Thursday, December 27, 2007

Primary Update

The primary being just 12 days away I figure if I want to write anything else about it I had better do it now.

I should have noted in the earlier posts that my wife, a lifelong observer of this process who understands the mind of the people far better than most of the paid Democratic operatives appear to, predicted very early on that Mitt Romney would win the general election in 2008 and be inaugurated as President (!) When pressed as to the reason for such a bold prediction she simply stated that "People are stupid. They'll vote for him because they think he looks like a President." She also opined that if Hillary Clinton were to be his opponent people would not vote for her because she is a woman. Gaming the motives and likely behaviors of the public not being strong suits of mine, I do not venture any predictions of my own, nor have I hardly ever any strong sense that the predictions and pronouncements of others are blatantly wrong. Thus I will stick to recording observations.

I do not know who I am going to vote for myself (I am registered as a Democrat, mainly for reasons of temperament and social aspiration; I cannot plausibly see myself hanging out with a crowd of cool Republicans under any confluence of events, however miraculous). Compared to the previous two cycles, I feel much more out of the loop this time. I remember Kucinich from '04, and I don't dislike him, though I'm not sure I would want his program actually put into effect, and as there is virtually no support for any even broad aspect of his world view among either the political or general population anyway there isn't really any point in voting for him. Dodd and Biden I honestly do not have any sense of what they, or any potential supporters they might have, would want in their hearts. Bill Richardson's campaign sent me some very bland literature that was not well calculated for the New Hampshire electorate, which likes to think of itself as having less need of government patronage to get through life, particularly with regard to education, than perhaps is felt in other regions of the country. John Edwards I can't warm up to. I will admit that most Southern candidates come across as phonies in New Hampshire because the method they have of relating to people, smiling when no obvious occasion for doing so has arisen, the revival method of oratory, etc, are bizarre to Northerners, who don't believe anyone acting in such a manner can possibly be serious. My prejudices admitted, I just can't bring myself to like the man. His lawyerly attitude towards the electorate, which is, briefly, that it is essentially weak, stupid, and defenseless, and in need of a champion such as himself to battle the formidable powers on its helpless behalf, is offensive. Granted, Barack Obama and Hillary have more than a little of this as well, but I will deal with them presently.

First I want to take a detour and compare the supposed populism of Edwards with the populism of Bill Bradley, whom I voted for when he ran in 2000. Bradley's view of what the political life of the nation is, or ought to be, like, though unfortunately rooted for the most part in somewhat outdated circumstances, is more similar to my own than I have seen from other candidates. I believe that he identifies more strongly as a citizen, as one of the Volk--he grew up in small-town Missouri--as compared to some kind of Brahmin or sophisticated globalist than any other recent Democratic candidate certainly, though he was an Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes Scholar and Olympian and was discussed as a possible future Presidential candidate while still a college student, which as much as anything demonstrates the changes in the attitudes of the country's elites (I apologize for using this word) in this country since the mid-60s. Many representatives of the candidates call my place of employment during the Primary season looking to speak with various people of substance there. If the person the caller is looking for is not available he generally hangs up. The Bradley operative alone actually stayed on the line and invited lowly me, without even inquiring who I was or what my position, even my party, was, to a reception where I would meet him and so forth, which I thought was a very quaint, democratic gesture to be pulling in 2000. For whatever reason--I forget why--I did not go to the reception, which I am a little regretful of now, for no invitations have come my way since. (Hillary Clinton nominally sends them but you have to call a number to find out where the party is and give them the secret code on the invitation and I suspect you are briefed on the rules regarding how you are to behave, which is not the kind of party I have in mind.)

I did receive a call last week from "Rachael", a real live person, no older than 22 or so by the sound of it, in the employ of Hillary Clinton, who wanted to consult my wisdom regarding the election. Of course I jest. Rachael's tone indicated that she felt herself to be suited for more substantial tasks in the campaign than canvassing (probably) gross and simple-minded 37 year old men for votes. When I let it slip that I was as yet undecided--I didn't want to lie--she began to browbeat me as if it were my obligation to come up with a good reason to her for not voting for Mrs Clinton. I offered her my opinion that things like being interrogated by a candidate's representatives when they ought to be persuading me regarding her merits were not endearing me in the candidate's favor. Rachael either did not understand this, or considered it the concern of a trivial mind, which perhaps it is; she said, 'So what you're saying is, it has nothing to do with where Senator Clinton stands on the issues?' I said I honestly did not have a good sense of where the Senator stood on the issues, or what issues were particularly important to her. Rachael I think gave up on me as hopeless at this point, rattled off the usual spiel about health care and ending the war, and what a great candidate Mrs Clinton was, and let me go. I was not reasssured by this exchange.

By the way you see these well-scrubbed, pretty expensively dressed young volunteers all over town now gabbing away on their cell phones about the tricks the Republicans have up their sleeves, or buying seeds and vitamin water or whatever it is ambitious young people eat these days, which is certainly not what I eat. Obviously I feel drawn to them in some way, though I have never been one of them, and never has my remoteness from the rank of society from which these people are drawn been greater than it is now. There are a lot of the kinds of girls I like among this crowd I think is what it really is. Probably even Rachael.

