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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

The Gothic manners of chivalry


whatever, in his secret heart,

he might have thought.[1] To Johnson such an opinion must have seemed flat blasphemy. Hurd accounts for the contempt into which the Gothic had fallen on the ground that the feudal ages had never had the good fortune to possess a great poet, like Homer, capable of giving adequate artistic expression to their life and ideals. _Carent vate sacro_. Spenser and Tasso, he thinks, "came too late, and it was impossible for them to paint truly and perfectly what was no longer seen or believed. . . As it is, we may take a guess of what the subject was capable of affording to real genius from the rude sketches we have of it in the old romancers. . . The ablest writers of Greece ennobled the system of heroic manners, while it was fresh and flourishing; and their works being masterpieces of composition, so fixed the credit of it in the opinion of the world, that no revolution of time and taste could afterward shake it. Whereas the Gothic, having been disgraced in their infancy by bad writers, and a new set of manners springing up before there were any better to do them justice, they could never be brought into vogue by the attempts of later poets." Moreover, "the Gothic manners of chivalry, as springing out of the feudal system, were as singular as that system itself; so that when that political constitution vanished out of Europe, the manners that belonged to it were no longer seen or understood. There was no example of any such manners remaining on the face of the earth. And as
they never did subsist but once, and are never likely to subsist again, people would be led of course to think and speak of them as romantic and unnatural."

Even so, he thinks that the Renaissance poets, Ariosto and Spenser, owe their finest effects not to their tinge of classical culture but to their romantic materials. Shakspere "is greater when he uses Gothic manners and machinery, than when he employs classical." Tasso, to be sure, tried to trim between the two, by giving an epic form to his romantic subject-matter, but Hurd pronounces his imitations of the ancients "faint and cold and almost insipid, when compared with his original fictions. . . If it was not for these _lies_ [_magnanima mensogna_] of Gothic invention, I should scarcely be disposed to give the 'Gierusalemme Liberata' a second reading." Nay, Milton himself, though finally choosing the classic model, did so only after long hesitation. "His favorite subject was Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. On this he had fixed for the greater part of his life. What led him to change his mind was partly, as I suppose, his growing fanaticism; partly his ambition to take a different route from Spenser; but chiefly, perhaps, the discredit into which the stories of chivalry had now fallen by the immortal satire of Cervantes. Yet we see through all his poetry, where his enthusiasm flames out most, a certain predilection for the legends of chivalry before the fables of Greece." Hurd says that, if the "Faerie Queene" be regarded as a Gothic poem, it will be seen to have unity of design, a merit which even the Wartons had denied it. "When an architect examines a Gothic structure by the Grecian rules he finds nothing but deformity. But the Gothic architecture has its own rules by which; when it comes to be examined, it is seen to have its merit, as well as the Grecian."

The essayist complains that the Gothic fables fell into contempt through the influence of French critics who ridiculed and disparaged the Italian romancers, Ariosto and Tasso. The English critics of the Restoration--Davenant, Hobbes, Shaftesbury--took their cue from the French, till these pseudo-classical principles "grew into a sort of a cant, with which Rymer and the rest of that school filled their flimsy essays and rumbling prefaces. . . The exact but cold Boileau happened to say something about the _clinquant_ of Tasso," and "Mr. Addison,[2] who gave the law in taste here, took it up and sent it about," so that "it became a sort of watchword among the critics." "What we have gotten," concludes the final letter of the series, "by this revolution, 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 highest among the poets; I mean with all those who are earlier come of that house, or have any kindness for it."


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