Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Faerie Queene--Part 11

This is going to be the last post on the Faerie Queene (I promise).

Although I find myself of late disliking almost all of the real writers, artists, intellectuals, etc, that I see or read about, I do still believe that regular human beings have naturally a much larger capacity for artistic development and engagement with life than most seem to attain. I also increasingly think that our culture and way of life stifles this and makes artistic, as well as intellectual, behavior, when it does occur, much more artificial and outside the common stream of life than it properly ought to be. An incident that occurred when I was in the Czech Republic made a strong impression on me in this regard. In that nation it was not unusual, at a party or even at a tavern, for people to sing communally, accompanied by a guitar or other instrument if one happened to be at hand, and though nearly everyone had a reasonable level of competence in these areas, enough at least to contribute to a genuinely lively atmosphere, there was no distinction between performers and non-performers, indeed the performers were participating rather than performing, and anyone desiring to join in would have found no barrier to his doing so. On one of these occasions another American, besides myself, happened to make one of the group and he asked if he might play something on the guitar. Having been given the instrument he demonstrated no awareness of the spirit of the gathering and immediately began to play some piece requiring technical virtuosity, no doubt seeking the admiration of the crowd, or the most important part of it, that being in his mind at some deep level what one ultimately played music for. As it was not an especially beautiful song, nor was it one in which anyone else could really join it had the effect of rather quickly draining all the life from the room. This display seemed to illustrate to me much of the attitude of our entire culture towards learning and art and the place of these in actual life, in which it is my opinion most of us (not the best people, of course) have badly lost our way.

VII. vi. 42 (7-9) From one of the two cantos of Mutabilitie, a fragment of some further unfinished book, on Faunus's lust for Diana:
"Foolish God Faunus, though full many a day
He saw her clad, yet longed foolishly
To see her naked mongst her Nymphes in privity."
Why was this desire foolish? I asked myself. Well, it was foolish because upon seeing the beautous sight the faun could not contain himself in silence in the bower from which he peeped, and he suffered painful and humiliating punishment for his trangression.

VII. vii. 11 Description of a hill. This is what is meant by seeing with an artistic eye. It is not merely a display of cleverness, but conveys to the beholder what this hill, at least, actually is:
"And Mole himselfe, to honour her the more,
Did decke himself in freshest faire attire,
And his high head, that seemeth alwayes hore
With hardned frosts of former winters ire,
He with an Oaken girlond now did tire,
As if the love of some new Nymph late seene,
Had in him kindled youthfull fresh desire,
And made him change his gray attire to greene;
Ah gentle Mole! such joyaunce hath thee well beseene."

I think I touched on this before but I cannot begin to fathom how many symbols I must have missed in the course of this book. In my edition the dedicatory letters and verses are put at the end of the poem, and in the author's letter to Ralegh he makes mention of an incident in Booke I where "the Lady told him that unlesse that armour which she brought would serve him (that is the armour of a Christian man specified by Saint Paul v. Ephes.) that he could not succeed in that enterprise..." This whole language of symbols is just not part of my mental repertoire, and doubtless most people would say, so what? Well, first of all as far as I can tell nearly all of the really great, super high art and literature in the world (I cannot say about music), most of which has its basis in sophisticated religion, is very symbolically sophisticated at some level of its meaning. Indeed, it seems almost necessary that it has to be. I do not believe but that we must in some fundamental way be impoverished, however blissfully unconsciously we may be of it, if we are cut off so nearly entirely from this source of insight. Secondly the symbols form a reference of ideas that, as they are in some way independent of man's existence and its immediate concerns, in nature say, or in the idea of immortal beings and spirits, lend themselves more easily to the sensation of universality that I believe men crave and that I also believe is desperately missing from even the private moments of contemporary life. I am probably wrong in thinking this is why any of this matters to me, I probably really just want to be able to prove somehow that I am smarter than other people so can I have a sinecure where the occasional nineteen year old girl will think I am a superior person and want me to talk to her all about life. But competition for desirable status aside, I do maintain that even dreadfully mediocre people in terms of intelligence, beauty and other abilities prized by science and economics, still have the potential to lead more intelligent and artistic, more humanistic lives than most do. If they do not, then human life has no inherent meaning whatsoever but is just a vulgar competition among beasts in which we ought not to take any pride, however enjoyable it is for the winners.
The rather Spanish-looking gentleman in this picture is supposedly our poet. It is a great picture, but it does not look anything like any other likeness of Spenser that I have seen.The commendatory verses and dedications in these old books are always great fun, being so over the top in their flatteries and other hyperbole. Ralegh wrote two "visions", in the first of which the graces who had been watching over the tomb of Laura, Petrarch's poetic inspiration, abandon it to attend to the Faerie Queene, leaving only Oblivion behind; in the second, perhaps as a result of some bad tobacco he had been smoking, he advises Spenser:
"If Chastitie want ought, or Temperaunce her dew,
Behold her Princely mind aright, and write thy Queene anew."
There is only, I think, so much Queene even Spenser could have been expected to write.