I guess I am waiting for some convincing reason to vote for Barack Obama, (or any of them, but in the absence of this I will probably vote for him). The political naivete he displays in the campaign literature he sends out, while refreshing, does give one pause. In one place was printed a quote from one of his professors at Harvard Law School saying he was the most brilliant student the professor had had in 35 years of teaching. This is great, but talk about a white rapper with no street knowledge! The majority--probably the vast majority--of the American electorate is more suspicious of than impressed by academic prowess, particularly if they get the impression you are boasting about it as some kind of significant accomplishment in itself (the connections between doing well in school and financial or professional success, while generally acknowledged, are still only tenuously grasped in the matter of their substance by a shockingly large number of people). He is apparently the most popular guy among the college-town and white-collar Dems in New Hampshire though, who I identify with more or less by default, while Hillary is supposedly the "working-class candidate." I really don't know.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In this posting I am going to attempt to grapple somewhat with ideas and actual poetry, as I am under the influence of a mood which tells me that as I will likely never return to this subject again once I have come to the end of this series, there is no point in rushing through it, especially given that I am scarcely paying it any attention as it is.

The picture below is taken from a 1913 children's book called Stories From Spenser. I wonder how many children read this book, or what influence it might have had on them, but I have not found any record of it. The scene depicts action from the 11th Canto of the 1st Booke generally, though to put some caption to it, I think I. xi. 5 is most fitting:

"Then bad the knight his lady yede aloofe,
And to an hill her selfe with draw aside,
From whence she might behold that batailles proofe
And eke be safe from daunger far descryde:
She him obayd, and turnd a little wyde."
IV. ii. 46 (3-5) Verse 45 describes the rape of a fairy nymph by a knight who came upon her combing her golden locks, presumably while in a state of undress, by a crystal flood, which got "three lovely babes, that proved three champions bold" on her. The young lads were raised in seclusion in the forest (their father having ridden off immediately after the gratification of his lust), but their genes would manifest themselves:

"Then shewing forth signes of their fathers blood,
They loved armes, and knighthood did ensew,
Seeking adventures, where they anie knew."

This getting of children by rape in this manner is, in most classical literature and art both ancient and modern (pre-1700), always set either in fairyland or some remote age, though the act is otherwise presented as the natural and obvious consequence of a lusty young man without the benefit of up to date education and civilizing coming across a luscious and lonely lass in the woods.

IV. iii. 27 (6-9) This is a striking and well-executed image:
"But when the floud is spent, then backe againe
His borrowed waters forst to redisbourse,
He sends the sea his owne with double gaine,
And tribute eke withall, as to his Soveraine."

IV. iv. 28 (6-9) This is a typical scenario in fight scenes involving knights on horseback; some variation of this is repeated about thirty or forty times in this poem alone. Indeed, for a significant portion of the lifespan of Western literary history--around 500 years-- the dominant narrative was of guys in armor swordfighting. This was one of the great lessons impressed upon me in 2007:
"A mightie spear eftsoones at him he bent;
Who seeing him come on so furiously,
Met him mid-way with equall hardiment,
That forcibly to ground they both together went."

IV. v. 35 (4-5) Regarding a blacksmith. Humorous:
"And fingers filthie, with long nayles unpared,
Right fit to rend the food, on which he fared."

IV. viii. 27 (5-8) On the hardiness of men of former ages:
"And eke that age despysed nicenesse vaine,
Enur'd to hardnesse and to homely fare,
Which them to warlike discipline did trayne,
And manly limbs endur'd with litle care..."

This picture has the words "Faerie Queene" in its title, though this refers it seems to a particular and curious self-image held by the artist and evoked by the terms rather than to anything connected with the poem.

IV. ix. 18 (5-9), 19 (1-4) The perils of being in the power and debt of a mighty man for a desirable woman, and the security against these which the virtues of true chivalry ensure:

"But now in feare of shame she more did stond/Seeing herselfe all soly succourlesse/Left in the victors powre, like vassall bond/Whose will her weaknesse could no way represse/In case his burning lust should breake into excesse."

"But cause of feare sure had she none at all/Of him, who goodly learned had of yore/The course of loose affection to forstall/And lawlesse lust to rule with reasons lore."

IV. x. 14 (8-9) "And time to steal, the threasure of man's day/Whose smallest minute lost, no riches render may." The book I used in this reading this poem was a 1935 Oxford University Press volume of 'Spenser's Poetical Works', which I found in Brattleboro, of all places. It had a glossary but not much in the way of explanatory notes. The previous owner, or one of them, of the book was a fellow whose name, though it is hard to decipher his handwriting, appears to have been Jim Swan; he lived at 40 Monroe Street in New York City. As this is in lower Manhattan near the Manhattan bridge, my suspicion is that the building Jim Swan, and my book, once inhabited have been razed and replaced with some more modern construction, though I am probably wrong. Swan appears to have read the Faerie Queene all the way through--at least he has marked it, frequently in pink pencil, all the way through. Perhaps he was one of the 12 men Bliss Perry designated as the book's living readership, though I doubt it. He left posterity a brief note beside the two lines above stating simply "Poor Richard!". Only a mid-20th century American, especially a Manhattannite, could have written this with such unaffected enthusiasm.

IV. x. 24 Beautiful nature images. Evokes the old world:

"Fresh shadowes, fit to shroud from sunny ray;

Faire lawnds, to take the sunne in season dew;

Sweet springs, in which a thousand Nymphes did play;

Soft rombling brookes, that gentle slomber drew;

High reared mounts, the lands about to vew;

Low looking dales, disloigned from common gaze;

Delightful bowres, to solace lovers trew;

False Labyrinthes, fond runners eyes to daze;

All which by nature made did nature selfe amaze."

