This remarkable poem, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, was Spenser's finest achievement. The first epic poem in modern English, The Faerie Queene combines dramatic narratives of chivalrous adventure with exquisite and picturesque episodes of pageantry. At the same time, Spenser is expounding a deeply felt allegory of the eternal struggle between Truth and Error....
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I first read Faerie Queene nearly fourteen years ago and found it a poisonous, thousand-page anti-Catholic diatribe. An elaborate, servile paean to a queen I’ve never been able to admire as fulsomely as most other people do. A multi-canto ode to a state-sponsored church that helped make a temporary split in Christendom tragically permanent. And an early expression of what would become England’s sense of herself as set apart—for good and ill.
But I didn’t care then. And I still don’t now. I love it. But why? Beyond saying “I enjoy it, I revel in the language, I flip for the technical dexterity—and I believe that, for all his greatness as a dramatic poet, Shakespeare should edge over and give some room in the Pantheon for Spenser as our language’s greatest narrative poet—what can I say? For that answer I turned to a brain keener than my own:
“The rigorous consistency of philosophy or doctrine we find in Dante, or even Milton, is simply not part of Spenser’s equipment or his genius. His Faerie Queene will not yield to consistent historical, or moral, or mythological, or ethical interpretation. Of course it will yield to all of these approaches much of the time, but not to any one of them all of the time. Perhaps it is a tribute to The Faerie Queene, and an indication of where its appeal lies, that so many contradictory or even hostile approaches, can be accommodated—even absorbed—by the poem. If so, it is a tribute to the poem’s scope, its breadth of vision, and inclusiveness of spirit. The existence of so many “sources” and “influences” and differing interpretations is simply proof of what we should, and in fact do, realize all along: this is a typical poem of the Renaissance which mingles the classical and Christian, the historical and mythical. It is eclectic, synthetic, and finally, as various and varied as life itself. It was written by a poet…whose imagination happily transcended his immediate reading…I do not claim Spenser used none of the sources or ideas scholars have provided…but the prevailing tendency to read Spenser only in the light of intellectual history tends to take us far, far away from the poetry—often never to return.”
Thus A. Bartlett Giamatti (yes, that Bart Giamatti) at Princeton in 1967. And a good indication of why I’m finding it so hard to say anything coherent about this work; there’s simply too much here—physically and conceptually—for a layman to react to in a competent manner. Like others Giamatti mentions, I make the mistake of trying to pin the poet down, “…to know [for example] whether Spenser’s religious affiliations were Calvinist, Puritan, Anglican…or indeed pantheist, mystical or Catholic.” And the pinning process is made even harder by the fact that Spenser never finished The Faerie Queene. What we have is but a mere quarter of his original conception. In the end, all I can really say is that I enjoy the book (and this recording) immensely.
At the University of Michigan in the early 1980’s, my professors dismissed Spenser as derivative, imitative, not “original”; a look backwards in language and subject rather than forward like Shakespeare, a poet whose works live on in summer festivals, freshman survey courses and popular films, and who seems to have coined most of the idiomatic expressions we use every day.
Fair enough, I guess. But even after a cursory reading of the First Book (the only part of the poem assigned to us young skulls full of mush) I dimly sensed Spenser’s breadth of mind and mastery of narrative. As Giamatti suggests, at the gut level there is the poetry—poetry one does not want to get too far away from. Spenser’s technical skill is stunning. How so many characters, themes, narrative tones and storylines could be accommodated in the demanding, elaborate pattern of the Spenserian stanza mystifies me. How that longer, six-stress line at the end always provides a natural crescendo to each stanza without stopping the flow of the overall story baffles me.
But before I say something utterly foolish, lets get on to what I can judge pretty well: the performance and the recording. Except for an ever-so-slightly hollow room tone that’s somewhat annoying but soon forgotten, this recording is spectacular. What makes you forget is the sweep of the story and the perfection of the reading. You really can’t “modernize” Spenser’s language. The “-ed” endings have to be sounded as stresses for the metrical pattern to be fulfilled; “hight” can’t be changed to “called”, or “yode” to “rode” or you begin to lose the flavor of the poetry; you can’t change “ydrad” to “dreaded” or the scansion and rhyme scheme go all to pieces. David Timson does it all, finding his way through the most complex stanzas without losing track of the ideas and imagery being expressed or the storyline those ideas and images serve.
I wasn't familiar with this famous writing, so thought I'd give it a try. The language is nimble and colorful, and very well performed. The story is convoluted and very, very long. It's the sort of thing to read aloud by the fire in the evenings -- in short bursts over quite some calendar time. Not the thing to try from beginning to end before you go on to your next book!