H. A. Taine (essay date 1889)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8756
SOURCE: "The Pagan Renaissance" in "The Renaissance," Book II of History of English Literature, Henry Holt and Company, 1889, pp. 289-321.
[In the following excerpt from his survey of English literature, Taine gives an overview of Spenser and The Faerie Queene in the context of the English Renaissance.]
Spenser belonged to an ancient family, allied to great houses; was a friend of Sidney and Raleigh, the two most accomplished knights of the age—a knight himself, at least in heart; who had found in his connections, his friendships, his studies, his life, everything calculated to lead him to ideal poetry. We find him at Cambridge, where he imbues himself with the noblest ancient philosophies; in a northern country, where he passes through a deep and unfortunate passion; at Penshurst, in the castle and in the society where the Arcadia was produced; with Sidney, in whom survived entire the romantic poetry and heroic generosity of the feudal spirit; at court, where all the splendours of a disciplined and gorgeous chivalry were gathered about the throne; finally, at Kilcolman, on the borders of a beautiful lake, in a lonely castle, from which the view embraced an amphitheatre of mountains, and the half of Ireland. Poor on the other hand,1 not fit for court, and though favoured by the queen, unable to obtain from his patrons anything but inferior employment; in the end, wearied of solicitations, and banished to his dangerous property in Ireland, whence a rebellion expelled him, after his house and child had been burned; he died three months later, of misery and a broken heart.2 Expectations and rebuffs, many sorrows and many dreams, some few joys, and a sudden and frightful calamity, a small fortune and a premature end; this indeed was a poet's life. But the heart within was the true poet—from it all proceeded; circumstances furnished the subject only; he transformed them more than they him; he received less than he gave. Philosophy and landscapes, ceremonies and ornaments, splendours of the country and the court, on all which he painted or thought, he impressed his inward nobleness. Above all, his was a soul captivated by sublime and chaste beauty, eminently platonic; one of these lofty and refined souls most charming of all, who, born in the lap of nature, draw thence their sustenance, but soar higher, enter the regions of mysticism, and mount instinctively in order to expand on the confines of a loftier world. Spenser leads us to Milton, and thence to Puritanism, as Plato to Virgil, and thence to Christianity. Sensuous beauty is perfect in both, but their main worship is for moral beauty. He appeals to the Muses:
Revele to me the sacred noursery
Of vertue, which with you doth there remaine,
Where it in silver bowre does hidden ly
From view of men and wicked worlds disdaine!
He encourages his knight when he sees him droop. He is wroth when he sees him attacked. He rejoices in his justice, temperance, courtesy. He introduces in the beginning of a song, long stanzas in honour of friendship and justice. He pauses, after relating a lovely instance of chastity, to exhort women to modesty. He pours out the wealth of his respect and tenderness at the feet of his heroines. If any coarse man insults them, he calls to their aid nature and the gods. Never does he bring them on his stage without adorning their name with splendid eulogy. He has an adoration for beauty worthy of Dante and Plotinus. And this, because he never considers it a mere harmony of colour and form, but an emanation of unique, heavenly, imperishable beauty, which no mortal eye can see, and which is the masterpiece of the great Author of the worlds.3 Bodies only render it visible; it does not live in them; charm and attraction are not in things, but in the immortal idea which shines through them:
For that same goodly hew of white and red,
With which the cheekes are sprinckled, shall decay,
And those sweete rosy leaves, so fairly spred
Upon the lips, shall fade and fall away
To that they were, even to corrupted clay:
That golden wyre, those sparckling stars so bright,
Shall turne to dust, and lose their goodly light.
But that faire lampe, from whose celestiall ray
That light proceedes, which kindleth lovers fire,
Shall never be extinguisht nor decay;
But, when the vitall spirits doe expyre,
Upon her native planet shall retyre;
For it is heavenly borne, and cannot die,
Being a parcell of the purest skie.4
In presence of this ideal of beauty, love is transformed:
For Love is lord of Truth and Loialtie,
Lifting himself out of the lowly dust,
On golden plumes up to the purest skie,
Above the reach of loathly sinfull lust,
Whose base affect through cowardly distrust
Of his weake wings dare not to heaven fly,
But like a moldwarpe in the earth doth ly.5
Love such as this contains all that is good, and fine, and noble. It is the prime source of life, and the eternal soul of things. It is this love which, pacifying the primitive discord, has created the harmony of the spheres, and maintains this glorious universe. It dwells in God, and is God Himself, come down in bodily form to regenerate the tottering world and save the human race; around and within animated beings, when our eyes can pierce outward appearances, we behold it as a living light, penetrating and embracing every creature. We touch here the sublime sharp summit where the world of mind and the world of sense unite; where man, gathering with both hands the loveliest flowers of either, feels himself at the same time a pagan and a Christian.
So much, as a testimony to his heart. But he was also a poet, that is, pre-eminently a creator and a dreamer, and that most naturally, instinctively, unceasingly. We might go on for ever describing this inward condition of all great artists; there would still remain much to be described. It is a sort of mental growth with them; at every instant a bud shoots forth, and on this another and still another; each producing, increasing, blooming of itself, so that after a few moments we find first a green plant crop up, then a thicket, then a forest. A character appears to them, then an action, then a landscape, then a succession of actions, characters, landscapes, producing, completing, arranging themselves by instinctive development, as when in a dream we behold a train of figures which, without any outward compulsion, display and group themselves before our eyes. This fount of living and changing forms is inexhaustible in Spenser; he is always imaging; it is his specialty. He has but to close his eyes, and apparitions arise; they abound in him, crowd, overflow; in vain he pours them forth; they continually float up, more copious and more dense. Many times, following the inexhaustible stream, I have thought of the vapours which rise incessantly from the sea, ascend, sparkle, commingle their golden and snowy scrolls, while underneath them new mists arise, and others again beneath, and the splendid procession never grows dim or ceases.
But what distinguishes him from all others is the mode of his imagination. Generally with a poet his mind ferments vehemently and by fits and starts; his ideas gather, jostle each other, suddenly appear in masses and heaps, and burst forth in sharp, piercing, concentrative words; it seems that they need these sudden accumulations to imitate the unity and life-like energy of the objects which they reproduce; at least almost all the poets of that time, Shakspeare at their head, act thus. Spenser remains calm in the fervour of invention. The visions which would be fever to another, leave him at peace. They come and unfold themselves before him, easily, entire, uninterrupted, without starts. He is epic, that is, a narrator, not a singer like an odewriter, nor a mimic like a play-writer. No modern is more like Homer. Like Homer and the great epic-writers, he only presents consecutive and noble, almost classical images, so nearly ideas, that the mind seizes them unaided and unawares. Like Homer, he is always simple and clear: he makes no leaps, he omits no argument, he robs no word of its primitive and ordinary meaning, he preserves the natural sequence of ideas. Like Homer again, he is redundant, ingenuous, even childish. He says everything, he puts down reflections which we have made beforehand; he repeats without limit his grand ornamental epithets. We can see that he beholds objects in a beautiful uniform light, with infinite detail; that he wishes to show all this detail, never fearing to see his happy dream change or disappear; that he traces its outline with a regular movement, never hurrying or slackening. He is even a little prolix, too unmindful of the public, too ready to lose himself and dream about the things he beholds. His thought expands in vast repeated comparisons, like those of the old Ionic poet. If a wounded giant falls, he finds him
He develops all the ideas which he handles. All his phrases become periods. Instead of compressing, he expands. To bear this ample thought and its accompanying train, he requires a long stanza, ever renewed, long alternate verses, reiterated rhymes, whose uniformity and fulness recall the majestic sounds which undulate eternally through the woods and the fields. To unfold these epic faculties, and to display them in the sublime region where his soul is naturally borne, he requires an ideal stage, situated beyond the bounds of reality, with personages who could hardly exist, and in a world which could never be.
He made many miscellaneous attempts in sonnets, elegies, pastorals, hymns of love, little sparkling word pictures;7 they were but essays, incapable for the most part of supporting his genius. Yet already his magnificent imagination appeared in them; gods, men, landscapes, the world which he sets in motion is a thousand miles from that in which we live. His Shepherd's Calendar8 is a thought-inspiring and tender pastoral, full of delicate loves, noble sorrows, lofty ideas, where no voice is heard but of thinkers and poets. His Visions of Petrarch and Du Bellay are admirable dreams, in which palaces, temples of gold, splendid landscapes, sparkling rivers, marvellous birds, appear in close succession as in an Oriental fairy-tale. If he sings a "Prothalamion," he sees two beautiful swans, white as snow, who come softly swimming down amidst the songs of nymphs and vermeil roses, while the transparent water kisses their silken feathers, and murmurs with joy:
There, in a meadow, by the river's side.
A flocke of Nymphes I chaunced to espy,
All lovely daughters of the Flood thereby,
With goodly greenish locks, all loose untyde,
As each had bene a bryde;
And each one had a little wicker basket,
Made of fine twigs, entrayled curiously,
In which they gathered flowers to fill their flasket,
And with fine fingers cropt full feateously
The tender stalkes on hye.
Of every sort, which in that meadow grew,
They gathered some; the violet, pallid blew,
The little dazie, that at evening closes,
The virgin lillie, and the primrose trew,
With store of vermeil roses,
To deck their bridegroomes posies
Against the brydale-day, which was not long:
Sweet Themmes! runne softly, till I end my song.
With that I saw two Swannes of goodly hewe
Come softly swimming downe along the lee;
Two fairer birds I yet did never see;
The snow, which doth the top of Pindus strew,
Did never whiter shew …
So purely white they were,
That even the gentle stream, the which them bare,
Seem'd foule to them, and bad his billowes spare
To wet their silken feathers, least they might
Soyle their fayre plumes with water not so fayre,
And marre their beauties bright,
That shone as heavens light,
Against their brydale day, which was not long:
Sweet Themmes! runne softly, till I end my song!9
If he bewails the death of Sidney, Sidney becomes a shepherd; he is slain like Adonis; around him gather weeping nymphs:
The gods, which all things see, this same beheld,
And, pittying this paire of lovers trew,
Transformed them there lying on the field,
Into one flowre that is both red and blew:
It first growes red, and then to blew doth fade,
Like Astrophel, which thereinto was made.
And in the midst thereof a star appeares,
As fairly formd as any star in skyes:
Resembling Stella in her freshest yeares,
Forth darting beames of beautie from her eyes;
And all the day it standeth full of deow,
Which is the teares, that from her eyes did flow.10
His most genuine sentiments become thus fairy-like. Magic is the mould of his mind, and impresses its shape on all that he imagines or thinks. Involuntarily he robs objects of their ordinary form. If he looks at a landscape, after an instant he sees it quite differently. He carries it, unconsciously, into an enchanted land; the azure heaven sparkles like a canopy of diamonds, meadows are clothed with flowers, a biped population flutters in the balmy air, palaces of jasper shine among the trees, radiant ladies appear on carved balconies above galleries of emerald. This unconscious toil of mind is like the slow crystallisations of nature. A moist twig is cast into the bottom of a mine, and is brought out again a hoop of diamonds.
At last he finds a subject which suits him, the greatest joy permitted to an artist. He removes his epic, from the common ground which, in the hands of Homer and Dante, gave expression to a living creed, and depicted national heroes. He leads us to the summit of fairyland, soaring above history, on that extreme verge where objects vanish and pure idealism begins: "I have undertaken a work," he says, "to represent all the moral vertues, assigning to every vertue a knight to be the patron and defender of the same; in whose actions and feats of armes and chivalry the operations of that vertue, whereof he is the protector, are to be expressed, and the vices and unruly appetites that oppose themselves against the same, to be beaten downe and overcome,"11 In fact, he gives us an allegory as the foun dation of his poem, not that he dreams of becoming a wit, a preacher of moralities, a propounder of riddles. He does not subordinate image to idea; he is a seer, not a philosopher. They are living men and actions which he sets in motion; only from time to time, in his poem, enchanted palaces, a whole train of splendid visions trembles and divides like a mist, enabling us to catch a glimpse of the thought which raised and arranged it. When in his Garden of Adonis we see the countless forms of all living things arranged in due order, in close compass, awaiting life, we conceive with him the birth of universal love, the ceaseless fertility of the great mother, the mysterious swarm of creatures which rise in succession from her "wide wombe of the world." When we see his Knight of the Cross combating with a horrible woman-serpent in defence of his beloved lady Una, we dimly remember that, if we search beyond these two figures, we shall find behind one, Truth, behind the other, Falsehood. We perceive that his characters are not flesh and blood, and that all these brilliant phantoms are phantoms, and nothing more. We take pleasure in their brilliancy, without believing in their substantiality; we are interested in their doings, without troubling ourselves about their misfortunes. We know that their tears and cries are not real. Our emotion is purified and raised. We do not fall into gross illusion; we have that gentle feeling of knowing ourselves to be dreaming. We, like him, are a thousand leagues from actual life, beyond the pangs of painful pity, unmixed terror, violent and bitter hatred. We entertain only refined sentiments, partly formed, arrested at the very moment they were about to affect us with too sharp a stroke. They slightly touch us, and we find ourselves happy in being extricated from a belief which was beginning to be oppressive.
What world could furnish materials to so elevated a fancy? One only, that of chivalry; for none is so far from the actual. Alone and independent in his castle, freed from all the ties which society, family, toil, usually impose on the actions of men, the feudal hero had attempted every kind of adventure, but yet he had done less than he imagined; the boldness of his deeds had been exceeded by the madness of his dreams. For want of useful employment and an accepted rule, his brain had laboured on an unreasoning and impossible track, and the urgency of his wearisomeness had increased beyond measure his craving for excitement. Under this stimulus his poetry had become a world of imagery. Insensibly strange conceptions had grown and multiplied in his brains, one over the other, like ivy woven round a tree, and the original trunk had disappeared beneath their rank growth and their obstruction. The delicate fancies of the old Welsh poetry, the grand ruins of the German epics, the marvellous splendours of the conquered East, all the recollections which four centuries of adventure had scattered among the minds of men, had become gathered into one great dream; and giants, dwarfs, monsters, the whole medley of imaginary creatures, of superhuman exploits and splendid follies, were grouped around a unique conception, exalted and sublime love, like courtiers prostrated at the feet of their king. It was an ample and buoyant subject-matter, from which the great artists of the age, Ariosto, Tasso, Cervantes, Rabelais, had hewn their poems. But they belonged too completely to their own time, to admit of their belonging to one which had passed.12 They created a chivalry afresh, but it was not genuine. The ingenious Ariosto, an ironical epicurean, delights his gaze with it, and grows merry over it, like a man of pleasure, a sceptic who rejoices doubly in his pleasure, because it is sweet, and because it is forbidden. By his side poor Tasso, inspired by a fanatical, revived, factitious Catholicism, amid the tinsel of an old school of poetry, works on the same subject, in sickly fashion, with great effort and scant success. Cervantes, himself a knight, albeit he loves chivalry for its nobleness, perceives its folly, and crushes it to the ground, with heavy blows, in the mishaps of the wayside inns. More coarsely, more openly, Rabelais, a rude commoner, drowns it with a burst of laughter, in his merriment and nastiness. Spenser alone takes it seriously and naturally. He is on the level of so much nobleness, dignity, reverie. He is not yet settled and shut in by that species of exact common sense which was to found and cramp the whole modern civilisation. In his heart he inhabits the poetic and shadowy land from which men were daily drawing further and further away. He is enamoured of it, even to its very language; he revives the old words, the expressions of the middle-age, the style of Chaucer, especially in the Shepherd's Calendar. He enters straightway upon the strangest dreams of the old story-tellers, without astonishment, like a man who has still stranger dreams of his own. Enchanted castles, monsters and giants, duels in the woods, wandering ladies, all spring up under his hands, the mediaeval fancy with the mediaeval generosity; and it is just because this world is unreal that it so suits his humour.
Is there in chivalry sufficient to furnish him with matter? That is but one world, and he has another. Beyond the valiant men, the glorified images of moral virtues, he has the gods, finished models of sensible beauty; beyond Christian chivalry he has the pagan Olympus; beyond the idea of heroic will which can only be satisfied by adventures and danger, there exists calm energy, which, by its own impulse, is in harmony with actual existence. For such a poet one ideal is not enough; beside the beauty of effort he places the beauty of happiness; he couples them, not deliberately as a philosopher, nor with the design of a scholar like Goethe, but because they are both lovely; and here and there, amid armour and passages of arms, he distributes satyrs, nymphs, Diana, Venus, like Greek statues amid the turrets and lofty trees of an English park. There is nothing forced in the union; the ideal epic, like a superior heaven, receives and harmonises the two worlds; a beautiful pagan dream carries on a beautiful dream of chivalry; the link consists in the fact that they are both beautiful. At this elevation the poet has ceased to observe the differences of races and civilisations. He can introduce into his picture whatever he will; his only reason is, "That suited;" and there could be no better. Under the glossy-leaved oaks, by the old trunk so deeply rooted in the ground, he can see two knights cleaving each other, and the next instant a company of Fauns who came there to dance. The beams of light which have poured down upon the velvet moss, the green turf of an English forest, can reveal the dishevelled locks and white shoulders of nymphs. Do we not see it in Rubens? And what signify discrepancies in the happy and sublime illusion of fancy? Are there more discrepancies? Who perceives them, who feels them? Who does not feel, on the contrary, that to speak the truth, there is but one world, that of Plato and the poets; that actual phenomena are but outlines—mutilated, incomplete and blurred outlines—wretched abortions scattered here and there on Time's track, like fragments of clay, half moulded, then cast aside, lying in an artist's studio; that, after all, invisible forces and ideas, which for ever renew the actual existences, attain their fulfilment only in imaginary existences; and that the poet, in order to express nature in its entirety, is obliged to embrace in his sympathy all the ideal forms by which nature reveals itself? This is the greatness of his work; he has succeeded in seizing beauty in its fulness, because he cared for nothing but beauty.
The reader will feel that it is impossible to give in full the plot of such a poem. In fact, there are six poems, each of a dozen cantos, in which the action is ever diverging and converging again, becoming confused and starting again; and all the imaginings of antiquity and of the middle-age are, I believe, combined in it. The knight "pricks along the plaine," among the trees, and at a crossing of the paths meets other knights with whom he engages in combat; suddenly from within a cave appears a monster, half woman and half serpent, surrounded by a hideous offspring; further on a giant, with three bodies; then a dragon, great as a hill, with sharp talons and vast wings. For three days he fights him, and twice overthrown, he comes to himself only by aid of "a gracious ointment." After that there are savage tribes to be conquered, castles surrounded by flames to be taken. Meanwhile ladies are wandering in the midst of forests, on white palfreys, exposed to the assaults of miscreants, now guarded by a lion which follows them, now delivered by a band of satyrs who adore them. Magicians work manifold charms; palaces display their festivities; tilt-yards provide endless tournaments; sea-gods, nymphs, fairies, kings, intermingle in these feasts, surprises, dangers.
You will say it is a phantasmagoria. What matter, if we see it? And we do see it, for Spenser does. His sincerity communicates itself to us. He is so much at home in this world, that we end by finding ourselves at home in it too. He shows no appearance of astonishment at astonishing events; he comes upon them so naturally, that he makes them natural; he defeats the miscreants, as if he had done nothing else all his life. Venus, Diana, and the old deities, dwell at his gate and enter his threshold without his taking any heed of them. His serenity becomes ours. We grow credulous and happy by contagion, and to the same extent as he. How could it be otherwise? Is it possible to refuse credence to a man who paints things for us with such accurate details and in such lively colours? Here with a dash of his pen he describes a forest for you; and are you not instantly in it with him? Beech trees with their silvery stems, "loftie trees iclad with sommers pride, did spred so broad, that heavens light did hide;" rays of light tremble on the bark and shine on the ground, on the reddening ferns and low bushes, which, suddenly smitten with the luminous track, glisten and glimmer. Footsteps are scarcely heard on the thick beds of heaped leaves; and at distant intervals, on the tall herbage, drops of dew are sparkling. Yet the sound of a horn reaches us through the foliage; how sweetly yet cheerfully it falls on the ear, amidst this vast silence! It resounds more loudly; the clatter of a hunt draws near; "eft through the thicke they heard one rudely rush;" a nymph approaches, the most chaste and beautiful in the world. Spenser sees her; nay more, he kneels before her:
Her face so faire, as flesh it seemed not,
But hevenly pourtraict of bright angels hew,
Cleare as the skye, withouten blame or blot,
Through goodly mixture of complexions dew;
And in her cheekes the vermeill red did shew
Like roses in a bed of lillies shed,
The which ambrosiall odours from them threw,
And gazers sence with double pleasure fed,
Hable to heale the sicke and to revive the ded.
In her faire eyes two living lamps did flame,
Kindled above at th' Hevenly Makers light,
And darted fyrie beames out of the same;
So passing persant, and so wondrous bright,
That quite bereav'd the rash beholders sight:
In them the blinded god his lustfull fyre
To kindle oft assayd, but had no might;
For, with dredd maiestie and awfull yre,
She broke his wanton darts, and quenched bace desyre.
Her yvorie forhead, full of bountie brave,
Like a broad table did itselfe dispred,
For Love his loftie triumphes to engrave,
And write the battailes of his great godhed:
All good and honour might therein be red;
For there their dwelling was. And, when she spake,
Sweete wordes, like dropping honny, she did shed;
And 'twixt the perles and rubins softly brake
A silver sound, that heavenly musicke seemd to make.
Upon her eyelids many Graces sate,
Under the shadow of her even browes,
Working belgardes and amorous retrate;
And everie one her with a grace endowes,
And everie one with meekenesse to her bowes:
So glorious mirrhour of celestial] grace,
And soveraine moniment of mortall vowes,
How shall frayle pen descrive her heavenly face,
For feare, through want of skill, her beauty to disgrace!
So faire, and thousand thousand times more faire,
She seemd, when she presented was to sight;
And was yclad, for heat of scorching aire,
All in a silken Camus lilly whight,
Purfled upon with many a folded plight,
Which all above besprinckled was throughout
With golden aygulets, that glistred bright,
Like twinckling starres; and all the skirt about
Was hemd with golden fringe.
Below her ham her weed did somewhat trayne,
And her streight legs most bravely were embayld
In gilden buskins of costly cordwáyne,
All bard with golden bendes, which were entayld
With curious antickes, and full fayre aumayld:
Before, they fastned were under her knee
In a rich iewell, and therein entrayld
The ends of all the knots, that none might see
How they within their fuldings close enwrapped bee.
Like two faire marble pillours they were seene,
Which doe the temple of the gods support,
Whom all the people decke with girlands greene,
And honour in their festivall resort;
Those same with stately grace and princely port
She taught to tread, when she herselfe would grace;
But with the woody nymphes when she did play,
Or when the flying libbard she did chace,
She could them nimbly move, and after fly apace.
And in her hand a sharpe bore-speare she held,
And at her backe a bow and quiver gay,
Stuft with steel-headed dartes wherewith she queld
The salvage beastes in her victorious play,
Knit with a golden bauldricke which forelay
Athwart her snowy brest, and did divide
Her daintie paps; which, like young fruit in May,
Now little gan to swell, and being tide
Through her thin weed their places only signifide.
Her yellow lockes, crisped like golden wyre,
About her shoulders weren loosely shed,
And, when the winde emongst them did inspyre,
They waved like a penon wyde dispred
And low behinde her backe were scattered:
And, whether art it were or heedlesse hap,
As through the flouring forrest rash she fled,
In her rude heares sweet flowres themselves did lap,
And flourishing fresh leaves and blossomes did enwrap.13
The daintie rose, the daughter of her morne,
More deare than life she tendered, whose flowre
The girlond of her honour did adorne;
Ne suffered she the middayes scorching powre.
Ne the sharp northerne wind thereon to showre;
But lapped up her silken leaves most chayre,
Whenso the froward skye began to lowre;
But, soone as calmed was the cristall ayre,
She did it fayre dispred, and let to florish fayre.14
He is on his knees before her, I repeat, as a child on Corpus Christi day, among flowers and perfumes, transported with admiration, so that he sees a heavenly light in her eyes, and angel's tints on her cheeks, even impressing into her service Christian angels and pagan graces to adorn and wait upon her; it is love which brings such visions before him;
Sweet love, that doth his golden wings embay
In blessed nectar and pure pleasures well.
Whence this perfect beauty, this modest and charming dawn, in which he assembles all the brightness, all the sweetness, all the virgin graces of the full morning? What mother begat her, what marvellous birth brought to light such a wonder of grace and purity? One day, in a sparkling, solitary fountain, where the sunbeams shone, Chrysogone was bathing with roses and violets.
It was upon a sommers shinie day,
When Titan faire his beamës did display,
In a fresh fountaine, far from all mens vew,
She bath'd her brest the boyling heat t' allay;
She bath'd with roses red and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowers that in the forrest grew.
Till faint through yrkesome wearines adowne
Upon the grassy ground herselfe she layd
To sleepe, the whiles a gentle slombring swowne
Upon her fell all naked bare displayd.15
The beams played upon her body, and "fructified" her. The months rolled on. Troubled and ashamed, she went into the "wildernesse," and sat down, "every sence with sorrow sore opprest." Meanwhile Venus, searching for her boy Cupid, who had mutinied and fled from her, "wandered in the world." She had sought him in courts, cities, cottages, promising "kisses sweet, and sweeter things, unto the man that of him tydings to her brings."
Shortly unto the wastefull woods she came,
Whereas she found the goddesse (Diana) with her crew,
After late chace of their embrewed game,
Sitting beside a fountaine in a rew;
Some of them washing with the liquid dew
From off their dainty limbs the dusty sweat
And soyle, which did deforme their lively hew;
Others lay shaded from the scorching heat
The rest upon her person gave attendance great.
She, having hong upon a bough on high
Her bow and painted quiver, had unlaste
Her silver buskins from her nimble thigh,
And her lanck loynes ungirt, and brests unbraste,
After her heat the breathing cold to taste;
Her golden lockes, that late in tresses bright
Embreaded were for hindring of her haste,
Now loose about her shoulders hong undight,
And were with sweet Ambrosia all besprinckled light.16
Diana, surprised thus, repulses Venus, "and gan to smile, in scorne of her vaine playnt," swearing that if she should catch Cupid, she would clip his wanton wings. Then she took pity on the afflicted goddess, and set herself with her to look for the fugitive. They came to the "shady covert" where Chrysogone, in her sleep, had given birth "unawares" to two lovely girls, "as faire as springing day." Diana took one, and made her the purest of all virgins. Venus carried off the other to the Garden of Adonis, "the first seminary of all things, that are borne to live and dye;" where Psyche, the bride of Love, disports herself; where Pleasure, their daughter, wantons with the Graces; where Adonis, "lapped in flowres and pretious spycery," "liveth in eternal bliss," and came back to life through the breath of immortal Love. She brought her up as her daughter, selected her to be the most faithful of loves, and after long trials, gave her hand to the good knight Sir Scudamore.
That is the kind of thing we meet with in the wondrous forest. Are you ill at ease there, and do you wish to leave it because it is wondrous? At every bend in the alley, at every change of the light, a stanza, a word, reveals a landscape or an apparition. It is morning, the white dawn gleams faintly through the trees; bluish vapours veil the horizon, and vanish in the smiling air; the springs tremble and murmur faintly amongst the mosses, and on high the poplar leaves begin to stir and flutter like the wings of butterflies. A knight alights from his horse, a valiant knight, who has unhorsed many a Saracen, and experienced many an adventure. He unlaces his helmet, and on a sudden you perceive the cheeks of a young girl;
Which doft, her golden lockes, that were upbound
Still in a knot, unto her heeles downe traced,
And like a silken veile in compasse round
About her backe and all her bodie wound;
Like as the shining skie in summers night,
What time the dayes with scorching heat abound,
Is creasted all with lines of firie light,
That it prodigious seemes in common peoples sight.17
It is Britomart, a virgin and a heroine, like Clorinda or Marfisa,18 but how much more ideal! The deep senti ment of nature, the sincerity of reverie, the ever-flowing fertility of inspiration, the German seriousness, reanimate in this poem classical or chivalrous conceptions, even when they are the oldest or the most trite. The train of splendours and of scenery never ends. Desolate promontories, cleft with gaping chasms; thunder-stricken and blackened masses of rocks, against which the hoarse breakers dash; palaces sparkling with gold, wherein ladies, beauteous as angels, reclining carelessly on purple cushions, listen with sweet smiles to the harmony of music played by unseen hands; lofty silent walks, where avenues of oaks spread their motionless shadows over clusters of virgin violets, and turf which never mortal foot has trod;—to all these beauties of art and nature he adds the marvels of mythology, and describes them with as much of love and sincerity as a painter of the Renaissance or an ancient poet. Here approach on chariots of shell, Cymoënt and her nymphs:
A teme of dolphins raunged in aray
Drew the smooth charett of sad Cymoënt;
They were all taught by Triton to obay
To the long raynes at her commaundëment:
As swifte as swallowes on the waves they went,
That their brode flaggy finnes no fome did reare,
Ne bubling rowndell they behinde them sent;
The rest, of other fishes drawen weare;
Which with their finny oars the swelling sea did sheare."19
Nothing, again, can be sweeter or calmer than the description of the palace of Morpheus:
He, making speedy way through spersed ayre,
And through the world of waters wide and deepe,
To Morpheus house doth hastily repaire.
Amid the bowels of the earth full steepe,
And low, where dawning day doth never peepe
His dwelling is; there Tethys his wet bed
Doth ever wash, and Cynthia still doth steepe
In silver deaw his ever-drouping hed,
Whiles sad Night over him her mantle black doth spred.
And, more to lulle him in his slumber soft,
A trickling streame from high rock tumbling downe
And ever-drizzling raine upon the loft,
Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swowne.
No other noyse, nor peoples troublous cryes,
As still are wont t' annoy the walled towne,
Might there be heard: but careless Quiet lyes,
Wrapt in eternall silence farre from enimyes.20
Observe also in a corner of this forest, a band of satyrs dancing under the green leaves. They come leaping like wanton kids, as gay as birds of joyous spring. The fair Hellenore, whom they have chosen for "May-lady," "daunst lively" also, laughing, and "with girlonds all bespredd." The wood re-echoes the sound of their "merry pypes." "Their horned feet the greene gras wore." "All day they daunced with great lustyhedd," with sudden motions and alluring looks, while about them their flock feed on "the brouzes" at their pleasure.21 In every book we see strange processions pass by, allegorical and picturesque shows, like those which were then displayed at the courts of princes; now a masquerade of Cupid, now of the Rivers, now of the Months, now of the Vices. Imagination was never more prodigal or inventive. Proud Lucifera advances in a chariot "adorned all with gold and girlonds gay," beaming like the dawn, surrounded by a crowd of courtiers whom she dazzles with her glory and splendour: "six unequall beasts" draw her along, and each of these is ridden by a Vice. Idleness "upon a slouthfull asse … in habit blacke … like to an holy monck," sick for very laziness, lets his heavy head droop, and holds in his hand a breviary which he does not read; gluttony, on "a filthie swyne," crawls by in his deformity, "his belly … upblowne with luxury, and eke with fatnesse swollen were his eyne; and like a crane his was long and fyne," drest in vine-leaves, through which one can see his body eaten by ulcers, and vomiting along the road the wine and flesh with which he is glutted. Avarice seated between "two iron coffers," "upon a camell loaden all with gold," is handling a heap of coin, with thread-bare coat, hollow cheeks, and feet stiff with gout. Envy "upon a ravenous wolfe still did chaw between his cankred teeth a venemous tode, that all the poison ran about his chaw," and his discoloured garment "ypainted full of eies," conceals a snake wound about his body. Wrath, covered with a torn and bloody robe, comes riding on a lion, brandishing about his head "a burning brond," his eyes sparkling, his face pale as ashes, grasping in his feverish hand the haft of his dagger. The strange and terrible procession passes on, led by the solemn harmony of the stanzas; and the grand music of oft repeated rhymes sustains the imagination in this fantastic world, which with its mingled horrors and splendours, has just been opened to its flight.
Yet all this is little. However much mythology and chivalry can supply, they do not suffice for the needs of this poetical fancy. Spenser's characteristic is the vastness and overflow of his picturesque invention. Like Rubens, whatever he creates is beyond the region of all traditions, but complete in all parts, and expresses distinct ideas. As with Rubens, his allegory swells its proportions beyond all rule, and withdraws fancy from all law, except in so far as it is necessary to harmonise forms and colours. For, if ordinary minds receive from allegory a certain weight which oppresses them, lofty imaginations receive from it wings which carry them aloft. Freed by it from the common conditions of life, they can dare all things, beyond imitation, apart from probability, with no other guides but their inborn energy and their shadowy instincts. For three days Sir Guyon is led by the cursed spirit, the tempter Mammon, in the subterranean realm, across wonderful gardens, trees laden with golden fruits, glittering palaces, and a confusion of all worldly treasures. They have descended into the bowels of the earth, and pass through caverns, unknown abysses, silent depths. "An ugly Feend … with monstrous stalke behind him stept," without Guyon's knowledge, ready to devour him on the least show of covetousness. The brilliancy of the gold lights up hideous figures, and the beaming metal shines with a beauty more seductive in the gloom of the infernal prison
That Houses forme within was rude and strong,
Lyke an huge cave hewne out of rocky clifte,
From whose rough vaut the ragged breaches hong
Embost with massy gold of glorious guifte,
And with rich metall loaded every rifte,
That heavy ruine they did seeme to threatt;
And over them Arachne high did lifte
Her cunning web, and spred her subtile nett,
Enwrapped in fowle smoke and clouds more black than iett.
Both roofe, and floore, and walls, were all of gold,
But overgrowne with dust and old decay,
And hid in darknes, that none could behold
The hew thereof; for vew of cherefull day
Did never in that House itselfe display,
But a faint shadow of uncertein light;
Such as a lamp, whose life does fade away;
Or as the moone, cloathed with clowdy night,
Does show to him that walkes in feare and sad affright.
In all that rowme was nothing to be seene
But huge great yron chests and coffers strong,
All bard with double bends, that none could weene
Them to enforce by violence or wrong;
On every side they placed were along.
But all the grownd with seuls was scattered
And dead mens bones, which round about were flong;
Whose lives, it seemed, whilome there were shed,
And their vile carcases now left unburied….
Thence, forward he him ledd and shortly brought
Unto another rowme, whose dore forthright
To him did open as it had beene taught:
Therein an hundred raunges weren pight,
And hundred fournaces all burning bright;
By every foumace many Feends did byde,
Deformed creatures, horrible in sight;
And every Feend his busie paines applyde
To melt the golden metall, ready to be tryde.
One with great bellowes gathered filling ayre,
And with forst wind the fewell did inflame;
Another did the dying bronds repayre
With yron tongs, and sprinckled ofte the same
With liquid waves, fiers Vulcans rage to tame,
Who, maystring them, renewd his former heat:
Some scumd the drosse that from the metall came;
Some stird the molten owre with ladles great:
And every one did swincke, and every one did sweat …
He brought him, through a darksom narrow strayt,
To a broad gate all built of beaten gold:
The gate was open; but therein did wayt
A sturdie Villein, stryding stiffe and bold,
As if the Highest God defy he would:
In his right hand an yron club he held,
But he himselfe was all of golden mould,
Yet had both life and sence, and well could weld
That cursed weapon, when his cruell foes he queld …
He brought him in. The rowme was large and wyde,
As it some gyeld or solemne temple weare;
Many great golden pillours did upbeare
The massy roofe, and riches huge sustayne;
And every pillour decked was full deare
With crownes, and diademes, and titles vaine,
Which mortall princes wore whiles they on earth did rayne.
A route of people there assembled were,
Of every sort and nation under skye,
Which with great uprore preaced to draw nere
To th' upper part, where was advaunced hye
A stately siege of soveraine maiestye;
And thereon satt a Woman gorgeous gay,
And richly cladd in robes of royaltye,
That never earthly prince in such aray
His glory did enhaunce, and pompous pryde display …
There, as in glistring glory she did sitt,
She held a great gold chaine ylincked well,
Whose upper end to highest heven was knitt,
And lower part did reach to lowest hell.22
No artist's dream matches these visions: the glow of the furnaces beneath the vaults of the cavern, the lights flickering over the crowded figures, the throne, and the strange glitter of the gold shining in every direction through the darkness. The allegory assumes gigantic proportions. When the object is to show temperance struggling with temptations, Spenser deems it necessary to mass all the temptations together. He is treating of a general virtue; and as such a virtue is capable of every sort of resistance, he requires from it every sort of resistance alike;—after the test of gold, that of pleasure. Thus the grandest and the most exquisite spectacles follow and are contrasted with each other, and all are supernatural; the graceful and the terrible are side by side,—the happy gardens close by with the cursed subterranean cavern.
No gate, but like one, being goodly dight
With bowes and braunches, which did broad dilate
Their clasping armes in wanton wreathings intricate:
So fashioned a porch with rare device,
Archt over head with an embracing vine,
Whose bounches hanging downe seemed to entice
All passers-by to taste their lushious wine,
And did themselves into their hands incline,
As freely offering to be gathered;
Some deepe empurpled as the hyacine,
Some as the rubine laughing sweetely red,
Some like faire emeraudes, not yet well ripened….
And in the midst of all a fountaine stood,
Of richest substance that on earth might bee,
So pure and shiny that the silver flood
Through every channell running one might see;
Most goodly it with curious ymageree
Was over-wrought, and shapes of naked boyes,
Of which some seemed with lively iollitee
To fly about, playing their wanton toyes,
Whylest others did themselves embay in liquid ioyes.
And over all of purest gold was spred
A trayle of yvie in his native hew;
For the rich metall was so coloured,
That wight, who did not well avis'd it vew,
Would surely deeme it to bee yvie trew;
Low his lascivious armes adown did creepe,
That themselves dipping in the silver dew
Their fleecy flowres they fearfully did steepe,
Which drops of christall seemd for wantones to weep.
Infinit streames continually did well
Out of this fountaine, sweet and faire to see,
The which into an ample laver fell,
And shortly grew to so great quantitie,
That like a little lake it seemd to bee;
Whose depth exceeded not three cubits hight,
That through the waves one might the bottom see,
All pav'd beneath with jaspar shining bright,
That seemd the fountaine in that sea did sayle upright….
The ioyous birdes, shrouded in chearefull shade,
Their notes unto the voice attempred sweet;
Th' angelicall soft trembling voyces made
To th' instruments divine respondence meet;
The silver-sounding instruments did meet
With the base murmur of the waters fall;
The waters fall with difference discreet,
Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call;
The gentle warbling wind low answered to all….
Upon a bed of roses she was layd,
As faint through heat, or dight to pleasant sin:
And was arayd, or rather disarayd,
All in a vele of silke and silver thin,
That hid no with her alabaster skin,
But rather shewd more white, if more might bee:
More subtile web Arachne cannot spin;
Nor the fine nets, which oft we woven see
Of scorched deaw, do not in th' ayre more lightly flee.
Her snowy brest was bare to ready spoyle
Of hungry eies, which n' ote therewith be fild;
And yet, through languour of her late sweet toyle,
Few drops, more cleare then nectar, forth distild,
That like pure orient perles adowne it trild;
And her faire eyes, sweet smyling in delight,
Moystened their fierie beames, with which she thrild
Fraile harts, yet quenched not, like starry lights
Which sparckling on the silent waves, does seeme more bright.23
Do we find here nothing but fairy land? Yes; here are finished pictures true and complete, composed with a painter's feeling, with choice of tints and outlines; our eyes are delighted by them. This reclining Acrasia has the pose of a goddess, or of one of Titian's courtesans. An Italian artist might copy these gardens, these flowing waters, these sculptured loves, those wreaths of creeping ivy thick with glossy leaves and fleecy flowers. Just before, in the infernal depths, the lights, with their long streaming rays, were fine, half-smothered by the darkness; the lofty throne in the vast hall, between the pillars, in the midst of a swarming multitude, connected all the forms around it by drawing all looks towards one centre. The poet, here and throughout, is a colourist and an architect. However fantastic his world may be, it is not factitious; if it does not exist, it might have been; indeed, it should have been; it is the fault of circumstances if they do not so group themselves as to bring it to pass; taken by itself, it possesses that internal harmony by which a real thing, even a still higher harmony, exists, inasmuch as, without any regard to real things, it is altogether, and in its least detail, constructed with a view to beauty. Art has made its appearance: this is the great characteristic of the age, which distinguishes the Faërie Queene from all similar tales heaped up by the middle-age. Incoherent, mutilated, they lie like rubbish, or rough-hewn stones, which the weak hands of the trouvères could not build into a monument. At last the poets and artists appear, and with them the conception of beauty, to wit, the idea of general effect. They understand proportions, relations, contrasts; they compose. In their hands the blurred vague sketch becomes defined, complete, separate; it assumes colour—is made a picture. Every object thus conceived and imaged acquires a definite existence as soon as it assumes a true form; centuries after, it will be acknowledged and admired, and men will be touched by it; and more, they will be touched by its author; for, besides the object which he paints, the poet paints himself. His ruling idea is stamped upon the work which it produces and controls. Spenser is superior to his subject, comprehends it fully, frames it with a view to its end, in order to impress upon it the proper mark of his soul and his genius. Each story is modulated with respect to another, and all with respect to a certain effect which is being worked out. Thus a beauty issues from this harmony,—the beauty in the poet's heart,—which his whole work strives to express; a noble and yet a cheerful beauty, made up of moral elevation and sensuous seductions, English in sentiment, Italian in externals, chivalric in subject, modern in its perfection, representing a unique and wonderful epoch, the appearance of paganism in a Christian race, and the worship of form by an imagination of the North.
1 It is very doubtful whether Spenser was so poor as he is generally believed to have been.—TR.
2 "He died for want of bread, in King Street." Ben Jonson, quoted by Drummond.
3Hymns of Love and Beauty; of heavenly Love and Beauty.
4A Hymne in Honour of Beautie, I. 92-105.
5A Hymne in Honour of Love, I. 176-182.
6The Faërie Queene, i. 8, st. 22, 23.
7The Shepherd's Calendar, Amoretti, Sonnets, Prothalamion, Epithalamion, Muiopotmos, Virgil's Gnat, The Ruines of Time, The Teares of the Muses, etc.
8 Published in 1589; dedicated to Philip Sidney.
9Prothalamion, I. 19-54.
10Astrophel, I. 181-192.
11 Words attributed to him by Lodowick Bryskett, Discourse of Civil Life, ed. 1606, p. 26.
12 Ariosto, 1474-1533. Tasso, 1544-1595. Cervantes, 1547-1616. Rabelais, 1483-1553.
13The Faërie Queene, ii. c. 3, st. 22-30.
14Ibid. iii. c. 5, st. 51.
15The Faërie Queene, iii. c. 6, st. 6 and 7.
16The Faërie Queene, iii. c. 6, st. 17 and 18.
17The Faërie Queene, iv. c. 1, st. 13.
18 Clorinda, the heroine of the infidel army in Tasso's epic poem Jerusalem Delivered; Marfisa, an Indian Queen, who figures in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, and also in Boyardo's Orlando Innamorato.—TR.
19The Faërie Queene, iii. c. 4, st. 33.
20The Faërie Queene, i. c. 1, st. 39 and 41.
21Ibid. iii. c. 10, st. 43-45.
22The Faërie Queene, ii. c. 7, st. 28-46.
23The Faërie Queene, ii. c. 12, st. 53-78.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1751
Edmund Spenser 1552?–1599
English poet and essayist.
The following entry contains critical essays on Sidney's role in his own time. See also The Faerie Queene Criticism.
Spenser is known as "the poet's poet" for his delight in the pure artistry of his craft: his pictorial imagery, sensuous description, and linguistic richness combine to establish him as one of the greatest of English poets. His work has earned the approbation and respect of some of the most illustrious names in poetry: John Milton spoke of "our sage and serious poet, Spencer"; John Dryden acknowledged him as his "master" in poetry; James Thomson referred to him as "fancy's pleasing son"; John Keats characterized him as "Elfin Poet"; and William Wordsworth envisioned "Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven / With the moon's beauty and the moon's soft pace…." Such praise refers primarily to Spenser's epic allegorical poem The Faerie Queene (1590-96), which, though unfinished, is indisputably a masterwork of English literature. In this poem of chivalric romance and adventure, Spenser created a poetic world which has captured the imaginations of centuries of readers and a complex allegory which continues to fascinate critics.
Spenser was born into a tailor's household in London. His early schooling took place at the Merchant Taylors' Free School, where he received an education considered quite progressive by the standards of the day. He studied a humanist curriculum that included the study of English language and literature—an unusual innovation at the time. In 1569 Spenser entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1573 and his master's in 1576. Upon finishing his education, Spenser was determined to be a poet, but, as a "gentleman by education only" he needed to work to support himself. In 1578 he served as Secretary to the Bishop of Rochester and in 1579 went to work for the Earl of Leicester. The latter position brought him into proximity of the court of Queen Elizabeth I, where he met Philip Sidney and others. In Renaissance England, the court was the center of social life and power and poetry was one means by which courtiers gained recognition and promotion. While
Spenser was friends with some established courtiers, he was never part of the court himself. His social distance from the court elite was exacerbated by geographical distance when he was sent to Ireland in 1580; some biographers have regarded this as a benign transfer, but others have interpreted it as punishment for critical ideas expressed in the poem "Mother Hubberd's Tale," which was privately circulated in 1579, but was not published until 1591 in Complaints: Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie. In any case, Spenser became secretary to Lord Grey de Wilton, and took up residence in Ireland, where a series of increasingly important positions and the acquisition of land kept him for nearly twenty years. A turning point in his career came in 1589, when he spent one more year at court under the patronage of his friend Walter Raleigh, who helped him publish the first books of The Faerie Queene in 1590. In 1594 Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle; their courtship and marriage are immortalized in Spenser's sonnet sequence, the Amoretti, and his wedding ode, the "Epithalamion" (1595). In 1598 political unrest in Ireland forced Spenser and his family to flee the country; his Irish estate, Kilcomen Castle, was destroyed in Tyrone's Rebellion. They went to London, where Spenser died soon after. He is buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. At his burial the leading poets of the day gathered in a ceremony to toss commendatory verses into his tomb.
By all accounts, Spenser's most important work is The Faerie Queene, a narrative epic of legends and romance, purportedly medieval in conception but actually more closely related to the sixteenth-century Italian romantic epic, particularly Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1532) and Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (1581). Like these works, The Faerie Queene is a series of chivalrous adventures, replete with tales of knightly honor, damsels in distress, and evil forces to be conquered. Spenser conceived of The Faerie Queene on an ambitious scale, outlining his design in a letter to Raleigh which appeared as a prefix to the first three published books of the poem. His intent was to write twelve books, each featuring a central hero or heroine representing one of twelve virtues. Spenser died before he could complete his task; as it stands, The Faerie Queene consists of six books and a fragment of a seventh, commonly referred to as the "Cantos of Mutabilitie." Spenser planned his poem as a "continued Allegory, or darke conceit," and critics agree that the pervasive allegory of The Faerie Queene is one of its most remarkable aspects. The allegory works principally on two levels—moral and political—although subsidiary spiritual, historical, and personal allegories have also been studied. The moral allegory is the most consistent as well as the most clear and accessible. The political allegory is the more obscure for the modern reader given the political complexities of the Elizabethan court. There is no doubt that the poem was written both to represent a model of gentlemanly virtu and to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth. While Spenser was never more than a marginal figure in the world of the court, he certainly sought favor and notice there, and The Faerie Queene was a major project to that end. At the same time, his distance from the inner circles of the court allowed him to be more critical and ambivalent, especially in the later books of the epic. After 1590 most of his close associates in the court were dead or out of favor and so his connection to the court was especially weak by the time the later books of The Faerie Queen were published in 1596. The value of the allegory has been a contested issue for critics. While many have noted that a reader's lack of knowledge of the allegorical aspects does not prevent enjoyment of the poem, others insist that an understanding of the allegory is essential to a true appreciation of the work. Some maintain that, in either case, the allegory is cumbersome and unappealing; moreover, it is inconsistent and the narrative in places disjointed and careless as well. With regard to the poetry, critics are virtually unanimous in praising the originality and freshness of Spenser's technical style. Perhaps most striking in The Faerie Queene is Spenser's metrical innovation, which has come to be called the Spenserian stanza. Composed of eight iambic pentameters and a final alexandrine, the stanza has the rhyme scheme ABABBCBCC. Spenser's choice of meter is appropriate and the sonorous, stately rhythm helps to establish the dreamlike ambiance of the poem. Other aspects of Spenser's style complement the overall impression the poem creates: repeated alliteration and assonance contribute to the fluidity and grace that characterize The Faerie Queene's romantic milieu. To heighten the sense of old-fashioned quaintness and to emphasize the poem's claim to legendary stature, Spenser adopted a quasi-medieval diction. To a liberal application of archaic words and phrases he added English adaptations of foreign words as well as a few ancient-sounding neologisms. Crowning all is Spenser's unique orthography, whereby he was able to make even the simplest words appear interestingly archaic. Compared with the magnitude of his achievement in The Faerie Queene, all of Spenser's other work is minor, though it shows a considerable range and diversity. The Shepheardes Calender: Conteyning Twelve Æglogues Proportionable to the Twelve Monethes (1579) is a series of twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year, written in the pastoral tradition. In The Shepheardes Calender and in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), a later poem in which Spenser resurrected many of the themes and characters of the Calender, Spenser revealed his attitudes toward art, pastoral idealism, and the sociopolitical world of the Elizabethan court. Spenser's sequence of love sonnets, the Amoretti, is fairly conventional in conception, based on the Petrarchan tradition. Yet where the Petrarchan sonnet ends in death or unfulfilled longing, Spenser's Amoretti quite remarkably ends with union. The "Epithalamion," an ode celebrating his marriage, is generally thought by modern critics to be Spenser's best work, with the sole exception of The Faerie Queene. Spenser's most notable prose piece is his A View of the State of Ireland, Written Dialogue-wise, betweene Eudoxus and Irenœus (1633), an essay describing and approving the harsh English policies of subjection in sixteenth-century Ireland.
