1811 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[Diary Entry: Coleridge on Spenser.]

Seven Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton. By the Late S. T. Coleridge. A List of all the MS. Emendations in Mr. Collier's Folio, 1632; and an introductory Preface.

John Payne Collier


John Payne Collier reprints a diary conversation, he believes from 1811: "I apprehend that the scene must be laid in Lamb's rooms in the Temple, on one of the occasions when Wordsworth was in London, and when people came to meet him." Those present include Coleridge, the Lambs, Wordsworth, and Hazlitt. Coleridge's legendary memory is displayed, and William Wordsworth quotes from his unpublished Salisbury Plain poem. At this time Collier was at work at his own Spenserian allegory, The Poet's Pilgrimage, eventually published in a private edition in 1822.

Thomas Noon Talfourd: "When Coleridge came, argument, wit, humor, criticism were hushed; the pertest, smartest, and the cleverest felt that all were assembled to listen; and if a card-table had been filled, or a dispute begun before he was excited to continuous speech, his gentle voice, undulating in music, soon 'Suspended whist, and took with ravishment | The thronging audience'" Literary Sketches and Letters ... of Charles Lamb (1849) 200.

Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "You were at full liberty to listen, but it was high treason to utter a word, to the interruption of his monologues. However, dreamy and mystical as they were, it must be confessed they were wonderful in language and suggestive of thought, if not always logically thoughtful in themselves" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 3:136.

Dewey Ganzel: "The Colliers were close friends of Charles and Mary Lamb, and through Robinson they met Wordsworth, Southey, and Flaxman. Coleridge, too, was a frequent guest at Hatton Garden for supper and conversation, and when he came, Payne was to recall many years later, 'people were generally content that he should have much of the talk to himself.' For a youth in his teens, these evenings had a powerful influence and Payne was an excellent listener. The family's friendship with Coleridge was close. When the critic planned a series of fifteen lectures on Shakespeare in the fall of 1811, Payne went to all of them and took verbatim shorthand notes — a circumstance which was later to be of great importance when they were found to be the only surviving record of what Coleridge said" Fortune and Men's Eyes (1982) 19.




Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered and Spenser's obligations to Tasso were discussed, and Wordsworth pronounced the Twelfth Canto of the Second Book of the Fairy Queen unrivaled in our own, or perhaps in any language, in spite of some pieces of description imitated from the great Italian poets. The allegory, he said, was miraculous and miraculously maintained, yet with the preservation of the liveliest interest in the impersonations of Sir Guyon and the Palmer, as the representatives of virtue and prudence. I collected, however, that Spenser was not in all respects a great favourite with Wordsworth, dealing, as he does so much, in description, and comparatively little in reflection. I may be mistaken, but this was my impression.

Lamb mentioned the translation of Tasso by Fairfax, of which Wordsworth said he had no copy, and was not well acquainted with it. Lamb gave it as his opinion, that it was the very best, yet the very worst translation in English; and, being asked for an explanation of his apparent paradox, he stammered a little, and then went on, pretty flowingly, to say that it was the best for the air of originality and ease, which marked many of the stanzas, and the worst, as far as he was able to judge, (and he had been told the same by competent Italians) for literalness, and want of adherence to the text. Nothing could be more wanton than Fairfax's deviations, excepting some of those in Sir John Harington's version of Ariosto, into which whole octaves had often been thrust without need or notice.

Aye, (interrupted Hazlitt,) that is an evil arising out of original genius undertaking to do unoriginal work; and yet a mere versifier, a man who can string easy rhymes, and employ smooth epithets, is sure to sacrifice the spirit and power of the poet: it is then a transformation of wine into water, and not of one wine into another, or of water into wine. It is like setting even a tolerable artist to copy after Raphael or Titian: every light and shade, every tone and tint, every form and turn may be closely followed, but still the result is only and unsatisfactory imitation. No painter's own repetitions are equal to his original pictures.

Miss Lamb adverted to the amusing pains and polishing Fairfax had bestowed upon his work; and a copy of it was produced in which the first stanza, as first printed, and as afterwards altered, were both preserved, one having been pasted over the other. Not only so (said another of the company) but even this emendation did not satisfy Fairfax, for he changed his mind a third time, and had the whole of the first leaf canceled, in order to introduce a third reading of the first stanza.

Meanwhile Coleridge had been turning over the pages of the copy produced, and observed that in one place Fairfax had been quite as much indebted to Spenser as to Tasso, and read the subsequent stanzas from Book xvi., with that sort of musical intonation which he always vindicated and practiced:—

The gently budding rose (quoth she) behold,
That first scant peeping forth with virgin beams,
Half ope, half shut, her beauties doth upfold
In their dear leaves, and less seen fairer seems;
And after spreads them forth more broad and bold,
Then languisheth, and dies in last extremes,
Nor seems the same that decketh bed and bower
Of many a lady late, and paramour.

So in the passing of a day doth pass
The bud and blossom of the life of man,
Nor e'er doth flourish more, but, like the grass
Cut down, becometh wither'd pale and wan.
O! gather then the rose while time thou has;
Short is the day, done when it scant began,
Gather the rose of love, while yet thou may'st
Loving be lov'd, embracing be embrac'd.

Nobody was prepared to say, from memory, how far the above was or was not a literal rendering of Tasso's original; but nobody doubted that it was very like Spenser, in the Canto which Wordsworth had not long before so warmly praised. Coleridge repeated, with a very little prompting, the following stanza from Book ii. c. 12, of the Fairy Queen, for the purpose of proving how closely Fairfax had followed Spenser.

So passeth, in the passing of a day,
Of mortal life the leaf, the bud, the flower,
Ne more doth flourish after first decay,
That erst was sought to deck both bed and bower
Of many a lady, and many a paramour.
Gather therefore the rose whilst yet is prime,
For soon comes age that will her pride deflower:
Gather the rose of love, whilst yet is time,
Whilst loving thou may'st loved be with equall crime.

It was held, on all hands, sufficiently established, that Fairfax, in translating Tasso, must have had Spenser in his memory, if not in his eye; and it was contended by Hazlitt, that it would have been impossible to Fairfax to have done the Gerusalemme Liberata, he could not have acquitted himself so adequately, without approaching so near Spenser as absolutely to tread on his heels. "But, (added Lamb stuttering) he has not only trodden upon his heels, but upon his toes too: I hope he had neither kibes nor corns."

Lamb, I think it was, remarked upon the circumstance that Spenser, in the last line of the stanza quoted, had not, as in many other instances, observed the caesura in the closing Alexandrine, so that the line could not be read musically without dividing "loved" into two syllables. It was Southey's opinion, somebody said, that the Alexandrine could never be written and read properly without the pause. Wordsworth took the contrary side, and repeated several twelve-syllable lines of his own, where there could be no pause after the sixth syllable: I only remember one of his examples:—

And near a thousand tables pined, and wanted food;

from a poem he had called "The Female Vagrant:" here "tables" must have a caesura after the first syllable, if at all. I think he said the poem was not yet printed, but I am not sure on that point.


[pp. xxxii-xxxvi]