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VINE VOICEon 29 May 2005
The literature of Spenser, unlike that of Shakespeare or other contemporaries, is almost always printed with the exact spelling found at at time. I guess this could throw a lot of people off course, but it really is just one of the many amazing elements of this book. As well as the fantastic and fabulous content, the reader becomes aware and synchronised with the linguistic element of such poetic beauty as well.
As an English student, I'm probably slightly biased about the accessibility of the book, but I'd only read a handful of plays from the late 1500s and early 1600s before launching into it. Although being vaguely familar with the syntax of the period, it was unlike anything I'd looked at previously.
But whether you intend to read the whole book from front to cover, or just dip into a few pages to experience the sheer poetic genius and brilliance, you'll experience great pleasure in doing so. It's also great to see this as a paperback version - although it's relatively large, it is portable (if that makes sense).
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Spenser is probably the least read of the 'great' Elizabethan writers, and picking up his Faerie Queen it's easy to see why: it's over a thousand pages of poetry (9 line stanzas) written in a kind of cross-over medieval-renaissance English. Even English graduates tend not to have had to read the whole thing, getting away with selected cantos, a kind of edited highlights. But starting at the beginning and reading it straight through is a completely different experience, and one I'm very glad I have had. While it is overtly a moral and political allegory, Spenser is also a supreme story-teller and frequently very funny (in a literary kind of way).

Full of knights on chivalric quests, dragons, giants, monsters, the evil arch-magus and the sensually-tempting Duessa, this is like every fairy tale and Lord of the Rings copy-cat you've ever read, but put together by a supreme stylist and written in the most flexible, beautiful language. Some of the stories are very moving, others quite bizarre, and there's some very perverse sexuality on display. Since they often unroll simultaneously the narrative is a multi-layered one.

Creating deliberate links with both classical literature (particularly the epics of Homer and Virgil) as well as with medieval (Chaucer, especially) and Spenser's own contemporary Elizabethan age, this is both very different from Sidney and Shakespeare and yet also very close to them at the same time.

The best way to read it is to almost forget the fact that it's 'poetry', ignore the stanzas and simply read as if it were prose. Spenser's own sublime sense of rhythm and rhyme asserts itself and the words align themselves exactly as they need to.

Roche has edited this well but there is no introduction which is a shame, although the notes do extend beyond a simple glossary. But even so, this is a great edition of a magical and really enthralling classic.
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The way this book has been edited and organised is really rather clever. There is not much by the editor to be read before we come face to face with Spenser himself, but the material that would normally go into an editorial introduction is there after all, only it's at the back instead. If we are daunted by the thought of an enormously long poem there is a temptation to procrastinate by plodding slowly through some scholarly introduction, only to find ourselves wearied by the introduction and hardly able to face the poem. Meaning no disrespect to the eminent writers of introductions, I have experienced nightmares at the thought of some Penguin/Oxford/Faber Book of Introductions, edited (with Introduction) by John Carey.

We are not plunged totally unprepared into The Faerie Queene. There is a `manifesto' by Spenser expounding his aims in writing the work (or what he claims those to be): there are various commendatory sonnets and other miscellaneous stanzas by various other parties; and there are a whole string of dedicatory sonnets addressed to an assortment of bigwigs by Spenser himself. It is easy to skip most of these, and then if we are lucky we may find ourselves engrossed in one of the most readable and entertaining poems in the English language. It is written in a slightly bogus antique idiom, a little like The Ancient Mariner two centuries later. The idea is to create an atmosphere, and the style is nowhere near as difficult to grasp as in Paradise Lost let alone genuine mediaeval English as in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Indeed, try opening the book at random and you may find the kind of magic working on you that Tolkien can work, except that great verse casts a spell of its own that not even my favourite prose can hope to equal. It purports to be a moral allegory, but moral allegories are boring and this is enthralling. Spenser knows how to spin a fairytale thriller, and you can't tell me that that was not what he really enjoyed doing.

The editor inserts for reference a table of dates and some suggestions for further reading before we have read anything, but I found the very brief `Note on the Text' to be rather interesting. It seems that there are three early editions, from 1590, 1596 and 1609, and that this edition is based on the 1596 text, with additional material taken from the other two sources where it is absent from that text. I certainly support the decision to include all the material that belongs in a purportedly complete version of The Faerie Queene, and the editor's apology for his `composite' text is courteous but quite unnecessary. However what I would have liked explained is why it has been decided to base our text here on the second of three early editions. Spenser died in 1599, so perhaps the 1596 text has been selected as incorporating his last thoughts and revisions. However this is no more than a guess on my own part.

Spelling and orthography are not commonly considered exciting topics, but if you agree with me (and with the editor if I have understood him) that Spenser is concerned to create an atmosphere with his pseudo-antique diction, then the spelling is all part and parcel. The way it has been done seems to me just about right. Plain annoyances to a modern reader such as tildes representing the nasals m or n are banished, but u v and i are retained where modern standards require v u and j. I cannot possibly regret that s is printed in the modern manner and not as f, as the latter could lead to quaint orthography in such cases as `Where the bee sucks there suck I'.

