Tag Archives: the virtues

Edmund Spenser and his stanza.

It has been some years since I last wrote about Spenser but I’m now re-reading the brilliant Faerie Queene and want to pay some attention to the Spenserian stanza which is a Thing of Wonder and Delight. For those not familiar with the work, the FQ is very long indeed and divided into 6 books, each dealing with a virtue. The books consist of 12 cantos which usually contain more than 40 9-line stanzas apiece.

As an aside, I owe a personal debt to this work, for about ten years from 35 to my mid forties I went through my first period of disenchantment with poetry, feeling that it was all a bit trivial and took itself far too seriously. Up until then, I’d only paid attention to work produced after 1921 and was surprised to find myself being into something Very Big from the end of the 16th century. What surprised and pleased me most was that the Spenserian stanza made poetry fun, in short I was hooked.

As the name implies, this particular stanza is of Spenser’s own devising and, in his hands, is remarkably effective in addin additional dimensions to his tales. As examples, I want to use this dialogue from Book 111 and then a fight scene between Arthur and Cymochles from Book 11. This is a conversation between Britomart (the personification and her nurse;

The Damsell pauzed, and then thus fearfully
      Ah Nurse, what needeth thee to eke my paine?
      Is not enough, that I alone doe dye, 
      But it must doubled bee with death of twaine?
      For nought for me, but death there doth remaine.
      O daughter deare (said she) despeire no whit,
      For never sore, but might a salve obtaine;
      That blinded God, that hath thee blindly smit,
Another arrow hath your lovers hart to hit.

But mine is not (quoth she) like others wound;
       For which no reason can find remedy.
      Was neuer such, but mote the like be found,
       (Said she) and though no reason may apply
      Salue to your sore, yet loue can higher stye,
     Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne.
     But neither God of loue, nor God of sky
     Can doe (said she) that, which cannot be donne.
Things oft impossible (quoth she) seeme, ere begonne.

Book three is ‘about’ Britomart and her quest to find Artegall, the object of her love. The above takes place after our heroine has fallen in love but before she and her nurse have set off on their mission. In order to appreciate the full effect, it’s really important to read this out loud and feel the strength of the rhymes and the pulse of each stanza. The content here is both sophisticated and refreshingly human, the second stanza sets out respective positions on love and how to respond to it but this is done in away that carries the attentive reader forward. This reader is struck by “Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne” which is very accomplished indeed, expressing something complex in a deceptively straightforward way.

One of the marks of a great poet is the ability to make the very difficult appear easy. Many poets over the last 420 years have tried to imitate this form but very, very few have come close to make the device ‘work’ as it should. Claims have been made for Shelley’s Adonais and Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes but neither of these equal the sustained quality of Spenser’s content.

The second example is one which demonstrates how the stanzas run/flow into each other, especially when reporting action scenes. Here, Prince Arthur is fighting Cymochles and Pyrrhochles;

For when Cymochles saw the fowle reproch,
  Which them appeached, prickt with guilty shame,
  And inward griefe, he fiercely gan approch,
  Resolu'd to put away that loathly blame,
  Or dye with honour and desert of fame;
  And on the haubergh stroke the Prince so sore,
  That quite disparted all the linked frame,
  And pierced to the skin, but bit no more,
Yet made him twise to reele, that neuer moou'd afore.

Whereat renfierst with wrath and sharpe regret,
  He stroke so hugely with his borrowd blade,
  That it empierst the Pagans burganet,
  And cleauing the hard steele, did deepe inuade
  Into his head, and cruell passage made
  Quite through his braine. He tombling downe on ground,
  Breathd out his ghost, which to th'infernall shade
  Fast flying, there eternall torment found,
For all the sinnes, wherewith his lewd life did abound.

Which when his german saw, the stony feare
  Ran to his hart, and all his sence dismayd,
  Ne thenceforth life ne courage did appeare,
  But as a man, whom hellish feends haue frayd,
  Long trembling still he stood: at last thus sayd;
  Traytour what hast thou doen? how euer may
  Thy cursed hand so cruelly haue swayd
  Against that knight: Harrow and well away,
After so wicked deed why liu'st thou lenger day?

Book II’s protagonist is Guyon and his quest is for temperance. Arthur (magnificence) comes to his aid in the struggle with these two brothers who represent the inability to exercise different aspects of self control. What attracts me to the above is the way in which Cymochles ‘guiltie shame’ goads him into attacking Arthur, particularly the reference to ‘inward griefe’. This shows a much more sophisticated and considered approach than we would expect from a ‘standard’ fight between good and bad.

Spenser’s fights contain a fair amount of gore and the ‘cruelle passage’ here is fairly typical. The end of this stanza again expresses the consequences of a sinful life in an elegant and precise way. The third stanza moves us rapidly to Pyrrhocles’ anger at his brother’s death. The pace of the action from fight to death to reaction is remarkably swift, especially when the various asides and sub-texts are taken into account. This rhythmic movement through the stanzas also gives a sense of emotional intensity and drama.

The other less noticed aspect of the Spesnerian stanza is that it creates something that is quite profoundly visual, almost filmic which enables the reader to feel more like an active onlooker rather than a passive consumer of text.

The final point I’d like to make is that it is Spenser’s exuberance that carries things forward with such sustained panache for over 3800 stanzas. It is clear that the poet knows that his stanza is successful as a form and takes delight in showing off what it can do. This sense of energetic pleasure is communicated to the reader who thus becomes another smiling enthusiast.

Incidentally, ‘haubergh’ is the Spenserian spelling of ‘hauberk’ or chain mail coat/jacket whilst a ‘burganet’ is a type of helmet.

I hope I’ve demonstrated at least some of the value of The Faerie Queene and encouraged one or two of you to pay it some attention.