Saturday, 27 September 2008
The Faerie Queene
THE FAERIE QUEENE
Thee, gentle Spenser fondly led;
but me he mostly sent to bed.
(Landor to Wordsworth)
Spenser turns medieval allegory into pagan ostentation. Scheduled moral meanings barely survive this apotheosis of the pagan eye.
* * *
I begin now a blogpost likely to end up both unwise and unwieldy: an attempt to say something of one of my favourite books, the earliest English epic, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.
Let me make it plain, before we go any further: namechecking Spenser's poem is of course the only circumstance under which it is acceptable to use the word 'Faerie' in English, even if you happen to be under ten.
It really is one of my favourite poems, despite being six and a half books long, and thus precisely one quarter of the length Spenser originally intended. Written in the stately, nine-line stanza form which Spenser invented, the effect is cumulative and you need to take it in large doses. It's also written in a difficult and deliberately archaic style, with wierd spellings that are often meaningful. (For example, Spenser spells 'giant' geant, which reminds us that giants are the offspring of the earth-mother Gea/Gaia in classical mythology. It's all very Joycean for the 1590s, really.)
Camille Paglia wrote an article on The Faerie Queene, later incorporated into her Sexual Personae, which remains one of the best things written about this labyrinthine, deeply foreign, haughty poem. (It's 'The Apollonian Androgyne and The Faerie Queen,' English Literary Renaissance, Winter 1979.) She makes a strong case for Spenser as a writer whose latent decadence rises up and overpowers the moral allegory of his ostensibly Protestant poetic.
I love the poem too because it brought about the writing of one of my very favourite critical books, James Nohrnberg's enormous The Analogy of the Faerie Queene. Roberto Calasso once praised Hinduism because it represents 'fullness out of fullness', and Nohrnberg's commentary stands in a similar relation to Spenser's epic. It is as colossal, dense, and meandering as the poem upon which it comments.
The Faerie Queene is the best introduction to the mental furniture of the English Renaissance. In a real sense, reading it with a commentary and notes was literally an education, particularly when I studied it first, green as grass, straight from A-levels.
The poem is marked by the complexity of its 'allegoresis', its mode of generating allegory. The same character can fluctate in allegorical status quite easily, so that the wicked enchantress Duessa represents the Catholic Church and the Whore of Babylon in Book I, but by Book V she is clearly intended to be Mary Queen of Scots. (With typical cruelty, Spenser gives her misshapen genitals and 'dried up filthy dugges'.) And what the bloody hell is the crashing, trumpeting 'Blatant Beast' that Sir Calidore hunts throughout Book VI?
The poem is a great insight into those immense systems of symbolic knowledge-marshalling which the Renaissance loved. Astrology, Alchemy, Cabbala, the poetics of Italian generic theory, Neoplatonic metaphysics, Protestant theology, the depths of Humanist readings of Ancient Greek and Latin literature, and the deadly games of Tudor political culture: all are woven into the poem's texture.
How up are you on Porphyry's Neoplatonic reading of Homer's Cave of the Nymphs? What about the rota Vergiliana, the schema of the poetic career inspired by Virgil - first you write pastoral, then didactic poetry, then your mighty epic. What about Marsilio Ficino's astrological magic, Aristotle's Poetics, Torquato Tasso's theory of poetry, or Hellenistic accounts of the worship of Isis? Well, I learned fast back in the days when I could shake off a hangover by 10am. No longer.
New characters are constantly being introduced. No one ever loved a character in Spenser's poem; some of them have a life of their own, of a sort, but none of them inspire the deep affection that a Rosalind or a Viola do, or make us feel the compassion that we do for an Othello or Leontes. The rhetoric is too intense to allow subtlety of human feeling, and Spenser is too interested in political and theological absolutes to really want to make us care about his characters. Instead, it's valuable for the insight it provides into an architecture of mind quite alien to us, fierce with hieratic, hallucinatory images. My favourite is the serpent Errour (famously part of the model for Milton's character Sin), which dwells in a wood, and when pressed starts vomiting up toads, serpents and (nice touch) Catholic pamphlets.
