1712
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Spectator 540 [Anatomy of the Faerie Queene.]

The Spectator No. 540 (19 November 1712).

Sir Richard Steele


Responding to Addison's essays on Milton, Richard Steele makes some brief critical remarks on Spenser's design, diction, and allegory, with a general synopsis of the Faerie Queene. While his essay appears superficial, it is the most detailed analysis of the design of the Faerie Queene since Spenser's own Letter to Raleigh in 1590. Spenser's works had not been printed in a generation and Steele's essay doubtless helped to lay the ground for John Hughes's landmark critical edition of Spenser published for three years later.

Notable is Steele's slippage as he tries to connect the six virtues with six persons, running afoul of the fourth book: "The Red-cross Knight runs thro' the whole Steps of the Christian Life; Guyon does all that Temperance can possibly require; Britomartis (a Woman) observes the true Rules of unaffected Chastity; Arthegal is in every Respect of Life strictly and wisely just; Calidore is rightly courteous.... Spencer's Knights have, under those six Heads, given a full and a truly Poetical System of Christian, Publick, and Low Life." It is odd to think of the Faerie Queene as a sixteenth-century Spectator, though of course both works were dedicated to fashioning "a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline."

Newcastle Magazine: "Many sensible and well informed people can repeat you with no little self-applause, nearly the whole of Eloisa to Abelard, the Deserted Village, or Don Juan. — If you were, however, to enquire whether they had ever dipped into Spenser's Fairy Queen, their reply would probably be, they had heard frequently of such a poem, and had read a few stanzas of it in the five hundred and fortieth paper of the Spectator" "On the Poetry of Spenser" NS 8 (October 1829) 447.

William Lyon Phelps: "Public attention was called to Spenser by Steele, in the Spectator for November 19, 1712. Steele begins by remarking on the recent Miltonic criticisms, and then adds: 'It is an honourable and candid endeavour to set the works of our noble writers in the graceful light which they deserve. You will lose much of my kind inclination towards you if you do not attempt the encomium of Spenser also, or at least indulge my passion for that charming author so far as to print the loose hints I now give you on the subject.' He proceeds then to describe the general plan of Spenser's poem, and says: 'His style is very poetical; no puns, affectations, of wit, forced antitheses, or any of that low tribe.... His old words are all true English.' How far Steele was prompted to all this by real love of Spenser, or by the necessity of writing his sheet, is hard to say; his remarks at any rate do not seem to have caused much discussion" Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (1893) 53-54.

Henry A. Beers points to this essay as evidence of a supposed lack of sympathy towards Spenser: "Altogether, it is clear that Spenser's greatness was accepted, rather upon trust, throughout the classical period, but that this belief was coupled with a general indifference to his writings" English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century (1899) 80.

Herbert E. Cory: "Professor Phelps, intent on proving the indifference to Spenser during the first decades of the eighteenth century, mentions the article under consideration but is inclined to question the sincerity of Steele's appreciation. But the paper certainly shows some knowledge of The Faerie Queene. Steele characteristically fixes upon Britomart, or Chastity, for special admiration. He says justly that the Legend of Friendship is more diffuse. At least, then, he has been reading the third and fourth books of The Faerie Queene, a pastime that our ravens would have us believe quite out of date in our days of hurried and dyspeptic reading. He is one of those who praised Spcnser's use of archaisms. 'His old Words are all true English and Numbers exquisite; and since of Words there is the Multa Renascentur, since they are all proper, such a Poem should not (any more than Milton's) subsist all of it of common ordinary Words.' Still, were this all, we might share Mr. Phelps's doubt as to Steele's sincerity. 'How far Steele was prompted to all this by real love of Spenser, or by the necessity of writing his sheet is hard to say,' writes Mr. Phelps. No doubt we might conjure up pictures of our beloved knight, somewhat muddled with port, tearing his hair at blear dawn over a Spectator article. A clouded but ecstatic memory of Addison on Milton and lo! our hero's pen wags madly about Spenser, upon whom he has nothing to write except what wells from his good nature unsupported by knowledge. This would make a plausible and attractive picture. But there is more evidence, besides the article quoted, to make us believe that Steele's admiration for Spenser was full of his wonted sincerity and was founded on knowledge" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 141-42.

George Saintsbury: "There are few things more curious than the almost entire abstinence from any expression, in the slightest degree really critical, to be found in the eulogy of Spenser, which he generously enough inserted in Sp. 540 to express 'his passion for that charming author.' The numerous friends whom he has so justly won for himself may perhaps insist that there is criticism of the best in this very phrase; and that the rather rash encomium on the poet's 'old words' as being 'all truly English' is balanced by the justice of his reference to his 'exquisite numbers.' But the fact is that Steele had neither the knowledge, nor the patience, nor the coolness for critical work" History of English Criticism (1911) 181.




Mr. SPECTATOR,

There is no Part of your Writings which I have in more Esteem than your Criticism upon Milton. It is an honourable and candid Endeavour to set the Works of our Noble Writers in the graceful Light which they deserve. You will lose much of my kind Inclination towards you, if you do not attempt the Encomium of Spencer also, or at least indulge my Passion for that charming Author so far as to print the loose Hints I now give you on that Subject.

Spencer's general Plan is the Representation of six Virtues, Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy, in six Legends by six Persons. The six Personages are supposed under proper Allegories suitable to their respective Characters, to do all that is necessary for the full Manifestation of the respective Virtues which they are to exert.

