SPENSER'S FAERIE QUEENE.
A braver lady never tript on land,
Except the ever-living Faerie Queene,
Whose virtues by her swain so written been
That tlme shall call her high enhanced story,
In his rare song, the Muse's chiefest glory.
DURING the sixteenth century the study of classical literature, which opened a new field to imagination, and gave it a new impulse, was eagerly and vigorously pursued. A classic ardour was widely and extensively diffused. The compositions of that age incessantly imitate and allude to the beauties and incidents of the writings of ancient Greece and Rome.
Yet amid this diffusion of classic taste and knowledge, romance had by no means lost its influence. The black-letter pages of Lancelot du Lac, Perceforest, Mort d'Arthur, and the other romances of chivalry, were still listened to with solemn attention, when on winter-evenings the family of the good old knight or baron 'crowded round the ample fire,' to hear them made vocal, and probably no small degree of credence was given to the wonders they recorded. The passion for allegory, too, remained unabated. Fine moral webs were woven from the fragile threads of the Innamorato and the Furioso; and even Tasso was obliged, in compliance with the reigning taste, to extract an allegory from his divine poem; which Fairfax, when translating the Jerusalem, was careful to preserve. Spenser, therefore, when desirous of consecrating his genius to the celebration of the glories of the maiden reign, and the valiant warriors and grave statesmen who adorned it, had his materials ready prepared. Fairy-land, as described by the romancers, gave him a scene; the knights and dames with whom it was peopled, actors; and its court, its manners, and usages, a facility of transferring thither whatever real events might suit his design.
It is not easy to say positively to what romance the poet was chiefly indebted for his Faery-land. We might, perhaps, venture to conjecture that his principal authority was Huon de Bordeaux, which had been translated some time before by Lord Berners, and from which it is most likely that Shakespeare took his Oberon, who was thus removed from the realms of romance, and brought back among his real kindred, the dwarfs or elves. Spenser, it is evident, was acquainted with this romance, for he says of Sir Guyon,
He was an elfin born of noble state
And mickle worship in his native land;
Well could he tourney and in lists debate,
And knighthood took of good Sir Huon's hand,
When with King Oberon he came to Fairy-land.
B. ii. c. 1. st. vi.
And here, if such a thing were to be heeded, the poet commits an anachronism in making Sir Huon, who slew the son of Charlemagne, a contemporary of Arthur.
Where "this delightful, land of Faery" lies, it were as idle to seek as for Oberon's realm of Mommur, the island of Calypso, or the kingdom of Lilliput. Though it shadow forth England, it is distinct from it; for Cleopolis excels Troynovant in greatness and splendour, and Elfin, the first Fairy king, ruled over India and America. To the curious the poet says,
Of Faerylond yet if he more inquire,
By certain signes here sett in sondrie place,
He may it fynd ne let him then admyre,
But yield his sence to be too blunt and bace,
That no'te without an hound fine footing trace.
The idea of making a queen sole regnante of Fairy-land was the necessary result of the plan of making "the fayrest princesse under sky" view her "owne realmes in lond of faery." Yet there may have been sage authority for this settlement of the fairy throne. Some old romancers may have spoken only of a queen; and the gallant Sir Thopas does not seem to apprehend that he is in pursuit of the wedded wife of another. This doughty champion's dream was evidently the original of Arthur's.
Forwearied with my sportes, I did alight
From loftie steede, and downe to sleepe me layd;
The verdant grass my couch did goodly dight,
And pillow was my helmett fayre displayd;
Whiles every sence the humour sweet embayd,
Me seemed by my side a royall mayd
Her dainty limbes full softly down did lay,
So faire a creature yet saw never sunny day.
Most goodly glee and lovely blandishment
She to me made, and badd me love her deare,
For dearly, sure, her love was to me bent,
As, when iust time expired, should appeare:
But whether dreames delude, or true it were,
Was never hart so raviaht with delight,
Ne living man such wordes did never heare
As she to me delivered all that night,
And at her parting said, she queen of Faires hight.
* * * * *
From that day forth I cast in carefull mynd
To seek her out with labor and long tyne,
And never vow to rest till her I fynd--
Nyne months I seek in vain, yet n'ill that vow unbynd.