When I was about to sit Finals, I made a list of the major characters in the poem, the ones who I might need to mention in order to make a point. There were nearly fifty of them, some of them major players for a Book or two, others delicious little cameos. My favourite of the latter is Hellenore, who runs off with a band of satyrs to enjoy a life of frisky half-man-half-goat group-sex. Her bitter husband Malbecco dwindles to a Gollum-like creature who lives in a cave and eats 'frogges and toades, his pasture poysonous.' His name shifts to 'Gealousie', thus reversing the normal allegorical mode. Usually, moral principles are fleshed out into characters in Spenser's allegory, but, in this instance, it happens backwards.
* * *
Spenser explained his overall conception for this vast undertaking in a letter to Sir Walter Ralegh, which is prefaced to editions of the poem. There were to be twenty-four books, the first twelve covering the private virtues, and the second twelve the public ones. Each book would concern the adventures of an individual knight, sent forth by the Faerie Queene, Gloriana herself. Each would be aided by Prince Arthur, who would embody all the various virtues under the one ubervirtue, 'magnificence.' Gloriana is clearly the poem's chief symbol for Elizabeth I, and yet she never appears, and we only hear tell of her. The Faerie Queene somehow eludes The Faerie Queene.
Marx famously called Spenser 'Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet', and indeed the queen appears refracted through multiple personae in the poem, what Spenser calls 'mirrhours more than one.' The warrior-maidens Belphoebe and Britomart, the perfect ruler Mercilla, kindly Alma, bare-breasted Charissa surrounded by laughing infants, the allegories of Venus and Isis - all refer to the queen. But so do the pride-filled Lucifera, the amazon matriarch Radigund, and the callous, self-worshipping Munera, whose golden hands and silver feet are lopped off and nailed up for all to see. The point is that Spenser shows Elizabeth what she could but must not be (a monstrous tyrant, upsetting the Tudor conception of the natural and social orders), as well as extravagantly praising her through the allegorical figures of ideal queens and heavenly ladies. Spenser wrote in the Letter to Ralegh that his intention was that the poem should have a didactic function, working 'to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.' It might better be described as being designed to fashion a queen. Despite her personal dislike of the poet ('a little man with little hands and little cuffs'), Elizabeth seems to have got the point, and awarded Spenser a pension of £50 per annum.
The poem is characterised by its immense generic complexity. 'Fierce warres and faithful loves shall moralize my song', the poet tells us, perhaps indicating a desire to imitate both the Iliad (wars) and the Odyssey (the romance of married love.) But there is so much more than that in this vast poem, 'marooned' (as Paglia observes) 'like a beached whale on the desert shore of English departments.' Part of this generic complexity derives from the tension between epic and romance as modes. The Epic aspires to a kind of unity: it sums up a culture, and often relates its founding myth. It has a single theme, and a single hero, and includes the whole cosmos, heaven, earth, and underworld. Romance, on the other hand, is inherently multiple. Its tangled plotlines interweave many characters who are all important. In Epic, women are usually objects of exchange or hindrances to a male hero's journey or destiny, just as Calypso detains Odysseus or Dido Aeneas. In Romance, women and love are more central to the plot, and the woman-warrior can play a major role.
In Epic, the gods (or in the case of Paradise Lost, God, the Son, and the angels) provide the 'divine machinery', descending periodically to relay messages of encouragement, or interfere in the earthly affairs of the plot. In romance, gods may wander in and out, but magic is more fundamental, with enchanted swords, rings, and mirrors, flying horses, enchanters and enchantresses being prominent. But both Epic and Romance aim for copiousness, for sheer, monumental heft. Tasso, the Italian poet and theorist, wrote that this was part of the necessary grandeur of an epic poem:
'...the art of composing a poem is like the nature of the universe, which is composed of contraries, such as appear in the law of music, for if there were no multiplicity there would be no whole, and no law, as Plotinus says.' (Discourses on the Heroic Poem.)
