Tag Archives: faerie queen

Helen Cooper on Edmund Spenser and the English Romance

The very first thing that I wrote for this blog was a synopsis and appreciation of Helen Coopers’ ‘The English Romance in Time’ which demonstrates the various ways that both Shakespeare and Spenser made use of the English romance tradition. I’m currently reading the ‘Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature’ which provides the best overview of all the various handbooks and companions that are on the market. Whilst I am going through these chapters in sequence, I have to admit that I read the epilogue first because it is written by Cooper and entitled ‘Edmund Spenser and the Passing of Tudor Literature’. Regular readers will know that I’ll read anything on Spenser and that most of it makes me cross. In fact I’d almost given up on the possibility of any academic saying anything at all that is in any way helpful about ‘The Faerie Queen’.

There are times when what a critic writes strikes a deep chord of affinity with me. These occasions are rare, the most recent significant instance that springs to mind is where Geoffrey Hill sums up in a single sentence all the fairly complicated thins that I feel about Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Cooper has just provided me with another such moment:

The richness of the Tudor context for The Faerie Queene has for long been overshadowed by scholarship on its classical and Italian connections, and more recently by the New Historicist emphasis on its immediate political context. Situated in its own historical and linguistic moment as the culmination of earlier Tudor literature, however, the work reveals a different set of qualities, variously overlapping with and complementary to what is conventionally thought of as humanist, that underline Spenser’s commitment to the poetics of nationhood.

Coincidentally, I’ve recently had a bit of a rant about this with regard to the problematic Book V of the Faerie Queen and the above passage has made me realise that there is at least one other person on the planet who feels the same way. A more sobering thought is that if you look at the current academic ‘chatter’ on Spenser you come away with the impression that the main ‘thread’ is the dismal Tudor experience in Ireland and that the FQ was largely a re-working of Ariosto and Tasso.

I don’t have any kind of problem with academics that wish to point out the genocidal tendencies in ‘A View’ nor do I wish to deny the profoundly suspect overtones in Book V with regard to Ireland. I do have a problem when this becomes the main ‘point’ of Spenser’s literary output. This together with the notion that, in using some of Tasso and Ariosto, Spenser was adopting European models and humanist ideals whilst rejecting England’s medieval past.

I remain of the view that we ought to read poetry primarily for its use of language rather than for any extrinsic factors or the nature of the subject matter. I don’t think that this is a naive or idealistic position and I think my feelings about Spenser epitomise the reasons why I engage with poetry. I do not read Spenser because of my interest in English colonial adventures in Ireland and elsewhere, nor do I read him for his role in ‘nation building’. Both of these are subjects that I do have an interest in but wouldn’t rely on the poetry as providing anything other than small bits of context. I read Spenser because he is good with language and his confident exuberance shines through almost everything he does. When I read the Faerie Queen I know that I am in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing and that the poetry will carry me forward regardless of the subject matter. I’m much more concerned about how Spenser marks the end of one ‘phase’ of English poetry and marks the start of another by appropriating older forms and using these to point towards what will follow. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in and can see the point of poetry as a means of expression. If I want to know about the politics of the period then I will look at other more relevant primary sources. The same applies to George Herbert and John Milton, I don’t read them to gain a closer understanding of the Arminian strand in Anglicanism, I read them because they are both brilliant poets- what they write about is completely secondary.

Cooper rightly draws attention to the English antecedents of FQ especially Stephen Hawes, Chaucer and Langland as well as two romances- ‘Bevis of Hampton’ and ‘Guy of Warwick’ and she points to Malory’s influence in the role of Arthur in the poem. As a result of this (and the chapter on Hawes in the Handbook) I’ve started to read ‘Bevis’ and Hawes’ ‘The Pastime of Pleasure’ and they are both remarkably full of stuff that reappears in FQ. I’m not sure about the Langland/Lollardry connection but I am teaching myself Middle English in order to get to grips with this argument. My point is that a reader new to the glories of Spenser would soon be wading around in the critical noise around the Irish dimension and be looking at Orlando Furioso (I did this) rather than the English tradition.

