Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Rewards of Spenser

Like the calm after a storm, like the victory celebration after the battle, like Saturday after a week of grading papers, Spenser's The Faerie Queene came up on my list after a disappointment (see the previous two posts).  Even though Spenser stopped only halfway through his plan of writing a British, Christian, epic poem in twelve books, the result is still monumental.  Each book centers on a single virtue: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy.  The plot covers the adventurous meanderings of knights (including a certain Prince Arthur, who is destined to become king) in the service of Gloriana (a barely disguised Elizabeth I) as they fight for these virtues.  To read The Faerie Queene is to wander with these knights through magical forests, through beautiful poetry, and through inspiring lessons, and I love everything about the journey.

Consider this stanza from early in book VI:

But mongst them all was none more courteous Knight,
    Then Calidore, beloued ouer all,
    In whom it seemes, that gentlenesse of spright
    And manners mylde were planted naturall;
    To which he adding comely guize withall,
    And gracious speach, did steale mens hearts away.
    Nathlesse thereto he was full stout and tall,
    And well approu'd in batteilous affray,
That him did much renowme, and far his fame display.

I love the Elizabethan spelling: the extra e's (becoming silent at this time), the surprising vowels, the u's in place of v's (elsewhere, he uses v's in place of our u's!).  I love the slightly different vocabulary: mongst, spright, guize, nathlesse.  I love the ababbcbcc rhyme scheme and the six-foot line at the end of each stanza.  I love the way Spenser italicizes characters' names to help us through his dense wood of crisscrossing stories.  And I love the lesson: a courteous person can have bodily virtues of strength and comeliness but must add to them the mental and emotional virtues of gentle manners and gracious speech.

A note by the editor of the Penguin edition points out that scholars debate whether Spenser saw courtesy as aristocratic or democratic: does blood make a person courteous, or can anyone learn courteous manners?  This editor raises an interesting point but asks, I think, the wrong question.  Modern scholarship cares too much about who said what in the past and cares too little about whether what they said was true.  Of course, modernism would have to make this mistake once it adopted the premise that only concrete things can be true.  It seems to me Spenser tries to say both things.  The Salvage Man ("salvage" as in "savage" or "uncivilized"; he's not a junk collector), even without the aid of oral language, recognizes the nobility in Arthur and acts with all courtesy; yet Spenser must say that his family was of noble blood.  (Sadly, Spenser left this thread hanging in his incomplete work, and we never find out the Salvage Man's backstory.)  Later, though, the rustic Melibee shows hospitality and other courteous virtues, and a Hermit admits to leaving civilization and its recognition of nobility.  Here Spenser tells us that blood does not matter.  We can count on him to show every possible variation: civilized knights who act rudely and savage cannibals who act distinctly uncourteously also make their appearances.  He even has a baby saved from a bear and given to a gentle country man named Bruin: a fellow built like an animal can be courteous.  What did Spenser believe?  I think he believed it was a tricky question and wanted to show us all sides of the issue and learn the truth with him.  In other words, the contrasts that cause problems for the critics stand out as great strengths to me.

Despite this one problem, the Penguin edition has excellent notes and a glossary.  I have also found help in Mark Morton's plot summary (available online).  Rosemary Freeman's book on The Faerie Queene has proven the best detailed guide through the structure, historical references, etc.

The Faerie Queene is one of the classics that no one reads and one of the very best finds I have made in my search through great literature.  Get lost in Spenser's enchanted forest, and let him show you the Way.

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