The Faerie Queene

by Edmund Spenser

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John Hughes (essay date 1715)

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SOURCE: Hughes, John. “Remarks on The Fairy Queen.” In Spenser's Critics: Changing Currents in Literary Taste, edited by William R. Mueller, pp. 18-27. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1959.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1715, Hughes points out significant flaws in The Faerie Queene but also demonstrates its beauty.]

The chief Merit of this Poem consists in that surprizing Vein of fabulous Invention, which runs thro it, and enriches it every where with Imagery and Descriptions more than we meet with in any other modern Poem. The Author seems to be possess'd of a kind of Poetical Magick; and the Figures he calls up to our View rise so thick upon us, that we are at once pleased and distracted by the exhaustless Variety of them; so that his Faults may in a manner be imputed to his Excellencies: His Abundance betrays him into Excess, and his Judgment is overborne by the Torrent of his Imagination.

That which seems the most liable to Exception in this Work, is the Model of it, and the Choice the Author has made of so romantick a Story. The several Books appear rather like so many several Poems, than one entire Fable: Each of them has its peculiar Knight, and is independent of the rest; and tho some of the Persons make their Appearance in different Books, yet this has very little Effect in connecting them. Prince Arthur is indeed the principal Person, and has therefore a share given him in every Legend; but his Part is not considerable enough in any one of them: He appears and vanishes again like a Spirit; and we lose sight of him too soon, to consider him as the Hero of the Poem.

These are the most obvious Defects in the Fable of the Fairy Queen. The want of Unity in the Story makes it difficult for the Reader to carry it in his Mind, and distracts too much his Attention to the several Parts of it; and indeed the whole Frame of it wou'd appear monstrous, if it were to be examin'd by the Rules of Epick Poetry, as they have been drawn from the Practice of Homer and Virgil. But as it is plain the Author never design'd it by those Rules, I think it ought rather to be consider'd as a Poem of a particular kind, describing in a Series of Allegorical Adventures or Episodes the most noted Virtues and Vices: to compare it therefore with the Models of Antiquity, wou'd be like drawing a Parallel between the Roman and the Gothick Architecture. In the first there is doubtless a more natural Grandeur and Simplicity: in the latter, we find great Mixtures of Beauty and Barbarism, yet assisted by the Invention of a Variety of inferior Ornaments; and tho the former is more majestick in the whole, the latter may be very surprizing and agreeable in its Parts.

It may seem strange indeed, since Spenser appears to have been well acquainted with the best Writers of Antiquity, that he has not imitated them in the Structure of his Story. Two Reasons may be given for this: The first is, That at the time when he wrote, the Italian Poets, whom he has chiefly imitated, and who were the first Revivers of this Art among the Moderns, were in the highest vogue, and were universally read and admir'd. But the chief Reason was probably, that he chose to frame his Fable after a Model which might give the greatest Scope to that Range of Fancy which was so remarkably his...

(This entire section contains 3785 words.)

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Talent. There is a Bent in Nature, which is apt to determine Men that particular way in which they are most capable of excelling; and tho it is certain he might have form'd a better Plan, it is to be question'd whether he cou'd have executed any other so well.

It is probably for the same reason, that among the Italian Poets, he rather follow'd Ariosto, whom he found more agreeable to his Genius, than Tasso, who had form'd a better Plan, and from whom he has only borrow'd some particular Ornaments; yet it is but Justice to say, that his Plan is much more regular than that of Ariosto. In the Orlando Furioso, we every where meet with an exuberant Invention, join'd with great Liveliness and Facility of Description, yet debas'd by frequent Mixtures of the comick Genius, as well as many shocking Indecorums. Besides, in the Huddle and Distraction of the Adventures, we are for the most part only amus'd with extravagant Stories, without being instructed in any Moral. On the other hand, Spenser's Fable, tho often wild, is, as I have observ'd, always emblematical: And this may very much excuse likewise that Air of Romance in which he has follow'd the Italian Author. The perpetual Stories of Knights, Giants, Castles, and Enchantments, and all that Train of Legendary Adventures, wou'd indeed appear very trifling, if Spenser had not found a way to turn them all into Allegory, or if a less masterly Hand had fill'd up his Draught. But it is surprizing to observe how much the Strength of the Painting is superior to the Design. It ought to be consider'd too, that at the time when our Author wrote, the Remains of the old Gothick Chivalry were not quite abolish'd: It was not many Years before, that the famous Earl of Surry, remarkable for his Wit and Poetry in the Reign of King Henry the Eighth, took a romantick Journey to Florence, the Place of his Mistress's Birth, and publish'd there a Challenge against all Nations in Defence of her Beauty. Justs and Turnaments were held in England in the Time of Queen Elizabeth. Sir Philip Sidney tilted at one of these Entertainments, which was made for the French Ambassador, when the Treaty of Marriage was on foot with the Duke of Anjou: and some of our Historians have given us a very particular and formal Account of Preparations, by marking out Lists, and appointing Judges, for a Tryal by Combat, in the same Reign, which was to have decided the Title to a considerable Estate; and in which the whole Ceremony was perfectly agreeable to the fabulous Descriptions in Books of Knight-Errantry. This might render his Story more familiar to his first Readers; tho Knights in Armour, and Ladies Errant are as antiquated Figures to us, as the Court of that time wou'd appear, if we cou'd see them now in their Ruffs and Fardingales.

There are two other Objections to the Plan of the Fairy Queen, which, I confess, I am more at a loss to answer. I need not, I think, be scrupulous in mentioning freely the Defects of a Poem, which, tho it was never suppos'd to be perfect, has always been allow'd to be admirable.

The first is, that the Scene is laid in Fairy-Land, and the chief Actors are Fairies. The Reader may see their imaginary Race and History in the Second Book, at the end of the Tenth Canto: but if he is not prepar'd before-hand, he may expect to find them acting agreeably to the common Stories and Traditions about such fancy'd Beings. Thus Shakespear, who has introduc'd them in his Midsummer-Night's Dream, has made them speak and act in a manner perfectly adapted to their suppos'd Characters; but the Fairies in this Poem are not distinguish'd from other Persons. There is this Misfortune likewise attends the Choice of such Actors, that having been accustom'd to conceive of them in a diminutive way, we find it difficult to raise our Ideas, and to imagine a Fairy encountring with a Monster or a Giant. Homer has pursu'd a contrary Method, and represented his Heroes above the Size and Strength of ordinary Men; and it is certain that the Actions of the Iliad wou'd have appear'd but ill proportion'd to the Characters, if we were to have imagin'd them all perform'd by Pigmies.

But as the Actors our Author has chosen, are only fancy'd Beings, he might possibly think himself at liberty to give them what Stature, Customs and Manners he pleas'd. I will not say he was in the right in this: but it is plain that by the literal Sense of Fairy-Land, he only design'd an Utopia, an imaginary Place; and by his Fairies, Persons of whom he might invent any Action proper to human Kind, without being restrain'd, as he must have been, if he had chosen a real Scene and historical Characters. As for the mystical Sense, it appears both by the Work it self, and by the Author's1 Explanation of it, that his Fairy-Land is England, and his Fairy-Queen, Queen Elizabeth; at whose Command the Adventure of every Legend is suppos'd to be undertaken.

The other Objection is, that having chosen an historical Person, Prince Arthur, for his principal Hero; who is no Fairy, yet is mingled with them: he has not however represented any part of his History. He appears here indeed only in his Minority, and performs his Exercises in Fairy-Land, as a private Gentleman; but we might at least have expected, that the fabulous Accounts of him, and of his Victories over the Saxons, shou'd have been work'd into some beautiful Vision or Prophecy: and I cannot think Spenser wou'd wholly omit this, but am apt to believe he had done it in some of the following Books which were lost.

In the moral Introductions to every Book, many of which have a great Propriety and Elegance, the Author has follow'd the Example of Ariosto. I will only beg leave to point out some of the principal Beauties in each Book, which may yet more particularly discover the Genius of the Author.

If we consider the First Book as an entire Work of it self, we shall find it to be no irregular Contrivance: There is one principal Action, which is compleated in the Twelfth Canto; and the several Incidents or Episodes are proper, as they tend either to obstruct or promote it. The same may be said of some other of the following Books, tho I think they are not so regular as this. The Author has shewn Judgment in making his Knight of the Red Cross, or St. George, no perfect Character; without which, many of the Incidents cou'd not have been represented. The Character of Una, or Truth, is very properly oppos'd by those of Duessa, or Falshood, and Archimago, or Fraud. Spenser's particular manner, which (if it may be allow'd) I wou'd call his Painter-like Genius, immediately shews it self in the Figure of Error, who is drawn as a Monster, and that of Hypocrisy, as a Hermit. The Description of the former of these, in the mix'd Shape of a Woman and a Serpent, surrounded with her Offspring, and especially that Circumstance of their creeping into her Mouth on the sudden Light which glanced upon them from the Knight's Armour, incline one to think that our Great Milton had it in his eye when he wrote his famous Episode of Sin and Death. The Artifices of Archimago and Duessa, to separate the Knight from Una, are well invented, and intermingled with beautiful Strokes of Poetry; particularly in that Episode where the Magician sends one of his Spirits to fetch a false Dream from the House of Morpheus:

Amid the Bowels of the Earth full steep
And low, where dawning Day does never peep,
His Dwelling is—

Mr. Rhimer, as I remember, has, by way of Comparison, collected from most of the antient and modern Poets, the finest Descriptions of the Night; among all which, he gives the Preference to the English Poets: This of Morpheus, or Sleep, being a Poetical Subject of the same kind, might be subjected to a like Trial; and the Reader may particularly compare it with that in the Eleventh Book of Ovid's Metamorphoses; to which, I believe, he will not think it inferior.

The miraculous Incident of a Tree shedding Drops of Blood, and a Voice speaking from the Trunk of it, is borrow'd from that of Polidorus in the Third Book of Virgil's Æneis. Ariosto and Tasso have both copy'd the same Story, tho in a different manner. It was impossible that the modern Poets, who have run so much into the Taste of Romance, should let a Fiction of this kind escape their Imitation.

The Adventures which befal Una, after she is forsaken by the Knight; her coming to the House of Abessa, or Superstition; the Consternation occasion'd by that Visit; her Reception among the Savages; and her civilizing them, are all very fine Emblems. The Education of Satyrane, a young Satyr, is describ'd on this Occasion with an agreeable Wildness of Fancy.

But there is one Episode in this Book, which I cannot but particularly admire; I mean that in the Fifth Canto, where Duessa the Witch seeks the Assistance of Night, to convey the Body of the wounded Pagan to be cured by Æsculapius in the Regions below. The Author here rises above himself, and is got into a Track of imitating the Antients, different from the greatest part of his Poem. The Speech in which Duessa addresses Night, is wonderfully great, and stained with that impious Flattery, which is the Character of Falshood, who is the Speaker:

O thou most antient Grandmother of all,
More old than Jove, whom thou at first didst breed,
Or that Great House of Gods Cælestial,
Which was't begot in Dæmogorgon's Hall,
And saw'st the Secrets of the World unmade!

As Duessa came away hastily on this Expedition, and forgot to put off the Shape of Truth, which she had assum'd a little before, Night does not know her: This Circumstance, and the Discovery afterwards, when she owns her for her Daughter, are finely emblematical. The Images of Horror are rais'd in a very masterly manner; Night takes the Witch into her Chariot; and being arriv'd where the Body lay, they alight.

          And all the while she stood upon the Ground,
          The wakeful Dogs did never cease to bay,
          As giving warning of th' unusual Sound
          With which her Iron Wheels did them affray,
          And her dark grisly Look them much dismay.
          The Messenger of Death, the ghastly Owl,
          With dreary Shrieks did also her bewray,
          And hungry Wolves continually did howl
At her abhorred Face, so filthy and so foul.

They steal away the Body, and carry it down thro the Cave Avernus, to the Realms of Pluto. What Strength of Painting is there in the following Lines!

—On every side them stood
The trembling Ghosts, with sad amazed Mood
Chattring their Iron Teeth, and staring wide
          With stony Eyes; and all the hellish Brood
          Of Fiends infernal flock'd on every side
To gaze on earthly Wight, that with the Night durst ride.

Longinus commending a Description in Euripides of Phaeton's Journey thro the Heavens, in which the Turnings and Windings are mark'd out in a very lively manner, says, That the Soul of the Poet seems to mount the Chariot with him, and to share all his Dangers. The Reader will find himself in a like manner transported throughout this whole Episode; which shews that it has in it the Force and Spirit of the most sublime Poetry.

The first Appearance of Prince Arthur in this Book is represented to great Advantage, and gives occasion to a very finish'd Description of a martial Figure. How sprightly is that Image and Simile in the following Lines!

          Upon the Top of all his lofty Crest
          A Bunch of Hairs, discolour'd diversly
          With sprinkled Pearl, and Gold full richly drest,
          Did shake, and seem'd to dance for Jollity,
          Like to an Almond-Tree ymounted high
          On Top of green Selinis all alone,
          With Blossoms brave bedecked daintily;
          Whose tender Locks do tremble every one
At every little Blast that under Heav'n is blown.

I must not omit mentioning the House of Pride, and that of Holiness, which are beautiful Allegories in different Parts of this Book. In the former of these there is a minute Circumstance which is very artificial; for the Reader may observe, that the six Counsellors which attend Pride in her Progress, and ride on the Beasts which draw her Chariot, are plac'd in that Order in which the Vices they represent, naturally produce and follow each other. In the Dungeon among the Captives of Pride, the Poet has represented Nebuchadnezzar, Cræsus, Antiochus, Alexander, and several other eminent Persons, in Circumstances of the utmost Ignominy. The Moral is truly noble; for upon the sight of so many illustrious Slaves, the Knight hastens from the Place, and makes his Escape.

The Description of Despair in the Ninth Canto, is that which is said to have been taken notice of by Sir Philip Sidney. But I think the Speech of Despair, in which the distemper'd Reasonings, that are apt to agitate the Heart of a Man abandon'd to this Passion, are so pathetically represented, is much superior to the Description.

Among the Allegories in the Tenth Canto, it is impossible not to distinguish that venerable Figure of Contemplation, in his Hermitage on the Top of a Hill, represented as an old Man almost wasted away in Study:

With snowy Locks adown his Shoulders spread,
As hoary Frost with Spangles doth attire
The mossy Branches of an Oak half dead.

The Knight and his Companion enquire of him:

Is not from hence the way that leadeth right
To that most glorious House that glistereth bright
With burning Stars, and ever-living Fire?

This is extremely noble, as well as the old Man's shewing him from the Top of the Hill, the heavenly Jerusalem; which was proper to animate the Hero against the Combat, in which he is presently after engag'd: His Success in that Combat, and his marrying Una, are a very just Conclusion of this Book, and of its chief Allegory.

It wou'd be easy to point out many Instances, besides those I have mention'd, of the Beauties in this Book; yet these few will give the Reader a Taste of that Poetical Spirit and Genius for Allegory, which every where shine in this Author. It wou'd be endless to take notice of the more minute Beauties of his Epithets, his Figures, and his Similes, which occur in almost every Page. I shall only mention one or two as a Specimen. That Image of Strength, in striking a Club into the Ground, which is illustrated by the following Simile, is very great.

          As when Almighty Jove, in wrathful Mood
          To wreak the Guilt of mortal Sins is bent,
          Hurls forth his thundring Dart with deadly Food,
          Enroll'd in Flames and smouldring Dreariment,
          Thro riven Clouds and molten Firmament
          The fierce three-forked Engine making way,
          Both lofty Tow'rs and highest Trees hath rent,
          And all that might his angry Passage stay,
And shooting in the Earth, casts up a Mount of Clay.
His boistrous Club so bury'd in the Ground,
He could not rearen up again, & c.

As also that of a Giant's Fall,

          That down he tumbled as an aged Tree.
          High growing on the Top of rocky Clift;
          Whose Heart-Strings with keen Steel nigh hewen be:
          The mighty Trunk, half rent with ragged Rift,
Doth roll adown the Rocks, and fall with fearful Drift.

These are such Passages as we may imagine our excellent Milton to have study'd in this Author. And here by the way it is remarkable that as Spenser abounds with such Thoughts as are truly sublime, so he is almost every where free from the Mixture of little Conceits, and that low Affectation of Wit which so much infected both our Verse and Prose afterwards; and from which scarce any Writer of his own Time, besides himself, was free. …

I have not yet said any thing concerning Spenser's Versification; in which, tho he is not always equal to himself, it may be affirm'd, that he is superior to all his Cotemporaries, and even to those that follow'd him for some time, except Fairfax, the applauded Translator of Tasso. In this he commendably study'd the Italians, and must be allow'd to have been a great Improver of our English Numbers: Before his time, Musick seems to have been so much a Stranger to our Poetry, that, excepting the Earl of Surry's Lyricks, we have very few Examples of Verses that had any tolerable Cadence. In Chaucer there is so little of this, that many of his Lines are not even restrain'd to a certain Number of Syllables. Instances of this loose Verse are likewise to be found in our Author, but it is only in such Places where he has purposely imitated Chaucer, as in the second Eclogue, and some others. This great Defect of Harmony put the Wits in Queen Elizabeth's Reign upon a Design of totally changing our Numbers, not only by banishing Rhime, but by new moulding our Language into the Feet and Measures of the Latin Poetry. Sir Philip Sidney was at the Head of this Project, and has accordingly given us some Hexameter and Pentameter Verses in his Arcadia. But the Experiment soon fail'd; and tho our Author, by some Passages in his Letters to Mr. Harvey, seems not to have disapprov'd it, yet it does not appear by those Poems of his, which are preserv'd, that he gave it any Authority by his Example.

As to the Stanza in which the Fairy Queen is written, tho the Author cannot be commended for his Choice of it, yet it is much more harmonious in its kind than the Heroick Verse of that Age. It is almost the same with what the Italians call their Ottave Rime, which is us'd both by Ariosto and Tasso, but improv'd by Spenser, with the Addition of a Line more in the Close, of the Length of our Alexandrines. The Defect of it, in long or narrative Poems, is apparent. The same Measure, closed always by a full Stop, in the same Place, by which every Stanza is made as it were a distinct Paragraph, grows tiresom by continual Repetition, and frequently breaks the Sense, when it ought to be carry'd on without Interruption. With this Exception, the Reader will however find it harmonious, full of well-sounding Epithets, and of such elegant Turns on the Thought and Words, that Dryden2 himself owns he learn'd these Graces of Verse chiefly from our Author; and does not scruple to say, that in this Particular only Virgil surpass'd him among the Romans, and only Mr. Waller among the English.


  1. Vid. Letter to Sir W. Raleigh.

  2. Dedication to Juvenal.


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The Faerie Queene Edmund Spenser

This entry represents criticism of Spenser's The Faerie Queene.

Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590-96), an allegorical romance designed to glorify Queen Elizabeth I of England, is celebrated as one of the greatest and most important works of English verse. Spenser's aim in writing The Faerie Queene was to create a great national literature for England, equal to the classic epic poems of Homer and Virgil. The Faerie Queene is divided into Books I through VI, each focusing on the adventures of a different hero or heroine and a different virtue, including Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. To suit his literary purposes, Spenser invented a verse form that has come to be known as the Spenserian stanza. Spenser was celebrated as a great national poet in his lifetime, and has since been recognized as a major influence on later writers, particularly the nineteenth-century Romantic poets. Critics have long recognized The Faerie Queene as an allegorical tale, including within its many subplots a variety of political, social, psychological, and religious allegories. Critics in the twentieth century and beyond have explored other aspects of The Faerie Queene, reading Spenser's representations of political figures, religious conflicts, and national politics in the historical and cultural context of Elizabethan England and the Protestant Reformation. Critics since the 1980s have taken a particular interest in Spenser's depictions of Queen Elizabeth I, offering a variety of analyses of The Faerie Queene concerned with representations of gender and power.

Biographical Information

By 1590, Spenser had published a collection of poetry, The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), and a volume of personal correspondence, Three Proper, and Wittie, Familiar Letters (1580), but was not yet considered a major literary figure of the day. In 1588 or 1589 he acquired a large plantation in Kilcolman, Ireland. There, as a minor British official, he became acquainted with the poet Sir Walter Raleigh, a neighboring landowner. Raleigh convinced Spenser to travel with him to London and present to Queen Elizabeth I the completed portions of The Faerie Queene. Spenser and his poetry were well received by the Queen, who approved the publication of Books I, II, and III of The Faerie Queene in 1590. This publication included an appendix reprinting Spenser's letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, in which he explains his original intention in writing The Faerie Queene. Spenser wished to write a specifically English epic poem, thereby creating a great national literature to glorify both England and the Queen. His stated purpose was to emulate the accomplishments of such classic epic writers as Homer and Virgil. In 1591 the Queen rewarded Spenser for his literary success with a small lifetime pension. Books IV, V, and VI of The Faerie Queene were published in 1596. Spenser included a reference to his own marriage to his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle, in Book VI of The Faerie Queene, representing himself as the shepherd Colin Clout (a reference to his earlier, pastoral poetry), who plays his pipes in celebration of the woman he loves. Spenser's allegorical treatment of the political conflicts in Ireland in Book V may have been motivated by his own experiences as a representative of the British monarchy who lived for some twenty years in Ireland. Spenser remained in Ireland until 1598, when an Irish rebellion resulted in the burning of his estate. He then fled to London, carrying official letters about the state of affairs in Ireland, and died soon afterward, in 1599. Spenser's status in England is indicated by his burial in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, near the grave of Geoffrey Chaucer. Spenser continues to be celebrated as one of England's greatest and most influential poets.

Plot and Major Characters

The Faerie Queene is set in the fictional Faerie Land, ruled by the Queen Gloriana, an allegorical figure for Queen Elizabeth I, representing the quality of Glory. Spenser's original plan for The Faerie Queene was to write twelve books, each narrating the adventures of a different knight and focused on a particular virtue. In the beginning of the epic, these twelve knights were to be gathered at the annual feast of the Faerie Queene, where each was to be assigned a quest. Spenser's intention was to make Prince Arthur, representing the quality of Magnificence, the central character running throughout all twelve books, although critics agree that Arthur's role in the narrative of The Faerie Queene does not fulfill this plan. Scholars confirm that Spenser certainly intended for Gloriana and Arthur to be married in Book XII. By the time of Spenser's death, he had published Books I through VI, and left a fragment that was published posthumously as “The Mutability Cantos” (1609). Many of the same characters and storylines recur throughout The Faerie Queene. This complex narrative scheme is known as intrelacement, or interlacing narratives. Each book within The Faerie Queene is further subdivided into cantos. While the canto was a traditional Italian literary device, Spenser was the first English poet to use it effectively. For his epic tale, Spenser invented his own stanza form, now known as the Spenserian stanza. It consists of nine iambic lines, the first eight lines having five stresses each and the last line having six stresses. The rhyme pattern of the Spenserian stanza is ababbcbcc. The slow build-up created by this arrangement of lines, leading up to the final line, has been described as that of a wave swelling and breaking onto shore. The hero of Book I is the Red Cross Knight, also referred to as St. George, the patron saint of England. During the course of his adventures, the Red Cross Knight acquires the virtue of Holiness. Una, a young woman, travels to the court of the Faerie Queene to ask for help in defeating a dragon that threatens her parents. Una there obtains the aid of the Red Cross Knight. Temporarily held captive by the villainess Duessa, the Red Cross Knight is rescued by King Arthur and goes on to defeat the dragon. At the end of Book I, Una and the Red Cross Knight are married. Book II features the hero Guyon, who represents the virtue of Temperance. After being rescued by Arthur, Guyon travels to the Bower of Bliss, a garden of delight representing the temptations of sensual pleasure. There, Guyon defeats the villainess Acrasia, who seduces men and turns them into beasts. Book III tells of the adventures of Britomart, a female knight, who represents the virtue of Chastity. Britomart has seen an image in a magic mirror of Artegall, the knight who is destined to be her beloved. She has also been told by Merlin that England will one day be ruled by her descendents. Thus, Britomart is on a quest to find Artegall, whom she has never met. Skilled in the art of battle, Britomart rescues the Red Cross Knight from a villain and goes on to rescue Amoret, a young bride held prisoner in a castle. Book IV concerns the virtue of Friendship, exemplified by the characters Cambel and Triamond. Critics have noted, however, that these two friends and the theme of friendship are not actually central to the actions related in Book IV. Rather, the continued adventures of Britomart and other secondary characters occupy the central narrative of this book. During a tournament, Britomart, disguised as a man, defeats the knight Artegall. Later, Artegall wins over Britomart in a fight, but when he discovers that she is a woman, the two fall immediately in love. Artegall is the hero of Book V, known as the Book of Justice. He sets out on a quest to rescue Irena from the villain Grantorto. In the course of his adventures, Artegall is held captive by Radigund, a villainous Amazonian queen who is in love with him. When Britomart learns of his imprisonment, she rescues Artegall by defeating Radigund in a fight and cutting off her head. In Book VI, the hero, Calidore, demonstrates the virtue of Courtesy. Calidore goes on a quest to subdue the Blatant Beast. Along the way, he falls in love with and becomes engaged to Pastorella, a shepherd girl. When Pastorella is abducted and held captive on an island by a band of outlaws, Calidore rescues her. He then goes on to subdue the Blatant Beast. “The Mutability Cantos” include two cantos of what critics sometimes refer to as Book VII. The tale related in these cantos concerns the goddess Mutability, who rebels against the rule of Jove and wreaks havoc on the universe. For her offense, Mutability is put on trial in a court over which the goddess Nature presides as judge. During this trial, the status of Mutability (the force of change) in the universe is debated among the gods.

Major Themes

The major themes of The Faerie Queene may be determined by the subject of each of the six books: Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. These themes are expressed through the allegorical meanings of the many plots and subplots in The Faerie Queene. Critics have seen in Spenser's epic poem a variety of types of allegory, including social, political, historical, religious, moral, philosophical, and psychological. Allegorical meanings and thematic focus within the six books of the Faerie Queene are in part a matter of interpretation and therefore tend to vary with any given critic. However, there are some generally accepted interpretations. Both religious and political allegory are central to the long, complex plot structure and diverse characterization of The Faerie Queene.The Faerie Queene is understood to be a political allegory concerning the domestic and international status of Elizabethan England. Spenser explicitly stated that both the Faerie Queene and Britomart represent Queen Elizabeth I. Critics have concluded that several other female characters within the story, for example Una and Belphoebe, also stand as allegorical figures for the Queen. Specific historical events and political circumstances during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I are thus addressed through Spenser's use of allegory. Book V is understood as an allegory about the conflict in Ireland between the forces of British rule and various rebellious local factions. Artegall's quest to rescue Irena from the clutches of Grantorto represents England's efforts to wrest Ireland from the sway of Catholicism. The political turmoil surrounding Mary Stuart (also known as Mary Queen of Scots) is represented through the characters Radigund and Duessa; the trial and execution of Duessa on charges of conspiracy in Book V is thus an allegory for the fate of Mary Stuart under the rule of Elizabeth I. The relationship between Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Ralegh, a poet, political figure, and one-time favorite of the Queen, is allegorically represented in the relationship between Belphoebe and Timias, who appear in Books III and V. The Faerie Queene also includes major elements of religious allegory. Book I is generally interpreted as a religious allegory concerning the split between the Catholic Church and the Church of England during the era of the English Reformation. The adventures of the Red Cross Knight are an allegory for the struggle of the individual between the forces of sin and holiness, as well as the struggles of England to assert itself as a Protestant nation against the threat of Catholic countries, particularly Spain. In the course of Book I, The Red Cross Knight moves from the House of Pride, a den of sin, to the House of Holiness, where his Christian virtues are revitalized. The religious allegory of Book I may additionally be seen in the designation of Una's parents as the King and Queen of Eden (Adam and Eve), whose home is under the thrall of a dragon, representing Satan. Critics have further interpreted Una as representative of the Church of England and the Red Cross Knight as the nation of England. Thus, their union at the end of Book I is an allegory for the union of the Anglican Church with the English monarchy and citizenry. Other major religious themes addressed in The Faerie Queene may be seen in Book II, in which the hero must learn to overcome the temptations of sensual pleasure and excess in order to develop the virtue of Temperance, or moderation and restraint. The theme of Chastity in Book III centers on the hero Britomart. Britomart's chastity may be interpreted not in terms of the modern sense of chastity as sexual abstinence, since Britomart does fall in love during the course of her adventures, but chastity as a more general moral purity as well as social and religious virtue. The Faerie Queene additionally addresses themes of social virtue on the part of the individual through the focus of Book IV on the virtue of Friendship and Book VI on the virtue of Courtesy. For example, the Blatant Beast in Book VI represents the maliciousness of false appearances and public slander. Spenser explicitly stated in his letter accompanying the first published edition of The Faerie Queene that he wished through this tale to improve the social graces of the reader, “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” This statement indicates that Spenser's tale is in part concerned with the theme of proper social behavior among individuals in society. “The Mutability Cantos” address the theme of change, transformation, and decay as a natural force in the universe. Spenser here concludes that all change is a part of God's larger plan, and must be accepted as a natural element of life.

Critical Reception

Upon initial publication, The Faerie Queene was recognized by both the Queen of England and prominent literary figures of the day as the greatest work of English verse to be written by a poet of Spenser's generation. Over the centuries since Spenser's death, critical response to The Faerie Queene has varied. Certainly, Spenser has exerted tremendous influence over generations of poets and has rightly been called “a poet's poet.” Spenser was recognized as an important influence on major English poets of the seventeenth century, most notably John Milton. Spenser's tremendous influence on writers of the eighteenth century is indicated by the countless imitations of The Faerie Queene to be produced by a broad range of poets throughout that century. In the nineteenth century, critics generally dismissed The Faerie Queene, criticizing Spenser for his didactic use of moral and religious allegory. For the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, however, Spenser's influence was crucial. All of the major English Romantic poets considered Spenser a primary influence on their writing, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Tayler Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. These poets regarded Spenser as an inspiration and model, admiring his poetic form, particularly the Spenserian stanza, use of language, and rich sensual imagery, as well as his use of the traditional romantic epic style in medieval fantasy settings. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Spenser's The Faerie Queene was less influential, but drew increasing interest from literary scholars. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, scholars of the New Criticism devoted much critical attention to Spenser's The Faerie Queene. These critics focused on close analysis of formal elements of Spenser's epic poem, a type of analysis to which The Faerie Queene readily lends itself. Beginning in the 1980s, critical response to The Faerie Queene has been informed by theoretical developments such as post-structuralism and cultural criticism. Current approaches to Spenser include semiotics, Marxist cultural theory, feminist criticism, and the New Historicism. Critics have increasingly interpreted Spenser's epic within the cultural and historical context of Elizabethan England during the era of the English Protestant Reformation. During the past couple of decades, critics have taken a particular interest in analyzing Spenser's representations of Queen Elizabeth I in terms of the dynamics of gender and power in Elizabethan England.

C. S. Lewis (essay date 1936)

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SOURCE: Lewis, C. S. “The Faerie Queene.” In Spenser's Critics: Changing Currents in Literary Taste, edited by William R. Mueller, pp. 206-32. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1959.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1936, Lewis discusses the various levels of moral and philosophical allegory in The Faerie Queene.]

Let us return to the Knight and the Lady in the opening stanzas [of The Faerie Queene.] The knight has a red cross on a silver shield; the lady is leading a lamb. The lamb has puzzled many readers; but we now know1 that it had a real function in earlier versions of the legend of St. George, and (what is much more important) we know that the lady was commonly represented leading her lamb in the pageants of St. George and the dragon. In other words, the two figures which meet us at the beginning of The Faerie Queene were instantly recognized by Spenser's first readers, and were clothed for them not in literary or courtly associations, but in popular, homely, patriotic associations. They spoke immediately to what was most universal and childlike in gentle and simple alike. This at once suggests an aspect of Spenser's poetry which it will be fatal for us to neglect, and which is abundantly illustrated in the First Book. The angels who sing at Una's wedding probably come from the same pageant source as the lamb.2 The well in which St. George is refreshed during his fight with the dragon comes from Bevis of Southampton.3 The whole similarity between his allegory and that of Bunyan, which has exercised many scholars, is best explained by the fact that they have a common source—the old-fashioned sermon in the village church still continuing the allegorical tradition of the medieval pulpit.4 Innumerable details come from the Bible, and specially from those books of the Bible which have meant much to Protestantism—the Pauline epistles and the Revelation. His antipapal allegories strike the very note of popular, even of rustic, Protestant aversion; they can be understood, and enjoyed by the modern reader (whatever his religion) only if he remembers that Roman Catholicism was in Spenser's day simply the most potent contemporary symbol for something much more primitive—the sheer Bogey, who often changes his name but never wholly retires from the popular mind. Foxe's Book of Martyrs was in every one's hands; horrible stories of the Inquisition and the galleys came from overseas; and every nervous child must have heard tales of a panel slid back at twilight in a seeming innocent manor house to reveal the pale face and thin, black body of a Jesuit. The ghosts crying from beneath the altar in Orgoglio's chapel, and the mystery of iniquity beneath that other altar of Gerioneo are accurate embodiments of popular contemporary horror at these things.5 Gerioneo himself, who

Laught so loud that all his teeth wide bare
One might have seene enraungd disorderly
Like to a rancke of piles that pitched are awry(6)

is the genuine raw-head and bloody-bones of our remembered night nurseries. A dragon's mouth is the “griesly mouth of hell” as in medieval drama.7 Mammon is the gold-hoarding earthman of immemorial tradition, the gnome. The witcheries of Duessa, when she rides in Night's chariot and “hungry wolves continually did howle,”8 or of the hag with whom Florimel guested, are almost incomparably closer to the world of real superstition than any of the Italian enchantments. We have long looked for the origins of The Faerie Queene in Renaissance palaces and Platonic academies, and forgotten that it has humbler origins of at least equal importance in the Lord Mayor's show, the chap-book, the bedtime story, the family Bible, and the village church. What lies next beneath the surface in Spenser's poem is the world of popular imagination: almost, a popular mythology.

And this world is not called up, as Ariosto may call up a fragment of folk lore, in order to amuse us. On the contrary, it is used for the sake of something yet deeper which it brings up with it and which is Spenser's real concern; the primitive or instinctive mind, with all its terrors and ecstasies—that part in the mind of each of us which we should never dream of showing to a man of the world like Ariosto. Archimago and Una, in their opposite ways, are true creations of that mind. When we first meet them we seem to have known them long before; and so in a sense we have, but only the poet could have clothed them for us in form and colour. The same may be said of Despair and Malengin, of Busirane's appalling house, and of the garden of Adonis. For all of these are translations into the visible of feelings else blind and inarticulate; and they are translations made with singular accuracy, with singularly little loss. The secret of this accuracy in which, to my mind, Spenser excels nearly all poets, is partly to be sought in his humble fidelity to the popular symbols which he found ready made to his hand; but much more in his profound sympathy with that which makes the symbols, with the fundamental tendencies of human imagination as such. Like the writers of the New Testament (to whom, in the character of his symbolism, he is the closest of all English poets) he is endlessly preoccupied with such ultimate antitheses as Light and Darkness or Life and Death. It has not often been noticed—and, indeed, save for a special purpose it ought not to be noticed—that Night is hardly even mentioned by Spenser without aversion. His story leads him to describe innumerable night-falls, and his feeling about them is always the same:

So soone as Night had with her pallid hew
Defaste the beautie of the shyning skye,
And refte from men the worldes desired vew(9)


          whenas chearelesse Night ycovered had
Fayre heaven with an universall cloud,
That every wight dismayed with darkenes sad(10)

or, again,

          when as daies faire shinie-beame, yclowded
With fearefull shadowes of deformed night,
Warnd man and beast in quiet rest be shrowded(11)

And, answering to this, in his descriptions of morning we have a never failing rapture: mere light is as sweet to Spenser as if it were a new creation. Such passages are too numerous and too widely scattered (often at unimportant places in the story) to be the result of any conscious plan: they are spontaneous and the better proof of the flawless health, the paradisal naïveté, of his imagination. They form a background, hardly noticed at a first reading, to those great passages where the conflict of light and dark becomes explicit. Such is the sleepless night of Prince Arthur in the third book, where the old description of lover's insomnia is heightened and spiritualized into a “statement” (as the musicians say) of one of Spenser's main themes;

Dayes dearest children be the blessed seed
Which darknesse shall subdue and heaven win:
Truth is his daughter; he her first did breed
Most sacred virgin without spot of sinne.(12)

It is no accident that Truth, or Una, should be mentioned here, for she is indeed the daughter of Light, and through the whole First Book runs the antithesis between her father as emperor of the East and Duessa as queen of the West13—a conception possibly borrowed from Reason and Sensuality—and in the Fifth canto of that book we meet Night face to face. The contrast between her “visage deadly sad” as she comes forth from her “darksome mew” and Duessa

                              sunny bright
Adornd with gold and jewels shining cleare,(14)

(though Duessa is but pretended, reflected light!) is, of course, a familiar example of that pictorial quality which critics have often praised in Spenser—but praised without a full understanding of those very unpictorial, unpicturable, depths from which it rises. Spenser is no dilettante, and has a low opinion of the painter's art as compared with his own.15 He is not playing mere tricks with light and shade; and few speeches in our poetry are more serious than Night's sad sentence (the very accent of a creature dréame bedœled)

The sonnes of Day he favoureth, I see(16)

And yet it is characteristic of him that the constant pressure of this day and night antithesis on his imagination never tempts him into dualism. He is impressed, more perhaps than any other poet, with the conflict of two mighty opposites—aware that our world is dualistic for all practical purposes, dualistic in all but the very last resort: but from the final heresy he abstains, drawing back from the verge of dualism to remind us by delicate allegories that though the conflict seems ultimate yet one of the opposites really contains, and is not contained by, the other. Truth and falsehood are opposed; but truth is the norm not of truth only but of falsehood also. That is why we find that Una's father, King of the East and enemy of the West, is yet de jure King of the West as well as of the East.17 That is why Love and Hatred, whom the poet borrows no doubt from Empedocles, are opposites but not, as in Empedocles, mere opposites: they are both the sons of Concord.18 And that, again, in the passage we were discussing, is why Aesculapius, a creature of Night's party, asks Night the formidable question,

                                                                                                                        Can Night defray
The wrath of thundring Jove that rules both night and day?(19)

The other antithesis—that of Life and Death, or, in its inferior degrees, of Health and Sickness—enables Spenser to avoid the insipidity of representing good as arbitrary law and evil as spontaneity. His evils are all dead or dying things. Each of his deadly sins has a mortal disease.20 Aesculapius sits in the bowels of the earth endlessly seeking remedies for an incurable fever.21 Archimago makes Guyon “the object of his spight, and deadly food.22 Despair is an immortal suicide,23 Malbecco lives transfixed with “deathes eternall dart.”24 The porter of the garden of intemperance, the evil genius, is the foe of life,25 and so are the violent passions, red-headed and adjust, who attack Guyon in the earlier stages of his pilgrimage.26 Over against these mortal shapes are set forces of life and health and fecundity. St. George, in combat with the beast who

                                                                                was deadly made
And al that life preserved did detest(27)

is refreshed with water from the well of life and saved by the shadow of the tree of life. Babies cluster at Charissa's breasts:28 Belphoebe's lilly handës twaine crush virtuous herbs for the healing of wounds:29 in the garden of Adonis,

Ne needs there Gardiner to sett or sow,
To plant or prune: for of their owne accord
All things, as they created were, doe grow,
And yet remember well the mighty word
Which first was spoken by th' Almighty Lord,
That bad them to increase and multiply(30)

and throughout the whole garden “franckly each paramor his leman knowes.”31 The love of Britomart is enobled by prophecies of famous offspring. The poem is full of marriages. Una's face unveiled shines “as the great eye of heaven,”32 and Cambina carries a cup of Nepenthe.33 The whole shining company of Spenser's vital shapes make up such a picture of “life's golden tree” that it is difficult not to fancy that our bodily, no less than our mental, health is refreshed by reading him. …

In considering The Faerie Queene as a consciously allegorical poem I shall neglect entirely its political allegory. My qualifications as an historian are not such as would enable me to unravel it; and my critical principles hardly encourage me even to make the attempt. By his political allegory Spenser doubtless intended to give to his poem a certain topical attraction. Time never forgives such concessions to “the glistering of this present,” and what acted as a bait to unpoetic readers for some decades has become a stumbling-block to poetic readers ever since. The contemporary allusions in The Faerie Queene are now of interest to the critic chiefly in so far as they explain how some bad passages came to be bad; but since this does not make them good—since to explain by causes is not to justify by reasons—we shall not lose very much by ignoring the matter. My concern is with the moral or philosophical allegory.

