England may now boast to contain not just one, but two great living epic poets. Virtue’s End: A Continuation of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, by Joseph Sale, surpasses nearly all other claimants to the genre today. England’s other great living epic poet—and the man who has done more to revive genuine examples of this literary species than anyone else in our times—is none other than Joseph’s own paternal forbear, James Sale. This father and son writing duo recalls the intergenerational creativity of the Bach and Brueghel families. And while the imprint of James’s style is evident in that of Joseph, “Sale the Younger” is by no means the inferior copyist that Pieter Breughel the Younger was.
Though the younger Sale is an accomplished and prolific author (having written ten novels and numerous short stories before the age of 30), this work arguably represents the pinnacle of his literary achievements. While the word ‘masterpiece’ gets thrown around a lot and ‘genius’ is over-generalized to include everyone from sports coaches to reality television stars, Virtue’s End and its author are the real deal.
So what is this thing about? Unlike his father James, who is, like Dante, basically himself in his epic HellWard, the main character in Virtue’s End is more than a straightforward autobiographical stand-in. Joseph Sale transforms himself into an epic hero in the form of Horus, via a painting of the Egyptian god created by his dreaming, barren mother that came to life. Then, after drinking from the Chalice Well at Glastonbury (which makes him “impervious to any demon’s grip”) and entering the Tor (according to legend, the site of Avalon), he gains sorcerer’s powers. He reforges the legendary sword Chrysaor by shooting magma from his hands and proceeds to follow “the will / of heaven and hell combined.” As if this were not enough, after being apparently killed in the poem’s third volume (“Liberality”), he absorbs some rays of the sun and briefly takes on the powers of Hyperion, the Titan of heavenly light, “whose beams scorched black my mother’s womb.” In volume four (“Pride”) he encounters Malicia, Queen of Thorns, a temptress and old flame who gropes his giant member and recounts episodes of his tremendous sexual prowess.
Whoa. When I write my memoir I’m definitely going to take some “enhancement tips” from this guy. Whether Joseph Sale’s real member is actually as huge as the one enwrapped by Malicia’s unnaturally long tongue is an irrelevant question—but I believe it. This characterization makes for a massively entertaining story. It is also not as “macho” as one might think, containing moments of painful confessions and revelations (including a courageous account of the protagonist being raped as a child).
The book itself is the product of a self-described religious experience in which the Archangel Gabriel pierced Sale’s left hand at Glastonbury during the festival of Michaelmas. In the author’s note that opens the book, Sale explains that this led to an “awakening” of a “repressed magical current.” Within six months, this current had led to the completion of “the book you now hold in your hands.”
Hmm, ok. So Hesiod heard the angelic voices of the muses, and Sale is permeated with a magical, holy fire. Poets have always received inspiration in ways that seem strange, or even outright crazy, to the average person. One might be tempted to laugh at this story, as my skeptical wife did (she was convinced he must have been on drugs at the time). But wait…a 400 page epic poem of high literary quality, written in less than six months? A novel of this length typically takes about two years to write, and a poem takes many years more. So in Sale’s case, there must have been a superhuman feat of creative stamina going on. Maybe he is the Horus/Hyperion hybrid he fictionalized himself as, after all. Poets use lies to tell the truth all the time, as Spenser knew.
There is something eccentric about fictionalized narratives based on the author’s personal experience, expressing selections from the largely accidental accrual of relations and situations that have snowballed into one’s life over the years. Some modern readers, for example, have been put off by the way that Dante’s personal acquaintances make cameo appearances in The Divine Comedy. Virtue’s End also has a certain idiosyncratic quality. Real life friends, enemies, and intellectual influences show up as characters, including Mary Shelley, the Chinese-American business consultant and inspirational author Chin-Ning Chu (transformed into a knight), the once-famous author Charles Maturin, and his literary creation Melmoth the Wanderer. Above all, and foremost among this cast of characters, is none other than Spenser himself!
A “Continuation” of Spenser?
While Virtue’s End is subtitled a “continuation” of Spenser’s Faerie Queene rather than a straightforward sequel as such, the reader who is familiar with that poem will take much delight in discovering the fates of its various characters. Spoiler alert: they came to bad ends! Artegal, Britomart, Satyrane and the other heroes of Spenser’s epic have all been killed by the iron golems of King Silicor, and the Faerie Queene herself has become “The Sleepless Queen,” a creature that is:
neither faerie, elf, nor woman but a dragon older than the sun, with four eyes set upon her scaly brow, that two might close and rest, while others watched continuously.
Instead of merely imitating the Bower of Bliss, as the Spenserian poet James Thomson once did in The Castle of Indolence (and Spenser himself took from Ariosto), Sale gives us a city called Brighterling. It deceives the serfs building Silicor’s iron army that they are in heaven with “a forged and painted light” that makes the city seem like it is made of gold. Other allusions to, and inspirations based on, FQ run thick in VE.
