What can I write on dark conceit as it pertains to Spenser's The Faerie Queene?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The first step in writing about Spenser's dark conceit is to define it. This may be a harder task than it seems. Spenser appears the originator, or the first user in print, of the term "dark conceit." It appears in the letter to Sir Walter Raleigh that heads the beginning of Spenser's allegory:

Knowing how doubtfully all Allegories may be constructed, and this booke of mine, which I have entituled The Faery Queene, being a continued Allegorie, or darke conceit, I have thought good, as well for avoyding of jealous opinions and misconstructions, as also for your better light in reading thereof, (being so, by you commanded) to discover unto you the generall intention and meaning, ....

Even John V. Fleming, professor emeritus at Princeton University, defines dark conceit by referring to Spenser's use of it:

... allegory [is] a literary genre that advances its fiction beneath a dark conceit.  There are some pretty famous examples, such as the Divine Comedy [1472], the Faerie Queene [1590], and Pilgrim’s Progress [1678].

Based on this definition and the examples given by Fleming, it seems the best definition of dark conceit is: the extended metaphor of an allegory that tells of the troubles and sufferings of the actants (or illustrators) of the allegorical message.

To refer to Fleming again, he defines allegory according to "the medieval definition of Isidore of Seville [that is] ... Allegory is 'saying one thing to mean another.'"

Putting these two together, a dark conceit is the extended metaphor underlying a work of allegory that says one thing to mean another while telling the troubles and sufferings of the actants (or illustrators) of the allegorical message.

Once you have your terms defined (and correctly cited if you reference other writers), you can give examples of the allegory's metaphorical conceits and point out how they are dark, how they depict troubles and sufferings. Spenser also says in his letter that his objective in writing a dark conceit (allegorical work of troubles and sufferings) is to give instruction to gentlemen and noblemen in how to attain moral discipline, which is equated with spiritual discipline as it is a Christian allegory:

The generall end therefore of all the booke, is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.

This leads to a third element you might write about. Depending upon the length of your paper, it will be well to point out Spenser's intent and objective, "the generall end therefore ..," and to provide examples that illustrate instruction and guidance offered by the allegory.


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