By an eclectic mingling of old traditions, Edmund Spenser created new poetry—new in verse forms, in language, and in genre. From the Middle Ages, Spenser had inherited complex allegorical traditions and a habit of interlacing narrative strands; these traditions were fused with classical myth and generic conventions, some of them transformed by continental imitators before they reached Spenser. This fusion of medievalism and classicism was in turn modified by currents of thought prevalent in Tudor England, especially by the intense nationalism that manifested itself in religion, language, politics, and international affairs.
To some extent, Spenser’s poetic development evolved naturally from his deliberate selection of Vergil as his model. Like Vergil, he started his published career with pastoral eclogues; like him, too, he turned, in his last major work, from shepherds to great heroes. Before Spenser evoked classical muses in his epic, however, the tradition of Vergil had picked up romantic coloring and allegorical overtones from continental epics, especially Ludovico Ariosto’s highly allegorized Orlando Furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591). Spenser himself announced the three-way pattern adopted for The Faerie Queene:“Fierce wars and faithful loves shall moralize my song.” Long after Spenser’s death, his admirers continued to compare him with Vergil, often to Spenser’s advantage. Vergil provided stimulus not only for the pastoral and epic genres in which Spenser wrote his two major works but also for the mythical allusions that permeate most of his work and for the serious use of poetry, especially in political and religious satire and in the reflection of nationalistic pride. Vergil’s exaltation of Augustus and the Roman Empire accorded well with the nationalism of Elizabethan England, a nationalism poetically at its zenith in The Faerie Queene.
Vergil’s sobriquet “Tityrus” became for Spenser a means of double praise when he hailed his fourteenth century predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer as an English Tityrus, the “God of shepheards.” Rustic language, interlocked narratives, and experiments in vernacular quantitative verse forms in The Shepheardes Calender all reflect Chaucerian influence; in a less direct way, the vogue of courtly love in medieval and Renaissance literature was also channeled partly through Chaucer. During the two centuries between Chaucer and Spenser, love poetry became permeated with a blend of Petrarchan and Neoplatonic elements. Petrarchan lovers taught Spenser’s shepherds to lament over their ladies’ cruelty, to extol their beauty, and to describe their own pains, anxieties, and ecstasies with conventional images. The more sensuous aspects of love remained central to many of the Amoretti sonnets and to several set pieces in The Faerie Queene, such as Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss and Busiranes’ Mask of Cupid, but idealistic Neoplatonic concepts also emerged here. Such Neoplatonic concepts undergird the Fowre Hymnes. The first two hymns praise erotic human love and the inspirational force of feminine beauty; the other two deprecate these more earthly powers, elevating in their place the heavenly love and beauty of Christ, the source of all true human love and beauty.
In The Faerie Queene , too, idealistic Neoplatonic elements assume more pervasive significance than do Petrarchan motifs. The Platonic identification of the good and the beautiful, for example, is often manifest, especially in Gloriana, Una, and Belphoebe; and the true and false Florimels of books 3 to 5 exemplify true and false beauty, the former inspiring virtuous love and marriage and the second inciting sensuous lust. Although books 3 and 4 are called the Books of Chastity and Friendship, their linked story dramatically demonstrates variant forms of love. The concept of love as either debilitating or inspiring reflects one of the mythical traditions transmitted from antiquity through the...
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Middle Ages: the double significance of Venus as good and evil love. As the goddess of good, fruitful love, Venus herself frequents the Garden of Adonis, where nature is untouched by deceptive art, where spring and harvest meet, and where love flourishes joyfully. In her own temple, Venus listens to the sound of “lovers piteously complaining” rather than rejoicing.
Renaissance pageantry and Tudor emblem books contributed to the pictorial quality with which Spenser brought myths to life—classical tales, rustic folklore, and his own mythic creations. One of the most picturesque of Spenser’s new myths describes the “spousals” of the Thames and Medway rivers, a ceremony attended by such “wat’ry gods” as Neptune and his son Albion; by other rivers, remote ones such as the Nile and the Ganges, Irish neighbors such as the Liffey and the Mulla, and streams that paid tribute to one of the betrothed rivers; and by Arion, accompanied by his dolphin and carrying the harp with which he provided wedding music. Scenes like these exemplify the artistry with which Spenser created new poetry out of old traditions.