From the sixteenth century to the twentieth, Spenser's work has maintained a place of distinction in English literature. His masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, was very favorably received upon its publication and has remained popular ever since. However, since it is a work that elicits strong reactions, the poem has also had its detractors. Its length and complexity have daunted many readers; Francis Thompson has stated flatly that The Faerie Queene "is in truth a poem no man can read through save as a duty, and in a series of arduous campaigns (so to speak)." But most critics have focused on the lushness of The Faerie Queene as its most admirable aspect; Edward Dowden in 1910 described the poem as "a labyrinth of beauty, a forest of old romance in which it is possible to lose oneself more irrecoverably amid the tangled luxury of loveliness than elsewhere in English poetry." Spenser's series of twelve eclogues, The Shepheardes Calender, was also praised by early critics, among them Sidney, to whom it was dedicated. In his The Defence of Poesie (1595) Sidney remarked that Spenser "hath much Poetrie in his Eglogues; indede worthy the reading, if I be not deceived." He disapproved, however, of Spenser's "framing …. his stile to an old rustick language." The enthusiastic praise accorded The Shepheardes Calender has waned in recent times and the poem is now accorded minor status. Nonetheless, Spenser's importance and his impact on the development of English poetry have been judged incalculable. He was not only a notable figure in his own time, but proved a profound influence on subsequent generations of English poets, earning a firm and permanent place in the tradition of English letters. He is still considered by many scholars the greatest nondramatic English poet of the Renaissance. Much of the criticism of his work has concentrated on its allegorical aspects and on Spenser's role as a stylistic innovator. Still, each generation of critics finds new aspects of his work to examine. In recent years attention has turned to analyses of the handling of gender (especially as it comments on Queen Elizabeth) in his works and to the historical and cultural context that makes his alllegory so rich.
J. W. Mackail (essay date 1909)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14280
SOURCE: '"Spenser,"' in The Springs of Helicon: A Study in the Progress of English Poetry from Chaucer to Milton, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909, pp. 71-134.
[In the following excerpt from his study of major English Renaissance poets, Mackail discusses Spenser's work with a focus on poetic influences and techniques.]
The Middle Ages died hard; and nowhere harder than in this island of the West, which was already marked among other nations by two specific qualities—a tenacious conservatism, and an instinct for adapting rather than replacing old institutions, for making changes and even revolutions under accustomed names and inherited forms. The coming of the Renaissance into England was strange, troubled, irregular. In some ways one might say it never came at all, or came in so imperfect a shape, with such transformed features, that it seems to demand another name. This was so over the whole field of civilisation, in religion and politics as well as in art. But in poetry the process of change was especially intricate: the threads of influence, the lines of growth, are complex and not easy to disentangle.
The fifteenth century was emphatically, not only in this country but throughout Europe, not an age of great poetry. In England the Chaucerians continued, with ever-dwindling inspiration, with growing loss of imaginative hold on life and power of interpreting it, the tradition created and fixed by Chaucer himself. Beyond the Chaucerians we have the mystery plays, the ballads, a small supply of scattered lyrics: a heap of confused scraps, among which the vital process most visible is rather the decay which precedes germination than germination itself. The earlier Italian Renaissance had in poetry been succeeded by a long period of stagnation. Petrarch and Boccaccio died in 1374 and 1375; for a full century afterwards there is no Italian poet of the first or second rank, no outstanding mark in the progress of poetry. The quattrocentisti are the painters. In literature it was the age not of the poets but of the scholars. Just at the end of the fifteenth century comes Boiardo's Orlando. Boiardo died in 1494, the year of the French invasion of Italy. In France there had been the same lull and pause; François Villon is there the chief poet of a century which was in the main occupied with other things than poetry.
Early in the sixteenth century there was a great revival of poetry in Italy, and, a little later, in France, under an impulse partly native, partly communicated from Italy. The impact of this movement reached England just at a time when, even apart from it, there were signs of a poetic revival. The joy of life had come back to letters; and the joy of letters once more flooded over life. When the head of the English Petrarch fell on the scaffold in 1547, the new movement had been fully launched on its course.
In the age which followed—Spenser's age, though it was too various and too splendid in its poetical progress and achievement to be described adequately as the age of Spenser—we may then trace and mark at least four intertwined motive forces or impulses; the native, the classical, the French, and the Italian. The interaction of these impulses was in the highest degree complex and subtle. We need not be too curious in attempting to assign to each a separate and proper force; still less can we assign to any one such exclusive preponderance as would allow us to regard the others as relatively unimportant. But we shall never properly appreciate Spenser and Spenser's age unless we realise vividly in him, and in it, the presence of all four in mutual interaction.
First then—and it is proper to place it first, because the poetry of every country must be considered as what it is, a function of the national life—we see in the English poetry of this age an authentic revival of the native lyrical impulse. In this, English poetry holds of none and borrows of none. It is apart from scholarship, apart from any effect of foreign models, apart from the Renaissance itself, regarded as a European movement which overflowed into England. The English lyric poetry of the sixteenth century is as self-originating, as independent of external influences, as the Greek lyric poetry of the seventh and sixth centuries before Christ. Secondly, we have the classical impulse; the effect on poetry of the revival of learning in the previous generation, that golden age of the scholars, of Greece rediscovered and Rome revitalised; and, together with this, the revived and enlarged appreciation of the earlier Italian classics, of Petrarch and to a less extent of Dante. Thirdly, we have the continuous impulse of the immense and splendid body of contemporary Italian poetry, right through the sixteenth century, from Sannazaro and Ariosto at its beginning to Guarini and Tasso towards its end. This impulse came in part directly; in part as transmitted through the French Renaissance, and thus inextricably interwoven with the fourth and last influence, that of France. The French Pléiade, just in the middle of the century, had an immediate and long-continued effect on the development of poetry in England which can scarcely be over-estimated. Spenser's own earlier poetry is modelled more immediately and obviously on that of Clément Marot than on the Italian poets from whom Marot drew; and the French influence continued to grow more and more important in English poetry for upwards of a century, through the successive stages of its history—in Du Bellay and Ronsard, in Du Bartas, in Corneille and the classicists. But, as had been the case already in the age of Chaucer, while the influence of French form and structure was more immediate, more extensive, and more patent, we must look beyond these for the deeper inspiration. The progress of poetry (that I may quote Gray's brief and pregnant words) was from Greece to Italy, and from Italy to England.
All these influences, native, classical, French Renaissance, and Italian, mingle and accumulate in Spenser. It is thus—as well as from his own genius and from the imposing mass and brilliance of his production—that he is the central figure in the English poetry of the sixteenth century.
With Spenser we are at the full centre of the English Renaissance. For all his Chaucerianism, he is, as Chaucer in his time had been, a modern of the moderns. The change in the sky from evening to morning had passed a generation earlier. Surrey and Wyatt, slender as is the volume of their work, had quietly made ancient literature of the whole of earlier English poetry. They changed an epoch, or at least unmistakeably marked its change. Gawain Douglas's translation of Virgil and Surrey's are only thirty years apart in time: but they belong to two different worlds. The change was just consummated when Spenser was born. Six years later, the Elizabethan age began. Six years more bring us to the birth of Shakespeare.
Thus in Spenser we see the full tide of the Renaissance surging up through many channels round the stranded ship of English poetry, floating her, and bearing her off by confused currents upon a new and adventurous voyage. That age, like our own, went almost mad over education; and Spenser represents not only the enlarged outlook and heightened ambitions of the new world, but also its rich scholarship. He went to Cambridge at seventeen, and studied there for seven years; it was an education almost as full and elaborate as Milton's or Virgil's. There he lived among a circle of ardent scholars, and received that bent towards classicism, as classicism was then understood, which is one of the main threads of influence that run through the whole of his poetry.
That classicism of the sixteenth century was a very mixed and intricate thing. On one side, following the great Italian humanists, it plunged deeply into Plato and the Platonic school. On another, Ovid was its master, and it sought to reinstate the brilliance, the dexterity, the accomplishment, which the Græsco-Roman civilisation had reached before it fell into decay. On yet another, it read largely and deeply in ancient history, to gain knowledge of the past which might be applied to actual life, and to recover what it described in a compendious phrase as the wisdom of the ancients. On literature it had an influence for both good and evil. The fatal tendency of classicism is to see life through books, and to take it at second hand. Its natural instinct is to copy, and in doing so, to copy the inferior classics, who are more copiable, and then to go on copying itself. Its scholarship tends towards pedantry; its poets tend to become rhetoricians. The influence of Ovid colours the whole mass of Elizabethan poetry; that of Seneca greatly hampered the growth of the English drama. Bembo and Politian were ranked as masters alongside of Virgil. "The tragedies of Buchanan do justly bring forth a divine admiration," says Sidney in his Apology for Poetry. Bembo himself was urgent on Ariosto to write Latin poetry only, as bringing greater fame and more assured permanence. There was a similar delusion among the circle of scholars with whom Spenser lived and studied at Cambridge. They held one or both of two positions. Latin was the common international language of educated Europe, and therefore all poetry that should make a universal appeal must be written in Latin; or at least, the Latin poets were the classics, and therefore any English poetry which meant to take rank as classical must be written as nearly as possible in the Latin manner. If only the former of these doctrines had been held, no great harm would have been done. The native instinct for poetry might have been trusted to take care of itself. But it was different with the latter. A serious and what might have been a disastrous attempt was made to guide the stream of poetry into artificial channels; to copy the conventions of Latin poetry; even to transplant its metrical forms, as those of Greece had been transplanted into Latin poetry itself.
But this is a sort of thing that cannot be done in the same language twice; and in English poetry it had already been done once. The conquest and almost complete submergence of the native English metrical forms, under the influence of the first Renaissance and the decisive effect of Chaucer's genius, had fixed the lines of English poetry once for all. In his furnace the two metals had run into an alloy which was finer, harder, and more ductile than either of its two constituents. Something of loss there had been, but a greater gain. The Chaucerian metal became the basis of a standard currency, capable indeed of modification, enrichment, refinement, but in its main substance national and permanent. It was fine enough to be run into the most delicate moulds, flexible enough to meet, age after age, the ever-shifting and moving requirements of poetry. If Spenser had at any time been in danger of being carried away by the new ideas, he was saved from this by two things; his own admiration and almost worship of Chaucer on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the education which had made him familiar not only with the Latin and with some of the Greek classics, but with the consummate achievements already made by French and Italian poets in their own languages in the age just preceding his own, and those still being made by their successors. The goal of his poetical ambition lay clear before him; it was to be the English Ariosto, the English Ronsard; perhaps to be even more, but this was denied to him, the English Virgil.
When Spenser left Cambridge in 1576, he was the chief figure among a closely associated circle of poets and scholars which may remind us in many ways of the circle of Virgil during the years previous to the appearance of the Eclogues. They were full of the enthusiasm of youth. In other European countries the poetry of the late Renaissance was at its greatest visible splendour; it had reached the full maturity which is recognised afterwards—not at the time—as presaging the decline. The Lusiads had appeared in 1572; the Aminta in 1573; the Sepmaine followed in 1579; and the Gierusalemme Liberata in 1581. English poetry was still on its full curve of ascent. It felt itself at the beginning of a new age.
Just then Spenser, returning to London after two years of further study and practice in the north of England, made that acquaintance with Philip Sidney which disengaged the movement of English poetry in its complete force. The new Virgil had found his Gallus. Sidney was two years younger than Spenser, but he was one of those in whom natural precocity has been stimulated yet further by circumstance and education. The eldest son of the Lord President of Wales, he had been marked out from birth for great things, and his education had been, even for that age, elaborate almost beyond example. He came to Oxford at thirteen. Four years there were followed by three more spent in travelling all over the Continent, making the Grand Tour on a scale and with advantages which sent him back with a European reputation and conversant with the whole civilised life of Europe. He returned to England a finished soldier, courtier, patriot, and poet. When he met Spenser he was only four-and-twenty; but he had already been English ambassador to the Emperor, and was already hailed in the ecstatic language of that age as the Messiah of poetry. His death at thirty-two was said to have plunged all England into mourning: both during his life and afterwards he was idolised by almost every one who had known him. Not himself by the amount or quality of his poetry rising into the rank of the great poets, "having slipt into the title of a poet," as he says of himself, he yet still impresses us, as he impressed them, with a sense of poetical distinction and even genius. Not only so, but he had a native critical faculty which was developed by study, by wide and varied reading, and by acquaintance with the whole movement of contemporary culture, into an instrument of exquisite fineness, to which his serious Puritan temper lent a yet keener edge. Of the function of poetry he says, in a few simple words that are startling in their clear insight and exactness, that it is "to make the too much loved earth more lovely."
On Spenser at all events (as through Spenser on the whole subsequent course of English poetry) the influence of Sidney was momentous. Its first result was the publication, in the year after they became acquainted, of the Shepherds Calendar. This was the manifesto of the new poetry. It was dedicated to Sidney as Virgil's Eclogues were to Gallus; and like them, it not only placed its author at the head of contemporary poets, but was the symbol and keynote of a new world in poetry.
Its importance in this respect was at once recognised by the world, as it had been by Spenser himself and by the whole circle to which he belonged. Perhaps no work in poetry has ever been launched on its course more elaborately, with such an armament of defence, explanation, and apology. The twelve poems of which it consists were embedded in a mass of prefaces, introductions, and commentaries. How far these were the work of E. K. (if E. K. be a real person, Edward Kirke or another), how far of Spenser himself, or of others, is not clear: what is certain is that they represent the views and enthusiasm of the whole school, and that in speaking of Spenser as they do, under the title of "our new poet," they meant to enforce, with all the emphasis in their power, their confidence that this was the new poetry. The curious verses, and these are Spenser's own, attached as an envoi to the end of the volume, while for form's sake they disclaim rivalry with the great poets of an earlier age, Chaucer and Lang-land, yet make the claim formally and expressly for the new poetry that it shall outwear time and continue till the world's dissolution. The claim was really made not for these twelve poems, but for the new poetry, for the English poetry of the Elizabethan age. It was a great claim; and it was fully justified.
Of the twelve eclogues themselves there is no particular occasion to speak here in detail. They are a strange, almost chaotic, mixture of styles and manners, ranging in metre from the elaborate artificiality of the sestine in the eighth to the jigging couplets of the second and fifth, and in subject from the exquisite pastoral lyric of the fourth to the ecclesiastical polemics of the ninth. All, and more than all, of the adverse criticism that may be made against Virgil's Eclogues may be made against these. Of them, as of their Virgilian prototypes, it may be said, "They have all the vices and weaknesses of imitative poetry. Nor are these failings redeemed by any brilliant finish of workmanship. The execution is uncertain, hesitating, sometimes extraordinarily feeble. Even the versification is curiously unequal and imperfect." Yet of these Spenserian eclogues also one may go on to say, as of Virgil's, that granted all this, it does not touch the specific charm of which these poems first disclosed the secret. The Shepherds Calendar has no distinct style, but it has the germination of many. It is full of metrical device and experiment. It contains, in the tenth eclogue, preludings of large-scale work in chivalrous romance. Finally, here and there, and especially in the first and twelfth, which are really a single poem cut into two in order to open and close the collection, may be distinctly heard the new note that is personal to Spenser, his unmatched fluency of melody.
From the moment of the appearance of this volume Spenser became not only the leading representative of the new poetry, but the recognised head of living English poets. This position he retained until his death. In the twenty years between, the mass of his production was enormous. The three volumes of 1590, 1591, and 1596 contain between forty and fifty thousand lines. Much more, according both to probability and to direct evidence, was written by him, and either suppressed or lost. The Faerie Queene alone, as we possess it, extends to close on thirty-five thousand lines; and we have little more than half of it as it was planned. An allegorical romance of seventy thousand lines in length is a thing that imagination almost boggles at—or would do so at least in any age less adventurous, less confident, and less profuse than that of the matured Renaissance.
Throughout the whole sphere of life, in its crimes and virtues, in its attempts and achievements, that age was possessed by a spirit of excess, an intoxication of greatness. It set itself deliberately to outdo all that had hitherto been done. It built and voyaged and discovered and conquered colossally. In our own National Gallery, where it is one of the splendours of the great Venetian Room, is a portrait, by the Brescian painter Moretto, of Count Martinengo-Cesaresco, killed young in the French wars of religion. He is richly dressed in silk and furs, a gilded sword-hilt showing from under the heavy cloak. On a table by him are an antique lamp and some coins. His elbow rests on a pile of silken cushions, and his head leans, with a sort of intensity of languor, on his open palm. The face is that of one in the full prime of life and of great physical strength; very handsome, heavy and yet tremulously sensitive, the large eyes gazing at something unseen, and seeming to dream of vastness. On his bonnet is a golden plaque, with three words of Greek inscribed on it,… "Oh, I desire too much." Who the Giulia was whom he desired is among the things that have gone to oblivion; but the longing which the portrait has immortalised is not for one woman, were she like Beatrice or Helen, but for the whole world. These ambiguous words are a cloudy symbol; and that picture is a portrait of the spirit of the Renaissance.
As regards poetry in particular, that age ran to length, to extravagance, to redundance. This is true of almost all the Elizabethan poetry except in what is perhaps its finest flower, its lyrics; and even in these, taken collectively and not singly, the same quality is found in their superabundant profusion. The tradition of endlessness in poems was indeed not new; it was an inheritance from the Middle Ages. The romances of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries handed on the quality of exorbitant length to the romantic epics of the sixteenth. But the new age bettered the example, and in this one point unhappily learned no lesson from its classical models. With regard to no time are the lines addressed by Tennyson to the ancient poets more appropriate:
You should be jubilant that you flourished here
Before the love of letters, overdone,
Had swampt the sacred poets with themselves.
The Roman de la Rose is often quoted as an instance of the mediæval extravagance. But its twenty-two thousand lines are a modest figure compared with the thirty-five thousand of the Orlando Innamorato and the forty thousand of the Orlando Furioso. The earlier Italian Renaissance, with its slenderer resources and its purer taste, had kept within the bounds of the ancient precedent. The Divina Commedia is shorter than the Iliad; the Teseide is the same length as the Aeneid. Spenser in the Faerie Queene proposed to himself to outdo Ariosto, as much as Ariosto had outdone all his predecessors. For this intention of his we have express evidence. Harvey, who from his narrow classical prejudices, as well as from his severer taste, disliked the whole scheme of the poem, and would have recalled poetry from the extravagances of chivalrous romance to a more antique or more modern concentration, wrote to Spenser in 1580 in these words: "The Orlando Furioso you will needs seem to emulate and hope to overgo, as you flatly professed yourself in one of your last letters." But apart from any particular ambition to produce a larger poem than had hitherto been known, Spenser possessed the terrible Elizabethan fluency to a degree beyond all his contemporaries. Under the stimulus of his example, reinforcing the instinct for profusion which is the note of the whole period, this torrent of poetic fluency poured on until the language sank exhausted under it. Then, and not till then, the inevitable and wholesome reaction came towards precision and succinctness. That reaction was powerfully aided by the strenuous scholarship of the seventeenth century, and by the impression made throughout the whole republic of letters by the French classical school. Moderation, sobriety, clarity became the aim of poets; and limits were set to the length as well as to the scope of poems which the general sense of later times has accepted as proper. The Paradise Lost reverts to the scale of the Aeneid. Even in the nineteenth century the most fluent and melodious of modern English poets kept, by instinct or judgment, within the same limits. The Life and Death of Jason and the Story of Sigurd the Volsung are, for all their copiousness and even diffuseness, each a little shorter than Milton's epic.
Yet Spenser's instinct, like that of all great artists as regards their own art, was in the main sound; for it is the mass and volume of his poetry, not less than its lavish and intricate beauty, that gives him his place and importance among the poets. He has been a vast quarry and playground for generation after generation of poets: like the Precious Strand in his own poem, a land
He is the most inexhaustible and, in a way, the most various of the English poets. All his successors have loved, admired, plundered, imitated him; Milton and Pope, Wordsworth and Keats, a hundred others; not one but has dug in that gravel and brought away golden ore from it for his own use. In him they found that "enormous bliss" which Milton, in a phrase of daring felicity, ascribes to his Earthly Paradise:
A wilderness with thicket overgrown
Grotesque and wild: and overhead upgrew
Insuperable height of loftiest shade,
Cedar and pine and fir and branching palm,
A silvan scene, and as the ranks ascend
Shade above shade, a woody theatre
Of stateliest view. Yet higher than their tops
The verdurous wall of Paradise upsprung,
And higher than that wall a circling row
Of goodliest trees loaden with fairest fruit,
Blossoms and fruits at once of golden hue,
Appeared, with gay enamell'd colours mixt
On which the sun more glad impressed his beams
Than in fair evening cloud, or humid bow
When God hath showered the earth: so lovely seemed
Over and over again, as one plunges through the depths of that wilderness—
A wilderness of sweets, for nature here
Wantoned as in her prime and played at will
Her virgin fancies—
one comes, scarcely with surprise, on phrases and passages that might be those of our greatest poets in their most superb and characteristic manner. It is impossible here, though it would be fascinating, to pursue this into detail; but two or three instances will show what I mean.
Scarcely had Phœbus in the glooming East
Yet harnessed his fiery-footed team:
that is Shakespeare, the Shakespeare of Romeo and Juliet.
And taking usury of time forepast
Fit for such ladies and such lovely knights:
that is Shakespeare again, the Shakespeare of the Sonnets.
that is the younger voice of Milton.
And ever and anon the rosy red
Flasht thro' her face:
one might fancy that the unmistakeable note and accent of Tennyson.
This immense poetic flexibility, this amazing profusion and variety in style as well as in language—for in his vocabulary, too, Spenser is copious beyond the common copiousness of the Elizabethans—is a poetical quality of rare value; it is not of the essence, and does not imply the quality, of a supreme poet. As poetry produces its greatest effects through few and simple words, so some of the greatest poets have been scrupulously frugal in their language, and their style has been simple to austerity. Higher than the verdurous wall of Paradise, higher than the encircling fruit-laden trees, is the secret hill-top where the Muse sits among her chosen, and gives them, as Milton says, large prospect into the nether empire.
The image of perfection which art condenses out of the flying vapours of the world may be only blurred and dispersed by copiousness of invention and splendour of ornament: so hard is it for a rich man to enter into the kingdom.
To compare one great artist with another is often futile, and not seldom misleading; but such comparison may be more suggestive, and is less dangerous, when there can be no question of setting the two against one another. So far as there can be any analogy between arts so wholly different as those of poetry and history, Spenser might be called the English Livy. In both you have the same fluency and melodiousness, the same power of handling language on an immense scale with unexhausted elasticity. Both deliberately set themselves to outdo, in scale and volume, what had hitherto been done in a special field of literature, and succeeded in achieving their purpose. Both chose a subject-matter of great intricacy, involving many tedious passages and much repetition; neither ever tires of repeating himself, or seems to lose interest in what he is doing. Doubt has been expressed whether, if the Faerie Queene had been completed, any reader would ever have got to the end of it; the same apprehension may be, and indeed has been, hinted at as regards the one hundred and seven lost books of the Historiae ab Urbe Condita. Both authors were possessed by the greatness of a floating and imperfectly grasped ideal; Rome to Livy, chivalry to Spenser, mean all that is noble and glorious, but their power of hard thought is not great, and they are often found draping in their stately and musical rhetoric not only commonplaces, but absurdities. Innovators and conquerors in the field of letters, they were at the same time impassioned though not profound or accurate lovers and students of the earlier and purer national literature. They gave a new copiousness, a new range and flexibility to their language; but to the eyes of scholars and critics they often made wild work of it. The Patavinity which was reproached in Livy has its analogy in Spenser, whose use of the Chaucerian language and idiom is extraordinarily erratic, and whose archaism, while, according to the testimony of Fuller, it impaired his popularity and even diminished his sales, is so inaccurate as to fill scientific students of language with a feeling little short of horror. Both he and Livy were borne on through their immense task not merely by fluency and enthusiasm, but by a love of commonplace moralising which was inexhaustible, and by an almost complete absence of humour. Livy never felt that his story was flat; Spenser never felt that his romanticism was absurd. No one who had the gift of laughter, who felt the comedy of life, could have gone gravely on through the third book of the Faerie Queene. Over and over again it moves a smile in the reader, but never once in the writer. In this book, it is true, there occur the only two passages in the whole poem which it is possible to regard as intentionally humorous. There is something like a flicker of amusement in the description of Britomartis and her nurse at church in the second canto; but such humour as there is in the stanza is more probably unconscious:—
Early the morrow next, before that day
His joyous face did to the world reveal,
They both uprose and took their ready way
Unto the Church, their prayers to appeal
With great devotion, and with little zeal:
For the fair Damsel from the holy herse
Her love-sick heart to other thoughts did steal;
And that old Dame said many an idle verse
Out of her daughter's heart fond fancies to reverse.
One can fancy with what an exquisite blending of fun and tenderness Chaucer would have treated the scene. The other passage is where the Squire of Dames, in the seventh canto, tells the story of the three women who had repelled his advances. In it Spenser apprend d'être fif with rather calamitous results. The story itself is a traditional fabliau, a piece of ponderous mediæval wit. It is incorporated rather than assimilated by Spenser: its proper place is in the Moyen de Parvenir, not in the Faerie Queene, where it is strikingly out of tone with its surroundings. "Thereat full heartily laughed Satyrane," we are told: he may have done so, but probably no reader of the poem has ever felt inclined to follow his example.
So too, with his feeling about the past and his attitude towards his own age. Following the common fashion of his period, which was indeed more or less the common fashion of human nature, he is perpetually, even to weariness, insisting on the degeneracy of modern times, on the vices of civilisation, the decay of chivalry, the treachery and ingratitude of courts. "O goodly usage of these antique times, in which the sword was servant unto right:" this is a theme on which he is perpetually embroidering, much as Orlando (not Ariosto's Orlando, Shakespeare's) eulogises "the constant service of the antique world, when service sweat for duty, not for meed." He is fond of thinking of his romantic imaginary world, "this delightful land of faerie," as he truly calls it, as though it were some golden age that had actually existed in the past, when
He was not only a romantic dreamer and student, but a man of large and disappointed ambitions. In a famous passage in his Mother Hubberd's Tale he draws, with mordant truth, and in swift brilliant couplets worthy of Pope himself, the wretchedness of a courtier's life:
So pitiful a thing is suitor's state!
Most miserable man, whom wicked fate
Hath brought to court, to sue for had-ywist,
That few have found, and many one hath missed!
Full little knowest thou that hast not tried
What hell it is in suing long to bide:
To lose good days that might be better spent,
To waste long nights in pensive discontent,
To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow,
To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow,
To have thy prince's grace, yet want her peers',
To have thy asking, yet wait many years,
To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares,
To eat thy heart through comfortless despairs,
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.
His View of the Present State of Ireland shows him on this side of his nature, the keen, hard, not over-scrupulous Puritan politician. In the prologue to the fifth book of the Faerie Queene he sets forth a sort of philosophy of history, in which the gorgeous language and versification give an imposing semblance of coherence to what is in effect a combination of the romantic cry, that glory and loveliness have passed away, with an ecstatic eulogy of Tudor absolutism. The Platonic doctrine of the Great Year is there used with extraordinary effect to enforce the progressive degeneracy of the world; but he does not, like Virgil in the fourth Eclogue, regard the vast cycle as nearing its close, and a new golden age in prospect; the movement is still on its downward arc: and poetry itself is the anodyne rather than the vital function of life. It is just this want of touch between art and life that prevents Spenser, with all his poetical gift and accomplishment, from taking a place in the first rank of poets. "This," he says himself in another of these prologues into which he put his deepest thought, or what he took for thought,
and such indeed is the matured judgment of posterity. But abundance has never been more inexhaustible, or forgery more magnificently painted. Like his own magic crystal devised by Merlin,
Into that crystal we may still plunge our eyes with ever renewed fascination.
The Platonism which is expressly set forth in many passages like that which I have cited, and in whole poems like the Hymns to Heavenly Love and Heavenly Beauty, was the side of Greek literature which appealed most strongly to the Renaissance. It satisfied, and fed to a greater intensity, their sense of vastness, their intoxication with language, their longing to transcend all limits. It is the only side of Greece which had a visible influence on Spenser himself. He was, according to contemporary testimony which may be taken for what it is worth, "perfect in the Greek tongue"; an accomplished scholar, that is to say, according to the standard of what was in England not an age of high or severe scholarship. But the distinctively Greek quality is wholly absent from his poetry; he is, in that sense of the terms, a romantic and not a classic. This is patent as regards the whole tone and colour of his poetry; and even for traces of any influence on him from Homer, from the Greek lyrists, or from the Attic tragedians we may search through him in vain. The only specific translations or adaptations from the Greek that are to be noted throughout the Faerie Queene are from Græco-Roman epigrams in the Anthology, and these he very likely knew only in Latin versions. Among the Greek poets proper, he seems scarcely to have gone back beyond Theocritus. The Greek clarity, the Greek purity, were alien from his luxurious romantic temperament. This is not said in disparagement; for he too had heard the Muses singing, though not on the mountain or in seven-gated Thebes; and we can hardly wish him to have been other than he was.
A great deal of well-meant nonsense has been talked about Spenser's purity, in the other sense of that ambiguous word. He was a poet of high if rather vague and sentimental idealisms. The scope of the Faerie Queene is expressly stated by him to be the fashioning twelve moral virtues. But its end, he says, in words which are more significant, is to fashion a gentleman. There is a profound difference between a gentleman and a saint; and the gentleman of that age, in Tennyson's phrase, hovered between war and wantonness; he inherited the corruption of the age of chivalry as well as the rich sensuousness of the Renaissance. It has been a fashion to extol Spenser at the expense of Ariosto. But the lightheartedness, the gay inconsequence, of the Italian poet is combined with a natural goodness quite as great as that underlying Spenser's rather heavy and forced morality. Ariosto had no consciousness of a mission, beyond that of producing an endless stream of melodious and brilliant poetry. He belongs to a time before the Renaissance had sickened of its own Palace of Art; he accepted life in a large way, he saw all the humour and beauty and brightness of it. The beauty of goodness always appeals to him. His Bradamante is as pure as Britomartis, and ten times more loveable. He has no sentimental illusions about his world of knights and ladies; but he frankly thinks it a very good and beautiful world. The gran bontà de' cavalieri antichi is a thing about which he is quite in earnest. It is not without significance that his greatest enthusiasm is for Vittoria Colonna; a very different kind of patroness and heroine from Queen Elizabeth. He certainly makes no parade of morals. But with one or two exceptions, there is hardly anything in the Orlando Furioso that is not suitable to be read aloud, even according to the taste of the present day; the same cannot be said of the Faerie Queene. And when Spenser lapses into sensuousness, it is with a certain clumsiness from which Ariosto was saved, not by a higher ideal, but by a more refined and educated taste. In Spenser, as in so much English art—as in so much English work beyond the sphere of art—there is a trace left of the insular grossness, a strain of something a little forced and exaggerated. He is hardly of the centre.
But the centre had for the time been lost. An iron age had displaced the golden time of Raphael and Ariosto and Erasmus. The brave attempt of Humanism to breathe fresh life into the Middle Ages, and carry the old world alive and unbroken into the new age, had been made and had failed. The religious wars broke out before the middle of the sixteenth century. Thenceforth the whole of life became one vast field of battle between the revolutionary Reformation and the Catholic reaction. These bitter enemies had one, and but one, disastrous feature in common, a fanatical hatred of great and humane art. In Italy the sunset of the Renaissance lingered; but the shadow of the Catholic reaction is already visible in Tasso's romantic epic. In England the revolution which, in the historian's striking words, laid its foundations in the murder of the English Erasmus, and set up its gates in the blood of the English Petrarch, left a long heritage of sombre restlessness, of doubt and gloom. It has often been remarked as strange, even as unaccountable, that throughout the earlier years of the Elizabethan age there is an all but universal cry that poetry is dead or dying, that barbarism and ignorance have flooded in. The Tears of the Muses, published by Spenser in 1591, and written not long before, is one prolonged complaint of this.
Heaps of huge words uphoarded hideously
With horrid sound though having little sense,
are all, he says, that is left of the palace of poetry. The truth was that, in her secular movement, poetry was breaking up and transforming herself. A new generation was already at the doors, one which was in turn to sweep up and put away the Renaissance, as the Renaissance had swept up and put away the Middle Ages.
It was not only at the doors, but within them. Night's candles were burnt out, and jocund day stood tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. The world was moving at a prodigious speed, and poetry had to quit her ancient seats, to whirl and follow the sun. The year 1591 is remarkable in letters, not only for the Tears of the Muses volume, but for another work in which there is a satirical allusion to the Tears of the Muses. That work was the Midsummer Night's Dream. Of the life of Nicholas Bottom (who has been called, not without some colour of reason, the hero of that play) we unhappily know as little as we do of the lives of Autolycus' aunts. But if he did not marry till middle life, his son might very well have handled a pike at Naseby.
Thus Spenser, like so many other great poets, represents the late splendour of a descending and fast disappearing tradition. The realm in which he was so great an innovator, so wide an explorer and conqueror, was even before his death passing into other hands. Much of his work has faded away and become obsolete; but his great argosy came into harbour. He lives effectively in a few sonnets, in one superb ode, and in the Faerie Queene.
The Epithalamion, in Johnson's stately phrase of compliment, "it were vain to blame, and useless to praise." For sustained beauty of execution, for melodiousness in which the most melodious of English poets excels even his own standard, for richness of ornament that stops just short of excess, and does not either blur the outline or clog the movement, it easily takes the first place, not only among Spenser's own lyrics, but among all English odes. The mechanism of the verse is a marvel of delicate intricacy. The twenty-three long undulating stanzas into which it is divided by the recurrent but perpetually varying refrain are all based on the same general rhythmical scheme of subdivision, but with variations of internal structure devised with extreme skill to prevent monotony, to give the play and freedom of a live organism. It is possible to read the poem, even to be familiar with it, and not to recognise until after more minute inspection that the normal nineteen-line stanza is varied with three other forms of stanza, two of eighteen and one of seventeen lines, and that the arrangement of the rhymes has further delicate variations. The Ode was Spenser's latest lyric, written after his hand had for years been occupied on the large decorative canvas of the allegorical epic. It was written for a personal occasion:
Take these lines, look lovingly and nearly,
Lines I write the first time and the last time.
He who works in fresco steals a hair-brush,
Makes a strange art of an art familiar,
Fills his lady's missal-marge with flowerets.
From it he returned to his main work, to the Faerie Queene; and to his main work we may now turn. Edward Phillips, nearly a century afterwards, speaks of it as "being for great invention and poetic height judged little inferior, if not equal, to the chief of the ancient Greeks and Latins, or the modern Italians." What Phillips said or thought would itself be of little importance; but there is reason to believe that the judgment he speaks of is that of Milton.
In reading the Faerie Queene, as in reading all poetry, we cannot appreciate it duly without the study and the effort requisite to let us place ourselves more or less at the poet's point of view, to let us understand, or not wholly misunderstand, what he meant by poetry and what poetry meant to him. But we cannot appreciate it, in its essential quality as poetry, at all, unless we approach it with an unclouded mind, and disengage ourselves from commentaries and theories. The child's vision must, if it were possible, be combined with the scholar's understanding. This is a hard saying, but the thing itself is hard. The course lies straight and narrow between the rock and the whirlpool. Appreciation only comes of study; study too often dims and sophisticates appreciation. The attempt to be made here must be not to lose ourselves either in a mist of theories, or in a quicksand of facts; but to disengage, as far as may be, the poetical quality of the poem in form and substance; to estimate, as far as may be, the degree to which it actually condenses, from the flying vapour of language and life, an image of perfection. For while the value of a poem is manifold, its value as poetry is just this.
Spenser has left us in no doubt as to what he meant by poetry and what he meant to do in his great poem. It is a subject on which he is never tired of discoursing. He recurs to it over and over again, both in his elaborate prefaces and introductions, and more incidentally in many passages of the Faerie Queene itself. The loose construction and leisurely movement of the poem give him full opportunity for personal digressions and passages of homiletic or imaginative exposition. In these expositions of his doctrine and practice there is the same melodious fluency which is the primary quality of his poetry itself; the same fecundity of illustration and ornament, the same lofty if somewhat vague and inconsequent idealism. The image of perfection which he set himself to embody was, in his own words, that of a noble person fashioned in virtuous and gentle discipline. It was life at its utmost height and richness. Before it lay the whole pageant of the world, the kingdom and the power and the glory of it. "In that Faery Queen," he says, in words which for him are unusually precise, "I mean glory." This word of glory is the keynote of the whole Renaissance; the glory of discovery, of conquest, of possession, of mastery. The achievement of this glory was "virtue"; the virtue of the statesman, the ruler, and the soldier, enlarged by liberal studies and bathed in the splendours of romance. The twelve moral virtues, to the glorification of which the twelve books of the Faerie Queene were to be devoted, were all summed up in the crowning virtue of magnificence; and this "magnificence" is almost the same thing as "courtesy," courtiership, the conduct of life by the masters of the world, lords over the five senses and the visible earth. Such glory was transitory, like this world itself; but it was the nearest approach which this world gave to immortality.
The vehicle chosen by Spenser to set forth his vision of the world's glory was that of the chivalrous romance. The Faerie Queene is not an epic; both in its author's genius and in its own purpose it is alien from the epic tension and concentration. He speaks of following Homer and Virgil; but this is because the Iliad and the Aeneid were read by him, and affected him, as romances. The romantic epic, as it had been lately attempted by Tasso, was a hybrid product, destined to be sterile. Spenser does not seem himself to notice any distinction of kind between Tasso and Ariosto. But his own poem is a still more complex hybridisation; it is the spirit of Tasso working on the method of Ariosto. The Faerie Queene has not, and was not meant to have, the epic unity, the epic structural and organic composition. It has no story, or if it has, the story has neither beginning nor end, and does not really matter. It has no dramatic life, no tragical interplay of human will and passion. It has no hero, for its hero is an abstraction, or rather a shifting series of abstractions. It is a romance wrapped in the imperial robes of the epic, but lacking her sceptre and crown. It is a pageant and allegory of life, while the epic is the imaginative embodiment of life itself.
All poetry is an allegory, in the sense that it embodies, in concrete symbols, a meaning larger and nobler than that which its literal words convey. In this sense, the amount of allegory in a poem depends not so much on the poet as on the reader. Homer and Virgil were allegorised, both in ancient and in modern times, to such an extent that their true outlines were lost, their true quality as poetry obscured, though it was still instinctively felt. But in Spenser the allegory is throughout conscious and purposed; it is of the structure and essence of the poem. In his prefatory letter prefixed to the Faerie Queene, he describes it in set terms as a continued allegory; and this is the case. But his specific use of allegory, and with it the specific quality of the poem, was determined by the fact that, with immense imagination and endless fertility of invention and language, he had neither the narrative nor the dramatic gift. He has little power—one might say he has little wish—of telling a story or realising a situation. The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory more expressly and closely than the Faerie Queene. But Bunyan's narrative gift is so certain, his dramatic instinct is so fine, that the allegorical abstractions with which he purports to be dealing take flesh and blood on them almost without his will, and become real human beings. There are no real human beings in the Faerie Queene.
The amount of allegory in it of course varies very much, as does its quality and complexity. In its large lines the poem is an allegorising of abstractions, of virtues or vices, of physical or mental functions, of philosophical or theological ideas, even of political situations. Each book allegorises one of the virtues. Many of the episodes are elaborate and detailed allegories on their own account: such as the long and tedious description of the human body as the Castle of Alma in the ninth canto of the second book, or the siege of that same castle at the wards of the five senses in the eleventh canto. Others follow the mediæval manner more closely. An impersonation like Lady Praise-Desire in the House of Temperance, with the poplar-branch in her hand, or the description of the entrance to the temple of Venus, with its porters Doubt and Delay, and its gate of Good Desert guarded by the giant Danger, might come straight from the Romaunt of the Rose, and belongs to a tradition which never had been very happy, and from which Chaucer himself had long ago decisively broken away. This is hardly allegory at all; still less so are those parts of the poem which deal with contemporary history after the fashion of the roman à clef. It is in these that the poetry is at its lowest temperature; they are not so much poetry as versified politics. Much of the fifth book is of this kind. The trial of Duessa before Mercilla is mere pamphleteering. All that is needed to convert it into a political tract is to replace the names; to speak plainly of Mary and Elizabeth instead of calling them Duessa and Mercilla, and to substitute for the names of Care and Zeal those of Cecil and Walsingham. In the three cantos which follow, even this slight veil is dropped, because it was not really worth while keeping it up. Belgium, Spain, Henry of Bourbon, are introduced openly under their own names. The poetic imagination ebbs away, leaving only a sort of bleached rhetorical framework. Even the language becomes little removed from that of prose. Except for a few inversions of order brought about by the necessities of rhyme, there is stanza after stanza that has nothing, either in imagination or in style, to distinguish it from the florid heavy prose of that period. It is Spenser become mechanical, the Spenserian manner become a trick. How nobly he recovered himself later, those will not need to be reminded who have followed the poem to the end—or not to the end, for there is none, but to the point where it was broken off by the poet's death.
There is a natural tendency in the human mind to confuse imagination with imagery. The difference between them is that between creation on the one hand and invention on the other, and it is vital. Spenser thought (so far as he did think) in images. His inventiveness, his faculty for pouring forth an endless stream of imagery, is unsurpassed, just as is his faculty for conveying this imagery in unfailingly fluent and melodious language. He is a complete master of decorative art, so far as this very fertility and fluency do not, as we may think, lead him to make his decoration too intricate, to overload his ornament. But while all art is decoration, it is not in its merely decorative quality that art can be great art, can fully realise its function. To do this, it must rise from invention to creation. Its imagery must be transmuted by imagination; it must not only adorn, but interpret and, in a sense, make life.
If Spenser is not, in the full sense of the term, one of the first order of poets, it is because, while he does possess this higher gift of creative and interpretative imagination, he possesses it intermittently, capriciously, and imperfectly. The Faerie Queene does not move. It lives, but hardly with full life. It is not that his poetry does not represent the actual world. No poetry does. It is that it does not create a world more real than the actual world. It drifts, at the suggestion of complex influences, through a sea of dreams. It fluctuates between moral allegory and unmoralised romance, now swerving into passages of crude realism, and again soaring to ideal heights of imagination. But the poet's genius is so great, his resources are so vast, and his handling of them so easy and adroit, that he absorbs the reader into his own dream. His fabric rises into the air like an exhalation; as the gleaming pageant floats and passes before us, we are hardly conscious, any more than we are conscious in actual dreaming, of its inconsequence and unsubstantiality. Scenes melt into one another; nothing is surprising. It is all iridescent, magnified, wrapped and floating in a luminous mist.
In the last canto of the last completed book of the Faerie Queene, Spenser himself makes a claim for the poem which is of a different nature. The image of the epic, with its high imaginative tension and concentrated creative energy, hung before him as a poetic ideal; but it became in his hands, like his ideal figures and scenes, something filmy, elusive, and unsubstantial. In this passage he lays claim to unity and purpose in his long train of romantic imagery; and does so, very characteristically, by means of a new piece of romantic imagery of just the same texture as the rest.
Like as a ship, that through the ocean wide
Directs her course unto one certain coast,
Is met of many a counter wind and tide
With which her winged speed is let and crost,
And she herself in stormy surges tost,
Yet, making many a board and many a bay,
Still winneth way, ne hath her compass lost;
Right so it fares with me in this long way
Whose course is often stayed, yet never is astray.
Right so it does nothing of the sort. Even had he lived to catch up all the interlaced or floating threads of the poem, and to bring them out to a conclusion, it would not have made any material difference. We are not in the least interested in the progress of the action in the Faerie Queene; or rather, there is no progress of the action for us to be interested in. It is difficult to remember, as we read it, whom we are reading about, or how they came there. They drop out and reappear capriciously; we are pleased to meet them, we half think we have seen them before, and it does not matter when they are gone. They move among one another, weaving intricate and lovely patterns, and as the pattern still flows out of the loom, "his web, reeled off, curls and goes out like steam." Into these chambers of imagery the breath of fresh outer air hardly enters; it would blow the whole fabric away.
This enchanted atmosphere, this luminous mist of romantic feeling and glittering imagery, pervades the whole poem. But it varies from point to point, like some actual vapour that collects or clears, lifts or drops, under light variable airs.
Far off they saw the silver-misty morn,
Rolling her smoke about the royal mount,
That rose between the forest and the field.
At times the summit of the high city flashed:
At times the spires and turrets half-way down
Pricked thro' the mist; at times the great gate shone
Only, that opened on the field below;
Anon, the whole fair city had disappeared.
Sometimes it condenses into a cloud through which we move heavily, and the figures loom indistinct and spectral. Sometimes a rift of sky blows open, and a corner of the landscape is seen in clear daylight. In these little clear islets we may find what is perhaps Spenser at his best, though not at his most characteristic: in those rare and pleasant simpler touches where the poetry becomes lucid and close to life, or in those passages, not rare, where it rises to some great nobleness of expression, some great elevation of sentiment. Spenser's Chaucerianism was no mere muddle of antiquarian pedantry; it was a real love and admiration, a poetical sympathy that makes him write now and then, for a few lines together, with the freshness and charm of Chaucer. If I may venture to put it so, he sometimes drops into poetry. When he has almost wearied us with Britomartis, he suddenly writes of her thus:
One day, whenas she long had sought for ease
In every place, and every place thought best,
Yet found no place that could her liking please,
She to a window came that opened west,
Towards which coast her love his way addrest:
There, looking forth, she in her heart did find
Many vain fancies working her unrest,
And sent her winged thoughts more swift than wind
To bear unto her love the message of her mind.
It is like cool water. The same clear simplicity comes with the same lovely effect in many single lines. Calepine, when he is recovered of his wounds, goes out, as Palamon or Arcite might go, "to take the air and hear the thrushes' song." "What Maygame hath misfortune made of you?" the Amazon asks Artegall when she finds him in prison, touched by surprise to forget all her rhetoric. In the beautiful pastoral incident which fills several cantos of the sixth book, Spenser reverts not only to the free romantic manner of the Arcadia, but to a simpler, fresher style and language than that to which he had wrought himself when he planned to make his poem not only a romance but an epic and an allegory of life.
One day, as they all three together went
To the green wood to gather strawberries—
how unlike this is to the highly-charged, slowly-wheeling, rich verse that we think of as Spenserian!
Of course he cannot keep it up; the traditions of high romance must be observed; and the first thing that happens in the wood is that a tiger comes out of it, "with fell claws full of fierce gormandise, and greedy mouth wide-gaping like hell-gate." The hero, who has "no weapon but his shepherd's hook to serve the vengeance of his wrathful will," at once fells the tiger to the earth with it, and before the formidable beast can recover, hews off its head—whether with the shepherd's hook or not, the chivalrous spirit of romance does not pause to inquire.
And just as Spenser's genuine love and admiration of Chaucer combine with the instinctive resurgence in him, as in all the poetry of his age, of the native lyrical impulse, to make him write now and then with Chaucerian freshness and simplicity, so his genuine love and admiration of the classics make the Faerie Queene in many passages rise to an almost classic height. In the flowing loosely-woven texture of the poem there are many lines and stanzas, and even whole passages, which stand out from the rest in virtue of a concentration, a precision, a dignity which are the qualities of the classics. It would be tedious to develop this point by large illustration; and in any case the search and the selection must be made by each reader for himself; and the search is delightful, even apart from the added delight of recognition or discovery. It would be easy to collect and dwell upon many single lines that have this quality of exalted beauty, lines like the famous
Glistering in arms and battailous array;
Wasting the strength of her immortal age;
Spreading pavilions for the birds to bower.
It is curious to notice how all these lines, though they were not chosen in order to bring out the point, but simply for their own sake, are participial; they convey an image incidentally in the course of the main movement of the passages in which they are set. This is true of the poem generally. It is like the English architecture of the same period, still Gothic in main substance and structure, but enriched by classic detail. Its classicism is decorative, not constructional. This is the case likewise with the longer passages or whole stanzas which reach, or suggest, the classic manner.
Both roof and floor and walls were all of gold,
But overgrown with dust and old decay,
And hid in darkness, that none could behold
The hue thereof; for view of cheerful day
Did never in that house itself display,
But a faint shadow of uncertain light:
Such as a lamp whose life does fade away,
Or as the moon, clothed with cloudy night,
Does shew to him that walks in fear and sad affright.
That is the classical manner; not that of the great classics, it is true; … it is a diluted secondary classicism more like that of Apollonius or Statius. But the stanza is only one out of three in which the House of Riches is described; the other two, which precede and follow it, are in the loaded intricate manner which is normal to Spenser, and which is in direct antithesis to the classical. Nor would it be possible, even if the poet had wished to do so, to adapt the classical manner to the imaginative substance of the poem (if substance it might be called that substance had none), which is that of a vast pageant moving through a dream.
This pageant-like or dream-like quality makes the Faerie Queene approximate to a masque or interlaced series of masques rather than to an epic. There is no difference of plane between the figures and the ornament; for the figures are the ornament; "You shamefast are, but shamefastness itself is she," says Alma to Guyon; she might equally well have put it the other way. The episodes nearly always break off in the middle, or rather, do not so much break off as melt away. It is singular how many of the cantos end on this note of vanishing:
Eftsoons he fled away and might nowhere be seen—
The while false Archimage and Atin fled apace—
And from Prince Arthur fled with wings of idle fear—
or most strikingly, and with most studied and splendid effect, in the wonderful line which closes the Mutability cantos,
And Nature's self did vanish, whither no man wist.
It is a piece of deliberate art with Spenser that he hardly ever finishes a story. He does finish the story of Cambell and Canace in the fourth book, and makes a sad bungle of it. The variations in the texture of the poem are given, the stages in its movement are marked, chiefly by points at which the continuous pageantry, like a stream spreading into pools, expands, rather than concentrates, into set pageants of unusual elaboration and magnificence. The Masque of Cupid, at the end of the third book, is the best known of these, as it is perhaps the greatest. Almost as well known is the pageant of the Months in the seventh book. Of the same type, though with a difference of subject and treatment, is the chronicle of the kings of Britain, a sort of masque of British history, towards the end of the second book, and the marriage procession of the rivers towards the end of the fourth. To the ninth, tenth, and eleventh cantos of the sixth book, which stand quite by themselves, some further reference will be made.
