This remarkable poem, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, was Spenser's finest achievement. The first epic poem in modern English, The Faerie Queene combines dramatic narratives of chivalrous adventure with exquisite and picturesque episodes of pageantry. At the same time, Spenser is expounding a deeply felt allegory of the eternal struggle between Truth and Error....
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Epic Fantasy from Shakespeare's Time
In most Arthurian romances, the noblest monarch in the world is King Arthur, and the greatest knight is Lancelot, who tragically falls in love with Arthur's queen. In the romances surrounding Amadis of Gaul, on the other hand, the noblest monarch is King Lisuarte, and the greatest knight is Amadis, who has the good fortune to fall in love not with Lisuarte's queen, but with his unmarried daughter, the Princess Oriana. Spenser takes this trend a bold step further: in his vast poetic fantasy, the noblest monarch is the Queen of Faerie, and the greatest knight is the young Prince Arthur, not yet a king in his own right, who falls in love with that same unmarried Queen, the tantalizing Gloriana. In fact, it is Gloriana who takes the initiative by making herself known to Arthur and declaring her love for him, but then vanishes, leaving him to seek her out in a world of pathless forests.
In "The Faerie Queene," then, Spenser is creating an epic-scale, alternate-history prequel to the Arthurian romances we already know: nearly a quarter of a million words of loosely intertwined adventures featuring (for the most part) an altogether new cast of amorous knights and ladies, new champions who must quest for true love and virtue while combating miscreants, monsters, wizards, and witches in a land drenched with symbolism and enchantment. (The fact that everything is symbolic is part of the enchantment.) In all this, he aims to do for England and Britain what Homer and Virgil and Ovid had done for Greece and Rome: his poem aspires to be a great epic in its own right, and if its characters are not quite as apt to recall Odysseus or Aeneas as Lancelot or Gawain, they are at least no more likely to encounter a guardian angel than an Olympian goddess.
In such unabashed intermingling of ordinarily disparate fantasy realms and genres, "The Faerie Queene" was a major influence on C. S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia; and, long before that, its trailblazing splendor of ancient, medieval, and modern learning, penetrating moral insight, vividly sensuous imagination, unexampled metrical fluency, and rapturous prosodic mastery had served as both incitement and inspiration to nearly every other poet of the English Renaissance, including Shakespeare, and to many others in the centuries that followed.
The challenge posed to any would-be narrator by both the nature and the stature of such a work is formidable, but luckily the supremely accomplished David Timson was willing to take up the gauntlet. True, Timson is not able to inhabit the author and his characters as fully as in his readings of Sherlock Holmes stories or Dickens novels. There is simply not much spoken dialogue in "The Faerie Queene" for a gifted character actor to latch onto, and not much that lends itself to a novelistic approach to oral narration. Spenser's is an older manner of romance: remote, exotic, stylized. A brisk willingness to wax rhapsodic even at the risk of sounding hokey may be the best way to engage such high-flown material; Timson has done that brilliantly in the Naxos "Poems of the Orient" collection, and so of course proves more than capable of warming up to what Spenser is doing here as well. His performance never falls short of eloquence, and, when the wheels of his spoken narration mesh fully with the thematic and emotive gears and springs driving Spenser's narrative from within, they achieve a remarkable forward impetus. At such moments, Timson fully captures the gripping incantatory pulse of Spenser's lines and stanzas as they weave their stirring, brooding, or exhilarating spell of power.
At other times, unfortunately, he seems to treat "The Faerie Queene" as if it were no more than a juvenile fantasy novel. But don't get me wrong: even in non-epic modes, Timson manages some astonishing feats. In fact, given that Spenser is a pre-Enlightenment poet and romancer rather than a pioneering novelist, it is amazing how much novelistic immediacy Timson is able to wring for us from his ringing cantos. When the poet tells us how the haughty Queen Lucifera lords it over her subjects and distinguished visitors, we now, thanks to Timson's performance, hear this as the projected narration she is listening to in her own head, as if she were imagining a newscaster's voiceover proclaiming her magnificence. And Timson is not freelancing here, not going rogue; he is foregrounding something that we can now see was always there. Forget what I said before: the supposedly remote, exotic, stylized Spenser, like one of the great classic novelists who follow him, is letting what seemed to be impersonal omniscient narration shade into direct, intimate, vivid expression of a character's mind.
Still, novelistic and dramatic methods are generally not the most salient means by which Spenser seeks to galvanize our insight and enjoyment, and in singling out the merits of this recording it would be wrong to overemphasize them. For one thing, Timson's repertoire of vocal characterizations, so expertly deployed to render the denizens of Doyle's or Dickens' London, often seems less suited to the knights and ladies of Spenser's Faerie Land, with the result that what is by rights an epoch-making masterpiece occasionally seems no more than an idiosyncratic minor classic. That's too bad; but Timson's exuberantly vigorous narration, strictly as such, is for the most part so dazzling as to make the unabridged Naxos "Faerie Queene" beyond question a five-star listening experience. For the most part, Timson, like Spenser, is simply amazing.
