Edmund Spenser: A Critical Study

By Herbert Ellsworth Cory; Charles M. Gayley et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II

THE FAERIE QUEENE. BOOKS I-III

"He who, at forty, reads 'The Faërie Queene' with as much delight as at twenty, is pretty sure to be a wise and a happy man." Thus writes Hillard, the first American editor of Spenser. No poet has ever had a more choice and a more continuously loyal audience than Spenser. Yet no other supreme poet, not even Dante, has been so imperfectly understood by such an army of acute and eloquent critics. No single age has as yet begun to comprehend the innumerable facets, the myriad flashes of history, and philosophy, poetry and prophecy, in The Faërie Queene, like the jewels of fabulous oriental lore splendid enough alone to light for sultans and genii a hall leagues long, like De Quincey's cathedral, with a glow here blinding, here mysterious, revealing here some silent god and here just touching the slumbering fires of some forgotten treasure. Professor Mackail has told us most succinctly and surely how to approach The Faërie Queene: "the child's vision must, if it were possible, be combined with the scholar's understanding. This is a hard saying, but the thing itself is hard. The course lies straight and narrow between the rock and the whirlpool. Appreciation only comes of study; study too often dims and sophisticates appreciation." No critic, no poet, no age has yet fully appreciated The Faërie Queene. And our own age, now confused with both the wholesome and the pathological onslaughts of realism, with the stern prophecies of an austere neo-classicism, yet remaining still audacious with the questing fire of romanticism, the Renaissance of Wonder—our own age misunderstands Spenser with that romantic wilfulness which began with Hurd and which developed into the exquisite but treacherous epicureworship of Leigh Hunt, of Lowell, of William Butler Yeats. Like Hurd and Lowell, Yeats attributes Spenser's use of allegory to an unworthy truckling to the British Philistine.

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