So much it is indispensable to keep in view with regard to the quality and substance of the Faerie Queene as poetry. We may now go on to consider with a fuller appreciation the metrical vehicle which Spenser chose for it, the famous Spenserian stanza. It is one of the four great English metrical forms for poetry written on a large scale; and it is rightly and indissolubly connected with the name of Spenser; for he both introduced it and perfected it. No one of the other three metres is called after the name of a single poet. Chaucer invented (or to all intents and purposes invented) two of them, the rhyme-royal and the heroic couplet. The former of the two he also carried to perfection. But for various reasons, it has not been so continuously and habitually used by later poets as the other three; and to call it the Chaucerian verse would do injustice to Chaucer's other and greater invention: for though Chaucer's crowning masterpiece is in the former metre, the larger part of his mature work, and that by which he is most universally known, is in the latter. The heroic couplet itself was used by Chaucer with consummate skill, and established by him as a standard form of English verse. But it afterwards underwent great changes and developments. It cannot be associated exclusively with any poet's name, but it is perhaps associated most closely in common usage with a later age and with the shape it took in the hands of Dryden and Pope. The last of the four dominant forms of English verse, the unrhymed decasyllable, has also passed through many phases and received new qualities from more than one great poet. But the Spenserian verse was not only created and established by Spenser, but left by him in its final form. It has never gone out of use. It was written freely through both the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. In the great renascence of English poetry a hundred years ago it occupied a leading position. Shelley, Byron, Scott, Keats, all used it largely. None of them gave it any new quality: and it still remains exactly what Spenser left it.
Technically the Spenserian stanza consists of the interlaced double quatrain (what metrical treatises call the eight-line ballad-stave) which was introduced into England by Chaucer, with the addition of a twelve-syllabled ninth line rhyming with the eighth. But this addition completely changes its character; it gives it a new rhythm and a new balance, and one totally unlike that of any form of verse previously used. Spenser's stanza is, in the full sense of the words, a fresh creation. Careful scrutiny may indeed pick out, here and there in the earlier part of the Faerie Queene, a stanza in which the ninth line comes as a sort of afterthought, and the other eight preserve something of the ballad-stave cadence; but these are few, and only recognisable when one looks for them. Normally and habitually the ninth line is felt coming through the whole stanza, which implies it and converges upon it.
Spenser was no doubt led to the invention of his stanza by the desire to find an English form of verse which should be the equivalent, and a little more than the equivalent, of the Italian rhymed octave. From Boccaccio to Tasso, the ottava rima had reigned undisputed in Italy as the vehicle for the heroic romance and for the regular epic. It was one admirably suited to the genius and structure of the Italian language. But it did not accommodate itself well to English, nor to French, in which the English metricists sought their models. Chaucer instinctively passed by the metre of Boccaccio; Spenser, as instinctively, passed by the metre of Ariosto and Tasso. Chaucer syncopated the octave stanza into the rhyme-royal, Spenser expanded it into the Spenserian. In both cases the effect was to produce a vehicle that was more romantic and complex; that fell short possibly of the serenity and balance of the Italian octave, but gained in richness and harmony. The long swaying rhythms of the new stanza were exactly suited to a style like Spenser's, loaded with ornament and almost stationary in movement. It allowed him full amplitude; it held, it even invited and reinforced, the quality of boundlessness in his genius, the immense superflux of language and fancy. It is worth noting that the rhyme-royal where Spenser uses it, in the four Hymns, gives something of the effect of a curtailed Spenserian; it has not the authentic cadence. But these poems were written after he had invented and begun to use his proper medium.
Like most metrical forms, the Spenserian stanza has its excellences and its defects. For poetry which consists of a stream of pageants it is exactly suited. It is no less apt as a vehicle of imaginative reflection, for thought translating itself in images. It lends itself to rich effects produced by accumulated touches. When, as it often does, it swells up to the very end; or when, to produce a different effect, it slowly ebbs off; or when, as is equally characteristic with Spenser, it slides forward with equable rhythms till near the end, and then, in the eighth and ninth lines, rises into a great crescendo and storm of sound, it is little short of miraculous. To embark on quotations is a formidable matter, but just one instance of each kind of effect may be given. An instance of the first, almost too well known, but still endlessly delightful to repeat, is from the description of the Garden of Acrasia (II. xii. 71):
The joyous birds, shrouded in cheerful shade,
Their notes unto the voice attempered sweet:
The angelical soft trembling voices made
To the instruments divine respondence meet:
The silver-sounding instruments did meet
With the base murmur of the water's fall:
The water's fall, with difference discreet,
Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call:
The gentle warbling wind low answered to all.
As an instance of the second may be taken a stanza of equal beauty and celebrity, the famous invocation to Chaucer (IV. ii. 34), with its singular likeness, in phrasing and rhythm as well as in substance, to those exquisite verses of William Morris which come as the envoi to the Earthly Paradise:
Then pardon, O most sacred happy spirit,
That I thy labours lost may thus revive
And steal from thee the meed of thy due merit
That none durst ever whilst thou wast alive:
And being dead, in vain yet many strive:
Ne dare I like; but thro' infusion sweet
Of thine own spirit which doth in me survive
I follow here the footing of thy feet
That with thy meaning so I may the rather meet.
For an instance, finally, of the third kind, we may go to one of the innumerable combats between a knight and two Paynims—mostly in common form and a little tedious, but in this case lifted to a new splendour by the blaze and crash of the final line (II. viii. 37):
Horribly then he gan to rage and rail
Cursing his gods and himself damning deep.
But when his brother saw the red blood rail
Adown so fast, and all his armour steep,
For very fellness loud he gan to weep,
And said: Caitiff, curse on thy cruel hand
That twice hath sped; yet shall it not thee keep
From the third brunt of this my fatal brand:
Lo! where the dreadful Death behind thy back doth stand.
Such are some, and only some, of the effects of which the stanza is capable. On the other hand, it often drags and becomes languid. The last line sometimes seems pure surplusage; sometimes one may say the same of more than the last line. The thought, and even the imagery, become exhausted before the end of the stanza is reached. Spenser's fluency is unfailing; but there are many places where the fluency becomes mere verbosity, many where the stanza seems stuffed out with anything that comes first to hand. It is this that lies at the root of Spenser's strange lapses into bald prose. He recovers from them swiftly, but there they are: in single lines like
Though otherwise it did him little harm;
Then very doubtful was the war's event;
But the rude porter, that no manners had;
and even more markedly in some longer passages that are mere untransmuted lumps from the debased prose romances of the period, such as,
But turn we now back to that lady free
Whom late we left riding upon an ass;
or the amazing account of her adventures given by Priscilla to Calidore in the second canto of Book VI. It fills eight stanzas, and is all as bad as can be; I will only give one gem out of the heap:
Then, as it were to avenge his wrath on me,
When forward we should fare he flat refused
To take me up (as this young man did see)
But forced to trot on foot, and foul misused,
Punching me with the butt-end of his spear.
Doll Tearsheet might talk so: did talk so in fact, the very next year, in the squalid but powerful scene where she makes her last appearance on Shakespeare's stage.
Finally, as a vehicle for narrative poetry, the Spenserian verse is inherently faulty, because it lacks speed. Its movement is not progressive; it is like that of spreading and interlacing circles. Spenser was no doubt naturally without that rare quality, the narrative gift; but he deliberately (and very likely rightly) chose a metrical form for the Faerie Queene which emphasised this deficiency. The same thing is true of the stanza as used by other poets. Compare Keats's two masterpieces; how heavy, how struggling, is the narrative movement in the Eve of St. Agnes when set beside the swift, clear brightness of Lamia! or compare the endless circumvolutions of Shelley in the Revolt of Islam with the sense of life and movement in the Witch of Atlas. Even Byron, the swiftest of English poets, becomes slow and almost languid in Childe Harold. In his Don Juan, where rapidity was essential, he abandoned the Spenserian verse, and boldly launched into the Italian rhymed octave, though he did not succeed in naturalising it, and Don Juan remains a long metrical tour de force. And if we take Byron where he is swiftest and most himself—the Byron of the Giaour—the difference is almost incredible.
The foremost Tartar's in the gap
Conspicuous by his yellow cap—
it is safe to say that Spenser, or any one writing in the Spenserian manner, would have spent a whole stanza in getting over the ground that this fierce swift couplet covers in a single stride. Byron himself could hardly have done otherwise; for so essentially is the Spenserian stanza Spenser's creation, that it cannot be written at all except in a manner nearly akin to his.
This perilous fluency, this unbounded melodiousness, is at once Spenser's strength and his weakness as an artist. It displeased the classicists of his own time. His friend Harvey honestly disliked the Faerie Queene, and said so roundly to Spenser himself. "Hobgoblin running away with the garland from Apollo" he calls it, in a phrase which one can hardly fancy Spenser would either forgive or forget. He sets the whole thing down, rather petulantly, to some foolish ambition in Spenser to outdo Ariosto on his own lines. Harvey's opinions on poetry were not those of a poet, and are perhaps not of special value. But in this instance he expresses the feeling not merely of classicist pedantry, but of classical judgment. Every one knows that we have only half of the Faerie Queene as planned; that it was to have extended to twelve books, and something like sixty thousand or seventy thousand lines. What is not so widely known, or at least so clearly remembered, is that these twelve books were only the first part of a still more gigantic scheme. If that scheme had been carried out, we should have had a poem, or a mass of poetry, of something more like one hundred and fifty thousand lines. This would substantially exceed even the sixty thousand couplets into which the Shah Nameh, through successive accretions, became swollen in the hands of Firdausi and his pupils or continuators. It would have been a poem which, in Lord Cockbum's celebrated phrase, would have exhausted Time and encroached on Eternity.
But towards the end of the sixth book of the Faerie Queene we become conscious of a great and significant change of tone. It occurs subtly and silently, like dawn overspreading the sky. But it means that the spirit of the poet, and of his art, has changed. The Renaissance is tiring of itself; poetry is returning to life: and with the same movement life is returning to poetry.
The note of change comes with the reversion to pastoral at the opening of the ninth canto.
Now turn again my team, thou jolly swain,
Back to the furrow which I lately left.
The note here is very different from that of the elaborate high-flown introductions to which we have been accustomed hitherto. The immediate reference is merely to his customary process of taking up the dropped thread of his romance. But it suggests more: it suggests a return to the furrow in another sense, a return to the pleasant villages and farms, to the opener air, from the enchanted atmosphere, heavy and luminous, of courtly romance.
A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
The Faerie Queene becomes a Winter's Tale in the beautiful episode which follows. The
are those of the Shepherds Calendar back again, but softened, etherealised, lit by romance. Pastorella, the one figure in the whole of the Faerie Queene who is all but human, reminds one of Shakespeare's Perdita. Like Perdita she needs must turn in the story into a king's daughter lost and hidden among shepherds; such was the tradition of romance, that might not lightly be broken. But, king's daughter or not, she brings with her the breath and beauty of common life. The vanity of ambition is a theme on which throughout the poem Spenser has been perpetually discoursing; but here, for the first time, it brings with it the vanity of courtliness, the evanescence of the Renaissance ideal. Melibœus the shepherd, Pastorella's reputed father, has been a courtier himself in his youth, has sold himself for hire and spent his youth in vain; now, in one of Spenser's most exquisite stanzas, he tells how he has gone back to sweet peace, and "this lovely quiet life which I inherit here." His sermon on content and simplicity is Spenser speaking in his own voice, sincerely, without either self-consciousness or strain. Pastorella-Perdita "had ever learned to love the lowly things." With the reversion towards simplicity is mingled a strain of grave religion. It is not only that "happy peace" and "the perfect pleasures" grow in common life, and all the rest is but a "painted shadow of false bliss": it is that the whole gorgeous fabric of romantic chivalry is a lure, "set to entrap unwary fools in their eternal bales." And so, when the shepherds are "met to make their sports and merry glee, as they are wont in fair sunshiny weather," we are reminded not only of the Winter's Tale but of the Pilgrim's Progress. "If a man was to come here in the summer time, and if he also delighted himself in the sight of his eyes, he might see that that would be delightful to him. Some have wished that the next way to their Father's house were here, that they might be troubled no more with either hills or mountains to go over; but the way is the way, and there's an end."
This new land is as yet but dimly seen: it is coloured and half concealed by the iridescent vapour. While still among the shepherds, Calidore strays back into fairyland, to the Acidalian hill where he sees the Graces dancing, not to the lyre of Apollo, but to the pipe of Colin Clout. But when he moves towards them, they all vanish out of his sight, "and are clean gone, which way he never knew," and Colin Clout is left piping on the hillside alone. The candles of the mediæval world are burned out; but the eyes of those who issue from the brilliantly lit palace are still dazzled and cannot see things clearly. In the uncertain light, that pleasant simple countryside seems one in which tigers attack strawberry-gatherers, and are decapitated with sheephooks. "Exit pursued by a bear," is the famous stage-direction at the end of the first part of the Winter's Tale: sixteen years pass, and then "enter Autolycus, singing."
So Spenser pulls himself back, at the opening doorway into daylight and the new world. Calidore's life among the shepherds was making him unmindful of his vow and of the queen's commands. He leaves Pastorella-Perdita and goes on the quest of the Blatant Beast. We are back in the full current of allegorical romance. But the spell, once snapped, cannot be quite rewoven; the poem flutters for a little on a broken wing, and stops.
It stops, or the poet's death stopped it. The story of the last three months of his life is one of confused horror. Fire and sword of an Irish rising; his home sacked and burned, and his newborn child perishing in the flames; a wretched winter-flight to England; a stony welcome there, a month or two of misery and illness, and death "for lack of bread" they said, if it be not incredible: such was the tragic end. Twelve years later was published the magnificent fragment, "two Cantos of Mutability, which, both for form and matter, appear to be the parcel of some following book of the Faerie Queene, under the legend of Constancy." They may be conjectured to have been written in the last year of his life, and perhaps with some premonition of its approaching end. They renew the earlier splendours of the poem, but with a deeper and graver music. In single lines and phrases there is an organ-tone that can scarcely be matched elsewhere in Spenser; and the Titaness, proud and fair,
Being of stature tall as any there
Of all the Gods, and beautiful of face
As any of the Goddesses in place,
stands out among the swaying tapestry-figures of Spenser's pageantries like some colossal sculpture of Michelangelo's. He lapses into his old decorative manner in the episode of Arlo-hill; in the simile of the cat in the dairy (the forty-seventh stanza of the first of the two cantos) it almost looks as if he were parodying himself. But from that he rises again to the great speech of Mutability; to the summoning and appearing before the throne of Nature of the procession of the Seasons and the Months, Day and Night, the Hours, Life and Death; and to the final doom pronounced by Nature, which sums up, in a few majestic words, the whole system and government of the Universe. Then Nature herself vanishes: the lights go out; silence falls; and through the silence comes one last echo and cadence of sound, a prayer to be granted the Eternal Peace.
Thus Spenser, in the old Northern phrase, "changed his life," and was laid beside Chaucer in the Abbey Church at Westminster. His life, his vision of poetry as a pageant of life, his conception of poetry as a function of life, were splendid and transitory. They ceased; while life, and with it poetry, moved on.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 199
"Epigrams" and "Sonets" [translator] (poetry) 1569; published in A Theatre for Worldlings
The Shepheardes Calender: Conteyning Twelve Æglogues Proportionable to the Twelve Monethes (poetry) 1579
*Three Proper, and Wittie, Familiar Letters Lately Passed between Two Universitie Men: Touching the Earthquake in Aprill Last and Our English Reformed Versifying (letters) 1580
**The Faerie Queene, Disposed into Twelve Bookes Fashioning XII Morall Vertues [Books I-III] (poetry) 1590
Complaints: Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie (poetry) 1591
Amoretti and Epithalamion (poetry) 1595
Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (poetry) 1595
*** The Faerie Queene, Disposed into Twelve Bookes Fashioning XII Morall Vertues: The Second Part of The Faerie Queene, Containing the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Bookes (poetry) 1596
Fowre Hymnes (poetry) 1596
Prothalamion; or a Spousall Verse (poetry) 1596
**** A View of the State of Ireland, Written Dialogue-wise, betweene Eudoxus and Irenœus (essay) 1633
The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Edmund Spenser. 10 vols, (poetry, essay, and letters) 1882-84
* This work includes letters written by Gabriel Harvey
**This work was not published in its entirety until 1609, when the "Two Cantos of Mutabilitie" were added.
*** This work includes a revision of the earlier The Faerie Queene, Disposed into Twelve Bookes Fashioning XII Morall Vertues [Books I-III].
**** This work was written between 1595 and 1597.
William Nelson (essay date 1963)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10927
SOURCE: "That True Glorious Type," in The Poetry of Edmund Spenser: A Study, Columbia University Press, 1963, pp. 116-46.
[In the following excerpt from a study of Spenser's poetry, Nelson analyzes Spenser's use of allegorical types to convey his meaning. He focuses on Spenser's use of Queen Elizabeth as "that true glorious type" of gentleness and nobility.]
In the strange and various forest of The Faerie Queene many lose their way and succumb at last to the monster Error or, worse still, to exasperation and boredom. Omens for the journey are particularly unpropitious if the traveler enters upon it guided by the Aristotelian dictum that plot is the "first principle, and, as it were, the soul" of an epic poem, for here it will lead him only into a morass. He is better off if he comes armed, like the Red Cross Knight, with faith, faith in the book itself and in the guiding signs within it. By faith in the book I mean a disposition to believe that whatever the history of its composition may have been, the poem as it was presented to Queen Elizabeth is neither an incoherent and improbable tale worth reading only for the charm of its quaint and delicious passages nor a farrago of bits and pieces hastily thrown together to make a volume but, like Spenser's other poems, a carefully considered composition in which theme, rather than fable, is the central structural element. And by faith in its signs, I mean the belief that Spenser's announcements of his intention, both in the text itself and in the letter addressed to Sir Walter Ralegh which was appended to the first edition, are designed to give "great light to the Reader" rather than to mislead him. It would hardly be necessary to make these affirmations were it not for the number of interpreters of The Faerie Queene who begin by denying them. Of course, the reader may conclude (as I do not) that the only order in The Faerie Queene is of the kind imposed by the stargazer upon the scattered lights of the sky, and that the poet's professions of purpose, like those of many a Renaissance author, are no more than a formal bow to the critical dogma of his time. The proof lies in the poem.
The first lines of The Faerie Queene are themselves a sign to the reader, though their meaning is hidden in an obscurity not of Spenser's making. Had he begun with the words "I sing of arms and the man" no reader could doubt that he wished his poem to be recognized as of the genre of the Aeneid. But in Spenser's edition of Vergil's poem, as in all Renaissance editions, the opening words were not "Arma virumque cano" but the following verses, probably Vergilian indeed but rejected by Vergil's first editor, Varius:
Ille ego qui quondam gracili modulatus avena
Carmen, et egressus silvis, vicina coegi
Ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono
Gratum opus agricolis: at nunc horrentia Martis
Arma virumque cano …
The beginning of The Faerie Queene is an unmistakable allusion to these lines:
The poet so announces that his principal model is Vergil's Aeneid.
If Spenser's text of the poem he wished to imitate differs from our own, his understanding of its intention and method differs even more radically. Since he was a man of independence and originality it would be risky to assume that he accepted without question the standard textbook interpretations of Vergil current in his time. Nevertheless, a comparison of his letter to Ralegh with a typical Renaissance introduction to the Aeneid helps to make clear what he meant by beginning as he did. Among the many sixteenth-century editions of Vergil's poems a considerable number are substantial folio volumes in which the text is surrounded by a sea of commentary. Commonly, such editions include the annotations of various scholars, the work of the late classical grammarians Servius and Donatus and of Renaissance humanists. Of the later commentaries that of Jodocus Badius Ascensius, otherwise Josse Bade van Assche, famous Flemish scholar and publisher, is surely one of the most frequently reprinted.1
After explaining the form of the title of Vergil's poem, Badius announces its purpose as "simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae." This is the second line of that distich of Horace's Ars poetica which Ben Jonson translates:
Poets would either profit or delight
Or mixing sweet and fit, teach life the right.2
The poet, Badius declares, undertook the task of teaching "life the right" because he knew that there could be nothing more useful to a commonwealth than to be led by a prince who was clement, prudent, brave, temperate, and endowed with the other virtues. He therefore depicted such a prince in the Aeneid, prophesying that he would be imitated by Augustus, just as Xenophon had portrayed a Cyrus, not exactly as he was, but as he should have been ("ut Xenophon de Cyro fecisse perhibetur, non semper qualis fuit, sed qualem fuisse decuit perscribens"). By this means he suggested to Augustus both the necessity of imitating the ancestor to whom he traced his origin, a man whom he described as most pious, just, brave, temperate, etc., and the disgrace that he would incur if he degenerated from the honorable customs and virtues of his forebears. Besides this general intention which he shares with all good writers, Badius explains, Vergil had a number of particular ones ("speciales atque peculiares"). He wished to crown his poetic career with a work in the grand manner, as he had begun it in his youth with the humble pastoral and progressed in his maturity to the middle style of the Georgics. And since he had equaled Theocritus in his eclogues and Hesiod in his Georgics he desired in his great work to equal that prince of poets and fountain of ingenuity, Homer. Indeed he overwent Homer ("illi praestare demonstrat"). What the Greek poet needed the forty-eight books of his Odyssey and Iliad to express, Vergil said in twelve. For Homer had described the contemplative life in the person of Ulysses and the active life in his account of the Trojan war, while Vergil combined them both in one, treating of the former (which he signified by the word virum in "arma virumque cano") in his first six books and of the latter (arma) in the last six books. Besides considering other "special" intentions of the Aeneid, Badius summarizes the events of its story in chronological or historical order, pointing out as he does so that poetical narration follows a very different sequence.3
Some verbal correspondences between this essay and Spenser's letter are worth noting. Like Badius, Spenser distinguishes between his general intention and "particular purposes or by-accidents." His choice of a historical fiction to embody his meaning he defends as "most plausible and pleasing," and since the word plausible must here have its old meaning of "deserving of approval," the expression translates Horace's "iucunda et idonea."4 And like Badius Spenser cites the precedent of Xenophon who "in the person of Cyrus and the Persians fashioned a governement such as might best be." But phrases of this kind are so much the common currency of Renaissance criticism that they demonstrate rather Spenser's familiarity with the tradition than his use of Badius as a "source."
It is in terms of matter and emphasis that Spenser's letter shows itself to be modeled after the kind of introductory essay that is found in sixteenth-century editions of the Aeneid. As Vergil's intention is said to be the portrayal of a virtuous prince, so Spenser begins by asserting his purpose "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline." For the fabulous Aeneas Spenser offers Arthur "before he was king." Arthur cannot serve as a figure for Elizabeth, as Aeneas for Augustus, but Spenser explains that she is "shadowed" in Arthur's beloved Gloriana and in Belphoebe. If Vergil's method is justified by an appeal to the precedents of Homer and Xenophon, Spenser relies for authority upon those two writers, upon Vergil himself, and upon Ariosto and Tasso. Badius' division of the subject of the nature of the hero-prince into the branches designated by virum and arma is paralleled by Spenser's partition into ethice and politice. The list of virtues ascribed to Aeneas is like the list of virtues combined in Arthur and represented separately by the twelve subsidiary heroes; the one catalogue begins with "pius," the other with "Holinesse." And Spenser's letter ends with a summary of the events of his story told, not according to "the Methode of a Poet historical," but in the manner of a historiographer who "discourseth of affayres orderly as they were donne, accounting as well the times as the actions."
For his linking of Ariosto and Tasso with Homer, Vergil, and Xenophon as writers on the theme of the virtuous hero, Spenser had ample authority in contemporary comment on their poems. The editions in which he must have read the Italian poets were supplied with introductions resembling that of Badius to the Aeneid. Tasso himself provided explanatory prefaces to his Rinaldo and his Gerusalemme Liberata, essay on the latter, like the letter to Ralegh, repeats the accepted dogma concerning the division of the great subject:
Of the life of the Contemplative Man, the Comedy of Dantes and the Odysses, are (as it were) in every part thereof a Figure: but the civil Life is seen to be shadowed throughout the Iliads, and Aeneids also, although in this there be rather set out a mixture of Action and Contemplation.5
There has been much argument as to whether Tasso's moralizations of his poems reflect his original inten'tion or a more or less grudging concession to the pressures of counter-Reformation critical theory, but the question is irrelevant to the present purpose. Like Tasso's poems, the Orlando Furioso came to Spenser's hands as a work in this didactic tradition. Few readers today will believe that Ariosto's purpose was to portray a prince like Aeneas or Cyrus. But there are a number of plainly moralistic episodes in the Orlando, fully equipped with appropriately named allegorical personages, and the problem of extracting a useful meaning from the rest of the poem was easily within the capacity of the critics of the time. Sixteenth-century editors of the Orlando regularly discovered in it a portrait of the heroic leader, and one of them, Orazio Toscanella, compiler of Belleze del Furioso di M. Lodovico Ariosto (1574), describes Ariosto's method in just the way that Spenser describes his own. Ariosto, he says,
placed several virtues in several individuals, one virtue in one character and another in another character, in order to fashion out of all the characters7 a well-rounded and perfect man. A well-rounded and perfect man is one adorned with all the virtues.6
Spenser calls this well-roundedness "magnificence …. which vertue …. (according to Aristotle and the rest) … is the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth in it them all."
By Spenser's own account, then, the intention of The Faerie Queene is "to fashion a gentleman or noble person," and this he confirms by announcing in the prologue to his poem that its "argument" is "that true glorious type" of Queen Elizabeth, the type of gentleness and nobility. The word "fashion" in his statement of purpose is open to misconstruction. It may be taken to mean that Spenser proposed to show how experience and training make a truly virtuous man out of one who is only potentially virtuous. But in the present case, Spenser's use of "fashion" echoes a long-established tradition which shows that he must intend by it not "educate" or "train" but "represent," "delineate." Cicero's De oratore introduces its subject with the statement "we have to picture to ourselves in our discourse (fingendus est nobis oratione nostra) an orator from whom every blemish has been taken away." Castiglione makes Sir Frederic propose that one of the company "take it in hand to shape in wordes (formare con parole) a good Courtier," and the author declares his intention to "fashion such a Courtier as the Prince that shall be worthie to have him in his service, although his state be but small, may notwithstanding be called a mighty Lord."8 It is in this acceptation that the Oxford English Dictionary understands "fashioning" as it appears on the title page of Spenser's poem: "The Faerie Queene. Disposed into twelve bookes, Fashioning XII. Morall vertues." And in the sentence immediately preceding that in which "to fashion a gentleman" occurs, Spenser explains that the purpose of his letter is "to discover unto you the general intention and meaning, which …. I have fashioned." Furthermore, Spenser goes on to explain that in fulfillment of his design he has labored "to pourtraict in Arthure, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private morall vertues." He does not say that he has shown Arthur in the process of achieving that perfection. Of course, since the "fashion" of a man includes that which determines his character, training and experience enter into it to the extent that one believes them to be effective agents. But Spenser announces here, not that he has written the story of an education, but that, like Badius' Vergil and Toscanella's Ariosto, he has described a man who combines in himself the chivalric and the moral disciplines, a virtuous gentleman. And when he exclaims at the beginning of the last canto of the Legend of Temperaunce,
Now gins this goodly frame of Temperance Fairely to rise
he is saying that he has portrayed the virtue itself, not the growth of that virtue in its champion.
It is difficult for most modern readers to disabuse themselves of the idea that character development must be an essential feature of any extended narrative that pretends to be more than merely an entertainment. Stories in which the growth of the hero is a principal motif are of course not uncommon in medieval and Renaissance literature: Parzifal is a notable instance, and the pro gressive lightening and illumination of Dante's soul is obviously important to the structure of the Commedia. The humanist Christophoro Landino reads the Aeneid as an ascent of the hero from the fleshly concerns of Troy to the purity of the contemplative life symbolized by the conquest of Latium.9 But although the question of the role of character in an epic poem was endlessly discussed by Renaissance critics, no writer on the subject with whose work I am familiar recommends the growth or education of the hero as a subject for the narrative poet. Indeed, the Aristotelian principle of consistency ("The fourth point [with respect to character] is consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent"10) and the Horatian emphasis on decorum were read as prescribing stability of character, so that one Italian critic says flatly, "The poet, once he has undertaken to imitate somebody, keeps him always and everywhere exactly the same as he was when first introduced."11 Tasso's God-frey is typical, I think, of the kind of heroic figure envisaged by Renaissance criticism. His victory is achieved, not through the perfecting of his nature, but through the overcoming of obstacles which prevent that nature from exercising its proper functions. These are the victories won by Spenser's gentle knights.
A gentleman or nobleman is distinguished from Everyman by the fact that he bears both a private and a public character. Spenser's use of the words ethice and politice to describe the study of these two aspects of the gentle nature suggests a reference to Aristotle's Ethics and Politics, linked treatises the first of which concerns the good man, the second the state in which men are made good. In describing the Odyssey and Tasso's Rinaldo as concerned with the former, the Iliad and the Gerusalemme with the latter, and the Aeneid and the Orlando Furioso with both, Spenser accepts the conclusions of the criticism of his time. His own work is to deal with "ethics," as portrayed in Arthur before he became king, "which if I finde to be well accepted, I may be perhaps encoraged, to frame the other part of polliticke vertues in his person, after that hee came to be king.'"12
The division between the "ethical" and "political" realms needs to be understood as precisely as possible, particularly because Spenser is often accused of abandoning it in the later books. What he has to say about Queen Elizabeth and the role she plays in the poem helps to clarify the matter. After identifying Gloriana as "glory" in his general intention but "the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene" in his particular, Spenser continues: "For considering she beareth two persons, the one of a most royall Queene or Empresse, the other of a most vertuous and beautifull Lady, this latter part in some places I doe express in Belphoebe." The poet's language indicates a familiarity with the famous legal doctrine of "the king's two bodies," a doctrine which a recent student describes as "a distinctive feature of English political thought in the age of Elizabeth and the early Stuarts."13 The doctrine is carefully set forth in connection with a much-discussed case of the fourth year of Elizabeth. The decision was agreed upon by all of the crown lawyers and reported by the great Elizabethan jurist Edmund Plowden ('"The case is altered,' quoth Plowden"):
For the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body.14
The bodies are joined in somewhat the same way as the membership of a corporation and the corporation itself, or as humanity and divinity in Christ.
Spenser's Gloriana was evidently intended to represent this union and so the necessary connection between The Faerie Queene and that second "polliticke" poem. Often it required great legal subtlety to distinguish between the king natural and the king politic. But Spenser's understanding of the difference appears most clearly, I think, where it has been most often challenged. In the Legend of Justice, Queen Mercilla sits surrounded by the emblems of her regality as presiding officer at the trial of Duessa. But when the court, the body of which she is the head, arrives at its verdict, she does not pronounce it. She does not let "due vengeance" light upon the culprit but
The passion and tears, inevitable and praiseworthy in a virtuous queen natural, are nevertheless the sign of an "imbecility" to which the queen politic, by definition, cannot be subject.15
The theme of the noble man as "body natural" having been determined, Spenser then chose the "historicall fiction" of Arthur as the most suitable means by which to express it. So, at least, he describes the process. It has been argued most ingeniously that in fact he did not begin in this way at all, that the moral intention came late and was superimposed upon what was originally a romantic narrative.16 In the absence of unambiguous independent testimony—and it is absent—such an argument cannot be decisive. It may be that in 1589 Spenser himself would not have been able to say whether it was a dream of Britomart or a determination to benefit the commonwealth that led to the composition of his poem. But the question in any case is not directly pertinent to an attempt to understand the meaning of The Faerie Queene, a poem which we read, not as it evolved in the mind of its author, but as it was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and published in 1590 and 1596.
The choice of Arthur as hero was dictated by a number of considerations, among them those which Spenser mentions: he was "most fitte for the excellency of his person, being made famous by many mens former workes, and also furthest from the daunger of envy, and suspition of present time." Certainly the myth so sedulously fostered by Henry VII that Arthur was of the line of British kings whom the Tudors claimed as their ancestors and a descendant of Vergil's Aeneas also played a part in his election. Spenser recalls the story by deriving the family of Elizabeth from his own fictions, Artegall and Britomart, and so eventually from Aeneas' grandson, Brutus. That the poet placed any credence in the tale of the ancient Trojan ancestry of the Tudors or in the reliability of Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historian is at least doubtful. In a passage in A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande17 he laughs at the vanity of Englishmen who believe that Brutus was the founder of Britain, and Sidney similarly refuses to take the story seriously.18 But Spenser was not striving for historical accuracy in The Faerie Queene, and for his poetic purpose the myth of the Tudor descent from Troy, used with deliberate vagueness, provided him with a useful parallel to Vergil's link between Aeneas and Augustus.19
It is Arthur "before he was king" who is to provide the historical fiction for the delineation of the "private morall vertues." Since the tradition told Spenser very little about Arthur before the beginning of his reign he was free to invent what actions he liked. How he would have adapted the more fully documented story of Arthur the king to an exposition of the politic virtues it is impossible to guess; perhaps he never formulated the plan except in the most general terms. It was this Iliad to complement Spenser's Odyssey, a poem about Arthur as defender and lawgiver of the commonwealth, that Milton intended to write, I think. The scattered references to his proposed "Arthuriad" suggest a matter of battling armies and national crises, the kind of matter that finds no place in Spenser's poem about Arthur as a private man. Milton, it is believed, gave up the idea of an "Arthuriad" because of his doubts as to the historicity of the accounts of ancient Britain. If so, he belonged to that considerable Renaissance school that held that a true poem must be true in its fable as well as in its meaning. Spenser did not.
The Faerie Queene does not pretend to be an account of events that actually took place. We are now so accustomed to the convention of serious fiction that it requires an effort to recapture the attitude that demanded of a writer that he account to the world for his telling of a story palpably false. The argument of Sidney's Apology for Poetry in fact turns upon such a justification: a poem is not a lie, he says, both because the reader is not invited to accept it as history and because it is tied to "the general reason of things" if not to "the particuler truth of things."20 It is this "general reason of things" that Spenser claims to be expressing when he describes his work as "a continued allegory or darke conceit."
In recent years a number of brilliant studies have thrown much light on the use of allegory in the Middle Ages, and that use was surely a powerful influence upon later allegorists. But what may be said of the method of the Divine Comedy, the Romance of the Rose, and Piers Plowman does not necessarily apply to The Faerie Queene. Spenser claims as his models not those poems but the Aeneid, the Orlando, and the Gerusalemme. Whatever allegory may have meant in medieval usage, it had both a particular and a general acceptation in the Renaissance, the particular defined in terms of its nature, the general in terms of its function. The former sense, that given in textbooks of rhetoric from classical times onward, makes allegory a species of metaphor, "a Trope of a sentence, or forme of speech which expresseth one thing in words and another in sense." It is distinguished in its class by the fact that its literal elements and the meanings they signify are multiple rather than single: "In a Metaphore there is a translation of one word onely, in an Allegorie of many, and for that cause an Allegorie is called a continued Metaphore."21 The examples of this figure of speech given by the rhetoricians are derived indifferently from prose and poetry, the Bible and secular letters. One writer offers as a typical instance the following line from Vergil's eclogues:
Stop up your streames (my lads) the medes have drunk ther fill
explaining it thus:
As much to say, leave of now, yee have talked of the matter inough: for the shepheards guise in many places is by opening certaine sluces to water their pastures, so as when they are wet inough they shut them againe: this application is full Allegoricke.22
Spenser's familiarity with this sense of "allegory" is obvious both from his application to the word of the standard epithet "continued" and from his frequent use of such extended metaphors in the poem. Amoret with her heart laid open and bleeding is a figure of speech for a woman tormented in spirit; Orgoglio deflated like an empty bladder tells us that pride is merely puffed up; Arthur's dream of Gloriana is a metaphorical statement of the noble vision of glorious achievement. These are "allegories" within the definition of the rhetoricians and there are many like them in The Faerie Queene. In Spenser's practice they are often presented dramatically or pictorially, a technique resembling that of medieval allegory and of the allegorical pageants, paintings, and "emblems" of the Renaissance. But Spenser says that his poem is an allegory, not merely that there are allegories in it.
It is the functional significance of the word which is uppermost in Spenser's mind. Tasso's explanation of his Gerusalemme Liberata provides the gloss:
Heroical Poetry (as a living Creature, wherein two Natures are conjoyned) is compounded of Imitation and Allegory: with the one she allureth unto her the Minds and Ears of Men, and marvellously delighteth them; with the other, either in Vertue or Knowledge, she instructeth them. And as the Heroically written Imitation of an Other, is nothing else but the Pattern and Image of Humane Action: so the Allegory of an Heroical Poem is none other than the Glass and Figure of Humane Life. But Imitation regardeth the Actions of Man subjected to the outward Senses, and about them being principally employed, seeketh to represent them with effectual and expressive Phrases, such as lively set before our Corporal Eyes the things represented: It doth not consider the Customs, Affections, or Discourses of the Mind, as they be inward, but only as they come forth thence, and being manifested in Words, in Deeds, or Working, do accompany the Action. On the other side, Allegory respecteth the Passions, the Opinions and Customs, not only as they do appear, but principally in their being hidden and inward; and more obscurely doth express them with Notes (as a Man may say) mystical, such as only the Understanders of the Nature of things can fully comprehend.23
Beyond the vague statement that it is difficult to understand and is expressed by obscure "notes"—a "dark conceit" in Spenser's phrase—Tasso is not concerned with the method of allegory. What is salient for him is its purpose, instruction in virtue and knowledge and investigation of the inward as well as the outward motions of man, the presentation of "the Glass and Figure of Humane Life." Sir John Harington's "Briefe and Summarie Allegorie of Orlando Furioso" shows how such a definition is applied.24 The "two principall heads and common places" of the Orlando he takes to be love and arms. Under the former he expounds the meaning of Rogero's adventures with Alcina, the temptation of pleasure, and Logestilla, or virtue. These episodes are "allegories" in method. But Harington also declares that "the whole booke is full of examples of men and women, that in this matter of love, have been notable in one kinde or other." His exposition of the theme of arms begins with "the example of two mightie Emperours, one of which directeth all his counsels by wisdome, learning, and Religion; But the other being rash, and unexperienced, ruined himselfe and his countrie." These are exemplary fictions, metaphoric only in the sense that their characters are types representative of many individuals, but they find place in the "generall Allegorie of the whole worke" because they contribute to its didactic purpose. Renaissance allegorical explanations of the Aeneid similarly depend indifferently upon the elucidation of "continued" metaphors and the lessons to be learned from the example of the characters of the story. Spenser himself makes no sharp division between allegory and fictional example: although at one point he describes his work as "clowdily enwrapped in Allegoricall devises," at another he declares the method of the Cyropaedia to be doctrine "by ensample" and adds, "So have I laboured to doe in the person of Arthure."
Spenser's method is in fact best disclosed by his practice. The episode of Malbecco, Hellenore, and Paridell, the principal subject of the ninth and tenth cantos of the Legend of Chastitie, serves as a convenient illustration, for while its intention is unmistakable, the rhetorical techniques employed in its telling are marvelously varied and complex. The tale begins as a fabliau of the hoariest type, a comedy involving the miserly, jealous husband, his pretty, wanton wife, and the polished seducer. Such situations are sometimes called "realistic," yet the names of the characters at once give the story a meaning beyond the particular: "Malbecco" is from the Italian becco which means both "cuckold" and "he-goat"; "Hellenore" and "Paridell" are intended to suggest the types of Helen and Paris of Troy. Malbecco's passions for his money and his wife are presented in parallel so that one becomes a figure for the other: he is not properly entitled either to the gold or to the girl, he makes no use of either, he keeps both locked up and fears constantly for their loss. His blindness in one eye serves as a metaphor for the watchful blindness of jealousy, for although he keeps up a sleepless, self-tormenting vigil he is unable to see what goes on at his side, the seduction of Hellenore by Paridell. That affair is described realistically: Paridell "sent close messages of love to her at will"; metaphorically: "She sent at him one firie dart, whose hed / Empoisned was with privy lust, and gealous dred"; and symbolically: "[she] in her lap did shed her idle draught, / Shewing desire her inward flame to slake." That inward flame leads to the fire set by Hellenore to cover her escape, a fire compared with the conflagration which consumed Troy, Helen and Hellenore, wantons both, joying in wanton destruction. Now the realm of realism is left quite behind, for Hellenore, having been abandoned by the rake Paridell, finds refuge as the common mistress of a band of satyrs, halfgoats who herd goats, her sexual passion satisfied at last. And when Malbecco tries to rescue her from her happy predicament, the goats butt him with their horns—give him the "horn" for which he was named at his christening. Finally, consumed by the "long anguish and self-murdring thought" of his jealous nature he is changed into a strange creature with crooked claws dwelling in a cave overhung by a tremendous cliff
There he lives forever, so deformed "that he has quight / Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight."25
This is not a story in the ordinary sense of the word, for the movement is inward, not onward. The transformations of Malbecco and Hellenore are not really transformations at all but revelations of their essence. The poet's purpose has been to lay bare the sterile, destructive, and dehumanizing power of the passions of greed, jealousy, and lust, and to this end he has made use of every means at his command, exemplary tale, myth, metaphor extended and simple, simile, symbol, and direct statement. As narrative, the episode is self-contained, for neither Malbecco nor Hellenore appears earlier or again, but the ideas which it expresses are presented in parallel and contrast, echoed, analyzed, developed, and refined throughout the Legend of Chastitie. To distinguish among the rhetorical tools by which this is accomplished is a task which would require the sharpest of definitions and infinite subtlety in applying them, for the poetical stream flows unbroken from one into another. Fortunately, it is not a task that need be undertaken here, for it offers little help in understanding the poem. Rather, the theme of discourse suggests itself through its repeated statement in a variety of forms, and once manifested reciprocally illuminates the "dark conceits" by which it is expressed.
The models for his method which Spenser acknowledges in the letter to Ralegh include only classical and Renaissance works. He is also indebted, though I think not as profoundly, to specifically medieval traditions. The influence of the morality drama is particularly evident in the Legend of Holinesse. Since the subject of many of these plays is human salvation, their protagonists meet obstacles similar to those which hinder the Red Cross Knight, and like that Knight they must be saved by God's mercy. The central characters of the later moralities—for their popularity persisted well into the sixteenth century—tend to be one or another kind of human rather than Mankind in general, and John Skelton's Magnificence presents a prince, or magnificent man, as its hero. The trials of Magnificence parallel those of St. George. The vicious influences playing upon him are disguised as virtuous ones, just as Duessa poses as Fidessa and Archimago as the Red Cross Knight. As a result of his delusion he falls into the clutches of Despair and is about to commit suicide when Good Hope snatches away his dagger and he is regenerated by Redress, Sad Circumspection, and Perseverance. The influence of the long tradition of medieval allegorical poetry on The Faerie Queene is also clear. Spenser owes to it such devices as the gardens of love, the pageant of the sins, the arms of the Red Cross Knight, the masque of Cupid, and the Blatant Beast. An analogue to the Beast occurs in a late example of such poetry, Stephen Hawes's Pastime of Pleasure,26 a poem which is strikingly similar to The Faerie Queene in general conception, for Graunde Amour, like the Red Cross Knight, is clad in the armor described by St. Paul,27 and his passion for La Belle Pucelle is as much a metaphor for the noble man's hunger for glory as Arthur's love for Gloriana. Indeed, the idea of a quest for a high goal as the central motive is common to medieval story of many kinds, from saints' lives to chivalric adventures. And since a heroic quest is central to the Aeneid also, Spenser found it appropriate to his Vergilian treatment of the matter of Arthur.
But the goal is not Prince Arthur's guide, as the hope of a new Troy is for Aeneas and the conquest of Jerusalem for Tasso's Godfrey. The narrative structure of The Faerie Queene is, in fact, almost frivolously weak. Having fallen in love with the Faerie Queene in a dream, like Sir Thopas in Chaucer's burlesque tale, Arthur thereafter wanders in and out of the poem, rescuing the unfortunate, contending with villains, and chasing the beautiful Florimell. Only a parenthetical observation that he wished his beloved were as fair as Florimell reminds the reader that his romantic attachment persists. The chivalric quests of the titular heroes of the successive books can be taken no more seriously. St. George sets out to kill the dragon besieging the castle of Una's parents and that is all we hear of his interest in the matter until the very end of his legend. In the second book, Guyon's task is to destroy Acrasia's Bower, but he is otherwise occupied for most of his career. Britomart is absent from much of her Legend of Chastitie and she learns of Amoret's imprisonment and undertakes to rescue her only in the eleventh canto. The story of Cambel and Triamond is merely an episode in the Legend of Friendship. Neither the rescue of Irena nor the hunt for the Blatant Beast dominates the action of the last two books, and there is no sign of a champion or of a quest in the fragmentary seventh. There are, to be sure, hundreds of stories in Spenser's poem, many of them brilliantly told, but The Faerie Queene is not, in any significant sense, a story. If plot is soul, the poem cannot escape damnation.
Nor does The Faerie Queene become coherent if the reader seeks for a continuing moral tale of which the literal one is a metaphor. In the first episode of the first book, the Red Cross Knight enters the Wandering Wood and conquers monstrous Error. When he leaves the Wood does he leave Error behind him and thereafter walk in the way of Truth? In fact, he, like all men, spends his mortal life in the Wood battling with the monster. Has he done with despair when he escapes from Despair? Even in his final struggle with the Old Dragon he wishes he were dead. Seduced by Will and Grief, he abandons Una, his true faith. If he is therefore faith-less he is nevertheless able to conquer Sans Foy, or faithlessness. Then he enters Lucifera's House of Pride in company with the figure of Falsehood, Duessa. In this state he fights with Sans Joy and is at the point of defeat when his "quickning faith" rescues him and turns the tide. This happens in Canto v, yet St. George is not reunited with his Faith until the end of Canto viii. By the dwarfs help he escapes from that House of Pride only to be caught in the arms of Duessa by the giant of pride, Orgoglio. Those commentators who read the Legend of Holinesse as a Christian's progress make a difference between Lucifera and the giant; I cannot find it in the text. To be sure, the carcasses behind Lucifera's palace are those guilty ones who have been destroyed by the sin of pride while the bodies on the floor of Orgoglio's castle are the innocents and martyrs who have been destroyed by the sinfulness of the proud. Lucifera, usurping queen of man's soul, is attended by the mortal sins of which she is chief and source; Orgoglio, usurping tyrant of the world, by a seven-headed monster whose tail reaches to the house of the heavenly gods. These are inward and outward aspects of the same sin, that sin of pretended glory which is false at its foundation, as the House of Pride is built on a hill of sand and the great Orgoglio is brought down by a blow at the leg. A recent student of The Faerie Queene analyzes the Legend of Holinesse into ten "acts,"28 but if the episodes are properly so described the whole is scarcely a neatly constructed play.
Confusion also besets the reader who follows the characters of The Faerie Queene in the hope of extracting from their adventures an orderly lesson in morality. In the course of Florimell's desperate flight from her various pursuers she escapes from a horrid spotted beast by leaping into the boat of a poor old fisherman. As she does so she loses her golden girdle. Since in later books we learn that this girdle will not stay bound about ladies who are unchaste we may be led to conclude that Florimell has now lost her maidenhead. One commentator29 accepts this logic and finds confirma tion for it in "the apparently innocent line that she was driven to great distress 'and taught the carefull Mariner to play' (III.viii.20)" although the grammar of the passage in question makes it quite clear that Fortune, who drove Florimell to distress, taught her to play the troubled mariner, not that Florimell taught the fisherman erotic games. Surely, the unhappy girl is here made to lose her girdle only in order that Satyrane may have it to bind the spotted beast, for when the fisherman attacks her she cries to heaven, and not in vain:
See how the heavens, of voluntary grace
And soveraine favour towards chastity,
Doe succour send to her distressed cace:
So much high God doth innocence embrace
Even if God is deluded about Florimell's chastity, it seems unlikely that the poet is also. Yet later in the same canto he exclaims in her praise, "Most vertuous virgin!" The fallacy of reading Spenser's allegory rigidly becomes patent when it is observed that the Snowy Florimell, who is not enough of a virgin to wear the girdle in the fourth book (v. 19-20), has somehow become able to bind it about her waist by the time of her trial in the fifth (iii.24).
Reading the Florimell story as a continued narrative leads to the suggestion that she is a kind of Proserpina, that her imprisonment beneath the sea by Proteus and her eventual betrothal to Marinell constitute a retelling of the vegetation myth.30 Indeed, her flowery name, the icicles on Proteus' beard, and the effect of the warmth of her presence on the moribund Marinell seem to support such a reading. But if this is what Spenser intended by the story taken as a whole, he was perverse enough to addle his readers unmercifully by making the duration of Florimell's bondage not six months but seven.
If Spenser had thought that the greatness of his poem rested upon its fable and its characters, I presume that he would have been careful to make them coherent and consistent. Yet when he came to write the letter to Ralegh he described the beginning of Sir Guyon's quest in a manner directly contradicted by the text he was introducing. He brings Amoret to the point of reunion with her long lost Scudamour only to forget all about her and allow her to drop out of sight. In the space of twenty stanzas "lewd Claribell" unaccountably becomes "good Sir Claribell" (IV.ix.20, 40). Britomart's traveling companion is now called the Red Cross Knight and now Sir Guyon; it does not seem to matter to the author who he is. However Spenser came to make the errors in the first place they apparently did not bring themselves to his attention when he revised. Spenser was no hasty publisher of his works, and he must have read his manuscript through thoroughly before permitting it to assume the immortality of print. What escaped his notice must have been those matters to which he paid little attention.
