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tions of archaism : and beside him Spenser appears clumsy, laborious, and imperfectly civilized. Tasso's subject is the mediaeval one of the Crusades, but he conceives it as a whole, and gives sanity to its fairy tales; while neither artistic unity nor human sanity is among the characteristics of the Middle Age, or even-certainly not unity-of the Faery Queen. That poem has the mediaeval weakness of meandering endlessly towards a goal which no one can guess at, and which, in fact, is never reached. It lacks lucidity and order, two of the greatest lessons which the new world was learning of the classics. In these respects it remains in the stage of artistic childhood : the story seems often to wander at its own will, hardly directed at all by the poet's mind. Indeed in both art and life it is largely a mediaeval survivor. One of the most striking characteristics of the Middle Age is that it appears to have felt little objection to tediousness or to endless monotony of repetition. So in the Faery Queen. The personal combats of Homer soon become rather wearisome to the modern reader ; but those which repeat themselves again and again throughout the Faery Queen are infinitely more so. They have far less variety and far less vigour, and the treatment of human character is on the whole narrowly mediaeval : the virtues and vices are limited to those of chivalry, such as personal bravery, chastity, hospitality to strangers, and their opposites. We miss the God's plenty of Chaucer, with its pell-mell of human life as we know it in all its shades and gradations.
Yet if both in art and life the Faery Queen seems partly a step backward when we compare it with the Canterbury Tales, not only that great poem but other works of Spenser show that it was not for nothing he lived after and not before the great intellectual and religious movements of the early sixteenth century. For instance, one may like the change or regret it; but, for good or for evil, he is no longer naïve. He first for England, as Ronsard first for France, strikes
a note, the note of the os magna sonans, greatness finding great utterance, which the Middle Age could not sound in either country. The very first stanzas of the Faery Queen give us that note : Helpe then, O holy virgin ! chiefe of nyne, Thy weaker Novice to performe thy will ; Lay forth out of thine everlasting scryne The antique rolles, which there lye hidden still, Of Faerie knights, and fayrest Tanaquill, Whom that most noble Briton Prince so long Sought through the world, and suffered so much ill, That I must rue his undeserved wrong : O, helpe thou my weake wit, and sharpen my dull tong !
To this height he again and again rises out of the tedious prolixities and incredible adventures of his knights and ladies. He has not had the formal courage to cast off the old clothes of mediaeval romance, but he is not blind to what was buried under it, the high adventure of noble living; and he can picture it with a largeness and accompany it with a music of which the Middle Age knew nothing, which, in fact, could not come till the Middle Age had been universalized, intellectualized, and humanized in the atmosphere of the Greek and Roman classics. And his immortal stanza? Is not the suave and gracious perfection of its harmony a thing inconceivable in the Middle Age? Whatever Spenser had not learnt of the new world, he had learnt the lesson that literature is a fine art ; that its expression must be a thing of order and beauty and delight, not a thing harsh, crabbed, casual ; and of that lesson few of his successors have been better masters. Their especial delight in him—as we find it recorded in the lives of Milton, Cowley, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats-is the best tribute to the fine quality of his art : he is, in this matter, il maestro di color che sanno, the craftsman admired of craftsmen, the poets' poet.
In some respects his advance on the Middle Age, both in life and art, is more remarkable in his minor poems than in the Faery Queen. For instance, in the Hymn of Heavenly Love we get an anticipation of the majesty of Milton :
Before this worlds great frame, in which al things
Here, as in several other of the minor poems, and especially in
every line of the Epithalamium, is art which, for the first time in English, takes equal rank with that of the ancient classics and the great Italians. Chaucer had a clearer view of life than Spenser, and he had more ease and humour ; but, on the whole, he loves the ground: he could not maintain himself for long on the heights of poetry, with mind and imagination and emotion all uplifted above their common level, and finding an utterance which fuses them all in a satisfying whole. Spenser was the first Englishman who could do that.
Since his death more than 300 wonderful years have passed over our poetry. I have no time now, of course, to speak even of the greatest names which adorn these centuries. But there is this to be said. When Spenser appeared by Chaucer's side men who knew what poetry was knew that England had taken her place among those nations which could claim to have produced great poetry. Chaucer had brought us, as I said, the sane and liberal view of life. Spenser gave us the exalted view of it without which the poetic treatment of life is not complete, and he gave us the noble art which makes a high music of all observation, thought, and feeling. With Spenser, English poetry was seen to have exhibited all the qualities of great poetry. But within little more than half a century after his death it was seen to have done more than that. And long before the full century had elapsed that generous poet who was the first or at least the second of our great critics of poetry had definitely recognized that we in England were already possessed of two poets who not only belonged, like Spenser, to the world of great poetry, but were among those few mighty ones who sit in that world—to apply the phrase of one of them-on sainted seats as its enthroned gods. Dryden's prompt recognition of the splendour of the genius of Shakespeare and Milton-both as unlike him as they are unlike each other-is one of the greatest of recorded triumphs of literary judgement. It would have seemed madness outside England, if anybody had heard of it. But it was the truth, and after another hundred years or so all Europe had come to see that it was. I imagine that neither France nor Italy nor Spain nor Germany, whatever they might claim for themselves, would allow that any of the other three possessed more than one poet who ranked above, or even on a level with, Shakespeare and Milton.
However, it is not our business—nor a very profitable one for any one-to be awarding first classes or seconds in an imaginary world-competition of poets. Shakespeare and Milton are anyhow great enough for an Englishman to feel it to be about his highest glory that their language is his mother tongue. But observe this. The mighty pair on whose shoulders we English climb these heights are as unlike each other as two poets well can be. No doubt they were also as unlike as two men can be, but that is not the present point. What I am now concerned with is the poetic contrast. Shakespeare, chronologically the third great name in our poetic annals, gave what the second, Spenser, could not give—the universality of life, not only its height and depth but its infinite variety. He completes the gift of Chaucer. It is, on the other hand, Spenser's gift which Milton completes. Milton is, without rival or question, the greatest artist of our race. Indeed, it is quite arguable that his poetry, which is, very nearly all of it, of consummate
you can alter
perfection, is in craftsmanship, if not quite so certainly in design, the greatest work of art in the whole world of poetry. One test of poetry as art is whether you can alter the words it uses. How many times do
find one that in Milton ? Is even Virgil more final than he is ? That is why they are of all poets the easiest to retain in the memory : their word is always the only possible word when once you have been shown it. Well, that is Milton, the magnificent craftsman, the self-conscious, deliberate, laborious genius, who always knew what he was doing, and why he was doing it, who put purpose and character into every word he uttered, and was never for a moment easy-going, indifferent, impartial or amused. Could there be a man less like Shakespeare ? The one as we know him is all art and will : the other-I might almost say, but that it is difficult and dangerous to talk of limitations in connexion with Shakespeare—is all experience and sympathy, entering into everything, accepting everything, never imposing himself upon anything : the one is all intension, the other all extension : the one, we may say, exhibits the embodied concentration of art, the other the diffused fluidity and mobility of life. There is a vast quantity of life in Milton, and there are ever-recurring moments of the loveliest art in Shakespeare. But there can be no doubt, I think, that in Shakespeare it is the fullness and variety of life which is the dominant impression, and in Milton the intensity and rarity of art.
So those two sides of the ever-shifting balance reach their extremes in these two supreme men. But life and art are both inexhaustible, and not even Shakespeare and Milton could exhaust them. Both of them are for ever being born again, the same and not the same. You cannot separate, of course, except in thought the two elements which are strangely united to make what we call poetry, any more than we can see body apart from soul, or soul apart from body.