Study of The Faerie Queene

Study of The Faerie Queene

By Dr. George Armstrong Wauchope, Professor of English, South Carolina College

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser title page from 1590A Romantic Epic
Influence of the New Learning
Interpretation of the Allegory
The Spenserian Stanza
Versification
Diction and Style

1. A ROMANTIC EPIC.—The Faerie Queene is the most perfect type which we have in English of the purely romantic poem. Four elements enter into its composition: “it is pastoral by association, chivalrous by temper, ethical by tendency, and allegorical by treatment” (Renton). Its subject was taken from the old cycle of Arthurian legends, which were brightened with the terrorless magic of Ariosto and Tasso. The scene of the adventures is laid in the enchanted forests and castles of the far away and unreal fairyland of mediæval chivalry, and the incidents themselves are either highly improbable or frankly impossible. The language is frequently archaic and designedly unfamiliar. Much of the machinery and properties used in carrying on the story, such as speaking myrtles, magic mirrors, swords, rings, impenetrable armor, and healing fountains, is supernatural. All the characters—the knights, ladies, dwarfs, magicians, dragons, nymphs, satyrs, and giants—are the conventional figures of pastoral romance.

The framework of the plot of the Faerie Queene is vast and loosely put together. There are six main stories, or legends, and each contains several digressions and involved episodes. The plan of the entire work, which the author only half completed, is outlined in his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. This letter serves as an admirable introduction to the poem, and should be read attentively by the student. Gloriana, the Queen of Fairyland, holds at her court a solemn feudal festival, lasting twelve days, during which she sends forth twelve of her greatest knights on as many separate adventures. The knights are commissioned to champion the cause of persons in distress and redress their wrongs. The ideal knight, Prince Arthur, is the central male figure of the poem. He is enamoured of Gloriana, having seen her in a wondrous vision, and is represented as journeying in quest of her. He appears in all of the legends at opportune moments to succor the knights when they are hard beset or in the power of their enemies. The six extant books contain respectively the legends of (I) the Knight of the Redcrosse, or Holiness, (II) Sir Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, (III) Britomart, the female Knight of Chastity, (IV) Sir Campbell and Sir Triamond, the Knights of Friendship, (V) Sir Artegall, the Knight of Justice, and (VI) Sir Caledore, the Knight of Courtesy. Book I is an allegory of man’s relation to God, Book II, of man’s relation to himself, Books III, IV, V, and VI, of man’s relation to his fellow-man. Prince Arthur, the personification of Magnificence, by which Spenser means Magnanimity (Aristotle’s μεγαλοψυχία), is the ideal of a perfect character, in which all the private virtues are united. It is a poem of culture, inculcating the moral ideals of Aristotle and the teachings of Christianity.

2. INFLUENCE OF THE NEW LEARNING.—Like Milton, Gray, and other English poets, Spenser was a scholar familiar with the best in ancient and modern literature. As to Spenser’s specific indebtedness, though he owed much in incident and diction to Chaucer’s version of the Romance of the Rose and to Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the great epic poets, Tasso and Ariosto, should be given first place. The resemblance of passages in the Faerie Queene to others in the Orlando Furioso and the Jerusalem Delivered is so striking that some have accused the English poet of paraphrasing and slavishly borrowing from the two Italians. Many of these parallels are pointed out in the notes. To this criticism, Mr. Saintsbury remarks: “Not, perhaps, till the Orlando has been carefully read, and read in the original, is Spenser’s real greatness understood. He has often, and evidently of purpose, challenged comparison; but in every instance it will be found that his beauties are emphatically his own. He has followed Ariosto only as Vergil has followed Homer, and much less slavishly.”

The influence of the New Learning is clearly evident in Spenser’s use of classical mythology. Greek myths are placed side by side with Christian imagery and legends. Like Dante, the poet did not consider the Hellenic doctrine of sensuous beauty to be antagonistic to the truths of religion. There is sometimes an incongruous confusion of classicism and mediævalism, as when a magician is seen in the house of Morpheus, and a sorcerer goes to the realm of Pluto. Spenser was guided by a higher and truer sense of beauty than the classical purists know.

