Nathan Drake discusses Edmund Spenser as part of a sequence of biographies of Shakespeare's contemporaries in a massive compilation of antiquarian material related to the Elizabethan age. Drake was not a profound critic, but he was a sure bellwether of popular taste. Here he metes out high blame for diction in the Shepheardes Calender and allegory in the Faerie Queene, with high praise for Spenser's genius and morality. Not the least interesting thing in Drake's compendium of information about Shakespeare's life and times is a poetical scale, of original design, for the minor poets of the era. Large portions of Drake's text were reprinted in extensive reviews, indicating a very general interest in new information about Elizabethan writers.
Leigh Hunt to Francis Jeffrey: "There is a work announced, though I do not know when it will appear, which I should go to, with all my heart and soul, — An Inquiry into Shakspeare's Life and Character, assisted by Researches into his Poems. The editor is no very great person (Nathan Drake); but the object of his work is a desideratum, and well worthy of exciting the eagerness both of critic and reader. I had once, indeed, a thought of an essay on that subject myself" 24 July 1817; in Correspondence (1862) 1:102-03.
Gentleman's Magazine: "Here is surely abundant matter of amusement for the admirers of poetry, and in particular for those of our great and favourite Poet; yet, copious as the matter appears in this brief statement, it is greatly extended by the rich and copious manner in which, with indefatigable diligence, the Author has illustrated every possible point that has the smallest reference to his subject. It is one of those works in which the Author has exhausted all the necessary labour; leaving nothing to the reader but to enjoy, or rather to luxuriate in, the abundance provided for him" 88 (September 1818) 242.
Monthly Review: "Dr. D. has divided his volume into three parts, intitled Shakspeare in Stratford, which occupies thirteen chapters; Shakspeare in London, which occupies thirty-three chapters; and Shakspeare in Retirement, which occupies two chapters. An Appendix comprizes a copy of his will. Each of these sections branches into such infinitesimal detail concerning the literature of the age, the manners of the people, or the history of the theatre, that we loose sight of the circumstances of the poet; and, like one of those wooden mannikins which serve to exhibit suits of antient armour, he is often scarcely to be perceived through the grate of the visor, or the mail of the hauberk. The effect of the whole is like that of a clump of trees planted on a tumulus; they are shady and picturesque, but they tend to intercept the conjecture that this was the grave of a hero. Superfluities are easily indicated in the narrative, but deficiencies not so readily" NS 89 (August 1819) 357.
Samuel Austin Allibone: "Nathan Drake, M.D., 1766-1836, a native of York, England, and a descendant of the preceeding [Nathan Drake, Vicar of Sheffield], was educated at the University of Dublin. In 1792 he settled at Hadleigh, Suffolk, where, for the long term of forty-four years, he ministered to the health of his patients and the mental and moral welfare of his race.... We have been surprised and mortified to notice the shameful ignorance in America respecting the publications of this eminent writer. We remember on one occasion listening to an hour's dissertation on Shakspeare, from a well-known public lecturer, who confessed, when we recommended tohim the study of Drake's Shakspeare and his Times, that he had never heard of such a book!" Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1858-71; 1882) 1:519.
This great poet, who was born in London in 1553, has acquired an ever-during reputation in pastoral and epic poetry, especially in the last. His "Shepheard's Calender: containing twelve aeglogues, proportionable to the twelve monethes," was published in 1579; it is a work which has conferred upon him the title of the Father of the English pastoral, and has almost indissolubly associated his name with those of Theocritus and Virgil. Yet two great defects have contributed deeply to injure the popularity of his Calender; the adoption of a language much too old and obsolete for the age in which it was written, and the too copious introduction of satire on ecclesiastical affairs. The consequence of this latter defect, this incongruous mixture of church polemics, has been, that the aeglogues for May, July, and September, are any thing but pastorals. Simplicity of diction is of the very essence of perfection in pastoral poetry; but vulgar, rugged, and obscure terms can only be productive of disgust; a result which was felt and complained of by the contemporaries of the poet, and which not all the ingenuity of his old commentator, E. K., can successfully palliate or defend. The pieces which have been least injured by this "ragged and rustical rudeness," as the scholiast aptly terms it, are the pastorals for January, June, October and December, which are indeed very beautiful, and the genuine offspring of the rural reed.