The Shepheardes Calender and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe
Classic and contemporary models, rural and courtly milieu, universal and occasional topics—from such a mixture Spenser formed his first major work, the “little booke,” which he dedicated to Sidney and which he signed “Immerito,” the Unworthy One. The Shepheardes Calender went through five editions between 1579 and 1597, none of them bearing Spenser’s name. Such anonymity fits common Renaissance practice, but it may also have had additional motivation from Spenser’s awareness of sensitive topical allusions with too thin an allegorical veil. Contemporary praise of Spenser indicates that by 1586 the anonymity was technical rather than real. In his twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year, Spenser imitated conventions that Renaissance writers attributed to Vergil and to his Greek predecessors: debates between rustic speakers in a rural setting, varied by a singing match between shepherds, a lament for the death of a beloved companion, praise of the current sovereign, alternating exultation and despair over one’s mistress, and veiled references to contemporary situations. A fifteenth century French work, translated as The Kalender and Compost of Shepherds, probably suggested to Spenser not only his title but also the technique of emblematic illustration, the application of zodiacal signs to everyday life and to the seasons, and the arrangement of instructional commentary according to the months. Barbabe Googe’s The Zodiake of Life (1565) strengthened the satirical and philosophical undertone of the calendar theme.
Despite the surface simplicity connoted by its nominal concern with shepherds, Spenser’s book is a complex work. Not the least of its complexities are the paraphernalia added by “E. K.”: the dedicatory epistle, the introductory arguments (for the whole book and for each eclogue), and the glosses. Although the initials themselves make Spenser’s Cambridge friend Edward Kirke the most likely person to designate as the mysterious commentator, the Renaissance love for name-games does not exclude other possible solutions of the identity puzzle. Even Spenser himself has been suggested as a candidate for the enigmatic role. Many of E. K.’s annotations supply information essential to an understanding of the poet’s cryptic allusions, to the identification of real-life counterparts for the characters, and occasionally to a modernization of archaic diction. Some annotations, however, are either accidentally erroneous or pedantically misleading: for example, several source references and the etymology for “aeglogues.” E. K. derives the term “eclogues” from “Goteheardes tales” rather than from “conversations of shepherds,” the more usual Renaissance understanding of the term; in actuality, “eclogues” are etymologically short selections that convention came to associate with pastoral settings.
The twelve separate selections could have produced a sense of fragmentation, but instead they create a highly unified whole. The most obvious unifying device is the calendar framework, which gives to the individual poems their titles and their moods. Another source of unity lies in the shepherd characters who appear repeatedly, especially Colin Clout, a character borrowed from the Tudor satirist John Skelton and used by Spenser as his own persona. Colin appears in four of the eclogues and is the topic of conversation in three others; his friendship for Hobbinol (identified by E. K. as Harvey), and his love for Rosalind (unidentified) provide a thread of plot throughout the twelve poems. Moreover, the figure of Colin represents the whole life of “everyman”—or at least every poet—as he passes from the role of “shepherd boy” in “January” to that of the mature “gentle shepherd” in “December.”
In his general argument, E. K. establishes three categories for the topics of the eclogues: plaintive, recreative, and moral. The four selections that E. K. classifies as plaintive are those in which Colin’s is the main voice. “January” and “June” are laments about his futile love for Rosalind; “December,” too, is a conventional love plaint, although it adds the dimension of Colin’s approaching death. “November,” one of the most highly structured eclogues, is a pastoral elegy for Dido, the daughter of one “greate shephearde” and the beloved of another “greate shepheard Lobbin.” E. K. pleads ignorance of the identity of both shepherds, but most critics identify “Lobbin” as a typical anagram for Robin (Robert Dudley) plus Leicester, thus suggesting a covert allusion to a love interest of Elizabeth’s favorite, the earl of Leicester.
The first of the three recreative selections, “March,” is a sprightly, occasionally bawdy, discussion of love by two shepherd boys. “April” starts out with a description of Colin’s lovesickness but then moves on to an encomium on “fayre Elissa, Queene of shepheardes all,” a transparent allusion to Queen Elizabeth. The singing contest in “August” gives Spenser an opportunity to exploit shifting moods and an intricate variety of metrical patterns.
