A dead name. One of those uninviting white Anglo-Saxons of yore. To us, in a time when people are so busily living, past times are so very much not of account. There are ever-current for us fervid movements for the progression of this agenda, and hectic lobbyists for the furtherance of that campaign; and altogether there are so many axes to choose from being ground; whilst what is yesterday’s gets put away; is made moribund, and is ignored to gather dust and moulder back its own times.
If you’ve never heard of Edmund Spenser don’t be too surprised at yourself. We have a radio show here in UK titled ‘And So You’ve Never Watched Star Wars!?’ It is a format in which a guest each week is invited to try three things, very often pretty commonplace things, which the guest has never tried before in life.
The more nerdy and ‘out of touch’ the guest the more surprising tend to be the commonplace things s/he has never tried – to the minds of those persons in the audience, most of whom tend to live wholly in the present, and so spend their time following exclusively the long weary progress of fads and fashions, crazes and other accidents of life, as they arise and they are catching hold of them; and as they ebb away so does their interest ebb with them; allowing interest to hook up with the next incoming fascinating whimsy.
The show is a chance to laugh at people, at the guests, who are often quirky. Very often a truly prejudiced decision lies behind a guest’s never having tried, say, a MacDonald’s burger, or a game of bingo; staples of our society. Very often a guest is upkeeping a false virtue of a kind which says to themselves ‘my type of person just doesn’t do that sort of thing’. Very often such guests are surprised by how those things thought by them beneath them are in fact warm and human occupations and pursuits.
There are other guests who are less prejudiced, only belonging to another world than solely the world of the present; who are in the main truly bemused by the activities they are invited to try for the first time. Fish out of water.
Edmund Spenser to many who come to him for the first time is a poet who appears to be a fish out of water. Funny strange uncouth words; old fashoined and quaint. Wordy. Takes too long to say what he is saying. One gets impatient with him easily; like a tedious standup comic from whom one is ever awaiting an overdue punchline.
Yet Edmund Spenser was the Stan Lee of his day. He wrapped up his fables with hidden meanings; and he created colourful and fantastic adventures in which to lay out his beliefs and his thought and ideas. Edmund Spenser was a maker of CGI in the minds of his Elizabethan readers.
His lack of haste is his greatest virtue – for his poetry and most importantly, for us, who are his potential readership. I am going to go on soon to talk about his poems; only before I do I need to point up clearly why his greatest virtue for us is his slow and almost dreamlike progress through his ‘faerielands forlorn’.
Reading Spenser, like reading Milton as I have said elsewhere, is an accquired taste; simply because there is a learning curve to scale and conquer in order for a person to begin to reap the rich rewards arrayed in him. I have a firm and experiential belief that nothing worthwhile one having comes to one without serious years of effort and application, consistently and with a good will. Spenser is one such thing worthwhile having.
On the way to this long-earned access to Spenser’s beauty and art; you will find that he is already beginning to teach you things which you will benefit from knowing and learning. Firstly there’s a whole bunch of new-to-you words; English, but not as you knew it. Try to avoid modernised versions of spelling and wording for Spenser (I’d recommend this advice regardling any author whose language is other than entirely foreign to you; allow the author some latitude and take the hits of getting through to the meaning on your own body. The Great Cham Dr Samuel Johnson once said that there is nothing so small and insignificant which remains not worth knowing.)
Spenser’s language is part of the deal; it’s a part of his world, his oevre, his thought patterns – as they say – it is Hamlet without the Prince to read Spenser in modernised formats. The ‘Marvellous Boy’ Chatterton wrote poetry during the eighteenth century in an English hotch-potch hybrid language deliberately made so as to sound and read as being a mock-archaic, all so as to attempt to win back to his present times that long-lost and enigmatic nuance and timbre of the times of ‘gentle knights and damsels fair’. In part he succeeded, even though the literary critics are divided upon the point; Chatterton’s verses do evoke, do hearken oddly back to ‘days of yore’ quite forcibly at times.
Spenser however is the real deal; perhaps he is the last poet of standing who had been able to write in a relatively arcane mode of English and at the same time did not infringe any contemporary rules of then-current vocabulary and grammar. Alive, born before and at his peak before, Shakespeare was at his own peak; and active at a time when English as a language was rapidly leaving behind medievalism and racing towards Renaissance usages; Spenser was situated ‘onthe cusp’ of two worlds; the dying embers of the schools and of the ‘university wits’; hard up against the fanning flames of the entrepreneurial wrtier and dramatist, poet and musician. Another few years and Spenser’s preferred mode of speech for his poetry would be done and outmoded.
A conservative then. Yes. His verse looks backwards rather than forward in its technique, subject matter, and outlook. His is a dreamlike passion for the beauty in upright conduct; a deep desire for a triumph of good over evil. One receives an impression reading Spenser that here is a person unfitted for the tainted textures of everyday dealings, with their compromises and their often morally ugly events and behaviours. Like St Paul’s spirit Spenser’s too appears to be groaning along with the creation as a whole in a profound yearning for a better, more perfect disposal for the world. Throughout Spenser’s poetry there persists a powerful yet delicate sense of rarefied longing for the beauty in perfection; coupled with its antithesis, an abhorence of ugly ill-conduct.