It is, however, to the "Fairie Queene" that we must refer for a just delineation of this illustrious hard. It appears to have been commenced about the year 1579; the first three books were printed in 1590, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth in 1596. Whether the remaining six books, which were to have completed the design, were finished or not, continues yet unascertained; Browne, the author of Britannia's Pastorals, and Sir Aston Cokain, consider the poem to have been left nearly in its present unfinished state; while Sir James Ware asserts that the latter books were lost by the carelessness of the poet's servant whom he had sent before him into England on the breaking out of the rebellion, and, what seems still more to the purpose, Sir John Stradling, a contemporary of Spenser, and a highly respectable character, positively declares that some of his manuscripts were burnt when his house in Ireland was fired by the rebels. Now, as two cantos of a lost book, entitled "The Legend of Constancy," were actually published in 1609 as a part of Spenser's manuscripts which had escaped the conflagration of his castle, it is highly probable that the declaration of Sir John Stradling is correct, and that the poet, if he did not absolutely finish the Fairie Queene, had made considerable progress in the work, and that his labours perished with his mansion.
The defects which have vitiated the "Shepheard's Calender," are not apparent in the "Fairie Queene;" the charge of obsolete diction, which has been so generally urged against the latter poem, must have arisen from the just censure which, in this respect, was bestowed upon tho former, and the transference may be considered as a striking proof of critical negligence, and of the long-continued influence of opinion, however erroneous. The language of the Fairie Queene is, in fact, the language of the era in which it was written, and even in the present day, with few and trifling exceptions, as intelligible as are the texts of Shakspeare and Milton.
Had Spenser, in this admirable poem, preserved greater unity in the construction of his fatale; had he, following the example of Ariost, employed human instead of allegorical heroes, he would undoubtedly have been at once the noblest and most interesting of poets. But, as it is, the warmest admirer of his numerous excellencies must confess, that the personifications which conduct the business of the poem, and are consequently exposed to the broad day-light of observation, are too unsubstantial in their form and texture, too divested of all human organisation, to become the subjects of attachment or anxiety. They flit before us, indeed, as mere abstract and metaphysical essences, as beings neither of this nor any other order of planetary existence. A witch, a fairy, or a magician, is a creation sufficiently blended with humanity, to be capable of exciting very powerful emotion; but the meteor-shades of Holiness or Chastity, personally conducting a long series of adventures, is a contrivance so very remote from all earthly, or even what we conceive of supernatural, agency, as to baffle and revolt the credulities of the reader, however ductile or acquiescent.
Yet, notwithstanding these great and obvious errors in the very foundation of the structure, the merits of Spenser in every other respect are of so decided and exalted a nature, as to place him, in spite of every deduction, in the same class with Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, and Milton. His versification is, in general, uncommonly sweet and melodious; his powers of description such, with respect to beauty, fidelity, and minute finishing, as have not since been equalled; while in strength, brilliancy, and fertility of imagination, it will be no hyperbole to assert, that he takes precedence of almost every poet ancient or modern.
One peculiar and endearing characteristic of the Fairie Queene, is the exquisite tenderness which pervades the whole poem. It is impossible indeed to read it without being in love with the author, without being persuaded that the utmost sweetness of disposition, and the purest sincerity and goodness of heart distinguished him who thus delighted to unfold the kindest feelings of our nature, and whose language, by its singular simplicity and energy, seems to breathe the very stamp and force of truth. How grateful is it to record, that the personal conduct of the bard corresponded with the impression resulting from his works; that gentleness, humility, and piety were the leading features of his life, as they still are the most delightful characteristics of his poetry.
Yet amiable and engaging as is the general cast of Spenser's genius, he has nevertheless exhibited the most marked excellence as a delineator of those passions and emotions which approach to, or constitute, the sublime. Nowhere do we find the agitations of fear, astonishment, terror, and despair, drawn with such bold and masterly relief; they start in living energy from his pen, and bear awful witness to the grandeur and elevation of his powers.
It is almost superfluous to add, after what has been already observed, that the morality of the Fairie Queene is throughout pure and impressive. It is a poem which, more than any other, inculcates those mild and passive virtues, that patience, resignation, and forbearance, which owe their influence to Christian principles. While vice and intemperance are developed in all their hideous deformity, those self-denying efforts, those benevolent and social sympathies, which soften and endear existence, are painted in the most bewitching colours: it is, in short, a work from the study of which no human being can rise without feeling fresh incitement to cherish and extend the charities of life.
Spenser died comparatively, though not actually, indigent, on the 16th of January, 1598.