Tag Archives: britomart

Edmund Spenser and his stanza.

It has been some years since I last wrote about Spenser but I’m now re-reading the brilliant Faerie Queene and want to pay some attention to the Spenserian stanza which is a Thing of Wonder and Delight. For those not familiar with the work, the FQ is very long indeed and divided into 6 books, each dealing with a virtue. The books consist of 12 cantos which usually contain more than 40 9-line stanzas apiece.

As an aside, I owe a personal debt to this work, for about ten years from 35 to my mid forties I went through my first period of disenchantment with poetry, feeling that it was all a bit trivial and took itself far too seriously. Up until then, I’d only paid attention to work produced after 1921 and was surprised to find myself being into something Very Big from the end of the 16th century. What surprised and pleased me most was that the Spenserian stanza made poetry fun, in short I was hooked.

As the name implies, this particular stanza is of Spenser’s own devising and, in his hands, is remarkably effective in addin additional dimensions to his tales. As examples, I want to use this dialogue from Book 111 and then a fight scene between Arthur and Cymochles from Book 11. This is a conversation between Britomart (the personification and her nurse;

The Damsell pauzed, and then thus fearfully
      Ah Nurse, what needeth thee to eke my paine?
      Is not enough, that I alone doe dye, 
      But it must doubled bee with death of twaine?
      For nought for me, but death there doth remaine.
      O daughter deare (said she) despeire no whit,
      For never sore, but might a salve obtaine;
      That blinded God, that hath thee blindly smit,
Another arrow hath your lovers hart to hit.

But mine is not (quoth she) like others wound;
       For which no reason can find remedy.
      Was neuer such, but mote the like be found,
       (Said she) and though no reason may apply
      Salue to your sore, yet loue can higher stye,
     Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne.
     But neither God of loue, nor God of sky
     Can doe (said she) that, which cannot be donne.
Things oft impossible (quoth she) seeme, ere begonne.

Book three is ‘about’ Britomart and her quest to find Artegall, the object of her love. The above takes place after our heroine has fallen in love but before she and her nurse have set off on their mission. In order to appreciate the full effect, it’s really important to read this out loud and feel the strength of the rhymes and the pulse of each stanza. The content here is both sophisticated and refreshingly human, the second stanza sets out respective positions on love and how to respond to it but this is done in away that carries the attentive reader forward. This reader is struck by “Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne” which is very accomplished indeed, expressing something complex in a deceptively straightforward way.

One of the marks of a great poet is the ability to make the very difficult appear easy. Many poets over the last 420 years have tried to imitate this form but very, very few have come close to make the device ‘work’ as it should. Claims have been made for Shelley’s Adonais and Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes but neither of these equal the sustained quality of Spenser’s content.

The second example is one which demonstrates how the stanzas run/flow into each other, especially when reporting action scenes. Here, Prince Arthur is fighting Cymochles and Pyrrhochles;

For when Cymochles saw the fowle reproch,
  Which them appeached, prickt with guilty shame,
  And inward griefe, he fiercely gan approch,
  Resolu'd to put away that loathly blame,
  Or dye with honour and desert of fame;
  And on the haubergh stroke the Prince so sore,
  That quite disparted all the linked frame,
  And pierced to the skin, but bit no more,
Yet made him twise to reele, that neuer moou'd afore.

Whereat renfierst with wrath and sharpe regret,
  He stroke so hugely with his borrowd blade,
  That it empierst the Pagans burganet,
  And cleauing the hard steele, did deepe inuade
  Into his head, and cruell passage made
  Quite through his braine. He tombling downe on ground,
  Breathd out his ghost, which to th'infernall shade
  Fast flying, there eternall torment found,
For all the sinnes, wherewith his lewd life did abound.

Which when his german saw, the stony feare
  Ran to his hart, and all his sence dismayd,
  Ne thenceforth life ne courage did appeare,
  But as a man, whom hellish feends haue frayd,
  Long trembling still he stood: at last thus sayd;
  Traytour what hast thou doen? how euer may
  Thy cursed hand so cruelly haue swayd
  Against that knight: Harrow and well away,
After so wicked deed why liu'st thou lenger day?

Book II’s protagonist is Guyon and his quest is for temperance. Arthur (magnificence) comes to his aid in the struggle with these two brothers who represent the inability to exercise different aspects of self control. What attracts me to the above is the way in which Cymochles ‘guiltie shame’ goads him into attacking Arthur, particularly the reference to ‘inward griefe’. This shows a much more sophisticated and considered approach than we would expect from a ‘standard’ fight between good and bad.

Spenser’s fights contain a fair amount of gore and the ‘cruelle passage’ here is fairly typical. The end of this stanza again expresses the consequences of a sinful life in an elegant and precise way. The third stanza moves us rapidly to Pyrrhocles’ anger at his brother’s death. The pace of the action from fight to death to reaction is remarkably swift, especially when the various asides and sub-texts are taken into account. This rhythmic movement through the stanzas also gives a sense of emotional intensity and drama.

The other less noticed aspect of the Spesnerian stanza is that it creates something that is quite profoundly visual, almost filmic which enables the reader to feel more like an active onlooker rather than a passive consumer of text.