It is sometimes difficult to interpret the satire in the eclogues that E. K. classes as “moral” because of the ambivalence of the dialogue structure itself and because of the uncertain implications of the fables included in four of the five moral selections. Besides, misperception on the part of the characters or the commentator can be part of the comedy. In “May,” “July,” and “September,” different pairs of shepherds discuss religious “shepherds,” making clear allusions to contemporary churchmen. In contrast to the sometimes vehement satire in these religious eclogues, the debate on youth and age in “February” has a light, bantering tone. As a statement of Spenser’s views on poetry, “October” is perhaps the most significant “moral” eclogue. When the disillusioned young poet Cuddie complains that his oaten reeds are “rent and wore” without having brought him any reward, the idealistic Piers tries to convince him that glory is better than gain. He encourages Cuddie to leave rustic life, to lift himself “out of the lowly dust,” but Cuddie complains that the great worthies that “matter made for Poets on to play” are long dead. The ambivalence of the pastoral debate is particularly evident here because the two voices apparently represent a conflict within Spenser himself. The inner Piers has an almost Platonic vision of poetry and sees potential inspiration in the active life of the court; but the inner Cuddie, fearing the frustrations of the poet’s role, resigns himself to the less conspicuous, less stimulating rural life.
In a sequel to the eclogues, Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, Colin describes to his friends a trip to London, apparently a reflection of Spenser’s trip to make arrangements for the publication of The Faerie Queene. The question-and-answer format allows Colin to touch on varied topics: the level of poetic artistry in London, conventional satire of life at court, topographical poetry about the “marriage” of two Irish rivers, and Platonic deification of love. Although this more mature Colin is less critical of court life than the earlier one had been, Ireland rather than England is still “home” to him.
The Faerie Queene
Any study of The Faerie Queene must take into account the explanatory letter to Ralegh printed in all early editions under the heading “A Letter of the Author’s, Expounding his Whole Intention in the course of this Work. . . .” The fact that the letter was printed at the end rather than the beginning of the first edition (books 1-3 only) suggests that Spenser was writing with a retrospective glance at what was already in the printer’s press, even though he was also looking toward the overall structure of what had not yet been assembled. Ralegh had apparently requested such an explanation, and Spenser here clarified elements that he considered essential to understanding his “continued Allegory of dark conceit.” These elements can be summarized as purpose, genre, narrative structure, and allegorical significance.
In carrying out his purpose “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline,” Spenser imitated other Renaissance conduct books that set out to form representatives of different levels of polite society, such as those peopled by princes, schoolmasters, governors, and courtiers. By coloring his teaching with “historical fiction,” Spenser obeyed Horace’s precept to make poetry both useful and pleasing; he also followed the example of classic and Renaissance writers of epic by selecting for the center of that fiction a hero whose historicity was overlaid by legend: Arthur. Theoretically, an epic treats a major action of a single great man, while a romance recounts great deeds of many men. Kaleidoscopic visions of the deeds of many great knights and ladies within the separate books superimpose a coloring of romance, but the overall generic designation of The Faerie Queene as “epic” is possible because Arthur appears in the six books as a unifying hero. Through Arthur, the poet also paid tribute to his sovereign, whose family, according to the currently popular Tudor myth, claimed descent from Arthur’s heirs.
Although the complexity of the poem stems partly from the blending of epic and romance traditions, Spenser’s political concern added an even greater complication to his narrative structure. He wanted to create a major role by which he could pay tribute to a female sovereign in a genre that demanded a male hero. From this desire came two interlocked plot lines with Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, as the motivating force of both: The young Arthur “before he was king” was seeking as his bride the beautiful Queen of Fairyland whom he had seen in a vision; meanwhile, this same queen had sent out on quests twelve different knights, one for each book of the epic. At strategic points within these separate books Arthur would interrupt his quest to aid the currently central figure. Since Spenser completed only six of the proposed twelve books, the climatic wedding of Arthur and Gloriana never took place and the dramatic dispersion and reassembling of Gloriana’s knights occurred only in the poet’s explanation, not in his poem.
