1868 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Phineas Fletcher

George Macdonald, in "The Brothers Fletcher" England's Antiphon (1868; 1890) 155-56.



These brothers were intense admirers of Spenser. To be like him Phineas must write an allegory; and such an allegory! Of all the strange poems in existence, surely this is the strangest. The Purple Island is man, whose body is anatomically described after the allegory of a city, which is then peopled with all the human faculties personified, each set in motion by itself. They say the anatomy is correct: the metaphysics is certainly good. The action of the poem is just another form of the Holy War of John Bunyan — all the good and bad powers fighting for the possession of the Purple Island. What renders the conception yet more amazing is the fact that the whole ponderous mass of anatomy and metaphysics, nearly as long as the Paradise Lost, is put as a song, in a succession of twelve cantos, in the mouth of a shepherd, who begins a canto every morning to the shepherds and shepherdesses of the neighbourhood, and finishes it by folding-time in the evening. And yet the poem is full of poetry. He triumphs over his difficulties partly by audacity, partly by seriousness, partly by the enchantment of song. But the poem will never be read through except by students of English literature. It is a whole; its members are well-fitted; it is full of beauties — in parts they swarm like fire-flies; and yet it is not a good poem. It is like a well-shaped house, built of mud, and stuck full of precious stones. I do not care, in my limited space, to quote from it. Never was there a more incongruous dragon of allegory.