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Like as the Waves Make Towards the Pebbled Shore

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Una and the Redcross Knight

Whoa, that’s Shakespeare. (Sonnet 60.) But it’s the best description I know of the verse form invented by his contemporary Edmund Spenser for The Fairy Queen, a marathon of a poem set in an allegorical Fairyland full of “fierce wars and faithful loves” (in Spenser’s words) and populated by believable characters. If you get the olde fashyonde spelyng out of the way, and concentrate on the story rather than the complicated allegory, as I have argued in two previous posts, you’ll have an amazing journey through its more than 30,000 lines arranged in 3,500 stanzas.

The length does indeed make it like a marathon, so you have to pace yourself. You can’t sprint through all those lines. Fortunately, Spenser built it for distance, not for speed. Let the stanza he devised guide you to moderate your pace, conserve your energy, and take time to smell the roses.

For the Spenserian stanza is “like as the waves make to the pebbled shore.” It has the rhythm of waves advancing and retreating as the tide comes in. Here we go one last time with Book I, Canto 3, Stanza 30:

His lovely words her seemed due recompense
Of all her passéd pains: one loving hour
For many years of sorrow can dispense:
A dram of sweet is worth a pound of sour:
She has forgot how many a woeful stowre [turmoil]
For him she late endured; she speaks no more
Of past: true is, that true love hath no power
To looken back; his eyes be fixed before.
Before her stands her knight, for whom she toiled so sore.

The rhymes are the key to the tidal movement. There are just three different rhymes in each nine-line stanza. A new rhyme is like the advance of a wave, and a repeated rhyme is like the advance of the tide to a new starting position up the shore a little. As Shakespeare says (Sonnet 60 again), “In sequent toil all forwards do contend.” The pattern of rhymes goes like this:

abab bcbc c

In the first four lines, rhyme b is an advance over a. Two waves there, ending with the advanced wave b. The next four lines begin with b as the starting rhyme, and advance from there to c. The stanza ends with rhyme c repeated, anchoring the stanza with that twice-advanced rhyme. Within nine lines, the tide has advanced up the pebbled shore by two waves. Slowly but surely.

The movement between stanzas also slows the pace. The first eight lines of each stanza are familiar iambic pentameter, creating steady movement for the waves. But the last line is an alexandrine, with two extra syllables. So if you’re reading along (try it out loud), you can move right along until the last line spills over and disrupts the pace. You have to stop the steady rhythm and wait a bit to get back into the pentameter rhythm of the next stanza. Try going from Stanza 30 above to its successor, Stanza 31 (below), and then to the start of 32, without that pause:

Much like, as when the beaten mariner
That long hath wandered in the ocean wide
Oft soused in swelling Tethy’s saltish tear,
And long time having tanned this tawny hide
With blustering breath of heaven, that none can bide,
And scorching flames of fierce Orion’s hound,
Soon as the port from far he has espied,
His cheerful whistle merrily doth sound,
And Nereus crowns with cups, his mates him pledge around.
Such joy made Una, when her knight she found. …

If the reader has been moving along at the steady pace of the iambic pentameter, the alexandrine requires a pause (of four more beats?) before picking up on the next stanza.

So if you allow Spenser to guide you through the poem, you will find yourself reading slowly. But how can you do that, when you have 3,500 stanzas to read?

Well, first of all, get yourself an edition with good-size type and no more than three stanzas per page, so you’re encouraged to take your time. Oxford University Press published a nice two-volume edition like this in 1961, though like the others it has olde spelynge. (Sorry about that.)

And next, read it for the wonderful cast of characters and their amazing adventures. Don’t let the allegory distract you from the story itself.

My cigar-smoking (Wolf Bros. Rum Soaked Crooks) graduate adviser, Alain Renoir, said you couldn’t fully appreciate The Fairy Queen until you read it for the third time. I’ve read it just twice, so what do I know? But I’m looking forward to taking my time for the third.

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