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Spenser's Redcrosse Knight

William Hazlitt on Edmund Spenser

Spenser flourished in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and was sent with Sir John Davies into Ireland, of which he has left behind him some tender recollections in his description of the bog of Allan, and a record in an ably written paper, containing observations on the state of that country and the means of improving it, which remain in full force to the present day. Spenser died at an obscure inn in London, it is supposed in distressed circumstances. The treatment he received from Burleigh is well known. Spenser, as well as Chaucer, was engaged in active life; but the genius of his poetry was not active: it is inspired by the love of ease, and relaxation from all the cares and business of life. Of all the poets, he is the most poetical. Though much later than Chaucer, his obligations to preceding writers were less. He has in some measure borrowed the plan of his poem (as a number of distinct narratives) from Ariosto; but he has engrafted upon it an exuberance of fancy, and an endless voluptuousness of sentiment, which are not to be found in the Italian writer. Farther, Spenser is even more of an inventor in the subject-matter. There is an originality, richness, and variety in his allegorical personages and fictions, which almost vies with the splendor of the ancient mythology. If Ariosto transports us into the regions of romance, Spenser's poetry is all fairy-land. In Ariosto, we walk upon the ground, in a company, gay, fantastic, and adventurous enough. In Spenser, we wander in another world, among ideal beings. The poet takes and lays us in the lap of a lovelier nature, by the sound of softer streams, among greener hills and fairer valleys. He paints nature, not as we find it, but as we expected to find it; and fulfils the delightful promise of our youth. He waves his wand of enchantment—and at once embodies airy beings, and throws a delicious veil over all actual objects. The two worlds of reality and of fiction are poised on the wings of his imagination. His ideas, indeed, seem more distinct than his perceptions. He is the painter of abstractions, and describes them with dazzling minuteness. In the Mask of Cupid he makes the God of Love "clap on high his coloured winges twain;" and it is said of Gluttony in the Procession of the Passions,

"In green vine leaves he was right fitly clad."

At times he becomes picturesque from his intense love of beauty; as where he compares Prince Arthur's crest to the appearance of the almond tree;

"Upon the top of all his lofty crest,
      A bunch of hairs discolour'd diversely
With sprinkled pearl and gold full richly drest
      Did shake and seem'd to daunce for jollity;
Like to an almond tree ymounted high
      On top of green Selenis all alone.
With blossoms brave bedecked daintily:
      Her tender locks do tremble every one
At every little breath that under heav'n is blown."

The love of beauty, however, and not of truth, is the moving principle of his mind; and he is guided in his fantastic delineations by no rule but the impulse of an inexhaustible imagination. He luxuriates equally in scenes of Eastern magnificence; or the still solitude of a hermit's cell—in the extremes of sensuality or refinement.

In reading the Faery Queen, you see a little withered old man by a wood-side opening a wicket, a giant, and a dwarf lagging far behind, a damsel in a boat upon an enchanted lake, wood-nymphs, and satyrs; and all of a sudden you are transported into a lofty palace, with tapers burning, amidst knights and ladies, with dance and revelry, and song, "and mask, and antique pageantry." What can be more solitary, more shut up in itself, than his description of the house of Sleep, to which Archimago sends for a dream:

"And more to lull him in his slumber soft
      A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down,
And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,
      Mix'd with a murmuring wind, much like the sound
Of swarming Bees, did cast him in a swound.
      No other noise, nor people's troublous cries
That still are wont t' annoy the walled town
      Might there be heard; but careless Quiet lies
Wrapt in eternal silence, far from enemies."

It is as if "the honey-heavy dew of slumber" had settled on his pen in writing these lines. How different in the subject (and yet how like in beauty) is the following description of the Bower of Bliss:

"Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound
      Of all that mote delight a dainty ear;
Such as at once might not on living ground,
      Save in this Paradise, be heard elsewhere:
Right hard it was for wight which did it hear,
      To tell what manner musicke that mote be;
For all that pleasing is to living care
      Was there consorted in one harmonee:
Birds, voices, instruments, windes, waters, all agree.

The joyous birdes shrouded in chearefull shade
      Their notes unto the voice attempred sweet:
The angelical soft trembling voices made
      To th' instruments divine respondence meet.
The silver sounding instruments did meet
      With the base murmur of the water's fall;
The water's fall with difference discreet,
      Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call;
The gentle warbling wind low answered to all."

The remainder of the passage has all that voluptuous pathos, and languid brilliancy of fancy, in which this writer excelled:

"The whiles some one did chaunt this lovely lay;
      Ah! see, whoso fayre thing dost fain to see,
In springing flower the image of thy day!
      Ah! see the virgin rose, how sweetly she
Doth first peep forth with bashful modesty,
      That fairer seems the less ye see her may!
Lo! see soon after, how more bold and free
      Her bared bosom she doth broad display;
Lo! see soon after, how she fades and falls away!