Perfection for Spenser is all about the beauty displayed by divine and human love as these are expressed in charitable deeds of honour and chivalry. Indeed chivalry is a keynote in his epic poem The Faerie Queene; which represents to us a way of courtly behaviour which was just about near its end by Spenser’s day; but was one which was able to carry for him the full burden of his thought and of his passion for a more perfect and a more beautiful world than this one we are caught up in.
Spenser’s mode of gradual and leisured unfolding of his themes and stories which we might find too slow for us, in fact recommend to us that we ourselves slow down and so begin to absorb the full import and power of his work. What has been lost to us in the way of patience and perseverance, in the way of sustained absorption and understanding of a panoramic and fully-peopled world of imagination; our loss of dedicating oneself to reading rather than to skimming so as to extract basic key data; all these are our present day expedients in this era of ours which act to pressure us to do things and to handle things at speed and with minimum input or smallest close attention. But instead of haste by policy, as his readers we get from Spenser all the valuable things of the mind cultivatedin us, because for him time is no object, and so time becomes for us in the course of our familiarising ourselves with him no object also.
To be a little hyperbolic, in us getting a hold on this renewed paitence and perseverance from our reading Spenser; it is like as if we had been returned to our mother’s knee whereupon we are seated as when we were toddlers and were enraputred by the fairy stories and the nursery tales she so lovingly, lavishly, and painstakingly so long ago taught us.
Spenser is where the present day race for living stops; and where a present day depth of experience begins to be had; whenever Spenser is used well and properly and so read with a quiet application.
One needs this ‘room made available in one’s head’ to be able to enjoy Spenser and to get to appreciate how marvellous and how expresive and impresive his style and his narrative in poetry actually are. Otherwise a reader of today is likely to throw down Spenser’s book irritably after five or ten minutes looking into it, rejecting it as being too prolix and too demanding to dedicate much of one’s life to it from oneself. But the old addage applies: one only receives back according to how much as one has been wiling to put into a venture; when one commits much; much, much more, is proffered back to you; and thus it is with reading Spenser.
Spenser’s main themes are pastoral, and chivalric, and courtly (Platonic) love, and alegorical demonstations of the moral virutes and of their vicious opposites. In Spenser for the most part nature and natural physical beauty is virtuous, as it is in human character, and as are physical appearances when looked at across the living world in general. Spenser sees an intense natural beauty and meaning in the animal and vegetative worlds.
Vicious entities are able to usurp the shape and the appearances of virtuous things and persons; yet their true nature will always eventually show physically and spiritually as gross, ugly and, abhorent. Thus he uses disguise and shape-shifting, so that ogres and monsters are able to transform and so become men and women, who beguile ‘lovely ladies and fair knights’ into a faith and trust in them due to their outwardly apparent beauty. In Spenser are dragons and all kinds of gross misshapen ill-dispensing creatures.
His treatment of the natural world and this includes his pastoral poems is astonishingly briliant. His own deep impresions of the lavishness of nature and of the bountiful and beautiful array of variety and strong impressive colour in the extent of natural beauty is always very much present. Most of his poetry is set in a background of abundant pastoral beauty.
As well as talking to us in allegories concerning general ethical behaviours wherein ‘more is meant than meets the ear’; Spenser also discusses in allegorical form political and social issues which were contemporary to his lifetime.
Human and divine love are usually connected in Spenser; the former being a reflection of the latter and a stepping stone from the one to the other. Healthy colourful and beauteous natural worlds are reflective of healthy beautiful and harmonious moral and personal worlds in his characters and in his themes. The reverse, ugly and louring, threatening landscapes are evil and unclean.
Intensely Spenser was an idealist; a fervent idealist; one whose yearning and desire for a better world is a mainspring of his motivations for writing and of his choices of subject matters and of his poetic style. A reader is able to lose himself in Spenser so as to visit a world wherein what ought to be is deliciously laid out, and lovingly displayed in a kind of reverie which is based not on fiction or on fantasy but on a deeply held Christian belief and faith in the meaning of things.
In the way of shorter poems; poems which perhaps more wary adventurers might be seeking to try in Spenser for a first impression, are his two ‘wedding’ odes; composed to celebrate his and his wife’s love for one another and one of these poems celebrates his own wedding day. These are the ‘Prothalamium’ and the ‘Epithalamion’. Rarely has there been written poetry of such sustained beauty and depth of feeling.
All in all Spenser’s verse comes across as seeming very simply concieved, almost ingenuous. Yet this is his art; this is his forte; this is his great effort; at making for us, once the language and patience barriers are burst for us as his readers, a lucid, limpid picture of a vision of how things ought to be; and an exprression of a deep and foundational faith in how love and goodness will in the end always defeat evil and hatred.
Here is a splendid stanza from his wedding ode ‘Prothalamium’ which is to end this article and offer you a taster of Spenser’s astounding poetic genius:
CALM was the day, and through the trembling air
Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play,
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair;
When I whose sullen care,
Through discontent of my long fruitless stay
In prince’s court, and expectation vain
Of idle hopes, which still do fly away
Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain,
Walked forth to ease my pain
Along the shore of silver streaming Thames,
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems,
Was painted all with variable flowers,
And all the meads adorned with dainty gems,
Fit to deck maidens’ bowers,
And crown their paramours,
Against the bridal day, which is not long:
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.