« PreviousContinue »
introduced to Sir Philip (then Mr) Sidney, who had not yet retired in disgust from the Court to write the " Arcadia," thither to return again to run the most illustrious part of his public career. Of him, the graceful and gallant, the soldier poet, romance-writer, and model of all chivalric virtues, it is needless to speak. There was a pre-established harmony between his soul and that of Spenser; and we find the image of the noble Sir Philip haunting all the pages of "The Faerie Queene." Sidney introduced the poet to his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, a man of dubious reputation on the page of history, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, but hardly of the country, on whose memory rests the stain of his first wife's blood; whose appointment to the command of the forces assembled at Tilbury to oppose the Spanish invasion, gave great offence, and might, but for the destruction of the Armada, have proved disastrous to England; and whose name is now chiefly remembered as the hero of "Kenilworth," and the unworthy husband of poor Amy Robsart. In this way, however, Spenser became a member of the most brilliant circle in the country. He is believed to have accompanied Sidney (probably as a secretary or amanuensis) to the family seat of Penshurst in Kent, in 1578 or 1579; and in the October of the latter year, he addresses letters to Harvey from Leicester House in London.
Of this correspondence five letters are extant; three from the pen of Harvey, and two from that of Spenser. They turn chiefly on a new prosody, founded upon the Latin, which Harvey, in conjunction with Sidney and Sir Edward Dyer, invented, and into the practice of which they wished to drag the poet. He, although evidently laughing in his sleeve, does give certain rare specimens in hexameters, pentameters, and trimeter-iambics of the new style, to please his friends. It is more important to learn from passages in these letters, that Spenser's muse had been exceedingly active for several years, and that by 1580, besides "The Shepherd's Calendar;" "The Dreams;" "The Legends and Court of Cupid;" a translation of Moschus' "Idyllion of Wandering Love;" "Slomber," and other pamphlets; "Dying Pelican;" "Epithalamion Thamesis Stemmata Dudleiana" (a Latin description of Leicester's genealogy, with some flattering allusions
to Sir Philip Sidney); a discourse entitled, "The English Poet;" and nine Comedies, he had indited and sent to Harvey a considerable portion of "The Faerie Queene." What work for a youth of twenty-seven to have performed! What amazing precocity and fecundity! Several of these productions, such as his "Stemmata Dudleiana," "Slomber," "The Dying Pelican,” and his Comedies (which were regular dramas, compared by his correspondent to those of Ariosto, Bibiena, Machiavelli, and Aretino), are lost.
It is remarkable that Harvey thought rather coldly of that portion of "The Faerie Queene" which was sent him. Such blunders by good-natured friends, in judging of great works in MS., are nearly as common in literary history as those of publishers or their readers. Some one told Godwin, that if he published "Caleb Williams," it would be the "grave of his reputation." Another, after reading the opening chapters of "Waverley," thought them insipid and coarse. A third, Hobhouse we think, advised Lord Byron not to publish the first two cantos of "Childe Harold." And worthy Gabriel Harvey thus accosts our poet: "If so be "The Faerie Queene' be fairer in your eye than the Nine Muses, mark what I say-and yet I will not say that which I thought-but there is an end for this once, and fare you well till God, or some good angel, put you in a better mind."
In December 1579, appeared "The Shepherd's Calendar," with a dedication to "Maister Philip Sidney," and a prefatory epistle, an argument, a glossary, and explanatory notes, by the mysterious E. K., whom some think to have been one Edward Kirk, others one King, and others suppose to have been an alias of Spenser himself. It appeared in a small quarto, with woodcuts, and ere 1597 it had passed through five editions. We shall have occasion in our after paper to characterise its merits as well as those of his other minor poems.
Toward the close of the same year, Spenser seems to have meditated a journey to the Continent, probably on a mission from his patron Leicester. Some will have it that he actually visited France, yet we find him in April 1580 writing Harvey from London, and making no allusion to his having been abroad. At
all events, he was soon after, through the interest of the Leicester family, appointed secretary to the new Lieutenant of Ireland, Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton, and in the beginning of August he seems to have accompanied his principal to Ireland. In March 1581 he obtained the additional office of clerk to the Irish Court of Chancery, and the same year he received from the Queen a grant of a lease of the abbey of Enniscorthy, and a castle and manor attached, in the county of Wexford, at the rent of £300, 6s. 8d., on the condition that he should keep it in continual repair. This property he conveyed in December 1581 to Richard Synot, who sold it to Sir Henry Wallop, then wartreasurer in Ireland, and the ancestor of the Earls of Portsmouth, in the possession of which family it still remains. His disposing of it so speedily showed that he foresaw an event which occurred next year; namely, the resignation of Lord Grey. This took place in the end of August 1582, and the poet returned with his patron to England.