In approaching this latter, the modern reader needs a little encouragement. He has been told that the significacio of The Faerie Queene is not worth looking for. Critics have talked as if there were a fatal discrepancy between Spenser's spiritual pretensions and the actual content of his poetry. He has been represented as a man who preached Protestantism while his imagination remained on the side of Rome; or again, as a poet entirely dominated by the senses who believed himself to be an austere moralist. These are profound misunderstandings.

The first—that of unconscious or involuntary Roman Catholicism—may be answered pretty shortly. It is quite true that Una is dressed (in her exile) like a nun, that the House of Holinesse is like a conventual house, that Penaunce dwells there with a whip, and that Contemplation, like the hermit of Book Six,34 resembles a Catholic recluse. It is equally true that we can find similarly Catholic imagery in Bunyan; and I know a man in our own time who wrote what he intended to be a general apologetic allegory for “all who profess and call themselves Christians,” and was surprised to find it both praised and blamed as a defence of Rome. It would appear that all allegories whatever are likely to seem Catholic to the general reader, and this phenomenon is worth investigation. In part, no doubt, it is to be explained by the fact that the visible and trangible aspects of Catholicism are medieval, and therefore steeped in literary suggestion. But is this all? Do Protestant allegorists continue as in a dream to use imagery so likely to mislead their readers without noticing the danger or without better motive than laziness for incurring it? By no means. The truth is not that allegory is Catholic, but that Catholicism is allegorical. Allegory consists in giving an imagined body to the immaterial; but if, in each case, Catholicism claims already to have given it a material body, then the allegorist's symbol will naturally resemble that material body. The whip of Penaunce is an excellent example. No Christian ever doubted that repentance involved “penaunce” and “whips” on the spiritual plane: it is when you come to material whips—to Tartuffe's discipline in his closet—that the controversy begins. It is the same with the “House” of Holinessse. No Christian doubts that those who have offered themselves to God are cut off as if by a wall from the World, are placed under a regula vitae, and “laid in easy bed” by “meek Obedience”; but when the wall becomes one of real bricks and mortar, and the Rule one in real ink, superintended by disciplinary officials and reinforced (at times) by the power of the State, then we have reached that sort of actuality which Catholics aim at and Protestants deliberately avoid. Indeed, this difference is the root out of which all other differences between the two religions grow. The one suspects that all spiritual gifts are falsely claimed if they cannot be embodied in bricks and mortar, or official positions, or institutions: the other, that nothing retains its spirituality if incarnation is pushed to that degree and in that way. The difference about Papal infallibility is simply a form of this. The proper corruptions of each Church tell the same tale. When Catholicism goes bad it becomes the world-old, world-wide religio of amulets and holy places and priestcraft: Protestantism, in its corresponding decay, becomes a vague mist of ethical platitudes. Catholicism is accused of being much too like all the other religions; Protestantism of being insufficiently like a religion at all. Hence Plato, with his transcendent Forms, is the doctor of Protestants; Aristotle, with his immanent Forms, the doctor of Catholics. Now allegory exists, so to speak, in that region of the mind where the bifurcation has not yet occurred; for it occurs only when we reach the material world. In the world of matter, Catholics and Protestants disagree as to the kind and degree of incarnation or embodiment which we can safely try to give to the spiritual; but in the world of imagination, where allegory exists, unlimited embodiment is equally approved by both. Imagined buildings and institutions which have a strong resemblance to the actual buildings and institutions of the Church of Rome, will therefore appear, and ought to appear, in any Protestant allegory. If the allegorist knows his business their prevalence will rather mean that the allegory is not Catholic than that it is. For allegory is idem in alio. Only a bungler, like Deguileville, would introduce a monastery into his poem if he were really writing about monasticism. When Spenser writes about Protestant sanctity he gives us something like a convent: when he is really talking about the conventual life he gives us Abessa and Corceca. If I might, without irreverence, twist the words of an important (and very relevant) Protestant article, I would say that a Catholic interpretation of The Faerie Queene, “overthoweth the nature of an allegory.” Certainly, a Catholic reader anxious to do justice to this great Protestant poem, would be very ill advised to read it in that way. Here, as in more important matters, frontier courtesies do not help; it is at their fiery cores that the two faiths are most nearly in sympathy.

The charge of actual sensuality and theoretical austerity cannot be answered so briefly. The spear-head of this attack is usually directed against the Bower of Bliss, and it is sometimes strengthened by the statement that the Garden of Adonis is not sufficiently distinguished from it; and an analysis of these two places is as good a method as any other of beginning a study of Spenser's allegory. The home of Acrasia is first shown to us in the fifth canto of Book Two, when Atin finds Cymochles there asleep. The very first words of the description are

And over him art, striving to compare
With nature, did an Arber greene dispred.(35)

This explicit statement that Acrasia's garden is art not nature can be paralleled in Tasso, and would be unimportant if it stood alone. But the interesting thing is that when the Bower of Bliss reappears seven cantos later, there again the very first stanza of description tells us that it was

                                        goodly beautifide
With all the ornaments of Floraes pride,
Wherewith her mother Art, as halfe in scorne
Of niggard Nature, like a pompous bride
Did decke her, and too lavishly adorne.(36)

In order to be perfectly fair to Spenser's hostile critics, I am prepared to assume that this repetition of the antithesis between art and nature is accidental. But I think the hardest sceptic will hesitate when he reads, eight stanzas further,

And that which all faire workes doth most aggrace,
The art which all that wrought appeared in no place.(37)

And if this does not satisfy him let him read on to the sixty-first stanza where we find the imitation ivy in metal which adorns Acrasia's bathing-pool. Whether those who think that Spenser is secretly on Acrasia's side, themselves approve of metal vegetation as a garden ornament, or whether they regard this passage as a proof of Spenser's abominable bad taste, I do not know; but this is how the poet describes it,

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.(38)

Is it possible now to resist the conviction that Spenser's hostile critics are precisely such wights who have viewed the Bower “not well avis'd” and therefore erroneously deemed it to be true? Let us suppose, however, that the reader is still unconvinced: let us even help him by pointing out stanza fifty-nine where the antithesis is blurred. But we have still to deal with the garden of Adonis; and surely all suspicion that the insistence on Acrasia's artificiality is accidental must disappear if we find throughout the description of the garden of Adonis an equal insistence on its natural spontaneity. And this is just what we do find. Here, as in the description of the Bower, the very first stanza gives us the key-note: the garden of Adonis is

So faire a place as Nature can devize.(39)

A few stanzas later, in lines which I have already quoted, we are told that it needs no Gardiner because all its plants grow “of their owne accord” in virtue of the divine word that works within them. It even needs no water, because these plants have eternal moisture “in themselves.”40 Like the Bower, the Garden has an arbour, but it is an arbour

                                                                      not by art
But of the trees owne inclination made.(41)

and the ivy in this arbour is living ivy not painted metal. Finally, the Bower has the story of a false love depicted by art on its gate,42 and the Garden has faithful lovers growing as live flowers out of its soil.43 When these facts have once been pointed out, only prejudice can continue to deny the deliberate differentiation between the Bower and the Garden. The one is artifice, sterility, death: the other, nature, fecundity, life. The similarity between them is just that similarity which exists between the two gardens in Jean de Meun;44 the similarity of the real to the pretended and of the archetype to the imitation. Diabolus simius Dei.

The reader may well be excused if he has, by this, forgotten that the whole subject of nature and art arose out of our analysis of the Bower of Bliss and the Garden of Adonis. But the Bower and the Garden (the very names, I trust, have now become significant) are so important that we have still not exhausted them. We have dealt only with their contrast of nature and art. It still remains to consider the equally careful, and even more important, contrast between the explicitly erotic imagery of the one and the other. We here approach a subject on which Spenser has been much misunderstood. He is full of pictures of virtuous and vicious love, and they are, in fact, exquisitely contrasted. Most readers seem to approach him with the vulgar expectation that his distinction between them is going to be a quantitative one; that the vicious loves are going to be warmly painted and the virtuous tepidly—the sacred draped and the profane nude. It must be stated at once that in so far as Spenser's distinction is quantitative at all, the quantities are the other way round. He is at the opposite pole from the scholastic philosophers. For him, intensity of passion purifies: cold pleasure, such as the scholastics seems to approve, is corruption. But in reality the distinction has very little to do with degree or quantity.

The reader who wishes to understand Spenser in this matter may begin with one of his most elementary contrasts—that between the naked damsels in Acrasia's fountain and the equally naked (in fact rather more naked) damsels who dance round Colin Clout.45 Here, I presume, no one can be confused. Acrasia's two young women (their names are obviously Cissie and Flossie) are ducking and giggling in a bathing-pool for the benefit of a passer-by: a man does not need to go to fairie land to meet them. The Graces are engaged in doing something worth doing—namely, dancing in a ring “in order excellent.” They are, at first, much too busy to notice Calidore's arrival, and when they do notice him they vanish. The contrast here is almost too simple to be worth mentioning; and it is only marginal to our immediate subject, for the Graces symbolize no sexual experience at all. Let us proceed to something a little less obvious and more relevant: let us compare the pictures Venus and Adonis in the house of Malecasta with the real Venus and Adonis in the Garden. We find at once that the latter (the good and real) are a picture of actual fruition. Venus, in defiance of the forces of death, the Stygian gods,

Possesseth him and of his sweetnesse takes her fill.(46)

Nothing could be franker; a dainty reader might even object that the phrase “takes her fill” brings us too close to other and more prosaic appetites. But daintiness will be rebuked (as Spenser is always ready to rebuke it) if any one tries to prefer the pictured Venus on Malecasta's wall. For she is not in the arms of Adonis: she is merely looking at him,

And whilst he bath'd, with her two crafty spyes
She secretly would search each daintie lim.(47)

The words “crafty,” “spies,” and “secretly” warn us sufficiently well where we have arrived. The good Venus is a picture of fruition: the bad Venus is a picture not of “lust in action” but of lust suspended—lust turning into what would now be called skeptophilia. The contrast is just as clear as that in the previous example, and incalculably more important. Thus armed, we may now return to the Bower. The very first person we meet there is Cymochles. He has come there for pleasure and he is surrounded by a flock of wanton nymphs. But the wretched creature does not approach one of them: instead, he lies in the grass (“like an Adder lurking in the weedes”) and

Sometimes he falsely faines himselfe to sleepe
Whiles through their lids his wanton eies do peepe.(48)

The word “peepe” is the danger signal, and once again we know where we are. If we turn to the Garden of Adonis we shall find a very different state of affairs. There “all plenty and all pleasure flowes”: the garden is full of lovers and “Franckly each Paramor his leman knowes.”49 And when we have noticed this it ought to dawn upon us that the Bower of Bliss is not a place even of healthy animalism, or indeed of activity of any kind. Acrasia herself does nothing: she is merely “discovered,” posed on a sofa beside a sleeping young man, in suitably semitransparent raiment. It is hardly necessary to add that her breast is “bare to ready spoyle of hungry eies,”50 for eyes, greedy eyes (“which n'ote therewith be fild”) are the tyrants of that whole region. The Bower of Bliss is not a picture of lawless, that is, unwedded, love as opposed to lawful love. It is a picture, one of the most powerful ever painted, of the whole sexual nature in disease. There is not a kiss or an embrace in the island: only male prurience and female provocation. Against it we should set not only the Garden of Adonis, but the rapturous reunion of Scudamour with Amoret,51 or the singularly fresh and frank account of Arthur's meeting with Gloriana.52 It is not to be supposed of course that Spenser wrote as a scientific “sexologist” or consciously designed his Bower of Bliss as a picture of sexual perversion. Acrasia indeed does not represent sexual vice in particular, but vicious pleasure in general.53 Spenser's conscious intention, no doubt, was merely to produce a picture which should do justice both to the pleasantness and to the vice. He has done this in the only way possible—namely, by filling his Bower of Bliss with sweetness showered upon sweetness and yet contriving that there should be something subtly wrong throughout. But perhaps “contriving” is a bad word. When he wishes to paint disease, the exquisite health of his own imagination shows him what images to exclude. …

For the purposes of our particular study the third and fourth books of The Faerie Queene are by far the most important, for in them Spenser, as I promised, becomes our collaborator and tells the final stages of the history of courtly love. I do not mean, of course, that he would have understood the phrase “history of courtly love,” nor that he knew he was ending a story. But it is in his mind, none the less, that the last phase of the long process becomes conscious.

The subjects of these two books are respectively Chastity and Friendship, but we are justified in treating them as a single book on the subject of love. Chastity, in the person of Britomart, turns out to mean not virginity but virtuous love: and friends are found to be merely “another sort of lovers”54 in the Temple of Venus. The Proem to the legend of Friendship deals entirely with “lovers deare debate,”55 and its story is equally concerned with friendship, reconciliation and marriage. In the ninth canto Spenser explicitly classifies Eros, Storgë, and Philia as “three kinds of love.”56 Finally, his conception of love is enlarged so as to include even the harmonies of the inanimate world, and we have the wedding of Thames and Medway. For this all-embracing interpretation of love Spenser, of course, has precedent in ancient philosophy, and specially in the Symposium. His subject-matter in these two books is therefore extremely complex: and as, in these same books, the non-allegorical fringe becomes wider and more brilliant than ever, there is some excuse for the bewilderment of those critics (too quick despairers!) who suppose that Spenser has abandoned his original design. But those who have learned to look for the allegorical centres will not go astray.

A few pages ago we were considering the difference between the Bower of Bliss and the Garden of Adonis. While we did so I carefully excluded a much more interesting question—that of the difference between the Bower of Bliss and the Houses of Malecasta and Busirane. It is now time to rectify this omission. The Bower, it will be remembered, turned out to be a place not of lawless loves or even lawless lusts, but of disease and paralysis in appetite itself. It will be remembered that the Bower is the home not of vicious sexuality in particular, but of vicious Pleasure in general.57 The poet has selected one kind of pleasure chiefly because it is the only kind that can be treated at length in serious poetry. The Bower is connected with sex at all only through the medium of Pleasure. And this is borne out by the fact—very remarkable to any one well read in previous allegory—that Cupid is never mentioned in the Bower, a clear indication that we are not yet dealing with love. The Bower is not the foe of Chastity but of Continence—of that elementary psychic integration which is presupposed even in unlawful loves. To find the real foe of Chastity, the real portrait of false love, we must turn to Malecasta and Busirane. The moment we do so, we find that Malecasta and Busirane are nothing else than the main subject of this study—Courtly Love; and that Courtly Love is in Spenser's view the chief opponent of Chastity. But Chastity for him means Britomart, married love. The story he tells is therefore part of my story: the final struggle between the romance of marriage and the romance of adultery.

Malecasta lives in Castle Joyeous amid the “courteous and comely glee” of gracious ladies and gentle knights.58 Somebody must be paying for it all, but one cannot find out who. The Venus in her tapestries entices Adonis “as well that art she knew”:59 we are back in the world of the Vekke and the commandments of Love. In the rooms of the castle there is “dauncing and reveling both day and night,” and “Cupid still emongst them kindles lustfull fyres.”60 The six knights with whom Britomart contends at its gate (Gardante, Parlante, and the rest) might have stepped straight out of the Roman de la Rose, and in the very next stanza the simile of the rose itself occurs.61 The place is dangerous to spirits who would have gone through the Bower of Bliss without noticing its existence. Britomart gets a flesh wound there,62 and Holiness himself is glad to be helped in his fight against Malecasta's champions by Britomart; by which the honest poet intends, no doubt, to let us know that even a religious man need not disdain the support which a happy marriage will give him against fashionable gallantry. For Britomart is married love.

Malecasta clearly represents the dangerous attractions of courtly love—the attractions that drew a Surrey or a Sydney. Hers is the face that it shows to us at first. But the House of Busirane is the bitter ending of it. In these vast, silent rooms, dazzling with snake-like gold, and endlessly pictured with “Cupid's warres and cruell battailes,”63 scrawled over with “a thousand monstrous formes”64 of false love, where Britomart awaits her hidden enemy for a day and a night, shut in, entombed, cut off from the dawn which comes outside “calling men to their daily exercize,”65 Spenser has painted for us an unforgettable picture not of lust but of love—love as understood by the traditional French novel or by Guillaume de Lorris—in all its heartbreaking glitter, its sterility, its suffocating monotony. And when at last the ominous door opens and the Mask of Cupid comes out, what is this but a picture of the deep human suffering which underlies such loves?

Unquiet care and fond Unthriftyhead;
Lewd Losse of Time, and Sorrow seeming dead,
Inconstant Chaunge, and false Disloyalty;
Consuming Riotise, and guilty Dread
Of heavenly vengeaunce: faint Infirmity;
Vile Poverty; and, lastly, Death with infamy.(66)

The Mask, in fact embodies all the sorrows of Isoud among the lepers, and Launcelot mad in the woods, of Guinevere at the stake or Guinevere made nun and penitent, of Troilus waiting on the wall, of Petrarch writing vergogna è'l frutto and Sydney rejecting the love that reaches but to dust; or of Donne writing his fierce poems from the house of Busirane soon after Spenser had written of it. When Britomart rescues Amoret from this place of death she is ending some five centuries of human experience, predominantly painful. The only thing Spenser does not know is that Britomart is the daughter of Busirane—that his ideal of married love grew out of courtly love.

Who, then, is Amoret? She is the twin sister of Belphoebe and both were begotten by the Sun,

pure and unspotted from all loathly crime
That is ingenerate in fleshly slime(67)

The meaning of which is best understood by comparison with Spenser's sonnet,

More then most faire, full of the living fire,
Kindled above unto the maker neare.(68)

And we know that the Sun is an image of the Good for Plato,69 and therefore of God for Spenser. The first important event in the life of these twins was their adoption by Venus and Diana: Diana the goddess of virginity, and Venus from whose house “all the world derives the glorious features of beautie.”70 Now the circumstances which led up to this adoption are related in one of the most medieval passages in the whole Faerie Queene—a débat between Venus and Diana;71 but this débat has two remarkable features. In the first place, the Venus who takes part in it is a Venus severed from Cupid, and Cupid, as we have already seen, is associated with courtly love. I say “associated” because we are dealing with what was merely a feeling in Spenser's mind, not a piece of intellectual and historical knowledge, as it is to us. There is therefore no consistent and conscious identification of Cupid with courtly love, but Cupid tends to appear in one kind of context and to be absent from another kind. And when he does appear in contexts approved by our domestic poet, he usually appears with some kind of reservation. He is allowed into the Garden of Adonis on condition of his “laying his sad dartes asyde”:72 in the Temple of Venus it is only his younger brothers who flutter round the neck of the goddess.73 We are therefore fully justified in stressing the fact that Venus finds Amoret only because she has lost Cupid, and finally adopts Amoret instead of Cupid.74 The other important novelty is that this débat ends with a reconciliation; Spenser is claiming to have settled the old quarrel between Venus and Diana, and that after a singularly frank statement of the claims of each. And when the two goddesses have agreed, their young wards

                                                  twixt them two did share
The heritage of all celestiall grace;
That all the rest it seemd they robbed bare,(75)

and one of them, Amoret, became

                    th'ensample of true love alone
And Lodestarre of all chaste affection.(76)

She was taken by Venus to be reared in the Garden of Adonis, guarded by Genius the lord of generation, among happy lovers and flowers (the two are here indistinguishable) whose fecundity never ceases to obey the Divine Command. This was her nursery: her school or university was the Temple of Venus. This is a region neither purely natural, like the Garden, nor artificial in the bad sense, like the Bower of Bliss: a region where,

                                                                                all that nature did omit,
Art, playing second natures part, supplyed it.(77)

Here Amoret no longer grows like a plant, but is committed to the care of Womanhood; the innocent sensuousness of the garden is replaced by “sober Modestie,” “comely Curtesie,”

Soft Silence and submisse Obedience,

which are gifts of God and protect His saints “against their foes offence.”78 Indeed the whole island is strongly protected, partly by Nature,79 and partly by such immemorial champions of maidenhead in the Rose tradition, as Doubt, Delay, and Daunger.80 But when the lover comes he defeats all these and plucks Amoret from her place among the modest virtues. The struggle in his own mind before he does so, his sense of “Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear,” is a beautiful gift made by the humilities of medieval love poetry to Spenser at the very moment of his victory over the medieval tradition:

                                                  my hart gan throb
And wade in doubt what best were to be donne;
For sacrilege me seem'd the Church to rob,
And folly seem'd to leave the thing undonne.(81)

Amoret, however, cannot withdraw her hand, and the conclusion of the adventure may be given in the words of the poet who has studied most deeply this part of The Faerie Queene:

                                                  she what was Honour knew,
And with obsequious Majestie approv'd
My pleaded reason.

The natural conclusion is marriage, but Busirane for centuries has stood in the way. That is why it is from the marriage feast that Busirane carries Amoret away,82 to pine for an indefinite period in his tomblike house. When once Britomart has rescued her thence, the two lovers become one flesh—for that is the meaning of the daring simile of the Hermaphrodite in the original conclusion of Book III.83 But even after this, Amoret is in danger if she strays from Britomart's side; she will then fall into a world of wild beasts where she has no comfort or guide,84 and may even become the victim of monsters who live on the “spoile of women.”85

If it is difficult to write down in prose the significacio of all this, the difficulty arises from the fact that the poetic version has almost too much meaning for prose to overtake. Thus, in general, it is plain that Amoret is simply love—begotten by heaven, raised to its natural perfection in the Garden and to its civil and spiritual perfections in the Temple, wrongly separated from marriage by the ideals of courtly gallantry, and at last restored to it by Chastity—as Spenser conceives chastity. But the danger of such analysis is that some stupid person will ask us “Who, then, is Scudamour? And if Chastity means (for Spenser) married love, and that is Britomart, then what is the difference between Britomart and Amoret?” Now, if we must, we can of course answer such questions. We can say that while Scudamour and Amoret united by Britomart are a picture of one thing—Marriage—yet Scudamour, taken by himself, is hardly a personification at all; he is the lover, the husband, any husband, or even homo in search of love. Or we can say that while Britomart represents Chastity attained—the triumphant union of romantic passion with Christian monogamy—Amoret, in isolation, represents the romantic passion which Chastity must so unite. We can even go on to say that whereas Amoret is the passion, Florimel is the object of the passion, The Beautiful or Loveable, and that her sufferings illustrate the miseries to which this object is exposed outside marriage: that the false Florimel is the false Loveable grasped by Courtly Love: and we might point out that the girdle which will fit only the true Florimel (and Amoret)86 was made for Venus, but for Venus, once more, carefully dissociated from courtly love.87 But I have no intention of following this plan. The very speed and ease with which the “false secondary power” produces these interpretations, warns us that if once we give it its head we shall never be done. The more concrete and vital the poetry is, the more hopelessly complicated it will become in analysis: but the imagination receives it as a simple—in both senses of the word. Oddly as it may sound, I conceive that it is the chief duty of the interpreter to begin analyses and to leave them unfinished. They are not meant as substitutes for the imaginative apprehension of the poem. Their only use is to awaken, first of all, the reader's conscious knowledge of life and books in so far as it is relevant, and then to stir those less conscious elements in him which alone can fully respond to the poem. And perhaps I have already done too much. Perhaps all we need to know is that the twins Amoret and Belphoebe represent Spenser's view that there are two kinds of chastity, both heaven-born.

The less allegorical parts group themselves easily enough round this core. The swashbucklers—the Paridells and Blandamours—are an almost literal picture of court life. In Book IV they are the enemies of true friendship; they are the young men, described by Aristotle, who change their friends several times in the same day.88 In Book III, Paridell wooing Hellenore, is a picture of courtly love in action: he is the learned lover and knows all the Ovidian tricks.89 That is why the one constant element in him is his hatred of Scudamour.90 Marinell is a sort of pendant to Belphoebe: she represents virginity as an ideal, while he avoids love on prudential grounds, which Spenser disapproves. His marriage with Florimel probably expresses no allegorical relation; it comes in, like the wedding of the rivers, or Arthur's reconciliation of Poeana and Amyas, to illustrate the general theme of the book, which is Reconciliation rather than what we should call Friendship. Concord is for Spenser the resolution of discord: her two sons are Hate and Love, and Hate is the elder.91 That is why we meet Ate, and her works, long before we meet Concord, and also why the titular heroes of the book are friends who were once foes; and the same theme of reconciliation connects Arthur's activities with the main subject.

In addition to such merely typical adventures, we have, as usual, passages that are quite free from allegory. Such are the beautiful “episode” of Timias and Belphoebe, and the prophecies of Merlin. We also have, so to speak, “islands” of pure allegory such as that of Malbecco or the House of Care, which are not closely connected with the central allegorical action. The two books, taken together, are a kind of central massif in The Faerie Queene, in which the poet's originality is at its highest and his command (for his own purposes) of the Italian art of interweaving is most perfect. It is very unfortunate that they also contain some of his worst writing; but this must not be taken as proof that he is tiring of his design. It comes mainly from the very simple cause, that in these books Spenser is facing the necessity, incumbent on a professed disciple of Ariosto, of giving us some big, set battlepieces, and Spenser, like all the Elizabethans, does this kind of thing very badly. It is idle to seek deep spiritual causes for literary phenomena which mere incompetence can explain. If a man who cannot draw horses is illustrating a book, the pictures that involve horses will be the bad pictures, let his spiritual condition be what it may. …

The sixth book is distinguished from its predecessors by distinct traces of the influence of Malory (a welcome novelty) and by the high proportion of unallegorical, or faintly allegorical, scenes. This last feature easily gives rise to the impression that Spenser is losing grip on the original conception of his poem; and it suggests a grave structural fault in The Faerie Queene in so far as the poem begins with its loftiest and most solemn book and thence, after a gradual descent, sinks away into its loosest and most idyllic. But this criticism overlooks the fact that the poem is unfinished. The proportion of allegoric core to typical, or purely fictional, fringe has varied all along from book to book; and the loose texture of the sixth is a suitable relief after the very high proportion of pure allegory in the fifth. The only fragment of any succeeding book which we have proves that the poem was to rise from the valley of humiliation into allegory as vast and august as that of the first book.

In the poem as a whole our understanding is limited by the absence of the allegorical centre, the union of Arthur and Gloriana. In the Mutabilitie cantos the opposite difficulty occurs—we have there the core of a book without the fringe. The fact that this should be so is interesting because it suggests (what is likely enough a priori) that Spenser was in the habit of writing his “cores” first and then draping the rest round them. But we lose much by not seeing the theme of change and permanence played out on the lower levels of chivalrous adventure. It is obvious, of course, that the adventures would have illustrated the theme of constancy and inconstancy, and that the mighty opposites would have appeared in the form of Mutabilitie and the Gods only at the central allegorical gable of the book—which is the bit we have. It is obvious too, that the Titaness, despite her beauty, is an evil force. Her very name “bold Alteration,”92 and the fact that she rises against the gods, put her at once among the enemies for any reader who understands Spenser's conceptions of health, concord, and subordination. The state of affairs which she would fain upset in heaven and has already upset in earth, is precisely that state which Spenser (or Aristotle) would have described as just and harmonious,

          all which Nature had establisht first
In good estate, and in meet order ranged
She did pervert.(93)

She is, in fact, Corruption, and since corruption, “subjecting the creature to vanity,” came in with the Fall, Spenser practically identifies his Titaness with sin, or makes her the force behind the sin of Adam. She it is who

Wrong of right, and bad of good did make
And death for life exchanged foolishly:
Since which all living wights have learn'd to die,
And all the world is woxen daily worse.
O pittious worke of Mutability,
By which we all are subject to that curse,
And death, instead of life, have sucked from our Nurse!(94)

The full impact of that last line can be felt only when we have read the whole Faerie Queene. The enemies of Mutability are, first, the gods, and then Nature. Taken together they represent the Divine order in the universe—the concord, the health, the justice, the harmony, the Life, which, under many names, is the real heroine of the whole poem. If we take them apart, however, then the gods represent precisely what we should call “nature,” the laws of the phenomenal universe. That is why the Titaness so far prevails with them—they are that world over which, even in the highest regions, she asserts some claim. But Nature, taken apart, is the ground of the phenomenal world. The reverence with which Spenser approaches this symbol contrasts favourably with the hardier attempts of Tasso and Milton to bring God, undisguised, upon the stage—and indeed it would be a pleasant task, if this chapter were not already too long, to show how much more religious a poem The Faerie Queene is than the Paradise Lost. Mutability's appeal, it should be noticed, is not in the first instance to Nature at all, but

          to the highest him, that is behight
Father of Gods and men of equall might,
To weete the God of Nature.(95)

Yet when this appeal is answered it is the goddess Natura who appears, as in Claudian, Bernardus, Alanus, and Jean de Meun,

This great Grandmother of all creatures bred,
Great Nature, ever young, yet full of eld;
Still mooving, yet unmoved from her sted,
Unseene of any, yet of all beheld.(96)

The woody pavilion (unlike those fashioned by the “idle skill” of craftsmen)97 which rises up to receive her, the “flowers that voluntary grow” beneath her feet, and the homage of the river-god, are all in the same tradition. Yet at the same time Spenser can compare her garments to those of Our Lord on the mount of Transfiguration, and even put into the mouth of Mutability words that separate Nature by a great gulf from the mere gods:

          Sith heaven and earth are both alike to thee,
          And gods no more then men thou doest esteeme;
For even the gods to thee, as men to gods, do seeme.(98)

The modern reader is tempted to inquire whether Spenser, then, equates God with Nature: to which the answer is, “Of course not. He was a Christian, not a pantheist.” His procedure in this passage would have been well understood by all his contemporaries: the practice of using mythological forms to hint theological truths was well established and lasted as late as the composition of Comus. It is, for most poets and in most poems, by far the best method of writing poetry which is religious without being devotional—that is, without being an act of worship to the reader. In the medieval allegories and the renaissance mask, God, if we may say so without irreverence, appears frequently, but always incognito. Every one understood what was happening, but the occasion remained an imaginative, not a devotional, one. The poet thus retains liberties which would be denied him if he removed the veil. For even Spenser, daring though he is in such matters, could hardly have descended so suddenly and delightfully as he does from the high court of the universe to the grotesque antimask of Faunus (“A foolish Faune indeed”),99 if he had placed the Almighty undisguised instead of “Nature” on the bench of that high court; though in the long run this intermeddling of the high and low—the poet's eye glancing not only from earth to heaven but from the shapeless, funny gambollings of instinct to the heights of contemplation—is as grave, perhaps even as religious, as the decorum that would, in a different convention, have forbidden it.

I find the significance of the whole débat hard to determine with precision because of the deep obscurity of the lines in which Nature gives her sentence; but the general outlines of the meaning I think I have grasped. It is a magnificent instance of Spenser's last-moment withdrawal from dualism. The universe is a battlefield in which Change and Permanence contend. And these are evil and good—the gods, the divine order, stand for Permanence; Change is rebellion and corruption. But behind this endless contention arises the deeper truth—that Change is but the mode in which Permanence expresses itself, that Reality (like Adonis) “is eterne in mutabilitie,”100 and that the more Mutability succeeds the more she fails, even here and now—not to speak of her more ultimate ruin when we reach the

          rest of all things, firmely stayd
Upon the pillars of Eternity.(101)

To praise this fragment seems almost an impertinence. In it all the powers of the poet are more happily united than ever before; the sublime and the ridiculous, the rarified beauties of august mythology and the homely glimpses of daily life in the procession of the months, combine to give us an unsurpassed impression of the harmonious complexity of the world. And in these cantos Spenser seems to have soared above all the usual infirmities of his style. His verse has never been more musical, his language never so strong and so sweet. Such poetry, coming at the very end of the six books, serves to remind us that the existing Faerie Queene is unfinished, and that the poet broke off, perhaps, with many of his greatest triumphs still ahead. Our loss is incalculable; at least as great as that we sustained by the early death of Keats.

If this chapter is not radically erroneous, then the history of Spenserian criticism, with one or perhaps two honourable exceptions, is a history of gross underestimation. I have not tried to conceal his faults; on some of them I have spoken more severely than most of his professed admirers. His prosaic, and even prosy, tendencies I almost claim to have set for the first time in their true light. I have exposed, without extenuation, those unpleasing passages where he becomes a bad poet because he is, in certain respects, a bad man. But they must be set beside the barbarity of Homer, the hatreds of Dante, the pride of Milton—and perhaps we may add, Shakespeare's apparently contented acquiescence in the ethical tomfoolery of honour and revenge. I do not mention these things with the absurd intention of exalting Spenser by depreciating others. I wish merely to indicate the level on which Spenser stands, the poets with whom he is to be compared.

My claim for Spenser may take the form of the old eulogy—totam vitae imaginem expressit; but perhaps my meaning will be clearer if we omit the word totam, if we say simply vitae imaginem. Certainly this will help to clear up a common misunderstanding. People find a “likeness” or “truth” to life in Shakespeare because the persons, passions and events which we meet in his plays are like those which we meet in our own lives: he excels, in fact, in what the old critics called “nature,” or the probable. When they find nothing of the sort in Spenser, they are apt to conclude that he has nothing to do with “life”—that he writes that poetry of escape or recreation which (for some reason or other) is so intensely hated at present. But they do not notice that The Faerie Queene is “like life” in a different sense, in a much more literal sense. When I say that it is like life, I do not mean that the places and people in it are like those which life produces. I mean precisely what I say—that it is like life itself, not like the products of life. It is an image of the natura naturans, not of the natura naturata. The things we read about in it are not like life, but the experience of reading it is like living. The clashing antitheses which meet and resolve themselves into higher unities, the lights streaming out from the great allegorical foci to turn into a hundred different colours as they reach the lower levels of complex adventure, the adventures gathering themselves together and revealing their true nature as we draw near the foci, the constant reappearance of certain basic ideas, which transform themselves without end and yet ever remain the same (eterne in mutability), the unwearied variety and seamless continuity of the whole—all this is Spenser's true likeness to life. It is this which gives us, while we read him, a sensation akin to that which Hegelians are said to get from Hegel—a feeling that we have before us not so much an image as a sublime instance of the universal process—that this is not so much a poet writing about the fundamental forms of life as those forms themselves spontaneously displaying their activities to us through the imagination of a poet. The invocation of the Muse hardly seems to be a convention in Spenser. We feel that his poetry has really tapped sources not easily accessible to discursive thought. He makes imaginable inner realities so vast and simple that they ordinarily escape us as the largely printed names of continents escape us on the map—too big for our notice, too visible for sight. Milton has well selected wisdom as his peculiar excellence—wisdom of that kind which rarely penetrates into literature because it exists most often in inarticulate people. It is this that has kept children and poets true to him for three centuries, while the intellectuals (on whom the office of criticism naturally devolves) have been baffled even to irritation by a spell which they could not explain. To our own troubled and inquiring age this wisdom will perhaps show its most welcome aspect in the complete integration, the harmony, of Spenser's mind. His work is one, like a growing thing, a tree; like the world-ash-tree itself, with branches reaching to heaven and roots to hell. It reaches up to the songs of angels or the vision of the New Jerusalem and admits among its shining ones the veiled image of God Himself: it reaches down to the horror of fertile chaos beneath the Garden of Adonis and to the grotesque satyrs who protect Una or debauch Hellenore with equal truth to their nature. And between these two extremes comes all the multiplicity of human life, transmuted but not falsified by the conventions of chivalrous romance. The “great golden chain of Concord” has united the whole of his world. What he feels on one level, he feels on all. When the good and fair appear to him, the whole man responds; the satyrs gambol, the lances splinter, the shining ones rise up. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place. Nothing is repressed; nothing is insubordinate. To read him is to grow in mental health.

With Spenser my story comes to an end. His chivalrous and allegorical poem was already a little out of date when it first appeared, as great poems not infrequently are. Its literary influence is much more important for the student of Milton and the Romantics than for the student of the Elizabethans. There is a history of great literature which has a slower rhythm than that of literature in general, and which goes on in a higher region. The biggest things do not work quickly. It is only after centuries that Spenser's position becomes apparent; and then he appears as the great mediator between the Middle Ages and the modern poets, the man who saved us from the catastrophe of too thorough a renaissance. To Hurd and the Wartons and Scott he appeared chiefly as a medieval poet, to Keats and Shelley as the poet of the marvellous. What the romantics learned from him was something different from allegory; but perhaps he could not have taught it unless he had been an allegorist. In the history of sentiment he is the greatest among the founders of that romantic conception of marriage which is the basis of all our love literature from Shakespeare to Meredith. The synthesis which he helped to effect was so successful that this aspect of his work escaped notice in the last century: all that Britomart stands for was platitude to our fathers. It is platitude no longer. The whole conception is now being attacked. Feminism in politics, reviving asceticism in religion, animalism in imaginative literature, and, above all, the discoveries of the psychoanalysts, have undermined that monogamic idealism about sex which served us for three centuries. Whether society will gain or lose by the revolution, I need not try to predict; but Spenser ought to gain. What once was platitude should now have for some the brave appeal of a cause nearly lost, and for others the interest of a highly specialized historical phenomenon—the peculiar flower of a peculiar civilization, important whether for good or ill and well worth our understanding.


  1. See Greenlaw, Osgood, Padelford, Works of Spenser, vol. i, Baltimore, 1932, p. 389.

  2. Op. cit., ibid.

  3. Op. cit., p. 395.

  4. V. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, specially cap. 2.

  5. F.Q. I. viii. 36, and V. xi. 19, 20.

  6. Ibid. V. xi. 9.

  7. Ibid. I. xi. 12.

  8. Ibid. I. v. 30.

  9. Ibid. III. ii. 28.

  10. Ibid. xii. I.

  11. Ibid. V. iv. 45.

  12. Ibid. III. iv. 59.

  13. Ibid. I. ii. 22, vii. 43, xii. 26.

  14. Ibid. v. 21.

  15. Ibid. III, Proem 2.

  16. Ibid. I. v. 25.

  17. Ibid. i. 5.

  18. Ibid. IV. x. 34.

  19. Ibid. I. v. 42.

  20. Ibid. iv. 20, 23, 26, 29, 32, 35.

  21. Ibid. v. 40.

  22. Ibid. II. i. 3.

  23. Ibid. I. ix. 54.

  24. Ibid. III. x. 59.

  25. Ibid. II. xii. 48.

  26. Ibid. vi. I.

  27. Ibid. I. xi. 49.

  28. Ibid. I. x. 30.

  29. Ibid. III. v. 33.

  30. Ibid. vi. 34.

  31. Ibid. vi. 41.

  32. Ibid. I. iii. 4.

  33. Ibid. IV. iii. 43.

  34. Ibid. VI. v, vi.

  35. Ibid. II. v. 29.

  36. Ibid. xii. 50.

  37. Ibid. II. xii. 58.

  38. Ibid. xii. 61.

  39. Ibid. III. vi. 29.

  40. Ibid. III. vi. 34.

  41. Ibid. vi. 44.

  42. Ibid. II. xii. 44, 45.

  43. Ibid. III. vi. 45.

  44. v. supra, p. 151 [of Professor Lewis' book]. The fact that all the references to Art in the Bower are copied from Tasso does not invalidate my argument: the opposite passages in the Garden are not.

