Layers upon layers - when to stop?
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Experience of the reader x Literary criticism divided by time spent reading = maximum enjoyment.
The Faerie Queene is a poem of over 36000 lines I have a target of reading just under half. Reading some 18000 lines of poetry takes a large chunk of time even if you read through it without stopping to check vocabulary or syntax. Spenser's poem does lend itself to this as the story of chivalrous knights riding out on quests can be appreciated on different levels according to the knowledge the reader has when he starts the poem. For example is he experienced in reading poetry, has he done any background reading to give himself an idea of the storyline. However as many of us will appreciate there is much more to it because of Spenser's use of allegory, his use of words that can be archaic and his propensity to make up words and the fact that we are reading late 16th century English, which can be difficult enough.
In my opinion to get more from the reading experience it is necessary to read some criticism of the poem and to read a little about Spenser himself. This of course can lead to reading a great deal of criticism and detailed biographies of Spenser's life. There are forums on the internet, encyclopaedias and other resources and so armed with all this extra knowledge it leads you to read the whole thing more than once. One of those readings might involve your own close reading to discover points that others have missed or not spelt out. The study opportunities are endless, because in a poem like The Faerie Queene there are layers upon layers.
The question then is: how do you know when you have read deeply enough? Macumbeira tells us that one of the pleasures of finishing The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann is that he can start it over again. A reading of a novel by Rick Harsch will be enhanced if we take time to appreciate the use of language and word play. (Unfortunately there is currently no scholarly book of literary criticism on Harsch's novels). How long should we spend on a Shakespeare play? How long on a poem like T S Eliot's Wasteland. When do you stop as there will come a point of diminishing returns when you have to read at greater length to understand only a little more.
Personally I tend to use the enjoyment factor, when I stop wanting to know more about a piece of literature and I no longer enjoy the reading experience I am happy to move on. But what about looking back in the future? Do I keep books read on my shelves for that purpose? Questions for serious readers I think, because we all run up against the same issue - There is not enough time to read all the books we want to read.
from my blog :
"Near the end of The Bughouse, his brilliant book on Ezra Pound, Daniel Swift reflects on the reading of Pound’s Cantos and on his own fascination with the “impossible poem”.
I recognize what he says about the Cantos in my own love affair with Joyce's Ulysses and other Modernist masterpieces.
"When we read late Pound we wade through a river of allusion which runs hard upon a love story beneath. This is the grand tension of this impossible poem. Capaciousness - the welcoming in of all sorts of voices, sources, modes and interference - is the Cantos great gift of poetry, but it is equally its damage. It is so tempting to read only for those fine lyrical refrains, and to overlook the bitty, argumentative interference to read, that is as magpies, picking at the pieces; but we may not. For the Cantos do not permit a simple opposition between poetry and history, or beauty and politics, or between reading as a poet or reading as an academic. Instead we must ferret out the footnotes, must consult the guides and speak with the scholars, before we can make any sense of them. The Cantos ask of us this care; that we expend our time in their unpacking.
This is however a trap. For the Cantos are an artwork which demands forty years of attention – many have devoted their working lives to precisely this – and once a reader has expended such care, he or she is bound to assume that its object has been worthwhile. It is the care which ennobles the subject, and this is how Pound converts literary critics into disciples.
It is not possible to be a casual reader of the Cantos".
So Rick you've got a long way to go to be a disciple.
The poetry of the Faerie Queene by Paul J Alpers and Allegorical Imagery by Rosemond Tuve.
Both books were published in the mid 1960's - I can't afford to buy the latest books on Spenser. The interesting thing is how they seem to dovetail together, both in their approach ask the question: How would Spenser's poem be read by a late 16th century reader (the Faerie Queene was published in 1590). The conclusion reached is that there tends to be too much analysis of Spenser's allegory in the poem, with some critics tying themselves in knots with their detailed examination of the events in the poem to fit with their ideas of what Spenser was saying or what he does say for the 21st century reader.
In books like the two above unless you are planning to write your own thesis on a subject you really only need to get to the main points in each chapter, so some skimming is essential, to otherwise I would never get back to reading Spenser.