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.

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