CHAPTER XI. SPENSER AND THE ELIZABETHAN AGE.
The Great Change. Edward VI. and Mary. Sidney. The Arcadia. Defence of
Poesy. Astrophel and Stella. Gabriel Harvey. Edmund Spenser—Shepherd's
Calendar. His Great Work.
THE GREAT CHANGE.
With what joy does the traveller in the desert, after a day of scorching glow and a night of breathless heat, descry the distant trees which mark the longed-for well-spring in the emerald oasis, which seems to beckon with its branching palms to the converging caravans, to come and slake their fever-thirst, and escape from the threatening sirocco!
The pilgrim arrives at the caravansery: not the long, low stone house, unfurnished and bare, which former experience had led him to expect; but a splendid palace. He dismounts; maidens purer and more beautiful than fabled houris, accompanied by slaves bearing rare dishes and goblets of crusted gold, offer him refreshments: perfumed baths, couches of down, soft and soothing music are about him in delicious combination. Surely he is dreaming; or if this be real, were not the burning sun and the sand of the desert, the panting camel and the dying horse of an hour ago but a dream?
Such is not an overwrought illustration of English literature in the long, barren reach from Chaucer to Spenser, as compared with the freshness, beauty, and grandeur of the geniuses which adorned Elizabeth's court, and tended to make her reign as illustrious in history as the age of Pericles, of Augustus, or of Louis XIV. Chief among these were Spenser and Shakspeare. As the latter has been truly characterized as not for an age, but for all time, the former may be more justly considered as the highest exponent and representative of that period. The Faerie Queene, considered only as a grand heroic poem, is unrivalled in its pictures of beautiful women, brave men, daring deeds, and Oriental splendor; but in its allegorical character, it is far more instructive, since it enumerates and illustrates the cardinal virtues which should make up the moral character of a gentleman: add to this, that it is teeming with history, and in its manifold completeness we have, if not an oasis in the desert, more truly the rich verge of the fertile country which bounds that desert, and which opens a more beautiful road to the literary traveller as he comes down the great highway: wearied and worn with the factions and barrenness of the fifteenth century, he fairly revels with delight in the fertility and variety of the Elizabethan age.
EDWARD AND MARY.—In pursuance of our plan, a few preliminary words will present the historic features of that age. In the year 1547, Henry VIII., the royal Bluebeard, sank, full of crimes and beset with deathbed horrors, into a dishonorable grave. A poor, weak youth, his son, Edward VI., seemed sent by special providence on a short mission of six years, to foster the reformed faith, and to give the land a brief rest after the disorders and crimes of his father's reign.
After Edward came Queen Mary, in 1553—the bloody Mary, who violently overturned the Protestant system, and avenged her mother against her father by restoring the Papal sway and making heresy the unpardonable sin. It may seem strange, in one breath to denounce Henry and to defend his daughter Mary; but severe justice, untempered with sympathy, has been meted out to her. We acknowledge all her recorded actions, but let it be remembered that she was the child of a basely repudiated mother, Catherine of Arragon, who, as the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was a Catholic of the Catholics. Mary had been declared illegitimate; she was laboring under an incurable disease, affecting her mind as well as her body; she was the wife of Philip II. of Spain, a monster of iniquity, whose sole virtue—if we may so speak—was his devotion to his Church. She inherited her bigotry from her mother, and strengthened it by her marriage; and she thought that in persecuting heretics she was doing God service, which would only be a perfect service when she should have burned out the bay-tree growth of heresy and restored the ancient faith.
Such were her character and condition as displayed to the English world; but we know, in addition, that she bore her sufferings with great fortitude; that, an unloved wife, she was a pattern of conjugal affection and fidelity; that she was a dupe in the hands of designing men and a fierce propaganda; and we may infer that, under different circumstances and with better guidance, the real elements of her character would have made her a good monarch and presented a far more pleasing historical portrait.
Justice demands that we should say thus much, for even with these qualifications, the picture of her reign is very dark and painful. After a sad and bloody rule of five years—a reign of worse than Roman proscription, or later French terrors—she died without leaving a child. There was but one voice as to her successor. Delirious shouts of joy were heard throughout the land: “God save Queen Elizabeth!” “No more burnings at Smithfield, nor beheadings on Tower green! No more of Spanish Philip and his pernicious bigots! Toleration, freedom, light!” The people of England were ready for a golden age, and the golden age had come.
ELIZABETH.—And who was Elizabeth? The daughter of the dishonored Anne Boleyn, who had been declared illegitimate, and set out of the succession; who had been kept in ward; often and long in peril of her life; destined, in all human foresight, to a life of sorrow, humiliation, and obscurity; her head had been long lying “'twixt axe and crown,” with more probability of the former than the latter.
Wonderful was the change. With her began a reign the like of which the world had never seen; a great and brilliant crisis in English history, in which the old order passed away and the new was inaugurated. It was like a new historic fulfilment of the prophecy of Virgil:
Magnus ... saeclorum nascitur ordo;
Jam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna.
