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The faerie queen by Edmund Spenser

The faerie queen (original 1590; edition 1980)

by Edmund Spenser

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1,594124,567 (3.75)1 / 164
Title:The faerie queen
Authors:Edmund Spenser
Info:London; Longman, 1980, 1977. xiii, 753 p. ; 25 cm.
Collections:Your library
Tags:poetry, epic, rennaisance, english

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The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (1590)



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Arthurian knights each of whom is emblematic of some virtue or other wander around a landscape fighting bad guys or sometimes just fighting for no apparent reason. Sometimes they rescue damsels in distress, some of the good and bad knights are damsels themselves. Various storylines come together and get wound up others are left hanging but presumably would have been wound up if Spenser had ever got round to writing the second half. Even as it is, it's too much to grasp in one reading, but I really don't feel up to reading the whole thing again. ( )
1 vote Robertgreaves | Apr 10, 2015 |
To me, this is the great long poem in English, beside which Paradise Lost seems like a clumsy haiku. Where Milton is precise and sententious, Spenser is exuberant, almost mad, and always focused on sheer reading pleasure. His aim is to take you on a crazed sword-and-sorcery epic, and his style combines godlike verbal inventiveness with the sort of eye for lurid details that an HBO commissioning editor would kill for.

It's almost like fan fiction. One imagines Spenser getting high over his copy of Malory one night, and then falling asleep and having a feverish opium dream about it. The Faerie Queene is the result: errant knights, evil witches and dragons, cross-dressing heroes, splenetic deities, and lots of damsels who get tied up in becomingly abbreviated outfits to await rescue. Despite this list of clichés, though, Spenser can also be fascinatingly transgressive, especially when it comes to gender roles: women in the Faerie Queene are by no means all passive weaklings, and there are no fewer than two different ‘warrior maids’ who ride around in full armour kicking the shit out of people who question their sense of agency or look at them funny. Note also the intriguing walk-on parts such as the giantess Argantè, who keeps men locked up ‘to serve her lust’ – a nice inversion of the usual trope of women being carted off as sexual prizes – and who is moreover defeated by the female knight Palladine.

Incidentally, Spenser likes to come up with inventive perversions to characterise his villains: Argantè is accused of prenatal incest, which I have to admit was a new one on me:

These twinnes, men say, (a thing far passing thought)
While in their mothers wombe enclosd they were,
Ere they into the lightsom world were brought,
In fleshly lust were mingled both yfere,
And in that monstrous wise did to the world appere.

I don't think enough has been written about Spenser's language. There is a tendency for modern readers to gloss over the tricky bits, and think: ‘Well, presumably this was an easy read back in the 1590s.’ It really wasn't. Spenser's language was, even to his contemporaries, extremely archaic and convoluted, with a distinct taste for inventive coinages. It's like a kind of Elizabethan Clockwork Orange (A Clockwork Potato?). Some of this is now invisible to modern readers. Words like amazement, amenable, bland, blatant, bouncing, centered, discontent, dismay, elope, formerly, gurgling, horrid, invulnerable, jovial, lawlessness, memorize, newsman, Olympic, pallid, red-handed, sarcasm, transfix, unassailable, violin, warmonger – all of them, and hundreds more, seem uncomplicated now, but that is only because Spenser invented them and we have become used to them in the centuries since. This is not to mention the hundreds of other words he coined that did not catch on and have now become obsolete (there's another).

I particularly like his flair for euphemism. Here's another awesome section, where a hapless husband has tracked down his wife after she was kidnapped by a group of satyrs. He hides nearby in the bushes, only to find out that she's actually having quite a good time:

At night, when all they went to sleepe, he vewd,
Whereas his louely wife emongst them lay,
Embraced of a Satyre rough and rude,
Who all the night did minde his ioyous play:
Nine times he heard him come aloft ere day,
That all his hart with gealosie did swell…

‘Come aloft’ of course meaning something along the lines of ‘mount sexually’. There's a lot of this kind of thing – Spenser not always coming across as the most secure guy in the world. The stanza concludes with another fun figurative flourish:

But yet that nights ensample did bewray,
That not for nought his wife them loued so well,
When one so oft a night did ring his matins bell.

Haha. Love it. This form of stanza – now known as ‘Spenserian’ – was his own creation, and the way each one concludes in a jaunty rhyming couplet makes him very quotable. I actually wrote this bit out in a notebook more than two years ago, which shows how long I've been reading this – it's been a sort of long-term project that I've dipped in and out of in between other books. This makes it hard to review, because I've now long forgotten half the stuff that happened in the first couple of sections. (Indeed when I started reading it, I was using a version on the internet, but I fell in love with the poem so hard that I ended up buying a luxury Folio Society limited edition bound in goatskin, probably the most expensive book in my entire collection – which, as Hannah was not slow to point out, seems hard to justify for a poem that you can read online for free.)