I can offer little comment where the poetry speaks so clearly for itself.

IV. x. 53 (3-7) Much of this canto continues the emphasis on courage always carrying the day with the ladies:

"For sacrilege me seem'd the Church to rob, (the robbery would be of a recluse virgin from the temple of Venus)

And folly seem'd to leave the thing undonne,

Which with so strong attempt I had begonne.

Tho shaking off all doubt and shamefast feare,

Which Ladies love I heard had never wonne..."

IV. xi. 16 (1-4) I just like the rhyme. (Humorous):

"For Albion the sonne of Neptune was,

Who for the proofe of his great puissance,

Out of his Albion did on dry-foot pas

Into old Gall, that now is cleeped France..."

Monday, December 17, 2007


I did not know many women when I was young, but among those in whose presences I chanced on occasion to find myself, quite a few claimed that their favorite movie was "Harold and Maude". When I finally saw the movie, which is watchable more for the fascination of the enormous 1971-era cars and dreary landscape (leaves, and vegetation in general, as well as bright sunlight, seem to have been in short supply around the years 1969-71, judging from the films of the period) and the Cat Stevens soundtrack, which sounds great in the actual movie, than the excruciating plot, which centers around a geek who has a love affair with a octogenarian, my reaction was "How the hell can this be anybody's favorite movie, especially a young girl's?" Meanwhile other men were regularly meeting attractive and volatile women who told them their favorite movies were "Betty Blue" or "Henry and June", and behaved accordingly (these films, as far as I could tell, were about women who required, and got, constant stimulation and high-intensity sex). Always slow to catch on to the most blatant codes (perhaps this is what is meant by being unable to recognize an allegory even when it is swallowing you alive), it just occurred to me a few days ago that the alleged favorite films were nothing but a means of informing you in what regard you were held, certainly as far as your sexual prospects went, by reference to the fate of the leading male characters in the films named. Subconsciously one always knew this; when my future wife claimed to be partial to uplifting and wholesome American films from the 1940s (to me; who knows what she would have said had a pulsating superman been present at the conversation, which thankfully, one was not), I knew that I had some hope, though being me I did not make out what form that hope must inevitably take, and therefore made no preparations for it. The point in all of this relating to the Faerie Queene is that it is possible I may be struck by more penetrating insights about what it really means in 10 or 15 years, and I will be able to add those too late epiphanies to the compendium of worldy wisdom I hope to accumulate for my sons to give them a little more advantage when they embark upon the great contest of life than I blundered into battle with.

The advantage to someone like me, who is a rather plodding scholar, of a longer work over a shorter one is that the longer one becomes a very distinct part of your life for the period in which you are reading it. Impressions have a greater chance of penetrating even the dull mind. One senses a degree of companionship with the author has been attained by the mere virtue of having been confined in the same carriage or boarding house with him for so many weeks. A lot of readers apparently don't care for this, and consider it presumptuous, especially in a multimedia age, for any person to demand twenty, or more, hours of another person's life to read his book, but I have always found that illusion of intimacy--the author cannot really escape my company either without my willing it--to be the primary reward of the habit.

III. viii. 42 (1-5) The theme of the third booke by the way is chastitie:
"Eternall thraldome was to her more liefe,
Then losse of chastitie, or chaunge of love:
Die had she rather in tormenting griefe,
Then any should of falsenesse her reprove,
Or loosenesse, that she lightly did remove."

III. ix. 30 This is a difficult part to make out exactly (I believe Cupid may just be working his perfidious effects on a pair of lovers with the aid of alcohol), but the poetry, as far as both language and the artfulness of the images, is remarkable:
"Thenceforth to her he sought to intimate
His inward griefe, by means to him well knowne,
Now Bacchus fruit out of the silver plate
He on the table dasht, as overthrowne,
Or of the fruitfull liquor overflowne,
And by the dancing bubbles did divine,
Or therein write to let his love be showne;
Which well she red out of the learned line,
A sacrament prophane in mistery of wine."

III. x. 48 A cuckold watches his wife in action:
"At night, when they all went to sleepe, he vewd,
Whereas his lovely wife emongst them lay,
Embraced of a Satyre rough and rude,
Who all the night did minde his joyous play:
Nine times he heard him come aloft ere day,
That all his hart with gealosie did swell;
But yet that nights ensample did bewray,
That not for nought his wife them loved so well,
When one so oft a night did ring his matins bell."

There are a large number of female warriors (as well as monsters) in the poem, which brings to mind that allegory in itself is entirely, as Blake pointed out, a pagan form, and is in fact antithetical to Christianity, which is revealed truth.

This painting is David's Death of Sappho, with Phaon. It too has nothing to do with the Faerie Queene (there is a Phaon character in the poem, but there is no allusion to this story). However, it came up when I was searching for a picture and I decided I wanted it in my collection. I have expressed my fondness for David, albeit largely unexamined, on this site before. This painting looks to be in the collection of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, which I still have a hope of getting to someday, though for what serious purpose at this point I could not pretend to say. It looks increasingly unlikely that that will happen anyway however.
III. xii. 18 (1-5) Displeasure is like me. Pleasance, of course, must be Mrs Bourgeois Surrender:

"After them went Displeasure and Pleasance.
He looking lompish and full sullein sad,
And hanging downe his heavy countenance;
She chearefull fresh and full of joyance glad,
As if no sorrow she ne felt ne drad..."