Sometimes, in fact, Spenser sees fit to introduce a note of burlesque into his narration of even the most heroic and pathetic actions. This should not surprise us, for the combination of jest and earnest is a firm and ancient rhetorical tradition.31 Spenser uses humor occasionally only, for in general he strives to maintain the mood of "beautifull old rime, / In praise of Ladies dead, and lovely Knights." But its presence, though often overlooked, should warn us not to read his stories too solemnly. The beautiful and virtuous Serena has been captured by fierce cannibals. After consultation, they decide
And when she is saved by her beloved Calepine she cannot say a word because she is in "so unwomanly a mood." The unhappy wife of Sir Bruin adopts a child rescued from the jaws of a bear, taking it as "her owne by liverey and seisin"b (VI.iv.37). The heroine Britomart meets an Amazon in mortal battle:
Britomart tilts with Scudamour, and
After Artegall has laid low the immense giant Grantorto at the climax of the fifth book, "He lightly reft his head, to ease him of his paine" (xii.23). Lines of this kind are common enough to qualify the tone of the poem.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether Spenser is being intentionally witty or unintentionally absurd, for he does not signal his reader as Ariosto and Chaucer do. No one doubts that Chaucer is mocking a literary convention when he says, in his account of the battle between Palamon and Arcite, "Up to the ancle foghte they in hir blood." But when Spenser tells of the wound inflicted on the Old Dragon by the Knight of the Red Cross,
he is thought to be straining so hard for effect that he falls into nonsense.
Perhaps he is guilty here, though he is so sophisticated a writer that one must suspect the judgment. But it cannot be argued that Spenser's hydraulic metaphor must be taken seriously because the inner meaning of the battle between St. George and the Dragon is deeply in earnest. Such an argument depends upon the critical assumption that in proper poetry the story and its significance must both tend to the same effect. If the assumption is valid—and I am not sure that it is—then Spenser's method is often quite improper. In terms of the narrative, Guyon's faint when he emerges from the Cave of Mammon can arouse only sympathy for his plight—he has been without food and water for three days and the fresh air is too much for him. But the meaning of this swoon is that Guyon is a wicked man, undeserving of his rescue by the freely given grace of God. A monster that vomits up a collection of books and papers is merely ridiculous; as a symbol of the kind of error into which man's blindness leads him she is no laughing matter. There is, to be sure, a point of contact between the mood of these tales and what they signify, for if human weakness is sinful it is also pathetic, and if human error is damnable it is also grotesque. The story may so serve to inflect its underlying meaning in much the same way as a shadow influences the perception of the object which produces it. But one does not confuse shadow and object.
One kind of inconsistency in Spenser's narrative which is sometimes ascribed to changes in his plans and to shifting literary influences upon him is, I think, an essential part of his grand design, although it has not previously been recognized as such. It is apparent and it has often been remarked that the style of The Faerie Queene is not uniform throughout: the Legend of Holinesse is the life of a saint, an imitatio Christi; the Legend of Chastitie is notably in Ariosto's manner; the Legend of Courtesie has the character of pastoral romance. If this is inconsistency, it is of the kind the reader should be led to expect from a consideration of Spenser's practice in his other poems. In The Shepheardes Calender he evidently strives for the greatest possible range of meter, mood, and manner. The four episodes of Mother Hubberds Tale are bound together by a common theme, yet each is handled differently. And the letter to Ralegh makes clear the poet's desire to avoid monotony in The Faerie Queene: "But of the xii. other virtues, I make xii. other knights the patrones, for the more variety of the history."
The varying styles of the successive books of The Faerie Queene serve a purpose of greater weight than the avoidance of monotony. The "patrons" of those books are indeed different from each other and engage in different kinds of action. This is so, I believe, because Spenser intended his readers to recognize in them reflections of particular literary models in just the same way as they recognized in the first half of the Aeneid an imitation of the Odyssey and in the latter half an imitation of the Iliad. The Legend of St. George echoes the saint's life in The Golden Legend. Sir Guyon is a hero of classical epic, like Aeneas and Odysseus. Britomart and Florimell inevitably recall Ariosto's Bradamante and Angelica. The titular story of Cambel and Triamond in the Legend of Friendship is based on Chaucer's unfinished Squire's Tale, and reminiscences of that story and the one told by the Knight recur frequently throughout the book. Artegall is compared directly with Hercules, Bacchus, and Osiris, the mythical founders of civilization. The adventures of Sir Calidore are of the type found in the Greek romances and imitated by Sidney in the Arcadia. The fragmentary Cantos of Mutabilitie clearly imitate Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the following chapters I shall suggest why Spenser may have thought these models suitable to the subjects which he wished to treat. It was surely in his character as a poet not only to seek the greatest variety possible in the general form of the epic poem as he understood it but also to display his technical virtuosity by imitating within the compass of a single work a great range of the literary models available to him and to his contemporaries.
This hunger for complexity, for binding into one the multiple and for revealing the multiple in the one, shows itself in almost every aspect of Spenser's technique. The stanza which he invented for the poem is itself such a various unit. Its closest relatives are the Italian ottava rima (abababcc), rhyme royal (ababbcc), and the stanza used by Chaucer in the Monk's Tale (ababbcbc). In the first two forms the final couplet rhymes independently of the rest; the Monk's Tale stanza lacks a clear-cut conclusion. By adding an alexandrine rhyming with c to this last verse pattern, Spenser introduces metrical variety and at the same time supplies an ending which is linked to rather than separated from the remainder. Stanza is joined to stanza by frequent echoes in the first line of one of the sound or thought of the last line preceding it, and analogous links tie together canto with canto and book with book. To the amalgamation in his stanza of Italian and English forms Spenser adds a Vergilian touch by occasionally leaving a verse unfinished in the manner of the Aeneid.
The invention of the names of the characters of The Faerie Queene betrays a similar habit of mind. They are designedly derived from different languages: Pyrochles is Greek, Munera Latin, Alma Italian (and also both Latin and Hebrew), Sans Foy French, the first half of Ruddymane English. Many of the names are portmanteaus into which Spenser has stuffed a multiplicity of meanings. "Britomart," for example, reminded his Elizabethan readers of Ariosto's heroine Bradamante as well as of Britomartis, the chaste daughter of Carme whom ancient myth identified with Diana,32 while at the same time the etymology "martial Briton" must have been inescapable, for Boccaccio calls Britomartis "Britona, Martis filia."33
The key ideas of his moral teaching are expressed by as many different symbols as the poet can imagine: the power which binds the disparate or antagonistic is represented by the figure of Concord flanked by Love and Hate; by the hermaphrodite Venus and the snake about her legs whose head and tail are joined together; by the lady Cambina, her team of angry lions, her Aesculapian rod, and her cup of nepenthe. These reciprocal processes of unification and multiplication reflect a conception of the universe which makes it all one, yet unimaginably rich.
There is a plenitude of story in The Faerie Queene, martial, amatory, and domestic; myth, fairy tale, chivalric adventure, and anecdote. Some of these tales Spenser invents himself; others he borrows from biblical, classical, medieval, and contemporary sources. He has no sense of impropriety in setting together the true and the fabulous, the familiar and the heroic, the Christian and the pagan. Rather, he seems to seek occasion to do so, either "for the more variety of the history" or to demonstrate the universality of the theme he is expounding. What he borrows he makes his own, without the slightest respect for the integrity or the intention of the original. His ruthless use of Vergil's story of Dido and Aeneas serves as an example. The words spoken by Aeneas when he meets his mother on the Carthaginian shore are put into the mouth of the buffoon Trompait, while the portrait of Venus is made over into a portrait of the Diana-like Belphoebe. Aeneas' account of his past experiences at dinner with Dido inspires Guyon's table conversation with Medina. Dido's alternate name, Elissa, is given to Medina's morose sister. Dido's dying speech is echoed by the suicide Amavia, and as Iris shears a lock of hair from the one so Guyon does from the other. Again, elements of the legendary story of St. George are used in several ways in Book I, but the incident of George's binding the dragon with a girdle and leading it about as a tame thing is transferred to Sir Satyrane in Book III. Chaucer's Squire's Tale provides the basis for the story of Cambel and Triamond; the episode in which a lovesick bird is restored to its fickle mate "By mediacion of Cambalus" suggests the reconciling of Timias and Belphoebe by mediation of a lovesick bird.
Sometimes Spenser seems almost perverse in the way he turns his borrowed matter upside down. The pathetic interchange between the heroine of Chastity, Britomart, and her nurse Glauce is taken almost verbatim from that between Ciris, or Scylla, daughter of the king of Megara, and her nurse Carme in a poem attributed to Vergil. This is the Carme whose daughter Britomartis once fled from the embraces of Minos into some fishermen's nets at the seashore, like Fiorimeli in Spenser's tale. Ciris, maddened by love for the same Minos who is now besieging Megara, rapes from her father's head the crimson lock which protects the city, and so brings destruction upon her home, her kindred, and herself. She is as bad a girl as Spenser's Britomart is a good one, a symbol of lust as Britomart is of chastity. Arthur's miraculous shield is another instance of imitation by reversal. It was originally the property of Atalanta, in the Orlando Furioso. Sir John Harington explains its principal significance:
In the shield, whose light amazed the lookers on, and made them fall down astonied, may be Allegorically meant the great pompes of the world, that make shining shewes in the bleared eyes of vaine people, and blind them, and make them to admire and fall downe before them … either else may be meant the flaring beauties of some gorgeous women that astonish the eyes of weake minded men.34
But in Spenser's version this trumpery shield becomes the divine power that destroys illusion:
That which hides the truth Spenser turns into that which reveals it.
This reshaping and reworking of borrowed material is neither random nor perverse. Behind it lies the constant determination to make story the servant of intention. The process can be seen clearly in the different coloring given to parcels of a continuous narrative when it is used to express different ideas. The history of Britain from its beginnings in the judgment of Paris and the fall of Troy is told in three installments, in Arthur's book of Briton moniments in Book II and in Merlin's prophecy to Britomart and Paridell's account of his ancestry in Book III. Arthur reads his book in the House of Alma, the house which is well governed because each division of it obeys its mistress. The theme of this part of the history of Britain suits the house in which it is read, for it
Merlin's contribution to the history is a glorious prophecy which interprets and justifies the pain of the lovesick Britomart:
When it is revived by the false lover Paridell, however, that sleeping memory becomes an exemplum of the sterile consequence of the lust of his ancestor Paris:
Urged by Britomart, Paridell remembers that the Trojan line did not altogether die out, for Aeneas, son of "Venus faire," after long suffering married the daughter of old Latinus:
Not Paridell but Britomart celebrates the glory of Rome, the second Troy, and prophesies the rise of that third Troy, Britain,
In the context of Prince Arthur, the history demonstrates the necessity of rule; in that of Britomart, the creativeness of love; in that of Paridell, the destructiveness of lust.
Within The Faerie Queene, the unit is the book or legend. It is made up of episodes and "allegories" invented to illuminate its theme. Typically, a book begins with an encounter between new characters and those of its predecessor, there is a climax or shift of emphasis approximately at midpoint, and the end is marked by some great action. Apart from these loose formal characteristics, however, the constituent elements are not sequential in their arrangement; they are truly episodic, obeying no law of progress or development. Rather, they are so placed as to produce effects of variety and contrast. They are tied not to each other but to the principal subject of discourse, and to this they contribute analytically or comprehensively, directly or by analogy, by affirmation or denial.
In Spenser's poem, intention is the soul, while the stories, characters, symbols, figures of speech, the ring of the verse itself constitute the body:
Only from the made body can the form be inferred, however, and this is the kind of inference that Spenser expects of his readers. One may take hold of the meaning of a book almost anywhere in it, for it is everywhere there. I have entitled the chapter dealing with the Legend of Holinesse "The Cup and the Serpent," the symbol which Fidelia holds, but it might as well have been called "Mount Sinai and the Mount of Olives," "Sans Joy and the Promise," "Hope in Anguish," "The Burning Armor," "Una and the Veil," or "The Tree and the Living Well." Each of these in its own way and with its own inflection is a figure for the paradox of life and death which I take to be central to the book. What that paradox means and how it may be resolved Spenser never says directly. I think it was the nature of his mind rather than the fear of losing his audience that kept him from delivering his discipline "plainly in way of precepts." He could no more state his abstract theme apart from its expression in this world than a painter could draw the idea of a chair. The result is the richness of The Faerie Queene.
a battili: become fat and fleshy, as cattle do.
b by liverey and seisin: legal language for the delivery of property into the corporal possession of a person.
c lin: cease.
d blent: hidden from sight.
e embaste: debased.
1 I have used the edition entitled P. Virgilii Maronis Opera cum Servii, Donati, et Ascensii commentariis (Venice, 1542) (cited hereafter as Virgilii Opera). Badius' preface to the Aeneid is at fols. 101v-102r. On the subject of Vergil's influence on Spenser see Merritt Y. Hughes, Virgil and Spenser (Berkeley, 1929).
2 More properly, the line may be rendered: "Or to speak words at once pleasing and useful to life." But Jonson's version suggests the way in which Renaissance writers understood Horace.
3 "Et hic est ordo rerum gestarum, aut quae pro gestis a poeta recitantur, verum alius longe ordo a poeta observatur."
4 Cooper's Thesaurus, the standard Latin-English dictionary of Spenser's time, translates plausibilis: "Receyved with joye and clappynge of the handes: acceptable: pleasaunte: plausible."
5Godfrey of Bulloigne, tr. Edward Fairfax (first printed 1600; London, 1687), Sig. A 2 (r).
6 Quoted and translated by D. L. Aguzzi, "Allegory in the Heroic Poetry of the Renaissance" (unpublished dissertation, Columbia University, 1959), p. 208. The passage is also cited by Susannah Jane McMurphy, Spenser's Use of Ariosto for Allegory (University of Washington Publications, Language and Literature, Vol. II, 1924), p. 15. G. P. Pigna, in I romanzi (1554), ascribes a similar method rather to the romance than to the epic: "The romances readily devote themselves to several deeds of several men, but … they concern especially one man who should be celebrated over all the others. And thus they agree with the epic in taking a single person, but not so in taking a single action, for they take as many of them as seem to be sufficient. The number is 'sufficient' when they have put the heroes in all those honorable actions which are sought in a perfect knight" (Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance [Chicago, 1961], I, 445-46).
7 1.xxvi.118, tr. E. W. Sutton (Loeb Classical Library, London, 1948). Compare also Cicero's Orator, ii.7: "Atque ego in summo oratore fingendo talem informabo qualis fortasse nemo fuit."
8 Everyman's Library edition of Hoby's translation, pp. 16, 29.
9 Christophoro Landino, Camaldulenses disputationes (Strasbourg, 1508), Books III and IV.
10Poetics, xv.4 (tr. S. H. Butcher).
11 Dionigi Altanagi, Ragionamento de la eccelentia et perfettione de la historia (1559), quoted by Weinberg, History of Literary Criticism, I, 458.
12 By the time Spenser came to write the Amoretti he may have decided to follow Vergil's example in making ethics the subject of the first six books of his poem and politics the subject of the last six. So he seems to say in Sonnet LXXX when he promises to attempt "that second worke" after resting from his labor on "those six books" he had already written.
13 Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, a Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton, 1957), p. 42.
14 Quoted ibid., p. 7.
15 When Mercilla is at last forced by "strong constraint" to doom Duessa she suffers "more then needfull naturall remorse" (V.X.4).
16 The case is forcefully presented by J. W. Bennett, The Evolution of "The Faerie Queene" (Chicago, 1942; reprinted New York, 1960).
17Works, IX, 82.
18 See T. D. Kendrick, British Antiquity (London, 1950), pp. 128 ff.
19 Compare the attitude of Ronsard with respect to his story of Francus as he expresses it in the 1587 preface to the Françiade, cited by I. Silver, Ronsard and the Hellenistic Renaissance in France (St. Louis, 1961), pp. 145-46.
20Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford, 1904), I, 164.
21 Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence (1593), facsimile reproduction (Gainesville, Fla., Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1954), p. 25.
22 George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (first printed 1589), ed. G. D. Willcock and A. Walker (Cambridge, 1936), p. 187.
23Godfrey of Bulloigne, Sig. A I (r-v).
24Orlando Furioso in English Heroicall Verse (first printed 1591; London, 1634), pp. 405 ff. Susannah McMurphy (Spenser's Use of Ariosto, p. 15) notes that what commentators on the Orlando Furioso mean by allegory "is often merely the moral lesson that may be derived from the incidents. The characters are not embodied virtues and vices, neither are their actions symbolic of spiritual experiences; they are often only men and women who offer examples of virtue and vice, prudence or folly, from which the observer may derive profit."
25 It has not been remarked, I think, that the transformation of Malbecco is imitated from that of Daedalion in Ovid's Metamorphoses, XI, ll. 338-45:
Effugit ergo omnes, veloxque cupidine leti
Vertice Parnasi potitur. miseratus Apollo,
Cum se Daedalion saxo misisset ab alto,
Fecit avem et subitis pendentem sustulit alis,
Oraque adunca dedit, curvos dedit unguibus hamos,
Virtutem antiquam, maiores corpore vires.
Et nunc accipiter, nulli satis aequus, in omnes
Saevit aves, aliisque dolens fit causa dolendi.
I have previously noted (Modern Language Notes, LXVIII , 226-29) that Spenser drew suggestions for the Malbecco story from George Gascoigne's Adventures of Master F. J., and despite the strictures of Waldo McNeir ("Ariosto's Sospetto, Gascoigne's Suspicion, and Spenser's Malbecco," in Festschrift für Walther Fischer [Heidelberg, 1959]) the conclusion still seems to me valid.
26The Pastime of Pleasure (1509), ed. W. E. Mead (London, for the Early English Text Society, O.S. No. 173, 1928), pp. 192 ff. The name of Hawes's monster is "malice prevy."
27Ibid., pp. 129-30.
28 A. C. Hamilton, The Structure of Allegory in 'The Faerie Queene' (Oxford, 1961), pp. 59 ff. For the view that the Legend of Holinesse is not a continued allegorical narrative but is organized in terms of "concepts" according to "the arrangement of Christian doctrines customary in Renaissance theological treatises and confessionals" see Virgil K. Whitaker, "The Theological Structure of the Faerie Queene, Book I," in That Soveraine Light: Essays in Honor of Edmund Spenser, 1552-1952 (Baltimore, 1952).
29 Hamilton, Structure of Allegory, pp. 150-52.
30 Northrop Frye, "The Structure of Imagery in 'The Faerie Queene,'" University of Toronto Quarterly, XXX (1961), 123.
31 See the excursus entitled "Jest in Earnest in Medieval Literature" in E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. W. R. Trask (New York, 1953), pp. 417-35. On the subject of Spenser's use of humor see also W. B. C. Watkins, Shakespeare and Spenser (Princeton, 1950; reprinted Cambridge, Mass., 1961), Note I, and R. O. Evans, "Spenserian Humor: Faerie Queene III and IV," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, LX (1959), 288-99.
32 See the pseudo-Vergilian Ciris, ll. 294 ff.
33 See H. G. Lotspeich, Classical Mythology in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser (Princeton, 1932), p. 43. Henry Lyte in a curious book entitled The Light of Britayne (1588, reprinted "at the Public Press of Richard and Arthur Taylor," 1814) identifies Britomartis with "Diana of Calydonia sylva" and with Queen Elizabeth, "The bright Britona of Britayne."
34Orlando Furioso in English Heroicall Verse, p. 15.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021
Waller, Gary. Edmund Spenser: A Literary Life. New York: Macmillan, 1994, 211 p.
Biographical study of Spenser, with an emphasis on the professional and social contexts which shaped his writing.
Alpers, Paul J. The Poetry of "The Faerie Queene." Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1982, 415 p.
An introductory analysis of The Faerie Queene.
Bednarz, James P. "Ralegh in Spenser's Historical Allegory." Spenser Studies IV (1983): 49-70.
Analysis of the allegorical representation of the relationship between Spenser's friend Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene.
Berger, Harry, Jr., ed. Spenser: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968, 182 p.
Collection of ten seminal essays on Spenser divided into two sections: the minor poems and The Faerie Queene.
Colie, Rosalie L. Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966, 553 p.
Discusses Spenser's use of allegory in The Faerie Queene and argues for a less tidy scheme than has traditionally been suggested.
Cook, Patrick J. Milton, Spenser, and the Epic Tradition. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996, 201 p.
Comparative study of the epic, from the classical tradition to Milton, with an emphasis on Spenser and Milton.
Curran, John E., Jr. "Spenser and the Historical Revolution: Briton Moniments and the Problem of Roman Britain." Clio 25, No. 3 (Spring 1996): 273-92.
Argues that Spenser understood the profound changes historiography was undergoing in the sixteenth century and reflected this knowledge in the "Briton Moniments" section of The Faerie Queene.
Durling, Robert M. The Figure of the Poet in Renaissance Epic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965, 280 p.
A survey study of Renaissance representations of the poet, beginning with ancient and medieval influences and culminating with Spenser.
Frushell, Richard C, ed. Contemporary Thought on Edmund Spenser. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975, 240 p.
A collection of essays focusing on twentieth-century criticism of Spenser's work. Includes a bibliography of criticism from 1900 to 1970.
Giamatti, A. Bartlett. The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966, 374 p.
Chapter on Spenser discusses the influence of earlier epic on Spenser's treatment of earthly paradise and the ways in which the poet uses, deviates from, and molds the ideas he found there to suit his artistic purposes.
——. "A Prince and Her Poet." In The Yale Review 73, No. 3 (April. 1984): 321-37.
Discusses Elizabeth, Spenser, his poem to her, and the politics of the Elizabethan court.
Goldberg, Jonathan. Endlesse Worke: Spenser and the Structures of Discourse. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, 177 p.
Discusses the idea of artistic (and emotional) closure as it pertains to Spenser's style.
Hamilton, A.C. The Structure of Allegory in "The Faerie Queene." Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1961, 227 p.
Overview of the allegorical structures of Spenser's poem.
Helgerson, Richard. "The New Poet Presents Himself." In Self-Crowned Laureates, pp. 55-101. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Analyzes Spenser's reputation and his attitudes toward his career as represented in his poetry.
Henniger, S.K. Jr. Sidney and Spenser: The Poet as Maker. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989, 646 p.
Argues that Spenser and Sidney led a transformation in narrative strategies that marked a return to the Aristotelian idea of imitation as the purpose of poetry.
Lewis, C. S. Spenser's Images of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967, 143 p.
Readable study of the iconography of The Faerie Queene with an emphasis on the historical and cultural contexts for Spenser's imagery.
Maccaffrey, Isabel G. Spenser's Allegory: The Anatomy of Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, 445 p.
Orderly assessment of The Faerie Queene which argues that Spenser's thematic purpose was to explore ways of knowing available to human beings and to define the possibilities of moral action.
Nelson, William, ed. Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser: Selected Papers from the English Institute. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, 188 p.
Collection of six critical essays on Spenser, including several on the "Epithalamion" and the "Pro-thalamion."
Radcliffe, David Hill. Edmund Spenser: A Reception History. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1996, 239 p.
A survey and analysis of Spenserian criticism from his own time to the present day.
Roche, Thomas P., Jr. The Kindly Flame: A Study of the Third and Fourth Books of Spenser's "The Faerie Queene. " Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964, 220 P.
Detailed readings explaining the third and fourth books of Spenser's epic, which are often held to be exceedingly complex or incoherent. Argues that the more complex structure of those books is required to exemplify the virtues of chastity and friendship.
Schleiner, Louise. Cultural Semiotics, Spenser, and the Captive Woman. Bethlehem, Penn.: Lehigh University Press, 1995, 278 p.
Draws on the work of Frederic Jameson and A.-J. Greimas for a semiotic analysis of the conflicts between classes and factions in Spenser's poetry. The emphasis is on relations between male and female.
Steadman, John M. Moral Fiction in Milton and Spenser. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1995, 200 p.
A comparative study of the epics of Spenser and Milton, focusing on the relationship between moral vision and the poet's persona and poetic structures used in each.
Suzuki, Mihoko, ed. Critical Essays on Edmund Spenser. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996, 282 p.
Collection of recent critical essays bringing innovative theoretical approaches to Spenser. Focuses on The Faerie Queene and Shepheardes Calender.
Watkins, John. The Specter of Dido: Spenser and Virgilian Epic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 208 p.
Studies Spenser's use of Virgilian conventions in The Faerie Queene, focusing on portrayals of seductive women.
Welsford, Enid. Spenser, Fowre Hymns, Epithalamion: A Study of Edmund Spenser's Doctrine of Love. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967, 215 p.
Introduction and analysis to the theme of love in Spenser's love poems, with historical context and reprints of the poems.
Williams, Kathleen. Spenser's World of Glass: A Reading of "The Faerie Queene." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966, 241 p.
Overview analysis of The Faerie Queene with detailed examination of important passages and critical themes.
Woodhouse, A. S. P. The Poet and His Faith: Religion and Poetry in England from Spenser to Eliot and Auden. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965, 304 p.
Survey of the influence of religious beliefs on the work of English poets, with a chapter on Spenser and Elizabethan England.
Additional coverage of Spenser's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 5.
Thomas H. Cain (essay date 1978)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5273
SOURCE: "1590: The Poem to the Poem," in Praise in "The Faerie Queene," University of Nebraska Press, 1978, pp. 37-57.
[In the following excerpt from a study of praise in Spenser's Faerie Queene, Cain presents the poem as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth.]
The Muse of "The Faerie Queene"
Ariosto invokes no muse in the Orlando (although the third canto invokes Apollo). But stanzas 2-4 of Spenser's proem invoke the Virgin Muse, Cupid, and the deified queen. Their insistent structural logic appears from the first words of each stanza: "Helpe then, O holy Virgin"; "And thou most dreaded impe"; "And with them eke, O Goddesse." This triple invocation facilitates encomium, for it greatly expands the idea of the poet's inadequacy, suggests the strategy of the hymn, and implies that the subject is three times greater than any attempted before. The muse invoked in stanza 2 particularly fits the encomiastic intention.
Whether the muse invoked as "holy Virgin chiefe of nine" is Clio, muse of history, or Calliope, muse of epic, depends on whether one considers The Faerie Queene history or epic. On this basis F. M. Padelford argued for Calliope and Josephine Waters Bennett for Clio. H. G. Lotspeich admitted possible ambiguity but felt "fairly certain that Clio was intended." But D. T. Starnes's evidence from sixteenth-century dictionaries such as those of the Stephanus family shows that Spenser's muse is Calliope. He argues effectively that Spenser's contemporaries clearly recognized the poem as heroic; that invocation of the epic muse is hence natural; and that Renaissance lexicographers knew Calliope as "'praestantissima,' the most excellent of the Muses"Chence Spenser's "chiefe of nine."13 Starnes's argument is convincing. But no writer on Spenser's muse has noticed that he particularly associates the epic muse Calliope with encomium.
The confusion between Clio and Calliope arises from misinterpretation of Spenser's use of "historicall" in the Letter to Raleigh, and from the similar attributes of Clio and Calliope in The Teares of the Muses. When in the Letter Spenser speaks of the "historicall fiction" of his poem, he means heroic narrative and not history in our sense, as he makes clear by claiming to "have followed all the antique Poets historicall" and their successors, and then naming the epicists Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, and Tasso. Spenser also distinguishes between the chronological method of the historian and the artificial method of the heroic poet: "For the Methode of a Poet historicall is not such, as of an Historiographer. For an Historiographer discourseth of affayres orderly as they were donne, accounting as well the times as the actions, but a Poet thrusteth into the middest, even where it most concerneth him, and there recoursing to the things forepaste, and divining of thinges to come, maketh a pleasing Analysis of all."14 The idea is a commonplace among sixteenth-century Italian literary theorists: that history's natural, chronological, ab ovo order distinguishes it from heroic poetry's artificial, plotted, in medias res order.15 By claiming to begin in medias res, Spenser declares that The Faerie Queene is not history as the historiographer would write it but a historical fiction proper to the epic poet. His muse should thus be Calliope. In The Teares of the Muses (1591), Clio and Calliope have similar functions and attributes. Both claim to immortalize men's deeds through the articulation of praise; both have the trumpet as their proper symbolic instrument; both focus on celebration of "auncestrie" (genus); and both use epideictic terms to voice the familiar humanist complaint of the neglect of poets and scholars, Clio speaking of blame and Calliope of praise. But only Calliope fuses the ideas of praise and epic, as when she speaks of great men "Whose living praises in heroick style, / It is my chief profession to compyle" (431-32). The phrase "living praises in heroick style" adapts "Carmina Calliope libris heroica mandat" ("Calliope commits heroic songs to writing?) from De inventis musarum, in Spenser's time considered Virgilian and hence of great authority.16 These mnemonic verses list the Muses' names and functions in an order Spenser follows in The Teares. By adapting Calliope's line to construe "Carmina" as "praises," Spenser deliberately makes Calliope the muse of encomiastic epic—exactly the kind of poem he announces in the first stanza of his proem. For, in spite of qualities common to Clio and Calliope in The Teares, only Calliope claims "heroick style." (In De inventis as in The Teares Clio is in no way associated with epic.) Hence, the muse invoked in stanza 2 of the proem is Calliope.
Spenser's references to Calliope in Aprill (100) and June (57) show his awareness of the tradition which acknowledges her as supreme muse and muse of encomium. Both references foreshadow The Faerie Queene. But because Spenser twice invokes Clio in that poem it is important to understand her interaction with Calliope. In general, the muse in charge remains Calliope unless Spenser announces a shift to Clio for material arranged in the ab ovo manner proper to the historiographer.
The first invocation of Clio prefaces Merlin's account of "My glorious Soveraines goodly auncestrie" (III. iii. 4). This chronicle-history proceeds "by dew degrees" from Britomart to Elizabeth, realizing the encomiastic topos genus while exactly following what Spenser describes as the historiographer's method. But the reiterated imperative "Begin, O Clio" makes it clear that another muse has heretofore been in charge. This invocation denotes a temporary shift in encomiastic method—from heroic praise to historiographical praise—without implying any change in the poem's generic status as encomiastic epic. Significantly, Spenser embeds this excursus into chronicle-history in that section of The Faerie Queene (i.e. III.i-iii) which is most unmistakably organized by the heroic principle in medias res.
That Calliope is in charge of the larger poem is apparent from the Arlo digression in Mutabilitie where Spenser again invokes Clio to tell how an Irish locus amoenus "Was made the most unpleasant, and most ill. / Meane while, O Clio, lend Calliope thy quill" (VII. vi. 37). While the syntactical ambiguity makes it unclear who is lending a quill to whom, the context removes all ambivalence. Spenser explicitly tells how Arlo declined from "Whylome" (ii. 38) down "to this day" (vi. 55)—i.e. the historiographer's arrangement. So the muse of The Faerie Queene is Calliope, who here defers to Clio for a pseudohistorical digression. There can be no doubt that it is Calliope whom Spenser reinvokes at the end of the digression as "thou greater Muse" (vii. I), the muse traditionally "praestantissima," "chiefe of nine," and hence greater than Clio.
Spenser's precedent here may be Statius, whose Thebiad invokes both Clio and Calliope. In the Aeneid, however, Virgil invokes Calliope once (9. 525), Erato once (7. 37), but elsewhere simply a muse or muses (1. 8, 7. 641, 10. 163). Similarly, Spenser twice invokes an unnamed muse (I. xi. 7; IV. xi. 9) but Calliope is presupposed. These multiple invocations work tactically to make his poem resemble the Aeneid, just as Tasso's make Gerusalemme liberata fit his concept of neoclassical epic. At the same time, when we recall the single invocation in Orlando furioso—Apollo solicited to facilitate praise of the Este dynastyCthen Spenser's reinvocations appear as part of the stratagem insinuating the superiority of The Faerie Queene as encomium.
Elizabeth Virgo-Venus as Muse
As well as Calliope, the poet also invokes the subject of praise, the queen herself—explicitly in stanza 4 and implicitly by figure in the invocations of Calliope (st. 2) and Cupid (st. 3). In fact, the three invocations proceed calculatedly from implication to revelation.
The liturgical language of invocation in stanza 2—"Helpe then, O holy Virgin chiefe of nine, / Thy weaker Novice to performe thy will"—indicates the device of transferring the Virgin's epithets to the Virgin Queen. In fact, Spenser places the invocation to parallel Tasso's in the corresponding second stanza of the Gerusalemme:
The attributes of heavenly choirs and crown of stars indicate that Tasso's muse is not, as some editors suggest, Urania (inescapably one of the Heliconian nine), nor a hypothetical "Christian muse," but specifically the Virgin Mary in her state of assumption. The fifteenth-century Speculum humanae salvationis explains that the attributes of the Virgin of the Assumption are those of the Woman Clothed with the Sun in the Apocalypse, who conquers the dragon and ascends to heaven; the half-moon beneath her feet symbolizes the transitory things of this world (Tasso's "fading bays") and her crown of stars is the twelve apostles.17 Spenser adapts Tasso's Virgin muse to the cult of the Virgin Queen by a matching invocation. The adaptation implies that the poet who announces himself as Virgil and overgoes Ariosto means as well to overgo Tasso. As a stratagem of propaganda the invocation asserts the superiority of the poet of the Protestant Virgo to the chief poet of the Counter Reformation.
In this light, the epithet "chiefe of nine" becomes ambiguous: as well as chief among nine, Calliope as leader of the Muses, it can also mean as chief over nine, the Virgin Queen herself as tenth muse. One recalls the woodcut of Eliza presiding over the Muses in Aprill, just as in its text she adds a fourth to the three Graces. In deliberate contrast to Tasso's Virgin who stands aloof from the Muses, her brows never crowned with Helicon's fading laurels, Spenser's "holy Virgin, chiefe of nine" makes all the ancient poetic forces extensions of her power to inspire. The paradox of the Virgin Queen with the Muses in her train who is simultaneously Calliope, the muse who praises the queen, is of a piece with the Aprill paradox where Eliza both creates and receives her own praise.18
Encomium of Elizabeth was a political act. In his adversion to Tasso's invocation, Spenser develops an image of the Virgin Muse's "everlasting scryne" (Latin scrinium, chest or coffer) that is both political and encomiastic. For when he asks her to "Lay forth out of thine everlasting scryne / The antique rolles, which there lye hidden still" containing the ancient matters of Faery and Britain, he catches at the canonical formula used to epitomize the papal claim to absolute authority, in particular over the emperor: in scrinio pectoris omnia ("all things are in the chest of his breast"). This formula was well-known in sixteenth-century polemic. In his Delle Allusioni, imprese, et emblemi sopra la vita di Gregorio XIII libri VI, an emblem book praising the great pope who presided over the mission to England, Principio Fabricii depicts a winged dragon (Gregory's personal device) with books falling from a cavity in its breast (i.e. scrinium pectoris…). But Elizabeth's religious settlement depended on the Henrician Act of Supremacy and its assertion of the supremacy in England of monarch over pope. Its defenders advert sardonically to the in scrinio tag in their polemics, the official Anglican apologist John Jewel, for instance, scorning the notion "that all law and right is locked up in the treasury of the Pope's breast."19 Spenser's appropriation of the formula is also polemical and asserts the Virgin Queen's authority against the pope's. To make her scrinium "everlasting" is to dismiss the papal claim as innovative. In fact, this is the first instance in the poem of the antipapalism that colors Books I and V. It is important to remember, however, that the formula is also part of the invocation of the Virgin Queen as muse where the poet appears as a "Novice" just beginning to study antiquities of Faery and Britain that have always existed in her everlasting scrinium. (In the chronicle materials in II. x and III. iii Elizabeth is both temporal goal and simultaneously present from the beginning and so indeed contains all of British-Faery history inside herself.) By implicitly twisting the formula into in scrinio pectoris poesis, Spenser makes it cooperate in the by now familiar paradox of the Faery Queen creating The Faerie Queene.
A similar paradox pervades the invocation of Cupid in the proem's third stanza, where Elizabeth again is subliminally present.
While Cupid impels the hero toward Gloriana, he is also the erotic force emanating from her. In fact, Spenser does not call him Eros or Cupid but "Faire Venus sonne." Together the two invocations of stanzas 2 and 3 express the Virgo-Venus paradox well-suited to the Virgin Queen who controlled great courtiers like Leicester and Hatton with amatory manipulations; who made marriage negotiations the successful instrument of a foreign policy designed to prevent alliance of the Catholic powers France and Spain; and who, even more, was a Virgin Queen mystically married (in the words of a broadsheet of 1571) to "My dear lover England."20
By uniting "triumphant Mart" with Venus "After his murdrous spoiles and bloudy rage allayd," Spenser may have incorporated into stanza 3 a timely allusion to the victory over the Armada. The national euphoria that followed the victory naturally found expression in increased adulation of Elizabeth: for instance, on 24 November 1588 she entered London formally in a triumph; and her Accession Day (17 November) became a major annual festival.21 In a national poem in her praise an allegory of the Armada's defeat would be encomiastically invaluable. It would be particularly apt in Book I, because the English, with an eye to propaganda as well as piety, carefully attributed their delivery to a clearly Protestant God: "God breathed and they were scattered" was the motto of one of Elizabeth's Armada medals.22 But the sixteen months between the victory and Ponsonby's entry of The Faerie Queene in the Stationers' Register on 1 December 1598 would scarcely have given Spenser time to redesign Book I so as to include such an episode. He could easily introduce an Armada allusion into the proem, however, without disturbing the poem's structure, as he may have done with the image of triumphant Mars led by Venus and Cupid. If so, the invocation of stanza 3 presents an anti-Spanish Venus, served by Mars, to complement the antipapal Virgin of stanza 2.23
In stanzas 2 and 3 we see Spenser managing his words to gain a secondary set of meanings that insinuate a sense of Elizabeth's immanence and anticipate an encomiastic technique in the poem at large. For, besides representing the queen through fictive genus and protagonists who befigure her by res gestae and comparatio, Spenser also often maneuvers otherwise apparently incidental details into connotative positions where they give off momentary reflections of the queen and imply that she is the principle informing the world as well as the poem.
Stanza 4: An Orphic Hymn
The last stanza of the proem follows the two-part structure of the hymns attributed in the Renaissance to Orpheus: praise by accumulated epithets, then petition, to which Spenser adds in the alexandrine a votum, or gesture of offering. There are three such epithets. The first, "O Goddesse heavenly bright," practices the strange veneration of Elizabeth as quasi-divine. The cult was not merely poetic. Roy Strong has pointed out that the queen's image was held to be genuinely sacral and mysteriously expressive of the monarch herself, even by Anglican apologists who otherwise rejected images as Romish superstition; and that people of all classes wore her image on medals and cameos for its beneficent effects.24 The first epithet not only expresses the cult of diva Elizabetha but, through "heavenly bright," also especially associates her with Astraea stellified as Virgo (under which sign, almost too appropriately, Elizabeth was born) and with the Venus Coelestis of the Neoplatonists.
The three epithets progress from the deified to the more nearly human. The second, "Mirrour of grace and Majestie divine," establishes the divine empress's proper relation to God: she makes visible his two main attributes of grace and majesty (analogous to the more usual mercy and justice). The mirror image occurs in all three proems of 1590. The second and third declare that the poem provides mirrors of the queen's realm and person. But in the first, she is the mirror—a mediatrix who communicates the divine ineffability to human perception. This Christ-like role expresses the Protestant cult of Elizabeth as national savior.
The third epithet brings us from goddess and mirror to localized national "Lady": "Great Lady of the greatest Isle, whose light / Like Phoebus lampe throughout the world doth shine." Here, Spenser appropriates the motto of Philip II's impresa Iam illustrabit omnia ("Now he will illumine all things"); which depicted Apollo driving his sun-chariot over land and sea,25 and so asserts that Philip's claim to world domination and championship of the true faith properly belong to Elizabeth. The allusion is apt as a post-Armada gesture, transparently promoting anti-Hispanic imperial ambitions, and turning the outdoing topos to propaganda.
Together these three epithets form a triad typical of Renaissance Neoplatonism, in which the middle term serves to mediate between the two otherwise potentially opposed terms. Here, Elizabeth contains all three elements of the triad in herself. While apotheosis as goddess allies her with God, her intermediate function as a mirror allows her divinity to become visible in the human queen of a real isle. Because she mirrors God's attributes of grace and majesty, to see her is, in some sense, to perceive God himself.26 That Elizabeth bridges the potentially opposed realms of heaven and earth is an idealistic conception essential to Spenser's encomium as presented in 1590. By defining a real monarch, it avoids the traditional Augustinian dualism between the Cities of God and This World that would set heaven and England at odds and that would place a low valuation on human achievement in the service of the state. In fact, Spenser's poem of 1590 implies as enthusiastic an estimate of human capability at its best as can be found in Renaissance humanism. Because Elizabeth is a goddess, Gloriana's knights can pursue their quests in this world, secure in the knowledge that the good they achieve in her service will be recognized in heaven. And the poet can sing her praise, knowing that it will be in harmony with the angels' hymns. Thus, the triad whereby Elizabeth unites heaven and earth must necessarily begin the first overt piece of her encomium in The Faerie Queene.
The hymn of stanza 4 balances on its fifth line—"Shed thy faire beames into my feeble eyne"—which, like the stanza, is in one half devoted to the queen, in the other to the poet. This line marks the typical division of an Orphic hymn into praise and petition. In the stanza's second half, the poet petitions the goddess for inspiration to "raise my thoughts too humble and too vile, / To thinke of that true glorious type of thine." The inability topos is prominent here, and the adjectives applied to the poet—"humble," "vile," "afflicted"—have their Latin senses of physical lowness. But the extremes of exaltation and abasement and the idea of a humble poet who may be raised to behold a celestial mirror recapitulate Piers's vision of Colin's ascent in October. The parallel reminds us that the poet's self-abasement effects advertisement. Indeed, the last two lines bring the paradox into the open, the eighth with its "argument of my afflicted style" still bespeaking inability and the passive poet's dependence on inspiration from the potentially creative goddess if the poem is to come into existence, while the alexandrine—"The which to heare, vouchsafe, O dearest dred awhile"—presents the poem as fait accompli and the poet as active creator, with the queen now the passive receptor. Because the queen is a goddess the poem is made possible, but the articulation of her true glorious type depends on the hymnic powers of the English Orpheus.
Epic as Hymn
As an Orphic hymn, the fourth stanza implies that the epic it prefaces is also in some sense a hymn. Indeed, at the beginning of Book I the poet confirms his identification with the hymnist Orpheus by a judiciously placed tree catalog. A. C. Hamilton has suggested that "contemporary readers would have responded" to this catalog "as an imitation by which the poet reveals his kinship with Orpheus who first moved trees with his song."27 The main poets to make the tree catalog conventional are in fact precisely those antecedent to Colin in the Calender: Chaucer, from whose tree catalog in the Parliament of Fowls >(176-82) Spenser borrows details; Virgil, in Eclogues 8. 61-68; and, most important, Orpheus himself, whose song Ovid describes as convoking a mixed grove of trees and making them dance (Met. 10. 90-104). As a result, the catalog appears as a signature of the poet who fulfills Orpheus's hymnic role. Prominent in the list of trees is "the Laurell, meed of mightie Conquerours / And Poets sage" (1. 9). Its epithets not only hint at an equivalence of heroes and poet as figures in the poem, but also pointedly imply that Spenser expects official recognition as national epicist; "meed" inevitably suggests pecuniary as well as honorific reward.
By making an Orphic hymn its immediate preface, Spenser imputes a hymnic cast to The Faerie Queene, its "argument" said to be the goddess's true glorious type. The imputation finds raison d'être in Renaissance literary theory, where the hymn was affirmed the oldest kind of poem and, in accordance with the principle of decorum, often declared the highest: gods supersede princes. The revival of the literary hymn by Pius II, Pontano, Marnilo, Vida, Scaliger, Ronsard, and Spenser in Fowre Hymnes is in part a humanist response to the Homeric, Orphic, and Callimachan hymns and in part an effort to provide modern examples to fill a gap at the apex of the hierarchy of kinds.28 But when the Virgilian career-model made epic the highest ambition of Renaissance poets, the theoretical supremacy of the hymn was rather awkward. In his Poetices (1. 3), for instance, Scaliger acknowledges this supremacy, but he repeatedly proclaims the Aeneid the greatest of poems. Similarly, Sidney agrees that the hymnic poets were "chiefe both in antiquitie and excellencie," yet asserts that among the genres "the Heroicall …. is not onely a kinde, but the best and most accomplished kinde of Poetry."29
But the epideictic view of literature avoids the inconsistency by emphasizing that hymn and epic are similar: the fact that the Callimachan and longer Homeric hymns were mainly laudatory narratives of the god's deeds made them appear as divine equivalents to the epic conceived of as encomiastic biography of a hero. Puttenham, whose theory of literature is clearly epideictic, properly distinguishes hymn and epic according to decorum as highest and second-highest kinds but then somewhat blurs divine and princely matters by making them "all high subjects, and therefore are delivered over to the Poets Hymnick & historicall who be occupied either in divine laudes, or in heroicall reports." And he straddles the genres by using heroic terms to describe "all your Hymnes & Encomia of Pindarus & Callimachus, not very histories but a maner of historicall reportes."30 If we note that the Orphic and shorter Homeric hymns apostrophize the god (usually by a series of epithets or attributes) and close with a prayer and that the Callimachan and longer Homeric hymns augment these two features with a long narrative, we begin to see that there is a spectrum of hymnic genres, moving from the paeanic Orphic hymn to the longer narrative hymn to the hymnic or encomiastically conceived epic. Because of the veneration of the Aeneid, the literary hymn, in spite of its position in theory, was in practical terms simply not credible as supreme genre and the epic was. But the epideictic theorist's approximation of hymn and epic bridges the impasse by allowing epic to take on a hymnic function (at least abstractly) and so assert its de facto supremacy without undue threat to the hierarchic scheme of the genres.
At this point, it is worth turning back to the first alexandrine of The Faerie Queene: "Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song." The syntax here seems perverse: one expects the line should say that "fierce wars and faithful loves are moralized in my song"—that is, allegorized heroic and erotic narratives make up the poem. But Spenser instead insinuates that "my song" has priority over both narrative and allegory, that epic is subordinate to carmen. If we read "song" as meaning hymn or encomium, we can see that, given the theoretical concept of hymnic epic, Spenser has designed the line to say that his poem is essentially a hymn and secondarily an allegorical epic. And, in fact, a little less than a year after The Faerie Queene appeared, he describes it as a set of hymns to Eliza who "hath praises in all plenteousnesse" showered on her by "Colin her owne Shepherd. / That her with heavenly hymnes doth deifie" (Daphnaida, 227-30).
Thus, if we see in The Faerie Queene only an allegorized romantic epic, we resist Spenser's assertion that it is encomium. In the epideictic categorization of genres, the epic is by nature encomiastic. What Spenser's first proem tells us is that, in his epic, encomium takes precedence over events. It will be easier to see how the episodes of the poem are encomiastic if we realize that when Spenser associates his epic with Virgil's he assumes that the Aeneid is a panegyrical biography (the Fulgentian view, explained in chapter 1); that each of Aeneas's acts bespeaks his praiseworthy mastery of one of the virtues proper to a hero; and that praise of Aeneas implies praise of his supposed descendant, Augustus. Similarly, in The Faerie Queene each successful episode in a knight's quest redounds to Gloriana's praise, and each unsuccessful episode falls short of contributing to that praise, though it cannot detract from it. Thus, Elizabeth, through her fictional "true glorious type," not only originates the quests and receives their achievement as a sacrifice to her glory, so that the quests are ultimately hers; but she is also the criterion by which each knight's degree of success or failure is measured. For the demigoddesses who preside over the ideal forms of each virtue (like Caelia and Alma) are types of Elizabeth, as Spenser eventually tells us.31 The knights' goals are consequently identical with the queen herself, just as the goal of the quest that coordinates the others, Arthur's, is the Faery Queen. Hence, her panegyrical biography is made up of their efforts to achieve the virtues which she embodies and which she inspires. Thus, in a broad sense, each book of the poem can be considered an act of encomium—one of the "heavenly hymnes" that "deifie" her.
But there are also passages, episodes, and especially figures in The Faerie Queene that express Elizabeth's praise in more specific ways. Spenser draws our attention to several of these in the proems to Books II and III. An investigation of some of these notably encomiastic features in the poem of 1590 is the subject of the next three chapters.
…13 The arguments of Padelford and Bennett are summarized in Variorum F.Q., I: app. 9. Lotspeich, Classical Mythology in Spenser's Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1932), pp. 84-85. Starnes, "Spenser and the Muses," TSLL, 22 (1942): 31-58. Patrick Spurgeon, "Spenser's Muses," Renaissance Papers 1968, ed. G. W. Williams, Southeastern Renaissance Conference (Columbia, S.C., 1969), pp. 15-23, argues that both muses are involved.
14 This follows Boccaccio on the same subject almost verbatim: "For poets are not like historians, who begin their account at some convenient beginning and describe events in the unbroken order of their occurrence to the end …. But poets, by a far nobler device, begin their proposed narrative in the midst of the events, or sometimes even near the end; and thus they find excuse for telling preceding events which seem to have been omitted." Genealogiae 14. 13; trans. Charles G. Osgood, Boccaccio on Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1930), pp. 67-68. Boccaccio notes the tradition describing Lucan's Pharsalia as versified history rather than epic because of its chronological organization. Among the numerous anomalies of the Letter to Raleigh in relation to the poem it purports to describe is that whatever sense we may have of in medias res organization in F.Q. I and II is stimulated by the Letter and not the poem. Curiously, the Letter makes nothing of the unmistakable in medias res order of the first three cantos of Book III which mirror the device exactly as it appears in its locus classicus, Aeneid 1-3.
15 See Weinberg, Literary Criticism, pp. 41-42, 724.
16 In his April and November glosses E. K. accepts De inventis as Virgil's, although Robert Stephanus had correctly attributed them to Ausonius. Starnes, "Spenser and the Muses," p. 40.
17 Louis Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 2 vols. (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1955-59), vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 617. Tasso's invocation alludes to Petrarch's famous canzone to the Virgin (Rime, 366) where the Woman Clothed with the Sun is clearly one of her types: "Vergine bella, che di sol vestita, / coronata di stelle." Strong, Portraits, p. 42, points out that the veneration of Elizabeth after her death as "Saint Elizabeth" and as the second Virgin in heaven uses the image of the queen as "a portent in the skies, arrayed in the attributes of the Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse."
18 The difference between the two poets in these parallel passages points toward a broader contrast between their epics: Spenser's patriotism leads him to daring forms of the Christian-humanist synthesis; Tasso, alert to Tridentine strictures, is wary of heterodoxy. He seems to have altered his initial invocation at least three times: see Robert M. Durling, The Figure of the Poet in Renaissance Epic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965,), pp. 195-96.
