Anna Brownell Jameson constructs a love-life for Edmund Spenser from passages in his poetry, concluding, "Were I to choose, however, I would rather have been the object of Ariosto's compliment than of Spenser's" 1:233. The scope of Mrs. Jameson's study is better indicated by a subtitle added in later editions: "Biographical Sketches of Women celebrated in Ancient and Modern Poetry." The Loves of the Poets, and Mrs. Jameson's subsequent volumes on female figures in literature and history, were frequently reprinted in the nineteenth century. The first edition was anonymously published.
Edinburgh Literary Journal: "We learn that the authoress of The Loves of the Poets, and of the Diary of an Ennuyee, (a pretty sentimental volume,) is a Mrs. Jameson, a native of the Emerald Isle; but we are alike ignorant of her person and farther history. The book before us is the matured execution of a rather happy idea; and the subject being one of general interest, we have no doubt it will meet with a pretty extensive circulation. It contains notices of a considerable proportion of the most celebrated poets of all countries, in so far as they had any thing to do with 'affaires du coeur,' and intermingles with lively descriptions of their 'amourettes,' numerous pleasant quotations from their poetical works, whether in French, Italian, or English" (11 July 1829) 71.
Monthly Review: "It is written in a good and amiable spirit. There is gentle thought and deep feeling in its pages, and this is enough to make it valuable and worthy of praise. But there is something more in it — signs of extensive poetical reading — of that quick perception of its beauties which draws out the heart and the spirit of the poet's thoughts — and the ingenious manner in which, as we have said, the criticisms are put together, will afford no slight gratification to the lovers either of Italian, or of our old English literature. Biography is not an easy species of writing, and poetical biography is less so than any other. The poet's life is not so interesting for the incidents it displays, as for its development of human feeling, under its most strongly marked characters. Neither the mere critic, nor the mere historian, however talented in their respective ways, is capable of fitly telling the story of such a life, and there are very many pages in the work before us which incline us to think, that a woman, a thinking, feeling, and accomplished woman, would be the biographer to whom the poet, if he had his own choice in such things, would most gladly commit the charge of painting what he was, and of telling how he lived, thought, loved, and suffered" S3 12 (August 1829) 29.
Blackwood's Magazine: "'How divine a thing | A woman may be made!' The fair editor of the Loves of the Poets is of this class and character. Her native delicacy enables her, at all times, to speak of 'Loves' as Una or Sabrina, those 'flowers of maidenhood,' might have spoken — as Cymbeline or Desdemona; and her native genius enables her to speak with a fine and kindred enthusiasm that gives a glow to all her language, of the 'Loves of the Poets.' Nor does her devout admiration of those who enjoyed' the Vision and the Faculty divine,' blind the eye of her moral sense to their delinquencies or aberrations; though, as is right and just, she weight the strength of their temptations, and of the virtues. If her judgments sometimes appear not to be sufficiently stern, they are always high; for weakness, she possibly may seem to make too much allowance, and even now and then to regard it with too much sympathy; but from the far shadow of coarseness or grossness she turns away her unpolluted eyes; and her spirit expands and exults, and lightens on the contemplation of a pure devotion even to an earthly idol" 26 (September 1829) 527.
John Wilson: "NORTH. One of the most eloquent of our female writers — full of feeling and fancy — a true enthusiast with a glowing soul. SHEPHERD. Mrs. Jameson's prose aye reminds me o' Miss Landon's poetry — and though baith hae their fawtes, I wou'd charactereese baith alike by the same epithet — rich. I hate a simple style, for that's only anither word for puir. What I mean is, that when you can say nae better o' a style than it's simple, you maun be at a great loss for eulogium. There's naething simpler nor water, and, at times, a body drinks't greedily frae the rim o' his hat made intil a scoop; but for a that, in the lang rin, I prefer porter" Blackwood's Magazine (November 1831) in Noctes Ambrosianae (1857) 4:462.