B. i. c. 9. st. xiii, xiv., xv.
The names given by Spenser to these beings are Fays (Feés), Farys or Fairies, Elfes and Elfins, of which last words the former had been already employed by Chaucer, and in one passage it is difficult to say what class of beings is intended. Spenser's account of the origin of his Fairies is evidently mere invention, as nothing in the least resembling it is to be found in any preceding writer. It bears, indeed, some slight and distant analogy to that of the origin of the inhabitants of Jinnestan, as narrated by the Orientals. According to the usual practice of Spenser, it is mixed up with the fables of antiquity.
Prometheus did create
A man of many parts from beasts deryved;
That man so made he called Elfe, to weet,
Quick, [a] the first author of all Elfin kynd,
Who, wandring through the world with wearie feet,
Did in the gardins of Adonis fynd
A goodly creature, whom he deemed in mynd
To be no earthly wight, but either spright
Or angell, the anthour of all woman-kynd;
Therefore a Fay he her according hight,
Of whom all Faryes spring, and fetch their lignage right.
Of these a mighty people shortly grew,
And puissant kings, which all the world warrayd,
And to themselves all nations did subdue.
B. ii. c. 9. st. lxx., lxxi., lxxii.
Sir Walter Scott remarks with justice (though his memory played him somewhat false on the occasion), that "the stealing of the Red Cross Knight while a child, is the only incident in the poem which approaches to the popular character of the Fairy." It is not exactly the only incident; but the only other, that of Arthegal, is a precisely parallel one:-
He wonneth in the land of Fayëree,
Yet is no Fary born, ne sib at all
To Elfes, but sprung of seed terrestriall,
And whyleome by false Faries stolne away,
Whyles yet in infant cradle he did crall:
We other to himself is knowne this day,
But that he by an Elfe was gotten of a Fay.
B. iii. c.3. st xxvi.
Sir Walter has been duly animadverted on for this dangerous error by the erudite Mr. Todd. It would be as little becoming as politic in us, treading, as we do, on ground where error ever hovers around us, to make any remark. Freedom from misconception and mistake, unfortunately, forms no privilege of our nature.
We must here observe, that Spenser was extremely injudicious in his selection of the circumstances by which he endeavoured to confound the two classes of Fairies. It was quite incongruous to style the progeny of the subjects of Gloriane a "base elfin brood," or themselves "false Fairies," especially when we recollect that such a being as Belphoebe, whose
whole creation did her shew
Pure and unspotted from all loathly crime,
That is ingenerate in fleshly slime,
was born of a Fairie.
Our poet seems to have forgotten himself also in the Legend of Sir Calidore; for though the knight is a Faerie himself; and though such we are to suppose were all the native inhabitants of Faerie-land, yet to the "gentle flood" that tumbled down from Mount Acidale,
ne mote the ruder clown
Thereto approach ne filth mote therein drown;
But Nymphs and Faeries on the banks did sit
In the woods shade which did the waters crown.
B. vi. c. 10. st vii.
And a little farther, when Calidore gazes on the "hundred naked maidens lily white," that danced around the Graces, he wist not
Whether it were the train of beauty's queen,
Or Nymphs or Faeries, or enchanted show,
With which his eyes mote have deluded been.
- St xvii.
The popular Elves, who dance their circlets on the green, were evidently here in Spenser's mind. [b]
It is now, we think, if not certain, at least highly probable, that the Fairy-land and the Fairies of Spenser are those of romance, to which the term Fairy properly belongs, and that it is without just reason that the title of his poem has been styled a misnomer. [c] After the appearance of his Faerie Queene, all distinction between the different species was rapidly lost, and Fairies became the established name of the popular Elves.
Here, then, we will take our leave of the potent ladies of romance, and join the Elves of the popular creed, tracing their descent from the Duergar of northern mythology, till we meet them enlivening the cottage fireside with the tales of their pranks and gambols.
[a] That is, elfe is alive.
[b] These Fairies thus coupled with Nymphs remind us of the Fairies of the old translators. Spenser, in the Shepherd's Calendar, however, had united them before, as
Nor elvish ghosts nor ghastly owls do flee,
But friendly Faeries met with many Graces,
And light-foot Nymphs.--AEg. 6.
[c] "Spenser's Fairy Queen, which is one of the grossest misnomers in romance or history, bears no features of the Fairy nation."--Gifford, note on B. Jonson, vol. ii. p. 202.