A final note about academic trends, I do understand the way that these fads gather pace and become all pervasive but the Ireland ‘problem’ also feeds into a collective guilt that is only now beginning to speak its name- it is unlikely that this kind of perspective would have had such a success when the IRA campaign was at its murderous height. The other thought is- isn’t there something vaguely dubious about English academics (as descendants of the colonisers) choosing to speak for those who had the great misfortune to be colonised. Isn’t this a bit similar to those middle class academics (and thus secondary instruments of class oppression) wittering on about the integrity of the working class?

So, this is more of a plea for a more rounded perspective that starts by looking at poetry as poetry before beginning to take other political and cultural factors into account. I hope I shouldn’t need to point out that this does not in anyway condone or minimise the genocidal nature of Spensers remarks in ‘A View’.

We obviously need more academics like Cooper who are prepared to question the prevailing trends and to look at poetry primarily as poetry. She also writes about complex things in a style that is wonderfully clear and jargon-free. Her contribution on the pastoral form in the Spenser Encyclopaedia is also a model of incisive erudition.

The Faerie Queen Book V

Book V of Spenser’s great poem is gloriously complex and currently in severe danger of being over simplified by a whole range of critics. The main reason for this is that most of Book V is ‘about’ Ireland and in parts can be read as a thinly veiled argument for a much more brutal attack on the Irish people. This has been the cause (post Said) of much liberal hand wringing in the past two decades none of which seems to have taken too much notice of what Said actually wrote.
The problem is further compounded by Spenser’s ‘View’ which proposes a genocidal strategy as a means of dealing with the Irish “problem”.
For those who don’t know, The Faerie Queen is an exploration of six virtues achieved by means of allegory (described by Spenser as a “dark conceit”) and it is very, very long. Book V uses the figure of Artegall to explore the nature of justice. There are some critics who see Artegall as ‘standing for’ Arthur Grey as Spenser acted as his secretary when he was lord deputy of Ireland.
Grey was one of the most thuggish of Tudor thugs and his brief period (1580-82) in Ireland was marked by quite extraordinary violence including the creation of a famine in Munster in a failed attempt to starve out the leader of the current rebellion.
Before we go any further, I probably need to make it clear that I am not in any way sympathetic to the English presence in Ireland, in fact I am of the view that English efforts to deal with Ireland have been marked by ignorance, greed and indifference in equal measure. One of the saddest facts is that the sentiments expressed in ‘A View’ are shared by most of my compatriots. We do not understand the Irish obsession with religion and with the past and we view the annual disturbances around the Orangemen parades as utterly bizarre- both the protests and the need to parade. We also wish that the people of Ulster could be more like us- indifferent to religion and largely ignorant of the past. The English presence in Ireland has been characterised throughout by the doomed attempt to make the Irish more like us and Spenser is just one of many commentators to propound this view.
What isn’t of ten remarked upon is Spenser’s acute observation of the strength of the bardic tradition in Irish culture and his solution- that it needs to be destroyed by sending the children of the Irish elite to be educated in England. This I think indicates that Spenser was primarily a poet rather than a colonial civil servant.
Spenser introduces the Faerie Queen by means of a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh in which he explains his use of allegory in that the use of ‘delightful’ images is a more effective way of propounding moral worth. This method has attracted a wide range of critical attention and produced many different ways of reading the poem. I’m of the view that we should focus on where the allegories break down because I think these give us a fuller understanding of what might be going on.
Each of the six books is divided into 12 cantos and the ‘Grey’ analogy works to some extent for the first two cantos and then quite abruptly breaks down in canto III which describes a wedding feast and is further disrupted by the appearance of Radigund in Canto IIII.
Before we get to Radigund, it’s probably as well to say a few words about Britomart who is destined to marry Artegall. Britomart represents or stands for chastity which is the theme of Book III, she undertakes various quests and ordeals disguised as a man, she is also deeply troubled by her obsessive love for Artegall whom she has never met. In Book IV Artegall fights with Britomart and is victorious but falls in love with her when he removes his helmet.
It is also worth noting that Spenser is more successful in portraying female characters- both Britomart and Una are more realistic than their male counterparts who fall into a variety of contrived traps.
Radigund leads a bunch of violent Amazons, she defeats knights and then allows them to choose between death and a life spent dressed as a woman doing women’s work (spinning, carding etc). After an initial affray Radigund and Artegall have a more formal fight which Artegall wins but cannot finish his foe off when he lifts her helmet and sees her face. He therefore submits to the life of servitude outlined above.
I also ought to mention that Artegall is assisted by an iron man called Talus who tends to do all the really brutal stuff on behalf of his master. It is Talus who (instead of simply killing Radigund) alerts Britomart of Artegall’s dilemma. Things become a little more complex when both Radigund and her assistant fall in love with Artegall.
The Radigund episode takes up a lot of Book V and there isn’t a clear link in any of it to Ireland although there is much on emasculation, cross dressing and the general blurring of gender roles. It is also incredibly well written so that even now the reader is swept along by the story and is compelled to engage with the various layers of meaning. All of which is a very long winded way of saying that it would be good if critics could concentrate a bit more on the poetry and much less on the politics because it would then be obvious that the Artegall / Grey analogy doesn’t actually work and that Book V has much more interesting and challenging things to say other than the rather tired ‘might is always right’ quip.
Re-reading this in the Longman edition has also reminded me about the weakness of Bert Hamilton’s gloss- he seems to take delight in explaining things that should be left alone and ignoring the stuff that we (I) actually need help with. Or am I just being perverse and failing to recognise that North American readers might need this level of simplification? It is my view that the current notes actually detract from the brilliance of the original.
I’m also aware that this problem is much more acute with 17th century poets like Marvell who seems to have been almost completely hijacked by the political perspective.

