1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Hookham Frere

Ugo Foscolo, in "Narrative and Romantic Poems of the Italians" Quarterly Review 21 (April 1819) 498-503.



It will appear from our observations on the Animali Parlanti, that, according to the Italian classification, the satirical poem neither seeks to surprize us by varied incident, nor to move us by exalted sentiments. It is a poem in which the action and the personages are only subservient instruments employed to lead us to despise the opinions which we venerate, and to laugh at events in which we sympathise. Therefore the persons speak more than they act. On the contrary, it is the end and object of romantic poetry, that, through its medium, this rude world may appear more interesting than it actually is. The romantic poet seeks to astonish his readers by marvellous adventures, by human characters which range above mortality, by chivalrous exploits, by excessive tenderness and heroism, sometimes exaggerated even into absurdity. Poets of this class profit by any theme which presents itself: they are capable of bestowing animation upon any object, therefore they do not reject the ludicrous scenes which happen to fall in their way; but they never go a step out of it to search for them. Such are the poems on Charlemaine and his Peers by Pulci, Boiardo, Berni, and Ariosto. The "Prospectus and Specimen of the National Work by William and Robert Whistlecraft" has undoubtedly been suggested by these poems, and most particularly by the Morgante Maggiore, of which we shall speak anon; but there is one important difference between them. The English author has filled his poem with sprightly humour, whilst the Italian romantic poets only laugh now and then. In examining the four cantos which have been published of the "Specimen," we shall discover whether this alteration has succeeded.

The poem opens, like the Morgante Maggiore, and the Orlando Innamorato, with a scene of holytide festivity at the court of the king of chivalry.

The great King Arthur made a sumptuous feast,
And held his royal Christmas at Carlisle.

To those who do not understand Italian, the following stanzas will afford an accurate idea of the interest which Pulci's vivacity gives to the most trivial scenes, and of the easy grace which Berni contrives to bestow upon them.

The noise and uproar of the scullery tribe,
All pilfering and scrambling in their calling,
Was past all powers of language to describe—
The din of manful oaths and female squalling;
The sturdy porter, huddling up his bribe,
And then at random breaking heads and bawling,
Outcries, and cries of order, and contusions,
Made a contusion beyond all confusions.

Beggars and vagabonds, blind, lame, and sturdy,
Minstrels and singers with their various airs,
The pipe, the tabor, and the hurdy-gurdy,
Jugglers, and mountebanks with apes and bears,
Continued from the first day to the third day
An uproar like ten thousand Smithfield fairs;
There were wild beasts and foreign birds and creatures,
And Jews and foreigners with foreign features.

The portraits of the British knights and British beauties of the court of King Arthur are painted with the bold decided pencil of Ariosto.

They look'd a manly, generous generation
Beards, shoulders, eye-brows, broad and square, and thick,
Their accents firm and loud in conversation,
Their eyes and gestures eager, sharp, and quick,
Shew'd them prepar'd, on proper provocation,
To give the lie, pull noses, stab and kick;
And for that very reason it is said
They were so very courteous and well-bred.

The ladies look'd of an heroic race,—
At first a general likeness struck your eye,
Tall figures, open features, oval face,
Large eyes, with ample eyebrows arch'd and high;
Their manners had an odd peculiar grace,
Neither repulsive, affable, nor shy;
Majestical, reserv'd, and somewhat sullen,
Their dresses partly silk, and partly woollen.

Near Carlisle was a valley inhabited by a race of giants, from which they sallied forth for the purpose of carrying off the ladies. This adventure was the beginning of a furious war. The author traces the characters of his personages with consummate art.

Sir Tristram was prepared to sing and play,
Not like a minstrel earnest at his task,
But with a sportive, careless, easy style,
As if he seemed to mock himself the while.

From realm to realm he ran — and never staid;
Kingdoms and crowns he won — and gave away;
It seem'd as if his labours were repaid
By the mere noise and movement of the fray;
No conquests nor acquirements had he made;
His chief delight was on some festive day
To ride triumphant, prodigal and proud,
And shower his wealth amidst the shouting crowd.

His schemes of war were sudden, unforeseen,
Inexplicable both to friend and foe,
It seem'd as if some momentary spleen
Inspir'd the project and impell'd the blow;
And most his fortune and success were seen
With means the most inadequate and low;
Most master of himself, and least encumber'd,
When overmatch'd, entangled, and out-number'd.

Sir Gawain may he painted in a word,—
He was a perfect loyal cavalier;
His courteous manners stand upon record
A stranger to the very thought of fear,
The proverb says, As brave as his own sword;
And like his weapon was that worthy peer;
Of admirable temper, clear and bright,
Polish'd yet keen, though pliant, yet upright.

A word from him set every thing at rest,
His short decisions never fail'd to hit;
His silence, his reserve, his inattention,
Were felt as the severest reprehension.

In executing schemes that others plann'd,
He seem'd a very Caesar or a Marius;
Take his own plans, and place him in command,
Your prospect of success became precarious.

Adviser general to the whole community,
He serv'd his friend, but watch'd his opportunity.

Whenever the author composes in a serious strain, he becomes poetical in no ordinary degree. As a specimen of his success when he is in this mood, we shall quote his description of the valley of the giants.

Huge mountains of immeasurable height
Encompass'd all the level valley round
With mighty slabs of rock, that slop'd upright,
An insurmountable and enormous mound.
The very river vanish'd out of sight,
Absorb'd in secret channels under ground;
That vale was so sequester'd and secluded
All search for ages past it had eluded.

