To understand Edmund Spenser's place in the extraordinary literary renaissance that took place in England during the last two decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, it is helpful to begin with the remarks of the foremost literary critic of the age, Sir Philip Sidney. In The Defence of Poetry, (1595), written in the early 1580s, Sidney looked back on the history of English literature and sees little to admire. He mentions the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and a few sonnets by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; occasional tragedies such as those printed in the 1560s in A Mirror for Magistrates; and one book of contemporary poetry, Spenser's Shepheardes Calender (1579). Although France and Italy and even lesser nations such as Scotland had their notable poets and held them in esteem, England, according to Sidney , had recently brought forth only "bastard poets" and "poet-apes," and, consequently, the art itself had "fallen to be the laughing-stock of children." Though one might quarrel with Sidney over his list of the best native writers, it is certainly true that England could boast of no early poet other than Chaucer comparable in stature to Dante, Petrarch, or Boccaccio. At the time Sidney was writing, moreover, England lacked altogether the sort of thriving literary culture that was so visible across the Channel in France. Sidney himself set out to repair this deficiency, and with him the other most important writer of his generation, Edmund Spenser.
A glimpse of Spenser's audacious plan to help provide England with a great national literature appears in an appendix printed in the 1590 edition of the first three books of his most important work, The Faerie Queene. In a letter addressed to his neighbor Sir Walter Ralegh, Spenser sets out to explain the "general intention and meaning" of his richly elaborated epic. It is "an historicall fiction," written to glorify Queen Elizabeth and "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline." In pursuing this latter aim, the poet explains that he has followed the example of the greatest epic writers of the ancient and the modern worlds: Homer and Virgil, Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso. Now, to set out to depict the queen herself and to "fashion" members of her nobility in virtuous and well-bred discipline was certainly a bold undertaking for the son of a London weaver. For him to compare his work with the most exalted poetry of Italy, the glittering center of European culture in this period, must have seemed to many of his readers mere bravado or self-delusion.
The attempt to write a neoclassical epic in English was without precedent—unless, perhaps, one includes Sidney 's Arcadia (1590), which was begun at about the same time. Among the heroic poets named in Spenser's Letter to Ralegh as worthy practitioners of the form, Virgil was generally regarded as the greatest, and Spenser, like Dante and Petrarch before him, seems to have taken Virgil as his personal mentor and guide. From the Proem to Book I of The Faerie Queene, the reader may infer that Spenser sometimes thought of his entire career as a recapitulation of that of his illustrious Roman counterpart. He began, as Virgil had begun in his Eclogues, with pastoral poetry, which Spenser published in his first major work, The Shepheardes Calender . A decade later, in The Faerie Queene, he graduated to poetry on martial and political subjects, as Virgil had done when he wrote his great epic, the Aeneid, for the court of Caesar Augustus. Spenser's opening lines, which echo verses prefixed to the Aeneid , announce his intention to exchange his "Oaten reeds" (or shepherd's pipes) for "trumpets sterne." Although he transformed the traditional epic introduction to include an invocation to Cupid, god of love, along with the more traditional address to the Muses and although the poem actually resembles the quasi-medieval romance epics of Ariosto and Tasso more closely than it does classical epics, the poet's claim to follow in the great line established by Homer and passed down by Virgil was altogether serious.
Conscious self-fashioning according to the practices of ancient poets, and also of more-recent ones on the Continent, was an essential part of Spenser's project—but only a part. With his eye frequently turned to Chaucer and other English authors, he set out to create poetry that was distinctively English—in religion and politics, in history and custom, in setting and language. For example, he mentions in the Letter to Ralegh that he designed his epic to depict "twelve private morall vertues, as Aristotle hath devised." In reality, however, just three of the six books that he lived to complete revolve around virtues that Aristotle would have recognized, and even those three—temperance, friendship, and justice—were greatly altered by Spenser's Anglo-Protestant form of Christianity and by other elements in his English background. The other three—holiness, chastity, and courtesy—have little to do with Aristotle but much to do with England in the high Middle Ages. In the best sense Spenser's art is syncretistic, drawing together elements from many traditions. Its aim, however, was to enrich the culture of his native land.
The process by which he realized this aim was neither rapid nor predictable. Comparing Spenser with Sidney , C. S. Lewis has written that he was "a more ordinary man, less clever, less easily articulate," and he succeeded by working harder. For that very reason, perhaps—along with his understated humor, his deep understanding of human psychology, and his easy humanity and good sense—Spenser has been closer than Sidney to the hearts of many of his countrymen.