Mrs. Jameson compares herself to Britomart in a memoir of her childhood: "The shaping spirit of imagination began when I was about eight or nine years old to haunt my inner life. I have a remembrance that I was always a princess-heroine in the disguise of a knight, a sort of Clorinda or Britomart, going about to redress the wrongs of the poor, fight giants, and kill dragons" quoted in Gentleman's Magazine 208 (May 1860) 520.
W. Davenport Adams: "Mrs. Jameson, nee Anna Murphy, miscellaneous writer (b. 1797, d. 1860), was the author of The Diary of an Ennuyee (1826); The Loves of the Poets (1829); Celebrated Female Sovereigns (1831); Characteristics of Shakespeare's Women (1832); Beauties of the Court of Charles II. (1833); Sketches of Germany (1837); Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838); Lives of the Early Italian Painters (1845); Memoirs and Essays (1846); Sacred and Legendary Art (1848); A Commonplace Book of Thoughts, Memories, and Fancies (1854); and other works" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 312.
Pass we from the Ariosto of Italy, to Spenser, our English Ariosto; the transition is natural: — they resemble each other certainly, but with a difference, and this difference reigns especially in their minor poems.
The tender heart and luxuriant fancy of Spenser have thrown round his attachments all the strong interest of reality and all the charm of romance and poetry: and since we know that the first developement of his genius was owing to female influence, his Rosalind ought to have been deified for what her beauty achieved, had she possessed sufficient soul to appreciate the lustre of her conquest.
Immediately on leaving college, Spenser retired to the north of England, where he first became enamoured of the fair being to whom, according to the fashion of the day, he gave the fanciful appellation of Rosalind. We are told that the letters which form this word being "well ordered," (that is, transposed) comprehend her real name; but it has hitherto escaped the penetration of his biographers. Two of his friends were entrusted with the secret, and they, with a discretion more to be regretted than blamed, have kept it. One of these, who speaks from personal knowledge, tells us, in a note on the Eclogues, that she was the daughter of a widow; that she was a gentlewoman, and one "that for her rare and singular gifts of person and mind, Spenser need not have, been ashamed to love." We can believe this of a poet, whose delicate perception of female worth, breathes in almost every page of his works; but after having, as he hoped, made some progress in her heart, a rival stept in, whom Spenser accuses expressly of having supplanted him by treacherous arts; and on this obscure and nameless wight, Rosalind bestowed the hand which had been coveted, — the charms which had been sung by Spenser! He suffered long and deeply, wounded both in his pride and in his love: but her beauty and virtue had made a stronger impression than her cruelty; and her lover, with a generous tenderness, not only pardoned, but found excuses for her disdain.
I have often heard,
Fair Rosalind of divers foully blam'd,
For being to that swain too cruel hard;
But who can tell what cause had that fair maid
To use him so, that loved her so well?
Or who with blame can justly her upbraid,
For loving not; for who can love compel?
And (sooth to say) it is full handy thing
Rashly to censure creatures so divine;
For demi-gods they be; and first did spring
From heaven, though graft in frailness feminine.
The exquisite sentiment of these lines is worthy of him who sung of "heavenly Una and her milk-white lamb."
To the memory of Rosalind, to the long felt influence of this first passion, and to the melancholy shade which his early disappointment cast over a mind naturally cheerful, we owe some of the most tender and beautiful passages scattered through his later poems: — for instance — the bitter sense of recollected suffering seems to have suggested that fine description of a lover's life, which may almost rank as a pendant to the miseries of the courtier, so well known and often quoted.
Full little know'st thou that hast not tied, &c.
It occurs in the "Hymn to Love."
The gnawing envy, the heart-fretting fear,
The vain surmises, the distrustful shows,
The false reports that flying tales do bear,
The doubts, the dangers, the delays, the woes,
The feigned friends, the unassured foes,
With thousands more than any tongue can tell—
Do make a lover's life, a wretch's hell!
