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Faery Queen nothing more than a wondrous fairy tale, a wild romance, or a gorgeous pageant of chivalry. Beyond all this, far within it, is an inner life; and that is breathed into it from the Bible. It is the great sacred poem of English literature. “I dare be known to think,” said Milton, addressing the Parliament of England, “our sage and serious poet, Spenser, a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.”* When John Wesley gave directions for the clerical studies of his Methodist disciples, he recommended them to combine with the study of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Testament, the reading of the Faery Queen; and, in our own day, Mr. Keble, the poet of “The Christian Year,” has described the Faery Queen as “a continual deliberate endeavour to enlist the restless intellect and chivalrous feeling of an inquiring and romantic age on the side of goodness and faith, of purity and justice.”+
Spenser himself, expounding his allegory to his friend Sir Walter Raleigh, said, “The general end of all the book is to fashion a gentleman, or noble person, in virtuous and gentle discipline." I Christian philosopher, as well as poet, Spenser's deep conviction, manifest throughout the poem, was that the only discipline wherewith to tame the rebellious heart of man is that morality which, in one of his own sweet phrases, bears
“The lineaments of gospel-books."
* Milton's ProseWorks, 8vo.p.108. On Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.
† Quarterly Review, vol. xxxii. p. 225, June, 1825. In an article on Sacred Poetry, attributed to Mr. Keble.
# Spenser's Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, prefixed to Poetical Works, vol. i. p. 5.
2 An Elegie on Friend's Passion for his Astrophell. Spenser's Poetical Works, vol. v. p. 261.
The student of sacred poetry must not be startled at meeting with thoughts, or rather images, drawn from other sources than Holy Scripture. The imagination of a great poet can make the heathen world tributary to the Christian; you meet in the Faery Queen the exploded mythology of paganism, and Scripture story, so shadowed forth together that the sanctity of the latter is no wise sullied by the contact. When one of Spenser's heroes visits the realms of the lost spirits, he beholds Tantalus with the hunger and the thirst of ages on him, and the dread of centuries to come; and not far off another wretch, plunged in the infernal waters, washing his blood-stained handswashing eternally, hopelessly, the deep damnation of Pontius Pilate; images, one caught from pagan fable, the other from Holy Writ; images, too, of unending woe, the sufferings hereafter of a wicked life.
In like manner, when Milton recounts the hosts of Pandemonium, there is that transcendent effort of the imagination by which he grasps the mythology of classical antiquity and thrusts it down into hell, ranging the gods of Greece-Olympic Jove himself-with the inferior powers of the apostate angels, Satan's followers and servants. It is a mistake, I think, to limit our notice of sacred poetry to that which has an express and direct connection with biblical topics, for it is a high prerogative of the Christian imagination to rescue from the realms of error, fictions and superstitions, and make them safely subservient to the cause of revealed truth. It is this process, admirably conceived and executed, which entitles Southey's Curse of Kehama and Thalaba to be ranked with the great sacred poems of the language.
Thus a large range may be demanded for sacred poetry; and yet in another aspect all narrowed to the relation in which it stands to revealed teaching and Holy Writ. That remarkable poet of the seventeenth century, George Wither—whose writings, unfortunately, are so little accessible-seems to have been disposed to look more to the resources of his own thoughts than either to the profession of preaching or the increase of books : he says it was not his religion
“ Up and down the land to seek,
Yet be as fresh as when they first began.”
"For many books I care not, and my store
Where'er I come, or whatso'er I do."* A poet, a happy-hearted poet, like Wither, whose imagination could make cheerful employment within his prison walls, might speak thus; but for our common minds the poet's help is needed : it will often help us the better to know and feel the three volumes with which the old poet was content with—the two Testaments and the mighty volume called the world; and doubtless not only the sacred poetry, but all high and serious poetry, may be traced to some germ of revealed truth. The highest human poetry is in affinity with the divine poetry; and, however they may differ in degree, I do not believe that they are separated by characteristic difference in kind. What are the Latin hymns of the mediæval church, such as that famous one on the Day of Judgment, which clung to the dying lips of Walter Scott, murmuring snatches of it when his mind had on all else faded away,—what were those poems but human versions of inspiration ?* What are the hymns of Ken and of Keble but echoes from the lyric song of the Bible ? Wordsworth's sublime communings with nature do but amplify and reiterate the Psalmist's declaration of the glory of God as manifested in the universe; and when the poet shows that
* Wither, as quoted in “Church Poetry,” p. 72.
“Heaven lies about us in our infancy,”+ and teaches the holiness and beauty of the innocence of childhood—a theme for sophisticated man to reflect onwhat is this but an expression of the truth that is contained in the Saviour's words, “ of such is the kingdom of heaven ?”
Aubrey De Vere's thoughtful lines on Sorrow, are but an echo of the divine teaching :
*“We very often heard distinctly the cadence of the Dies Irae; and I think the very last stanza that we could make out was the still greater favourite :
Stabat mater dolorosa,
Dum pendebat filius." Lockhart's Scott, vol. x. p. 214. As this volume is passing through the press, we have received the news of Mr. Lockhart's death at Abbotsford, in December, 1854. W. B. R.
† Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality. Works, p. 388.
« Count each affliction, whether light or grave
God's messenger sent down to thee. Do thou
Strong to consume small troubles; to commend
Again : another living poet does but teach how to apply a well-known text, and feel its truth the more, when he says:
“We live not in our moments or our years-
Knowing that mercy ever will endure.”+ This is a poet's teaching of the cheerfulness of Christian faith and the love of Christian content and happiness;
* Aubrey De Vere's Waldenses, with other poems quoted in an Essay on De Vere's Poems, in Taylor's Notes from Books, p. 215.
† Sonnet by the Rev. R. C. Trench, quoted in Church Poetry, or Christian Thoughts in Old and Modern Verse, p. 62.