Her accession and its consequences were like the scenes in some fairy tale. She was indeed a Faerie Queene, as she was designated in Spenser's magnificent allegory. Around her clustered a new chivalry, whose gentle deeds were wrought not only with the sword, but with the pen. Stout heart, stalwart arm, and soaring imagination, all wore her colors and were amply rewarded by her smiles; and whatever her personal faults—and they were many—as a monarch, she was not unworthy of their allegiance.
SIDNEY.—Before proceeding to a consideration of Spenser's great poem, it is necessary to mention two names intimately associated with him and with his fame, and of special interest in the literary catalogue of Queen Elizabeth's court, brilliant and numerous as that catalogue was.
Among the most striking characters of this period was Sir Philip Sidney, whose brief history is full of romance and attraction; not so much for what he did as for what he personally was, and gave promise of being. Whenever we seek for an historical illustration of the gentleman, the figure of Sidney rises in company with that of Bayard, and claims distinction. He was born at Pennshurst in Kent, on the 29th of November, 1554. He was the nephew of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the chief favorite of the queen. Precocious in grace, dignity, and learning, Sidney was educated both at Oxford and Cambridge, and in his earliest manhood he was a prud' homme, handsome, elegant, learned, and chivalrous; a statesman, a diplomatist, a soldier, and a poet; “not only of excellent wit, but extremely beautiful of face. Delicately chiselled Anglo-Norman features, smooth, fair cheek, a faint moustache, blue eyes, and a mass of amber-colored hair,” distinguished him among the handsome men of a court where handsome men were in great request.
He spent some time at the court of Charles IX. of France—which, however, he left suddenly, shocked and disgusted by the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve—and extended his travels into Germany. The queen held him in the highest esteem—although he was disliked by the Cecils, the constant rivals of the Dudleys; and when he was elected to the crown of Poland, the queen refused him permission to accept, because she would not lose “the brightest jewel of her crown—her Philip,” as she called him to distinguish him from her sister Mary's Philip, Philip II. of Spain. A few words will finish his personal story. He went, by the queen's permission, with his uncle Leicester to the Low Countries, then struggling, with Elizabeth's assistance, against Philip of Spain. There he was made governor of Flushing—the key to the navigation of the North Seas—with the rank of general of horse. In a skirmish near Zutphen (South Fen) he served as a volunteer; and, as he was going into action fully armed, seeing his old friend Sir William Pelham without cuishes upon his thighs, prompted by mistaken but chivalrous generosity, he took off his own, and had his thigh broken by a musket-ball. This was on the 2d of October, 1586, N.S. He lingered for twenty days, and then died at Arnheim, mourned by all. The story of his passing the untasted water to the wounded soldier, will never become trite: “This man's necessity is greater than mine,” was an immortal speech which men like to quote.
SIDNEY'S WORKS.—But it is as a literary character that we must consider Sidney; and it is worthy of special notice that his works could not have been produced in any other age. The principal one is theArcadia. The name, which was adopted from Sannazzaro, would indicate a pastoral—and this was eminently the age of English pastoral—but it is in reality not such. It presents indeed sylvan scenes, but they are in the life of a knight. It is written in prose, interspersed with short poems, and was inspired by and dedicated to his literary sister Mary, the Countess of Pembroke. It was called indeed the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. There are many scenes of great beauty and vigor; there is much which represents the manners, of the age, but few persons can now peruse it with pleasure, because of the peculiar affectations of style, and its overload of ornament. There grew naturally in the atmosphere of the court of a regnant queen, an affected, flattering, and inflated language, known to us as Euphuism. Of this John Lilly has been called the father, but we really only owe to him the name, which is taken from his two works, Euphues, Anatomy of Wit, and Euphues and his England. The speech of the Euphuist is hardly caricatured in Sir Walter Scott's delineation of Sir Piercie Shafton in “The Monastery.” The gallant men of that day affected this form of address to fair ladies, and fair ladies liked to be greeted in such language. Sidney's works have a relish of this diction, and are imbued with the spirit which produced it.
DEFENCE OF POESIE.—The second work to be mentioned is his “Defence of Poesie.” Amid the gayety and splendor of that reign, there was a sombre element. The Puritans took gloomy views of life: they accounted amusements, dress, and splendor as things of the world; and would even sweep away poetry as idle, and even wicked. Sir Philip came to its defence with the spirit of a courtier and a poet, and the work in which he upholds it is his best, far better in style and sense than his Arcadia. It is one of the curiosities of literature, in itself, and in its representation of such a social condition as could require a defence of poetry. His Astrophel and Stella is a collection of amatory poems, disclosing his passion for Lady Rich, the sister of the Earl of Essex. Although something must be allowed to the license of the age, in language at least, yet still the Astrophel and Stella cannot be commended for its morality. The sentiments are far from Platonic, and have been severely censured by the best critics. Among the young gallants of Euphuistic habitudes, Sidney was known as Astrophel; and Spenser wrote a poem mourning the death of Astrophel: Stella, of course, was the star of his worship.
