1808
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Review of Percival Stockdale, Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets.

Edinburgh Review 12 (April 1808) 62-82.

Thomas Campbell


In a long review of the critical essays published late in life by Percival Stockale Thomas Campbell (writing anonymously) presents some of his most detailed remarks on Spenser. While they cover the usual topics in a fairly conventional way, these remarks are of particular interest since they were composed while Campbell was at work on Gertrude of Wyoming (1809), one of the more important poems written in the Spenserian stanza (of which Campbell, of course, entirely approves). As critics have been known to do, he makes his own particular skills (conciseness and precision of versification) the standard of judgment, finding fault with Spenser's prolixity and carelessness, the general faults of the Elizabethan era. Campbell's later thoughts on Spenser were recorded in his introduction to Specimens of the British Poets (1819). Since Stockdale was a contemporary and acquaintance of Johnson, the entire of review is of some interest as a young romantic's gloss on the critical opinions of the former age.

Campbell repeats the charge that Samuel Johnson erred in excluded Spenser from his lives of the poets, a mistake rectified by Stockdale. Critics have also erred in finding fault with Spenser's stanza: "Undoubtedly the stanza of Spencer is less easily constructed in our language than in Italian; but none of the faults of Spencer can be justly attributed to the form of his metre. It is by far the richest and the sweetest of our measures. More definite than blank verse, it admits both of simplicity and magnificence of sound and language. Without the terseness of unvaried rhyme, a measure unfitted to long narration, it is sufficiently uniform to please the ear, and sufficiently various to protract the pleasure. Spencer owes his languid lines merely to the careless taste of an age which set no value on condensed expression" p. 63. The architectural metaphor for the design of the Faerie Queene (introduced by John Hughes) is given a characteristically classical twist: "The story of the Fairy Queen is more like a succession of triumphal arches, than a regular building. We pass on with admiration and delight; but yet both are occasionally cooled by the labyrinthical irregularity of the design" p. 64. Campbell quotes with approval Stockdale's remark that in reading the Faerie Queen one sets aside the allegory and revels in "the bright and variegated regions of imagination." The portion of the review concerned with Spenser concludes with a paragone: "In Spencer, we see, as it were, the painter; in Shakespeare the statuary, of imitated nature" p. 65.




The series of Mr. Stockdale's Eminent Poets commences with Spencer. In going further back, in point of date, than Johnson, his plan is commendable. Spencer, however antiquated his style, is certainly the earliest of our modern English poets. Surrey and Wyatt, though they are found in the mighty chasm that occurs in our poetical history between Chaucer and Spencer, and though they are sufficiently intelligible to be called modern, are still not sufficiently great to stand as the leaders of a new dynasty. The metaphysical school, who succeeded Spencer and Shakespeare, were unworthy to stand in Johnson's list as the only surviving predecessors of Milton.

