Elizabethan English Poetry
Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Qveene
16th century, Elizabethan English. Numerous printed copies.
again and againEx(change) of identity
She asked if, when the life of her eldest son was taken, his soul might be allowed to pass into the second of the brothers, and so with the second into the third.
'It’s a fascinating idea, but it makes no sense the way Edmund Spenser has it at the end. It doesn't seem to be the way he originally explained it,' objected Miranda.
'What do you mean?' asked Quintin.
'Well, it doesn’t sound like the way it was intended at the beginning of the story – what happens at the end, I mean. When one of the brothers dies and his soul flies straight into the body of another brother who is himself about to die anyway. What happens to the soul that the other brother already has? Look. The three brothers Priamond, Diamiond and Triamond are born to the same mother on the same day and are said to possess one soul between them. Their mother is a Fay who frequented forests and conceived them by a knight. She brought them up in seclusion and when their warlike nature, inherited from their father, asserts itself, she goes to the three Fates, Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis to learn her sons’ destiny.
'One of the Fates grasps the rock that holds chaos at bay, another pulls a thread from it and the third snips the thread into lengths, each denoting the length of a man’s life. Being shown the thread of each of her sons and seeing them all so short, all so short, and being told that fate cannot be reversed, she asks if, when the life of the eldest is taken, his soul might be allowed to pass into the second of the brothers, and so with the second into the third. She asked the Fates:
Then since (quoth she) the terme of each mans life for nought may lessened nor enlarged be, graunt this, that when ye shred with fatall knife his line which is the eldest of the three, which is of them the shortest, as I see, eftsoones his life may passe into the next; and when the next shall likewise ended bee, that both their liues may likewise be annext vnto the third, that his may be so trebly wext .
'Lengthened by three times the amount. She asks this for her three sons, who were all born on the same day; and the fates allow it. And then she returns to the surface of the Earth.
'If the brothers are supposed to have one soul between them, doesn't it make much better sense if the three threads are laid end to end, so that when one life comes to the end of its thread, it begins again at the start of the next?' said Miranda. 'Not just fly out of one body into the body of the next brother who is about to die anyway! That's just cruelty. But it's what happens. So is Spenser playing games with us?'