1837 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Phineas Fletcher

Henry Hallam, in Introduction to the Literature of Europe of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries (1837-39; 1882) 3:244.



Whatever were the misfortunes of Spenser's life, whatever neglect he might have experienced at the hands of a statesman grown old in cares which render a Man insensible to song, his spirit might be consoled by the prodigious reputation of the Faery Queen. He was placed at once by his country above all the great Italian names, and next to Virgil among the ancients: it was a natural consequence that some should imitate what they so deeply reverenced. An ardent admiration for Spenser inspired the genius of two young brothers, Phineas and Giles Fletcher. The first, very soon after the queen's death, as some allusions to Lord Essex seemed to denote, composed, though he did not so soon publish, a poem entitled The Purple Island. By this strange name he expressed a subject more strange: it is a minute and elaborate account of the body and mind of man. Through five cantos the render is regaled with nothing but allegorical anatomy, in the details of which Phineas seems tolerably skilled, evincing a great deal of ingenuity in diversifying his metaphors, and in presenting the delineation of his imaginary island with as much justice as possible to the allegory without obtruding it on the reader's view. In the sixth canto, he rises to the intellectual and moral faculties of the soul, which occupy the rest of the poem. From its nature, it is insuperably wearisome; yet his language is often very poetical, his versification harmonious, his invention fertile. But that perpetual monotony of allegorical persons, which sometimes displeases us even in Spenser, is seldom relieved in Fletcher; the understanding revolts at the confused crowd of inconceivable beings in a philosophical poem; and the justness of analogy, which had given us some pleasure in the anatomical cantos, is lost in tedious descriptions of all possible moral qualities, each of them personified, which can never co-exist in the Purple Island of one individual.