We hear nothing definite or certain about his history from the above date till the year 1586, when he obtained from the Queen a grant of 3028 acres in the county of Cork, being part of the forfeited estate of the Earl of Desmond. The grant is dated the 27th of June. It is supposed to have been procured for him by Sir Philip Sidney, who, by the way, died of his wounds at Zutphen in October of the same year. Spenser lamented his loss in the beautiful poem of "Astrophel," which was not published, however, till 1594. By the terms of the grant, our poet required to live upon his estate, and thither, we may conceive with considerable reluctance, he repaired in the close of the year. He fixed his abode in the castle of Kilcolman. This castle, now a ruin, is situated in a most romantic locality. It stands in the midst of a vast plain, and on the north side of a fine lake. To the east are the Waterford mountains; to the north, those of Ballyhowra, or as Spenser calls them, of Mole; to the south, those of Nagle; and to the west, those of Kerry. Half the breadth of Ireland is seen from its battlements; the adjacent uplands, although now bare, were, in Spenser's time, covered with thick woods; and to finish the picture, the river Mulla, alluded to by him more than once in his poetry, runs past. There Spenser
was destined to spend (apart from occasional visits to England) eleven years of his life, whether happily or not we can only conjecture. In favour of the former theory there are the facts, that he was easy if not wealthy in his circumstances-that the scenery around was quite to a poet's taste-that he had regular but not onerous duties to discharge—and that he there wrote the greater part of "The Faerie Queene," finding, no doubt, in this labour its "own exceeding great reward." On the other hand, he had left London and all its delightful society-he had in Ireland few kindred spirits and he was living in a country far more disorganised than even now, torn by warring factions, wasted by poverty, blinded by superstition, and reeling toward the Great Rebellion which broke out in a few years afterwards, and deluged the land in blood. On the whole, Spenser was a banished man; and although he had not been exiled, like Ovid, by the decree of an Emperor, nor, like Byron, forced to leave his country by the clamour of an angry nation; and although his solitude was sweetened by the most magnificent visions that ever crossed the mind of genius, yet banished, it is probable, he felt himself to be. Conceive, then, the joy with which in 1589 he would welcome, in his solitude, the visit of a kindred spirit, of one who, among all men then alive, next to Shakspeare, most resembled Spenser in extent and elevation of genius. This was Sir Walter Raleigh, then a Captain in Lord Grey's army, and about Spenser's own age, each being thirty-seven. Flushed with a glorious as well as gainful campaign in Portugal, he was now in Ireland, and lost no time in repairing, as a "pilgrim of his genius," to the poet's abode. This visit Spenser described in his "Colin Clout's Come Home Again," a poem written in 1591. In these verses he beautifully describes himself as a shepherd's boy,
"Keeping my sheep amongst the coolly shade
Of the green alders by the Mulla's shore,"
when a stranger arrives, self-announced as the "Shepherd of the Ocean." They exchange ditties, mingle dances, and ultimately go in company to the court of Cynthia, or Elizabeth. That queen, and the beauties of her court, are next described; Philip Sidney is lamented as "Astrophel;" and the poem
closes with the warm panegyric on Rosalind before alluded to. Few interviews of literary men are so interesting to fancy as this between Spenser and Raleigh. The great eminence of both the men—their kindred tastes-their equal age-the sad fate impending over both-the solitude and beauty of the spot where they met the fact that they went together in company to England, all combine in casting a glory over Mulla's shore, and the memories of that remarkable meeting. We delight to fancy their walks by the side of the stream, their climbing some of the adjacent hills, their exchange of experience in talk; Raleigh recounting his adventures in the Armada fight, and the splendid success of his Portugal expedition, while Spenser speaks now of the wretched state of Ireland, and now of the fine dreams which had crossed his soul in this poetic retreat; the golden day when, perhaps in some shady bower of the Bregog, a wild mountain stream seeking the Mulla, the poet unrolls the precious MS. of his poem, and reads with lingering accents,
"A gentle knight was pricking o'er the plain,"
to his entranced auditor; and, as they both embark in the ship which is to bear them and the glorious book to England, we are tempted to exclaim, "Be hushed, ye waves, and breathe softly, ye breezes, as you convey the noblest freight ye ever did, or shall, convey from Erin to Albion-two immortal men and one divine maiden-two knights of chivalry holding the white hands of the Faery Queen!"
Arrived in London, Raleigh seems to have introduced Spenser to Queen Elizabeth. The three first books of the poem appeared in a small quarto, printed by Ponsonby, in January 1590. The work was received with a great still wonder, as if another moon, as quiet and as lustrous as Cynthia, had come up the sky. Yet, although the queen joined in the general admiration, it was not till 1591 that she bestowed a pension of fifty pounds a-year upon the poet. In the same year, and probably after the poet had returned to Ireland, a collection of his minor pieces, including the "Tears of the Muses," "Mother Hubbard's Tale," "Virgil's Gnat," the "Ruins of Time," "Muiopotmos," &c., appeared from the Ponsonby press, and were followed soon after by