Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, has had a lasting effect on the literary community. In some cases, it has been Spenser's nine line, Spenserian Stanza, that influenced poets such as Burns in The Cotter's Saturday Night, Shelley in The Revolt of Islam and Adonis, Keats in The Eve of St. Agnes, Tennyson in sections of The Lotos-Eaters, and Byron in Childe Harold. But Spenser's influence extends far beyond the construction of a stanza of poetry. John Milton's Paradise Lost draws from Spenser, especially in his development of Sin, who with her grotesque appearance and gnawing offspring, is taken from Spenser's depiction of Error in Book I. But Spenser influenced Milton in other ways. Spenser resurrected a classical literary genre that had been virtually ignored for hundreds of years. While there had been other compositions that were called epics, such as Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur, most of these works did not draw on classical traditions. Mallory' s epic is a collection of legends, assembled into one work. However, Spenser is returning to the Greek and Latin genesis of the epic, inspired by the works of Homer and Virgil. This recalling of the classical past also inspires Milton to create his own classically inspired epic. As a result, Paradise Lost, like The Faerie Queene, is modeled on the classical Greek origins of the genre.
In becoming such an important influence, it is easy to overlook Spenser's social and political contributions in composing The Faerie Queene. During Elizabeth's rule, there existed an aspect of her life that has been labeled the Cult of Elizabeth, which defines the literary treatment of women affected by the fact that the country was ruled by a virgin queen. Elizabeth was the object of enormous flattery. Her courtiers and poets provided her with adulation in language similar to that paid to a Petrarchan mistress. As a ruler, she was clothed in divinity because she was a woman and because she was a virgin. She was called Diana (the virgin goddess of the moon and of hunting), Cynthia (celebrated as the goddess of the moon), and Semele (mother of Dionysis). And, according to Spenser, Elizabeth was Glorianna in The Faerie Queene. Few women enjoyed the liberty and personal freedom of Elizabeth. Both traditional patriarchy and religion maintained that women were inferior; but as queen, Elizabeth could proclaim her superiority. As the ordained representative of god, the queen inverted the traditional claims of male superiority. Poets responded with exaggerated claims of her virtue, wisdom, and strength. The problem with the Cult of Elizabeth was that it provided little for ordinary women, who lacked God's endorsement of their adequacy. Whether it was because of the patronage system or just simple admiration for his queen, Spenser was a leading proponent of Elizabeth. As an anti-Catholic, nationalist, Spenser hoped to leave a legacy of national pride to inspire the sort of chivalry that he thought was missing from the Elizabethan world. Much of these emotions went into his epic. However, the patronage system was also an important factor in Spencer's glorification of Elizabeth. Simple economics influenced Spenser's work, as should be expected. With Elizabeth providing an income, a grateful poet might be expected to exaggerate his patroness' virtues, as well as the strengths of her court and couriers.
When Sir Philip Sidney wrote his Defence of Poesy in 1579, he saw little to admire in English poetry since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer. Spenser's letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, which opens The Faerie Queene, describes Spenser's intent to compose twenty-four books. The first twelve were to explore private virtues, and the last twenty-four were supposed to examine public virtues. Spenser died before he could complete the first twelve, but it is clear from this letter to Raleigh that Spenser intended to rectify the sad situation that Sidney described. Spenser envisioned becoming the sort of great poet that Sidney said England needed. Spenser wanted to create a great national literature, and did so with The Faerie Queene.
Most often, only the first book, or occasionally, the first three books of Spenser's epic, The Faerie Queene, are read by students. Spenser's use of archaic language is difficult for many students, as is the convoluted plot and the many characters, most of whom appear only briefly. In addition, the characters are only superficially defined, since they represent allegory. Often, characters reappear at random, with new roles and a new allegorical affiliation, such as Duessa and Archimago. Other characters appear only as needed, seemingly called, as if by telepathy, such as Arthur, who drifts in and out of the epic whenever he is needed. This perceived lack of continuity often intimidates first-time readers, who are unprepared for the effort it takes to read and absorb The Faerie Queene. In spite of any difficulties, writers, from Spenser's death, through the end of the twentieth century, have found inspiration in Spenser's language. Students, too, have found that Spenser provides a wealth of characters and myths, each one worth the time to explore.
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