1747
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Defects of our Modern Poets, in their Allegories: instanced from Spenser's Fairy Queen.

Polymetis: or, An Enquiry Concerning the Agreement Between the Works of the Roman Poets, and the Remains of the Antient Artists. Being an Attempt to Illustrate Them Mutually from One Another. In Ten Books. By the Revd. Mr. Spence.

Rev. Joseph Spence


In his Dialogue No. XIX, Joseph Spence, the friend of Pope and sometime Oxford Professor of Poetry, defines and illustrates six different ways in which the Faerie Queene violates norms of probability and decorum. Compare the four "rules" for allegory listed by John Hughes in An Essay on Allegorical Poetry (1715): liveliness, propriety, self-consistency, and intelligibility. Compare also Thomas Warton's essay, "Of Spenser's Allegorical Character" in Observations on the Faerie Queene, which mentions Spence with approval, even giving additional examples of Spenser's incoherence and indecorum (1754) 222ff.

In abridged form, Polymetis was used as a textbook, very likely by Joseph Warton at Winchester. Indeed, Joseph Spence introduces some remarks on education that accord with Warton's own views: "Would not it have been better for us when are are young, to be instructed thoroughly in our own language, than in any dead language whatever? Is a minister now to preach, or a lawyer to plead, or a gentleman in parliament to speak, in Latin? Yet in our schools we are to this day instructed to write themes, and to make orations, in the language of the Romans; with almost a total neglect of that, which I should think is the most necessary for us, not only in conversation, but in almost all the business of life" p. 289.

John Keats was one English poet who made a careful study of Polymetis, which shows up in his ecphrastic verses; Lessing, on the other hand, used Spence as a whipping boy in advocating a differentiation of the sister arts in Laokoon (1766).

Biographia Britannica: "Mr. Spence, in his Polymetis, hath also entered into our Poet's manner of allegorizing, and the conduct of his Allegories, which, as the book is not in very many hands, we shall lay before the Reader. The general plan of the Polymetis is the same with Lord Bacon's Wisdom of the Ancients, being to recommend their simplicity and clearness in symbolical representations. He assures us he had read the Fairy Queen with the particular view of informing himself from the best Allegorists among all the modern Poets, how far they have deviated from the Ancients. He reduces Spenser's faults, in relation to his Machinery or Allegories, under three general heads. 1. Mixing the fables of Heathenism with the Truths of Christianity. 2. Misrepresenting the Allegories of the Ancients. 3. From something that is wrong in the Allegories of his own invention" (1763) 6:3807n.

Thomas Gray held the author's scholarship in slight esteem: "There is one fundamental fault, from whence most of the little faults throughout the whole arise. He professes to neglect the Greek writers, who could have given him more instruction on the very heads he professes to treat, than all the others put together" to Horace Walpole, February 1747; Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 185.

Robert Lowth: "Of Polymetis, a work of acknowledged taste and learning, Mr. Gray has been thought to speak too contemptuously in his Letters. Mr. Gray's chief objection is, that the author has illustrated his subject from the Roman, and not from the Greek poets: that is, that he has not performed, what he did not undertake" in Nichols, Selection Collection of Poems (1780-82) 8:3n.

Henry Headley: "Mr. Spence has justly objected against Spenser, that many of his allegorical personifications are inconsistent, complicated, and overdone; he observes, that when they are well-invented, they are not well-marked out, and instances amongst others the figure of Hope now before us. But surely though his general charge may be true, in this instance he has been misled by his classical taste, and too great a reverence for the ancients; to expect an implicit adherence to them in all their mythological appendages is unreasonable and absurd, and at once puts a stop to every exertion of fancy and genius; it is but doing justice to them to acknowledge that their emblematic figures are unrivalled; but as their several distinct attributes are closely connected with, and indeed drawn from their religion, history, dress, and manners, they must be considered as relatively excellent only; we cannot be so barren of invention, as to be obliged tamely to have recourse to their imagery on all occasions; the religion, history, manners, and dress, of our own country, are sufficiently dignified to supply a fertile imagination with combinations infinitely new, and to justify us in forming a style of our own" Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1787; 1810) 2:155.

Samuel Weller Singer: "Of the Polymetis, Gray has spoken very slightingly in his letters: one of his objections is, that the subject is illustrated from the Roman, and not from the Greek writers; which Dr. Lowth has ingeniously endeavoured to obviate, by observing, that Spence 'has not performed what he never undertook; nay, what he expressly did not undertake.' But does this, argue that the subject would not have been better illustrated from them, as in some degree the fountain head and source of the Roman mythology? — The work appears to have been highly acceptable to the public, and to have met with all possible success; a second edition was soon called for, and a third was printed in 1774. I believe it is not many years since, that it was thought a fourth edition might be acceptable to the public. An abridgment was also made of it, which was long a popular book in our schools until the more copious and useful dictionary of Dr. Lempriere superseded it. Whatever may have been thought of the Polymetis at the time of its publication, it is certain that the graphic illustrations are but very mediocre, and it has been justly observed, that 'it has sunk by its own weight, and will never rise again'" Life of the Author in Spence, Anecdotes (1820) xxxvii-viii.

