All Are Following: The Quest for Poetical Inspiration

All Are Following: The Quest for Poetical Inspiration
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge / Unsplash

There are poets who emerge on the scene entirely removed from what came before them. Yet there are those who look to the past, seeking their own offering to be annexed to the grander pantheon of English poetry. These include poets such as Edmund Spenser, John Keats, and William Morris; but their ranks number large, and these are only a representative few.

At the beginning, poets and critics can trace English verse back to Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400). His are the earliest manuscripts following a previous oral tradition, written in Middle English, that stage of our language on the fast-track to Early Modern English. With such works as Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales he is still widely read today, more than half a millennium later.

But in the mists of a language that was rapidly changing, who would take up his mantle?

Enter Edmund Spenser (1552-1599).

Spenser rooted his own work in that of Chaucer, through his earliest pastorals to his master epic The Faerie Queene. This epic, comprised of books that are further broken down into cantos, pulls from both Arthurian legend and Italian romances in the selections of tales he retells to fit his purpose. It creates a unique blend that has influenced English poetry ever since. By Book IIII, Spenser declares he will finish Chaucer’s “The Squire’s Tale” from the cycle poem The Canterbury Tales. He remarks, in Canto II, how the hint of this tale first found its way to him:

  As that renowmed Poet them compyled,
  With warlike numbers and Heroicke sound,
  Dan Chaucer, well of English vndefyled (IIII.ii.32.6-8)

The term “vndefyled” is used well concerning the language Spenser uses, one that was archaic for his own time. Here he is speaking to this past, and the poet who wrote before him. In the next stanza it is revealed why, in part, he must retell the tale:

  But wicked Time that all good thoughts doth waste,
  And workes of noblest wits to nought out weare,
  That famous moniment hath quite defaste (IIII.ii.33.1-3)

The agent “Time” has laid its waste upon the English of Chaucer, leaving Spenser with an almost “impure” form of it. The word “defaste” as in “defaced”, and the “famous moniment” the larger poem and its completed tales that remain. Where he ceases to break from the narrative with this message to the reader, he concludes:

  Ne dare I like, but through infusion sweete
  Of thine owne spirit, which doth in me survive,
  I follow here the footing of thy feete,
  That with thy meaning so I may the rather meete. (IIII.ii.34.6-9)

This is Spenser’s declaration that he intends to carry the “spirit” of Chaucer forward so that it may truly “survive”. Yet he steps away, at the start, to admit he does not come close to his predecessor. But that “infusion” of old works into the new offered by Spenser is his way of following him. With the final Alexandrine he makes his motives clear: that his tale, though not exact to what Chaucer’s would have been, will match it in its intended meaning.

The following of Chaucer did not stop with Spenser, as John Keats (1795-1821) explored the same theme in his own poetry. In Book I of Endymion, lines 133-34: “…that I may dare, in wayfaring, / To stammer where old Chaucer used to sing” show that Keats, like Spenser, was aiming to follow the same “footing” of Chaucer. Endymion, written in heroic couplets, even takes on the predominant form of The Canterbury Tales.

It is also evident that Keats wished to follow Spenser as well, as Spenser had done with Chaucer. Early in his career, Keats wrote “Imitation of Spenser”, crediting his inspiration by modeling new verse after an older manner. It shows that early in his career as a poet, Keats was training himself to write something of the scale of The Faerie Queene.

  Ah! could I tell the wonders of an isle
  That in that fairest lake had placèd been,
  I could e’en Dido of her grief beguile;
  Or rob from aged Lear his bitter teen  (19-22)

These lines from his “Imitation” show a young poet with dreams of accomplishing something grand. In other writings this is seen again, with “Specimen of an Induction to a Poem” bearing reference to the villain Archimago and lines like:

  Spenser! thy brows are archèd, open, kind,
  And come like a clear sun-rise to my mind;
  And always does my heart with pleasure dance,
  When I think on thy noble countenance (49-52)

Let us look later in the poet’s life, where he left written at the end of Canto II, Book V of Spenser’s epic a single Spenserian stanza:

    In after-time, a sage of mickle lore
    Y-cleped Typographus, the Giant took,
    And did refit his limbs as heretofore,
    And made him read in many a learned book,
    And into many a lively legend look;
    Thereby in goodly themes so training him,
    That all his brutishness he quite forsook,
    When, meeting Artegall and Talus grim,
  The one he struck stone-blind, the other’s eyes wox dim.

It is clear his poetic thought stems directly from Spenser’s. From the archaic language of “y-cleped” (called) to the characters featured in The Faerie Queene, Keats is truly following the groundwork of Spenser. Even with its placement, scrawled in some blank space of page in The Faerie Queene suggests it was written in a fit of inspiration and passion for the verses before him. This allows for a sort of “thrice infusion” - Chaucer to Spenser to Keats if one looks at the three from our modern time.

The poet William Morris (1834-1896) deserves an honorable mention with his The Earthly Paradise. Modeled after The Canterbury Tales it bears striking similarities. And in terms of content, the same goes for an inspiration of Spenser, as Morris pulls from Classical myth. Though separate from Spenser, his divergences in form within the same epic bring his style closer to Chaucer. Further, his inclusion of the Norse myths handed done via the Icelandic Sagas recognizes the melding of cultures that transpired some time ago on the English isles. In these regards, The Earthly Paradise exhibits its own unique “infusion”. The Prologue opens and immediately he urges his readers to travel to a previous age:

  While nigh the thronged wharf Geoffrey Chaucer’s pen
  Moves over bills of lading—mid such times
  Shall dwell the hollow puppets of my rhymes. (Prologue, 14-16)

Morris invokes what came before him, as did Spenser, and later Keats. Yet all three, owed to their creativity, gave the world of English poetry something new.