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irreverence, which was not a purposed irreverence in the pure and lofty soul of Milton, but was an unconscious manifestation of the intellectual pride which was part of his character, and of the spiritual pride which belonge 1 to his times.
There is an impressive contrast between the spirit with which Milton and Shakspeare have treated the most sacred subjects. A reverential temper, less looked for in the dramatic bard, marks every passage in which allusion is made to such subjects—a feeling of profound reverential reserve; and as this may not have been generally observed, let me group some brief and characteristic passages together. There is the beautiful allusion to Christmas in Hamlet:
“Some say, that ever 'gainst that season comes
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.”
“those holy fields
For our advantage, on the bitter cross." Again, the single line in Winter's Tale, in which Poly. xenes refers to Judas and the betrayal
“Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy." And most impressive, perhaps, of all—the deep feeling in the words of the saintly Isabella :
“ Alas! alas!
I can do little more now than allude to a contrast still more striking between Milton's want of reverential reserve and Spenser's handling of religious truth, moving gently and with awe, as if with an ever-abiding sense that the ground he was treading on was holy ground. It was characteristic of Milton and of his times, when religion was freely talked about and rudely handled, to make his great epic avowedly a sacred poem-to put it in direct connection, if possible, with scriptural subjects. The genius of Spenser could not have ventured on what would have seemed to his gentle and reverential nature a profane handling of hallowed things and thereupon he employed, not the direct, but the veiled mode of sacred instruction. That veil interposed by his imagination was a gorgeous one, so interwoven with the richness of paganpoetry, “barbaric gold,” and of romantic Christian fancy, that the dazzled eye often fails to look through it to the scriptural truth that is steadily beaming there. Great injustice is done to Spenser, when, bewildered with the mazes of his inexhaustible creations, or by the brightness of his exuberant fancy, we see in the
Faery Queen nothing more than a wondrous fairy tale, a wild romance, or a gorgeous pageant of chivalry. Beyond all this, far within it, is an inner life; and that is breathed into it from the Bible. It is the great sacred poem of English literature. “I dare be known to think," said Milton, addressing the Parliament of England, “our sage and serious poet, Spenser, a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas."* When John Wesley gave directions for the clerical studies of his Methodist disciples, he recommended them to combine with the study of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Testament, the reading of the Faery Queen; and, in our own day, Mr. Keble, the poet of “The Christian Year," has described the Faery Queen as “a continual deliberate endeavour to enlist the restless intellect and chivalrous feeling of an inquiring and romantic age on the side of goodness and faith, of purity and justice.”+
Spenser himself, expounding his allegory to his friend Sir Walter Raleigh, said, “The general end of all the book is to fashion a gentleman, or noble person, in virtuous and gentle discipline." I Christian philosopher, as well as poet, Spenser's deep conviction, manifest throughout the poem, was that the only discipline wherewith to tame the rebellious heart of man is that morality which, in one of his own sweet phrases, bears
“ The lineaments of gospel-books.”
* Milton's ProseWorks, 8vo.p.108. On Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.
† Quarterly Review, vol. xxxii. p. 225, June, 1825. In an article on Sacred Poetry, attributed to Mr. Keble.
Spenser's Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, prefixed to Poetical Works, The student of sacred poetry must not be startled at meeting with thoughts, or rather images, drawn from other sources than Holy Scripture. The imagination of a great poet can make the heathen world tributary to the Christian; you meet in the Faery Queen the exploded mythology of paganism, and Scripture story, so shadowed forth together that the sanctity of the latter is no wise sullied by the contact. When one of Spenser's heroes visits the realms of the lost spirits, he beholds Tantalus with the hunger and the thirst of ages on him, and the dread of centuries to come; and not far off another wretch, plunged in the infernal waters, washing his blood-stained handswashing eternally, hopelessly, the deep damnation of Pontius Pilate; images, one caught from pagan fable, the other from Holy Writ; images, too, of unending woe, the sufferings hereafter of a wicked life.
vol. i. p. 5.
g An Elegie on Friend's Passion for his Astrophell. Spenser's Poetical Works, vol. v. p. 261.
In like manner, when Milton recounts the hosts of Pandemonium, there is that transcendent effort of the imagination by which he grasps the mythology of classical antiquity and thrusts it down into hell, ranging the gods of Greece-Olympic Jove himself—with the inferior powers of the apostate angels, Satan's followers and servants. It is a mistake, I think, to limit our notice of
I sacred poetry to that which has an express and direct connection with biblical topics, for it is a high prerogative of the Christian imagination to rescue from the realms of error, fictions and superstitions, and make them safely subservient to the cause of revealed truth. It is this process, admirably conceived and executed, which entitles Southey's Curse of Kehama and Thalaba to be ranked with the great sacred poems of the language.
Thus a large range may be demanded for sacred poetry;
and yet in another aspect all narrowed to the relation in which it stands to revealed teaching and Holy Writ. That remarkable poet of the seventeenth century, George Wither—whose writings, unfortunately, are so little accessible-seems to have been disposed to look more to the resources of his own thoughts than either to the pr fession of preaching or the increase of books : he says
it was not his religion
“ Up and down the land to seek,
Yet be as fresh as when they first began.”
“For many books I care not, and my store
Might now suffice me, though I had no more
Where'er I come, or whatsoe'er I do."* A poet, a happy-hearted poet, like Wither, whose imagination could make cheerful employment within his prison walls, might speak thus; but for our common minds the poet's help is needed : it will often help us the better to know and feel the three volumes with which the old poet was content with—the two Testaments and the mighty volume called the world; and doubtless not only
* Wither, as quoted in “Church Poetry," p. 72.