Edmund Spenser was born into the family of an obscure cloth maker named John Spenser, who belonged to the Merchant Taylors' Company and was married to a woman named Elizabeth, about whom almost nothing is known. Since parish records for the area of London where the poet grew up were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, his birth date is uncertain, though the dates of his schooling and a remark in one of his sonnets ( Amoretti 60) lend credence to the date traditionally assigned, which is around 1552. Just which John Spenser was his father is also uncertain, since there were at least three men of that name working in London as weavers at this time. If the poet took his lineage from John Spenser of Hurstwood, then he derived from a well-established family that had lived in Lancashire since the thirteenth century. If he was the son of the John Spenser mentioned in John Stow's Survey of London (1603), then his father was a man of some prominence who in later years bought a house that had once belonged to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and who was knighted in 1594 by Queen Elizabeth upon his election as Lord mayor of London. In any case, from the poem Prothalamion (1596) reveals that Spenser thought of himself as a descendant of "An house of auncient fame," namely the family of the Despencers. There, is no evidence, however, that he could claim to be a gentleman, and that fact alone made his rise to prominence more difficult in a class-conscious age.
Spenser's parents took what may have been the most important step in advancing their son's fortunes by enrolling him in the Merchant Taylors' school in London. During the early 1560s, when Spenser began his studies there, it was under the able direction of a prominent humanist educator named Richard Mulcaster, who believed in thoroughly grounding his students in the classics and in Protestant Christianity, and who seems to have encouraged such extracurricular activities as musical and dramatic performances. Mulcaster was also important to Spenser's career for purely pragmatic reasons, since he had good connections with the universities and sent students of modest means such as Spenser on to them with some regularity. The poet later expressed his gratitude to Mulcaster by depicting him as "A good olde shephearde, Wrenock" in the December eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender and by naming his first two children, Sylvanus and Katherine, after those of his master."
The only glimpse that survives of the young poet at school comes from financial records indicating that in 1569, when he was in his last year, he was one of six boys given a shilling and a new gown to attend the funeral of Robert Nowell, a prominent lawyer connected with the school. This connection with Nowell was to prove important to Spenser's later development, for the lawyer's estate helped support his subsequent education."
In 1569, at the usual age of sixteen or seventeen, Spenser left the Merchant Taylors' School for Cambridge, where he enrolled at Pembroke Hall. Even before he arrived, however, he was already composing poetry and attracting the attention of other writers. Perhaps with the help of Mulcaster, who had friends in the Dutch immigrant community, he had recently arranged to publish thematically linked sets of epigrams and sonnets entitled The Visions of Petrarch and The Visions of Bellay, which appeared in the collection commonly referred to as A Theatre for Worldlings (1569) by the Dutch poet Jan van der Noot. Even in his maturity Spenser seems to have thought well of these early translations of French and Italian poetry, for he revised and reprinted them among his Complaints in 1591. Although not original, they nonetheless shed light on Spenser's interests at the time which were directed toward poets of the Continent and had already settled on themes that would surface again in his later poetry, namely the tragic precariousness of life and the impermanence of things in the material world."
Such scraps of reliable information as are known about Spenser during his university days suggest that he served as a sizar (a scholar of limited means who does chores in return for room and board) and that he received his B.A. in 1573 and his M.A. in 1576 with no official marks of distinction as a scholar. He regarded the experience as vital to his development, however, as can be seen in his later reference to the university as "my mother Cambridge" in The Faerie Queene (IV.xi.34). Little is known of his friendships at Pembroke. He must have been acquainted with Lancelot Andrewes, two years his junior, who later became a bishop and was well known for his sermons and for his part in translating the King James Version of the Bible. Clearly, Spenser had also gained the confidence of the master of Pembroke, John Young, who later became bishop of Rochester and gave the poet his first post as a personal secretary. Most important for Spenser's literary career, however, was his close friendship with Gabriel Harvey, a professor of rhetoric who served initially as his mentor and ultimately as his literary promoter. Spenser later celebrated their friendship in The Shepheardes Calender, in which he appears as Colin Clout and Harvey is represented as the wise shepherd Hobbinoll."