The outlines of Spencer's poetical character are pretty faithfully drawn by our author, though, as he duly acknowledges, with ample obligations to the labours of a preceding critic, Warton. The principal circumstance which seems to have debarred Spencer from attaining, as he has certainly approached the throne of poetical excellence, seem to be the excessive wildness of that machinery which he has adopted from the more extravagant of the Italian schools, from Ariosto, and not from Tasso. Under this may perhaps be included the fault of his excessive allegory and personification, which associates personified abstract ideas and human beings at the battle as well as the banquet, to the exclusion of even that faint consistency which fable ought to preserve. The form of his stanza has been pronounced by many critics to be tedious and monotonous. Our author confesses that he does not think so; and yet he supposes that it is owing to the shackles of this stanza, that the poetry of Spencer has been loaded with so many passages of languor, tautology, and violated grammar. Undoubtedly the stanza of Spencer is less easily constructed in our language than in Italian; but none of the faults of Spencer can be justly attributed to the form of his metre. It is by far the richest and the sweetest of our measures. More definite than blank verse, it admits both of simplicity and magnificence of sound and language. Without the terseness of unvaried rhyme, a measure unfitted to long narration, it is sufficiently uniform to please the ear, and sufficiently various to protract the pleasure. Spencer owes his languid lines merely to the careless taste of an age which set no value on condensed expression. Without disrespect to our truly majestic measure of blank verse, let some of the rich passages in Spencer, or of the Castle of Indolence, be produced, — those passages especially of the Fairy Queen, in which Spencer's genius has put forth a diligent hand, and we shall find, that the melody and the pomp of this measure, while it accords with the humbler, gives dignity to the loftiest conceptions. When the difficulty of any measure is such as to occasion more restraint in overcoming it than effect when it is overcome, that measure may be called a shackle upon genius. But where so much effect is produced, the difficulty that is overcome becomes a triumph to genius; and the restraint operates like those obstacles of oblique pressure in mechanics, which ultimately augment the impetus of projectile bodies, though, for a while, they seemed to oppose it. But, in truth, if we except the unfortunate adoption of extravagantly allegorical machinery, the few imperfections of Spencer seem to arise from his carelessness. The life of man was not sufficient to have wrought up to classical purity so much composition as he has left behind him. Profusion was the fault of his bountiful genius, as prolixity was that of his minor contemporaries. It was the custom to write much on the minutest subject; and though the fertile mind of Spencer precludes that profusion which gives words without ideas, still there is an accumulation of characters, events, speeches and descriptions, which bewilder the reader, not so much with enchantment, as confusion. The story of the Fairy Queen is more like a succession of triumphal arches, than a regular building. We pass on with admiration and delight; but yet both are occasionally cooled by the labyrinthical irregularity of the design. We miss that regular subserviency of minor events and characters to those which are great and important, which constitutes the charm of a perfect story, whether we call it Epic, or by any other appellation. The characters are in vain varied from each other by a charming verisimilitude and fidelity to human nature. They are in vain elevated to the most heroic scale of excellence to produce that entire interest, of which Spencer's genius could not otherwise have failed. Superlative heroes and peerless beauties are crowded upon us in such numbers, that we lose sight of them in the blaze of each other. Had Spencer lived later in the days of poetry, there is every reason to suppose he would have simplified his plan, and condensed the versification of his poem. In a poem of a few hundred pages, the stanza would not seem monotonous; in one, amounting to thousands of pages, blank verse itself would at least wear us out.

Let it not be held sacrilegious that these remarks are made on a name so justly revered by Englishmen; on one who, if Chaucer be called the day-star, may certainly be pronounced the sunrise of our poetry. What shall we think of that romantic poem, which, with all the faults of its structure and careless execution, is still the wonder of a third century, and the fountain from which our great poets of the last age imbibed their inspiration most deeply. We shall give, however, the praises of Spencer in our author's own language.

"When I sit down to read Spencer, (I presume not to determine with what preparation of the mind he should be read by others), I never think of tracing his allegory. I only with to imbibe the animated and glowing page before me. I forget this world, and am transported to the bright and variegated regions of imagination. His descriptions are presented with such insinuating eloquence, and with such a force of colouring, that even his figures of a grotesque wildness must please those who are most pleased with chaster beauties. You view pictures drawn by the hand of a matter, endowed with contrasted talents, — the mild and beaming skies of Lorraine, the rude and tangled precipices of Salvador Rosa. And though his heroes are the heroes of chivalry and romance, you are often entertained and interested with striking examples of the real nature of man, — of what comes home to social and domestic life. All the passions of the human breast he exhibits with their characteristic features and emotion, particularly the must universally active and powerful of our passions, loves It is remarked by the best critics, that he is particularly powerful in the plaintive and pathetic strain. The truth of this observation is evinced in many passages of the Fairy Queen, arid in those of his smaller poems, which are expressly elegiac." Vol. I. p. 27.

The subject of the next Lecture is Shakespeare; of whom it seems difficult to say any thing that has not been said before — a difficulty which Mr. Stockdale has not overcome. Of Shakespeare's minor poems he thinks unfavourably; an opinion with which the reasonable worshippers of our greatest bard are likely to coincide. All the praise that can be given to those pieces for which his contemporaries gratuitously called him the honey-tongued Shakespeare, is, that they are bad resemblances of the heaviest passages of Spencer. But, when we compare the dramatic style of Shakespeare with the descriptive of Spencer, it is then that we are conscious how rich the age of Elizabeth was, which at once contained two such masters, so high in their degree, yet so different in the species of their merit. In Spencer, we see, as it were, the painter; in Shakespeare the statuary, of imitated nature. Instead of the rich and highly-coloured style of Spencer, so peculiarly suited to description, Shakespeare presents us with the simple and complete imitation of naked nature. His style, therefore (unless where it suits pedantic characters, or complies with his own occasional love of latinizing the meaning of words), is more like the language of life, varying from the ludicrous to the sublime with the characters who address us. Shakespeare is more eminently the poet of nature; he brings nature more palpably before us; his imitation is nearer.


[pp. 63-65]