So….you’re about to read The Faerie Queene. You’ve got your book (or more likely Kindle) ready to go, and then you look at the file size, the terrible, terrible spelling, and the tiny print, and you shut that book, and decide to ask SparkNotes instead. Well, Professor Clayton knows about SparkNotes, and the stuff you get there won’t be on the test. That being said, here’s a better guide to getting you through the longest poem ever written in the English language.
- Reading the Farie Queene is an interesting experience, for one. The language is not quite Shakespeare, not quite Chaucer, and to say that it is not quite spell checked would be an understatement. However, there is a meter to the words, and once you get the hang of it, the road to understanding what Spenser is trying to tell you is only marginally bumpy. Reading aloud works; it slows you down so you have time to understand one line before reading the next. The footnotes and word replacements help too, even if they mess up your reading rhythm.
- Now that you can read the words, it’s time to figure out what you’re reading, and trust me, it’s about as far away from C++ as you can get. The Faerie Queene is, on the surface, a poem and a story, but a heavily allegorical one that uses characters, places, and events (sometimes not so subtly, either) to impart messages. Spenser’s messages are mostly concerned with the nature and different facets of virtue, along with praising Elizabeth I far too much for her own good. He’ll often link events in his stories back to classical mythology, but doesn’t always make the connection obvious. For example, the impregnation of Chrysogene, mother of Belphoebe and Amoret, takes place via a ray of sunshine, which connects her to both the Virgin Mary and Danae, a figure from Greek mythology who experienced the same thing. Or, take this allegorical chain of symbols for Elizabeth: Belpheobe’s name comes from Diana, the chaste warrior maiden, who is goddess of the moon, another name for which is Cynthia, which is a name Sir Walter Raleigh sometimes used for Elizabeth–so really, Belphoebe = Elizabeth I! Does this seem convoluted to you? Well, too bad. Spenser’s audience, the Renaissance-educated nobility of England, expected stuff like this in everything they read: deeper meanings, double, triple and quadruple connections, and thin or complex metaphors were searched for in nearly every word an author wrote. Spenser did not disappoint on this expectation, and as a result there are still books and dissertations and whatnot being published on him today.
- Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Go on, open up SparkNotes. It’s ok, I won’t tell Professor Clayton. Now, read the canto summary. Doesn’t that feel just great? You’re reading modern, spellchecked English words written by someone who is still alive. AND you know what’s going on in the canto, which means it’s time to close that lovely Mozilla window and return to the Kindle. Getting a summary before you do the reading can be useful; when a new character appears out of the blue or something new happens, you’re not totally thrown by trying to process all of the story events, allegories, and language at the same time. Since you are pre-informed, you can focus on the language itself and the more nuanced bits in the plotline. Just be sure to keep an eye peeled! There’s way more to the poem than can be covered by a single page summary, even if it is on SparkNotes.
- Lastly, enjoy yourself. If you sit there and make the reading a drudgery, it will be one. Instead, picture the forest, or Britomart saving the Redcrosse Knight, like a movie, or even think about how awesome different scenes might look when remediated to the Faerie Queene Online game. If you can engage yourself and take an interest in what’s happening, then you don’t need any other advice.