Last week I shared an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem Lord of the Isles; this week I mean to take you further back in time for another narrative poem, the renowned Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser. This one you are like to find a little more difficult to read, on account of the archaic language (in fact, some of Spenser’s stylistic choices were archaic even by the standards of his own time, as he was purposely writing for a more medieval flavor than a Renaissance one), but the poem is well worth the effort. But as it is the single longest poem in the English language, spanning several books (and had even planned to be much longer still!), I shall only be introducing you to a tiny sliver of the poem here.
The Faerie Queene is a fantastic and allegorical tale–or several tales–following the adventures of various faerie knights, each of whom represent different Christian virtues. In the magical world of faerie, they do physical battle with the manifestations of different vices, including Error (whose vomit full of bookes and papers was), Lust, Furor, and Despair. The excerpt below is from the Redcross Knight’s encounter with Despair, who has just talked another knight into suicide, and proceeds to attempt the same with the hero:
That darksom Cave they enter, where they find
That cursed Man, low sitting on the ground,
Musing full sadly in his sullen Mind;
His greazy Locks, long growen, and unbound,
Disordred hung about his Shoulders round,
And hid his Face; through which his hollow Eyne
Look’d deadly dull, and staréd as astoun’d;
His raw-bone Cheeks, through Penury and Pine,
Were shrunk into his Jaws, as he did never dine.
His Garment, nought but many ragged Clouts,
With Thorns together pinn’d and patched was,
The which his naked Sides he wrap’d abouts;
And him beside there lay upon the Grass
A dreary Corse, whose Life away did pass,
All wallow’d in his own yet luke-warm Blood,
That from his Wound yet welled fresh, alas;
In which a rusty Knife fast fixed stood,
And made an open Passage for the gushing Flood.
Which piteous Spectacle, approving true
The woful Tale that Trevisan had told,
When as the gentle Red-cross Knight did view,
With fiery zeal he burnt in Courage bold,
Him to avenge, before his Blood were cold:
And to the Villain said; Thou damned Wight,
The Author of this Fact, we here behold,
What Justice can but judg against thee right,
With thine own Blood to price his Blood, here shed in sight.
What frantick Fit (quoth he) hath thus distraught
Thee, foolish Man, so rash a Doom to give?
What Justice ever other Judgment taught,
But he should die, who merits not to live?
None else to Death this Man despairing drive,
But his own guilty Mind deserving Death.
Is then unjust to each his Due to give?
Or let him die, that loatheth living Breath?
Or let him die at ease, that liveth here uneath?
Who travels by the weary wandring way,
To come unto his wished Home in haste,
And meets a Flood, that doth his Passage stay,
Is not great Grace to help him over-past,
Or free his Feet, that in the Mire stick fast?
Most envious Man, that grieves at Neighbour’s good,
And fond, that joyest in the Woe thou hast,
Why wilt not let him pass, that long hath stood
Upon the Bank, yet wilt thy self not pass the Flood?
He there does now enjoy eternal Rest
And happy Ease, which thou dost want and crave,
And further from it daily wanderest:
What if some little Pain the Passage have,
That makes frail Flesh to fear the bitter Wave?
Is not short Pain well born, that brings long Ease,
And lays the Soul to sleep in quiet Grave?
Sleep after Toil, Port after stormy Seas,
Ease after War, Death after Life, does greatly please.
The Knight much wondred at his sudden Wit,
And said; The term of Life is limited,
Ne may a Man prolong, nor shorten it:
The Soldier may not move from watchful sted,
Nor leave his stand, until his Captain bed.
Who Life did limit by almighty Doom
(Quoth he) knows best the Terms established;
And he, that points the Centinel his room,
Doth license him depart at sound of morning Droom.
The longer Life, I wote the greater Sin,
The greater Sin, the greater Punishment;
All those great Battels which thou boasts to win,
Through Strife, and Bloodshed, and Avengement,
Now prais’d, hereafter dear thou shalt repent:
For, Life must Life, and Blood must Blood repay.
Is not enough thy evil Life forespent?
For he, that once hath missed the right way,
The further he doth go, the further he doth stray.
Then do no further go, no further stray,
But here lie down, and to thy Rest betake,
Th’ Ill to prevent, that Life ensuen may:
For, what hath Life, thee may it loved make,
And gives nor rather cause it to forsake?
Fear, Sickness, Age, Loss, Labour, Sorrow, Strife,
Pain, Hunger, Cold, that makes the Heart to quake;
And ever fickle Fortune rageth rife,
All which, and thousands more, do make a loathsom Life.
Thou, wretched Man, of Death hast greatest need,
If in true Ballance thou wilt weigh thy State;
For, never Knight that dared warlike Deed,
More luckless Disaventures did amate:
Witness the Dungeon deep, wherein of late
Thy Life shut up, for Death so oft did call;
And though good Luck prolonged hath thy Date,
Yet Death then would the like Mishap forestall,
Into the which hereafter thou mayest happen fall.
Why then dost thou, O Man of Sin, desire
To draw thy Days forth to their last degree?
Is not the measure of thy sinful Hire
High heaped up with huge Iniquity,
Against the Day of Wrath, to burden thee?
Is not enough, that to this Lady mild
Thou falsed hast thy Faith with Perjury,
And sold thy self to serve Duessa vild,
With whom in all abuse thou hast thy self defil’d?
Is not he just, that all this doth behold
From highest Heaven, and bears an equal Eye?
Shall he thy sins up in his Knowledge fold,
And guilty be of thine Impiety?
Is not his Law, Let every Sinner die?
Die shall all Flesh? What then must needs be done,
Is it not better to do willingly,
Than linger till the Glass be all out-run?
Death is the end of Woes: die soon, O Fairy’s Son.