SPENSER AND SHAKESPEARE embody two great poetic traditions, narrative and dramatic, two primary ways of using language, direct and oblique. They complement as well as supplement each other. No other two taken together so well demonstrate the achievement and potentiality of English poetry. And the technical triumph of the Elizabethan age, its wealth of poetic language, cannot be illustrated by Shakespeare alone, or by Shakespeare in combination with any other poet than Spenser.
Each held his own through all permutations of taste until the turn of this century, and Shakespeare continues supreme. But Spenser is now abandoned to schoolrooms, where his poetic vitality is seldom rekindled by lip-service to the past. We have finally opened our ears to Dryden, but not to Dryden's master in verse satire;* brought up on apology for Spenser rather than criticism, we are not encouraged to expect from him satire and humor. Hazlitt wants to throw overboard all intellectual ballast so that Spenser may sail the breeze with frail Coleridgean fantasy. Even Yeats, who learns from him, exorcizes with priest-like fervor all that is priest- or prophet-like in Spenser, all that disturbs the sensuous and beautiful; his verdict, as unsatisfactory as that of Legouis, is a pagan poet in Puritan chains. Much of Spenser like Ben Jonson requires historical orientation; some is unrecoverable. Yet those who read with open minds and only a general knowledge of his period find him still one of the half dozen major experiences in English poetry.
Spenser, when he wants, as quickly as Chaucer drops meditation and description for a swift-paced story. He writes the best poetic dialogue, equally admirable as poetry and speech, before____________________