How to Learn to Like Spenser
edited: Friday, January 19, 2001
By Gene Williamson
Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001
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Is the reason that people today rarely read Edmund Spenser because his devilish sixteenth century typesetters seemed to spell by whim or convenience?
According to Longfellow, Time keeps a doomsday book of illustrious names. The trouble is, when a new name is added an old one disappears. Horace Greeley wrote: "The only certainty is oblivion."
Ask any six people you know to name the man who wrote Epithalamion, and unless you move in a circle of Elizabethan trivia buffs you may as well ask when the University of Ljubljana was founded. Yet in 1599 Edmund Spenser was hailed the greatest of English poets. What makes the accolade somewhat significant is that Spenser's peers included Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, both of whom were said to to be The Bard (though we are now told that Shakespeare may have been the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and that Marlowe was murdered by a drinking companion because he was either a spy for Elizabeth I or refused to pay his share of the bar tab). Spenser sometimes thought of himself as King Arthur secretly in love with Elizabeth. In those days, almost anyone who could rhyme more than two lines was in love with the queen; and vice versa.
In 1595 (the same year the University of Ljubljana was founded in Slovenia), Epithalamion was published in London. Regarded then as England's most beautiful nuptial poem, it was an ode to Spenser's second wife--as witness these musical lines:
Her long loose yellow lockes lyke golden wyre,
Sprinkled with perle, and perling flowers a tween,
Doe lyke a golden mantel her attyre...
Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shining bright,
Her forehead yvory white,
Her cheekes lyke Saphyres shining bright,
Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,
Her brest lyke to a bowle of creame uncrudded,
Her paps lyke lyllies budded,
Her snowie necke lyke to a marble towre,
And her body lyke a pallace fayre....
Scholars say that Spenser's fresh rhyme schemes, elaborate color, and nobility of style proved English "a fit language for great poetry," but they fail to comment on his wretched spelling. Given a choice of "i" or "y" he would opt for the "y" almost everytime (as in lyke and wyre and yvory). He had a habit of tacking on an extra "e" (as in creame and doe). That he omitted the "a" in words like brest made good sense but lousy grammar. For all we know, Spenser put the "g" in gnat and the "b" in debt. And you might wonder how somebody with an M.A. from Cambridge could spell Epithalamion and have trouble with bowle.
But then it was an age without a good dictionary. Samuel Johnson did not publish his 40,000-word lexicon until 1755. And even he was not infallible. A woman asked Johnson why he defined pastern as the knee of a horse. Johnson replied, "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance." Even in the Middle Ages they knew that a pastern was that part of the horse's leg between the fetlock and the hoof; but they may not have known fetlock is related to sesquipedalian (someone given to using words a foot and a half in length).
Phonetics was the rule in Spenser's time. Words were spelled the way they sounded, which might work in most languages but not in English. Suppose you had to spell a word you had heard but never seen. Hominy, for instance. You might write himini or even homonym; or if you lived in Dixie, grits.
Some Elizabethan words were spelled by whim. Or simply for convenience, usually by the printer who often determined a word's spelling on the basis of available space (as suggested in the macabre illustration above). If a word were too long, like nevertheless, it might wind up as nathless; if too short, a word like mournful might be stretched to mournefull. (By today's standards, as evidenced by baseball boxscores in many newspapers, nevertheless might appear as n'v'th'l's.)
Thus if most people no longer read Spenser, the fault may not be Spenser's but that of his sixteenth century typesetters. Or we may be to blame because we are too busy channel surfing or touring the Internet. After all, it does take less effort than trying to decipher Epithalamion. But is it more fulfilling? Can it measure up to poetry's joy of discovery? Any English lit professor will tell you, "There is to be heard in all good verse the echoes of ancient tunes." He means there is more than immediately meets the eye.
Take the word lockes, from the Old English locc (a strand of hair) and loc (a banding together, shutting, as in a locket); also related to the Old English leac (garlic) but no kin to lox. What Spenser was really saying was that his bride's long, loose strands of hair curled like golden wire in a locket that smelled of garlic.
Or take "Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shining bright." The word goodly, which means both pleasing and somewhat large, is akin to the Old English gaedeling (to wander). But the key word is Saphyres (blue gems); it can be traced back through the Old English saphir, Old French safir, Latin sapphirus, Greek sappheiros, and Hebrew sappir to the Sanskrit sanipriya (precious to the planet Saturn); and the extended form of its Indo-Eurpoean root means beloved. Put the elements together and you get the depth of Spenser's meaning: "The gemlike quality of my beloved's pleasing, somewhat large and roving eyes shines as bright planets."
Further exploration reveals that "her breasts are bowls of pure uncurdled cream, whose nipples push forth like lily buds."
Combine all this with her apple cheeks, cherry lips, hair strewn with pearly flowers, ivory forehead, marble neck, and palatial body, and you see that Spenser's second wife was a metaphoric mess. Is it any wonder that he was secretly in love with Elizabeth, whom he described in The Fairie Queene as "all earthly things he most did crave"? He also said the queen was much whiter than the lowly Asse on which she sat, itself more white than snow (ignoring her wish to be likened to the moon).
The man could turne a phrayse. He was an innovator. Not only did he invent the Spenserian stanza (which is one line longer than Chaucer's Monk Tale stanza), but the Spenserian sonnet (with its catchy ababbcbccdcd,ee rhyme scheme). Then too Spenser enriched the language with such words as blatant, squall, elfin, braggadocio, and chirrup (as in "a cheerefull cheriping of byrdes").
Spenser, praised for his technical virtuosity and acclaimed by many as "the poet's poet," died broke. Only through the charity of the Earl of Essex was he buried in Westminster Abbey where fellow poets tossed elegies into his tomb. The queen promised to build him a monument, but never did.
Spenser may have had his own epitaph in mind when he wrote:
The prayse is better thanne the price,
The glory eke much greater thanne the gayne.
The critic William Empson observed that Edmund Spenser was "about the last man a modern poet would study to learn technique." He added that Spenser occupied a "diffuse" world of his own which we may or may not be willing to enter, and if we do, we may not be willing "to wander about in it indefinitely." Empson's term diffuse means wordy and it comes from the Indo-European root gheu (to pour a libation).
Next time you have nothing better to read, why not pour yourself a stiff drink and curl up with Spenser? You might learn to like him.
The above is from a work in progress entitled THE UNDISCOVERED WIT AND WISDOM OF THE MAN BEHIND THE NOSE.