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on which the author has embarked us? Even when as a boy we read a considerable portion of this poem, we remember distinctly that, partly from not understanding its meaning, and partly from its comparative meagreness of incident, the effect was bewilderment rather than pleasure, and that we turned eagerly from the mazy pages of him who strayed in the wood of Error, to the narrative of him who, "lighting on a certain place where there was a den, slept, and dreamed a dream," and whose parable, apart from its disguised Christian truth, carried us on by the clear current of its style and the interest of its story.
As to the general plan of the poem, we are not left to critical conjecture. Spenser himself, in his noble dedicatory epistle to Sir Walter Raleigh, has in part explained it. Since that is already in our readers' hands, we need not quote it entire, but may give its substance in our own words.
It was customary for kings in the days of knight-errantry to give an annual feast, at which knights appeared and claimed the privilege of being sent on adventures such as the time might demand. On the next year, at the anniversary of the entertainment, they returned, and in the presence of the court rehearsed, in modest yet glowing terms, their achievements-what robbers they had killed, what distressed virgins rescued, what castles subdued, and what monstrous beasts destroyed. At Lisle, for instance, in 1453, in the court of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, a feast was celebrated in reference to a crusade against the Turks, which continued for twelve days, and each day was distinguished by the claim and allowance of some adventure. On this hint Spenser spake-feeling how intensely capable of poetical treatment was such an idea. What finer conception can be imagined than that of a great assembly of gallant knights and lovely ladies, presided over by some chivalrous monarch,
"His deep eye laughter-stirr'd With merriment of kingly pride,"
or by some queen, lustrous as a leopard, mild as a lamb, and magnificent as a summer's morn; of knight after knight stepping forward to the central throne, and on bent knee beseeching the honour of undertaking some deed of derring-do; of the gracious
smile on the fair lips as they grant the request, and of the profound obeisance with which the brave accepted men retire; of the recurrence of the festival; of the anxious looks and beating hearts now seen and heard amidst the splendid throng, as they ponder the probability of some of the gallant warriors having perished while doing their devoir; of the shouts of applause which welcome the survivors as they enter, while a few quiet tears, trickling down beautiful cheeks, mourn the lost; and of the rapt attention and enthusiastic silence with which the assembly listens to the recital
"Of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field;
Of hairbreadth 'scapes in the imminent deadly breach;
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery; of redemption thence,
And with it all their travel's history,"
-adventures told, too, in language which ever and anon towers, trembles, kindles into poetry!
Thus, in the fancy of Spenser, the Faerie Queene held a splendid feast, which continued twelve days, and on each of these days respectively, twelve several complaints are laid before her, and twelve knights are despatched on adventures, each of whom proves an example of some particular virtue, such as Justice, Charity, Holiness, Temperance, and is the hero of one complete book of the poem. These twelve knights denote the twelve virtues, but besides, there is a leading knight or hero,—Prince Arthur, the British prince, son of Uther Pendragon, by whom the Poet understands Magnificence, "which virtue," says Spenser, according to Aristotle and the rest, is the perfection of all the rest, and containeth in it them all." Prince Arthur, too, is introduced as an auxiliary in almost every book, and the purpose of all his actions is to find out and gain to himself Gloriana, or Glory," the name of the Faerie Queene in my general intention," says the poet, "but in my particular, the most excellent and glorious person of our sovereign the Queen (Elizabeth), and her kingdom in Faerie Land." Her, Arthur had seen in a dream. or vision, and, ravished by her loveliness, he follows in her pursuit ever afterwards. It is probably from this that Shelley has taken
the hint of his exquisitely musical and imaginative "Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude," where the hero dreams that
"A veiled maid
Sate near him, talking in low solemn tones:
and when, as he beholds,
"Her outspread arms now bare,
Her dark locks floating in the breath of night,
His strong heart sinks and sickens with the excess
and he pursues till death the ideal of his vision! Perhaps the truth diversely expressed by both these surpassing poets may be, that whether we seek after artistic or moral excellence we must be ravished by an ideal,—that we must follow an object not merely because it is worthy or true, but because it is beautiful, --and that our imagination gives a far more powerful stimulus in pursuing the high and the holy than either the intellect or the heart. In Arthur, in general, Spenser professed to portray "the image of a true knight perfected in the twelve private moral virtues."
