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said this evening. In the mean while, rural poetry, like a bashful maiden, simplex in munditiis, is waiting timidly to know what Master Edmund Spenser has left her for a legacy.
TALBOT. I incline to think that the more we read the "Faerie Queene" the more surprised shall we be, not only at the beauty of the work, but at the strength and energy it displays, and at the judgment evinced by its author. Yet I question whether the most prolonged search would give us many proofs of Spenser's genius in the sphere of rural poetry.
HARTLEY. No, truly. His landscape is the landscape of fairy land; his pictures of country life, though warm and almost dazzling in colour, take us away in fancy to a region of rarest beauty, to forests haunted by woodgods, to streams possessing a healing virtue, to flowers such as “ in other climates dwell," to an atmosphere which is peopled with strange intelligences and filled with fantastic sounds. Such a haunt is an inspired region of beauty and poetry, of love and valour. It is the fittest land for the exposition of a great spiritual allegory; but not there should we expect to find the plain delineation of English rural life, or any sweet but literal transcript of nature's loveliest scenes.
STANLEY. Yet if Spenser had not bent his mind to a loftier emprise, he might, like his own Calidore, have chosen to “set his rest amongst the rusticke sort," with whom he deemed the greatest contentment was to be found. Thus he writes of Calidore :
“Ne certes mote he greatly blamed be,
From so high step to stoupe unto so low;
T'entrap unwary fooles in their eternall bales.” By the way, this stanza, which I have quoted, is followed by a fine Spenserian landscape which affords a fair example of the poet's method of dealing with nature. It has an antique air about it, and reminds one of some of the old masters. Read it at your leisure ; it is in Canto 10 of Book VI.
TALBOT. According to Drayton, Spenser is "the prime pastoralist of England;" and the “Shepherd's Calendar" is not only the earliest, but the greatest English pastoral poem.
HARTLEY. If Drayton be true the achievement is not one to be proud of; but I cannot agree with him. The
Shepherd's Calendar” is, to my thinking, a pastoral in form rather than in substance; and I have Pope's authority on my side, to judge from his definition, which I will read to you.
“A pastoral is an imitation of the action of a shepherd, or one considered under that character. The form of this imitation is dramatic, or narrative, or mixed, or both ; the fable simple, the manners not too polite, nor too rustic ; the thoughts are plain, yet admit a little quickness and passion, but that short and flowing; the expression humble, yet as pure as the language will afford ; neat but not florid ; easy and yet lively. In short, the fable, manners, thoughts, and expressions, are full of the greatest simplicity in nature. The complete character of this poem consists in simplicity, brevity, and delicacy, the two first of which render an eclogue natural, and the last delightful.”
in which any
TALBOT. A fairly good definition, and in some respects the Calendar may be tested by it. Spenser's fable is generally simple ; his eclogues combine“ brevity and delicacy,” and his dialogues, according to the orthodox custom, are put into the mouths of shepherds. In Dr. Johnson's two dull essays on pastoral poetry, however, he does not seem to think it necessary that the dramatis persone of the pastoral should invariably be shepherds. His definition of the pastoral is a poem action or passion is represented by its effects upon a country life;" and he complains of some writers for considering the pastoral "not in general as a representation of rural nature, and consequently as exhibiting the ideas and sentiments of those, whoever they are, to whom the country affords pleasure or employment, but simply as a dialogue or narrative of men, actually tending sheep and busied in the lowest and most laborious offices."
STANLEY. Then according to Dr. Johnson we may regard " The Task, " " The Seasons,” or even
" The Excursion,” as pastorals, since they profess to exhibit the ideas and sentiments of those to whom the country affords pleasure."
HARTLEY. Herein I think the Lichfield sage is right, and some of our best modern poets have proved their agreement with him. In general, however, I must own to a low opinion of Dr. Johnson's critical powers in the domain of poetry. With the exception of some excellent verbal criticism, and sundry strong, nervous thoughts, which have more in them of the moralist than the poetical
critic, his " Lives of the Poets” contain little more than narrow and shallow assertions, supported by prejudice, and expressed with dogmatism. And to think of his omitting many of the greatest names in our literature for the sake of bringing before the world as English poets, such miserable rhymesters as Fenton, Yalden, Hammond, Duke, Smith, Walsh, Sprat, and Lyttleton !
Talbot. A most unjust estimate of a work which, notwithstanding its defects, could not easily be surpassed. You forget also that Johnson wrote for the booksellers, and was subject to their selection.
HARTLEY. No, I do not forget it; but surely a man who had justly earned a high name in literature, and who was looked upon as a Goliath in criticism, -a man who owed more to his fame than the booksellers could ever owe to him, a man moreover who had reached the ripe age of seventy, might have told those dull booksellers that half the names they had selected did not belong to poets at all, but were the property of miserable versifiers, who tagged dull verses merely because it was the fashion to write in rhyme.
Talbot. Leave the grand old lion in peace, HARTLEY (if he were alive he would reply to your remarks by a contemptuous roar), and tell us, which you have not yet done, on what ground you demur to the pastoral character of the “Shepherd's Calendar."
HARTLEY. On this ground, that the twelve eclogues which compose the poem, refer in the main to political and religious matters, and contain few passages of rural description.*
Had I remembered the following suggestive passage, I might have quoted it with advantage in replying to the arguments of Hartley :
TALBOT. Then on the same ground you will object to some of the most noted pastorals in the world—to more than one of Virgil's, to all of Petrarch's, and even to Milton's “ Lycidas.”
HARTLEY. Yes, I do.
TALBOT. Better, then, give up the pastoral altogether ; for there is scarcely one in the language pure enough for
HARTLEY. You mistake me. I would rather read a good poem with a false title, than a bad poem which can be defined without danger of dispute. Now a pure pastoral I take to be one of the most uninteresting poems in the world, and the most unnatural, although its whole talk is of
“A misconception as to the nature of the eclogue, or pastoral, has been very prevalent. No criticism of compositions of this kind, from Virgil's Bucolics downwards, has been more common than that the poets have failed in keeping to the truth of pastoral character and pastoral life, and have made their shepherds and shepherdesses talk a language and express feelings which, neither in Arcadia nor else. where, did shepherds and shepherdesses ever know. One is surprised that so gross a view of the matter should so long have been current. There may, of course, be a pastoral of real life, where the purpose is to exhibit rural manners as they actually are among the swains of Greece, Italy, Spain, England, or Scotland. It seems to have been Ben Jonson's intention, in his 'Sad Shepherd,' the last, and one of the most poetical of his works, to come closer to this model of the pastoral than was usual. But the pastoral of real life is one thing, and the pastoral as it was conceived by Spenser and by many of his contemporaries, both in and out of England, was another. The pastoral, with them, was but a device or form, deemed, and perhaps found, advantageous for securing in the poet's own mind that feeling of ideality, that sense of disconnexion from definite time or place, and from all contemporary social facts, which is almost essential to the pure exercise of poetic imagination.”—Masson’s Life of Milton, vol. 1, page 411.