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Of Spenser's Use and Abuse of Ancient History
Spenser sought to produce surprise by extravagant incidents and fantastic descriptions, great part of classical history and mythology afforded ample materials for such a design, and properly coincided with the general aim of his romantic plan. He has accordingly adopted some of their most extraordinary fictions, in many of which he has departed from the received tradition, as his purpose and subject occasionally required or permitted. But with regard to author's misrepresentation of ancient fable, it may be justly urged, that from those arguments which are produced against his fidelity, new proofs arise in favour of his fancy. Spenser's native force of invention
would not suffer him to pursue the letter of prescribed fiction, with scrupulous observation and servile regularity. In many particulars he varies from antiquity, only to substitute new beauties, and from a slight mention of one or two leading circumstances in ancient fable, takes an opportunity to display some new fiction of his own coinage. He sometimes, in the fervour of composition, misrepresents these matters through haste and inattention. His allusions to ancient history are likewise very frequent, which he has not scrupled to violate, with equal freedom, and for the same reasons.
B. i. c. i. s. xxxvii.
A bold bad man, that dar'd to call by name
Dr. Jortin * has multiplied instances by
* See Remarks on Spenser's Poems.
which it appears, that the ancients were superstitiously fearful of uttering the name of Gorgon or Dæmogorgon. I shall add, that they were no less afraid of calling the Furies by their names.
Electra, in Euripides, says of the Furies, that tormented her brother
ΟΝΟΜΑΖΕΙΝ γαρ αιδεμαι θεας
Vereor enim nominare
And in another scene, Orestes says
Εδοξο ειδειν τρεις νυκτι προσφερεις κορας.
Visus sum mibi videre tres puellas nocti similes.
Whom Menelaus answers
Οιδ' ας ελεξας, ΟΝΟΜΑΣΑΙ δ' και βελομαιf.
* Orestcs, v. 37.
+ Ibid. 430.
dixisti; nominare autem nolo.
Below, we have the same superstition concerning Hecate
And threatned unto him the dreaded name
But it would perhaps be difficult to produce any ancient evidence, either that Hecate's name was feared in general, or that Morpheus particularly, was afraid of uttering or hearing it. Our author, with great force of fancy, feigns such another circumstance as this concerning Merlin.
The fiends do quake, when any him to them does name.
3. 3. 11.
Though perhaps this is not more expressive of Merlin's diabolical power, than what some of the runic historians mention of a Swedish enchanter, viz. That he could blunt the edge of the weapons of his enemies only by looking at them, and that he could make hell a light place.
B. i. c. iv. s. XXX.
He is describing Envy.
Still did chaw,
Ovid feigns * that Envy was found eating the flesh of vipers, a fiction not much unlike Spenser's picture. But our author has heightened this circumstance to a most disgusting decree; for he adds, that the poison ran about his jaw. This is perhaps one of the most loathsome images which Spenser has given us ; though he paints very strongly, 1. 1. 20.
* Met. ii. v. 76.