Friday, May 9, 2014

C. S. Lewis on Spenser's Faerie Queene

Since, as I mentioned last time, we're reading Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves, a very slightly updated version of Book One of The Faerie Queene, I decided to find out what all CS Lewis had to say about Spenser and his poem.  I know he loved it -- that's why I decided to read it to my children in the first place -- but I don't think I had read anything else from him besides this well-known quote:

Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one's first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large -- and, preferably illustrated -- edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen . . . .

The following are some of his comments in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (all emphasis mine).

On Edmund Spenser:

  • [H]e devoted his whole poetical career to a revival, or prolongation, of those medieval motifs which humanism [Classicism] wished to abolish.
  • It is hard to resist the conviction that his prolonged exile [in Ireland] was a great gain to English literature. It removed him perforce from the rapid changes of fashion, the ephemeral hopes and fears, the petty intrigues, and the time-wasting attendance upon great persons, which would almost certainly have been the portion of a literary man hanging upon the fringes of the court: it forced him to sink deeper and deeper into the world he was creating.
  • He was not made for the fashionable world.
  • He was not a man laying the coping stone on an edifice of good poetry already half-built; he was a man struggling by his own exertions out of a horrible swamp of dull verbiage, ruthlessly over-emphatic metre, and screaming rhetoric.  [Regarding the "deplorable condition" (Lewis's words) of English poetry at the time Spenser began writing.]
  • There are moments in literary history at which to achieve a manner and a music is more important than to deliver any 'message', however profound or prophetic. The message can wait; it will have to wait forever unless the manner and music are found.
  • Spenser believed that... a poet ought to be a moral teacher.
  • Of all Spenser's innovations, his stanza is perhaps the most important.

On The Faerie Queene:
  • From the time of its publication down to about 1914 it was everyone's poem -- the book in which many and many a boy first discovered that he liked poetry; a book which spoke at once, like Homer or Shakespeare or Dickens, to every reader's imagination.
  • Its primary appeal is to the most naive and innocent tastes . . . . It demands a child's love of marvels and dread of bogies, a boy's thirst for adventures, a young man's passion for physical beauty.
  • The poem is a great palace, but the door into it is so low that you must stoop to go in. No prig can be a Spenserian. It is of course much more than a fairy-tale, but unless we can enjoy it as a fairy-tale first of all, we shall not really care for it.
  • . . . symbols are the natural speech of the soul . . . 
  • We shall understand it best (though this may seem paradoxical) by not trying too hard to understand it.
  • We must surrender ourselves with childlike attention to the mood of the story.
  • This kind of poetry, if receptively read, has psychotherapeutic powers.

I'll probably be writing more about this in the future.  I'm so pleased with the way the children are responding to the poem, especially since it's our first time (yes, mine too!) to read the Real Thing.


  1. Good to know about the illustrated version... I have a normal one, and I am enjoying it (but I am grown up, :)) I find it fascinating too. I completely agree with all, specially this,

    We shall understand it best (though this may seem paradoxical) by not trying too hard to understand it.

  2. It's because if you're trying to understand it you're engaging your logical mind, whereas if you give up trying you are more likely to allow the dreamlike forces of it to enter you.


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