How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That hath such people in't."
W HEN Sir Walter Raleigh had done chasing the Spanish Armada from Plymouth to the North Sea, he crossed over to Ireland, where he visited his friend Edmund Spenser. That Spenser was a poet of no mean order Raleigh well knew, but he was hardly prepared for the wonderful new poem that Spenser read to him on this visit, under the name of the "Fairy Queen."
Here indeed was a poet—the first singer of Elizabeth's newly awakened England—the pioneer of that new glory which burst forth in this marvellous sixteenth century. Elizabeth must hear the poem from the poet's own lips. Together the two men made their way to England and stood before their queen. She listened with rapture. In the "Fairy Queen" she recognised herself. But the new poem was not for her alone. It was published in 1590, to be received by a burst of welcome, for did it not express the very life of the times? It was the truest picture of the world of mystery and wonder, which was opening before the eyes of Englishmen—a mixture of the chivalry of the middle ages and the new learning which had spread from Italy. Here is one of the stories from the "Fairy Queen."
In the far-off kingdom of Fairyland stood a splendid city surrounded by a golden wall. Here lived Gloriana the Queen of the Fairies, and to her came all noble knights in search of adventure and all persons in distress.
One day there arrived a royal maiden named Una, who had journeyed from the Euphrates, away in the Far East. She had been driven from home by a huge and cruel dragon, which had laid waste the country, the king and queen had fled for safety to a strong castle, and she had come to the Fairy Queen for help. Many a knight had tried to slay the monster in vain. It was not long before a young noble, known as the Red Cross Knight, at the palace of Gloriana, undertook to go and slay the dragon, if Una would show him the way. Away they started together, the knight on a fiery steed, Una at his side on a snow-white ass. Soon a storm drove them to shelter in a deep wood, where presently they lost their way. Finding a cave, the young knight dismounted, and in spite of Una's remonstrances he looked into a dark hole. By the light of his glittering armour he saw an ugly monster, named Error, lying in the cave. After a tremendous struggle he killed the monster and returned to Una.
"Fair knight, ye have won glory this day," she said. "May all your adventures succeed as well as this."
On they went again. But before long the Red Cross Knight was led astray by a false lady, Duessa. Left alone and solitary, Una wandered through desert and wilderness to find her lost knight. She was lying at rest on the grass when suddenly a ramping lion rushed out of a wood. With open mouth he rushed at her greedily; but when he saw her nearer he stopped, and, instead of devouring her, he kissed her weary feet and licked her white hands. When she rose to go the lion followed her as her faithful guide.
Still searching for her Red Cross Knight, Una met Prince Arthur, the champion knight of Fairyland. His armour glittered like the rays of the sun, his tunic shone like twinkling stars with precious stones. His helmet was of gold, with a golden dragon. Ever bent on deeds of kindness, Arthur undertook to find for Una her Red Cross Knight, who was even now languishing in a dark dungeon in the castle of a giant, where dwelt the false Duessa. Horrible to behold was the monster giant who came forth to meet Arthur; but it was not long before he lay at Arthur's feet—dead. Then Arthur brought the poor Red Cross Knight, ill and low and weak. Duessa had fled, so they stayed and refreshed themselves at the castle. Then they parted from Arthur, and the knight and his dear Una went on their way. And at last they arrived at Una's home.
"This is the city of the great king, where eternal peace and happiness dwell," said an old man, who took the knight to a high mountain from whence he could see the goodly city. "The way to it, after long labour, will bring you to joyous rest and endless bliss. And thou, fair knight, dost well to succour this desolate princess till thou hast rid her of her foe. That done, thou mayest travel this path, which shall lead thee to the great city. And there in after-times shalt thou be a saint and befriend thine own nation. St George of merry England shalt thou be."
His eyes were yet dazzled with the brightness of the distant city when a hideous roaring sound was heard, that seemed to shake the very earth. It came from a dreadful dragon stretched on the sunny side of a hill. He was covered with huge brazen scales, which he clashed together with a dreadful noise; his huge tail was wrapped in a hundred folds; his jaws opened like an abyss, showing long ranges of iron teeth; his eyes blazed like fire.
Putting Una into a place of safety, the Red Cross Knight advanced fearlessly to his great task. For two days and nights he fought the mighty beast, and at the last he slew it. It was safe now for the king and queen to appear, for the dragon was slain. And clad in sombre robes they came forth, old and hoary with time, to embrace their daughter Una and to give her in marriage to the conqueror of the dragon, the Red Cross Knight, St George of England.
The "Fairy Queen" was the first ideal poem that England produced, the source of her modern poetry. It lifted its readers at once into a clear, pure air. "No man can read the 'Fairy Queen' and be anything but the better for it," says a great American writer. "The land of Spenser is the land of Dreams, but it is also the land of Rest."
"Here may thy storm-beat vessel safely ride;
This is the port of rest from troublous toil.
The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil."