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This may be a generalisation, but I’m sure that most people who read The Faerie Queene never go back to it. It’s not the lightest text to read on an easy night in, and Spenser as a character wasn’t too charming. However, in my recent studies of the text I’ve made some discoveries (sounds exciting, right?) My first points will seem completely irrelevant, but bear with me. Also, apologies for any parts that don’t seem to make sense: my brain doesn’t seem to want to switch on fully today!
Wilfred Owen was an English poet and soldier during World War I, writing in shocking detail the horrors of trench and gas warfare that he witnessed. If you studied in an English secondary school, you probably read Dulce et Decorum Est in your English classes. If not, here’s a section (or you can read the whole piece here):
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
You may be able to deduce from the intensity of Owen’s writing here that he suffered from PTSD. He was diagnosed with “shell shock” after first being blown high into the air by a trench mortar, landing on the remains of a fellow officer, and later being trapped in an old German dugout for days. As a result, he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment, where he met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was to considerably influence his war poetry.
“The scenery was such as I never saw or dreamed of since I read The Faerie Queene. Just as in the Winter when I woke up lying on the burning cold snow I fancied that I must have died & been pitch-forked into the Wrong Place, so, yesterday, it was not more difficult to imagine that my dusky barge was wending up to Avalon, and the peace of Arthur, and where Lancelot heals him of his grievous wound.”
If you’ve read The Faerie Queene, you’ll probably realise that Owen confuses the plot with another book (Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, in fact). Yet this confusion shows how Owen associated in his memory the FQ with the romantic pastoralism of Malory’s text, which is not a negative factor. It seems that Owen associates Arthur’s “grievous wound” with his own PTSD, and hence uses literature to aid his PTSD healing.
In the same year as Wilfred Owen wrote this, a British officer named John Bailey related a story of an officer who read The Faerie Queene to his men when they were in a particularly difficult situation. Although the men didn’t necessarily understand all the words that he read, the poetry had a soothing influence on them. Why? Perhaps because the story relates magical and idyllic occurrences, which provide an escape for those in difficulty, or the Spenserian stanza may have a particularly therapeutic rhythm. Alternatively, one event in particular from the text appealed to me, as a sufferer of PTSD. This is in Book I, when the Redcrosse Knight is brought by Una to “The House of Holiness”. The story explains,
“From what had happened in the Cave of Despair, Una saw that her Knight had grown faint and feeble; his long imprisonment had wasted away all his strength, and he was still quite unfit to fight. Therefore she determined to bring him to a place where he might refresh himself, and recover from his late sad plight.”
This sounds rather like Wilfred Owen‘s story, doesn’t it? Perhaps this passage appealed to both Owen and the soldiers that John Bailey tells of – they too were looking for the rest and contemplation needed to refresh their mental and physical strength. To aid their PTSD, they were attracted to texts that they could relate to, and that encouraged them to recover. Even the Redcrosse Knight, a mythical figure of valiance, needed his own time to recuperate after battle. Why shouldn’t these soldiers, or any other PTSD sufferer, do the same?