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ENGLISH POETRY constitutes one of the most brilliant portions of the intellectual history of Modern Europe. The era of English Poetry commences with the Norman Invasion. Anglo-Saxon Poems had existed; but their topics, their rudeness, or the decay of the language, extinguished them in the presence of a superior dialect and a more fortunate time. The few that remain, are merely memorials of some barbarian event, or harsh attempts to throw some superstitious fable into metre. The violence of the Norman Conquest, that shook the laws and institutions of England, also shook the language. But here the violence was more than compensated by the novelty, richness, and vigour of the results. The poetical soil was ploughed roughly; but, in the act, its native fertility was put in motion
the old incumbrances were swept away, and a new and lovely vegetation was left free to spread and luxuriate. The transfer of the Norman Court to England, was the transfer of a warlike, romantic, and regal system, into a land of native generosity and courage, yet hitherto but little acquainted with the higher arts of nations. The Conqueror, and his descendants, brought with them many noble recollections, much spirit-stirring pomp, and much picturesque ceremonial. Italy was then the golden fount, from which the minor urns drew light: and the intercourse of the Norman princes, the universal conquerors, with the finest regions of Europe, had raised their court to a comparative height of civilization. The Minstrel followed the Monarch, and was essential, not more to his indulgence than to his fame. The wild traditions of the North; the French and Italian narratives of bold exploit, or idolatrous devotion to the Sex; and those oriental tales, whose high-coloured conceptions of supernatural agency, royal grandeur, and superb enjoyment, captivate us, even in our day of cold and chastized fancy, moved before the young mind of England like a new creation. If England had been left to the full exercise of her powers, thus awakened, probably no nation of Europe would have made a more rapid progress to the highest intellectual excellence. But war came
across her, as the thunderbolt across the eagle's wing; and her natural vigour was bitterly expended in the struggles of rival usurpers, and in foreign wars, fruitless of all, but those apples of Sodom, the glories of the sword.
Yet Poetry is a part of human nature, and exists wherever man exists. A succession of poets rose in even this tumultuous period. But their efforts perished, either from defect of ability, or from the want of popular leisure, when life and possessions were in perpetual hazard. At length, Chaucer * appeared, and established a fame, that forced its way through the difficulties of his age. It is a fine remark of Bacon, that, while Art perfects things by parts, Nature perfects all together.' The triumphant periods of nations have this excellence of Nature-opulence, arms, and intellect flourish at the same time: the vegetation of the imperial tree is urged at once through all the extremities, and throws out its vigour alike in branch, leaf, and bloom. The reign of Edward III. had placed England in a high European rank, and with her rank came intellectual honours.
Chaucer's mind was cast in the mould of Poetry, and his genius was practised and enriched by the most
* Born in London, 1328, died 1400.
singular diversity of knowledge and situation. He
Chaucer was the earliest successful cultivator of the harmony of the English language. His quaintnesses and occasional irregularities of thought and diction, belong to his time; but he has passages of copious and honeyed sweetness that belong to the finest poetic perception alone.
Spenser arose in the most memorable period of English history, the reign of Elizabeth. And his career, though less diversified than that of his great predecessor, yet had much of similar interest and change. He was early introduced to the stately
* Born in London, 1553-Died, 1599.
court of Elizabeth, and was led there by Sydney, the very genius of romance and heroism. He next visited the Continent, then vivid with arts and arms; and, as the envoy of Lord Leicester, visited it in a rank which gave him the most fortunate opportunities. In Ireland he next saw the contrast of a people naked of the arts and indulgencies of life, but exhibiting singular boldness and love of country; a rude magnificence of thought and habit; a stately superstition; and a spirit of proud and melancholy romance, cherished by the circumstances, climate, and landscape of their soil. To those influences on the poet's mind may be attributed some of the characteristics of his poetry, for in Ireland, and in the midst of its most delicious scenery, he completed the "Fairy Queen."
The faults of this celebrated poem are obvious, and must be traced to Spenser's admiration of the Italian poets. The attempt to personify the passions, and the prominent characters of his time, involves the story in confusion. Continued allegory exhausts and defeats the imagination. But his excellence is in his language; and few can think of the story, in the incomparable sweetness and variegated beauty of his lines. To this hour Spencer is a spring of English inexhaustible, from which all the leading poets have drawn, and which is still fresh and sparkling as ever.