Towards the close of the sixteenth century, we begin to find such verse as I shall now present to my readers. Only I must first make a few remarks upon the great poem of the period: I mean, of course, The Faerie Queen.
I dare not begin to set forth after any fashion the profound religious truth contained in this poem; for it would require a volume larger than this to set forth even that of the first book adequately. In this case it is well to remember that the beginning of comment, as well as of strife, is like the letting out of water.
The direction in which the wonderful allegory of the latter moves may be gathered from the following stanza, the first of the eighth canto:
Ay me! how many perils do enfold
The righteous man to make him daily fail;
Were not that heavenly grace doth him uphold, it understood.
And steadfast Truth acquit him out of all!
Her love is firm, her care continual,
So oft as he, through his own foolish pride
Or weakness, is to sinful bands made thrall:
Else should this Redcross Knight in bands have died,
For whose deliverance she this Prince doth thither guide.
Nor do I judge it good to spend much of my space upon remarks personal to those who have not been especially writers of sacred verse. When we come to the masters of such song, we cannot speak of their words without speaking of themselves; but when in the midst of many words those of the kind we seek are few, the life of the writer does not justify more than a passing notice here.
We know but little of Spenser’s history: if we might know all, I do not fear that we should find anything to destroy the impression made by his verse—that he was a Christian gentleman, a noble and pure-minded man, of highest purposes and aims.
His style is injured by the artistic falsehood of producing antique effects in the midst of modern feeling. It was scarcely more justifiable, for instance, in Spenser’s time than it would be in ours to use glitterand for glittering; or to return to a large use of alliteration, three, four, sometimes even five words in the same line beginning with the same consonant sound. Everything should look like what it is: prose or verse should be written in the language of its own era. No doubt the wide-spreading roots of poetry gather to it more variety of expression than prose can employ; and the very nature of verse will make it free of times and seasons, harmonizing many opposites. Hence, through its mediation, without discord, many fine old words, by the loss of which the language has grown poorer and feebler, might be honourably enticed to return even into our prose. But nothing ought to be brought back because it is old. That it is out of use is a presumptive argument that it ought to remain out of use: good reasons must be at hand to support its reappearance. I must not, however, enlarge upon this wide-reaching question; for of the two portions of Spenser’s verse which I shall quote, one of them is not at all, the other not so much as his great poem, affected with this whim.