1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Edward Smedley

Robert Southey, in The Doctor (1847) 382-83.



It is said in the very interesting and affecting Memoir of Mr. Smedley's Life that he had projected with Mr. Murray "a castigated edition of the Faery Queen." He was surprised, says the biographer, "to find how many passages there were in this the most favourite poem of his youth, which a father's acuter vision and more sensitive delicacy discovered to be unfit for the eyes of his daughters." It appears, too, that he had actually performed the task; but that "Mr. Murray altered his opinion as to the expediency of the publication, and he found to his annoyance that his time had been employed to no purpose."

Poor Smedley speaks thus of the project in one of his letters. "I am making the Faery Queen a poem which may be admitted into family reading, by certain omissions, by modernising the spelling and by appending, where necessary, brief glossarial foot-notes. I read Spenser so very early and made him so much a part of the furniture of my mind, that until I had my attention drawn to him afresh I had utterly forgotten how much he required the pruning-knife, how utterly impossible it is that he should be read aloud: and I cannot but think that when fitted for general perusal, he will become more attractive by a new coat and waistcoat. If we were to print Shakespeare, and Beaumont and Fletcher, or even Milton, 'literatim' from the first editions, the spelling would deter many readers. Strange to say, when Southey was asked some time ago whether he would undertake the task, he said, 'No, I shall print every word of him!' And he has done so in a single volume. Can he have daughters? Or any who, like my Mary, delight in such portions as they are permitted to open?"

Did Southey say so? — Why then, well said Southey! And it is very like him; for he is not given to speak, as his friends the Portuguese say, "enfarinhadamente" — which is, being interpreted, mealy-mouthedly. Indeed his moral and intellectual constitution must be much feebler than I suppose it to be, if his daughters are not "permitted to open" any book in his library. He must have been as much astonished to hear that the Faery Queen was unfit for their perusal as he could have been when he saw it gravely asserted by an American Professor, Critic and Doctor of Divinity, that his Life of Wesley was composed in imitation of the Iliad!

Scott felt like Southey upon this subject, and declared that he would never deal with Dryden as Saturn dealt with his father Uranus. Upon such publications as the Family Shakespeare he says, — "I do not say but that it may be very proper to select correct passages for the use of Boarding-Schools and Colleges, being sensible no improper ideas can be suggested in these seminaries unless they are introduced or smuggled under the beards and ruffs of our old dramatists. But in making an edition of a Man of Genius's Works for libraries and collections, (and such I conceive a complete edition of Dryden to be), I must give my author as I find him, and will not tear out the page even to get rid of the blot, little as I like it. Are not the pages of Swift, and even of Pope, larded with indecency and often of the most disgusting kind, and do we not see them upon all shelves, and dressing-tables and in all boudoirs? Is not Prior the most indecent of tale-tellers, not even excepting La Fontaine? and how often do we see his works in female hands. In fact, it is not passages of ludicrous indelicacy that corrupt the manners of a people; it is the sonnets which a prurient genius like Master Little sings 'virginibus puerisque,' — it is the sentimental slang, half lewd, half methodistic, that debauches the understanding, inflames the sleeping passions, and prepares the reader to give way as soon as a tempter appears."

How could Mr. Smedley have allowed himself to be persuaded that a poem like the Faery Queen which he had made from early youth "a part of the furniture of his own mind," should be more injurious to others than it had proved to himself? It is one of the books which Wesley in the plan which he drew up for those young Methodists who designed to go through a course of academical learning, recommended to students of the second year. Mr. Todd has noticed this in support of his own just estimate of this admirable poet. "If," says he, "our conceptions of Spenser's mind may be taken from his poetry, I shall not hesitate to pronounce him entitled to our warmest approbation and regard for his gentle disposition, for his friendly and grateful conduct, for his humility, for his exquisite tenderness, and above all for his piety and morality. To these amiable points a fastidious reader may perhaps object some petty inadvertencies; yet can he never be so ungrateful as to deny the efficacy which Spenser's general character gives to his writings, — as to deny that Truth and Virtue are graceful and attractive, when the road to them is pointed out by such a guide. Let it always be remembered that this excellent Poet inculcates those impressive lessons, by attending to which the gay and the thoughtless may be timely induced to treat with scorn and indignation the allurements of intemperance and illicit pleasure."

When Izaak Walton published Thealma and Clearchus, a pastoral history written long since in smooth and easy verse by John Chalkhill, Esq., he described him in the title page as "An Acquaintant and Friend of Edmund Spenser." He says of him "that he was in his time a man generally known and as well beloved, for he was humble and obliging in his behaviour, a gentleman, a scholar, very innocent and prudent, and indeed his whole life was useful, quiet, and virtuous." Yet to have been the friend of Edmund Spenser was considered by the biographer of Hooker and Donne and Bishop Sanderson and George Herbert, as an honourable designation for this good man, a testimonial of his worth to posterity, long after both Chalkhill and Spenser had been called to their reward.

It was well that Mr. Murray gave up the project of a Family Faery Queen. Mr. Smedley when employed upon such a task ought to have felt that he was drawing upon himself something like Ham's malediction.

With regard to another part of these projected emendations there is a fatal objection. There is no good reason why the capricious spelling of the early editions should be scrupulously and pedantically observed in Shakespeare, Milton, or any author of their respective times; — no reason why words which retain the same acceptation, and are still pronounced in the same manner, should not now be spelt according to the received orthography. Spenser is the only author for whom an exception must be made from this obvious rule. Malone was wrong when he asserted that the language of the Faery Queen was that of the age in which Spenser lived; and Ben Jonson was not right when, saying that Spenser writ no language, he assigned as the cause for this, his "affecting the Ancients." The diction, or rather dialect, which Spenser constructed, was neither like that of his predecessors, nor of his contemporaries. Camoens also wrote a language of his own, and thereby did for the Portuguese tongue the same service which was rendered to ours by the translators of the Bible. But the Portuguese Poet, who more than any other of his countrymen refined a language which was then in the process of refining, attempted to introduce nothing but what entirely accorded with its character, and with the spirit of that improvement which was gradually taking place: whereas both the innovations and renovations which Spenser introduced were against the grain. Yet such is the magic, of his verse, that the Faery Queen if modernised, even though the structure of its stanza — (the best which has ever been constructed) — were preserved, would lose as much as Homer loses in the best translation.