III. xii. 24 (3-5), 25 Catalogue of unsettled spirits:
"Repentance feeble, sorrowfull, and lame:
Reproch despightfull, carelesse, and unkind;
Shame most ill-favourd, bestiall, and blind...
"And after them a rude confused rout
Of persons flockt, whose names is hard to read:
Emongst them was sterne Strife, and Anger stout,
Unquiet care,and fond Unthriftihead,
Lewd Losse of Time, and Sorrow seeming dead,
Inconstant Chaunge, and false Disloyaltie,
Consuming Riotise, and guilty Dread,
Of heavenly vengeance, faint Infirmitie,
Vile Povertie, and lastly Death with infamie."

IV. i. 21-22 On discord. This could be sung over legs of mutton and ale, like a real epic poem. The theme of the 4th Booke is Friendship, by the way.
"And all within the riven walls were hung
With ragged monuments of time forepast,
All which the sad effects of discord sung:
There were rent robes, and broken scepters plast,
Alters defyl'd, and holy things defast,
Disshivered speares, and shields ytorne in twaine,
Great cities ransackt, and strong castles rast,
Nations captived, and huge armies slaine:
Of all which ruines there some relicks did remaine.

"There was the sign of antique Babylon,
Of fatall Thebes, of Rome that raigned long,
Of sacred Salem, and sad Ilion,
For memorie of which on high there hong
The golden Apple, cause of all their wrong,
For which the three faire Goddesses did strive:
There also was the name of Nimrod strong,
Of Alexander, and his Princes five,
Which shar'd to them the spoiles that he had got alive."

IV. i. 51 (5) Good line:
"All things not rooted well, will soon be rotten."

IV. ii. 27 (1-4) Western civilization in a nutshell:
"And of them all she that is fayrest found,
Shall have that golden girdle for reward,
And of those Knights who is most stout on ground,
Shall to that fairest Ladie be prefard..."

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I was going to give everybody a break from Spenser by linking to a video called "Lucky Guys Get Amazing Lapdances at Wild Party" at Youtube, but the clip appears to have been taken down. It showed a couple of future exurban mom types doing some heavy grinding on a couple of very smug studs at a frat party. I don't know that I have ever been at a truly "wild party", by which I mean one where reasonably attractive women were drunk and totally out of control, unable to keep their hands and other body parts off of men, etc, though God knows the quest of my entire youth was to find one. Actually I suppose I have been at a couple that fit this description but I was so far from the action myself that I don't really count them.

After my pitiful attempts at poetical analysis in Part 3 I decided to retrench and try to work my way through the dilemmas caused by this poem a little harder. I determined that one of the reasons it is hard to take up much from the lines I am quoting and run a little with them is that unlike contemporary artists the poet is not really confronting us with provocative opinions about the literature, society, religion, or anything else. He is not, nor does he expect his reader to be, in serious doubt over such matters as the nature of virtue and vice, whether one ought to believe everything one reads in the Bible, if feudalism is really the optimal model for attaining human happiness, etc. The problems are almost purely artistic, matters of finding the best form to understand and demonstrate what is already accepted as true. This is the Medieval aspect of Spenser, and it is what people like Ruskin and Henry Adams are getting at when they claim that Western Civilization attained its highest point in the Middle Ages--around 1300. The idea is that men had, compared to ages before and after, a truly lofty sense of their purpose with the least confusion about what that purpose might be.

This ability of the artist to have his content already settled and to find the most suitable form for it, while not regarded in our time as the highest achievement possible, has its advantages. This occurred to me as I was driving around in my new minivan listening to the satellite radio which seems, at first anyway, to have come with it. My children like to listen to the kiddie radio station, most of which is truly execrable, grasping efforts of the "I Like Pretzels" variety by people who are clearly desperate to do anything to be able to call themselves artists, though I do like the Wiggles a little("Big Red Car" and "Ooh It's Captain Feathersword!" are catchier tunes than anything Elton John has ever put out). Whenever they break out something like a selection from the Mary Poppins soundtrack--"A Spoonful of Sugar", say--it's practically time to rock out. The point is, if you are totally on your own playing with your guitar straining to invent a song, you are going, especially if you have no genuine talent or imagination, to end up writing something solipsistic like "I Like Pretzels". You likely won't even be able to reach the heights of "A Spoonful of Sugar" because the concept, and more importantly, its place in the flow of a bigger narrative, likely will not present themselves to you.

I am pretty sure that the painting below actually depicts a scene from Paradise Lost, but I liked it so much I just couldn't leave it out.

II. x. 27-32 recount the story of King Lear (the whole booke is "a chronicle of Briton kings/from Brute to Uther's Rayne.") Here is how he presents the fate of Cordelia:
"Till that her sisters children, woxen strong
Through proud ambition, against her rebeld,
And overcommen kept in prison long,
Till wearie of that wretched life, her selfe she hong."

II. xi. 30 A common theme of old literature:
"So greatest and most glorious thing on ground
May often need the helpe of weaker hand;
So feeble is mans state, and life unsound,
That in assurance it may never stand,
Till it dissolved be by earthly band.
Proofe be thou Prince, the prowest man alive,
And noblest borne of all in Britayne land;
Yet thee fierce Fortune did so nearly drive,
That had not grace thee blest, thou shouldest not survive."