Though a lackluster poet himself, Harvey seems to have encouraged Spenser in many of the aspirations that later shaped his career. Harvey was characteristically effusive, for example, about the need to ground English poetry on the great models of Greco-Roman antiquity, both by shaping its versification on Latin principles and by undertaking classical genres that had not yet been attempted in English. In the late 1570s he composed a vernacular epic (now lost) and a work on the ancient Muses of poetry that is similar in outline to Spenser's Teares of the Muses (1591). At about the same time, he may have played a part in introducing Spenser to Sidney and in securing for his friend a position in the London household of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth as well as a key figure in the radical Protestant faction at court and one of the most powerful noblemen in the realm. The connections with Leicester and Sidney helped to launch Spenser's career, both as a poet and as a government official. Finally, in 1580, just before circumstances forced a separation between the two friends, Harvey gave Spenser's prominence as a writer a boost by publishing a set of five high-spirited letters that had passed between them, which helped to establish his friend's public image as England's "new poet."
In the letters Spenser and Harvey chat happily about their contacts with great men and their various works in progress, including Spenser's Faerie Queene and a surprising array of his other early works that were later lost--or perhaps silently incorporated into those that were published. These works included ten Latin comedies, several dream visions, an epithalamium celebrating the "marriage" of the rivers of England, and a work of literary criticism entitled The English Poete. The letters are even more interesting for their revelation that Spenser and Harvey had recently become involved in a literary circle gathered around Sidney . The group, which called itself the "Areopagus," was short-lived, and though it may have been formed with playful reference to the great literary academies of France and Italy, it seems to have been better known for its high spirits and good conversation than for its seriousness. The writers involved--including the learned diplomat Daniel Rogers, Sidney 's friends Sir Edward Dyer and Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke, and the academician Thomas Drant--seem to have occupied themselves primarily with experiments in Latin prosody, attempts at various genres of new poetry based on classical models, and the promotion of English as a literary language. Rogers, however, also mentions grand discussions "of the law, of God and of the good," which may have had some effect on the heroic works that occupied Sidney and Spenser in the years that following."
Spenser's direct involvement with Sidney and his circle in 1579-1580 set him on a literary course that he would pursue for the rest of his life. Though the two men never saw one another again, they adopted remarkably similar literary agendas, writing mainly in genres that Sidney had encountered among prominent neoclassical and religious poets on the Continent. Both men, for example, wrote works of literary criticism addressing the current state of poetry in England, and both devoted most of their creative energies to pastoral poetry and romance epic, to sonnets and epithalamiums, and to religious hymns or psalms. Both also wrote political tracts about Ireland, where Sidney 's father served for more than two decades and where Spenser was soon to become a government official. Expressions of admiration for the Sidneys and the Dudleys appear repeatedly in his works, from early poems such as his Stemmata Dudleiana (now lost) to late ones such as The Ruines of Time (1591), Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), and Astrophel (1595)."
Through his contact with men such as Sidney and Leicester, who were deeply involved in affairs of state, Spenser may have been emboldened to publish his Shepeardes Calender, which was dedicated to Sidney and dealt with sensitive political controversies of the day. Appearing in six editions before the end of the century, it became a milestone in the English literary renaissance because it was the first major published work of new poetry written along the neoclassical lines advocated by nationalistic poets such as those of the Areopagus. With a flair for self-promotion reminiscent of Harvey, Spenser--or perhaps his publisher--arranged to bring out the volume as if it were a venerable and ancient text. The archaic language of the poems, which Sidney impugned in his Defence of Poetry, may have been adopted in part to heighten this effect. Beautifully illustrated with woodcuts, the poems appeared from the outset already encrusted with learned prefatory matter and a running gloss by an unidentified scholar designated only as "E. K." Most likely, this was Spenser's friend Edward Kirke, whom he had known since their days together at Pembroke Hall in the early 1570s. Whoever he was, however, he shared Spenser's views that English poetry was in disarray and that it should be reestablished on "an eternall image of antiquitie"--an argument that is repeated in the eclogue for October. In his prefatory epistle to the volume, E. K. lauds Spenser as "this our new Poete," who will be "beloved of all, embraced of the most, and wondred at of the best." If he had been writing of Virgil or Petrarch, rather than an obscure English poet, he could hardly have said more."
