I get the daily teaser from the Chronicle of Higher Ed in my morning e-mail, and as I was reading it, I noticed a series of articles in which Allan Metcalf argues that we revise how we read and teach Spenser’s masterwork, The Faerie Queene, in an effort to make it more accessible. He suggests that we modernize the spelling (as we do for Shakespeare, after all), as the archaism makes for a more difficult read. I find this interesting, but problematic, as Spenser was deliberately using/inventing archaic spelling (“Ye Oldie Tymie Bogusity”) as a tribute to/inheritance from Chaucer. (An early example of what we now call medievalism.)
In today’s piece, Metcalf further suggests that we (as teachers) try to de-emphasize Spenser’s allegory in the work. Understanding/interpreting/explaining the allegory, he proposes, distracts the reader from the beauty of the poetry and the imaginative work of art:
What an irresistible red herring, the opportunity for scholars to express and argue about the author’s “particular purposes or by-accidents.” What study questions for students!
Thus readers of The Fairy Queen are drawn to puzzle out the allegory. That’s a shame, because the allegory is complicated and distracts from the story. It’s great if you’re interested in Elizabethan politics and religion. But nowadays most of us aren’t.
What makes The Fairy Queen great poetry is not the allegorical meanings the characters have, or the complicated plot, but the genuineness of the characters themselves and their feelings.
Even so. But…
Spenser himself wanted to do more than simply create something beautiful — he was swinging for the fences, and for fences beyond those. As it happens, I started teaching Book 1 of FQ yesterday. I spent some time pointing out the monstrous task Spenser set for himself — to write what amounted to a super-epic (made up of smaller epics) that was also a guide to virtue/courtesy book and that was also also … yes, an allegory. In short, he was trying to accomplish something almost inconceivably vast — and doing it in Spenserian stanzas. While I agree with Metcalf that
If you’re not burdened by being required to memorize the allegory and the plot, you can enjoy Spenser’s “fierce wars and faithful loves,” as he announces the matter in his opening stanza.
I think that’s a bit of a straw man. I don’t want my students to memorize the allegory or every incident in the plot, but poetry is making language jump through a set of hoops selected by the poet. In Spenser’s case, allegory was a very important hoop, and integral to the astonishing trick he declared he was attempting to perform. To hand-wave past that is to ignore a criterion by which Spenser wanted to be judged (He was trying to become THE GREAT ENGLISH POET, after all). Ambition on Spenser’s scale deserves at least some attention, I think.