The Faerie Queene/Book I

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The Faerie Queen
by Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene. Book 1:


Introduction[edit]

I. The Age Which Produced The Faerie Queene[edit]

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.

II. The Author of the Faerie Queene[edit]

Edmund Spenser was born in London near the Tower in the year 1552. His parents were poor, though they were probably connected with the Lancashire branch of the old family of Le Despensers, "an house of ancient fame," from which the Northampton Spencers were also descended. The poet's familiarity with the rural life and dialect of the north country supports the theory that as a boy he spent some time in Lancashire. Beyond two or three facts, nothing is known with certainty of his early years. He himself tells us that his mother's name was Elizabeth, and that London was his "most kindly nurse." His name is mentioned as one of six poor pupils of the Merchant Taylors' School, who received assistance from a generous country squire.

At the age of seventeen, Master Edmund became a student in Pembroke Hall, one of the colleges of the great University of Cambridge. His position was that of a sizar, or paid scholar, who was exempt from the payment of tuition fees and earned his way by serving in the dining hall or performing other menial duties. His poverty, however, did not prevent him from forming many helpful friendships with his fellow-students. Among his most valued friends he numbered Launcelot Andrews, afterward Bishop of Winchester, Edward Kirke, a young man of Spenser's own age, who soon after edited his friend's first important poem, the Shepheards Calender, with elaborate notes, and most important of all, the famous classical scholar, a fellow of Pembroke, Gabriel Harvey, who was a few years older than Spenser, and was later immortalized as the Hobbinoll of the Faerie Queene. It was by Harvey that the poet was introduced to Sir Philip Sidney, the most accomplished gentleman in England, and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth.

Spenser's residence in Cambridge extended over seven years, during which he received the usual degrees of bachelor and master of arts. He became one of the most learned of English poets, and we may infer that while at this seat of learning he laid the foundations for his wide scholarship in the diligent study of the Greek and Latin classics, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Vergil, and the great mediæval epics of Italian literature. On account of some misunderstanding with the master and tutors of his college, Spenser failed to receive the appointment to a fellowship, and left the University in 1576, at the age of twenty-four. His failure to attain the highest scholastic recognition was due, it is supposed, to his being involved in some of the dangerous controversies which were ripe in Cambridge at that time "with daily spawning of new opinions and heresies in divinity, in philosophy, in humanity, and in manners."

On leaving the University, Spenser resided for about a year with relatives in Lancashire, where he found employment. During this time he had an unrequited love affair with an unknown beauty whom he celebrated in the Shepheards Calender under the name of Rosalind, "the widow's daughter of the glen." A rival, Menalchas, was more successful in finding favor with his fair neighbor. Although he had before this turned his attention to poetry by translating the sonnets of Petrarch and Du Bellay (published in 1569), it was while here in the North country that he first showed his high poetic gifts in original composition.

After a visit to Sir Philip Sidney at Penshurst, Spenser went down to London with his friend in 1578, and was presented to Sidney's great uncle, the Earl of Leicester. He thus at once had an opportunity for advancement through the influence of powerful patrons, a necessity with poor young authors in that age. An immediate result of his acquaintance with Sidney, with whom he was now on relations of intimate friendship, was an introduction into the best society of the metropolis. This period of association with many of the most distinguished and cultivated men in England, together with the succession of brilliant pageants, masks, and processions, which he witnessed at court and at Lord Leicester's mansion, must have done much to refine his tastes and broaden his outlook on the world.

In personal appearance Spenser was a fine type of a sixteenth century gentleman. The grace and dignity of his bearing was enhanced by a face of tender and thoughtful expression in which warmth of feeling was subdued by the informing spirit of refinement, truthfulness, simplicity, and nobility. He possessed a fine dome-like forehead, curling hair, brown eyes, full sensuous lips, and a nose that was straight and strongly moulded. His long spare face was adorned with a full mustache and a closely cropped Van Dyke beard.

The Shepheards Calender was published in the winter of 1579 with a grateful and complimentary dedication to Sidney. It is an academic exercise consisting of a series of twelve pastoral poems in imitation of the eclogues of Vergil and Theocritus. The poem is cast in the form of dialogues between shepherds, who converse on such subjects as love, religion, and old age. In three eclogues the poet attacks with Puritan zeal the pomp and sloth of the worldly clergy, and one is devoted to the courtly praise of the queen. It was at once recognized as the most notable poem that had appeared since the death of Chaucer, and placed Spenser immediately at the head of living English poets.