Spenser's skillful literary borrowings contributed to the volume's impressive effect. From the Italian poets Petrarch and Mantuan he adopted a variety of pastoral that conceals beneath its surface biting political allegories and topical allusions to prominent figures in the church and the state. From the more traditional Eclogues of Virgil and from ancient writers such as Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, he took other features, such as the curiously static sense of time characteristic of classical pastoral. His rustics debate and sing, love and despair, but there is no real narrative progression in the Calender and very little action. Variety is introduced in the subjects that the shepherds contemplate and in the poetic forms that they employ, which include amorous complaints, fables, singing matches and debates, an encomium, a funeral elegy, and a hymn to the god Pan."
Spenser also drew upon the visual arts of his day, particularly works known as "emblem books." These typically brought together three disparate elements: a series of pictures of a figurative or symbolic kind, "mottos" or pithy sayings related to the pictures but phrased in enigmatic terms, and explanations in prose or verse that interpret the mottos and pictures and draw a moral. Each of Spenser's twelve eclogues follows a more complicated version of this pattern. First comes a woodcut, which typically depicts the shepherd(s) in the eclogue and something from their songs or their situations, with the sign of the zodiac appropriate to the month in question represented at the top. Then comes the poem itself, preceded by a brief "argument" or summary, which may have been added by E. K. After the eclogue comes one or more verbal "emblems" or mottoes in various languages, which briefly sum up the nature or situation of the speakers and the themes of their songs, but which often tease the imagination with alternative interpretations. And finally there is E. K.'s gloss, serving some of the same functions as the explanation beneath a conventional emblem."
Spenser also added important innovations to the traditional elements in the Calender. One involved poetic technique. In sheer variety of meter and form, his eclogues are without precedent in earlier pastoral poetry and provided an ample showcase for the experiments in prosody that so fascinated the poets of the Areopagus. Another conspicuous innovation is his organization of the poems into a seasonal progression. By following the cycle of the year, Spenser is able to employ the outer world of pasture and sheepfold as a way to depict the inner world of the young shepherd Colin Clout, whose unrequited love of Rosalind provides a thread of unity through the entire volume. In the first poem, "January," Colin despairs, breaking his shepherd's pipe and, with it, the last source of pleasure that remains to him. In his eyes the land, the trees, and the flocks around him have themselves become emblems for the state of his soul. He complains, "Thou barrein ground, whome winters wrath hath wasted, / Art made a myrrhour, to behold my plight." Though not present or even mentioned in several of the eclogues, Colin provides a melancholy bass line over which all the other shepherds sing, setting their higher notes of anger and joy, debate and reflection, in poignant contrast to his listless desolation."
The emotional counterpoint is never more moving than in "April," where his good friend Hobbinoll sings one of Colin's old songs, written to celebrate the shepherdess Eliza in the springtime of an earlier and happier year. The inner world of the song continues to match the outward season in which it is sung, as all the songs in the Calender do; yet it also heightens the reader's sense of the dark winter of the soul in which Colin continues to suffer. At the midpoint of the cycle, in "June," he laments that Rosalind has left him for another shepherd named Menalcas. In the final poem, he sings weary complaints to the god Pan and feels premonitions of his imminent death, thus returning the sequence to a point resembling the one at which it began, though even more desolate."
Besides the revolving of the seasons, other cycles are involved in the work. As E. K.'s headnote to "December" reminds us, the passing of the year has traditionally served as an emblem for the stages of life. From the springtime of childhood to the summer of desire and love to the winter of loneliness and old age, Colin's life becomes an emblem for everyone's experience in this world. Interpreted in this way, the Calender returns to the themes of tragic uncertainty and relentless mutability expressed ten years earlier in Spenser's contributions to A Theatre for Worldlings."
These larger themes are, in turn, related to the political allegory that often lurks just below the surface of the poems. One of the implications of this allegory is that states, too, have their cycles of springtime and autumn. The celebration of "her Majestie" Eliza in "April," which is a thinly veiled encomium addressed to Queen Elizabeth, suggests that England is in the full flower of a new age. "Maye," "Julye," and "September," however, all turn on the controversy between Protestant reformers and Elizabeth's more conservative Catholic subjects, which was the greatest single threat to her ability to rule. The topical allegory in these eclogues suggests that, in 1579, strains in the body politic were a matter of particular concern to Spenser. The cause for his alarm was undoubtedly the marriage negotiations begin carried out between Queen Elizabeth and a French catholic prince, François, Duke of Alençon. The staunchly Protestant faction surrounding Leicester and Sidney took every opportunity to oppose such a marriage as a grave threat to the religious and political independence of England. If, as some critics suppose, Rosalind is a figure for Queen Elizabeth, and Colin for Spenser and his Protestant cause, then Rosalind's rejection of Colin for Menalcas may have to do with Queen Elizabeth's rejection of the Protestant faction in favor of the Catholic Alençon."
