« VorigeDoorgaan »
twelve books, but of these six and part of the seventh only are extant, and each book is divided into twelve cantos. The first book contains the legend of the Knight of the Red Cross, or Holiness; the others the several legends of Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, Courtesy, and a fragment of that of Constancy. Each of these knightly virtues is exposed to the machinations of the vices most interested in its overthrow, and these vices are personified with an ingenuity at once marvellous and precise. The spirit of knight errantry runs through the whole poem. All is chivalrous and adventurous; and notwithstanding the difficulty of the design, the interest is generally lively, and the mind is too fascinated by the variety of images and change of character thronging before it in rapid succession, to be palled by the length or satiated by the subject. The great strength of the poem lies in the legends of Holiness, Temperance, and Chastity; aud it is questioned, from the occasional want of spirit in some of the succeeding books, whether Spenser's fame has suffered by the loss of part of his manuscript. His versification is elegant, sustained, and frequently lofty; musically harmonious and simple, and written in the stanza which is now called by the poet's name, and has been adopted in later times with great success by Beattie and Byron. The language of Spenser is less modern than that of some of his contemporaries or immediate followers; a circumstance that may perhaps be attributed to the nature of his subject, which the quaintness and antiquity of his expressions serve rather
to embellish. As a specimen of the power of personification and description I will quote his picture of the House of Sleep:
He making speedy way through spersed ayre,
Amid the bowels of the earth full steepe,
Doth ever wash, and Cynthia still doth steepe,
In silver deaw, his ever-drouping hed,
Whiles sad Night over him her mantle black doth spred.
Whose double gates he findeth locked fast,
The one fayre fram'd of burnisht yvory,
The other all with silver overcast;
And wakeful dogges before them farre doe lye,
Who oft is wont to trouble gentle sleepe.
By them the sprite doth passe in quietly,
And unto Morpheus comes, whom drowned deepe
And more to lulle him in his slumber soft,
A trickling streame from high rock tumbling downe,
Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
The Faery Queen, as an allegorical poem, is without equal in our language. It transports us from the every day world to realms of undimmed sunshine or unbroken
gloom, inhabited by beings whose minds, like the features of ordinary mortals, take their complexion from the atmosphere by which they are surrounded—where every scene is a harmony, and every character a sentiment. We look, as through the glass of the magician, upon a wide prospect of hill, streamlet, and woodland, amidst which rise castle and palace, temple and bower, swimming in excess of light like a summer sea-shore; while here and there the expanse is chequered by the purple and undefined shadow of a ruin, or the cold darkness of a cavern. It is here that enchanters breathe their incantations, where the spell is muttered and the mystery performed, where the knight and the maiden are encompassed by wiles and defended by talismans, until the gallantry of the one and the virtue of the other 'triumph over every fascination in which the genii of evil have striven to entangle them.
The other most popular works of Spenser are the Shepherd's Calendar, the Ruins of Time, and several beautiful sonnets. His life was one of reverses; the morning and sunset of his days were overcast with clouds, and some of his sweetest and most touching poetry is that of his sorrows and lamentings. He possessed susceptible feelings and tender regards, and these threw a warmth and reality over the most creative of his fancies, and rendered his fairy land something more than a beautiful but cold abstraction.
The gallant yet unfortunate SIR WALTER RALEIGH
was a worshipper of the Muses as well as of Mars; but whatever interest attaches to his poetry must chiefly be derived from our historical knowledge of his character, and the associations it is calculated to arouse. Stilted expressions and exaggerated similes were beginning for a time to engage popularity, and not only Raleigh, but other poets of his age, adopted a style which (now that the fashion of it has passed away) excites little interest and less admiration.
JOSHUA SILVESTER, the translator of Du Bartas' Divine Weeks and Works, acquired in his day a popularity which has not triumphantly stood the test of time. His puritanical principles and the occasional excellence of his productions are supposed to have afterwards recommended them to Milton; and some have traced to their influence the first conception of Paradise Lost.* Contemporary with Silvester were WEBSTER, DEKKAR, BEN JOHNSON, SIR JOHN DAVIS, DRAYTON, SOUTHWELL, and the contributors to England's Helicon, GREEN, BRITTON, BAR, YOUNG, and others.
In this age lived SHAKSPEARE, the greatest of our dramatists, the writer also of the most nervous sonnets in our language. They have a consolidation of thought, a
*It is difficult to trace every peculiar influence on the mind of an author, but Milton could have received little inspiration either from Du Bartas or Sylvester-His was from nobler sources!
sterling and deep imagination, a terseness yet comprehensiveness of expression unrivalled, almost unattainable. Spenser individualized and abstracted the passions, and produced spiritual characters, Shakspeare massed and blended them, and created living and human beings; the one rendered the most real things fanciful and ideal, the other gave life and substance to the most imaginative. The one was delicate, aerial, and precise, the other glowing, powerful, and impressive. The mistiness of Romance hangs like a vapor over the creations of the one, harmonizing their tints, and softening down their most fantastic forms; the productions of the other stand out in the bold and massive characters and distinct colors of nature thoughts, sensations, affections and passions are not weakened by the refinements of a metaphysical speculation, but burst into poetry in all their freshness and proportion, warm as the mind that conceived them, and genuine as the nature from which they sprang. Spenser was the Claude of poetry, Shakspeare was an Angelo or a Raphael. His Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, inferior only to his nobler and better works, are full of fine imagination and glowing language. They were the compositions of his early manhood, and were lit with the dawnings of that genius which brightened and immortalized his dramatic works.
The sonnet is perhaps the most difficult style of poetical composition. Being restricted to the exact number of fourteen lines, there is to epitomize into that