II. xii. 73 (1-8) Though this is about the privation of the soul through lust, it is pretty sexy stuff. This is what I imagine college as like for cool people:
"And all that while, right over him she hong,
With her false eyes fast fixed in his sight,
As seeking medicine, whence she was stong,
Or greedily depasturing (feeding on) delight:
And oft inclining downe with kisses light,
For feare of waking him, his lips bedewed,
And through his humid eyes did suck his spright,
Quite molten into lust and pleasure lewd..."

III. i. 13 Here is some Spenserian nostalgia for days of yore reminiscent of my own writing:
"O goodly usage of those antique times,
In which the sword was servant unto right;
When not for malice and contentious crimes,
But all for praise, and proofe of manly might,
The martiall brood accustomed to fight:
Then honour was the meed of victorie,
And yet the vanquished had no despight:
Let later age that noble use envie,
Vile rancour to avoid, and cruell surquedrie (arrogance).

III. ii. 32 (6-9) Volcanic love:
"Like an huge Aetn' of deep engulfed griefe,
Sorrow is heaped in thy hollow chest,
Whence forth it breakes in sighs and anguish rife,
As smoke and sulphure mingled with confused strife."

For all the wonder of this book, it is hard to maintain a consistent concentration day in, day out, all the way through. The 1962 Catholic History of Western Civilization that I frequently refer to says it is "a technically perfect poem, but lacks power." I would like to attribute my at times flagging attention to this lack of power but I really did not experience or perceive it in this way.

III. v. 23 (7-9), 25 (4-7) Reminders of Man's Fate/Intimacy With Forces of Darkness (I am at home now, so my return key skips a space):

"Downe on the ground his carkas groveling fell;/His sinfull soule with desperate disdain,/Out of her fleshly ferme (habitation) fled to the place of paine."

"And strooke at him with force so violent,/That headlesse him into the foord he sent:/The carkas with the streame was carried downe,/But th'head fell backward on the Continent."

III. v. 42 This is some elegant versification here:

"O foolish Physicke, and unfruitfull paine,/That heales up one and makes another wound:/She his hurt thigh to him recur'd againe,/But hurt his hart, the which before was sound,/Through an unwary dart, which did rebound/From her faire eyes and gracious countenance./What bootes it him from death to be unbound,/To be capitved in endlesse duraunce/Of sorrow and despair without aleggaunce?"

Most commentators on the Fairie Queene make note of how many figures and concepts of paganism populate this work. Especially as many of the Christian messages/scripture references are artfully, and usually beautifully dressed in symbolic garb, (i.e. an upgrade of armor) that nonetheless are probably lost on a great many modern readers, including me, without referring to the notes, the impression made by the ubiquity of various classical and nature gods is a strong one.

III. vii. 12 I noted beside this stanza "like me", which was obviously the immediate impression I had upon reading it, unflattering though it be. I cannot make out on a quick second perusal who or what he and his mother specifically sympolize:

"This wicked woman had a wicked sonne,/The comfort of her age and weary dayes,/A laesie loord, for nothing good to donne,/But stretched forth in idlenesse alwayes,/Ne ever cast his mind to covet prayse,/Or ply him selfe to any honest trade,/But all the day before the sunny rayes/He us'd to sing, or slepe in slothful shade:/Such laesiness both lewd and poore attonce him made."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


The second & third stanzas of the Introduction of the second Booke (of Temperaunce), reference the newly discovered lands of the New World. As an inhabitant of those lands, they caught my interest enough to want to quote them, besides that there is the typical smooth versification of our poet:

"But let that man with better sence advize,
That of the world least part to us is red:
And dayly how through hardy enterprize,
Many great regions are discovered,
Which to late age were never mentioned.
Who ever heard of th'Indian Peru?
Or who in venturous vessell measured
The Amazons huge river now found trew?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever vew?

"Yet all these were, when no man did them know;
Yet have from wisest ages hidden beene:"

I don't want to club anyone over the head with quotations, as I know most readers' inclination will be to skip over them to see if I have written anything ridiculous relating to sex or failure or perhaps the collapse of civilization. However I took to writing these book reports primarily to try to help myself remember something of what I read, as I found I was starting to forget almost all of it. Also Spenser is not one of those authors like Orwell or Johnson or Wilde with whose quotations one is constantly bombarded even from the most tangentially well-read sources, so I thought it would not be the worst thing for him to have a little presence on my site. To be honest I am a bit burned out and disillusioned at the moment with reading, and to a certain extent with writing, but I don't really know what else to do with myself. Most of my interests would lead me back to reading and confronting mountains of learning and well-staked out territory in some manner. What I probably really need to do is to go on a long quest or pilgrimage of some kind, preferably one that has some tangential importance to human progress--I have discovered that it is fashionable now to trash even the Lewis and Clark expedition as meaningless because it 'accomplished nothing of value that would not have happened anyway'. This attitude poses a problem to modern western Man, because the idea of the quest, whether individual or the group, is one of the main engines which drives any culture, yet increasingly we feel that there is no more ground for us to stake out or seek that a million more able people have not covered and pronounced upon already. One looks inward and finds nothing there that has not already been made manifest, and to a far greater extent, by a thousand others one knows of.

II. 1. 11 (5-8)
"Her looser golden lockes he rudely rent,
And drew her on the ground, and his sharpe sword
Against her snowy brest he fiercely bent,
And threatned death with many a bloudie word;"

This action is taken by one of the villians on the side of intemperance, who doubtless has a more precise identification that eludes me. Violence, or the threat of it, sexual and otherwise, is a constant throughout the work, and is frequently written about in a way that, while solidly moral and judgmental, is also rather arousing.

