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across her, as the thunderbolt across the eagle's wing; and her natural vigour was bitterly expended in the struggles of rival usurpers, and in foreign wars, fruitless of all, but those apples of Sodom, the glories of the sword.
Yet Poetry is a part of human nature, and exists wherever man exists. A succession of poets rose in even this tumultuous period. But their efforts perished, either from defect of ability, or from the want of popular leisure, when life and possessions were in perpetual hazard. At length, Chaucer appeared, and established a fame, that forced its way through the difficulties of his age. It is a fine remark of Bacon, that, while Art perfects things by parts, Nature perfects all together.' The triumphant periods of nations have this excellence of Nature-opulence, arms, and intellect flourish at the same time: the vegetation of the imperial tree is urged at once through all the extremities, and throws out its vigour alike in branch, leaf, and bloom. The reign of Edward III. had placed England in a high European rank, and with her rank came intellectual honours.
Chaucer's mind was cast in the mould of Poetry, and his genius was practised and enriched by the most * Born in London, 1328, died 1400.
singular diversity of knowledge and situation. He was a classical student, a lawyer, a soldier, a mathemarician, and a theologian. His successive employments placed the whole round of life before his eyes. He began, by being a member of both universities; he then travelled on the Continent; returned to study law; became an officer of the palace; went to Italy as an envoy; was a comptroller of the customs; was an exile for the reformation; was a prisoner; and closed his various and agitated career, by retiring from the world, to correct those Poems by which he was to live when the multitude of his glittering and haughty compeers were forgotten.
Chaucer was the earliest successful cultivator of the harmony of the English language. His quaintnesses and occasional irregularities of thought and diction, belong to his time; but he has passages of copious and honeyed sweetness that belong to the finest poetic perception alone.
Spencer* arose in the most memorable period of English history, the reign of Elizabeth. And his career, though less diversified than that of his great predecessor, yet had much of similar interest and change. He was early introduced to the stately
* Born in London, 1553-Died 1509.
court of Elizabeth, and was led there by Sydney, the very genius of romance and heroism. He next visited the Continent, then vivid with arts and arms; and, as the envoy of Lord Leicester, visited it in a rank which gave him the most fortunate opportunities. In Ireland he next saw the contrast of a people naked of the arts and indulgences of life, but exhibiting singular boldness and love of country; a rude magnificence of thought and habit; a stately superstition; and a spirit of proud and melancholy romance, cherished by the circumstances, climate, and landscape of their soil. To those influences on the poet's mind may be attribu ted some of the characteristics of his poetry, for in Ireland, and in the midst of its most delicious scenery, he completed the "Fairy Queen."
The faults of this celebrated poem are obvious, and must be traced to Spencer's admiration of the Italian poets. The attempt to personify the passions, and the prominent characters of his time, involves the story in confusion. Continued allegory exhausts and defeats the imagination. But his excellence is in his language; and few can think of the story, in the incomparable sweetness and variegated beauty of his lines. To this hour Spencer is a spring of English inexhaustible, from which all the leading poets have drawn, and which is still fresh and sparkling as ever.
Panegyric sinks before the name of Shakespeare.* His dramatic fame has become proverbial, and is now beyond increase or diminution by posterity. If the conduct of his plays be sometimes dilatory, perplexed, and improbable; no man ever redeemed those errors by such triumphant power over the difficulties character and poetry. His knowledge of the workings of the human breast in all the varieties of passion, gives us the idea that he had either felt and registered every emotion of our being, or had attained the knowledge by some faculty restricted to himself. He is, above all poets, the poet of passion; not merely of the violent and gloomy distortion into which the greater trials of life may constrain the mind, but of the whole range of the simple, the lovely, and the sublime. His force and flow have the easy strength of the tide; and his lights and shadows are thrown with the rich negligence, yet with the intensity and grandeur of the colours of heaven on the ocean.
Shakespeare's fertility increases the surprise at this accumulation of poetic power. Within twenty-three years he produced thirty plays, indisputably genuine ; and contributed largely to five more, if he did not altogether write them. Of the thirty, twelve are
"Born at Stratford upon Avon, 1564-died, 1616
master-pieces, whose equals are not to be found in the whole compass of the living languages, nor perhaps of the dead. Yet, susceptible as he must have been of the poet's delight in praise, he seems to have utterly disregarded fame. He left his writings to the false and garbled copies of the theatre. It is not known that he even cared whether they ever passed to posterity. He retired from active life-from the pleasures of general society, which he must have been eminently capable of enjoying-and from authorship, a still severer sacrifice,-while he was yet in the prime of years, and gave himself up to the quiet obscurity of the country, without allowing us room for a suspicion that he ever regretted his abandonment of the world.
No man ever seems to have been so signally unconscious of what mighty things he was doing, or of the vast space that he must fill in the eyes of the fuAnd this unconsciousness, the rarest distinction and clearest evidence of great minds, crowns his supremacy; for it must have proceeded from either the creative facility that made all effort trivial, or the still nobler faculty, that sense of excellence, which makes all that genius can do feeble and dim, to the vivid and splendid form of perfection perpetually glowing before the mind.