... if the whole man be trained perfectly, and his mind calm, consistent,
and powerful, the vision which corner to him is seen as in a perfect
mirror, serenely, and in consistence with the rational power; but if
the mind be imperfect and ill trained, the vision is seen as in a broken
mirror, with strange distortions and discrepancies, all the passions of
the heart breathing upon it in cross ripples, till hardly a trace of it
remains unbroken. So that, strictly speaking, the imagination is never
governed; it is always the ruling and Divine power.... And thus Iliad,
the Inferno, the Pilgrim's Progress, the Faerie Queene, are all
of them true dreams; only the sleep of the men to whom they came was
the deep, living sleep which God sends, with a sacredness in it, as of
death, the revealer of secrets.
Of all the major poets in English, Edmund Spenser is, at this time, the last read and, in proportion to his merits, the least valued. As a living presence in the poetry of the last twenty years he is scarcely to be felt, for since the death of Yeats the English-speaking world has had no poet even in part educated by Spenser, no poetry directly affected by The Faerie Queene. Spenser has been abandoned to the academies, and within them he has become increasingly peripheral. When the critical sensibility that prevailed in Britain and America during these last decades turned to Spenser, it found little in him to justify the eminence he had held for three hundred years. His long poem was dismissed as the product of the will usurping the work of the imagination. The Shakespearean critic, Derek Traversi, may be taken as representative of still prevalent (though waning) taste when he judged Spenser to have made "splendid pieces of rhetorical decoration" devoid of deep personal content, and to have mastered a style which "tends irresistibly to become an instrument of disintegration, furthering the dissolution of the declared moral intention into mere rhythmical flow." The distance between such a verdict and an accurate judgment of Spenser's achievement is so great that a lover of Spenser's poetry is compelled to resist a reaction into overpraise of "the Prince of Poets in his time." One is tempted to maintain that a reader . . .