Spenser’s Images of Life by C.S. Lewis

Normally, I don’t read introductions or commentaries on books or poetry that I plan to read, until after I’ve finished the work.  I prefer to experience the art from a point of innocence (or perhaps, ignorance is a better word!), forming my own opinions without influence, even if I struggle with my first read through. However, this time I threw all my ideals to the winds and called for help.

In April I’m reading The Faerie Queene with OCirtnecce, JeanRuth, and Consoled Reader, and considering the length and complexity of this poem, I confess that it was wiser to admit my complete ineptitude and look for someone who was very familiar with this type of poem and era to give me a little boost.  Since C.S. Lewis’ expertise was in Medieval and Renaissance literature, I suspected that he would be a good place to start.  His book, Spenser’s Images of Life is a compilation of lectures notes, put together by Alastair Fowler, to give students a deeper insight into The Faerie Queene.

I’m not going to even pretend that I understood half of what Lewis was saying in these lectures/notes, but my lack of understanding emphasizes one of the many things that I respect about the man.  He is able to turn on his intellect and produce a brilliantly insightful and stimulating analysis of perhaps the most complex poem in the English language, yet he is also able to let his intellect “idle” and write children’s stories, sci-fi fiction or even a layman-type book such as Mere Christianity.  With Spenser’s Images of Life, I had to read it slowly and let it percolate.

A Beast (1456)
Paolo Uccello
source Wikimedia Commons

Lewis begins by stating that The Faerie Queene is the most difficult poem in the English language, a rather daunting claim for me, as I’m going to be reading it in just over a month.  He claims that the poem works on a number of levels and the mistake readers can make is reading it from only one perspective and thinking that is all it has to offer.  The simple aspect of the poem is that it’s a moral allegory, in that the story contains a moral, but the poem is more than a narrative, containing images that work on the mind.  We must not only read, but see the work.

Lewis believes that Spenser, like Botticelli, accepts “traditional images, he loads them with wisdom from the philosophers and disposes them in divine compositions ……… with a propensity of mingling the Christian and the pagan.”  Those of Spenser’s tradition would have regarded ancient poetry as a type of veiled theology, and the mixing of the worlds would not have seemed strange to them.  In fact, Lewis believes that “Spenser’s Nature is really an image of God himself.”

Lewis goes into detail about certain aspects of the poem, covering the following topics:

  1. The False Cupid
  2. Antitypes to the False Cupid
  3. Belphoebe, Amoret, and the Garden of Adonis
  4. The Image of Evil
  5. Mutability
  6. The Image of Good
  7. Britomart’s Dream
  8. Faceless Knights
  9. The Misery of Florimell
  10. The Story of Arthur

Heraldic Chivalry
Alphonse Mucha
source Wikiart

The last chapter is particularly interesting as Lewis examines Spenser’s letter to Raleigh about The Faerie Queene and, quite expertly, “prosecutes” his meaning, declaring that most of what he wrote is not supported by the poem itself.  Many of Lewis’ arguments make good sense.  He proposes that Spenser was not entirely aware of the depths of his own brooding and birth of the poem, that came from his experience with philosophers, poets and iconographers.  He also suspects that Spenser might have written the letter with someone at his elbow, massaging his words to make the poem fit classical (and possibly political) expectation.

In any case, this book was helpful as an introduction to the poem, but it will also be handy to read The Faerie Queene with it in hand.  Lewis’ points must be better understood in the context and framework of an already developing story, allegory or image.  As to what our expectations with regard to the poem should be, Lewis has a very straightforward answer:

“We should expect, then, from Spenser’s poem, a simply fairy-tale pleasure sophisticated by polyphonic technique, a simple ‘moral’ sophisticated by a learned iconography.  Moreover, we should expect to find all of these reacting on one another, to produce a work very different from what we are used to.  And now it is time to catch hold of one thread of the fabric, and pull…….”

0 thoughts on “Spenser’s Images of Life by C.S. Lewis

  1. We're supposed to read this in the space of about a month? I think it's going to take me two or three. Just to absorb it alone is going to take a lot longer. When I read Book One, some years ago, I needed an outside source just to understand what I read. It was like another language.

  2. We have similar likes 'the classics' but different approaches! I guess that is why opposites attract
    I relish the idea of 'pre-reading' a classic through books like the one of C.S. Lewis! Without some help from experts I'm sure I would miss important points and insights. Reading a book today to help me understand Metamorphoses. I agree with Ruth about the language! Looking forward to your posts about The Faerie Queene!

  3. Oh no, in just over a month we start it. So you can breathe again! 😉 I know that I'm not going to understand it fully with my first read-through. I'm glad that I have this book to help me along. And since Jean has read The Allegory of Love recently, hopefully between us all, we'll get something very rich out of it.

  4. I find when I read the commentary after, my mind can re-visit ideas and then often illumination will come. So I have two experiences instead of one, and the first experience is my own instead of someone else's. I get the points and insights from the experts; they just come later. You're right that not everyone likes this approach but I think that I'm comfortable with it because I enjoy reading books over again, which gives then another new experience!

    Yes, the language is going to be tough. I'm not sure how many posts I'm going to do yet. Ovid has kind of drained me, even though I've enjoyed doing them.

  5. The Faerie Queen is LONG! I hope you find the right balance between time reading and time writing! I'm writing 1 post for Metamorphoses and will refer to your wonderful posts…if that is all right with you.

