XI. THE POETRY OF SPENSER
After a lapse of almost two centuries we reach the first English major poet since Chaucer. Edmund Spenser (1552-99) was born in London, and was related to the great family of his name. At Cambridge he not only wrote his earliest sonnets, but came under three profound influences. The first was his friendship with Gabriel Harvey, a powerful and controversial scholar, to whom justice has yet to be done. The second was teh refined and cultured "Puritanism", which, like that of Milton, was a revolt from coarseness and materialism in life and in religion. The third was the study of Platonic philosophy—not the Christianized neo-Platonism of the first Reformers, but the pure Platonism of the Timaeus and the Symposium. To the imagination of Spenser this proved exceedingly congenial, and confirmed him in his allegorical habit of conception and expression. His early Hymnes, the first in honour of Love, the second in honour of Beautie, though not published till 1596 (Foure Hymnes made by Edm. Spenser), were inspired by his first experience of love, and written in the spirit of Plato.
He was brought by Harvey into the service of the Earl of Leicester, and met Philip Sidney, whose ardent imagination and lofty spirit greatly stimulated him. After toying, under Harvey's influence, with the possibilities of using in English a system of quantitative prosody (that ignis fatuus of English poets) he began to consider the forms in which he could express himself most naturally, and he turned instinctively to the pastoral and the romance, with their stock figures, the shepherd and the knight. The pastoral, as we have seen, was a popular form, offering an abundance of models. The extent of Spenser's debt to any of these is not really important. All that matters in a poem is what it is, not what it may have come from. Upon the "XII Aeglogues proportioned to . . . the XII monethes" forming The Shepheards Calendar (1579) the impress of a creative, originating poetic genius is clearly discernible. The book was dedicated to Sidney, who praised it highly, but objected, rather pedantically, to one of its greatest charms, namely "the olde rusticke language". Sidney, a typical figure of the Renascence, disliked Spenser's archaism, not in itself, but because it was unwarranted by classical originals. This kind of criticism was to have a long run. A more serious objection would have been that the pastoral, as Spenser wrote it, was a literary exercise with little hold on life. Spenser uses all varieties of the form, amatory, moral, religious, courtly, rustic, lyric, elegiac, and shows himself at once master of an old convention and herald of a new spirit in poetry. His language was deliberately archaic. Ben Jonson said that Spenser, in affecting the obsolete, "writ no language". The answer is that Spenser used the language in which Spenser could write. Every true poet creates his own idiom. What The Shepheards Calendar clearly reveals is the arrival of a great poet-musician, who excelled all his predecessors in a sense of the capacity of the English language in which Spenser could write. Every true poet creates his own idiom. What The Shepheards Calendar clearly reveals is the arrival of a great poet-musician, who excelled all his predecessors in a sense of the capacity of the English language for harmonious combinations of sound. To turn from the flatness of [George Gascoygne's] The Steele Glas to The Shepheards Calendar is to pass fro honest and well-meant effort into a new world of absolute mastery.
From the pastoral Spenser proceeded naturally to romance. In 1580 he went to ireland as secretary to the Lord Deputy, and there at Kilcolman Castle he continued his Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were published in 1590 on his return to England. As, in any creative sense, the poem shows no progress, but is at the end what it was in the beginning, some consideration of it may be given at once. The poem, as planned in twelve books, was never completed. Spenser himself has clearly stated his own intentions in the prefatory letter addressed to Ralegh, and to this the reader is referred. Like other great poets he felt himself called to teach; and desiring to set forth a picture of a perfect knight, he chose King Arthur as hero, rather than any person of his own time. Further, he desired to glorify his own dear country and its "most royal Queen". In much of his intention he was successful, but he was not completely successful. Spenser failed because he refused to follow his natural instinct for allegory and romance, the forms that most readily released his creative powers—in The Allegory of Love (1936) C. S. Lewis traced their history from Le Roman de la Rose—but turned aside to be instructive, and, in seeking to make the allegory edifying, forgot to tell the story. But if an allegory does not survive as a stroy, it does not survive as an allegory. [John Bunyan's] The Pilgrim's Progress is, first of all, an excellent story; The Faerie Queene is not. Like every great poem, The Faerie Queene is entitled to its own imaginative life; but it must continue to be true to that life. Spenser, to use a common phrase, lets us down, when we are left wondering whether the false Duessa is a poetical character, or Theological Falsehood, or Mary Queen of Scots. He tried to do too many things at once; and, in elaborating intellectually the allegorical plot he has confused the imaginative substance of the poetic narrative. Homer, says Aristotle, tells lies as he ought; that is, he makes us believe his stories. Spenser tried to tell his lies while clinging to a disabling kind of truth; and so he does not convince his readers. Thus it is neither as an allegorist nor as a narrator that the author of The Faerie Queene holds his place. He lives as an exquisite word-painter of widely differing scenes, and as supreme poet-musician using with unrivalled skill a noble stanza of his invention, unparalleled in any other language [the Spenserian stanza].
