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The highest efforts of imagination are undoubtedly those exerted in the creation of character; and, in this respect, Shakspeare, Milton, and Scott stand pre-eminent in our language. In the conception of character there is the same distinction to be made that has already been pointed out in the imagining of scenes. And, just as the pictures of frightful, monstrous, or disgusting places, actions, or beings, evince a lower order of power than the formation of ideal scenes of beauty, or terror, which are not out of nature, so the portraits of intellectual and moral monsters, of characters out of nature, indicate inferior genius; while the creation of characters which, though ideal, are, at the same time, true, can only be traced to the noblest efforts of imagination. In one, and we believe in only one, instance in our literature have these two orders of imagination been blended in a terrific harmony to produce a being of colossal form, yet sharing in human, or more than human beauty, of immortal endurance, yet only conquering human suffering, of supernatural energies and passions, yet consistent with the truth of human character. All these attributes are, in dim and majestic proportions, united in the sublime picture which Milton has given of the fallen archangel.
The conception of such a character as Portia, Lear, Rebecca, or Diana Vernon, belongs to the highest order of the imagination. Let us, therefore, inquire, whether Spenser has a claim to the possession of this power. In the first place, it must be remarked, that the very nature of his great poem, which is an allegory, devoted to the personification of virtues and vices, precludes, in a degree, the possibility of drawing characters in harmony with human nature. No mortal is of unmixed good or evil; to make a true character, these must in some degree be mingled, but the allegorical persons representing the passions, the emotions, the weaknesses, or the virtues, must be of simple, uncompounded ingredients.
It is a matter of wonder only, that Spenser should have triumphed as he has done ; he has succeeded in investing many of his personifications with such traits, that, while they are true to the moral quality which they were intended to represent, they still have a claim upon our sympathies, and partake largely of our own nature.
In one character, however, Spenser has displayed powers of portraiture that rival even Shakspeare. In the heavenly Una, he has presented us with one of the most exquisite
creations that ever issued from poet's brain : her whole being is as much a work of art, and as perfect in its kind, as a classic statue. Her faculties are blended in perfect proportion, and every trait is instinct with female loveliness. She is a character of ideal perfection, and yet there is nothing in her composition that contradicts or violates nature ; we instinctively acknowledge the truth of this creation; it impresses us, as some portraits do, which we feel to be true without knowing the original. She is the allegorical representative of truth; but so rich, so harmonious, and so exquisite are her traits, that we soon forget the allegory, and view her as a living, breathing, and perfect woman. For no character in fiction are our sympathies more keenly awakened. Gentleness, humility, and submission, blended with unwavering strength of purpose, and instinctive perception of right, and unconquerable resolution, form her most prominent attributes.
The influence which she exerts upon the knight is just such as might be expected from a pure, innocent, and high-minded woman; it constantly tends to strengthen and elevate his character; and we cannot sufficiently admire the skill with which the poet harmonizes the meekness and perfect softness of her character with the noble ascendancy which she at once acquired over the mind of her champion. She is tender of his safety, distrustful of his powers, and unwilling that he should incur danger; yet, in the midst of peril, she never fails to encourage and support him.
All the adventures of her lonely wandering are admirably contrived to impress us with the idea of her celestial beauty and innocence: the sudden gentleness and submission of the lion, the worship offered by the Satyrs, and the beautiful influence she exerts over them, the devotion of Sir Satyrane and of Prince Arthur, are all tributes to her innocence and loveliness. Equally beautiful in sorrow or in joy, there is still an atmosphere of pensiveness and resignation about her which reminds us of the Madonnas of Raphael. Had Spenser made her end tragical, we do not say it would have improved the poem; but it certainly would have formed one of the most tender, exquisite, and mournful tragedies ever composed. As it is, the character of Una approaches nearer to the tragic than any thing else in the poem ; to the very last of her adventure, there is such a holy resignation and celestial beauty in her, that we feel as if she were too fair for the earth, and must, of necessity, pass away from us.
Mr. Upton, in the preface to his edition of the Faerie Queene, goes into an elaborate argument to prove that it is an epic poem. He
it with the Iliad; he shows, that like the first great epic, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end ; that the unity of action is preserved throughout; that it is marked by simplicity and the greatness of the subject; that just as the anger of Achilles, and its fatal consequences, form the subject of the Iliad, so the dream of Arthur, and the adventures to which it led, form the subject of the Faerie Queene. That as “it is observable, that Homer's poem, though he sings the anger of Achilles, is not called the Achilleid, but the Iliad, because the action is at Troy; so Spenser does not call his poem by the name of his chief hero, but because his chief hero sought for the Faerie Queene in fairyland, and therein performed his various adventures, therefore, he entitles his poem the Faerie Queene.” No man in his senses would, after reading these arguments, undertake to deny that the Faerie Queene is an epic poem, and that there is a vast similarity between it and the Iliad. But still, the question remains just as much unanswered, what is the general character of the Faerie Queene?—that is, what were the prevailing sentiments, what were the deep feelings, the strong convictions, and earnest promptings, in the mind of the poet which inspired his composition ? Many will answer unhesitatingly, that the Faerie Queene is a chivalrous poem. It is filled with deeds of arms: the din of war is around us, and the trumpet is sounding in our ears; we are in the midst of all the gorgeous array of chivalry; brave knights and fair women, the camp, the tournament, the castle, and the battlefield are before us; we have magicians and witches, hermits and priests, horrible incantations, and touching rites of religion ; war, love, glory, dangers, and rescues; all the marvels, all the scenes of splendor and of terror which the sublime muse of chivalry gathers around her.
