In October 2015, in a BBC television programme in the series, ‘The Secret Life of Books’, Dr Janina Ramírez praised Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. This has led me to re-read it and make up my own mind about its merits.
FQ is a very long verse epic (nine-line stanzas, in a form invented by Spenser himself), dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. Books I-III were published in 1590, Books IV-VI in 1596, and a fragment (the Mutabilitie cantos), in 1609, after Spenser’s death. Spenser envisaged many more books but did not complete his work.
FQ shows the influence of the literary heritage, notably: the Bible, Homer, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, Ariosto, Tasso, Chaucer, and histories of Britain.
The letter to Sir Walter Raleigh
Usefully, Spenser provides a preface to FQ (Books I-III), in the form of an explanatory letter to Raleigh. Here, he “expounds [his] whole intention.” He describes the work as: “a continued allegory, or dark conceit”. “The general end of all the book,” he writes, “is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” [The spelling is modernised.]
However, it is best to read FQ in an edition that provides explanatory notes. (I have used: J P Roche Jr (ed) (1978), London: Penguin.)
FQ draws upon mythology, especially that created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Arthurian legend (Arthur and Merlin appear).
Spenser creates a fairy world, mysteriously adjacent to, and interpenetrating, Britain. It is peopled by: elfin knights (male and female, Christian and pagan), damsels in distress, wizards, witches, giants and dragons (etc), which symbolise various vices and virtues.
History and politics
FQ has characters that represent historical persons, notably Queen Elizabeth herself. The queen is represented by three figures:
- Gloriana, the Queen of Fairy Land (mentioned rather than appearing)
- Belphoebe, a Diana-like huntress
- Mercilla, a queen who dispenses mercy.
There is a political dimension to consider. In his writings, Spenser defended the 16th century Protestant constitution of England and the English hegemony over Ireland.
Much of the history of England and its neighbours, in Spenser’s lifetime, is portrayed (allegorically) in Cantos 9-12 of Book V: the trial of Mary Queen of Scots (Canto 9), the Spanish domination of the Low Countries (Canto 10-11), and the conversion of Henry IV of France to Catholicism (Canto 12).
Conflicts between characters (generally, good versus evil) are fought out as medieval battles: knights use swords and lances; rougher characters use cruder weapons. Each time, virtue is triumphant, sooner or later. As well as battles, there are also love relationships between knights and damsels, as well as the love of Britomart (a female knight) and Arthur.
Each component book (each composed of twelve cantos) is designed to celebrate a particular virtue:
- holiness (approximately, piety combined with chivalry)
These are followed by a fragment, which features a lively debate, featuring the claim of Mutability, before the Olympian gods and Nature, that she is the one who rules the world, as everything (from the planets down to life on earth) is subject to constant change.
Morality and virtue
An example of Spenser’s underlying moral purpose is provided by Book III, Canto 11, stanzas 25-6, where Scudamour and Britomart are contrasted. Britomart is portrayed as better equipped (through virtue) to overcome a manifestation of evil (in the form of a wall of flame), in order to enter Busirane’s castle:
Therewith resolved to prove her utmost might
Her ample shield she threw before her face,
And her sword’s point directing forward right,
Assailed the flame, the which eftsoons gave place,
And did itself divide with equal space,
That through she passed; as a thunderbolt
Pierceth the yielding air, and doth displace
The soaring clouds into sad showers ymolt [melted];
So to her yold [yielded] the flames, and did their force revolt.
Whom whenas Scudamour saw past the fire,
Safe and untouched, he likewise gan assay,
With greedy will, and envious desire,
And bad the stubborn flames to yield him way:
But cruel Mulciber would not obey
His threatful pride, but did the more augment
His mighty rage, and with imperious sway
Him forced (maugre) his fierceness to relent,
And back retire, all scorched and pitifully brent [burnt].
1 Spenser chose old-fashioned language, which acts as a barrier to the reader. It is quite different from that of contemporary poets. He imitates Chaucer; but what is natural with Chaucer looks forced in Spenser.
2 Spenser is skilled at painting tableaux vivants:
- the Seven Deadly Sins (Book I, Canto 4)
- the Bower of Bliss (II, 12)
- the Garden of Adonis (III, 6)
- Busirane’s castle and the Masque of Cupid (III, 11-12)
- the dance of the Graces (VI, 10)
- the pageant of the seasons and months (Mutabilitie, Canto 7).
3 FQ is laden with allegorical figures. It is difficult to sustain an allegorical narrative. Purely allegorical figures tend to be abstract and unreal: they are either good or bad, and they cannot change. As for the knights who largely personify one or more virtues but are less fully allegorical – they can be led astray by temptation or deception – but they are restored to moral health eventually.
4 FQ remains somewhat episodic, as there is no one unifying plot and resolution; and there are loose ends which (given time) Spenser may have tied up. Recommended connected stories are:
- Spenser’s continuation and conclusion of Chaucer’s unfinished Squire’s Tale (Book IV, Cantos 2-3)
- The quest of Sir Calidore in Book VI (Cantos 1-3 and 9-12)
- The Mutabilitie Cantos
5 For a present-day reader, other works by Spenser may be more attractive, especially his long poems that celebrate marriage, namely, the Epithalamion and the Prothalamion. Long poems by other poets active in the 1590s may also appeal, especially:
- Marlowe’s Hero and Leander
- Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece.
6 In his Don Quixote (1605 and 1615), Cervantes satirised both the chivalric epic and the deployment of magic in plots. Once Don Quixote had been widely published and translated, the epic of chivalry, as a genre, died out.
7 The Faerie Queene has literary merit and is very vivid, even exciting, in places. At the same time, it appears old-fashioned – backward rather than forward-looking – especially when compared with the works of Spenser’s contemporaries.