« FöregåendeFortsätt »
any farther trouble in reading the poem; and with these all difficulties vanish.
The purity of Spenser's English is remarkable: he felt a reverence for his mother tongue ; he had explored its treasures; he had traced the infinitely varied and shining threads which form its tissue, and comprehended its massive embroidery; and he was satisfied that in no way could he array his thoughts so royally, as in the purple and gold of this gorgeous language. Where he borrows from the ancient tonguez, it is done with discretion, and in a manner which proves that he weighed well his words before using them, and that he understood their deep etymological signification ; and only adopted them because they expressed his meaning better than any other.
Our editor has remarked, with truth, that he has not “that vivid energy of passion which concentrates a world of meaning into a few burning words, and penetrates to the heart's core with the quick irresistible energy of lightning."
Nor does he abound in sententious phrases which, by their condensed wisdom and universal appropriateness, are adopted as household words into our conversational dialect, and are repeated familiarly in all classes, till, perhaps, their origin is forgotten, from the very circumstance of their being in such universal use. This power of condensed expression we consider as belonging to a high order of mind ; perhaps it might be ranked as the exclusive property of genius. No writer evinces more of this than Shakspeare ; the detached passages of his poetry which are floating abroad in society, are so repeated and remembered by all, that they have become incorporated into the language of conversation, and, when uttered, are not thought of as quotations. The same may be said of all the greatest poets in our language. But it is less the case with Spenser, perhaps, than with any other poet of his class. The stream of his verse flows majestically onward, rolling, like the fabled Pactolus, over golden sands; but its course is seldom interrupted by those islets of thought which bloom with eternal verdure—"spots to memory dear”—which remain for ever fixed, while the tide runs on. Accordingly, Spenser is less cited than many other poets of inferior merit. There are few phrases in his works which, like the celebrated epithet he has applied to Chaucer, “well of English undefýled,” are in the works of all, and are every where familiarly used.
No one can read Spenser without being struck with the inexhaustible wealth of his vocabulary: he has suitable and expressive epithets for every thing, and is never at a loss for a word which precisely conveys his meaning. The English language seems to become flexible in his hands, and to adapt itself gracefully to the form which his thoughts assume.
There is a scope of language which goes beyond the compass of grammars, and dictionaries, and rhetorical treatises; the microscope of the etymologist cannot detect its infinite delicacy, nor can written literature measure its extent; for it is as boundless as nature. The mind, burning to give utterance to its sensations, assumes language as a garment ; remoulds, transforms, and quickens it into life; tinges it with the thousand changing and nameless hues of thought, and makes it the transparent gauze through which the fires of intellect beam; words become pictures, and sentences are whole chapters of human life, instinct with portentous meaning,
The stanza of the Faerie Queene, after being derided as semi-barbarous, neglected and looked upon with contempt, or, at least, with compassionate regret, has now come to be regarded as the noblest form which rhyme has ever assumed; as the triumph of the English language, the test of its richness and power, and the nourishment of its glory. It consists of eight lines, having ten syllables each, and an Alexandrine, or a line of twelve syllables, at the close. The first and third lines rhyme together ; also the second, fourth, fifth, and seventh; and again, the sixth, eighth, and ninth. Upon first thought, it would seem as if fetters like these must effectually put an end to grace and elegance of composition; but Spenser proves
it otherwise. He wears the stanza as his own knights wore their armor, with perfect ease and dignity; and, like them, he derives additional power and splendor from the massive but gorgeous panoply he has assumed. We feel the triumph of the writer over the difficulties of the stanza in every line. Step by step we mount up with him as he ascends the sublime pathway of his verse; every new rhyme seems a new victory, and the closing Alexandrine rolls away, distant and more distant, like a lengthened peal of thunder.
In searching for the characteristics of Spenser's mind, we have no difficulty in recognising the most prominent. It is, undoubtedly, his imagination, for which power he stands preeminent; so that, indeed, it seems to distinguish him from all the English poets. We are, however, inclined to think, that
he has received too much credit for imaginative powers. His imagination has been exalted at the expense of other poets, and of other qualities which belong to himself. The reason of this is, that this power, as displayed by him, is of the most dazzling and impressive kind. When the imagination of Spenser is spoken of, we should probably find, if we could look into the mind of the speaker, that he refers to the inexhaustible facility with which Spenser creates new and varying scenes, describes events, accidents, and adventures, and supplies the exigencies of his allegory. When we hear of his imagination, we readily and naturally think of the magnificent visions he presents to us: the palace of Pride, the cave of Mammon, the castle of Alma, the garden of Acrasia, the throne of Mercilla. We remember the giants, and dragons, and the monsters of the deep; we think of the temple of Venus, and the beautiful story of Scudamore and Amoretta. All these, indeed, are the creation of a most active and brilliant imagination. Though he sometimes imitates models that were before him, as in his description of the garden of Acrasia, for instance, which is but a copy of Tasso's garden of Armida, his own powers of invention seem inexhaustible. He never betrays any economy of imagination; he never seems to feel the necessity of saving up the treasures of fancy for future need, but pours out his wealth with a bountifulness that reminds us of the generosity of nature.
