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.
Today when people think of sonnets, they think of Shakespeare. But once upon a time, Edmund Spenser was the master of the form. Enjoy a sampling:
Penelope for her Ulysses’ sake,
Devised a Web her wooers to deceive:
In which the work that she all day did make
The same at night she did again unweave,
Such subtle craft my Damsel doth conceive,
Th’importune suit of my desire to shun:
For all that I in many day do weave,
In one short hour I find by her undone.
So when I think to end that I begun,
I must begin and never bring to end:
For with one look she spills that long I spun,
And with one word my whole year’s work doth rend.
Such labor like the spider’s web I find,
Whose fruitless work is broken with least wind.
Return again my forces late dismayed,
Unto the siege by you abandoned quite,
Great shame it is to leave like one afraid,
So fair a peace for one repulse so light.
’Gainst such strong castles needeth greater might,
Then those small forts which ye were wont belay,
Such haughty minds inured to hardy fight,
Disdain to yield unto the first assay.
Bring therefore all the forces that ye may,
And lay incessant battery to her heart,
Plaints, prayers, vows, ruth, sorrow, and dismay,
Those engines can the proudest love convert.
And if those fail fall down and die before her,
So dying live, and living do adore her.
Sweet warrior when shall I have peace with you?
High time it is, this war now ended were:
Which I no longer can endure to sue,
Ne your incessant battery more to bear:
So weak my powers, so sore my wounds appear,
That wonder is how I should live a jot,
Seeing my heart through launched every where
With thousand arrows, which your eyes have shot:
Yet shoot ye sharply still, and spare me not,
But glory think to make these cruel stores,
Ye cruel one, what glory can be got,
In slaying him that would live gladly yours?
Make peace therefore, and grant me timely grace.
That all my wounds will heal in little space.
Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that your self ye daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit,
And virtuous mind is much more praised of me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and loose that glorious hew:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.
That is true beauty: that doth argue you
To be divine and borne of heavenly seed:
Derived from that fair Spirit, from whom all true
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only fair, and what he fair hath made,
All other fair like flowers untimely fade.
New year forth looking out of Janus gate,
Doth seem to promise hope of new delight:
And bidding th’old Adieu, his passed date
Bids all old thoughts to die in dumpish spright.
And calling forth out of sad Winters night,
Fresh love, that long hath slept in cheerless bower:
Wills him awake, and soon about him dight
His wanton wings and darts of deadly power.
For lusty spring now in his timely hour,
Is ready to come forth him to receive:
And warns the Earth with divers colored flower,
To deck herself, and her faire mantle weave.
Then you faire flower, in whom fresh youth doth rain,
Prepare your self new love to entertain.
Venomous tongue tipped with vile adders sting,
Of that self kind with which the Furies tell
Their snaky heads do comb, from which a spring
Of poisoned words and spiteful speeches well.
Let all the plagues and horrid pains of hell,
Upon thee fall for thine accursed hire:
That with false forged lies, which thou didst tell,
In my true love did stir up coals of ire,
The sparks whereof let kindle thine own fire,
And catching hold on thine own wicked head
Consume thee quite, that didst with guile conspire
In my sweet peace such breaches to have bred.
Shame be thy mead, and mischief thy reward.
Do to thy self that it for me prepared.
If you enjoyed these, I heartily recommend you give The Faerie Queen a try. The Faerie Queen is Spenser’s epic romance (and the longest poem in the English language–and would’ve been much longer, if Spenser had lived to complete his original plan), written in a deliberately archaic language, celebrating faerie, heroism, and virtue. Each book follows a different knight (representing a different virtue) in their adventures through the enchanted faerie land. Along the way, they fight with magicians, giants, monsters, and various incarnations of sin and folly; at times receiving help from the good King Arthur, or various other virtuous figures.
But you might want to find a version with plenty of footnotes.