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(with a few brief waking intervals) between the death of Pope and the appearance of Cowper. The circumstance is the more remarkable, because Spenser himself - great, admirable, and unrivalled as he is in some respects — had long ceased to be popular. The stanza itself is a very curious knot which requires the nicest skill to tie gracefully. In form it is as compact as the Italian sonnet, with this difference,
that the stanza is unique, whereas the sonnet is double. The latter consists of two quartrains and two triplets; and the harmony of the whole would be broken, not only by the addition or retrenchment of a line, but even by a less rigid arrangement of rhymes and clauses, in the fourteen lines of which it is composed. The Spenserian stanza is likewise so finely proportioned, and so artfully implicated, that no single rhyme can be withdrawn or appended, nor its station varied, without dissolving the musical effect of the whole. The sonnet is a poetical air in two parts, the stanza is a strain in one; each perfect in its kind, but only good when very good.
The Spenserian stanza, after all that has been done to support its credit, and though it is the richest and most sonorous, perhaps, that could be invented, becomes occasionally wearisome both to the poet and the reader, even when in the hands of a master. No wonder, then, that the inexperienced adventurer often sinks under this cumbrous harness, or that his readers lose half of the poetry of a paragraph in hunting after the sense, weakened, obscured, and embarrassed, as it may be, by inverted construction, uncouth phraseology, and inadequate expression,
adopted to compress or expand the lines in order to meet the rhymes due at the prescribed points. In a language so poor in inflections as our own, it is not prudent to introduce more than three rhymes at the most in the same verse, and these should be placed at moderate intervals. In the stanza before us there are four similar ones between the second and the seventh lines, interwoven with two of different kinds, of which one echoes to the ending of the first line, and the other must be in consonance with those of the last couplet. It follows, that from the number and remoteness of these corresponding terminations, the meaning and the verbiage can seldom keep pace with each other; but, for the sake of jingling at the proper stages, they must ride and tie alternately (as two countrymen, with but one horse between them, sometimes do) to the end of the journey. I decline to give a specimen, because it would take up too much time to analyse; otherwise I could show the sense absolutely halting on foot in the first line, while the diction rides post to the end of the third to catch a rhyme; then the sense takes its turn, and, mounting at the commencement of the fourth line, proceeds full gallop (though we nearly lose sight of it in the dust and cloud of words) to the final syllable of the concluding line.
This fault, rather of the measure than of the minstrel, prevails more or less through the most celebrated compositions of late authors in the Spenserian stanza, - a disadvantage greatly to their own prejujudice, as well as productive of much perplexity to their readers. The highest pleasure communicated
by poetry is experienced from the first impression of its words, images, and sentiments, clearly and instantaneously understood. If the novelty of the thought be past before the reader can comprehend the form of words in which it appears, though both the novelty and the beauty of the passage may strike him, they will not strike him at once, but successively, - the novelty first, the beauty afterwards ;- nor will either, singly, be felt so forcibly, as each, distinctly, would have been in combination with the other. This will hold true with regard to all works of literature in the vernacular tongue. The slowness with which we enter into the peculiar meaning of words, and the expected gradations by which the elegancies of thought and diction are disclosed to us in a foreign idiom, will not invalidate the observation ; for the pleasure derived from this kind of reading is different in nature as well as in degree from the former. The perusal of a poem in a strange tongue is an effort of spontaneous study - - a strong and healthful exercise of mind, memory, and reflection; whereas a poem in our own ought to be a solace from severer tasks, and almost a passive recreation of the heart or the fancy
It is due to Spenser to give the model of this exquisite but intricate stanza, from his own great work, and I take the first that occurs in the “ Faerie Queene."
« Lo, I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly shepheards' weeds, Are now enforst, a farre unfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to change mine oaten reeds,
And sing of knights' and ladies' gentle deeds ;
Whose praises, having slept in silence long, Me, all-too-mean, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broade am gst her learned throng ; Fierce wars and faithful loves shall moralize my song."
Faerie Queene, book i. canto i.
A few words more concerning the sonnet.
There is not a popular one in the English language ; there are hundreds in the Italian. Whence comes this disparity ? - Many of the best sonnets of our greatest authors - Shakspeare, Spenser, Milton, Gray, Cowper, and Wordsworth — are exceedingly unequal in their texture, obscure in their verbiage, and lumbering in the motion of their verse. The Italian ones remarkably contrast with these; being distinguished, even above other poetic compositions in that most delicate, voluble, and melodious tongue, by exquisite finish in respect to diction, clear development of the one fine thought which they enclose, and the musical succession of cadences carried through to the last syllable of the fourteen lines, - lines so admirably arranged, that the place of each in the tune (if we may so speak) can be almost known by the ear, as well as by the correspondence of rhyme, and commection of sentiment. The sonnet, therefore, has been unworthily depreciated in England, because it has been imperfectly exhibited by English writers ; partly from the difficulty of furnishing relays of rhyme to meet at the appointed stations, and partly from the Procrustean model, on exact attention to which the perfection of the sonnet depends.
If it be asked, Why should a sonnet be confined to
fourteen lines rather than any other number? I know not that the question can be better answered than by asking another, - Why should the height of a Corinthian column be ten diameters? The cestus of Venus must be of some particular length, both to fit and to adorn the person of the goddess : a handbreadth taken away would have left it scanty, and a hand-breadth superadded would have made it redundant. The quota of lines, and the arrangement of rhymes and pauses, already established in the regular sonnet, have been deemed, after the experience of five centuries, incapable of improvement by extension or reduction; while the form itself has been proved to be the most convenient and graceful that ever was invented, for disclosing, embellishing, and encompassing the noblest or the loveliest, the gayest or the gravest idea, that genius, in its happiest moments of rapture or of melancholy, could inspire. The employment of this form by the finest Italian poets, for expressing, with pathos and power irresistible, their selectest and purest conceptions, is an argument of fact against all speculative objections, in favour of the intrinsic excellence and unparalleled perfection of the sonnet.
Our contemporary, Mr. Wordsworth, (whatever may have been done before him,) has redeemed the English language from the opprobrium of not admitting the legitimate sonnet in its severest, as well as its most elegant, construction. The following, though according to the strictest precedents, and therefore the least agreeable to unaccustomed ears, is full of deep harmony, strong sentiment, and chastised, yet