1779
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Prince Arthur: Introduction to the First Volume.

Prince Arthur: an Allegorical Romance. The Story from Spenser. In Two Volumes.

Alexander Bicknell


Writing anonymously, Alexander Bicknell discusses allegory at some length, explains the adaptations necessary to render the Faerie Queene as a prose romance, and declares that Spenser's moral design is appropriate to readers in all spheres of life: "The Beauties of SPENSER'S FAIRY QUEEN, lie hid like Diamonds in a Mine; or rather, in their rough and unpolished state: The learned World alone are able to enjoy them; a very small Part of the great World, from the Antiquity of the, Language, and the Quaintness of the Expressions, being qualified to share in that Pleasure. For this Reason, I have often devised how to make the Excellencies of it more generally known, and to render the moral Precepts contained in it universally instructive."

This marks a new direction in adaptations of the Faerie Queene: rather than trying to render Spenser more modern or more polite, Alexander Bicknell tries to render him intelligible to uneducated readers. Many more attempts along similar lines would be made in the next century, with equivocal results: we cannot say that Spenser was ever familiar to the run of common readers, though the adaptations themselves certainly became a popular genre, particularly towards the end of the nineteenth-century.




Allegory is a Fable or Story, in which, under Imaginary Persons or Things is shadowed some real Action, or instructive Moral: It is a poetical Picture, which, through its apt resemblance, conveys Instruction to the Mind, by an Analogy to the Senses; amusing the Fancy, whilst it informs the Understanding.

It has been the Custom of the Learned in all Ages, especially of the Priests, the only Receptacles of Learning in the earlier Periods of Time, to write an Allegory; The Hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, the Mysteries of the Persian Magi, the Cabala of the Jews, and the Mythological Fables of the Greeks, are but Moral Precepts and Divine Knowledge clothed in a rich and uncouth Dress, so as to dazzle the eyes of the Vulgar; and, by that means, to conceal the mental Treasures contained in them from their Observation. It is to be lamented, the moral Truths lie hid so deep in many of them, that it is impossible, at this Time, to clear them from the Obscurity in which they are involved.

The Works of all the most celebrated Poets are of the same nature. In the Characters drawn by Homer, are depicted the Virtues and the Vices; by which he teaches Mankind the advantages arising from the Practice of the former, and the destructive tendency of the latter, both to Individuals, and to Society. And though the greatest Number of these consist of Heroes, by which the turbulent Passions are more particularly described, yet there will be found delineated, in the various Characters introduced by him, every Propensity of the human Mind. The Exactness with which he has copied them from Nature, and the beautiful Drapery in which he has cloathed them, will insure him the Approbation of the most refined Judges, till Time shall be no more.

In his Ulysses are described the Qualities of Wisdom, Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Constancy. The regal State of this Hero, with the elevated and uncommon Situations in which Homer has drawn him, appear to place him out of the Reach of Imitation: yet inferior Ranks may copy these Qualities, in some Measure, and acquire from the Contemplation of the Model, that true Nobility of Soul which supported Ulysses through the Extremes of Fortune; and which becomes a Beggar as well as a King, differing only in Degree.

The Story of Circe, from the Odysseys, shews the degrading Efficacy of luxurious Pleasures on the Mind: They transform Men into Beasts, and make their innate habitual Vices appear conspicuous, which otherwise would have remained inactive and unnoticed. The Power Ulysses acquired to resist the Charms of the deluding Goddess, through the Virtues of an Herb called Moly, given him by Mercury, allegorically means that divine Wisdom communicated to the more considerable Part of Mankind by their Creator; the Nature and Power of which, though supposed necessary to regulate the Actions of Mortals by the Ancients, was never properly explained till the Appearance of the Messiah: to him we are not only indebted for the full Discovery of its Necessity, and for an Explanation of its Influence, but for the Means of procuring it.

I have particularly noticed these Instances of Allegory in Homer, to see from Censure the following attempt; as this Kind of Writing, notwithstanding these great Examples, is generally exploded by the present refined Age, and the Authority of SPENCER alone, might possibly prove insufficient to protect them from Criticism.

The Eneids of Virgil, the Poems of Ariosto and Tasso, with those of our own Milton, abound with beautiful Allegories, but these, unless the Morality concealed under them be extracted, as this alone can be of service to Mankind, are of no real Value, they otherwise resemble the pleasing views fashioned by a luxuriant Imagination in the evening Clouds, that are soon over-shadowed by the approaching Darkness, and for ever vanish.

The Beauties of SPENSER'S FAIRY QUEEN, lie hid like Diamonds in a Mine; or rather, in their rough and unpolished state: The learned World alone are able to enjoy them; a very small Part of the great World, from the Antiquity of the, Language, and the Quaintness of the Expressions, being qualified to share in that Pleasure. For this Reason, I have often devised how to make the Excellencies of it more generally known, and to render the moral Precepts contained in it universally instructive. I have chosen the following Mode, which I hope will answer this Purpose; preserving as many of the Beauties as possible, and keeping as near the Original as the different Nature of a Poem, and a Story in Prose, will allow. The Loss of the last Books of SPENSER'S Work, obliges me to lengthen out the Story, and to make Considerable Alterations throughout the whole, to preserve a proper Uniformity, and to bring it to a regular Conclusion.

The surprizing Vein of Fabulous Invention which runs through this Allegorical Poem, enriches it every where with Imagery and Descriptions that no modern Composition can boast of. The Author seems to be possessed of a Kind of Poetical Magic; and the Figures he calls up to our View, rise so thick upon us, that we are at once pleased and distracted with the endless Variety of them. The Nature of my Work (as before observed) obliges me to omit many of them; but they are so superabundant, that if any Author can bear to have them curtailed, this certainly can.

I shall only add, that the general Intention of it is to inculcate a Love of Glory; of that laudable Ambition,which would actuate Persons of every Rank and Sphere of Life, and which cannot fail of being productive of virtuous Actions. There is a certain Propriety of Conduct, attainable by all Mankind, which will gain them Honour, let their Sphere be ever so contracted; The King, the Statesman, the Soldier, the Divine, the Lawyer, the Physician, and the Merchant, are equally bound to cultivate and improve the Talents they are by Nature endowed with, and to suit them to the Stations in which they are placed. The Labours of each are alike conducive to the Good of Society; and the Approbation of that Society, (next Heaven) should be esteemed their greatest and most satisfactory Reward. This is that Glory the Attainment of which is here recommended; and the following beautiful lines of SPENCER are so expressive of the Moral, I would wish, by the foregoing Observation, to inforce, that I shall make no Apology for inserting them.

Abroad in arms, at home in studious kind,
Who seeks with painful toil, shall honour soonest find.
In Woods, in waves, in wars she's wont to dwell,
And will be found with peril and with pain,
Ne can the man that moulds in idle cell
Unto her happy mansion e'er attain:
Before her gate High God did sweat ordain,
And wakeful watches ever to abide:
But easy is the way, and passage plain
To Pleasure's palace, it may soon be spy'd,
And day and night her doors to all stand open wide.

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