1779
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Prince Arthur: Introduction to the Second Volume.

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

Alexander Bicknell


This brief history of romance is almost entirely plagiarized from Richard Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance. Alexander Bicknell speaks of Spenser's "creative" fancy, an adjective that was beginning to take hold.




That species of writing which is termed Romance, appears to have been derived from the Arabians. Amidst the Gloom of Superstition, in an Age of the grossest Ignorance and Credulity, a Taste for the wonders of Oriental Fiction was introduced, by them, into Europe. It is true, that the Ideas of Chivalry, the Appendage and Subject of Romance, subsisted, in some measure, among the Goths, but it was not till the Time of the Crusades, that those romantic Tales, which have been read with such Avidity, by almost every subsequent Age, attained to any degree of Perfection.

Many of the old Romances may be derived from the ancient historical Songs, of the Gothic Bards. Some of those Songs are preserved in the North, which exhibit all the Seeds of Chivalry, before it became a solemn Institution. Even the common arbitrary Fictions of Romance were most of them familiar to the ancient Scalds of the North, long before the Time of the Crusades. They believed the Existence of Giants and Dwarfs; they had some notion of Fairies; they were strongly possessed with the belief of Spells and Enchantments, and were fond of inventing Combats with Dragons and Monsters.

The Goths believed some divine Quality to be inherent in their Women, and consequently treated them with great Respect. But the Deference paid to the Fair Sex, which produced that Spirit of Gallantry that constitutes so capital a Part of the Character of a Knight Errant, is chiefly to be sought for in those strong and exaggerated Ideas of Female Chastity, which prevailed among that People. Hence the Lover's Devotion to his Mistress was increased, his Attentions heightened, and his Solicitude aggravated, in Proportion as the Difficulty of obtaining her was enhanced: and the Passion of Love required a Degree of Delicacy, when controuled by the Principles of Honour and Purity. The highest Excellency of Character then known, was a Superiority in Arms; and that Lover was most likely to gain his Mistress's Regard, who was the bravest Champion. Thus was Valour inspired by Love. In the mean Time, the same heroic Spirit, which was the surest Claim to the Favour of the Ladies, was often exerted in their Protection: a Protection much wanted in an Age of Rapine, Plunder, and Devastation; when the Weakness of the softer Sex was exposed to continual Dangers, and unexpected Attacks. It is easy to suppose the officious Emulation and Ardour of many a gallant young Warrior, pressing forward to be foremost in this honourable Service, which flattered the most agreeable of all Passions, and which gratified every Enthusiasm of the Times; especially the fashionable Fondness for a wandering and military Life. We may conceive the Lady thus won, or thus defended, conscious of her own Importance, affecting an air of Stateliness: it was her Pride to have preserved her Chastity inviolate; she could perceive no Merit but that of invincible Bravery, and could only be approached in Terms of Respect and Submission.

Here, however, Chivalry subsisted but in its Rudiments. Under the Feudal Establishments, which were soon after erected in Europe, it received new Vigour, and was invested with the Formalities of a regular Institution. The Nature and Circumstances of that particular Model of Government, were highly favourable to this strange Spirit of fantastic Heroism. A numerous Nobility, formed into separate Principalities, affecting Independence, and mutually jealous of the Priviledges and Honours, necessarily lived in a State of Hostility. This Situation rendered personal Strength and Courage the most requisite and essential Accomplishments; and hence, even in the Time of Peace, they had no Conceptions of any Diversions, or public Ceremonies, but such as were of the military Kind. Yet, as the Court of these petty Princes were thronged with Ladies of the most eminent Distinction and Quality, the ruling Passion for War was tempered with Courtesy. The Prize of contending Champions was adjudged by the Ladies; who did not think it inconsistent to preside at these bloody Spectacles. Not only the Splendor of Birth, but the magnificent Castle surrounded with embattled Walls, guarded with massy Towers, and crowned with lofty Pinnacles, served to inflame the Imagination, and to create an Attachment to some illustrious Heiress, whose Point of Honour it was to be chaste and inaccessible. The Want of an uniform Administration of Justice, and the general Disorder, which naturally sprung from the Principles of feudal Policy, presented perpetual Opportunities of checking the Oppressions of arbitrary Lords; of delivering Captives, injuriously detained in the baronial Castles; of punishing Robbers, of succouring the distressed, and of avenging the impotent and unarmed, who were every Moment exposed to the most licentious Insults and Injuries. The Violence and Injustice of the Times gave birth to Valour and Humanity.

