Wandering in Wayes Unknowne

The Analogy of The Faerie Queene

by James Nohrnberg
Princeton University Press, 870 pp., $40.00

Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser; drawing by David Levine

Eight-hundred-plus choked, allusive, erudite pages on The Faerie Queene! An impatient reader of James Nohrnberg’s enormous new book will be in danger of suffocating, from sheer exasperation, before he gets to the end of it; but if he’s really impatient, he will already have suffocated, in the course of his passage through Spenser’s poem, so the new mortality lists aren’t likely to be long.

Does Spenser’s poem, or any other poem, really need so much exegesis? Even granted that the Variorum is a monument to dead ideas and that most of the many attempts at explanation are unsatisfactory in one way or another, it’s as hard to say yes as no to that question. Readers whose experience of The Faerie Queene lies at any distance in the past are likely to remember the poem quite happily as a writhing, enchanted wilderness swarming with lost ladies and wandering knights, dwarves, dragons, giants, warlocks, witches, fascinating sluts, satyrs, salvage men, paynims, mythological masks, and allegorical abstractions. That there is a general tone of moral earnestness and—from time to time, in particular episodes—a strong didactic point of one sort or another is also likely to linger in memory. But what the specific moral teachings are (beyond the tritest of commonplaces) and what they amount to as a general view are matters likely to fade with the passage of time.

Yet I think that if one is enchanted with the poem, one will remain enchanted by it, even when most of the allegorical precision has evaporated from memory. It is a work in which one can wander and wonder, a poem of great beauty, ugliness, and many surprises, of tangled duplicity and shining idealism. Since it is so rich, it works in a great many, different ways besides being a systematic allegory—as spectacle, for example, as romance, charade, heroic fantasy. No doubt working out the allegory as fully as possible is a good idea. But because The Faerie Queene is so loosely articulated, and so vast (three times longer than Paradise Lost), it is bound to live in the retrospective mind as a mental tapestry which delights the reminiscent eye at least partly by bewildering it. So the poem does and yet doesn’t need to be accompanied by a monster of explication.

Nohrnberg’s new book substitutes the looser concept of analogy for the close analysis of allegory as an organizing principle of Spenser’s poem; and he displays immense resourcefulness, not to speak of patience, in weaving analogical connections, not only between various units of The Faerie Queene, but between the poem and the cosmos. What is The Faerie Queene analogous to? Rather, what isn’t it analogous to? In the first book alone, the legend of Redcrosse and Una, Nohrnberg makes analogies to the cycle of Adam, the cycles of Abraham and Moses, the later cycles of Israel (Babylon and the false prophets), six or eight…

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