The Faerie Queene: Overview

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Date: 1991
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview; Critical essay
Length: 2,527 words

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About this Work
Title: The Faerie Queene (Poem)
Published: 1596
Genre: Poem
Author: Spenser, Edmund
Occupation: English poet
Other Names Used: Immerito;
Full Text: 

The Faerie Queene, the great work which engaged Edmund Spenser during his years of semi-exile in Ireland, is the supreme expression of Elizabethan court poetry. No English poem of comparable literary stature has appealed, for widely different reasons, to so many later poets or proved so elusive to critical definition. Milton admired its author as ``a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.'' Keats, Shelley, and Byron used the Spenserian stanza to varied effect, and Wordsworth spoke of ``Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven/With the moon's beauty and the moon's soft pace.'' The variety of these responses suggests the difficulty which faces any attempt to define the nature of Spenser's achievement by confining it to any limiting critical formula.

The difficulty does not arise from any failure on the poet's part to state his purpose. In a letter to Sir Walter Ralegh, prefixed to the 1590 edition of the first three Books, Spenser said that ``the general end ..."of all the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtue and gentle discipline.'' He also pointed to the influence of previous writers—Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, and Tasso—``by example of which excellent poets I labour to portray in Arthur, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private moral virtues.'' He goes on to say that these virtues are ``the purpose of these first twelve books, which if I find to be well accepted, I may be perhaps encouraged to frame the other part of politic virtues in his person, after that he came to be king.'' Finally, he states that ``In that Faery Queen I mean glory in my general intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our sovereign the Queen, and her kingdom in Fairy Land.''

The application to the poem of this plan, which seems to envisage a work four times as long as the huge fragment actually completed, is fraught with difficulties. Most obviously, we have only six books and what seems to be the fragment of a seventh, published for the first time as ``Two Cantos of Mutability'' after the poet's death. Further, it is possible to find a certain completeness in the poem as it stands. A plan could be discerned in which Book I, dedicated to the adventures of the Knight of the Red Cross representing Holiness in search of the truth to be found in unity, might be linked to Book VI, in which the exploits of Sir Calidore, embodying the virtue of Courtesy, show holiness in action in the ideal courtly world. Similarly Book II, which presents in Sir Guyon the virtue of Temperance, might be linked to Book V, where the adventures of Sir Artegall show the same virtue engaged in advancing the values of Justice in a difficult public world. According to this plan Books III and IV, dealing with the stories of Britomart and of Cambel and Triamond, would constitute the turning-point of the whole conception. The two Books are united by the presence in them of the female knight Britomart, who represents in the third Book the virtue of Chastity, but who is linked in the fourth with Friendship to stress the fact, centrally important for Spenser's work, that the traditional virtue finds its fulfilment, not in ascetic denial of the flesh or withdrawal from the world, but in the socially central and creative relationship of marriage. If this possible scheme has any validity, the two Cantos on Mutability would constitute less the fragment of a seventh Book than a kind of coda placing the whole project in a philosophic context which turns on the relationship between the human world of temporal vicissitude and the timeless order of spiritual reality. This, in the last stanza of the work, is ``that same time when no more Change shall be''; for, though it is true that ``all that moveth, doth in Change delight,'' the poet asks us, as his final word, to join him in looking beyond this truth to a state in which ``all shall rest eternally/With Him that is the God of Sabboath height,'' as he addresses the final source of all reality: ``O that great Sabboath God, grant me that Sabboath's sight.''

The scheme just outlined is, like any other that we might propose, tentative and uncertain. What is certain is that Spenser in writing his poem set out to rival or surpass the practitioners of the Arthurian epic as cultivated in Italy, more particularly by Ariosto in his Orlando Furioso. It would be difficult, however, to think of two poems more different in feeling and intention. Ariosto is essentially a narrator, who delights in his ability to keep an endless flow of incident moving and who projects upon his fantastic world the light of a pervasive comic irony. The effect of Spenser's poem is at once less consistent and more closely tied to the moral vision which has gone to its making.

These influences grow into rich complexity as the poem unfolds. In Book I the Red Cross Knight, representing the Holiness which is the source of all virtue, is accompanied by Una, who is Truth made manifest in unity. The pair proceed through a series of trials which correspond to the temptations of doctrinal error and the moral ills occasioned by it. The development of the allegory, however, is not one of simple correspondence. The Red Cross Knight, besides representing Holiness, is also Everyman in pursuit of that virtue and in need of the help of Grace and the possession of Truth to arrive at his goal. Similarly, in Book II, we are asked to see Sir Guyon both as representing the virtue of Temperance, a compound of equanimity, prudence, and self-control, and as a figure once again of Everyman who overcomes a variety of ills by arriving at a reasonable relationship between body and soul.

Up to this point the reader of the poem can feel that he is following a pattern of allegorical meanings which correspond to the development of the narrative. Already, however, submission to the poetry elicits a more complex response. This becomes apparent, for example, at the end of Book II, in the long description of the Bower of Bliss and of the witch Acrasia, the personified temptation at its heart. The poetry requires us both to respond to the real force of the passions called forth by Acrasia and to maintain a firm moral judgement in their regard. Words and phrases which stress the languor and artificiality which underlie the surface attraction are interwoven with others which relate to a more positive human perception. Spenser's aim is not to present a pre-established contrast between virtue and vice, but to embody the conflicting pressures which play upon real human experience. The resolution of the conflict is to be moral and life-affirming, but it will not be arrived at by prejudging the issues at stake.