But these are not the highest walks of imagination; there are conceptions which belong to a more elevated class of genius, in which some of our greatest poets rival, and perhaps surpass, Spenser; and, in which, certainly, excelling, as he himself does, he discovers more astonishing powers than in these gorgeous descriptions.
There are different classes or orders of the imaginative powers. Some are much more easily and readily exerted, and much more generally possessed than others. The lowest order of imagination is undoubtedly the power to conceive monstrous and hideous scenes, forms, and characters. This power is possessed often by children; they are fond of drawing pictures of monstrous beasts and deformed men; they delight in tales of ghosts, giants, ogres, and dragons; and, in their infant efforts at story-telling, adopt these as their model. To this lowest class belongs the art of caricature, in its broadest and coarsest form, so peculiarly attractive to children and uneducated persons. At times this power is awful, and may be carried to an extent beyond endurance, as in the instances of some of Maturin's novels, and some of the descriptions in Pollok's “ Course of Time.” This display of a lower order of imagination, however, is not to be confounded with those descriptions in which sublimity forms one of the elements. The hell of Milton is a scene of unparalleled sublimity as well as horror; a world of dire and majestic elements filled with sights and sounds of wo, where “hope never comes that comes to all,” the abode of fallen spirits, too intense and too awful to be endured by any thing but beings of celestial mould, but yielding to the immortal energies and pride of the hosts it imprisons. It seems to be displayed only to prove the might of intellectual natures; it extorts from them no groan of agony, but words of deep resolve and purpose firm; cries of war and vengeance; triumphant bursts of martial music; shouts that tear hell's concave; and the flashing of millions of drawn blades paling the lustre of that terrific ocean of fire.
The hell of Pollok's poem forms a remarkable contrast to this, and belongs exclusively to the lower order of imagination; it is a place of vulgat torture, where human beings are subjected to sufferings, which, though mostly of a merely physical kind, are too shocking to be contemplated; they are as degrading to the mind of the reader as they are disgusting to the taste.
This distinction prevails throughout all the efforts of the imagination which are distinguished for awfulness or for their monstrous character. In the conceptions of character, for instance, we can readily trace this difference ; some of these creations are purely hideous and disgusting -as the Monk, in the Fatal Revenge, and Melmoth, in Maturin's famous novel. Such characters as lago, Richard III., and Lady Macbeth, belong to a higher order of imagination; they are not monsters; there is nothing superhuman or unnatural in them; they are human beings distinguished by their powers of crime. It is the triumph of genius to depict such existences as shall fill us with awe and freeze our souls with horror, while, at the same time, we cannot but acknowledge that there is nothing in the picture which transcends the limits of nature, or is incompatible with humanity.
Again, in the contrivance of a plot, we perceive the same difference in the powers of imagination. Those stories which are helped out by the machinery of labyrinthine castles, un
NO. XV.-VOL. VIII.
discoverable trap-doors, mysterious sounds, grim-featured monks, solemn and portentous ghosts, with the usual accompaniments of daggers, chains, and poisons, are obviously inferior to those which are wrought out of the ordinary elements of life, with no other engines than the passions and powers of the mind, and no other combinations than those which may be witnessed in almost any state of society. The “ Bride of Lammermoor” belongs to a vastly higher order of creations than the “ Monk,” or the “ Mysteries of Udolpho.”.
In this vulgarly awful imagination Spenser deals but little. The editor of the Boston edition remarks, that he is seldom nauseous' without being sublime.” A few instances might be selected from the Faerie Queene, in which the taste is utterly offended, and which undoubtedly belong to the lower class of conceptions, though displaying, at the same time, strong and fertile powers of invention. Of these are his description of error, of the equipage of pride, the captivity of Serena, and the preparations for her immolation. Such pictures, however, are very sparingly introduced, and never for their own sake alone; the wish of the poet evidently was, to make vice, in its afferent shapes, appear as deformed and disgusting as possible; he has undoubtedly, in some cases, transgressed the limits of good taste ; but the moral effect he produces is, at the same time, of a healthy character, and leaves a profound impression.
Next in the scale to the kind of imagination which we have now described we should rank the power of presenting agreeable scenes, forms, characters, and plots. In order to produce its full effect, this power must be united with a talent for description, without which it is but a diamond in the mine. Now both of these were singularly predominant in the mind of Spenser: to the power of combination and invention he joined a fertility and appropriateness of expression, such as are rarely to be found, and only in the greatest artists. His imagination was perfectly tropical ; it overflowed with luxuriant imagery and description; yet it is harmonious; his pictures are complete; no one part is stinted in order to throw more brilliancy upon another; beneath the genial warmth of that bright sun every creation expanded into perfect growth ; and so glittering, so wealthy, so joyous are the scenes he presents, that it seems as if the morning stars might have again sung for gladness at the birth of his ideal world.