In the mean Time, the Crusades, so pregnant with Enterprize, heightened the habits of this warlike Fanaticism. And when these foreign Expeditions were ended, nothing remained but to employ the Activity of Adventures, but the Protection of Innocence at Home. Chivalry, at length, was consecrated by Religion, and, by Degrees, composed that singular Picture of Manners, in which the Love of God, and the Ladies, were reconciled, the Saint and the Hero were blended, and Charity and Revenge, Zeal and Gallantry, Devotion and Valour were united.

Thus we see that the Ideas of Chivalry, in an imperfect Degree, had been of old established among the Gothic Tribes; and that it was afterwards encouraged and confirmed by the Feudal System. But the Crusades, at length, excited a new Spirit of Enterprize, and introduced, into the Courts and Ceremonies of European Princes, a higher Degree of Splendour and Parade, caught from the Riches and Magnificence of eastern Cities. These Oriental Expeditions established a Taste for the hyperbolical Descriptions, and propagated an Infinity of marvellous Tales, which men returning from distant Countries, easily imposed on ignorant and credulous Minds. The unparalleled Emulation, with which the Nations of Christendom universally embraced this enthusiastic Cause, the Pride with which Emperors, Kings, Barons, Earls, Bishops, and Knights, strove to excel each other on this interesting Occasion, not only in Prowess and Heroism, but in sumptuous Equipages, gorgeous Banners, splendid Pavilions, and other expensive Articles of a similar Nature, diffused a love of War, and a fondness for military Pomp. Hence their very Diversions became warlike, and the martial Enthusiasm of the Times appeared in Tilts and Tournaments. These Practices and Opinions, co-operating with the kindred Superstitions of Dragons, Dwarfs, Fairies, Giants, and Enchanters, which the Traditions of the Gothic Bards had already planted, produced that extraordinary Species of Composition, which has been called Romance.

It must be remembered, that the Saracens, or Arabians, the same People, which were the Objects of the Crusades, had acquired an Establishment in Spain, about the ninth Century; and by means of this earlier Intercourse, many of their Fictions and Fables, together with their Literature, must have been known in Europe before the Christian Armies invaded Asia. As the Spaniards first received from their Conquerors a taste for these romantic Writings, so they seem to have been more extravagantly fond of them than any other Nation; and, to such a height was this Infatuation risen, at the Time of the inimitable Cervantes, that it required the utmost Exertion of his pointed Satire to put a stop to it.

Before these Expeditions into the East became fashionable, the principal and leading Subject of the old Fables, were the Atchievements of King Arthur, with his Knights of the Round Table; and of Charlemagne, with his twelve Peers. But in the Romances written after the Holy War, a new set of Champions, of Conquests, and of Countries, were introduced; and the Caliphs, the Soldans, and the Cities of Egypt and Syria, became the favourite Topics. Spencer has chosen the first of these Heroes, in his youthful State, as a foundation for his creative fancy to work upon, intermingling with it some Characters of a later Date. But his Romance certainly claims a Precedence to any other; for whilst, in common with those of the same Species, it captivates the Mind, by the Amusement it affords, it is intended to anwer nobler Purposes; and being fraught with moral Precepts, whilst it amuses, instructs; whilst it pleases the Imagination, amends the heart.


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