Similarly in the allegorical scheme of the third and fourth Books Britomart, representing Chastity, emerges with the force of a real, breathing person. Her adventures concern an exploration of the meaning of real human love, conveyed through contrast and interaction with a series of other feminine figures—Amoret, Belphoebe, and Florimel—who represent varying facets of this moving force in the lives of men and women. In Book III Britomart affirms triumphantly the traditional virtue of Chastity. In Book IV, ostensibly dedicated to Cambel and Triamond in embodiment of male friendship, the exploration of love, its true sense and meaning, continues as Britomart is first involved in combat with Artegall and finally submits to the natural force of love.

Spenser's presentation of love in these two Books combines Platonic elements with traditional notions of courtly love, separating in the latter a true ideal from its barren and enslaving shadow. The ideal of chastity represented is not simply one of virginity defended against the assaults of the world, but rather of its natural fulfilment against a background of life-affirming acceptance eloquently declared in the apotheosis of Venus in her temple:

Great Venus, Queene of beautie and of grace,
  The joy of Gods and men, that under skie
  Dost fayrest shine, and most adorne thy place,
  That with thy smyling looke doest pacifie
  The raging seas, and makst the stormes to flie;
  Thee goddesse, thee the winds, the clouds do feare,
  And when thou spredst thy mantle forth on hie,
  The waters play and pleasant lands appeare,
And heavens laugh, and al the world shews joyous
     cheere ..."

So all the world by thee at first was made,
  And dayly yet thou doest the same repayre:
  Ne ought on earth that merry is and glad,
  Ne ought on earth that lovely is and fayre,
  But thou the same for pleasure didst prepayre.
  Thou art the root of all that joyous is,
  Great God of men and women, queene of th'ayre,
  Mother of laughter, and welspring of blisse,
O graunt that of my love at last I may not misse.

Representing in part a development from Chaucer's Boethian celebration of the creative power of love in his Troilus and Criseyde, the passage points to the principle of life which brings together the various strands of this great and protean poem.

Book V, dealing with the adventures of Sir Artegall, comes to most modern readers as a disappointment. The sense in the later cantos of a ruthlessness which seems to reflect the poet's experiences in Ireland acts as a chilling factor which even understanding of the importance for a Renaissance mind of the concept of Justice as a necessary defence against the threat of chaos can hardly overcome. Book VI, devoted to Sir Calidore and the courtly ideal of Courtesy, is less single-minded and more attractive. The virtue celebrated is a development of the medieval conception of ``gentillesse'' in accordance with the Platonizing philosophy which inspired such works as Castiglione's Courtier. The Book abounds in passages of delicate and sometimes nostalgic beauty, the expression of an ideal of courtly perfection which stands in contrast to the often sad realities of human evil and inadequacy. The shadow of the Blatant Beast, representing the envy and slander which were so rife in Renaissance courts and which no knightly pursuit of personal glory or the tenuous refinements of courtly love could eliminate or contain, lies across the delicate poetry which is perhaps more present here than anywhere in Spenser's work.

In a single passage, towards the end of the Book, this poetry reaches what may be its highest point of perfection. As Sir Calidore, imaginatively transformed into ``the Elfin Knight,'' approaches a place ``whose plesaunce did appeare/To passe all others, on the earth which were,'' he is made aware of the ``merry sound'' of a ``shrill pipe'' and of ``many feete fast thumping th' hollow ground'':

  There he a troupe of Ladies dauncing found
  Full merrily, and making gladfull glee,
And in the midst a Shepheard piping he did see.

The magic quality of the spectacle moves the knight to awe. Remaining under cover of the wood, he surrenders himself to contemplation of the dance:

All they without were raunged in a ring,
  And daunced round; but in the midst of them
  Three other Ladies did both daunce and sing,
  The whilest the rest them round about did hemme,
  And like a girlonde did in compasse stemme;
  And in the midst of these same three, was placed
  Another Damsell, as a precious gemme,
  Admidst a ring most richly well enchased,
That with her goodly presence all the rest much graced.

The vision granted to him is that of the Graces, ``daughters of delight'' and ``handmaides of Venus''; but even this beauty is subsidiary to that of the ``faire one/That in the midst was placed paramount'': the figure at the heart of the dance ``to whom that shepheard pypt alone.'' This is the culminating point of the vision, leading to the introduction into it of ``poor Colin Clout,'' the poet himself (``who knowes not Colin Clout?''), the humble and yet proud witness of this transfiguring splendour:

  Pype jolly shepheard, pype there now apace
  Unto thy love, that made thee low to lout:
  Thy love is present there with thee in place,
Thy love is ther advaunst to be another Grace.

In the face of poetry of this order the attempt to extract from Spenser's enormous poem simple allegorical correspondences becomes irrelevant. The moral purposes declared in the letter to Ralegh no doubt provided him with the starting-point for a work that was certainly intended to advance deeply held moral convictions; but, as we read, we find our awareness of the moral framework giving way to a surrender to the poetry: not merely to its sensual qualities or to the lulling fascination of sound, but to the imaginative content involved in its world of fiction. The poem, indeed, proceeds by a progressive liberation from the trammels of moralizing allegory. As its end approaches Spenser unites all the rich strands at his disposal to achieve compelling moments of magic vision which answer to the deep-seated humanity of his purpose. Placing himself, with the true artist's mixture of humility and proper pride, in the figure of his Colin Clout at the periphery of a dance of entranced imaginative quality, he has found an image which expresses superbly the unifying and transforming imagination which finally animates his poem.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420007608