1819
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Specimens of the British Poets: Edmund Spenser.

Specimens of the British Poets; with Biographical and Critical Notices, and an Essay on English Poetry. 7 Vols [Thomas Campbell, ed.]

Thomas Campbell


Thomas Campbell reprints Faerie Queene Book I, with selections from Books II and III, though nothing from Shepheardes Calender. The biographical introduction comments on Spenser as a descriptive poet and the lack of design in The Faerie Queene. Campbell's critical remarks on Spenser (which appear in the preliminary essay rather than in this brief biography condensed from Todd's edition) received much attention in the reviews, and his criticism was held in high esteem throughout the nineteenth century.

Francis Jeffrey: "Considered as a nation, we are yet but very imperfectly recovered from that strange and ungrateful forgetfulness of our older poets which began with the Restoration, and continued almost unbroken till after the middle of the last century. — Nor can the works which have chiefly tended to dispel it among the instructed orders, be ranked in a higher class than this which is before us. — Percy's Relics of Antient Poetry produced, we believe, the first revulsion — and this was followed up by Warton's History of Poetry. — Johnson's Lives of the Poets did something; — and the great effect has been produced by the modern commentators on Shakespeare. These various works recommended the older writers, and reinstated them in some of their honours; — but still the works themselves were not placed before he eyes of ordinary readers. This was done in part, perhaps overdone, by the entire republication of some of our older dramatists — and with better effect by Mr. Ellis's Specimens... There was great room therefore, — and, we will even say, great occasion, for such a work as this of Mr. Campbell's, in the present state of our literature; — and we are persuaded, that all who care about poetry, and are not already acquainted with the authors of whom it treats — and even all who are — cannot possibly do better than read it fairly through, from the first page to the last" Edinburgh Review 31 (March 1819) 467-68.

Monthly Review: "If we call to mind the voluminous authors who have preceded Mr. Campbell in this fertile field, we must allow that for accuracy of judgment, plodding research, philosophical deduction, and estimation of the various powers of genius, we have to boast many and luminous commentators on our poets: but we think that we have possessed few who have been richly endowed with that finer frame of mind, and those delicate perceptions of taste, which are essential in analyzing the beauty or the defects of any work of art, and, indeed, appear to be strongly connected with the gift of genius or invention itself. It requires a mind of creative power to judge truly and fairly the productions of the imagination in others; and the poetical cause of our departed bards seems to have been fortunately reserved at last for the judgment of one of their peers. Many other points of excellence their former critics have shared equally with Mr. Campbell: but in touching on the tenderer chords of the lyre, — in developing, contrasting, and pointing out to view the finer beauties of the art, — none perhaps can fairly be put in competition with him. Through Johnson had an enlarged and powerful intellect, he was evidently warped in his opinions, and deficient in that lofty feeling which is requisite to appreciate the higher orders of poetry. In his Lives, Gray is ridiculed for his Odes, not excepting The Bard; and Collins is censured for some of his finest allegorical pieces. The critical disquisitions prefixed to the editions of Steevens, Theobald, and a long line of commentating worthies, are written in any spirit but a true spirit of nature and poetic feeling; forming rather polemic treatises of words, and dates, and texts, than just and valuable elucidations of genius, which they are more calculated to smother under their load of disquisition. Although Percy's Relics of Ancient Poetry had the effect of first rousing us to an admiration of early times, and other critics in succession (among them Pope, Addison, and Warton in his History of Poetry, chiefly led the way,) distinguished themselves from the herd of Dennises and Ogilvies that infested the land, they still left much ground untouched, and invented rather than followed up the art of criticism which has been since pursued" NS 90 (December 1819) 394-95.

Blackwood's Magazine: "Of Spenser's spirit, it may be said, that the essential principle is love — love in its soft ethereal essence, and heavenly beauty. The principle (if it be not presumptuous to speak in this way of such minds) of Rubens' genius would rather appear to us power — and that perhaps not the very highest — on fire with the ungovernable action of its own impetuous energies. A visionary softness of beauty, with celestial gleams brightening through, invests the offspring of Spenser's muse; but stern and unassailable strength, and dark and richest splendour are the form and appearance in which we are used to know the giant-progeny of Rubens. It therefore does not appear to us, that two minds, of which the works and powers can, with any degree of justice, be so differently charactered, may, with any propriety, be brought under the identity of a name" Review of Campbell's "Specimens" 4 (1819) 706.