Patterns of allegory, like patterns of narrative, intertwine throughout the poem. By describing his allegory as “continued,” Spenser did not imply that particular meanings were continuously retained but rather that central allegories recurred. In the letter to Ralegh, for example, Spenser explains that in his “general intention,” Gloriana means glory, but in a more “particular” way, she is “the glorious person” of Elizabeth. Spenser is not satisfied to “shadow” Elizabeth only as Gloriana. In the letter and in the introduction to book 3, he invites Elizabeth to see herself as both Gloriana and Belphoebe, “In th’one her rule, in th’other her rare chastity.” Less pointedly, she is also “shadowed” in Una, the image of true religion (book 1); in Britomart, the beautiful Amazonian warrior (books 3-5); and in Mercilla, the just queen (book 5). The glories of Elizabeth thus appear as a pervasive aspect of the “continued allegory,” even though they are represented by different characters. Allegorical continuity also comes from Spenser’s plan to have his twelve knights as “patrons” of the “twelve private moral virtues” devised by Aristotle, with Arthur standing forth as the virtue of magnificence, “the perfection of all the rest.” The titles of the six completed books indicate the central virtues of their heroes: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy.
Historical and topical allusions appear frequently. Only when such allusions link references to Arthur and Gloriana, however, do they form a continuous thread of allegory. In the Proem to book 2, “The Legend of Sir Guyon, or of Temperance,” Spenser encourages Elizabeth to see her face in the “fair mirror” of Gloriana, her kingdom in the “land of faery,” and her “great ancestry” in his poem. In canto 10, he inserts a patch of “historical fiction” in which Arthur and Guyon examine the chronicles of Briton kings and elfin emperors, the first ending with the father of Arthur, Uther Pendagron, and the second with Tanaquil, called “Glorian . . . that glorious flower.” Spenser prefaces his lengthy account of British history (stanzas 5-69) with a tribute to his own “sovereign queen” whose “realm and race” had been derived from Prince Arthur; he thus identifies the realm of the “renowned prince” of this story as the England of history. The second chronicle describes an idealized land where succession to the crown is peaceful, where the elfin inhabitants can trace their race back to Prometheus, creator of Elf (Adam) and Fay (Eve), and where Elizabeth-Gloriana can find her father and grandfather figured in Oberon and Elficleos. The “continued” historical allegory looks to the wedding of Arthur and Gloriana as blending real and ideal aspects within England itself.
Topical political allegory is most sustained in book 5, “The Legend of Artegall, or of Justice.” In this book Elizabeth appears as Queen Mercilla and as Britomart; Mary Stuart as Duessa (sentenced by Mercilla) and as Radigund (defeated in battle by Britomart); Arthur Lord Grey as the titular hero, Artegall; and the earl of Leicester as Prince Arthur himself in one segment of the narrative. Several European rulers whom Elizabeth had either opposed or aided also appear in varied forms. Contemporary political problems are reflected in the story of Artegall’s rescue of Irena (Ireland) from the giant Grantorto (literally translated as “Great Wrong”), usually allegorically identified as the Pope. Spenser’s personal defense of Lord Grey shows through the naïve allegory of canto 12, where Artegall, on the way back to Faery Court, is attacked by two hags, Envy and Detraction, and by the Blatant Beast (Calumny). Spenser thus suggests the cause of the misunderstandings that led to Elizabeth’s recalling Grey from Ireland. Elizabeth’s controversy with Mary Stuart, doubly reflected in book 5, also provides a significant level of meaning in book 1, “The Legende of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or of Holinesse.”
A closer look at the tightly structured development of book 1 shows more clearly Spenser’s approach to heroic and allegorical poetry in the epic as a whole. On the literal level of romantic epic, Gloriana assigns to an untrained knight the quest he seeks: the rescue of the parents of a beautiful woman from a dreaded dragon. The plot traces the separation of Red Cross and Una, Red Cross’s travels with the deceptive Duessa (duplicity), Una’s search for Red Cross, the reunion of Una and her knight, the fulfillment of the quest, and the betrothal of hero and heroine. Vivid epic battles pit Red Cross against the serpentine Error and her swarming brood of lesser monsters, against a trio of evil brothers (Sansfoy, Sansjoy, and Sansloy), against the giant Orgoglio (from whose dungeon he must be rescued by Prince Arthur), and eventually against one of the fiercest, best-described dragons in literature. In canto 10, Red Cross learns his identity as Saint George, changeling descendant of human Saxon kings rather than rustic elfin warrior. Red Cross’s dragon-fight clearly reflects pictorial representations of Saint George as dragon-slayer.
