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[From the Edinburgh Review for 1805. On the Works O/edmund SPEVREn. with tat principal Illustrations of various Commentators: To which are added, Notes, some Account of the Life o/" Spenser, and a Glossarial and other Indexes. By the Rev. John Todd, M.A.F.A.S. 8vo!a. 1805.]
A Complete and respectable edition of Spenser's works, has been long a desideratum in English literature. Indeed, to what purpose do our antiquaries purchase at high rates, and peruse, at the cost of still more valuable leisure and labour, the treasures of the black letter, which, in themselves, have usually so very little to repay their exertions? Surely, the only natural and proper use of the knowledge thus acquired, is to throw light, as well upon our early literature, as on the manners and language of our ancestors, by re-editing and explaining such of our ancient authors as have suffered by the change of both. Amongst these, Spenser must ever be reckoned one of the most eminent; for no other, perhaps, ever possessed and combined, in so brilliant a degree, the requisite qualities of a poet. Learned, according to the learning of his times, his erudition never appears to load or encumber his powers of imagination; but even the fictions of the classics, worn out as they are by the use of every pedant, become fresh and captivating themes, when adopted by his fancy, and accommodated to his plan. If that plan has now become to the reader of riper years somewhat tedious and involved, it must be allowed, on the other hand, that from Cowley downwards, every youth of imagination has been enchanted with the splendid legends of the Faery Queen. It was therefore with pleasure that we turned to the examination of a work, which promised to recall the delightful sensations of our earlier studies; and if we have been in some respects disappointed in the perusal, we do not impute it altogether to want of diligence or accuracy on the part of Mr Todd, whose commentary, so far as it goes, is in both respects commendable. In the Life of Spenser, which is the longest specimen of original composition, he has brought forward several new facts, and evinced a laudable anxiety to throw light upon the story, by comparison of dates, and investigation of contemporary documents. The result of his labours is stated in so modest a manner, as ought, in some degree, to disarm the harshness of criticism. He himself terms it "a very humble account of the Life of Spenser, drawn from authentic records, the curiosity and importance of which, will, I trust, be admitted by the liberal and candid as an apology for the want of biographical elegance."
It is, however, our duty to point out some defects in the plan of this Memoir, by avoiding which, we apprehend, much might have been added to its perspicuity and elegance, without the least derogation from its authenticity.
The events of Spenser's earlier life are, in some measure, extracted from a correspondence betwixt the poet and Gabriel Harvey, the same against whom Nash wrote the satire, well known among collectors, entitled, "Have with you to Saffron-Walden, or Gabriel Harvey's Hunt's up." It was highly meritorious in Mr Todd to peruse these letters, and to consider them as proper materials for his bioi;r;:phy. But we are disposed to blame him, first, because he has not republished an entire copy of this curious correspondence, w hich was of so much importance to the matter in hand; and, secondly, because, instead of printing the letters as an appendix to the life, he has thrust large extracts from them into the midst of his own narrative. Nothing, indeed, in our opinion, could have a more confused and inelegant effect than this medley of narrative and quotation. The biographer should always study to give his work the appearance of continuity. He may and ought to refer distinctly to the sources of his information; and where there is doubt, the words of the original documents may be subjoined in a note to justify his inference; but the text ought to be expressed historically, and in the language of the author himself. It is extremely awkward to jump from the words of the narrator into those of Spenser, and has, besides, the effect of making one part of the memoir bear a great disproportion to the other; for the letter-writer spends much more time in discussing the matter then immediately before him, than the biographer has probably an opportunity of bestowing upon incidents of much greater importance. Nevertheless, although these letters are thus thrust upon our hands in a disorderly manner, the extracts have afforded us amusement, and give room, as we have already hinted, to regret that they had not been printed separately, with such explanatory notes as Mr Todd's researches suggested. We perceive from thence, that Spenser had busied himself in the fruitless and unharmonious task of versifying, as it was then called, that is, of composing English verses according to the Latin prosody. He seems, at the same time, to have been fully sensible of the difficulty of the attempt, and we wonder at his perseverance, after the humour with which he describes its effects.