All this we grant: the outward form of the poem is chivalrous; it is an allegory masked under the guise and the adventures of knightly times. The virtues are represented in the persons of warriors and lovely dames; and vices, by portentous monsters, against whom the knights carry on an eternal warfare. The scenes are in fairyland, too; we are led away to regions filled with magical creations and wonders which the earth boasts not — we are wandering in gigantic forests, whose trees have more than primeval growth, and
whose foliage is of more than tropic luxuriance - streams are " welling” up from their deep sources, whose waters are life, and whose purling is like celestial music - caverns of infinite depth lie open before us, and invite us by their columns of silver and gold, their walls of crystal, and their vaulted summits, crusted and glittering with diamonds and rubies—“We walk upon a new earth and beneath a new heaven, where the light that shines is a light that never was on land or sea.”
Spenser has accordingly been classed as the bard of chivalry, and the Faerie Queene as a chivalrous romance, written, like the early romances in French and English, and the early ballads, to illustrate the deeds of knighthood. But we are inclined to consider this but a partial and imperfect view of the great poet and his works.
The Faerie Queene is not composed in the true spirit of the chivalrous ages ; because much of that spirit had passed away before the age of Elizabeth.
of Elizabeth. It must be remembered, that chivalry was not merely a system itself, but was dependant upon, and formed part of, a much greater system. During a certain period in the history of Europe, embracing the larger portion of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, and extending even into the fifteenth, certain opinions and sentiments prevailed throughout the Christian world, of a character which distinguishes those ages from any other portion of the history of man. Rude, ferocious, and bloody, as they were, those ages were marked by grand and sublime features. One all-pervading and profound sentiment filled the world ; it moulded society, determined the fate of kingdoms, gave the tone and the inspiration to literature and the arts, and stamped the times with characteristics as strong and as peculiar as those which distinguished the Egyptian or the classic ages. We cannot better describe this sentiment, than by terming it the Gothic spirit — that sublime and lyric sentiment which displayed itself in the deeds, the worship, the poetry, and the monuments of the middle ages. There was an entire harmony in the spirit which pervaded those times. The worship of the church of Rome, all the rites and ceremonies, all the doctrines even, of that wonderfully contrived system, the institution of chivalry, with its magnificent pomp of heraldry, its devoted bravery, its enthusiastic religion, and its generous self-abandonment; Gothic architecture, the most sublime form in which the mind
was ever visibly displayed; the legends of saints and martyrs, and the romances which told of brave knights and horrible monsters- of wars for the glory of God and the Lamb-of conquests achieved, and a deathless fame won on the field of carnage, were but the breathing, the creation, the visible display, of this powerful spirit. All conspired to form one great and perfect system which comprehended all Christendom; each formed a constituent part of the system which was broken up by its withdrawal; each was dependant upon the other parts, and became as nothing when separated from them. These various components were bound together and harmonized by one common sentiment-a spirit of deep and romantic religious devotion. This inspired the whole Christian world with new life; roused the nations of Europe from the awful sleep of the dark ages, and with a voice, like the archangel's trumpet, called up the lost energies of mankind from the grave where they had reposed for centuries. We shall not attempt, at this time, to trace the cause of this revival; perhaps the effort would be in vain ; it is enough for our purpose that the facts are established. A universal and harmonious spirit appeared at once throughout all Christian Europe ; it elevated, dignified, and enriched the church; preached up the crusades and displayed itself in the arts, but particularly in ecclesiastical architecture, which rose at once in Germany, England, France, Spain, and Italy, with a magnificence and sublimity which nothing can surpass.
Had all history of those ages perished, and the rites of the church of Rome been forgotten; had the record of the crusades, and the last vestige of the feudal system passed away, we should still need no stronger assurance of the old Gothic spirit than those miracles of architecture which abound in Europe. A Gothic cathedral is the monument not merely of the state of the art, but of the whole spirit of the age. We look upon it with almost the feeling of wonder with which we should contemplate the fabled monuments of a race of Titans; we see that in the construction and adorning of the temples of Christ, the means were disregarded-ends alone were thought of; the cost, the labor, the years, and even centuries, to be expended upon them, formed no consideration with their projectors; there was a lofty sentiment of adoration which sought to display itself in some visible form, and it mocked at the ordinary obstacles to enterprise ; labor almost inconceivable was cheerfully applied; the gems that