Spenser’s Merits As a Master of Description and Narration

A reader is generally preoccupied with the normal purpose or allegory of The Faerie Queene, and often forgets that he is pre-eminently a story-teller. The critic of Spenser is after all responsible for this attitude. A critic will exhaust his powers in discussing and analysing the allegory of the poem. Spenser might have declared that it was his purpose to moralize his song, but a proportionate attention should have been paid, as has often been not paid by critics and readers, to other elements of his poetry. Why Spenser should have been directed to the use of the allegorical method is a question that cannot be settled to our satisfaction. Perhaps it is temperamental with him. In his Shepherd’s Calendar or Mother Hubbard’s Tale or Runes of Times, or Tears of the Mures there is always an underlying meaning. The inner meaning a reader need not neglect, but it is the story that attracts him first-and Spenser, whatever may be his preoccupation, knows the art of story-telling Pope was first interested in Spenser as a poet by his gift of story-telling and experienced the same thrill in reading his poetry in his old age as in his boyhood Cowley confesses that Spenser made him a poet, and was first attracted to him by his stories “I believe I can tell the particular little chance that filled my head first with such chimes of verse as have never since left ringing there; for I remember, when I began to read and take some pleasure in it there was wont to lie in my mother’s parlour (1 know not by what accident, for she herself never in her life read any book but of devotion, but there was wont to lie Spenser’s works: this I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of knights and giants, and monsters, and brave horses, which I found every where there (though my understanding had little to do with all this): and by degrees with the thinking of the rhyme and dance of the numbers, so that I had read him all before- I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet. Cowley was captivated by the story and poetry of The Faerie Queene, and not by its allegory of moral purpose.

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Let a reader bring an open mind to bear upon The Faerie Queene, he will be mainly taken up with the story, and his interest does not flag as he goes on. He will rather be disconcerted if he is told that Spenser means something else than the story. Hazlitt suggests the right mood – and the mood that is natural to a reader when taking up The Faerie Queene- in which the poem should be read. He tells us not to mind the allegory; the allegory won’t bite us nor meddle with us if we do not meddle with it. The best thing is to leave the allegory alone, and read the story as it unfolds itself before our imagination.

Let us see how it actually works. The first Canto of the poem opens with: “A gentle Knight was pricking on the plain,” and then follows a detailed description of his armour. His horse and his mood, and we are told why he is outriding. And there is a lady in his company, and she is descended too in as much detail as the knight. They are followed by a dwarf. Then the sky. Is suddenly overcast with clouds, and they have to seek shelter when a shower of rain comes. They enter a grove, and here the poet gives a minute description of the trees and of their particular virtues, and of the uses to which they are put. It seems to be a little digression after all. The poet might have spared all the details here. But he cannot resist describing men and things. And all their equipment and physical and mental qualities; he cannot help describing scenes and landscapes in all their details, and even fantastic creatures-dragons and monsters. We must necessarily think that he is pre-eminently a descriptive and narrative poet who has in addition melody of verse, imagination and vision – and that is why he is esteemed at the most poetical of poets.

To go on with the story, when the storm and rains are over, the knight and his lady wander about until they stumble upon a cave. It is the Error’s den. Though warned by the lady and the dwarf, the knight, with his love of adventure, enters the cave. Here we may note the description of the monster, Error, half-woman and half-serpent, with a huge tail full of knots, and armed with a mortal sting. There is a fight between the knight and the monster, and it is described in all details. The monster spewed out of her filthy maw a flood of poison and lumps of flesh, and the knight seemed to be choked with the stench. She finally ejected from her stomach a multitude of small serpents, deformed creatures. Foul and black as ink, which crawled about. Here is a description of things, loathsome and hideous. Spenser can describe things, pretty and lovely, as well as things that fill us with loathing and shudder, with equal art. However, the knight finally overcomes the monster. The elaborate description which Spenser cannot, by his flair for it. Avoid, often holds up the story, but we are no less interested in his descriptive sketches than in his story. The knight has just adventure, and he is going to have another when he meets on the way an aged sire, clad in long black weeds. The interest of the story that Spenser tells us is the series of adventures with varied fortunes that the knight encounters. And the story, as it is, keeps the reader’s attention engaged, however it may be interrupted by digressions, even of an elaborate character. It is a tribute to Spenser’s marvellous descriptive and narrative power.

Now, as to the suitability of the Spenserian stanza for narrative purposes: it may be stated that the ottava rima, out of which it was evolved, was used in Italy for narrative poetry by Tasso. Ariosto and others. It was a stanza of eight lines, to which Spenser added an alexandrine. Spenser altered completely its character by adding a line. The lingering, long drawn-out music, achieved by the alternation of the rhythm and caesura, is the distinctive character of the Spenserian stanza. Spenser alters the rhyme-scheme too. The eight lines of ottava rima rhyme a, b, a, b. a, b. c. c.: the rhyme-scheme of the Spenserian stanza in a. b. a, b, b. c. b, c, c: the last line being an alexandrine consisting of six feet. With its long drawn out music, with its varying rhythm and pauses, it readily adapts itself to the demands of narrative, descriptive and reflective poetry. The best effect of it is that it produces little sense of monotony. Other poets such as. Thomson, Beattie. Burns, Byron, Shelley have used the Spenserian stanza, all to good purposes.



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