19Delle allusioni (Rome, 1588), 3. 4. 2 (p. 176). Jewel, An Apology of the Church of England, ed. J. E. Booty, Folger Documents of Tudor and Stuart Civilization (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), p. 41; and ibid., Introduction, p. xv, for Alexander Nowell's use of the formula. I am grateful to Barbara Bernhart for drawing my attention to this formula and Fabricii's use of it.
20 Quoted by Jenkins, Elizabeth, p. 158, and by Wilson, England's Eliza, p. 4.
21 Roy C. Strong, "The Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I," JWCI, 21 (1958): 92-93 and n. 48.
22 Garrett Mattingly, The Armada (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), p. 390.
23 Cf. the curious reinvocation at I. xi. 5-7 that plays down Redcrosse's fight with the dragon in favor of some later "worke …. of endlesse prayse" that will depict the war "Twixt that great faery Queene and Paynim king." This seems to be another allusion to the Armada.
24 Strong, Portraits, pp. 39-40. This phenomenon in the Middle Ages is the subject of Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
25 On the impresa and its relevance to Book V, see Aptekar, Icons of Justice, pp. 82-83, and René Graziani, "Philip II's Impresa and Spenser's Souldan," JWCI, 27 (1964): 322-24.
26 On triads in Spenser, see Alastair Fowler, "Emanations of Glory: Neoplatonic Order in Spenser's Faerie Queene," in Judith M. Kennedy and James A. Reither, eds., A Theatre for Spenserians (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), pp. 53-82. On intermediaries in the triad, the Renaissance locus classicus is Ficino's Commentary on the Symposium, 6. 1-6. The only complete translation is Commentaire sur le Banquet de Platon, trans. Raymond Marcel (Paris: Société d'Edition "Les Belles Lettres," 1956).
27 "Spenser and the Common Reader," ELH, 35 (1968): 618.
28 On the genre in the Renaissance, see Philip Rollinson, "The Renaissance of the Literary Hymn," Renaissance Papers 1969, ed, G. W. Williams, Southeastern Renaissance Conference (Columbia, S.C., 1970), pp. 11-20. On elements of royal praise in Fowre Hymnes, see Elliott M. Hill, "Flattery in Spenser's Fowre Hymnes" WVUPP, 15 (1966): 22-35. Also, but more obliquely, Jon A. Quitslund, "Spenser's Image of Sapience," SRen, 16 (1969): 181-213; and Sears Jayne, "Attending to Genre: Spenser's Hymnes" a paper read at the 1971 Modern Language Association meeting and summarized in SpN, 3 (1972), no. I, pp. 5-6.
29Prose Works, 3:9-10, 25.
30Arte, 3. 6; 1. 19; ed. Willcock and Walker, pp. 152, 41.
31 See F.Q. VI. x. 28 where Colin apologizes to Gloriana for omitting her from the central role in the vision of ideal courtesy. The apology indicates the presence of a royal type in each core canto in the preceding books.
Helena Shire (essay date 1978)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5428
SOURCE: "Poetic Background,"in A Preface to Spenser, Longman Group, Ltd., 1978, p. 88-130.
[In the following excerpt from a study of Spenser's background and work, Shire introduces the literary and poetic context for Spenser's writing.']
A new poetry for Elizabeth's England
Certain regions of belief and attitude in Elizabethan times have been explored because they differed from ours today and acquaintance with them would help us to draw near to Spenser's poetry. We are now confronted with that poetryCagain different in so many ways from ours today. We must find out how it works. We need to discern what the poet believed himself to be doing, what he aimed to achieve and by what means, and the reasons why he did so. In this project two things are difficult. First, there are voices enough from the sixteenth century of poet and of theorist, foreign or native, to inform us on those matters, but the terms they use are unfamiliar coinage to our minds or, worse, they are oldfashioned and misleading as to the values they represent. Then there are certain important issues wherein poet and writer about poetry were at that time so completely agreed that these issues are not mentioned, far less debated.
The well-known verses quoted above come from Duke Theseus, a notable sceptic as to poetry or enchantment; but his words show what was taken for granted about the process of imaginative composition, though he speaks to discountenance it. A poet was inspired: his vision could be seen as a coming and going between earth and heaven, whence proceeded forms that shaped and ordered his purpose and matter, thus rendering the 'ideal' accessible in earthly terms. Certainly a general agreement existed on the nature of poetry and the special status of the poet. It was the fruit of more than a century of discussion and experiment, development and achievement, since the revival of learning had brought the poetry and philosophy of antiquity powerfully into the current of new thought and writing in western Europe, and since poetry in 'the sweet now style' had arisen in Italy, blossomed with Petrarch and spread to France with the work of du Bellay and Ronsard, to take firm root in England with the writing of Philip Sidney. At this point Spenser enters the story.
With this new poetry in the Renaissance style 'the theory and practice …. form such a coherent unity that any poem written in what is called the Italianate tradition is a concrete embodiment of the theory that lies behind it, and even a slight working knowledge of this can add unsuspected dimensions to the poetry'. To begin then with the theory, and in the simplest terms possible. The view of the universe and of the nature of reality in which a poet was operating was still the hierarchical cosmos, in which the universal and the particular were bound together in a complex system of correspondences. If earth is a microcosmos, everything on earth is an earthly, finite, imperfect, perishable version of its ideal, perfect archetype existing in heaven. If the archetype is the true, the real, the ideal, then man should concern himself with that rather than with the imperfect manifestations he is in contact with in his everyday life. For if he comes to understand the real, the essential, he will understand fully and evaluate justly the imperfect manifestations of 'actual' experience.
A poet is a 'seer'—one who perceives the true, the real; his aim in his poetry is to express what he has perceived and convey it to those who hear or read his poems. The experience of hearing or reading the poems means for the receiver access to the true, the real, via the poet's vision—a process that brings the reader enlightenment. Poetry is didactic, not in the sense of finger-wagging precept but in that the poem well understood widens and deepens human experience. The effect to which contemporary readers of Spenser's poetry testify is, again and again, a 'fulness of joy', 'As who therein can ever joy their fill', or
but let one dwell upon them [the works] and he shall feel a strange fullness and roundness in all he saith…. The most generous wines tickle the palate least but they are no sooner in the stomach but by their warmth and strength there, they discover what they are.
In the reading of poetry the enlarging of scope in perception and knowledge, the enriching of consciousness brings joy, or pleasure or delight. All three words are used and are sometimes interchangeable. When 'pleasure' is used, the argument recognizes the sensuous appeal of the verse medium—delectable pictures, rhythm, harmony proportion, sweet sound—and the fact that such appeal may make a moral lesson palatable, as with a 'medicine of cherries'. But 'delight' was intended also to convey that moment of excitement and achievement with which one nowadays exclaims 'I see'. It registers the moment of shared vision, of discovery of correspondence revealed by the poet, of access to the 'truth', of contact with the real.
That poetry should give 'profit and delight' was confirmed in classical theory; Horace had said it in his Art of Poetry. When the use of poetry to man was called in question this was apt to be the reply. And so the function of poetry came to be defined as the discovery of truth (uncovering or revealing of the real, the ideal) and the giving of profit and delight. The function of poetry was extended farther along the line of discovery and imparting of truth to an inculcating of fresh insights spiritual, moral or (as we should say) psychological. Poetry had for centuries been regarded as a kind of rhetoric, belonging, that is, to the art of persuasion. Poetry in discovering the true, the real, should display virtues in their true brave colours and expose vices in their essential hatefulness, and so win men to love virtue and wish to cleave to it and hate, avoid and cast out vice. Poetry presented a picture of true kingship or heroism or loyalty, or the very essence of envy or malice; but it could go farther. By bodying forth the virtue to be attained only with effort, the easy and alluring vice, the evil seeming good, the moral dilemma, it could so involve the receiving mind that a mental act of choice and of will took place. 'Poetry' says George Puttenham 'invegleth the judgement of man, and carrieth his opinion this way and that' (The Arte of English Poesie, I, iv, p. 8). For instance, as we follow with our reason the argument between Despair and Redcrosse (see pp. 146-9) we, not being weary and spent as the Knight is, perceive the dangerous traps and will him to avoid them and to prevail. We have undergone the moral discipline of resisting despair through participating in the knight's adventure, reading the allegory from the inside.
A poet is also a maker. He was called so in earlier English and the Greek word poesis means 'making'. As he belongs to the microcosm and was himself created in God's image, his act of making is a repetition in little, an imitation, of God's great act of creation. It follows that what he makes will of necessity be created on the model of the ordered universe: of its very nature it should have order, harmony, proportion, hierarchy. Every aspect of it should be in keeping. Every contributory part of it should be 'in place', as everything has its appointed place in a sacral universe. Every part should have a vital relationship with other parts and with the whole. A poem thus conceived and executed had decorum. A poet observed decorum when he manifested the sense of what belongs to what, of what is fitting in context.
Decorum as a concept operates over the whole range of poetic theory and practice. As hierarchy was manifest in the cosmos and manifest in the pattern of man's living on earth from monarch downwards rank on rank, there belonged to each level a mode of converse that conveyed the part they played in the whole: royal, heroic, courtly, scholarly …. and so down to rustic and simple. So in poetry a treating of kings or heroes should be done in high and splendid terms, courtly matters should be couched in the speech of courts, and at the other end of the scale country matters and rustic manners should use simple, rough words and even rustic, regional turns of speech. The writing of a poem, then, is not only a matter of perceiving a vista of truth, reality, the ideal, and of communicating the perception but also of rendering it in the form, style and language that will best express it and present it to best advantage. (Clothes must fit perfectly and should be chosen to meet the occasion.) Hierarchy and rank in the universe made it natural that there should be different ranks in creative writing. Here the example of classical literature helped with its developed system of 'kinds'. Epic and tragedy are noble—to them a high style belongs. Pastoral treats of country matters and allows a satiric vein, so its style is low, simple and rough; being simple it was held to be well suited for a poet's first flight. A 'mean' or middle style of writing best suits the elegiac complaint and many varieties of poetry of love.
'Decorum' in large means literary 'kind' chosen according to the poet's purpose and subject-matter. In small it governs the choice of single words in their sentence or line of verse. An adjective is chosen not primarily in order to extend by an individual added detail the scope of the noun it qualifies; far less is it chosen to evince the author's powers of observation; it belongs to the whole stanza, indeed to the whole poem. For instance in Prothalamion stanza 3…. the waters are bidden not to wet the silken feathers' of the two swans who are most fair and white and pure. 'Silken' is precise and vivid as conveying delicacy and vulnerable finery and as reflecting on plumage of swans; but it is also there as the first hint of the major metaphor of the poem, for the swans will later be revealed as human brides on their way by river-barge to their betrothal ceremony. The silk belongs to the bridal gowns to come. Epithets that did not 'work' in this energetic way were condemned by Ronsard as lazy, oisifs.
Decorum is a much-embracing virtue of Spenser's poetry. In The Shepheardes Calender the new poet is praised in the introductory Epistle for
his complaints of love so lovely, his discourses of pleasure so pleasantly, his pastorall rudenesse, his moral wisenesse, his dewe observing of Decorum everywhere, in personages, in seasons, in matter, in speach, and generally in al seemely simplicitie of handeling his matter and framing his words.
As to 'framing his words' we have seen it in the example of 'silken' above. The word is in place. Being in place and energetically contributing to the whole, it helps bind part to part and part to whole. So decorum is a dynamic principle in making a poem. And for the reader the perception of decorum at work is an experience both artistic and moral. 'What is in place' for renaissance poetry will not separate from the greater issue in the ordered universe—where 'nothing is there by chance'.
Imitation of Nature
From the idea of poet as maker, we recall, derived the concept of imaginative composition fashioned on the model of the created universe. Such a process of creative composition went by the name of imitation of nature. Nature is divinely ordered, not formless but the source of form. The famous lines from Shakespeare given above express this process. The poet, inspired with vision from heaven, casts his eye up to heaven for form with which to express it; 'things unknown' in Theseus' phrase, are the ideal, the real, the true; the poet's pen then embodies them in earthly terms. The 'shaping spirit of imagination' derives from celestial pattern the order, harmony and proportion with which it endows its artefact, the poem.
How did an 'imitation of nature' show itself as successfully achieved, in a poem? In a total coherence. Metaphor, simile or personification that enters the poem must contribute to its value as an artistic construction; those of the 'April ode'….will serve as example. If number or set is introduced in any way into the substance or ordering of the poem it will be meaningful. (The concept of 'completeness' could not enter into a poem through a treatment of three of the four elements). In so contributing to the whole of the poem either in content or in form, imagery, set or number take part in conveying the 'truth', which is the poem's purpose.
The use of poetic imagery, then, is not primarily decorative, though it may make for beauty, variety and enrichment of the whole effect. (Nor is it there because revelatory of the personal experience or subconscious trains of association in the mind of the poet.) But it is chosen and used of set purpose to direct the receiving mind to the value of what is being expressed. Again and again in The Faerie Queene an epithet, a simile or metaphor delivers the tacit message 'Think what values are entailed!' The use of the epithet 'golden' in Book II, in the name of Guyon's horse Brigador (Bridle of Gold) and in many other places, directs the mind to the golden mean of temperance, a vital expression of the Book's Legend. The character in an adventure may be oblivious for the moment, or plain mistaken, as to what he is confronted with; but the reader can receive the poet's message if he is 'wary and wise'. The mythological simile that ends the description of Belphoebe/Gloriana is a good example of energetic poetic imagery: it 'dilates' the meaning, carrying it into new regions, enriching by the parallel and at the same time aiding the precise delineation of the poet's intention.
'Imitation of the model' had a further meaning, deriving from the first somewhat in this fashion: if poetry is an imitation of nature and excellent poets of antiquity had imitated nature excellently well, poets of the present age could learn how it was done from study of their poems. Such examples in Latin or Greek became intermediary models, as it were. Examples of excellence in description, in debate, in depiction of character through speech, in celebration of the ruler were studied, translated, analysed, discussed and reproduced in modern languages and used as models in fresh composition. The Gloss in The Shepheardes Calender draws attention to many points where the new poet has learned from makers of classical antiquity, or from earlier French or English poetry. The scale of the model used ranges from a turn of phrase, a figure of rhetoric, an inset fable or song, to the whole eclogue for 'September' as imitated from Mantuan and 'December' from Marot. If we remember that the aim of such imitation was to 'learn how to do it well' and the outcome was an enormous widening and enriching of the scope of English poetry, we will not misjudge it. The mind receiving the poetry, if not lettered in Latin, French or Greek, enjoyed what it otherwise would not have reached: both the matter and something of the manner. The reader who knew the original had a pleasure like that of one listening to variations on a theme in music, the delighted recognition of points made in the implied parallel.
A poet learned his art through imitation of a model. Once master of his craft he could by a similar gesture pit his skill against that of a fellow poet in literary contest, as shepherd poets did in a singing match. Spenser calls this 'overgoing'. He set out to 'overgo' Ariosto in certain parts of The Faerie Queene—indeed in the passage studied from Book II in the critical analyses…. He overgoes the French poet Marot in the lament for Dido, 'some mayden of greate bloud' in The Shepheardes Calender. Marot had written an elegy in pastoral mode for the Queen Mother of France, recently dead: 'De Madame Loyse de Savoye, mère du Roy'. In a single-standing eclogue of two shepherds Colin and Thenot, Colin the poet is requested to sing a mourning song in honour of the royal lady; he complies in a piece of 'ten times ten verses' (200 lines) and is then thanked and praised. The verse pattern is uniform throughout, continuous quatrains interlinked by rhyme, abab, bcbc and so on. Colin expresses the sense of loss felt for the well-loved royal lady and nature mourns in sympathy assuming mourning colours. Then the mood changes and he bids his verses cease to plain, for she is in the Elysian fields of the blessed. It is a beautiful and elegant poem in a mode that was perhaps 'old-fashioned' to poets of Spenser's day.
Spenser takes the theme, the persons of the shepherds and the verse form, and devises afresh an elegy for the unknown 'Dido'. He 'dilates' the theme by making it part of a greater coherence, his Calender. It now belongs to the season of dying in nature, to November. The lament is now in place in cosmic rhythm, and under the deadly archer Sagittarius, as the wood-cut shows. He distinguishes the lament from the speeches of Thenot and Colin by giving it a distinctive stanza. The stanza has a refrain element that marks by a change in its wording the change in mood from sorrow to joy: 'O heavie herse … O carefull verse' becomes 'O happy herse … O ioyfull verse'. The meaning is now articulate in the form. The whole is well trussed up togetherCin the phrase of the 'Epistle' that precedes The Calender. And form and meaning are at one in the reiterated refrain word 'herse'.
This is an excellent example of Spenser's 'wittinesse in devising, his pithinesse in uttering', again to quote the Epistle. This Renaissance pun is worth expounding. A modern reader knows 'hearse' and 'rehearse' but probably does not connect them; in fact 'rehearsal' probably sounds as if it were connected with hearing, 'a hearing of music in practice'. But all these words are in fact derived from the French word for harrow: to rehearse is to go over the ground again in preparation. From 'herse' as harrow the word came to designate the funeral bier which it resembled, and so to mean 'funeral ceremony' in Spenser's day. For him too the sound of the word embraced 'hearing' as well as recital. All these senses are made to reverberate in his poem as 'herse' echoes 'verse' throughout the elegy, voicing the quick of the poem's meaning.
Spenser's ideas on the poet and on poetry were to have been expounded in his 'The English Poet', a work mentioned in The Calender as ready for print, but never published. Into the October Eclogue, however, he has poured as much as he could of his beliefs and intuition on this matter, his learning and his faith in his vocation: why the poet should be honoured by great men, the poet as seer and maker wielding extraordinary powers, the poet's inspiration, and his art bordering on that of magic.
The theme of poetry and inspiration belongs to October, month of the wine harvest in the old tradition of 'works and days', for 'Bacchus fruite is frend to Phoebus wise'. It belongs under Scorpio, sign of intellect and genius. The woodcut shows in the background a 'Florentine academy' with gentlemen grouped in discussion. From them advances into the shepherd scene a pastoral poet, bearing crook and pan-pipes and crowned with leaves—Bacchus' ivy or laurel for acclaim? The new Renaissance poetry is honoured in The Calender, its potentialities explored, its nature exemplified and expounded; and it is portrayed enjoying its due place in the cosmic scheme.
Pastoral and allegory
Allegory is metaphor sustained and explored. In pastoral the metaphor is of the shepherd living in a shepherd-land, who is everyman in his realm and in Christendom. By the same token in Spenser's heroic poem the metaphor is of the knight of chivalric virtue who is 'on his way' of endeavour in Faerieland, committed to be champion of a virtue and ready to challenge powers that oppose it, whether in the world or within himself.
In his pastoral poetry—The Calender, Colin Clout or Book VI of The Faerie Queene—Spenser shows that he is deeply versed in the long tradition of poetic pastoral, from the Greeks through Vergil and Mantuan to Skelton or Marot. The nature of that pastoral tradition and Spenser's contribution to it has been wisely expounded by Professor Kermode in his volume English Pastoral Poetry. It will serve our purpose here rather to show how Spenser went to the root of the shepherd metaphor as understood by plain people and how he then did something completely new in making his first pastoral a Calender of shepherds.
The metaphor of the shepherd in earlier pastoral had established a relation of shepherd-land to actual life: action there was 'ideal' in that it was human action reduced to simpler terms and 'removed' from more sophisticated civilization, which nonetheless it cast light on. In that 'ideal' landscape could be presented the essentials of the human lot.
In poetic pastoral certain patterns of activity, certain roles and themes, had become favourites: the good shepherd and the bad, the young and the old, at work with their flocks, the singing and piping of the shepherd in his hours of pastime and his simple joys and sorrows in love, a country commonwealth at peace with praise of the ruler. The relationship of shepherd-land to sophisticated society was rendered specifically in one of the themes: the shepherd's journey, from countryside to town and back again, with a telling of what he had learned.
The metaphor of the pastoral shepherd was familiar to every schoolboy who learned Latin, as the eclogues of Mantuan, Latin poet of fifteenth-century Italy, were an elementary textbook in common use. These were imitations of Vergil's eclogues and they made, more pronouncedly that he had done, satiric comment on contemporary society. In Tudor England classical eclogues had been printed in translation and eclogues had been composed in English in imitation, for instance by Barclay. 'Eclogues' means 'select pieces' and such eclogues were separate poems, 'episodes of shepherd life' rendered in dialogue, sometimes with narrative introduction and conclusion, presented alone or in a series.
Pastoral was regarded as the easiest and least ambitious of poetic kinds, 'in which a young poet could fittingly take his first flight'. The style was simple, 'low', even harsh where satire had hard things to say. Spenser in his first poetic endeavour aptly chose pastoral. But he took the pastoral of poetic tradition into a region it had not known. His pastoral work was to be Renaissance poetry in its fullest power. First, as to 'the part and the whole'. Spenser says in his preface that 'eclogues' does not mean 'select pieces'; the Greek word means 'goat-songs'. His book of verses will be no miscellany. His pastoral volume is a whole, a cycle not a series, with each part related to each other part in parallel and contrast, the sequence providing a pleasing variety of pieces moral, recreative or satirical; what is more, each single eclogue is now related to each other and to the whole through cosmic perspective.
Number comes into it. Vergil's eclogues had been ten, a good round number such as Romans liked. Spenser makes his eclogues twelve, 'proportionable to the twelve moneths', as his title announces. He has taken the pastoral's programme of scenes in shepherd-land that showed man's works and pastimes at various seasons and has related that work and pastime to the great medieval scheme of 'the labours of the months'. The activity or topic of each eclogue is related to its seasonable time in the solar cycle of the year, the course of the months in character under their zodiac signs, and there is tacit reference to the year of the Church. Thus poetic 'truth', in the sense of how any phenomenon belonged to the sacral universe, is perceived, and imitation of nature is achieved for pastoral in a new way. In this new dimension decorum is observed throughout, both in form and content.
Secondly, Spenser enriched and extended the pastoral genre by combining it with another. (Combinatico was a skill of the rhetorician.) He laid Vergil's eclogues beside another very different book, but one also treating of the shepherd as everyman. This was 'an old book', familiar to men of Renaissance Europe in print in many languages, in English The Kalendar and compost of Shepherds, Le compost et kalendrier des bons bergiers. It was as we saw, a handbook for everyman 'the shepherd', bringing together all he needed to know for his physical moral and spiritual wellbeing. It gave a régime of diet for the season, a tree of the virtues and vices (with penalties), the main sacraments and prayers of the Church; it taught him to find his way by the stars and showed in diagrams how his body was constituted and conditioned by celestial powers of planet or zodiac sign. It was illustrated by many woodcuts which included pages giving the character of each month, its labours or pastimes, its zodiac sign and its religious festivals….
Thirdly, Spenser, learning from earlier theological writing in French on the 'shepherd' theme, now explored the metaphor of the shepherd in terms of the sacral universe. (In a way he was providing a Christian gloss for Vergil's pastoral, as Renaissance scholars did for a classical text.) The shepherd of traditional pastoral poetry was everyman; but scripture showed 'the shepherd' as a far richer metaphor. The shepherd was Christ himself in his own words of parable, the good shepherd, keeper of the Christian flock. His antetype in the Old Testament was Abel, a good shepherd as Spenser points outCand his forerunner was David, shepherd-boy who became king, ancestor on earth of Christ, singer of 'the Psalms'. God in the twenty-third psalm led the human soul as a shepherd by quiet waters, as is seen in the picture for the December eclogue. Shepherd as episcopus was the bishop of the Christian Church, who carried a crook as emblem of his office. At several points the two uses of the metaphor confirmed one another. The pastoral shepherd sang of love, David of love of God. By thinking in parallel God could be figured as Pan, God of shepherds all. As the head of the Christian Church on earth was, in England since Henry VIII's reign, the monarch, Eliza is Queen of shepherds all; her pastoral genealogy shows her as daughter of Pan and Syrinx.
Exploration of the metaphor of the shepherd enriched the character of shepherd-land. The shepherd's journey in 'September' shows an eclogue of Mantuan done in reverse; Diggon Davie has journeyed not to the city or court but to a wilder land far in the west where 'all is of misery' and his curious dialect, echoing Celtic-English, brings news which can only be from Ireland. The May eclogue in a fable extends the view to Scotland—the court a goat-pen and the kid the boy king seduced by a wily Catholic. Universals of pastoral are linked by hint or name-conceit to particular living instances. The friend is Hobbinol/Harvey, critic of the poet-shepherd's singing. Two bishop-shepherds suggest the Bishop of Rochester (Roffy) and Grindal (Algrind). And Spenser (of the Merchant Taylors' School) is, aptly, Colin Clout: 'Colin' had been the French poet Marot's pastoral name for himself and Colin Clout was that of the English poet Skelton under King Henry VIII. (Spenser's devising draws all these into one name-idea.) Historical pertinence gave particular examples of the general 'truth', as it was to do in The Faerie Queene. The delight of the reader in following the poet's invention was spiced with an element of 'delicious you-know-who'. The poet-shepherd emerges as chief among shepherd rôles. And Colin Clout we shall hear sing again in a later pastoral eclogue, play again in the apt Book of The Faerie Queene.
Spenser's reader, opening the pages of this work by an unknown poet, would see eclogues like Vergil's but with a title and pictures that strongly recalled those of the familiar handbook (indeed the month pictures were designed, like those in that volume, on the pattern of a Book of Hours). His imagination was challenged to relate the metaphor of the shepherd in one and in the other, to discern wherein lay the aptness of each woodcut to its eclogue's meaning. As in a Book of Hours the scene might be located by a significant building in the background. And the matter and manner of the shepherds' discourse would be deepened by its timing in season on earth and in the heavens.
For instance January, cold and wet under Aquarius the Water-carrier, shows the shepherd Colin Clout in a wintry landscape tending a dejected flock by a sheep-cote. On the horizon is a strange group of buildingsCthe Coliseum for Rome, the bridge at Avignon for Petrarch, the twin towers of Rochester Cathedral, and a church; thus Colin is 'placed' as young Spenser, secretary at Rochester, pastoral poet of Christendom in a poetic tradition of Vergil, Mantuan and Petrarch. In the foreground lie his shepherd's bagpipes, broken. Colin's discourse is a plaint of love's pain and dejection in tune with the barren wintry season with its icy tears; unloved by Rosalind he has broken his pipe. And the 'broken pipe' glances by metaphor at the Circumcision, the feast of the Christian year with which January opens, when Christ suffered his first pain on earth for love of mankind….The eclogues for April and May are treated in the critical analysis of the 'April ode'.
The book was, moreover, a calendar that took the particular year 1579 and reflected life in the realm and Christendom in that year, showing issues and personalities of import in it. The year was the twenty-first of Elizabeth's reign, in number a 'turning-point' of life, as Petrarch expounded. The calendar was itself a focus of interest and anxiety at the time, as we have seen. Spenser made this one of poetry, the particular thus achieving universality. He endowed this year of his sovereign's reign with 'durance perpetual'.
Loe I have made a Calender for every yeare
That steele in strength and time in durance shall outweare
And if I marked well the starres revolution
It shall continewe till the world's dissolution.
In the great gesture of Renaissance creative writing, poetry should be seen to conquer time, in terms of time's own instrument. It was a project brilliant in conception and of dazzling ambition. Spenser the poet by it established himself as an accomplished Renaissance poet in English; but as a young man green in judgment he o'erreached himself in vaulting ambition, and 'fell on the other'. The Calender indeed bodied forth the year 1579 in its essence, showing its place in the pattern of history unfolding; but the poet as 'seer' had seen more and spoken more 'truly' than certain great ones could tolerate.
One final feature of The Shepheardes Calender was remarkable. Each Eclogue had a Gloss, as scholarly texts did. Here unusual or difficult words were explained, figures of rhetoric noted, classical references explained and any use of literary 'model' noted. That is to say the new poetic work was presented as for serious study. But a teasing note can be detected here and there. The maker of the Gloss is one 'E. K.', who may be Spenser's friend Edward Kirke but is as likely to stand for Edmundus Kalendarius—Spenser the Calender-maker. This is a clever young man's production. For instance some of the woodcuts feature bird flight and in the Gloss augury by bird flight is recommended as worth a young man's study! No one has cracked the code here, but something momentous in the events of the year 1579 may be registered. The Renaissance poet's delight in the arcane, that was to lead Spenser to use Egyptian symbol in Britomart's dream in his heroic poem, is already here. In his first work Spenser's poetry may indeed be 'perceived of the leaste, understoode of the mooste, but judged only by the learned'.
Judith H. Anderson (essay date 1982)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7195
SOURCE: "In liuing colours and right hew: The Queen of Spenser's Central Books," in Critical Essays on Edmund Spenser, edited by Mihoko Suzuki, Prentice Hall International, 1982, pp. 168-82.
[In the following essay, Anderson analyzes the significance of the complex and often critical portrait of Queen Elizabeth in books III and IV of The Faerie Queene.]
Even in the 1590 Faerie Queene, Spenser's reverence for Queen Elizabeth is accompanied by a cautionary awareness of the temptations and dangers of queenly power and by a complementary awareness of the cost—the denial or exclusion of human possibilitiesCan ennobling Idea exacts of its bearer. The one is evident in the House of Pride and Cave of Mammon, and the other in the treatment of Belphoebe. The attainments of Una, the "goodly maiden Queene," are threatened demonically by their perversion in Lucifera, the "mayden Queene" of Pride, and parodied again in Book II by the verbally reiterative image of Philotime.1 Belphoebe, beautiful, inspiring, and goddesslike, is momentarily locked in comic encounter with Braggadocchio in Book II, an encounter which, though it leaves the worth of her ideal essentially untarnished, resembles another famous encounter between honor and instinct: between Hotspur's extravagant idealism, his "easy leap, / To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac'd moon," and Falstaff's unenlightened but earthy sense: "Can honor set to a leg?"2 Specifically aligned with Queen Elizabeth in the Letter to Ralegh and in the proem to Book III, the chaste Belphoebe is in human terms both an aspiration and an extreme, paradoxically both more and less nearly complete than ordinary mortals.
In the 1596 Faerie Queene, while still persuaded of the value of the queenly ideal, Spenser is more disillusioned—or at least less illusioned—with the real Queen and her court. In the notorious proem to Book IV, he complains openly of misconceived criticisms of The Faerie Queene emanating from Elizabeth's court and goes so far as to summon help from Eros for "that sacred Saint my soueraigne Queene." He urges "Venus dearling doue," a benign Cupid, to "Sprinckle" the Queen's "heart, and haughtie courage soften, / That she may hearke to loue, and reade this lesson often." Thus introduced by hope for improvement in queenly attitudes and by implied criticism of her present ones, Books IV to VI are bedeviled by recurrent images of revilement and public infamy: Ate, Slander, Malfont, Envy, Detraction, the Blatant Beast. Most of these glance at the Queen, the Queen's court, or events impossible to dissociate from the Queen without transforming her into a mythic ideal isolated from history-Cat best a hope or an unrealized promise but no longer, by any stretch of the epic imagination, a present reality. In the proem to Book VI—the beginning of The Faerie Queene's end—this is the route Spenser attempts, but with a trail of hesitation, bitterness, and painful reassessment still fresh behind him.
Despite recognition of the poet's cautionary awareness in Books I to III and despite his more open disappointment in Books IV to VI, we have been reluctant to admit their persistence and strength, especially as they touch the Queen. We rightly note the danger to a mere poet of criticizing his sovereign and the real power the cult of the Virgin Queen exerted over men's imaginations. Nothing in this paper denies these realities, but my argument considers them large designs in the poem's fabric rather than its whole cloth.
Reluctance to see the extent to which Spenser criticizes the Queen does him a particular disservice in Books III and IV. Here it obscures the relation of ideal or antique image to the present age, a relation of which the Queen is the measure throughout the poem, and thus it obscures the developing relation of Faerie to history and of fiction to life. Still more serious, to my mind, this reluctance leads us to pretend that the poet did not really mean certain lines or hear certain verbal ambiguities and, in short, was not fully sensitive to his own words or alert to their surrounding contexts.3 My present undertaking is to examine several passages in Books III and IV that involve verbal cruxes, the Queen, and the relation of present age to antique image. These passages indicate that Spenser's depiction of the Queen's bright image is more complexly shaded in Book III than is generally acknowledged and is in Book IV more critical, perhaps shockingly so. In Book IV, something of the nightmare image of the slanderous Beast who bites "without regard of person or of time" at the end of Book VI is already present and implicates the Queen.
In the proem to Book III, the poet observes a distinction between present and past and between truth and Faerie image that is absent from the proems to Books I and II, and without them, its significance could easily pass unnoticed. In the first of these proems, the living Queen, "Great Lady of the greatest Isle," is a "Mirrour of grace and Maiestie diuine," and the poem is a reflection, in effect itself a mirror, of "that true glorious type" of the Queen. In the proem to Book II, despite poetic play about the location of Faerie, the Queen is the living reflection of the "antique Image," and so the poem, or Faerie image, is a "faire mirrhour" of her "face" and "realmes." The first two proems present one continuous, unbroken reflection: the Queen reflects Divinity; like the Queen herself, the poem reflects the glorious origins, person, and reign of the living Queen.
Referring to the Queen's face, realms, and ancestry, the final stanza of Proem II offers an apology for the antique Faerie image that is in fact a confident justification of it:
The which O pardon me thus to enfold
In couert vele, and wrap in shadowes light,
That feeble eyes your glory may behold,
Which else could not endure those beames bright,
But would be dazled with exceeding light.
The dazzling brightness of the living Queen is enfolded in shadow to enlighten feeble eyes, enabling them to behold true glory. This veil reveals a single truth instead of obscuring it, and these shadows, unlike those in the second three books, do not splinter truth or transform its character. They do not make true glory truly fictive.
In the proem to Book III, the poem continues to be the Queen's mirror, and although she is now invited to view herself "In mirrours more then one"—that is, in Gloriana or in Belphoebe—both glasses are essentially virtuous and can be seen primarily as an outfolding of the good Queen rather than as a dispersion of her unity. But as I have noted elsewhere, in this proem the present embodiment also begins to vie with the antique image, living Queen with Antiquity, and, indeed, to challenge it.4 Uneasy nuances (not quite tensions) cluster around the word "living." In order to perceive the fairest virtue, chastity in this case, one "Need but behold the pourtraict of her [the Queen's] hart, / If pourtrayed it might be by any liuing art." The poet continues, "But liuing art may not least part expresse, / Nor life-resembling pencill it can paint … Ne Poets wit, that passeth Painter farre." Then comes a plea for pardon that recalls the one in the second proem:
More opaque than the "shadowes light" of Proem II, these shadows testify to the poet's "want of words" and wit more than they serve the purpose of revelation. The poem here becomes a slightly compromised "coloured show" that can only shadow the Queen's "glorious pourtraict" and tailor antique praises to present persons, a "fit" that sounds neither so natural nor so close as the continuity of bright reflections in Proems I and II. The poem becomes the glass through which the living sovereign's true portrait is somewhat obscurely seen.
The difference in tone and emphasis between Proems II and III might, I suppose, be attributed to an unusually severe onset of the modesty topos or, that failing, to one of Spenser's regrettable catnaps, this time right on the threshold of Book III. But if these dismissals of particular significance were adequate, the lines that directly follow Spenser's apology for "coloured showes" and "antique praises" would positively resonate with his shameful snoring. They refer to the depiction of Queen Elizabeth in Sir Walter Ralegh's Cynthia: "But if in liuing colours, and right hew, / Your selfe you couet to see pictured, / Who can it doe more liuely, or more trew … ?" When Spenser thus sets the "liuing colours" and "right hew" of his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, against his own "colourd showes" and "antique praises," he introduces into the poem a far-reaching distinction between life and antiquity, historical present and mythic past, current truth and Faerie image. Spenser himself glosses and simultaneously reinforces the startling phrases "liuing colours" and "right hew" two lines later: living colors are "liuely" or lifelike, and the right hue is true-to-life or, more simply, "trew."
Referring a true and lively picture of the Queen to Ralegh's Cynthia, Spenser is unlikely to have meant a picture that is merely realistic or unembellished by art. Ralegh's fragmentary Ocean to Cynthia, much of which relates to Ralegh's imprisonment in 1592, a disgrace subsequent to publication of Book III, is the best indication of Cynthia's nature we have, and while Ralegh's voice in it is distinct, individual, and passionate, such highly artificial modes as the Petrarchan ("Such heat in Ize, such fier in frost") and the pastoral ("Vnfolde thy flockes and leue them to the feilds") are also much in evidence.5 The nostalgicCindeed, the bereaved-Cemployment of pastoral in Ocean to Cynthia suggests that the Shepherd of the Ocean's earlier versions of Cynthia, written in less desperate straits, might have been more conventional than less so.6 When Spenser writes of the living colors and right hue of Cynthia, he implies a portrayal that is less hieratic and allegorical but more contemporary and personal than his own. Such a portrayal as Ralegh's might be less universal and more ephemeral, but it belongs more truly to time.
Spenser's reference to Ralegh certainly does not discredit the Faerie image but does limit its authority unless that image itself can be expanded to embrace life more closely. The third proem provides a particularly apt introduction to a book in which time and eternity or present age and ideal image are not so smoothly continuous. Nothing quite like the "heauenly noise / Heard sound through all the Pallace pleasantly" at the betrothal of Una—a noise like the voices of angels "Singing before th'eternall maiesty, / In their trinall triplicities on hye"—reverberates through Book III, and no one quite like the brilliantly winged angel who succors Guyon materializes to rescue its heroes. In fact, the closest we get to an angel in this book is Timias' illusion that Belphoebe is one when he wakens from his swoon to find her ministering to his wounds: "Mercy deare Lord … what grace is this," he asks, "To send thine Angell from her bowre of blis, / To comfort me in my distressed plight?" (v. 35). And even he adds on second thought, "Angeli, or Goddesse do I call thee right?" thereby echoing Virgil's famous lines from Aeneas' meeting with Venus in the guise of Diana's maiden and avouching his perception that this angelic illusion originates in a more worldly pantheon than Una's "trinall triplicities."7
A blushing Belphoebe disclaims the angelic or godly status Timias imputes to her and declares herself simply a maid and "mortall wight" (36). Unfortunately her declaration is exactly what Timias might have longed, but should never have been allowed, to hear, for he falls irrevocably and irremediably in love with her. Belphoebe not only denies him a reciprocal love but also fails to comprehend or even to recognize the nature of his response to her. More than once the poet criticizes her failure as a "Madnesse" that saves "a part, and lose(s) the whole" (43, cf. 42).
While Timias languishes in love's torments, Belphoebe spares no pains to ease him, but still not comprehending his malady, "that sweet Cordiall, which can restore / A loue-sick hart, she did to him enuy," or refuse to give. Few readers or rereaders of these lines are prepared for those that follow, in which "that sweet Cordiall … that soueraigne salue" is suddenly transformed to "That dainty Rose, the daughter of her Morne," whose flower, lapped in "her silken leaues" she shelters from midday sun and northern wind: "But soone as calmed was the Christall aire, / She did it faire dispred, and let to florish faire" (51). As Donald Cheney has suggested, precise equivalents for these lines do not exist. "For her," he adds, "the rose is a rose, not a euphemism."8
But surely not just a rose, either. Belphoebe's dainty blossom soon opens into a flower strongly redolent of myth: "Eternall God," we learn, "In Paradize whilome did plant this flowre" and thence fetched it to implant in "earthly flesh." Soon we recognize the flower as the ur-rose that flourishes "In gentle Ladies brest, and bounteous race / Of woman kind" and "beareth fruit of honour and all chast desire" (52). A truly marvelous hybrid, this is none other than the rosa moralis universalis. It is hardly surprising that one of Spenser's eighteenth-century editors compared the rose to Milton's "Immortal Amarant" in the third book of Paradise Lost, "a flow'r which once / In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life, / Began to bloom."9
In Belphoebe's transformation from uncomprehending nurse to vestal votaress of the rose, to antique origin and a fructifying virtue undifferentiated by time, person, or place, Timias is forgotten. Her specific relation to him will not align with the general moral statement into which it is transformed. Honor and chaste desire, the fruit of the flower, are indeed virtuous, but Timias' love is honorable in Book III, and his desire, if not virginal, is decent and pure and, in these senses, chaste. The general moral statement not only transcends the particular case but wholly misses it. Timias is one person these antique praises of the flower do not fit, and when we consider that Belphoebe's use of tobacco (v. 32) to heal Timias' wounds signals an obvious allusion to Ralegh, we might also think one "present person."
Having glorified the rose, the poet appears in no hurry to return from antique ideal to the person of Belphoebe. He directly addresses the "Faire ympes of beautie" and urges them to emulate their origin by adorning their garlands with "this faire flowre … Of chastity and vertue virginall." These "ympes" (shoots, scions) of beauty are preeminently the "Ladies in the Court," to judge both from the poet's present address and its resemblance to the final dedicatory sonnet of The Faerie Queen.10 Timias aside, the poet opts for the general application of the antique ideal to his present world of readers. But with the poet's final promise that the flower will not only embellish the ladies' beauty but also crown them "with heauenly coronall, / Such as the Angels weare before Gods tribunall," we might feel for a moment that we have somehow traveled beyond even Timias' first flush of illusion to a still simpler, purer, less earthly vision (53).
The poet's address to the ladies continues in the next stanza, where he now commends to their attention not the beatifying rose, upon which he has spent the mythmaking of the previous stanzas, but Belphoebe herself as true exemplar of its virtue. In effect he returns the rose, but now in its glorified form, to her person. Of particular note in the present stanza are the initial occurrences of the word "faire" and the phrases "none liuing" and "ensample dead," curious phrases whether taken alone, together, or with the "liuing colours and right hew" of the third proem:
To youre faire selues a faire ensample frame,
Of this faire virgin, this Belphoebe faire,
To whom in perfect loue, and spotlesse fame
Of chastitie, none liuing may compaire:
Ne poysnous Enuy iustly can empaire
The prayse of her fresh flowring Maidenhead;
For thy she standeth on the highest staire
Of th'honorable stage of womanhead,
That Ladies all may follow her ensample dead.
The repetition of "faire" is insistent, even anxiously so, but it enforces a link between present persons and Belphoebe. This link, if only a matter of rhetoric and fair appearance, suggests a series of steps from the ladies' "faire selues," surely many of whom were bound to marry; to a generalized "ensample" of purity, to its more exclusive, or higher, form, virginity; and finally to the individual fulfillment of virginity in fair Belphoebe herself, who is found on the "highest staire … of womanhead."11 The poet's conception of a series of steps—that is, a "staire"—becomes additionally significant once we have looked closely at the other verbal oddities in the stanza.12
The first of these, the phrase "none liuing," presumably means "none of you ladies" or "no one living," since the poet here addresses his present audience, "youre faire selues," and compares them to Belphoebe, the exemplar of ideal chastity, to which "none liuing" has yet attained. Alternatively, if we take the word "liuing" to be applicable to Belphoebe, the phrase could mean "no other living lady" except Belphoebe herself. This is the meaning of a remarkably similar claim about chaste Fiorimell earlier in the same canto where her dwarf declares of her, "Liues none this day, that may with her compare / In stedfast chastitie" (v. 8).13 But there are also significant differences between a claim made by a distraught dwarf within the narrative context of Faerie and one made by the poet himself and addressed to an audience outside the poem. We readily see that the loyal dwarf speaks loosely or hyperbolically. He really means no other living lady in all the realm of Faerie is chaster than Fiorimell or simply that she is the chastest lady imaginable. The word "liuing," however, is not so readily defused in relation to Belphoebe, who mirrors the chastity of the living Queen, especially when it occurs in a direct address to the poet's living audience. If in this context we were to consider Belphoebe "liuing," then she seems actually to become the Queen, a development at variance with statements in the proem to Book III and downright embarrassing when we reach "her ensample dead" in the alexandrine of this stanza. Such a radical dissolution of the fictional character of Belphoebe is entirely unexpected and would probably be largely wasted or, worse, misunderstood.
The natural reading of the phrase "none liuing" is, as suggested, the obvious one, "no one living" or simply "no living lady." While this reading does not refer specifically or directly to the Queen, it increases the distance between Belphoebe as a mythic ideal and any living referent, including the Queen, and thus the distance between antiquity and present age. The increased distance reflects the strains between ideal exemplar and human response in the story of Belphoebe and Timias and helps to bring their story to an appropriate conclusion in 1590.
But if the obvious reading of "none liuing" is also the right one, it is designed to give us another, longer pause for thought when we reread the alexandrine that succeeds it: Belphoebe "standeth on the highest staire … of womanhead, / That Ladies all may follow her ensample dead." If Belphoebe is a mythic ideal who has moved farther away from a living referent, what has she to do with death? First she seems to be mythic in this stanza and now to belong to history. The obvious reading of "none liuing" and the alexandrine clearly do not as yet accord.
The phrase "ensample dead," when glossed at all, is taken to be an ellipsis of the clause "when she is dead,"14 and it can be referred to the occurrence of a parallel construction in Merlin's prophecy to Britomart of the child or "Image" Artegall will leave with her when he is dead (III.iii.29):
With thee yet shall he leaue for memory
Of his late puissaunce, his Image dead,
That liuing him in all actiuity
To thee shall represent.
But the phrase "ensample dead" could just as well mean "her dead, or lifeless, example." At first glance, before we are startled into reassessment, this is exactly what it seems to mean, and if this were in fact all it meant, it would serve as a chilling comment on the ideal Belphoebe embodies and, although at a distinctly greater remove than before, on that of the Queen as well. This alternative meaning of "ensample dead" also finds a relevant parallel in an alexandrine of Book III. It occurs when the witch creates false Fiorimell, that parody of coldly sterile, lifeless Petrarchism: "and in the stead / Of life, she put a Spright to rule the carkasse dead" (viii.7). Death is this carcass' present condition (dead carcass), not its future one (when dead).
The occurrence in a single stanza of two verbal cruxes as immediately and obviously related as life ("none liuing") and death ("ensample dead") is unlikely to be adventitious. The reading "dead example"—the more obvious reading of "ensample dead"—accords better with the more obvious reading of "none liuing," since it does not require, as does the alternative "when she is dead," an abrupt and irrational shift from mythic to historical reference and, to put it bluntly, from an ageless Belphoebe to an aging Elizabeth. There is no way for us to cancel the obvious reading of "ensample dead," but perhaps we need not stop with its dispiriting message. In the context of Timias' highly Petrarchan adoration and idealization of Belphoebe, the alternative reading, "ensample [when she is] dead," need not refer to death as an exclusively physical event. It can also be taken in a way that makes sense of the mythic Belphoebe's connection with death and offers the positive reflection on her ideal that balances, though it cannot wholly offset, the negative one.
In its Petrarchan context, the reading "when she is dead" points to the resolution of the conflict between body and spirit that comes with the lady's physical death and spiritual transcendence. The phrase "ensample dead" therefore implies the ideal, the life-in-death, that the deadly carcass, the death-in-life, of false Fiorimell parodies. This reading of the phrase balances the cold reality of human loss—death, denial, lifeless example—with high praise of Belphoebe and of the Queen whose chastity, if only dimly, she still mirrors. At the same time, it continues Belphoebe's movement away from an earthly reality and suggests the only possible solution of Timias' dilemma—and seemingly the destined conclusion of Ralegh's—to be the symbolic or actual transfiguration of Belphoebe into pure spirit.15
Looking back at the same stanza with our Petrarchan reading in mind, we might be struck anew by the phrases "perfect loue" and "spotlesse fame." It suddenly makes more sense that "none liuing" should be perfect or spotless in Book III, where the possibility of a living Una has receded like a setting sun, and that the "highest staire … of womanhead" should be reached with the lady's transformation through death into spirit. Presumably this is also the "staire" on which worthy emulators of the true rose are crowned "with heauenly coronall … before Gods tribunall."
It is even tempting to see a relation between the Petrarchan praise of fair Belphoebe in Book III and the first of Ralegh's commendatory sonnets to accompany The Faerie Queene:
Me thought I saw the graue, where Laura lay
Within that Temple, where the vestall flame
Was wont to burne, and passing by that way,
To see that buried dust of liuing fame,
Whose tombe faire loue, and fairer vertue kept,
All suddenly I saw the Faery Queene:
At whose approach the soule of Petrarke wept,
And from thenceforth those graces were not seene.
For they this Queene attended, in whose steed
Obliuion laid him downe on Lauras herse.
But there is also a significant distance between this vision of Laura's living successor and Spenser's fully idealized Belphoebe, whose rose opens fully only in death. Perhaps because farther removed from it personally, Spenser saw more clearly the temporal, human cost—to Belphoebe and Timias both—of the fully realized Petrarchan vision. By the writing of Book III, he certainly knew that in time Laura's tomb could only be replaced by another's "ensample dead."16
When Belphoebe is last seen in Book III, response to her is poised between timeless and temporal truth, rather than being torn apart by their conflict. In Book IV, Belphoebe's next and also her last appearance, this duality of response to her remains, but with a difference. Her estrangement from Timias intersects with his relation to Amoret, Belphoebe's twin sister; and Belphoebe's reconciliation with Timias clashes conspicuously with the abandonment and slander of Amoret. With Timias' reconciliation and Amoret's revilement, duality of judgment and of truth can no longer be contained in a single phrase or image or even in a single character or event. Belphoebe herself—or what she was in Book III, an ideal maintaining some relation to worldly reality—is fractured. The alternatives of love and loss, of timeless and temporal truth, are no longer grasped together, no longer simultaneous and complementary dimensions of awareness, as they were in the phrase "ensample dead." They have become sharply distinct and are in danger of becoming mutually exclusive. The distance between ideal image and present age, antique praises and living colors, is widening rapidly.