So passeth in the passing of a day
      Of mortal life the leaf, the bud, the flower;
Ne more doth flourish after first decay,
      That erst was sought to deck both bed and bower
Of many a lady and many a paramour!
      Gather therefore the rose 'whilst yet is prime,
For soon comes age that will her pride deflower;
      Gather the rose of love whilst yet is time,
Whilst loving thou mayst loved be with equal crime.

He ceased; and then gan all the quire of birds
      Their divers notes to attune unto his lay,
As in approvance of his pleasing wordes.
      The constant pair heard all that he did say,
Yet swerved not, but kept their forward way
      Through many covert groves and thickets close,
In which they creeping did at last display
      That wanton lady with her lover loose,
Whose sleepy head she in her lap did soft dispose.

Upon a bed of roses she was laid
      As faint through heat, or dight to pleasant sin;
And was arrayed or rather disarrayed,
      All in a veil of silk and silver thin,
That hid no whit her alabaster skin,
      But rather shewed more white, if more might be:
More subtle web Arachne cannot spin;
      Nor the fine nets, which oft we woven see
Of scorched dew, do not in the air more lightly flee.

Her snowy breast was bare to greedy spoil
      Of hungry eyes which n'ote therewith be fill'd.
And yet through languor of her late sweet toil
      Few drops more clear than nectar forth distill'd,
That like pure Orient perles adown it trill'd;
      And her fair eyes sweet smiling in delight
Moisten'd their fiery beams, with which she thrill'd
      Frail hearts, yet quenched not; like starry light,
Which sparkling on the silent waves does seem more bright."

The finest things in Spenser are, the character of Una, in the first book; the House of Pride; the Cave of Mammon, and the Cave of Despair; the account of Memory, of whom it is said, among other things,

"The wars he well rember'd of King Nine,
Of old Assaracus and Inachus divine;"

the description of Belphoebe; the story of Florimel and the Witch's son; the Gardens of Adonis, and the Bower of Bliss; the Mask of Cupid; and Colin Clout's vision, in the last book. But some people will say that all this may be very fine, but that they cannot understand it on account of the allegory. They are afraid of the allegory, as if they thought it would bite them: they look at it as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them. Without minding it at all, the whole is as plain as a pikestaff. It might as well be pretended that we cannot see Poussin's pictures for the allegory, as that the allegory prevents us from understanding Spenser. For instance, when Britomart, seated amidst the young warriors, lets fall her hair and discovers her sex, is it necessary to know the part she plays in the allegory, to understand the beauty of the following stanza?

"And eke that stranger knight amongst the rest
      Was for like need enforc'd to disarray.
Tho when as vailed was her lofty crest.
      Her golden locks that were in trammels gay
Upbounden, did themselves adown display,
      And raught unto her heels like sunny beams
That in a cloud their light did long time stay;
      Their vapour faded, shew their golden gleams.
And through the persant air shoot forth their azure streams."

Or is there any mystery in what is said of Belphoebe, that her hair was sprinkled with flowers and blossoms which had been entangled in it as she fled through the woods? Or is it necessary to have a more distinct idea of Proteus, than that which is given of him in his boat, with the frighted Florimel at his feet, while

"—the cold icicles from his rough beard
Dropped adown upon her snowy breast!"

Or is it not a sufficient account of one of the sea-gods that pass by them, to say—

"That was Arion crowned:—
So went he playing on the watery plain."

Or to take the Procession of the Passions that draw the coach of Pride, in which the figures of Idleness, of Gluttony, of Lechery, of Avarice, of Envy, and of Wrath speak, one should think, plain enough for themselves; such as this of Gluttony:

"And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
      Deformed creature, on a filthy swine;
His belly was up blown with luxury;
      And eke with fatness swollen were his eyne;
And like a crane his neck was long and fine,
      With which he swallowed up excessive feast,
For want whereof poor people oft did pine.

In green vine leaves he was right fitly clad;
      For other clothes he could not wear for heat;
And on his head an ivy garland had,
      From under which fast trickled down the sweat:
Still as he rode, he somewhat still did eat,
      And in his hand did bear a bouzing can,
Of which he supt so oft, that on his seat
      His drunken corse he scarce upholden can;
In shape and life more like a monster than a man."

Or this of Lechery:

"And next to him rode lustfull Lechery
      Upon a bearded goat, whose rugged hair
And whaly eyes (the sign of jealousy)
      Was like the person's self whom he did bear:
Who rough and black, and filthy did appear.
      Unseemly man to please fair lady's eye:
Yet he of ladies oft was loved dear,
      When fairer faces were bid standen by:
O! who does know the bent of woman's fantsay?