But will readers unfamiliar with Spenser be able to enjoy VE? The short answer is, yes, though not quite as much. Not to worry, however—there is still an abundance of action to offset any references the average reader may find obscure.
Thankfully, VE is not nearly as long as Spenser’s original work. The Faerie Queene, at 36,000 lines (if one includes the unfinished “Mutabilitie Cantos”), is the second-longest great epic poem in the Western tradition, after Ariosto’s 38,000-line Orlando Furioso. While there are a few epic poems in world history that are longer, notably the Mahabharata and Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, these “lighter” Renaissance tomes are still far too weighty for the average reader today, who has difficulty digesting anything more than bite-sized tweets. Perhaps we can be thankful that Spenser died prematurely at the age of 46—had he lived to complete a chapter for each of the 24 virtues he intended to write about, instead of the six that he did, it would be unwieldy.
Another reason readers today find Spenser distasteful is his penchant for allegory. Allegory is a type of symbolism that does more than simply make an abstract idea concrete: allegorical objects and characters have a moral dimension that is at once both hidden and explicit. The most common form occurring in Spenser is a character that, based on mannerisms and physical appearance, apparently represents some ethical quality and bears a specially coined name etymologically related to that quality. A good example is the name Briana, first coined by Spenser to mean “strong” and “honorable” (her lover Crudor, incidentally, has not enjoyed the same level of enduring popularity as far as baby names go). It is up to the reader to do the detective work and figure out exactly which moral trait each character is portraying. For obvious reasons this is a practice that is deeply unfashionable in contemporary fiction—not only must readers be made to think, but they are constantly being preached to as well. Yet Sale makes it work in several places without being confusing, heavy-handed, or obscure. The six parts of VE each take as a theme six additional virtues that Spenser meant to write about, but never did, in his unfinished epic.
In two of the most entertaining cantos of the book, “The Trial of Thieves” and “The Punishment of Parasites,” the allegorical quality of this epic shines through particularly well and also affords moments of black humor. While on a seabound voyage the crew of heroes encounter Scylla, who demands 10 passengers to feast on. Melmoth offers up thieves and parasites. The first, an opportunist in the publishing industry representing the “Thief of Fortune,” mourns the destruction of his two thousand dollar suit while Scylla chomps on him. Other unscrupulous capitalists who “built empires on the sweat of slaves”—the Thieves of Joy, Hope, Freedom, and Trust—make similar jokes as they are being devoured (save the Thief of Trust, who is able to swim away). After the Thieves are eaten, it is time for the comeuppance of the Parasites. The Parasite of Generosity steals “a gory nugget” from Scylla’s jaws to munch on before being himself devoured. Like the Thieves, the other Parasites—of Love, Money, Opportunity, Talent, and Time—also meet gruesome and darkly hilarious endings.
In Canto 5 of the first section we meet Edmund Spenser himself—in Hell, being torn apart by vultures for all eternity. His punishment as a sort of literary version of Prometheus is no accident. This is Sale’s muse, his literary father:
A small “hobbit-like” man, His eyes shone bright, a cloud-like light obscuring unknown depths, deeper, much deeper than death, a fathomless, profound, and brooding dark, as though when God made him, he burned with a diviner spark.
Melmoth describes him as a “Celestial Thief” whom “even Homer feared”:
“He saw too much, drank Spirit’s fire, see how Truth’s rewarded with vicious, stabbing ire.”
Horus takes the lead in killing the vultures and freeing him, so Spenser joins their crew. Fittingly, Spenser’s first speech addressed to his liberators is structured in a perfect Spenserian stanza:
“Magician, bearing Artegal’s proud blade, why have you rescued me from vulture’s pen? These monsters of the Id, which God forbade, are punishment for my failure to end The Faerie Queen, the light that all wounds mend is dead, I watched her die, there’s nothing left, I am no longer Prince, nor Poet, nor friend, and only grief remains, leaving my heart bereft, no balm exists that can repair what God has left.”
Spenser’s despair is allayed and his normal human size restored when informed that “your Queen yet lives, / though changed in form”—referring to his original mythologized representation of Elizabeth I. Spenser then admonishes them to rally the knights from his epic—Artegal, Guyon, and Britomart, Calidore, Cambel, Triamond, Satyrane, and “the Redcross Knight, our dear Saint George” to destroy Silicor, the villain of the book’s first section. He gets some bad news, however: “They’re dead, Fair Poet, all of them.”
Spenser collapsed, his eyes like dying suns. Doubled over, emptied, a punctured gourd. “Chastity and Justice dead? Friendship and Courtesy? Temperance? Even Holiness?” “Dead: the Redcross broke his vows.”
Spenser swells with rage and vows to destroy the man responsible in a passage that lends the book it’s title:
“If this is to be virtue’s end, then I’ll make sure our enemies will never rise again, and though we perish, one last epiphany, all men and women afterwards will know, we did not bow to tyranny.”