The story of Belphoebe and Timias is inseparable from the last stages of Amoret's story in Book IV. Wounded and then tended by Timias, Amoret becomes the unwitting cause of Belphoebe's estrangement from him. She is part of their story, and when she is simply abandoned by them in the middle of it, she becomes, both narratively and morally, a loose end waiting to be woven into the larger design. Amoret's ties with the story of Belphoebe and Timias are also symbolic and thematic. The ruby that helps to bring Belphoebe back to Timias is "Shap'd like a heart, yet bleeding of the wound, / And with a little golden chaine about it bound" (viii.6). A jeweler's replica of Amoret's heart in the Masque of Cupid, this lapidarian heart that Belphoebe once gave Timias alludes to Amoret's real one, suggesting contrast with, as well as resemblance to, it. The twin birth of Belphoebe and Amoret, the complementary maids of Diana and Venus, provides a richly allegorical backdrop to their aborted reunion, and although Amoret is much more complexly human than an abstract conception of Love or Amor, the latter is one kind of meaning she carries when she is wounded, then abandoned, and later reviled. The most provocative imitation of Amoret's thematic congruence with Belphoebe comes when the poet interrupts his narrative during Slander's revilement of Amoret to recall an Edenic age when the "glorious flowre" of beauty flourished, a time when "… antique age yet in the infancie / Of time, did liue then like an innocent, / In simple truth and blamelesse chastitie" (IV.viii.30). Antiquity, ideal image, mythic flower, even chastityCthe poet associates them all now with Amoret or, more accurately, with her revilement.
In addition to the connections between the stories of Amoret and of Belphoebe and Timias sketched above, there are pointed contrasts. The reconciliation of Belphoebe and Timias is extremely artificial, effected through the agency of a sympathetic turtle dove and a lapidary's heart and totally removed from temporal reality. When he is reconciled, Timias' condition anticipates Melibee's self-enclosed vulnerability: he is "Fearlesse of fortunes chaunge or enuies dread, / And eke all mindlesse of his owne deare Lord" (viii.18). Still more noticeable, even while the estrangement of Belphoebe from Timias alludes unmistakably to Ralegh's fall from queenly favor, their reconciliation in Book IV conflicts with the real state of Ralegh's affairs in 1596.17 After Ralegh's secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen's maids of honor, and the consequent imprisonment of them both in 1592, he was, although released fairly quickly from prison, not in fact reconciled to the Queen until 1597. His wife, left to languish in prison longer than he, never returned to favor with the Queen. In the reconciliation of Timias and Belphoebe, artificial thus means twice unreal—unreal at once in manner and in reference.
The abandonment of Amoret contrasts sharply with the artifice of reconciliation. When Arthur finds her in the forest, she is "almost dead and desperate," ingloriously wounded and unromantically in need. In his effort to shelter Amoret (and her less vulnerable companion, Aemylia), Arthur unwittingly takes her to the House of Slander, a foul old woman "stuft with rancour and despight / Vp to the throat" (24). Once they are within her house, an indignant and somewhat bitter poet intrudes at length in the narrative to connect Slander to the present age ("Sith now of dayes") and to oppose this age to the ideal or antique image. Slander's railings therefore have a general historicity or timeliness pointedly attributed to them for which Amoret's own adventures—apart from the topicality of her relation to Timias' estrangement from Belphoebe—fail to account. In short, what befalls Amoret in the two cantos she shares with Belphoebe and Timias looks very much like the other half of their story, the half muted in Belphoebe's withdrawal from Timias and suppressed in her return to him. What befalls Amoret unfolds the "inburning wrath" of Belphoebe (viii.17) and gives tongue to the revilement and infamy that Ralegh's secret marriage incurred.
Writing presumably in 1592 from the Tower, Ralegh contrasted the Queen's formerly gracious favor to him with his present state:
Thos streames seeme standinge puddells which, before,
Wee saw our bewties in, so weare they cleere.
Bellphebes course is now obserude no more,
That faire resemblance weareth out of date.
Our Ocean seas are but tempestius waves
And all things base that blessed wear of late.
If we remember Spenser's final vision of Belphoebe in 1590, with its series of "faire" steps from living audience to the highest ideal, these words from Ocean to Cynthia have an added edge. But even without this refinement, they afford a commentary on the distance we have seen opening between living Queen and ideal image, in this case, Belphoebe: as the imprisoned Ralegh again observes of this distance, "A Queen shee was to mee, no more Belphebe, / A Lion then, no more a milke white Dove" (ll. 327-28). The extreme artificiality of the reconciliation of Belphoebe and Timias in Book IV bears a similar testimony. As the distance widens, as an ideal Belphoebe becomes further detached from living reference, other kinds of references to the present age build up and push intrusively into Faerie. Their violence and their ugliness, unparalleled by the more controlled images of evil in Books I, II, and even III, do not just threaten the Faerie vision but actually violate it.
The old hag who reviles Amoret, her companion, and her would-be rescuer is nothing short of hideous, as extreme in her violent ugliness as conciliatory dove and ruby-heart are in their artificiality. The poet seems almost unable to put a stop to his description of her. "A foule and loathly creature" with "filthy lockes," she sits in her house "Gnawing her nayles for felnesse and for yre, / And there out sucking venirne to her parts entyre" (23-24). The description continues for another two stanzas with a reiterative emphasis and expansiveness that partial quotation hardly conveys. She abuses all goodness, frames causeless crimes, steals away good names. Nothing can be done so well "aliue"—that is, in life—without her depriving it of "due praise." As the poet continues, castigating the verbal poison Slander spues forth from her hellish inner parts, she becomes an unmistakable precursor first of Detraction and then of that poet's nightmare, the Blatant Beast, "For like the strings of Aspes, that kill with smart, / Her spightfull words did pricke, and wound the inner part."18
"Such was that Hag," the poet concludes, "vnmeet to host such guests, / Whom greatest Princes court would welcome fayne" (27). Then, just before the poet in his own voice breaks into the narrative for five stanzas to decry the distance between antique age and present corruption, he praises the patience of Slander's "guests," who endure every insult she can offer, "And vnto rest themselues all onely lent, / Regardlesse of that queane so base and vilde, / To be vniustly blamd, and bitterly reuilde" (IV.viii.28). Quean, meaning "harlot," "hussy," or in Spenser's case, "hag," is not the same word as queen, and it should be obvious from the poet's virulent description of Slander that she is not an image of the Virgin Queen.19 But the word "queane" in this context is not disposed of so easily, nor is the possibility that for one awful moment the image of the bitter old woman glances at the living Queen.
Philologists have been reluctant to recognize the likelihood of the homonymie pun on quean/queen in Renaissance English that exists in modern English. Kökeritz notes that contemporary philological evidence proves the possibility of such a pun in colloquial speech but doubts that polite speakers would have found the pun readily accessible. Dobson likewise notes the distinction in pronunciation of the two vowels in educated southern speech but allows for vulgar or dialectical variations in which the pun would exist.20 The pun is therefore possible but unlikely or inappropriate in a polite context, an argument that might, indeed, recommend it on grounds of aesthetic decorum—not to say political prudence—for the impassioned description of an impolite hag. The historical imagination is hard pressed to picture a courtier who would be likely to explain such a pun to the Queen or even willing to admit recognition of its presence.
Admitting the pun in Spenser's use of quean, we might regard it as one of the many signs in Book IV that the poem is becoming more private and personal, but we can do so without having to argue that the pun or at the very least the possibility of wordplay would not have been recognized by a number of Spenser's readers. Wordplay on the combination quean/queen has a long history, in part because of its alliterative potential, as, for example, in Langland's lines, "At churche in the charnel cheorles aren vuel to knowe, / Other a knyght fro a knaue, other a queyne fro a queene."21 In passing, I should also note that in an age of printing like the Renaissance the spelling of quean—"queen" and "queyn" in Thynne's Chaucer—was a visual invitation to wordplay, which philology would be inclined to discount.22 Whatever its causes, the pun on quean/queen almost certainly exists in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra when Enobarbus quips that Apollodorus has carried "A certaine Queene to Caesar in a Matris" (II.vi.72).23 The same pun also occurs in Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One when WittGood disclaims youth's follies, including "sinful Riotts, / Queanes Evills, Doctors diets" (V.ii. 185-86). The evils of queans are venereal, but highly qualified readers agree that the pun on quean/queen and the consequent play on king's evil (scrofula) is present here.24 Contemporary dramatic use of a pun argues its accessibility to auditors, and a play on diseases dependent on the pun urges this fact.
To my mind, the most illuminating information about Spenser's calling Slander a "queane" is that this is his sole use of the word. Occasion, Duessa, Impatience, Impotence, the witch who creates false Fiorimeli—not a one of these hags wears this common Renaissance label, and we might almost suppose that Spenser was deliberately avoiding it. That he should suddenly have used the word "queane" accidentally or innocently in a context inseparable from Belphoebe, Timias, and the relation of Faerie ideal to present age defies credibility, and does so much more, in view of Spenser's verbal sensitivity, than does the possibility that he alludes momentarily to the Queen.
As with Belphoebe's rose in Book III, there are now no precise or steady equivalents for the figures gathered in Slander's House: Amoret does not equal Elizabeth Throckmorton, Arthur does not equal Ralegh, Aemylia does not equal anybody, and Slander certainly does not equal the Queen.25 In the moments and ways I have suggested, however, what happens to Amoret reflects on one level the scandal, wrath, and disgrace Ralegh's marriage unleashed, and briefly the poet holds up to his sovereign the kind of distorted reflection found in a hideous cartoon. The figures of Lucifera, Philotime, and false Fiorimell bear witness that such a distorted image—such parody—is not entirely alien to the poet's techniques in earlier books, but it recurs here with a difference. Lucifera is not a missing side of Una or of the Queen but a denial of what they truly are. Where she is a possible threat, Slander is a present reality.26 Complex yet still balanced and grasped together in Book III, contrasting violently and centrifugally in Book IV, opposite words, opposite meanings, and opposite realities figure crucially in the troubled process of reassessing the relation of the Faerie vision to the living Queen.
1The Faerie Queene I.xxi.8, 23; iv.8, II.vii.44-45. All Spenserian references are to Works: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin A. Greenlaw et al., 11 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1932-57), cited hereafter as Var.
2Henry IV I.iii.201-02, V.i.131, ed. Herschel Baker, in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).
3 Long since, in an illuminating and liberating article, Louis Martz showed that Spenser was not unaware of comic nuances in his sonnets: "The Amoretti: 'Most Goodly Temperature,'" in Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser, ed. William Nelson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), pp. 146-68. We continue to make progress regarding the poet's control of his meaning elsewhere, but slowly sometimes.
4 This paragraph borrows from my "What comes after Chaucer's BUT: Adversative Constructions in Spens er," in Acts of Interpretation: The Text in Its Context, ed. Mary J. Carruthers and Elizabeth D. Kirk (Norman Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1982), n. 6.
5 "The 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia," 11. 69, 497 ff., cf. 29-30, The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh, ed. Agnes M. C. Latham (London: Routledge 6 Kegan Paul, 1951). All references to Ocean to Cynthia are to this edition. On the dating of Cynthia, see Latham's introduction, pp. Xxxvi-xl; and Stephen J. Greenblatt, Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 12-13.
6 In "Colin Clovts Come Home Againe," Spenser calls Ralegh "shepheard of the Ocean" (1. 66); see also 11. 164, 174-75 in connection with the dating of Cynthia. On possible earlier versions of Cynthia, see Agnes M. C. Latham, ed., Sir Walter Raleigh: Selected Prose and Poetry (London: Athlone Press, 1965), p. 25, and on the style of Cynthia, pp. 210-11. Greenblatt's discussion of Cynthia is invaluable (pp. 77-98); his remarks on pastoral are especially pertinent (pp. 80, 84-85).
7 See Var., 3:245-46 (xxvii ff.), but also 3:247 (xxxv). The Virgilian text is available in Var., 2:219 (xxxii.6-xxxiii.4): "O—quam te memorem, virgo? Namque haud tibi vultus / Mortalis, nee vox hominem sonat; O, dea, certe." Given Spenser's earlier association of this passage with Belphoebe (II.iii.33), its bearing on Timias' lines is unmistakable.
8Spenser's Image of Nature: Wild Man and Shepherd in "The Faerie Queene" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 102.
9Var., 3:248 (lii). The reference is to Ralph Church's edition, 1758.
10Var., 3:198. The full title of the final sonnet is "To all the gratious and beautifull Ladies in the Court."
11 Cf. Faerie Queene III.v.53: "Of chastity and vertue virginall." Chastity and virginity are not identical in this line.
12OED, s.v. Stair sb, 1: "An ascending series …. of steps"; 2: "One of a succession of steps"; 2d. fig: "A step of degree in a (metaphorical) ascent or in a scale of dignity"; 2e: "A high position."
13 A. C. Hamilton, ed., The Faerie Queene (London: Longman, 1977), p. 354, aligns this claim about Fiorimell with that about Belphoebe.
14 Hamilton, ed., The Faerie Queene, p. 354. Hamilton's sensitivity to the need of a gloss is notable.
15 Cf. Louis Adrian Montrose's highly provocative analysis of Petrarchan sublimation in '"The perfecte paterne of a Poete': The Poetics of Courtship in The Shepheardes Calender," TSLL 21 (1979), 34-67, esp. p. 54 (November Eclogue: Dido/Elissa).
16 In Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's "Faerie Queene" (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), pp. 113-14, Michael O'Connell rightly locates a "sense of paradox" in the final stanza of III.v, the result especially of the word "Nathlesse." Although I do not agree with all of O'Connell's views on p. 114, this sense of paradox follows naturally from my own reading of the penultimate stanza ("ensample dead") and fittingly concludes the canto.
17 See O'Connell, Mirror and Veil, p. 116; and A. L. Rowse, Ralegh and the Throckmortons (London: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 164, 204-06.
18 Cf. Faerie Queene V.xii.36, Vl.vi.1.
19OED, s.v. Quean, 1; s.v. Queen (etymology): quean and queen have an ablaut-relationship. Thomas P. Roche, Jr., ed., The Faerie Queene (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1978), p. 1176, glosses quean as hag. This meaning seems obvious from several examples in the OED and is the most appropriate one for Spenser's context.
20 Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 88; E. J. Dobson, English Pronunciation 1500-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1968), 2:640, 612, n. 2.
21The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts, ed. Walter W. Skeat (London: Oxford University Press, 1886), C.IX.45-46 (my punctuation). For a concise discussion of Langland's "punning" on quean/queen and its basis in Old English, see Mary Carruthers, The Search for St. Truth: A Study of Meaning in "Piers Plowman" (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 60-61, n. 19. Carruthers discusses a second instance of wordplay in Langland's line "bere nis no quen queyntere bat quyk is o lyue" (A.II.14: George Kane, ed.).
22 Chaucer, Works 1532, supplemented by material from the editions of 1542, 1561, 1598, and 1602 (London: Scolar Press, 1969), fol. 104, verso, Manciples Prologue, 1. 34; fol. 165, verso, column a, 1. 19.
23 From the Norton facsimile of the First Folio.
24 Quotation from Middleton is from Charles Barber's edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968); Barber considers the play on king's evil "doubtless." For the same view, see James T. Henke, Renaissance Dramatic Bawdy (Exclusive of Shakespeare): An Annotated Glossary and Critical Essays, Jacobean Drama Studies, 39 (Salzburg: Institut für Englische und Literatur Universität Salzburg, 1974), 2:249.
25 On the presence of Aemylia and other levels of meaning in IV.viii, see my "Whatever Happened to Amoret? The Poet's Role in Book IV of The Faerie Queene," Criticism 13 (1971), 180-200, esp. 181-85.
26 Near the end of the poet's praise of antiquity and denunciation of the present, he first appears to compliment the Queen but does not in fact do so. Instead he speaks with an evasive ambiguity that is to become increasingly characteristic of his compliments to her and, it would appear, of his disillusionment with her. In xxxii.8, "her glorious flowre" is beauty's (1. 1). In xxxiii.5, the word "her," while ambiguous, logically refers to beauty's glorious flower in 1. 6 (chastity, to judge from Book III); from this flower proceed the "drops" or dew or nectar of virtue. The near, but failed, reference of the pronouns in these stanzas to the living Queen is further testimony of the distance between her and the ideal image.
Nicholas Canny (essay date 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9721
SOURCE: "Edmund Spenser and the Development of an Anglo-Irish Identity," in The Yearbook of English Studies: Colonial Imperial Themes, Special Number, Vol. 13, 1983, pp. 1-19.
[In the following essay Canny argues for the value of Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland as a contribution to the political theory of colonization and the history of Ireland.]
Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland, composed in 1596, has long been accepted as a fundamental contribution to the theory of colonization, but it has not been adequately appreciated as a political text because commentators have at once exaggerated and diminished its originality.1 The exaggeration has happened because scholars have contended that Spenser's opinions were altogether more advanced than those held by any of his contemporaries in Ireland, and the diminution has resulted from the attribution of these advanced opinions to the influence of Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bodin, and, most recently, of Calvin.2 It is argued in this paper that neither exaggeration nor diminution is warranted; both tendencies can be accounted for by the application of that approach to intellectual history whereby the scholar who proceeds from the assumption that all ideas can be traced to a fundamental thinker sets himself the task of identifying the influence exerted by one of these great progenitors upon his chosen author. This method has frequently been challenged, and the most convincing alternative approach to the study of intellectual history has been well demonstrated in Quentin Skinner's Foundations of Modern Political Thought3 Here Skinner proceeds from the assumption that all political theorists are acquainted with a broad range of ideas, and that it is the force of circumstances which compels each author to select from those available to him that body of ideas which provides him with a sense of purpose and direction. Thus, as Skinner sees it, the intellectual historian should continue the effort to trace influences, but should also seek to relate each text to the context in which it was produced, with a view to explaining the author's process of selection.4
When Spenser's View is analysed in this fashion it immediately becomes evident that it was a tract designed to serve the interests of those engaged upon the conquest and colonization of Ireland at the end of the sixteenth century, and that the advanced opinion to be found there can be explained by the peculiar, not to say precarious, circumstances in which these individuals found themselves. Furthermore it becomes evident that the ideas expressed there were the product of a conscious process of selection and rejection by the author, and a glance at the letters and political texts composed by Spenser's English contemporaries in Ireland shows that they resorted to similar ideas in response to the challenges that confronted them. This last observation deprives Spenser of any claims to uniqueness, but his is still the most elegant and coherent expression of that particular set of ideas which those engaged upon the conquest of Ireland found particularly useful during the final decades of the sixteenth century. But, as will be argued, these ideas were considered relevant not only by Spenser and his contemporaries but by successive generations of English settlers in Ireland, at least until the end of the seventeenth century. These had resort to Spenser's ideas (and they even referred to and imitated his View) with such frequency that we can accept the ideas enunciated by him as having provided them with an identity and sense of moral purpose which sustained them throughout the travails of the seventeenth century.
When placed under scrutiny it appears that Spenser's View comprises three separate but related sections. The central section (pp. 37-95), devoted to describing the barbaric condition of the Gaelic Irish, has little by way of description that was not to be found in literally scores of compositions by English or Old English authors from the time of Giraldus Cambrensis forward. In delineating a series of stages of social development, and in situating the Irish (with their supposed progenitors the Scythians) at the least developed stage, Spenser was advancing a notion that had become a commonplace among those engaged upon the conquest of Ireland for the previous thirty years.5 Of more recent adoption among English settlers in Ireland was the contention that most of the Old English population had degenerated from their original placing of about midway on the scale of social development to a position so lowly as to allow the conclusion that 'the chiefest abuses which are now in that realm are grown from the English, and the English that were are now much more lawless and licentious than the very wild Irish' (View, p. 63, and see p. 151).
In making this assertion Spenser was clearly attempting the denigration of that element of the population of Ireland which had most influence with the queen and her government in England. That he should seek to do so is consistent with his concern in the first section of the book to discredit the policy favoured by the Old English for the reform of their Gaelic neighbours. But while dismissing the Old English as unfit to undertake any work of reform, Spenser also declared as hopeless the reform strategy they favoured, because it failed to take cognizance of the cardinal assumption around which the View was organized: that man's social condition is determined by his environment (p. 68, and see pp. 151-53). To seek the uplift of a socially backward or a degenerate population without first destroying those environmental factors which imprisoned it in its backwardness was, in Spenser's opinion, a futile exercise, and was more likely to occasion revolt than to promote social accommodation (pp. 94-95).
Lest any should miss the drift of his argument, Spenser devoted the lengthy first section of his work (pp. 1-37) to demonstrating the specific shortcomings of the Old English reform strategy, and he returned repeatedly to these points throughout his discourse. By sponsoring the regnal act of 1541 and by encouraging the government to engage in compacts with Gaelic chieftains, the Old English members of that parliament had 'instead of so great and meritorious a service as they boast they performed to the king in bringing all the Irish to acknowledge him for their liege, [done] great hurt unto his title and [had] left a perpetual gall in the mind of that people' (p.9). This dramatic rejection of developments in which the Old English took pride, and which a recent historian has elevated to the plane of a constitutional revolution,6 was justified by Spenser's assertion that Henry VIII had inherited from his predecessor clear title to all of Ireland by the right of conquest, and that the recognition of this fact had made the Irish population 'bound to his obedience'. Now that this reality had been cast in doubt by the act of kingship, and now that the government had sought to win by persuasion the allegiance of the Gaelic chiefs, it was being suggested to them that they were bound to the English crown 'but with terms' where previously they recognized that 'their lives, their lands, and their liberties were in his free power to appoint what tenures, what laws, what conditions he would over them, against which there could be no rightful resistance; or if there were, he might when he would establish them with a stronger hand' (pp. 9-10).
The extension of the English common law to the entire population of Ireland which followed upon the events of 1541 had, in Spenser's opinion, inflicted a further hurt upon the king's interests because it enabled those who bore no respect for the common law to exploit its safeguards to serve their own advantage. Several instances of how such exploitation could occur were cited by Spenser, and almost all of these related to trial by jury. This system, which could operate successfully in England, was totally unsuited to Irish conditions where people considered themselves bound in conscience more by the will of their lord than by their oaths. Under such circumstances, Spenser averred, the Irish had no scruples over presenting false evidence or returning unfair verdicts when this served their own or their master's ends. As a consequence, Spenser claimed, grave injustice was being inflicted alike upon the crown and upon English settlers in Ireland, and these examples supported Spenser's more sweeping contentions that each system of law was appropriate only for that society which produced it, and that injustice would invariably result from any attempt to transfer law from one society to another 'according to the simple rule of right' (pp. 10-11, 21-31).
Having thus disposed of the Old English reform strategy, and having dismissed the Old English as potential reformers, the way was clear for Spenser in the third section of his work (pp. 91-170) to advance his own proposals. Like the Old English, Spenser stressed that the Irish were amenable to reform, but having rejected the notion that the English common law might be applied to them to achieve their regeneration he set himself to describe how it was possible 'to apply the people and fit them to the laws' (pp. 141-42).
The programme outlined by Spenser involved the pursuit of five sequential processes before the Irish population would attain a level of social development sufficiently advanced to enable them to derive benefit from the English commom law, the application of which would thereafter prevent them from relapsing to their former condition. The first process, lasting for about eighteen months, was the military one, whereby the English government would provide a force of 10,000 foot and 1,000 horse which would move against the principal seats of rebellion in the country (p. 98). It was recommended that the rebel leaders should be given an opportunity to submit, but that no quarter should be given in the event of their rejecting this overture for unconditional surrender. Those remaining in arms would be those who would 'never be made dutiful and obedient, nor brought to labour or civil conversation', and Spenser had no scruple about recommending the summary execution of those who were so addicted to 'a licentious life' that there was 'no hope of their amendment or recovery'. Having said this, he expressed himself satisfied that the amount of blood-letting would be negligible, and he predicted, on the basis of his experience in Munster, that far more people would die as a consequence of the famine which would result from the persistence of the rebel leaders with a hopeless struggle. Spenser considered this the most unfortunate aspect of his programme, and he was clearly moved to pity by the terrible scenes of starvation which he had witnessed during the previous war in Munster, and which he graphically described (p. 104).
But in describing this episode Spenser defended the actions of Lord Grey de Wilton, who had been accused by his enemies of being 'a bloody man' who regarded the lives of the queen's Irish subjects 'no more than dogs'. During that war, Spenser professed, 'there perished not many by the sword', and even then it was 'the necessity of that present state of things [which] enforced him to that violence'. Since the greatest loss of life among the Irish had been effected 'by the extremity of famine, which they themselves had wrought', Spenser found little difficulty in citing Grey's military endeavours as an example of the campaign that he envisaged for all of Ireland (pp. 104-06).
In doing so, however, Spenser indicated how the beneficial consequences of Grey's actions had been defeated because the queen had hearkened to those who criticized his actions, with the result that
the noble lord eftsoons was blamed, the wretched people pitied and new counsels plotted in which it was concluded that a general pardon should be sent over to all that would accept of it; upon which all former purposes were blanked, the governor at a bay, and not only all that great and long charge which she had before been at quite lost and cancelled, but also all that hope of good which was even at the door put back and clean frustrate, (p. 106)
Thus, as Spenser saw it, there was no point in the government undertaking the war against the crown's rebels in Ireland unless there was a firm determination to proceed to the second process, which involved placing the subdued country under military control and introducing English settlers to the confiscated lands of the erstwhile rebels (pp. 125-29).
The purpose behind the second process was to substitute a new focus of power and authority for the lords whose tyrannical rule was held responsible for corrupting the environment in which the Irish population lived. Existing septs and kinship groups were to be dissolved, and the Irish population was to be resettled on seignories, or in towns to be situated close to the proposed fortifications. There they were to be intermingled with English settlers who would instruct them in the ways of civil living and acquaint them with manufacturing skills and advanced agricultural methods. In this way an apparently military arrangement could become a first step towards the erection of 'that perfect establishment and new commonwealth' (p. 121) which Spenser envisaged for Ireland.
Once organized within this new framework, Spenser recommended that each Irishman should be sworn to the crown, and become a pledge for the loyalty of his neighbours. All would be obliged to pay a composition rent to the crown, which would meet the cost of maintaining soldiers in the country, and each province should be subject to a president and council who would have responsibility for the maintenance of civil order. The people, organized in hundreds, would be required to 'assemble themselves once every year with their pledges, and to present themselves before the justices of the peace which shall be thereunto appointed to be surveyed and numbered'. The purpose of these annual surveys was to detect any defectors from the new dispensation, and to ensure that every individual would have a surname peculiar to himself, as well as 'a certain trade of life'. By thus promoting individualism and self-sufficiency, and by insisting that English people be intermingled with the Irish population, it was hoped that the Irishman would 'not only not depend upon the head of [his] sept as now they do but also [would] in short time learn quite to forget his Irish nation'. This, it was believed, would bring the Irish to identify with their English superiors, thus effecting 'an union of manners and conformity of minds, to bring them to be one people'.7
Idleness was to be prohibited within this new arrangement, and those who had hitherto led an idle life, or who had concentrated on pastoral farming, were to devote themselves to intensive farming or be cut off by martial law. This stage of the reform process would thus open the way for the proper development and exploitation of Ireland's natural resources, and it was required that the first generation of Irishmen born into this new condition would be instructed at school
in grammar and in the principles of sciences …. whereby they will in short time grow up to that civil conversation that both the children will loathe the former rudeness in which they were bred, and also their parents will, even by the ensample of their young children, perceive the foulness of their own brutish behaviour compared to theirs, for learning hath that wonderful power of itself that it can soften and temper the most stern and savage nature.8
Once this stage had been attained the way was open for the missionary endeavour if 'some discreet ministers of their countrymen' who 'by their mild persuasions and instructions as also by their sober life and conversation, may draw them first to understand and afterwards to embrace the doctrine of their salvation' (p. 161). Finally it was conceded that upon the successful completion of this missionary endeavour the Irish population would have been sufficiently advanced to appreciate and derive full benefit from the operation of the English common law.
The novelty of the proposals being advanced by Spenser becomes apparent when we compare them with the issues that concerned political theorists in contemporary England. Like Spenser, they considered reform to be a worthy objective of government, but their principal concern in advocating reform was to uphold the status quo by forestalling social dislocation.9 Spenser on the other hand was dismissing the social order that he had witnessed in Ireland as unacceptable, and was providing a formula for its overthrow and for the erection of a new social order to replace it. In doing so Spenser was recommending innovation as a desirable end, and he cited necessity as a justifiable pretext for employing questionable means to the attainment of that end. This strictly secular approach, which bears striking resemblance to Machiavellian thought, was provided with a humane appearance by Spenser's insistence that the employment of the sword as an instrument of reform was altogether less destructive of human life than its alternative, the halter.10 Spenser also reiterated his claim that his objective was an essentially humanistic one, and his juxtaposing the barbarism of Ireland with the civility of England suggested that it was also a Christian objective. By thus focusing attention on the desirability of the ends which were held in prospect, he hoped to divert attention from any doubts that might be fostered over his citing necessity as a justification for action. Then, for the benefit of those whose faintheartedness derived from concern over the costs involved, Spenser laid emphasis on the material benefits which would accrue to England, no less than to Ireland, from the implementation of his programme.
The advanced character of the ideas enunciated by Spenser will be evident from this analysis, but it will now be shown that these ideas were commonplace among Spenser's English contemporaries in Ireland and that it was the circumstances in which they found themselves which forced them to adopt ideas which, initially at least, they did not find particularly congenial.
Almost every English-born author writing of Ireland during the 1580s and 1590s was insistent upon the development of a clearly-defined radical programme of reform which would involve the erection of a completely new commonwealth upon firm foundations. Most, like Spenser, had resort to surgical or horticultural metaphors, but one original spirit likened Ireland to an old cloak which had been patched and mended so frequently that it would bear with no further repair and required replacement.11 This insistence upon novelty implied a rejection of the conciliatory measures favoured by the Old English in Ireland, but many writers went beyond implications to launch an open attack upon the Old English and to question their very civility. These were most vulnerable to attack on account of their lack of enthusiasm for the established church, but Barnaby Rich, who had been berating the Old English for this ever since the 1560s, was (and saw himself to be) an isolated figure among the New English in Ireland.12 Then suddenly, in the 1580s, accusations such as Rich had always been associated with became a standard ingredient in the letters and tracts of the New English. The most strident critic of the Old English, against whom Barnaby Rich sounds moderate and tolerant, was Andrew Trollope, who composed two lengthy tracts on Ireland during the late 1580s.13 In the first of these he proved himself the most negative critic of the Gaelic Irish population, and his lurid description of their barbarism led him to the conclusion that they were not 'thrifty and civil or human creatures, but heathen or rather savage and brute beasts' (f. 97r). When launching on this description Trollope excluded, in conventional fashion, the residents of 'the walled towns' from his blanket condemnation of the Irish, but their exclusion was ignored as he proceeded, as when he remarked of the Old English that 'when they might get opportunity [they] spared not the committing of any kind of treason or mischief and manifested themselves to burning hatred and malice against all the English nation'. Support for this charge was provided by reference to an onslaught made by a mob in Waterford ('one of the civilest towns in Ireland') upon the wife of Sir William Drury, and to the popular expectation in Dublin that 'the throats of all the English nation had been cut at one instant' (ff. 98v-99r).
Incidents such as these were sufficient to satisfy Trollope that the outward appearance of civility presented by the Old English lawyers was no more than a veneer to cloak their evil intent. Those who attended service were declared hypocrites, and those Old English officials who partook of communion, and even Old English bishops, were found inadequate because some of their relatives were notorious Catholics. The advances made by the Counter-Reformation among the Old English justified Trollope's remark (to Burghley, f. 204r) that he would 'undertake sooner reform of religion [of] a country among the wild Irish than the English Pale', and he cited 'the chronicles and common experience' as proof that there had never been 'Irish man in authority which upon trial had proved a true subject'. This meant in effect, claimed Trollope (to Walsingham, ff. 99v-100v), that Ireland would never be reformed until 'true English hearts [would] rule there', and he called for the summary dismissal of 'all Irish councillors, Irish judges, and all Irish officers' as the first step towards reform.
But as well as dismissing the Old English strategy for reform and denouncing the Old English as would-be reformers, the New English had come increasingly to insist on their right to step outside the law when seeking to implement their programme. Richard Beacon, who had served with Spenser as an official on the provincial council of Munster, devoted an entire pamphlet, entitled Solon His Follie (Oxford, 1594), to the defence of Sir Richard Bingham, who had acknowledged that when serving as president of Connacht he had ignored legal niceties to prosecute those whom he suspected of plotting insurrection against the state. In Beacon's allegorical account of this episode, Bingham in Connacht was likened to a Roman general who was forced by necessity to take summary action against the rebellious Gauls who, if given time, would have been able to achieve his overthrow.
The defence of Bingham became as important as the defence of Lord Grey de Wilton to the New English in Ireland, and the fact that one John Merbury, a captain who had served under Bingham in Connacht, could advance rationalizations similar to those of Spenser and Beacon is one measure of the popularity these views enjoyed even among the less well educated of the New English. Merbury was concerned with proving 'it necessary to make war in Connacht', and he justified Bingham in taking the offensive because war was the means 'to have that province, and her realm of Ireland replenished with people'. 'Rigour', averred Merbury, 'hath his time in all governments', and its employment in the particular circumstances was justified because the number who would suffer was 'so small in respect of the multitude of the rest that in good policies and in the use of many old commonwealths the lives of so few have been thought well given for the preservation of so many'. Realizing, however, that this secular argument would provoke moral objections, Merbury posed the rhetorical question if it was 'against Christian policy for the safety of all the rest to punish by justice and utterly to root out a few inveterate tyrants ravening robbers and violent murderers of mankind?'. The question required no answer for Merbury, but by way of consolation for those whose consciences were not yet put at rest he protested that:
If the customs they pretend can stand with any law divine, natural or civil, if they can convey unto themselves any title of inheritance by succession lawful, or by good purchase to those lands they claim, I say God forbid they should be taken from them; yea I say more if they can present in good reason and not as rebels …. of fresh memory it might be thought wrong to take such their living from them. But on the otherside if they whom they have dispossessed by meer wrong make continual claim, have the help of the law on their side, by good means repossess their own, yield their duty to God first and to her Majesty their prince and country next. Wherefore then I say hath God ordained her Majesty prince over them, but to defend them and maintain them in their right against the destroyer?
Thus, as Merbury saw it, the government was required by moral not less than pragmatic considerations to dispense with due legal process whenever circumstances dictated that this best served its purpose. 'These carrion crows devour the seed, these weeds choke the corn: why should they not be killed and weeded out in time?'14 While Merbury recognized that conflict could occur, between the moral code by which officers of the crown should always be bound and the secular expedients that seemed to provide a solution to their difficulties, others did not admit of this possibility. Some even went so far as to suggest that no tension would exist as long as men were guided by reason in choosing their ends. Sir John Perrott, who served as lord deputy of Ireland in 1584-88, remarked that when discussing secular expedients 'a man should set aside God, who in government admitteth no policy that is besides, much less directly against, His will', but he then proceeded to demonstrate that when argued 'with good reason' the policy that would emerge would be in full conformity with Christian principles.15
Besides his concern to dovetail the new English reform programme with Christian morality, Perrott, again like Spenser and his contemporaries, drew attention to the material benefits that would derive from the implementation of the programme and cited these as evidence of its godly purpose. Lest men think that his call for 'severe correction' be considered 'a more cruel sentence' than he intended, Perrott emphasized that it was far from his purpose 'to desire any expiration, but rather that all might be saved that were good for the country to be saved'. While stressing the humane considerations that dictated restraint, Perrott also conceded that moderation was essential because 'otherwise there would be such a vacuity of ground there (as it is already too great) that your realm of England though it be most populous …. were not able to spare people to replenish the wastes'. Developing this point Perrott asserted that
scarce the fourth foot of Ireland [was] at this hour manured; and of that scarce the fourth penny profit made that the soil would yield, if through a reformation the husbandman might have a safe and peaceable use both of it and his cattle. And yet I say nothing of mines, and a number of other hidden commodities that a civil reformed government would bring with it. (sig. A4, B3)
Thus, as Perrott saw it, nothing should be permitted to stand in the way of reformation because the existing condition of Ireland was 'neither godly, nor honourable', whereas 'a reformation will breed competent wealth, and competent wealth containeth men in a liking obedience where desperate beggary runneth headlong to rebellion' (sig. D2).
Much the same point was developed by Andrew Trollope (to Walsingham f. 98) and, as was noted, this utilitarian rationalization also characterized Spenser's text. But while it is possible to demonstrate that several of Spenser's ideas enjoyed common currency among his contemporaries in Ireland, the most convincing evidence that Spenser's View was a representative statement is the striking similarity between his argument and that developed in the treatise Croftus, Sive de Hibernia composed by Sir William Herbert, a close neighbour and fellow planter with Edmund Spenser in Munster.16 Insufficiency and degeneracy of the earlier English settlers in Ireland was thought by Herbert to be principally responsible for the barbaric condition of Ireland, and, like Spenser, he advocated a thorough conquest followed by plantation as the only means to achieve a regeneration of Irish society. Herbert also identified various stages in the process of uplift, and he differed from Spenser only in advancing the missionary endeavour by two stages. This was possible in Herbert's scheme because he recognized the possibility of training missionaries to preach in the Irish language and of translating the Bible and religious discourses into Irish. In recommending this course of action, and in giving it practical demonstration on his Munster estate, Herbert made it quite clear (pp. 5455) that he was merely exploiting the Irish language as an instrument to hasten the Irish population to a level of civility equal to that of the English, at which point they would abandon their native language in favour of that of the conqueror.
These few example serve to sustain the point that Spenser's opinions were quite typical of those engaged upon the conquest of Ireland, and also make it clear that the View can no longer be regarded as the quick response of one individual to the overthrow by Irish rebels of the recently-established English settlement in Munster. The elegance of the discourse suggests that Spenser's View was composed only after long cognition, and the coincidence of opinion between himself and his contemporaries in Ireland suggests that Spenser engaged in discussion with his fellow planters and officials before he committed himself to paper. The outbreak of rebellion in Munster in 1594-95 may have added a new urgency to the composition and may explain its appearance in 1596, but we can safely assume that Spenser's View, like Herbert's Croftus, would have been written even without the overthrow of his plantation in Munster: a suggestion that becomes all the more plausible when it is recognized that it was the civil Old English of the Pale, rather than the rebellious population of Munster, who were isolated by Spenser for particular criticism. In seeking for the context in which the View was produced we must look therefore beyond the outbreak of rebellion in 1594 to seek for a general breakdown of relations between the more articulate members of the Old English community and the New English settlers in Ireland.
Tension between these two elements had been evident since at least the middle decade of the sixteenth century, and the Palesmen had repeatedly displayed their ability to exert influence over the queen and bring her to recall a lord deputy whose policies did not meet with their approval. Such endeavours had naturally produced friction between the Pale community and the English followers of the particular lord deputy, but did not have lasting effects, and successive governors were forced willy-nilly to combine whatever policy they favoured for Ireland with some variant upon the surrender and regrant strategy that had become an idée fixe with Old English reformers. This did much to win the acquiescence of political spokesmen from the Pale with continued rule from England; the alienation of the Palesmen from English rule was also avoided because most administrative and judicial posts in Dublin were held by people of Irish birth and because some English-born officials identified closely with the interests and ideas of the Pale community. This last development was facilitated by the conformity of most prominent Irish-born officials with the established church, and whatever their differences over policy, Old and New English were united by their mutual contempt for the Gaelic inhabitants of the island. Interest rather than principle explains the occasional breakdown in relations between the Pale community and their succession of governors that usually occurred when the governor's call for financial support from the Pale towards the maintenance of the army exceeded the communal perception of what was just and equitable.
This tense but highly predictable relationship between government and community suddenly gave way in 1579 to a collapse which resulted in the alienation of the Pale community from all English-born servitors in the country. Events of the following years exacerbated an already difficult situation, and by the mid 1580s it was acknowledged by both sides that mutual trust and understanding would never again be restored. Each side stove for the total victory which could only result from the destruction of the other, and it was against this background and in this atmosphere of mutual recrimination that Spenser's View and the other discourses that have been discussed were produced.
Religious considerations (the increasing attachment of English servitors to a more stridently Protestant position, and the gradual penetration of Counter-Reformation ideas within the Pale) contributed to the polarization between government and community, but of far greater consequence was the chain of events that followed upon the outbreak of the second Desmond rebellion in 1579. Gerald Fitzgerald, the fourteenth earl of Desmond, had long resented what he regarded as the intrusion upon his authority that resulted from the introduction of a provincial presidency in Munster, but he had studiously held back from the brink, and the government had made some tactful compromises to retain his allegiance. But official concern with compromise was abandoned once the earl's cousin, James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, returned from the continent backed by a Papally appointed force, and once the earl's brother, John of Desmond, symbolized his rejection of English rule by the murder of Captain Henry Davells. Here was evidence, protested the English-born officials in Dublin, of a general revolt of the Irish population against English rule, and their case for a general conspiracy spearheaded by the Pope was substantiated by the outbreak in July 1580 of a second religiously-inspired revolt, this time within the Pale itself and led by James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass.17 No opportunity should be lost, it was averred, to make an example of those of English descent who had so flagrantly made manifest their disobedience to the crown, and the government pressed home its advantage to track down and prosecute all who had engaged in the Munster rebellion.18
The ruthlessness with which the Earl of Desmond and his followers were pursued and the plans that were outlined for the future reorganization of Munster left the entire Old English community in disarray: first because the clear distinction that had previously been maintained in the treatment accorded Gaelic and Old English lords was now being suspended; and secondly because the implementation of the proposed plantation in Munster threatened to strengthen the position of the New English in Ireland, thus enabling them to challenge the dominant position hitherto enjoyed by the Old English in parliament and government. Thus, as the Old English saw it,' their very survival as a privileged élite depended upon their ability to frustrate the intentions of the New English, and the only means that they could see to achieving this was to seek to discredit all New English servitors in the eyes of the queen. The severe measures taken by Arthur Lord Grey de Wilton in the suppression of the rebellions in both Munster and the Pale provided the Old English with an ideal subject on which to base their allegations, and they pressed also for an official investigation of the conduct of Sir Richard Bingham as president in Connacht.19 The essential point being made was that no conspiracy existed, but that the Old English lords (who were well disposed towards the crown) were being goaded into rebellion by the harsh, ill-advised, and frequently illegal actions of English officials and soldiers whose only concern was self-advancement. This argument, and the investigations that produced evidence to substantiate it, were pursued with such persistence that the New English were thrown back on the defensive, and literature such as we have been considering was that produced in defence of their actions and ambitions.
The discussion of the context in which Spenser's View and other such works were produced will explain why the Old English were isolated for particular attack. But since the Old English had taken the initiative, the New English authors were forced to defend themselves in the terms that had been selected by their opponents, and the extent to which the terms of the exchange were set by the Old English will become evident from a study of a letter composed in 1581 by Sir Nicholas White, an Irish-born barrister who served as Master of the Rolls during the late sixteenth century. Borrowing the medical metaphors so beloved by the New English, White contended that his long service in Ireland had taught him 'by experience what things the stomach of that body can and cannot digest'. The reform of the Gaelic Irish was, he admitted, an intractable problem that called for severe measures, and his purpose in writing was to persuade the queen that the 'violent and warlike government' which might be appropriate for the Gaelic Irish should not be extended to the Old English population. The policy being pursued by the queen's officers in Ireland would, he averred, 'exhaust her Majesty's treasure, waste her revenue, depopulate the Pale, weaken her [Old] English nobility, that have been and may be made the security of this state, leave the wild Irish to their desires that be the peril thereof, and consume with misery of the wars her soldiers which she sendeth hither'. Of these possible consequences, the most serious in White's eyes was that of losing the traditional allegiance of the Old English nobility, and he emphasized 'what a strong garrison without pay the seed of English blood hath made to her crown since their first planting, which are easier reformed than supplanted and more to be esteemed for the priority of their tenures than others that seek by posteriority to go before'.20
The others being referred to by White were the New English servitors, and as well as providing details of their corruption and insensitivity, White questioned the motives that underlay their military policy. Those who advised the queen 'to spare for no cost to translate this kingdom of the new' were likened by White to 'artisans that persuade owners of ancient houses to pull them down for altering of fashion wherein they seek more their own setting a work than to do the owners' profit'. As White warmed to his theme he contrasted himself, a native of Ireland who through years of service had proved his concern for his country, with the New English 'malcontents' who would 'seek to better [their] state by change', and he concluded with the aphorism that 'innovations hath been in all ages accounted dangerous, and the busiest men that way be not the profitablest ministers'. By thus accusing the New English of being innovators, White was in effect identifying them with the political philosophy of Machiavelli which he knew to be repugnant to the queen and her advisers in England. The queen should, he claimed, avoid committing the government of Ireland 'to such as cannot govern themselves', lest it lose her the loyalty of her subjects; she should avoid 'the rooting out of ancient nobility' lest it alter the situation whereby she was 'of all her nobility feared for love, and not loved for fear'; she should avoid the appointment of 'judges that be bloody' lest their severe judgements 'work things of dangerous effects'; and he warned that the queen should above all avoid extending 'the uttermost of her correction' to those who were wanting in duty lest 'it may so happen that, thinking all law were ended, there might arise other men' more difficult to control. In other words, while advocating the merits of 'a temperate and peaceable government', White was hoping, by drawing attention to the chaos that would result from innovation, to deflect the queen from the policy being recommended to her by her officials in Ireland.
That Nicholas White was not alone in implying that the New English were being guided by the godless Machiavelli is evident from William Herbert's curt denial of the charge of 'being Italianated', stating that there was 'nothing more swerving from [his] conscience and course of life'.21 But deny what they would, the New English could not conceal the fact that innovation was their ambition and necessity their guiding principle, which explains their need to argue that a policy of innovation was dictated and justified by the moral imperatives of the particular situation. Then, as if by way of consolation to those who were not fully satisfied, the New English laid stress on the material benefits that would derive from their chosen course of action, and they looked forward to the day when the Irish population, once relieved from the tyranny of their lords, would recognise the good that was being placed before them and would thus come to embrace English culture and civility.
The New English were, as we have seen, forced to resort to these rationalizations in order to vindicate themselves in the eyes of the government in England, but it is also probable that the various arguments served to sustain those who engaged in the more gruesome aspects of the Elizabethan conquest. That the ideas of Spenser and his contemporaries did provide the New English with a sense of moral purpose is also suggested by the continued popularity of these ideas throughout the seventeenth century. John Davies, who had witnessed the completion of the conquest and was responsible both for arranging a plantation in Ulster and for extending English common law into the hitherto rebellious provinces, adhered rigidly to the ideas of Spenser when outlining his Discovery of the True Causes why Ireland was Never Entirely Subdued until the commencement of the reign of James I. Davies chose a historical framework for his work, and explained the failure of all previous attempts to bring Ireland to subjection by reference to the failure of successive monarchs to recognize the parallel between good husbandry and good government:
For the husbandman must first break the land before it be made capable of good seed: and when it is thoroughly broken and manured, if he do not forthwith cast good seed into it, it will grow wild again, and bear nothing but weeds. So a barbarous country must be first broken by a war before it will be capable of good government; and when it is fully subdued and conquered, if it be not well planted and governed after the conquest, it will eftsoons return to the former barbarism.
The first to recognize the parallel, claimed Davies, was Queen Elizabeth, who duly broke the country by war and who thus made it possible for him, as the attorney general of King James I, to set about planting and governing the country. There was no doubt in his mind that the plans laid by himself for a mixed plantation of settler and native in the province of Ulster would produce a more prosperous and harmonious outcome than any previous effort at colonization in Ireland. But since Davies, like Spenser, believed 'the principal mark and effect of a perfect conquest' to be the extension of 'laws to a conquered people', he took special satisfaction from the eagerness with which the Irish population availed themselves of the benefit of English common law. Even then, Davies realized that he operated in a period of transition and that it would continue to be necessary for law to 'make her progress and circuit about the realm, under the protection of the sword (as Virgo the figure of Justice is by Leo in the Zodiac) until the people have perfectly learned the lesson of obedience and the conquest be established in the hearts of all men'. Judging from the evidence of improvement that he witnessed about him, Davies did not think it long before this would be accomplished, and he looked forward eagerly to 'the next generation' who would 'in tongue and heart, and every way else become English; so as there [would] be no difference or distinction but the Irish sea between us'.22
Belying the optimism of Davies was, however, his suspicion of closely-knit kinship groups the members of which would 'assemble and conspire, and rise in multitudes against the crown', and would 'even now, in the time of peace', hinder 'an indifferent trial …. between the king and the subject, or between party and party, by reason of this general kindred and consanguinity' (pp. 172-73). This, we will recall, was seen by Spenser as the principal obstacle in the way of reform in Ireland, and Davies's acknowledgement that Irish kinship groups were still dominant in particular areas was an admission on his part that Spenser's prescription for reform had not been adhered to in every detail.