"I like yonr late Englishe Hexameters »o exceedingly well, that I nlso ennre my peone sometime in that Mode: whyche I fyurt indeed, as 1 have heard yon often defeode in worde, neither no harde nor so harshe, that it will easily and fairely yeelde it selfe to onre moother tongue. For the onely, or chiefest hardnesse, whyche seemeth, is in the accente; whyche sometime gapeth, and as it were yawneth ilfavouredly j comming shorte of that it should, and sometime exceeding the measure of the number, as in Carpenter, the middle Billable being used shorte in speache, when it shall be read long in verse, seemeth like a lame gosling, thatdraweth one legge after hir: and Heaven, being used shorte as one Billable when it is in verse, stretched out with a diastole, is like a lame dogge that holdes np one legge. But it is to be wonne with custome, and rough words must be subdued with nse. For, why a Ood's name may not we, as else the Greekes, have the kingdome of our own language, and measure our accentea by the sounde, reserving the quantitie to the Terse? Loe here I let you see my olde nse of toying in rymes, turned into your artificial straightness of verse by this Tetratticon. I beseech you tell me your fancie, without parcialitie.
u See yee the blindefonlded pretie god, that feathered archer,
We would hardly have suspected Spenser, the marshalled march of whose stanza is in general so harmonious, of drilling the stubborn and unmanageable words of the English language into such strange doggrel. The verses are truly "lame and o'erburthened, and screaming their wretchedness."
From another passage in this correspondence, the young poet may learn how little he ought to rely upon the taste even of the ablest counsellor. Harvey was a scholar, and, in some sense, even a poet; he was, moreover, Spenser's long approved and singular good friend} nevertheless, Gabriel had the assurance to write the following libel upon the Faery Queen, for the conceited pedantry of which he deserves a worse Hunt's up than was played him by Nashe.
"In good faith I had once againe nigh forgotten your FaerieQueene : howbeit, by good chaunce 1 have nowe sent hir home at the taste, neither in better nor worse case than i found hir. And must you, of necessitie, have my judgment of hir in decde? To be plaine; I am voyde of al judgment, if your * nine Coma-dies, whereunto, in imitation of Herodotus, yon give the names of the Nine Muses ('and in one mans fansie not unworthily), come not neerer Ariostoes Comadies, eyther for trie 6nenesseof plausible elocution, or the rarenease of poetical invention, than that Elvish Queene doth to his Orlando Furioso; which notwithstanding, you will needes seeme to emulate, and hope to overgo, as you flatly professed yourself in one of your last Letters. But I will not stand greatly with you in your owne matters. If so be the Fairte Queene be fairer in your eie than the Nioe Muses, and Hobgoblin runne away with the garland from Apollo; marke what I saye; and yet I will not say that [which] I thought; but there an end for this once, and fare you well till God, or some good Aungel, putte you in a better mind."—P. xlv. xlvi.
There is another circumstance which gives Mr Todd's Life of Spenser a more clumsy and ungainly appearance than the matter itself really deserves. It has been observed long ago, that the history of an author is the history of his works; and therefore Mr Todd has, with great propriety, regularly recorded the various publications of his author, in the order in which they were given to the world; but, from a want of arrangement, not peculiar to this editor, he has uniformly appended to his notices of these publications, a variety of circumstances, illustrative of their contents, which properly make no part of Spenser's life, although they ought to have been introduced
* *' It'is to be lamented," says Mr Cooper Walker, in a letter to Mr Todd, " that Spenser's nine Comedies, to much extolled by Harvey, are lost."
as notes upon his writings. It certainly is not always easy to separate exactly the department of the biographer from that of the commentator; but it is obvious, that to interrupt the narrative, by notes critical and illustratory, must necessarily destroy the effect of both. To these preliminary observations, which affect rather the manner than the matter of Mr Todd's memoir, we subjoin the leading incidents of Spenser's life, as they have been illustrated by his industry.