Leigh Hunt: "Spence's Polymetis was not so easily got at. There was something in the text that did not invite us; but we admired the fine large prints" Lord Byron (1828) 2:169.

Ralph Straus: "From this 'handsome folio' upon which he was content to rest his literary fame, Spence cleared £1500, and settled down in retirement at Byfleet in Surrey" Robert Dodsley (1910) 86.

Herbert E. Cory: "In a Dissertation on the Defects of Spenser's Allegory he found the Poet not fulfilling certain neo-classical requirements. Spenser, it seems, should not have mixed the 'fables of Heathendom with the truths of Christianity.' Boileau had damned this procedure. Spenser, too, was occasionally guilty of misrepresenting the allegories of the ancients. This, to be sure, is mere neo-classical pedantry. But concerning 'the Allegories of his [Spenser's] own invention' the censor wrote some shrewd criticisms that speak well for the soundness of neoclassicism at its best. Though he considered the invention in The Faerie Queene to be 'one of the richest and most beautiful that perhaps ever was,' he found good cause for complaint. Spenser's allegories are sometimes too complicated, overdone. Discord, who looks in two directions, whose tongue, even heart, is split, is justly cited as an example of distorted fancy. Spenser is fairly taken to task for his freedom in describing loathsome figures with filthy detail. The poet is unfortunately sometimes merely extravagant rather than great. So it is when he describes the Dragon's tail as three furlongs in length. These and similar sensible complaints are made. The usual regret that Spenser followed Ariosto too closely and the ancients too little is retailed. There is the orthodox lament at the need of rules. 'The reason of my reproducing these instances, is only to show what faults the greatest Allegorist may commit; whilst the manner of allegorizing is left upon so unfixed and irregular a footing as it was in his time, and is still among us.' And Spence goes on to apologize profusely for his strictures and shows unmistakable enthusiasm for The Faerie Queene. 'If they [the faults noted] should prejudice n reader at all against so fine a writer; let him read almost any one of his entire Cantos, and it will reconcile him to him again.' Mr. Phelps and Mr. Beers, in asserting that the Augustans looked with dull eyes on Spenser, write of the apologetic tone of his defenders. But here, at least, is a solid Augustan who apologizes to Augustans for presuming to take Spenser to task" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 148-49.

Chester Chapin: "In the eighteenth century, The Faerie Queene was the chief example of 'modern' allegorical practice. The difference between classical and Spenserian practice in regard to allegorical description is very clearly brought out by Joseph Spence" "Personification in Eighteenth-Century Poetry" (1954) 82-83.

"Old Polymetis" receives quite a drubbing from John Wilson, Blackwood's Magazine (September 1834) 418-20.

John Aikin would later take up the subject, more narrowly considered, in "On the Personification of Abstract Ideas in Poetry," a series of ten essays appearing in the Monthly Magazine 1798-99. Spence is primarily concerned with the Ancients; Aikin takes the subject down to Thomson, Collins, and Gray.

The 1845 sale catalogue of Thomas Gray's books lists a Polymetis "With MS Notes by Gray"; see A. N. L. Munby, Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons (1971-75) 2:43.




The faults of Spenser in relation to his machinery or allegories, (continued Polymetis,) seem to me, to be all reducible to three general heads. They arise either from that poet's mixing the fables of heathenism, with the truths of christianity; — or from his misrepresenting the allegories of the antients; — or from something that is wrong in the allegories of his own invention. As to the two former, I shall not have much to say; but shall beg leave to be a little more diffuse, as to the third.

The strongest instance I can recollect of the first kind, his mixing christianity and heathenism together, is in that short view, which he gives of the infernal regions; in the seventh Canto, of the second book. You may read the passage here, in his Fairy Queen. The particular part I mean, is where he speaks of Jupiter and Tantalus, and of Pontius Pilate and our Saviour, almost in the same breath.

