The best stories in the world are usually more than the story themselves. They have an ‘effect’ of sorts on the reader. Most of the popular literature in the world is some form of commentary with a clear object being attacked or praised. Dickens, for instance, wrote in the defense of every odd and peculiar person you will meet in your life. Dickens persuaded the masses through story that it is a glorious privilege in life to live with those fantastically obnoxious and absurd beings we call our family and friends, and even those queer coworkers we ‘put up with’ are magical according to Dickens, down to the man picking up today’s trash or giving us our mail. This is Dickens, and yet before all of this can be appreciated in him, before one can notice any of this is even occurring, a story is taking place, and we cannot leave off the story as secondary by any means. Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” may have societal undertones. He may have been intending to poke fun at the Millers and Reeves of his own world, but before all of this he primarily wrote the story so we would laugh.
It is this same technique of analyzation I plan to take as I begin to look at Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, one of the most popular allegories in English literature. The tendency when reading allegory is too “allegorize” everything too quickly. Thus, Bunyan’s Christian is merely in a typical spiritual battle for present day believers before he is in a fantasy. I argue it must be the other way around: a fantasy first. In the same way, to truly appreciate Spenser’s allegory, we must first appreciate his world: the fantasy and wonder of Faerieland; the diction, rhyme, rhythm, and meter; the ambiguous pronouns; the surprising suspense within a suspenseless structure. Spenser’s epic is so seemingly unorganized and random and yet so beautifully threaded together in one constant mood, that the reader is swept up easily in the story.
This post will serve as a brief introduction to the work as a whole, and will consequently be inadequate as I am merely halfway through the second book. I recently wrote a post roughly five months ago in which I documented both my struggles to find a suitable version of Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the disappointments I was currently having with my version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The post was rather technical, yet I can now proudly announce that I have “found my queene” as I have decided to go with the Penguin Classics version of the grand poem primarily because it was the most easily and economically obtainable. I am finding the choice to be good for the most part. Whereas many versions would enhance Spenser’s language more so the modern reader can better understand, the Penguin Queene does not. The version does modify the letters for the modern s and VV is changed to W and various contractions that would be difficult for the modern reader are modified. However, the version retains the letter v for u and i for j when necessary (e.g. nouice, loues, vpon, maiestie). Furthermore, an aspect I appreciate is the lacking of any quotation marks which other editions may include for easier understanding of who is speaking when. However, this seemingly insane equivocalness of speakers is integral to the poems’ meaning; as its primary characters as well have to fight through ambiguity, so to do the readers. Perhaps the best feature of this version in comparison to others is that glosses and notes are contained in an appendix rather than directly on the page. This allows for the reader to read the poem in an undistracted way. No numbers draw one’s attention away from the words. All in all, the version is great for anyone who is up for the challenge, though I will encouragingly admit that reading Spenser is not so difficult after a little while. The Faerie Queene will certainly demand your attention as would any queen, but this particular Queene is far worth paying attention to.
I now want to briefly comment on the poem’s structure, and as most things in life, I turn to CS Lewis for much help. He sums up what I hopefully will explain well in that “Spenser… may not always know where he is going as regards the particular stories: as regards the symphony of moods, the careful arrangement of different degrees of allegory and different degrees of seriousness, he is always in command.” I can only add to this that Spenser certainly appears to have very little direction in the poem so far as pertains to story. But one creed that this blog does propose is that a well told story that is unorganized or flimsy is far better that a poorly told thriller. And Spenser’s story is so magnificently wound in its structure, that the apparent unorganization is not so annoying to the reader (though perhaps more so to the modern). Spenser employs what was then a new nine-line stanza with an ababbcbcc rhyme scheme from which he rarely deviates. Furthermore, the poem’s stanzas consist of eight lines of iambic pentameter and one final line of iambic hexameter (six feet). To fully appreciate the strain that Spenser may have been under when he wrote the large poem, it is necessary to point out that each of the six books roughly contain about 18,000 lines. It is not surprising that Spenser appeals to his muse in the opening lines.
Lo I the man, who Muse whilome did maske, As time her taught in lowly Shepheards weeds, Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske, For trumpets sterne to Oaten reeds, And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds; Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long, Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds To blazon broad emongst her learned throng: Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.
I finalize this introduction by stating that I will comment on each book itself as I myself proceed through Faerieland, analyzing the poem as story before allegory. I do this first because of the reasons I earlier stated and secondly because the first time we read through anything it is difficult to pick up on many of the possible intentions of the author or deeper or second level meanings. This is nowhere as true as when regarding an allegorical poem. Thus, I intend to enjoy this poem for its poetry and story as I proceed the first time through its lines and rhymes. I have so far made it halfway through the second book, and I can only say that its depths are far reaching. Like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the battle scenes are so descriptive one can nearly feel the blows. The descriptions of nature makes Faerieland come alive with beauty, and beauty itself as a device is so valued that it colors our own world for weeks. Spenser’s tone is immutable. He seldom jumps out at us in surprise as a narrator, creating a poem that invites us into its world of bloodshed, damsels in distress, and wicked magicians with such tranquility and somberness as if he was inviting us into his home for conversation. Fear, joy, justice, and love for beauty among others are all feelings associated with readers of Faerie Queene, but perhaps the greatest of these is peace and repose: The readers won by the Faerie Queene are at home, and, as Lewis states, no readers won by the Queene ever chooses to leave.
The more nearly Spenser approaches to drama the less he succeeds. He does not know the rhetoric of the passions and substitutes that of the schools. This is because he is not the poet of passions but of moods. I use that word to mean those prolonged states of the ‘inner weather’ which may colour our world for a week or even a month. That is what Spenser does best. In reading him we are reminded not of falling in love but of being in love; not of the moment which brought despair but of the despair which followed it; not of our sudden surrenders to temptation but of our habitual vices; not of religious conversion but of the religious life. Despite the apparent remoteness of his scenes, he is, fare more than the dramatists, the poet of ordinary life, of the thing that goes on. Few of us have been in Lear’s situation or Hamlet’s: the houses and bowers and gardens of the Faerie Queene, both good and evil, are always at hand. — CS Lewis