Teaching the Text
One of the chief strengths of a long poem is the ample canvas it gives the poet to build structure in narrative and imagery through careful repetition and differentiation. Another key advantage of long works lies in their ability to grasp at totality of vision, in various respects; Spenser explicitly acknowledges his aim to engage with all of moral science, for example, and we have seen how the poem also strives to chronicle the political history of its age, and to act as a platform for the perception of universal metaphysical and even mystical truths. The problem for us today is that such complex operations require long evenings and not a little re-reading. It is unfortunate for Spenser that modern Western lifestyles tend to involve books – when they involve books at all – as consumables; once read, the book can be passed on or put on a shelf as a kind of trophy. By contrast, we are often content to listen to music, whether popular or more traditional, over and over again. This may perhaps be because music retains the whiff of freshness conferred upon it by its production, so that we think of music as something performed, and a text as something inert. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we are to take pleasure from great literature like The Faerie Queene, and perhaps some day to become masters in (not of!) it, we must listen to it – not once, but many times. It took great skill for Spenser to construct so productively significant a poem; he challenges us to teach, and re-teach, ourselves to read it, every time we try.
This penultimate section of the Guide is designed to help the reader of The Faerie Queene teach the poem, in just this sense. I use schemes and ideas like the following to teach others, but also to teach myself; and so I hope they will be useful not only to instructors leading classes on The Faerie Queene, but to all of us readers who conduct critical conversations within the closed circuit of our own contemplations. From these suggestions it should be abundantly clear that The Faerie Queene, perhaps pre-eminently among English works of literary imagination, is capacious; it admits and supports