The fame of this poet, however great during his lifetime, seems to have excited no enquiry into his parentage. He himself informs us that he was born in
* Merry London, my moot kindly narse,
But although Spenser alludes repeatedly to his gentle birth, and claims kindred with several persons of rank, his parents were entirely unknown; a circumstance which Mr Todd, in beginning his life, passes over without commentary. It appears from a passage in one of his sonnets, that the Christian name of his mother was Elizabeth; and this is all we know of the matter. The birth of the poet is conjectured to have taken place about 1553; but the first event of his life which has been ascertained, is his admission as a sizer of Pembroke Hall, in Cambridge, 1569, where he acquired the degree of Bachelor and Master of Arts in 1572-3 and 1576. Here commenced his intimacy with Gabriel Harvey. He seems to have been disappointed, either in his views of a fellowship, or of some other academical distinction, which has not prevented his gratitude to his alma mater from breaking forth in his account of the Ouze, who
"Doth by Huntingdon and Cambridge flit;
From the University, Spenser seems to have retired to some friends in the north. Of the cause of his journey, or his occupation while with them, we have no record. Here he composed, besides lesser poems, the Shepherd's Calendar; a work which, in some places, exhibits a beautiful model of pastoral poetry, and, in others, that turn for allegorizing and moralizing two meanings in the same tale, which afterwards gave rise to the Faery Queen.
It is supposed that some passages in these poems, of a nature rather political than pastoral, particularly a warm eulogium on Archbishop Grendal, drew down upon our author the wrath of the great Burleigh; the effects of which, although deprecated by Spenser, and exaggerated perhaps by former biographers, certainly continued to attend him through his life. It was in vain he ascribed to a commentary of the Blatant Beast Slander, that construction of his poetry which had drawn on him "a mighty peer's displeasure." It was in vain that, among the worthies of Elizabeth's court, to whom he addressed separate sonnets with his Faery Queen, he distinguished Burleigh by the most flattering strain of adulation. We find, from repeated passages in his works, that his offence was never forgotten or forgiven. But the Shepherd's Calendar, although unfortunate in making our poet one powerful and inveterate enemy, secured him many active and distinguished friends. Its fame was the means of introducing him to the friendship of Sir Philip Sidney, and to that of Leicester; a more powerful, if less discerning patron. The latter received Spenser into his house, though in what capacity does not precisely appear; perhaps in order to facilitate the composition of the Stemmata Dudleiana, an account of the Earl's genealogy, wjth which Spenser appears to have been busied in 1580. At this time the poet was also engaged with his Faery Queen, with the Dying Pellican, with the Visions, which he afterwards published in a more correct shape, and sundry less important labours. About July, in the same year, he received, doubtless, through the patronage of Lord Leicester, the honourable appointment of secretary to Arthur Lord Grey, then nominated Lord-lieutenant of Ireland, which he held till Lord Grey's return to England in 1582. Spenser appears to have been sincerely attached to this nobleman, whom he has distinguished in his Faery Queen under the character of Arthegal, or Justice. Lord Grey's course with the Irish was that of severity, for excess of which he seems to have been recalled to England. Hence Spenser describes Arthegal, when returning from the adventure of succouring Irene, as leaving his work unfinished.
"Bat, ere he could reform it thoroughly.
On his return, the victorious knight is attacked by Envy, by Detraction, and by the Blatant Beast, or Slander, who railed against him;
"Saying that he had, with unmanly enile
And foal abnsion, both his honour blent.
And that bright sword, the sword of justice lent,
Had stained with reproachful cruelty
In guiltless blood of many an innocent:
As for Grandtorto, him with treacherie
This last accusation is referred by Upton to Lord Grey's putting to death the Spaniards who held out the fort of Smerwick, after they had surrendered to him at discretion; which "sharp execution" Spenser has justified at more length in his State of Ireland. After the recall of Lord Grey, the poet's services in the state, and per