[Robert Southey's first Encounter with the Faerie Queene.]

Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey. 6 Vols [Cuthbert Southey, ed.]

Robert Southey

In an autobiographical letter dated 19 January 1823, Robert Southey describes his childhood reading and his first impressions of reading the Faerie Queene, which would have been after 1783, when John Hoole's translation of Ariosto was published. Sir Walter Scott also read Spenser for the first time about 1783; see his autobiographical fragment.

The future laureate does not (here) claim, like Abraham Cowley, that reading Spenser made him a poet, though he elsewhere describes his boyhood plan to complete the unfinished books.

A letter of June 29 1824 recalls an early effort in verse: "there was also a satirical peep into Pluto's dominions, in rhyme. I remember the conclusion only, and that because it exhibits a singular indication how strongly and how early my heart was set upon that peculiar line of poetry which I have pursued with most ardour. It described the Elysium of the Poets, and that more sacred part of it in which Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Spenser, Camoens, and Milton were assembled. While I was regarding them, Fame came hurrying by with her arm full of laurels and asking in an indignant voice if there was not poet who would deserve them? Upon which I reached out my hand, snatched at them, and awoke" 1:120.

The holidays made ammends for this penury, and Bull's Circulating Library was then to me what the Bodleian would be now. Hoole, in his notes [to Tasso], frequently referred to the Orlando Furioso. I saw some volumes thus lettered on Bull's counter, and my heart leaped for joy. They proved to be the original; but the shopman, Mr. Cruett (a most obliging man he was), immediately put the translation into my hand, I do not think any accession of fortune could now give me so much delight as I then derived from that vile version of Hoole's. There, in the notes, I first saw the name of Spenser, and some stanzas of the Faery Queen. Accordingly, when I returned the last volume I asked if that work was in the library. My friend Cruett replied that they had it, but it was written in old English, and I should not be able to understand it. This did not appear to me so much a necessary consequence as he supposed, and I therefore requested he would let me look at it. It was the quarto edition of '17, in three volumes, with large prints folded in the middle, equally worthless (like all prints of that age) in design and execution. There was nothing in the language to impede, for the ear set me right where the uncouth spelling (orthography it cannot be called) might have puzzled the eye; and the few words which are really obsolete, were sufficiently explained by the context. No young lady of the present generation falls to a new novel of Sir Walter Scott's with keener relish than I did that morning to the Faery Queen. If I had been asked wherefore it gave me so much more pleasure than ever Ariosto had done, I could not have answered the question. I now know that it was very much owing to the magic of the verse; the contrast between the flat couplets of a rhymester like Hoole, and the fullest and finest of all stanzas written by one who was perfect master of his art. But this was not all. Ariosto too often plays with his subject; Spenser is always in earnest. The delicious landscapes which he luxuriates in describing, brought everything before my eyes. I could fancy such scenes as his lakes and forests, gardens and fountains presented; and I felt, though I did not understand, the truth and purity of his feelings, and that love of the beautiful and the good which pervades his poetry.