II. 2. 2 This is a good poem.
"Ah lucklesse babe, borne under cruell starre,
And in dead parents balefull ashes bred,
Full weenest little thou, what sorrowes are
Left thee for portion of thy livelihed,
Poore Orphane in the wide world scattered,
As budding braunch rent from the native tree,
And throwen forth, till it be withered:
Such is the state of men: thus enter wee
Into this life with woe, and end with miseree."

II. 2. 15. Even if you are skipping the poems, this description of a desirable *modest* woman--a subject dear to Spenser's sensibility--might appeal to a romantic spirit:
"She led him up into a goodly bowre,
And comely courted with meet modestie,
Ne in her speach, ne in her haviour,
Was lightnesse seene, or looser vanitie,
But gratious womanhood, and gravitie,
Above the reason of her youthly yeares:
Her golden lockes she roundly did uptye
In beaded tramels, that no looser heares
Did out of order stray about her daintie eares."

II. 2. 29 (8-9)
"Vaine is the vaunt, and victory unjust,
That more to mighty hands, then rightfull cause doth trust."

II. 3. 36. I like this metaphor.
"As fearefull fowle, that long in secret cave
For dread of soaring hauke her selfe hath hid,
Not caring how, her silly life to save,
She her gay painted plumes disorderid,
Seeing at laste her selfe from daunger rid,
Peepes foorth, and soon renewes her native pride;
She gins her feathers foule disfigured
Proudly to prune, and set on every side,
So shakes off shame, ne thinks how erst she did her hide."

II. 3. 41 (1-4) This is about the sort of woman who prefers, and only prefers, men of action:
"In woods, in waves, in warres she wonts to dwell,
And will be found with perill and with paine;
Ne can the man, that moulds in idle cell,
Unto her happie mansion attaine."

Samples from II. v. 32-33 (loose nymphs)
"Amidst a flock of Damzels fresh and gay,
That round about him dissolute did play...
Every of which did loosely disaray
Her upper parts of meet habiliments,
And shewed them naked, deckt with many ornaments.

"And every one of them strove, with most delights,
Him to aggrate, and greatest pleasures shew...
One boasts her beautie, and does yield to vew
Her daintie limbes above her tender hips;
Another her out boastes, and all for tryall strips."

II. vii. 52 (6-9) verses on Socrates
"With which th'unjust Athenians made to dy
Wise Socrates, who thereof quaffing glad
Pourd out his life, and last Philosophy
To the faire Critias his dearest Belamy."
II. vii. 60 (1-5) A harsh reply to Tantalus, upon that wretch's asking for food:
"Nay, nay, thou greedie Tantalus (quoth he)
Abide the fortune of thy present fate,
And unto all that live in high degree,
Ensample be of mind intemperate,
To teach them how to use their present state."

II. viii. 16 (8-9) A villian disputes Sir Guyon's right to a funeral (he is not actually dead but in a swoon):
What herce or steed (said he) should he have dight (adorned),
But be entombed in the raven or the kight?"

II. viii. 50 (2-5) Condition of an inferior being:
"For as a Bittur (bittern--a type of heron) in the Eagles claw,
That may not hope by flight to scape alive,
Still waites for death with dread and trembling aw;
So he now subject to the victours law..."

There is something about this poem that is causing me to be melancholy. I think that is because it either is truly great or is very near to being truly great, and because I feel something of an impossibility to understand it in anything close to what it really is. One feels terribly lonely and unarmed wandering around in it, and companionship in terms of attitude towards the poem is hard to come by. Yet at the same time it does not feel alien. It feels as if something one has lost, something rather powerful, is buried within it, that is probably irretrievable except in fragments and shards of language.

I am going to try to do shorter posts and more of them, as well as to cut down on the quotes. However, they all seem important or good or humorous enough at the time.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


I have previously written on this blog about Spenser's Epithalamium, in which I think I made it clear that I am an admirer of this poet, if from a considerable distance of intellect. His oeuvre achieves a satisfying sense of totality both in the parts and in the whole that very few English poets, and I would have to say no modern ones, have attained. By this I do not mean that the best of the moderns are bad, or even technically or intellectually inferior, but I never have the same feeling of encountering a complete man, or woman, and certainly not the distilled spirit of an entire society, in either a single poem or collected works of a modern poet. It is this positive quality of fullness that causes readers to find certain old books soothing and consoling as much as the avoidance of serious contemporary dilemmas. The best poetry of the 20th century was to my mind more remarkable for its sophistication than for any projection of fullness, though I do consider some of the great modern novelists to have achieved the latter, and certainly someone like Picasso, as well as other giants of modern art, would appear to have attained something of this quality as well, whether we like what we see in the result or not.

Booke I, Canto IV, Verse 20 "Idlenesse":
"From worldly cares himselfe he did esloyne (withdraw)
And greatly shunned manly exercise,
From every worke he chalenged (claimed) essoyne (exemption),
For contemplation sake: yet otherwise,
His life he led in lawlesse riotise;
By which he grew to grievous malady;
For in his lustlesse limbs through evill guise
A shaking fever raigned continually:
Such one was Idlenesse, first of this company."

