by Edmund Spencer
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.
"The Faerie Queene has proved one of the most influential poems in the English language. Dedicating his work to Elizabeth I, Spencer 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 Temperaunce, 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." (From the back cover of the Penguin Classics edition.)
Make no mistake, reading The Faerie Queene in its entirety is no small undertaking, but it sure feels good when you're finished! There were many moments of, "Holy cow, will I ever finish this?" The language can be a bear, but I got used to it after a while. Despite my reading guide, there were a lot of verses that went by without my really understanding exactly what happened, but I was able to grasp the overall picture as the tales unfolded. And what tales they were! Knights and damsels, witches and monsters, gods and men, good and evil -- they're all here. I'm not saying it was all fun and games, but looking back over my time with this book I find it was a difficult endeavor that I'm very glad I saw through to the end. I can say I've read The Faerie Queene, and I can honestly say I liked it.
Maybe taking on the whole book does not appeal to you (and I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't), but you'd like to at least try a part of it. Of the seven books that make up The Faerie Queene, some are more fun to read than others. The first was my favorite with the seventh coming in a very close second. You could read either one without feeling like you're missing anything.
I believe Book One is the one most commonly read in literature classes and for good reason. I felt it was the most accessible and most exciting of all the books. It tells of the Red Cross Knight and his quest for Holiness, which includes lots of battles and dragons and other fun stuff. Book Seven is very short. It is only 3 cantos long as opposed to the usual twelve because it is unfinished. The incompleteness, however, does not detract at all from the reader's enjoyment. That book tells the story of Mutability (or Change) who feels she should be the queen of the gods, because everything in the world is subject to Change. She goes on trial before Nature to make her case and receives judgment.
Whichever you would choose -- Book One, Book Seven, or the whole shebang -- my advice is simply to not let it overwhelm you. Take it a little bit at a time. Don't get hung up on understanding every word of every line of every verse. Look up the ones that give you the most trouble (there is a glossary in the Penguin Classics edition and I have included a link to an online glossary in this post), roll with the others. The odd spellings of known words will become easier as you go along. Don't dwell on specifics. As long as you're grasping the general idea, it's still a good read. If you really love it, you can always go back later to the parts you'd like to study more closely. As for me, I need a break, but I can see myself not only returning to parts of The Faerie Queene, but other 16th century poetry. After all, where else am I going to use all the new words I learned? :-)
Over my time reading this book, I've shared a couple of verses that I particularly liked. In closing, I would like to share one more that I marked while finishing the book last night. It may have been written in the 1590's, but we can still use this advice today:
It is the mynd, that maketh good or ill,
That maketh wretch or happie, rich or poore:
For some, that hath abundance at his will,
Hath not enough, but wants in greatest store;
And other, that hath litle, askes no more,
But in that litle is both rich and wise.
For wisedome is most riches; fooles therefore
They are, which fortunes doe by vowes deuize,
Sith each vnto himselfe his life may fortunize.
Wishing you all the riches your mynd can hold~
Resources for reading The Faerie Queene:
Read The Faerie Queene online
Summary of The Faerie Queene
Study Guide from Bookrags
Wikisource glossary for words used in The Faerie Queene
The Faerie Queene at Wikipedia
NOTICE: (Updated March 5, 2010)
Beginning December 19, 2009, Books 'N Border Collies will be posting but only intermittently while I pursue personal goals. I plan to share some reading I'm doing, but there will be no reviews. I will, however, be sharing my exploration of vegetarian cooking and the cookbooks and websites I use to educate myself. I hope you enjoy it!