If this is so, then Colin's dejection at the end of the Calender may reflect Spenser's low political fortunes in late 1579 and early 1580, when the queen took harsh measures to silence critics of her plan for a French marriage. Sidney , for instance, was dismissed from court, most likely for addressing a letter to her on the subject. Spenser, too, seems to have feared the queen's displeasure, for he published his Calender under the pseudonym "Immeritô" and prefaced it with a poem to Sidney in which he speaks to the Calender itself, saying "when thou art past jeopardee, / Come tell me, what was sayd of mee / And I will send more after thee." It may be that the young poet's representation of delicate affairs of state had left him with few defenders and fewer prospects for advancement at court."
In any case, in July 1580 he accepted a post as a private secretary to Arthur Grey, the new Lord Deputy of Ireland. There is some evidence that when he set out for Dublin, he took with him a new wife named Machabyas Chylde, about whom little is known except that she married one "Edmounde Spenser" on 27 October 1579, that she apparently bore him two children named Sylvanus and Katherine, and that she died sometime before 1594. Most of the next twenty years of the poet's life were spent in Ireland, where he served in various governmental posts, from clerk of the Privy Council in Dublin in the early years to Queen's justice and sheriff-designate for county Cork at the end of his life. His positions allowed him to acquire a considerable list of landholdings, including most prominently Kilcolman Castle with three thousand acres in county Cork, which served as his principal residence from 1588 until the year before his death in 1599. Such holdings were important, for they gave him the status of a landed gentleman, and this eased his way in society, enabling him, for example, to make friends with Sir Walter Ralegh and to marry his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle, who came from an important landed family in Herefordshire."
References to Ireland appear frequently in Spenser's later poetry, and some of them reveal a good deal of gentle affection for the land and its people. Most memorable, perhaps, are the country wedding captured with such rustic beauty in his Epithalamion (1595) and the great judgment scene on Arlo Hill, a mountain near Kilcolman Castle, which occupies much of the Mutability Cantos in Book VI of The Faerie Queene. Most of the poet's descriptions of Ireland, however, are colored by sorrow or disgust at the destitute state of its people or by resolute hostility toward its wily and elusive rebels, who harassed the English occupiers throughout the period. Spenser portrays the darker side of his experiences in Ireland, for example, in the attacks on the House of Alma in Book II of The Faerie Queene and in the savagery of the scurrilous, long-haired rebel Malengin in Book V."
The less submissive among the Irish had not reason to be any fonder of Spenser than he of them. In 1580, as a new official in the colonial administration, he was present when the English slaughtered papal troops at Smerwick, and he also witnessed the terrible famine in Munster that darkened the end of Desmond's rebellion. In fact, he wrote the official report on the battle of Smerwick and later described it and other incidents during the turbulent years of his colonial service in his only prose work. A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland (1633). This was written sometime before 1598 as a dialogue discussing the brutal measures needed to establish a stable colonial regime in the country, and parts of it may have been incorporated into an official report that he presented in London in 1598. In the late 1580s he had been responsible for settling English immigrants at Kilcolman on lands confiscated from the rebel Gerald Fitzgerald, fifteenth Earl of Desmond, and some of Spenser's other landholdings had come from the forced dissolution of Catholic monasteries in Ireland. It is not surprising, then, that his last years in Cork were ones of conflict, tumult, and loss."
Until the late 1590s, however, Ireland provided a living, a place to write, and even literary friends. During his years there, Spenser may have become acquainted with Barnabe Rich and Barnabe Googe, and he knew Sidney 's close friend and occasional fellow poet Lodowick Bryskett, who turned two posts over to him before moving on. Most important, however, was Spenser's friendship with Ralegh, who was his neighbor on the former Desmond estates and who, in the summer and fall of 1589, came to see him at Kilcolman and took a personal interest in his poetry. Spenser later revealed the importance of his relationship with Ralegh by preserving a poetic account of it in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe and by writing the "Letter to Ralegh" and a dedicatory sonnet to him in The Faerie Queene. According to Colin Clout, it was Ralegh who arranged for Spenser to travel to London in 1590 to publish the first three books of his epic and to present them in person to Queen Elizabeth, who was pleased and expressed a desire to hear it read to her "at timely houres." So pleased was she, in fact, that she granted the poet a pension of fifty pounds a year, which was more than the parsimonious queen granted to any other poet of the period. Spenser expressed his gratitude for Ralegh's patronage by writing a sympathetic allegory of the adventurer's often turbulent and romantically tinged relationship with the queen, which appears in the story of Timias and Belphoebe in Books III, IV, and VI of The Faerie Queene."