Our poet had the choice of two different plans in the prosecution of his allegorical purpose. Either (in a plan somewhat similar to that of the Queen's Wake) he might commence by a preliminary picture of the court of the Faerie Queene, and of the festival celebrated there, and then introduce in successive poetic chapters the various adventures of the knights-errant; or he might first relate these latter, and then shew them all converging to the one point of meeting at the court. The question was, whether to describe the annual feast which, on breaking up, dismissed the adventurers to their various tasks, and then relate their achievements; or, having first narrated these in their order, to produce a picture of the second annual feast, where they again assemble, as the consummation and great climax of the poem. Spenser has, on what must have seemed to him adequate grounds, chosen the latter mode of
treatment, although he did not live to complete the work, and lost thus the opportunity of depicting the confluence of the twelve streams of the narrative in the grand ocean of "Magnificence" and ideal truth. This must now remain for ever unattempted in prose or rhyme. A few of the separate divided currents alone remain, and if we cannot intelligibly trace these in all their courses, or untwist all their links of intervolved meaning, the unfinished fragmentary character of the poem, and the essential difficulties connected with an allegory, must bear a portion of the blame. And it may be as well also to notice, that Spenser's allegory, of all others, in the English language at least, is the most perplexed and fluctuating in its characters and scenery. The same personages appear and reappear continuallyreal and imaginary incidents or persons are perpetually confounded—the mythologies of Greece and Rome, and the mediæval ages, are mixed up with the verities of the Christian faith; there are dreams within dreams, and knots within knots -blunders too in historical fact, intentional or unintentional, abound-threads of narrative are taken up suddenly, to be as suddenly and unaccountably dropped; there are paths that lead to nothing-types that have no antitype-wild wanderings of fancy, undertaken from the mere luxury of the indulgence—and a rage for allegorising, which pervades not only the general scope of the poem, but many of its individual parts, where simplicity had been more appropriate; that it is, in truth, a glorious chaos, and a wood of divine "Error"—a chaos with the confusion of which, however, struggles the informing spirit of poetic art, and a wood through the glades of which there shines the true although tumultuous glory of creative genius. Let us, instead of, with some of Spenser's commentators, either formally blaming or elaborately defending such exuberances or defects, proceed to gather out as much light as we can from the darkness, and as much order as we can from the brilliant disarray of this extraordinary poem.
"The Faerie Queene" consists of six books, besides the posthumous fragments called the Seventh and Eighth Books of the poem, illustrating six of those private virtues which Spenser had designed to celebrate in twelve. This purpose he was not, we have seen, per
mitted to accomplish, nor yet his ulterior one of devoting another large poetic volume to the celebration of the POLITICAL virtues in a similar style and spirit. He commences by an account of the adventures of Holiness, or the Red-Cross Knight. And this constitutes, not only the first, but the most interesting portion of the whole poem.
The moral subject designed to be shadowed forth in the first Canto is the victory of Holiness over Error, and the manner in which that virtue is for a time deceived by Hypocrisy. The Red-Cross Knight is Holiness. Una,
"The heavenly Una, with her milk-white lamb,”
is Truth. Error is represented by a vast dragon, (inhabiting a "wandering wood," a wood most exquisitely pictured,) which the Knight slays. Duessa is Hypocrisy; and Archimago stands for Falsehood in general. In the next Canto, through the guiles of Duessa and Archimago, the Red-Cross Knight is separated from Una-in other words, Holiness and Truth are for a season divorced. In this Canto is introduced the first of three Saracen brothers, Sansfoy, Sansloy, and Sansjoy, denoting as the names import, Faithlessness, Lawlessness, and Joylessness, who all at various points oppose Holiness and persecute Truth. Some commentators suppose, that in the character of Duessa, Spenser, to gratify Queen Elizabeth, girds obliquely at the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots. In the next Canto, Una, or Truth, is saved from the cottage of Corceca, or Blind Devotion (Popery), whose daughter, Abessa, or Superstition, has a paramour, Kirkrapine, or Sacrilege, by a Lion, or Courage (although Upton supposes that Henry the Eighth, the King of England, is meant). In the fourth Canto, the Red-Cross Knight, or Truth, is led by Duessa, or Deception, into the House of Pride. Lucifera, the Queen of the Palace of Pride, is described as riding in state, followed by six of the vices described as her councillors and "wizards old"-Idleness, Gluttony, Lechery, Avarice, Envy, and Wrath, followed by Satan, who seems, says Upton, the “President of the Council, and makes up the number seven." In one of our after papers, we may have occasion to refer to the description of this procession as one of the most magnificent passages in the compass of poetry. In the fifth Canto, describing the