The instances of Spenser's misrepresenting the stories, and allegorical personages, of the antients, are not uncommon in this poem. Thus, in a former view of hell, he speaks of Esculapius, as in eternal torments. In another place, he introduces a company of satyrs, to save a lady from a rape; tho' their distinguishing character was lust: and makes Sylvanus, the god or governor of the satyrs, a dignity which the antients never speak of for him; no more than of the ivy-girdle, which he gives him, round his waist. It is with the same sort of liberty as I take it that he describes the day, or morning, as having purple hair; the Sirens, as half-fish; and Bacchus, as fat: that he speaks of Clio, as Apollo's wife and and of Cupid, as brother of the Graces: and that he represents Orion, in one place, as flying from a snake, in the heavens; and, in another, as a water-god, and one of the attendants of Neptune. The latter; in Spenser's account of the marriage of the Thames and Medway; in which he has greatly increased Neptune's court; and added several deities as attendants to that god; which were never regarded as such by any of the antients.

This may be sufficient to shew, that where Spenser does introduce the allegories of the antient poets, he does not always follow them so exactly as he might; and in the allegories which are purely of his own invention, (tho' his invention is one of the richest and most beautiful that perhaps ever was,) I am sorry to say, that he does not only fall very short of that simplicity and propriety which is so remarkable in the works of the antients; but runs now and then into thoughts, that are quite unworthy so great a genius. I shall mark out some of these faults to you, that appear even through all his beauties; and which may, perhaps, look quite gross to you, when they are thus taken from them, and laid together by themselves: but if they should prejudice you at all against so fine a writer; read almost any one of his entire Canto's, and it will reconcile you to him again. The reason of my producing these instances to you, is only to shew what faults the greatest allegorist may commit; whilst the manner of allegorizing is left upon so unfixed and irregular a footing as it was in his time, and is still among us.

The first sort of fault I shall mention to you, from such allegories of Spenser as are purely of his own invention, is their being sometimes too complicated, or over-done. Such for example are his representations of Scandal, Discord, and Pride

Scandal, is what Spenser calls, the Blatant Beast: and indeed he has made a very strange beast of him. He says, that his mouth was as wide as a peck and that he had a thousand tongues in it; of dogs, cats, bears, tygers, men, and serpents.

There is a duplicity in his figure of Discord, which is carried on so far as to be quite preposterous. He makes her hear double, and look two different ways; he splits her tongue, and even her heart, in two: and makes her act contrarily with her two hands; and walk forward with one foot, and backward with the other, at the same time.

There is a great deal of Apparatus in Spenser's manner of introducing Pride, in a personal character: and she has so many different things and attributes about her; that was this shew to be represented, (in the manner of our old pageants,) they would rather set one a guessing what they meant themselves, than serve to point out who the principal figure should be. She makes her appearance, exalted in a high chariot, drawn by six different creatures: every one of them carrying a Vice, as a postilion, on his back; and all drove on by Satan, as charioteer. The six Vices are Idleness, on an ass; Gluttony, on a hog; Lechery, on a goat; Avarice, on a camel laden with gold; Envy, eating a toad, and riding on a wolf; and Wrath, with a firebrand in his hand, on a lion. The account of each of these particular Vices in Spenser, is admirable: the chief fault I find with it is, that it is too complex a way of characterizing Pride in general; and may possibly be as improper in some few respects, as it is redundant in others.

There is another particular in some of Spenser's allegories which I cannot but look upon as faulty, tho' it is not near so great a fault as the former. What I mean is his affixing such filthy ideas to some of his personages, or characters, that it half turns one's stomach to read his account of them. Such, for example, is the description of Error, in the very first Canto of the poem; of which we may very well say, in the poet's own words, on a like occasion:

Such loathly matter, were small lust to speak, or think!

The third fault in the allegories of Spenser's own invention is, that they are sometimes stretched to such a degree, that they appear rather extravagant than great: and that he is sometimes so minute, in pointing out every particular of its vastness to you; that the object is in danger of becoming ridiculous, instead of being admirable. This is not common in Spenser: the strongest instance of the few I can remember, is in his description of the dragon, killed by the knight of the red-cross, in the last Canto of his first book. The tail of this dragon, he tells you, wanted but very little of being three furlongs in length; — the blood, that gushes from his wound, is enough to drive a water-mill; — and his roar, is like that of a hundred hungry lions.

The fourth class of faults in Spenser's allegories, consists of such as arise from their not being well invented. You will easily, I believe, allow me here, the three following postulata. That in introducing allegories, one should consider whether the thing is fit to be represented as a person, or not. Secondly; that if you chuse to represent it as a human personage, it should not be represented with any thing inconsistent with the human form or nature. And thirdly, that when it is represented as a man, you should not make it perform any action, which no man in his senses would do.

Spenser seems to have erred against the first of these maxims, in those lines in his description of the cave of Care.

—They for nought would from their work refrain,
Nor let his speeches come unto their ear;
And eke the breathful bellows blew amain
Like to the northern wind, that none could hear:
Those, Pensiveness did move; and Sighs, the bellows were.

