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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 184-190
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"Mishaps . . . Maistred by Aduice Discrete":
Teaching The Faerie Queene
Daniel T. Lochman
At the comprehensive public university where I teach, some fraction of our twenty-five thousand students may encounter Spenser's Faerie Queene in one of several programs: a master's curriculum, an undergraduate major or minor in English, an undergraduate minor in medieval and Renaissance studies, or a sophomore survey of British literature. But if unsuspecting students approach the heights of Contemplation's "highest Mount" (1.10.53), thanks to course requirements or other external stimuli, they are more likely sustained there (if they are to avoid the long, slow slide to the house of Morpheus) by The Faerie Queene's wit, gentle ironies, sentimentality, ingenious narratives, tragic vision of a still recognizably mutable world, and enigmatic, grand, yet elusive design. Sustained by such delights they may be, that is, if they reach the point of actually reading and noticing them.
Their doing so, I find, depends largely on students' ability to recognize and negotiate the peculiar relationship between text and reader that Spenser demands. Spenser not only professes in the letter to Raleigh "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline" but also challenges the reader through the narrative to become actively engaged in the evaluation of characters' words and gestures and of the appearances of settings and objects. The text constitutes an increasingly demanding course of study that requires as its basic lesson that readers respond affectively and intuitively to the poem's words, which are not just simple signs but potentially contradictory and mixed literal, symbolic, and allegorical significations describing complexly ordered actions, ideas, and feelings.
For the novice reader, the meaning of seemingly obvious details, such as Una's being covered "ouer all" by a "blacke stole" and her concealing a "hidden care" while riding on her "lowly Asse" (1.1.4), is probably less certain than commentators and experienced readers suggest. Interpreting symbolic and allegorical details, especially in Spenser's complex narrative structures, becomes even more difficult when those details intersect with others that are just as complexly layered. The reader, especially the novice, must learn to revise and adjust prior assumptions and to regard first readings as provisional only. At Una's initial description in canto 1, book 1, for instance, such a reader [End Page 184] may find a broader range of significance and more confusion than A. C. Hamilton's confident, clear annotation to his second edition of The Faerie Queene implies. Hamilton (2001: 32), interestingly, assures us that Una's "white and black are the colours of perpetual virginity and hence the Queen's personal colours," but the gloss, helpful though it may be for recalling a potential historical significance, may imply to the novice reader that other interpretations, not offered, are inaccurate. Even in this early, relatively simple description in canto 1, one must face uncomfortable questions more likely to occur to the novice than to one who approaches the text with well-established expectations: Is it clear at first reading that Una's purpose is necessarily virtuous when she seems callously to ignore the hapless Dwarf, borne down by the "bearing of her bag / Of needments at his backe" (1.1.6)? When she, knowing better than he "the perill of this place," apparently leads innocent Redcrosse to his doom at the dangerous den of Errour (1.1.13)? Is it at all clear why Una would suddenly tell an inexperienced knight facing grave peril to add faith to his force, especially when she has no good reason to believe that he will understand what she means by "faith"? For novice readers, judging Una good, evil, or both in these situations is far more arduous and less secure than experienced readers may perceive or suggest. At the extreme, if novices do grow sympathetic to Una as episodes accumulate and do become "fashioned" to perceive the lineaments of Spenserean virtue and vice, then they are all too likely to become satisfied with prematurely hardened judgments and therefore...