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.
I.vi.24 "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.
"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."