In Book VI, the legend of Courtesy, we wander off into the Pastoral world, familiar generic territory for Spenser, whose first published poems had been the pastoral sequence The Shepheardes Calender. So here sport rustick shepherds, shepherdesses who don't realise that they're long-lost princesses, and people who hold singing competitions and get frustrated in love, and so on. (Compare Acts II and III of The Winter's Tale.) There's even a character called 'Pastorella', in case we haven't looked around us. But Spenser's pastoral world is darker and more vulnerable that that of Arden or The Old Arcadia. It is menanced by flesh-eating wild-men, and the mysterious Blatant Beast. Poor Serena gets flung alive onto a wobbling heap of corpses.
In Book II, there is a journey to the Underworld (obligatory in epic after Homer's eerie nekuia in Odyssey 11 and the staggeringly powerful and enigmatic sixth book of Virgil's Aeneid.) Spenser lays it on as thick as he can, attempting to overgo Virgil with a panoply of allegorical vices that ends up feeling slightly camp:
At length they came into a larger space,
That stretcht it selfe into an ample plaine,
Through which a beaten broad high way did trace,
That streight did lead to Plutoes griesly raine:
By that wayes side, there sate infernall Payne,
And fast beside him sat tumultuous Strife:
The one in hand an yron whip did straine,
The other brandished a bloudy knife,
And both did gnash their teeth, & both did threaten life.
On thother side in one consort there sate,
Cruell Reuenge, and rancorous Despight,
Disloyall Treason, and hart-burning Hate,
But gnawing Gealosie* out of their sight
Sitting alone, his bitter lips did bight,
And trembling Feare still to and fro did fly,
And found no place, where safe he shroud him might,
Lamenting Sorrow did in darknesse lye,
And Shame his vgly face did hide from liuing eye.
In an exam on Epic which I sat in 2001, I was asked the question 'Must the Epic hero be male?'. (Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad was as yet unwritten, but a brave man might have mentioned Alice in Wonderland.) Spenser is a gift for this question, because of his penchant for charismatic warrior-maidens. Britomart is one of the characters that makes more of an impression: beautiful, brave and strong, she defeats numerous male knights. But she is on a quest which will end in marriage, seeking the knight Artegall, whose face she has seen in Merlin's mirror and has prompted her to fall in love with him. They are to marry, and Elizabeth will be among their descendants.
Spenser shows awareness that he is making tradition up as he goes along. In the past, he tells us, 'women wont in warres to hold most swaye' (really?!), and that is why he includes Britomart, his triumphant female knight, and the fearsome, beautiful huntress Belphoebe. But we must not get carried away and assume that Spenser is some kind of matriarchalist; normally femininity in the poem is fragile and fleeting, like poor Florimell, constantly on the run and frightened by the sounds of leaves.
In Book V, Spenser sets out his theory of gynocracy, and one gets a sense of the kind of mental juggling that the Elizabethans had to do in order to accept the idea of a female sovereign. It is possible, according to Spenser, for an exceptional woman to take a man's place as ruler, by the grace of God; but she must thereby uphold the standard of women's political and legal inferiority, and not subvert it. The Amazon queen Radigund is Spenser's nightmare vision of the social order turned topsy-turvy by female rule. Women rule over men, and Artegall, captured by Radigund when he fails to kill her in battle because of her beauty, is forced to wear female attire and to spin, like Hercules. Britomart comes to rescue him, and kills Radigund without mercy. Her first action thereafter is to restore women 'to their wonted subjection', reinstating the status quo. She herself is destioned to put down her arms and become a mother of a great dynasty, as she sees in a vision in Isis Church. (Thus, as Paglia observed in a characteristically brilliant apercu, she reverses the mythic arc of Greek Artemis, who went from fertile universal Mother to slim, androgynous warrior-virgin.)
