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THE glory of the new literature broke on England with Edmund Spenser. We know little of his life; he was born in 1552, in East London, the son of poor parents, but linked in blood with the Spencers of Althorpe, even then-as he proudly says—“a house of ancient fame.” He studied as a sizari at Cambridge, and quitted the University while still a boy to live as a tutor in the north ; but after some years of obscure poverty, the scorn of a fair “Rosalind” drove him again southwards.
A college friendship with Gabriel Harvey served to introduce him to Lord Leicester, who sent him as his envoy into France, and in whose service he first became acquainted with Leicester's nephew, Sir Philip Sidney. From Sidney's house at Penshurst came in 1579 his earliest work, the “Shepherd's Calendar”; in form, like Sidney's own “Arcadia,” a pastoral 2 where love and loyalty and Puritanism jostled oddly with the fancied shepherd life. The peculiar melody and profuse imagination which the pastoral disclosed at once placed its author in the forefront of living poets, but a far greater work was already in hand; and from some words of Gabriel Harvey's, we see Spenser bent on rivalling Ariosto, and even hoping "to overgo” the “Orlando Furioso" in his "Elvish Queen." The ill-will or the indifference of Burleigh how
* From The History of the English People, by kind permission of the Author, and of Messrs. Macmillan & Co.
ever blasted the expectations he had drawn from the patronage of Sidney or Leicester, and from the favour with which he had been welcomed by the Queen. Sidney, in disgrace with Elizabeth through his opposition to the marriage with Anjou, withdrew to Wilton to write the “Arcadia" by his sister's side; and "discontent of my long fruitless stay in Princes' Courts,” the poet tells us, “and expectation vain of idle hopes," drove Spenser into exile. In 1580 he followed Lord Grey as his secretary into Ireland and remained there on the Deputy's recall in the enjoyment of an office and a grant of land from the forfeited estates of the Earl of Desmond. Spenser had thus enrolled himself among the colonists to whom England was looking at the time for the regeneration of Munster, and the practical interest he took in the "barren soil where cold and want and poverty do grow” was shown by the later publication of a prose tractate on the condition and government of the island. It was at Dublin or in his Castle of Kilcolman, two miles from Doneraile, “under the foot of Mole, that mountain hoar," that he spent the ten years in which Sidney died and Mary fell on the scaffold and the Armada came and went ; and it was in the latter home that Walter Raleigh found him sitting “alwaies idle,” as it seemed to his restless friend," among the cooly shades of the green alders by the Mulla's shore” in a visit made memorable by the poet of “Colin Clout's come home again." 4
But in the "idlesse" and solitude of the poet's exile the great work begun in the two pleasant years of his stay at Penshurst had at last taken form, and it was to publish the first three books of the “Faerie Queen” that Spenser returned in Raleigh's company to London.
The appearance of the “Faerie Queen," in 1590 is the one critical event in the annals of English poetry; it settled in fact the question whether there was to be such a thing as English poetry or no. The older national verse which had blossomed and died in Caedmon, sprang suddenly into a grander life in Chaucer, but it closed again in a yet more complete death. Across the border indeed the Scotch poets of the fifteenth century preserved something of their master's vivacity and colour, and in England itself the Italian poetry of the Renascence 7 had of late found echoes in Surrey and Sidney. The new English drama too was beginning to display its wonderful powers, and the work of Marlowe had already prepared the way for the work of Shakespeare. But bright as was the promise of coming song, no great imaginative poem had broken the silence of English literature for nearly two hundred years when Spenser landed at Bristol with the “Faerie Queen.” From that moment the stream of English poetry has flowed on without a break. There have been times, as in the years which immediately followed, when England has “become a nest of singing birds ;” there have been times when song as scant and poor; but there never has been a time when England was wholly without a singer.
The new English verse has been true to the source from which it sprang, and Spenser has always been the “poet's poet." But in his own day he was the poet of England at large. The “Faerie Queene was received with a burst of general welcome. It became “the delight of every accomplished gentleman, the model of every poet, the solace of every soldier." The poem expressed indeed the very life of the time.
It was with a true poetic instinct that Spenser fell back for the framework of his story on the fairy world of Celtic romance, whose wonder and mystery had in fact become the truest picture of the wonder and mystery of the world around him. In the age of Cortes and of Raleigh dreamland had ceased to be dreamland, and no marvel or adventure that befel lady or knight was stranger than the tales which weather-beaten mariners from the Southern Seas were telling every day to grave merchants upon 'Change. The very incongruities of the story of Arthur and his knighthood, strangely as it had been built up out of the rival efforts of bard and jongleur and priest, made it the fittest vehicle for the expression of the world of incongruous feeling which we call the Renascence. To modern eyes, perhaps, there is something grotesque in the strange medley of figures that crowd the canvas of the “Faerie Queene," in its fauns dancing on the sward where knights have hurtled together; in its alternation of the salvage-men 8 from the New World with the satyrs of classic mythology, in the giants, dwarfs, and monsters of popular fancy who
jostle with the nymphs of Greek legend and the damosels of Mediæval romance.
But, strange as the medley is, it reflects truly enough the stranger medley of warring ideals and irreconcileable impulses which made up the life of Spenser's contemporaries.
not in the “Faerie Queene” only, but in the world which it pourtrayed, that the religious mysticism of the Middle Ages stood face to face with the intellectual freedom of the Revival of Letters, that asceticism and self-denial cast their spell on imaginations glowing with the sense of varied and inexhaustible existence, that the dreamy and poetic refinement of feeling which expressed itself in the fanciful unrealities of chivalry co-existed with the rough practical energy that sprang from an awakening 'sense of human power, or the lawless extravagance of an idealized friendship and love lived side by side with the moral sternness and elevation which England was drawing from the Reformation and the Bible.
But strangely contrasted as are the elements of the poem, they are harmonised by the calmness and serenity which is the note of the “Faerie Queene.” The world of the Renascence is around us, but it is ordered, refined, and calmed by the poet's touch. The warmest scenes which he borrows from the Italian verse of his day are idealized into purity; the very struggle of the men around him is lifted out of its pettier accidents, and raised into a spiritual oneness with the struggle in the soul itself. There are allusions in plenty to conten