All three levels of allegory recognized by medieval exegetes are fully developed in book 1: typical, anagogical, and moral. Typically, Una is the true Church of England, and Elizabeth is the protector of this Church; Duessa is the Church of Rome and Mary Stuart, its supporter. Red Cross is both abstract holiness defending truth and a figure of Christ himself. Arthur, too, is a figure of Christ or of grace in his rescue of Red Cross—here a kind of Everyman—from Orgoglio, the forces of Antichrist.
Anagogical or apocalyptic elements appear primarily in sections treating Duessa and the dragon and in Red Cross’s vision of heaven. Duessa, at her first appearance, reflects the description of the scarlet woman in the Revelation of St. John, and the mount given her later by Orgoglio is modeled on the apocalyptic seven-headed beast. The mouth of the great dragon of canto 11 belches forth flames like those often pictured erupting from the jaws of hell in medieval mystery plays. Red Cross is saved from the dragon by his contacts with the Well of Life and the Tree of Life, both borrowed from Revelation. Before Red Cross confronts the dragon, he has an apocalyptic vision of the New Jerusalem, a city rivaling in beauty even the capital of Fairyland, Cleopolis.
The moral level provides the most “continued” allegory in book 1. Red Cross-Everyman must develop within himself the virtue of holiness if he is eventually to conquer sin and attain the heavenly vision. When holiness is accompanied by truth, Error can be readily conquered. However, when holiness is deceived by hypocrisy (Archimago), it is easily separated from truth and is further deceived by duplicity (Duessa) masquerading as fidelity (Fidessa). Tempted to spiritual sloth, Red Cross removes his armor of faith and falls to pride (Orgoglio). He must then be rescued from the chains of this sin by grace (Prince Arthur), must be rescued from Despair by truth, and must be spiritually strengthened in the House of Holiness, conducted by Dame Caelia (heaven) and her daughters Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa (faith, hope, and charity). Only then can he repent of his own sins and become holy enough to conquer sin embodied in the dragon.
If book 1 best exemplifies self-contained, carefully structured allegorical narrative, books 3 and 4 exemplify the interweaving common in medieval and early Renaissance narrative poetry. Characters pursue one another throughout the two books; several stories are not completed until book 5. In fact, Braggadochio, the cowardly braggart associated with false Florimell in this section, steals Guyon’s horse in book 2 and is judged for the crime in book 5. Belphoebe, too, introduced in a comic interlude with Braggadochio in book 2, becomes a central figure in the Book of Chastity. Belphoebe blends the beauty of Venus (Bel) with the chastity of Diana (Phoebe); her twin sister, Amoret, is a more earthly representation of Venus, destined to generate beauty and human love. Britomart, the nominal heroine of book 3, embodies the chastity of Belphoebe in her youth but the generative love of Amoret in maturity. Despite complex and not always consistent allegorical equations applicable to these central characters, Spenser moves them through their adventures with a delicate interlacing of narrative and allegorical threads typical of the romantic epic at its most entertaining level.
Amoretti and Epithalamion
The sonnet sequence Amoretti (little love poems) and the Epithalamion (songs on the marriage bed) together provide a poetic account of courtship and marriage, an account that tradition links to actualities in Spenser’s relationship with Elizabeth Boyle, whom he married in 1594. References to seasons suggest that the “plot” of the sonnet sequence extends from New Year’s Day in one year (Sonnet 4) through a second New Year’s Day (Sonnet 62) to the beginning of a third winter in the closing sonnet (Sonnet 89), a time frame of about two years. Several sonnets contain references that tempt readers to autobiographical interpretations. In Sonnet 60, “one year is spent” since the planet of “the winged god” began to move in the poet; even more significantly, the poet refers to the “sphere of Cupid” as containing the forty years “wasted” before this year. By simple arithmetical calculations, biographers of Spenser have deduced from his assumed age in 1593 his birth in 1552. Two sonnets refer directly to his work on The Faerie Queene: Sonnet 33 blames on his “troublous” love his inability to complete the “Queen of Faery” for his “sacred empress,” and Sonnet 80 rejoices that having run through six books on Fairyland he can now write praises “low and mean,/ Fit for the handmaid of the Faery Queen.”
