Philip Neve discusses Spenser as an imitator, comparing his imitations of Italian poetry unfavorably to Milton, who exceeds his originals. The book appeared anonymously. Noting the incompleteness of researches by Hughes, Jortin, and Thomas Warton, Neve asserts that a life of Spenser, "together with a minute investigation of the common-places of his reading and study, is the great desideratum of poetical history." Indeed, new discoveries were in the offing, including Spenser's pension shortly to be unearthed by Edmond Malone.
Neve was a barrister and antiquary who briefly acquired fame for his responsibilty in exhuming Milton's corpse, as related in A Narrative of the Disinterment of Milton's Coffin (1790).
Of Spenser who was born about 1555, it seems to be the fate now, as it was in his life-time, to be at once admired and neglected. A life, carefully drawn out from the most authentic memorials, though these be but scanty, together with a minute investigation of the common-places of his reading and study, is the great desideratum of poetical history. To those, who are acquainted with the Remarks of the late learned Dr. Jortin, and the Observation of the ingenious author of the History of English Poetry, this opinion might appear reprehensible, if it were not easy, at once, to point out seventy-eight lines in the second book of the Faery Queen, and twenty-two lines in the sixth book, immediately copied from Tasso, and of which no notice is taken by either of those commentators. In Hughes's edition, the only general collection of Spenser's works, the partial and deficient publication of the Letters is well known. But this is a work, from which all biographers, capable of the task, have shrunk; whether discouraged by the large field of romance to be explored; the extent of research among the Italian poets; or the few certain facts, to be now ascertained, about the author personally.
In all Spenser's writings learning and genius are conspicuous: but he submitted, with too much servility, to the fashion of his age, in the prevailing love and deference for all that was Italian. Exactly in that proportion, in which the English have been approximating to, and forming themselves upon French manners, since the return of Charles II. were they inclining to, and copying those of Italy, in the days of Elizabeth: and so epidemical was this infection, that the greatest powers of mind, strengthened by the best institution of academical education, did not, in Spenser, afford a sufficient antidote against it. From Ariosto chiefly; from Tasso, Bruno's Spaccio della bestia trionfante, the Ceiris (attributed to Virgil), the Apocalypse; and the fashionable romances of his time (the offspring of those universal sources of the marvellous, Turpin and Geoffrey of Monmouth) Spenser constructed his Faery-Queen.
The rule, by which Ariosto wrote, is found in his own text,
Come raccende il gusto il mutar esca,
Cosi mi par che la mia Istoria, quanto
Or qua, or la piu variata sia,
Meno a chi l'udira nojosa sia.
C. 13 St. 80.
a rule, of which Spenser seems, in some sort, to have availed himself, in the institution, as also in the conduct of his poem; for in the latter he has not pursued the scheme, laid down in his Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. Nor are the opinions of Dryden and Hughes to be regarded, by readers of the Faery-Queen; the first being untrue, according to the action, exhibited in the several books; and the latter shewing only, that the author varied from his own design.
Of some poets, by following the traces of others, the genius is obscured; as is the case with Spenser. Of others it is, by the fame means, illustrated; as is the case with Milton. Spenser obscures himself by imitations, because he is satisfied with what he finds: Milton rises by comparisons, because he will always exceed his original. This position is obvious every where, in the works of the latter poet: and, if it be enquired how what is said of Spenser can be proved; his works, where they are original, shew, that he possessed energy, copiousness, and sublimity sufficient, had he taken no model to follow, to have produced a poem, that would rank him with Homer, Tasso, and Milton; for his greatest excellence is in those images, which are the immediate foundation of the sublime. Fear, confusion, and astonishment, are delineated by him, with a most masterly pen.
Of his smaller poems, those several Sonnets, which accompanied the different presentation-copies of his Faery-Queen, to the nobility and ladies, his patrons in the Queen Elizabeth's court, are very distinguishable, in a mode of writing, not of the easiest sort; as it requires great delicacy, both of sentiment and expression. Muiopotmos, though the subject be a butterfly, holds a high rank among the beauties of Spenser. The Epithalamium, made on his own marriage, which he (having but a poet's wealth) prettily calls,
Song made in lieu of many ornaments,
With which my love should duly have been deckt,
is replete with genius, and refined sentiments; and the great beauties of description, which it exhibits, might well supply the place of a thousand baubles and trinkets on the occasion. The Britain's Ida, it seems agreed, was not written by Spenser. It appears to have been suggested by Tasso's Aminta; and is composed with great ease and elegance. The song of the enchanting voice, "Enjoy, while yet thou may'st, thy life's sweet treasure," &c. seems taken from that beautiful stanza of the Italian poet, in the description of Armida's garden, "Deb mira!" &c.: and, if there were any other arguments for this poem being Spenser's, this circumstance would greatly corroborate them; as, in the 2d book of the Faery-Queen, the translation from Tasso, in the above description of the garden, is the most labored of all his copies from the Italian poets.
Spenser was a professed follower of Chaucer's phraseology: but he seems to have taken more liberty with the language, than any of his contemporary poets; or even than Chaucer did, with the language of his time. This observation regards Spenser more particularly, as to his usage in the production, or abbreviation of known words, and his introduction of factitious ones, than as to his adoption of classic, or foreign terms, or idioms though, of these latter, instances enough might readily be found. "Crumenal," "singults," "concrew," "'sdeign'd," &c. &c. shew at once their origin.
His Faery-mythology, and antient British genealogy, both necessary to be understood by those, who interest themselves in the stories of early British times, have been followed by all his successors. And Milton, no incurious searcher into the most fabulous antiquity of British story, has paid all deference to his deductions.
Three original pieces of Spenser yet remain, uncollected in the edition of his works.
An Iambicke Elegie, called "Love's Embassie;" in "Davison's Poems, or Poetical Rhapsodie, by divers authors." 12mo, Lond. 1602.
A commendatory Sonnet, prefixed to "Lewkenor's Translation of Cardinal Gaspar Contarini's Commonwealth and Government of Venice," 4to, Lond. 1599.
both which are reprinted in the Observations on Spenser, 1762.
And the following Commendatory Sonnet, here first reprinted, from "the Translation, by Z. I., of De Lavardin's "History of Scanderbeg." Fol. Lond. 1596.
Upon the Historie of George Castriot, alias Scanderbeg, King of the Epirots, translated into English.
Wherefore doth vaine Antiquitie so vaunt
Her ancient monuments of mighty peeres,
And old heroes, which their world did daunt
With their great deedes, and fild their children's eares?
Who, rapt with wonder of their famous praise,
Admire their statutes, their colossoes great,
Their rich triumphal arcks, which they did raise,
Their huge pyramids, which do heaven threat.
Lo one, whom later age hath brought to light,
Matchable to the greatest of those great;
Great both by name, and great in power and might,
And meriting a meere triumphant seat.
The scourge of Turkes, and plague of infidels,
Thy acts, O Scanderbeg, this volume tels.