Chapter XLIII: Spenser--His Last Days
THERE are so many books now published which tell the stories of the Faery Queen, and tell them well, that you may think I hardly need have told one here. But few of these books give the poet's own words, and I have told the story here giving quotations from the poem in the hope that you will read them and learn from them to love Spenser's own words. I hope that long after you have forgotten my words you will remember Spenser's, that they will remain in your mind as glowing word-pictures, and make you anxious to read more of the poem from which they are taken.
Spenser has been called the poet's poet,* he might also be called the painter's poet, for on every page almost we find a word- picture, rich in color, rich in detail. Each person as he comes upon the scene is described for us so that we may see him with our mind's eye. The whole poem blazes with color, it glows and gleams with the glamor of fairyland. Spenser more than any other poet has the old Celtic love of beauty, yet so far as we know there was in him no drop of Celtic blood. He loved neither the Irishman nor Ireland. To him his life there was an exile, yet perhaps even in spite of himself he breathed in the land of fairies and of "little people" something of their magic: his fingers, unwittingly perhaps, touched the golden and ivory gate so that he entered in and saw.
That it is a fairyland and no real world which Spenser opens to us is the great difference between Chaucer and him. Chaucer gives us real men and women who love and hate, who sin and sorrow. He is humorous, he is coarse, and he is real. Spenser has humor too, but we seldom see him smile. There are, we may be glad, few coarse lines in Spenser, but he is artificial. He took the tone of his time--the tone of pretense. It was the fashion to make-believe, yet, underneath all the make-believe, men were still men, not wholly good nor wholly bad. But underneath the brilliant trappings of Spenser's knights and ladies, shepherds and shepherdesses, there seldom beats a human heart. He takes us to dreamland, and when we lay down the book we wake up to real life. Beauty first and last is what holds us in Spenser's poems- -beauty of description, beauty of thought, beauty of sound. As it has been said, "'A thing of beauty is a joy forever,' and that is the secret of the enduring life of the Faery Queen."*
*Courthorpe, History of English Poetry.
Spenser invented for himself a new stanza of nine lines and made it famous, so that we call it after him, the Spenserian Stanza. It was like Chaucer's stanza of seven lines, called the Rhyme Royal, with two lines more added.
Spenser admired Chaucer above all poets. He called him "The Well of English undefiled,"* and after many hundred years we still feel the truth of the description. He uses many of Chaucer's words, which even then had grown old-fashioned and were little used. So much is this so that a glossary written by a friend of Spenser, in which old words were explained, was published with the Shepherd's Calendar. But whether old or new, Spenser's power of using words and of weaving them together was wonderful.
*Faery Queen, book VI, canto ii.
He weaves his wonderful words in such wonderful fashion that they sound like what he describes. Is there anything more drowsy than his description of the abode of sleep:
"And more, to lull him in his slumber soft,
A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down,
And ever drizzling rain upon the loft
Mix'd with a murmuring wind, much like the sound
Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swound,*
No other noise nor peoples' troublous cries,
As still are wont t' annoy the walled town,
Might there be heard; but careless quiet lies
Wrapt in eternal silence, far from enemies."
So all through the poem we are enchanted or lulled by the glamor of words.
The Faery Queen made Spenser as a poet famous, but, as we know, it did not bring him enough to live on in England. It did not bring him the fame he sought nor make him great among the statesmen of the land. Among the courtiers of Queen Elizabeth he counted for little. So he returned to Ireland a disappointed man. It was now he wrote Colin Clout's come home again, from which I have already given you some quotations. He published also another book of poems and then he fell in love. He forgot his beautiful Rosalind, who had been so hard-hearted, and gave his love to another lady who in her turn loved him, and to whom he was happily married. This lady, too, he made famous in his verse. As the fashion was, he wrote to her a series of sonnets, in one of which we learn that her name was Elizabeth. He writes to the three Elizabeths, his mother, his Queen, and
"The third, my love, my life's last ornament,
By whom my spirit out of dust was raised."
But more famous still than the sonnets is the Epithalamion or wedding hymn which he wrote in his lady's honor, and which ever since has been looked on as the most glorious love-song in the English language, so full is it of exultant, worshipful happiness.
It was now, too, that Spenser wrote Astrophel, a sadly beautiful dirge for the death of his friend and fellow-poet, Sir Philip Sidney. He gave his verses as "fittest flowers to deck his mournful hearse."
Just before his marriage Spenser finished three more books of the Faery Queen, and the following year he took them to London to publish them. The three books were on Friendship, on Justice, and on Courtesy. They were received as joyfully as the first three. The poet remained for nearly a year in London still writing busily. Then he returned to Ireland. There he passed a few more years, and then came the end.
Ireland, which had always been unquiet, always restless, under the oppressive hand of England, now broke out into wild rebellion. The maddened Irish had no love or respect for the English poet. Kilcolman Castle was sacked and burned, and Spenser fled with his wife and children to Cork, homeless and wellnigh ruined. A little later Spenser himself went on to London, hoping perhaps to better his fortunes, and there in a Westminster inn, disappointed, ill, shattered in hopes and health, he lay down to die.
As men count years, he was still young, for he was only forty- seven. He had dreamed that he had still time before him to make life a success. For as men counted success in those days, Spenser was a failure. He had failed to make a name among the statesmen of the age. He failed to make a fortune, he lived poor and he died poor. As a poet he was a sublime success. He dedicated the Faery Queen to Elizabeth "to live with the eternity of her fame," and it is not too much to believe that even should the deeds of Elizabeth be forgotten the fame of Spenser will endure. And the poets of Spenser's own day knew that in him they had lost a master, and they mourned for him as such. They buried him in Westminster not far from Chaucer. His bier was carried by poets, who, as they stood beside his grave, threw into it poems in which they told of his glory and their own grief. And so they left "The Prince of Poets in his tyme, whose divine spirit needs no other witnesse than the workes which he left behind him."*
*The first epitaph engraved on Spenser's tomb.
BOOKS TO READ
Tales from Spenser (Told to Children Series). Una and the Red Cross Knight, by N. G. Royde Smith (has many quotations). Tales from the Faerie Queene, by C. L. Thomson (prose). The Faerie Queene (verse, sixteenth century spelling). Faerie Queene, book I, by Professor W. H. Hudson. Complete Works (Globe Edition), edited by R. Morris. Britomart, edited by May E. Litchfield, is the story of Britomart taken from scattered portions in books III, IV, and V in original poetry, spelling modernized.Next