A very attractive element of his classicism is his worship of beauty. The Greek conception of beauty included two forms—the sensuous and the spiritual. So richly colored and voluptuous are his descriptions that he has been called the painters’ poet, “the Rubens,” and “the Raphael of the poets.” As with Plato, Spenser’s idea of the spiritually beautiful includes the true and the good. Sensuous beauty is seen in the forms of external nature, like the morning mist and sunshine, the rose gardens, the green elders, and the quiet streams. His ideal of perfect sensuous and spiritual beauty combined is found in womanhood. Such a one is Una, the dream of the poet’s young manhood, and we recognize in her one whose soul is as fair as her face—an idealized type of a woman in real life who calls forth all our love and reverence.

3. INTERPRETATION OF THE ALLEGORY.—In the sixteenth century it was the opinion of Puritan England that every literary masterpiece should not only give entertainment, but should also teach some moral or spiritual lesson. “No one,” says Mr. Patee, “after reading Spenser’s letter to Raleigh, can wander far into Spenser’s poem without the conviction that the author’s central purpose was didactic, almost as much as was Bunyan’s in Pilgrim’s Progress.” Milton doubtless had this feature of the Faerie Queene in mind when he wrote in Il Penseroso:—

“And if aught else great bards beside
In sage and solemn tunes have sung
Of turneys, and of trophies hung,
Of forests and enchantments drear,
Where more is meant than meets the ear.”

That the allegory of the poem is closely connected with its aim and ethical tendency is evident from the statement of the author that “the generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline. Which for that I conceived should be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historical fiction, the which the most part of men delight to read, rather for varietie of matter then for profite of the ensample.” The Faerie Queene is, therefore, according to the avowed purpose of its author, a poem of culture. Though it is one of the most highly artistic works in the language, it is at the same time one of the most didactic. “It professes,” says Mr. Church, “to be a veiled exposition of moral philosophy.”

The allegory is threefold,—moral, religious, and personal.

(a) Moral Allegory.—The characters all represent various virtues and vices, whose intrigues and warfare against each other symbolize the struggle of the human soul after perfection. The Redcross Knight, for example, personifies the single private virtue of holiness, while Prince Arthur stands for that perfect manhood which combines all the moral qualities; Una represents abstract truth, while Gloriana symbolizes the union of all the virtues in perfect womanhood.

(b) Religious or Spiritual Allegory.—Under this interpretation the Redcross Knight is a personification of Protestant England, or the church militant, while Una represents the true religion of the Reformed Church. On the other hand, Archimago symbolizes the deceptions of the Jesuits and Duessa the false Church of Rome masquerading as true religion.

(c) Personal and Political Allegory.—Here we find a concrete presentation of many of Spenser’s chief contemporaries. One of Spenser’s prime objects in composing his epic was to please certain powerful persons at court, and above all to win praise and patronage from the vain and flattery loving queen, whom he celebrates as Gloriana. Prince Arthur is a character that similarly pays homage to Lord Leicester. In the Redcross Knight he compliments, no doubt, some gentleman like Sir Philip Sidney or Sir Walter Raleigh, as if he were a second St. George, the patron saint of England, while in Una we may see idealized some fair lady of the court. In Archimago he satirizes the odious King Philip II of Spain, and in false Duessa the fascinating intriguer, Mary Queen of Scots, who was undeserving so hard a blow.