Was a poet to say that sighs are "the bellows, that blow up the fire of love," that would be only a metaphor: a poor one indeed; but not at all improper: but here they are realized,or rather metamorphized into bellows; which I could never persuade myself to think any way proper. Spenser is perhaps guilty of the same sort of fault, in making Gifts, or Munera, a woman; in the second Canto of the fifth book tho' that may be only a misnomer; for if he had called her Bribery, one should not have the same objection. But the grossest instance in him of this kind, is in the ninth Canto of the second book where he turns the human body into a castle; the tongue, into the porter, that keeps the gate; and the teeth, into two and thirty warders, dressed in white. — Spenser seems to have erred against the second of these maxims, in representing the rigid execution of the laws under the character of a man all made up of iron; and Bribery, (or the lady Munera, before mentioned,) as a woman, with golden hands, and silver feet: and against the third, where he describes Desire, as holding coals of fire in his hands and blowing them up into a flame: which last particular is some degrees worse than Ariosto's bringing in Discord, in his Orlando Furioso; with a flint and steel, to strike fire in the face of Pride.

The fifth sort of faults is when the allegorical personages, tho' well invented, are not well marked out. There are many instances of this in Spenser, which are but too apt to put one in mind of the fancifulness and whims of Ripa and Vaenius, that I mentioned to you this evening. Thus in one Canto, Doubt is represented as walking with a staff, that shrinks under him; Hope, with an aspergoire, or the instrument the Roman catholics use for sprinkling sinners with holy-water; Dissimlulation, as twisting two clews of silk together; Grief, with a pair of pincers; and Pleasure, with an humble-bee in a phial: and in another, (in the procession of the months and seasons,) February is introduced in a waggon, drawn by two fishes; May, as riding on Castor and Pollux: June, is mounted on a crab; October, on a scorpion: and November comes in, on a Centaur, all in a sweat; because, (as the poet observes,) he had just been fatting his hogs.

This might, full as well, have been ranged under my sixth and last class of faults in Spenser's allegories; consisting of such instances as, I fear, can scarce be called by any softer name, than that of Ridiculous Imaginations. Such, I think, is that idea of Ignorance, in the first book, where he is made to move with the back part of his head foremost; and that of Danger in the fourth, with Hatred, Murder, Treason, &c. at his back. — Such is the sorrowful lady, with a bottle for her tears, and a bag to put her repentance into; and both, running out, almost as fast as she puts them in.— Such the thought of a vast giant's shrinking into an empty form, like a bladder ; the horses of Night, foaming &; — Sir Guyon, putting a padlock on the tongue of Occasion; and Remorse, nipping St. George's heart.

Had Spenser formed his allegories on the plan of the antient poets and artists, as much as he did from Ariosto and the Italian allegorists, he might have followed nature much more closely; and would not have wandered so often, into such strange and inconsistent imaginations. I am apt to believe, that he considered the Orlando Furioso, in particular, as a poem wholly serious; tho' the author of it certainly wrote it partly in jest. There are several lines and passages in it, that must have been intended for burlesque; and they surely consider that poem in the truest light, who consider it as a work of a mixed nature: as something between the professed gravity of Tasso, and the broad laugh of Berni and his followers. Perhaps Spenser's taking some things to be said seriously, which Ariosto meant for ridicule; may have led him now and then to say things that are ridiculous, where he meant to be very serious.

However that be, we may reasonably conclude from so great failures as I have been mentioning to you, in so great a man; (whether they arise from his too much indulging the luxuriance of his own fancy, or from his copying after so irregular a pattern; that it would be extremely useful for our poets in general, to follow the plan of allegory, as far as it is settled to their hands by the antients: at least, till some modern may have invented and established some better plan for them to go upon; a thing, which (to deal fairly with you,) I do not expect to see done in our days. But whether this be so prudent for our poets in general, or not; there is one set of them at least, to whom it is absolutely necessary to be thoroughly acquainted with the allegories of the antients: all such I mean, as undertake to translate the works of the antient poets; and to give us their thoughts, in our own language. And yet, I fear, our translators have been almost as incurious and unknowing in this point, as our original writers have usually been.

As I have chosen out, perhaps the greatest allegorist among all the moderns, to shew you how irregular we are in our allegories; for I shall now proceed to chuse out one of the best translator we ever had, to shew how deficient or incurious our translators are, in representing the allegories of the antients. It is but lately that I read over Mr. Dryden's Translation of all the works of Virgil, in this light only; and in reading it, took down some notes of the misrepresentations and mistakes which he seems to me to have fallen into, in that celebrated and excellent translation, for want of this kind of knowledge. I know not whether this review of Dryden may not take up yet more of our time, than that of Spenser has done: but I have had proof enough of your patience; and shall therefore proceed, without making any more apologies.


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