Written early in 1816. John Keats asks, "then how shall I | Revive the dying tones of minstrelsy"? and answers the question by presenting himself, with the support of Leigh Hunt ("Libertas"), as a champion in the lists. The poem turns on Spenser's established reputation for making poets of his readers. Keats's character of Spenser ("thy brows are arched, open, kind") suggests that Spenser, in contrast to the Milton of Collins's Ode on the Poetical Character, was easy to imitate.
Dozens of young poets had written "Spenser imitations" in recent decades, which was probably one reason why Keats's first volume was so easily dismissed: because Spenser was being used in grammar-school composition classes, Spenserian poems could easily attract condescension. Leigh Hunt was thoroughly embarrassed by his own early "Palace of Pleasure." But Keats's "Specimen" is quite unlike the usual Spenserian juvenilia: it is not allegorical, not written in stanzas, and does not employ archaisms. Imitating Spenser without adopting the usual mannerisms was not so easy, and perhaps explains why the "Specimen" remained a fragment.
Edinburgh Magazine: "'Sage, serious' Spencer, the most melodious and mildly fanciful of our old English poets, is Mr. Keats's favourite. He takes his motto from him, — puts his head on his title page, — and writes one of his most luxurious descriptions of nature in his measure. We find, indeed, Spencerianisms scattered through all his other verses, of whatsoever measure or character. But, though these things sufficiently point out where Mr. K. has caught his inspiration, they by no means determine the general character of his manner, which partakes a great deal of that picturesqueness of fancy and licentious brilliancy of epithet which distinguish the early Italian novelists and amorous poets" 80 (October 1817) 254.
Henry A. Beers: "'Specimen of an Induction to a Poem' begins 'Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry.' But he never tells it. The piece evaporates in visions of pure loveliness; 'large white plumes'; sweet ladies on the worn tops of old battlements; light-footed damsels standing in sixes and sevens about the hall in courtly talk. Meanwhile the lance is resting against the wall" Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century (1901) 129.
Greg Kucich: "He introduces the poem as a reworking of Spenser with the conventional eighteenth-century ploy of presenting it as a continuation of an unfinished Faerie Queene narrative, in this case, the legend of Calidore. But in actually shaping out his narrative, he follows the more progressive revisionary strategies of recent Spenserianism. He probably chose the Calidore legend as backdrop for the same reason that Byron selected the Bower of Bliss, because it concentrates Spenser's concern with the competing claims of realism and fantasy" Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism (1991) 158.
Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry;
For large white plumes are dancing in mine eye.
Not like the formal crest of latter days:
But bending in a thousand graceful ways;
So graceful, that it seems no mortal hand,
Or e'en the touch of Archimago's wand,
Could charm them into such an attitude.
We must think rather, that in playful mood,
Some mountain breeze had turned its chief delight,
To show this wonder of its gentle might.
Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry;
For while I muse, the lance points slantingly
Athwart the morning air: some lady sweet,
Who cannot feel for cold her tender feet,
From the worn top of some old battlement
Hails it with tears, her stout defender sent:
And from her own pure self no joy dissembling,
Wraps round her ample robe with happy trembling.
Sometimes, when the good Knight his rest would take,
It is reflected, clearly, in a lake,
With the young ashen boughs, 'gainst which it rests,
And th' half seen mossiness of linnets' nests.
Ah! shall I ever tell its cruelty,
When the fire flashes from a warrior's eye,
And his tremendous hand is grasping it,
And his dark brow for very wrath is knit?
Or when his spirit, with more calm intent,
Leaps to the honors of a tournament,
And makes the gazers round about the ring
Stare at the grandeur of the ballancing?
No, no! this is far off: — then how shall I
Revive the dying tones of minstrelsy,
Which linger yet about lone gothic arches,
In dark green ivy, and among wild larches?
How sing the splendour of the revelries,
When buts of wine are drunk off to the lees?
And that bright lance, against the fretted wall,
Beneath the shade of stately banneral,
Is slung with shining cuirass, sword, and shield?
Where ye may see a spur in bloody field.
Light-footed damsels move with gentle paces
Round the wide hall, and show their happy faces;
Or stand in courtly talk by fives and sevens:
Like those fair stars that twinkle in the heavens.
Yet must I tell a tale of chivalry:
Or wherefore comes that knight so proudly by?
Wherefore more proudly does the gentle knight,
Rein in the swelling of his ample might?
Spenser! thy brows are arched, open, kind,
And come like a clear sun-rise to my mind;
And always does my heart with pleasure dance,
When I think on thy noble countenance:
Where never yet was ought more earthly seen
Than the pure freshness of thy laurels green.
Therefore, great bard, I not so fearfully
Call on thy gentle spirit to hover nigh
My daring steps: or if thy tender care,
Thus startled unaware,
Be jealous that the foot of other wight
Should madly follow that bright path of light
Trac'd by thy lov'd Libertas; he will speak,
And tell thee that my prayer is very meek;
That I will follow with due reverence,
And start with awe at mine own strange pretence.
Him thou wilt hear; so I will rest in hope
To see wide plains, fair trees and lawny slope:
The morn, the eve, the light, the shade, the flowers;
Clear streams, smooth lakes, and overlooking towers.