Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey in conjunction with poet and professor Jo Shapcott have won a grant from the AHRC / ESRC Religion and Society programme for a major new creative project which will investigate the spiritual possibilities of the present by rescuing from neglect one of the great epics of English literature, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. A poem of militant Protestantism contemporary with the original establishment of the national church, The Faerie Queene is remote from mainstream secular society, and from its relatively quiescent and marginalised official church. Paradoxically, in present-day England Spenser's poem has most in common with the insurgent religious intensity of other, 'minority' faiths. And yet, poetry itself has, since Spenser, lost much of its power to speak to and intervene in issues of fundamental social and religious concern.
‘The Faerie Queene Now’ responds by remaking religious poetry for today's world. Kicking off from April this year, it speaks to where we have come from and where we are going by exploring Spenser's foundational poem in various present-day religious, educational and cultural contexts. But it also aims to recreate and refunction Spenser's epic as a positive contribution to contemporary life. It hopes to bring some of the energy of Spenser's art and moment into official English religion, which it also hopes to open further to energetic and diverse elements not allowed for or even foreseen by the original national church. At the same time, it aims to bring official religion into creative dialogue with other groups in English society that are entirely beyond incorporation into any established church. In short, the project seeks via poetry and the imagination the greatest possible representation of religious and secular interests in relation to our shared inheritance and to those issues of religion and society which, one way or another, matter to us all.
The project splits into two main component projects. One is the The Faerie Queene Liturgy Project, which seeks to create new liturgical texts and solidarity-building rituals for contemporary society inspired by the quest for holiness in Book 1 of Spenser's epic. Here Fernie will work in conjunction with Shapcott and another major contemporary poet, Michael Symmons Roberts, as well as with the theologian Andrew Shanks, who has made a case for 'shaken poetry' as a source of religious renovation. This team will prepare two extraordinary, inclusive events for the two very different environments of Manchester Cathedral and St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, working in each case with an impressive group of consultants including scholars, artists and theologians. The culminating event in Windsor will feature Andrew Motion and form part of the Windsor Spring Festival, 2011. The event in Manchester, on May the 8th, 2011, will be preceded by a procession, through the city streets, with Catalan-style 'gegants', giant puppet figures, representing Spenserian figures. Fernie and Andrew Taylor, the Project Administrator, have recently won further funding to commission new ‘*Faerie Queene* Canticles’ to be performed on these occasions from composer Tim Garland and jazz trio Acoustic Triangle and the Holloway College Choir.
The Liturgy Project will be complemented by the Fable and Drama Project, in which Palfrey will work with the director Elisabeth Dutton to evolve new stories and a play through intense collaboration with heterogeneous educational communities: two ethnically diverse comprehensive secondary schools, both from socially deprived wards; and the radically different students of Oxford University. This part of the project will come to fruition with a closed performance at Shakespeare’s Globe and, possibly, a new film. The two projects will come together in two events of reflection, dialogue and synthesis: a public arts event themed round Spenser and run by the Poet in the City charity at major London venue King's Place on the 7th of March 2011 and a two-day cross-sector conference on poetry and spirituality at Cumberland Lodge 26th-28th of January 2011.
For more and up-to-date details of the project and these events, please see the project website http://www.rhul.ac.uk/English/faeriequeene/index.html.