S. K. HENINGER, JR. The Aesthetic Experience of Reading Spenser
SPENSER suffered what must surely be the most demeaning of fates for a poet. His high reputation survived intact, while the taste for his poetry rapidly declined. As a consequence, he continued to be read, but for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way, and therefore with less and less understanding. His poetry has certain qualities that please the aesthete and lead to a sobriquet such as "the poet's poet." It was for these reasons that John Keats and Leigh Hunt read Spenser. But in the seventeenth century, changing assumptions--about art, about nature, about reality--made it increasingly unlikely that a reader should understand Spenser's poetic method or his poetic statement. The rapid change in ideas and attitudes during what has come to be called the scientific revolution very quickly rendered Spenser obsolete.
Already by 1674 Thomas Rymer had formulated the censures that became commonplace in later Spenserian criticism. In the preface to his translation of Rapin's Reflections on Aristotle's treatise of poesie Rymer is careful to praise Spenser, but is basically unsympathetic to The Faerie Queene:
Spencer, I think, may be reckon'd the first of our Heroick Poets; he had a large spirit, a sharp judgement, and a Genius for Heroick Poesie, perhaps above any that ever writ since Virgil. But our misfortune is, he wanted a true Idea, and lost himself, by following an unfaithful guide. Though besides Homer and Virgil he had read Tasso, yet he rather suffer'd himself to be misled by Ariosto; with whom blindly rambling on marvellous Adventures, he makes no Conscience of Probability. All is fanciful and chimerical, without any uniformity, without any foundation in truth; his Poem is perfect Fairy-land.1
Rymer is willing to maintain Spenser's high reputation. He actively supports the primacy of Spenser in English epic and readily com-