Ariosto in translation

I have been intending to do this for months. The purpose of this post is to state the fact that David R Slavitt’s translation of Orlando Furioso which was published by the Bellknap Press in 2009 is very bad indeed. I do not normally draw attention to bad poetry or to poetry that I don’t like but I’m happy to make an exception on this occasion mainly because I spent 30 of the very finest English pounds (30) on acquiring it after a glowing review in the TLS.
My motivation for wanting to read this poem is straightforward, it seems reasonable that anyone with an interest in the Faerie Queen (me) should want to know a bit more about Spenser’s main sources and to ascertain whether he did “overgo” Ariosto.
Prior to Slavitt’s offering, the only readily available translation was the prose version by Guido Waldman although Rose’s 19th century prose rendition is available in a few obscure corners of the web. Slavitt acknowledges that Sir John Harington’s translation is the best but asserts that his version is aimed at making poetry more fun. It was at this point that I should have realised that there was a problem but I persevered and read the first ten cantos before giving up.
I don’t have a problem with translators taking risks with their task and I readily appreciate that each new translation creates a new poem and I am reasonably understanding of how difficult the task of translating poetry actually is.
I do have a problem however if that new poem turns out to be either inept in itself or to construct something that is far removed from the intention of the original. Slavitt, in his pursuit of fun and his quest to make Ariosto accessible to contemporary students, manages to attain new depths of ineptitude and to almost completely miss the ‘point’ of the poem.
Needless to say, my Italian is completely inadequate to glean any understanding of the original but I do have both the Waldman and Harington versions to hand and offer the final stanza of the second canto for comparison.
This is Slavitt:

And then? Is this the end? But Surely not.
The smaller twigs of the elm branch break her fall,
as you might have guessed, with all those pages you’ve got
in your right hand. So this cannot be all
there is, She doesn’t die here, but just what
happens to her after this close call
that leaves her on the bottom, stunned and hurt so,
we’ll get to soon, perhaps in Canto Terzo.

This is Waldmann:

The innocent damsel’s fate, however, was not as Pinabello wished, for as she tumbled from rock to rock, not she but the good stout branch was first to hit the bottom. There it snapped, but after affording her enough support to save her from death. She lay stunned awhile, as I shall go on to tell you in the next canto.

And this is Harington:

Yet great good hap the gentle damsell found,
As well deserv’d a mind so innocent:
For why the pole strake first upon the ground,
And though by force it shiver’d all and rent,
Yet were her limbes and life kept safe and sound,
For all his vile and traiterous intent,
Sore was the damsell mazed with the fall,
As in another booke declare I shall.

I don’t think that you need to be overly familiar with 16th century verse to recognise that Harington is much more faithful to the original and that Slavitt strays perilously close to doggerel. As well as personal disappointment I do have to ask why on earth Bellknap thought that this was a good idea. Slavitt’s efforts do not convey anything of the original and will only succeed in repelling those who are new to poetry.