Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Faerie Queene I

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. with C. Patrick O’Donnell, Jr. New York: Penguin, 1978.

I'm reading The Faerie Queene for Heather's challenge this year and have started reading Book I. I've decided the best thing for me to do, because there is so much here, is to do a few posts on it as I read my way through it. Today, I thought I'd let you know ten things I should have known but didn't learn until I started reading this:

1. The English language used to have contractions of m & n represented by a tilde above the preceding vowel (e.g. "from" would be "frõ"). Cool. I wish we still did that; don't you?

2. The Faerie Queene is Queen Elizabeth I. Surely I learned that when we studied bits of it in my Brit. lit. survey course in college, but I'd completely forgotten it. I seem, since I was a child, to have always mixed up the Snow Queen and the Faerie Queene. Ridiculous, I know, but so be it.

3. Spenser is thought of as the great precursor to Milton. I can see why, and how that has managed not to sink in until now is beyond me.

4. Apparently, we don't know Spenser's exact birth date, but he was only something like six years old when Queen Elizabeth took the throne. That's plenty of time to build up some boyhood idolatry (despite the fact that if he's writing Christian allegory, which he is, he should know better than to be dabbling in idolatry).

5. C.S. Lewis was apparently enamored of Spenser. Maybe that's why I confused the faerie and snow queens as a child (see The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe).

6. Spenser was not beyond making grave literary mistakes that were actually grave political mistakes, so he started off with 10 dedicatory sonnets to this work, but ended up having to do another version with 17 sonnets. That's because he forgot to write a sonnet for William Cecil, a.k.a, Lord Burleigh (a man not to be forgotten). In order to add him, he had to add another book signature, which meant lots of blank pages to fill (hard to believe, but the production piece of publishing was even more difficult in those days than it is today).

7. Reading dedicatory sonnets, no matter how cleverly and beautifully written, gets awfully tedious after a while, when you're ready to get on with the meat of the work.

8. If Spenser's "Letter of the Authors" is any indication, he was much better at writing poetry than prose. I lost count of how many times I found myself thinking "Huh?" and going back to re-read a line thrice over.

9. Nonetheless, Spenser is a man I knew I was going to love the minute I read this quote from that very letter:
"So much more profitable than gratuitous is doctrine by ensample than by rule." (p. 16)
(I think I'm in for a very long "ensample" of this.)

10. I wish we still used "Your most highly affectionate" as a signature for letters. Maybe I'll start using that when I write to my 2009 pen pals, especially Heather. Any of the rest of you pen pals object to that?

More to come (though probably not in list form). I will give you a sneak preview by telling you that I'm just about to begin "Canto III," and I am enjoying it immensely. Dare I even saying "loving it?" Dare I even say this is the sort of thing that is right up Emily's alley: Knights and Ladies and Dragons and Magicians and Sprites Performing Dastardly Deeds...?


Susan said...

*sigh* we read only one of the Cantos in university, and i can't remember which one - Canto 1? You make me want to read it again - I did own a copy for the longest time, finally decided I would never read it, and got rid of it. I expect one day I'll buy it again! And if you keep falling in love with Spencer - and I love the idea of The Faerie Queene! - I might be buying my copy sooner rather than later!!

Anonymous said...

I admire you, I really do. I cannot go this far back in time, even though I'd like to and have a yawning gap that stretches from about 1830 backwards. I'm sure I will enjoy this better through your commentaries than if I had to read the text itself.

from your most highly affectionate,


Rebecca H. said...

I'm very glad to learn more about The Fairie Queene through you too! I read bits of it in college, just as you did, and forgot almost all of it. I think I'd enjoy knowing more about the political background now.

knitseashore said...

I'm sorry I was too late to the penpal party post. It sounds like a lot of fun!

I don't think I've read the Fairie Queene, but you are tempting me with your descriptions of it. Tennyson is my favorite, much more recent of course, but I love most all the British poets. Sigh.

raych said...

We're reading this of my classes this semester. I hope you love it, because that increases the chances that I'll love it.

Emily Barton said...

Susan, go out and buy a copy. I promise you, it's worth it! You can even join us, if you'd like in reading it book-by-book for the next six months.

Litlove, you mean there is something I can do that you can't (pats herself on back)? Enjoy reading it vicariously through me, then. From your most highly affectionate, Emily.

Dorr, in college, the politics were lost on me (and gathering from what I remember, the whole thing was, really).

Ms. Knits, I'm sorry you were late to the pen pal post, too. (I'm beginning to think I ought to give up blogging and just truly revive letter-writing...nah...)

Raych, if you follow me, tend to like what I like, and are a hopeless romantic, chances are, you'll love it. It can be read on so many levels.

Hannah said...

Loving the most highly affectionate sign-off, will try to think of an equally courtly one! I read about a collection of letters between Patrick Leigh-Fermor and the Mitfords (I think) entitled In Tearing Haste - that was their sign-off. Brilliant.

Heather said...

This was brilliant. I'm having trouble understanding what I'm reading and I'm supposed to be leading discussion! ugh.

Lezlie said...

I finished up Book 1 last night, and I'm with you. I love it! Once I got into the flow of the language, it was much easier to read than I thought it would be. There are definitely Cantos that are significantly more interesting than others, but overall, it's beautiful!


Emily Barton said...

Hannah, oh good, I will use that sign-off next time I write you (BTW, you should be receiving a letter from me any day now).

Heather, don't feel bad. Lots of it is completely incomprehensible to me (I guess you had to be there). I sort of skip over those bits and just sink myself into what I DO get, which is great stuff.

Lezlie, so glad to hear I'm not the only geek loving it. There's a part of me that thinks it's just because I came to it with such low expectations, but I really don't think that's it.

Lezlie said...

Emily ~ That very well could be. I didn't expect to understand any of it. So the fact that there are chunks that I get even without my reading guide wins it huge bonus points. I don't know if you've gotten to the part with the parade of advisors for Lucifera, but the descriptions are worth the price of admission! I kept picturing the Skeksies (sp?) from The Dark Crystal.


Anonymous said...

Good for you! The Faerie Queene is sadly neglected, considering it's the single greatest work of literature in English. You won't be able to read it only once, though. Fair warning!

Anonymous said...

Is it too late to point out the three-page list of Common Words at the end of the book--that is, words (like puissance) that everyone has to look up but that occur too often to be repeatedly explained in the endnotes? Anyway, it is really a pleasure to read comments from someone approaching the poem as something that, even theoretically, could be read for enjoyment. So much about it from the academic perspective plunges into specialized analysis of one sort or another that the analysis is weakened by failure to grasp the initial fact that you're supposed to read it, first of all, because it's a fun book to read, not MERELY as fodder for another treatise.

Emily Barton said...

Jeffers, well, you see, that's what happens when one doesn't bother to check out what's on those pages after the "Notes." Thank you (it wasn't too late at all. I still have 5 and 1/2 books left to read).