Lord Byron, to John Murray: "Murray, my dear, make my respects to Thomas Campbell, and tell him from me, with faith and friendship, three things that he must right in his Poets: Firstly, he says Anstey's Bath Guide Characters are taken from Smollett. 'Tis impossible: — the Guide was published in 1766, and Humphrey Clinker in 1771 — dunque, 'tis Smollett who has taken from Anstey. Secondly, he does not know to whom Cowper alludes, when he says that there was one who 'built a church to God, and then blasphemed his name:' it was 'Deo erexit Voltaire' to whom that maniacal Calvinist and coddled poet alludes. Thirdly, he misquotes and spoils a passage from Shakespeare, 'To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,' etc.; for 'lily' he puts 'rose,' and bedevils in more words than one the whole quotation. Now, Tom is a fine fellow; but he should be correct; for the 1st is an injustice (to Anstey), the 2nd an ignorance, and the third a blunder. Tell him all this, and let him take it in good part; for I might have rammed it into a review and vexed him — instead of which, I act like a Christian" 20 May 1820; Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 5:165-66.

John Gibson Lockhart describes the origins of Campbell's edition, which began about 1804, and was at one point to have been jointly edited with Walter Scott: "the design ultimately fell to the ground, in consequence of the booksellers refusing to admit certain works which both Scott and Campbell insisted upon. Such, and from analogous causes, has been the fate of various similar schemes both before and since. But the public had no trivial compensation for the failure of the original project led Mr. Campbell to prepare for the press those Specimens of English Poetry which he illustrated with sketches of biography and critical essays, alike honorable to his learning and taste; while Scott, Mr. Forster ultimately standing off, took on himself the whole burden of a new edition, as well as biography, of Dryden. The body of booksellers meanwhile combined in what they still called a 'general edition' of the English Poets, under the superintendence of one of their own Grub Street vassals, Mr. Alexander Chalmers" Life of Scott (1837-38; 1902) 1:428-29. A different version of the story is told by Thomas Constable in his Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents (1873) 1:176-79.

Thomas Constable: "Slowly gradual the progress must have been, for on April 26th 1810 Mr. Murray writers to my father: — 'I shall send you in a few days a printed advertisement of Campbell's work, which is nearly ready for press: he has completed the Lives, and all is just finished. When you receive this I will beg the favour of your candid opinion, and whether or not — supposing it to be actually done, and if you please actually printed, so that there can be no trouble with the editor — you will take half with me.' Again, in November 1811, Mr. Murray writes: — 'Miller, with Davies and Baldwin, are to join me in Campbell's Lives of the Poets, which will form three volumes crown 8vo, printed uniformly with Ellis's Specimens. Campbell has exerted all his talent, and a very great share of industry, and it will make an interesting work. The Life of Burns is very beautiful. We go to press in the summer, and intend to publish in January 1813. It is unnecessary to say that if you feel any disposition to join us, you may have a fifth, a tenth, or any share you like.' The work did not appear till 1817 [1819], by which time the patience of author and publisher must have been alike exhausted" Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents (1873) 1:184.

William Minto: "In Thomas Campbell's criticism of the Faery Queen it is said that, 'on a comprehensive view of the whole work, we certainly miss the charm of strength, symmetry, and rapid or interesting progress.' The criticism, like all others from the same pen, is carefully studied and just; but it is somewhat startling without farther explanation of the terms. By rapid or interesting progress we must not understand rapid or interesting progress of events; we must lay emphasis on the word 'progress.' Incidents succeed one another quickly and suddenly as in a dream; but they do not progress with the interest of increasing suspense towards their professed end" Characteristics of English Poets (1874) 224.