KEY TO THE ALLEGORY IN BOOK I

Characters Moral Religious and Spirtual Personal and Political
Redcross Knight Holiness Reformed England St George
Una Truth True Religion
Prince Arthur Magnificence, or
Private Virtue
Protestantism, or
the Church Militant
Lord Leicester
Gloriana Glory Spiritual Beauty Queen Elizabeth
Archimago Hypocrisy The Jesuits Phillip II of Spain
Duessa Falsehood False Religion Mary Queen of Scots,
Church of Rome
Orgoglio Carnal Pride Antichrist Pope Sixtus V
The Lion Reason, Natural Honor Reformation by Force Henry VIII, Civil Government
The Dragon Sin The Devil, Satan Rome and Spain
Sir Satyrane Natural Courage Law and Order in Ireland Sir John Perrott
The Monster Avarice Greed of Romanism Romish Priesthood
Corceca Blind Devotion, Superstition Catholic Penance Irish Nuns
Abessa Flagrant Sin Immorality Irish Nuns
Kirkrapine Church Robbery Religious State of Ireland Irish Clergy and Laity
Sansfoy Infidelity
Sansjoy Joylessness Pagan Religion The Sultan and the Saracens
Sansloy Lawlessness
The Dwarf Prudence, Common Sense
Sir Trevisan Fear
The Squire Purity The Anglican Clergy
The Horn Truth The English Bible
Lucifera Pride, Vanity Woman of Babylon Church of Rome

4. THE SPENSERIAN STANZA.—The Faerie Queene is written in the Spenserian Stanza, a form which the poet himself invented as a suitable vehicle for a long narrative poem. Suggestions for its construction were taken from three Italian metres—the Ottava Rima, the Terza Rima, the Sonnet—and the Ballade stanza. There are eight lines in the iambic pentameter measure (five accents); e.g.

            v -/- |  v   -/-   |  v   -/-  |  v -/- |  v   -/-
            a gen | tle knight | was prick | ing on | the plaine

followed by one iambic hexameter, or Alexandrine (six accents); e.g.—

            v  -/- |  v   -/-   |  v   -/-  |  v   -/-   | v  -/-  | v   -/-
            as one | for knight | ly giusts | and fierce | encount | ers fitt

The rhymes are arranged in the following order: ab ab bc bcc. It will be observed that the two quatrains are bound together by the first two b rhymes, and the Alexandrine, which rhymes with the eighth line, draws out the harmony with a peculiar lingering effect. In scanning and reading it is necessary to observe the laws of accentuation and pronunciation prevailing in Spenser’s day; e.g. in learned (I, i), undeserved (I, ii), and woundes (V, xvii) the final syllable is sounded; patience (X, xxix) is trisyllabic, devotion (X, xlvi) is four syllables, and entertainment (X, xxxvii) is accented on the second and fourth syllables. Frequently there is in the line a cæsural pause, which may occur anywhere; e.g.

“And quite dismembred hath; | the thirsty land

Dronke up his life; | his corse left on the strand.” (III, xx.)

The rhythm of the meter is also varied by the alternating of end-stopped and run-on lines, as in the last quotation. An end-stopped line has a pause at the end, usually indicated by some mark of punctuation. A run-on line should be read closely with the following line with only a slight pause to indicate the line-unit. Monotony is prevented by the occasional use of a light or feminine ending—a syllable on which the voice does not or cannot rest; e.g.

“Then choosing out few words most horrible.” (I, xxxvii.)

“That for his love refused deity.” (III, xxi.)

“His ship far come from watrie wilderness.” (III, xxxii.)

The use of alliteration, i.e. having several words in a line beginning with the same letter, is another device frequently employed by Spenser for musical effect; e.g.

“In which that wicked wight his dayes doth weare.” (I, xxxi.)

“Sweet slombring deaw, the which to sleep them biddes.” (I, xxxvi.)

