Spenser for Dummies

Viciously, wrathfully, they descended upon him, surrounding him on all sides. Weariness began to spread through his aching arms, and the breath came from his mouth in short, shallow spurts, but he refused to give up. Blood gushing from his sides, he continued to deftly deal blows onto his attackers. Every time he made a move, wreaking a storm of violent wrath in his wake, they recoiled, death flashing before their eyes.

Now, we will read another account of this same incident, rendered in a different style:

“Mainly they all attonce upon him laid,

And sore beset on every side around,

That nigh he breathless grew, yet nought dismaid,

Ne ever to the yielded foot of ground

All had he lost much bloud through many a wound

But stoutly dealt his blowes, and every way

To which he turned in his wrathfull stound,

Made them recoile, and fly from dred decay,

That none of all sixe before, him durst assay.”

The second passage, an excerpt from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, is wrought in a style so eloquent, so timeless, that it defies replication. It is a relic of a beautiful, long-forgotten way of speaking that has all but disappeared, erased by centuries of linguistic upheavals and sullied by the informality of modern slang.

But there’s one little problem: what, exactly, is Spenser trying to say???

There’s no doubt about it: in terms of sheer readability, the first passage wins hands-down. However beautiful Spenser’s prose may be, it’s not exactly ideal for your typical lounge-on-the-beach or curl-up-by-the-fireplace sort of book. Reading the The Faerie Queene is no light endeavor. I’m not just referring to the fact that the poem is of mammoth proportions, as large and as cumbersome as a high school science textbook. Rather, the biggest challenge reading Spenser lies in achieving basic comprehension. Slowly, painstakingly, the reader is forced to trudge through line after line of archaic Old English, struggling to uncover meaning somewhere within that jumbled heap of peculiarly-spelled words and outdated vocabulary (um, since when does “yode” mean “went”?). Even with a handy vocabulary bank, I still often find it necessary to stop and re-read (and even re-re-read) certain stanzas just to figure out what the heck is going on.

In this sense, The Faerie Queene, although undeniably eloquent, doesn’t exactly engage or immerse the reader as much as, say, Harry Potter would. In my opinion, reading Spenser feels more like piecing together a puzzle or solving a math problem than anything else; I spend too much time fumbling over the language to become fully engrossed in the storyline. But this could be because I am a decidedly right-brained individual who cowers at the idea of basic math computation. Discerning codes and patterns was always my demise on the Math portion of the SAT. Sudoku? No thank you.

On the other hand, someone like an ITS programmer—someone who is science-oriented and familiar with the complex language of computer processing—might gladly accept the challenge of decoding the bewildering, quirky language of The Faerie Queene. Aided with a math and science background, such a person would be more adept at picking up on the subtle nuances and patterns of Old English than a math wimp like me. Surely, if you are able to read binary code, decoding Spenser will be a breeze.

So, Professor Hall, perhaps you could be persuaded to take pity on a math-and-puzzle-challenged soul and make another one your impressive educational YouTube videos, this time entitled “Spenser for Dummies.”

-Anna Dickens

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