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I wasn't familiar with this famous writing, so thought I'd give it a try.
The language is nimble and colorful, and very well performed.
The story is convoluted and very, very long.
It's the sort of thing to read aloud by the fire in the evenings -- in short bursts over quite some calendar time. Not the thing to try from beginning to end before you go on to your next book!
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A Fabulous Grab-Bag
I first read Faerie Queene nearly fourteen years ago and found it a poisonous, thousand-page anti-Catholic diatribe. An elaborate, servile paean to a queen I’ve never been able to admire as fulsomely as most other people do. A multi-canto ode to a state-sponsored church that helped make a temporary split in Christendom tragically permanent. And an early expression of what would become England’s sense of herself as set apart—for good and ill.
But I didn’t care then. And I still don’t now. I love it. But why? Beyond saying “I enjoy it, I revel in the language, I flip for the technical dexterity—and I believe that, for all his greatness as a dramatic poet, Shakespeare should edge over and give some room in the Pantheon for Spenser as our language’s greatest narrative poet—what can I say? For that answer I turned to a brain keener than my own:
“The rigorous consistency of philosophy or doctrine we find in Dante, or even Milton, is simply not part of Spenser’s equipment or his genius. His Faerie Queene will not yield to consistent historical, or moral, or mythological, or ethical interpretation. Of course it will yield to all of these approaches much of the time, but not to any one of them all of the time. Perhaps it is a tribute to The Faerie Queene, and an indication of where its appeal lies, that so many contradictory or even hostile approaches, can be accommodated—even absorbed—by the poem. If so, it is a tribute to the poem’s scope, its breadth of vision, and inclusiveness of spirit. The existence of so many “sources” and “influences” and differing interpretations is simply proof of what we should, and in fact do, realize all along: this is a typical poem of the Renaissance which mingles the classical and Christian, the historical and mythical. It is eclectic, synthetic, and finally, as various and varied as life itself. It was written by a poet…whose imagination happily transcended his immediate reading…I do not claim Spenser used none of the sources or ideas scholars have provided…but the prevailing tendency to read Spenser only in the light of intellectual history tends to take us far, far away from the poetry—often never to return.”
Thus A. Bartlett Giamatti (yes, that Bart Giamatti) at Princeton in 1967. And a good indication of why I’m finding it so hard to say anything coherent about this work; there’s simply too much here—physically and conceptually—for a layman to react to in a competent manner. Like others Giamatti mentions, I make the mistake of trying to pin the poet down, “…to know [for example] whether Spenser’s religious affiliations were Calvinist, Puritan, Anglican…or indeed pantheist, mystical or Catholic.” And the pinning process is made even harder by the fact that Spenser never finished The Faerie Queene. What we have is but a mere quarter of his original conception. In the end, all I can really say is that I enjoy the book (and this recording) immensely.
At the University of Michigan in the early 1980’s, my professors dismissed Spenser as derivative, imitative, not “original”; a look backwards in language and subject rather than forward like Shakespeare, a poet whose works live on in summer festivals, freshman survey courses and popular films, and who seems to have coined most of the idiomatic expressions we use every day.
Fair enough, I guess. But even after a cursory reading of the First Book (the only part of the poem assigned to us young skulls full of mush) I dimly sensed Spenser’s breadth of mind and mastery of narrative. As Giamatti suggests, at the gut level there is the poetry—poetry one does not want to get too far away from. Spenser’s technical skill is stunning. How so many characters, themes, narrative tones and storylines could be accommodated in the demanding, elaborate pattern of the Spenserian stanza mystifies me. How that longer, six-stress line at the end always provides a natural crescendo to each stanza without stopping the flow of the overall story baffles me.
But before I say something utterly foolish, lets get on to what I can judge pretty well: the performance and the recording. Except for an ever-so-slightly hollow room tone that’s somewhat annoying but soon forgotten, this recording is spectacular. What makes you forget is the sweep of the story and the perfection of the reading. You really can’t “modernize” Spenser’s language. The “-ed” endings have to be sounded as stresses for the metrical pattern to be fulfilled; “hight” can’t be changed to “called”, or “yode” to “rode” or you begin to lose the flavor of the poetry; you can’t change “ydrad” to “dreaded” or the scansion and rhyme scheme go all to pieces. David Timson does it all, finding his way through the most complex stanzas without losing track of the ideas and imagery being expressed or the storyline those ideas and images serve.
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Sheer Fun and Pure Poetry in a Faerie Fantasy Epic
For decades I avoided Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-96), fearing that it would be a lengthy poem-allegory-sermon attacking Catholicism and paganism and promoting Protestant Christian doctrine, a proto Pilgrim's Progress (1678) in verse. How happily wrong I was when I finally tried it!