A rock was in the centre, like a cone,
Abruptly rising from a miry pool,
Where they beheld a pile of massy stone,
Which masons of the rude primaeval school
Had rear'd by help of giant hands alone,
With rocky fragments unreduc'd by rule.
Irregular, like nature more than art,
Huge, rugged, and compact in every part.

A wild tumultuous torrent rag'd around,
Of fragments tumbling from the mountain's height;
The whistling clouds of dust, the deaf'ning sound,
The hurried motion that amazed the sight,
The constant quaking of the solid ground,
Environ'd them with phantoms of affright;
Yet with heroic hearts they held right on,
Till the last point of their ascent was won.

Whoever compares this passage with any long prosaic description of mountain-scenery will be convinced that poetry is best calculated to represent the works of nature with effect, as well as with precision. The simplicity of style of some descriptive travellers passes almost into silliness; and the turgid eloquence of others wearies without impressing the imagination.

In the vicinity of the Giant's Valley was a convent of Benedictine monks, who had long enjoyed themselves in peace and quietness. However they nearly brought destruction upon themselves by starting an entire new ring of bells, by the noise of which the giants were mightily offended. This episode was partly suggested by Pulci; but the English author, availing himself of its capability, has developed it by the introduction of more humorous scenes, and more pertinent allusions. The war had scarcely begun, when the abbot died suddenly of a fit of the gout.

The convent was all going to the devil,
Whilst he, poor creature, thought himself belov'd
For saying handsome things and being civil
Wheeling about as he was pulled and shoved,
By way of leaving things to find their level.

At this crisis, one Brother John (who had hitherto lived almost unnoticed) becomes a man of consequence — he exhorts the monks to defend themselves against the giants, and he ends by taking the supreme command. All this however is to be considered as poetry, and not by any means as politics. The author does not deviate into reflexions or expositions — he presents us with a sample of the natural course of human affairs, and with characters faithfully copied from mankind; and lie leaves it to his readers to reflect, or to seek for the application. We presume that there are living poets who chuse to say that they have behaved like cowards on the field of battle, and who compare themselves to the lyric poets of antiquity. We cannot give any other interpretation of the following lines.

Poets are privileg'd to run away—
Alcaeus and Archilochus could fling
Their shields behind them in a doubtful fray;
And still sweet Horace may be heard to sing
His filthy fright upon Philippi's day.
(You can retire, too — for the Muse's wing
Is swift as Cupid's pinion when he flies,
Alarm'd at perriwigs and human eyes.)

This practice was approv'd in times of yore,
Though later bards behav'd like gentlemen;
And Garcilasso, Camoens, many more
Disclaim'd the privilege of book and pen;
And bold Aneurin, all bedripp'd with gore,
Bursting by force from the beleaguer'd glen,
Arrogant, haughty, fierce, of fiery mood,
Not meek and mean, as Gray misunderstood.

One allusion, indeed, is clear. The ancient bard concludes his lay: "At ego ipse bardus Aneurini sanguine rubens; aliter ad hanc cantilenam faciendam vivus non fuissem." Gray has given a kind of sentimental modesty to his bard, which is quite out of place.

And I the meanest of them all
Who live to sing and wish their fall.

The allusions, however, are sometimes so delicate, that it is not easy to seize them. We shall indicate a few lines which we think we have guessed.

The absurd employment of Latinisms and Gallicisms—

Dear people! if you think my verses clever,
Preserve with care your nobler parts of speech,
And don't confound the language of the nation
With long-tailed words in "asity" and "ation."

Violent personifications in poetry—

Meanwhile the solemn mountains were surrounded;
The silent valley, where the convent lay,
With tintinnabular uproar was astounded,
When the first peal burst forth at break of day.
Feeling their granite ears severely wounded,
They scarce knew what to think or what to say;
And (though large mountains commonly conceal
Their sentiments, dissembling what they feel,

Yet) Cader-Gibbrish from his cloudy throne
To huge Loblommon gave an intimation
Of this strange rumour, with an awful tone,
Thund'ring his deep surprise and indignation.
The lesser hills, in language of their own,
Discussed the topic by reverberation;
Discoursing with their echoes all day long,
Their only conversation was "ding-dong."

We fear that general readers are not sufficiently informed to be able to relish the poignant wit of these and similar passages. — Indeed, it is not very easy to understand the nature of the part which the poet is acting; nor do we always know how to take him. Sometimes he is really Mr. Whistlecraft, the harness and collar-maker; and in this character his digression upon Pericles and the Elgin marbles is a chef d'oeuvre of amenity. It is an exquisite transcript of the sensations and ideas of a working man, who, being well read in Plutarch "done into English," and the Sunday newspapers, talks learnedly about Athens and the fine arts. But then this workman quotes Aeschylus in the right place, corrects the false translation of Gray, and explains the fable of Orpheus by means of the fragments of a Greek elegy, scarcely known even to profound scholars. It is true, that

Squire Humphry Bamberham of Boozley Hall
(Whose name I mention with deserv'd respect)
On market-days was often pleased to call
And to suggest improvements, and correct.

But the facility with which the poet masters every variety of style, and the classical air which breathes in every line, "disclose the traces of learning and superior reading." His readers lose sight of the collar-man; and the more they perceive that he is a person of high intellect, and a finished scholar, the less are they willing to believe that he wrote without an object.