first glance, this week’s selection might not appear terribly promising. It is taken from the
longest poem in the history of English literature — Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth-century The
Faerie Queene — which, while once considered among the greatest verse ever written, is
now read in its entirety only by the real triatheletes of literary studies. Granted, The
Faerie Queene spans over 1100 pages, is written in a faux medieval English and takes as its
theme the allegorical presentation of the moral virtues — hardly Hollywood material. Yet to
the attentive (and persevering) reader The Faerie Queene proves to be the lushest of
semiotic mangroves, extending its endless roots through the swampland of poetic language to
generate a complete, self-sustaining ecosystem.
In The Faerie Queene, one can find almost anything: including the erotic. The* * *
passage below, when seen with a discerning eye, is extraordinarily sexy. It is part of Spenser’s
allegorical portrayal of Malbecco, the jealous husband, and Hellenore, his inconstant wife.
Malbecco is so jealous that, contrary to medieval courtesy, he never admits errant knights to his
castle, no matter what the weather. But the scene takes place during a maelstrom, and the
three knights caught in it, Britomart, Paridell and Satyrane, threaten to burn Malbecco’s castle
down unless he lets them in. He finally does, and they are taken to meet him at the dinner
table. Hellenore soon joins them, and what transpires is a marvel of subtle symbolism in one of
the most important and nuanced sign systems in the universe: flirting. So sit back and see how
the pros do it:
From Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene
(translated and modified from the original)
She came in presence with true comely grace,
And kindly them saluted as became
Herself a gentle courteous dame.
They sat to meat, and Satyrane to Hellenore
Was her before, and Paridell beside.
. . . On her fair face Paridell fed his fill
And sent close messages of love at will.
And ever and anon, when noone was aware,
With speaking looks that secret message bore
He gazed at her, and told his hidden care
With all the art that he had learned of yore.
Nor was she ignorant of that seductive lore,
But in his eye his meaning wisely read,
And with the like answered him evermore:
She sent at him one fiery dart, whose head
Empoisoned was with secret lust and jealous dread.
He from that deadly throw made no defence,
But to the wound his weak heart opened wide.
The wicked engine through false influence
Passed through his eyes and secretly did glide
Into his heart, which it did sorely chide.
But nothing new to him was that same pain,
Nor pain at all; for he so oft had tried
The power thereof, and loved so oft in vain,
That thing of course he counted, love to entertain.
Thenceforth to her he sought to intimate
His inward grief, by means to him well known:
Now Bacchus’ fruit out of the silver plate
He on the table dashed, and overthrowed
The cup of fruited liquor overflowed
And by the dancing bubbles did divine
And therein write to let his love be showed;
Which well she read out of the learned line:
A sacrament profane in mystery of wine.
And when so of his hand the pledge had passed
The guilty cup she fained to mistake,
And in her lap did spill her brimming glass
Showing desire her inward flames to slake.
By such close signs they a secret way did make
Unto their wills, and watched for due escape . . .