These one might undertake to shew, under the several Heads, are admirably drawn; no Images improper, and most surprizingly beautiful. The Red-cross Knight runs thro' the whole Steps of the Christian Life; Guyon does all that Temperance can possibly require; Britomartis (a Woman) observes the true Rules of unaffected Chastity; Arthegal is in every Respect of Life strictly and wisely just; Calidore is rightly courteous.

In short, in Fairy-Land, where Knights-Errant have a full Scope to range, and to do even what Ariosto's or Orlando's could not do in the World without breaking into Credibility, Spencer's Knights have, under those six Heads, given a full and a truly Poetical System of Christian, Publick, and Low Life.

His Legend of Friendship is more diffuse, and yet even there the Allegory is finely drawn, only the Heads various, one Knight could not there support all the Parts.

To do Honour to his Country, Prince Arthur is an Universal Hero; in Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, and Justice super-excellent. For the same Reason, and to compliment Queen Elizabeth, Gloriana, Queen of Fairies, whose Court was the Asylum of the Oppressed, represents that glorious Queen. At her Commands all these Knights set forth, and only at her's the Red-Cross Knight destroys the Dragon, Guyon overturns the Bower of Bliss, Arthegal (i.e. Justice) beats down Geryoneo (i.e. Phi. II. King of Spain) to rescue Belge (i.e. Holland,) and he beats the Grantorto (the same Philip in another Light) to restore Irena (i.e. Peace to Europe.)

Chastity being the first Female Virtue, Britomartis is a Britain; her Part is fine, tho' it requires Explication. His Stile is very Poetical; no Puns, Affectations of Wit, forced Antitheses, or any of that low Tribe.

His old Words are all true English, and Numbers exquisite; and since of Words there is the Multa Renascentur, since they are all proper, such a Poem should not (any more than Milton's) subsist all of it of common ordinary Words. See Instances of Descriptions.

Causless Jealousy in Britomartis, V. 6, 14. in its Restlessness.

Like as a wayward Child, whose sounder Sleep
Is broken, with some fearful Dreams affright,
With froward Will doth set himself to weep,
Ne can he still'd for all his Nurse's Might,
But kicks, and squalls, and shriek for fell Despight;
Now scratching her, and her loose Locks misusing,
Now seeking Darkness, and now seeking Light;
Then craving Suck, and then the Suck refusing;
Such was this Ladies Loves in her Love's fond accusing.

Curiosity occasioned by Jealousy, upon Occasion of her Lover's Absence. Ibid. St. 8, 9.

Then as she looked long, at last she spy'd
One coming towards her with hasty Speed,
Well ween'd she then, e'er him she plain descry'd,
That it was one sent from her Love indeed:
Whereat her Heart was fill'd with Hope and Dread,
Ne wou'd she stay till he in Place cou'd come,
But ran to meet him forth to know his Tidings soomme;
Even in the Door him meeting, she begun,
And where is he, thy Lord, and how far hence?
Declare at once; and hath he lost or won?

Care and his House are described thus, IV. 6. 33, 34, 35.

Not far away, not meet for any Guest,
They spy'd a little Cottage, like some poor Man's Nest.

34.
There entring in, they found the good Man self
Full busily unto his Work ybent,
Who was so weel a wretched wearish Elf,
With hollow Eyes and raw-bone Cheeks forspent,
As if he had in Prison long been pent.
Full black and griesly did his Face appear,
Besmeard with Smoak, that nigh his Eye-sight blent,
With rugged Beard and hoary shagged heare,
The which he never wont to comb, or comely shear.

35.
Rude was his Garment, and to Rags all rent,
Ne better had he, ne for better cared;
His blistred Hands amongst the Cinders brent,
And Fingers filthy, with long Nails prepared,
Right it to rend the Food on which he fared.
His Name was Care; a Blacksmith by his Trade,
That neither Day nor Night from working spared,
But to small Purpose Iron Wedges made.
These be unquiet Thoughts that careful Minds invade.

Homer's Epithets were much admired by Antiquity: See what great Justness and Variety there is in these Epithets of the Trees in the Forest where the Red-cross Knight lost Truth. B. I. Cant. I. St. 8, 9.

The sailing Pine, the Cedar proud and tall,
The Vine prop Elm, the Poplar never dry,
The Builder Oak, sole King of Forests all,
The Aspine good for Staves, the Cypress Funeral.

9.
The Lawrel Meed of mighty Conquerors,
And Poets sage; the Fir that weepeth still,
The Willow worn of forlorn Paramours,
The Eugh obedient to the Bender's Will,
The Birch for Shafts, the Sallow for the Mid;
The Myrrhe sweet, bleeding in the bitter Wound,
The warlike Beech, the ash for nothing ill,
The fruitful Olive, and the Platane round,
The Carver Holm, the Maple seldom inward sound.

I shall trouble you no more, but desire you to let me conclude with these Verses, tho' I think they have already been quoted by you: They are Directions to young Ladies opprest with Calumny. VI. 6, 14.

The best (said he) that I can you advise
Is to avoid the Occasion of the Ill;
For when the Cause whence Evil doth arise
Removed is, the Effect surceaseth still.
Abstain from Pleasure, and restrain your Will,
Subdue Desire, and bridle loose Delight,
Use scanted Diet, and forbear your Fill,
Shun Secrecy, and talk in open Sight,
So shall you soon repair your present evil Plight.

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