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Edmund Spenser: Enigmatic and elusive 

Like one of the shape-shifting characters in The Faerie Queene, over the centuries Spenser has displayed a number of different identities. To his early biographers Spenser was, after Chaucer, the great improver of English poetry, who raised it to a level where it might challenge comparison with the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, but who suffered from the resentment and malice of courtiers such as Burghley, and expired from melancholy and discouragement "without the help of any other Disease save a broken Heart". This was not a reading of Spenser's verse that would long detain those who really understood what classical poetry was. Addison, as a spokesman for such a point of view, condescended towards Spenser as a man who wrote in and for an age "uncultivate and rude", and "the mystic tale" of whose poetry therefore can "charm an understanding age no more".  

However, the vicissitudes of literary taste soon produced a generation who preferred charm to understanding, and who were prepared to justify that preference in argument. It was Richard Hurd who in 1762 decisively re-presented The Faerie Queene as a Gothic rather than a Grecian poem: "Judge of The Faerie Queene by the classic models and you are shocked with its disorder; consider it with an eye to its Gothic original and you find it regular."

Hurd's move brutally discounts all the evidence we have that Spenser himself regarded his poetry as in some sense an imitation of Virgil. But it paved the way for the Romantic view of Spenser as the purveyor of dreamy fantasies. Hazlitt's lecture on Spenser embodies this interpretation:

Spenser's poetry is all fairy-land . . . 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 Victorians were uncomfortable with this romantic Spenser, and created one more suited to their moral earnestness.  Ruskin identified Spenser's "grotesque idealism" as the medium through which the most appalling and eventful truth has been wisely conveyed since the beginnings of Western literature — "no element of imagination has a wider range, a more magnificent use, or so colossal a grasp of sacred truth".

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