This was so obvious to one of Davies's contemporaries that he donned the mantle of Spenser under the pseudonym 'E.S.' and presented King James with A Survey of the Present Estate of Ireland, Anno 1615. The purpose of the author's survey was to measure the extent to which Spenser's advice had been followed, and he concluded, on the basis of his knowledge of conditions in Munster, that the conquest had not been fully implemented and that the educative and missionary aspect of the programme had been totally neglected. This meant that the indigenous lords still enjoyed excessive authority over the population and were able to provide support and patronage to seminary priests who, in turn, were taking it upon themselves to adjudicate upon disputes between the king's subjects. The extension of common law, the advancement of English to displace Irish as the dominant language of the country, and the progress of the reformation in Ireland were all thought to be hindered by these impediments to reform. Even more disastrous, in the opinion of E.S., was the decay of the recently-established plantation in Munster because the settlers, having been situated in an environment which was still corrupt, had succumbed to that corruption in the same way that all previous English settlers in Ireland had done. If anything was to survive of the Munster plantation it was essential, claimed E.S., that the settlers be strictly segregated from the natives until such time as those had been freed from the tyranny of their lords and had been exposed to the full thrust of the projected effort towards education and reform. Failing that, claimed E.S., there was nothing in prospect but a relapse of Ireland to its former barbarism:
Every Irish lord in this country doth hold it for a principal maxim to keep his tenants and vassals in ignorance, not suffering a schoolmaster to come amongst them, nor suffer them to learn to speak English, because they shall neither understand God, the King, nor his laws, but repair always to their lord who is the man that they say under God knows and can do all things, and their prayer is God, our Lady and my Lord such a one help me, and their ordinary oath is by their lord's hand.23
This criticism was quite close to that offered previously by Edmund Spenser and his contemporaries, and it was also commonplace among English settlers in Ireland who were almost driven to despair by the crown's reluctance to have them push the conquest of Ireland to its conclusion. The continued popularity and relevance of Spenser to planters in Ireland explains why Spenser's View, which had previously circulated in manuscript, was finally published in Dublin in 1633, and we can assume that it provided wonderful consolation to the New English planters when they struggled with Thomas Wentworth (afterwards Earl of Strafford) to retain political and social control over the country of their adoption.24
But while all the New English planters in Ireland felt threatened by the survival of knots of kinship within the Irish lordships, they did not all agree with E.S. that they should stand aloof from the Irish population who lived within those parts of the country which had been brought under effective planter control. Native cultivators of the soil were seen to be essential to the economical survival of the planters, who could justify retaining them in their midst by claiming that they were being reformed by the example of civil living presented to them by the settler population. This concern to justify a departure from the strict letter of Spenser's prescription goes some way towards explaining the attention devoted by the principal planters to the promotion of manufacturing centres and advanced agriculture on their estates: all of which they described as works of charity. Their success in attracting many Irish to participate in these endeavours satisfied them that they had been correct not only in choosing, with Spenser, the sword instead of the halter, but in choosing to accelerate the reform stage of Spenser's programme and to permit mixed plantation within their own spheres of influence even before the desired conquest had been implemented throughout the country as a whole.25
The confidence and optimism of the planters was particularly evident in their strong attachment to place, and in their assumption of the description 'Irishman' at a time when the long established Catholic settlers of Norman descent had, for political reasons, taken to describing themselves as Old English. But the confidence and complacency which had previously characterized planter society in Ireland suddenly gave way to fear and suspicion with the unexpected outburst of rebellion in 1641. The planters more than ever protested their attachment to the localities that had been recently developed and improved by themselves, and they took credit for having been 'the introducers of all good things to Ireland'. But the description 'Irish', which they had previously inclined towards, was now utterly rejected as something contemptible, and they proclaimed themselves British Protestants who had been set upon by the Irish 'barbarians', who had both declined the hand of friendship that had been extended towards them and had, by their mindless destruction, 'endeavoured quite to extinguish the memory of [the planters] and of all the civility and good things by them introduced amongst all that wild nation'.26
In this atmosphere of hate and revenge it was to be expected that Spenser's preference for the sword over the halter would be reversed, and the call now was for execution and for an abandonment of any effort to reform a people who, by their actions, had shown themselves unworthy of commiseration. Many of the English who came in Cromwell's army to suppress the revolt were of this same opinion, and one of their number, Captain Richard Lawrence, advocated a rigid policy of apartheid in a pamphlet entitled The Interest of England in the Irish Transplantation Stated (Dublin, 1655).27 By this time, however, the initial shock of the rebellion had been absorbed and wiser counsels were beginning to prevail even in England, where one brave spirit recommended that 'he that desire to advance the plantation of Ireland can hardly find better hints than are in Mr. Ed. Spenser his View of the State of Ireland, published almost three score years ago, 1596'.28 But by then this advice was hardly necessary for those who had been previously involved with Ireland, because they recognized that a strict policy of segregation would spell economic disaster for themselves. This explains why Vincent Gookin, a Munster planter and prominent political figure among the New English, rushed immediately to contradict the contentions made by Lawrence. Mixed plantation was, protested Gookin, a sound method of settlement once political dominance had been achieved over the Irish, because the planters might then 'safely taste the good of the Irish without fearing the ill'.29
What Gookin had to say was in strict conformity with Spenser's thinking, and it is significant that the next author writing anonymously (from the planter's perspective) on the subject of reform of the Irish should adopt a title, The Present State of Ireland, Together with some Remarks upon the Ancient State Thereof (London, 1673), which was reminiscent of Spenser's discourse. The efforts at settlement previous to 1641 had, however laudable, suffered from one major defect in that they had been attempted before the conquest of the country had been fully implemented. The planters in Ireland had failed, according to this anonymous writer, to 'translate the ancient inhabitants to other dwellings', and by leaving them undisturbed in their traditional places of habitation had 'left the old inhabitants to shift for themselves, who being strong in body and daily increasing in number …. would undoubtedly be ready, when any occasion offered itself, to disturb our quiet'. The occasion had come in 1641, but the author was satisfied that this had provided the planters with an opportunity to rectify the previous deficiency by implementing a total conquest of the country. Thus, as he saw the situation in 1673, 'the eternal peace of Ireland which was so solidly discoursed of and stoutly fought for in Queen Elizabeth's time; and very far proceeded in by King James I, had been absolutely perfected …. according to all human appearance by the last settlement of Ireland confirmed by his gracious Majesty King Charles the Second' (pp. 59, 74).
Because the conquest had been fully implemented, the author of The Present State of Ireland believed there was 'no need to fear as formerly' since the 'numerous habitations in most parts of the kingdom' would 'draw the Irish from their wonted barbarism', while the English would 'no longer lapse to barbarism through intermarriage' (p. 74). By thus laying stress on the environmental transformation that had occurred, this author was placing himself in the direct tradition of Spenser, whose ideas now served to provide planters in Ireland with a sense of mission, and of identity. The development of yet another rebellion at the end of the seventeenth century occasioned some planters to regret that they had not resorted to the halter in preference to the sword, but optimism was restored with the suppression of that rebellion, and the Protestant ascendancy of the eighteenth century symbolized their confidence in the future by promoting manufacturing on their estates and by creating artificial towns and villages.30 In practice these did little to achieve the uplift of the native population, which would have been evidenced in the final analysis by their identification with the established church, but the effort did much to satisfy the Protestant population that they had a positive role in Ireland and that, with Spenser (View, p. 2), they believed 'nothing so hard but that through wisdom may be mastered and subdued, since the poet says that the wise man shall rule even over the stars, much more over the earth'.
1A View of the Present State of Ireland, edited by W. L. Renwick (Oxford, 1970), is referred to hereafter as View, with page references in the text.
2 See View, pp. 188-90; Brendan Bradshaw, 'Sword, Word and Strategy in the Reformation in Ireland', Historical Journal, 21 (1978), 475-502, and 'The Elizabethans and the Irish: A Muddled Model', Studies, 70 (1981), 233-44.
3 Two volumes (Cambridge, 1978).
4 See Foundations, I, x-xv, and 'Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas', History and Theory, 8 (1969), 3-53.
5 See Nicholas Canny, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A Pattern Established, 1565-76 (Brighton, 1976), pp. 116-36.
6 Brendan Bradshaw, The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, 1979).
7View, pp. 140-56 (pp. 153, 156).
8View, pp. 156-59. (p. 159).
9 See G. R. Elton, Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal (Cambridge, 1973); Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London, 1964).
10 See Skinner, Foundations, 1, 128-38; Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini (Princeton, 1965); J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1975), especially pp. 156-82; View, p. 95.
11 ' See, for an example of the more common treatment, the anonymous 'Discourse for the Government of Ireland' (P.R.O., S.P. 63/87/81, f. 28).
12 See, 'Book of Barnaby Rich on the Reformation in Ireland', 1589 (P.R.O., S.P. 63/144/35, ff. 104-13); Rich to Burghley, 20 May 1591 (P.R.O., S.P. 63/158/12, ff. 21-23).
13 Andrew Trollope to Walsingham, 12 September 1585 (P.R.O., S.P. 63/85/39, ff. 96v-102r); Trollope to Burghley, 26 October 1587 (P.R.O., S.P. 63/131/64, ff. 200v-204r).
14 Captain John Merbury on Revolt in Connacht, 27 September 1589 (P.R.O., S.P. 63/146/57, ff. 177-79).
15 E.C.S., The Government of Ireland under Sir John Perrott, 1584-8 (London, 1626), sig. D1-D2
16 Edited by W. E. Buckley (London, 1887).
17 See A New History of Ireland, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne, Volume III, Early Modern Ireland 1534-1691 (Oxford, 1976), pp. 105-15, 107.
18 For the government's determination in this respect see Geoffrey Fenton to Burghley, 6 December 1583 (P.R.O., S.P. 63/106/4).
19 On Connacht during this period see Bernadette Cunningham, 'Political and Social Change in the Lordships of Clanricard and Thomond, 1569-164' (M.A. thesis, University College, Galway, 1979).
20 Nicholas White to Burghley, 23 December 1581 (P.R.O., S.P. 63/87/55, ff. 151r-52v).
21 Sir William Herbert to Sir Valentine Browne, 1 January 158/9 (P.R.O., S.P. 63/140/14).
22A Discovery of the True Causes why Ireland was Never Entirely Subdued, and Brought under Obedience of the Crown of England, until the Beginning of His Majestie's Happy Reign (London, 1612), pp. 4-5, 100, 74, 272.
23A Survey of the present Estate of Ireland, Anno 1615, Addressed to His Most Excellent Majesty James the First…. by His Most Humble Subject E:S (San Marino, California, Huntington Library, EL. 1746), ff. 10r-15V. This vellum-bound tract was obviously the work of an individual who had been engaged upon the plantation effort in Munster.
24 For the New English struggle with Wentworth see H. F. Kearney, Strafford in Ireland, 1633-41 (Manchester, 1961).
25 This point is developed in Nicholas Canny, The Upstart Earl: A Study of the Social and Mental World of Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, 1566-1643 (Cambridge, 1982), see especially pp. 19-40, 124-38.
26 Gerard Boate, Ireland's Natural History (London, 1652), pp. 89, 114. Although composed by two Dutch scientists, Arnold and Gerard Boate, who accompanied Cromwell's army to Ireland, the ideas expressed there can be accepted as those of the New English because the authors 'discussed the matter with several gentlemen who had been to Ireland, especially Sir William Parsons and Sir Richard Parsons'.
27 The author recommended that the English in Ireland settle apart even from those Irish 'late deemed converts to the Protestant religion' (p. 18).
28 This is a statement from the paper Perfect Diurnali, No. 130, 7 June 1652, p. 1928. I am grateful to my colleague Dr Tadgh Foley for this reference.
29The Author and Case of Transplanting …. Vindicated (London, 1655), pp. 40-41.
30 See L. M. Cullen, The Emergence of Modern Ireland, 1600-1900 (London, 1981), especially pp. 39-60. It will be clear that the present author disagrees fundamentally on this point with Brendan Bradshaw, who has written that Ireland emerged from the seventeenth century 'with an apartheid constitution in law and in practice, religion providing the criterion for discrimination. The protestant ascendancy had acquired a strong incentive to leave Ireland for the greater part Catholic' ('Sword, Word and Strategy', p. 502).
Robin Headlam Wells (essay date 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11452
SOURCE: "To Sound Her Praises: Introduction," in Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Cult of Elizabeth, Barnes & Noble Books, 1983, pp. 1-28.
[In the following excerpt from a study of The Faerie Queene in relation to the cult of Elizabeth, Wells analyzes Spenser's use of allegory to honor Queen Elizabeth.]
1. The Poetry of Praise
Spenser had completed six books of The Faerie Queene when he published the Amoretti in 1595. The apologetic tone of sonnet no. 33 suggests that he probably knew that his original plans for a poem consisting of twelve books devoted to the 'priuate morali vertues', to be followed by another twelve devoted to the 'polliticke vertues',2 would never be realized. But more important than what this sonnet tells us of Spenser's state of mind is what it says concerning the purpose of his epic. As a poetic tribute to Elizabeth, The Faerie Queene was intended to 'enlarge her prayses'.
Renaissance criticism, following a tradition going back at least as far as Plato, accorded a special status to the poetry of praise.3 Puttenham, in his defence of the dignity of poetry, claims that, second only to poetry written in praise of the immortal gods, is that which honours 'the worthy gests of noble Princes.'4 However humble his own position might be, the poet could lay claim to a unique office, since he alone was able to offer the glory of immortality through verse. As Spenser himself remarks in a sonnet addressed to the Earl of Northumberland:
The sacred Muses haue made alwaies clame
To be the Nourses of nobility,
And Registres of euerlasting fame.5
In the Renaissance it was believed that the highest poetic kind was the epic, and most critics were agreed that the function of epic was essentially epideictic, that is, to display the virtues of some great man as a pattern for emulation.6 The poem which was universally held to be the supreme example of its genre was the Aeneid. Donatus, writing in the fourth century, claimed that 'If anyone wants to measure Virgil's genius, his morality, the nature of his speech, his knowledge, character, and skill in rhetoric, he must first learn whom he undertakes to praise in his poem.'7 This view of the Aeneid is repeated in Fulgentius's De Contentia Virgiliana (e. sixth century), a work which has been described as 'the most characteristic monument we possess of Vergil's celebrity during the times of Christian barbarism'.8 Although Fulgentius's commentary turns the Aeneid into something akin to a medieval allegory of Everyman in which epic combats are seen as psychomachia, the underlying conception of the poem as 'panegyrical biography'9 is one which formed the basis of most Renaissance interpretations of Virgil. As late as 1715 it was argued that
the whole Aeneis of Virgil may be said to be an allegory, if we consider Aeneas as representing Augustus Caesar and his conducting the remains of his countrymen from the ruins of Troy to a new settlement in Italy as emblematical of Augustus' modelling a new government out of the ruins of the aristocracy and establishing the Romans, after the confusion of the civil war, in a peaceable and flourishing condition."10
Such a view of the Aeneid is also substantially Spenser's. Indeed it has been claimed that 'Of all sixteenth-century epics, none better illustrates the continuity of the Fulgentius tradition than Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. '11 That Spenser himself wished The Faerie Queene to be identified with this tradition is apparent from the way he deliberately modelled his own poetic career on Virgil's example. Already in the 'October' eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender we find him alluding to the passage in the third book of the Georgics (10-30) where Virgil speaks of the heroic poem he intends to write in honour of Augustus. To Piers's suggestion that he turn from lesser matters and honour 'fayre Elisa' by singing 'of bloody Mars, of wars, of giusts', Cuddie replies that he has indeed heard of how 'Romish Tityrus'
If Spenser's choice of the pastoral mode for his apprentice work is clearly based on Virgil's example, it is well known also that he closely identified the epic poem he was anticipating in these lines with the Aeneid12
To describe The Faerie Queene as a poem of praise belonging to a long tradition of epideictic poetry is not, of course, to say anything new. Many critics have asserted what Spenser himself tells us in his letter to Ralegh, namely that The Faerie Queene was designed as a glorification of Elizabeth and the British nation.13 However, although Cain is right in saying that 'Spenser's great poem exists to praise Elizabeth',14 this does not mean that it is merely an elaborate vehicle for flattery. The purpose of epideictic poetry is essentially moral. The special nature of the responsibilities assumed by the panegyrist is perhaps best explained by Erasmus writing in 1504:
Those who believe panegyrics are nothing but flattery seem to be unaware of the purpose and aim of the extremely far-sighted men who invented this kind of composition, which consists in presenting princes with a pattern of goodness, in such a way as to reform bad rulers, improve the good, educate the boorish, reprove the erring, arouse the indolent, and cause even the hopelessly vicious to feel some inward stirrings of shame.15
In proclaiming the moral function of praise Erasmus is rehearsing a commonplace of classical and Renaissance poetics;16 he is also anticipating the treatise which he presented to his own patron twelve years later on the occasion of his appointment as counsellor to Charles V (then Archduke of Burgundy). As a speculum principis, The Education of a Christian Prince belongs to an ancient tradition of hortatory treatises on the subject of kingship.17 Although Erasmus characterizes his book as a work of praise,18 his object is an ethical one. Underlying his portrait of the Christian ruler are two principles which are also fundamental to the conception of The Faerie Queene as a mirror for Elizabeth: first, that the prince, as God's deputy on earth, is to be seen as performing a function in the hierarchy of the state analogous to that performed by God in the universal order of things (pp. 158-9), and second, that upon the moral character of the prince depends the well-being of the state (p. 157). By defining the characteristics of the ideal prince and comparing these with an image of the corrupt ruler, Erasmus is in effect creating a pattern of Christian conduct to which all men should aspire. Informing the whole book is the humanist belief in the moral value of learning. As Spenser says in The Teares of the Muses,
By knowledge wee do learne our selues to knowe,
And what to man, and what to God wee owe.
From hence wee mount aloft vnto the skie,
And looke into the Christall firmament …
The Faerie Queene does not offer the reader a scheme of practical education; nevertheless, as a moral poem which undertakes to instruct the reader in the nature of virtue, it testifies to the belief—central to Erasmus's thought, and indeed to the humanist movement as a whole—that knowledge brings us nearer to God. As one recent critic has said, the various books of the poem trace 'a sequence displaying the dignity of man, a progression of learning for the reader'.19
In so far as he is presenting his reader with an image of princely magnificence in the figure of Arthur, Spenser may be seen to be writing within a clearly defined tradition of treatises on kingship. But when he announces his intention of fashioning 'a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline',20 it is the courtesy book rather than the prince's mirror with which his poem may best be compared.21 Many scholars have written on Spenser's debt to the courtesy tradition and to Castiglione in particular.22 Whereas the speculum concerns itself with the virtues of the ideal prince and offers advice on the art of government, the courtesy book is less specialized in its subject matter and deals with the education and accomplishments of noblemen and courtiers. In their most elementary form Renaissance courtesy books were little more than manuals of self-improvement. However, the more serious writers of the period are unanimous in their insistence that the courtier's accomplishments are worth nothing if they are not devoted to the cause of realizing what Sir Thomas Elyot terms the 'iuste publike weale'.23 Castiglione's claim that the courtier must employ his accomplishments as a means of gaining the goodwill and favour of his prince and that he should use the influence he wins in this way to supply the prince with virtuous counsel,24 is a favourite maxim among Renaissance humanists.
The close similarities between the speculum principis and the courtesy book are illustrated in the work of Castiglione's most celebrated English imitator.25 Addressed to Henry VIII, The Boke Named the Governour is both a manual on the art of government which offers its dedicatee a portrait of the ideal ruler, and at the same time a handbook of education for the sons of English gentlemen. Of the vast number of pedagogic treaties which appeared in the sixteenth century, Elyot's book is arguably the most important so far as Spenser is concerned. Indeed it has been claimed that The Governour and The Faerie Queene 'have almost identical aims'.26 Although this is an exaggeration, it is true that Spenser, like Elyot, does combine elements of the speculum principis with certain features of the courtesy book. That Spenser saw these two functions of his poem as aspects of a single meaning is clear from his statement in the letter to Ralegh of his intentions regarding the character of Prince Arthur. As Virgil had combined features of Homer's Agamemnon and his Ulysses in the single figure of Aeneas, says Spenser, so Arthur is to be seen as a composite figure representing 'a good gouernour and a vertuous man'.27
Spenser's general intention may be summed up, then, as being to praise Elizabeth by presenting her with a portrait of the ideal ruler—a portrait which she would recognize as her own, but which would at the same time serve as a pattern of conduct for her courtiers. Summarized in this way The Faerie Queene sounds not unlike a versification of The Governour. What this account does not recognize is the political dimension of Spenser's poem. In addition to its pedagogic aspect, The Faerie Queene is a national epic whose purpose is to celebrate Queen Elizabeth as the predestined ruler of an elect nation. In this respect it has more in common with the Aeneid than with The Governour. In celebrating a national ideal Spenser, like Virgil, employs one of the favourite topoi of the epideictic poet and constructs a genealogy—part mythical and part historical—in which he traces his prince's ancestry to its supposedly divine origins. Since it is sometimes claimed that the Elizabethans were quite uncritical in their appetite for literature dealing with the mythical history of their country …., it is important to consider the status of Spenser's genealogical material, particularly with regard to his use of typology as a means of proclaiming the predestinate nature of Elizabeth's rule.
2. Allegory and Typology
In one of the commendatory verses annexed to The Faerie Queene (chosen, no doubt, for the aptness of its sentiments rather than its poetic merit) explicit comparison is made between Spenser and Virgil:
Graue Muses march in triumph and with prayses,
Our Goddesse here hath giuen you leaue to land:
And biddes this rare dispenser of your graces
Bow downe his brow vnto her sacred hand.
Desertes findes dew in that most princely doome,
In whose sweete brest are all the Muses bredde:
So did that great Augustus erst in Roome
With leaues of fame adorne his Poets hedde.
Faire be the guerdon of your Faery Queene,
Euen of the fairest that the world hath seene.28
Although Spenser never won the royal patronage which the author of these verses anticipates, his poem has much in common with Virgil's. Indeed the similarities between the Aeneid and The Faerie Queene would have appeared far more striking to the Renaissance reader than they do to us. The modern student, familiar with the idea that The Faerie Queene has a number of different levels of meaning, might possibly be surprised to be told that the Aeneid had a similar fourfold significance. But in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was commonly accepted that, in addition to its literal significance, Virgil's narrative embodied certain moral and political meanings. Boccaccio, for example, tells us that 'concealed within the veil' ('sub velamento latet poetico') of the story of Aeneas's abandonment of Dido are three ulterior purposes: first, to offer a universal moral truth concerning the need to subdue the destructive passions; second, to glorify Augustus by praising Aeneas's steadfast devotion to his political destiny; and third to celebrate the martial successes of the Roman people in terms of the events which prefigured these triumphs.29
Boccaccio's interpretation of Virgil is clearly based on the analogy of contemporary scriptural exegesis. But although he speaks of the poet's fourfold purpose, his method cannot properly be compared with that of a true allegorist like Aquinas. For, of the three levels of meaning which Boccaccio finds in addition to the literal significance of Virgil's narrative, it is only the first which is, strictly speaking, allegorical (in this case, tropological); the latter two are typological. The distinction is important. Where moral allegory is usually timeless and characteristically involves the use of signs—more or less arbitrary in themselves—to point to moral or spiritual truths which have a universal applicability, typology reveals a pattern in the course of history by establishing connections between events or persons which have a historical reality.30 For Boccaccio there was no more need to explain the difference between allegory and typology than there was for Spenser, writing some 300 years later. However, such a way of reading literature belongs essentially to a pre-modern culture; and the twentieth-century critic must spell out distinctions which would have been self-evident to Boccaccio's and Spenser's readers.
The literary use of typology is familiar enough to students of medieval drama.31 However, unlike the medieval writer, who is dramatizing events which—so far as he is concerned—have a historical reality, Spenser creates an imaginary world. In establishing parallels between the fictional characters who inhabit this world and the real historical person whom they prefigure, Spenser is attributing a providential significance to contemporary events in much the same way that the New Testament writer sees in the past a series of figures prognosticating Christ. But the analogy is not a true one. Where the New Testament writer concerns himself only with historical realities, Spenser creates characters which are, for the most part, purely fictional. This mingling of the fictional and the real presents critical problems of a very different nature from those associated with the miracle play. Because these problems have received scant critical attention and because, as a consequence, there is some confusion about what we mean when we speak of typology in The Faerie Queene,32 it is necessary to rehearse a subject whose general principles are by now well established.33
As an exegetical method typology originates in St Paul and other New Testament writers who interpreted certain events and persons in the Old Testament as …. prefigurations of Christ; as a method of composition, however, typology antedates the Christian era. Medieval and Renaissance commentators on the Aeneid were fully aware, as we have seen, of the way Virgil links events widely separated in time in order to show that they form steps in an historical progression culminating in the reign of Augustus.34 If the patterns of recurrence and prefiguration we find in the Aeneid bear similarities to those in the Bible, this is because they are the product of a similar view of history. Typology is essentially the product of a theory of history which sees events not simply as sequence, but as significant elements of a divine plan. Such a providential view of history is not, of course, unique to Christendom.
In praising his sovereign, Spenser, like Virgil, used typology to suggest that her reign had been anticipated or foreshadowed by events in the ancient past. Whether Virgil intended the allegorical meanings his medieval commentators found in the Aeneid we shall probably never know; with Spenser we are on surer ground. We know that, in addition to its historical aspect, The Faerie Queene is a 'continued Allegory, or darke conceit' designed to illustrate a humanist ideal of moral conduct. This mixing of allegory and typology is one of the characteristic features of the poem. On the one hand there are purely allegorical characters such as Furor, or Malbecco, who clearly have no typological significance; on the other hand there are characters like Belphoebe, whose significance is primarily typological and who tell us very little about the nature of the virtue which they supposedly represent. Between these two extremes are those characters such as Mercilla or Britomart who are both 'historical' types foreshadowing their antitype, Queen Elizabeth, and also allegorical symbols of the virtues which form the subjects of the books in which they appear.
We must be clear, however, exactly what is implied by describing a character like Britomart as a type of Queen Elizabeth. The Faerie Queene is a poem which makes extensive use of prophecy and historical parallelism. But these do not in themselves necessarily involve typology. For example, in the final stanza of the proem to Book V Spenser invokes his muse:
The terms in which Spenser addresses his 'Souerayne Goddesse' make it impossible to say whether he is speaking to Astraea or Queen Elizabeth. In fact, of course, he is doing both. Behind the familiar Elizabethan identification of the Queen with the goddess of justice lies the prophetic annunciation of Virgil's fourth Eclogue: 'iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna'. It was to these famous words that chroniclers like Richard Nicols were alluding when they hailed Elizabeth's reign as a return to the golden age:
No sooner did this Empires royall crowne
Begirt the temples of her princelie hed;
But that love-borne Astraea straight came downe
From highest heauen againe, to which in dread
Of earths unpietie before shee fled:
Well did shee know, Elizaes happie reigne
Would then renew the golden age againe.35
But if Spenser, like so many of his contemporaries, is suggesting that Elizabeth represents the fulfilment of Virgilian prophecy, that she is indeed Astraea rediviva, this does not mean that the relationship is typological. For an antitype is not a reincarnation of the type by which it has been anticipated, but a fulfilment of its hidden meaning. In a truly typological relationship type and antitype always retain their separate identities. It would be improper, therefore, to describe as typological that form of prophetic recurrence which is in fact a recapitulation, though, as we shall see, prophecy does not exclude typology.
It may help to clarify the unique relationship between type and antitype if we consider another form of reiterative relationship in The Faerie Queene which is, nevertheless, not typological. When Paridell abducts Malbecco's wife Hellenore (III, x, 1 ff.) in a crude reenactment of the tale he had been telling Britomart the previous evening (III, ix, 33-7), we scarcely need to be told by the narrator that his lover is 'a second Hellene' (13), or that the firing of Malbecco's castle recalls the sack of Troy (12). But although Paridell and Hellenore are clearly linked both by name and temperament with their notorious forbears, they are not their antitypes. In no sense can they be said to reveal the true significance of the past. Paridell the seducer and Hellenore the faithless wife are human stereotypes who tell us no more about their originals than Paris and Helen tell us about them. The relationship is simply analogical. By investing this allegory of concupiscence, infidelity and jealousy with historical echoes, Spenser is doing no more than reminding his reader that human nature is the same in all ages, and that what was capable of bringing about chaos in the past is still capable of doing so now.
Paridell, Hellenore and Malbecco are personifications of the moral evils against which Britomart is pledged to fight; as the champion of fidelity she is the allegorical antithesis of everything they represent. But when Spenser describes this 'Magnificke Virgin' (V, vii, 21) in terms which evoke her illustrious descendant, Queen Elizabeth, he is writing not as an allegorist, but as a typologist. For it is only in the distant future when another 'royall virgin'—celebrated, like Britomart, for her chastity—shall come to rule a divided world, that the true meaning of Britomart's 'perillous emprize' will be revealed (III, iii, 48-9). Although her reign has been prophesied by Merlin, Elizabeth is not a reincarnation of Britomart, but a fulfilment of the divine historical plan foreshadowed in the deeds of her heroic ancestress.
It would be wrong to suggest that The Faerie Queene cannot be understood without making these distinctions. Nevertheless, they are ones which Spenser's contemporaries regarded as significant,36 and some awareness of them may sharpen our understanding of the kind of poem The Faerie Queene is. If Spenser treats characters like Britomart, now as types of Elizabeth, now as allegorical symbols, we may reasonably assume that this is not because he was as confused as a good many of his twentieth-century readers are about the difference between typology and allegory, but because such a technique was to some extent dictated by his 'whole intention' in writing The Faerie Queene. As an epideictic poet he is attempting both to define an abstract ideal of 'vertuous and gentle discipline' as a pattern for emulation, and also to praise Queen Elizabeth as predestined ruler of a chosen people. To accomplish this latter purpose Spenser made use of two quite separate typological traditions: a classical tradition and a Christian tradition. The body of classical legend which forms part of the mythical background of The Faerie Queene is well known and need not detain us long; the Christian material, though familiar to Spenserians in principle, is deployed in a more extensive and systematic fashion than is generally recognized. In the remaining sections of this introduction I shall try to show how Spenser combines this heterogeneous material to reveal the providential nature of Elizabeth's reign.
3. The Myth of Troy
Although she is referred to only through the medium of prophecy, and then not by her own name, Queen Elizabeth nevertheless dominates The Faerie Queene in much the same way that Augustus's presence can be felt throughout the Aeneid, in spite of the fact that he never actually appears in the poem. As protagonists in absentia Augustus and Elizabeth have much in common: each is portrayed as the instrument of a providential purpose, a peace-bringer descended from the gods, who is at the same time a dispenser of ruthless justice. To enforce the parallel Spenser begins The Faerie Queene with a direct allusion to the Aeneid?37 But undue emphasis should not be given to this initial echoing of Virgil, for in the poem as a whole there is little explicit verbal parallelism. Although certain incidents, such as Duessa's journey to the underworld in Book I, canto v, for example, are loosely based on passages in the Aeneid, these parallels are not always of thematic significance, and in form the poem owes more to Ariosto and Tasso than it does to Virgil.
Spenser does, however, link his poem with the Aeneid in a more radical way. Just as Virgil, by connecting Roman history with its legendary past, had shown Augustus to be the instrument of a providential plan, so Spenser employs ancient myth to glorify Queen Elizabeth. It is, moreover, the same myth which Virgil had used to claim divine ancestry for Augustus, that Spenser uses in The Faerie Queene. In Book III, canto iii, Britomart visits the cave of Merlin where it is revealed that from her
The passage is a direct imitation of the third canto of the Orlando Furioso where Bradamante similarly learns of her Trojan ancestry and is told by Merlin of the glorious deeds of her descendants. Spenser, like Ariosto, is deliberately inviting comparison between his poem and the Aeneid. Later, in Book III, canto ix, we discover that Britomart, herself an ancestor of Elizabeth, is 'lineally extract' from Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas and founder of Troynovaunt, or London. Elizabeth is thus shown to be, like Augustus, a direct descendant of the gods through Aeneas, and her reign to be the fulfilment of a divine plan.
As it is told in The Faerie Queene the Troy story is a complex one, for instead of presenting its events in chronological order, Spenser divides his narrative into four main parts. The first part of the story dealing with the flight of Aeneas from Troy and the founding by Ascanius of a new Troy in Alba Longa, is told by Paridell to Britomart in Malbecco's castle (III, ix, 40-3). When Britomart mentions the building of a third Troy by descendants of Aeneas, Paridell recalls the details, which he had until then forgotten, of Brutus's accidental parricide, his years of self-imposed exile and his eventual conquest of Albion. For the second part of the story, dealing with Brutus's descendants, we have to turn back to Book II, canto x, where Prince Arthur reads a chronicle of British kings from Brutus to his own father Uther Pendragon. The continuation of this chronicle, beginning with Arthur's grandson and tracing the descent as far as Cadwallader, last of the British kings, is related in the form of a prophecy by Merlin in Book III, canto iii. With the coming of the Saxons and the death of Cadwallader the succession of British kings is finally broken. But Merlin prophesies that in due time the British line will be restored, that the country will be united, and that a royal virgin will reign in glorious peace. This final part of the story, dealing with the Tudor dynasty, is then retold in Book III, canto x, in the form of a history of Faeryland.
Spenser's reason for presenting the story in such a disjointed form was principally chronological: since the action of The Faerie Queene is presumed to have taken place before Arthur's accession, all later events would necessarily have to take the form of prophecy. Such, however, was the popularity in Elizabethan England of the Trojan myth that Spenser could afford to distort his narrative without risk of losing his readers.38 This popularity is not difficult to account for. By tracing his nation's ancestry to ancient Troy, the chronicler was able to show that his people were not barbarians, but had been marked out by providence for a special purpose. Since national pride is a commodity of no great rarity, it is not surprising to find that in medieval Western Europe the Trojan myth was 'everybody's game';39 as early as the seventh century, Frankish legend had spoken of a Trojan national ancestry, while closer to Spenser's own time we find Ariosto employing the same myth in his glorification of the House of Este.
In England the Trojan myth owed its currency to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Drawing on fragmentary literary sources and orally transmitted material, Geoffrey created in his Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1135) a masterpiece of imaginative literature which dominated antiquarian thought for centuries to come: 'within fifteen years of its publication not to have read it was a matter of reproach; it became a respected text-book of the Middle Ages; it was incorporated in chronicle after chronicle; it was turned into poetry; it swept away opposition with the ruthless force of a great epic …. '40 Geoffrey's chronicle of ancient British kings from Brutus to Cadwallader became the most important single source not only for medieval chronicles, but also for apologists of the Tudor right to accession. Of especial significance was Geoffrey's portrayal of Brutus as a man marked out by divine prophecy as the founder of a universal empire. When Brutus petitions the gods to reveal his destiny he is told to seek an island beyond France where giants once lived but which is now uninhabited. There he would find a land fit for his descendants, where another Troy would be built and kings would be born to whom the whole world would bow.41
The idea of the British nation as one destined for worldwide sovereignty reappears in popular Tudor literature. Among the stories added by John Higgins to the Mirror for Magistrates, for example, is the Tale of Albanact (one of Brutus's three sons), in which, following Geoffrey, the poet relates how Diana appeared to Brutus in a dream prophesying that he would establish a new kingdom in an island beyond France where he would build 'an other stately Troye':
Here of thy progenye and stocke, shall mighty kinges descende:
And vnto them as subiecte, all the worlde shall bowe and bende.42
Such a myth had its obvious political uses. It was revived by Henry VII on his accession as a way of justifying his claim to the throne. Hall records how, claiming to be able to trace his ancestry back to Cadwallader, Henry encouraged the idea that he represented a fulfilment of the ancient prophecy that a British king would return to rule the land.43 The myth was revived for similar reasons during Elizabeth's reign and became a familiar feature of the patriotic minor literature which flourished in the 1580s and 1590s.44 Chronicles from Geoffrey onwards had kept the Trojan myth alive, and it now found expression in pageants, narrative poems and plays celebrating the glory of England's Queen and tracing her ancestry back to Brutus.
When we speak of the popularity of the Trojan myth in Elizabethan England we must be clear that no historiographer worthy of the title ever accorded it the status of historical fact.45 It was antiquarians such as Leland and Churchyard and poets such as Baldwin, Peele, Warner, Nicols and of course Spenser himself who popularised the myth. In doing so they were continuing a medieval chronicle tradition in which moral utility was the writer's chief concern. Unlike the historiographer, the poet was considered to be free to adapt his historical material to suit his moral purpose. One of the most memorable passages in Sidney's Defence of Poetry deals with precisely this distinction. Where the historiographer is bound to record only 'what men have done' the poet,
Disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.46
The poet imitates not an imperfect sensible world, but an ideal world. It is by 'feigning notable images' of virtue or vice that he is able to 'lead and draw us to as high a perfection, as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of'. It would be naive, Sidney tells us, to suppose that there ever existed so perfect a prince as Xenophon's Cyrus or so excellent a man as Virgil's Aeneas. Yet by taking the idealized heroes of mythology and literature as models of our own conduct we encourage the growth of the virtues they embody.47
When Spenser incorporated the Trojan myth in The Faerie Queene he did not wish to suggest that the British were in a literal sense descended from Troy; indeed elsewhere he speaks with scorn of those 'vaine Englishmen' who claimed that Brutus 'first conquered and inhabited this Land, it being …. impossible to proove, that there was ever any such Brutus of England ….'48 The relationship is typological: in showing that the events of Elizabeth's reign have been foreshadowed by events in the ancient world Spenser is suggesting that they are to be seen as part of a divine historical plan. Though the Troy story is dealt with only in Books II and III of The Faerie Queene, it forms an essential part of the mythico-historical background of the whole poem. Rightly to understand the historic significance that Spenser attributed to Elizabeth we must see her, like Virgil's Augustus, as a descendant of the gods, born to bring peace to a divided world.
4. Marian Iconography
Virgil's praise of Augustus in terms of the legendary ancestor by whom he is shown to have been prefigured provided a typological model for Renaissance epideictic poets. The fact that Virgil was a pagan writer did not matter. A long tradition of interpreting the enigmatic fourth Eclogue as unconscious Christian prophecy49 offered justification for regarding the empire foretold by Anchises (Aeneid, VI, 756 ff.) as preparatory for the coming of Christ, while, conversely, the birth of Christ was spoken of as heralding the return of the golden age.50 In this way Virgilian myth was assimilated to a Christian view of world history. Thus when Spenser gives his reader the sequel to the Troy story in Books II and III of The Faerie Queene and traces, in the form of prophecy, its future events as far as Elizabeth's England he is in effect extending the Christian providential view of history back into the ancient world and forward into the present. What the Trojan myth could not suggest, however, was Elizabeth's specifically Protestant destiny. To convey the idea that the British were in a particular religious sense a 'chosen and peculier people'51 Spenser drew on a popular tradition of biblical typology.
In tracing Britomart's descent from 'auncient Troian blood' (III, iii, 22), Spenser links his heroine with a familiar body of classical legend. But when he describes her genealogical tree as a
it is to a Christian typological tradition that he is alluding. The prophetic blossoming tree whose branches stretch to heaven's height (III, iii, 22) echoes the familiar image of the Virga lesse in Isaiah, XI. Owing, perhaps, to the verbal similarity of virga (rod) and virgo (virgin), the Tree of Jesse came to be identified in the Middle Ages as a type of the Virgin Mary.52 Indeed so habitual in medieval and Renaissance iconography was this interpretation of Isaiah, that to employ such a familiar image in a sixteenth-century poem was to guarantee the evocation of Marian associations. Since Britomart is herself a type of Queen Elizabeth this means that Spenser is establishing a typological connection between Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary.
It may at first seem strange to find an Elizabethan poet drawing parallels between his prince and the Catholic Queen of Heaven, more particularly since the Reformed Church of which she was Supreme Governor had been zealous to abolish what it saw as the idolatrous, Romish and hence unpatriotic veneration and invocation of the saints, especially that of the Virgin Mary. However, Spenser was not alone in making this comparison. Secularized versions of the Tree of Jesse are not uncommon in Elizabethan patriotic literature. In The Misfortunes of Arthur the ghost of Gorlois addresses the queen as
Virgilian and Christian traditions are here combined to express the idea of Elizabeth's role as predestined inaugurator of a new golden age of 'Religion, ease and health'.
The most explicit identification of Elizabeth with the Virgin of the Tree of Jesse is the illustration on the title page of Stow's Annals where the traditional iconography of the Virga Iesse has been adapted to a Tudor genealogy with Queen Elizabeth as the royal flower 'enraced', like the Blessed Virgin, in 'stocke of earthly flesh' (FQ. Ill, v, 52).54
That identification of the Queen with the Virgin Mary was a central feature of the cult of Elizabeth is well known.55 What is not widely understood is the way in which Spenser systematically exploits this typology in his characterization of most of the important regal female figures in The Faerie Queene. A review of the more important aspects of the cult of the Virgin Mary and the ascription to Elizabeth of Marian attributes will serve to show how perfectly suited this material was to Spenser's purpose.
From the time of the early Church Fathers Mary was revered in her own person as Mother of God,56 and in symbol as the Church in its true faith.57 By the end of the Middle Ages the cult of her person had grown to enormous proportions, emphasizing her quasi-divine powers and privileges as predestined Queen of heaven and hell,58 co-redeeming vanquisher of death and the devil,59 mystical bride of Christ,60 miraculous protectress, and merciful intercessor for all mankind, both in this world and at the Day of Judgement.61 Her feast days were highly popular, not least the day of her Nativity and the day of her Assumption into heaven. It was from these special powers, privileges and devotions that the Virgin Mary was firmly divested by the Church reformers in their zeal to return to the orthodoxy of the primitive Church.
The abolition of such deep-rooted beliefs could hardly be accomplished without leaving an emotional and intellectual gap in the life of Christendom. As Wilson has remarked, 'Human devotion changes more slowly than its objects shift. From 1558 to 1603 the virgin queen of England was the object of a love not dissimilar in quality from that which for centuries had warmed English hearts that looked to the virgin Queen of Heaven for all grace.'62 However, it is important to realize that the adaptation of Marian imagery to the praise of Elizabeth was rare until the mid-1570s,63 and that when it did become current its purpose was more than sentimental or merely metaphoric. Rather it is to be seen as a later extension of the very earliest attempts to identify Elizabeth as a predestined champion of the Protestant cause; as such it had a precise historical and apocalyptic function.
As soon as Elizabeth acceded to the throne she was greeted as a godly prince providentially appointed to deliver a chosen people from Antichrist. 'Let us daily call to God with lifted up hearts and hands for her preservation and long life', wrote John Aylmer in 1559 in reply to Knox's Monstrous Regiment of Women, 'that she may many years carry the sword of our defence, and therewith cut off the head of that Hydra, the Antichrist of Rome, in such sort that it may never grow again in this realm of England.'64 With the publication of Jewel's Apology of the Church of England in 1562 and of the English version of Foxe's Acts and Monuments in the following year, the predestinate nature of the role the new queen was to play—already firmly implanted in the popular mind through civic pageantry65—received the confirmation of a seemingly overwhelming weight of historical evidence. As Haller has shown, the great achievement of the Acts and Monuments was to demonstrate that 'by all the signs to be found in scripture and history the will of God was about to be fulfilled in England by a prince perfect in her obedience to her vocation ….'66
What was not apparent in the early years of Elizabeth's reign was the apocalyptic significance of her virginity. Quite apart from the consideration that to be ruled by a woman ran counter to natural law, there was much pressure on her to marry for the sake of ensuring the succession.67 But the longer Elizabeth reigned, miraculously impregnable to Catholic plots and presumptive husbands, the greater was the tendency for Protestant Elizabethans to see the adulation of their Virgin Queen as a precise and proper substitute for the cult of the Virgin Mary. 'Vivat ELIZA! for an Ave MARI!' sings Dowland,68 while Dekker (born c. 1570) declares that his own generation 'never shouted any other Aue than her name ….'69 As her reign wore on the pious hopes expressed in the allegorical pageantry of the accession-day festivities were naturally transformed into confident tributes to Elizabeth's godly statesmanship. By the 1580s it was a common belief that 'the whole course of hir Maiesties life is myraculous'.70 November 17 was fervently kept as a day of patriotic rejoicing, 'in the forme of an Holy-day',71 to celebrate the date of 'saint' Elizabeth's accession to the throne. Another day of celebration which gave particular offence to English Catholics was Elizabeth's birthday, for September 7 was also the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thomas Holland, in a sermon for 17 November 1599, adverts to the complaint that Protestants contemptuously ignored the Virgin's nativity and 'insteede thereof, most solemnly doe celebrate the birth-day of Q. Elizabeth', even to the extent that in St Paul's Cathedral
That Antiphone or Himne that was accustomably in the end of the service song by the Quier in the honor of the blessed Virgin, is now converted (as it is reported by common fame) to the laude and honor of Queene Elizabeth, thereby to sounde her praises.72
The transference to Elizabeth of certain deep-rooted devotional habits no doubt filled an important emotional gap in the lives of her subjects. But it would be misleading to suggest that the reasons for this phenomenon were purely intuitive: the celebration, in the later years of her reign, of Elizabeth as a post-figuration of the Virgin Mary is an important but neglected ramification of the nationalistic propaganda whose essential features had been definitively established in the Acts and Monuments. From the first year of her reign, some time before Marian comparisons had begun to be made, Elizabeth was likened to the biblical Deborah who saved God's chosen race from the idolatrous heathen.73 But later in her reign, in the mid-1570s, other Old Testament analogies became popular. From that time onwards Elizabeth is frequently likened to Judith and Esther,74 both of whom were formerly types of the Virgin Mary in her conquest of the Devil;75 she is compared with the Queen of Sheba76 (another type of Mary), whose homage to Solomon symbolized the faith and worship of the true Church;77 she is seen as a daughter of King David, a virgin begotten of the Lord and espoused to God's only son to rule over Sion;78 her people are a second Israel,79 her country a second Canaan, the promised land flowing with milk and honey.80
The motive behind these comparisons is not sentimental but political. In drawing parallels between his Queen and certain Old Testament figures who are themselves types of the Virgin Mary, the panegyrist is implying that Elizabeth's royal virginity signifies the fulfilment of God's special will for his chosen people. Though the promise contained in these Old Testament figures was fulfilled in the Blessed Virgin, her life does not represent a consummation of the historical process of which it forms a part. For the antitype itself contains the promise of a future event and looks forward to the end of time and the establishment of God's kingdom on earth.81 As a post-figuration of the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth performs a crucial role in this millenial plan. For if Mary is, above all, a type of the Church, then Elizabeth's triumph over popery could be seen as the defeat of Antichrist prophesied in the Apocalypse, and the institution over which she presided as indubitably the one true Church.82
It is not surprising, therefore, that the coincidence of Elizabeth's own nativity with Mary's should have been regarded as more than a happy accident of fate. To the Protestant Elizabethan it seemed to be a divine omen, whose full import—that the entire reign of the Virgin Queen and her Anglican Church had been authorized, miraculously sustained and sanctified by divine providence—was indisputably confirmed by the date of Elizabeth's death, 24 March 1603. The fact that 'This Maiden Queen Elizabeth came into this world the Eve of the Nativity of the blessed Virgin Mary; and died on the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary'83 was a clear sign of predestination. Dekker wrote:
Shee came in with the falle of the leafe, and went away in the Spring: her life (which was dedicated to Virginitie), both beginning & closing vp a miraculous Mayden circle: for she was borne vpon a Lady Eue, and died vpon a Lady Eue.84
When Elizabeth was addressed as queen of heaven and hell,85 vanquisher of death and the devil,86 mystical bride of Christ,87 miraculous protectress and merciful intercessor,88 few educated Elizabethans would have failed to recognize the apocalyptic significance of such appellations: it was as if she had, by providential design, attained a symbolic kinship with the Virgin Mary, and so, without any impropriety, could be venerated by Protestant patriots in the terms and images reserved for the honour of the Queen of Heaven.
Nowhere is the belief that the resemblances between Elizabeth and Mary were the coherent revelations of a divine purpose clearer than in the English and Latin verses composed in commemoration of Elizabeth's death. Here we find not only quasi-Marian litanies of her titles and epithets, but also the most direct and explicit comparisons between the two women. 'Do you wish to know the reason why it was on the Eve of Lady Day that the holy Eliza ascended into heaven?' asked the anonymous author of one Latin elegy. His answer was simple:
being on the point of death she chose that day for herself because in their lives these two were as one. Mary was a Virgin, she, Elizabeth, was also; Mary was blessed; Beta was blessed among the race of women. Mary's heir was a prince, Elizabeth was the heir of a prince. Mary bore God in her womb, but Elizabeth bore God in her heart. Although in all other respects they are like twins, it is in this latter respect alone that they are not of equal rank.89
For an Elizabethan poet undertaking to vindicate his prince's claim to be the restorer of the one true Church the tradition of veneration which culminates in these memorial verses provided a vehicle of praise which was uniquely suited to his purpose. If Elizabeth's sex created serious problems for an epideictic poet writing in the heroic mode, at the same time it made available to him a form of praise which no poet had been able to use before. The reason why Spenser's use of these techniques has, on the whole, gone unnoticed is probably the fact that he often combines Marian and classical imagery in describing the same character. Belphoebe in Book II and Cynthia in the 'Mutabilitie' fragment are the most notable examples of this fusion of the Christian with the pagan. However, it is important that we distinguish between the purely metaphoric significance of the latter—the stock in trade of the epideictic poet—and the typological significance of the former. When Spenser compares Elizabeth with a classical goddess like Cynthia he is writing figuratively: he wishes to persuade us that Elizabeth possesses those virtues of which Cynthia is a personification. But when he uses Marian imagery to describe the same character he is implying that the relationship between Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary is not just an imaginary one, but a kinship of character and of providential function between two historical figures. The resemblances between them—too complete to be explained as mere coincidence—appeared to confirm the fact that Elizabeth was no ordinary ruler, but indeed a 'Prince of peace from heauen blest' (FQ, IV, proem, 4).
Marian typology thus complements the Trojan myth; together they form the background of a poem which can, in the fullest sense of the term, be described as a work of Christian humanism. Allusion to these two bodies of mythico-historical matter is by no means continuous throughout The Faerie Queene: as Virgil allows his reader occasionally to catch, as it were, a glimpse of Augustus, without his ever appearing in the Aeneid in person, so Spenser reminds his reader, at certain dramatic moments in the narrative, that the events which he is witnessing have a significance beyond their literal, or indeed their allegorical meaning—a significance which can only be perceived in its entirety within the context of a Christian humanist view of world history.
In addressing his poem to Queen Elizabeth and telling her that she may trace her own 'great auncestry' in its 'antique Image' (II, proem, 4), Spenser set himself a twofold task—a task which is perhaps best summed up by Erasmus when he claims that the purpose of the epideictic writer is to present his prince with an image of virtue, both as a pattern for emulation and as a warning against the dereliction of his sacred responsibility. The virtues which form the subjects of the six completed books of The Faerie Queene are to be understood, then, not simply as facets of a Renaissance ideal of human conduct, but as attributes of Queen Elizabeth….
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS
- Bulletin of the John Rylands Library
- Journal of English Literary History
- English Studies
- Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes
- Modern Language Review
- Publications of the Modern Language Association of America
1 All quotations from Spenser are from The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, edited by J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt, one vol. edn (Oxford, 1924).
2 Letter to Ralegh, Smith and de Selincourt, p. 407.
3 The best modern account of the theory of praise in Renaissance literature is O. B. Hardison, Jr., The Enduring Monument: A Study of the Idea of Praise in Renaissance Literary Theory and Practice (Westport, Conn., 1962). See also Theodore Burgess, Epideictic Literature (Chicago, 1902); A. Leigh De Neef, 'Epideictic Rhetoric and the Renaissance Lyric', JMRS, 3 (1973), 203-31; Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Donne's 'Anniversaries' and the Poetry of Praise: The Creation of a Symbolic Mode (Princeton, 1973), pp. 15-41; James D. Garrison, Dryden and the Tradition of Panegyric (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1975), pp. 1-82; Thomas H. Cain, Praise in 'The Faerie Queene' (Lincoln, Nebr., 1978), pp. 1-10; John W. O'Malley, Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome: Rhetoric, Doctrine, and Reform in the Sacred Orators of the Papal Court, c. 1450-1521 (Durham, N.C., 1979), pp. 36-76; Richard S. Peterson, Imitation and Praise in the Poems of Ben Jonson (New Haven, Conn, and London, 1981), pp. 1-43.
