1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

Leigh Hunt, in Imagination and Fancy (1844) 74-77.



But when you are "over-informed" with thought and passion in Shakespeare, when Milton's mighty grandeurs oppress you, or are found mixed with painful absurdities, or when the world is vexatious and tiresome, and you have had enough of your own vanities or struggles in it, or when "house and land" themselves are "gone and spent," and your riches must lie in the regions of the "unknown," then Spenser is "most excellent." His remoteness from every day life is the reason perhaps why Somers and Chatham admired him; and his possession of every kind of imaginary wealth completes his charm with his brother poets. Take him in short for what he is, whether greater or less than his fellows, the poetical faculty is so abundantly and beautifully predominant in him above every other, though he had passion, and thought, and plenty of ethics, and was as learned a man as Ben Jonson, perhaps as Milton himself, that he has always been felt by his countrymen to be what Charles Lamb called him, the "Poet's Poet." He has had more idolatry and imitation from his brethren than all the rest put together. The old dramataic poets, Drayton, Brown, Drummond, Giles and Phineas Fletcher, were as full of him as the dramatic writers were of Shakespeare. Milton studied and used him, calling him the "sage and serious Spenser;" and adding, that he "dared be known to think him a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas." Cowley said that he became a poet by reading him. Dryden claimed him for a master. Pope said he read him with as much pleasure when he was old, as young. Collins and Gray loved him; Thomson, Shenstone, and a host of inferior writers, expressly imitated him; Burns, Byron, Shelley, and Keats made use of his stanza; Coleridge eulogized him; and he is as dear to the best living poets as he was to their predecessors. Spenser has stood all the changes in critical opinion; all the logical and formal conclusions of the understanding, as opposed to imagination and lasting sympathy. Hobbes in vain attempted to depose him in favour of Davenant's Gondibert. Locke and his friend Molyneux to no purpose preferred Blackmore! Hume, acute and encroaching philosopher as he was, but not so universal in his philosophy as great poets, hurt Spenser's reputation with none but the French (who did not know him); and, by way of involuntary amends for the endeavour, he set up for poets such men as Wilkie and Blacklock! In vain, in vain. "In spite of philosophy and fashion," says a better critic of that day (Bishop Hurd), "'Faerie Spenser' still ranks highest amongst the poets; I mean with all those who are either of that house, or have any kindness for it. Earth-born critics may blaspheme; 'But all the gods are ravish'd with delight | Of his celestial song and musick's wondrous might.'" "In reading Spenser," says Warton, "if the critic is not satisfied, yet the reader is transported."