And again in the Fairey Queen:—
What equal torment to the grief of mind,
And pining anguish, hid in gentle heart,
That inly feeds itself with thoughts unkind,
And nourisheth its own consuming smart;
And will to none its malady impart!
The effects produced in a noble and gentle spirit, by virtuous love for an exalted object, are not less elegantly described in another stanza of the Hymn to Love; and must have been read with rapture in that chivalrous age. The last line is particularly beautiful.
Then forth he casts in his unquiet thought,
What he may do, her favour to obtain;
What brave exploit, what peril hardly wrought,
What puissant conquest, what adventurous pain,
May please her best, and grace unto him gain;
He dreads no danger, nor misfortune fears,—
His faith, his fortune, in his breast he bears!
And in what a fine spirit of poetry, as well as feeling, is that description of the power of true beauty, which forms part of his second Hymn! It is indeed imitated from the refined Platonics of the Italian school, which then prevailed in the court, the camp, the grove, and is a little diffuse in style, a little redundant; but how rich in poetry, and in the most luxuriant and graceful imagery!
How vainly then do idle wits invent,
That beauty is nought else but mixture made
Of colours fair, and goodly temperament
Of pure complexions, that shall quickly fade
And pass away, like to a summer's shade;
Or that it is but comely composition
Of parts well measured, with meet disposition!
Hath white and red in it such wondrous power,
That it can pierce through th' eyes into the heart,
And therein stir such rage and restless stowre,
As nought but death can stint his dolor's smart?
Or can proportion of the outward part
Move such affection in the inward mind,
That it can rob both sense, and reason blind?
Why do not then the blossoms of the field,
Which are array'd with much more orient hue,
And to the sense most dainty odours yield,
Work like impression in the looker's view?
Or why do not fair pictures like power show,
In which oft-times we Nature see of Art
Excell'd, in perfect limming every part?
But ah! believe me, there is more than so,
That works such wonders in the minds of men,
I, that have often prov'd, too well it know.
And who so list the like essaies to ken,
Shall find by trial, and confess it then,
That beauty is not, as fond men misdeem,
An outward show of things that only seem.
For that same goodly hue of white and red,
With which the cheeks are sprinkled, shall decay,
And those sweet rosy leaves, so fairly spread
Upon the lips, shall fade and fall away,
To that they were, even to corrupted clay:—
That golden wire, those sparkling stars so bright
Shall turn to dust, and lose their goodly light.
But that fair lamp, from whose celestial ray
That light proceeds, which kindleth lovers' fire,
Shall never be extinguished nor decay;
But, when the vital spirits do expire,
Unto her native planet shall retire;
For it is heavenly born and cannot die,
Being a parcel of the purest sky!
At a late period of Spenser's life, the remembrance of this cruel piece of excellence, — his Rosalind, was effaced by a second and a happier love. His sonnets are addressed to a beautiful Irish girl, the daughter of a rich merchant of Cork. She it was who healed the wound inflicted by disdain and levity, and taught him the truth he has expressed in one charming line—
Sweet is that love alone, that comes with willingnesse!
Her name was Elizabeth, and her family (as Spenser tells us himself,) obscure; but, in spite of her plebeian origin, the lady seems to have been a very peremptory and Juno-like beauty. Spenser continually dwells upon her pride of sex, and has placed it before us in many charming turns of thought, now deprecating it as a fault, but, oftener celebrating it as a virtue. For instance,—
Rudely thou wrongest my dear heart's desire,
In finding fault with her too portly pride:
The thing which I do most in her admire,
Is of the world unworthy most envied;
For in those lofty looks is close implied,
Scorn of base things, disdain of foul dishonour;
Threatening rash eyes which gaze on her so wide,
That loosely they ne dare to look upon her.
Such pride is praise; such portliness is honour.
And again, in the thirteenth sonnet,—
In that proud port, which her so goodly graceth,
Whiles her fair face she rears up to the sky,
And to the ground, her eye-lids low embaseth,
Most goodly temperature ye may descry;
Mild humblesse, mixt with awful majesty!
