Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sound Familiar?

So, not surprisingly, re-acquainting myself with THE FAERIE QUEENE after all these years*, this time as an audiobook, has made me want to go back and read some more about the work as well. I wd have started with C. S. Lewis's SPENSER'S IMAGES OF LIFE, although this posthumous book (put together from Lewis's lecture notes after his death by a friend) didn't do much for me when I first read it. But then that was a decade or so after I'd read the Spenser, so re-reading it immediately after experiencing the poem again might have a different effect. In any case, finding out will have to wait until I have a chance to run up to Suzzallo-Allen library again for another day's work in their wonderful Reading Room, probably sometime next week.

But then I realized I had a better piece of Lewis criticism on Spenser close at hand: the half-a-chapter he devotes to THE FAERIE QUEENE and Spenser's other works in THE OXFORD HISTORY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE: ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, EXCLUDING DRAMA** (surely one of the least appealing titles any major critical work ever struggled under). And I no sooner started looking through it than the following passage struck me.

Lewis here is talking of Spenser's struggles to bring a long, complex, interconnected work to completion, but almost everything he says could, I think, just as easily be applied to Tolkien's epic struggles with The Silmarillion. Since the paragraph quoted (from pages 379-380) is so long, I've broken it up into shorter paragraphs for easier reading:

Spenser did not live to complete the great poem which was his life's work. It would be salutary if instead of talking about the Faerie Queene we sometimes talked of Fragment A ([Books] I-III), Fragment B ([Books] IV-VI) and Fragment C ([The Cantos of] Mutabilitie). This would help to remind us that the inconsistencies we find in it are those of a partially written work. The letter to Raleigh***prefixed to Fragment A gives us, no doubt, the design that was uppermost in Spenser's mind when he wrote that letter. It had not, in its entirety, been in his mind at all stages during the composition of that Fragment. It had been in some degree abandoned when he wrote Fragment C.

There is nothing surprising about this. There is a stage in the invention of any long story at which the outsider would see nothing but chaos. Numerous alternatives, written, half-written, and unwritten (the latter possibly the most influential of all) ferment together. Passages which no longer fit the main scheme are retained because they seem too good to lose; they will be harmonized somehow later on if the author lives to complete his work. Even a final revision often leaves ragged edges; unnoticed by generations of readers but pointed out in the end by professional scholars.

There is a psychological law which makes it harder for the author to detect them than for the scholar. To the scholar an event in fiction is as firm a datum as an event in real life: he did not choose and cannot change it. The author has chosen it and changed it and seen it in its molten condition passing from one shape to another. It has as many rivals for its place in his memory as it had for its place in the final text.

This cause of error is of course aggravated if the story is labyrinthine, as Spenser's was. And it is aggravated still further if his professional duties permit him to work on his story only at rare intervals. Returning to work on an interrupted story is not like returning to work on a scholarly article. Facts, however long the scholar has left them untouched in his notebook, will still prove the same conclusions; he has only to start the engine running again.

But the story is an organism: it goes on surreptitiously growing or decaying while your back is turned. If it decays, the resumption of work is like trying to coax back to life an almost extinguished fire, or to recapture the confidence of a shy animal which you had only partially tamed at your last visit. But if (as is far more probable) it grows, proliferates, 'wantons in its prime', then you will come back to find it
Changed like a garden in the heat of spring
After an eight-days' absence.
Fertile chaos has obliterated the paths . . .

Particularly telling, I think, is the observation about "professional duties permit[ting] him to work on his story only at rare intervals", which was certainly the case for Tolkien. I find Lewis's experience apparently differs greatly from mine on one point in that he asserts it's easy to pick up the thread of an essay that's been set aside for a while; I find it otherwise. Though that might explain Lewis's prolificacy.

In any case, an interesting comment on one author's dilemma that I thought applied equally well to another's.

--John R.


*I originally read it in the Variorium Edition, checked out of the college library volume-by-volume, in snatches while working at the Rocket Drive-In. And though I've re-read parts since (Bk I, Bk III, the Cantos of Mutability) I've never re-read the whole.

**the O.H.E.L., or 'O HELL', as Lewis called it.

***think: Letter to Waldman?

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

Insightful parallel; thanks for finding it. There are a lot of brilliant insights buried in that tome; Lewis was a great literary scholar, and it really shows.

Eventually the OUP realized that they'd burdened Lewis with one of the clumsiest titles in all academia, and more recent reprints of his volume have come out under the title "Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century."