This is a good sample of a Spenserian stanza. Recalling that there are over 3800 more of the kind, and that the poem was begun around 1580 and the second completed part published in 1596, one realizes that, that means that he wrote an average of 0.65 of these every day for 16 years; and of course numerous other productions also appeared in the meantime, most notably the Amoretti and Epithalamium. While this is meticulous, it is not languid poetry. It builds up a character fairly quickly and economically with statements of fact rather than impressions or speculations, and is ready to set him into purposeful action, though he is Idlenesse himself.

At some point during the fourth Canto of the 1st Booke I made a note that "the life depicted by the poets far different from that we know" and also that I had a dream of the book falling into pieces. I have no recollection of what either of these refers to now.

I.v.1 (1-4) "Great Enterprise"
"The noble heart, that harbours vertuous thought,
And is with child of glorious great intent,
Can never rest, until it forth have brought
Th'eternall brood of glorie excellent:"

I.v.7 (8-9), 9 (3-8) "Effects of Sword-Fighting"
"That from their shields forth flyeth firie light,
And helms hewen deepe, shew marks of eithers might...
The cruel steel so greedily doth bight
In tender flesh, that streames of blood down flow,
With which the armes, that earst so bright did show,
Into a pure vermillion now are dyde:
Great ruth in all the gazers harts did grow,
Seeing the gored woundes to gape so wyde,..."

I thought this was well-wrought. The Christian knight representing holiness is fighting a Sarazin here, so the fight is hardly to be avoided, and thus physical courage and strength are not merely subjects for admiration or philosophical inquiry but are actually necessary. One gets something of the sense of what that fully entails.

This book is certainly a lot of poetry for your money. Surely, I thought, no one can ever have memorized all of it, but it is clear that people, primarily in previous ages, have memorized very large swathes of it. Many of these have also distinguished subtleties of characterizations, symbols and allusions, which are more than usually exquisite and beautiful when revealed, most of which I was sadly not within a thousand neuron waves of being able to pick up on. "How to Raise a Man"
"For all he taught the tender ymp, was but
To banish cowardize and bastard feare;
His trembling hand he would him force to put
Upon the Lyon and the rugged Beare,
And from the she Beares teats her whelps to teare;
And eke wyld roring Buls he would him make
To tame, and ryde their backs not made to beare;
And the Robuckes in flight to overtake,
That every beast for feare of him did fly and quake."

I constantly ask myself both in reading these kinds of books and poems and in attempting to keep this blog, What is the nature of my enjoyment of this? and What is the nature of other people's apparently far different sort of enjoyment in the same? Poetry seems not to be much served by my being one of its audience, and certainly not by my being one of its critics. The benefits to me, as far as pleasure goes, while not completely illusory, have much about them of voyeurism and the vicarious. To read Spenser as myself, Bourgeois Surrender, would have no obvious purpose, would not, could not, be translated in any way to anything actually interesting that might ever transpire in real life. For such reading I have to invent another, livelier and more brilliant person who inhabits a particular, and likewise invented world, neither of which are likely to ever break through to real life, to give the reading meaning, to take a place, as it were, at one of the tables where the grand feasts of humanity are regularly served. I do not receive the poems directly and integrate them into the manner in which I eat my breakfast or interact with people at cocktail parties, at least not so that anyone, including myself, can perceive them. They must diffuse themselves into little microscopic bits that lodge themselves in odd and disconnected spots in the sediment of my mind.

I.viii.46 (6-9)

"Such as she was, their eyes might her behold,

That her misshaped parts did them appall,

A loathly, wrinckled hag, ill favoured, old.

Whose secret filth good manners biddeth not be told"

It is probably pointless to read this if one is not going to read it at least twice.

I.x. 66 (7-9) "On Natural Superiority/Courage Asserting Itself In Spite of Lowly Origins"

"Till prickt with courage, and thy forces pryde,

To Faery court thou cam'st to seeke for fame,

And prove thy puissant armes, as seemes thee best became."

At this climactic point of the first Booke St George, or the Redcrosse Knight, overcomes the dragon. By necessity, it seemed, many had to die at the dragon's hands in order to make this hero, and to illustrate his virtues. This is still the formula of many popular stories today, at least those that are popular among the crowd that is not particularly attuned to being sophisticated; among those who are, there is more of a sense that modern life and the modern mind have mitigated the idea of any such necessity even for the sake of virtue where anonymous and random death on any scale is to be the price.

I.xii. 39 (Some Very Catholic Sensibilities)

"During the which there was an heavenly noise

Heard sound through all the Pallace pleasantly,

Like as it had bene many an Angels voice,

Singing before th'eternall majesty,

In their trinall (threefold) triplicities on hye;

Yet wist no creature, whence that heavenly sweet

Proceeded, yet each one felt secretly

Himselfe thereby reft of his sences meet,

And ravished with rare impression in his sprite."

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Edmund Spenser--The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) Part 1

According to the 1966 Illustrated World Encyclopedia's supplemental section "Library of the Literary Treasures", which has had such a singular influence in my life, Bliss Perry, professor of English at Yale (there's a blast from the past for you) estimated at one time that "there were no more than a dozen men living who had read the Faerie Queene through, though it is acknowledged to be one of the greatest works in English poetry". This seemed preposterous to me even at a young age, and I continued to be dumbfounded as I grew older and repeatedly encountered estimates by scholars of the living readership of classic books that numbered no higher than the mid double digits. It was only very recently that I finally caught on that when such people say that only twelve people alive have read a book they do not mean to include in that group all the people such as myself who might at some point have managed to fix their eyes upon and mouth over every word from page 1 to the last of the surviving fragments, but only such as have the education, intelligence, experience and understanding of the human condition to be able to read the book properly, with a mind that bears some measurable proportion to what is at work in it. I have little doubt that the Faerie Queene is much less read than other famous books such as Proust, or Ulysses, or Don Quixote, which according to scholars and pop authors and journalists of the ironic school no one is supposed to have read either, though I suspect the number is higher than twelve, and is probably closer to a thousand, even with the more stringent criteria. I also suspect that many, if not most of these thousand are spread out at great removes from each other, from the camaraderie and even love which the mutual possession of any exalted and refined understanding promises to offer. The idea at least appeals to me.

