The Age Which Produced The Faerie Queene
By Dr. George Armstrong Wauchope, Professor of English, South Carolina College
The study of the Faerie Queene should be preceded by a review of the great age in which it was written. An intimate relation exists between the history of the English nation and the works of English authors. This close connection between purely external events and literary masterpieces is especially marked in a study of the Elizabethan Age. To understand the marvelous outburst of song, the incomparable drama, and the stately prose of this period, one must enter deeply into the political, social, and religious life of the times.
The Faerie Queene was the product of certain definite conditions which existed in England toward the close of the sixteenth century. The first of these national conditions was the movement known as the revival of chivalry; the second was the spirit of nationality fostered by the English Reformation; and the third was that phase of the English Renaissance commonly called the revival of learning.
The closing decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign was marked by a strong reaction toward romanticism. The feudal system with its many imperfections had become a memory, and had been idealized by the people. The nation felt pride in its new aristocracy, sprung largely from the middle class, and based rather on worth than ancestry. The bitterness of the Wars of the Roses was forgotten, and was succeeded by an era of reconciliation and good feeling. England was united in a heroic queen whom all sects, ranks, and parties idolized. The whole country exulting in its new sense of freedom and power became a fairyland of youth, springtime, and romantic achievement.
Wise and gallant courtiers, like Sidney, Leicester, and Raleigh, gathered about the queen, and formed a new chivalry devoted to deeds of adventure and exploits of mind in her honor. The spirit of the old sea-kings lived again in Drake and his bold buccaneers, who swept the proud Spaniards from the seas. With the defeat of the Invincible Armada, the greatest naval expedition of modern times, the fear of Spanish and Catholic domination rolled away. The whole land was saturated with an unexpressed poetry, and the imagination of young and old was so fired with patriotism and noble endeavor that nothing seemed impossible. Add to this intense delight in life, with all its mystery, beauty, and power, the keen zest for learning which filled the air that men breathed, and it is easy to understand that the time was ripe for a new and brilliant epoch in literature. First among the poetic geniuses of the Elizabethan period came Edmund Spenser with his Faerie Queene, the allegory of an ideal chivalry.
This poem is one of the fruits of that intellectual awakening which first fertilized Italian thought in the twelfth century, and, slowly spreading over Europe, made its way into England in the fifteenth century. The mighty impulse of this New Learning culminated during the reign of the Virgin Queen in a profound quickening of the national consciousness, and in arousing an intense curiosity to know and to imitate the rich treasures of the classics and romance. Its first phase was the classical revival. The tyrannous authority of ecclesiasticism had long since been broken; a general reaction from Christian asceticism had set in; and by the side of the ceremonies of the church had been introduced a semi-pagan religion of art—the worship of moral and sensuous beauty. Illiteracy was no longer the style at court. Elizabeth herself set the example in the study of Greek. Books and manuscripts were eagerly sought after. Scholars became conversant with Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and the great tragic poets Sophocles, Euripides, and Æschylus; and translations for the many of Vergil, Ovid, Plautus, Terence, and Seneca poured forth from the printing-presses of London. The English mind was strongly tempered by the idealistic philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and the influence of Latin tragedy and comedy was strongly felt by the early English drama.
Along with this classical culture came a higher appreciation of the beauty of mediævalism. The romantic tendency of the age fostered the study of the great epics of chivalry, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, and of the cycles of French romance. From the Italian poets especially Spenser borrowed freely. Ariosto’s fresh naturalness and magic machinery influenced him most strongly, but he was indebted to the semi-classical Tasso for whole scenes. On the whole, therefore, Spenser’s literary affinities were more with the Gothic than the classical.
Spenser was also the spokesman of his time on religious questions. The violent controversies of the Reformation period were over. Having turned from the beliefs of ages with passionate rejection, the English people had achieved religious freedom, and were strongly rooted in Protestantism, which took on a distinctly national aspect. That Calvinism was at that time the popular and aristocratic form of Protestantism is evident from references in the Faerie Queene.
Spenser lived in the afterglow of the great age of chivalry. The passing glories of knighthood in its flower impressed his imagination like a gorgeous dream, and he was thus inspired to catch and crystallize into permanent art its romantic spirit and heroic deeds. Into the framework of his romance of chivalry he inserted a veiled picture of the struggles and sufferings of his own people in Ireland. The Faerie Queene might almost be called the epic of the English conquest of Ireland. The poet himself and many of his friends were in that unhappy island as representatives of the queen’s government, trying to pacify the natives, and establish law and order out of discontent and anarchy. Spenser’s poem was written for the most part amidst all these scenes of misery and disorder, and the courage, justice, and energy shown by his countrymen were aptly portrayed under the allegory of a mighty spiritual warfare of the knights of old against the power of evil.
Spenser’s essay on A View of the Present State of Ireland shows that, far from shutting himself up in a fool’s paradise of fancy, he was fully awake to the social and political condition of that turbulent island, and that it furnished him with concrete examples of those vices and virtues, bold encounters and hair-breadth escapes, strange wanderings and deeds of violence, with which he has crowded the allegory of the Faerie Queene.
This text comes from the introduction to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book 1 (New York: MacMillan, 1921).
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”