Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Faerie Queene

Halfway through book V, some thoughts on the Faerie Queene.

This is an incredibly long work (clocking in at more than 1000 pages in my edition, before the footnotes).  That's kind of a trite, fatuous thing to say, but I think it's important for a few reasons.

Spenser has an unusual vocabulary; he uses Northern dialect and archaisms to give a sense that the Faerie Queene is an epic work, not of his own time and place.  The length of the work allows us readers to become used to the ways he uses a word like "algates" or "eath."  At first, I needed to check the glossary in the back frequently (and I rarely need to look up words when I read, say, Shakespeare), but by now I'm used to his diction.

Secondly, his plot is spacious in the same way that Orlando Furioso's is.  Spenser will leave a heroine in the grasp of, say, Proteus for 100 pages while he manipulates events around her.  Even Homer nods occasionally, and it sometimes feels like Spenser loses track of a character, but mostly he keeps them moving.  It's occasionally disconcerting when a character that I thought was done is brought back again, but it also gives a nice frisson of surprise.  (In this respect, by the way, I think people who read only book I short-change themselves.  It's nicely self-contained, which makes it an easy choice to get a feeling for Spenser's poetry, but in doing so one misses the huge character arcs).

Thirdly, the spaciousness allows Spenser to indulge himself in sections that might overwhelm a smaller book.  (Ariosto does the same in Orlando).  His 15 pages or so on the rivers of England are barely a blip here, but in a poem the length of the Aeneid would seem a huge intrusion.  I'm not sure this is an entirely good thing; sometimes he's too self-indulgent.  But mostly these side-trips are pleasurable.

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