The best way to begin an examination of Spenser's epic is perhaps to come to it as Ralegh did, with Spenser's prefatory letter in hand--though, admittedly, some of its intentions do not match the poem as the author actually wrote it. As the letter reveals, the six books (and two cantos of a seventh) that were ultimately published represent but a fraction of the plan, which was to extend to the traditional twelve books of an epic, one devoted to each of "the twelve private morall vertues." Another section of the poem, perhaps of equal length but never written, was to cover the public or "polliticke" virtues. Each book in this vast structure was to concentrate on a single habit of character, represented by one or more exemplary knights such as Britomart, the Knight of Chastity in Book III, and Sir Artegall, the Knight of Justice in Book V. It may be that, as time went on and Spenser realized the magnitude of the undertaking, he changed his mind and began to incorporate political virtues among the moral virtues of the first section. Certainly Book V, the Legend of Justice,involves a good deal of political allegory. In any case, the six books that he completed begin with virtues in a person's relations with God and self (holiness and temperance) and proceed to those involving relations with other people (chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy). The entire scheme accords with the two great commandments of Christian tradition: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and all thy mind" and "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matt. 22: 36-39)."
The first twelve books were to be united by the presence of two dominant characters: Prince Arthur, mythical founder of the Round Table, who was to appear as a wandering knight in each of the books, and Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, who was to frame the action of the poem by holding an annual feast of twelve days, on which she assigned her knights twelve quests, each described in one book of the epic. At the end of the poem, it seems, Prince Arthur was to marry Gloriana, and since the poet postponed the wedding of other heroes in the individual books, there were doubtless to be other marriages in Book XII as well. Since Arthur represents the virtue of Magnificence, which comprehends within itself all the other active virtues, and since the Faerie Queene represents Glory, which was for Spenser the end of all earthly action, there is a tidy philosophy behind the entire structure."
As the poet concedes, the main difficulty for readers lies not in grasping the grand organization of the poem, but in knowing how to interpret its allegory. He offers a clue, however, by calling the work a "continued" allegory or "darke conceit." In his day, the term conceit could have carried at least two senses in this context, both of them helpful. First, it could have meant simply a thought or, in certain philosophical contexts, a form or Idea in something very like the Platonic sense. Second, the term could have denoted an extended metaphor, that is, an implied comparison between the primary subject of the author's thought and something more easily visualized or grasped, which acts as a "figure" for that subject."
In interpreting Book I as such an extended metaphor, one might concentrate on the heroine, Una, the daughter of the "King of Eden," who sets out from her home to save her parents from a great dragon. To this end she travels to the court of the Faerie Queene and gains the help of the Red Crosse Knight, who, after various trials and wanderings, returns with her to her parents' city. There he defeats the dragon, is honored as a victor, and offers to marry Una once he has served his queen for six more years. Taking a clue from the Book of Revelation, which identifies Satan as a dragon that has enslaved human beings (the fallen descendants of Adam and Eve) and is the great enemy of the Church, the reader might take Una as a "conceit" for the universal body of believers as it has acted through history. This, then, would be the metaphor "continued" through the whole of Book I. On this assumption, the reader might conclude that the meaning of the allegory is something like this: the Church, which is descended from sinful human beings, sets out to redeem them by releasing them from bondage to Satan. In this it requires the help of the individual Christian, who may lose his way for a time but, through the aid of the Church, will ultimately find the straight and narrow way again and will go on to defeat the forces of evil around him. Once he lives out his "six days" of life on earth, he will be united with the Church forever on the seventh, at rest on God's Sabbath day in heaven (see VII.viii.2)."
