A trip to fairyland. Allegory upon allegory about St George, Mary Queen of Scots, misers, and monasteries. Epic poems left, right, and centre. Man’s first sin – or woman’s, really. A trip to paradise. Fictionalising the queen. Fictionalising the divine.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is, of course, a literary phenomenon. It’s Renaissance term.
The first half of my degree at Cambridge is divided into a series of period papers, in which we study literature and its contexts in two-hundred-year chunks. Last term was Medieval (1300 – 1550), which took a bit of getting used to, and now we move seamlessly on to Renaissance, punching the air as we transition to Early Modern English prose and poetry – much as we loved Chaucer’s Middle English, an average speed of four pages per hour was a struggle at times.
But a lot has happened in between. Columbus has discovered America, and England will soon want to get in on the action (and the riches) of the New World. Probably the single biggest shift in theological thought and religious practice has broken out in Europe, and the Reformation is in full swing across the continent. A woman sits on the throne, following hotly on the heels of her sister, the first female monarch to be crowned in her own right in English history. England is treading the dangerous frenemy line with France and Spain, two of the big European powers. The so-called Scientific Revolution is powering onwards, questioning previously held truths, relying increasingly on modern experimental methods, and making leaps in anatomy, mathematics, astronomy, and more.
And this is one of the reasons why I’m buzzing to be back by the river Cam this term. The literature of this period is so exciting. That is, from my small but significant toe-dip into the waters of English Reformation and Restoration literature (Spenser’s The Fairie Queen, and Milton’s Paradise Lost), literature, as ever, didn’t fail to live up to capturing and responding to the pulsating innovation, energy, and grandeur of the years which preceded it.
Whether it’s Spenser’s encapsulation of ambivalent attitudes towards queenship, or Milton’s voicing a deep post-Restoration disappointment and frustration, or the monumental decision of either to attempt the epic of their age, this period promises to make departures from, even whilst venerating, tradition, to express zeigestial anxieties whilst leaving much unsaid, to slip and slide between clear communications and profound evasion.
One of the aspects I’ve found especially compelling, in reading some literary criticism and context to The Fairie Queen, is the manifestation in Spenser’s writing of a complex bearing towards a female monarch at once celebrated (the so-called ‘cult of the Virgin Queen’) and deplored, both on account of her gender. Despite usually seeing the political events surrounding a piece of literature as a necessary evil, something with which I need to have a basic familiarity in order to fully engage with the text (but which will never form the nub of my weekly essay), I’ve become really interested in the theory surrounding early modern queenship and the political subject’s relation to it, the positives and the negatives, the patterns and contradictions which come to light in both the representational art and the political polemic of the time. Looking, too, at how Elizabeth ruled, her diplomatic hedging of bets in court and abroad, her strategic fluctuations between exploitation and suppression of her femininity, has been pretty cool. I can’t wait for Mary Queen of Scots to hit the cinema.
Another thing which has struck me, the reason I’ve fallen head over heals for Spenser and Milton’s work, is the beauty and the majesty of their language. Spenser’s wordplay, his dabbling with sounds and meanings, often witty, often beautiful, always brilliant. His ‘thrilling shrieks, & shrieking cryes’, a dragon whose wings ‘did forcibly diuide / The yielding aire’, the allegorical monster ‘Disdayne he called was, and did disdaine / To be so cald, and who so did him call’.
Milton’s host of hell ‘Breathing united force with fixed thought’, or his syntax trying to grasp back what the devils have lost, and what man later will lose: ‘faded bliss, / Faded so soon’. And that because he was ‘left free to will, / Left to his own free will, his will though free, / Yet mutable’, where a muddle of repetitive emphasis builds only to collapse with that dealbreaker that is human weakness. Or, on a pleasanter note, there’s Milton’s description of creation, a sky ‘sowed with stars the heaven thick as a field’, a sun made ‘to receive and drink the liquid light’, reigning from a ‘great palace now of light’. Or that beautifully-wrought, painful distillation of the poem’s melancholy regret, which barely needs an introduction:
O fleeting joys
Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes!
Both employ language as a means of worship, for a monarch or for a deity, but are also profoundly aware of, and, at points shining through the mastery, also deeply anxious about the power of language, the power of the structures which it builds to modify, fall short of, or even rival those objects of worship, to construct worlds and worldviews, to erect their own idol.
I read three epic poems this Christmas break. Something must have been lost in the translation of The Divine Comedy, or maybe me and Dante just don’t click, but reading felt a little more intellectually beneficial than pleasurable. The Fairie Queen is over 1,000 pages long – but that was, in all senses, a totally different story. Paradise Lost is, well. Let me try again. Paradise Lost is verse mastered, the line break made vassal to a gorgeous, human, epic project. It’s sympathy to human failings at its keenest, it’s hope and faith proffered at their purest. It’s also misogyny at a peak and a pitch of intensity which is virtually unrivalled. It’s Hell, it’s Heaven, it’s Chaos, it’s Paradise. It’s also hell, heaven, chaos, and paradise.
I don’t know about Fairyland, since Spenser tells us it’s not to be found by mortal eyes. And as for paradise, well, we know how that turned out. But I think that what I can say about this term is that it’s certainly going to be epic.