Collectively and individually the Amoretti follow a popular Renaissance tradition established by Petrarch and imitated by numerous English sonneteers. In metrical structure, Spenser’s sonnets blended Italian and English forms. The five-rhyme restriction in the Italian octave-plus-sestet pattern (abbaabba cdecde) was adapted to fit the English pattern of three quatrains plus couplet; instead of the seven rhymes used in most English sonnets, the interlocked rhymes of the Spenserian quatrains created a more intricate, as well as more restricted, form (abab bcbc cdcd ee).
Although Spenser’s metrical pattern was innovative, most of his conceits and images were conventional; for example, love is related to a judicial court (Sonnet 10) and to religious worship (Sonnets 22 and 68); the beloved is a cruel causer and observer of his pain (Sonnets 20, 31, 41, 42, and 54) and the Neoplatonic ideal of beauty (Sonnets 3, 9, 45, 61, 79, and 88); love is warfare (Sonnets 11, 12, 14, and 57), a storm (Sonnet 46), sickness (Sonnet 50), and a sea journey (Sonnet 63). The poet at times promises the immortality of fame through his praise (Sonnets 27, 29, 69, 75, and 82); at other times he simply rejoices in the skill that enables him as poet to offer his gift of words (Sonnets 1 and 84). Even the kind of praise offered to his beloved is traditional. In Sonnet 40, “An hundred Graces” sit “on each eyelid” and the lover’s “storm-beaten heart” is cheered “when cloudy looks are cleared.” Elsewhere, eyes are weapons (Sonnets 7, 16, and 49) and a means of entanglement (Sonnet 37). The beloved is a “gentle deer” (Sonnet 67) and a “gentle bee” caught in a sweet prison woven by the spider-poet (Sonnet 71); but she is also a cruel panther (Sonnet 53) and a tiger (Sonnet 56). Physical beauties are compared to precious metals and gems (Sonnet 15), to sources of light (Sonnet 9), and to the sweet odors of flowers (Sonnet 64). Classical myths color several sonnets, identifying the beloved with Penelope, Pandora, Daphne, and the Golden Apples of Hercules (Sonnets 23, 24, 28, and 77) and the poet-lover with Narcissus, Arion, and Orpheus (Sonnets 35, 38, and 44).
In typical Petrarchan fashion, the lyrical moments in the Amoretti fluctuate between joy and pain, between exultation over love returned and anxiety over possible rejection. The sequence ends on a note of anxiety not in keeping with a set of poems conceived as a prelude for the glowing joy of the Epithalamion. Despite clear references to the 1592-1594 period of Spenser’s life, it seems unlikely that all eighty-nine sonnets were written during this period or that all were originally intended for a sequence in praise of Elizabeth Boyle. The Epithalamion, however, is clearly Spenser’s celebration of his own wedding at Kilcolman on Saint Barnabas’ Day (June 11), 1594.
In its basic form and development, this marriage song is as conventional as the sonnets with which it was first published; but it is also original and personal in its variations on tradition. Classical allusions, for example, are countered by the homely invocation to nymphs of the Irish river and lake near Spenser’s home (lines 56-66), by the imprecation against the “unpleasant choir of frogs still croaking” in the same lake (line 349), and by some of the attendants: “merchants’ daughters,” “fresh boys,” and childlike angels “peeping in” the face of the bride. Although allusions to classical gods and goddesses heighten the lyric mood, other elements retain a more personal touch.