Such a reading, based on the assumption that the poem is a kind of code to be deciphered character by character, has something to be said for it. It reveals a point that is probably central to Spenser's attempt to "fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline," namely that Christians tend to respond to the call of the church enthusiastically enough in the beginning, but often lose their zeal or fall away. Each stage in the wanderings of the Red Crosse Knight--his initial acceptance of lies about Una, his departure from her and his affair with another woman named Duessa, his drifting into the broad path of worldly fame and pleasure represented by the House of Pride, and finally his removal of his Christian armor, his defeat, and his overwhelming sense of failure at the Castle of Orgoglio and the Cave of Despair--represents a stage in the process by which an immature believer might fall away. A period of humility, instruction, and hard discipline (represented in the House of Holiness) is required before a young man like this can be of much use in helping others."
There are, however, problems with attempts to "decode" the poem in such a simplistic fashion. The most invidious, perhaps, is that once one has worked the puzzle, it loses its interest. In an 1831 issue of the Edinburgh Review, Thomas Macaulay, who must have read the poem in something like this way, complains that "even Spencer himself ... could not succeed in the attempt to make allegory interesting.... One unpardonable fault, the fault of tediousness, pervades the whole of the Fairy Queen. We become sick of Cardinal Virtues and Deadly Sins, and long for the society of plain men and women." One wonders whether an attempt to decipher characters merely as clever signs for abstractions may not have been behind the tendency, notable throughout the nineteenth century, to discount Spenser's allegory and to concentrate instead on the beauties of his verse and imagery."
The fault here lies more with Spenser's readers, however, than with the poet himself. There is nothing simple or boring about the allegory, which frequently manages to juggle several different meanings simultaneously. Along with "darke conceits" of a moral, political, and religious kind, Spenser also undertakes at least three other varieties. There are psychological allegories, which probe the faculties of the mind and their working in both normal and abnormal states; there are also topical allegories, which glorify or satirize the actions of rulers and other prominent figures of Spenser's day, and there are historical allegories involving their personal or national pasts. Only by resolutely ignoring crucial details can one read the poem as a "continued" metaphor with a single pat "meaning."
Una, for instance, is not only the one true Church but also (as her name suggests) "oneness" itself. Spenser calls her simply "truth" and seems to have in mind the sense of oneness expounded by Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophers, who saw the world as a sometimes discordant multiplicity that emanates from the perfect unity and simplicity of the divine mind. To depart from Una is to lose sight of the truth apprehended by contemplating the eternal Ideas that inform everything in the material world. To take up with Duessa (duality, duplicity) is to depart from truth and break one's union with the one source of all that is good."
"Una" is also a name applied in this period to Queen Elizabeth, the one supreme governor of the Church of England, and Spenser's maiden lady is clearly one of many figures for her in the poem. Elizabeth lived under constant threat of military attack or assassination by the great Catholic princes on the Continent, who wanted to reverse the Protestant Reformation in England and to return the nation to the Catholic fold. In the historical allegory of the poem Duessa represents Mary, Queen of Scots, who had legal claims to the English crown and who vied with Elizabeth for the allegiance of the English people. In polemics of the day, Mary was sometimes pictured as the "whore of Babylon" mentioned in the Book of Revelation, who rides on a beast with seven heads and is associated with Rome. In Canto viii Spenser employs this imagery when Duessa rides out on a "manyheaded beast" to attack the heroic representative of England, Prince Arthur, who defeats her and forces her to cast away her "golden cup" and "crowned mitre," which are symbols associated with the wealth and priTX Even the three quite different interpretations of Una discussed here may not exhaust the allegorical possibilities. Spenser was a master of compression and deep implication who recognized the multiplicity of meanings inherent in certain primal concepts and images, such as oneness and duality, and it is that multiplicity that lies at the heart of the fascination that The Faerie Queene has exerted over many of its readers. Rather than interpret the poet's "darke conceit" simply as an extended metaphor, one does better, particularly in analyzing the plots of the poem, to take it more broadly as a governing thought or form. Spenser's literary friend Sidney wrote in The Defence of Poetry (1595) that the poet begins with an "Idea, or fore-conceit," which he embodies in the matter of the poem--its stories, characters, and images. The reader then uses that matter as an "imagination ground-plot of a profitable invention," comprehending the author's "conceit" by an act of mental re-creation. The richer the author's initial idea and the clearer the matter of his creation, the richer and more profitable the reader's own act of "invention" will be. So long as one remains true to the details of the matter, the possibilities for meaning are limited only to the extent that the primal forms or ideas are limited in their inherent implications."
