5.16.2010

"Ten thousand wayes he cast in his confused thought."

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Copely

Above all I feel a steeping sense of relief. This morning I solemnly closed the pages of my copy of Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene", a fascinating mosaic of Renaissance fancy at best, a trial of dogged endurance at worst. I am reminded of J.S. Bach's attempts at holistic, definitive "examples": Die Wohltemperierte ClavierDas OrgelbuchleinKunst der Fuge, or church cantatas for every Sunday of the Church Year. Likewise Spenser's epic poem is ambitious, and thick with meaning(s) and allusion and hints and mistakes and beauty.
Yet for my part I can hardly conceive of attempting to read the work as Spenser intended: Twenty-four books of twelve cantos each with some forty to sixty stanzas!

I had read sections of the first and third books in a British Literature class in Westmont, taught by the erudite and passionate Dr. Sider. The book found me in the Camden Stables Market last Christmas and, after a mythology refresher course by Bullfinch, I made the assay in January.

I thoroughly enjoyed the rhyme scheme. Whenever the subject matter became less than engaging my mind was held in thrall by the skill and convention and anomalies of the Spenserian Sonnet, especially the final punchline. This structure lent so much form to an otherwise beastly Herculean Labor of spelling, content, audience, characters, plot, and allegorical pomp.

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B. Rivière

Overall I highly recommend books One through Three. The lines of the stories generally follow the respective knights (Redcross, Guyon, and Britomart) along their respective quests, with frequent visits by Arthur and his inefficacious Squire. The degree of obscurity rises exponentially in subsequent books with subplots hissing like Hydra heads and all but snuffing out hope of conclusion by the twelfth canto. The stories become increasingly engorged with characters: braggarts, knaves, "knights unworthy the name", knights turned into trees or driven to suicide by lack of honorable foresight, damsels of every conceivable degree of distress, languishing lovers, shepherds, ranging monsters (including giants, a hyena, some sort of pamphlet-puking Echidna, dragons), magicians, sprites, pagan gods and goddesses. There's sex (especially sex, and all it's variants and perversions), battles, marriages (of people and rivers), histories, genealogies, parades, masques, mistaken identities...

It's a rush. It's starting to look like the convolution of a World of Warcraft LAN party: Cordion turns several strips of leather into a smashing satchel, Archimago makes his false Una while the witch makes her false Florimell, Mutabilitie is planning a siege of Olympus, Britomart upgrades her magical spear, the automaton Talus massacres... everyone, Cambel and Triamond swap armor colors, oh, and there goes Arthur that way, and Queen Elizabeth in a thousand disguises that way. It's exhausting! It's a rococo cathedral of activity! A complex motet with the cantus firmus of moral formation drowning beneath mighty waves.
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In the end I'm extremely happy I took the effort. Not only do I now have mad bragging rights, but I'm pretty sure I can think and speak in Spenserian Sonnet.

Now to Sabbath's rest.

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