Structurally, Spenser adapted the canzone form. As used by Dante and Petrarch, the canzone consisted of a series of long stanzas followed by a short stanza (a tornata) responding to the preceding stanzas. Within the stanzas, one or more three-foot lines varied the basic five-foot line; the tornata, too, had one short line. A. Kent Hieatt has demonstrated in Short Time’s Endless Monument (1960) the ingenuity with which Spenser varied the basic canzone structure to reflect units of time in general and to relate poetic divisions with night/day divisions on the longest day of the year in southern Ireland. Hieatt points out that variations in verse form correspond to days in the year (365 long lines), hours in the day (24 stanzas), spring and fall equinoxes (parallel diction, imagery, and thought in stanzas 1-12 and 13-24), degrees of the sun’s daily movement (359 long lines before the tornata, corresponding to 359 degrees of the sun’s movement as contrasted with 360 degrees of the stars’ movement), and the division between waking and sleeping hours (indicated by a change in the refrain at the end of stanza 17). It is variations within stanza 17 that most personalize the time element to make the “bedding” of the bride occur at the point in the poem representing nightfall on the poet’s wedding day, the day of the summer solstice in southern Ireland. At the end of the stanza, the refrain, which had for sixteen stanzas been describing the answering echo of the woods, changes to “The woods no more shall answer, nor your echo ring”: All is quiet so that the poet-bridegroom can welcome night and the love of his bride.
The collection of moralizing, melancholy verse titled Complaints reflects an as yet not fully developed artistry in the author. Although published in the aftermath of fame brought by The Faerie Queene, most of the nine poems were probably first drafted much earlier. The most significant poem in this volume was probably the satirical beast fable, “Prosopopoia: Or, Mother Hubberd’s Tale.” Following the tradition of Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet creates a framework of tale-tellers, one of whom is “a good old woman” named Mother Hubberd. In Mother Hubberd’s story, a Fox and an Ape gain personal prosperity through the gullibility of farmers, the ignorance and worldliness of clergymen, and the licentiousness of courtiers. About two-thirds of the way through, the satire turns more specifically to the concern of England in 1579 with a possible marriage between the twenty-four-year-old Duc d’Alencon and Queen Elizabeth, then forty-six. The marriage was being engineered by Lord Burleigh (the Fox of the narrative) and by Jean de Simier, whom Elizabeth playfully called her “Ape.” This poem, even more than The Shepheardes Calender, demonstrates Spenser’s artistic simplicity and the Chaucer-like irony of his worldview. Burleigh’s later hostility to Spenser gives evidence of the pointedness of the poet’s satiric barbs. “Virgil’s Gnat” also exemplifies a satiric beast fable, this time with Leicester’s marriage as the target, hit so effectively that Spenser himself was wounded by Leicester’s lessened patronage. In “Muiopotmos: Or, The Fate of the Butterfly,” beast fable is elevated by philosophical overtones, epic machinery, and classical allusions. Some type of personal or political allegory obviously underlies the poem, but critical interpretations vary widely in attempting to identify the chief figures, the Spider and the Butterfly. Despite such uncertainty, however, one message is clear: Life and beauty are mutable.
Mutability permeates Complaints; it is even more central to the posthumous fragment known as the “Mutabilitie Cantos.” The publisher Matthew Lownes printed these two cantos as “The Legend of Constancy,” a fragmentary book 7 of The Faerie Queene. Lownes’s identification of these two cantos with the unfinished epic was apparently based on similar poetic form, an allusion to the poet’s softening his stern style in singing of hills and woods “mongst warres and knights,” and a reference to the records of Fairyland as registering mutability’s genealogy. There are, however, no knights, human or elf, in these cantos. Instead, Jove and Nature represent allegorically the cosmic principle of Constancy, the permanence that underlies all change. Despite the philosophical victory of Nature, one of the most effective extended passages in the cantos represents change through a processional pageant of the seasons, the months, day and night, the hours, and life and death.
The principle of underlying permanence applies to Spenser’s works as well as to the world of which he wrote. In his shepherds and shepherdesses, his knights and ladies, his own personae, and even in the animal figures of his fables, images of Everyman and Everywoman still live. Time has thickened some of the allegorical veils that conceal as well as reveal, language then new has become archaic, and poetic conventions have become freer since Spenser’s poetry first charmed his contemporaries. Despite such changes, however, the evocative and creative power that made Spenser “the Prince of Poets in his time” remains constant.