Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Faerie Queene--Part IX

I have to leave off politics for a few days. It is always a tiring and humbling subject for me to try to write about. Literature is generally not much better but at least I have a sense of something that I want to get across regarding it, even if I almost never succeed in doing so. I have by comparison no principled political ideology, other than a collection of vague dislikes--of police, of lawyers, of masses of degraded people--the influence or presence of which in society I would like to see diminished. I am going to try to make to make the literary reports livelier, and do away with all pretensions to seeking profound understanding, if I have had any. If this last must always be elusive to one I still do not think it necessarily means that he has to live wholly cut off from any noble influence that is bestowed by such things as contain it; this hope being more or less the overarching theme of this entire blog.

I had hoped to make this the last post about the Faerie Queene, but there is just too much material remaining which I don't want to give up, though I am giving up some. VI. ii. 17 (1-3) For example, I can't leave out the lines about the bad lusty knight:
"Whom when my knight did see so lovely faire,
He inly gan her lover to envy,
And wish, that he part of his spoyle might share..."
He later attacks the other knight when the latter is unarmed. In most classic, and nearly all ancient, art and literature, characters invariably either have to master their impulses or act upon them. There is very little of the type of neurotic who dominates the modern Western intellectual classes, and by extension its polite literature, which sort of person generally never masters his desires, and only acts upon such as are conveniently attained, and pose no threat to public order, prosperity, health, and so on. Successful artistic endeavors however usually require either a demonstration of strength of character, by which is largely meant superior abilities combined with self-mastery, or the conflict brought upon by the active pursuit of a superior person's basest impulses.

Having said this, I do not want to immediately present myself as a wimp, but the idea of having my teeth bashed in by a rock, a fate which occurs on numerous occasions in this and other poems and romances of medieval warfare, disturbs me greatly. I have lived a pretty much sinfully pain-free life to this point--and I am well into it--and there are moments when I cannot believe that I am going to be permitted to get all the way through without having to suffer some horribly painful violence or torture at some juncture. I certainly cannot claim to have done anything that might argue me to be particularly deserving of exemption from such a fate as opposed to anyone else.

VI. iv. 35 (4-9) About 700 pages in, we have the first suggestion, which is heartening after so many grim thoughts, that philosophy is an equal option with war for a worthy young man to dedicate himself to:
"This litle babe, of sweete and lovely face,
And spotlesse spirit, in which ye may enchace
Whatever formes ye list thereto apply,
Being now soft and fit them to embrace;
Whether ye list him train in chevalry,
Or noursle up in lore of learn'd Philosophy."

VI. v. It also took us a long time to get to a hermit, but we got one! I may well have been a hermit had I lived in the middle ages, particularly since there was so little comfort, information, entertainment and fine dining experiences for common people to forgo anyway, which one would think are the major temptations discouraging people from adopting this mode of living in our time, and all records of hermits that have come down to us indicate that this class of men were uniformly far past any point of life where they might have had a thought of being and acting as sexual creatures. I have the temperament for this calling, and I would certainly have had no doubts or misgivings about God or anything in the whole Christian doctrine had I lived at any period probably up to about the 1870s or 80s, and perhaps much later. What evidence in the visible world would have suggested to me that all was not as the ecclesiastical and political authorities said they were? I would not have suspected anything, and that is one reason why I could never be a scholar even of literature. I always assume that every important matter surrounding anything which has a long existing tradition is settled, and neglect even to wonder whether it is really so or not.

I do wonder though if modern poets should not start more often from the base of a broader, more conventional story, just to experiment and get them selves going a little, give them somewhere to move. The great problem, as far as I can tell, with much modern poetry, academic and otherwise, is that it fixes itself on too small or precise a detail or idea and has no room, or no capacity, to expand. Of course miniaturism can be exquisite when it is done well, but most of the origins of poetry, and English poetry especially, were not on this small scale, and I suspect were not so for good reasons. VI. vii. 8 (7-9) Books of this type frequently remind that death can come in an instant. One moment you are riding your horse in the woods, you are recruited by a villain, two minutes later your corpse is stretched out on the earth. Obviously one can get this reminder by reading a newspaper account of a soldier killed in the war zone, or a woman struck by a car crossing the street, or, even more vividly of course, by witnessing such a thing oneself, as many people have. In this instance however the poetic image made a particular impression on me, at least at the moment. I think I like the "cold steele" and the "to the ground him bore" especially, as if these satisfy my idea of what being slain by a sword really consists (of? I have backed myself into a grammatical corner with this sentence):
"That the cold steele through piercing, did devowre
His vitall breath, and to the ground him bore,
Where still he bathed lay in his owne bloody gore."

VI. vii 26 (3-5) & 27 (1-2). The story of all civilization. Domination of one man over another. In this instance the morally better man has triumphed, so it is actually occasion for rejoicing. However, the weak must always remain conscious that they live wholly at the mercy and benevolence of the strong, which thought does not seem to be a comfort to many in our age:
"But as he lay upon the humbled gras,
His foot he set on his vile necke, in signe
Of servile yoke, that nobler harts repine...
"And after all, for greater infamie,
He by the heeles him hung upon a tree..."

I wish I loved this poem better because it is not a book that a lot of annoying people are territorial about, and would doggedly deny others their enjoyment of, such as is the case with Flaubert, or Tristram Shandy. Of course no one can do this literally, but one can feel very lonely seeing a book one admired for its good humor, interesting characters, and dispassionate but very adroit observations about human nature constantly trumpeted and understood in a spirit that to me is really rather trivial compared to these other qualities. I don't think anyone has much of a grasp on the essential spirit of the F.Q. anymore; even its professional scholars strike me as approaching from too great a psychological distance to be wholly trusted about what it really is.

VI. viii. 3 (8-9)
"For aye the more, that she did them entreat,
The more they him misust, and cruelly did beat."
It is just very funny to come across verses like this when in the middle of a mostly serious 38,000 line poem. But it shouldn't be.

VI. viii. 37 (6-9) & 38 (6-9) The deliberations of the cannibals on coming upon the beautiful sleeping maiden offer more hilarity (and there was even more than this that I left out), cannibals being as irresistible a plot introduction to the Elizabethan artistic mind as nerds desperate to get laid are with us:
"Then gan they to devize what course to take:
Whether to slay her there upon the place,
Or suffer her out of sleepe to wake,
And then her eat attonce; or many meales to make.
"Unto their God they would her sacrifize,
Whose share her guiltlesse blood they would present,
But of her dainty flesh they did devize
To make a common feast, and feed with gurmandize."
There are actually some more incredible verses from this adventure, which I will continue with in another post.

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