Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies

By Frank Percy Wilson | Go to book overview

The Rider on the Winged Horse

MARY LASCELLES

OF the various myths which have been pressed into service to convey an impression of the poet's predicament, one at least has followed a strange course, always inviting attention, but often hard to trace. The elements composing it appear, when they are brought into focus together, hardly reconcilable. Nevertheless, since their motion obeys the dictates not of the reason but of the imagination ('a licentious and vagrant faculty', as Johnson calls it), rational compatibility may not be required. It seldom happens that all are present at once; now one predominates, now another, and it is only when they change places that the eye is teazed and delighted by a strange iridescence. The myth I intend is that which, with whatever variety of implication, plainly associates two figures, the poet and the winged horse Pegasus, and the treatment it has received prompts questions which may (at the outset) be framed like this. The usual sources of information--dictionaries and hand-books of myth--agree in calling the association modern (except in so far as it may be inferred from the connexion of both with the Muses). Is the matter indeed so simple? Many, with more assurance, assert that it was Boiardo who, in his Orlando Innamorato, first mounted the poet upon Pegasus;1 but in none of these have I discovered a reference. Was it indeed one man's turn of fancy that conquered a whole realm of figurative allusion so rapidly and so completely as this elusive passage must have done? And from these initial questions others will arise.

I propose therefore to take up a position beside two great English poets and listen when each is saying something about his vocation in terms of this myth of the rider on the winged horse: Spenser, in The Ruines of Time, Milton in the proem to the seventh book of Paradise Lost. Thence it may prove possible to descry some significant phases in the development of a meaning with which the tale

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1
Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswisschaft, is an exception. S. Reinach drew attention to the stages by which hearsay had hardened into assertion among lesser reference books ( "'Pégase, l'hippogriffe et les pèetes'", Revue Archéologique, Paris 1920). The process continues.

-173-

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