  45. F.Q. II. xii. 63 et seq.; VI. x. II et seq.

  46. Ibid. III. vi. 46.

  47. Ibid. i. 36.

  48. Ibid. II. v. 34.

  49. Ibid. III. vi. 41.

  50. Ibid. II. xii. 78.

  51. Ibid. III. xii (First Version), 43-7.

  52. Ibid. I. ix. 9-15.

  53. Ibid. II. xii. I.

  54. Ibid. IV. x. 26.

  55. Ibid. IV, Proem. I.

  56. Ibid. IV. ix. I.

  57. Ibid. II. xii. I.

  58. Ibid. III. i. 31.

  59. Ibid. III. i. 35.

  60. Ibid. III. i. 39.

  61. Ibid. III. i. 45, 46.

  62. Ibid. III. i. 65.

  63. Ibid. III. xi. 29.

  64. Ibid. III. xi. 51.

  65. Ibid. III. xii. 28.

  66. Ibid. III. xii. 25.

  67. Ibid. III. vi. 3.

  68. Amoretti, viii.

  69. Republic, 507 D et seq.

  70. Ibid. III. vi. 12.

  71. Ibid. III. vi. 11-25.

  72. Ibid. III. vi. 49.

  73. Ibid. IV. x. 42.

  74. Ibid. III. vi. 28.

  75. Ibid. III. vi. 4.

  76. Ibid. III. vi. 52.

  77. Ibid. IV. x. 21.

  78. Ibid. IV. x. 51.

  79. Ibid. IV. x. 6.

  80. Ibid. IV. x. 12, 13, 17.

  81. Ibid. IV. x. 53.

  82. Ibid. IV. i. 3.

  83. Ibid. III. xii (1st version), 46.

  84. Ibid. IV. vii. 2.

  85. Ibid. IV. vii. 12.

  86. Ibid. IV. v. 19.

  87. Ibid. IV. v. 3-6.

  88. Ethics, 1156 B.

  89. F.Q. III. ix. 28, 29, 30: x. 6, 7, 8.

  90. Ibid. IV. i. 39.

  91. Ibid. IV. x. 32.

  92. Ibid. Mut. vii, Argument. On the influence of Giordano Bruno, see B. E. C. Davis, Edmund Spenser, pp. 232 et seq.

  93. F.Q. Mut. vi. 5.

  94. Ibid. Mut. vi. 6.

  95. Ibid. Mut. vi. 35.

  96. Ibid. Mut. vii. 13.

  97. Ibid. Mut. vii. 8.

  98. Ibid. Mut. vii. 15.

  99. Ibid. vi. 46.

  100. Ibid. III vi. 47.

  101. Ibid. Mut. viii. 2.

Principal Works

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The Shepheardes Calendar: Conteyning Twelve Æglogues Proportionable to the Twelve Monethes 1579

*The Faerie Queene, Disposed into Twelve Bookes Fashioning XII Morall Vertues [Books I-III] 1590

Complaints: Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie 1591

Amoretti and Epithalamion 1595

Colin Clouts Come Home Againe 1595

The Faerie Queene, Disposed into Twelve Bookes Fashioning XII Moral Vertues: The Second Part of the Faerie Queene, Containing the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Bookes 1596

Fowre Hymnes 1596

Prothalamion; or, A Spousall Verse 1596

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 Works of Edmund Spenser: A Varorium Edition [11 vols.] (poetry and prose) 1932-57

*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 also includes letters written by Gabriel Harvey.

Leicester Bradner (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: Bradner, Leicester. “The Narrative Poet (Faerie Queene, III-V).” In Edmund Spenser and The Faerie Queene, pp. 70-103. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

[In the following excerpt, Bradner provides an overview of the multiple storylines and the central themes in Books III, IV, and V of The Faerie Queene.]

When Gabriel Harvey read the specimen of the Faerie Queene sent him by Spenser in 1580, he could not decide what kind of work it was. In his perplexity he resorted to a characteristically sixteenth-century simile. He said it was “Hobgoblin run away with the garland from Apollo.” It is very unlikely that he saw what is now Book I; in fact, his second comment, that Spenser seemed to be trying to outdo Ariosto, the most amusing of Renaissance poets, points rather clearly to an early version of some part of Book III or Book IV. The implications of the whole passage on the poem in Harvey's letter are fascinating but must not now detain us. The essential facts which come out of it are that the work was even then called the Faerie Queene (and therefore aimed at Queen Elizabeth as a patron), that it was an imitation of Ariosto, and that it was not sufficiently dignified and classical. The combination of Hobgoblin with Apollo suggests that mixture of medieval romance with classical myth which is so characteristic of the completed poem as we have it.

Harvey's comment was made on the first portion of Spenser's new poetical project. This project must, however, have languished for some time thereafter, for the author's two years of service as secretary to Lord Grey would have been a serious interruption. When he took it up again, some of his ideas had changed. He was no longer the bookish former secretary of a bishop but a man who had followed campaigns in the field and sat at council tables. His purely personal gratitude to the earl of Leicester had been in large part replaced by admiration for the sterner qualities of the warrior, Lord Grey. His youthful complaint that all swords were rusting unused gave way to hero-worship in the face of his Irish experiences. He would not give up the figure of Elizabeth as the fairy queen, but he would show that true and valiant knights were doing her work. Consequently the idea of an order of Maidenhead, whose knights perform quests assigned by the queen, was adopted to accommodate Spenser's desire for a number of heroes. That this was done can be shown not only by the arrangement of the poem itself but also by the letter to Sir Walter Raleigh printed with the first three books of the poem in 1590. In this famous document he says that Arthur represents magnificence, which contains all the virtues in itself, and that the other knights represent the individual virtues.

By this time many modern readers have lost patience. Why bring in the virtues? they ask. Why does not Spenser tell us his story without preaching; and, furthermore, why does he bore us by putting the action in an imaginary fairyland? To these objections the scholar has ample enough reply. He can show that the whole tone of English education and literature in the sixteenth century was moral and religious; he can also show that the writing of a strictly historical epic was in those days so loaded with political dynamite that a remote and imaginary setting was needed. There are, however, better reasons than these. As Spenser grew to a realization of his own powers, he took for his aim the creation of a great epic for the English people, which, as he put it in the dedication to Queen Elizabeth, was to “live with the eternity of her fame.” By basing his poem on the fundamental virtues of mankind he saved his heroes from the fate of being local and contemporary. Whether Sir Calidore was meant to be Sidney or Essex does not concern us much today, but as the knight of courtesy struggling with the forces of cruelty and slander in the world he is of perennial interest—and never more so than at the present moment. With Britomart's dynastical position as ancestress of Queen Elizabeth we have even less concern, but Britomart's troubles in the pursuit of true and honorable love come home with fresh force to every generation of readers.

It may be said, too, that the events of the past few years have done much to restore an interest in the open treatment of moral values in literature. We have seen with terrible clarity that evil forces of tremendous power exist in this world and cannot be subdued without heroic virtues. Archimago, Grantorto, and the Soldan do not seem so absurd to those whose dreams Hitler has haunted, nor will the Cave of Mammon seem an idle temptation to those who once thought they could buy immunity from war. These things were gruesome realities in Spenser's time as in ours, and the description of England by a statesman of his youth as “shaken by the terrible thunder of God” (terribili fulmine tacta dei) would apply even better to 1940. It is significant to remember that during the writing of all the early parts of the Faerie Queene England lived under the threat of invasion, while the argument went on at court between the interventionists and the isolationists. It was a time when men had forced upon them a re-examination of the real basis of their beliefs, traditions, and ideals. Spenser's poem deals, in narrative form, with all these things.

This concept of a great epic on the active virtues of mankind and of Englishmen in particular drove Spenser to the creation of a new form. The simple linear plot of the classical epics would not serve to express the complexities of life as he saw it; on the other hand, Ariosto's gay disregard of a central story offered no help toward the erecting of a structure which would carry the weight of serious thought. Luckily Ariosto had popularized one idea which was essential to Spenser's purpose: the presence of a number of different heroes in the same long poem. It is probable that Arthur, whether king or prince, had nothing to do with the early idea in Spenser's mind of a poem in praise of the queen; but after the scheme of multiple heroic virtues was adopted, he must have realized that the legend of Arthur's Round Table and the great deeds of his knights formed an ideal solution to his problem. Here was a story, familiar to all readers and forming the core of British patriotism, which provided for variety of heroes and unity of purpose in one and the same framework. The fact that the sovereign of England was a queen necessitated supplanting Arthur by Gloriana, and the order of the Round Table became the order of Maidenhead; otherwise it was unchanged. Once you thought of it, it was ridiculously simple. How Spenser brought Arthur in again we shall see later.

What the structure of the poem is, will appear as we go along. What the completed whole would have been, we shall never know. Spenser evidently changed his mind about it more than once, and his announced plan for concluding it, as found in the letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, seems to present insuperable difficulties. Like the Canterbury Tales, it is only half finished, but we need not be disturbed about that. In the six books we have there is, as Dryden said of Chaucer, God's plenty. And the books are complete as they stand, each dealing with the quest of a single knight in which his peculiar virtue finds a field for action. Red Cross and Guyon go their separate ways in the first two books. Then, as if to provide variety, the next three books carry the same group of characters through a long series of actions. There are separate heroes assigned to the quests of these books, but all the main characters appear in all three books. The sixth book starts us on a new group of characters who were probably intended to provide continuing interest in a new succession of books, for although the hero achieves his quest there is much unfinished business among the minor characters. Almost as an afterthought the figure of Prince Arthur, a quite unhistorical Arthur, was added as the sum of all the virtues and assigned the task of rescuing such of the heroes as get into difficulties too great for their powers. Thus in Spenser's design were classic regularity and the single hero combined with the wandering profusion of medieval chivalric romance. Truly, Hobgoblin has run away with the garland of Apollo, but the garland is undamaged and Apollo did not refuse to look indulgently on the theft.

To the modern reader, particularly to one living in a monarchless democracy, the place of Queen Elizabeth in the poem and the compliments paid to her seem unduly great, but I think that they did not seem so to an Elizabethan Englishman. By him the sovereign was not regarded primarily as an individual but as the symbol of the nation. Praise of the prince was a form of patriotism and was quite as often a sincere expression of love of country as it was personal flattery. Too frequently our modern cynical attitude toward passages of this sort does not take that into account. Also we forget that Elizabeth was a truly great queen, one of the greatest rulers in English history. Of this her subjects were well aware, and they praised her with that unstinted exuberance so characteristic of the period. To believe that Spenser's attribution to her of the virtues celebrated in his poem was mercenary flattery is to misunderstand him entirely and to misunderstand the place which the queen occupies in it. Gloriana is the dispenser of true fame and glory in fairyland. But Elizabeth, we are told by the poet, is Gloriana. She is the earthly embodiment of the eternal idea for which Gloriana stands. It is for her to bestow glory upon those of her subjects who truly deserve it, and in so doing she shares her own glory with them.

With this general idea of the artistic form and ethical theme of the poem in mind, let us see what rewards the Faerie Queene has to offer us. At the outset let us frankly face the fact that modern readers do not know the poem, outside the first book or fragments of that book in anthologies. Therefore the story must be told before it can be discussed. If there is danger in summarizing briefly what a great poet has devoted many pages to, there is even greater danger in talking about something of which readers are entirely ignorant. The narrative core of the Faerie Queene is the group of continued stories in Books III, IV, and V, and I propose to break with tradition by discussing this portion first. We shall then return to Books I and II to examine Spenser's allegory, and finally we shall end with Book VI and the fragment of Book VII.

Britomart, the female knight, is the heroine of Book III, plays an important part in Book IV, and becomes the betrothed of Arthegal, the hero of Book V. She therefore forms the most important connecting link between these three books. Second to her in importance is Florimel, a timorous maiden who flies like a frightened fawn through all of Book III, meets her true love Marinel at the end of Book IV, and marries him in the third canto of Book V. Around these two main characters a number of minor knights and ladies appear and reappear from time to time. Chief of these are Arthegal, Scudamour, Satyrane, Marinel, and the boastful but cowardly Braggadochio among the men and Amoret, Belphoebe, and the false Florimel among the women. Arthur, of course, appears occasionally to rescue or assist the heroes.

In the beginning of Book III Arthur, Guyon, and Britomart, who is disguised as a man, are riding along when Florimel comes dashing past on a white palfrey, hotly pursued by a villainous forester. The two men, by no means immune to the charms of beauty in distress, fly off to rescue her, leaving Britomart to her own adventures. These are not slow in coming. Finding the Red Cross Knight attacked by six opponents outside a place called Castle Joyous, she helps him subdue them and they both enter the castle to spend the night. The nature of the proprietress is given away by her name, Malecasta, and we are not surprised to find her stealing into Britomart's bed, since the latter has refused to disarm and still passes for a man. Britomart and Red Cross leave the castle in disgust, ending the first canto. As her sex has been revealed by this incident, she finds it incumbent upon her to explain her martial career to her companion. It seems that she had seen her destined lover, Arthegal, in a magic mirror and heard a prediction from Merlin that her descendants will rule England. Being a maid who loves action, she has started out on a quest to find the man whose image has aroused her love. A magic spear, which overthrows all opponents, prevents her from coming to any harm. Leaving Red Cross after this recital, Britomart comes upon Marinel, a brave youth who has unfortunately been brought up by his mother to fear both love and women. Since he refuses her passage across his land, she strikes him down and passes on her way.

The story now returns to the pursuit of Florimel by the two knights. Guyon soon drops out of the picture, but Arthur finally comes across Florimel's dwarf, who tells him the story of her love for Marinel, a love hitherto fruitless because of his mother's training. In the meantime Arthur's squire, Timias, has killed the wicked forester but in turn has been ambushed and left for dead by the latter's brothers. He is nursed back to life by Belphoebe, with whom he falls desperately in love. The introduction of Belphoebe into the story causes Spenser to put in one of his apparent digressions, an elaborate description of the Garden of Adonis, where Belphoebe and her twin sister Amoret were brought up. Viewed in the larger scheme of Spenser's whole poem and its interpretation, this description is too important to be called a digression, but it will naturally appear as such on the first reading. Belphoebe, after leaving the Garden of Adonis, had become a favorite of Diana and was insensible to the power of love, whereas Amoret, of whom we shall hear more later, was adopted by Venus.

Florimel's adventures are next taken up. After many dangers she reaches the sea and pushes off in a boat to escape the beast who at that moment is pursuing her. In the boat, unfortunately for her, is an old but lecherous fisherman, and Florimel is saved only by the opportune arrival of Proteus, who takes her as an honored guest to his cave under the sea. He repeatedly makes love to her, but she remains faithful to Marinel. While this is going on, an old witch, whose son has fallen in love with Florimel, complicates matters by fashioning a false Florimel out of snow. In spite of her icy nature this false Florimel is a great flirt and causes a lot of trouble in Book IV.

Cantos 9 and 10 deal with the case history of Hellenore, a young wife whose husband's miserliness and frigidity lead her to welcome seduction by Sir Paridel. When he deserts her, she becomes the common paramour of a flock of satyrs and seems to be enjoying the situation.

Book III ends with Britomart's rescue of the young bride, Amoret, from the castle of the enchanter Busirane, who had stolen her from her lover Scudamour on their wedding day. Busirane is torturing her inside the castle, while Scudamour, who has traced her thus far, is unable to force his way in through the curtain of fire which guards the entrance. Britomart is able to do this because the magic fire has no power against her chastity and complete purity of heart. This exploit, though introduced so late, must be considered her quest as heroine of the book, for her search after Arthegal is not completed until the middle of the fourth book.

Before continuing the story through the next two books let us pause for a moment to consider the significance of the narrative. In doing so we will be putting ourselves in the position of Spenser's readers in 1590, since only the first three books were published at that time. The third book is entitled the “Legend of Chastity” as a special compliment to Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. That this title does not mean virginity alone is shown by the action itself and by Spenser's statement in the first canto that Britomart represents chaste affection, that is, true and honorable love. The heroine's first act is to fall in love, and her purpose thereafter is to find her lover, exchange vows with him, and, when it becomes necessary, rescue him from shameful captivity. Thus her adventures consist of incidents illustrative of the power of love. Her pure affection is contrasted with the lust of Malecasta, which Spenser unreservedly condemns, and the illicit outburst of Hellenore's natural instincts, for which Spenser provides a psychological excuse. The climax of the book is her generous undertaking of a hazardous rescue in order to reunite two faithful lovers. Britomart owes her enduring charm to the fact that she is chaste love in action. She is a dynamic force sweeping vigorously across the scene and spilling unceremoniously out of her way all those who, like Malecasta, are merely libidinous or who, like Marinel, are afraid of sexual love. On her very first appearance she delights us by bowling over Sir Guyon, the rather priggish hero of Temperance in Book II. Poor Guyon has just been through some very disturbing temptations of the flesh in rescuing a young knight from the clutches of a particularly luscious enchantress and is inclined to think that all love is evil. Spenser tells us that the palmer, who stands for Reason, and Arthur, the embodiment of all the virtues, soon reconciled the two and points the moral that there is no justification for a quarrel between “goodly temperance” and “affection chaste.” In one way the passage is an anticipation of Milton's defense of the honest enjoyment of sexual intercourse in a marriage of true lovers. C. S. Lewis is right when he points out in his Allegory of Love that Spenser was the first great poet to treat love as an idealistic state of the emotions leading to marriage.

Britomart is not only contrasted with bad or deficient characters; she is also contrasted with two characters who may be called subsidiary heroines. These are Florimel and Belphoebe. Florimel, like Britomart, is already in love with her appointed mate; but, unlike Britomart, she is not a dynamic force. Instead she is the embodiment of female timidity. She is always seen flying from some man, and, like the heroines of the old movie serials, she never escapes one pursuer without falling into the clutches of another. Spenser emphasizes the fact that this behavior, along with her beauty, appeals to the protective and amorous instincts of every male in the story. Even Arthur is tempted to give up his pursuit of his unseen ideal, the fairy queen, and pursue Florimel instead. Belphoebe, on the other hand, has all the courage and martial success of Britomart but is completely lacking in the emotion of love. Her beauty is reserved and unapproachable. She has no objection to the devotion of Timias, and is even annoyed when she thinks he is guilty of transferring it to another lady, but she is quite incapable of returning it. In the introduction to the third book Spenser directly invites Elizabeth—who as queen demanded that her courtiers make love to her but could not, for political reasons, marry any of them—to see in Belphoebe an example of her chastity, as in Gloriana she was to see an example of her power and majesty. The parallel was perfect.

Britomart's major quest is the search for her lover Arthegal, a quest which is given a national as well as a personal importance by Merlin's prophecy that her descendants will rule England. This apparently seemed to Spenser too large a theme to be disposed of in a single book, so he provided a minor quest in the rescue of Amoret, a quest which specifically illustrates the power of chastity. This adventure provides several problems for the student of Spenser which are interesting enough to be mentioned here. The first problem is to answer the question: whose quest is the rescue of Amoret? As the story is told, it appears that Scudamour has pursued the enchanter Busirane to his castle but cannot penetrate the wall of flame which protects the gate. Britomart finds that the fire divides to let her pass, and she eventually conquers Busirane. The incident of the fire and Busirane's fear of a virgin knight make it clear that the quest can be performed only by the representative of chastity—Britomart. Yet in the letter to Sir Walter Raleigh we are told that Scudamour was at Gloriana's court when the news of Amoret's plight was brought in by a groom and that he, being her lover, then undertook the quest. This version of the origin of the quest is inconsistent with the narrative in the Faerie Queene, both here and in later passages in Book IV. It can best be explained either as a lapse of memory or as part of a new plan linking the stories more closely to Gloriana's court. The presence of a similar discrepancy in the letter to Raleigh in regard to the quest of Book II suggests the latter alternative. It also suggests that the letter is not an adequate guide to the poem as we have it.

The second problem is more difficult. What was to be the ultimate importance of Amoret and Scudamour in the weaving of the great tapestry of the Faerie Queene? And what was to be the occasion of their reunion? In all the editions of the poem since 1590 Scudamour, believing that Britomart has failed, finally leaves the castle of Busirane and begins a series of disconsolate wanderings which we occasionally witness in Books IV and V. But the first text of Book III, as it appeared in 1590, contained a different ending. The return of Britomart with the rescued Amoret finds Scudamour still stretched upon the ground in grief. At the sound of her voice he starts up:

There did he see, that most on earth him joyd,
His dearest love, the comfort of his dayes,
Whose too long absence him had sore annoyd
And wearied his life with dull delayes:
Straight he upstarted from the loathed layes,
And to her ran with hasty egerness,
Like as a deare, that greedily embayes
In the coole soile, after long thirstinesse,
Which he in chace endured hath, now nigh breathlesse.
Lightly he clipt her twixt his armes twaine,
And streightly did embrace her body bright,
Her body, late the prison of sad paine,
Now the sweet lodge of love and deare delight:
But she faire lady overcommen quight
Of huge affection, did in pleasure melt,
And in sweet ravishment pourd out her spright:
No word they spake, nor earthly thing they felt,
But like two senceless stocks in long embracement dwelt.

This passage shows that Spenser's original intention was to reunite the lovers immediately, after which they doubtless would have disappeared from the rest of the story. When he set about continuing the poem, he realized that such a definite stop at the end of Book III might seem too conclusive, especially as he intended to continue all the other plots started in that book. The puzzling thing is that these are all concluded by the end of Book V, but Amoret and Scudamour still seek sorrowfully for each other over the unmapped ways of fairyland.

The third problem is to determine whether there is any allegorical meaning in the separation of Scudamour and Amoret and the torture of the latter by a vile enchanter. This involves a consideration of the general method of allegory in Book III and of the previous history of the two lovers. The allegory of love in this book is presented by a series of contrasted case histories rather than built up as a progressive argument. Examples of different situations in love are given, many minor ones being added to those mentioned in our brief summary. Different degrees of unchaste love are exemplified, on the one hand, and different situations in chaste love, on the other. Britomart, Florimel, and Amoret are all chaste lovers, but their fortunes differ as do their characters. Only Britomart lives a full and satisfactory life in which all her powers are utilized as well as disciplined. If this be true, what then is the interpretation of Britomart's rescue of Amoret? Amoret, imprisoned and tortured by Busirane, is a martyr to her faithful love for Scudamour. Why is she a martyr? Is it only for the sake of the plot, to provide a sympathetic character for Britomart to rescue, or is there some reason in her own character? To settle this question, we need to examine Spenser's account of her birth and upbringing.

Belphoebe and Amoret, although described as twins conceived in spotless purity by parthenogenesis, must certainly represent opposites. Belphoebe, adopted by Diana, is too cold and lacks the power to love. Amoret, adopted by Venus, should therefore be characterized by an excess of love and a corresponding lack of cool restraint; but, since she is called by Spenser an example of true love and the lodestar of chaste affection, it is obvious that this excess cannot extend to any unchaste actions. It is perhaps significant that we are told rather pointedly that she was brought up as the companion of Cupid's daughter, Pleasure. There is no harm in this, but it fits in with the whole picture of Amoret's background. Under the tutelage of Venus she has grown up without spiritual discipline. Her inborn purity keeps her perfectly loyal to her chosen lover, but the weakness of her character puts her at the mercy of Busirane. She cannot resist capture by the forces of the lustful magician; she can only suffer gallantly under his torture and refuse to surrender her will. That Scudamour, who bears the image of Cupid on his shield, shares the same weakness is shown by his inability to rescue her. Spenser was well aware that the innocent suffer in this world, and he was always interested in looking for the reasons.

The rescue of Amoret can now be seen in its real importance. In spite of its late introduction into the narrative of Book III it is not just another adventure, thrown in to bring the book to a dramatic close. In her other adventures Britomart has merely been contrasted with vice or timidity. Here she appears in her full capacity as chaste love in action. Only a knight whose heart was disciplined in chastity was able to enter the castle and survive its dangers unharmed, but it is equally true that only one with a heart full of generous love would have undertaken to pass through those perilous flames for the sake of another's sufferings. Britomart is not, like Red Cross, saving her own soul nor has she, like Guyon, a guide and mentor at hand to keep her from spiritual danger; she is not even engaged in a solemnly accepted mission. She comes across human need and suffering quite by chance, and on the instant her overflowing love offers itself without reserve in service.

I will with proofe of last extremity
Deliver her from thence, or with you for her die

she says to Scudamour. It is this lively spontaneity which makes her so attractive. That she has always been the most popular of Spenser's characters is a tribute to his triumphant solution of that most difficult of all the problems of fiction, the problem of how to make a thoroughly good character interesting.

Book IV is the most confusing book in the Faerie Queene. Not only do the knights announced as the prototypes of friendship, the virtue assigned to this book, fail to perform any significant action, but it is also unfortunately true that Britomart and Florimel continue to steal the show and leave the new characters in the background. The book has no unity of plot, and it alone of all the books in the poem contains no quest to be performed. Nevertheless, it has an important function in binding together the third and fifth books. The treatment of the theme of friendship, such as it is, follows the episodic method of Book III. A number of incidents occur which illustrate true friendship, on the one hand, and false or pretended friendship, on the other. Unfortunately none of these incidents is memorable. What one retains out of the rather confusing experience of reading Book IV is all related to love, not friendship: Britomart's discovery of her destined lover, Belphoebe's strange jealousy at finding Timias tenderly caring for the wounded Amoret, and the dismay of the knights infatuated by the false Florimel when she deserts them for the cowardly Braggadochio. The action begins by the introduction of Ate (Discord) as the opposite of true friendship. With her are characters already introduced in Book III, Blandamour and Paridell. They are joined first by Scudamour, who is persuaded by Ate's slander that Amoret has been unfaithful to him, and later by the false Florimel whom the witch had made out of snow. She immediately exposes the shallowness of the professed friendship of the two knights by causing a quarrel between them. Eventually the party arrives at a pavilion where Satyrane is about to hold a tournament to determine who shall possess the famous girdle of the true Florimel, which she had dropped on the shore when escaping into the fisherman's boat. Tournaments were not Spenser's strong point—he lacked Malory's hearty enjoyment of broken spears and bones—but in this case he at least worked hard to provide variety. The jolly Satyrane, who is secretly the favorite knight of most readers, overthrows all comers until a “salvage knight”—that darling of medieval romance—arrives to topple him down in his turn. This strange knight's triumph is short-lived, for Britomart, still disguised as a man, comes dashing in at the last minute with her magic spear to upset everything and win the prize.

The ladies' part in the program now begins, for the most beautiful lady was to receive the girdle, and she in turn was to be awarded to the knight who won the tournament. This beauty contest is one of Spenser's rare ironical passages. In spite of all the genuine beauties presented to view, it is the false Florimel who receives the most acclaim; yet when she tries on the girdle, which we have been told is symbolic of chastity, it refuses to stay on her:

Then many other ladies likewise tried
About their tender loins to knit the same;
But it would not on none of them abide,
But when they thought it fast, eftsoones it was untied.
Which when that scornful Squire of Dames did view,
He loudly gan to laugh and thus to jest:
Alas for pity that so fair a crew,
As like cannot be seen from east to west,
Cannot find one this girdle to invest,
Fie on the man that did it first invent,
To shame us all with this, Ungirt unblest.
Let never lady to his love assent
That hath this day so many so unmanly shent.

The laughter of the cynical squire, in which all the other knights join heartily in spite of their ladies' disapproval, is not the end of this satirical scene. False Florimel, having been adjudged the most beautiful is awarded to the disguised Britomart. She refuses the award by saying that Amoret, who has been with her since the end of Book III, is her ladylove. Ate then stirs up all the knights to quarrel over the disposal of the prize until finally Satyrane settles the matter by leaving the choice to the lady herself. The disturbance ceases, and each knight gazes wishfully on the false flirt. She, says Spenser, looks long upon each one as though she wishes to please them all, and then chooses—the cowardly boaster, Braggadochio! Thus at one stroke the knights are paid off for having admired false rather than true beauty, and the false beauty herself, who is all the time not a real woman at all but a snow image made by a witch, receives a fitting mate in the very model of unknightly conduct.

The next scene gives us one of the plot climaxes of the Faerie Queene, Britomart's discovery of Arthegal. The salvage knight at the tournament had been Arthegal in disguise. Angered at his discomfiture by Britomart, he is waiting for a chance to encounter her again when he meets Scudamour. The latter also is enraged against Britomart because he thinks that she (whom he and Arthegal believe to be a man) has stolen Amoret from him. No sooner have they learned that each is seeking her than she herself appears. Striking down Scudamour with a single blow of her lance, she turns her attention to Arthegal. Although unhorsed at the first encounter, he recovers himself and soon injures Britomart's horse so severely that she in turn dismounts. Finally Arthegal hacks her helmet apart, revealing her face and her golden hair. Stupefied at this discovery, he is soon overwhelmed with admiration and love. Britomart now recognizes him as the hero seen in her vision, and a mutual plighting of faith takes place. The revelation of Britomart's sex having removed all of Scudamour's unfounded anger, he inquires of her what she has done with Amoret. Britomart replies that while she was sleeping one day her fair charge disappeared and could not be found again.

The continuation of Amoret's story brings us to the third memorable scene in Book IV. We must remember that Timias, Arthur's squire, had fallen in love with Amoret's sister Belphoebe and is following her with dog-like devotion in spite of her disdain of such feelings. Now Amoret, upon leaving Britomart for a short walk in the woods, fell into the clutches of a wild man of monstrous appearance. Timias turns up just in time to engage her captor in combat. The latter, however, is getting rather the better of it when Belphoebe joins the fray and finally kills him with an arrow as he flees from her. While this is going on, Timias is giving tender attention to the unconscious girl. Belphoebe, returning, witnesses his caresses and finds that she is capable of jealousy even if not of love:

Which when she saw, with sudden glancing eye,
Her noble heart with sight thereof was filled
With deep disdain and great indignity,
That in her wrath she thought them both have thrilled
With that selfe arrow which the carle had killed:
Yet held her wrathful hand from vengeance sore,
But drawing nigh ere he her well beheld;
“Is this the faith?” she said, and said no more,
But turned her face, and fled away for evermore.

This humanizing of the icily aloof Belphoebe is one of the most satisfying things in the whole poem.

The rest of the fourth book is miscellaneous. Arthur takes charge of Amoret but does not succeed in restoring her to Scudamour. The last two cantos bring us back to the story of Florimel, who has been imprisoned by Proteus because she will not accept his love. Marinel, whom she loves, attends a great feast given by Proteus to celebrate the marriage of the Thames and Medway rivers. Passing beneath her prison window, he hears her bewailing her fate and telling of her love for him. This leads Marinel to entreat his mother, a sea nymph, to effect the rescue of Florimel by appealing to Neptune. The appeal is successful, and at last we witness the end of Florimel's long flight from pursuing males. The objections of Marinel's mother are overridden, and the pair are happily married early in the fifth book.

It is now time to return to the question raised at the beginning of this account of Book IV: why is the virtue of friendship not made central to the plot instead of being left to minor incidents? The answer lies partly in the history of the composition of the poem and partly in Spenser's conception of the relation between the three virtues of love, friendship, and justice.

In a recent book on the evolution of the Faerie Queene, Mrs. Josephine W. Bennett has made it clear that Spenser did not write the poem in the order in which it now stands and that the idea of arranging it according to the virtues was a later imposition upon much of the earlier narrative. The poet obviously had on hand material relating to the continued stories of Britomart and Florimel which he wished to use in order to keep those stories moving toward their conclusions in Book V. On the other hand, his final scheme, which named this the book of friendship, made it necessary for him to introduce new material which would illustrate that virtue. This set a problem in construction which certainly was not successfully solved. We can easily observe the attempts which Spenser made to introduce the theme of friendship into the narrative. First of all, we must note that the heading of the book, whether supplied by the publisher in ignorance or by Spenser in haste, is quite inaccurate. Cambel and Triamond (wrongly given as Telamond in the heading) are neither the best examples of friendship nor the principal characters. They represent Spenser's attempt to continue Chaucer's “Squire's Tale” and are played up strongly in the second and third cantos. After this, one expects to find them dominating the action, but they appear again only in the tournament in the fourth canto, which, by the way, they do not win. Their friendship is stressed, it is true, but they do not perform any important action illustrating that virtue, and they have no place in the plot.

The most consistent attempt to develop the theme of the book occurs in Cantos 7, 8, and 9, where it is linked with the important figure of Arthur. When Belphoebe, by killing the lustful wild man, rescued Amoret, she also rescued a girl named Aemylia who had been a captive of the same man. Aemylia's lover, a young squire named Amyas, and his friend Placidas provide the best illustration of the titular virtue. Placidas voluntarily accepts imprisonment in order to help his friend. Escaping later on, he is pursued by his giant captor, Corflambo, who is about to kill him when Arthur arrives. Arthur kills the giant, forces an entry into the castle, and reunites the friends. While the whole party is recuperating, he tactfully straightens out their love affairs. Here we have, as Mrs. Bennett has pointed out, a miniature book of friendship, which is given further prominence by its association with the figure of Arthur. In the first and second books Arthur had performed a rescue of the hero in the eighth canto; consequently, by analogy, we should regard Placidas and not Triamond as the hero of the fourth book.

Another, though less striking, attempt to illustrate the operation of friendship is found in Britomart's relation to Amoret in the first half of Book IV. This one at least has the merit of being attached to the main plot. We must remember that Amoret, when first rescued by Britomart, mistakes her for a man. This causes her to be very fearful of her rescuer until a situation arises in a castle they are visiting which causes Britomart to reveal her sex. From that time on their intimacy grows until in Canto 6 (stanza 46) we are told that Britomart's relation to Amoret expresses the power of faithful friendship just as her relation to Arthegal expresses the power of true love, both being grounded in virtue. Consequently we may say that Book IV illustrates friendship between members of the female sex as well as the male. It is possible that the incident of Timias and Amoret is meant to suggest the dangers that may lie in attempts at friendship, rather than love, between members of opposite sexes.

The realization that Britomart in Book IV illustrates both love and friendship brings us to the consideration of the connection between these two virtues and justice, the virtue exemplified by Arthegal in Book V. Spenser's use of one continuous plot, centered in Britomart and Arthegal, for the three books shows clearly enough his desire to make us think about the connections between them. Actually, all these virtues are included in the Christian conception of love itself, and the three linked books portray the three manifestations of love: love between man and woman (sexual love), love between man and man or woman and woman (friendship), and love in the whole human community (justice). Britomart is a type of the first and second (perhaps even of the third, as we shall see in Book V), Arthegal of the first and third; there is no major character who typifies the second and third together. Had there been a real hero for Book IV, he might have exemplified this combination. From the logical and ethical point of view this lack is doubtless serious. Friendship is necessary to true and lasting love between man and woman and is also fundamental to justice in society. The ideal of justice is that each citizen shall receive such treatment as one would give one's friend or, as the Bible says, one's self. However this may be, Spenser was not simply writing moral allegory; he was creating characters and telling a story. The story of these three books is primarily the story of Britomart's love for Arthegal and secondarily Florimel's love for Marinel. Evidently he did not wish a third pair—or even a third individual—to share this interest.

If in Book IV narrative is stressed at the expense of allegory, in Book V it is the latter which triumphs over narrative. Unfortunately it is allegory of a very wooden and unconvincing type in most places. Whereas in Book III the situations were of real interest as typical examples of love as we know it, in Book V not only do most of the examples of justice seem forced and unnatural but they seem to happen to a number of extremely uninteresting people. The parts of the book which have to do with the continued plot of these three books are told with undiminished vigor, but the incidents illustrating Arthegal's career as champion of justice rather than as the lover of Britomart are uninspired and give the impression of having been ground out by a flagging invention under the necessity of finishing a task.

Whether this was actually so, we have no means of knowing. It is easy enough to show, however, that portions of it were written in a depressed and pessimistic mood. The prologue states with some bitterness that not only men but even nature's works have sadly degenerated since the beginning:

For that which all men then did vertue call
Is now called vice; and that which vice was hight
Is now hight vertue, and so us'd of all:
Right now is wrong, and wrong that was, is right,
As all things else in time are changed quight.
Ne wonder, for the heaven's revolution
Is wandred far from where it first was pight,
And so do make contrarie constitution
Of this lower world, toward his dissolution.

And this is followed up with some very interesting astronomical proof. Again, in the concluding cantos, where one might expect an expression of faith in the power of justice, Spenser falters where he firmly trod. The incident of Burbon, with his discarded shield of faith and his unwilling lady, was obviously meant to leave a bad taste in the mouth; and the last we see of Arthegal is a man recalled from his quest with his work only half done and his fame already under attack by envy and detraction. Nothing could illustrate better than these two passages the danger of introducing contemporary history into an epic. The scheme of the Faerie Queene called for a series of books in which each individual hero must successfully achieve a quest. In the first three books this is done wholeheartedly; the forces opposing the hero are completely routed. In the fourth book, where there is no single hero, all the forces of evil have been overcome and the book ends with a happy solution to the love problem of Florimel and Marinel. In Book V the quest of Arthegal is the rescue of Irena (Ireland) from Grantorto (Spain and the Roman church). As a freely imagined character in an allegorical narrative he should not only rescue the lady, which he does, but also remain a glorious and triumphant figure to the end. Had Arthegal remained a mythical ancestor of British kings (his function in Books III and IV) purveying justice to the Ireland of Arthurian legend, he would undoubtedly have enjoyed the type of grand finale accorded to the Red Cross Knight in Book I, to whose career his own is somewhat similar. Unfortunately Spenser decided to take the concluding incidents of his story from contemporary history in the Low Countries, France, and Ireland. In these countries the Protestant cause, although in most respects holding its own, was not markedly triumphant in the 1590's. The unsatisfactory ending of the Irena affair probably represents the recall of Lord Grey in 1582, but the failure of Arthegal to establish permanent justice typifies the consistent failure of Elizabeth's halfhearted Irish policy throughout Spenser's life. This is the only place in the whole poem where the representation of contemporary events exercises a controlling influence on the plot. The result is an artistic failure. Arthegal has not really completed his quest.

The narrative of Book V breaks into three parts: the marriage of Florimel and Marinel, the continuation of the Britomart and Arthegal love story, and the deeds of Arthegal exemplifying justice. The marriage and its accompanying tournament were reserved for Book V in order to strengthen the linking-up of plot structure throughout the three books we have been discussing. Here for the last time we see gathered together most of the company of knights and ladies with whom we are familiar. The festivities are linked to the theme of justice by the fact that Arthegal wins the tournament and by two pieces of enforced restitution. Braggadochio is made to restore Guyon's horse, which he had stolen in Book II; and Florimel's girdle, which the false Florimel has been carrying around even though it does not fit her, is given back to its rightful owner. This latter event is part of a highly dramatic scene done in Spenser's best style. Since Arthegal had borrowed Braggadochio's shield for disguise, Braggadochio is publicly congratulated by the bride, in whose honor the tournament was held. With characteristic boorishness he rejects her thanks and announces that his own lady, the false Florimel, excels her and all others in beauty. At this rude shock poor Florimel leaves the hall in dismay:

Then forth he brought his snowy Florimele,
Whom Trompart had in keeping there beside,
Covered from people's gazement with a vele;
Whom when discovered they had throughly eyed,
With great amazement they were stupefied,
And said that surely Florimell it was,
Or if it were not Florimell so tried,
That Florimell herselfe she then did pas.
So feeble skill of perfect things the vulgar has.
Which whenas Marinell beheld likewise,
He was therewith exceedingly dismayd;
Ne wist he what to thinke, or to devise,
But like as one whom feends have made affrayd,
He long astonisht stood, ne ought he sayd,
Ne ought he did, but with fast fixed eyes
He gazed still upon that snowy mayd;
Whom ever as he did the more avize,
The more to be the true Florimell he did surmize.

Arthegal breaks in upon the bridegroom's dilemma by proving that Braggadochio was not the real winner of the tournament. If he is a false knight, Arthegal continues, doubtless the lady is a false lady too:

This lady which he showeth here
Is not, I wager, Florimell at all,
But some fayre franion, fit for such a fere,
That by misfortune in his hand did fall.
For proofe whereof he bade them Florimell forth call.
So forth the noble ladie was ybrought,
Adorn'd with honor and all comely grace:
Whereto her bashfull shamefastness ywrought
A great increase in her fayre blushing face,
As roses did with lillies interlace.
For of those words, the which the boaster threw,
She inly yet conceived great disgrace.
Whom whenas all the people such did view,
They shouted loud, and signes of gladnesse all did shew.
Then did he set her by that snowy one,
Like the true saint by the image set,
Of both their beauties to make paragone,
And triall, whether should the honor get.
Straightway so soone as both together met,
Th'enchaunted damzell vanisht into nought:
Her snowy substance melted as with heat,
No of that goodly hue remained ought
But th'emptie girdle which about her waste was wrought.