Its six books (and incomplete seventh) depict the moral adventures of various knights (Elfin, British, Saracen, chivalrous, discourteous, errant, retired, etc.) in Faerie, an infinite fantasy land teeming with damsels in distress and squires in bondage, love-sick Amazons and free-agent huntresses, wild vegetarians and savage cannibals, newsy dwarves and lustful giants, scheming magicians and vengeful witches, rapacious tyrants and merciful queens, rakehell rabblements and Lincoln green teens, randy satyrs and brigand slavers, iron men and simulacra women, ravaging dragons and Blatant Beasts, Roman and Egyptian gods and goddesses, personifications of Greed, Slander, Lust, Guile, Envy, Detraction, and more. Equipped with magic rings, mirrors, spears, swords, and shields, the knights undertake quests and engage in gory fighting, tender loving, identity mistaking, cross dressing, prisoner liberating, justice meting, marriage celebrating, and more in a variety of settings: lewd castles, bespelled dungeons, pagan temples, inhospitable huts, hellish dens, enchanted groves, submarine caves, and violated monasteries.
Apart from timeouts for things like the histories of Britain and Faerie, Spenser's work is non-stop entertaining action: the Redcrosse Knight debating Despair or fighting a vast dragon; Britomart spurning a smitten lady in a castle of pleasure or smiting every man in a tourney; Artegall whacking off Britomart's helm and then making a religion of his wonder; Guyon getting tempted by Mammon; Venus and Diana bickering about Cupid; knights fighting over the false Florimell; Scudamour spending a night in Care's blacksmithy; Braggadocio getting in over his head; Artegall taking up the distaff; Calidore going pastoral; a band of cannibal brigands hungering for Serene's nude body; and much more.
Spenser is suspiciously good at evoking sins like greed, lust, and despair. True, in the nick of time he'll recall his Christian moral compass and punish an unknightly knight or save a virtuous virgin. But he usually only moralizes briefly at the start of each Book, after which he pricks on his steed of poesy to adventure through Faerie. And after the first Book about Holiness featuring Una and the Redcrosse Knight, pagan gods and beings and temples far outnumber Christian representatives. In this Spenser's allegory sure differs from Pilgrim's Progress, which, although also full of exciting fantastic events, strictly adheres to Protestant Christian doctrine. Whereas John Bunyan writes mostly about love of Christ, God, and church, Spenser focuses on other kinds of love, "Love, that is the crown of knighthood," romantic, comradely, familial, chivalrous, spiritual, physical--and also its opposite, hate.
As Spenser explained to Sir Walter Raleigh in a letter, he wrote The Faerie Queene "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline" by entertaining his reader with "an historicall fiction" full of a "variety of matter." Thus he imagined King Arthur as a prince possessed of all the moral virtues and then imagined other knights representing specific virtues (Holiness, Temperament, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy) and their opposites, and then set them all adventuring in Faerie.
In addition to Spenser's fertile imagination of Faerie and developments comedic or sublime, acts bestial or divine, moods sensual or spiritual, and descriptions foul or beautiful, the pleasure of his epic lies in his poesy, so rich in rhyme, consonance, simile, and diction--despite or because of his restricting himself to his nine-line stanza end rhyming ABABBCBCC. I often found myself chuckling, whether from the outré events in the poem or from its exuberant language and rhymes.
After Book I, as I became familiar with Spenser's grammar and idiom, it was surprisingly easy to understand his poetry. He has been taken to task for overusing artificially archaic words, but most of the archaisms are close to our modern forms (e.g., gan/began, eftsoons/soon, brent/burnt) or are easy to figure out from context (e.g., prick/spur, eke/also, dight/clothe, wight/person, weet/know, and--my favorite--shent/ruined). Spenser describes a bloody battle ("That vnderneath his feet soone made a purple plesh"), for instance, so we can enjoy the exotic "plesh" while using the context and the familiar word splash to figure out its likely meaning.
Any stanza in the poem is worth savoring, but here's a fine one about the eyes of a dragon:
His blazing eyes, like two bright shining shields,
Did burne with wrath, and sparkled liuing fyre;
As two broad Beacons, set in open fields,
Send forth their flames farre off to euery shyre,
And warning giue, that enemies conspyre,
With fire and sword the region to inuade;
So flam'd his eyne with rage and rancorous yre:
But farre within, as in a hollow glade,
Those glaring lampes were set, that made a dreadfull shade.
Spenser's spelling often differs from modern (e.g., u and v switch places, and i stands in for j) and may be inconsistent (e.g., gyant/geante/geaunt), but if you listen to the audiobook the spelling is no problem.
About the Naxos audiobook, David Timson's reading makes The Faerie Queene easy to understand and enjoy, because he plays characters and emphasizes phrases and words in just the right ways so as to highlight or clarify meaning. He clearly relishes Spenser's poetry, so we do too.
Fans of poetry, fantasy, Faerie, chivalry, classical mythology, and so on, should enjoy Spenser's magnum opus. I've never felt such pleasure and had such fun with any long poem as his. I only regret that he died before he could complete Books VII-XII.
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