As the years advanced, Spenser seems to have felt that his conception of chivalry had little correspondence with the facts of life. Sidney was dead, and his own hopes of preferment were frustratedd. In 1591 a volume of his collected poets was published with the significant title Complaints, including such works as Tthe Ruines of Time, The Teares of the Muses and Prosopopoia or Mother Hubbard's Tale, in which the Ape and the Fox serve to satirize the customs of the court. In 1591 he returned to his exile in Ireland, and there, in the form of an allegorical pastoral, called Colin Clout Come Home Againe (1595), he gave expression to his views about the general state of manners and poetry In his Prothalamion, and still more, in his Epithalamion, he carries the lyrical style, first attempted in The Shepheards Calendar, to an unequalled height of harmony, splendour and enthusiasm. In 1595, he again came over to England, bringing with him the second part of The Faerie Queene, which was licensed for publication in January 1595-6. Finding still no place at court, he returned to Ireland in 1597; but, in a rising, Kilcolman Castle was taken and burned, and ad Spenser barely escaped with his life. His spirit was broken, and after suffering the afflictions of poverty, he died in January 1599. His posthumous prose dialogue, A Veue of the Present State of Ireland, written in 1596, is discussed in a later chapter. Spenser is the poets' poet, and his greatness cannot be diminished by the jeers of the tough-minded who find his poetic music and his poetic virtue too delicate for their manly taste.
XII. THE ELIZABETHAN SONNET
The sonnet, which was the invention of thirteenth-century Italy, was slow in winning the favour of English poets. Neither the word nor the thing reached England until the sixteenth century, when, as we have seen, the first English sonnets were written, in imitation of the Italian, by Wyatt and Surrey. But these primary efforts set no fashion. The Elizabethan sequences came long after the gentle effusion of Tottel's poets, and were not influenced by them. But when the writing of sonnets began in earnest it soon became a fashionable literary habit and no poetic aspirant between 1590 and 1600 failed to try his skill in this form. The results are not inspiring. Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare alone achieved substantial success; and their sonnets, with some rare and isolated triumphs by Drayton, Daniel, Constable and others, are the sole enduring survivals. Tottel's Miscellany contained sixty sonnets, for the most part primitive copies of Petrarch; but though the name "sonnet" is commonly used for poems in the succeeding anthologies, the actual sonnet form is rare. Gascoigne's Certayne Notes of Instruction not only described the Elizabethan sonnet accurately, but noted the general misuse of the term. It was contemporary French rather than older Italian influence that moved the Elizabethan mind to sonnet-writing. The first inspiration came from Marot (1495-1544); though the sonnet was not naturalized in France until Ronsard (1525-85) and Du Bellay (1525-60), who, with five others, formed the constellation of poets called La Pléiade, deliberately resolved to adapt to the French language the finest fruit of foreign literature. Philippe Desportes (1546-1606), a less important poet, was specially admired and imitated by the Elizabethans.
Spenser is the true father of the Elizabethan sonnet. He first appeared as a poet with the twenty-six youthful sonnets of 1569. His indebtedness to Du Bellay is declared in the title of one group of sonnets. The Visions of Bellay, and of another, The Ruines of Rome by Bellay. Another set, The Visions of Petrarch, he translates from Marot. These and the other sonnets of Spenser in Amoretti (1595) have his characteristic sweetness of versification. Spenser, it should be noted, uses the English and not the Italian form of the sonnet. Two of the sonnets in the Amoretti refer to the Platonic "Idea" of beauty which outshines any mortal embodiment. The "Idea", found also in numerous French writers, became a theme of later English sonnets, especially those of Drayton, who borrowed his very title from a sonnet-sequence by a minor French poet, Claude de Pontoux. The first Elizabethan sonneteer to make a popular reputation, however, was not Spenser, but Thomas Watson (1557-92), who was hailed as the successor of Petrarch and the English Ronsard after the appearance in 1582 of The Hekatompathia or Passionate Centurie of Love. But nearly all the hundered "Passions" are in a pleasing metre of eighteen lines (three sixes. Watson uses the norman Elizabethan form in the sixty sonnets of The Teares of Fancie, or, Love Disdained (1593). Neither these nor the "Passions" have much poetic value.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), who follows Watson, is a prince among Elizabethan lyric writers and sonneteers, and, Shakespeare apart, is easily the best. The collection known as Astrophel and Stella was written between 1580-4 and though widely circulated in manuscript was not published till 1591 (piratically) and 1598 (regularly). With Sideny we come to the first real English "sonnet sequence", a collection of sonnets telling a story of love, like that of Petrarch for his Laura. The "hopeless love" of the sonnets must not be taken literally. Readers sometimes fail to distinguish between the truth of a poem and the truth of an affidavit, and are too often encouraged by critics who ought to know better. The sonnets of Shakespeare and of Sidney are as "true" as Hamlet or Arcadia; they are not required to have a different kind of truth. Sideny was indebted to foreign models, though he was much more original than his contemporaries. His sonnets are real contributions to English poetry. They have grace, ease and sincerity, and a genuine character reflecting the admirable spirit of the writer.
Of the numerous sonneteers who followed Sidney few need be mentioned. Shakespeare will be considered in his own place. Henry Constable's Diana (1592) and Thomas Lodge's Phillis (1593), all of which borrowed extensively from abroad, have each contributed something to the English anthologies. Michael Drayton's Ideas Mirrour, first printed in 1595 and steadily revised in several editions till 1619, gives us, in its final form, the one sonnet of its time worthy to be set by Shakespeare's, "Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part". Richard Barnfield's "If music and sweet poetry agree" deservedly survives. Barnabe Barnes, in Parthenophil and Parthenope (1593), is voluminous, but says little. Later, came two Scottish writers, Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling (1567-1640) who reaches a respectable level, and William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) whose "For the Baptist" is the one religious sonnet which has survived as a poem. With them may be mentioned Sideny's friend, that strange genius, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), whose Caelica sequence (not all sonnets) may be held to close the story. Sonneteering fell into disrepute and perished of its own insincerity. When Milton revived the true sonnet form it took a note which cannot be heard in any of the Elizabethan collections.