Paglia is particularly good on the poem's decadent, cool cruelty. She is especially interested in the way that the poem works against itself. Spenser is a poet who, as a Christian Platonist, believes in the transcendent, objective singleness of truth and virtue; and yet he includes in his meandering Romance every variety of sensationalistic sexual practice. Lesbian seduction? Check. (The wonderful scene in which the jaded chatelaine Malecasta creeps into Britomart's bed, 'panting softly and trembling every joynt.') Transexualism? Check. (The amazing 'false Florimell', an automaton made by a witch from 'fine mercury and virgin wex', and animated by an epicene male spirit who 'all the wiles of wemens' wits knew passing well.') Narcissistic auto-eroticism? Check. (The eerie Phaedria sailing upon the waters of her lake 'making sweet solace to herself alone', or the wicked, magnificent Lucifera, constantly gazing at her 'self-loved semblance' in a mirror.)** Male homosexulity? Check. (The giant Ollyphant, lustfully chasing a boy until Britomart gets in his way.) Voyeurism, incest, necrophilia? Check, check, check. Sadomasochism? Check, check, check, check - the poem's filled with it. (In the house of the evil enchanter Busirane, the beautiful Amoret is forced to undergo an endlessly repeated torture-pageant, in which her heart is cut out: 'at that wide orifice her trembling hart was drawn forth, and in a silver basin laid.') If you think Spenser might be enjoying all this, you'd be right. The tormented or dead female body is constantly described in terms of 'white alabaster breasts', 'dyed in sanguine red.' Bestiality? Check. (Hellenore and those satyrs again.) Cannibalism?! Check. (Poor Serena is seized by cannibals in Book VI, and 'some with their eyes the daintiest morsels chose;/ Some praise her paps, some her lips and nose.' Male desire is intrinsically aggresive and consuming for Spenser.
Neither Paglia not Nohrnberg are the be-all and end-all of Spenser criticism; far from it. Spenser, with his huge output, is the kind of poet you build an entire career on, like Milton, or Chaucer, or Dante, or - most of all - like Shakespeare.
Spenser literary criticism tends towards the worthy or the totalising. In the first category, a scholar produces a noble yet dull volume, explaining the integral significance of, say, Renaissance emblem-books or Mantuan's Eclogues to the poet's works. In the category of totalising approaches, people produce vast tomes which attempt to demonstrate the unity of the poem, or illuminate some hidden architecture behind its apparently incomplete state. So people argue that even though Spenser planned twenty-four books to signify the private and public virtues, the seven books that we have (really six and a funny appendage on Mutabilitie) actually represent the seven planets. (Norhnberg suggested sensibly that the poem began to eat itself: there should have been a 'Legend of Prudence', but so much of the material that would have formed part of that book must have been used up in the 'Legend of Temperance'.) Or they try to show that subsections of three books show a process of Hegelian synthesis, whereby, for example, Book IV, on Friendship, represents a natural ideal; Book V, on Justice, represents a spiritual ideal; and added together, they give an ideal both natural and spiritual - that of Courtesy, or Book VI.
At best, these critical volumes are the fruit of years' of hard work, and represent deep and nuanced readings of the poem. At worst, they can be excruciatingly turgid trawls. (A good example is Alastair Fowler's Spenser and the Numbers of Time: I couldn't decide whether it was brilliant or batty in its argument for numerological patterns of extraordinary intricacy in the poem.)
Victorian critics saw the poem itself as a lush, escapist Bower of Bliss. Since then, we have become increasingly aware of the dubiousness and darkness of some of its preoccupations. Spenser's important role in the English subjection of Ireland is the most important of these.
In the 1570s Spenser went to Ireland, probably in the service of the newly appointed lord deputy, Arthur Grey. From 1579 to 1580, he served with the English forces during the Second Desmond Rebellion. After the defeat of the rebels he was awarded lands in County Cork that had been confiscated in the Munster Plantation during the Elizabethan reconquest of Ireland.