GABRIEL HARVEY.—Among the friends of both Sidney and Spenser, was one who had the pleasure of making them acquainted—Gabriel Harvey. He was born, it is believed, in 1545, and lived until 1630. Much may be gathered of the literary character and tendencies of the age by a perusal of the “three proper and wittie familiar letters” which passed between Spenser and himself, and the “four letters and certain sonnets,” containing valuable notices of contemporary poets. He also prefixed a poem entitled Hobbinol, to the Faery Queene. But Harvey most deserves our notice because he was the champion of the hexameter verse in English, and imbued even Spenser with an enthusiasm for it.
Each language has its own poetic and rhythmic capacities. Actual experiment and public taste have declared their verdict against hexameter verse in English. The genius of the Northern languages refuses this old heroic measure, which the Latins borrowed from the Greeks, and all the scholarship and finish of Longfellow has not been able to establish it in English. Harvey was a pedant so thoroughly tinctured with classical learning, that he would trammel his own language by ancient rules, instead of letting it grow into the assertion of its own rules.
EDMUND SPENSER—THE SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR.—Having noticed these lesser lights of the age of Spenser, we return to a brief consideration of that poet, who, of all others, is the highest exponent and representative of literature in the age of Queen Elizabeth, and whose works are full of contemporary history.
Spenser was born in the year of the accession of Queen Mary, 1553, at London, and of what he calls “a house of ancient fame.” He was educated at Cambridge, where he early displayed poetic taste and power, and he went, after leaving college, to reside as a tutor in the North of England. A love affair with “a skittish female,” who jilted him, was the cause of his writing the Shepherd's Calendar; which he soon after took with him in manuscript to London, as the first fruits of a genius that promised far nobler things.
Harvey introduced him to Sidney, and a tender friendship sprang up between them: he spent much of his time with Sidney at Pennshurst, and dedicated to him the Shepherd's Calendar. He calls it “an olde name for a newe worke.” The plan of it is as follows: There are twelve parts, corresponding to twelve months: these he calls aeglogues, or goat-herde's songs, (not eclogues or [Greek: eklogai]—well-chosen words.) It is a rambling work in varied melody, interspersed and relieved by songs and lays.
HIS ARCHAISMS.—In view of its historical character, there are several points to be observed. It is of philological importance to notice that in the preliminary epistle, he explains and defends his use of archaisms—for the language of none of his poems is the current English of the day, but always that of a former period—saying that he uses old English words “restored as to their rightful heritage;” and it is also evident that he makes new ones, in accordance with just principles of philology. This fact is pointed out, lest the cursory reader should look for the current English of the age of Elizabeth in Spenser's poems.
How much, or rather how little he thought of the poets of the day, may be gathered from his saying that he “scorns and spews the rakebelly rout of ragged rymers.” It further displays the boldness of his English, that he is obliged to add “a Glosse or Scholion,” for the use of the reader.
Another historical point worthy of observation is his early adulation of Elizabeth, evincing at once his own courtiership and her popularity. In “February” (Story of the Oak and Briar) he speaks of “colours meete to clothe a mayden queene.” The whole of “April” is in her honor:
Of fair Eliza be your silver song,
That blessed wight,
The floure of virgins, may she flourish long,
In princely plight.
In “September” “he discourseth at large upon the loose living of Popish prelates,” an historical trait of the new but cautious reformation of the Marian Church, under Elizabeth. Whether a courtier like Spenser could expect the world to believe in the motto with which he concludes the epilogue, “Merce non mercede,” is doubtful, but the words are significant; and it is not to his discredit that he strove for both.
HIS GREATEST WORK.—We now approach The Faerie Queene, the greatest of Spenser's works, the most remarkable poem of that age, and one of the greatest landmarks in English literature and English history. It was not published in full until nearly all the great events of Elizabeth's reign had transpired, and it is replete with the history of nearly half a century in the most wonderful period of English history. To courtly readers of that day the history was only pleasantly illustrative—to the present age it is invaluable for itself: the poem illustrates the history.
He received, through the friendship of Sidney, the patronage of his uncle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester—a powerful nobleman, because, besides his family name, and the removal of the late attainder, which had been in itself a distinction, he was known to be the lover of the queen; for whatever may be thought of her conduct, we know that in recommending him as a husband to the widowed Queen of Scots, she said she would have married him herself had she designed to marry at all; or, it may be said, she would have married him had she dared, for that act would have ruined her.
Spenser was a loyal and enthusiastic subject, a poet, and a scholar. From these characteristics sprang the Faerie Queene. After submitting the first book to the criticism of his friend and his patron, he dedicated the work to “The most high, mighty, and magnificent empress, renowned for piety, virtue, and all gracious government, Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England, France, and Ireland, and of Virginia.”