4 George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, edited by Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge, 1936), p. 24.
5 Smith and de Selincourt, p. 411.
6 Epideictic poetry…. means literally poetry of display. On the analogy of epideictic oratory it normally signifies poetry of praise. (Epideictic oratory is one of the three classical divisions of rhetoric; see Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, iii, 3; [Cicero?] Rhetorica ad Herennium, I, ii, 2; Cicero, De Inventione, I, v, 7; De Oratore, I, xxxi, 141; Quintilian, Institutio Oratore, III, iv; Menander Rhetor, I, i, 1-14.)
7Donati interpretationes Virgilianae, quoted by Hardison, p. 33 (Hardison's translation). Servius (c. fourth-fifth century) likewise claimed that Virgil's intention was 'to imitate Homer and to praise Augustus in terms of his ancestors' (Introduction to P. Vergilii Carmina Commentarii, quoted by D. L. Drew, The Allegory of the 'Aeneid' (Oxford, 1927), p. 98 (my translation)). On Servius as an interpreter of Virgil, see also Michael O'Connell, Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's 'Faerie Queene' (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1977), pp. 25-31. As O'Connell writes: 'Servius held a position of unique authority and honor in sixteenth-century editions of Vergil. Indeed his commentary was practically inescapable by Renaissance readers of Vergil ….' (pp. 25-6).
8 Domenico Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages, translated by E. F. M. Benecke (London, 1895), p. 108.
9 Hardison, p. 78.
10 John Hughes, 'An Essay on Allegorical Poetry' (1715) rpt. in Edmund Spenser: A Critical Anthology, edited by Paul J. Alpers (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 82. Cf. Dryden: 'Virgil …. designed to form a perfect prince, and would insinuate that Augustus, whom he calls Aeneas in his poem, was truly such ….', 'Dedication of the Aeneis', Essays of John Dryden, edited by W. P. Ker, 2 vols (New York, 1961), II, 179.
11 Hardison, p. 80.
12 Many scholars have written on Spenser's debt to Virgil. See in particular Merritt Y. Hughes, Virgil and Spenser (New York, 1929); Wm. Stanford Webb, 'Vergil in Spenser's Epic Theory', ELH, 4 (1937), 62-84; Josephine Waters Bennett, The Evolution of 'The Faerie Queene' (New York, 1942), pp. 6 ff.; William Nelson, The Poetry of Edmund Spenser (New York and London, 1963), pp. 117 ff.; O'Connell, pp. 23-30.
13 'In that Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceiue the most excellent and glorious person of our soueraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery land' (Letter to Ralegh, Smith and de Selincourt, p. 407). See Edwin Greenlaw, Studies in Spenser's Historical Allegory, Johns Hopkins Monographs in Literary History, II (Baltimore, 1932); Frances Yates, 'Queen Elizabeth as Astraea', JWCI, 10 (1947), 27-82; Hardison, pp. 80-4; Frank Kermode, 'The Faerie Queene, I and V', BJRL, 47 (1964), rpt. in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (London, 1971), p. 40; Cain, Praise in 'The Faerie Queene', passim.
14Praise in 'The Faerie Queene', p. 1.
15 Letter to Jean Desmarez, The Correspondence of Erasmus, translated by R. A. B. Mynors and D. F. S. Thomson, 2 vols. (Toronto, 1975), II, 81.
16 See Hardison, pp. 27-42.
17 For discussions of the speculum principis tradition see John E. Mason, Gentlefolk in the Making: Studies in the History of English Courtesy Literature and Related Topics from 1531-1774 (Philadelphia, 1935), pp. 10-11; Lester K. Born, introduction to a translated edition of Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince, Columbia University Records of Civilisation, XXVII (New York, 1936), pp. 44-130.
18 Dedicatory Epistle to The Education of a Christian Prince, edited by Born, pp. 135-6.
19 Helena Shire, A Preface to Spenser (London, 1978), p. 84.
20 Letter to Ralegh, Smith and de Selincourt, p. 407.
21 The standard works on the Renaissance courtesy book are Ruth Kelso, The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century, University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, XIV (Urbana, I11., 1929) and Mason, Gentlefolk in the Making.
22 See in particular Mohinimohan Bhattacherje, Studies in Spenser (Calcutta, 1929) extract rpt. in The Works of Edmund Spenser, Variorum edition, edited by Edwin Greenlaw, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, Frederick Morgan Padelford and Ray Heffner, 10 vols (Baltimore, 1932-49), Books VI and VII, 328-33; H. S. V. Jones, A Spenser Handbook (New York, 1930), pp. 287-92; A. C. Judson, 'Spenser's Theory of Courtesy', PMLA, 47 (1932), 122-36; Fritz Caspari, Humanism and the Social Order in Tudor England (Chicago, 1954), pp. 176-80.
23 'Proheme' to The Boke Named the Governor (1531), edited by Foster Watson, Everyman edition (London, 1907), p. xxxi. For further discussion of this point see Robin Headlam Wells, 'Spenser and the Courtesy Tradition: Form and Meaning in the Sixth Book of The Faerie Queene', ES, 58 (1977), 226-8.
24The Book of the Courtier, translated by Sir Thomas Hoby, Everyman edition (1928; rpt. London, 1966), pp. 260-1.
25 On Elyot's debt to Castiglione and the differences as well as similarities between The Courtier and The Governour see John M. Major, Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism (Lincoln, Nebr., 1964), pp. 61-76.
26 Caspari, p. 183.
27 Smith and de Selincourt, p. 407.
28 Smith and de Selincourt, p. 409.
29Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri, edited by Vincenzo Romano, Opere, 7 vols (Bari, 1928-51), VII, 721-3. On Boccaccio's influence in Renaissance England see Charles G. Osgood (ed.), Boccaccio on Poetry: Being the Preface and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Books of Boccaccio's 'Genealogie Deorum Gentilium' (1930; rpt. Indianapolis, 1956), p. xliv.
30 It was the arbitrary nature of much medieval interpretation of the Bible which led to the condemnation of this form of hermeneutics by Reformation exegetes. For the Protestant seeking the one true sense of Scripture, allegorists of the school of Philo were held in deep suspicion because they dealt with arcana. The typologist, on the other hand, sought only to reveal an aspect of the literal meaning of sacred texts. (See Lewalski, pp. 150-6. See also Philip Rollinson, Classical Theories of Allegory and Christian Culture (Pittsburg and Brighton, 1981), pp. 29-86.)
31 See V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (London, 1966), pp. 63 ff.
32 In one of the fullest of the rare discussions of typology in The Faerie Queene Angus Fletcher consistently and wrongly equates typology not only with prophecy, but with parody and literary parallelism of the most general kind (The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser (Chicago, 1971), pp. 57-132). To say that 'Insofar as Book II seems grossly analogous to Book I it has always been read in a typological way ….' (p. 84) or that the names of the rivers attending the marriage of the Thames and the Medway in Book IV 'Come from the matrix of Ovidian typology' (p. 96) does more to obscure the meaning of typology than to clarify it.
33 The most scholarly modern discussion of typology is still Erich Auerbach's 'Figura' in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (New York, 1959), pp. 11-76. See also Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; rpt. New York, 1953), pp. 13-14; 42-3; 64-6; Austin Farrer, 'Typology', The Expository Times, 67 (1956), 228-31; K. J. Woollcombe, 'The Biblical Origins and Patristic Development of Typology' in Essays on Typology, edited by G. W. H. Lampe and K. J. Woollcombe (London, 1957), pp. 39-75; Jean Danielou S. J., From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers, translated by Dom Wulstan Hibberd (London, 1960), pp. 1-7 and passim; Thomas M. Davis, 'The Tradition of Puritan Typology', Early American Literature, 5 (1970), 1-50, rpt. in Typology and Early American Literature, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch (Amherst, Mass., 1972), pp. 11-45; John MacQueen, Allegory (London, 1970), pp. 18-23; Karlfried Froehlich, '"Always to keep to the Literal Sense in Holy Scripture Means to kill One's Soul": The State of Biblical Hermeneutics at the Beginning of the Fifteenth Century' in Literary Uses of Typology from the Late Middle Ages to the Present, edited by Earl Miner (Princeton, 1977), pp. 20-48; Mason I. Lowance, Jr., The Language of Canaan: Metaphor and Symbol in New England from the Puritans to the Transcendentalists (Cambridge, Mass, and London, 1980), pp. 13-27.
In recent years there have appeared some outstanding studies of typology in literature. See in particular A. C. Charity, Events and their Afterlife: The Dialectics of Christian Typology in the Bible and Dante (Cambridge, 1966); Stephen Manning, 'Scriptural Exegesis and the Literary Critic', Early American Literature, 5 (1970), 51-73 rpt. in Bercovitch, pp. 47-66; Lewalski, Donne's 'Anniversaries ', pp. 149-58; Robert Hollander, 'Typology and Secular Literature: Some Medieval Problems and Examples' in Miner, pp. 3-19; Steven N. Zwicker, 'Politics and Panegyric: The Figural Mode from Marvell to Pope' in Miner, pp. 115-46.
34 The first modern critic to draw attention to this aspect of the Aeneid is Drew, The Allegory of the 'Aeneid', p. 4. See also Hollander, 'Typology and Secular Literature', p. 6.
35 Richard Nicols, Englands Eliza: or The Victoriovs and Trivmphant Reigne of that Virgin Empresse of Sacred Memorie, ELIZABETH …. printed in A Mirovr for Magistrates, edited by John Higgins (London, 1610), p. 784.
36 See Lewalski, pp. 150-8.
37 Spenser's edition, like all Renaissance editions of the Aeneid, began, as Nelson reminds us (p. 117), not with the words 'Arma virumque cano ….' but:
Ille ego qui quondam gracili modulatus avena
Carmen, et egressus silvis, vicina coegi
Ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono
Gratum opus agricolis: at nunc horrentia Martis
Arma virumque cano …
38 For discussions of the Trojan myth from a literary point of view see A. E. Parsons, "The Trojan Legend in England', MLR, 24 (1929), 253-64, 394-408 and Greenlaw, Studies in Spenser's Historical Allegory, pp. 1-58. T. D. Kenrick (British Antiquity (London, 1950), passim), and F. J. Levy (Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, 1967), pp. 65-6) consider the myth from the points of view of the Tudor antiquarian and historian respectively.
39 Kenrick, p. 3.
40 Kenrick, p. 7.
Brute sub occasu solistrans gallica regna.
Insula in occeano est habitata gigantibus olim.
Nunc deserta quidem gentibus apta tuis.
Illa tibi fietque tuis locus aptus aeuum.
Hec erit & natis attera troia tuis.
Hie de prole tua reges nascentur & ipsis.
Totius terrae subditus orbis erit.
(The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, edited by Acton Griscom (London, 1929), p. 239.)
42Parts Added to The Mirror for Magistrates, edited by Lily B. Campbell (Cambridge, 1946), p. 55.
43The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke, Beeyng, Long in Continual Discension for the Crowne of this Noble Realme, with all the Actes Done in Bothe the Tymes of the Princes …. (1548; rpt. London, 1809), p. 423.
44 The myth was also revived on James I's accession. See Charles Bowie Millican, Spenser and The Table Round, Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature, VIII (Cambridge, Mass., 1932), pp. 127-41 and Glynne Wickham, Shakespeare's Dramatic Heritage (London, 1969), pp. 250-8.
45 See Appendix, 'Polydore Vergil and English Historiography'.
46A Defence of Poetry, Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan Van Dorsten (Oxford, 1973), p. 78.
47 Sidney, p. 79.
48A View of the Present State of Ireland, Variorum Spenser, The Prose Works (1949), edited by Rudolf Gottfried, p. 82.
49 See Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages, pp. 99-101; Yates, 'Queen Elizabeth as Astraea', pp. 32-3; Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London, 1976), pp. 264-5.
50 Lydgate, for example, writes, 'Sythe [Christ] is borne with so fayre a face, / The golden worlde makying to retourne, / The worlde of pece, the kyngdome of Satourne ….' (Life of Our Lady, edited by Joseph A. Lauritis, Ralph A. Klinefelter and Vernon F. Gallagher, Duquesne Studies in Philosophy, II (Pittsburg, 1961), p. 533).
51 John Lyly, Euphues' Glass for Europe, The Complete Works of John Lyly, edited by R. Warwick Bond, 3 vols (Oxford, 1902), II, 205.
52 See Arthur Watson, The Early Iconography of the Tree of Jesse (Oxford, 1934). In medieval Marian literature the Virgin Mary is sometimes compared, as empress, with the most illustrious pagan rulers of the ancient world and her royal lineage with theirs. See, for example, The Myroure of oure Ladye, edited by John Henry Blunt, Early English Text Society (London, 1873), pp. 216, 258-9; John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady, pp. 252-3. In constructing a mythical genealogy for Queen Elizabeth, Spenser conflates the pagan with the Christian.
53 Quoted by Elkin Calhoun Wilson, England's Eliza, Harvard Studies in English, XX (1939; rpt. London, 1966), p. 103. Elizabeth is similarly described as a 'matchlesse flower' springing from 'the Royall Garden of a King' in Bacon's prophecy from Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (see Wilson, pp. 103-4).
54 The same illustration is used in the 1580 edition of the Annals, entitled The Chronicles of England.
55 See Yates, 'Queen Elizabeth as Astraea', pp. 74-5; John Buxton, Elizabethan Taste (London, 1963), p. 50; Jean Wilson, Entertainments for Elizabeth I (Woodbridge, 1980), pp. 21-2.
56 See the New Catholic Encyclopaedia (Washington, D.C., 1967) under 'Mother of God'.
57 See Warner, pp. 104-5.
58 See Émile Mâle, Religious Art in France: XIII Century, translated by Dora Nussey (London, 1913), p. 235.
59 See Mirella Levi D'Ancona, The Iconography of the Immaculate Conception in the Middles Ages and Early Renaissance, Monographs on Archaeology and Fine Arts sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and the College Art Association of America, VII (New York, 1957), pp. 20-8, 32-3 and Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1968), pp. 121-3.
60 See Warner, pp. 121-33, 247. The imagery is drawn from the Canticles and the Apocalypse, XXI, 2.
61 See D'Ancona, pp. 34-5; Mâle, pp. 23-66; Woolf, pp. 123-4.
62 Wilson, England's Eliza, p. 215. Much of the illustrative material contained in the following paragraphs is taken from Wilson's invaluable compilation of Elizabethan panegyric. Although Wilson discusses the Elizabethan habit of comparing the Queen with the Virgin Mary in a chapter somewhat obliquely entitled 'Diana', many Marian analogies are to be found in other chapters, often in a form whose significance was apparently not recognised by him.
63 See Wilson, passim.
64An Harborowe for faithfull and true subjectes (1559), quoted by William Haller, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Elect Nation (London, 1963), p. 88.
65 At the royal entry of 1558 Elizabeth was represented as Deborah, judge and restorer of Israel, 'sent / From Heaven, a long comfort to us thy subjectes all'. See The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, edited by John Nichols, 3 vols (1788-1805; rpt. London, 1823), I, 56.
66 Haller, p. 225.
67 See J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth (London, 1934), Chs. V, XV.
68The Second Book of Airs (1600) (quoted by Wilson, p. 206).
69 Thomas Dekker, The Wonderful! Year e (1603) (quoted by Wilson, p. 393).
70 Henri Estienne, The Stage of Popish toyes (1581) (quoted by Wilson, p. 225). Cf. also Thomas Bentley, The monument of matrones, 'The first Chapter of the HEAST', reproduced by Wilson in a plate facing p. 220: God has 'miraculouslie deliuered [Elizabeth] out of so manie & so great dangers ….' In her ageless virginity, too, she is 'Heauens miracle' (Histriomastix (c. 1589), quoted by Wilson, p. 109). For the Virgin Mary's agelessness see Warner, p. 95.
71 Thomas Holland, A sermon preached at Pauls in London (1599) (quoted by Wilson, p. 223, n. 100).
72 Quoted by Wilson, pp. 221-2.
73 See above, note 65.
74 Cf. Thomas Deloney, The ouerthrow of proud Holofornes, and the triumph of vertuous Queene Iudith (1588): 'How often hath our Iudith sau'd, / and kept vs from decay: / Gainst Holofernes, Deuill and Pope ….' (quoted by Wilson, p. 44). For other examples of Elizabeth as Judith see Wilson, pp. 36, 81, 185, 372, 380. As with Judith, analogies between Elizabeth and Esther, who preserved her people against the plots of Haman, were especially popular after the defeat of the Armada. For examples see Wilson, pp. 81, 101 n. 27, 185, 376, 380.
75 See Woolf, p. 285.
76 Thomas Holland's sermon for 17 November 1599 compares Elizabeth ('Regia Virgo') with the Queen of Sheba (see Wilson, p. 223, n. 100).
77 See Mâle, p. 157.
78 In Thomas Bentley's The Monument of matrones God addresses Elizabeth in the following words: 'Elizabeth, thou Virgin mine, the KINGS Daughter, and fairest among women; most full of beautie and maiestie: attend a litle to my Heast, and marke what I shall say. Thou art my Daughter in deede, this daie haue I begotten thee, and espoused thee to thy king CHRIST, my Sonne; crowned thee with my gifts, and appointed thee QVEENE, to reigne vpon my holie mount Zion' (reproduced by Wilson in a plate facing p. 220).
79 In The monument of matrones God declares to Elizabeth: '[I have] annointed thee with holie oile, to be the Queene, the Mother, and the Nursse of my people in Israel ….' (Wilson, plate facing p. 220). Lyly speaks of England as 'a new Israel' in Euphues' Glass for Europe, p. 205.
80 See the poems extracted by Wilson, pp. 376, 387.
81 Isabel Rivers is misleading when she writes: 'the antitype once and for all fulfils the type and the meaning hidden in it' (Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry (London, 1979), p. 149). As Auerbach argues, both type and antitype 'have something provisional and incomplete about them; they point to one another and both point to something in the future, something still to come, which will be the actual, real, and definitive event' ('Figura', p. 58).
82 Interpretations of the Apocalypse as an allegorical prophecy of the struggle between the English Protestants and their persecutors were common in the sixteenth century….
83 Memorial inscription in Westminster Abbey cited by Buxton, p. 51. Buxton notes that the 'Lady Chapels which their grandfathers had built on to the east end of English churches were now replaced by …. secular shrines for their devotion to the Queen' (p. 50).
84The Wonderfull Yeare (quoted by Wilson, pp. 220-1).
85 In Dekker's Old Fortunatus (1599) it is claimed of Eliza that 'heau'n and hell her power obey' (quoted by Wilson, p. 116).
86 In Idea the Shepheards Garland (1593) Drayton depicts Elizabeth as the Marian composite of the Second Eve, trampling the serpent of Eden under her heel (Genesis, III, 15), and the woman of the Apocalypse threatened by the beast or dragon with seven heads (Revelation, XII, 3-4) when he writes 'And thy large empyre stretch her armes from east unto the west, / And thou under thy feet mayst tread, that foule seven-headed beast' (quoted by Wilson, p. 146). The seven-headed beast is to be interpreted in regular Protestant fashion as the papacy. See, for example Bale's Image of Both Churches. In his paraphrase of Revelation, XII, 3 Bale writes, 'this is the very papacy here in Europe, which is the general antichrist of all the whole world almost' (Select Works of John Bale, edited by Henry Christmas, Parker Society Reprints (Cambridge, 1849), p. 407). On the traditional conflation of Genesis, III, 15 with Revelation, XII, 3-4 see Warner, pp. 244-6.
87 See above, note 78.
88 In a ballad of 1584 celebrating her triumph over Catholic plots, Elizabeth, the 'pearle of princes' and 'renowned virgin queen' is represented as a protector of her loyal followers from the rod of God's vengeance for sin (see Wilson, pp. 32-4). On the Virgin Mary as protecting intercessor see Louis Réau, Iconographie De L 'Art Chrétien, 6 vols. (Paris, 1955-9), III (1957), 116-17.
Scire cupis causam pridie cur, sacra, diei
Virginis, ad superas scandit Elisa domus?
Disce brevi: moritura diem sibi legerat istum,
Caetera quod paribus, par sit vtrisq; dies.
Virgo Maria fuit, fuit ilia: beata Maria,
Inter foemineum Beta beata genus.
Haeres huic princeps fuit, altera principis haeres,
Haec vtero gessit, corde sed illa Deum.
Caetera cum similes, cum caetera poeme gemellae,
Hoc vno parilem non habuere statum …
(Lines from an anthology of Latin funeral verses published by Oxford University in 1603 (quoted by Wilson, p. 382).)
Maureen Quilligan (essay date 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5822
SOURCE: "The Comedy of Female Authority in The Faerie Queene," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 156-71.
[In the following essay, Quilligan analyzes the allegorical representation of female power and authority in The Faerie Queene.]
Basing his argument on Anthony Munday's recasting of an Italian play acted before Queen Elizabeth in 1585, Albert Baugh reasoned some time ago that "it would seem the Queen's taste was for the braggadocchio of Captain Crackstone, who adds malapropism to his other absurdities of the miles gloriosus."1 Baugh's shrewd guess not only shows how Spenser's coinages have entered the language, but also supports the notion that Spenser's decision to present Belphoebe on her first appearance in The Faerie Queene in the company of Braggadocchio and Trompart may owe something to his sense of what the Queen might herself have found amusing. If she liked to laugh at braggadocio captains—a taste further exhibited by her affection for Falstaff—the conspicuously irrelevant scene of Book II, canto iii may have been a subtle hint that Spenser deliberately aimed to please by shadowing his dread sovereign's chastity and womanly beauty in the figure of Belphoebe.2
Readers' responses are generically central to allegory, and the response of Elizabeth, Spenser's first reader and the imperial dedicatrix of the entire epic, is more central than most.3 We know that Elizabeth's regime was very careful about pictorial representations of her physical person—and that if she disliked what an author published about her marriage program, for example, she could have his hand cut off (as she did of the too-aptly named John Stubbs).4 Spenser had to tread very delicately in his portrayal of Belphoebe, having named her as explicitly as he does, one of the "mirrors more than one" in which Elizabeth could "chuse" "her selfe to see" (III, Proem, 5). We of course never see the other mirror in which Elizabeth's rule, as opposed to her chastity, is "fashioned"—and it is significant that the closest we come to Gloriana's presence in the text in Arthur's dream is also a moment, when viewed intertextually, that is interestingly occluded by comic elements. As a replay of Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas, Arthur's dream of "The Faerie Queene" is wildly disjunct in its high, heroic, and romantic seriousness from the banal, bumping prolixity of the pilgrim Chaucer's first effort at a story in The Canterbury Tales; justly, Harry Baily remarks, the "drasty rhyming is not worth a tord!" Spenser's apparent deafness to Chaucer's wonderful joke on himself is, however, most interesting for the way Chaucer's Sir Topas prepares for another bumbling knight's comic interaction with a noble exemplar of the faerie queene in Spenser's text. Having rewritten Chaucer's comedy out of Arthur's dream in Book I, Spenser uses it to frame his first direct representation of Elizabeth's female authority in the character of Belphoebe in Book II. There is something funny going on in Spenser's representations of Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene and it may be useful to question what the prevalence of comedy says about Spenser's attitudes toward Elizabeth's gynocratic rule.5
The scene with Braggadocchio is not only one of the most comic moments in the epic, it has—if I am correct in my assumption of further generic background—a cultural connection to the Renaissance problem of female authority, if authority is thought to name in part that power by which a female might speak in public. Braggadocchio and Trompart are characters whose names suggest that if they are not taken directly from, then at least they are coherent with, the masks of the Captain and his wily servant in the Italian commedia dell'arte. While it has proved impossible for scholars to trace the specifics of the presence of commedia dell'arte companies in England, they were known to have played there during the last decades of the century and caused much comment, especially about the presence of women in their troupes. E. K. Chambers and K. M. Lea both guess that a group of players who performed for the court at Windsor in 1574 were "probably those who provoked" Thomas Norton's objections against the "unchaste, shamelesse & unnaturall tomblings of the Italion Woemen."6 Englishmen who traveled abroad had, perhaps not surprisingly, a more cosmopolitan approach to professional women actresses, but they also register cultural shock at public female performance: thus Thomas Coryat reports his visit to a Venetian theater:
Here I observed certain things that I never saw before. For I saw women acte, a thing that I never saw before, though I have heard that it hath sometimes been used in London, & they performed it with as good a grace, action, gesture & whatsoever convenient for a Player, as ever I saw any masculine actor. Also their noble and famous Cortezans came to this comedy, but so disguised that a man cannot perceive them.7
Coryat's observation indicates quite neatly, I think, the distinct if subtle boundary between public and private realms that organized for an Elizabethan Englishman a woman's proper place in society. Here it is disorganized by the surprising public self presentation of the professional Italian actress, and the equally odd private appearance in the audìence of the "famous Cortezans" or already public women.8 Another English traveler to Florence, Fynes Moryson, also specifically noted the skill of Italian actresses in speaking extempore:
… in Florence they have a house where all yeere long a comedy was played by professed players once in the weeke …., and the partes of wemen were played by wemen, and the cheefe actours had not their partes fully penned, but speak much extempory or upon agreement between themselves, espetially the wemen, whose speeches were full of wantonnes, though not grosse baudry…. And one Lucinia a woman player, was so liked of the Florentines, as when shee dyed they made her a monument with an Epitaphe.9
If, as I would like to suggest, Spenser is specifically signalling his readers to think of a commedia dell'arte generic framework for his scene with Braggadocchio and Belphoebe, he is also marking the scene as a moment where the cultural line is drawn between a woman's licit private sphere and a culturally suspect public arena. This signalling is done for the most part by a humor more grossly physical than we find anywhere else in the epic. As in Norton's objection to the Italian women's "tombling," the physical action of the mime-like movement of the commedia was, from an English perspective, all the more striking because performed by women. The action in canto iii, Book II is quickened to a slapstick pace not only by Braggadocchio's terrified fall from his horse and his diving into a bush, but by the earlier set-up of Braggadocchio's and Tromapart's fear at having seen Archimago flap away to get Arthur's sword:
The Magician was a legitimate mask in and of itself in the commedia dell'arte, and one Archimago distinctly and comically wears. We not only see Archimago transform himself into a winged creature in the presence of Braggadocchio and Trompart, we see him transformed into a comic figure, tricked by the transparent swagger of Braggadocchio's bluster.
In a tradition later made much of by Shakespeare, the commedia dell'arte often functioned in its improvisational methods to produce laughs by the juxtaposition of dialects—in Italy the braggart Captain usually spoke Spanish, for instance—and much of the humor as well as verbal wit of the action derived from the literal idiocy of the characters: they often simply misunderstood each other. Similarly, the usually acute Archimago takes Braggadocchio at face value, and the conversation between Belphoebe and Braggadocchio is a virtual set piece of verbal misunderstandings. Their mutual misprision is prepared for, however, by the physical comedy of Belphoebe's mistaking Braggadocchio's rustlings in the underbrush for her stricken deer so that she "gan a deadly shaft aduauance," only to be stopped by Trompart. The pure slapstick peaks when Braggadocchio makes his appearance on hands and knees, crawling out of the bush into which he had dived at the sound of Belphoebe's approach:
The stanza-long simile that compares Braggadocchio to a "fearefull fowle" who has hidden herself from a hawk reverses gender in a comedic way that is neatly matched by Belphoebe's answer to Braggadocchio's question about who she is:
For her part, Belphoebe does not answer why she, a lady, dwells in the woods but instead discourses on why anyone—a man, say—would wish to avoid the court.
Such a dialogue about abstractions like "honor" and the moral problems of life at court could have been heard in the commedia dell'arte; but Belphoebe's problem in answering why she is in the woods has to do with the constraints imposed by a different genre altogether—the genre of narrative allegory. As in the commedia, however, the generic problem has to do with the question of appropriate gender: may a female act? In narrative allegory, figures of authority are traditionally feminine. One thinks of Lady Philosophy, Lady Nature, Lady Holy Church, Reason (in Roman de la Rose)—the list could go on.
The reason for this tradition is essentially grammatical. To take a specifically significant example, the particular noun auctor, auctoris, or "author" in Latin is, like the people it has traditionally designated, masculine; then, in order to turn this noun into an abstract general, the class and gender need to be transformed. The word for "authority" itself is, in Latin, auctoritas, auctoritatis, noun feminine. Because of the generic linguistic interests of allegory, with its parades of personifications and its need to animate nouns, we are given landscapes filled with important female speakers. The striking resistance of medieval literary figures of authority to take on masculine gender is neatly displayed in the controversy Jean Gerson and Christine de Pizan carried on in the so-called "Querelle de la Rose"; in a debate of no small interest to students of the reception of the Roman de la Rose, of allegory, and of the history of feminist polemic, Christine had objected to Jean de Meun's obscene language and misogyny. Gerson, a distinguished medieval humanist, had supported Christine's position, in the process creating a male-gendered figure of authority, Theological Eloquence, to argue his points in the case. In Gerson's text this personification takes masculine pronouns. However, in Christine's text and in the texts of other parties to the debate, the grammar follows the gender of Latin eloquentia, noun feminine.11
In her function as a figure of authority in Spenser's text, Belphoebe, like Boethius' Lady Philosophy for instance, begins a brief disquisition on "honor"—"In woods, in waues, in warres she wonts to dwell / And will be found with perill and with paine, / Ne can the man, that moulds in idle cell, / Vnto her happy mansion attaine" (II.iii.41 [my italics]). Belphoebe is not only out in the woods to win honor, she is in some sense herself honor, not only because of her gender, which insists she be taken allegorically as a figure of auctoritas, but also because she historically represents Elizabeth, the cultural source of honors in Spenser's society. (This designation Spenser makes clear when he gives her Timias as a lover; time = honor.) There is, however, another counter-pressure in the narrative that compels us to see Belphoebe as herself a protagonist, freely ranging about the landscape, capable of experiencing her own history in the text. The potential fissure that begins to open between these twin forces is solved by Braggadocchio's comic blindness to the problem: before Spenser's presentation of Belphoebe as both a protagonist in a chivalric narrative and also an allegorical figure of authority can entirely split apart, Braggadocchio makes his move, thereby interrupting her disquisition on the evils of life at court.
Braggadocchio's lewd action is completely out of keeping with the way allegorical authorities are traditionally treated. One cannot imagine even the libidinous lover of the Roman de la Rose making a grab at Lady Raison, much less Chaucer's erotically defunct narrator in the Parlement of Foules making a pass at Lady Nature. Braggadocchio's lunge stops the discourse cold and reassigns Belphoebe her role as a character of romance. Had Belphoebe's authoritative critique become fuller, Spenser would have been in the precarious predicament of having the named representation of Elizabeth roundly criticize the sloth and decadence of Elizabeth's own court. (With a similar comic abruptness in Book III, Spenser evades direct reference to the succession problem by having Merlin fall into his fainting fit before finishing hs prognostications.) Here, easily outmaneuvering Braggadocchio, Belphoebe menaces him with her javelin, turns on her heels, and flees—not to re-enter the poem for another fourteen cantos.
Harry Berger, Jr., has pointed to the problem Belphoebe's conspicuously irrelevant position poses in an interpretation of the third canto: "Consciously [Belphoebe] bespeaks honor, rejects love and passion; unconsciously she is an object of sexual no less than divine and royal devotion."12 Another way of drawing the distinction that does not require us to posit a novelistic psyche for Belphoebe is to notice the generic conflict. Females in allegory may be figures of authority because they have the appropriate gender for moral or immoral abstractions; they usually counsel, or seduce, the male protagonist whose adventures carry the process of "fashioning." To make a female an actor in an allegory is to complicate an already complicated set of gender distinctions in an already complicated genre of narrative. As Berger comments, "There is a shade of the sinister about" Belphoebe because she "mysteriously combines …. two different women," essentially Diana, an innocent unselfaware goddess, and Penthesilea, a self-conscious female warrior (p. 140). The relationship between Diana and Penthesilea becomes equally if not more problematic in Book V, as we shall see; what seems immediately interesting about Berger's heroic struggles to make sense of Belphoebe's troublesomely sinister appearance in the midst of comedy in Book II, is to note the contrast she embodies, between a speaking subject and a desired object. The subject/object split in the representation of a female character may become a problem for any male author, but it is potentially more troubling for an allegorist who works in a genre that already assigns a great deal of authority to female characters. Spenser's problem in the character of Belphoebe is further compounded, of course, by the historically anomalous political authority held by a female in his culture, especially because Spenser is attempting to represent in his narrative that figure's femaleness (her chastity) as opposed to her political sovereignty.13
Spenser's solution to the problem of shadowing Elizabeth is to bring in the clowns. In comedy, the male cultural response to the doubled erotic and political power of a female may legitimately include laughter. His specific signalling of the commedia dell'arte in the character of Braggadocchio implicitly indicates the already achieved transgression of usual cultural limits that was inherent in Elizabeth's female rulership: her presence as a female, capable of acting in public, continues to remain a shock to the patriarchal system; it is constantly in need of recuperation through the ideological functioning of what we call Elizabethan literature.14
Spenser approaches the same generic and cultural problems in his presentation of Britomart, exemplar of chastity and also the narrative protagonist of Book III. He answers the problem not only by having her cross-dressed, but by surrounding her with comedy. Again Spenser makes the humor absolutely explicit. When laughter explodes in this narrative, it is Merlin, "brusting forth in laughter" at Glauce's lame lies, but the whole scene between Glauce and Britomart is in itself also wonderfully comic, not only in Britomart's exaggerated petrarchist sufferings but also when the old nurse in her useless spells chants to her charge, "Come daughter come, come; spit vpon my face, / Spit thrise vpon me, thrise vpon me spit; / Th'uneuen number for this business is most fit" (III.ii.50). (Indeed, Glauce's bustling ability to get the plot of Book III going after Merlin's magicoprophetic ineffectiveness may also recall the plot-business of the zanies in the commedia, but I do not at all wish to press the point.) Earlier in Book III, the virtual bedroom farce between Britomart and Malecasta (although it ends with Gardante's wounding of the heroine) is another case in point. Spenser gives us in this episode a mockery of female fear of sexual violation that he elsewhere treats seriously.
Britomart and Belphoebe are, of course, not always comic. However, the double authority granted to these two females, both as actors in the narrative and representations of the same authoritative abstraction (chastity), grants them too much cultural power. Autonomous subjects as well as erotically desirable objects, their sexual allure is first presented in comic scenes, where the inappropriateness of sexually desiring them is represented in both cases by a character whose lust is comically ineffectual (Braggadocchio and Malecasta).
Spenser makes Belphoebe's desirability very explicit in the blazon he inserts into the comic interlude of canto iii of Book II. The blazon itself, being the most conspicuously irrelevant part of the canto, is beautifully analyzed by Berger (pp. 120-49). Feminist criticism has recently taught us to see in the genre of blazon, however, a subversive movement against female erotic power as well as a celebration of it. Nancy J. Vickers has argued most persuasively that the piecemeal anatomy of female beauty in conventional Petrarchan blazon not only praises each individual body part but also enacts a dismemberment of the female corpus so celebrated.15 In Spenser's blazon Belphoebe has a conspicuous "ham," and the folk festival that bedecks the pillars that are like her legs has a hint of the carnivalesque, a comic cultural moment that allows for many reversals of hierarchy, including those of gender. In these ways, the blazon so conspicuously arresting the forward movement of the narrative, while it presents Belphoebe's beauty as a hieratic vision of female perfection, is qualified by its comic context. To use Vickers' understanding of the blazon—that Diana so described is Diana dismembered—is to see how Spenser's blazon functions as a further movement against Diana/Belphoebe's (and Elizabeth's) power to dismember those mortal males who would look upon her; such a display therefore reinforces the qualification of female power by exposing the female body to an anatomizing gaze.
The epic simile that rightly troubled Berger compares Belphoebe to the divine Diana as well as to the mortal Penthesilea. And Diana, of course, as the goddess of chastity (and mentor of Belphoebe) has a peculiar power throughout Spenser's epic. Significantly, she, too, often appears in comic contexts. In Book III, for example, we see Venus invade her realm in a grand trespass on her territory (though not a dangerous one, as it would have been, tradition teaches us, had a mortal male done the same). Spenser's comedic treatment of the Actaeon myth (for Venus comes upon Diana at her bath) reverses the tragic tone of his precursor text, just as his serious treatment of Chaucer's joke in Arthur's dream of the Faerie Queene turns comedy to heroics. It is not so much that Spenser presents the Diana-Venus episode with overt humor, as that, by suppressing mention of Actaeon, he conspicuously rewrites tragedy out of the famous moment by removing the potential for sexual violation. Diana, having hung up her bow and quiver on a tree bough, is bathing in a fountain:
Venus is out hunting not for stags but for her wayward son Cupid; eyeing Diana's nymphs with great and comic care, she notes that he could easily have hidden himself among them (III.vi.23).
Later, of course, in the Mutabilitie Cantos, and in another comic rewriting of the Actaeon myth, Spenser treats Diana herself to an epic simile that compares her to a housewife, busy with her dairy, while silly Faunus is compared to a beast who had kicked over all the creaming pans (VII.vi.48). Unlike Venus, who may without danger interrupt Diana at her bath, Faunus, having arranged with the pliable Molanna the same Actaeon-like transgression, makes a mistake: he laughs out loud.
This laughter at female nakedness has its part in the larger comedic vision played out in the Mutabilitie Cantos—where Spenser, no babbler, keeps silent about the anatomy of another powerful female figure of authority, Dame Nature. The second rewrite of the Actaeon story, in this setting, insists more forcefully than the Venus episode that the power of Diana can be contained. Though some of her nymphs suggest gelding Faunus, his punishment is neither castration, nor a displaced version of it, such as being transformed into a stag and hunted to death by dogs. Faunus is merely draped with a redundant deer's skin and chased by the nymphs in a humorous parody of the murderous rout of Actaeon. The story, however, does end in a tragedy of sorts, for Ireland, if not for Faunus. Spenser reveals that Ireland is itself dismembered. Diana's curse on the spot where Faunus glimpsed her "somewhat" leaves Ireland prey to wolves and thieves so that they "all those Woods deface" (VII.vi.55). The real Diana whose neglect has "defaced" Ireland, is, of course, Elizabeth herself.
The goddess Diana has the authority to cause a tragedy no matter how comically she is presented in the poem, no matter how mocked her power to dismember may be. If Diana can threaten in Book III to clip Cupid's wanton wings "that he no more shall fly" (III.vi.24), and must be mollified by the sweet flattery of Venus; if Diana can comedically harass an unmetamorphosed Faunus, these comic representations indicate very real power. It should not be forgotten that what is shadowed here is the ability to cause not only metamorphic wounds, as in Belphoebe's wounding of Timias, or Britomart's unhorsing of Guyon, but also real ones. Stubbs and his awfully apt name may leap to mind. The power an absolute sovereign has is a capital authority. She may not only cut off hands, but also heads.
In the blazon in canto iii of Book II, Belphoebe is also compared to an Amazon queen as well as to Diana. An Amazon appears again in the poem in the guise of Radigund in Book V (a book in which Braggadocchio has a further set of scenes). Radigund defeats Artegall (the hero who almost manages to save Ireland before being called back to Gloriana's court) and dresses him in women's weeds (which males are not loath to do themselves for the purposes of dramatic representation). In that attire, he toils at women's work until saved by his lady-love, the now not-so-comic Britomart. Artegall succumbs to Radigund in a very specific manner, one which is echoed and repeated in other parts of the text, as if to call attention to its significant presentation of a particular female body part—the head:
In almost all its details an exact replica of Artegall's first encounter with Britomart, this scene also echoes an earlier battle between Artegall and Radigund which contains some bizarre rhyming wit and which Spenser may have intended to be comic: Radigund has Sir Terpin at her mercy, but she is pausing much like a she-bear standing over "the carkasse of some beast too weak," when Artegall attacks her:
Such distinctively "feminine" rhymes are unusual in The Faerie Queene, especially so in the major rhyme of the stanza, repeated four times (at lines 2, 4, 5, and 7). With the "feminine" stress of the internal rhyme between "mother" and "daughter" of line 7, Spenser is obviously signalling the gender of the rhyme scheme, here exaggerated to the point of humor. Though the comedy of rhyming "daughter" with "slaughter" is grisly enough, it works to defuse the power Radigund here displays. Spenser is having the same kind of fun, I suspect, that Sidney has when he analyzes the differences between Italian, French, and English and their various possibilities for rhyme.
Lastly, even the very ryme it selfe, the Italian cannot put in the last silable, by the French named the Masculine ryme, but still in the next to last, which the French call the Female; or the next before that, which the Italians term Sdrucciola. The example of the former is, Buono, Suono, of the Sdrucciola, Femina, Semina. The French, of the other side, hath both the Male, as Bon, Son, and the Female, as Plaise, Taise. But the Sdrucciola hee hath not: where the English hath all three, as Due, True, Father, Rather, Motion, Potion; with much more which might be sayde, but that I find already, the triflingnes of this discourse, is too much enlarged.16
Sidney is intrigued by the gendered French labels for the different kinds of rhymes, and provides in his examples a witty commentary on appropriate cultural roles for the different genders. Good / sound is male in French; the "sliding" rhyme in Italian is woman / seed; the feminine rhyme in French turns out to be please / silence. Patriarchy writes the English examples as well: Due, True, Father, Rather (as if what one might think of rather than a father is motion / potion).
In like manner, Spenser doubtless expected his readers to sense the wittiness of the rhymes on daughter / slaughter, and to have the comedy of the bizarre music call attention to the transgression of gender roles in Radigund's Amazon kingdom, a transgression deserving the text's violent laughter. When violence makes its appearance in this narrative, it is, of course, another female that deprives Radigund's mother of her daughter—and there is no obvious comedy involved. That it is an Amazonian head which goes rolling when Britomart vanquishes Radigund, rather than, as in Homer an arm, or as in Vergil, an unspecified limb, or another body part, is significant for the interest the episode specifically has in female sovereignty.17
In a book notable for the dismemberments Talus wreaks on the unruly inhabitants of faerieland, this capital punishment for the usurping female ruler silently testifies to the same cultural discomfort that lies hidden behind the "Etc." in Elizabeth's title on the epic's dedication page. She may quite legitimately be "Defender of the Faith," a title she inherited from her father. But she may not quite so easily be styled "Head of the Church" as he had named himself. (The first parliament decided upon the more abstract "governor" and we read the "Etc." everywhere.)18 A female head to a male body politic poses the problem of monstrosity Knox trumpeted so impoliticly months before Elizabeth ascended the throne, and she was continually forced to remind her Parliaments, in exactly those terms, of her authority: "I will deal therein for your safety, and offer it to you as your Prince and head without request; for it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head."19
When Britomart goes to rescue Artegall from his dungeon, where his punishment is not only to wear women's garments, but to sew clothes (for wages, no less), Britomart's single remark does not so much make a joke as drain a festival of its comedy: she says to the cross-dressed Artegall, "What May-game hath misfortune made of you?" Maid Marian in May games, as Natalie Zemon Davis points out, was often a disguised male: "when it came to the Morris Dance with Robin, the Hobby Horse, the dragon, and the rest, the Marian was a man."20 Such comic and festive cross-dressing, anthropologically speaking, promotes fecundity as well as the momentary loosening of hierarchical order necessary in a rigid social structure. Yet, as Davis concludes in her study of the gender reversals of festival occasions, "The holiday role of the woman-on-top confirmed subjection throughout society, but it also promoted resistance to it." That Spenser is concerned with the real political facts of the powerful cultural misrule at work in his own society is manifest in the Britomart/Radigund episode. In reinstating masculine rule over Radigund's Amazon empire, Britomart reinstitutes a governing structure that obtains everywhere but in England under Elizabeth. The May-game comedy is a personal tragedy for Artegall. Its disorder is only righted when Britomart reasserts a hierarchy that uniquely does not hold in Spenser's own culture. Female authority here is not funny, because it is real.
Belphoebe, Braggadocchio, and Spenser's blazon may go on feeling conspicuously irrelevant to the program of temperance a rather humorless Guyon pursues in Book II, but the comedy of that moment cues the representation of female authority Spenser stages throughout the epic he titled The Faerie Queene. If he seems to have risked a lot, we must remember that the strain of humor he used may have been already authorized by Elizabeth. What she may have found funny about a Falstaff, enhorned and mocked by a society of women, may have been different from what the male political nation found comic in Braggadocchio or Faunus. But we all know what a relief it is to laugh at our terrors. If Queen Elizabeth could laugh at the kind of fears that became all too real with the braggadocio of an Essex, Spenser's readers could laugh at the power that was real enough, finally, to cut off the Earl's head.
1A Literary History of English, ed. Albert C. Baugh, (New York, 1948), p. 450.
2 A tradition dateable by John Dennis' 1702 dedication to his reworking of The Merry Wives of Windsor as The Comical Gallant has it that Shakespeare's play "was written at [Queen Elizabeth's] command, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days; and was afterward, as tradition tells us, very well pleased at the representation." Cited in G. B. Harrison, Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York, 1948), p. 937.
3 Jonathan Goldberg, Endlesse Worke: Spenser and the Structures of Discourse (Baltimore, Md., 1981), ch. 3; see also Maureen Quilligan, Milton's Spenser: The Politics of Reading (Ithaca, N.Y., 1983), ch. 4.
4 See Roy Strong, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford, 1963); for discussion of the debacle of Stubbs' punishment, see Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588 (Princeton, N.J., 1981), pp. 256-62.
5 That Spenser chose to present Gloriana through a serious rewrite of Chaucer's most self-deprecatingly comic tale in The Canterbury Tales should perhaps alert us to the other problem of "authority" Spenser confronts in writing his epic, not only Elizabeth's as sovereign political power, but Chaucer's as most influential English precursor. The two, at least at their first appearance in Book I of The Faerie Queene, seem to be closely connected. For a discussion of Book II of The Faerie Queene, arguing its fundamental support of the complicated ideologies of the Elizabethan regime, and to which the present argument is offered as a partial qualification, see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare (Chicago, 1980), ch. 4.
6 K. M. Lea, Italian Popular Comedy: A Study in the Commedia dell'Arte, 1560-1620 with Special Reference to the English Stage (1934; rpt. New York, 1962), p. 354.
7 Lea, p. 345.
8 On the public/private dichotomy see Joan Kelly, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston, 1977), pp. 139-64; for a discussion of the culturally transgressive rhetoric at the center of the "public" courtezan's role in Italy, see Ann R. Jones, "City Women and Their Audiences," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago, 1986), pp. 299-316.
9 Cited Lea, p. 343.
10 Citations of The Faerie Queene are Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, eds. J. C. Smith and E. De Selincourt, (1912; rpt. London, 1960).
11 Christine, for her part, has some witty play with the figure of Raison in the Livre de la Cité des Dames; her Lady Raison explains to Christine as interlocutor that all those who wrote against women in the past did so without her authority, i.e., misogyny is irrational. It is a superficially gentle but profoundly subversive joke. That Spenser may have known The Boke of the Cyte of Ladyes in Brian Anslay's translation (1521) is a distinct possibility (rpt. Distaves and Dames: Renaissance Treatises for and about Women, ed. Diane Bornstein (New York, 1978). For the documents in the "querelle," see La Querelle de la Rose: Letters and Documents, ed. Joseph L. Baird and John R. Kane (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1978). The Cite is available in French only in manuscript, and in "The 'Livre de la Cité des Dames,': A Critical Edition," ed. Maureen Curnow, (Ph.D. Diss. Vanderbilt, 1975). For the modern English translation, see The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards, (New York, 1982).
12 Harry Berger, Jr., The Allegorical Temper: Vision and Reality in Book II of Spenser's Faerie Queene (1957; rpt. Hamden, Conn., 1967), p. 140.
13 Elizabeth's authority was absolutist and therefore differed radically from the power of any queen reigning in England after the Constitutional changes of 1688.
14 Louis Montrose argues for the close interplay between sexual and monarchal politics in "A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form," in Rewriting the Renaissance, pp. 65-87: "the woman to whom all Elizabethan men were vulnerable was Queen Elizabeth herself. Within legal and fiscal limits, she held the power of life and death over every Englishman, the power to advance or frustrate the worldly desires of all her subjects" (p. 77).
15 Nancy J. Vickers, "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme," Critical Inquiry 8 (1981), 265-79.
16 Sir Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetrie in Criticism, ed. Mark Schorer, Josephine Miles, and Gordon MacKenzie (New York, 1948), p. 430.
17 This significant head may also pinpoint Spenser's rewriting of another female authority. In Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies, Penthesilea meets her death by a blow to the brain: "they smashed through all her armor and struck off a large quarter of her helmet. Pyrrhus was there, and seeing her bare head with its blond hair, dealt her such a great blow that he split open her head and brain. So died the brave Penthesilea, a terrible loss to the Trojans and a profound sorrow for all her land which went into deep mourning, and rightly so, for afterward a woman of her caliber never again ruled over the Amazons" (Richards, trans., p. 51). Spenser may be rewriting Christine when he gives Artegall a very different response to shearing off Britomart's helmet:
18 Norman L. Jones, Faith by Statute: Parliament and the Settlement of Religion, 1559 (London, 1982): "The opposition by all parties to the idea of a female head of the church must have been an important factor in the Queen's decision to seek the governorship" (p.130). The debate in Parliament reflected a far milder version of Knox's statement: "And no less monstrous is the bodie of that common welth, where a woman beareth empire. For either doth it lack a lawfull heade (as in very deed it doth) or els there is an idol exalted in the place of a true head," The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, ed. Edward Arber (London, 1878), p. 27.
19 Neville Williams, Elizabeth I, Queen of England (London, 1971), p. 139.
20 Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, ch. 5, "Women on Top," (Stanford, Cal., 1965), p. 151.