This recalls the scene in Book IV where the false Florimel did win the beauty contest, the true Florimel being absent. It is part of the vigor of Spenser's character creation that he makes his false beauty blind men's eyes and carry away the admiration of everyone until faced with the original. We should also notice the characteristic behavior of Florimel. Timorous throughout the poem, she shrinks away from Braggadochio's insults. Britomart would have behaved quite differently.

In fact, Britomart does behave quite differently not long after this. Florimel's wedding occurs in Canto 3; in Cantos 4-6 we have the story of Arthegal's strange submission to the monstrous regiment of women in the person of Radegund and his rescue by Britomart. This is one of the most striking pieces of narrative in the Faerie Queene and merits close attention. Arthegal, after some rather dull exploits in the opening cantos, returns to the stage in Canto 4. Here he meets a knight named Turpine being led ignominiously off to execution by a group of women. Finding that they are followers of Radegund, who has set up a sort of Amazonian state under her dictatorship, he proceeds to her town and challenges her to combat in order to avenge the male sex. Radegund, furious at the rescue of her prisoner, puts up a strong fight but is finally knocked senseless by Arthegal. As he is unlacing her helmet in order to cut off her head, he is overwhelmed by the beauty of her face, even though it was, as Spenser says, bathed in blood and sweat. Struck with compassion at the thought of having hurt such a fair creature, he throws away his sword and refuses to fight any longer. Radegund comes out of her swoon and promptly captures him. The result of this ill-advised softness is doubly disastrous. Not only is Arthegal sentenced to hard labor and the wearing of women's clothing, but the unfortunate Turpine, whom he had set out to save, is executed after all. To make his position worse, Radegund falls in love with him and has no intention of ever releasing him unless he will return her love. In the meantime Talus, Arthegal's groom, makes his way back to Britomart, who has been suffering the pangs of jealousy at her lover's failure to return from his mission. The scene of her interview with Talus is too long to quote. Suffice it to say that her eager questioning extracts the answer that Arthegal is vanquished and lies in wretched bondage. She is full of sympathy and concern until she learns that his conqueror is a woman. “The rest myself too readily can spell,” she cries and retires to her room in angry tears. Made to understand at last what has really happened, she transfers her rage to Radegund, throws on her armor, and sets out to wreak vengeance on the woman who would take her lord away from her.

On her way to this rescue Britomart has a narrow escape from treachery one night at the hands of Dolon, who thinks she is Arthegal because Talus is with her. The next day she overthrows Dolon's sons at the Perilous Bridge and proceeds to the Temple of Isis, where she spends the next night. Here she has a remarkable vision concerning a crocodile, interpreted by the priests of Isis as a prophecy of her union with Arthegal. This visit to the temple is symbolic, since Osiris, husband of Isis in Egyptian mythology, was the god of justice and his symbol is said by the priests to be the crocodile. But Isis herself was “that part of justice which is equity.” In this way Britomart, as the prospective wife of Arthegal, is made to appear as a champion of justice also. At the moment, indeed, justice is badly in need of a champion to rescue her own knight from his self-imposed defeat and imprisonment. Britomart therefore hastens on to challenge Radegund to single combat. She is wounded in the ensuing fight but rallies her strength to fell her opponent with a mighty stroke. Unlike Arthegal, instead of waiting for Radegund to come to herself again, she cuts off head and helmet both with one blow. With only a brief reproach to her unfortunate lover that the force of strength and courage is nought when the mind can be seduced, she has him reclothed in manly raiment and establishes him as king of the city, thus reversing the female rule of his predecessor. Spenser makes a strong point of this and emphasizes the fact that Britomart did not take the government of the country upon herself but gave it to a man.

With this act of love and self-restraint Britomart passes out of the Faerie Queene. Almost certainly she would have appeared again if Spenser had finished the poem; one can hardly doubt that he was planning one of his most splendid pageants for her wedding to Arthegal. Even as it is, she remains the most human and the most memorable person among his knights and ladies. Her warmth of emotion, her generosity to others, her dynamic conception of chastity, even her fits of jealousy, make her a really living and lovable figure. To those who object that she is not feminine because she wears heavy armor and knocks down several male knights in rather boisterous fashion I recommend the dainty Florimel, who I am sure carried a scented lace handkerchief. There is food for all tastes in the Faerie Queene.

In Canto 8 Arthegal, who now resumes his long-delayed rescue of Irena, meets Prince Arthur in the act of saving a maiden named Samient from two paynim knights, followers of the Soldan. From her they learn of the great enmity between this soldan and her mistress, the maiden queen Mercilla. The two knights immediately undertake the overthrow of this tyrant, and after his death they ride to Mercilla's court. Now Mercilla is obviously Elizabeth in her capacity of merciful judge, and we find her surrounded by three virgins whose names signify justice, law, and peace. When Arthur and Arthegal arrive, Mercilla receives them with great dignity. Since she is at that moment engaged in the trial of Duessa (whom all readers of Book I will remember to stand for Mary of Scotland), she invites her distinguished guests to sit beside her and hear the evidence. Duessa is accused of conspiring against the person and throne of Mercilla and of being an enemy of true morality and religion, but Pity, Nobility, Regard of Womanhood, and other special pleaders make such an appeal on her behalf that Arthur “woxe much enclined to her part through sad terror of so dreadful fate.” Seeing this, the prosecuting attorney, Zeal, calls to the stand Murder, Sedition, Adultery, and Impiety. Arthegal, on the other hand, has been cured of sentimental sympathy by his experience with Radegund and sets his mind with constant firmness against all interference with strict justice. All finally condemn Duessa, and she is executed, even though Mercilla's compassion delays the carrying-out of the sentence for some time.

The Belge, Burbon, and Irena episodes, which occupy the last three cantos, are less interesting than this one. The inconclusiveness and pessimism of the last two have already been pointed out. The trial Duessa is actually the high point of the allegory of justice. Duessa's crimes were notorious and are familiar to all readers who have gone through the poem up to this point. They now see a dangerous enemy of right and truth brought to the bar and tried with all the dignity and impartiality which should characterize what Spenser calls the most sacred of all virtues. Duessa is allowed her defense and even wins the sympathy of many people, yet she is inexorably given the reward of her past deeds. Here Spenser used contemporary history to better effect than in the cantos which follow. The event of Mary's trial and execution was one of the great decisive actions of Elizabeth's reign, as compared with the continuing problems of war in France and the Low Countries and the ever recurring uprisings in Ireland, and it illustrated the triumph of justice. The only criticism one can make is that it has nothing to do with Arthegal. By tying his hero up with a contemporary general, whether Grey, Norris, or both of them, Spenser lost the power to proceed with a free hand in making the plot carry out the meaning of the allegory. The extent of his failure may be seen by comparing the action of this book with the similar allegorical action of Book I, where every event simultaneously carries on the story of the hero and the importance of holiness in the life of man.

We may well question, too, whether Arthegal is a satisfactory hero for Book V. In the first place he is a relatively inactive hero. Spenser saw fit to give him as a groom the iron man, Talus, with his irresistible flail. Since Talus, because of his metal construction (which to modern readers is unfortunately reminiscent of their childhood friend, the Tin Woodman of Oz), cannot suffer wounds, he rides roughshod over all the opponents of Arthegal. So convenient is this method of disposing of troublesome enemies, particularly if they are too numerous for comfort, that we find Arthegal relying more and more on his invincible groom and less and less on his own strong right arm. Here allegory and narrative again are not well adjusted. Spenser wished to show that theoretical justice requires the aid of an efficient police force if it is to make its decisions operative, but he has carried the illustration of this point so far that it destroys the appeal of his hero as a brave man. It is noteworthy by contrast that Britomart scorns the assistance of Talus in the affair at the Perilous Bridge. The objection that Arthegal is too unstable temperamentally for the prototype of justice may be hypercritical, but some evidence exists to support it. At the end of the argument with Braggadochio about Guyon's stolen horse Arthegal becomes so furious that he is about to kill the false boaster on the spot until he is pacified by Guyon himself. And his completely irrational submission to Radegund sacrifices the life of the man he was trying to save and would have sacrificed Irena too if Britomart had not come to the rescue. Such a fatal weakness for female beauty may be human enough, but it seems out of place in one who is symbolizing justice. Now it may be that the answer to this criticism is that Arthegal, like the Red Cross Knight in Book I, represents a man striving to achieve the titular virtue rather than a man already completely possessing it. If so, we miss in Book V the arduous process of rehabilitation by which the hero of Book I reaches his goal. We might also say that Guyon's attendant palmer (Reason) would have been a better companion for Arthegal than the robot Talus. Finally, we return to the point already made that Arthegal is not shown carrying out successfully any great triumph of justice.

To the Elizabethans the spice of contemporary reference was enough. The last five cantos contain in allegorical form a commentary on the history of England in the decade preceding 1595. This decade had seen England forced out of the cautious neutrality favored by Burghley and into open war with Spain and with the Catholic party in France. The patriotic war party, led in earlier days by the earl of Leicester and now led by the earl of Essex, had come into their own at last, and Spenser rejoiced with them. The first step had been armed intervention in the Netherlands in support of the Dutch rebels in 1585. Then had come the defeat of the Grand Armada in 1588 and the expedition to aid Henry IV of France in 1590-93. Indecisive as some of these actions were—the campaign in Brittany was a failure—they constituted a complete change of policy. What Book V celebrates in the execution of Duessa, the rescue of Samient and Belge, and the incident of Sir Burbon is the decision to cease temporizing and fight openly for the Protestant cause. When Spenser thinks of justice in this second half of the book, it is international justice he is thinking of, and what inspires him is the sight of England taking at last the place in international affairs which he had always hoped she would take.

It would be possible, if one wished, to consider the continued block of narrative in Books III, IV, and V as a separate poem. As such it could claim in its own right a high place in its class. Its bulk, somewhere around fifteen thousand lines, is much greater than that of Paradise Lost, and much more of it is good reading. Starting out as an imitation of the episodic method of Ariosto—we know this from Harvey's comment in 1580—it was strengthened by the imposition upon it of the controlling theme of the threefold allegory of love. This control is not evenly exercised nor does it always produce results of the highest order, but for better or worse it gives the work a depth and significance which the gay pageant of Orlando Furioso lacks. In Britomart, Florimel, Belphoebe, and Amoret it provides a colorful and highly interesting variety of heroines whose traits are played off against each other very effectively. If the men seem not quite so good, it is only because the women set an extremely high standard. Arthegal, with all his faults, is a striking personality and the genial Satyrane an unusually likable one. Braggadochio is handled with great skill to serve both as a comic character and as a controlling figure in what may be called the anti-plot, that is, the activities of a group of false knights and ladies who serve as a contrast to the noble characters. If Spenser had never written more of the Faerie Queene than these three books, he would not be so great a poet as he is, but he would still take very high rank.

M. Pauline Parker (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: Parker, M. Pauline. “Justice and Equity.” In The Allegory of The Faerie Queene, pp. 202-27. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, Parker discusses Book V of The Faerie Queene as an allegory about justice and equity.]

Book Five of The Faerie Queen belongs on the whole, to the knight it is assigned to, Artegall; a severe figure, of character akin to Guyon's, but lacking the sweetness which is one of Guyon's qualities. Was Spenser simply writing as a psychologist, or should we read an allegorical significance into Britomart's lack of sure confidence in Artegall's fidelity? As a theologian, the poet might have remembered that justice was precisely the virtue specially attacked by the original sin of man; and he may well have thought it the one most to seek in human, social, political, relations as he knew them by experience. It is true also that Artegall shadows Lord Grey of Wilton, and that Lord Grey was credited with an early sympathy for Mary Queen of Scots, which is figured in Artegall's captivity to Radigund.1 In the whole of this book the historical allegory is much more evident and continuous than in any of the others, thus of course influencing the course of the story. Yet, allowing for this, and in spite of Talus, Artegall appears less strong in his aim, less single-minded in his purpose, than Guyon is. Were it not for Britomart he would not have achieved his quest, and he needs Arthur's help as well.

There remains a possible explanation. Guyon's virtue resides primarily in the will. Of course, since virtue is a habit formed by repeated acts, if not there would be no meaning in Spenser's narratives, reason and will must co-operate; reason to propose the act as good, will thereupon to perform it. But Guyon's virtue of self-discipline requires one original act of reason, and then that the will should persist in its decision without ever flagging. The palmer's office is to recognize temptation as such, and to procure help at the moment of extreme physical weakness and depression. Guyon's battles are fought in the field of emotion and sense, and his last enemies are all illusions, phantasms of the imagination, the strange visions which rise from that deep sea underneath man's conscious self, where Acrasia has her secret dwelling. Artegall is in another position. His office takes the task of Temperance for granted, for if self mastery were not attained, his price might be found; but it is primarily an intellectual function: his problem is not to do what is right, he has Talus for that, but to know what is right. Justice, says the definition, is that virtue which gives to each his due; it derives from an act of judgement. But if its decrees are not to remain merely abstract, academic, decisions, without influence on the real course of events, there must also exist a physical force sufficient to bring them to effect. That force is typified by Talus the iron man, well did Spenser know his necessity, and the decrees themselves are represented by Chrysaor, the sword with which kings are girded, which cannot be broken or lose its edge. But as the danger of the will is that it may be weak, so the danger of the judgement is that it may be deceived. Artegall's subjection to Radigund is an instance of this, when the bewildered judgement is turned back upon itself, and, in Lancelot's paradox:

His honour rooted in dishonour stood
And faith unfaithful made him falsely true.(2)

And then Britomart herself, who rescues Artegall from this entanglement in a legal mesh by sheer forthrightness, is she to be regarded as precisely the Britomart of Book Three? Spenser takes a great deal of pains to make it clear that Artegall's fault, if fault at all, and not merely a disastrous error of judgement, is not one that affects the virtue of chastity; and Radigund, whom Britomart overcomes, represents, it is fairly evident, Tyranny3 who only by guile has made herself gaoler of Justice, and tyranny is no enemy of Britomart in her original character.

It might be that Spenser, now that Britomart's personal quest has been achieved, and her other care, Amoret and Scudamour, both mysteriously removed from the scene, no longer regards her as an allegorical figure, but simply as the personage of the story to whom it would naturally fall to rescue Artegall. But this would be to disregard Arthur's role as the general deliverer. Moreover, her adventures on the journey seem to show her as still a person in an allegory. It is now that Dolon, Guile, seeks to betray her. Perhaps the poet has expanded his view. If he regards chastity as a supernatural grace it must appertain to the soul even more than to the body, and chastity, perfected by exercise, will become only one aspect of a more comprehensive virtue, purity of heart. Then Britomart will represent, on a higher plane than Burke's, that ‘chastity of honour which feels a stain,—that is, a sin—like a wound’. It is thus that like a lightning flash, she blasts the two sons of Dolon, and thus, that like a thunderbolt, she falls upon Radigund and by sheer straightness, consumes the bewilderments of Artegall's reason. Artegall's pauses and deviations on his quests, and these are nearly disastrous, form another proof that it is the guiding judgement which has to be perfected.

Yet neither is Artegall regarded as entirely a creature of earth. Justice, perfect justice is in heaven, teaches Spenser, using for this purpose the old myth of Astraea; it is not achieved by any clumsy, human reasoning of sharing alike, that crude, schoolboy equity of equal parts, which would seem to have dictated such a recent communistic experiment as that of Robert Kett in East Anglia, and which must have circulated much, if vaguely, before producing such an effect. As the emissary of heaven, there is about Artegall something of the remoteness and clear hardness of the angel who led the Israelites: ‘Take notice of him and hear his voice, and do not think him one to be contemned: for he will not forgive when thou hast sinned, and my name is in him’ (Exod. xxiii. 21).

Also, and perhaps because of his very simplicity, there is, except at moments, less of human attraction in Artegall than even in Guyon. From this point of view it may be rather his misfortune to be associated so closely with the warm, breathing, figure of Britomart, whose reception of the bad news of his captivity, is narrated by Spenser with so much psychological observation. It was possibly with a recognition of this that Spenser never leaves them long together, and also insists so much on his bringing up, so remote from family affection or even natural human kindness.

Like all the knights closely associated with a figure of Queen Elizabeth I, Artegall is not of faerie birth or, from the allegorical point of view, can he be, for fayerye is the realm of glamour, of illusion. Yet that his task will lie mainly in Faerie land is equally apparent, since it is those very illusions, as they relate to justice, that his task is to destroy. The communistic giant, or Malengin with his shape-shifting, or the tricked-out wickedness of Munera, are illusions more dangerous than many realities. But this analysis must not be pressed too far. Faerie land, historically considered, is also Gloriana-Elizabeth's kingdom, which to treat as illusory might hold some peril. And of all the knightly counsellors who stand round Gloriana's throne, Sophy and Artegall are the highest in place. Wisdom and Justice are Gloriana's guardians, and Guyon, himself not unimportant in that hierarchy, can imagine nothing higher for Arthur himself than that he should be as they are (II. ix. 6).

Artegall, therefore, is first mentioned as far back as Book Two. But the first description of him is in Book Three, where Britomart sees his face in the magic mirror. Perhaps there is something symbolic in this suggestion that Justice in full and lovable beauty can be seen on earth only in vision. Artegall's personal beauty is more dwelt upon than that of any other of the knightly heroes, not only here, but also in Book Four when Britomart sees him for the first time in the flesh. This beauty is indeed a sort of outward symbol or sacramental form of the virtue within. For it is becoming that he who must deal to all others what is due, should have himself received an appearance without fault. At the first seeing of him, he looks out of the mirror ‘like Phoebus from the east’, and Spenser refers at other times to the beauty of his countenance, ‘Virtue in her face how lovely.’ But yet an air of sadness hangs over this conquering knight with his golden sword and his iron man, a sadness arising perhaps from Spenser's own public experience, and proper to him in whom he had seen the embodiment of justice, Lord Grey de Wilton. To Artegall is granted no such complete, lasting, success as the others achieve. He does what he has to do; strikes down the oppressor and sets up a just authority. But it will not remain long when once his face is turned, and, called away prematurely, he will see the Blatant Beast as he goes. It is true that in this Spenser was shadowing what he had seen in Ireland when Grey was governor. But he would not have used this material if he had not believed that the fate of the justice he was considering in a more universal context, was really concretely illustrated in it. And, in Spenser's version, a cloud of melancholy mystery hangs over both the beginning and the end of the story. Merlin tells Glauce and Britomart that Artegall, though believed a faerie knight, is really a son of Gorlois King of Cornwall—hence related to Arthur through his mother—‘by false faries stolne away’ while yet in his cradle, so that he himself does not know who he is. When Britomart brings him back to his native land, so the wizard continues, he will defend it gloriously. But he will die young, treacherously murdered. True, that here again, Merlin is prophesying future history, and Spenser is playing the British Virgil. But again, he would not have used this material in this context if it had not been congruous with his conception of justice. Brief and rare are the visitations of perfect justice in the affairs of men. In his short sojourn he will do all things well, and leave behind a true model, but none of the other knights is a stranger and sojourner as Artegall is.

The Red Cross Knight, himself a changeling, has been brought up to the soil, and is at home in his English patronage. Guyon is ‘An Elfin borne of noble state, and mickle worship in his native land’: he also has his own place and people. Britomart is the daughter of the king of South Wales; we know the castle which is her home, and she has lived there like any other young princess, except for her love of arms. Cambell and Triamond are securely established amid wife and sister, brother and friend; Calidore is loving and beloved wherever he goes. But Artegall, like and unlike Rousseau's ‘Emile’, has been brought up by Astraea in solitude, carried off a second time even from his faerie companions:

… So thence him farre she brought
Into a cave from comapnie exilde,
In which she noursled him till yeares he raught,
And all the discipline of justice there him taught.
There she him taught to weigh both right and wrong
In equall ballance with due recompence,
And equitee to measure out along,
According to the line of conscience
When so it needs with rigour to dispense …
Thus she him trayned and thus she him taught
In all the skill of deeming wrong and right,
Until the ripeness of man's yeares he raught;
That euen wild beasts did feare his awfull sight
And men admyred his ouerruling might.

(v. i. 6, 7, 8)

Spenser's reason for this isolation is evident. Artegall is to be excluded from such ties, or unties, as might affect his judgement. His virtue is understood in the strictest sense of its definition. Exiled, orphaned, without home, family, friends, country, he has ridden on his way abandoned even by Astraea now set in heaven, known to the world by his golden sword and his iron man; but, till he met Britomart, known to no one by ‘his louely face’. Such is Spenser's conception of the Knight of Justice; such only can be his character and his mission in this fayerye land, or land of glamour, which stands for the world as it is.

Spenser's change from the usual pattern of his narratives, in which we are first shown the knight travelling on his quest, and are then by some opportunity, told his earlier history, is more apparent than real. It is true that Book Five begins with the story of Astraea adopting and training ‘the gentle child’, procuring him the sword with which Jove had smitten the Titans, and then quitting the earth, leaving him her task and her iron man. But Artegall, without Talus, has already played some considerable part in the narrative, and has already found, in Britomart, the law of purity within, the complement of himself. The third, fourth and fifth books have been woven together with such care that Artegall's thread has been worked into the general pattern some time before its colour is due to predominate. But he is now for the first time the principal actor on the stage.

Why Artegall, who had been already appointed to Irena's quest before he met Britomart, should not then have been attended by Talus, and where the iron man has now appeared from, seem questions that might indicate a want of smoothness in the narrative. But the leading knights when they appear in contests not their own, are usually found without the special appanages of their virtue; not that they cease to represent it; but that these adjuncts are not called for except in their own quests. So Guyon, appearing in Books Three and Five, is without the palmer; Britomart, fighting for Artegall, is without the enchanted spear.

Artegall's story is taken up at a point apparently some time after his parting from Britomart, and we see him exercising the various functions of his virtue.

The tasks that fall to him usually have one of two characters: either to break the power of the evil-doer, or to make some difficult decision between contending parties. In the first episode, both these functions are combined. Sir Sanglier is a criminal who has murdered his own lady, and carried off another from a defenceless squire. At Satyrane's tournament Artegall, then disguised as the Salvage Knight, had not disdained to joust with Sir Sanglier. But he does not touch him now. It is Talus, irresistible strength at the service of law, who holds him a helpless captive, while Artegall, having recourse to Solomon's famous stratagem, convicts him of his evil deed, and dismisses him to his punishment ‘like a rated Spaniell’.

Since Spenser has left various threads hanging from previous stories, at this point he works these ends into the pattern by inserting here the festival of Florimell's wedding. In particular, the strange adventure of false Florimell is now to be concluded, and here Artegall's wisdom will be needed. Even he will turn aside for the happy ending of true Florimell's adventures for, if ‘all the world rejoiced in Florimell’, so too did he.

The allegory of the knight's various encounters on the way is simple enough. In fact, Artegall's story is, on many counts, the simplest of all, even simpler than Guyon's, and is certainly a marked contrast with the two books immediately preceding. His virtue is a straightforward eye for eye and tooth for tooth activity; but the poet takes the opportunity, possible not without some risk, of attacking not only Sir Sanglier, the private lawbreaker, but also those who do their evil under form of law. His next enemy represents those who use their official position to enrich themselves and oppress the weak, typified in the given case by Florimell's dwarf, Dony. In fact, the poet has made a good collection of villains at this first bridge; the ‘groome of evil guize’, the little jack in office who avenges his own servitude on those still weaker, and Pollente, strong enough ‘upon the rich to tyrannize’, a tyrant, and also a cheat, as shown by the traps in his bridge.

In the background, more fatal than all with her golden hands and her silver feet, lurks Bribery, Munera, daughter of Pollente, corruption deriving from abuse of power. Spenser is thinking here of those who corruptly take, not of those who give what in the case posed, they dare not deny. If St. Thomas More's integrity as a judge had not been exceptional, it would not have impressed his contemporaries so much, and that the evil custom had continued is proved by Bacon's later case.

Why does the poet use the somewhat bizarre device of making Artegall and Pollente leap down the oubliette on the bridge and fight in the water? The river is named at stanza 19, ‘His corps was carried down along the Lee’, and there is a very vivid, if gruesome, touch where Spenser tells how the head, struck off at one blow by Artegall,

… tumbling on the strand
It bit the earth for very fell despight,
And gnashed with his teeth …

(v. ii. 18)

Doubtless Spenser's contemporaries in Ireland easily guessed what fight it was that had taken place at the fords of the Lee, and whose head was ‘pitched upon a pole’ by the stern justice of Lord Grey de Wilton. However, critics have identified Pollente with Charles IX of France, and his evil doings as the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, in which case the ‘groome of evil guize’ would be the Duke of Guise. But in that case, why mention the river Lee? Moreover there is no resemblance between the episodes.

Those who do evil under form of law are not fought with but punished; it is Talus, the rigour of the law, unshaken by offered bribes, who first makes way into the castle of Munera, and Talus who, able to scent evil like a hound his quarry, drags out that figure of corruption and destroys her, her treasures, and her castle; Artegall is here only the judge.

The next encounter (v. ii. 30) has a special interest in the twentieth century. It is not now a question of crime; but of the imposition, presumably by force, of a new social order, a savage egalitarianism which insists that all should have less, to prevent any having more. Artegall's line of argument against the giant of communism, who wants to deal out earth and sea, riches and rank, in equal shares by weight, is interesting. He first asserts the superiority of the existing order of nature as being the one ordained by God according to heavenly justice, in which all know their place and their part. This divinely decreed order of nature, order as law, and order as arrangement, was indeed the world scheme as the Elizabethans still saw it.4 Artegall has no notion of the upheaval which the popularization of the Copernican system would give to the securely walled-in Ptolemaic universe he himself describes. But even had he known that the planet Earth was the centre neither of the universe nor of the solar system, Artegall-Spenser was too good a Platonist to give such superabundant importance to the material arrangements of the world of the senses. Indeed, his argument would need but little change to fit it to the entire universe, rather than the earth only to which he applies it:

In vaine therefore doest thou now take in hand,
To call to count or weight his workes anew,
Whose counsels depths thou canst not vnderstand,
Sith of things subject to thy daily vew
Thou doest not know the causes, nor their courses dew.

(v. ii. 42)

The inequalities in the existing order are therefore included in the divine appointment from which it is wrong to diverge. The force of the further series of experiments in using the giant's balance seems to be directed to show that, in the first place, material and moral values are not subject to the same scale of measurement, and they cannot be calculated against each other. But, if we confine ourselves to moral values, wrong and falsehood, which are negative, cannot be compared with truth and right in which being resides. Aristotle too had taught that virtue and vice are incommensurable like truth and falsehood. However, if wrong be weighed against wrong, right will be found poised between. Here is Spenser's old principle of Book Two; virtue is in the mean and the opposite of a vice is not therefore a virtue. But, significant fact, the discomfited giant is not really seeking the right, he wants to be able to destroy the one extreme, to benefit the other, and if that is not right, so much the worse for right. And now another curious fact. This huge giant who has gathered all the peoples about him in expectation of their gain when he has succeeded in levelling everything down, has in himself so little of real substance that the mere pressure of contact with rightful law and order flings him off his height to wreckage down below. Be it noted that this is a righteous law and order, subject to true, heaven-inspired justice, an ideal order, free from weakness or corruption.

But now the peoples, misled, disappointed of their hoped-for riches, prepare for violence. These Talus disperses with his flail like a swarm of flies. They rush into hiding as ducks, startled by a falcon, scatter among the reeds. Spenser often delights us with these vivid thumbnail sketches. There he leaves the problem; he had seen social extremes enough in Ireland and in England; for it was Elizabeth I herself who introduced legislation to deal with the indigent poor, and yet such immense mansions as Knowle were being erected by her ministers. Probably too, he had heard of the wild attempts of the Anabaptists at Munster. He could not foresee how grisly a spectre would rise from the giant's ‘timbered bones’, and how much less effective would be the flail of Talus after that early death of Artegall which Merlin had foretold.

So far the Knight of Justice has used the sword Chrysaor only against Pollente, Oppression armed with a robber baron's power; the iron hand of Talus, the ordinary force of law, had dealt with all the other cases of evil-doers, whether private or public, or of turbulent enthusiasts whose crazy theories thrust inconsiderately into practice, endanger public peace. But Artegall is now going to honour the wedding tournament of Florimell. This is a private occasion, and the police, though not absent, will be left outside the door.

Elizabeth's courtiers probably amused themselves for an evening in identifying of the six knights who with Marinell undertake to uphold the peerless beauty of Florimell. Marinell himself has often been identified with Lord Howard of Effingham, the High Admiral, who defended that rich strand, the shore of England. But this is of less interest now than the bearing of the whole episode on the general course and purpose of the poem. It serves as a kind of provisional climax, disposing of many lesser threads of narrative which could not be carried further without cluttering up the flow of the poem and impeding the new train of events, allegorical and actual, which were to exemplify the qualities of justice and courtesy.

Of the story of Marinell and Florimell it is only requisite here to recall how the first confronting of the true and false Florimell results in the immediate destruction of falsehood ‘Truth is a touchstone’. Spenser had already glanced at this favourite thought, when the giant with all his strength could not put falsehood into the opposite scale to truth. Perhaps false Florimell and her going from knight to knight, did stand for Mary of Scotland, her much publicized intrigues, and her possible French or Spanish marriage: that Braggadochio and Trompart were originally Anjou and the ambassador Simier is fairly evident. But Spenser was a brave man if, in a poem to be laid before Queen Elizabeth, he so insisted on the beauty and charm of her rival, still more so if the true Florimell is meant for Mary ‘on her good side’, as some have suggested. That he had the necessary courage is shown by his steadfast support of the unpopular Grey, and of Leicester, in spite of Burleigh's hostility. But that for no reason of honour or loyalty, and contradictory to his perfectly sincere cult of the great Queen, he should thus have flown in her face, seems much less credible.

It is more to the present purpose to examine Artegall's doings. In his character as knight errant he enters the tournament in disguise; but later we find him functioning like an embodied principle of equity, as arbiter of problems that the law cannot touch.

He begins by rushing to the aid of the weaker, Marinell, victorious till now, and only overcome by numbers. He overcomes a hundred knights—no one but Love fights at such odds as Justice—but when the victors are proclaimed he withdraws, as though in penance for his behaviour at the first tournament, and at first allows Braggadochio, whose shield he had borrowed, to claim his prize. It is only when the boaster attacks Florimell and advances his own false companion, that Artegall, to authorize his intervention on her behalf, makes good his own claim to be victor.

Justice, like Holiness, is allied to Humility and, still more, to Disinterestedness; it does not seek its own reputation, and will not struggle for its own rights, until those of others are involved. But Justice is then both swift and practical. Evidence is quickly brought to prove Braggadochio's imposture, and then Artegall approaches the more important matter at issue by proposing that the two Florimells should be confronted. When the innocent is placed beside the shameless, no doubt remains where true beauty is. Artegall shows the same practical wisdom in the matter of Guyon's horse, now at last to be returned to his owner in a pretty recognition scene. But fiery Justice needs the restraint of Temperance when his verdict is disputed. Justice and Temperance, these Elizabeth herself had claimed as the chief virtues of a governor.5 Thus exposed, Braggadochio and Trompart become a mere police affair, and Talus, who has remained behind the scenes till now, deals with them. It is one of Spenser's special points that justice is to be proclaimed only where there is power to enforce it. Idealist as he shows himself, he was still too much of a practical man of affairs, and had seen there is power to enforce it. Idealist as he shows himself, he too much in Ireland, to suppose that people would be moved from their own interests by the mere abstract statement of what is just:

Who so vpon himselfe will take the skill
True Iustice vnto people to diuide,
Had neede haue mightie hands, for to fulfill
That, which he doth with righteous doome decide,
And for to maister wrong and puissant pride.
For vaine it is to deeme of things aright,
And makes wrong doers iustice to deride,
Vnlesse it be performed with dreadlesse might,
For powre is the right hand of Justice truely hight.

(v. iv. i)

If politicians were as realistic as poets, some pages of recent history might have been written in ink less red.

Artegall's next encounter, the problems of the islands and the treasure, seems to illustrate the folk wisdom of the old proverb, that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is, moreover, a warning requisite at that time, that the judge's decision must not be affected by any consideration of wealth or power in the disputants. However, Gough quotes legal authority, both in English and Roman law for Artegall's decision.6

It must be noted that Artegall does not fight his way like the other knights. Only when he has to do with Tyranny above, or against, the law, does he draw his own sword. This next occurs when his meeting with Terpine leads to his unlucky fight with Radigund, in whom, it may be, Lord Grey encountered Mary Queen of Scots, though in view of the slightness of connexion with her and the unlikelihood that Spenser would stress it; it seems probable that the historical allegory may be in abeyance at this moment. But Artegall in any case encountered Tyranny itself, irresponsible Power, to Justice, most deadly enemy.

It is in fighting Radigund that Artegall encounters his first serious temptation, and suffers that one moment of weakness from which so few of Spenser's knights are altogether exempt. Indeed, it is only Britomart who can never yield at all, since in her virtue, what is once lost is wholly lost, not indeed, without remedy, but without recall.

Artegall's weakness is compassion, which a just judge may and should feel, but not so that emotion should make him fail in his duty. No doubt Grey's Irish difficulties are hinted at here, for Spenser certainly supported his severe policy and regarded the conciliatory one of his opponents as fatal.7 Artegall's fall is the most disastrous of all the knights'; the most shameful to himself, the most fatal to others; for the fault of the Red Cross Knight, or Guyon, or Calidore if fault it were, hurts no one but themselves, whereas that of Artegall brings to shameful death the knight who had trusted him, and whom he had undertaken to save. Not only so, but the one false step, however pardonable in itself, for compassion is a noble quality, and more excusable in excess than in defect, carries with it inevitable consequences, a blurring of the moral judgement, till now so clear; so that Artegall believes his knightly honour binds him to keep his pledge to Radigund however treacherous had been her means of gaining it, forgetting that no pledge can bind him to what is wrong in itself. His first error, owing perhaps to overconfidence, had been making the pledge at all. However, this said, all is said. Artegall in defeat is dignified, patient, ready to use honourable means to gain his freedom; but firm in his private faith to Britomart. ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Spenser is insisting on the evil of Radigund's irresponsible power, and on the basic necessity of unshakeable justice, when he draws such serious consequences from the momentary yielding of the reason of the judge to the heart of a man.

Spenser's portrait of Britomart fretting over Artegall's prolonged absence is full of life, truth, and even of humour, and so is his narrative of her reception of the news that Talus brings her; her too-hasty believing of the worst; her returning to Talus for a fuller account when her emotion has exhausted itself, and her setting forth to the rescue, all her wrath concentrated on Radigund. But in what character is she riding when she meets Dolon?

Britomart's old quality of chastity as deliverer, hardly suits the present occasion even in the wider sense I have suggested for it. Artegall is already admirably exercising this virtue and, if that could save him, would already be free. Moreover, Dolon's plot is formed in the belief that the wandering knight is Artegall, and that he may thus avenge the death of Guizor his son. In fact Britomart, having escaped the first snare, meets and destroys the two remaining brothers on the very bridge where Artegall had fought Pollente and, as he believed, had destroyed the evil customs. Further, Isis, in the Temple which Britomart now visits, represents, the poet tells us, ‘that part of Iustice which is Equity’, though the priests indeed must serve in chastity, and by Britomart's dream there she is confirmed in her trust in Artegall, who is symbolized by the crocodile of Osiris, god of justice; for so the chief priest affirms. Britomart, then, would correspond to Isis herself, Equity, and this interpretation is supported by her subsequent conduct. For the principle of equity enables even law to be set aside when, by some circumstance, it becomes clear that slavish insistence on the literal legal position would defeat the ends of real justice. Artegall, like the other knights who fought Radigund, is bound by a contract though, actually, he was cheated. Britomart refuses the bargain proposed—a princess may refuse a queen when a knight cannot—and will not be held but by the bonds of common law. In the fight she uses a sword, not the enchanted spear for, though still deriving her strength from her purity, it is not a combat of chastity as such. Thus fights the common reason of humanity, the source of equity, against the selfish predominance of irresponsible tyranny, with all the system that Radigund typifies. Britomart victorious kills Radigund. Spenser was too wise to kill a woman, even a Radigund, by other than a woman, and proceeds to the release of the captives, restraining, ‘for very ruth’, equity can be allowed to pity when the law is over severe, the ferocious retributions of Talus. Now follows a natural touch; when she sees Artegall in his trouble she sets aside jealous suspicion and thinks only of comforting him, while he receives her help as generously as it is given.

And now Britomart, since this Amazon state is organized legally but not justly, ‘did true Iustice deale’, redressing injuries and restoring order. But Britomart too has learned something, and when Artegall proposes to set out again on his original quest, she does not repeat her attempt to delay him; she acknowledges his obligation, and she restrains her grief. She has come close enough to justice now to know that there are times when personal interests, the highest and purest, must yield to duty.

It may be worth noting in passing the singular restraint and relative austerity of Spenser's style in this book, even in such a passage as the description of the temple of Isis; the flow of his music remains; but the diction is sobered to suit a sober theme.

Perhaps it is poetic justice that Artegall, whose habit of disguise, still characteristic of his virtue, had originally caused his first meeting with Britomart to be a fight, should now be mistakenly assaulted by Arthur, who has long been left in obscurity, when both are seeking to save Samient from her enemies. But one of the most charming qualities of Spenser's knights is their readiness to own their mistakes. Arthur and Artegall are soon friends, and with this encounter, Arthur comes back to his position as the prowest knight of all the world, and the great deliverer he in whom all good qualities are at the heroic level.

Mercilla, the royal mistress of Samient,8 is the figure of Elizabeth in this part of the book, and is seen in a more gentle and feminine aspect than she has usually appeared in either in the character of Britomart or of Belphoebe. The political allegory, however, hardly becomes prominent till the trial scene; the next encounter, though undertaken to help Mercilla indirectly, is a conflict with an abstract evil, Adicia, Injustice, companion and guide of ‘a mighty man and Souldan’, Philip II presumably, on the historical plane, but, on the universal, the supreme enemy whom Artegall must encounter as the Red Cross Knight encountered Pride, Guyon, Passion, and Britomart, Busyrane, Arthur's challenge to the Souldan ‘in behalfe or wronged weake’, alludes to the Netherlands attempt, historically, Arthur is here Leicester, but the actual history is modified to suit the moral allegory in which justice must triumph. In reality Elizabeth's armed intervention in the Netherlands was by no means wholly successful although the poet seems to include the Armada victory with it, if Upton and others are right in associating Arthur's contest with the Souldan fighting from a chariot in which the prince cannot reach him, with that battle. Yet not by human means does Arthur vanquish the Soldan, the political and military power of Spain, standing for those material forces which in this world seem to support the rule of the unjust. Only the unveiling of the shield, the symbol in Arthur's own case, of supernatural aid, gives him the victory, and even then it is not he who slays his enemy, but the bolting horses that dash the chariot to pieces, i.e. the fortunate wind that scattered the Spanish fleet. This is all the victory the poet can dwell on since, though the Protestant regions of the Netherlands did gain their freedom eventually, it was not by means of Leicester's expedition, or Elizabeth. On the moral plane this conflict is represented by the encounter of Artegall, who has got by stratagem into the castle of Injustice, and Adicia. The latter escapes, and by her furious despair is transformed into a tigress; but Artegall succeeds in defeating all those who had submitted to her. Spenser is well aware that injustice in itself cannot be destroyed, until all evil is no more. In fact, he is distinguishing rather carefully between those concrete wrongs which can be done away with, such as Radigund, Tyranny, or the giant Communism, and the ideal evils, Injustice, Intemperance, which can only be denied activity and remedied in their effects.