In relation to Una, the Red Crosse Knight becomes an extraordinarily rich creation. As one learns in Canto x, he is Saint George, the patron saint of England. In many ways he is also the Everyman of medieval Christian tradition, who, after a fall into sin and a recovery in the House of Holiness, imitates the life of Christ by fighting the dragon, falling in the battle, and being resurrected in victory on the morning of the third day. He also represents the English people at the time of the Protestant Reformation, defending the "one true church" against the late-medieval corruptions of Roman Catholicism. More particularly, he may represent Christian writers and intellectuals in sixteenth-century England who were prone to error and were in need of firmer doctrinal foundations. The knight begins his quest in Canto i with a battle against a lesser dragon named "Errour," which is associated with religious books and pamphlets, and only after he has been rescued form doctrinal error himself, represented in the false philosophy of Despair, can he fulfill his quest. After a period with the hermit Contemplation and other teachers in the House of Holiness, he fights a second and greater dragon, and this time, with God's grace, he prevails."
Even in the passages of Book I devoted to philosophical abstractions, such as the virtues and vices that bored Thomas Macaulay, Spenser invites more from his readers than a dry process of "decoding." His stories and pictorial descriptions are not simply means to convey philosophical insights. They are themselves the ends of the poet's labors, figures capable of transforming barren philosophy into what Sidney 's friend Fulke Greville, first Lord Brooke, once called "pregnant images of life." It is one thing to know the definition of a particular vice, but quite another to know how people afflicted with it might talk or act and to see how their sinful dispositions might harm them over a period of time. It is these latter points that most interested Spenser. In Canto iv of Book I, for example, Queen Lucifera and her "six wisards old" are readily identified as the Seven Deadly Sins of medieval Christian tradition. Yet it is the extraordinary detail with which the poet depicts them that matters, not simply what they represent. In a series of exquisitely painted miniatures, Spenser depicts each of the six counselors on one of the beasts that draw Lucifera's coach: Idleness on an ass, Gluttony on a pig, Lechery on a goat, Avarice on a camel, Envy on a wolf, and Wrath on a lion. Each detail in the imagery of coach and team--from the animals themselves to the clothing and behavior of their riders and the things that they bear in their hands--serves to characterize the six vices and Pride, their queen. Even the order of the riders is significant, for Spenser has dramatically altered the traditional Catholic sequence in order to place Idleness first as the "nourse of sin." Since Idleness is dressed "Like to an holy Monck," the change in order doubtless has to with what is now call the Protestant "work ethic" and with common complaints in the Renaissance that the Catholic monasteries were bastions of laziness and corruption."
Prophetic Vision in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene Essay
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Prophetic Vision in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
In the First Book of The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser reveals his prophetic and apocalyptic vision for the fledgling British Empire, personified in his hero Redcrosse. As the secular instrument of Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, Redcrosse takes on the sacred task of Una (representing religious truth) to free her parents, Adam and Eve, from their bonds of sin. Before he can achieve his task, the Redcrosse knight (representing holiness) must mature as a Christian knight as he and Una encounter inhabitants of Faerie Land and interact with them. With his allegory, Spenser unveils the secular and sacred obligations of Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers as they lead Protestant England and…show more content…
After Redcrosse strangles religious Error at Una's urging and kills the monster with his sword, Spenser separates Redcrosse and Una by way of Archimago's wicked machinations. Una cycles through a sequence of traveling companions: a lion, Archimago as false Redcrosse (the Roman Catholic Church), Sans-Loy (a Muslim), satyrs, Satyrane, and Prince Arthur. Spenser implies that participants of each religion, no matter how primitive, believe its truths are divine. In her latest incarnation of supreme religious truth, Una needs Gloriana's knight to defeat the dragon of sin, to obtain Christ's redemption for Adam and Eve and their descendants. While England amasses vast wealth conquering and colonizing the primitive races, the real battle is not against "flesh and blood," but as Paul stated in his letter to the Ephesians, against principalities (Saracens), powers (Lucifera), "rulers of darkness" (Error and Despair) and "spiritual wickedness in high places" (mythological or primitive gods - demons).
When Redcrosse finally attains sufficient holiness to fight the old serpent (the dragon Satan) of Revelations, Contemplation takes him to look on the New Jerusalem. Like Jesus, Redcrosse is an historical human being (Saint George). Unlike the imaginary characters of the poem, Redcrosse is entitled to everlasting life provided his name is written in the book of life, as stated in