Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spenser's Inferno - Faerie Queene - Book 1, Canto 5

It was obvious at the end of the last canto who was going to win the joust. It's not much of a story if the evil Saracen Sansjoy wins. In this canto, we get another reminder of Dante. It makes me wonder if The Divine Comedy was known in Elizabethan England.

The Redcrosse Knight is seriously wounded in battle, but is accorded the winner when Sansjoy vanishes.
when lo! a darkesome clowd
Upon him fell: he no where doth appeare,
But vanisht is.
He's been saved by Duessa from being killed by the Redcrosse Knight. Is that cheating? Duessa actually cries over the wounds that the Redcrosse Knight received, though Spenser does tell us that she's faking it, comparing her to
a cruell craftie Crocodile,
Which, in false grief hyding his harmful guile,
Doth weep full sore, and sheddeth tender teares;
We also find that Duessa is herself an allegorical personification (well, because everyone in this poem is). Her parents are Deceit and Shame (probably not the best couple to invite to a party).

Duessa enlists Pride's help in getting to hell, as Pride is part of the local royalty there. Unlike Dante, of course, this is not going to be a voyage of moral development. The daughter of Deceit and Shame is not heading anywhere near Dante's Paradiso.

For that matter, this is pagan hell, not Dante's. While there are some correspondences, such as Cerebus and the Furies, if memory serves me, here they are both drawing from Virgil (I don't have my copy of the The Aneid at hand). Their goal is to find Aesculapius, who is reluctant but heals Sansjoy.

There's an allegory here; I can smell it. I'm doing this without looking at any notes or commentaries, though I realize that in trying to read naively, I'm somewhat handicapping myself. Spenser's original audience would have been much more attuned to puzzling out allegories. We just don't read them much anymore.

Yet other parts are less subtle. When Duessa returns to the House of Pride, she finds that the Redcrosse Knight has gone. The Knight has discovered the dungeons in which Pride makes prisoners out of those who fall fall prey to her snares. I'm going to try my hand at unravelling an allegory: the good soul is delivered from pride by the knowledge of its consequences.

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1 comment:

  1. I doff my hat to you. You are onto something powerful. I would advise caution when saying you need to "unravel" an allegory. Not every allegory is a 1:1 correspondence of symbolic events to actual events--in fact, almost none of them are, except maybe Dante--and even then, there are moments of reprieve. In this case, as you correctly point out, Dante and Spenser (and for that matter Milton) are following Vergil (who is following Homer) in the depiction of the Journey to Hell. But Spenser, with his Protestant sensibilities wants to undermine the pagan and the Catholic (read: pagan-lite) depictions of Epic Hell so he has the villain travel there instead of the hero. Milton will take note when he has Satan more-or-less replicate aspects of Duessa's journey. Ariosto, being a sillier sort, has his characters find enlightenment, not in hell, but on the moon.


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