Perhaps in the encounter with Guile, Malengin, Spenser on the factual plane, had in mind the plots, real and concocted, against Elizabeth and her power in Ireland and elsewhere, though it is Maleger in Book Two who more precisely represents the kernes. In Dolon's attack on Britomart, he seems to have been also glancing at French intrigue more particularly; but, in the moral allegory, Malengin, though a pair to Dolon, is not his duplicate. Spenser never repeats exactly. Dolon, an old man of respectable and even dignified appearance, living with all the outward semblance of honour and prosperity, invites Britomart to his house with apparent kindness, and then would have murdered her. This is the treachery in the intimacy of family and social life, of which the Psalmist speaks: ‘For if an enemy had done this I might have borne it but it was thou, my familiar friend in whom I trusted: we took sweet counsel together: we walked in the house of God as friends.’ In that era of Renaissance statesmanship, there were enough politicians to fill the character whether on the one side or the other, and Spenser may also have had in mind the English plots against Elizabeth; Dolon being a figure for conspiracy. The Homeric Dolon was a spy who betrayed his own side, but this may be coincidence.

Malengin in the moral allegory is an Ishmael, a savage preying on society like a wolf, unscrupulous, ready to murder, or steal, or commit any other crime, a gangster, admitting no law but his own interest, an adept at all the tricks whereby fools are deceived, a professional criminal, living in hiding, and thence pouncing on his victims:

Als at his backe a great wyde net he bore,
With which he seldom fished at the brooke,
But vsd to fish for fooles on the dry shore
Of which he in faire weather, wont to take great store

(v. ix. 11)

And now, justice guards the ways, but Talus, all the material means which a state can use to enforce its laws, hunts down the criminal through flight and disguise, until the capture is made. But Spenser tells this in language straight from folk-lore, the old tales of the wicked wizard who changes his form and must be gripped in each until he has finished the sequence and his power is exhausted. Through such a series Tamlane passes before he can be rescued and restored to human living. Even then, Artegall cannot hold Malengin. It is Talus who beats the life out of one who, as Spenser shrewdly says, was primarily a self-deceiver who thought he would always get away with it; other criminals might betray themselves, but not he: ‘So did deceipt the self-deceiver fayle.’ Granted Spenser's religious sympathies he might have been alluding to the devices and disguises of the recusants. But the ‘View’ does not show Spenser as holding extreme views about the Catholics as individuals, the Sydney entourage in Ireland does not seem to have done so, Campion lived peacefully among them, and he may also have been referring to, or including, the whole crew of political cum religious informers and spies of which the correspondence of the time reveals so many everywhere, and who so often mingled their betrayals with lofty professions of faith and loyalty.

Now Injustice has been driven away, and treacherous crime destroyed, the palace of Mercy may be approached, for mercy is then only possible to the ruler when leniency is not dangerous to the innocent. This palace is guarded by moral force, not physical. Awe is sentinel at the gate, and Order controls the crowd within. Warlike array is ‘straunge there to se’, where peace, fostered by just judgement reigned. Yet this idyllic scene includes the figure of a poet9 who for attacking ‘Mercilla-Elizabeth’, has been nailed by the tongue to a post. Perhaps to none of Spenser's first readers did this seem an incongruous piece of savagery. Yet the twentieth century can hardly reproach the sixteenth, for ‘those who live in glass houses should not throw stones’.

One may well suppose that in a narrative here so closely corresponding to the contemporary scene, Spenser did not insist so much on the long peace of Mercilla's domains without adverting to the lines ascribed to Elizabeth herself about Mary Queen of Scots:

The daughter of debate
That eke discord did sow,
Shall reap no gain where former rule
Hath taught still peace to grow …

In this book the trial of Duessa-Mary is about to be represented before Mercilla-Elizabeth; and in Book Four, Duessa was shown riding in company with Ate, and doing her best to foment quarrels, in particular between Britomart and Scudamour. Those who have remarked the different light which recent historical research has thrown upon the Babington plot in particular, and the figures of Burleigh and Walsingham in general,10 might be inclined to quarrel with Spenser for the view he clearly takes in this Book, as elsewhere. But, in his position, he could not be wiser than his contemporaries, and even if he had had his suspicions, of the parts played by agent provocateurs—Mary accused Walsingham in Burleigh's presence of rigging Babington's plot, this poem was not the place for them.

The description of Mercilla in state, which may be contrasted with that of Lucifera in Book One, is one of the few highly wrought passages in a book otherwise singularly austere; the canopy above her throne seems to reach the clouds of heaven, and angels are seen clustering about it; while others are grouped round her throne itself, and she herself is angel-like, Spenser's favourite compliment to a woman. On the steps of the throne are ranged, under the image of a ‘beuie of faire Virgins clad in white’, the Ideas of those attributes which should attend sovereignty. That they are universals is seen in the fact that justice is shown among them, and temperance also. They are all powers of conciliation and clemency:

And often treat for pardon and remission
For suppliants, through frayltie which offend.

(v. ix. 32)

Is it too fanciful to suggest that Spenser's insistence on mercy as the primary attribute of the righteous sovereign whom he pictures surrounded by angels, was remembered by Shakespeare when he composed Portia's famous oration about the mercy which droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven from such clouds as canopied Mercilla's throne, which becomes the throned monarch better than his crown, and which is enthroned in the hearts of kings? Had not Spenser already written:

… in th' Almighties euerlasting seat
She first was bred, and borne of heauenly race,
From thence poured downe on men, by influence of grace.

(v. x. 1)

Too many parallels can be traced between Shakespeare and Spenser for it not to be apparent that the dramatist well knew the Faerie Queene. Indeed, how should it be otherwise? It would be impossible that such a poem could be published by a poet of the reputation Spenser already had and Shakespeare not read it, were it only to see what plots he could get from it. Two ideas the two poets certainly had in common; this belief in mercy and conciliation as the wisest and most worthy policy of kings; and the hatred for war in itself. As to this, there are passages in Book Four and elsewhere, as, for example, in this description of Mercilla, which might be set beside Shakespeare's principal reference in Henry V.

But in the trial about to be continued, the merciful Queen places pure justice beside her, ‘and neare them none’. That a trial should be one of the central scenes of the Book of Justice is clearly appropriate, and if so, granted the persons and the circumstances, it was inevitable that it should be Queen Mary's. Spenser had been already preparing for this when he associated Paridell and Blandamour with Ate and Duessa in the quarrel scene of Book Four; since these two are generally accepted to stand for Westmorland and Northumberland, Lords both implicated with Mary. Besides, Lord Grey really was one of the Commission against Mary.

But, also, the theme of the book required that Spenser should set forth his conception of a just trial, nor had signs been wanting that such a lesson might be needed. Doubtless Spenser did believe Mary as guilty as Duessa; doubtless there were others of another opinion, whom he might have been concerned to convince; the whole truth was certainly not known then, and has hardly been fully revealed now. The description shows the trial as it should have been rather than as it actually was. Spenser's ideal trial is public, impartial, with full liberty to witnesses and advocates on either side, with no sign of violence of any kind, and with judges exact to determine guilt, but slow to punish it, and reluctant to go to extremes. With his usual tact the poet refrains from describing, or even mentioning, except by implication, the unhappy scene of Fotheringay. Indeed, from the point of view of the moral allegory, he cannot describe it, for Duessa in that represents Falsehood, and falsehood cannot be eliminated from the human combat any more than injustice; Duessa can no more die now than when Una spared her in the first book. Had Spenser continued his poem to the length originally proposed, how would he have managed without this personage who has been more active through five books than the chief villain Archimago? Perhaps, like Adicia, she would have been transformed into an animal; certainly the poet must and would have found another symbolic form, moral and historical. Intrigue did not die with Mary, and Falsehood can take as many forms as Malengin. Meanwhile, the narrative returns to Arthur.

Even when Arthur is not required to act as deliverer, he must in each book approve himself by some great symbolic action, except, indeed, in that part of the narrative where Britomart assumes his role. To Philip Sidney, the Netherlands war had been a high adventure; such an expedition as an Arthur-Leicester might fairly lead, and illustrate thereby why, and how, a just war might be fought in defence of the weak and oppressed, at their invitation, and without harm to non-combatants. Moreover, such a war will not be ended by a mere destruction of the enemy, the deaths of the seneschal and the gyant himself, but the institutions set up by the invaders, through which their oppression was exercised, must also be done away with, and this is seen in the destruction of the monster. Readers of the life of St. Teresa of Avila, a generation older than Spenser, will know what a dread the Inquisition, in the time of Philip II, inspired even in Spaniards themselves, of whose orthodoxy there could be no question. At a later age, Spenser's inquisition dragon would still have represented the subtle inner tyranny which seeks to control the liberty of mind and will, but its material counterpart would be found, many times multiplied, in the various political, economic, national, international, organizations which now lay their heavy yoke on the necks of their members.

Thus does Arthur-Leicester liberate Belge and her seven sons, and the soul, from the fear of interior or exterior restraint of just liberty. Despite the retained name of Belge, Spenser has dropped the historical allegory here; he only needs literal facts when they illustrate moral and spiritual truth; when they cannot be interpreted as he wants, he abandons them. Arthur, ever triumphant, can never rest, the soul, even perfected, must always go forward in this world. Gloriana's knights, who have come from Cleopolis, could presumably have instructed Arthur, their benefactor, how to reach it. But Cleopolis still has its character of an enchanted dwelling, the stranger cannot enter it, or even find it, except at the appointed time. Arthur, therefore, goes his way.

Artegall, after his various obstacles and delays, is now approaching the end of his personal quest, in which he can be helped neither by Arthur nor by Britomart. For whatever part Spenser gives to the deliverers, and sometimes it may seem greater than that of the protagonists, the last and decisive act each must perform alone. True, Guyon is helped, even at the last, by his palmer guide. But he is a projection of his own reason and moral judgement, from which he cannot now be separated, and which must be instrumental to the final conquest, since reason, not merely force, must subdue rebellious desire.

Artegall's delay, that fatal confusion of his faith with Radigund has gravely compromised the success of his quest, and has caused Irena to fall a prisoner to Grantorto. I surmise that by this name, Irena, which Spenser also uses in his View of the Present State of Ireland, he intended a double meaning, one the object of the historical allegory, the other of the moral. Lord Grey, indeed, was to drive the Spanish out of Ireland, but the Knight of Justice must destroy that evil which is the enemy of public peace. Peace is the good which the just queen, Mercilla, has obtained for her kingdom; peace, Spenser held, was the one essential requisite for Ireland, without which nothing else would avail; peace was a principal object of Elizabeth's tortuous policy; and, where there is perfect justice, there should be perfect peace. A little later than Spenser, another poet, Vaughan, of mind not altogether unlike, would write of the City which the Red Cross Knight saw from the Mount of Contemplation, and would say of it that the plant of peace grew there. What greater wrong can an enemy from without do a country, or a false and selfish faction from within, or both together, as Spenser supposes it, than subvert by violence and intrigue, that ‘tranquillity of order’ which is the definition of peace? Philip II as Gerioneo was doing more powerfully and thoroughly, because more powerful and thorough, what every sovereign more or less at that time, was striving to do, namely, impose his will on dominions he regarded as his. He had pressed his right beyond the limits permitted to man, therefore just war might be waged against him; but that there had been in the first instance, a right, the thought of the age, and of the people who still lamented Calais, could not well deny.

But Philip II, as Grantorto, or alternatively, the Papacy as a political power, was in another position. Here he was intervening by intrigue and conspiracy in a country where he had no trace of sovereign claim, and the purpose of those intrigues, of that conspiracy, was war. That there might be a parallel between Protestant Gloriana intervening in the Netherlands on behalf of her co-religionists, and Catholic Grantorto intervening in Ireland on behalf of his coreligionists, was a possibility that no servant of Elizabeth, himself a protestant, could be expected to perceive. Spenser, planter at Kilcolman, with his wife and young family there, was certain that peace was what the country needed above all. Those who broke it, for whatever reason, were those who wronged her, but he who wronged her most was he who thrust in from without, careless of peasant or cottage, house or farmland, to destroy that peace as a mere incident in a larger policy. Such was Grantorto, Artegall's enemy.

Before this last combat, however, Artegall meets Burbon, Henry IV, ready to buy Paris with a Mass, fighting for his throne, Flourdelis, France. Artegall admits his legitimate claim, but reproves the policy of crooked means:

Fie on such forgerie (said Artegall),
Vnder one hood to shelter faces twaine,
Knights ought be true, and truth is one in all:
Of all things to dissemble fouly may befall

(v. xi. 56)

The admonition might be just; but it applied to the policies of Walsingham and Burleigh quite enough to explain the poet's unpopularity in that quarter.

In describing the last fight between Artegall and Grantorto, the poet spares no pains to give the Knight of Justice a worthy opponent. Grantorto is not only of giant strength, but a skilled and courageous fighter. And it is true that material wrong is often so heavy, as it were, so well established, that it is hard to find where to strike it without seeming to do more harm than good, armoured as it is in vested interests, and disposing apparently, of endless resources. Artegall defends himself with skill; but it is not by skill or policy, but by sheer straightforward hitting, that he defeats Grantorto.

This is the first, the destructive phase, of the work of Justice. Historically, Lord Grey could not proceed much further in the time allowed him; but Spenser cannot let Artegall stop at this point; he gives him time:

… that he did there remaine
His studie was true justice how to deale.
And day and night employed his busie paine
How to reforme that ragged commonweale:

(v. xii. 26)

In spite of the name Artegall-Grey acquired for severity, he is shown by Spenser here as in the View, as often checking the rigour of Talus, the material force of the law.

In ending this book, Spenser was treading on thin ice. The course of his narrative was perfectly clear, much clearer to his first readers perhaps, but not obscure even to us, so that it seems that Queen Elizabeth and Burleigh are rather to be praised for magnanimity than blamed for parsimony, when one considers that the poet got away with his outspoken criticism of Grey's withdrawal from Ireland ‘ere he could reforme it thoroughly’, his virtue obscured by ‘enuie's cloude’, and his homeward path troubled by the two hags Enuie and Detraction, painted with the whole power of Spenser's descriptive genius:

The one of them that elder did appeare,
With her dull eyes does seeme to looke askew,
That her mis-shape much helpt; and her foule heare
Hung loose and loathsomely: thereto her hew
Was wan and leane, that all her teeth arew,
And all her bones might through her cheekes be red:
Her lips were like raw lether, pale and blew,
And as she spake, therewith she slauered:
Yet spake she seldom but thought more the lesse she sed.

(v. xii. 29)

Probably both queen and minister realized that to show anger would be to admit the force of the criticism, and Elizabeth herself could hardly be too severe with the section of the whole poem in which she appeared as Mercilla. Indeed, Spenser's outspokenness gave a value to his compliments which nothing else could have conferred upon them, and the queen could well appreciate this.

Friendship might have led Spenser to introduce his vivid portraits of Envy and Detraction at this point; but he was too much of an artist not to work them neatly into the pattern. Calumny is the enemy of the next book, the book of Calidore and the Blatant Beast, and the two hideous figures he has now created, are the very ones to bring this last monster appropriately on the scene; where envy and detraction are, calumny will not be far behind. This makes the structural contact with the next book, where, according to his usual method, the poet brings the new protagonist into contact with the one just passing off the scene.

The cordial greetings and felicitations of Calidore, sincere as doubtless they were, do not dissipate the air of sadness that clings round the figure of Artegall, his triumph not complete, the shadow of his early death already upon him. It is true that his legend is conditioned by the historical mould in which, more than in any other of the narratives, Spenser chose to cast it. But it still remains true that the historical allegory is secondary. Spenser took what seemed to him to exemplify his moral theme, and he would not have used those events to illustrate the perfecting of justice, if he had not recognized that, in the world as it is, he could not truly represent any human institution as being permanently administered according to perfect justice. Adverse circumstances, human ill will, human frailty, all these will enter, and whether it be Plato's Republic, or More's Utopia, or the City of the Sun, or the new Atlantis, or any other attempt at a perfect state upon earth, the writing is already on the wall: ‘Here we have no abiding city.’ But still, it is demanded of the steward that he be found faithful, and in the hurly burly amid which the virtue of justice must be exercised, it will be much if the ruler, though not succeeding as he desires, yet retains his personal virtue. This Artegall does; he has done justice and shown mercy, and after the brief encounter with Calidore, in which he proves himself not embittered, he passes away into the forest from which at first he had mysteriously appeared:

A man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?


  1. J. C. Smith and De Selincourt, Poetical Works, p. iii. Froude gives Ridolfi's list Reign of Eliz. IV, p. 158.

  2. Radigund having cheated, Artegall was no longer bound in justice, only by a legal scruple: it is the situation where law does not do justice which therefore equity is called in to redress.

  3. It is suggested (cf. A. B. Gough: Introd. V. iv) that Radigund more especially represents ‘the monstrous regiment of women’. But a poem so largely honouring a Queen, and in which so many good queens appear, can hardly condemn female sovereignty as such, but only if usurped.

  4. No doubt Spenser's attention had been drawn to these social problems by the communistic doctrines and experiments which were a powerful element in the revolutionary movement in Germany from 1525 onwards: cf. Camb. Mod. History, i. 62.

  5. Cf. Letter to Leycester quoted in Chap. IV.

  6. A. B. Gough ed. Bk. V: notes to Canto IV.

  7. Cf. View of the Present State of Ireland, passim.

  8. The critics are not agreed in their identification of this figure.

  9. Identified by Gough with one Fulwell a political satirist who had attacked Elizabeth.

  10. Cf. Devlin, Life of Robert Southwell, Longmans, 1956.

Further Reading

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Bellamy, Elizabeth J. “The Vocative and the Vocational: The Unreadability of Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene.ELH 54, no. 1 (spring 1987): 1-30.

Analyzes Spenser's representation of Queen Elizabeth I in The Faerie Queene.

Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. “‘Carelesse Modestee’: Chastity as Politics in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene.ELH 55, no. 3 (fall 1988): 555-73.

Discusses Spenser's representation of Queen Elizabeth I in The Faerie Queene in relation to the virtue of Chastity.

Broaddus, James W. “Renaissance Psychology and Britomart's Adventures in Faerie Queene III.” English Literary Renaissance 17, no. 2 (spring 1987): 186-206.

Analyzes Book III of The Faerie Queene in terms of sixteenth-century ideas about human psychology and the moving forces of history.

Burchmore, David W. “The Unfolding of Britomart: Mythic Iconography in The Faerie Queene.Renaissance Papers 1977, edited by Dennis G. Donovan and A. Leigh Deneef, pp. 11-20. Durham, N.C.: Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1977.

Discusses Spenser's treatment of the virtue of Chastity in The Faerie Queene.

Christian, Margaret. “‘The ground of Storie’: Genealogy in The Faerie Queene.” In Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. 9, edited by Patrick Cullen And Thomas P. Roche, Jr., pp. 61-79. New York: AMS Press, 1991.

Explores Spenser's treatment of family lineage in The Faerie Queene.

Cook, Patrick J. “The Epic Chronotope from Ariosto to Spenser.” Annali D'Italianistica 12 (1994): 115-41.

Discusses the epic form of The Faerie Queene.

Daniels, Edgar F. “Spenser's The Faerie Queene.Explicator 48, no. 3 (spring 1990): 173-75.

Provides a brief discussion of which planetary body Spenser refers to in the phrase “that faire Starre” in Book II of The Faerie Queene.

Gold, Eva. “The Queen and the Book in Book 6 of The Faerie Queene.South Atlantic Review 57, no. 4 (November 1992): 1-19.

Analyzes the place of Queen Elizabeth I in the narrative of The Faerie Queene.

Gough, Melinda J. “‘Her filthy feature open showne’ in Ariosto, Spenser, and Mucho Ado about Nothing.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 39, no. 1 (winter 1999): 41-67.

Discusses representations of women in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, and the tales of Ludovico Ariosto.

Heberle, Mark. “Aristotle and Spenser's Justice.” Studia Neophilologica 63, no. 2 (1991): 169-73.

Discusses the theme of justice in The Faerie Queene.

Lethbridge, J. B. “Raleigh in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene: The Primacy of Moral Allegory.” Studia Neophilologica 64 (1992): 55-66.

Discusses representations of Sir Walter Raleigh and the theme of morality in The Faerie Queene.

Mallette, Richard. “Book Five of The Faerie Queene: An Elizabethan Apocalypse.” In Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. 11, edited by Patrick Cullen and Thomas P. Roche, Jr., pp. 129-59. New York: AMS Press, 1994.

Discusses references to religious apocalypse in The Faerie Queene.

Mueller, William R. “Introduction: A Brief History of Spenser Criticism.” In Spenser's Criticis: Changing Currents in Literary Taste, edited by William R. Mueller, pp. 1-17. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1959.

Provides an overview of developments in critical response to The Faerie Queene.

Purdon, Liam O. “A Reconsideration of the Ass Image in Book I of The Faerie Queene.English Language Notes 25, no. 1 (September 1988): 18-21.

Explores Spenser's handling of the the image of the ass, the animal Una rides in Book I of The Faerie Queene, suggesting that Spenser may have used it as an allegorical symbol for the flesh.

Wall, John N., Jr. “Orion's Flaming Head: Spenser's Faerie Queene, II.ii.46 and the Feast of the Twelve Days of Christmas.” In Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. VII, edited by Patrick Cullen and Thomas P. Roche, Jr., pp. 93-101. New York: AMS Press, 1987.

Discusses the twelve-day feast described in Book II of The Faerie Queene in the context of the English Protestant Reformation.

Additional coverage of Spenser's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Before 1660; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 167; Epics for Students, Vol. 2; Exploring Poetry; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 5, 39; Literature Resource Center; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to English Literature; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.

James P. Bednarz (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Bednarz, James P. “Ralegh in Spenser's Historical Allegory.” In Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. 4, edited by Patrick Cullen and Thomas P. Roche, Jr., pp. 49-70. New York: AMS Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Bednarz discusses the historical context of The Faerie Queene and focuses on representations of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh in the poem.]

The allegory of Timias and Belphoebe in The Faerie Queene documents two distinct periods in the ongoing relationship between Sir Walter Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth. The first describes an early era of mixed fortune in which Ralegh's preeminence was being undermined by the earl of Essex, and the second alludes to a later time of disgrace, occasioned by his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton in 1592. The 1590 and 1596 installments of The Faerie Queene, considered together, trace a historical pattern that moves from Ralegh's participation in the quelling of the Desmond Rebellion, through which he gained the queen's attention, to their first meeting, his rejection, and later reconciliation with her. The 1590 edition of the poem shows Ralegh engaged in acts of war (III.v.12-26) and love (III.v.27-55). The 1596 sequel continues this allegory, but shifts its interest to the more pressing issue of whether or not Ralegh had broken faith with the queen by violating her trust. In detailing the court history of Elizabeth and Ralegh, Spenser inevitably found himself in a difficult social situation, when the two principal patrons of his poem became engaged in a bitter feud that he recreates—as a “biographical fiction”—in the pages of The Faerie Queene.

In the summer of 1589, Spenser had the good fortune to be visited by Ralegh on his Kilcolman estate. Ralegh and Spenser, who may have met in the earl of Leicester's service or on military maneuvers with Lord Grey in Ireland, were landholding neighbors in Munster County. And in November of the same year, Ralegh, acting as Spenser's patron, accompanied him back to London for the purpose of publishing the first three books of The Faerie Queene and enjoying an audience with Queen Elizabeth. Spenser evidently saw the acquisition of Ralegh's patronage as one of the great turning points of his career, since Ralegh's prominent position at court assured him a fitting reception. Spenser's joy upon receiving this golden opportunity for advancement must have been considerable—especially if we agree with Edwin Greenlaw's persuasive theory that the poet had brought exile upon himself in 1579 for attacking Lord Burghley and the duke of Alençon in the caustic farce of Mother Hubberds Tale.1 Spenser's outspoken objection to the French match had placed him at the outskirts of empire, in the “waste” of Ireland, that “savadge soyle, far from Parnasso mount.”2 The arrangement of this audience with the queen would be the most important of the “singular favours and sundrie good turnes” for which he vows an “infinite debt” to Ralegh in the dedicatory epistle of Colin Clouts Come Home Againe.

But even though Ralegh's patronage came as a propitious event, it drew Spenser into a potentially dangerous position at court. He would arrive in London with a patron whose status was tensely ambiguous. In 1589, at the age of thirty-seven, Ralegh saw his role as the queen's favorite unexpectedly upset by the rising star of the twenty-three-year-old earl of Essex. Before 1587, the year in which the earl of Leicester introduced his red-haired stepson to the queen, Ralegh's meteoric rise to power had been unhampered. From the time of his first appearance before the queen in 1582, Ralegh had been showered with honors.3 After 1587, however, he would never again enjoy Elizabeth's undivided attention. Spenser must have been aware of the precariousness of his patron's situation at court, which had deteriorated to the point where Essex could disdainfully reproach Ralegh by reminding the queen of Ralegh's humbler days, of “what he has been and what he was.”4 Indeed, the arrogant, erratic Essex even had the audacity to “disdain his competition of love” and ferociously taunted Ralegh by asking Elizabeth, “What comfort can I have to give myself over to a mistress that [is] in awe of such a man?”5

We do not know if Spenser was aware that Essex had challenged Ralegh to a duel, prevented only by the intervention of the Privy Council.6 Nor can we be sure whether he heard gossip that his patron's excursion to Munster was a concession to Lord Essex, who, in Sir Francis Allen's words, “hath chased Mr. Ralegh from the court, and hath confined him in Ireland.”7 We do know, however, that as early as 1589 Spenser had heard poetry by Ralegh complaining of his mistreatment at court, since he writes in Colin Clout that he and Ralegh had recited verses to each other, and that Ralegh's

          song was all a lamentable lay,
Of great unkindnesse, and of usage hard,
Of Cynthia the Ladie of the sea,
Which from her presence faultlesse him debared.


One of the extraordinary features of Spenser's comment on Ralegh's poetry is the fact that he wrote it in the crossrimed quatrains that his patron often employed. Spenser also picked up another characteristic element in Ralegh's poetry—the “undersong” or refrain. Spenser states that while the queen's besieged favorite recited his verse,

He cryed out, to make his undersong
Ah my loves queene, and goddesse of my life,
Who shall me pittie, when thou doest me wrong?


After suffering his great disgrace of 1592, in “The 11th: and last book of the Ocean to Scinthia,” Ralegh repeats the undersong—“Of all which past the sorrow only stayes”—from his complaint “A Farewell to the Court,” and notes that the refrain was written in his previous period of mixed fortune:

Of all which past the sorrow only stayes.
So wrate I once, and my mishapp fortolde,
My minde still feelinge sorrowfull success
Yeven as before a storme the marbell colde
Douth by moyste teares tempestious tymes express.
So fealt my heavy minde my harmes att hande
Which my vayne thought in vayne sought to recure;
At midel day my soonn seemde under land
When any littel cloude did it obscure.(8)

In this explicitly autobiographical passage we hear of two periods of crisis in Ralegh's service to the queen. Plunged into a far greater disgrace, buffeted by the “storme” that sweeps through The Ocean's Love to Cynthia, he remembers the oxymoronic season of “sorrowfull success.” This was the period before 1592—while the marble still gently wept—which probably occasioned the composition of a short complaint that begins: “Fortune hath taken the away my love / my lives soule and my soules heaven above / fortune hath taken the away my princes.” Recent scholarship has uncovered the fact that the queen wrote a reply to this poem which encourages Ralegh to “Revive againe & live without all drede, / the lesse afraid the better thou shalt spede.”9 But what modern scholarship has uncovered Spenser must have known, for in Colin Clout he has the Irish shepherd Marin attest to the mollifying effect that Ralegh's complaints had upon the queen:

                                        Right well he sure did plaine:
That could great Cynthiaes sore displeasure breake:
And move to take him to her grace againe.

(CCCHA 173-75)

Before Spenser arrived in London at the end of 1589, he seems to have been vividly aware of his patron's difficulties at court. He had heard the “lamentable lay” of his fellow courtier-poet, whom he names “the sommers Nightingale” in his dedicatory sonnet to Ralegh in the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene, recalling the mournful strains of his Philomela-like poetry from the summer of their friendship.

Spenser embedded Ralegh's complaint in the Book of Chastity. But he prefaces his depiction of the grieving Timias with an example of Ralegh's martial prowess, in a portion of the poem that has escaped detailed analysis by critics. At the beginning of the Book of Chastity, Arthur, his squire Timias, Guyon, and Britomart are outraged at the sight of “A goodly Ladie” (III.i.15), fiercely pursued by “a griesly Foster … Breathing out beastly lust her to defile” (III.i.17). Arthur and Guyon instantly race after the frightened Florimel, while Timias spurs onward to punish her beastly assailant. Timias reappears in the fifth canto, where he continues to follow him, “To bene avenged of the shame, he did / To that faire Damzell” (III.v.13). But the villain soon outdistances him, “through swiftnesse of his speedy beast, / Or knowledge of those woods, where he did dwell” (III.v.14), and enlists the aid of his two brothers. Armed with “sad instruments / Of spoyle and murder,” vowing that “never he alive, / Out of that forest should escape their might” (III.v.16), they wait in ambush for Timias, in “a covert glade, / Foreby a narrow foord” (III.v.17). Once he comes into sight, they spring from cover and launch an attack, during which the brothers are swiftly dispatched by Arthur's valiant squire.

This brief martial episode, which precedes Timias's initial encounter with Belphoebe, seems at first to be little more than one of the hundreds of anonymous battles in The Faerie Queene. Upon closer examination, however, it turns out to be a glorified account of the part Ralegh played in suppressing the Desmond Rebellion, which ripped through Munster County, Ireland, from 1579 to 1583.10 The allegory conflates two distinct (but related) historical events: the ambush Ralegh weathered on the road from Youghall to Cork in February 1581 and the service he rendered in the execution of the revolt's instigators: the earl of Desmond and his brothers John and James.

Spenser is quite specific about the place where the “fosters” [foresters] lie in ambush for Timias. He writes that within the forest they inhabit

                    there was a covert glade,
Foreby a narrow foord, to them well knowne,
Through which it was uneath for wight to wade;
And now by fortune it was overflowne:
By that same way they knew that Squire unknowne
Mote algates passe; for thy themselves they set
There in await, with thicke woods overgrowne,
          And all the while their malice they did whet
With cruell threats, his passage through the ford to let.


This incident at the ford transformed Ralegh into an English hero, who was first recorded as such in the 1586 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles. There, in John Hooker's addition to the Chronicles of Ireland, the historian describes the outstanding valor that Ralegh exhibited when, as a captain delivering dispatches, he was suddenly attacked by a band of Irish rebels. Hooker relates:

This capteine making his returne from Dubline, & the same well knowne unto the seneschall of Imokellie, through whose countrie he was to passe, laie in ambush for him to have intrapped him between Youghall and Corke, lieing at a foord, which the said capteine must passe over. … The capteine little mistrusting anie such matter, had in his companie onelie two horssemen and foure shot on horssebacke, which was too small a force in so doubtfull and dangerous times.11

Hooker then proceeds to describe how Ralegh, riding slightly ahead of his troop, singlehandedly routs the entire gang of rebels led by the seneschal of Imokelly (Eustace Fitz Edmond) and saves the life of his fellow Devonshireman, Henry Moile. In a paragraph that must have particularly pleased Ralegh, we read:

The Captaine being come toward the foord, the seneschall had espied him alone, his companie being scattered behind, and verie fiercelie pursued him, and crossed him as he was to ride over the water, but yet he recovered the foord and was passed over. … The captaine being thus over the water, Henry Moile, riding alone about a bowes shoot before the rest of the companie, when he was in the midel of the foord, his horsse foundered and cast him downe; and being afraid that the seneschals men would have folowed him and have killed him, cried out to the captaine to come and save his life; who not respecting the danger he himselfe was in, came unto him, and recovered both him and his horsse.

Ralegh's courage so impresses his adversaries that they soon abandon their siege and slink back into the woods whence they came:

The capteine nevertheless staid still, and did abide for the coming of the residue of his companie … sat upon his horsse in the meane while, having his staffe in one hand, and his pistoll charged in the other hand. The seneschall, who had so fiercelie folowed him upon spur, when he saw him to stand and tarrie as it were for his coming, notwithstanding he was counted a man (as he was indeed) of great service, and having also a new supplie of twelve horssemen and sundrie shot come unto him; yet neither he nor anie one of them, being twentie to one, durst to give the onset upon him, but onelie railed and used hard speeches unto him, untill his men behind him had recovered and were come unto him, and then without anie further harme departed.12

In his superb history of English colonialism in sixteenth-century Ireland, The Twilight Lords, Richard Berleth writes that through this act of bravery, Ralegh became “the talk of the army” early in 1581. “This gallant action was to shape his future,” Berleth notes. Because of it “Elizabeth would hear of his heroism from Burghley.”13 Less than three years after Holinshed's Chronicles made the occurrence general knowledge, Spenser could count on the fact that his readers would have little trouble in pinpointing the actual historical event he was alluding to, when he sends Timias headlong into the trap set by the “fosters.” The incident at the ford would immediately come to mind, when they read how

          The gentle Squire came ryding that same way,
          Unweeting of their wile and treason bad,
          And through the ford to passen did assay;
          But that fierce foster, which late fled away,
          Stoutly forth stepping on the further shore,
          Him boldly bad his passage there to stay,
          Till he had made amends, and full restore
For all the damage, which he had him doen afore.


Spenser highlights Ralegh's courage at the ford, however, by fusing the incident with the execution of the principal leaders of that “treason bad,” those “three / Ungratious children of one graceless sire” (III.v.15): the Desmonds.

Timias's destruction of the “fosters” is narrated with unusually acerbic wit. After the squire painfully fights his way to the opposite bank, he spears “the third brother” through “both his sides” (III.v.21). As this “foster” dies, Spenser writes:

He tombling downe, with gnashing teeth did bite
          The bitter earth, and bad to let him in
          Into the balefull house of endlesse night,
          Where wicked ghosts do waile their former sin.


The next brother to feel Timias's wrath, the one who attempted to assault Florimel, is struck on the skull “so rudely … That to the chin he cleft his head in twaine” (III.v.23). But the full thrust of Spenser's black humor surfaces in the stanza illustrating the last brother's brutal death. The remaining “foster” tries to escape the vengeful Timias, after his two siblings have been butchered:

With that he would have fled into the wood;
          But Timias him lightly overhent,
          Right as he entring was into the flood,
          And strooke at him with force so violent,
          That headlesse him into the foord he sent:
          The carkas with the streame was carried downe,
          But th' head fell backeward on the Continent.
          So mischief fel upon the meaners crowne;
They three be dead with shame, the Squire lives with renowne.


When Spenser states that the last brother's head fell “backeward on the Continent,” causing “mischief” to fall “upon the meaners crowne,” he subtly traces the full political thrust of his allegory. Here, Spenser, using remarkable linguistic compression, spices his sardonic commentary with three wry puns on the words: “Continent,” “meaner,” and “crowne.” The capitalized noun “Continent” refers to the land adjoining Spenser's fictional ford, but it also undoubtedly stands for the European mainland, from which Philip II of Spain incited the Irish to rise against British rule. The slain “foster” is the “meaner” or plotter, who unsuccessfully plans Timias's ambush and is also more debased or “meaner” in spirit than his intended victim. He suffers the effects of retributive justice. However, Spenser's allegory looks beyond the Desmonds and, with brilliant wordplay, implicates Philip II in their treachery. Philip II—in Spenser's elaborate system of puns—is the “meaner” or prime instigator behind the Desmond revolt, who is “meaner” in birth and nobility than Elizabeth of England. According to Spenser, the treasonous “mischief” promoted by the king of Spain, which was thwarted by the Desmonds' execution, has redounded upon his tarnished “crowne.” This reading is verified by the facts of a struggle in which both Ralegh and Spenser played active roles.

The ill-fated Desmond Rebellion erupted in 1580, after an army of Spanish and Italian mercenaries, financed by Philip II, had landed in Dingle Bay. The landing signaled a general insurrection against English control of Ireland that constituted the greatest threat to British security before the Armada of 1588. The revolution, led by the Desmonds, was viciously crushed by an English state that feared the expansionist ambitions of Spain, ambitions that would lead to an attempted invasion of the British mainland only eight years later. English power was first released in the wholesale massacre of all mercenaries captured at Smerwick. Approximately 500 soldiers were hacked apart in a single day. As Latin secretary to Lord Grey, who engineered the assault, Spenser probably witnessed the massacre.14 Ralegh was one of three captains directly responsible for the annihilation of this invading force that hoisted their white flag of surrender in vain.15 The continued exercise of English power led to the vindictive executions of the three rebel leaders who collaborated with Spain—the Desmonds. Thus James was hunted down in 1580, John in 1582, and Gerald, the earl, in 1583, at which point the conflict was terminated. Ralegh was closely connected with the first two of these executions. After James was captured by the sheriff of Cork, he was imprisoned for several months, and then, as Berleth records, “he was hanged, drawn, and quartered under the supervision of Sir Warham St. Leger and Ralegh.”16 Ralegh was also present at the garrison in Cork, when Captains Zouch and Dowdall returned with the body of Sir John, who was shot in the neck and bled to death soon after being apprehended.17

Ralegh's thorough familiarity with the Desmonds' fate is evident in his introduction to A Report of the Fight about the Iles of the Açores, published in 1591. There he recalls how “one Morice Fitz John, sonne of old John of Desmond, a notable traitor,” tried to rally English sailors to the cause of Catholic Spain. When John of Desmond's son promises them good fortune under a Spanish flag, Ralegh ironically adds: “If he had withall vaunted of this successe of his owne house, no doubt the argument woulde have moved much, and wrought great effect; which because he for that present forgot, I thought it good to remember in his behalfe.” The “successe” of Morice's father and two uncles was well known to Ralegh, who summarizes the demise of the ancient house of Desmond for the edification of his crew. He had the story by heart and repeats it at length:

For the Earle his cosen being one of the greatest subjects of Ireland, having almost whole contries in his possession; so many goodly manners, Castles, and Lordships; the Count Palatine of Kerry, five hundred gentlemen of his owne name and familie to follow him, besides others. All which he possessed in peace for three or foure hundred yeares: was in lesse then three yeares after his adhering to the Spaniards and rebellion, beaten from all his holdes, and not so many as ten gentlemen of his name left living, him selfe taken and beheaded by a soldiour of his owne nation, and his land given by a Parlament to her Majestie, and possessed by the English. His other Cosen, Sir John of Desmond taken by M. John Zouch, and his body hanged over the gates of his native citie to bee devoured by Ravens: the third brother of Sir James hanged, drawne, and quartered in the same place.18

In The Faerie Queene, Timias brings the Desmonds to ruin. When the Squire chases the “foster” who menaces Florimel, Spenser may be recalling Gerald Desmond's reputation for lechery, which would then thematically unite the preservation of chastity, the titular virtue of the third book, with the historical allegory of the fifth canto.19 The depiction of the Desmonds as forest dwellers who wage guerilla warfare against their foes is remarkably accurate. As traitors to the English crown, they die “with shame” in Spenser's narrative, deprived of proper names that would perpetuate their identities. The decapitation of the last brother to feel Timias's power is a vivid emblem of the Desmonds' overthrow that had specific relevance for Elizabeth. When Gerald, the earl, was finally captured, they cut off his head on the spot and forwarded it to the queen. Berleth provocatively observes that, according to legend, “she spent the morning sitting quietly and looking at it, before having it impaled on London Bridge.”20

Both Ralegh and Spenser had reason to rejoice over the Desmonds' cruel fate. Each acquired possession of an Irish estate that had been confiscated by the Crown from Sir John of Desmond. In all, Ralegh received the bulk of his 42,000-acre estate from territory carved out of the rebel's holdings, while Spenser's Kilcolman castle and its surrounding 3,028 acres of ploughland and forest came from the same confiscation.21 Spenser must have especially appreciated Ralegh's help in securing an audience with the queen in 1589, because in that year he faced the possibility of losing some or all of the land on which he had just settled. At that time, Lord Roche, Viscount Fermoy, who had joined in the revolt led by the Desmonds but later recanted, was seeking the restoration of his inheritance—title to land in Munster given to English settlers after its seizure by the queen. On October 12, 1589, Lord Roche complained bitterly to the queen and Sir Francis Walsingham that Spenser was depriving him of his rightful property and molesting his servants. In his letter to Walsingham, Roche enclosed a list of specific grievances, which included the allegation that “one Edmund Spenser, clerk of the council in Munster, by color of his office, and by taking their cattle pasturing upon his lordship's own inheritance, and by refusing and beating of his lordship's servants and bailiffs, hath made waste six other ploughlands of his lordship's inheritance to his no small undoing.”22 The prominence of the Desmonds in The Faerie Queene's historical allegory can then be attributed to the fact that Spenser had not yet received complete and undisputed title to the Kilcolman estate and was struggling for control of the land on which he had settled. By reminding the queen of the Desmonds' treachery, he implicitly strengthened his own claim. On October 26, 1590, due in part perhaps to the queen's acceptance of the poem, Spenser was granted full title to the Kilcolman estate. When he returned to Ireland several months later, the lease he had obtained from the Crown, symbolizing his victory, displayed the name of the castle's former tenant—Sir John of Desmond.23

But if the destruction of the “fosters” is meant to demonstrate Timias's power, it is also paradoxically intended to show his complete dependence on the queen. At the moment when he has finally achieved mastery over the “fosters,” Timias is suddenly leveled by a wound he received in combat. With alarming rapidity, he slips into a “deadly swowne,” only to be revived by the virgin huntress Belphoebe, who accidentally discovers his bleeding body. Upon awakening, he utters a short prayer of thanksgiving, in a stanza that expresses immense gratitude for her extraordinary kindness:

Mercy deare Lord (said he) what grace is this,
          That thou hast shewed to me sinfull wight,
          To send thine Angell from her bowre of blis,
          To comfort me in my distressed plight?
          Angell, or Goddesse do I call thee right?
          What service may I do unto thee meete,
          That hast from darknesse me returned to light,
          And with thy heavenly slaves and med'cines sweete,
Hast drest my sinfull wounds? I kisse thy blessed feete.