In one of the Commendatory Verses, "To the Learned Shepheard", addressed to the poet, we have a little patriotic nod:
"Elyzas blessed field, that Albion hight.
That shieldes her friends, and warres her mighty foes.
Yet still with people, peace, and plentie flowes."

The dedication to Lord Buckhurst has some of the most absurd sucking up I have ever seen in a poem, especially by a great poet:
"In vain I thinke right honourable Lord,
By this rude rime to memorize thy name;
Whose learned muse hath writ her owne record,
In golden verse, worthy immortal fame:"
His Lordship apparently was a versifier as well. Spenser goes on to suggest that while Buckhurst is too busy carrying out his duties on her majesty's privy council to record that monarch's virtues "In loftie numbers and heroicke stile" he may still perchance be able to correct the "grosse defaults" of Spenser's own efforts.

The picture below recreates a scene from one of my favorite sections of the poem, Sir Calepine's rescue of Serena from the cannibals, which we quoted from at some length in parts 9 & 10 of this series. "To all the gratious and beautifull Ladies in the Court":
"If all the world to seeke I overwent,
A fairer crew yet no where could I see,
Then that brave court doth to mine eie present,
That the worlds pride seemes gathered there to bee.
Of each a part I stole by cunning thefte:
Forgive it me faire Dames, sith lesse ye have not lefte."
This is a bit of silliness, obviously, but it is still elegantly done. One of the results--in my opinion a somewhat unfortunate one--of the ever increasing separation between "art" and "life" is that all legitimate art now is supposed to be edgy and threatening, especially to anyone outside of the art world, to whom the artist(s) seem to be as often antagonistic as sympathetic. While this type of thing is undoubtedly necessary on occasion, I don't think the artist should conceive himself as presenting a challenge to the audience so much as grappling, from more or less the same psychological starting point as they are, with an issue both have in common--and on all matters of the greatest import the artist and the audience should start out from, and even end at, a fairly similar position in terms of the overall magnitude of the question. This is where the use of slight but skillful little dainties such as this find their purpose.

Spenser's birthplace is unknown, other than that is supposed he was born in London, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Indeed, he is said to have set in motion the custom of interring poets in the area that is now named after them, as he requested to be buried next to Chaucer, who had been laid there because he had been an employee of the Abbey at the time of his death.


charles said...

Sorry to come to this so late. Thanks for all that work on Spenser. Have you read Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, one of the great precursors to, and influences on, The Faerie Queene. It's a little more uneven than Spenser, but still great. Sometimes it feels like it should be a Saturday serial adventure on the screen. You might also like Sir Walter Ralegh's "21th and Last Booke of the Ocean to Scinthia." Spenser and Ralegh were friends, and S influenced R in this poem, and in turn seemed to like it. It's another paean, in a way, to Elizabeth -- but more personal, in some ways, than FQ.
Hope you are well, and I'll look in at your blog again.

mm45 said...

Thanks for writing. No, I haven't read either of these other poems, though I remember reading--I believe it was in Anthony Powell--about the Valley of Lost Things on the moon in Orlando Furioso--lost possessions, lost loves, lost hopes, lost minds--and the idea of that always resonated with me. Now that you bring it up I may make a point of looking for it the next time I am at the library.