This picture of the deportment erect with conscious dignity, and the eyelids veiled with feminine modesty, is very beautiful. We have the figure of his Elizabeth before us in all her maidenly dignity and proud humility. The next is a softened repetition of the same characteristic portrait:
Was it the work of Nature or of Art,
Which temper'd so the features of her face,
That pride and meekness, mixt by equal part,
Do both appear to adorn her beauty's grace?
He rebukes her with a charming mixture of reproof and flattery, in the lines—
Fair Proud! now tell me, why should fair be proud? &c.
This imperious and high-souled beauty at length gives some sign of relenting; and pursuing the train of thought and feeling through the latter part of the collection, we can trace the vicissitudes of the lady's temper, and how the lover sped in his wooing. First, she grants a smile, and it is hailed with rapture—
Sweet smile! the daughter of the Queen of Love,
Expressing all thy mother's powerful art,
With which she wont to temper angry Jove,
When all the gods he threats with thundering dart:
Sweet is thy virtue, as thyself sweet art!
For, when on me thou shinedst late in sadness,
A melting pleasance ran through every part,
And me revived with heart-robbing gladness!
The effect of a first relenting and affectionate smile, from a being of this character, must, truth, have been irresistible. He tells us how lovely she appeared in his eyes, — how surpassing fair:
When that the cloud of pride which oft doth dark
Her goodly light, with smiles she drives away!
He finds her one day embroidering in silk a bee and a spider,
Woven all about,
With woodbynd flowers and fragrant eglantine,
and he playfully compares himself to a spider, and her to the bee, whom, after long and weary watching, he has at length caught in his snare. This pretty incident is the subject of the 71st Sonnet. The rapture of grateful affection is more eloquent in the Sonnet beginning
Joy of my life! full oft for loving you
I bless my lot, that was so lucky placed, &c.
When he is allowed to hope, the pride which had before checked and chilled, him, seems to change its character. He feels all the exultation of being beloved of one, not easily gained, and "assured unto herself."
Thrice happy she that is so well assured
Unto herself, and settled so in heart, &c.
After a courtship of about three years, he sues for the possession of the fair hand to which he had so long aspired; promising her (and not vainly,) all the immortality his verse could bestow,
Even this verse, vowed to eternity,
Shall be of her immortal monument,
And tell her praise to all posterity!
The fair Elizabeth at length confesses herself won; but expresses some fears at the idea of relinquishing her maiden freedom. His reply is, perhaps, the most beautiful of all the Sonnets. It has all the tenderness, elegance, and fancy, which distinguish Spenser in his happiest moments of inspiration.
The doubt which ye misdeem, fair love, is vain,
That fondly fear to lose your liberty;
When, losing one, two liberties ye gain,
And make him bound that bondage erst did fly.
Sweet be the bands, the which true love doth tye
Without constraint, or dread of any ill:
The gentle bird feels no captivity
Within her cage; but sings, and feeds her fill:
There pride dare not approach, nor discord spill
The league 'twixt them, that loyal love hath bound:
But simple Truth, and mutual Good-will,
Seeks, with sweet peace, to salve each other's wound
There Faith doth fearless dwell is brazen tower,
And spotless Pleasure builds her sacred bower.
The Amoretti, as Spenser has fancifully entitled his Sonnets, are certainly tinctured with a good deal of the verbiage and pedantry of the times; but I think I have shown that they contain passages of earnest feeling, as well as high poetic beauty. Spenser married his Elizabeth, about the year 1593, and he has crowned his amatory effusions with a most impassioned and triumphant epithalamion on his own nuptials, which he concludes with a prophecy, that it shall stand a perpetual monument of his happiness, and thus it has been. The passage in which he describes his youthful bride, is perhaps one of the most beautiful and vivid pictures in the whole compass of English poetry.
