Sunday, June 26, 2016

What I Took from the Fairy Queen

A few years ago, I made a serious effort to read The Fairy Queen (or, if you insist, The Faerie Queene), the long narrative poem by Edmund Spenser which is much praised and seldom read. One of the reasons I wanted to read it was because C.S. Lewis, who I admire so much, praised it so highly. Not only that, but he made it sound very interesting and absorbing. I was drawn to the idea of a timeless never-never land of high romance.

Edmund Spenser

Added to that, I admit, there was the challenge of the thing, like wanting to climb a particular hill-- all the more attractive and enticing because it is a landmark.

I gave up a little way into the second book, and I decided that I was never going to try again. (Although, who knows...?) C.S. Lewis wrote very interestingly of the themes and ideas under the surface, but it was the surface itself I found tedious. In writing, physical description is the thing I find most boring, and this poem is packed with it. Descriptions of physical combat are something else I find boring, and the book is also packed with these. (Just like The Iliad, which I finished but probably shouldn't have.)

However, two passages lodged in my mind. One was a description of the Seven Deadly Sins, embodied as characters. (The Fairy Queen is an allegory, or a quasi-allegory.) 

The other was just the opposite. The hero of the beginning of the book is the Red Cross Knight, and in Canto Ten he goes to a 'house of holiness' to recover and to do penance for his sins. Considering this is a poem dripping with all sorts of gorgeousness and finery and ceremony, (and also with a great deal of foullness and ugliness), the sudden change towards the austere and clean and humble is very striking. He is led by Una, his fair lady

Arrived there, the dore they find fast lockt;
For it was warely watched night and day,
For feare of many foes: but when they knockt,
The Porter opened unto them streight way:
He was an aged syre, all hory gray,
With lookes full lowly cast, and gate full slow,
Wont on a staffe his feeble steps to stay,
Hight Humiltà. They passe in stouping low;
For streight and narrow was the way which he did show.

Each goodly thing is hardest to begin,
But entred in a spacious court they see,
Both plaine, and pleasant to be walked in,
Where them does meete a francklin faire and free,
And entertaines with comely courteous glee,
His name was Zele, that him right well became,
For in his speeches and behaviour hee
Did labour lively to expresse the same,
And gladly did them guide, till to the Hall they came.

There fairely them receives a gentle Squire,
Of milde demeanure, and rare courtesie,
Right cleanly clad in comely sad attire;
In word and deede that shew'd great modestie,
And knew his good to all of each degree,
Hight Reverence. He them with speeches meet
Does faire entreat; no courting nicetie,
But simple true, and eke unfained sweet,
As might become a Squire so great persons to greet.

And afterwards them to his Dame he leades,
That aged Dame, the Ladie of the place:
Who all this while was busy at her beades:
Which doen, she up arose with seemely grace,
And toward them full matronely did pace.
Where when that fairest Una she beheld,
Whom well she knew to spring from heavenly race,
Her hart with joy unwonted inly sweld,
As feeling wondrous comfort in her weaker eld.

And her embracing said, O happie earth,
Whereon thy innocent feet doe ever tread,
Most vertuous virgin borne of heavenly berth,
That, to redeeme thy woefull parents head,
From tyrant’s rage, and ever dying dread,
Hast wandred through the world now long a day
Yet ceasest not thy weary soles to lead
What grace hath thee now hither brought this way?
Or doen thy feeble feet unweeting hither stray?

Strange thing it is an errant knight to see
Here in this place, or any other wight,
That hither turnes his steps. So few there bee
That chose the narrow path, or seeke the right:
All keepe the broad high way, and take delight
With many rather for to go astray,
And be partakers of their evill plight,
Then with a few to walke the rightest way;

O foolish men, why haste ye to your owne decay?

The whole canto can be found here.

I find this all very beautiful. What strikes me most is how counter-intuitive it is. I have heard the claim that all religions and all systems of morality are pretty much the same, and that human nature is pretty much the same everywhere and always. I don't agree with this. The Christian ideal, at least, seems to me very distinctive in its celebration of so many of the things which we are naturally inclined to see as undesirable.

Whatever Spenser's personal guilt or failings, he is obviously holding the Christian ideal up here not simply as a starry ideal, or a standard to which we direct ourselves in a vague kind of way, or the province of a few specially holy people, but the expected business of the hero of a story-- like courage and pluck and initiative in the hero of a modern thriller.

I have to admit that it takes Christianity to make the Christian ideals compelling to me, even as ideals. It's one thing having chivalry towards the poor, or the sick, or the simple. It's one thing accepting deprivation with graciousness and stoicism. But the Christian notion that these things are admirable in themselves is something that would, in my view, be almost impossible to really believe unless it had the backing of a whole religious tradition.

However, once you have seen the beauty of humility, chastity, meekness, forgiveness, and so forth-- in the lives of the saints, for instance-- it becomes real and unforgettable.

"Dammit, there's sugar in this!"
Strangely enough, it always puts me in mind of Orwell's observation about sweetened tea: "Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again." This is true-- I had the experience myself many, many years ago.

I must also, once again, quote Chesterton:

White is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.

For many years, in Christian Europe, warring and vastly rich nobles decorated their castles with depictions of hermits, saints and momento mori. They had personal chapels and chaplains to preach to them the virtues of peace, forgiveness, meekness, poverty and charity. Many find this hypocritical and absurd. I don't. I find it admirable.

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, with a momento mori

I find the momento mori particularly fascinating. We live in an era when life expectancy is high and the danger of fatal sickness or violent death is comparatively low. To our way of thinking, medievals and early moderns lived dangerous and deprived lives, and might have been forgiven for trying to enjoy life while they could. But that's not how they viewed it. They thought they were in too much danger of forgetting mortality and being seduced by the pleasures of the world and the moment. 

But why do I find such comfort in looking at momento mori pictures, and why do I feel that they are the very opposite of morbid?

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