In a green gown he clothed was full fair,
      Which underneath did hide his filthiness;
And in his hand a burning heart he bare,
      Full of vain follies and new fangleness;
For he was false and fraught with fickleness;
      And learned had to love with secret looks;
And well could dance; and sing with ruefulness;
      And fortunes tell; and read in loving books;
And thousand other ways to bait his fleshly hooks.

Inconstant man that loved all he saw,
      And lusted after all that he did love;
Ne would his looser life be tied to law;
      But joyed weak women's hearts to tempt and prove,
If from their loyal loves he might them move."

This is pretty plain-spoken. Mr. Southey says of Spenser:

                                  "Yet not more sweet
Than pure was he, and not more pure than wise;
High priest of all the Muses' mysteries!"

On the contrary, no one was more apt to pry into mysteries which do not strictly belong to the Muses.

Of the same kind with the Procession of the Passions, as little obscure, and still more beautiful, is the Mask of Cupid, with his train of votaries:

"The first was Fancy, like a lovely boy
      Of rare aspect, and beauty without peer;

His garment neither was of silk nor say,
      But painted plumes in goodly order dight,
Like as the sun-burnt Indians do array
      Their tawny bodies in their proudest plight;
As those same plumes so seem'd he vain and light,
      That by his gait might easily appear;
For still he far'd as dancing in delight.
      And in his hand a windy fan did bear
That in the idle air he mov'd still here and there.

And him beside march'd amorous Desire.
      Who seem'd of riper years than the other swain,
Yet was that other swain this elder's sire,
      And gave him being, common to them twain:
His garment was disguised very vain,
      And his embroidered bonnet sat awry;
'Twixt both his hands few sparks he close did strain,
      Which still he blew, and kindled busily.
That soon they life conceiv'd and forth in flames did fly.

Next after him went Doubt, who was yclad
      In a discolour'd coat of strange disguise,
That at his back a broad capuccio had,
      And sleeves dependant Albanese-wise;
He lookt askew with his mistrustful eyes,
      And nicely trod, as thorns lay in his way,
Or that the floor to shrink he did avise;
      And on a broken reed he still did stay
His feeble steps, which shrunk when hard thereon he lay.

With him went Daunger, cloth'd in ragged weed,
      Made of bear's skin, that him more dreadful made;
Yet his own face was dreadfull, ne did need
      Strange horror to deform his grisly shade;
A net in th' one hand, and a rusty blade
      In th' other was; this Mischiefe, that Mishap;
With th' one his foes he threat'ned to invade,
      With th' other he his friends meant to enwrap;
For whom he could not kill he practiz'd to entrap.

Next him was Fear, all arm'd from top to toe,
      Yet thought himself not safe enough thereby,
But fear'd each shadow moving to and fro;
      And his own arms when glittering he did spy
Or clashing heard, he fast away did fly,
      As ashes pale of hue, and winged-heel'd;
And evermore on Daunger fixt his eye,
      'Gainst whom he always bent a brazen shield,
Which his right hand unarmed fearfully did wield.

With him went Hope in rank, a handsome maid,
      Of chearfull look and lovely to behold;
In silken samite she was light array'd,
      And her fair locks were woven up in gold;
She always smil'd, and in her hand did hold
      An holy-water sprinkle dipt in dew,
With which she sprinkled favours manifold
      On whom she list, and did great liking shew,
Great liking unto many, but true love to few.

Next after them, the winged God himself
      Came riding on a lion ravenous.
Taught to obey the menage of that elfe
      That man and beast with power imperious
Subdueth to his kingdom tyrannous:
      His blindfold eyes he bade awhile unbind,
That his proud spoil of that same dolorous
      Fair dame he might behold in perfect kind;
Which seen, he much rejoiced in his cruel mind.

Of which full proud, himself uprearing high,
      He looked round about with stern disdain,
And did survey his goodly company;
      And marshalling the evil-ordered train,
With that the darts which his right hand did strain,
      Full dreadfully he shook, that all did quake,
And clapt on high his colour'd winges twain,
      That all his many it afraid did make:
Tho, blinding him again, his way he forth did take."

The description of Hope, in this series of historical portraits, is one of the most beautiful in Spenser: and the triumph of Cupid at the mischief he has made, is worthy of the malicious urchin deity. In reading these descriptions, one can hardly avoid being reminded of Rubens's allegorical pictures; but the account of Satyrane taming the lion's whelps and lugging the bear's cubs along in his arms while yet an infant, whom his mother so naturally advises to "go seek some other play-fellows," has even more of this high picturesque character. Nobody but Rubens could have painted the fancy of Spenser; and he could not have given the sentiment, the airy dream that hovers over it!