Timias's prayer humbly acknowledges Belphoebe to be an instrument of grace extended to “sinfull” humanity. He realizes that her “heavenly slaves” have delivered him from death and requests to be of service to her, in recompense for the love she has manifested. Among these “med'cines sweete,” Spenser includes “divine Tobacco” (III.v.32)—which Ralegh had introduced to the English nation.24

It is important to remember that Spenser's name for the fictional character representing Elizabeth in his allegory—“Belphoebe”—was coined in response to Ralegh's poetic name for the queen. In his letter to Ralegh, Spenser notes that she is sometimes portrayed under the appellation “Belphoebe,” which he has fashioned “according to your owne excellent conceipt of Cynthia, (Phoebe and Cynthia being both names of Diana.)” Years later, in “The 11th booke of the Ocean,” Ralegh would repeat Spenser's variation to recall the period in his life when The Faerie Queene entertained Elizabeth with an allegory inspired by his own mythological name for the queen. Remembering an earlier and happier period of his career, Ralegh laments that “Bellphebe's course is now observed no more, / That faire resemblance weareth out of date” (271-72). Spenser created the Timias-Belphoebe allegory during the period of Ralegh's “sorrowfull success,” and so his narrative demonstrates the queen's double influence on her “gracious servant” (III.Pr. 4). She cures Timias of a thigh wound received in battle that continues to afflict him. Without intending to cause him pain, stirred with “soft passion” (III.v.30), Belphoebe is true to her name, when her Diana-like visage overpowers Timias, even as she attempts to cure him. While gazing at Belphoebe, Timias is again wounded by an “unwary dart” from her eyes that strikes “his hart.” This wounding can be construed as an allegorical distillation of the pain that Ralegh endured in his era of mixed fortune—pain that would appear insignificant in the ensuing years of disgrace.

Soon after the publication of the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene, Ralegh suffered a major fall from power. In 1592, the Queen discovered that Ralegh, who was then captain of the guard, responsible for her personal welfare, had conceived a child with Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of her maids-in-waiting. The most accurate information we possess on the chronology of events leading to Ralegh's fall is recorded in the diary kept by Arthur Throckmorton, Elizabeth's brother. Arthur confides that he first heard of his sister's secret marriage to Walter Ralegh on November 19, 1591. On March 29, 1592, he reveals, “My sister was delivered of a boy between 2 and 3 in the afternoon.” This notation is followed by the words: “I writ to Sir Walter Ralegh.”25 The child, named Damerei, was sent to nurse at Enfield, and Lady Ralegh quietly resumed her neglected position as personal attendant to the queen after a long absence. But in less than three months news reached the queen and the Raleghs were promptly incarcerated. Sir Edward Stafford caustically wrote to Anthony Bacon in August of that year: “If you have anything to do with Sir Walter Ralegh, or any love to make to Mistress Throckmorton, at the Tower tomorrow you may speak with them.”26 Elizabeth was always angered by the marriage of her favorites. After the earl of Leicester secretly married Lettice Knollys, he was temporarily banished from court, as was the earl of Essex, after he wed Sir Philip Sidney's widow. In Ralegh's case, the queen evidently believed that he had betrayed her trust and had made her demonstration of affection seem ridiculous.”27 He had, after all, used his privileged position as her personal servant to seduce one of her handmaids.

Even before Damerei's birth (and short life—he died months later), rumors of Ralegh's secret marriage had reached the son of the queen's closest counselor. When Robert Cecil, Lord Treasurer Burghley's son, wrote to Ralegh concerning the affair, Ralegh adamantly denied everything, evidently terrified that his union would be discovered. In a letter dated March 10—almost five months after Arthur Throckmorton heard of his sister's marriage and just a few days before the birth of her son—Ralegh denied reports of his personal alliance. He responded to Cecil with a bold lie, claiming that news of his marriage was a slander meant to discredit him at court: “I mean not to cume away, as they say I will, for feare of a marriage, and I know not what. If any such thing weare, I would have imparted it unto yourself before any man living, and therefore, I pray believe it not, and I beseich you to surpress, what you can, any such malicious report. For I protest before God, there is none on the face of the yearth, that I would be fastened to.”28 Ralegh's letter illustrates the cultivation of the art of deceit. Faced with imminent exposure, he even dares to invoke his Creator's name to bluff his way through a scandal that was becoming increasingly more volatile. His strategy, at this point, was simply to refute the charge and to attribute it to his enemies' spite. His first impulse was to “give the lie” (in the terms of his famous poem) to all those who were telling the truth, albeit maliciously. The queen, however, was not impressed with these protestations of innocence and imprisoned him and his wife in the Tower at the end of July.

Ralegh's first, temporary reprieve was hastened by a matter of expediency. On September 7, the huge East Indian carrack, Madre de Dios, which his ships had captured off the Azores, was brought into Dartmouth harbor. Since Ralegh was the person most familiar with the intricate financial arrangements behind this act of piracy (from which the Crown received a substantial portion), he was set free. Robert Cecil, in whose charge he was placed, sensed his eagerness to atone for his indiscretion and wrote that he found Ralegh “marvelous greedy to do anything to recover the conceit of his brutish offense.”29 Although the Raleghs were released in the autumn of that year, the stigma lingered on. Indeed, Ralegh was still brooding on his fall from favor in November 1596; he wrote to Cecil, describing new enterprises he had been devising in the queen's service, troubled that “because of [his] disgrace all men feare to adventure with [him].”30

The difficulty of interpreting Spenser's treatment of Ralegh's public dishonor stems from the fact that Spenser creates an allegorical narrative that can be construed either as a vindication or as a condemnation of his patron's conduct.31 The complexity of Spenser's depiction of this crucial event in Ralegh's career can, in part, be attributed to the peculiar situation regarding patronage that Spenser occupied after 1592, when the two major sponsors of his poem were at odds with each other. Equidistant from the moral perspectives of Elizabeth and Ralegh, the historical allegory of the fourth and sixth books of The Faerie Queene is a point of convergence for conflicting versions of the same event. Here Spenser's generous moral understanding embraces a comprehensive vision which is, as a result, fundamentally ambiguous. The pivotal moment in Spenser's allegory, in the second installment of The Faerie Queene, when he first reflects on the Throckmorton affair, occurs when Belphoebe returns from her execution of Lust only to find Timias comforting Amoret in what she deems to be a highly improper manner.32 Angered by the attention Timias has lavished on Amoret, Belphoebe first thinks of killing him and his “new lovely mate” and then rebukes the squire, before forsaking him. Returning from her conquest:

          There she him found by that new lovely mate,
          Who lay the whiles in swoune, full sadly set,
          From her faire eyes wiping the deawy wet,
          Which softly stild, and kissing them atweene,
          And handling soft the hurts, which she did get.
          For of that Carle she sorely bruz'd had beene,
Als of his own rash hand one wound was to be seene.
Which when she saw, with sodaine glauncing eye,
          Her noble heart with sight thereof was fild
          With deepe disdaine, and great indignity,
          That in her wrath she thought them both have thrild,
          With that selfe arrow, which the Carle had kild:
          Yet held her wrathfull hand from vengeance sore,
          But drawing nigh, ere he her well beheld;
          Is this the faith, she said, and said no more,
But turnd her face, and fled away for evermore.


The poised tendencies of Spenser's thought, evident in this episode, lead analysis in opposing directions. On the one hand, Timias seems innocent of all wrongdoing, victimized by a jealous Belphoebe, who acts unadvisedly and in wrath. Spenser had previously presented Belphoebe's rescue of the wounded Timias as a paradigm of virtuous action. When Belphoebe aids the unconscious Timias, she administers grace that is freely bestowed upon victimized humanity. In the third book, the virgin huntress pursues the chase with a company of followers and comes upon the injured squire. In the fourth book, Timias is part of her retinue and repeats her kindness when he cares for Amoret. These acts of mercy are thus analogous in this regard. But, on the other hand, even though there are basic similarities shared by these two actions, significant differences also exist, which question Timias's integrity in manifesting love for Amoret.

It is the voice of the poet and not that of a possibly mistaken Belphoebe which informs us of the sudden emotional bond uniting Timias and “his new lovely mate.” The adjective “lovely” is a pun on Amoret's name; the word “new” suggests that Timias has abandoned Belphoebe, his “old” mistress. The term “mate” stresses the special attachment of “that lovely boy” (IV.vii.23) with the “lovely” Amoret, the allegorical figure of desire. Spenser had previously hinted at this union in his quatrain introducing the seventh canto, where he outlines this episode:

Amoret rapt by greedie lust
          Belphoebe saves from dread,
The Squire her loves, and being blam'd
          his dayes in dole doth lead.

The statement that “The Squire her loves” is a marvelous example of Spenser's use of ambiguous pronouns. If the antecedent for “her” is “Belphoebe,” then the squire has been unjustly accused of betrayal. But if, instead, it refers to “Amoret,” then Belphoebe's charge is again validated by the narrator. Furthermore, Timias's ministration to Amoret's wounds is related in a tone that insinuates a sexual dimension, but with immense subtlety. After he wipes “the deawy wet” from “her faire eyes,” he ventures past the bounds of discretion and courtesy by “kissing atween” her eyes and “handling soft” her “hurts.” With these phrases an act of salvation is transformed into an act of foreplay. Belphoebe recognizes this erotic motivation instantly and considers killing both lovers with the same weapon with which she dispatched Lust. Through this impulse we are prompted to identify Timias and Amoret—Ralegh and his wife—with the inordinate desire they were unable to resist.33

Criticism of Ralegh is also implied in Timias's wounding of Amoret. As the squire comforts his “new lovely mate,” Spenser tells us that “of his own rash hand one wound was to be seene.” This line recalls an event that immediately precedes Belphoebe's destruction of Lust and her rebuke of Timias. As soon as Amoret drifts away from her protector, Britomart, she is captured by “a wilde and salvage man” (IV.vii.5), from whose dungeon she escapes. The savage, described at the beginning of the canto as “greedie lust,” pursues her past Timias, who is now Belphoebe's hunting companion. But Timias, who accosts the villain, is unable to overcome him and, indeed, adds to Amoret's torment; Lust defends himself by using her as a shield, which he repeatedly strikes:

Thereto the villaine used craft in fight;
          For ever when the Squire his javelin shooke,
          He held the Lady forth before him right,
          And with her body, as a buckler, broke
          The puissance of his intended stroke.
          And if it chaunst (as needs it must in fight)
          Whilest he on him was greedy to be wroke,
          That any little blow on her did light,
Then would he laugh aloud, and gather great delight.


Timias's desire to overcome Lust works a contrary effect, adding to Amoret's ravishment and degradation. The pain she suffers is a consequence of his unintended collaboration with unchecked sexual desire. To make certain that this point does not go unnoticed, Spenser mentions Timias's part in Amoret's misfortune on two other occasions outside the context of this incident. First, the poet discusses Timias's culpability, as we have seen, when the squire soothes the injured Amoret in IV.vii.35. And he repeats this observation again, when Prince Arthur comes across Amoret in “sad and sorrowful estate,” only to find her still suffering, “Through her late hurts, and through that hapless wound / With which the Squire in her defence her sore astound” (IV.viii.19). Timias does manage to wound Lust, but the poet uses this action to further emphasize Amoret's connection with the vice: “A streame of coleblacke bloud thence gusht amaine / That all her silken garments did with bloud bestaine” (IV.vii.27). Amoret and Lust are pressed together so closely that an assailant cannot attack one without affecting the other. Bathed in Lust's blood, Amoret, like Timias, becomes associated with excessive desire. Only Belphoebe is powerful and pure enough to drive off the villain, who is terrified by the sight of the virgin huntress, “Well knowing her to be his deaths sole instrument” (IV.vii.29). She soon defeats him by shooting an arrow through his “greedy throte” (IV.vii.31), destroying this archetype of consuming passion. After Belphoebe rejects Timias, he wanders wildly through the forest, like the mad Orlando forsaken by Angelica. But he does not blame the virgin huntress for his plight; instead, he rebukes himself for his disgrace, seeking only “on him selfe to wreake his follies owne despight” (IV.vii.39).34

However, a reader sympathetic to Ralegh's plight can readily locate elements in the 1596 edition of the poem that absolve Ralegh of guilt—that prove he is innocent of any transgression—even as Ralegh had protested in his letter to Cecil. One could argue, for instance, that Timias, being Lust's adversary, is thereby aligned with virtue. He attacks Lust for the same reason that he challenges the beastly “foster”: to interrupt an attempted rape and punish the assailant. Spenser even manages to generate pity for Timias by making him Lust's victim rather than his ally. This qualification certainly mitigates the severity of the fourth book's allegory. As the tale continues toward its conclusion, the poet becomes much more emphatic in supporting Ralegh and emphasizing the case against the queen. When they meet again, in the next canto, he accuses her of having misjudged him. She at first does not recognize her former companion in his present state of neglect and asks him to explain the reason for his agonizing self-abuse. Timias then replies with a scathing rebuke:

Ne any but your selfe, O dearest dred,
          Hath done this wrong, to wreake on worthlesse wight
          Your high displeasure, through misdeeming bred:
          That when your pleasure is to deeme aright,
          Ye may redresse, and me restore to light.

After Timias blames her for misunderstanding his actions, Belphoebe has a sudden change of heart, based on his complaint:

          Which sory words her mightie hart did mate
          With mild regard, to see his ruefull plight,
          That her inburning wrath she gan abate,
And him receiv'd againe to former favours state.


Timias's innocence is predicated on Belphoebe's guilt. He charges her with having caused his distress and the narrator supplies the reason for her mistake—“inburning wrath.” According to this pattern of vindication, a strong passion colored her judgment when she rejected Timias and thought of killing the pair “in her wrath.” She is temporarily blinded with rage and only later comes to recognize her error. The historical allegory, viewed from this perspective, proves that “the displeasure of the mighty is / Then [than] death it selfe more dread and desperate” (IV.viii.1). The shifting attitudes of monarchs cause them to abuse their subjects, when this “displeasure” is melded to a failure to “deeme aright.”

Commenting on Timias's reproach, Allan Gilbert asserts that the squire's alleged faithlessness is here shown to be an inaccurate perception. “This breach is not real,” he argues, “for as Timias explains, Belphoebe's inference is incorrect.”35 But Gilbert simply overlooks the extensive pattern of incrimination that I have previously suggested, against which we are meant to balance Timias's protestations of innocence. He forgets that Timias's “rash hand” has played a part in his catastrophe. Belphoebe's bitter taunt—“Is this the faith?”—and the squire's later retort—that her “misdeeming” has produced “this wrong” she has perpetrated—compel us to consider the Throckmorton affair from the divergent perspectives of Spenser's quarreling patrons. Spenser incorporates both perspectives in his narrative, and thus remained faithful to both Ralegh and Elizabeth in his historical allegory.

The incident that brings Belphoebe and Timias together includes yet another reconstruction of a historical event. She is drawn to Timias through the mediation of a turtle dove that steals a jewel from the squire with which to lure her to his side. The jewel is described as “a Ruby of right perfect hew, / Shap'd like a heart, yet bleeding of the wound, / And with a litle golden chaine about it bound” (IV.viii.6). In January 1595, Arthur Throckmorton wrote to Robert Cecil asking to be numbered among the masquers celebrating the wedding of Elizabeth Vere to the earl of Derby. Sir John Davies had composed the “Epithalamion of the Nine Muses” to commemorate the event, and Throckmorton hoped that during this masque he might be allowed to prostrate himself before the queen and then arise to give her “a ring made for a wedding ring set round with diamonds, and with a ruby like a heart placed in a coronet, with the inscription Elizabetha potest.36 It is likely that Spenser introduces the heart-shaped ruby into his narrative as a historical detail symbolizing Ralegh's hopes for reconciliation with his sovereign. Arthur Throckmorton construed his offering as an attempt to “modify the easy softened mind of her Majesty as both I and mine may find mercy.” He certainly included the fate of his sister and his brother-in-law in this wish for benevolent treatment. The reconciliation of Timias and Belphoebe, however, does not distribute blame equally between Ralegh and Elizabeth. Instead, it contradicts the imputation of guilt leveled against Ralegh and criticizes the queen for her rashness.

In the final book of The Faerie Queene, the Legend of Courtesy, Ralegh and his wife appear for the last time. Spenser tactfully omits any mention of their misfortune in the Book of Justice, where his advocacy of severe justice culminates with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, under the guise of Duessa. Walter still retains his identity as Timias, but his companion is now called “Serena,” which was Ralegh's poetic name for his wife.37 The three Desmond brothers are here replaced by the three masters of the Blatant Beast: Despetto, Decetto, and Defetto, who ambush Timias in “a woody glade” and “gan him to invade” (VI.v.14). The vindication of Ralegh in the sixth book utilizes the method of circular composition in The Faerie Queene, through which narrative patterns are made to echo, by analogy, previous events in the poem. A sense of Ralegh's virtue is affirmed by this recreation of the incident at the ford in which he overcame treason and lust. The 1590 and 1596 editions of The Faerie Queene are symmetrically balanced; in the fifth canto of the last book of each installment, Timias triumphs over ignominious foes. As masters of the Blatant Beast, Ralegh's new adversaries are manipulators of slander. Despite (“Despetto”) defines the attitude of Timias's rivals, while deceit (“Decetto”) signifies the method they employ to ensnare him “in treasons subtill traine” (VI.v.14). Their plan to use the Blatant Beast “To worke his utter shame, and thoroughly him confound” (VI.v.14) is a result of their own defective natures—the “Defetto” that represents the state of inadequacy which engenders evil. This link between the traitors of the third book and the slanderers of the sixth parallels the treason of the Desmonds with the malice of Ralegh's unnamed rivals at court.

But Timias is by no means completely absolved of error in the narrative of the sixth book. After he and Serena are bitten by the Blatant Beast and seek to be cured by a “carefull Hermite” (, we are paradoxically told that the wounds they have received were internally induced. The hermit enjoins the couple to be vigilant in resisting “fraile affection”—the source of their distress:

First learne your outward sences to refraine
From things, that stirre up fraile affection;
Your eies, your eares, your tongue, your talk restraine
From that they most affect, and in due termes containe.
For from those outward sences ill affected,
The seede of all this evill first doth spring,
Which at the first before it had infected,
Mote easie be supprest with little thing:
But being growen strong, it forth doth bring
Sorrow, and anguish, and impatient paine
In th' inner parts, and lastly scattering
          Contagious poyson close through every vaine,
It never rests, till it have wrought his finall bane.


Through the hermit, Spenser acknowledges that the Raleghs' indulgence in “this evill” has brought about their ruin. In the hermit's homily, we are again confronted with the issue of Timias's guilt, as the poem reinforces Belphoebe's suspicion that he has been unfaithful. The hermit's comforting of Timias and Serena provides the third and final example of this motif of compassion in Spenser's historical allegory. Having been cured of the Blatant Beast's venomous bite, the characters of this fiction again lose their identities as analogues to contemporary political figures.

The historical allegory of Timias and Belphoebe is both a chronicle of court events and a vital part of their development. Spenser filled a dual role as both spectator to and actor in the incidents he commemorates. As a vehicle for social aspiration, the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene unfolds an allegory of power wherein Ralegh defeats the queen's Irish opponents and then submits himself, in turn, to her authority. As a historical commentary, it continues the depiction of Ralegh's early career beyond the limit of Holinshed's Chronicles, in a bipartisan narrative that dramatizes Ralegh's sudden rise and subsequent misfortune. Unlike Dante in exile or Milton in retirement, Spenser composed his epic during a period of political involvement. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of his “biographical fiction” resides in the courage that he demonstrates in sympathetically responding to Ralegh's fate even during the years of his disgrace. In the fourth and sixth books, Spenser at times concedes that Ralegh was guilty of betraying his sovereign's trust. The case against him was strong and the evidence remains irrefutable. In seducing Elizabeth Throckmorton, Ralegh's unchecked desire had compelled him to violate what was regarded as a sacred confidence. But Spenser also realizes that this “crime” was clearly not commensurate with the “inburning wrath” that it engendered, or the imprisonment and calumny that were its consequences. Ralegh had, after all, remedied his lapse of judgment by marrying his “Serena.” Continued vindictiveness toward him could surely be termed a vice. These competing sympathies moved Spenser to create a complex meditation that combines the conflicting interpretations of his embittered patrons.

While outlining his “whole intention in the course of this worke” in the letter to Ralegh appended to the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene, Spenser, referring to himself as “a Poet historical,” notes that he has chosen to write an Arthurian legend—set far back in the past—because it is “furthest from the daunger of envy, and suspition of present time.” Having decided to incorporate analogues to the activities of Elizabeth and Ralegh in his poem, he was nevertheless fully aware of the fact that he was again exposing himself to the Blatant Beast's “venemous despite,” just as he had in 1579, the year of his self-exile. It was then that he first suffered for his “former writs, all were they clearest / From blamefull blot” (VI.xii.41), which he recalls in the poem's final stanza. In mirroring contemporary court politics, however, Spenser decided to risk the bite of slander to repay a debt of gratitude and to reunite Ralegh and the queen.


  1. See Edwin Greenlaw, “Spenser and the Earl of Leicester,” PMLA 25 (1910), 535-61; Greenlaw maintains that Spenser embarrassed Leicester, in whose service he was temporarily employed in 1579, by writing Mother Hubberds Tale, and was quickly shipped off to the wilds of Ireland.

  2. From the dedicatory sonnet in The Faerie Queene addressed to Lord Grey, line 12. All quotations are taken from The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw et al., 11 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1932-57).

  3. See Kathrine Koller, “Spenser and Ralegh,” ELH 1 (1934), 39, for a list of the gifts and grants heaped upon Ralegh before 1587.

  4. Quoted in Walter Oakeshott, The Queen and the Poet (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), p. 28.

  5. Ibid.

  6. From an account of the Pomeranian traveler Leopold von Wedel, in W. B. Rye, England as Seen by Foreigners (London, 1865; rpt. New York: B. Bloom, 1967), p. 113.

  7. Oakeshott, The Queen and the Poet, p. 36.

  8. Sir Walter Ralegh, “The 11th: and last book of the Ocean to Scinthia,” 123-31. All quotations from Ralegh's poetry are taken from The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh, ed. Agnes Latham (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1951), unless otherwise cited.

  9. Oakeshott includes late seventeenth-century versions of these verses in The Queen and the Poet, pp. 217-19, from MS 3602 of the Phillips collection. Sixteenth-century copies of both poems have subsequently been located: Ralegh's in Archbishop Marsh Library (MS f. 30v); and the queen's in the Petyt collection of the Inner Temple Library (MS Petyt 538, vol. 10).

  10. This correspondence is cited by R. W. Church, Spenser (London: Macmillan, 1906), pp. 88-90. Church writes that “the Faerie Queene might also be called the Epic of the English wars in Ireland under Elizabeth” (p. 89). See also Philo Buck, “On the Political Allegory of The Faerie Queene,Nebraska University Studies 11 (1911), 184-85; and Koller, “Spenser and Ralegh,” p. 46.

  11. John Hooker, The Supplie of the Irish Chronicles (London, 1586), p. 173.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Richard Berleth, The Twilight Lords (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 180.

  14. In August 1580, Spenser was appointed to be Lord Grey's private secretary. He records the Smerwick massacre in his View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. W. L. Renwick (London: Partridge, 1934), pp. 139-40.

  15. Hooker, Irish Chronicles, p. 171; Berleth, The Twilight Lords, pp. 167 ff.

  16. Berleth, The Twilight Lords, p. 147.

  17. Ibid., pp. 188-90; Hooker, Irish Chronicles, p. 175.

  18. Sir Walter Ralegh, A Report of the Truth of the fight about the Iles of Açores (London, 1591), C4r-C4v.

  19. Hooker, Irish Chronicles, p. 144, writes in a marginal note of how Gerald “putteth away his wife and married another mans wife.” However, Berleth, The Twilight Lords, pp. 80-82, tempers this opinion of the earl's imputed vice.

  20. Berleth, The Twilight Lords, p. 204.

  21. See Fredric Carpenter, A Reference Guide to Edmund Spenser (New York: Kraus, 1969), p. 32, for grant 5473 to Spenser.

  22. Quoted from Alexander Judson, The Life of Edmund Spenser, Var. 11.23.

  23. It seems likely that Spenser read either part or all of the Timias-Belphoebe episode, when he entertained the queen, with selections from The Faerie Queene, “at timely houres” (CCCHA 362). One could hardly imagine a more apposite excerpt.

  24. Thomas Roche, ed., The Faerie Queene (Bungay, Suffolk: Penguin, 1978) comments of III.v.32 that “this is the first reference to tobacco in English literature” (p. 1151).

  25. Arthur's diary notations can be found in A. L. Rowse, Sir Walter Ralegh, His Family and Private Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 160; Ralegh's child is mentioned on pp. 159-60.

  26. Ibid., p. 167.

  27. Fred Sorenson, “Sir Walter Ralegh's Marriage,” SP 33 (1936), 182-202.

  28. Edward Edwards, Life of Ralegh (London: Macmillan, 1868), vol. 2, p. 46.

  29. Rowse, Sir Walter Ralegh, p. 167.

  30. Oakeshott, The Queen and the Poet, p. 50.

  31. Thomas Roche, The Kindly Flame (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University 1964), pp. 142-49, offers a different reading of this episode, which defines it as an “allegory of honor” wherein Timias is first accepted and then wrongfully rejected by Belphoebe, who temporarily misprizes his virtue. I state that the poem exhibits two opposing strands of argumentation: one that shows Timias being victimized by Belphoebe's error and another, no less significant, that hints at Timias's misconduct, thereby justifying Belphoebe's wrath.

  32. This generally accepted allusion can be found in Allan Gilbert, “Belphoebe's Misdeeming of Timias,” PMLA 62 (1947), 627-28; and E. M. English, “Spenser's Accommodation of Allegory to History in the Story of Timias and Belphoebe,” JEGP 59 (1960), 418 ff.

  33. I agree with William Oram, whose essay in this volume argues that the poet's “fictional distortion” of history “seizes on the problematic.” Yet I fear that his final assessment of Amoret as being “essentially blameless”—“only unlucky”—is not successfully reconciled with Oram's previous remark that “the text suggests that her seizure by Lust is not simply bad luck.” Since Oram's analysis is attuned to the subtle suggestion at IV.vii.4 that Amoret contributes to her own ravishment, that she is not merely the victim of bad luck, his closing remark unduly simplifies Spenser's complex treatment of Amoret, in distinguishing her from Aemylia. Using Oram's terminology, we might maintain that the character of Amoret has been “fragmented” and “reshaped … as a question.”

  34. Arthur Gorges identifies Ralegh with the mad Orlando in a letter to Cecil, dated 9 August 1592 (Oakeshott, The Queen and the Poet, p. 46). During this same period, Ralegh also writes to Cecil, admitting his guilt and lamenting that “once amiss hath bereaved me of all” (ibid., p. 47).

  35. Gilbert, “Belphoebe's Misdeeming,” p. 634.

  36. The foregoing commentary is indebted to J. R. Brink, “The Masque of the Nine Muses: Sir John Davies's Unpublished ‘Epithalamion’ and the ‘Belphoebe-Ruby’ Episode in The Faerie Queene,RES 23 (1972), 445-47.

  37. See J. H. Adamson and H. F. Folland, The Shepherd of the Ocean: An Account of Sir Walter Ralegh and His Times (Boston: Gambit, 1969), pp. 200-06; Oakeshott, The Queen and the Poet, p. 46; and Agnes Latham, ed., The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951), pp. 118-19, in her gloss on “Now Serena bee not coy.”

Pamela Joseph Benson (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Benson, Pamela Joseph. “Rule, Virginia: Protestant Theories of Female Regiment in The Faerie Queene.English Literary Renaissance 15, no. 3 (autumn 1985): 277-92.

[In the following essay, Benson discusses Spenser's depiction of female monarchy in Books III and V of The Faerie Queene noting what it reflects about Spenser's own attitude toward Elizabeth I.]

Elizabeth I's sex posed a problem for Edmund Spenser in his attempt to praise her in The Faerie Queene. Her unmarried state and chastity offered opportunities for enthusiastic praise of her personal virtue, but her sex itself was an obstacle to his celebration of her public character as a ruler because the natural right of women to rule was not universally accepted in Elizabethan England. Spenser's two major treatments of this controversial issue seem to contradict each other. Book III is dedicated to epic praise of the Queen's ancestry and a pair of encomia of her celebrate great women of the past (ii.1-3, iv.1-3). In Book V Britomart deposes the Amazon queen Radigund and installs a male ruler. These passages generally are not examined together because of the tendency of critics to work with single books or with either the first three or the second three books. Those who have worked on Book III see it as pro-feminist, those who have discussed Book V have seen it as extremely conservative. The distance between the passages is not as great as it seems, however: Book III is more moderate than Book V, but not incompatible with it at all.

The handling of the issue of rule by women in Books III and V can only be understood accurately when set in the context of the contemporary debate about the legitimacy of rule by women, the debate from which Spenser drew his rhetoric. Two views of the subject of rule by women predominated in Spenser's day, each one allied with a major political-religious faction. The Anglicans asserted the near equality of the sexes and the propriety of rule by women; the Calvinists argued that women as a group were unsuited to rule and that only women specially raised by God to office ought to rule. The major difference between these opinions lies in their assessment of the moral and intellectual abilities of the ordinary woman. Both believed that her strengths and primary responsibilities lay in domestic economy and piety, but the Anglicans considered her able to equal men's intellectual and moral accomplishments and worthy of the opportunity to do so, whereas the Genevans considered her an inferior creature whose abilities and duties could be clearly distinguished from man's. In vying for Elizabeth's favor these groups used the evidence of history to prove opposite conclusions about women's abilities and about Elizabeth's relationship to other women.

The Anglican party based its arguments on and drew its examples from the work of Italian and English humanist educators and social thinkers—Bruni, Castiglione, More, and Elyot, among others.1 These writers argued that women were intellectually, morally, and physically equal to men and ought to be given many if not all the opportunities open to men. The Anglicans' main premise was that rule by women does not go against nature or God. John Aylmer, their first spokesman on the subject, set out the grounds of their argument in his response to John Knox's famous condemnation of rule by any and all women, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women. “We see by many examples that by the wholle consent of nations, by the ordinaunce of God and order of lawe, wemen have reigned and those not a fewe, and as it was thoughte not againste nature: therefore it canne not bee saide, that by a generale disposition of nature, it hathe bene, and is denyed them to rule.”2

Although the most conservative proponents of the Anglican theory accepted the propriety of women's secondary social role as a general rule, all Anglicans argue, as George Whetstone does in his English Myrror, that this role is imposed by tradition not nature and that “there have been women, that in all manner of artes, qualities, and vertues which have equalled the perfitest of men.”3 The naturalness of the accomplishments of these women is essential to the Anglican theory. Aylmer and his successors prove their premise with analysis of scripture, law, and history and rely heavily on examples of women—Semiramis, Thomiris, Artemisia, Joanna of Naples, to name but a few—whose successful reigns demonstrate rule by women to be in harmony with nature, law, and God's will. They present Elizabeth as a kind of woman that has always existed in substantial numbers, and they assume that the best way to prove her right to rule is by proving that women in general have the right to rule.

The most influential opponent of both the humanist and the Anglican view of rule by women was Calvin himself. He perceived female government as a disruption of the order of nature visited on man by God as a reprimand. In a letter to Cecil defending his attitude toward rule by women he maintained

that as it was a deviation from the original and proper order of nature, it was to be ranked, no less than slavery, among the punishments consequent upon the fall of man; but that there were occasionally women so endowed, that the singular good qualities which shone forth in them, made it evident that they were raised up by divine authority; either that God designed by such examples to condemn the inactivity of men, or for the better setting forth his own glory.4

The main effect of this statement is to isolate the approved woman ruler from other women. It prevents the quality of her reign from proving that women in general are able to govern. For good or ill, a queen is a divinely imposed exception to the general rule of inferior status for women. According to Calvin, women hold power by God's mandate alone and not by virtue of their excellence. To be ruled by a woman is an exceptional condition to be tolerated—the individual queen may even be celebrated, as was Deborah—but the situation is not desirable. As one might imagine, Calvin's very limited approval of rule by women was not well received by Elizabeth, but it did indicate to his followers a way of praising the Queen and remaining true to his doctrine.

The story of Radigund in Book V of The Faerie Queene is clearly Calvinistic in orientation.5 Britomart deposes the Amazon ruler and installs a male governor over the women. She “them restoring / To mens subjection, did true Iustice deale.”6 Because Radigund had conquered Arthegal, the hero of the book, and required him to dress in women's clothes and do women's work, Britomart's action frees him from his humiliation and is welcomed by the reader. In its immediate dramatic context her action is clearly desirable, but the negative representation of the Amazon queen and the disestablishment of female rule by a woman are more than narrative amusements. The episode is a demonstration of the importance of the traditional social hierarchy that forbids rule by women. So strong is the sense of revulsion for female rule in this episode that Spenser's concession to Elizabeth's right to rule seems almost an afterthought:

Such is the crueltie of womenkynd,
          When they haue shaken off the shamefast band,
          With which wise Nature did them strongly bynd,
          T'obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand,
          That then all rule and reason they withstand,
          To purchase a licentious libertie.
          But vertuous women wisely vnderstand,
          That they were borne to base humilitie,
Vnlesse the heauens them lift to lawfull soueraintie.


This emphasis on the need for divine authority for female rule is Calvinist. The relationship of the entire episode and this stanza in particular to Calvin's doctrine was expertly explicated by James Phillips in his set of articles on Spenser's attitude toward female rulers. Phillips concludes,

Because she demonstrates her ability to administer justice by forcing women into the “base humilitie” to which they were born under “mans well ruling hand,” Britomart clearly identifies herself as one of those exceptional women, instruments of divine justice, whom the heavens “lift to lawfull soueraintie.” The episode of Radigund and Britomart, therefore, not only exemplifies Spenser's own expressed theory of gynecocracy, but also reaffirms our conviction that his position is precisely that of the moderate Calvinists. For it is with reference to the latter that we can most consistently explain his selection of a woman to overthrow the unnatural institution of female government.7

Britomart uses her sovereignty to divest herself of power; her action shows that proven excellence in women—Radigund's and even her own—does not justify reversing the natural hierarchy of the sexes. The basic principle enunciated, Spenser does not hesitate to praise extraordinary women. Mercilla and Britomart, both tributes to Elizabeth, are celebrated extensively for their accomplishments, justice, and regal conduct. Indeed, if Spenser differs from Calvin, it is in his active appreciation of the abilities of women, as long as their talents do not lead them to aspire to a place above their proper one in the social hierarchy.

Generous as it is, praise of women in Book V is always overshadowed by the severity of the Radigund episode. Book III is very different in tone. It has the epic purpose of celebrating the poet's sovereign's lineage and the role Britomart plays in founding the line, and as nothing in the book is as straightforwardly Calvinist as the Radigund section was, it is tempting to see it as fundamentally different from Book V and to attribute the difference to a darkening of Spenser's humor in his later years. In the case of the topic of rule by women, however, this is not true. The Calvinist tendencies are present in Book III, but their expression is more guarded. In Book V Spenser does not seem afraid to show his hand and declare Calvin's essential principle, that women may rule only when raised to their position by God; in Book III he veils this assertion and only careful analysis of his argument and comparison of it with Anglican models can reveal the ultimate consonance of his position with the Calvinist one.

Spenser's study of Elizabeth's ancestry presented in Merlin's prophecy at first seems completely incompatible with Calvin's theory. It establishes her natural as well as her divine right to the throne and thus fits with Anglican proofs of the legitimacy of female rule. This topos, however, is presented in the most conservative form possible. As Kathleen Williams demonstrates, Merlin's prophecy “stresses the workings of the divine will which deals with the Britons as did Jehovah with the Hebrews, supporting, checking, punishing to bring about its own purposes. For any one of the human links in the chain of divine causation these purposes could not have been easy to see. God's ways are slow. But overall direction is visible, as much in human error as in human goodness.”8 What appears random to man is actually planned, and what seems an Anglican argument is consonant with Calvin's conclusions.

Like the celebration of Elizabeth's lineage, the encomia that link her to great women of the past in cantos ii and iv appear more liberal and Anglican than they are. Both passages are reworkings of an encomium of modern women in the first three stanzas of the twentieth canto of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, and most critics who discuss Spenser's approach to the topic of women assume that Spenser, like Ariosto, was a defender of all women. Robert Durling, in his astute but brief comparison of the passages with their originals in the Furioso, takes it for granted that they are defenses of “the glory of women.”9 Harry Berger Jr. goes much further; he offers the passages as proof that Spenser is attempting to “redress the balance in a culture whose images of women and love, whose institutions affecting women and love were products of male imagination.”10 These interpretations portray Spenser as assuming an extreme pro-feminist stance that is at variance with Book V, of course, but also with his handling of Merlin's prophecy and with internal evidence in the encomia themselves. These passages are extremely complex examples of Spenser's ability to make other people's material his own. In this case he creates an unconventional synthesis of Ariosto, Anglican defenses of woman rule, and Calvin in keeping with his own sense of order, history, and woman's place.

The encomium of Elizabeth in canto ii begins on what seems to be a pro-feminist note; the poet complains that male historians do not give women their proper share of praise.

Here haue I cause, in men iust blame to find,
          That in their proper prayse too partiall bee,
          And not indifferent to woman kind,
          To whom no share in armes and cheualrie
          They do impart, ne maken memorie
          Of their braue gestes and prowesse martiall;
          Scarse do they spare to one or two or three,
          Rowme in their writs; yet the same writing small
Does all their deeds deface, and dims their glories all.


