ePub 版

the face of great odds naturally aroused a vigorous and dauntless spirit. The Englishman of that day became aggressive, persisted in the face of obstacles, drew back before no dangers, despaired of no success. With the growing prominence of his country, his views became comprehensive and penetrating. He was forced to think with a large horizon. Called upon to deal with large interests, his intellect expanded and his character became weighty; engaged in conducting large enterprises, he developed large executive powers.


Life became intense and rich in all its relations. interest, whether social, political, commercial, or religious, escaped attention. The energies of the English people were strung to the highest pitch, and wrought the best results of which the English mind is capable. To say nothing of minor writers, Hooker's "Ecclesiastical Polity" is a master-piece in the field of theology. Spenser's "Faery Queene," with its unexampled richness of imagination, is a fountain from which the poets of succeeding generations have drawn inspiration. And Shakespeare, with his many-sided and inexhaustible intellect, stands easily at the head of the world's great dramatists. With its great achievements, we may well call this the first creative period in our literature.



[ocr errors]

FOR more than one hundred and fifty years no poet worthy to bear the mantle of Chaucer had appeared in England. But mighty movements had been going on in Europe - the revival of letters, great inventions and discoveries, and the widespread religious movement known as the Reformation. It was an age of great thoughts and aspirations, and of marvellous achievement. The time had at length come, under the prosperous and illustrious reign of Elizabeth, for English greatness to mirror itself in literature. A group of great writers arose. To Edmund Spenser belongs the honor of having been the first genius to reflect the greatness of his age and country in an imperishable poem, and to add new lustre to a splendid period in English history.

As with Chaucer, we have to lament the meagreness of detail connected with the life of Spenser. The year 1552, which is determined by an incidental and not wholly conclusive reference in one of his sonnets, is commonly accepted as the year of his birth. The place of his birth, not otherwise known, is likewise determined by a passage in his "Prothalamion," a poem written near the close of his life :

"At length they all to merry London came,
To merry London, my most kindly nurse,
That to me gave this life's first native source,
Though from another place I take my name,
An house of ancient fame."

Nothing is known of his parents; but, as he was a charity student, it is to be inferred that they were in humble circumHe received his preparatory training at the Merchant


Taylor School, and at the age of seventeen entered Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where he earned his board by acting as sizar or waiter. He took the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1572, and that of Master of Arts four years later. The particulars of his life at Cambridge are, for the most part, matters of mere conjecture. We may safely infer from his broad scholarship that he was a diligent student. His writings show an intimate acquaintance, not only with classical antiquity, but also with the great writers - Chaucer, Dante, Tasso, Ariosto, Marot of the dawning modern era.

A friendship with Gabriel Harvey, a fellow of Pembroke Hall, and an enthusiastic writer and educator, was not without influence upon his poetical career. Harvey encouraged Spenser in his early literary efforts; but it is fortunate that his advice failed to turn the poet's genius to the drama. After leaving the university, Spenser spent a year or two in the north of England (it is impossible to be more definite), where he wrote his first important work, "The Shepherd's Calendar." It was inspired by a deep but unfortunate affection for a country lass, who appears in the poem under the anagrammatic name of Rosalinde. Her identity, a puzzle to critics, remained for a long time undetermined; but an American writer, with great ingenuity, has shown almost beyond question that the young lady was Rose Daniel, sister to the poet of that name.1

The poem consists of twelve eclogues, named after the months of the year. It contains a variety of measures, all of which are distinguished for their harmony. Nothing so admirable in metre and phrase had appeared since Chaucer. Many archaic words were introduced under the impression, as we are told in a prefatory epistle addressed to Harvey, "that they bring great grace, and, as one would say, authority to the verse." Though less finished than some subsequent poems, "The Shepherd's Calendar" showed a master's touch, and announced the presence of a great poet in England.

1 See Atlantic Monthly, November, 1858.

Upon the advice of Harvey, Spenser went to London. He met Sir Philip Sidney, by whom he was introduced at court, and put in the way of preferment. He fell in readily with court life, wore a pointed beard and fashionable moustache, and acquired a light tone in speaking of women—a levity that soon gave place to a truly chivalrous regard. In 1580 he was appointed secretary to Lord Grey, deputy to Ireland, and accompanied that official through the bloody scenes connected with the suppression of Desmond's rebellion. The duties assigned him were ably performed; and, in recognition of his services, he received in 1586, as a grant, Kilcolman Castle and three thousand acres of land in the county of Cork. Here he afterwards made his home, occasionally visiting London to seek preferment or to publish some new work. Though his home. was not without the attraction of beautiful surroundings, he looked upon his life there as a sort of banishment. In one of

his poems

he speaks of

"My luckless lot,

That banisht had myself, like wight forlore,
Into that waste, where I was quite forgot."

But however disagreeable to the feelings of Spenser, who continued to feel a longing for the "sweet civilities" of London, it can hardly be doubted that his experience in Ireland was favorable to the development of his poetic gifts, and found a favorable reflection in his greatest poem. It gave a vivid realism to his descriptions that in all probability would otherwise have been wanting.

In 1589 he was visited by Sir Walter Raleigh, to whom he read the first three books of the "Faery Queene." Seated in the midst of an attractive landscape, the poet and the hero make a pleasing picture as they discuss the merits of a work that is to begin a new era in English literature. Raleigh was so delighted with the poem that he urged the author to take it to London advice that was eagerly followed. The poet was granted an

[ocr errors]

audience by Elizabeth, and favored with the patronage of several noble ladies; but further than a pension of fifty pounds, which does not appear to have been regularly paid, he received no substantial recognition.

This result was a disappointment to Spenser, who had hoped that his literary fame would lead to higher political preferment. In "Colin Clout's Come Home Again," a poem in which the incidents of this visit are embodied, he speaks of the court in a tone of disappointment and bitterness. In a prefatory letter addressed to Raleigh, who figures in the poem under the title of "Shepherd of the Ocean," Spenser says that the work agrees "with the truth in circumstance and matter;" and from this declaration it may be inferred that his portrayal of court-life was drawn, not from imagination, but from experience.

For, sooth to say, it is no sort of life

For shepherd fit to lead in that same place,

Where each one seeks with malice, and with strife,

To thrust down other in foul disgrace,

Himself to raise: and he doth soonest rise

That best can handle his deceitful wit

In subtle shifts.

To which him needs a guileful, hollow heart
Masked with fair dissembling courtesy,
A filed tongue furnisht with terms of art,
No art of school, but courtiers' schoolery.
For arts of school have there small countenance,
Counted but toys to busy idle brains,

And there professors find small maintenance,
But to be instruments of others' gains,

Nor is there place for any gentle wit

Unless to please it can itself apply."

In "Mother Hubbard's Tale," which exhibits Spenser's genius in satire, and is the most interesting of his minor pieces, he has spoken of the court in some vigorous lines. This poem was published in 1591; and though composed, as the author

« 上一頁繼續 »