In 1580 Spenser went over to Ireland as private secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton, the Artegall of the Legend of Justice in the Faerie Queene. After the recall of his patron he remained in that turbulent island in various civil positions for the rest of his life, with the exception of two or three visits and a last sad flight to England. For seven years he was clerk of the Court of Chancery in Dublin, and then was appointed clerk to the Council of Munster. In 1586 he was granted the forfeited estate of the Earl of Desmond in Cork County, and two years later took up his residence in Kilcolman Castle, which was beautifully situated on a lake with a distant view of mountains. In the disturbed political condition of the country, life here seemed a sort of exile to the poet, but its very loneliness and danger gave the stimulus needed for the development of his peculiar genius.

"Here," says Mr. Stopford Brooke, "at the foot of the Galtees, and bordered to the north by the wild country, the scenery of which is frequently painted in the Faerie Queene and in whose woods and savage places such adventures constantly took place in the service of Elizabeth as are recorded in the Faerie Queene, the first three books of that great poem were finished." Spenser had spent the first three years of his residence at Kilcolman at work on this masterpiece, which had been begun in England, under the encouragement of Sidney, probably before 1580. The knightly Sidney died heroically at the battle of Zutphen, in 1586, and Spenser voiced the lament of all England in the beautiful pastoral elegy Astrophel which he composed in memory of "the most noble and valorous knight."

Soon after coming to Ireland, Spenser made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Raleigh, which erelong ripened into intimate friendship. A memorable visit from Raleigh, who was now a neighbor of the poet's, having also received a part of the forfeited Desmond estate, led to the publication of the Faerie Queene. Sitting under the shade "of the green alders of the Mulla's shore," Spenser read to his guest the first books of his poem. So pleased was Raleigh that he persuaded the poet to accompany him to London, and there lay his poem at the feet of the great queen, whose praises he had so gloriously sung. The trip was made, Spenser was presented to Elizabeth, and read to her Majesty the three Legends of Holiness, Temperance, and Chastity. She was delighted with the fragmentary epic in which she heard herself delicately complimented in turn as Gloriana, Belphoebe, and Britomart, conferred upon the poet a pension of £50 yearly, and permitted the Faerie Queene to be published with a dedication to herself. Launched under such auspices, it is no wonder that the poem was received by the court and all England with unprecedented applause.

The next year while still in London, Spenser collected his early poems and issued them under the title of Complaints. In this volume were the Ruins of Time and the Tears of the Muses, two poems on the indifference shown to literature before 1580, and the remarkable Mother Hubberds Tale, a bitter satire on the army, the court, the church, and politics. His Daphnaida was also published about the same time. On his return to Ireland he gave a charming picture of life at Kilcolman Castle, with an account of his visit to the court, in Colin Clout's Come Home Again. The story of the long and desperate courtship of his second love, Elizabeth, whom he wedded in 1594, is told in the Amoretti, a sonnet sequence full of passion and tenderness. His rapturous wedding ode, the Epithalamion, which is, by general consent, the most glorious bridal song in our language, and the most perfect of all his poems in its freshness, purity, and passion, was also published in 1595. The next year Spenser was back in London and published the Prothalamion, a lovely ode on the marriage of Lord Worcester's daughters, and his four Hymns on Love and Beauty, Heavenly Love, and Heavenly Beauty. The first two Hymns are early poems, and the two latter maturer work embodying Petrarch's philosophy, which teaches that earthly love is a ladder that leads men to the love of God. In this year, 1596, also appeared the last three books of the Faerie Queene, containing the Legends of Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy.

At the height of his fame, happiness, and prosperity, Spenser returned for the last time to Ireland in 1597, and was recommended by the queen for the office of Sheriff of Cork. Surrounded by his beloved wife and children, his domestic life was serene and happy, but in gloomy contrast his public life was stormy and full of anxiety and danger. He was the acknowledged prince of living poets, and was planning the completion of his mighty epic of the private virtues in twelve books, to be followed by twelve more on the civic virtues. The native Irish had steadily withstood his claim to the estate, and continually harassed him with lawsuits. They detested their foreign oppressors and awaited a favorable opportunity to rise. Discord and riot increased on all sides. The ever growing murmurs of discontent gave place to cries for vengeance and unrepressed acts of hostility. Finally, in the fall of 1598, there occurred a fearful uprising known as Tyrone's Rebellion, in which the outraged peasants fiercely attacked the castle, plundering and burning. Spenser and his family barely escaped with their lives. According to one old tradition, an infant child was left behind in the hurried flight and perished in the flames; but this has been shown to be but one of the wild rumors repeated to exaggerate the horror of the uprising. Long after Spenser's death, it was also rumored that the last six books of the Faerie Queene had been lost in the flight; but the story is now utterly discredited.

