“Oh what an endlesse worke haue I in hand” complains Spenser, exhausted by the scope of his own poem. “Indeede,” I replied, glad at least his great work was never finished. As I reached its last truncated cantos I was overwhelmed not by awe but by sympathy. If The Faerie Queene’s an allegory it’s of a misspent life.
This old poem is set in the past, a bucolic period in which justice is determined by strong men fighting each other. The invisible Queene of the title sees nothing of the atrocities committed in her name, having preemptively stamped her approval on whatever her knights feel like enacting – a kind of disseminated Fascism that Spenser evidently likes. The extremism of chivalry has only ever been cloaked by its mysticism (the rich are always good; the bad are always monstrous), but here it’s so overt that the poem works as a kind of political quiz: if you like it you’re reactionary.
Backwardness is literalised in Spenser’s use of an “old-fashioned” English of his own making, in which letters are switched to make the poem less readable. And it’s inconsistent. The “waues” of one stanza are “wawes” in the next. (“Waves,” the note explains, “in which one is sunk helplessly.”)
But the poem’s conservatism is sharpest in its depiction of women. Any feminist potential of a female monarch is subsumed in characters of unmatched helplessness, totally dependent on men to save them from other men. Sure, there’s the exception of the female warrior Britomart, but (a) she’s contained in a canto entitled “chastity” – “the fayrest vertue, far above the rest” – and (b) her last act is to slay an Amazon and restore her city to male rule. The poem devotes itself to Queen Elizabeth not because she’s representative, but because she’s unique.
Anyway, here are some words that should be reintroduced into English, assuming they were ever used outside the poem:
belgardes: loving looks – “In speaking, many false belgardes at her let fly”
busse: kiss – “But euery Satyre first did giue a busse / To Hellenore: so busses did abound”
crake: boast – “Then is she mortall borne, how-so ye crake”
exanimate: dead – “Yet stuck, with carcases exanimate”
feculent: covered in faeces – “both his handes most filthy feculent”
owches: jewels – “Gold, amber, yuorie, perles, owches, rings”
Scatterlings: vagrants – “and forrein Scatterlings, / With which the world did in those dayes abound”
Springals: youths – “There came two Springals of full tender yeares”
a throw: a while – “Vpon the grassy ground, to sleepe a throw”
ticle: uncertain – “So ticle be the termes of mortall state”