In the poet's ghastly 'Vewe of the Present State of Ireland' (1596), the cultural inferiority of the Gaelic Irish and the necessity for their resistance to be utterly crushed is discussed at length in a fictional dialogue. The Irish are represented as so wilful and savage that absolute brutalism is justified. The pamphlet argued that Ireland would never be totally 'pacified' by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed, if necessary by violence. In the dedicatory sonnet Spenser wrote to Thomas Bultler, tenth Earl of Ossory, he speaks of Ireland's 'savage soyle', which has 'not one Parnassus, nor one Helicon' and is 'with brutishe barbarisme...overspredd.' To anyone aware of the glorious bardic verse being produced in Ireland at this period, this accusation is particularly disgusting, and Spenser personally oversaw the execution of some Irish poets for fomenting rebellion by praising the native royalty - just as he himself did.
Spenser was driven from his home by Irish rebels during the Nine Years War in 1598. His castle at Kilcolman, near Doneraile in North Cork was burned (serves him right) and it is thought one of his infant children died in the blaze. Fleeing back to England, he died in London in 1599, 'from want of bread', according to Jonson.
The experience of writing from Ireland intensified Spenser's sense of alienation from female sovereignty, and results in a peculiar paradox whereby the national Epic starts to look more and more like a colonial Romance.
* * *
So, if you get the chance, spend an evening in with Spenser's great, unjustly neglected poem. It's literature as mystery: a complex, winding maze of tremendous learning and frightening coolness. Its iconicism and artistocratic ethos overlay a seething mass of sexual anxieties and decadent subversions. In some ways, it's most akin to Science Fiction, in its detailed creation of an imaginative other world. The only thing that I have seen that remotely compares to the poem's atmosphere is the mesmeric opening sequence of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, an adaptation of The Tempest. From behind a wall of sumptuous draperies there processes a calvacade of naked figures, accompanied by animals and bedecked with allegorical gewgaws, who proceed to gorgeously enact Renaissance emblems against a soundtrack of pulsing Michael Nyman strings.*** Spenser's hardcore Protestantism constantly seems to buckle under the poem's haughty, decadent weight, with its constant barrage of rape, mutilation, and heady sensuality. Fabulous stuff.
* * *
* He's forgotten Gealousie is still Malbecco at this stage. Whoops.
** Spenser's names are a bit unsubtle sometimes.
*** My friend Peter permanently ruined, in the nicest possible way, my ability to enjoy Michael Nyman's music; his one-man satirical impersonation of the Michael Nyman Band (hippofart! hippofart! hippofart! zumm zumm zumm - zwee wee wheedle wheet - zumm zumm zumm) has to be seen to be believed. I could never take it seriously after that.
* * *
MY PATENTED METHOD FOR WRITING LEARNEDLY ABOUT THE FAERIE QUEENE WITHOUT READING IT
Take a copy of the Children's Illustrated Version of the poem, a copy of Paglia's article, and a copy of the massive Spenser Encyclopedia, which is quite simply one of the world's most interesting books in my opinion (plus it can be used to deliver a knock-out blow in a domestic argument.)
Read the kiddies' version, summarising the 'plot' of each book, and whenever you come across a character who is important or mentioned by Paglia, look him or her up in the Encyclopedia, and take notes. (It was, incidentally, the Children's version which the Spenser Society, with magnificent condescension, sent to Lady Diana Spencer on her engagement. Spenser may have been a distant relative.) Then read the Encyclopedia entries on Epic, Allegory, the Bible, and Protestantism, and the summaries of each book contained in the Encyclopedia, and again, take notes.
All this will take about a day of not-very-hard work. Reading the actual poem itself, on the other hand, takes about a week of very hard work indeed. You'll then be equipped to understand any criticism on the poem, and discourse learnedly upon the whole poem to your astonished lecturer, who will be used to reading undergraduate Spenser essays which only cover the first half of Book I.