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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Neither Spenser nor Pope satisfies long


English

poetry has oscillated between the poles of Spenser and Pope. The poets who have been accepted by the race as most truly national, poets like Shakspere, Milton, and Byron, have stood midway. Neither Spenser nor Pope satisfies long. We weary, in time, of the absence of passion and intensity in Spenser, his lack of dramatic power, the want of actuality in his picture of life, the want of brief energy and nerve in his style; just as we weary of Pope's inadequate sense of beauty. But at a time when English poetry had abandoned its true function--the refreshment and elevation of the soul through the imagination--Spenser's poetry, the poetry of ideal beauty, formed the most natural corrective. Whatever its deficiencies, it was not, at any rate, "conceived and composed in his wits."

Spenser had not fared so well as Shakspere under the change which came over public taste after the Restoration. The age of Elizabeth had no literary reviews or book notices, and its critical remains are of the scantiest. But the complimentary verses by many hands published with the "Faerie Queene" and the numerous references to Spenser in the whole poetic literature of the time, leave no doubt as to the fact that his contemporaries accorded him the foremost place among English poets. The tradition of his supremacy lasted certainly to the middle of the seventeenth century, if not beyond. His influence is visible not only in the work of professed disciples like Giles

and Phineas Fletcher, the pastoral poet William Browne, and Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, but in the verse of Jonson, Fletcher, Milton, and many others. Milton confessed to Dryden that Spenser was his "poetical father." Dryden himself and Cowley, whose practice is so remote from Spenser's, acknowledged their debt to him. The passage from Cowley's essay "On Myself" is familiar: "I remember when I began to read, and to take some pleasure in it, there was wont to lie in my mother's parlour (I know not by what accident, for she herself never read any book but of devotion--but there was wont to lie) Spenser's works. This I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of the knights and giants and monsters and brave houses which I found everywhere there (thought my understanding had little to do with all this), and, by degrees, with the tinkling of the rime and dance of the numbers; so that I think I had read him all over before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet as irremediably as a child is made an eunuch." It is a commonplace that Spenser has made more poets than any other one writer. Even Pope, whose empire he came back from Fairyland to overthrow, assured Spence that he had read the "Faerie Queene" with delight when he was a boy, and re-read it with equal pleasure in his last years. Indeed, it is too readily assumed that writers are insensible to the beauties of an opposite school. Pope was quite incapable of appreciating it. He took a great liking to Allan Ramsay's "Gentle Shepherd"; he admired "The Seasons," and did Thomson the honor to insert a few lines of his own in "Summer." Among his youthful parodies of old English poets is one piece entitled "The Alley," a not over clever burlesque of the famous description of the Bower of Bliss.[18]


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