George Saintsbury: "He really and almost adequately appreciates Chaucer: it is only his prejudice about Unity and Fable that prevents him from being a thorough-going Spenserian; and when we come to the seventeenth century he is quite surprising. Again, it is true, his general creed makes him declare that the metaphysicians 'thought like madmen.' But he is juster to some of them than Hazlitt is; he has the great credit of having (after a note of Southey's, it is true) re-introduced readers to the mazy but magical charms of Pharonnida" History of English Criticism (1911) 383.

Oliver Elton: "It was ill for Campbell that he resisted the new poetry with so much prejudice, and refused to learn from it, though he lived for nearly half a century after its rise. He was a man of talent, but he would not listen. It is much the same with his criticism, which is found in his Essay on British Poetry, and in the notices of the British poets prefixed to his Specimens (1819), and also in his Lectures on Poetry. He has many flashes of sensibility, little real sense of values; and an attempt to speak for posterity, which dwelt on Langhorne and Mason, omitted the masterpiece of Smart, and praised in Chatterton not his imagery, but his strength of 'moral portraiture,' is now curious reading. His notes on the old masters show the same mixture of feeling and blankness; but he was the first to attempt, however summarily, the whole survey from Chaucer to Burns, and he dotted in the names over a larger map than that sketched by Warton or Johnson, or even by Coleridge and Lamb. He spoke of Spenser as aptly as any of these judges: 'We shall nowhere find more airy and expansive images of visionary things, a sweeter tone of sentiment, or a finer flush in the colours of language.... The clouds of his allegory may seem to spread into shapeless forms, but they are still the clouds of a glowing atmosphere. Though his story grows desultory, the sweetness and grace of his manner still abide by him.... We always rise from perusing him with melody in the mind's ear, and with pictures of romantic beauty impressed on the imagination.' He compares equally well with the romantic critics when he touches on Jonson and Massinger" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 1:69.




Edmund Spenser, descended from the ancient and honourable family of Spenser, was born in London, in East Smithfield, by the Tower, probably about the year 1553. He studied at the university of Cambridge, where it appears, from his correspondence, that he formed an intimate friendship with the learned, but pedantic, Gabriel Harvey. Spenser, with Sir P. Sydney, was, for a time, a convert to Harvey's Utopian scheme for changing the measures of English poetry into those of the Greeks and Romans.

Spenser even wrote trimeter iambics sufficiently bad to countenance the English hexameters of his friend; but the Muse would not suffer such a votary to be lost in the pursuit after chimeras, and recalled him to her natural strains. From Cambridge Spenser went to reside with some relations in the north of England, and, in this retirement, conceived a passion for a mistress, whom he has celebrated under the name of Rosalind. It appears, however, that she trifled with his affection, and preferred a rival.

Harvey, or Hobinol (by so uncouth a name did the shepherd of hexameter memory, the learned Harvey, deign to be called in Spenser's eclogues), with better judgment than he had shown in poetical matters, advised Spenser to leave his rustic obscurity, and introduced him to Sir Philip Sydney, who recommended him to his uncle, the Earl of Leicester. The poet was invited to the family seat of Sydney at Penshurst, in Kent, where he is supposed to have assisted the Platonic studies of his gallant and congenial friend. To him he dedicated his "Shepheard's Calendar." Sydney did not bestow unqualified praise on those eclogues; he allowed that they contained much poetry, but condemned the antique rusticity of the language. It was of these eclogues, and not of the Fairy Queen (as has been frequently misstated), that Ben Jonson said, that the author in affecting the ancients had written no language at all. They gained, however, so many admirers, as to pass through five editions in Spenser's lifetime; and though Dove, a contemporary scholar, who translated them into Latin, speaks of the author being unknown, yet when Abraham Fraunce, in 1583, published his "Lawyer's Logicke," he illustrated his rules by quotations from the Shepheard's Calendar.

Pope, Dryden, and Warton have extolled those eclogues, and Sir William Jones has placed Spenser and Gay as the only genuine descendants of Theocritus and Virgil in pastoral poetry

This decision may be questioned. Favourable as the circumstances of England have been to the development of her genius in all the higher walks of poetry, they have not been propitious to the humbler pastoral muse. Her trades and manufactures, the very blessings of her wealth and industry, threw the indolent shepherd's life to a distance from her cities and capital, where poets, with all their love of the country, are generally found; and impressed on the face of the country, and on its rustic manners, a gladsome, but not romantic appearance.

