Anyone want to read poetry? How about The Faerie Queene?

Sometime last year I wrote in this blog that I wanted to read more poetry. I have also had in the back of my mind a latent determination to learn more about Britomart, since Diana Wynne Jones mentions this female warrior in an essay, I believe, on writing Fire and Hemlock and on creating a female hero. The short-term result was placing Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an extended and extraordinary allegory written in Elizabethan times depicting embodied aspects of Christian belief with Greek and Roman mythology and the chivalric-Romantic ideals, composed in nine-line stanzas, on my reading list this past autumn. (*Pause for breath.*)

As December is free-for-all month, I was wondering… anybody want to do a read-along?

The Faerie Queene

More seriously, I find that since I’m not studying poetry in school anymore, I tend to read it much less often. I forget the form entirely for long periods of time, then “rediscover” poetry, and wonder why I ever stopped reading it. Poetry has beauty in its bones, in its very economy, in what it doesn’t say as much as in what it says. Reading poetry is like breathing deeply and finding clean pine-needle-sharp air when I had grown used to car exhaust; relearning how vast my lung capacity is and unlearning to live on the shallow minimum survival requires. Reading poetry wakens my soul from inert slumber.

In short, I want to make poetry an integral part of how I live.

To this end I began reading The Faerie Queene a few months ago. Rather to my surprise, I found I liked it immensely – so much that I wanted to share it with you and see if anyone else wanted to read with me, too. Starting today and continuing throughout December and probably into the new year I’ll chronicle my adventures in the realm of The Faerie Queene – reactions, thoughts, analyses, and just the plain fun of reading verse. Sometimes this will mean a paean to the breathtaking beauty of the spoken word, i.e. mostly quoted passages with a few sentences of my own written in awe and wonder. I hope you’ll pardon my conceit in talking so much about myself. This will be a bit more of a personal response than a researched academic series; I’ve never formally studied Spenser or his masterpiece, so take my words with a grain of salt. But I’d like to create something of a poetry corner, where we can talk about poetry both academically and as readers-just-for-the-joy-of-it. Whether a given poem is intended for a child audience or not.

Here’s to living with poetry – and to The Faerie Queene.



  • I studied ‘The Faerie Queen’ at university and I really loved it. I feel ashamed to say that I have forgotten almost everything apart from some main themes and characters, and would love to read it with you (I still have my university copy, which is the Penguins Classics version too lol) HOWEVER I’m off for a ten-day holiday as of the day after tomorrow, and I already have too many books in my luggage as it is. I will try and access wordpress during this time for sure, and peep in at your blog too ;p

    Thanks for sharing :0)

    • Janet

      I’m sure I’ll still be reading come January and the early months of 2015, so I’d love to hear your thoughts whenever you are able to jump in. You’ll be able to tell me if my understanding veers off base 🙂
      I hope you have a lovely holiday!

      • Will definitely do that 🙂 Thanks. Probably will be posting on a couple of pics at some point.

  • One of the prizes of my book collection is a nearly 100 year old 1st edition collection of the complete Spenser. Is the text you’re reading an updated/cleaned up version with semi-modernized English?

    One of the things that was interesting was that Spenser chose to write in using a form of faux archaic english which added lots of strange affectations and appended “y”s that had not existed in the english of the day or even the middle english style he was emulating to force his rhyming schemes.

    It’s a shame that he never finished it.

    • Janet

      What? Never finished! (Pardon my gasps and swoons.) Well, this is disappointing. Or maybe he didn’t finish in the way Chaucer didn’t finish The Canterbury Tales – he didn’t write all the tales he said he would, but there *is* a complete text? (I really am diving in completely ignorant – please enlighten me!)
      Interesting about the archaic language – the Edwardian poets later did pretty much the same thing. The funny thing is that although Spenser’s spelling/English looks similar to Chaucer’s (the use of “y”s, for one), I find The Faerie Queene slightly easier to understand than Shakespeare’s plays, and the two were contemporaries.

      • Well, the original concept as I understand it was the first group of cantos were to establish the tales of various Arthurian knights and their adventures as a prologue and were to be unified by a narrative of Arthur in the service of the Queen, but he died before he got around to it.

        Canterbury Tales is more likely “unfinished” in the sense that Chaucer never really finished editing it into a satisfactory state, but what we have and the state we have it in more or less accomplishes what he set out to do. The Faerie Queen remains in a more fragmentary state; what we have is Epic whose intended main protagonist (Arthur) fails to materialize and instead ends up being a collection of stories with a unified theme.

        • Janet

          Oh, wow. Thanks for the background history! I’m actually in Book 1 Canto 8 right now, so I’ve just met Arthur… but he isn’t by any means the main character.
          Endless potential for fan fiction, methinks?

          • Well, that’s one of the points of Arthurian legends. Every European culture had the opportunity to insert one of their own as one of Arthur’s knights and write stories about Arthur’s court from their own perspective.

            And yeah, Arthur shows up every now and then, because it was supposed to foreshadow his own big arc that was supposed to take up the second half of the poem. Going by his own letters on the plan for the Faerie Queen, Spenser only finished a little over 1/4 of the planned work.

    • Janet

      I’m using the Penguin Classics version, as pictured. The introductory Note On The Text states that they editors decided to follow the reprints of the 1569 text, “with the additions from 1590 and 1609… We have chosen to follow these texts as closely as possible in spelling and punctuation. We have retained u, v, and i where modern orthography would print v, u, and j respectively, but we have substituted the modern s for the old f or italic S, W for VV [not true: they missed one], and have expanded all contractions of n or m represented by a tilde above the preceding vowel.”
      Not quite as old and untouched as yours (wow! nice find!) but they mostly did leave the language alone.
      What is in your edition, besides The Faerie Queene?

      • I’d have to look it up, but it’s a “complete works” and the Faerie Queen only takes up about half of it. Shepherd’s Calendar and the Complaints are the one I remember off the top of my head.

        Honestly, I found that I enjoyed Spenser most when I was going through my own phase of writing nebulous allegorical poetry with a heavily archaic bent. I still like him in bits and pieces, but find Shakespeare more digestible.

  • You’re making me want to revisit this, although I’d have to seriously think about committing to a read-along. I read the first book of The Faerie Queene in my freshman year of college for Intro to British Lit, and liked it enough that I bought a copy, but I never really made much headway. Like you, I enjoy reading poetry, but I don’t read a lot outside of courses (for me, it’s simple laziness, unfortunately).

    • Janet

      No worries if you’re short of time. How much of any given canto I read in a week varies, so don’t feel you have to commit. I find that the more I read, the more I want to read – maybe you’ll find the same is true of you.