The Faerie Queene was the first sustained poetic creation after that of Geoffrey Chaucer, and its beauty and power made for it a secure place in English literature as soon as it was given to the world. At present it is generally accorded a high place in the history of English literary art. Combined with Edmund Spenser’s poetic power was his high moral purpose.
Only six books of the twelve planned by Spenser were completed. The fragmentary seventh book was published in 1609, ten years after his death. What he did finish is so great that The Faerie Queene is, sad to say, generally more honored than read. The grand conception and execution of the poem reflect both the life of the poet and his participation in the life and ideals of his age. Spenser was committed to public service in the expansive period of Elizabethan efflorescence. A gentleman poet and friend of the great, Spenser never received the preferment he hoped for, but he remained devoted to Elizabeth, to England, and to late sixteenth century optimism. Even during his lifetime, Spenser was honored as a poet by the court and by other men of letters. Spenser’s allegorical imagination and his masterful control of language have earned him a reputation as “the poet’s poet.”
Like other Elizabethan poets, Spenser produced eclogues and a sonnet sequence, but The Faerie Queene is his great accomplishment. In a famous letter to Sir Walter Ralegh, Spenser explained the ambitious structure and purpose of his poem. It was to be composed of twelve books, each treating one of Aristotle’s moral virtues as represented in the figure of a knight. The whole was to be a consistent moral allegory, and the twelve books taken together would describe the circumscribing Aristotelian virtue of magnanimity, which Spenser called Magnificence.
At some point Spenser apparently decided to modify this plan. By the fourth book the simple representation of one virtue in one hero has broken down, though each book still does define a dominant virtue. More significantly, virtues are included that are not in Aristotle. Spenser is true to Aristotle, however, in consistently viewing virtue as a mean between extremes, as a moderate path between many aberrations of excess and defect.
The poem owes many debts to other antecedents. It is filled with references to and echoes of the Bible and the Greek and Latin classics. It is suffused with the spirit and much of the idealized landscape and atmosphere of medieval romance. However, its greatest debts are to the writers of the Continental Renaissance, particularly Ludovico Ariosto. Ariosto’s loosely plotted Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591) was the most influential single model, and Spenser borrows freely, but where Ariosto was ironic or skeptical, Spenser transforms the same material into a serious medium for his high ethical purposes. Moreover, while allegory is a dimension added to Ariosto by his critics, Spenser’s allegorical purpose is unmistakable. In this aim, he is within the Renaissance tradition of writing courtesy books, such as Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Book of the Courtier, 1561), guides to conduct for the gentleman who would seek excellence in behavior and demeanor. The Faerie Queene is a courtesy book turned to the highest of purposes—the moral formation of the ideal Christian gentleman.
Book 1, the story of Red Cross Knight, the Knight of Holiness, is the truest to the original structure intention. Red Cross is assigned to Una to relieve her kingdom of a menacing dragon. Through the book Red Cross’s chivalric exploits gradually develop in him the virtue he represents, so that he can ultimately kill the dragon. Book 2 also makes its demonstration in a relatively straightforward way. Sir Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, despite temporary setbacks and failures, eventually gains the knowledge of what true temperance is by seeing how it is violated by excess, by defect, by self-indulgence, and by inhuman austerity. Ultimately Guyon can reject the opulent pleasures of the sensuous Bower of Bliss.
In book 3 the allegorical method begins to change, probably because the virtues represented are more sophisticated in concept and more difficult to define. This complexity is mirrored in plot as earlier characters reappear and subsequent characters make brief entries. The result is an elaborate suspense and an intricate definition of virtues by means of examples, comparisons, and contrasts.
Book 3 deals with Chastity, book 4 with Friendship; both incorporate Renaissance platonic notions of love. Chastity is infinitely more than sexual abstinence, because by the perception of beauty and experience of love a person moves closer to divine perfection. The concept of mutuality is emphasized in book 3 by the fact that Scudamour cannot accomplish his quest without Britomart’s contribution to his development. Book 4 further explores platonic love by defining true friendship through a series of examples and counter examples that culminate in the noblest kind of friendship: that between a man and a woman.
In book 5, the adventures of Artegall, Spenser develops a summary statement of his political philosophy. Justice is relentless and inexorable; it is not only a matter of abstract principle but also of wise governing. After the stringency of the Book of Justice, book 6 is a softer, more pastoral treatment of the chivalric ideal of Courtesy in the person of Sir Calidore.
Spenser’s allegory is enlivened by the meanderings of plot as well as by the fullness and appeal of his personifications. In addition to the well-wrought moral allegory, there is sporadic political allegory, as Elizabeth occasionally becomes visible in Una or Britomart or Belphoebe, or as contemporary events are evoked by the plot. At every point Spenser’s style is equal to his noble intentions. The verse form, the Spenserian stanza, is an ingenious modification of the rhyme royal stanza, in which the last line breaks the decasyllabic monotony with a rhythmically flexible Alexandrine. The diction has often been called archaic, but it is perhaps more a capitalizing on all the resources of Elizabethan English, even the obsolescent, in the service of the beauty of sound. Alliteration and assonance also contribute to a consummate aural beauty that not only reinforces sense but also provides a pervasive harmony that is distinctly Spenserian.