1830
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Review of Robert Southey's edition of Pilgrim's Progress.

Edinburgh Review (December 1830).

Thomas Babington Macaulay


Thomas Babington Macaulay regrets the defects and tediousness of Spenser's allegory. His schoolboy error about few readers being "in at the death of the Blatant Beast" is one of the more endearing moments in Spenser criticism. Not seen.

An earlier remark in "Criticisms on the Principal Italian Writers" also leads one to suspect that Macaulay's familiarity with The Faerie Queene was slight: "Even Spenser's allegory is scarcely tolerable, till we contrive to forget that Una signifies innocence, and consider her as an oppressed lady under the protection of a generous knight" Knight's Quarterly Magazine 2 (January 1824) 220.




The characteristic peculiarity of the Pilgrim's Progress is that it is the only work of its kind which possesses a strong human interest. Other allegories only amuse the fancy. The allegory of Bunyan has been read by many thousands with tears. There are some good allegories in Johnson's works, and some of still higher merit by Addison. In these performances there is, perhaps, as much wit and ingenuity as in the Pilgrim's Progress. But the pleasure which is produced by the Vision of Mirza, the Vision of Theodore, the genealogy of Wit, or the contest between Rest and Labor, is exactly similar to the pleasure which we derive from one of Cowley's odes or from a canto of Hudibras. It is a pleasure which belongs wholly to the understanding, and in which the feelings have no part whatsoever. Nay, even Spenser himself, though assuredly one of the greatest poets that ever lived, could not succeed in the attempt to make allegory interesting. It was in vain that he lavished the riches of his mind on the House of Pride and the House of Temperance. One unpardonable fault, the fault of tediousness, pervades the whole of the Fairy Queen. We become sick of cardinal virtues and deadly sins, and long for the society of men and women. Of the persons who read the first canto, not one in ten reaches the end of the first book, and not one in a hundred perseveres to the end of the poem. Very few and weary are those who are in at the death of the Blatant Beast. If the last six books, which are said to have been destroyed in Ireland, had been preserved, we doubt whether any heart less stout than that of a commentator would have held out to the end. It is not so with the Pilgrim's Progress. . . .


[Essays and Poems (1880) 1:560]