This stanza is entirely consonant with Anglican and humanist accounts of women's abilities, although in its exclusive attention to military prowess it differs from the broad claims for equality in all fields made by pro-feminist writers. The stanza removes one barrier to female rule: it is not against nature for women to bear arms. The assertion that women's deeds have been deliberately ignored and obscured by men is also a common humanist and Anglican explanation for the fact that written history does not give much importance to the deeds of women.

Spenser's probable source of this idea is the encomium in the Furioso in which the Italian poet blames male ignorance or envy for the many years of history in which women's military and intellectual accomplishments are unrecorded, but it occurs frequently in pro-feminist writings where the author usually distinguishes himself from his predecessors by listing examples of accomplished women. Whetstone, after asserting that women have equalled men “in all maner of artes, qualities and vertues,” cites among others the queens and champions Theodosia, Dido, the Amazons, and Zenobia.11 Ariosto lists Sappho and Corinna as well as the military Camilla and Artemisia. Like Whetsone and Ariosto, Spenser sets himself off from the mass of men by assuming a critical tone about attempts to obscure women's glory. By taking this stance and by assessing women's abilities as do Anglican apologists, Spenser creates in the reader the expectation that he will go on in good courtly-humanist style to record women's share in history with a series of examples and a celebration of Elizabeth as the culmination of a line of great women and the guardian of their greatness.

The second stanza begins by seeming to do just this. The poet, like all participants in the controversy about women, turns to “true writers of histories” for information.12 Although he does not give the names of famous women as pro-feminists usually do, he does argue the superiority of women in the past and the excellence of present-day women:

But by record of antique times I find,
          That women wont in warres to beare most sway,
          And to all great exploits them selues inclind:
          Of which they still the girlond bore away,
          Till enuious Men fearing their rules decay,
          Gan coyne streight lawes to curb their liberty;
          Yet sith they warlike armes haue layd away:
          They haue exceld in artes and pollicy,
That now we foolish men that prayse gin eke t'enuy.


As a defense of women this stanza has one striking peculiarity. It accepts the rule of men over women as a fact of life and although it expresses regret for the state of things, it does not urge rebellion. The traditional sexual hierarchy prevails: men make the laws and write the histories and therefore can restrict the liberty of women and create their image for posterity.

As presented in this stanza the past provides a sad forecast of the future. The stanza moves through time in stages and in each stage the liberty of women is restricted. Lines 1-4 evoke a Golden Age in which military achievement was the standard by which excellence was judged and the poet asserts nostalgically that women were then superior to men. Lines 5-6 describe the decline from this Golden Age caused by male envy which suppressed female military activity. Lines 7-8 suggest that women's excellence then showed itself in the fields remaining to it, arts and policy, and line 9 ostensibly proves the quality of female action by saying it is so good men envy it. The last three lines suggest an equivalence between modern women's practice of arts and policy and ancient women's practice of arms, but their image of the present is conditional and restrictive; it contrasts with the feelings of freedom and power the first four lines evoke. There the verbs are active and aggressive: women were wont to “beare sway,” they “inclined” to “great exploits,” and they “bore away” the victory. Here their action is to lay away, a negative gesture, and to excel, a vague word with no specific relation to arts and policy. The ninth line seems also to carry a negative burden and threatens that male envy will soon cause a radical displacement of female energy into another still more narrow field. If men—whom Spenser believed to be weaker physically—were able to repress women's military activity when moved by envy to do so, it follows that men's envy of political accomplishments in the modern age, while certainly a tribute to women's talents, is a sign of trouble to come.

Pro-feminist writers do not usually admit envy of women's accomplishments to be an element of the modern male's make-up. Ariosto, in a passage Spenser is imitating here, distinguishes his age from all past ages as one in which men are anxious to celebrate women's successes.

Ben mi par di veder ch'al secol nostro
tanta virtù fra belle donne emerga,
che può dare opra a carte et ad inchiostro,
perché nei futuri anni si disperga,
e perché, odiose lingue, il mal dir vostro
con vostra eterna infamia si sommerga:
e le lor lode appariranno in guisa,
che di gran lunga avanzeran Marfisa.


Such talent in this century, I think,
Is seen in women lovely to behold,
That there will be much work for pen and ink
Ere chroniclers the full account unfold,
And envious calumny at last shall sink,
With lies which evil tongues so long have told;
Such praises will be sung as to surpass
Marfisa's fame, when this has come to pass.(13)

Like Spenser, Ariosto suggests that the women of his time excel, but he also suggests that they will be given their fair share of attention. In a later encomium of women Ariosto even goes on to name the writers of his time who have written tributes to the excellence of women.

His acceptance of the decline in women's status sets Spenser off from both the humanist tradition supporting women and the Anglican one. Many humanists and most Anglicans attempted to counter the general low opinion of women by citing a continuous series of examples of great women from the past to the present to prove that great women have always existed. John Aylmer uses this tactic in his An Harborowe for Faithful and Trewe Subjects. Others invent legendary events to account for women's low social position, as Spenser does, but they always argue that in modern times this distortion of the proper order is being or ought to be corrected. For example, Agrippa von Nettesheim, in his influential Of the Nobilitie and Excellencie of Womankynde, complains that

God commanded women to prophesie and preache, but the unworthy dealyng of the later lawe makers is so great, that breakyng goddes commandmente, to stablysshe theyr owne traditions, they have pronounced openlye, that women otherwyse in excellency of nature, dignitie, and honour most noble, be in condition more vyle than all men: And thus by these lawes, the women being subdewed as it were by force of armes, are constrained to give place to men, and to obeye theyr subdewers, not by no naturall, no divyne necessitie or reason, but by custome, education, fortune, and certayne tyrannicall occasion.14

Agrippa saw this situation as an insupportable indignity and argued for opportunities for womankind.

Like Agrippa, Spenser asserts the natural ability of women to excel in the same fields as men, but he also admits the irreversible power, if not the right, of law to restrict their actions. His positive assessment of women's abilities is undermined by his pessimism. Whatever their method of dealing with the past, Anglican and humanist writers celebrate the modern age as a great period for women. In contrast, Spenser's historical chronicle is at best extremely mild in its praise of the present and may even hold a threat of repression. The Golden Age existed, and women were men's superiors once, but they are now the weaker sex.

Spenser's final stanza continues the comparison of historical and modern women; Britomart, the primary representative of the accomplishments of ancient women, is bested by Elizabeth.

Of warlike puissaunce in ages spent,
          Be thou faire Britomart, whose prayse I write,
          But of all wisedome be thou precedent,
          O soueraigne Queene, whose prayse I would endite,
          Endite I would as dewtie doth excite;
          But ah my rimes too rude and rugged arre,
          When in so high an obiect they do lite,
          And striuing, fit to make, I feare do marre:
Thy selfe thy prayses tell, and make them knowen farre.


Despite their praise of Elizabeth, these lines do not reverse the sense of historical decline established in the previous stanza. They simply exempt Elizabeth from the process by asserting that she, unlike other women, is not threatened by the power of male envy to tarnish reputations or restrict action. “Thy selfe thy prayses tell, and make them knowen farre.”

The device by which Spenser introduces the topic of Elizabeth's imperviousness to male envy is the disclaimer of his own ability to praise her adequately. This theme is an integral and constant element of Spenser's praise for Elizabeth. In the Proems to each of the first three books Spenser uses it as an explanation of his poetic method; his use of “colored showes” is necessitated by his inability to represent her directly (III Proem) and his audience's inability to look on her directly (II Proem). The topic usually serves the dual purpose of praising the Queen and making the reader aware of Spenser as the poet praising her. This is especially clear in the Proem to the entire poem in which the poet appeals to Elizabeth for inspiration and guidance.

And with them eke, ô Goddesse heauenly bright,
          Mirrour of grace and Maiestie diuine,
          Great Lady of the greatest Isle, whose light
          Like Phoebus lampe throughout the world doth shine,
          Shed thy faire beames into my feeble eyne,
          And raise my thoughts too humble and too vile,
          To thinke of that true glorious type of thine,
          The argument of mine afflicted stile:
The which to heare, vouchsafe, ô dearest dread a-while.

(st. 4)

The epithets by which Spenser describes Elizabeth in this stanza are literary rather than historical and the scale of the comparison is divine rather than human. Elizabeth is compared not with real women but with forces of nature. She is a goddess and she illuminates the world like the sun. With these neoplatonic and Petrarchan terms, Spenser exploits the opportunities Elizabeth's sex offers for inflated praise even as he elevates the Queen far beyond other women.

In the passage we examined from Book III Spenser never claimed that Elizabeth was more than a woman; his point was that she was very much a woman, but a woman whose character and status freed her from the usual limits of women. His final proof of this contention was the inability topos—he avows his own superfluousness as recorder of her fame. Here in the Proem Spenser's claims of inability are contradicted by the last line in which he describes his poem, the work for which he has been invoking assistance, as completed. Thomas Cain describes the complex function of the inability topos in this stanza as follows:

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 a-while”—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.15

The marked shift of focus back to the poet that Cain notes in I Proem does not occur in the encomium in Book III. The last image there is of Elizabeth independently arousing esteem for her virtues; the poet's immediate role is ignored. The omission of the usual last step of the inability topos puts the male poet in the background and keeps the reader's attention on Elizabeth's superiority to the other members of her sex. The praise the topos offers Elizabeth that at first seems so conventional really operates as the last stage of Spenser's argument that Elizabeth is extraordinary. The inability topos reminds us of her status as Queen and suggests her excellence in all things as a catalogue of virtues, necessarily exclusive, could not.

Spenser was not the first to suggest that Elizabeth's conspicuous greatness effectively countered the effects of male envy of female accomplishments. In his defense of woman's rule, George Whetstone suggests that “if the envy of men would suppresse and murther the worthiness of women, yet the divine virtues of our soveraigne Queene Elizabeth, doth and will alwaies keepe alive their divine memorie.”16 Before making this statement, Whetstone argues that women have a natural aptitude for rule, and after it he goes on to prove that laws against female government are against nature. He is concerned with the general principle that women can and should rule. Elizabeth is presented as a representative of womankind; in her we can see what women are capable of. The effect of the passage in Whetstone is to create indignation at the restrictions placed on women by male envy.

Like Whetstone, Spenser uses envy as a means to account for the roles women play in his society, but when he comes to the topic of Elizabeth's invulnerability to male envy in stanza 3 he does not present her as a lodestone for the “divine memorie” of ancient women or suggest that she is a force that will reverse the current trend as Whetstone does. The comparison between Britomart and Elizabeth turns on the word “precedent” which suggests that Elizabeth can be taken as a model worthy of imitation, yet its primary meaning—and the only one that works for Britomart as well—is first in rank or estimation. Elizabeth is the best: nothing in the context suggests that she can be equalled or that she is typical of her times; everything works to prove her exceptional. As a celebration of Elizabeth this passage is enormously effective, but it celebrates her at the expense of contemporary womankind. Unlike Whetstone, other Anglican defenders of rule by women, and his literary model, Ariosto, the poet makes no protest against the repression of women, no attempt to rally their forces to a renaissance. He does not call on ancient law and custom to justify Elizabeth's rule.

By treating Elizabeth as exceptional, Spenser would seem to be in line with Calvin who, as we saw, allowed that her extraordinary qualities showed her to be raised up by God to rule. But Spenser's belief in a Golden Age differentiates him from Calvin. For Spenser the Golden Age is gone, never to return; however it did exist. As applied to women, this means that in the ancient past women developed to the fullest their innate potentiality for greatness. Calvin does not admit this potentiality in women; for him great women are always exceptions and the ordinary woman does not have the natural abilities that would qualify her for rule. In this passage Spenser reaches a conclusion that reinforces contemporary Calvinist doctrine, but his method of reasoning is his own.

In the next encomium of Elizabeth, the first three stanzas of canto iv, Spenser approaches the controversy very differently. The topic is restricted to military women and the passage is organized as a series of rhetorical questions that compare unfavorably the present with the past and lament past glory. The narrator's voice is indignant and engaged rather than authoritative and rational as it was in the first. The opening stanza uses a series of terse questions to create a sense of social crisis caused by the disjunction between ancient and modern times. The poet loudly laments the lack of military valor among modern women and hopes that it will remanifest itself soon.

Where is the Antique glory now become,
          That whilome wont in women to appeare?
          Where be the braue atchieuements doen by some?
          Where be the battels, where the shield and speare,
          And all the conquests, which them high did reare,
          That matter made for famous Poets verse,
          And boastfull men so oft abasht to heare?
          Bene they all dead, and laid in dolefull herse?
Or doen they onely sleepe, and shall againe reuerse?


Because he clearly believes that women are capable of military greatness and because he expresses such passionate hope for the reawakening of feminine valor here, the poet sounds like the humanist and Anglican writers for whom such abilities are natural. What would logically follow would be praise of Elizabeth as the sign of the beginning of a new great age for womankind, or at least as an isolated equivalent to these great women as she was in canto ii. But this kind of praise is not forthcoming. The second stanza expands on the contrast between modern and antique times without going into causes or antidotes, and the third praises Elizabeth from an entirely different point of view.

In stanza 2 Spenser uses one of the quintessential tools of the Anglicans, the list of accomplished women, to achieve an effect that is the reverse of theirs. He increases our sense of the distance between ancient women and their feeble modern sisters rather than making us appreciate the possibility for women's equal achievement.

If they be dead, then woe is me therefore:
          But if they sleepe, ô let them soone awake:
          For all too long I burne with enuy sore,
          To heare the warlike feates, which Homere spake
          Of bold Penthesilee, which made a lake
          Of Greekish bloud so oft in Troian plaine;
          But when I read, how stout Debora strake
          Proud Sisera, and how Camill' hath slaine
The huge Orsilochus, I swell with great disdaine.


Spenser's use of this list asserts the natural ability of women to succeed in “warlike feates,” but its tone of intense nostalgia for past times reinforces the sense of a lost Golden Age established in the earlier canto. In order for Penthesilea, Deborah, and Camilla to demonstrate women's capacity to perform if given the opportunity, their names must be followed, as they are in Anglican defenses of female rule, by the mention of some modern women who overcame the odds. Spenser avoids this tactic and employs them as a standard to show that womanhood is in decline.

By leaving the question of the reawakening of the brave achievements of women unanswered at the end of this stanza, however, Spenser keeps alive the sense that he, Elizabeth's Homer and Vergil, is going to praise at least her as a modern heroine. The very women cited in the stanza contribute to our expectation of such praise. As Cain points out, two of the women on the list were figures for Elizabeth in contemporary writing or in The Fairie Queene itself: the “Amazon Penthesilea, earlier compared to Belphoebe” and “the Old Testament heroine Deborah, a favorite cult-name for Elizabeth” (123-24).17 Deborah is an especially important name to find here because she was the queen cited by Calvin as an example of an excellent and legitimate, divinely selected, female ruler. Consequently, even a Calvinist could celebrate Elizabeth as being in the tradition of Deborah.

Despite the expectation he develops, Spenser does not praise Elizabeth as a new Deborah in the third stanza. Instead, he compares Britomart with the ancient ladies and Elizabeth only with Britomart.

Yet these, and all that else had puissaunce,
          Cannot with noble Britomart compare,
          Aswell for glory of great valiaunce,
          As for pure chastitie and vertue rare,
          That all her goodly deeds do well declare.
          Well worthy stock, from which the branches sprong,
          That in late yeares so faire a blossome bare,
          As thee, ô Queene, the matter of my song,
Whose lignage from this Lady I deriue along.


This stanza is entirely different in tone and approach from the previous two. Cain explains the logical mechanism behind it. “The idea of the blossom that validates the stock rearranges categories of importance so that Britomart now derives her meaning from her offspring, an arrangement of values that descends in order of worth from Elizabeth to Britomart to Penthesilea, Deborah, and Camilla.”18 In other words, this trick of logic makes Elizabeth superior to the greatest women of the past, and it makes her so by virtue of qualities only she among modern women can claim, her descent from Britomart and her status as Queen.

If this stanza is examined in the context of the attitude toward women expressed in the first two stanzas, it becomes clear that Spenser is doing more here than changing his priorities from achievement to genealogy, although this is an important change. He also suggests a new set of values by which women may be judged. On a logical level the superiority of Britomart to classical heroines established in the first five lines does not resolve the question of whether the brave achievements of women are dead or asleep. Britomart is an ancient woman and her accomplishments tell us nothing about the abilities of modern women. Yet Spenser's tone suggests that Britomart in some way does solve the problem. The poet's impatience is gone and the brutal images that characterized the women of the second stanza are replaced with non-visual, inflated circumlocutions.

Penthesilea was “bold” and Deborah “stout”; Britomart is “noble.” Penthesilea's “warlike feates” resulted in more than one “lake of Greekish bloud” and Camilla “hath slaine huge Orsilochus”; no verb of action and no violent image describe the “goodly deeds” Britomart has done in order to be worthy of glory. She is the superior of the ancient heroines in their field of endeavor, but she also excels in qualities Spenser does not mention, “pure chastity and vertue rare.” They are all presented as Amazons; she is a lady and, although she herself is not modern, in her balance of accomplishments and virtue she anticipates the kind of woman acceptable to sixteenth-century moralists. In her, virtue and chastity are added to the standard for female excellence, and when Spenser finally turns to praise the non-military Elizabeth, Britomart and not the ancient ladies is the ideal immediately in view; she provides a transition between “antique glory” and Elizabeth. By means of her character, as well as by the logical trick Cain identified, our expectations of women are modified, and the Queen is placed in a position superior to the greatest women of history, although none of her accomplishments is cited and her existence does not answer the questions raised in the first stanza in any logical way. This last stanza reveals that the whole passage is not as engaged as the first was in the issue of women's abilities. Its object is flattery and reinforcement of the complimentary analogy between Britomart's knighthood and Elizabeth's queenship. The controversy offers amusing material.

The relationship between Britomart and Elizabeth is the key to this encomium and, indeed, is the immediate occasion for the presence of both passages in Book III. This relationship is an invention of Spenser's and is not revealed until the canto following the first encomium, the canto in which Britomart visits Merlin's cave and learns of her descendants. These two passages frame the genealogy explained in the third canto and they go beyond the genetic link between the women to establish a relationship in kind as well as kin. Elizabeth is the same kind of woman as Britomart, although she is not adept at military matters.

The analogy established in these two passages between Elizabeth's and Britomart's conduct and that of the greatest heroines of history and legend is essential to the encomiastic success of Book III. As Spenser states in the Proem, Gloriana and Belphoebe are mirrors or allegories of the Queen; Britomart is not, yet she is the major heroine of the book and is obviously intended to flatter Elizabeth I. The two encomia indicate a major way in which Britomart's actions can be applied to Elizabeth's and then be superseded: only Elizabeth is accomplished in a fashion entirely appropriate to her own times. As a result of these two encomia Elizabeth appears as a solitary representative of the glory of womankind; she is “precedent” without setting a precedent. The passages create admiration for the Queen at the same time they defeat Anglican and humanist arguments in favor of her rule. Their method of argument and attitude toward history are peculiar to Spenser; their conclusion is harmonious with Calvin's diplomatically astute but unsuccessful theory of the exceptional woman raised to power by the wisdom of God and with Spenser's own statement of it in Book V. Spenser develops the theory's full possibility for flattery and praised his queen as the exception that proves the rule.


  1. See for example: Castiglione, The Courtier, Book III; Lionardo Bruni, “De Studiis et Literis,” in Vittorino da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators (1897; rpt. New York, 1963); Thomas Elyot, The Defence of Good Women (1545); Sir Thomas More, Correspondence, ed. E. F. Rogers (1947), No. 63, Letter to William Gonell, 1518(?).

  2. John Aylmer, An Harborowe for Faithful and Trewe Subjects … (Strassbourg, 1559), sig. C3v.

  3. George Whetstone, The English Myrror (1586), p. 136.

  4. John Calvin, letter to Sir William Cecil dated at Geneva (after January 29, 1559), letter XV in The Zurich Letters (second series), trans. Rev. Hastings Robinson (Cambridge, Eng., 1845), pp. 34-35.

  5. Kirby Neill argues that “In the Radigund episode Spenser treats of the overthrow of Mary Stuart (Radigund) by Elizabeth (Britomart)” and also points out the Calvinist orientation of the episode. “Spenser on the Regiment of Women: A Note on the Faerie Queene, V.v.25,” Studies in Philology 34, 134-37.

  6. V.vii.42. All quotations from The Faerie Queene are from Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (New Haven, Conn., 1981).

  7. James E. Phillips, Jr., “The Woman Ruler in Spenser's Faerie Queene,Huntington Library Quarterly, 5 (1941), 233-34. See also “The Background of Spenser's Attitude Toward Women Rulers,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 5 (1941), 5-32.

  8. Kathleen Williams, Spenser's World of Glass (Berkeley, Cal., 1966), p. 95.

  9. Robert Durling, The Figure of the Poet in Renaissance Epic (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), p. 217.

  10. Harry Berger Jr., “The Faerie Queene, Book III: A General Description” in Essential Articles for the Study of Edmund Spenser (Hamden, Conn., 1972), p. 397.

  11. Whetstone, Myrror, p. 136.

  12. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Of the Nobilitie and Excellencie of Womankynde, trans. David Clapham (1542), sig. F7.

  13. XXXVII, viii-xiii. All citations of the Furioso are to Ludovico Ariosto, L'Orlando Furioso ed. Lanfranco Caretti (Milan and Naples, 1954). The translation is by Barbara Reynolds (Harmondsworth, Eng., 1975).

  14. Agrippa, sig. G1.

  15. Thomas H. Cain, Praise in the Faerie Queene (Lincoln, Neb., 1978), p. 54.

  16. Whetstone, Myrror, p. 136.

  17. Cain, pp. 123-24.

  18. Cain, p. 124.

Shormishtha Panja (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Panja, Shormishtha. “A Self-Reflexive Parable of Narration: The Faerie Queene VI.” Journal of Narrative Technique 15, no. 3 (fall 1985): 277-88.

[In the following essay, Panja applies structuralist and poststructuralist critical theories to an analysis of Spenser's narrative in Book VI of The Faerie Queene, emphasizing how the text of the poem comments on itself and on the nature of storytelling.]

The charm of applying structuralist and post-structuralist narratology to a “classic” text like Spenser's The Faerie Queene lies not only in the confidence of sounding modish and polemical; today scholars and critics have the freedom to analyze certain “occurences” in the text and admit that they do not have to be wound into a watertight, perfectly closed argument. Critics can present it “like it is” and admit that they are occasionally baffled. Not only that, they can thereby avoid the pitfall of an easy and fallacious attribution of excessive unity to a text that has little intention of having it. This does not mean that twentieth-century narratology is a boon to the lazy critic. On the contrary. As soon as critical closure ceases to be of prime importance, he may discover worlds upon worlds of knowledge opening before his eyes; no longer does his study have to remain exclusively historical or textual or generic.

In this paper I shall be deliberately pluralistic in my approach to both Spenser's The Faerie Queene VI and the critical theories that I shall call upon, namely those expressed in Roland Barthes's S/Z, Umberto Eco's The Role of the Reader, Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, Tzvetan Todorov's The Poetics of Prose, M. M. Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination and Frank Kermode's The Genesis of Secrecy. I choose these particular texts not merely because time and usage have proved their validity. These critics provide valuable new terms and subdivisions in formerly broad categories of narrative technique, thereby making possible a rather minute analysis of a poem as large and amorphous as The Faerie Queene.1 I shall be examining the various problems or discontents of the narrative of Book VI and testing the validity of the critical theories I draw upon in the application to a specific text. I wish to prove that Spenser employed different narrative voices and techniques like lack of closure, deferral, repetition, multiple focalization, paralepsis and paralipsis to create in The Faerie Queene VI a complex “open” text, incorporating within itself both “writerly” and “readerly” elements; a text which is, unlike the preceding five books, mainly about the act of narration. In the Letter to Raleigh, Spenser said his intention in The Faerie Queene was to “fashion a gentleman.” This gentleman is not only the Elizabethan reader, and the “fashioning” is not just a lesson in deportment or morality. The epic is a lesson on insightful reading.2 As this paper will demonstrate, the reader undergoes a process of education in Book VI, a process whose degree of success can only be gauged with regard to his penetration of the text's secrets.


Eco invents the terms “open” and “closed” texts in The Role of the Reader while Barthes in S/Z uses the similar terms scriptible and lisible (translated by Richard Miller as “writerly” and “readerly” respectively). According to Eco, the text that is “inordinately open to any kind of interpretation” (he uses detective fiction as an example) is a “closed” text, while a text that invites the reader's active and disciplined collaboration is an “open” text. The “open” text does not extend a universal invitation to anarchic participation: “You cannot use the text as you want but only as the text wants you to use it,” says Eco.3 The first thing that strikes one here is that Eco's example of detective fiction does not work. One cannot, for example, read Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library as a subverted Marxist interpretation of the fall of the Roman empire. Thus “closed” texts are what their name suggests: texts that have “closed” or finite interpretations. Eco's definition of “closed,” though clever, is not convincing, yet his term “open” text is useful and applicable to The Faerie Queene. The description of the poem as “a continued allegory or darke conceit” by Spenser in his letter to Raleigh immediately makes the poem open to at least four different levels of interpretation, levels which often work simultaneously. If we read the proems we also find that there is an explicit invitation extended to the reader to figure the narrative out for himself. As early as the proem to Book II we are told:

Of Faerie lond yet if he more inquire,
By certaine signes here set in sundry place
He may it find: ne let him them admire,
But yield his sence to be too blunt and bace,
That no'te without an hound fine footing trace.

(II Pro 4)

The text is presented as a semiotic maze here, puzzling and frustrating on the first reading, which the reader must gradually unravel. The secret “certaine signes” are set almost erratically: “in sundry place.” The reader must have the assiduity of a hound to follow the scent, and be wary of being misled, for the traces are “fine.”4

Barthes's terms, “writerly” and “readerly” are probably more helpful in the context of The Faerie Queene than Eco's. The closest parallels I can find to Barthes's terms are Plato's concepts of the idea and imitation. The “writerly” text, in its purest form, exists only in the mind of God or the writer. It is the idea of the thing, not the thing itself, which is merely an imitation. A text is “writerly” only at the time of writing, as long as that act is not completed. Only “readerly” texts may be bought at a bookstore. “Writerly” texts, which make “producers” rather than “consumers” out of their readers, are not sold in the marketplace.5 So far so good. However, Barthes does not make two important qualifications. He does not admit that a text may have both “writerly” and “readerly” elements, and perhaps only a text that has more of the former may be termed a “classic.” He merely equates the classic and the “readerly,” without making a hierarchical distinction: “We call any readerly text a classic text.”6The Faerie Queene has certainly established itself as a classic in the old-fashioned use of the term. It also incorporates within itself both “writerly” and “readerly” elements, as we shall discover, thereby earning the title of a classic in the new sense. In fact, perhaps one may say that all classics earn that appellation only through the incorporation of both “readerly” and “writerly” elements, the more “writerly,” the more “open,” the more classic.


One of the aspects of Book VI that puts the burden of interpretation on the reader's shoulders and thereby “opens” the text is the unreliability of the supposed guides, be they the narrator or the protagonist. The naive reader is sure to be misled if he expects to find a reliable guide in the forest. But before we go into that we must determine the identity of the narrator. This is a puzzle that forms part of what Barthes terms the “hermeneutic code” or the code of enigmas in a narrative.7 Twentieth century narratology has demonstrated the importance of distinguishing between the narrator and the author, but it has not made the task of identifying the narrator any easier. Is Book VI an Example of “homodiegetic narrative,” i.e. a narrative like Wuthering Heights where a character or characters other than the protagonist tells the story? Or is it an example of “autodiegetic narrative,” a narrative where the hero is the narrator, as in David Copperfield? Or is it a “heterodiegetic,” i.e. an omniscient narrative?8

To the naive reader, the book seems to be a confusing mixture of all three. The narrative seems to be “homodiegetic” because the narrator appears to be a character in the poem, threading the paths of Faerielond and suggesting that the land is created by someone other than himself. The narrator also seems to grow and develop in the course of the epic. While he begins the epic on a note of adventurous excitement, as expressed in the use of the ship simile (I xii 1), by the time Book VI is reached, probably after a gap of twelve odd years (1582-1596),9 the same simile is used in a tone of defensive weariness:10

Like as a ship that through the Ocean wyde
Directs her course unto one certaine cost,
Is met of many a counter wind and tyde,
With which her winged speed is let and crost,
And she her selfe in stormie surges tost …
Right so it fares with me in this long way,
Whose course is often stayd, yet neuer is astray.

(VI xii 1)11

Subject to external decrees of the Queen, the Muse or the poet, the narrator appears at times to be a mere scribe of the higher powers. However, he probably bears some relation to Colin Clout, a persona that the contemporary reader associated with Spenser12 after the publication of The Shepheardes Calender in 1579 and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe in 1591. Since Colin is so crucial to the vision on Mt. Acidale, which is the core of Book VI, he seems to be, at least temporarily, the true hero of the book, making it an “autodiegetic narrative.”

What about the book as an example of “heterodiegetic” narrative? There are problems here too for, in incidents like the Mirabella episode (VI vi-viii), we can see, using Genette's subdivisions, that the “mood” (who sees) and the “voice” (who speaks) of this narrative are not identical.13 Let us look at the episode a little more closely. We first learn of Mirabella's “stubborn stiffness” and her “hard hart” from the narrator. We are told of her lovers' accusations and the punishment decreed by an enraged Cupid (VI vi-vii). Finally, we hear the story from Mirabella's own lips, and hurriedly qualify our former opinion of her as a reprobate (VI viii). She admits with disarming frankness that she had learned to love herself in school and compassionately begs Disdaine, her constant companion, to free Timias, suggesting that the view of her former implacability has been somewhat exaggerated. It is certainly not criminal to refuse lovers. As a result of these confusions and anomalies, it is perhaps best to term the narrative not “autodiegetic,” “homodiegetic” or “heterodiegetic” but “pseudodiegetic,” for it is a mixture of different voices rather than any one, consistent, unwavering point of view.14 It appears that not only the reader, but the narrator too, is fashioned by what the narrative discovers.


Whatever be the identity of the narrator, he is certainly divided, self-conscious and unreliable. As we have just observed in the Mirabella episode, not all of what he says may be taken at face value. There is a division not only between the different narrative voices but also within the single voice of the narrator. If we examine the proems to the various books, we see enough evidence of this inner division. There is a peculiar mixture of insolence and abjectness in his attitude to his readers and even, occasionally, to the Queen. Book II begins with a humble apology to the “most mighty Soveraine” for writing what can only be termed “th'aboundance of an idle braine … and painted forgery”; but two stanzas later the narrator's tone changes to one of contemptuous chastisement of the “witlesse man (who) so much misweene(s)” to think “that nothing is, but that which he hath seene” (II Pro 1-4). In the proem to Book VI the narrator tells us that Faerielond both wearies and delights him. Perhaps he refers here to the delight of creation, the pleasure of the “writerly,” and to the “tedious travell” of communication, of fixing the “writerly” in the mold of the merely “readerly.”

The narrator also shows a division in his attitude towards the alleged protagonist, Calidore. First of all, Calidore hardly appears to be what the narrator says he is, the most “courteous Knight,” “beloued ouer all” (VI i 2). Calidore commits a number of faux-pas, lies to Priscilla's father (VI iii 18), offers money to Melibee and is roundly chastised for his “ill display” (VI ix 33). His condescension to his rival in love, Coridon, seems almost insulting (VI ix 41-44). He apologizes with hilarious inappropriateness to Calepine and Serena for breaking in on their lovemaking and then proceeds to talk in a leisurely way about his various adventures (VI iii 21-23). His blithe apology to Colin Clout after dispersing the vision of the Graces on Mt. Acidale is equally jarring:

Haile iolly shepheard, which thy ioyous dayes
Here leadest in this goodly merry make,
Frequented of these gentle Nymphes alwayes,
Which to thee flocke, to heare thy louely layes;
Tell me, what mote these dainty Damzels be …

(VI x 19)

Someone who has just broken his pipe in exasperation as Colin Clout has done can hardly be addressed as a “iolly shepheard.” Neither is “dainty Damzels” an appropriate description of the Graces. What is more disturbing is that even after Colin Clout has gruffly corrected Calidore's perspective (“Not I so happy … As thou unhappy”) and pointed out the extent of the damage, the knight is still not ruffled in the least by his misdemeanor, but cooly proceeds to accuse his favorite scapegoat, Fortune, for a boorish act that has been entirely of his own volition: “right sory I … That my ill fortune did them hence displace” (VI x 20). If this is the epitome of courtesy, can we really trust anything the narrator tells us? The unreliability of the narrator puts the reader on his guard. It creates both the “wary” reader and gives evidence of the text's “openness.” A “naive” reader would be as unconscious as Calidore of the irony of the knight's apology.15


One betrayal of the unreliability of the narrator is that he is definitely acting with self-conscious deliberation in these cases. Barthes speaks of the “hermeneutic code” or the code of puzzles and enigmas, the “proairetic code” or the code of actions and the “connotative code” or the issues of a narrative (which, when they gather around a proper name, become a character).16 If we examine these codes in Book VI we shall find that the text becomes a classic precisely through the ease with which it breaks these codes rather than the rigidity with which it adheres to them.

With regard to the connotative code or the code of issues (in this case, courtesy), it is when Calidore breaks out of the model of the perfect gentleman of courtesy and becomes a comically flawed and realistically imperfect human being that Spenser's characterization appears to succeed.

With regard to the “hermeneutic code,” Spenser's narrative does not always answer the reader's questions, particularly the naive reader's questions, about the fabula.17 Occasionally, the narrative will give us partial or disguised answers, and the naive reader is educated to ask the right questions and to comprehend partial answers. For example, if one asked whether Pastorella and Calidore were finally united, the narrator would probably answer, “Remember Britomart's adventures in the Castle of Isis?” If the reader recognizes this as an answer and a gentle rebuke for his naivete in believing that such a union, even when accomplished, is eternal or an end in itself, then he is well on his way to becoming a wary, even a “model” reader. Thus it is not so much the answers to the hermeneutic code that are important as the reader's education. The “naive” reader is, of course, naive only in certain respects, for example, in his expectations of closure and satiety, in his fumbling concern for the fabula over the suzjet. The reader has to have a certain amount of orientation to be able to qualify even as a “naive” reader. “Naive” thus definitely does not mean invincibly ignorant. In fact, “naive” readers already display a potential for wariness in their particular type of naivete.


As regards the proairetic code, the syntagmatic code of actions in a narrative that come into being as we name them (as in a mental synopsis of the plot) we see that there are hardly any actions at all in Book VI. Discourse is the main activity of Book VI. This is why the ruling virtue of the book, courtesy, dealing as it does with verbal interaction, is so appropriate. Apart from the killing of Maleffort, the punishment of Crudor and Briana, and the rescue of Pastorella from the brigands, Calidore spends all his time pretending to follow the Blatant Beast but in actuality either talking or listening, hanging on the “melting mouths” of either Tristram, Melibee or Colin Clout with “greedy eare” as the narrator describes it (VI ix 26). The book is full of a series of “narrative-men,” to use Todorov's description of the characters in The Arabian Nights who live to tell the story of their lives. The lack of action contrasts with most romances and the earlier books of The Faerie Queene. For example, the death of the “headless knight” is accomplished within two lines: “But ere he (Calidore) came in place, that youth had kild / That armed knight” (VI ii 4). This is all we see directly of the event. However, the report of the knight's misdemeanors continues intermittently from VI ii 7 to VI ii 19, a unique case of prolonged “multiple focalization”18 in The Faerie Queene. Thus the reader's expectations regarding the fabula are destroyed quite rapidly. In fact, we grow so accustomed to a lack of events that when anything does happen it appears infinitely disappointing. We feel no excitement when Calidore finally captures the Blatant Beast (VI xii 36), but when the Beast frees himself within a few lines, our interest is rekindled (VI xii 38).


In Book VI we can see a number of important techniques used by the narrator or the pseudo-narrator (Spenser, his persona, the other “narrative-men”) which focus our attention on the act of narration. Deferral, repetition, “multiple focalization” (one incident seen from varying points of view), lack of closure, “paralipsis” (inadequate information) and “paralepsis” (excessive information) are the most notable ones and almost all of them help exasperate the naive reader. Let us examine a few examples of these techniques and then try to account for their employment.19

Deferral is quite a common technique for romance. Like Ariosto, the narrator of The Faerie Queene occasionally ends a particular incident by saying “the end whereof I'll keepe untill another cast.” In some cases, the “end” never does in fact appear (VI viii 51). A lack of closure can be seen in individual incidents, as in the story of Calepine and Serena (which ends with the fateful words just quoted) or the story of Calidore and Pastorella, and in the fact that the whole poem remains incomplete. Multiple focalization can be seen in the Mirabella episode, which we have already discussed, and in the headless knight episode which we shall now examine. Besides relating to the theme of discourse, this episode is also an interesting use of the technique of repetition.

We hear the story of the headless knight's savagery no less than four times, first from Tristram (VI ii), then from the headless knight's lady (VI ii), then from Priscilla (VI ii) and, finally, from Aladine (VI iii). Significantly, the knight remains nameless. He is speechless, since Tristram kills him almost as soon as we glimpse him (VI ii 4); and he is headless, since Calidore decapitates him as “the signe of shame” (VI iii 17). The knight seems to be a “certaine signe” of the end of discourse, which is equivalent to death in a narrative, as Todorov20 perceptively points out in his examination of The Arabian Nights. It is almost as if the characters know that as soon as they stop talking they will have ceased to exist, and that is why they are so loquacious. Repetition is thus used to defer closure or death, as Peter Brooks points out (in another context) in his essay “Freud's Masterplot.”21 If, as Todorov says, loquacity equals life,22 then the unfinished state of the entire Faerie Queene may be one of the ways in which Spenser denies the poem closure or death. The text, like the Blatant Beast, seems to be both rumor and mythical beast, eluding capture as closure. All attempts to grasp the text, like Calidore's capture of the beast, remain evanescent. We have seen the rhythm of temporary capture or closure followed by unbonding earlier in the altered ending of Book III. Originally, in the 1593 version, Spenser ended the story of Scudamour and Amoret with the lovers clasped in a close embrace like “that faire Hermaphrodite.” This closure was loosened in the 1596 edition, with Amoret disappearing, in order to make a better transition to the later books. Just so the Beast is captured and set free, loosening forever the ending of Book VI and the entire poem.

We have seen how the techniques we have examined so far in Book VI serve higher purposes than that of merely thwarting the naive reader. They show the reader the pitfalls of a blind subservience to the narrator's or the characters' discourse; they are instrumental in recalling the potentially wary reader, schooling him to ask the correct questions and to understand the partial or disguised answers; they deny closure and thereby defer the death of the poem; they leave certain questions perpetually unanswered and force the reader to make what Eco terms “inferential walks” and compose “ghost cantos” (I adapt Eco's term “ghost chapters”) in order to create a closure that fulfills all his desires; they focus our attention on the act of narration itself, rather than what is being narrated.23 In short, these techniques are instrumental in “opening” the text, in giving us evidence, albeit covert and disguised, of the text's “writerly” elements. They help make Book VI a classic.