The final point I’d like to make is that it is Spenser’s exuberance that carries things forward with such sustained panache for over 3800 stanzas. It is clear that the poet knows that his stanza is successful as a form and takes delight in showing off what it can do. This sense of energetic pleasure is communicated to the reader who thus becomes another smiling enthusiast.

Incidentally, ‘haubergh’ is the Spenserian spelling of ‘hauberk’ or chain mail coat/jacket whilst a ‘burganet’ is a type of helmet.

I hope I’ve demonstrated at least some of the value of The Faerie Queene and encouraged one or two of you to pay it some attention.


The Faerie Queen Book V

Book V of Spenser’s great poem is gloriously complex and currently in severe danger of being over simplified by a whole range of critics. The main reason for this is that most of Book V is ‘about’ Ireland and in parts can be read as a thinly veiled argument for a much more brutal attack on the Irish people. This has been the cause (post Said) of much liberal hand wringing in the past two decades none of which seems to have taken too much notice of what Said actually wrote.
The problem is further compounded by Spenser’s ‘View’ which proposes a genocidal strategy as a means of dealing with the Irish “problem”.
For those who don’t know, The Faerie Queen is an exploration of six virtues achieved by means of allegory (described by Spenser as a “dark conceit”) and it is very, very long. Book V uses the figure of Artegall to explore the nature of justice. There are some critics who see Artegall as ‘standing for’ Arthur Grey as Spenser acted as his secretary when he was lord deputy of Ireland.
Grey was one of the most thuggish of Tudor thugs and his brief period (1580-82) in Ireland was marked by quite extraordinary violence including the creation of a famine in Munster in a failed attempt to starve out the leader of the current rebellion.
Before we go any further, I probably need to make it clear that I am not in any way sympathetic to the English presence in Ireland, in fact I am of the view that English efforts to deal with Ireland have been marked by ignorance, greed and indifference in equal measure. One of the saddest facts is that the sentiments expressed in ‘A View’ are shared by most of my compatriots. We do not understand the Irish obsession with religion and with the past and we view the annual disturbances around the Orangemen parades as utterly bizarre- both the protests and the need to parade. We also wish that the people of Ulster could be more like us- indifferent to religion and largely ignorant of the past. The English presence in Ireland has been characterised throughout by the doomed attempt to make the Irish more like us and Spenser is just one of many commentators to propound this view.
What isn’t of ten remarked upon is Spenser’s acute observation of the strength of the bardic tradition in Irish culture and his solution- that it needs to be destroyed by sending the children of the Irish elite to be educated in England. This I think indicates that Spenser was primarily a poet rather than a colonial civil servant.
Spenser introduces the Faerie Queen by means of a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh in which he explains his use of allegory in that the use of ‘delightful’ images is a more effective way of propounding moral worth. This method has attracted a wide range of critical attention and produced many different ways of reading the poem. I’m of the view that we should focus on where the allegories break down because I think these give us a fuller understanding of what might be going on.
Each of the six books is divided into 12 cantos and the ‘Grey’ analogy works to some extent for the first two cantos and then quite abruptly breaks down in canto III which describes a wedding feast and is further disrupted by the appearance of Radigund in Canto IIII.
Before we get to Radigund, it’s probably as well to say a few words about Britomart who is destined to marry Artegall. Britomart represents or stands for chastity which is the theme of Book III, she undertakes various quests and ordeals disguised as a man, she is also deeply troubled by her obsessive love for Artegall whom she has never met. In Book IV Artegall fights with Britomart and is victorious but falls in love with her when he removes his helmet.
It is also worth noting that Spenser is more successful in portraying female characters- both Britomart and Una are more realistic than their male counterparts who fall into a variety of contrived traps.
Radigund leads a bunch of violent Amazons, she defeats knights and then allows them to choose between death and a life spent dressed as a woman doing women’s work (spinning, carding etc). After an initial affray Radigund and Artegall have a more formal fight which Artegall wins but cannot finish his foe off when he lifts her helmet and sees her face. He therefore submits to the life of servitude outlined above.
I also ought to mention that Artegall is assisted by an iron man called Talus who tends to do all the really brutal stuff on behalf of his master. It is Talus who (instead of simply killing Radigund) alerts Britomart of Artegall’s dilemma. Things become a little more complex when both Radigund and her assistant fall in love with Artegall.
The Radigund episode takes up a lot of Book V and there isn’t a clear link in any of it to Ireland although there is much on emasculation, cross dressing and the general blurring of gender roles. It is also incredibly well written so that even now the reader is swept along by the story and is compelled to engage with the various layers of meaning. All of which is a very long winded way of saying that it would be good if critics could concentrate a bit more on the poetry and much less on the politics because it would then be obvious that the Artegall / Grey analogy doesn’t actually work and that Book V has much more interesting and challenging things to say other than the rather tired ‘might is always right’ quip.
Re-reading this in the Longman edition has also reminded me about the weakness of Bert Hamilton’s gloss- he seems to take delight in explaining things that should be left alone and ignoring the stuff that we (I) actually need help with. Or am I just being perverse and failing to recognise that North American readers might need this level of simplification? It is my view that the current notes actually detract from the brilliance of the original.
I’m also aware that this problem is much more acute with 17th century poets like Marvell who seems to have been almost completely hijacked by the political perspective.