Saturday, May 10, 2014

Blogging the Faerie Queene - Prologue to Book One

What is a blog without a challenge?

For a number of years I’ve been meaning to read The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser’s unfinished but nevertheless lengthy Elizabethan poem. Some years ago, I bought a 1910 printing of The Works of Edmund Spencer. The poem runs 425 pages in fairly small type. I’m not sure how many cantos this thing runs to. (I'll tally them up later.)

Many years ago, one of my professors noted that when she was a grad student she studied with Lionel Trilling. She noted that he would assign some work, such as The Divine Comedy, as the weekend’s reading and then on the Monday seminar ask his students, “gentlemen, what kind of a book is this?” The answer was that this was a big book. This is a big book.

It is my intention to read through this "big book," and find something to say about each of the cantos (no matter how many there are).

I know that Spenser deals with Arthurian themes, which is why it has been on my reading list for years. After all, it’s not the only long allegorical poem I could be reading now. There’s always Piers Plowman, although that has the added difficulty of being in Middle English. I’m already aware of Spenser’s reputation for being deliberately archaic, nevertheless, I’ll toss my lot in with the sixteenth century.

The Prologue is quite short, just four stanzas of nine lines each. I’ve already peeked ahead; the first canto is fifty-five stanzas long. A quick flip through the book shows that the cantos vary slightly in length. The subtitle of the first book (the poem is divided into six books) is *The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or of Holiness. Each of the books contains the name of a virtue. We are clearly being tipped off to keep our eyes open for holiness.

The title page makes it clear that Spenser’s plan was for twelve books, each focussing on a specific virtue. So we have half of the projected poem. Had Spenser finished it, it truly would have been massive.

In the second stanza we get our promise that Spenser will be writing
Of Faerie knights, and fayrest Tanaquill,
Whom that most noble Briton Prince so long
Sought through the world, and suffered so much ill,
Just guessing, the “most noble Briton Prince” is probably King Arthur. Someone could have a field day annotating this work, and there is an annotated edition out there. I’m going to work with my 1869 edition and if a reference goes over my head, so be it. However, when Spenser writes
O Godesse heavenly bright!
Mirrour of grace and Majestie divine,
Great Ladie of the greatest Isle 
you don’t need an annotator to know that he’s addressing his patron, Queen Elizabeth.
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