Spenser once more arrived in London, but he was now in dire distress and prostrated by the hardships which he had suffered. There on January 16, 1599, at a tavern in King Street, Westminster, the great poet died broken-hearted and in poverty. Drummond of Hawthornden states that Ben Jonson told him that Spenser "died for lack of bread in King Street, and refused 20 pieces sent to him by my Lord of Essex, and said He was sorrie he had no time to spend them." The story is probably a bit of exaggerated gossip. He was buried close to the tomb of Chaucer in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, his fellow-poets bearing the pall, and the Earl of Essex defraying the expenses of the funeral. Referring to the death of Spenser's great contemporary, Basse wrote:—


  "Renownèd Spenser, lie a thought more nigh
  To learnèd Chaucer, and rare Beaumont, lie
  A little nearer Spenser, to make room
  For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb."


"Thus," says Mr. Stopford Brooke, appropriately, "London, 'his most kindly nurse,' takes care also of his dust, and England keeps him in her love."

Spenser's influence on English poetry can hardly be overestimated. Keats called him "the poets' poet," a title which has been universally approved. "He is the poet of all others," says Mr. Saintsbury, "for those who seek in poetry only poetical qualities." His work has appealed moststronglyto those who have been poets themselves, for with him the poetical attraction is supreme. Many of the greatest poets have delighted to call him master, and have shown him the same loving reverence which he gave to Chaucer. Minor poets like Sidney, Drayton, and Daniel paid tribute to his inspiration; Milton was deeply indebted to him, especially in Lycidas; and many of the pensive poets of the seventeenth century show traces of his influence. "Spenser delighted Shakespeare," says Mr. Church; "he was the poetical master of Cowley, and then of Milton, and in a sense of Dryden, and even Pope." Giles and Phineas Fletcher, William Browne, Sir William Alexander, Shenstone, Collins, Cowley, Gray, and James Thomson were all direct followers of Spenser. His influence upon the poets of the romantic revival of the nineteenth century is even more marked. "Spenser begot Keats," says Mr. Saintsbury, "and Keats begot Tennyson, and Tennyson begot all the rest." Among this notable company of disciples should be mentioned especially Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne. If we include within the sphere of Spenser's influence also those who have made use of the stanza which he invented, we must add the names of Burns, Shelley, Byron, Beattie, Campbell, Scott, and Wordsworth. When we consider the large number of poets in whom Spenser awakened the poetic gift, or those to whose powers he gave direction, we may safely pronounce him the most seminal poet in the language.

III. Study of the Faerie Queene[edit]

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 Spiritual 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 Spirtual 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, xxxiii.)


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."

Chronological Table of Events[edit]

Events in Spenser's Life A.D. Contemporary Events
Birth of Edmund Spenser (about) 1552 Birth of Sir Walter Raleigh
1553 Death of Edward VI; Mary crowned.
1554 Mary marries Philip of Spain.
1558 Death of Mary; Elizabeth crowned.
1560 Charles IX, king of France.
1568 Council of Trent.
Visions of Bellay, published, 1569
Sonnets of Petrarch, published, 1569
Enters Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, 1569
1572 Gregory XIII, Pope of Rome.
1572 Massacre of St. Batholomew.
1574 Henry III, king of France.
Received M.A., leaves Cambridge, 1576 Rudolph II, emperor.
Leaves Lancashire, 1578 Elizabeth aids the Netherlands.
Visits Lord Leicester, 1579
The Shepheards Calender, 1579
Goes to Ireland, 1580 Massacre of Smerwick.
1581 Tasso's Jersalem Delivered.
Lord Grey's return to England, 1582
1584 Assassination of William the Silent.
1585 Sixtus V, Pope. Drake's voyage.
1585 Leicester goes to the Netherlands.
1586 Death of Sir Philip Sidney.
First marriage (before) 1587 Execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
Clerk to the Council of Munster, 1588 Defeat of Spanish Armada. Death of Leicester.
Visits England with Raleigh, 1589 Assassination of Henry III; Henry IV crowned.
The Faerie Queene,, Books I, II, III, 1590 Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.
Mother Hubberds Tale, Tears of the Muses,
Ruines of Time, Daphnaida, The Visions,
1591 Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Henry VI.
1591 Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, trans.
1593 Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.
1593 Richard III.
Second marriage, 1594 Shakespeare's Richard II
Colin Clout's Come Home Again, 1595 Shakespeare's King John.
Amoretti, Epithalamion, Hymns, 1595 Johnston's Seven Champions of Christendom.
Astrophel, Prothalamion, 1596 Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.
The Faerie Queene, Books I-VI, 1596 Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour.
Vision of the Present State of Ireland, 1598 Edict of Nantes, Philip III crowned.
Death of Spenser, 1599 Revolt of Irish. Expedition of Essex to Ireland.
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.