Though only half-completed according to the original plan, the Faerie Queene is a massive and complicated edifice of poetry that one could easily write about for months without getting anywhere near the actual point of it. It contains over 3,800 stanzas and 34,000 lines of very tight, mostly technically faultless verse, all in the famous Spenserian stanza, nine lines with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc, with the ninth line having an extra foot (i.e. two syllables, making twelve altogether). As reading this book is in some ways as much a test of endurance as of skill such that it resembles a heavyweight fight, I think it is not bad form to ease my way into an attempted description of it by the use of statistics. The poem is routinely described as an allegory, though I admit I have found any great allegory hard to keep in clear view, and experienced it more as comprised of various allegorical episodes. The well-known Internet writer Spengler at the Asia Times website, who appears to be learned after the German manner (languages, philosophy, no hint of anything "light" being allowed to have influence; this guy considers Shakespeare overrated and frivolous compared against Goethe and Lope de Vega), but like many of his countrymen has more than a bit of the inflexible fanatic about him where his pet subjects are concerned, once opined that Americans could not recognize an allegory if one were eating them alive. This idea interested me--I was not sure what being eaten alive by an allegory would even mean, and why one should have an especial appetite for Americans, or any other sorts of people, as victims to be devoured. Each book (Booke) is divided into 12 cantos, each of which is comprised of around 50 stanzas, and (each Booke again) is represented by a quality, which a different knight, usually one of long renown relevant to the topic such as Arthur or St George, undertakes a quest in the course of the Booke to attain. The theme of Booke I is holinesse, of Booke II is temperaunce, etc. The construction and execution of the poem itself into a kind of unassailable castle of awesome correctness unfolds very much as a parallel to these quests, and succeeds to a large extent in embodying many of the qualities it champions. The Faerie Queene herself is of course supposed to be Elizabeth I.

My impression is that there is currently very little real taste for this poem afoot in the general culture. Some Renaissance Faire types indicate a mild interest from time to time in what it might be about, but I don't know how far they get in their investigations. While undeniably impressive, the book is more than a bit of a slog to get through, and I don't know that I have ever read of or heard anyone lamenting that the poet died before he could complete the remaining 35,000 lines he had projected. I can find no evidence that the literature scholars and grad students currently bedding the most desirable women (or who are currently the most desirable women) pay it any attention at all. Spenser was held in enthusiatic regard in the 19th century by the Romantics, especially Keats, who recognized in him a poetic sensibility and talent both natural and masterful. Ruskin too considered him a giant of true imaginative literature from a much grander and more serious age than that of human degeneration which he considered to mark the Victorian era. The Faerie Queene seems to have been a standard part of university English curriculums throughout the Anglosphere up until the 50s and 60s, around which time, and I fear not coincidentally, the boozing, womanizing, irreverent postwar generation of British poets and novelists were invited for teaching assignments in American colleges. These were given to ridiculing their earnest American colleagues and students for various innocences and pretensions, among the foremost of which was claiming to like, or believing anyone else liked, or ought to like, books like the Faerie Queene. The enviable (to the Americans) professional, social and sexual successes, these latter frequently with the wives and denoted girlfriends of the duller natives, that these swaggerers were able to effortlessly achieve no doubt contributed to making the diligent study of such an enormous and not easily accessible work seem even more pointless and unsexy than it probably already had. The nearly universal neglect of it among people who have other literary options continues unabated to this day.

It should be acknowledged that in the same postwar period another faction of Britons, represented by C.S. Lewis and his ilk, continued to trump up the greatness of medieval allegorical poetry, which tradition Spenser certainly pays much homage to, though he is more than half, if often resistant to it, a man of the Renaissance. Lewis seems to be mainly popular nowadays among practitioners of a kind of gentle Christianity and nerdy fantasists, sometimes found in confusion in the same person. I actually think most of these people understand at some level that his idea of Christianity is actually something rather intense that it is difficult for modern intellectuals, including I am quite certain himself, to tap into. Understanding something of a poet like Spenser especially, but probably any very good poet, requires getting into a similar mindset. This was a man who spoke and wrote in a young language that did not yet have a vast literature or, apparently, well-worn ruts and grooves in its spoken form that it was difficult to find one's way out of. His experience of the English language was as something that in all its forms, including the simplest, was rapidly and continually evolving all around him throughout his life. The Elizabethans experienced their language almost the way we do certain areas of technological advancement. They did not have to strain to 'make it new', because one did not have to go terribly far to come to a point where it was necessary to do so. Happily in literature they 'seized the moment', which can only arise at certain junctures in the history of any language, though English is perhaps at such a juncture now where it is coming into widespread use in places and among peoples who can experience it as something brand new.

I am not satisfied with this last thought but as I will have several posts on this poem maybe I will take it up again another time.