow. What I here wish to bring out, with all the clearness (imperfect as it must be in matter of this nature) that I can command, is the novelty of the models, whether in subject or in style, which he presented from 1580 onwards ;to show how far he was a Maker, (to use the fine Elizabethan phrase,) in the literature of the day, by comparison with those who wrote during the preceding half-century.

All great poets must be in advance of their own age ; but though all must, at some period, influence those who succeed, yet this influence may neither be definite nor immediate. Spenser, however, unites both features in a very marked degree. He was, in point of style and form, singularly new; his influence was instantaneous as well as enduring. In fact, no candid reader of his lesser poems will, I think, be able to deny that whilst much, indeed, is consecrated for all time by exquisiteness and by power, yet much, also, remains of which the value is mainly relative, the interest historical. That we inay judge him fairly, we have constantly to bear in mind the very peculiar position in which the development of European culture placed an Englishman during the latter half of the sixteenth century. For the Renaissance movement in literature, which we may trace back to the lyrical impulse of Provence and of Dante's age, if not even earlier, had nearly spent its creative power in its first seats when it reached Spain, Northern France, and England. The last wave of Italian poetry, we might almost say, wasted the Renaissance to our shores. And it was hence here mingled with elements absent from the original outburst in Italy ;—with the genius of Greece and Rome, reawakening after the long sleep which followed the Barbarian conquests,--the spirit of theological reformation,—the spirit of physical science. These powers, penetrating our writers in very varying degrees, give a wider scope than was covered by the early poets of Italy and Provence to the Elizabethan lyrists. They had also a richer and longer national history behind them ; they had even, in Chaucer and his followers, a noble literature wherein Mediævalism was already tinged by the early Renaissance, but which, in regard to poetical form and diction, could not be taken as a guide to meet sixteenth-century requirements; whilst, at the same time, the English national temperament, substantially the same, then and now, as it was in Chaucer's day, but radically different from that of the southern races, demanded representation under the new colours of Italianized classicalism. Hence so much had necessarily to be learned and attempted and incorporated, that there is often something artificial-something which threatened to be almost " Alexandrian,” (a phase which, perhaps, was more distinctly and injuriously felt in France)—about our first fresh Elizabethan creations. There was more material, above all, than the poets could thoroughly fuse: our great early national outburst of poetry wants the perfect spontaneity by which the parallel lyrical movement in Hellas is distinguished.

To give proper form to this vast movement, to provide a language equal to the occasion, to blend in one English national sentiment, mediæval feeling and tradition, and that Italianized classicalism under which the Renaissance impulse first reached us, was the peculiar task of Spenser. To trace all his proximate antecedents would hence be to write European history for some centuries preceding his youth. Waiving this immense task, let us now turn briefly to the writers whose language was practically identical with his own, and who were the earliest pupils in the "new learning" of Italy.

The names of Surrey and Wyatt, friends and fellowworkers, like the names of Petrarch and Boccaccio, Beaumont and Fletcher, Goethe and Schiller, are inseparable Dioscuri in the history of our literature. They,

[ocr errors]

as recorded by the author of the Aite of English Poesie (1589), were the two chieftaines" in that “ pany of courtly inakers" who sprang up during the latter years of Henry VIII, and “pollished our rude and homely maner of vulgar Poesie" by aid of the art they had learned in the “schooles of Dante Arioste and Petrarch." Surrey deserves well the priority assigned to him. Our poetry had fallen away grievously from its high estate under Chaucer when his work began : and the qualities which he and Wyatt show mark the advance made beyond their predecessors.* Murdered when about thirty by the jealous tyrant of the day (1547), and employed for some years of that short life on public service, Surrey's book of song (not published till 1557, but unquestionably known before by manuscript circulation), covers a singularly large range of novel attempt : lyrics telling the tale of his early life and fanciful love ; satire ; paraphrases froin Ecclesiastes and the Psalms ; a translation of two books of the Æneid. The quality of his work, where so much was tentative in English literature, and the time at his command so brief, of course varies. But the general characteristics throughout are of a high order, and precisely such as, like Spenser's, were most needed to guide our early school. They may be described as elegant simplicity, terseness and selection of phrase, unaffected naturalness, and yet the sense of art and form never absent. There is no aim at picturesqueness or colour ; a sober and manly sincerity, often, (as has been always characteristic of English writers, and never more so than in those troubled days,) expresses itself in serious moralization. In the lighter pieces, Surrey has a naïveté and grace which recall the youthful Dante's tender pictures of his more youthful lady-love in the Vita Nuova. And like Dante's, Surrey's is idealized passion; yet not so wrapt up in itself, (as with Shakespeare in his Sonnets,) but that the poet can connector interweave his love with pictures of daily life. Many lines-most, perhaps—in language and sentiment, are perfectly modern,-rather, are of all time : far less mannered than we often find the poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,-not to say our own. A few lines may be quoted from The Faithful Lover, perhaps the most delicate song Surrey has left us of youthful melancholy, of high-bred reverie, almost persuading one that the passion was truly felt as well as truly painted.

new com

* “ If we compare the poetry of Wyatt and Surrey with that of Barclay or Skelton, about thirty or forty years before, the difference must appear wonderful. (Hallam, Literature of Europe.)

If care do cause men cry, why do not I complain ?
If each man do bewail his woe, why show not I my pain ?
Since that amongst them all, I dare well say is none
So far from weal, so full of woe, or hath more cause to moan.
For all things having life, some time hath quiet rest;
The bearing ass, the drawing ox, and every other beast;
The peasant, and the post, that serves at all assays;
The ship-boy and the galley-slave have time to take their ease;

* If we may ascribe to Surrey the piece printed by Tottel in 1557 as “uncertain,” entitled The Lover describeth his whole state unto his love, and beginning

The sun when he had spread his rays, I should place this as his finest achievement as an amourist : delicacy, passion, description of nature, are here united in a piece which does not fall far below the Allegro or Penseroso. But the evidence is doubtful: nor does Surrey, in his recognized work, ever quite seem to me to reach the perfection here shown.

« ÖncekiDevam »