1827
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lectures the Second. Epic and Narrative Poetry.

The Literary Remains ... of the late H. Neele... Consisting of Lectures on English Poetry, Tales, and other Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse.

Henry Neele


Henry Neele offers a paradigmatic romantic character of Spenser as the poet of imagination: "The possible, the probable, and the predictable, all these are thrown behind us. The mighty wizard, whose spell is upon us, waves but his wand, and a new world starts into existence, inhabited by nothing by the marvellous and the wild." Notably lacking are all of the usual topics of Spenser criticism: Neele has nothing to say about Spenser's design, diction, or allegory.

The lectures, delivered at the Russell Institution, were posthumously published in 1829 after Neele's early death. They derive from a series of essays on the English poets Neele published in the Monthly Magazine in 1815. Neele's brief but spectacular career was just taking off at the time of his death; his lectures on English poetry were posthumously published to considerable acclaim, and were for a time more widely known than those of William Hazlitt. Neele's reputation, however, proved short-lived.

Literary Gazette: "In the winter of 1826 Mr. Neele completed a series of Lectures on the English Poets, from Chaucer to the present period. These Lectures he read at the Russell, and afterwards as the Western Institution. They are described by one who heard them as 'displaying a high tone of poetical feeling in the lecturer, and an intimate acquaintance with the beauties and blemishes of the great subjects of his criticism.' The public prints mentioned them in terms of approbation; and profit, as well as praise, accrued to our author by this undertaking" (23 February 1828) 124.

Monthly Review: "Mr. Neele, whose unhappy death throws a disastrous shade over his biography, was one of those half-educated men of moderate talent, whose productions are too frequently valued much beyond their intrinsic merits. The surprise excited by the circumstance that he had found time, amidst the duties of a severe profession, to court the favour of the public by various fugitive pieces, and latterly by a work of some length, and of considerable research, may perhaps, in a great measure, account for the exaggerated estimation in which his compositions have been held by the partiality of private friendship. But to us, who have known him only as an author, and are obliged to judge of him by his desert in that capacity alone, Mr. Neele has appeared to possess little or no claim to that immortality which the editor of these 'remains' endeavours to confer upon him. We have seen nothing in the most important of his labours, the Romance of History, to call forth the eulogies which are here lavished upon it. We have already had occasion to express our opinion of that work, which seemed to our apprehension to be apocryphal as a history, and frigid as a romance. Nor should we have deemed it necessary to notice the volume now before us, if it has not contained a few lectures on English poetry, which, though neither very novel nor profound in their views, serve to remind us tastefully and pleasantly enough, of some of the choicest treasures of our literature" S3 10 (January 1829) 141-42.

John Britton: "I know of no finer specimens of English prose than Neele's Lectures" Autobiography (1850) 1:86.

The extent to which Neele's lecture notes have been amplified or modified by his anonymous editor is unclear: "Although written with rapidity, and apparent carelessness, they were yet copious, discriminative, and eloquent; abounding in well-selected illustration, and inculcating the purest taste. From the original Manuscripts these compositions are now first published and deeply is it to be deplored, that the duty of preparing them for the Press should have devolved upon any one but their Author: since in that case alone, could the plan which he had evidently proposed to himself have been fully completed; and where, in many instances, his intentions can now but be conjectured only, from the traces of his outline, his design would then have been filled up to its entire extent, and harmonized in all its proportions of light and shadow" (1829) vi.




In the former lecture, I discussed, as fully as my limits would permit me, the merits of Chaucer, the father of English poetry. Spenser is the author of a very different stamp. To wit or humour, he has no pretensions. Neither are his delineations of human character at all comparable to those of his great predecessor. Chaucer's knowledge of the heart of man was almost Shaksperian. Spenser had, however, a richer imagination. He was a greater inventor, although a less acute observer. Chaucer was incapable of creating such original imaginary beings as the Fays, Elves, Heroes, and Heroines of Spenser; and Spenser was equally incapable of the exquisite truth and fidelity of Chaucer's portraitures from real life. There is also a fine moral and didactic tone running through the "Fairy Queen," which we look for in vain in the "Canterbury Tales." Spenser's imagery is magnificent. His descriptive powers are of the highest order. Here the two poets approximate more than in any other particular: yet even here, they essentially differ. Spenser paints fairy haunts, enchanted palaces, unearthly Paradises, things such as Caliban saw in his sleep, and, "waking, cried to dream again." Chaucer's pencil depicts the smiling verdant English landscape, which we see before us every day; the grass, the flowers, the brooks, the blue sky, and the glowing sun.

When we open the volumes of Spenser, we leave this "working-day world," as Rosalind calls it, behind us. We are no longer in it, or of it. We are introduced to a new creation, new scenes, new manners, new characters. The laws of nature are suspended, or reversed. The possible, the probable, and the predictable, all these are thrown behind us. The mighty wizard, whose spell is upon us, waves but his wand, and a new world starts into existence, inhabited by nothing by the marvellous and the wild. Spenser is the very antipodes of Shakspeare. The latter is of the earth, earthy. His most ethereal fancies have some touch of mortality about them. His wildest and most visionary characters savour of humanity. Whatever notes he draws forth from his harp, it is the strings of the human heart that he touches. Spenser's hero is always Honour, Truth, Valour, Chastity, Constancy, Beauty, but it is not Woman; — his landscapes are fertility, magnificence, verdure, splendour, but they are not Nature. His pictures have no relief; they are all light, or all shadow; they are all wonder, but no truth. Still do I not complain of them; nor would I have them other than what they are. They are delightful, and matchless in their way. They are dreams: glorious, soul-entrancing dreams. They are audacious, but magnificent falsehood. They are like palaces built on the clouds; the domes, the turrets, the towers, the long-drawn terraces, the aerieal battlements, who does not know that they have no stable existence? but, who does not sigh when they pass away? . . .


[New York (1829) 44-46]