So OK, the paperback looks incredibly dull and imposing, and, yes, the idea of a 1500-page allegorical poem about Queen Elizabeth I does sound like a living nightmare – but The Faerie Queene is the opposite of boring. It's pure incident from start to finish. And if there's a message to the epic, taken as a whole, I think Spenser's closing lines point us in the right direction. He shows us that what matters in this world is not money or power – nor even, in the final analysis, the virtues that he has been exploring for nearly 40,000 lines. What matters is taking the time to find pleasure – in love, in knowledge, and, most of all, in literature:

Therefore do you, my rimes, keep better measure,
And seeke to please; that now is counted wise mens threasure.
( )
2 vote Widsith | Nov 29, 2013 |
This is the beginning of all the cool books that are being published today IMO. There are fairies, morality lessons, bad characters pretending to be good, a quest, love - it has it all! ( )
  Lexxie | Apr 23, 2013 |

This is one of the curiosities of the English language, a long poem written in its own peculiar verse structure in which archetypal figures based on myths of many different origins contend for mastery of spoils, women and virtue in a fantasy landscape which resembles the north of County Cork. Some of the allegory is pretty straightforward, as when Prince Arthur springs to the defence of the cruelly oppressed lady Belge; other parts are more layered and/or obscure.

It has taken me five months to read this. I found I could not proceed faster than one canto every day, and on many days I did not manage any cantos at all; and there are 74 of them, plus the proems and the two concluding verses. It's not that it is particularly difficult to read, compared even to Shakespeare; the style is generally consistent, and a good edition (mine is the Longman edited by A.C. Hamilton) helps you through the more obscure words or usages. But it's dense and moves both rather slowly and rather fast at the same time.

I found that one of the biggest barriers to my understanding of the poem was Tolkien. Spenser writes of elves and dwarves in a parallel fantasy world, but these are not Tolkien's separate races; the elves are effectively just a fantasy nationality, and the dwarves just short guys (who tend to appear as servants). I was also subliminally expecting some Big Bad villain, but in fact we have a chain of more or less loosely connected stories, with the main linking character Prince Arthur, who is intended to be King Arthur (and yet didn't fit for me too well into my own vision of Arthurian legend). So I found myself unnecessarily distracted by my attempts to fit it into fantasy genres with which I am more familiar.

What does come over with extraordinary vigour is Spenser's love of the Irish landscape. Subsequent history shows him as one of the many adventurers who descended on Munster to occupy land confiscated from the Desmonds and their affiliates, who then lost it all in a subsequent rebellion; it's worth being reminded that from Spenser's point of view, he had come to stay, and expected his descendants to live on at Kilcolman for many generations. County Cork was his home and the focus of his imagination. It's not too difficult to believe that he died essentially of a broken heart after losing it all.

As for the actual meaning of it all: I think it is possible to over-analyze. Sometimes the allusions are pretty obvious, or indeed the description may be pretty much what it appears to be (thinking for instance of the house whose chambers correspond to organs of the human body, or the personified rivers of Britain and Ireland). The only one of the six virtues where Spenser has much interesting to show about the virtue itself, for my money, was Courtesy; I felt he let his pen wander aside from the point as his fancy took him elsewhere. The best character in it is Britomart, who is obviously the model for George R.R. Martin's Brienne of Tarth.

And there's a robot. ( )
1 vote nwhyte | Nov 30, 2012 |
I struggled with reading The Faerie Queen for quite a while until I got the hang of the language. Once I did, I was able to wallow in Spenser's imagination! ( )
  jcelrod | Mar 20, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edmund Spenserprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Austen, JohnIllustratormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
O'Donnell, C. Patrick, Jr.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roche, Thomas P., Jr.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, J. C.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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[each line centered in the original]

First words
LO I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.
Last words
Disambiguation notice
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Original language

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140422072, Paperback)

‘Great Lady of the greatest Isle, whose light
Like Phoebus lampe throughout the world doth shine’

The Faerie Queene was one of the most influential poems in the English language. Dedicating his work to Elizabeth I, Spenser brilliantly united Arthurian romance and Italian renaissance epic to celebrate the glory of the Virgin Queen. Each book of the poem recounts the quest of a knight to achieve a virtue: the Red Crosse Knight of Holinesse, who must slay a dragon and free himself from the witch Duessa; Sir Guyon, Knight of Temperance, who escapes the Cave of Mammon and destroys Acrasia’s Bowre of Bliss; and the lady-knight Britomart’s search for her Sir Artegall, revealed to her in an enchanted mirror. Although composed as a moral and political allegory, The Faerie Queene’s magical atmosphere captivated the imaginations of later poets from Milton to the Victorians.

This edition includes the letter to Raleigh, in which Spenser declares his intentions for his poem, the commendatory verses by Spenser’s contemporaries and his dedicatory sonnets to the Elizabethan court, and is supplemented by a table of dates and a glossary.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:45 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

'The Faerie Queen' has influenced, inspired and challenged generations of writers, readers and scholars. Annotated throughout. This edition includes additional material such as a chronology, a letter to Raleigh and dedicatory sonnets.

(summary from another edition)

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