Behold, while she before the altar stands,
Hearing the holy priest that to her speaks,
And blesses her with his two happy hands,
How the red roses flush up in her cheeks,
And the pure snow, with goodly vermeil stain,
Like crimson died in grain!
That even the angels, which continually
About the sacred altar do remain,
Forget their service, and about her fly,
Oft peeping in her face, which seems more fair,
The more they on it stare.
But her sad eyes, still fastened on the ground,
Are governed with a goodly modesty
That suffers not a look to glance away,
Which may let in a little thought unsound.
Why blush ye, love! to give to me your hand
The pledge of all our band!
Sing! ye sweet angels! Hallelujah sing!
That all the woods may answer, and their echoes ring!
And the rapturous apostrophe to the evening star is in a fine strain of poetry.
Late, though it be, at last I see it gloom,
And the bright evening star, with golden crest,
Appear out of the west!
Fair child of beauty! glorious lamp of love!
That all the host of heaven in ranks dost lead,
And guidest lovers through the night's sad dread,
How cheerfully thou lookest from above,
And seem'st to laugh atween thy twinkling light!
As Ariosto has contrived to introduce his personal feelings, and the memory of his love, into the Orlando Furioso, so Spenser has enshrined his in the Fairy Queen; but he has not, I think, succeeded so well in the manner of celebrating the woman he delighted to honour. Ariosto has the advantage over the English poet, in delicacy and propriety of feeling as well as power. Spenser's picture of the swelling eminence, the lawn, the clustering trees, the cascade—
Whose silver waves did softly tumble down,
haunted by nymphs and fairies; the bevy of beauties who dance in a circle round the lady of his love, while he himself, in his character of Colin Clout, sits aloof piping on his oaten reed, remind us of one of Claude's landscapes: and the difference between the pastoral luxuriance of this diffuse description, and the stately magnificence of Ariosto's, is very characteristic of the two poets. Were I to choose, however, I would rather have been the object of Ariosto's compliment than of Spenser's. The passage in the Fairy Queen occurs in the 10th canto of the Legend of Sir Calidore; and all his commentators are agreed that the allusion is to his Elizabeth, and not to Rosalind.
Both are mentioned in "Colin Clout's come home again." Rosalind, and her disdainful rejection of the poet's love, are alluded to near the end, in some lines already quoted; but a very beautiful passage, near the commencement of the poem, clearly alludes to Elizabeth, under whose thrall he was at the time it was written.
Ah! far be it, (quoth Colin Clout,) fro me,
That I, of gentle maids, should ill deserve,
For that myself I do profess to be
Vassal to one, whom all my days I serve;
The beam of Beauty, sparkled from above,
The flower of virtue and pure chastitie;
The blossom of sweet joy and perfect love;
The pearl of peerless grace and modesty!
To her, my thoughts I daily dedicate;
To her, my heart I nightly martyrise;
To her, my love I lowly do prostrate;
To her, my life I wholly sacrifice:
My thought, my heart, my life, my love, is she! &c.
Spenser married his Elizabeth about the year 1593. He resided at this time at the Castle of Kilcolman, in the south of Ireland, a portion of the forfeited domains of the Earl of Desmond having been assigned to him: but the adherents of that unhappy chief saw in Spenser only an invader of their rights, — a stranger living on their inheritance, while they were cast out to starvation or banishment. He and his family dwelt in continual fears and disturbance from the distracted state of the country; and at length, about two years after his marriage, he was attacked in his castle by the native Irish. He and his wife escaped with difficulty, and one of their children perished in the flames. After this catastrophe they came to England, and Spenser died in 1598, about five years after his marriage with Elizabeth. The short period of their union, though disturbed by misfortunes, losses, and worldly cares, was never clouded by domestic disquiet. This haughty beauty,
Whose lofty countenance seemed to scorn
Base thing, and think how she to heaven might climb,
became the tenderest and most faithful of wives. How long she survived her husband is not known, but though scarce past the bloom of youth at the period of her loss, we have no account of her marrying again.