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He had evidently a high opinion of his own art, and felt for poetry itself that respect without which no man can be a poet. With him, it was not a pastime, or a relief from graver employments, but was itself the great business of his life. To this he dedicated the entire faculties of his mind, in the prime and vigor of his manhood. He approached the composition of "The Faerie Queene" with a seriousness of resolve not unlike that solemn mood of mind, in which Milton has told us that he himself meditated upon the plan of "Paradise Lost." He brought to his task a native vein of genius, enriched by a life of mingled study and observation, retirement and action; and the subject which he selected, by its very departure from the formal epic model, was peculiarly adapted to the fanciful and romantic character of his mind. Of the creative power, "the vision and the faculty divine," which is so paramount an ingredient in the composition of poetical genius, he had a large share. Borrowing freely from other poets, and drawing abundantly upon the copious stores of both classical and romantic literature, he is yet every where original, and never a servile imitator. Few poems, indeed, have a more undoubted claim to the character of original than "The Faerie Queene." It flows, warm and glowing, from the poet's heart. It is a creation, and not a manufacture. Its great and obvious merits are, luxuriance and splendor of description, and elaborate melody of versification. As a descriptive poet, Spenser has never been excelled. He was himself, evidently, a man of great delicacy of organization, and tremulously sensitive to all impressions of beauty, and endowed, too, with a painter's accuracy of eye and perception of forms. He is sufficiently minute to be picturesque, and yet leaves something for the imagination to do. There is no single term which characterizes his descriptions so exactly as vividness. His wealth of language enabled him to reproduce in poetry the fervid and glowing conceptions of his own mind. His portraits are full of breathing life, and the verdure and bloom of his landscapes call up before the reader's mind the dewy freshness of a morning in June. Upon his more elaborate pictures, as that of the Bower of Bliss, in the Second Book, he lavishes a careless prodigality of power, which shows his own confidence in the boundless extent of his in
tellectual resources. Such passages remind us of the splendors of tropical scenery, where the fertility of the soil manifests itself in the grandest and wildest forms of vegetable life, and where the massiveness of the forest foliage and the hues and odors of unnumbered flowers alike attest the profusion with which the wealth of nature has been poured out.
Spenser's extraordinary power of versification is felt by every one who has ever read even a page of "The Faerie Queene." The stanza which he first made use of, and which is called by his name, is capable of great expression, and may be readily adapted to every form of poetical composition; but it is also one of much difficulty, and not easily managed by an inferior artist. Its fulness and richness, its flowing melody, and the stately cadence with which it closes, commend it to the ear by the varied music of which it is susceptible, and to the mind by the breadth and expansion which can be given to the images and sentiments expressed by it. But it is apt to become languid and monotonous in its mechanical execution, and to dilute the thought or illustration to a wearisome extent, in order to make it reach through the whole nine lines. As Spenser was the first to make use of this stanza, he has also been by far the most successful; and of the many who have been led by his example to adopt it, no one has equalled, and few have approached him. One cannot but wonder at the power with which, to the end of so long a poem, he sustains this difficult form of versification, and pours forth stanza after stanza, without fatigue and apparently without effort. His wings never flag for a moment, and his verse flows with unbroken ease and sweetness to the last. His power of versification is most conspicuous in those level passages, which have no other object than to carry on the story, and where the higher faculties of the poet are not called into play. In these, the stanzas are so flowing and graceful, that we perceive little or no departure from the natural order of the words; no tacit recognitions of the difficulty of the task, appearing in the form of harsh inversions, labored transpositions, and clumsy parentheses. Lord Eldon is said to have amused himself with making the ballad of Chevy Chase the foundation of a bill in equity, and we have no doubt that Spenser could have versified the dullest and driest bill in equity that ever was drafted. The only trophies wrung from him by the difficulties
of his stanza are verbal ones. For the rhyme's sake, he occasionally misspells words, as retrate for retreat, heare for hair, &c.; or coins new ones, as wonderment, habitaunce, &c.; or introduces them from a foreign tongue, as viznomie, mesprise, &c. To this cause, also, many of his Latinisms are to be attributed. With these exceptions, his style is remarkable for its idiomatic purity; and no one can flatter himself that he has mastered the wealth of the English tongue, who has not devoted his days and nights to the poetry of Spenser.
The world has seen so many instances of poetical genius without moral feeling, that we derive peculiar pleasure from seeing them combined, as in Spenser. His poetry has that crowning merit, which flows from the purity and elevation of the moral nature. He was obviously a good man as well as a great poet; a tender husband, an affectionate father, faithful in friendship, of generous sentiments, free from envy and malignity, of a pure life and conversation, and sincerely religious. His mind was deeply imbued with religious principle, and glowed with devotional fervor. He had evidently been a profound student of the Scriptures; and no poet, except Milton, has drawn so largely from their sublime and beautiful imagery. His sensibility and the warmth of his affections are continually manifesting themselves in the most touching forms. His dignity of sentiment is among the most conspicuous of his literary excellences. His noble nature finds its most congenial employment in the contemplation of those qualities which most ennoble and exalt humanity; and no poet has left more inspiriting exhortations to the habitual practice of them. His extravagant admiration of warlike prowess, and the perpetual clash of arms which sounds through "The Faerie Queene," are caught from the spirit of the age in which he lived, which was illumined with the dying glories of chivalry, and in which so many of the most intellectual men, such as Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh, were successful soldiers. The same apology is to be offered for those few passages in which pictures are presented to us over which the decorum of modern times would draw a veil. In these, however, he offends merely against good taste and a refined sense of propriety, and never against good morals. He never panders to a base appetite, or presents an image for the obvious purpose of inflaming. Such passages differ from the
covert form in which licentiousness is insinuated in many modern poems, as the naked majesty of Diana differs from the voluptuous undress of Aspasia.
It gives me pleasure, in concluding these Observations upon "The Faerie Queene," to cite the favorable testimony of one of the most genial and discriminating critics of our time — Sir James Mackintosh - a man as remarkable for the strength as the delicacy of his understanding; whose judgment is entitled to peculiar weight from the fact that his temperament was not a highly poetical one, and that his professional pursuits and favorite studies were remote from the shadowy realms of imagination. In a diary kept by him on his voyage from India to England, he makes the following entry:-"I have finished The Faerie Queene.' I never parted from a long poem with so much regret. He is a poet of a most musical ear—of a tender heart—of a peculiarly soft, rich, fertile, and flowery fancy. His verse always flows with ease and nature, most abundantly and sweetly; his diffusion is not only pardonable but agreeable. Grandeur and energy are not his characteristic qualitics. He seems to me a most genuine poet, and to be justly placed after Shakspeare and Milton, and above all other English poets."