5. VERSIFICATION.—In the handling of his stanza, Spenser revealed a harmony, sweetness, and color never before dreamed of in the English. Its compass, which admitted of an almost endless variety of cadence, harmonized well with the necessity for continuous narration. It appeals to the eye as well as to the ear, with its now languid, now vigorous, but always graceful turn of phrase. Its movement has been compared to the smooth, steady, irresistible sweep of water in a mighty river. Like Lyly, Marlowe, and Shakespeare, Spenser felt the new delight in the pictorial and musical qualities of words, and invented new melodies and word pictures. He aimed rather at finish, exactness, and fastidious neatness than at ease, freedom, and irregularity; and if his versification has any fault, it is that of monotony. The atmosphere is always perfectly adapted to the theme.

6. DICTION AND STYLE.—The peculiar diction of the Faerie Queene should receive the careful attention of the student. As a romantic poet, Spenser often preferred archaic and semi-obsolete language to more modern forms. He uses four classes of words that were recognized as the proper and conventional language of pastoral and romantic poetry; viz. (a) archaisms, (b) dialect, (c) classicisms, and (d) gallicisms. He did not hesitate to adopt from Chaucer many obsolete words and grammatical forms. Examples are: the double negative with ne; eyen, lenger, doen, ycladd, harrowd, purchas, raught, seely, stowre, swinge, owch, and withouten. He also employs many old words from Layamon, Wiclif, and Langland, like swelt, younglings, noye, kest, hurtle, and loft. His dialectic forms are taken from the vernacular of the North Lancashire folk with which he was familiar. Some are still a part of the spoken language of that region, such as, brent, cruddled, forswat, fearen, forray, pight, sithen, carle, and carke.

Examples of his use of classical constructions are: the ablative absolute, as, which doen (IV, xliii); the relative construction with when, as, which when (I, xvii), that when (VII, xi); the comparative of the adjective in the sense of “too,” as, weaker (I, xlv), harder (II, xxxvi); the participial construction after till, as, till further tryall made (I, xii); the superlative of location, as, middest (IV, xv); and the old gerundive, as, wandering wood (I, xiii). Most of the gallicisms found are anglicized loan words from the French romans d’aventure, such as, disseized, cheare, chappell, assoiled, guerdon, palfrey, recreaunt, trenchand, syre, and trusse. Notwithstanding Spenser’s use of foreign words and constructions, his language is as thoroughly English in its idiom as that of any of our great poets.

“I think that if he had not been a great poet,” says Leigh Hunt, “he would have been a great painter.”

“After reading,” says Pope, “a canto of Spenser two or three days ago to an old lady, between seventy and eighty years of age, she said that I had been showing her a gallery of pictures. I do not know how it is, but she said very right. There is something in Spenser that pleases one as strongly in old age as it did in youth. I read the Faerie Queene when I was about twelve, with infinite delight; and I think it gave me as much, when I read it over about a year or two ago.”

The imperishable charm of the poem lies in its appeal to the pure sense of beauty. “A beautiful pagan dream,” says Taine, “carries on a beautiful dream of chivalry.” The reader hears in its lines a stately and undulating rhythm that intoxicates the ear and carries him on with an irresistible fascination, he sees the unsubstantial forms of fairyland go sweeping by in a gorgeous and dreamlike pageantry, and he feels pulsing in its luxuriant and enchanted atmosphere the warm and beauty-loving temper of the Italian Renaissance. “Spenser is superior to his subject,” says Taine, “comprehends it fully, frames it with a view to the end, in order to impress upon it the proper mark of his soul and his genius. Each story is modified with respect to another, and all with respect to a certain effect which is being worked out. Thus a beauty issues from this harmony,—the beauty in the poet’s heart,—which his whole work strives to express; a noble and yet a laughing beauty, made up of moral elevation and sensuous seductions, English in sentiment, Italian in externals, chivalric in subject, modern in its perfection, representing a unique and admirable epoch, the appearance of paganism in a Christian race, and the worship of form by an imagination of the North.”

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This text comes from the introduction to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book 1 (New York: MacMillan, 1921).

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When will you read Edmund Spenser’s writing in Excellence in Literature?

E4.3 Focus text: The Faerie Queene (Book 1) and the “Letter to Raleigh”

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