Over some months I slowly squeezed the reading of the first three of the six books of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590). Here I’ll try to provide, though somewhat rude and non-academic, yet comprehensive of an introspection of this monumental Renaissance epic.
Entire studies and dissertations have been devoted to the analysis of the Spenserian epic. Thus making this compact yet engaging for a contemporary reader is no easy ordeal, so bear with me.
On the surface, the epic is a chivalrous adventure romance set in a slightly reimagined (and fantasy infused) era of the younger King Arthur - here, Prince Arthur. And though not among the leading protagonists, Arthur makes cameos (some fairly involved) throughout.
Even at this level I already found the poem fairly enthralling. Spenser’s magnum opus became a colossal influence for the future of British poesy.
He even popularized the Spenserian stanza comprising the entire Faerie Queene: nine lines of very particular rhyme pattern with a terminating six-footer to contrast the preceding pentameter. Spenser likewise fashioned the Spenserian Sonnet to compliment the Italian/Petrarchian and the English/Shakespearean forms.
But beyond, the Faerie Queene is one of the most allegorically woven works of the pre-modern (and probably the Medieval) canon. Allegory is the frontrunning element of the Saga.
Conceived as a multi-tiered allegory from the start (a point Spenser heavily emphasized in the introductory epistle), the tiers you’ll find include:
The moral virtues. Each book addresses and likewise serves as an allegory for a particular virtue (of the Aristotelian system). The first three books address Holiness, Temperance and Chastity, each embodied in a different protagonist.
* Prince Arthur, on the other hand, (conveniently) embodies all the virtues. Spenser chose him as one of the nine worthies representing Britain.
* * For the unacquanted (as I was beforehand), the nine worthies consist of
- Judas Maccabeus
- Hector (of Troy)
- Julius Caesar
- Godfrey of Boulogne
An allegory for Queen Elizabeth (I) as an emblem for moral virtue.
An allegory for the Queen at a political level.
An allegory for the 16th-century society (with naturally exhibited anachronism).
Then on a finer level, Spenser manifests Allegorical entities nonstop: from the character names that directly mimic the underlying value (be it virtue or misdeed), to entire settings that, without the slightest attempt at evasion, symbolize something else entirely.
Academic factors aside, it’s some of the finest and lyrically enchanting narrative poetry I’ve encountered. Particularly at first, I recall a starkly surreal sensation (due in part to the allegorican undertone).
On the one hand, you read of Knights, villains, sorcerers, enchantresses, creatures, and dieties. And there is a sufficient amount of gore and blood spilled throughout the narrative.
Meanwhile, you begin to perceive a veil of mysticism and fantasy pulled over this one reality leading to another, unpredictable and dreamlike.
Some of my favourite segments involve these appropriately named, lavish environments of diverse allegorical context and symbolism (subject to manifold academic study):
- The House of Pride (and the Seven Sins)
- The House of Holiness
- The Three Sister’s Castle (of Aristotle’s ethical system)
- The Idle Lake and Phaedria’s island
- Mammon’s cave
- Alma’s (metaphysical) castle, aka The House of Temperance
- The Bowre of Bliss
- The Garden of Adonis
- The House of Busyrane and The Masque of Cupid
Much of the narrative complements the action-oriented passages with ‘wisdom poetry’: that is morality, irony and satirical wit.
Diversions are frequent. Side plots become iniciated, yet remain unresolved until sometime in a later book. Similarly, side characters get introduced and then disappear until an unforeseeable future.
Likewise, through the device of protagonists stumbling upon a book or hearing an account told orally, Spenser dedicates significant parts of certain Cantos to the retelling of British history (adapted largely from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae): from the very discovery of the British island by Roman ancestors to as far as the Reinassance (through clever prophetizing, as the actual narrative embarks the times of Arthur).
Spenser also treats us to the retellings of parts of Greek and Trojan histories as well as numerous segments of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
On that note, it’s worth emphasizing that the poet’s strength lay precisely in the poetry, not necessarily in the storytelling novelty.
For beyond the historians and mythologitians, he adapted numerous plot devices from the Italian bard contemporaries among Oriosto and Tasso (or so repeatedly indicated the accompanying notes). And as far as the ancients, Virgil also heavily served as a model, as with myriads of Medieval or Renaissance talent.
Thus strictly as a poet, Spenser towers among the giants; arguably even transcending Shakespeare. However, as a dramatist, the latter belongs to the greatest, while Spenser was not much of dramatist at all (or at least in a way that reverberated in this epic).
And that well reflects in the work. Whereas Milton, Chaucer, Dante, and Virgil (to name a few) exercised a flair for the dramatic (in the formal Aristotelian sense of Drama), I identified few such elements in the Faerie Queene that would trigger the respective emotions.
But that doesn’t matter. This is a different nature of poetry, intent on triggering different emotions.
For those unaccustomed to the English of the Reinassance, it won’t be an easy read. Not initially.
And not only that, but Spenser wrote in a far more antiquated language than the contemporaries (ie Shakespeare). A lot of his word usage stemmed from the Chaucerean period of two centuries prior.
Now I am fairly well acquainted with Chaucer’s language. Hence reading the Faerie Queene felt accessible and engaging from the start. But in any case, the most ‘obscure’ language constitutes an often resurging set of constructions that you can quickly assimilate having quickly established their meaning.
Will I continue with the remaining three books?
Six books constitute the entire epic (though Spenser initially imagined twelve). Yet each one is already of epic length - at least 60% of the Aeneid or Paradise Lost. That’s a lot of epic reading!
In my case, it’s something I have to ration in small doses to extract the greatest yield: in fact, I’ll say this of Spenser’s verse in general.
The above is probably my only real gripe with the Faerie Queen. If I indulge on it for too long, the magical effect slowly wears off. But take some weeks off, and it reassembles in full gear.
Thus I’ll not likely pursue books 4-6 anytime soon: also considering that each book, though leaving numerous side plots afloat, does bring the key narrative to some closure. You don’t get baited with a profound cliffhanger.
Anyway, what’s the ultimate verdict? If not immediately apparent, I find this magnum opus sensational and a notable contribution to the major epics.
Regretfully, among even the English literature erudites, I perceive that between the Greek and the Roman epics, between Chaucer and Milton, the Faerie Queen seems to fade out of the spotlight.
I hadn’t even heard of it until a year ago, although I hadn’t become interested in poetry in general until that point. And it didn’t form part of any curriculum when I attended school or college.
Yet now, though questionably not first-tier material next to the others above, I hold it of nearly similar regard. Immortal.
Questions, comments? Connect.