With all this, Spenser neither makes us laugh nor weep. The only jest in his poem is an allegorical play upon words, where he describes Malbecco as escaping in the herd of goats, "by the help of his fayre horns on hight." But he has been unjustly charged with a want of passion and of strength. He has both in an immense degree. He has not indeed the pathos of immediate action or suffering, which is more properly the dramatic; but he has all the pathos of sentiment and romance—all that belongs to distant objects of terror, and uncertain, imaginary distress. His strength, in like manner, is not strength of will or action, of bone and muscle, nor is it coarse and palpable—but it assumes a character of vastness and sublimity seen through the same visionary medium, and blended with the appalling associations of preternatural agency. We need only turn, in proof of this, to the Cave of Despair, or the Cave of Mammon, or to the account of the change of Malbecco into Jealousy. The following stanzas, in the description of the Cave of Mammon, the grisly house of Plutus, are unrivalled for the portentous massiness of the forms, the splendid chiaro-scuro, and shadowy horror.

"That house's form within was rude and strong,
      Like an huge cave hewn out of rocky clift,
From whose rough vault the ragged breaches hung,
      Embossed with massy gold of glorious gift,
And with rich metal loaded every rift.
      That heavy ruin they did seem to threat:
And over them Arachne high did lift
      Her cunning web, and spread her subtle net,
Enwrapped in foul smoke, and clouds more black than jet.

Both roof and floor, and walls were all of gold,
      But overgrown with dust and old decay,**
And hid in darkness that none could behold
      The hue thereof: for view of cheerful day
Did never in that house itself display,
      But a faint shadow of uncertain light;
Such as a lamp whose light doth fade away;
      Or as the moon clothed with cloudy night
Does shew to him that walks in fear and sad affright.

·          ·          ·          ·          ·          ·          ·          

And over all sad Horror with grim hue
      Did always soar, beating his iron wings;
And after him owls and night-ravens flew,
      The hateful messengers of heavy things.
Of death and dolour telling sad tidings;
      While sad Celleno, sitting on a clift,
A song of bale and bitter sorrow sings,
      That heart of flint asunder could have rift;
Which having ended, after him she flieth swift."

The Cave of Despair is described with equal gloominess and power of fancy; and the fine moral declamation of the owner of it, on the evils of life, almost makes one in love with death. In the story of Malbecco, who is haunted by jealousy, and in vain strives to run away from his own thoughts—

"High over hill and over dale he flies"—

the truth of human passion and the preternatural ending are equally striking.—It is not fair to compare Spenser with Shakspeare, in point of interest. A fairer comparison would be with Comus; and the result would not be unfavourable to Spenser. There is only one work of the same allegorical kind, which has more interest than Spenser (with scarcely less imagination): and that is the Pilgrim's Progress. The three first books of the Faery Queen are very superior to the three last. One would think that Pope, who used to ask if any one had ever read the Faery Queen through, had only dipped into these last. The only things in them equal to the former, are the account of Talus, the Iron Man, and the delightful episode of Pastorella.

The language of Spenser is full, and copious, to overflowing: it is less pure and idiomatic than Chaucer's, and is enriched and adorned with phrases borrowed from the different languages of Europe, both ancient and modern. He was, probably, seduced into a certain license of expression by the difficulty of filling up the moulds of his complicated rhymed stanza from the limited resources of his native language. This stanza, with alternate and repeatedly recurring rhymes, is borrowed from the Italians. It is peculiarly fitted to their language, which abounds in similar vowel terminations, and is as little adapted to ours, from the stubborn, unaccommodating resistance which the consonant endings of the northern languages make to this sort of endless sing-song.—Not that I would, on that account, part with the stanza of Spenser. We are, perhaps, indebted to this very necessity of finding out new forms of expression, and to the occasional faults to which it led, for a poetical language rich and varied and magnificent beyond all former, and almost all later example. His versification is, at once, the most smooth and the most sounding in the language. It is a labyrinth of sweet sounds, "in many a winding bout of linked sweetness long drawn out"—that would cloy by their very sweetness, but that the ear is constantly relieved and enchanted by their continued variety of modulation—dwelling on the pauses of the action, or flowing on in a fuller tide of harmony with the movement of the sentiment. It has not the bold dramatic transitions of Shakspeare's blank verse, nor the high-raised tone of Milton's; but it is the perfection of melting harmony, dissolving the soul in pleasure, or holding it captive in the chains of suspense. Spenser was the poet of our waking dreams; and he has invented not only a language, but a music of his own for them. The undulations are infinite, like those of the waves of the sea: but the effect is still the same, lulling the senses into a deep oblivion of the jarring noises of the world, from which we have no wish to be ever recalled.


Hazlitt, William. "Spenser." Hazlitt on English Literature.
Jacob Zeitlin, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1926. 21-33.

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