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tion of a few lettered and curious men: while the many are sworn together to give no quarter to the marvellous, or, which may seem still harder, to the moral of his song.
However, this great revolution in modern taste was brought about by degrees ;, and the steps, that led to it, may be worth the tracing.
The wonders of Chivalry were still in the memory of men; were still existing, in some measure, in real life, when Chaucer undertook to expose the barbarous relaters of them. This ridicule, we may suppose,
hastened the fall both of Chivalry and Romance. At least from that time the spirit of both declined very fast, and at length fell into such discredit, that when now Spenser arose, and d with a genius sin: gularly fitted to immortalize the Land of Faery, he met with every difficulty and disadvantage to obstruct his design. The age would no longer bear the naked letter of these amusing stories ; and the poet was so sensible of the misfortune, that we find him apologizing for it on a hundred occasions.
But apologies, in such circumstances, rarely do any good. Perhaps they only served to betray the weakness of the poet's cause, and to confirm the prejudices of his reader.
However, he did more than this. an air of mystery to his subject, and pretended
that his stories of knights and giants were but the cover to abundance of profound wisdom.
In short, to keep off the eyes of the prophane from prying too nearly into his subject, be threw about it the mist of allegory: he moralized his song: and the virtues and vices lay hid under his warriours and enchanters. A contrivance which he had learned indeed from his Italian masters : for Tasso had condescended to allegorize his own work; and the commentators of Ariosto had even converted the extravagances of the Orlando Furioso, into moral lessons.
And this, it must be owned, was a sober attempt in comparison of some projects that were made about the same time to serve the cause of the old and now expiring Romances. For it is to be observed, that the idolizers of these romances did by them, what the votaries of Homer had done by him. As the times improved and would less bear his strange tales, they moralized what they could, and turned the rest into mysteries of natural science. Ard as this last contrivance was principally designed to cover the monstrous stories of the Pagan Gods, so it served the lovers of Romance to palliate the no less monstrous stories of magick and enchantmenls.
The editor, or translator of the 24th book of Amadis de Gaulc, printed at Lyons in 1577, has a preface explaining the whole secret, which concludes with these words, Voyla, Lecteur, le
fruit, qui se peut recueiller du sens mystique des Romans antiques par les esprits esleus, le commun peuple soy contentant de simple fleur de la lectare literale.'
But to return to Spenser; who, as we have seen, had no better way to take in his distress, than to hide his faery fancies under the mystick cover of moral allegory. The only favourable circumstance that attended him (and this no doubtencouraged, if it did not produce, his untimely project,) was, that he was somewhat befriended in these fictions, even when interpreted according to the Letter, by the romantick Spirit of his age; much countenanced, and for a time brought into fresh credit, by the romantick Elizabeth. Her inclination for the fancies of Chivalry is well known; and obsequious wits and courtiers would not be wanting to feed and flatter it. In short, tilts and tournaments were in vogue: The ARCADJA, and The FAERIE Queene, were written.
With these helps the new Spirit of Chivalry made a shift to support itself for a time, when reason was but dawning, as we may say, and just about to gain th: ascendant over the portentous spectres of the imagination. Its growing splendour, in the end, put them all to flight, and allowed them no quarter even amongst the poets. So that Milton, as fond as we have seen he was of the Gothick fictions, durst only admit them on the bye, and in the way of simile and illustration only.
And this, no doubt, was the main reasop of his relinquishing his long-projected design of Prince Arthur, at last, for that of the Paradise Lost; where, instead of Giants and Magicians, he had Angels and Devils to supply him with the marvellous, with greater probability. Yet, though he dropped the tales, he still kept to the allegories of Spenser. And even this liberty thought too much, as appears from the censure passed on his Sin and Death by the severer criticks.
Thus at length the magick of the old romances was perfectly dissolved. They began with reflecting an image indeed of the feudal manners, but an image magnified and distorted by unskilful designers. Common sense being offended with these perversions of truth and nature, (still accounted the more monstrous, as the ancient manners, they pretended to copy after, were now disused, and of most men forgotten,) the next step was to have recourse to allegories. Under this disguise they walked the world a while; the excellence of the moral and the ingenuity of the contrivance making some amends, and being accepied as a sort of apology, for the absurdity of the literal story.
Under this form the Tales of Faery kept their ground, and even made their fortune at court ; where they became, for two or three reigns, the ordinary entertainment of our princes. But reason, in the end, (assisted however by party, and
religious prejudices,) drove them off the scene, and would endure these lying wonders, neither in their own proper shape, nor as masked in figures.
Henceforth, the taste of wit and poetry took a new turn: and Fancy, that had wantoned it so long in the world of fiction, was now constrained, against her will, to ally herself with strict Truth, if she would gain admittance into reason.
What we have gotten by this revolution it will be said, is a great deal of good sense. What we have lost, is a world of fine fabling; the illusion of which is so grateful to the charmed spirit; that, in spite of philosophy and fashion, Faery Spenser. still ranks higbest among the Poets; I mean with all those who are either come of that house, or have any kindness for it. Earth-born criticks may blaspheme:
• But all the gods are ravish'd with delight • Of his celestial song, and musick's wondrous might.