In Scotland, on the contrary, the scenery, rural economy of the country, and the songs of the peasantry, sung, "at the watching of the fold," presented Ramsay with a much nearer image of pastoral life, and he accordingly painted it with the fresh feeling and enjoyment of nature. Had Sir William Jones understood the dialect of that poet, I am convinced that he would not have awarded the pastoral crown to any other author. Ramsay's shepherds are distinct, intelligible beings, neither vulgar, like the caricatures of Gay, nor fantastic, like those of Fletcher. They afford such a view of a national peasantry as we should wish to acquire by travelling among them, and form a draft entirely devoted to rural manners, which for truth, and beauty, and extent, has no parallel in the richer language of England. Shakspeare's pastoral scenes are only subsidiary to the main interest of the plays where they are introduced. Milton's are rather pageants of fancy, than pictures of real life. The shepherds of Spenser's Calendar ale parsons in disguise, who converse about heathen divinities and points of Christian theology. Palinode defends tho luxuries of the Catholic clergy, and Piers extols the purity of Archbishop Grindal; concluding with the story of a fox, who came to the house of a goat, in the character of a pedlar, and obtained admittance by pretending to be a sheep. This may be burlesquing Aesop, but certainly is not imitating Theocritus. There are fine thoughts and images in the Calendar, but, on the whole, the obscurity of those pastorals is rather their covering, than their principal, defect.

In 1580, Arthur Lord Grey, of Wilton, went as lord lieutenant to Ireland, and Spenser accompanied him as his secretary; we may suppose by the recommendation of the Earl of Leicester. Lord Grey was recalled from his Irish government in 1582, and Spenser returned with him to England, where, by the interest of Grey, Leicester, and Sydney, he obtained a grant from Queen Elizabeth of 3028 acres in the county of Cork, out of the forfeited estates of the Earl of Desmond. This was the last act of kindness which Sydney had a share in conferring on him: he died in the same year, furnishing an almost solitary instance of virtue passing through life uncalumniated.

Whether Sydney was meant or not, under the character of Prince Arthur in the Fairy Queen, we cannot conceive the poet, in describing heroic excellence, to have had the image of Sir Philip Sydney long absent from his mind.

By the terms of the royal grant, Spenser was obliged to return to Ireland, in order to cultivate the lands assigned to him. His residence at Kilcolman, an ancient castle of the Earl of Desmond, is described by one who had seen its ruins, as situated on the north side of a fine lake, in the midst of a vast plain, which was terminated to the east by the Waterford mountains, on the north by the Ballyhowra hills, and by the Nagle and Kerry mountains on the south and east. It commanded a view of above half the breadth of Ireland, and must have been, when the adjacent uplands were wooded, a most romantic and pleasant situation. The river Mulla, which Spenser has so often celebrated, ran through his grounds. In this retreat he was visited by Sir Walter Raleigh, at that time a captain in the queen's army. His visit occasioned the first resolution of Spenser to prepare the first books of the Fairy Queen for immediate publication. Spenser has commemorated this interview, and the inspiring influence of Raleigh's praise, under the figurative description of two shepherds tuning their pipes beneath the alders of the Mulla; — a fiction with which the mind, perhaps, will be much less satisfied, than by recalling the scene as it really existed. When we conceive Spenser reciting his compositions to Raleigh, in a scene so beautifully appropriate, the mind casts a pleasing retrospect over that influence which the enterprise of the discoverer of Virginia, and the genius of the author of the Fairy Queen, have respectively produced on the fortune and language of England. The fancy might even be pardoned for a momentary superstition, that the Genius of their country hovered, unseen, over their meeting, casting her first look of regard on the poet, that was destined to inspire her future Milton, and the other on the maritime hero, who paved the way for colonising distant regions of the earth, where the language of England was to be spoken, and the poetry of Spenser to be admired. Raleigh, whom the poet accompanied to England, introduced him to Queen Elizabeth. Her majesty, in 1590-1, conferred on him a pension of 50 a year. In the patent for his pension he is not styled the laureat, but his contemporaries have frequently addressed him by that title. Mr. Malone's discovery of the patent for this pension refutes the idle story of Burleigh's preventing the royal bounty being bestowed upon the poet, by asking if so much money was to be given for a song; as well as that of Spenser's procuring it at last by the doggrel verses,

I was promised, on a time,
To have reason for my rhyme, &c.