  6. Certainly you can refer to my posts. Other than the fact that Ovid can be rather disgusting and his descriptions can be gratuitous, the poetry is quite wonderful and many of the stories engaging. I hope that you enjoy it!

  7. Thanks…
    I made an overview of the 15 books just to give myself an idea what I'm getting myself into.
    I hope you enjoy a nice glass of wine or chilled glass of beer after all your work!

  8. I have the Norton Critical Edition of Spenser's Poetry, so I plan to read it from that. I just happened to have it, so I didn't really do a detailed search for a "recommended" edition. I can imagine with the length of it, there may be a number of abridged versions out there, so to get the complete poem, you have to be careful. I've also seen a Penguins Classic edition of it that looks good. Otherwise, I'm not sure ……

  9. i read it while driving the logging roads between compressor checks; almost got run over by log trucks a couple of times… thoroughly loved it; and didn't know there was a bit more in it than i was assimilating. i still think milton is more difficult to read… when young i read the "hideous strength" trilogy and loved that , too. it was only years later i realized it was supposed to have something to do with religion… oh well, we career on in our blissful ignorance…

  10. I never read commentaries because I always feel they color my reading! I find it much more satisfying to come back and read them, because I gain a lot more insight! I am really nervous about reading this…I struggled in College and don't remember much…but then I had a BAD professor! I hope my second tryst is better. I will pick up CS Lewis once I am done reading the original!

  11. What a story! That sounds like quite a read! I'm not certain I could have paid attention to the book through it. 🙂 You think Milton is more difficult?! Phew, what a relief! I was terrified of Milton until I read Paradise Lost a couple of years ago and it became my favourite book! There were a couple of difficult parts but mostly I was riveted. So that bodes well for The Faerie Queene. I still struggle with Lewis' Space Trilogy. I always get the feeling that he's trying so hard to tell me more than I'm understanding. I've read it twice already and I'm always so impressed that each book was so different, yet all of them were unified. It's a definite re-visit for the future.

  12. I read Lewis' commentary on Paradise Lost after I read the poem, but in this case, The Faerie Queene is so long that I decided to read the commentary first to get the most out of it in case I never returned. After reading this commentary, I know for a fact that there are images/themes in it that I would never be able to pick out myself, so I'm glad I did it. And I'm going to have to keep digging as I read, because some of what Lewis said went drifting over my head. I do hope you get much more out of the poem with this reading; it's always frustrating to put lots of work into something and feel like it's been wasted at the end. I'm starting to get a good feeling about this read though …..

  13. I had three of my boys read Book 1 using Fierce Wars & Faithful Loves, edited by Roy Maynard, but I've only read short sections. I've been thinking I might read Mary Macleod's 1916, Stories from the Faerie Queene retelling to my daughter this year as an intro for both of us.

  14. You always have a wealth of excellent books stored in your head, Carol. Thanks for these two suggestions. I hadn't heard of either of them, and the first might be a bit gentler introduction to Lewis.

    It's often very helpful, when planning to tackle a difficult work of literature, to get exposure from children's sources first. I read The Canterbury Tales and am now reading Eleanor Farjeon's Tales from Chaucer; I now realize that if I'd read Farjeon's first, my reading of the original would have been somewhat soother.

  15. I don't really like to read commentaries first, usually, either for much the same reasons, but here it does sound like a good idea. I try not to let myself be intimidated by literature, but Spenser does truely sound like one that requires extra effort. Maybe someday…. (If I had more time, I'd join the RAL, as that always seems the best way to tackle something like this.) Good luck!

  16. Does the Norton Critical Edition include all of the Fairie Queene? I got the impression it only included excerpts: link

    I might try to purchase A. C. Hamilton's annotated edition link

    There is also a free online version at Renascence Editions: link

  17. Argh! Thanks! I still have a little time to get a complete copy, but I just might read from the link you sent. Thanks for that!

    As for the Hamilton edition, the thought of reading more annotations than poem makes me whoozy, but I really like the layout of it. It looks very organized and easy on the eyes, which would be helpful considering the length of it. I'll have to mull that one over too.

  18. I'm glad I read the commentary, but I think my goal for this one is to get through it, get something out of it and hopefully revisit it later. Re-reading such a long poem doesn't intimidate me as much as it used to. It's too bad you can't join us, but I understand. I'm feeling a little overloaded myself at the moment.

  19. I like the subtle moral meaning of the poem! One could not personify the human feeling better than Spenser did! I like your pondering on the topic! Really nice post!

  20. Thanks for your kind words! Writing, images, and feelings ….. Spenser is certainly incorporating all the senses! I'll definitely keep this in mind as I read.

  21. So impressed with the work you're doing for this! I'm nervous, I've hardly done any. And you know that documentary I told you about last year? I forgot to tell you – I'd recorded it but our Sky box got full and Sky deleted it 🙁 I blame Murdoch personally!

    I need to do some background reading myself – must get on with that! 🙂

  22. The more I read, the more I wonder if you can really prepare yourself for it. I think, since it's my first time through it, I'll just be focussing on the story, and after reading it once, hopefully I'll read it again and then draw out some of what the scholars have been talking about.

    I've also read reviews from people who read annotated editions and they said the annotations actually took away enjoyment of the poem. There is a balance between enjoyment and knowledge; you have to know what you're capable of at the particular time you read, and for me, as I said, it will be story first and if can draw anything else from it, it will be a bonus.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!