It is not only Spenser that Sale references. A mixture of spiritual journey and action adventure story, there are touches of The Inferno and The Odyssey as well (as the above chapters featuring Scylla demonstrate). There are even metaphorical allusions to The Lord of the Rings: in addition to Spenser being described as “hobbit-like,” an ugly beacon in a landscape is like “Sauron’s eye,” and a dark tunnel is “blacker than Shelob’s lair.” The book’s Dantesque journey through hell mixed with Homeric fight scenes (and an all-out war for existence during the climactic final section) makes it more entertaining than a simple spiritual journey, but more profound than a straightforward adventure—and always quite bizarre. There is little of normalcy in Sale’s imagination. The grotesque intersects with the sublime in ways that one would find hard to believe if it weren’t right there on the page.
Numerous long Spenserian poems have been written over the centuries. The most memorable is Childe Harold’s Pilgramage, the work that made Byron famous. Then there are the non-canonical poems written by canonical poets, such as Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam. Finally, in the largest category, there are minor authors with forgotten works like Thomas Cooper’s Purgatory of Suicides and Thomson’s aforementioned The Castle of Indolence. All of these works listed employ the Spenserian stanza, the nine-line grouping excerpted in Spenser’s speech above.
Virtue’s End, in contrast, has no strict meter or rhyme scheme. Its loose iambic lines range from diametric to hexametric, and only very rarely go beyond that—appropriate, since a heptameter line always seems too long in English and usually has a natural caesura somewhere that indicates it could be split in two. While there are quite a few near rhymes and occasional perfect rhymes (which sometimes end sections and chapters, either in couplet form or separated by an unrhymed line), there is no strict rhyme scheme.
The first eighteen lines are a case in point: while forming part of a single stanza, they contain couplets at the eight and ninth line and the seventeenth and eighteenth, respectively, creating a natural, if small, division within the stanza—sort of nested stanzas hidden within the larger structure. This subtle structural reference, along with a few near rhymes, seems to pay homage to the famous Spenserian stanza while allowing Sale to carve out his own stylistic originality. So while not strictly formal, neither is the work formless, a point that the author himself drives home within the poem:
A formless mind is like a formless poem, pointless, and dangerous, it strikes at all it sees and has no aim.
The surprise effect of using unexpected rhymes mimics and augments the quality of suspense and horror that characterizes much of Sale’s oeuvre. His use of near-rhyme combined with a lack of consistent structure, however, sometimes led me question whether the near rhyme was merely coincidental, particularly in the case of “far near-rhyme”—a confusion which may be as much, or more, the fault of the poet-reviewer searching for hidden structures as that of the author.
Art Meets Life
One other passage in the book deserves to be discussed in depth. It occurs when Horus travels to the palace of the sun and meets his father Hyperion, a scene reminiscent of Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Phaethon meets Phoebus Apollo. The characterization nicely parallels that of Spenser, the literary father figure. The father’s light reveals his son’s “weakness of the heart: despair,” and then notices that Horus has been seriously wounded in the thigh. At this point Hyperion draws a comparison to himself:
“This wound,” my father said, “is like my cancer, inward bred.” Spenser looked confused. “How can a god suffer from mortal ill?” “Hah! Even Gods are subject to the rot of cancer, its corruption, deep within,” Hyperion mused long, began to weave A finger through the air, burning letters, Which formed in perfect terza rima verse, “I lost the path, abandoned God, the Way, and such disease is only cured by Fate, to meet our destiny, what it will say and so with me, I’d questioned al my state, how was God just if I was not raised up? How proud I was, but how that pride now grates.”
Nice. Sale the Younger here not only imitates the Elder’s style and indirectly references his epic HellWard (the first long poem in English to both use near rhyme extensively and employ terza rima), but draws attention to the “rot of cancer” that plagued the father and served as the inspiration for that narrative (in which the author-protagonist, awakening in a cancer ward, journeys through the levels of a hospital). After learning about the source of his son’s wound, Hyperion then becomes enraged and nearly burns everyone in the room to a crisp, leading one to speculate on the extent of James Sale’s real-life anger issues.
Horus throws himself at the feet of Hyperion and begs him to forgive his perceived failures as a son. The father returns the son’s love and they embrace:
and he, embracing back, held me to heart, I felt its beating, rhythmic pulse, that settled all my fears and thoughts, and buried in his light, I wept, and felt a burden lifted, carried so long, I’d not remembered how it bent my spine.
It is a moving scene where art seems to reflect life in a profound way, though I am not privy to the details of their father-son relationship (which Joseph once described to me as “intense”). Whatever conflict they have experienced in life, there seems to be a degree of closure obtained in this passage, and it is hard to imagine James Sale not getting a tad misty-eyed upon first reading it.
The modern industrial democratic age, with its emphasis on vulgar prose and the need for math skills, places little significance on literary verse epics. Virtue’s End, however, is an important—and even necessary—story for our times, representing a major contribution to the revival of epic now occurring within the formalist tradition.