Yet there are passages in the Fairy Queen which unequivocally refer to Burleigh with severity. The coldness of that statesman to Spenser most probably arose from the poet's attachment to Lord Leicester and Lord Essex, who were each successively at the head of a party — opposed to the Lord Chancellor. After the publication of the Fairy Queen, he returned to Ireland, and, during his absence, the fame which he had acquired by that poem (of which the first edition, however, contained only the first three books) induced his publisher to compile and reprint his smaller pieces. He appears to have again visited London about the end of 1591, as his next publication, the Elegy on Douglas Howard, daughter of Henry Lord Howard, is dated January 1591-2. From this period there is a long interval in the history of Spenser, which was probably passed in Ireland, but of which we have no account. He married, it is conjectured, in the year 1594, when he was past forty, and it appears from his Epithalamium, that the nuptials were celebrated at Cork. In 1596, the second part of the Fairy Queen appeared, accompanied by a new edition of the first. Of the remaining six books, which would have completed the poet's design, only fragments have been brought to light; and there is little reason to presume that they were regularly furnished. Yet Mr. Todd has proved that the contemporaries of Spenser believed much of his valuable poetry to have been lost, in the destruction of his house in Ireland.

In the same year, 1596, he presented to the queen his "View of the State of Ireland," which remained in manuscript, till it was published by Sir James Ware, in 1633. Curiosity turns naturally to the prose work, of so old and eminent a poet, which exhibits him in the three-fold character of a writer delineating an interesting country from his own observation, of a scholar tracing back its remotest history, and of a politician investigating the causes of its calamities. The antiquities of Ireland have been since more successfully explored; though on that subject Spenser is still a respectable authority. The great value of the book is the authentic and curious picture of national manners and circumstances which it exhibits, and its style is as nervous, as the matter is copious and amusing. A remarkable proposal, in his plan for the management of Ireland, is the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon system of Borseholders. His political views are strongly coercive, and consist of little more than stationing proper garrisons, and abolishing ancient customs: and we find him declaiming bitterly against the Irish minstrels, and seriously dwelling on the loose mantles, and glibs, or long hair, of the vagrant poor, as important causes of moral depravity. But we ought not to try the plans of Spenser by modern circumstances, nor his temper by the liberality of more enlightened times. It was a great point to commence earnest discussion on such a subject. From a note in one of the oldest copies of this treatise, it appears that Spenser was at that time clerk to the council of the province of Ulster. In 1597, our poet returned to Ireland, and in the following year was destined to an honourable situation, being recommended by her majesty to be chosen sheriff for Cork. But in the subsequent month of that year, Tyrone's rebellion broke out, and occasioned his immediate flight, with his family, from Kilcolman. In the confusion attending this calamitous departure, one of his children was left behind, and perished in the conflagration of his house, when it was destroyed by the Irish insurgents. Spenser returned to England with a heart broken by distress, and died at London on the 16th of January, 1598-9. He was buried, according to his own desire, near the tomb of Chaucer; and the most celebrated poets of the time (Shakspeare was probably of the number,) followed his hearse and threw tributary verses into his grave.

Mr. Todd, the learned editor of his works, has proved it to be highly improbable that he could have died, as has been sometimes said, in absolute walls. For he had still his pension and many friends, among whom Essex provided nobly for his funeral. Yet that he died broken-hearted and comparatively poor, is but too much to be feared, from the testimony of his contemporaries, Camden and Jonson. A reverse of fortune might crush his spirit without his being reduced to absolute indigence, especially with the horrible recollection of the manner in which his child had perished.


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