Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

particular ornaments ; yet it is but justice to say, that his plan is much more regular than that of Ariosto. In the Orlando Furioso we every where meet with an exuberant invention, joined with great liveliness and facility of description, yet debased by frequent mixtures of the comick genius, as well as many shocking indecorums. Besides, in the huddle and distraction of the adventures, we are for the most part only amused with extravagant stories, without being instructed in any moral. On the other hand, Spenser's Fable, though often wild, is, as I have observed, always emblematical; and this may very much excuse likewise that air of romance in which be has followed the Italian author. The perpetual stories of knights, giants, castles, and enchantments, and all that train of legendary adventures, would indeed appear very trifling, if Spenser had not found a way to turn them all into Allegory, or if a less masterly hand had filled up his draught; but it is surprising to observe how much the strength of the painting is superior to the design. It ought to be considered, too, that, at the time when our Author wrote, the remains of the old Gothick chivalry were not quite abolished : it was not many years before that the famous Earl of Surry, remarkable for his wit and poetry in the reign of King Henry VIII., took a romantick journey to Florence, the place of his mistress's birth, and published there a challenge against all

paments

was

nations in defence of her beauty. Justs and tour

were held in England in the time of Queen Elizabeth." Sir Philip Sidney tilted at one of these entertainments, which was made by the French Ambassador, when the treaty of marriage

on foot with the Duke of Anjou : and some of our historians have given us a very particular and formal account of preparations, by marking out lists, and appointing judges, for a trial by combat, in the same reign, which was to have decided the title to a considerable estate, and in which the whole ceremony was perfectly agreeable to the fabulous descriptions in books of Knight-errantry. This might render his story more familiar to his first readers ; though knights in armour, and ladies-errant, are as antiquated figures to us, as the court of that time would appear, if we could see them now in their ruffs and fardingales.

There are two other objections to the plan of the Faerie Qucene which, I confess, I am more at a loss to answer. I need not, I think, be scrupulous in mentioning freely the defects of a Poem which, though it was never supposed to be perfect, has always been allowed to be admirable.

The first is, that the scene is laid in Fairy Land, and the chief actors are Fairies. The reader may see their imaginary race and history in Book II. at the end of Canto X. ; but, if he

[ocr errors]

is not prepared beforehand, he may expect to find them acting agreeably to the common stories and traditions about such fancied beings. Thus Shakspeare, who has introduced them in his Midsummer-Night's Dream, has made them speak and act in a manner perfectly adapted to Kheir supposed characters: but the Fairies in this Poem are not distinguished from other persons. There is this misfortune, likewise, attends the choice of such actors, that, having been accustomed to conceive of them in a diminutive way, we find it difficult to raise our ideas, and to imagine a Fairy encountering with a monster or a giant. Homer has pursued a contrary method, and represented his heroes above the size and strength of ordinary men ; and it is certain that the actions of the Iliad would have appeared but ill proportioned to the characters, if we were to have imagined them all performed by pigmies.

But, as the actors our Author has chosen are only fancied beings, he might possibly think himself at liberty to give them what stature, customs, and manners, he pleased. I will not say he was in the right in this : but it is plain that by the literal sense of Fairy Land he only designed an Utopia, an imaginary place; and by his Fairies, persons of whom he might invent any action proper to humankind, without being restrained, as he must have been if he

had chosen a real scene and historical characters. As for the mystical sense, it appears both by the Work itself, and by the Author's explanation of it*, that his Fairy Land is England, and his Fairy Queen queen Elizabeth, at whose command the adventure of every Legend is supposed to be undertaken.

The other objection is, that, having chosen an historical person, Prince Arthur, for his principal hero, who is no Fairy, yet is mingled with them, he has not, however, represented any part of his history: he appears here, indeed, only in his minority, and performs his exercises in Fairy Land as a private gentleman; but we might at least have expected that the fabulous accounts of him, and his victories over the Saxons, should have been worked into some beautiful vision or prophecy; and I cannot think Spenser would wholly omit this, but am apt to believe he had done it in some of the following Books which were lost.

In the morat introductions to every Book, many of which have' a great propriety and elegance, the Author has followed the example of Ariosto. I will only beg leave to point out some of the principal beauties in each Book, which may 'yet more particularly discover the genius of the Author. If we consider the First Book as an entire

Vide Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh.

work of itself, we shall find it to be no irregular contrivance : there is one principal action, which is completed in® Canto XII.; and the several incidents or episodes are proper, as they tend either to obstruct or promote it. The same may be said of some other of the following Books, though I think they are not so regular as this.

The Author has shown judgment in making his Knight of the Red Cross, or St. George, no perfect character, without which many of the incidents could not have been represented. The character of Una, or Truth, is very properly opposed by those of Duessa, or Falsehood, and Archimago, or Fraud. Spenser's particular manner, whieh (if it may be allowed) I would call his painter-like genius, immediately shows itself in the figure of Errour, who is drawn as a monster, and that of Hypocrisy as 3 hermit. The description of the former of these, in the mixed shape of a woman and a serpent, surrounded with her offspring, and especially that circumstance of their creeping into her mouth on the sudden light which glanced upon them from the Knight's armour, incline one to think that our great Milton had it in his eye when he wrote his famous episode of Sin and Death. The artifices of Archimago and Duessa, to separate the ght from Una, are well invented, and intermingled with beautiful strokes

« EelmineJätka »