At the end there is an appendix detailing textual corrections, and another providing a handy list of common olde wordes. There are also `notes' on the verses explaining unfamiliar dictions and usages, but the most interesting items here are the longer `notes', which in effect provide much of what one would normally find in an introduction. I said already that I was relieved not to find this kind of material at the beginning of the book, so let me add now that I am thoroughly pleased to find it located where I do find it. After all, we have bought this edition in part (I suppose) because the editor is the Professor of English at Princeton. Spenser has provided the enjoyment, now it's time for the lessons.
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on 9 March 2016
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on 27 January 2013
I am a Faerie Queene buff, and was introduced to the work at university via this edition, which has two advantages over other editions (including the more recent Longman updated version). Firstly, the commentary is very clearly set out parallel with the text it is describing (in smaller print, in a righthand column), so while reading a verse you cannot miss the vital information you need to decipher the origins and allusions of what could otherwise be read too shallowly, or simply not understood. Secondly, the commentary itself is absolutely spot-on, striking just the right balance between dictionary definitions and explanation of Spenser's influences (line references to Virgil, Ariosto, the Bible, etc.), together with the editor's own "cf"s, helping the reader to compare stanzas that were written to enlarge and comment upon others as the poem progresses. In my view it is essential to be able to read this poem for fun as a narrative well as well as in a scholarly way, and the poem is just so long that without this kind of layout you can get too bogged down in constantly stopping to check the commentary at the bottom of the page to enjoy it and finish it. (This has happened with me with Milton, unfortunately). A newer Longman edition goes for a cheaper approach, perhaps understandably, but given that this work is one of the greatest ever written in English, it deserves the Hamilton formula.
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on 19 February 2015
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on 11 April 2003
The Faerie Queene is, to my mind, the finest single work of literature in English. It's a huge, encyclopaedia poem that draws in and represents the whole psychological landcape of a highly-educated early modern individual with an extraordinarily fertile imagination. Its allegory tries to incorporate everything - from major cultural structures like the seven deadly sins and the myth of British descent from the Trojans to contemporary political intrigues and theories on the workings of the human mind and body. The poem goes from the heights of religious exultation to brutal representations of colonial power and imperial violence.
No review here is going to do it justice; I've read it several times and written about it a fair bit, but still can't imagine really feeling on top of it. Not everyone will like its dreamlike atmosphere and its frequently slow pace. Even the biggest fan will probably admit that long stretches of it are pretty tedious, particularly in the later stages. But the neglect it's fallen into is unforgiveable. Far too many undergraduates never get made to study the thing, and probably many who don't study literature at university won't ever try it. They should. There's nothing else like it and on its own ground nothing else can come close. In terms of density and richness of meaning, and of sheer proliferation of stories, it's an amazing work of genius that puts Spenser up there with Dante, Shakespeare and the rest of the world's very best writers. It's long and you need to put in a fair bit of effort, but it's worth it.
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on 27 April 2013
Oh, what a read! Written and spelled as in Tudor times, it takes a bit of getting used to but once you've got into the swing of it all the verses scan and read perfectly. You soon get used to pronouncing words such as,say, armoured as "armour red in ordered tokeep the rhythm flowing and the glossary at the end of the book can be easily followed as you read, especially if two bookmarks are used; one to keep your place in the text and the other for the glossary.
The knights are bold, brave and with their reputation and honour being all that they live for. Their damsels are both chaste and chased. The second of these by various monsters, evil magicians and lustful knights who don't know the rules of knightly chivalry.
The witches and magicians are a thoroughly bad lot and the description of the wicked witch, Duessa, after she is stripped naked is not to be read just before or just after a meal. It is truly stomach churning. The monsters are equally horrible and probably had to be to hold the interest of those for whom burning at the stake and hanging, drawing and quartering were an enjoyable and regular public entertainment. Don't forget that this work was written in the reign of Elizabeth Tudor when such things were available on an almost weeekly basis.
This Penguin classic has over a thousand pages of nine line verses, four to a page, and if that sounds like something for only scholars and nerds, think again. Boring it aint!
Dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh and one or two others whom Spenser thought might be usefully flattered, it is a monumental work and, had Spenser lived longer than his forty seven years, he might not have left it only half finished.
I know that I shall return to this book over and over again.
Eric Hulme.
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on 3 November 2015
It is an old story and a fable to. It is about Elizabeth 1st Gloriana and life in Tudor England. But more widely it is an allegory for life in general. Spenser came from a poor background and it was hard to succeed in those days. I loved it.
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on 13 July 2012
On my third read over the last forty years, one of those books you feel you ought to read, and strangely compelling inspite of the number of old words which we do not use now.
I would not have read it this third time without Kindle, it makes it easy to pick up and continue. But it does have an irritating error in which it prints about six meaningles characters instead of the end or middle of a word. Gradually worked out that it replaced one letter with these six.

It is another world, and an education in that world. It is like this world in that it isn't perfect but it is much, much better than anything you could have made up yourself.

If you haven't read it yet, think of it as a far country to visit in a gap year. Go there, be bewildered for a while, but get on and you will be changed.
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