The incident that provides the most conclusive proof for the above arguments is the interrupted vision on Mt. Acidale (VI x). Barthes speaks in S/Z of the “hearth of denotation” around which all the meanings of a text gather.24 Mt. Acidale forms just such a round hearth as well as being the traditional locus amoenus of pastoral. The circle was the popular Renaissance and Neo-Platonic image for order, hierarchy, ascent and perfection. It is not surprising that we are faced with a number of concentric circles as we approach Acidale. The mount is surrounded by a plain which “round about was bordered with a wood” (VI x 6). On the mountain we encounter further concentric circles—the dancing “troupe of ladies” surrounding the smaller circle of the three Graces surrounding the lass of “diuine resemblaunce” and Colin Clout. These circles are a mimesis of a number of things. First of all, they give us the impression of moving closer and closer to the very heart of creation, which lies not in “outward showes” but “deepe within the minde” as the narrator tells us in the proem to Book VI. The appearance of Acidale and then the sudden way in which the vision disappears both suggest a magical place, a place outside space and time as we know them.25

The circles can also represent what Todorov terms “embedded narrative,”26 the inclusion of one story in another, something we encounter time and again in Book VI. Perhaps the circles might also be termed a mimesis of “embedded interpretation,” for the vision is protected by layers and layers of cotton wool voices. Here we have an example of what Bakhtin terms “heteroglossia,” the interaction between different narrative voices.27 Is it the narrator who speaks, is it Colin Clout, or is it Spenser? Or do the different voices finally coalesce? Do we see through the eyes of Calidore or through our own imaginative insight? If through the latter, then we have probably reached that point in the narrative where the naive reader comes of age, much as Calidore does.28 Is this the point at which the text, which might have appeared “closed” on a first reading, finally becomes “open,” only to shut the door on our faces, saying “This is all ye need to know?”29 Just as Kermode finds “something irreducible, therefore perpetually to be interpreted; not secrets to be found out one by one, but Secrecy” in the Gospels,30 so in this vision we find some of our questions answered, but not all. There is a redundant incompleteness in Colin Clout's exposition of the vision. It is both paraleptic and paraliptic. We do not need to be told that the women are the Graces, for the narrator has already hinted at the possibility of their appearance:

They say that Venus, when she did dispose
Her selfe to pleasaunce, vsed to resort
Vnto this place …
Or with the Graces there to play and sport;

(VI x 9)

However, we do want to know who the lass in the center of the circle is, and why, if she is a mere human, she should disappear along with the Graces. We also desire a more detailed description of the vision, but we are merely told that the “sundry parts were here too long to tell” (VI x 14). This seems to be one way of making the vision inviolate and of suggesting that the reader, like Calidore, has been an interloper too long.


We can read a parable in this ultimate recalcitrance of the narrative. We have noted the sense of disappointment that follows the fulfillment of expectations derived from the fabula (as in the capture of the Blatant Beast); thus, in their silence, Colin Clout and the narrator may be granting us both “desire and its object.”31 If all our questions were answered, there would be little left to spark our desires or to kindle our imagination. The fact that Colin's words are paradoxically excessive and inadequate is an example of the pitfall every interpretation must face and few avoid. Colin and the reader are separated by a barrier which is akin to the “Shadow” that T.S. Eliot speaks of in “The Hollow Men” that falls “Between the idea / And the reality … Between the conception / And the creation,” between vision and utterance, between what Barthes would term the “writerly” and the “readerly.” Acidale is a vision of the creator's innermost source of inspiration. It is the source of the poem, the “idea” or the “writerly” text of which the poem is an “imitation.” Ironically, it is not the description by the interpretation of Colin Clout and the narrator's interjection (VI x 14) that sets up a barrier between the reader and the text. This creation of barriers is what Todorov terms one of the “risks of narration.”32 At the very moment when one is most pressed to communicate, these barriers arise. The threat of ultimate inchoateness is another danger. While initially separating the reader and the narrative, these perils, which exist for readers and writers alike, ultimately unite them.

Book VI of The Faerie Queene is an intriguing combination of loquaciousness and terseness. An “open” text, containing both “writerly” and “readerly” elements, it demands the reader's wary attention and disciplined collaboration. It talks about itself, and about the reader's relation to the text; but, like a good conversationalist, it knows when to hold its peace.


  1. Jonathan Goldberg, in his illuminating study of Book IV, Endlesse Worke: Spenser and the Structures of Discourse has proved how the poststructuralist and the deconstructionist narratologists help one renounce the formalist dependence on closure and transcendence in literary texts.

  2. See Walter Davis's article “Arthur, Partial Exegesis and the Reader” TSLL xviii (1977), pp. 556-558, to see how the reader is educated in the art of allegorical reading in Book I of The Faerie Queene.

  3. Role, p. 9.

  4. All quotations are from Spenser: Poetical Works, ed. Smith & Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1912, rpt. 1975).

  5. S/Z, pp. 3-7.

  6. Ibid., p. 4.

  7. Ibid., pp. 18-21.

  8. The three terms are Genette's. “Diegesis” is Genette's term for a condition opposite to “mimesis” where we have a maximum of what he terms the “informer” and a minimum of information. Narrative Discourse, pp. 162-70, 245. The examples are my own.

  9. In 1582 Spenser wrote that he was “well entered upon” the epic (Selincourt, p. xlii) and in 1596 the last three complete books were published.

  10. See Jerome S. Dees, “The Use of the Ship Conceit in The Faerie Queene,SP lxxii (1975), pp. 208-225.

  11. The very fact that the narrator can say something like “Yet neuer is astray” should immediately make us question the validity of the narrative voice. Is this a blatant lie, given all the digressions in the poem, or is the narrator justified in believing that even when he seems to stray, he is still being true to a deeper motive, the motive of educating the reader? I examine this problem in greater detail later in the paper.

  12. Certain commendatory verses written after the publication of The Faerie Queene “To the learned Shepheard” by an unknown admirer who calls himself “Hobynoll” describe Spenser as a “iolly Shepheard,” a title Calidore later uses to address Colin Clout (VI x 19).

  13. Narrative Discourse, pp. 30-32.

  14. Ibid., pp. 236-237. Genette speaks of an “oust(ing)” of narrators and different narrative levels in his definition of “pseudodiegetic.”

  15. Eco invents the terms “naive” and “model” reader (Role, pp. 7-11). Though I prefer the adjectives “innocent” and “wary” the metaphor is probably the same: the pleasures and frustrations of unravelling the text, are akin to those of an emotional involvement: one makes up (in more senses than one) and breaks up with The Faerie Queene as with people.

  16. For example, an issue in Book VI is courtesy and Calidore is the character around whom this issue revolves.

  17. Here, I use the Russian formalist distinction between fabula (sequence of events in a story as they would happen in life) and suzjet or plot (the author's ordering of these events) as put forward by Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the Folktale.

  18. Genette's term for one story seen from varying points of view as in Browning's The Ring and the Book.

  19. The terms in quotation marks are Genette's. Narrative Discourse, pp. 189-94, 205.

  20. “Narrative equals life, the absence of narrative, death.” Poetics of Prose, p. 74.

  21. Yale French Studies, 55-56 (1977), pp. 280-300.

  22. Poetics of Prose, p. 75.

  23. Role, pp. 32, 214.

  24. S/Z, p. 7. Barthes equates the hearth with the “centre, guardian, refuge, light of truth.”

  25. See Harry Berger, “A Secret Discipline: The Faerie Queene VI” in English Institute Essays 1961, pp. 35-75. Berger, in what is probably the finest piece of criticism on Book VI, sees the book as an example of the Hellenistic rhetorical term Poeta because the problems which the poet faces in organizing his material form part of his theme. Berger notes the sameness of the characters, their homonymous names (Calidore-Calepine-Coridon), the repetition of set romance motifs (“the aristocratic and foundling motifs; the nursery, withdrawal and retirement motifs; the motifs of love, of holiday and diversion, of being caught off guard, turning inward”) and calls them “dim prefigurations of Acidale” in that they symbolize the confict between the “idea or foreconceit” (I borrow Sidney's terms) within the mind of the poet and his actual creation. It is the tension between the two that dissolves the vision on Mt. Acidale and leaves the poem, in a way, incomplete (Berger, p. 72).

  26. Poetics of Prose, p. 71.

  27. “Epic and Novel,” p. 11. “Heteroglossia” and “polyglossia” are two complex terms used interchangeably by Bakhtin without any proper definition. They appear to mean an “interanimation of languages” in the discourse of the novel. This may range from a mixture of dialects or styles varying from the language of folklore to the elevation of classical invocation, or it may mean a shift of tone or emphasis within a relatively uniform style. The latter meaning is suggested by Bakhtin's examples from Pushkin's Onegin (p. 47). The intention of this play is to prevent the style from congealing and to preserve the open-ended, realistic character of novelistic discourse. As we see, this can be present in romantic epics like The Faerie Queene as well. For example, when the narrator begins VI ix with an affected self-address to the “iolly swaine,” this signals a change from the heroic tone of the preceding cantos to the pastoral tone of the following cantos. Bakhtin does, in fact, overstate the simplicity of the epic in order to prove his arguments about the novel, but that is too broad a topic to discuss here.

  28. The knight shows a commendable strength of purpose in the succeeding cantos.

  29. I use Kermode's adaptation of the situation in Kafka's The Trial. The Genesis of Secrecy, p. 145ff.

  30. The Genesis of Secrecy, p. 145.

  31. As Todorov puts it in The Poetics of Prose, p. 105.

  32. Ibid., pp. 56-57.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Spenser: Poetical Works. Ed. Smith & Selincourt, London: Oxford University Press, 1912; rpt. 1975.

Secondary Sources

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Emerson and Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Berger, Harry. “A Secret Discipline: The Faerie Queene VI,” English Institute Essays, (1961), 35-75.

Brooks, Peter. “Freud's Masterplot,” Yale French Studies, 55-56, (1977), 280-300.

Davis, Walter. “Arthur, Partial Exegesis and the Reader,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, xviii, (1977), 553-576.

Dees, Jerome S. “The Use of the Ship Conceit in The Faerie Queene,” Studies in Philology, lxxii, (1975), 208-225.

Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Endlesse Worke: Spenser and the Structures of Discourse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1981.

Kermode, Frank. The Art of Telling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

———. The Genesis of Secrecy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

———. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folk Tale. Trans. Laurence Scott. Rpt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Ann E. Imbrie (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Imbrie, Ann E. “‘Playing Legerdemaine with the Scripture’: Parodic Sermons in The Faerie Queene.English Literary Renaissance 17, no. 2 (spring 1987): 142-55.

[In the following essay, Imbrie discusses the characters in The Faerie Queene who emerge as “false preachers,” delivering sermons that represent perversions of biblical rhetoric.]

Guyon's encounter with Mammon, however we judge his success in that episode from Book II of The Faerie Queene, has long been recognized as a parody of Christ's temptation in the wilderness. Patrick Cullen has discovered a similar scriptural parody in Redcrosse's encounter with Despayre in Book I.1 In fact, the poet frequently shows an evil character producing holy witness with a smiling cheek in order to dissuade a hero from moral action. It is not surprising that Spenser's villains will often pervert rhetorical power, even language itself, to evil ends; this is a fairly standard means of characterizing evil, familiar to all readers of such Renaissance figures as Iago, Cassius, or Milton's Satan. That the language of Spenser's villains is so often biblical, however, casts these characters much more specifically. They are not simply false rhetoricians, but rather false preachers. Such characters as Despayre, Phaedria, and the Giant with the Scales deliver parodic sermons on biblical texts, and their speeches register Spenser's concept of the right use and interpretation of Scripture. The proper context in which to examine these characters, then, is Renaissance hermeneutics: theory of interpretation found often in sermons and sermon manuals of the period, whose emphasis, like the poet's, is rhetorical.


Among sixteenth-century preachers and commentators, Christ's temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4) provides a popular text for exploring issues of interpretation itself. This particular text attracted hermeneutic interest for good reason: because the central verses of the text represent an actual exchange of scriptural quotation, the passage illustrates at once both faulty and correct use of Scripture in argument. Taking advantage of Christ's argument that man lives by “euerie worde that proceadeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4.4; Deut. 8.3), Satan cites God's word filtered through the experience of the psalmist (Psalm 91) to encourage Christ to cast himself down from the pinnacle: “for it is written, that that he wil giue his Angels charge ouer thee, and with their hands they shal lifte thee vp, lest at anie time ye shuldest dash thy fote against a stone” (Ps. 91.11-12; Matt. 4.6). In this scriptural argument, however, as the Geneva commentator notes, Satan “alledgeth but halfe the sentence to deceiue thereby the rather, and cloke his crafty purpose.”2 Christ repulses the temptation—at least in part a temptation to misinterpret God's word—with another biblical quotation: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord your God. … Thou shalt feare the Lord thy God, and him onely shalt thou serue” (Deut. 6.16, 13; Matt. 4.7, 10). Again, according to the Geneva commentary, “the worde of God is the sworde of the spirit, wherewith Satan is ouercome.” This text, then, provides models of both devious and faithful uses of scriptural evidence. The double model, explicated in Protestant hermeneutics, furnishes Spenser's literary imagination with material for various temptation scenes.

In their commentaries on this text Protestant hermeneuts identify Satan as the prototype of the false preacher, abusing the word of God for his own purposes, demonstrating the heresies of scriptural interpretation with which moderate Protestants charged their adversaries: quoting out of context, deleting verses, and reading too literally or too allegorically. First, as Henry Bullinger explains, “It is requisite in expounding the scriptures, and searching out the true sense of God's word, that we mark upon what occasion everything is spoken, what goeth before, what followeth after.” By ignoring context, Bullinger continues, the expositors act as “heretics, and not men of the right faith, which draw some odd things out of the scripture for their own purpose.”3 The association of such misreading with heresy itself suggests a judgment much stronger than simple wrongheadedness. Second, to delete verses not conducive to one's argument constitutes a perverse use of Scripture. To do so, writes John Bale, is to “wrast it all amys.”4 In this case, according to Perkins, we see “Satans fraud and craft that can so cunningly leave out that which makes not for his purpose, and so peruert the true meaning of the scripture; this is his usual practise, in enmity against the word, to depraue the true meaning by cutting off some part. … The like is the dealing of all hereticks, who by cutting off and leaving out, play legerdemaine with the scriptures.”5 Finally, reading either too literally (as Satan also does in the text from Matthew) or too allegorically will insure an insidious reading. In Spenser's parodies of sermons, we see his villains abusing Scripture in one of these three ways.

In addition to providing a model of the faulty use and interpretation of Scripture, the text of Matthew appealed to reformers because there Christ himself repulses Satan's argument with scriptural passages. In the simplicity of Christ's language the Tudor preacher found a model for his own style.6 In the apparent ease with which he dismissed Satan's argument, Christ provided as well a particular model of the proper exposition of Scripture, exemplifying the use of scriptural evidence which preserved the spiritual sense while allowing its direct moral application to personal and immediate circumstance. Identifying Christ's victory over Satan, William Perkins argued that even the devil “knowes that scripture truly understood and well applied, is the only engine for the battling of his kingdom”; by showing Christ applying Scripture effectively to his own circumstances, the text provided a vivid example of the moral application of Scripture to people trying to lead Christly lives.7 Similarly, John Bale, speaking as prolocutor in his didactic interlude based on Christ's temptation, explains that “Sathan assaulteth hym, with many a subtyle dryft. / So wyll he do us, if we take Christes part.”8 Christ's response to temptation, then, provided an extension of the Christly model to appropriate use of scriptural rebuttal in argument, demonstrating the values of literal reading and tropological application, the two “senses” of Scripture most important to early Protestant hermeneutics.9 In this reading of the text of Matthew, Christ's victory over Satan is literally the victory of God over evil, and morally the potentially universal triumph of human will over temptation. In turn, this general moral application becomes the basis of Spenser's taking the Matthew text as a literary model.

Parodies of sermons in The Faerie Queene show an evil character abusing Scripture in one of the ways identified by Protestant commentators on Satan's misuses of biblical argument in the text of Matthew (quoting out of context, deleting significant verses, reading too literally or too allegorically). In addition, Spenser's parodies show the Protestant's dual interest in spiritual understanding and moral application of Scripture. Finally, Spenser seems to agree with Protestant commentators who insist that the proper understanding of Scripture is a product not only of faith but also of proper instruction. Fidelia appears in Book I, Canto x holding a “booke, that was both signd and seald with blood, / Wherein darke things were writ, hard to be vnderstood” (I.x.13, 8-9). Spenser implies that the Bible is not open to every person, and must be carefully interpreted; Fidelia “heauenly documents thereout did preach, / That weaker wit of man could neuer reach” (I.x.19, 4-5). Thus we find in Spenser's parodic sermons more than simple allusiveness; rather, these parodic forms have a broadly topical base, contributing specifically to the ecclesiastical satire in the poem by identifying such characters with faulty hermeneutic practice. Although in the examples to follow, the faults are not assigned discretely by character, in general we can identify quoting out of context with Despayre; omission of verses with Phaedria; and improper application with the Giant in Book V.


John Knox's description of Satan's method of temptation provides an uncanny parallel to Despayre's treacherous art of preaching.

The cheif craft of Sathan is to trubill thois that begin to declyne from [God's] obedience … with dyvers assaltis; the end whairof is alwayis ane, that is, to put variance betuix thame and God into thair conscience, that thai shld not repois and rest themselves in his assurit promissis.10

In the same manner, Despayre's words in the knight's “conscience made a secret breach” (48, 3). Redcrosse's own awareness of his “declyne from God's obedience,” sharpened by Despayre's rhetoric, makes the knight tremble before the “righteous sentence of th' Almighties law” (50, 4). Along these general lines, Despayre makes specific assaults. Like Knox's Satan, Despayre “useth and inventeth dyvers argumentis. Sumtymes he calleth the sins of thair youth, and whilk thaie half commitit in the tyme of blindness, to thair remembrance.” Despayre taunts Redcrosse with memories of former sins: “Is not enough that to this Ladie Milde / Thou falsed hast thy faith with periurie, / And sold thyself to serue Duessa vilde” (46, 6-8). “Verie oft,” Knox continues, “[Satan] objecteth thair unthankfulness towardis God and present imperfections.” While Despayre does not explicitly play on the knight's ingratitude, his list of present imperfections is almost endless. Among them, “Feare, sicknesse, age, losse, labour, sorrow, strife, / Paine, hunger, cold that makes the hart to quake; / And euer fickle fortune rageth rife. / All which, and thousands mo do make a loathsome life” (44, 6-9). This, Despayre claims, is the world from which he would rescue the Knight of Holiness. Knox defines many more of the devil's devices, but in all of them “he wolde dryve Godis children to desperation, and by infinit meanis mo, goeth he about seiking like a roaring lyonn to undermyne and destroye our faithe.” Despayre himself nearly succeeds in undermining Redcrosse's faith, and securing his eternal damnation. The analogy between this character and the Satan of Matthew 4 is unmistakable. Una herself recognizes it when she chastizes the Knight for being spiritually dismayed by “diuelish thoughts” (53, 3). A despairing character, of course, will naturally locate his experience beyond the reach of grace. So direct is the comparison between Despayre and Satan, however, that we must assume Despayre's argument is actively devious, and not simply a function of the character's passive expression of his allegorical identity.

Despayre's false preaching, as Patrick Cullen has argued, is based in subtle and erroneous use of Scripture. More specifically, Despayre's false sermon reveals the fault of quoting out of context in his scriptural argument. William Perkins admonishes that in using any piece of Scripture we should “be careful … that the same be fit and pertinent; for to wrest the same from the proper meaning of the holy ghost to serve [one's] owne conceit is the practise of Satan, which every servant of God must be far from, and therefore must not do it hand over head.”11 Despayre errs in this direction, not once but repeatedly piling up biblical references taken from context to confound Redcrosse. Admittedly, the references are brief and veiled, but, as John Bale argues, even a minor twist of God's word destroys the authority and integrity of the whole.12

After lamenting the pain of life (sts. 39-40), Despayre tries to convince Redcrosse that his suicide would hasten the fulfillment of God's design, which has decreed the death of all men (42). He cites Psalm 31.15, in which the psalmist recognizes that man's time is in God's hands, recorded in his fateful book, but conveniently obscures the context; for the psalmist, even awareness of God's rule is cause for joy: “But I trusted in thee, O Lorde; I said, thou art my God. / My times are in thy hand; deliver me from the hand of mine enemys, and from them that persecute me … Let the lying lips be dumme; which cruelly, proudly, and spitefully speak against the righteous” (Psalm 31.14-15, 18). Had the Knight of Holiness the faith to recognize Despayre's devious argument, he might have cited these very lines to silence his adversary.

Again, asserting God's justice in punishing wickedness, Despayre cites several Old Testament passages to seduce Redcrosse to suicide. In each instance the contexts of the Old Testament passages reveal implications of the Christian vision of mercy, against which the Christian must evaluate the concept of divine retribution. In stanza 46, 3-5, for example, Despayre alludes to Job 2. 27-28: “Is not the measure of thy sinful hire / High heaped up with huge iniquitie / Against the day of wrath to burden thee?” He echoes the words of Zophar, the false friend, who cynically explains Job's afflictions as signs of God's wrath heaped up against man's sinfulness. Immediately before the passage Despayre cites, Job acknowledges that his Redeemer lives, a line seized upon by Renaissance commentators as a typological reference to Christ's salvation. Again in 47, 1-2, Despayre claims for God: “Is not he iust, that all this doth behold / From highest heauen, and beares an equall eye?” For the speaker of Psalm 145.9 from which this passage comes, however, the “equall eye” of God is one which looks benevolently, not mercilessly, on all. The psalmist's conception of justice is one significantly tempered by compassion, which works, according to the Geneva gloss, “not only in pardoning the sinnes of his elect, but in doing good even to the reprobate, albeit they cannot feele the sweet comfort of the same.”

Throughout Despayre's argument, in fact, he consistently ignores the idea of the New Covenant, without reference to which any Old Testament passage is essentially quoted out of context. To emphasize this point, Spenser has Despayre allude to Ezekiel 18.4, in which the prophet pronounces the proverbial visitation of punishment on the child for the sins of the father, only to reverse his reader's expectations with reference to Jehovah's new covenant with the people of Israel. Despayre, however, jumps to a false conclusion from this passage in insisting that all flesh shall die. Here his fault is doubly emphasized because even the Old Testament passage provides an example of God's revision of his own law.

Significantly, the first New Testament reference in the passage occurs after Despayre's speech when the narrator describes Redcrosse's reaction: “The knight was much enmoued with his speach, / That as a swords point through his hart did perse” (48, 1-2; Luke 2.35). “Swords point,” or similar phrases—like “sworde of the spirit,” cited above from the Geneva commentary—were common sixteenth-century epithets for the word of God. That the knight's heart was pierced by Despayre's words may indicate a certain sensitivity on his part to scriptural material; but responding as he does to the abuse of Scripture actually shows that his sensitivity is dulled to the true meaning of the texts cited. More important, however, is the context from which this allusion comes. The passage in Luke refers to Simeon's recognition that the infant Christ is the Messiah, and that Mary would suffer from Israel's rejection of her son. The reference, then, refutes for the reader Despayre's Old Testament argument. Spenser of course uses the allusion ironically; Redcrosse himself suffers under the blows of Despayre's false preaching because he, like Israel, does not recognize the Redeeming Christ. This is Despayre's desired effect. Seeing Redcrosse “wauer weake and fraile, / Whiles trembling horror did his conscience dant,” (49, 2-3), Despayre seizes the opportunity to drive his victim to desperation with images of hell's torment.

In taking the text from Matthew as his model, Spenser is able to show convincingly the source of Redcrosse's failure to follow the Christly example in this scene. It must be noted that in none of Redcrosse's retorts does he ever use Scripture himself. Renaissance commentators recognized through the text of Matthew that the only way to counter a faulty biblical argument was with a good one. Perkins, for example, comments on Christ's use of Scripture: “The written word of God, rightly wielded by the hand of faith, is the most sufficient weapon for the repelling of Satan and vanquishing him in all temptations.”13 Redcrosse's hand of faith is too weak to toss back at his tormentor the proper refutations. Again, Christ's repulsion of Satan in the temptation scene provides the model for this action, as Knox explains: “Thus are we taught, I say, by Chryst Jesus, to repulse Sathan and his assaltis by the word of God, and to apply exempillis of [God's] mercies, whilk he hath schewit to utheris befoir us, to oure awn souls in the hour of tentatioun, and in the tyme of oure trubils.”14 Redcrosse fails here as well. It takes Una to remind him forcibly that he too has a part in God's mercies:

Why shouldst thou then despeire, that chosen art?
Where iustice growes, there grows eke greater grace,
Thee which doth quench the brond of hellish smart,
And that accurst hand-writing doth deface

(53. 5-8).

Because Despayre's argument offers a parody of biblical interpretation, we see even more clearly the knight's failing virtue, and the necessity of his training in the House of Holiness in the next canto. Redcrosse's failure results from his inability to bring faith and Scripture to his own defense. To be seduced by Despayre's rhetoric as Redcrosse nearly is, is to deny faith not only in redemption but in Scripture itself. Redcrosse could have refuted Despayre's arguments by citing the very texts Despayre uses against him. Spenser uses the knight's inability to see through Despayre's false preaching to indicate his faithless misunderstanding of Scripture. As Henry Bullinger tells us, “whosoever is ignorant what the word of God and the meaning of the word of God is, he seemeth to be as one blind, deaf, and without wit, in the temple of the Lord, in the school of Christ, … in the reading of the very sacred scriptures.”15 Presumably these are the lessons Redcrosse will learn from Fidelia's “sacred Booke, with bloud ywrit, / That none could read, except she did them teach, / [Who] unto him disclosed euery whit … / Of God, of grace, of iustice, of free will” (I.x.19. 1-3, 6).


In the constellation of biblical references in the Despayre scene, then, we read Spenser's implicit directions for both the proper preaching and hearing of God's word. Here, where the hero's quest depends entirely upon his spiritual understanding, hermeneutic parody is used cogently and purposefully toward defining the central character and his experience. Similarly, the complex of sermon parodies in Book II defines more accurately Guyon's mission, arguing strongly against the secular definition of temperance. In fact, the greatest concentration of these parodies occurs in Book II, as if Spenser himself were aware of the possible misinterpretations of this virtue. The sins of Acrasia and her cohorts, and the errors of her captives, are given a spiritual dimension by the abuse of Scripture associated with them.

Besides the Mammon episode, the most obvious biblical abuse occurs in Canto vi, stanzas 15-17, in which Phaedria lulls Cymochles to sleep with a parodic sermon on Matthew 6.25. Here the speaker most closely resembles a preacher, offering a concentrated exposition of a particular biblical text. By his easy capitulation to Phaedria's seduction, Cymochles indicates his own moral and spiritual depravity. The dissuasion from the active life to one of sleepy idleness becomes tantamount to ignoring the kingdom of heaven.

Phaedria's error in part, as Virgil Whitaker has noted, is in deleting the most necessary verse of the original passage, an omission which allows a too-literal interpretation of what she does cite.16 Such omission has already been noted as one of the principal devices of the false preacher. In addition, Phaedria's tropological application is faulty. Renaissance commentators on this particular passage readily assert that reading it strictly by the letter will kill the spirit. The Geneva gloss claims that the admonition to ignore worldly cares indicates only that “mans trauel nothing availeth where God giveth not increase.” William Perkins denies vehemently that the passage condemns “diligent labour in a man's vocation,” the interpretation Phaedria attaches to it.17 Luther also supplies a long list of activities not covered by Christ's supposed invitation to ease.18 Where Cymochles fails to understand the spiritual meaning of the passage, Guyon succeeds. Although Phaedria used on him “her former stile,” “Her dalliance he despised, and follies did forsake … He was wise and warie of her will” (21.9;26.1). Temporarily waylaid on Phaedria's isle, Guyon does not give in to the spiritual sleep Phaedria induces. His resistance witnesses his spiritual as well as moral temperance; the general implication is that he began his earthly quest seeking first the kingdom of God.

Significantly, the Geneva gloss introducing the text Phaedria perverts reads: “If the concupiscence & wicked affections ouercome reason, we must not marueile though men be blinded, and be like unto beasts.” Those who fall victim to Phaedria's enchanting sermon have denied in themselves the combination of reason and faith required for a right interpretation of Scripture. Cymochles, lulled by Phaedria's song, and blind drunk on her “liquors strong,” falls into bestial torpor. Acrasia, too, lulls her victims into a “creeping slomber” (V.30, 8) of moral and spiritual forgetfulness. She “does charm her louers, and the feeble sprightes / Can call out of the bodies of fraile wightes: / Whom then she does transforme to monstrous hewes, / And horribly misshapes with ugly sightes” (V.27, 4-7). By depriving men of their spiritual faculties, Acrasia destroys the distinction between men and beasts, denying men the access by which they respond to God's higher purpose for their lives. Not surprisingly, then, Acrasia allows the perversion of Scripture in her garden, another indication of the spiritual dangers of the Bowre of Bliss.

In his unremitting march through the Bowre, Guyon hears some unknown singer chant this lovely lay:

Ah, see, who so faire thing doest faine to see,
In springing flowre the image of thy day;
Ah, see the Virgin Rose, how sweetly shee
Doth first peepe forth with bashfull modestee,
That fairer seemes, the less ye see her may;
Lo see soone after, how more bold and free
Her bared bosome she doth broad display;
Lo see soone after, how she fades and falles away.
So passeth, in the passing of a day,
Of mortall life the leafe, the bud, the flower,
Ne more doth flourish after first decay,
That earst was sought to decke both bed and bowre,
Of many a Ladie, and many a Paramowre;
Gather therefore the Rose, whilest yet is prime,
For soone comes age, that will her pride deflowre:
Gather the Rose of Loue, whilest yet is time,
Whilest louing thou mayst loued be with equall crime.

(II, xii, sts. 74-75)

The argument is familiar enough to any reader of Comus or Renaissance carpe diem lyrics. Spenser's use of the topos here indicates his ready accommodation of Christian and classical sources. In addition to its Ovidian heritage, the passage points to various biblical sources. “All flesh is grasse, and all the grace thereof is as the floure of the field. The grasse withereth, the floure fadeth, because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth vpon it: surely the people is grasse” (Is.40. 6-7). The tropological application made of this text in Acrasia's Bowre by the unknown singer suggests the work of a false preacher in a gross parody of the Holy Spirit's meaning. A favorite idea in both Testaments, similar passages occur throughout the Psalms, Job, James, and 1 Peter, where the biblical writers use the brief duration of human life as an exhortation, not to wanton pleasure but to trust in God and the “good life” (see especially Psalms 37.1-3, Psalms 102.11-12; James 1.10 and 17; 1 Peter 1.24; see also Herbert's lyrics “Life” and “Virtue,” based on similar texts). The seductive power of the Bowre of Bliss demonstrates the weakness of man's flesh. The grace of men, glossed in the Geneva Bible as “al man's wisedom & natural powers,” fades as the flower of the field. Early in Book II, Amavia explains the destruction of Mordant in similar terms: “My liefest lord she thus beguiled had / For he was flesh: (all flesh doth frailtie breed)” (II.i.52, 5-6). That the unknown singer in the Bowre can so persuasively pervert the sense of the passage suggests that among depraved men the word of the Lord may not endure forever; only the abused word is preached among them. Ironically, however, the true word of God has the last word. Acrasia's Bowre, so often described as young growth, is cut down by Guyon's “rigour pittilesse,” at least in part because of the spiritual depravity of its queen.


In Book II, then, Spenser brings out a spiritual dimension to the allegory of temperance through his use of parodies of sermons. A similar instance, only briefly noted here, occurs in Book V in the debate between Artegall and the Giant with the Scales. Here Spenser bases the entire passage on texts from Isaiah 40 and II Esdras 4. The parody is as much Spenser's as the characters': the allusions provide a general frame for the debate in which the characters of both the Giant and the knight are revealed through juxtaposition with the original passages from Scripture. In addition, by presenting conflicting scriptural arguments, the passage identifies the clash between Artegall, who understands Scripture, and the Giant, who understands scriptural metaphor too literally, in part as the confrontation of true and false preaching. The use of biblical material here, then, has a cumulative effect. Where Redcrosse fails to bring Scripture to his defense and Guyon responds to scriptural abuse with definitive action, Artegall adds Guyon's moral strength to his own correction of Redcrosse's error. It is as if Artegall has learned from the earlier heroes. Perhaps for this reason, Spenser can afford the distinctly comic tones with which he colors Artegall's encounter with the Giant.

We first meet the Giant with the Scales through the description of the narrator who introduces Artegall's adversary with references to II Esdras 4 (Apochrypha). In this tale, an angel of God rebukes and teases Esdras because he thought himself capable of comprehending the ways of the Highest. Sent to humble him, the angel poses impossible riddles and asks Esdras for definitive answers. At first, Esdras is commanded to “weigh me the weight of fyre, or measure me the blast of winde, or call me againe the day that is past” (4.5). The command of course is similar to that which Artegall gives the Giant. Later, the angel asks Esdras to adjudicate in a dispute between the land and the sea: “I came to a forest in the plaine where the trees helde a counsel, and said, Come, let vs go fight against the sea, that it may giue place to vs, and that we may make vs more woods. Likewise the floods of the sea toke counsel and said, Come let vs go vp and fight against the trees of the wood, that we may get another country for vs” (4.13-15). These are precisely the questions we find the Giant puzzling over in V.ii, 31. The Giant, too, tries to judge in the dispute between sea and land. Because Spenser places the Giant's folly against the biblical context, we recognize even more readily the poet's ironic comment. Esdras at least had the sense to see his own foolishness: “What man is borne, that can do that' which thou requirest me, concerning these things? O lord, lord, we are all euen full of sinne” (4.6, 38). The Giant, however, persists in attempting the impossible, and for his efforts ends in a pile of broken, rumbling bones.

In his defense of heavenly justice, Artegall, significantly called the “righteous,” acts the part of the Archangel Jeremiel who says to Esdras: “They that dwell vpon earth, can vnderstand nothing, but that which is vpon earth … [God] hathe weighed the worlde in the balance. The measure of the times is measured: the ages are counted by nomber, and they shal not be moued or shaken, til the measure thereof be fulfilled” (4.21, 36-37). His words also echo those of Isaiah in 40.12 (“Who hathe measured the waters in his sift?”). The contrast between the Giant and Artegall here suggests that reasonable self-knowledge is the basis of the spiritual understanding needed to interpret Scripture properly. The Giant, vainglorious if not in fact stupid, counters with another biblical argument: “Therefore I will throw downe these mountaines hie” (see st. 38), in a parody of the passage from Isaiah (“Every valleyshall be exalted and every mountaine and hill shalbe made lowe”)—a passage the Geneva gloss interprets as a metaphor for the deliverance promised by the coming of Christ. By turning the passage into a kind of Robin Hood's manifesto to comfort the people, the Giant develops a faulty allegorical reading, applying the meaning of Scripture too literally to present circumstances.

Hence the Giant becomes a false preacher, and a parodic prophet. He cries peace where there is no peace, and comforts the people with false assurances. Speaking as a true preacher and prophet, however, Artegall defends and explicates heavenly justice rightly, emphasizing the power and wisdom of the divine planner. By parodying biblical interpretation, Spenser not only ridicules the Giant's innovations, but he also gives majestic power to Artegall's words and perceptions. The biblical references, first falsely argued, then accurately interpreted, link Artegall with the Old Testament concept of justice. It remains for Britomart to temper and chasten his understanding.

We still have much to learn about the application of biblical hermeneutics to Renaissance literary values, its influence on both creative activity and practical criticism. Establishing the connection between hermeneutic commentary and Spenser's use of Scripture will detect just such an influence, insuring more attentive readings of Spenser's characterization and themes—in fact, fuller understanding of his aesthetic values. That The Faerie Queene partly represents a conversion of biblical material has long been recognized; but studies of his use of Scripture have been too narrowly prescribed.19 The recent interest in “Protestant poetics” has demonstrated convincingly the variety of ways in which the Bible served as a literary model for Protestant poets and prose writers in the Renaissance.20 Of much more compelling interest than ascertaining precisely the definition of Spenser's Protestantism in this more general contribution to biblical poetics. If in creating these temptation scenes Spenser turned, as many others did, to the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4 as a model, he greatly expanded Protestant theory of interpretation by giving it a specifically literary life, suggesting in his characterization of Despayre, Phaedria and the Giant with the Scales literary portraits of false preachers who play legerdemaine with the Scriptures.


  1. For a review of the many discussions of the biblical parody in the Mammon episode, see Patrick Cullen, Infernal Triad: The Flesh, the World, and the Devil in Spenser and Milton (Princeton, N.J., 1974), pp. 68-70. Because so much expert commentary on this scene in Spenser can be found elsewhere, I have omitted discussion of the Mammon episode here. Cullen also analyzes Despayre's abuse of Scripture in some detail, and I am generally indebted to his discussion. The effort here to identify parallels between Spenser's characterization of Despayre and Protestant hermeneutic theory confirms and extends Cullen's argument. That Spenser was directly acquainted with the hermeneutic literature is of course conjectural, although his familiarity with John Bale's interlude based on the Matthew text is likely. Knowledge of these issues of interpretation, however, was widely disseminated through the books of homilies (1547, 1563) issued by the state and required reading in local parishes. See also Note 3. All quotations from The Faerie Queene are taken from the Variorum edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw, et. al. (Baltimore, 1932 et seq.).

  2. All biblical quotations are taken from the Geneva Bible. Many arguments about Spenser's use of the Scriptures have tried to demonstrate his familiarity with one bible or another in order to assess his Anglican or Puritan leanings. Such arguments seem to me unnecessarily narrow. Clear distinctions between Anglican and Puritan as early as Spenser's time are difficult to draw; the argument here, however, may suggest that Spenser's hermeneutics tended toward those of the “lower” Protestants. Although the evidence is inconclusive, it seems likely that Spenser was familiar with the Geneva Bible; certainly, in drawing on the text of Matthew, he would have found the Geneva commentary compatible with his literary interests.

  3. Henry Bullinger, Decades, Vol. I-II (First Decade, third sermon), ed. Thomas Harding (Cambridge, 1849), p. 78. Although a foreign reformer, Bullinger is cited for his influence over English clergy. In 1586 Archbishop Whitgift made it mandatory that all English preachers read at least one Bullinger sermon a week.

  4. John Bale, A Brefe Comedy or enterlude concernynge the temptacyon of our Lorde and saver, Jesus Chryst, by Sathan in the desart (1538), Old English Drama Series, Student Facsimile Edition, 1909.

  5. William Perkins, The Combat Between Christ and the Deuell Displayed: or A Commentary upon the Temptations of Christ, etc. (1609), p. 30.

  6. J. W. Blench, Preaching in England in the Late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (Oxford, 1964), p. 142. General evidence of the Protestant confidence in Scripture as a moral and spiritual aid abounds in this literature. For arguments particularly relevant to that I am advancing here, see, for example, John Jewel, “A Treatise of the Holy Scriptures,” in Works, Vol. IV, ed. John Ayre (Cambridge, 1850), and Richard Hooker, Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Politie (1617), p. 73.

  7. Perkins, p. 30.

  8. John Bale, Baleus Prolocutor.

  9. John R. Wall has demonstrated that the Tudor Book of Homilies (1547) articulated for early Protestants the Erasmian philosophia Christi, a program which intended the study of Scripture to lead to an application of Christ's model of charity to the active Christian life. Protestant commentary on Christ's temptation in the wilderness would suggest that his model extended as well to the appropriate use of Scripture in argument. See John R. Wall, “The Book of Homilies of 1547,” in Anglican Theological Review (1976), pp. 75-87, who identifies this text as a major repository of Christian humanism in the mid-sixteenth century, and argues the influence of its style on didactic and controversial prose in this period. My argument suggests the influence of the hermeneutic theory in this text and others of its kind, and on imaginative literature as well. A good example of the application of these principles in a literary setting (although more obviously didactic than Spenser's use of them) is John Bradford's instructional dialogue, “A Dialogue of Communication between Satan and our Conscience,” in Writings, ed. Aubry Townsend (Cambridge, 1848), I, pp. 210ff. Here Conscience responds to Satan's rebukes, citing Scripture according to Christ's model.

  10. John Knox, “An Exposition upon Matthew IV, concerning the Temptation of Chryst in the wildernesse” (1556), in Works, ed. David Laing (Edinburgh, 1855), IV, pp. 113-14. Quotations in this discussion are taken from this text.

  11. Perkins, p. 31.

  12. John Bale, Christus Interlocutor. Bale's Christ rebukes Satan for omitting only four words of the text, “whych if ye put out of syght / Ye shall neuer take that place of scripture ryght.” Christ here insists “In no wyse ye ought the scripture to depraue, / But as they lye whole, so ought ye them to haue.”

  13. Perkins, p. 19.

  14. Knox, p. 113.

  15. Bullinger, First Sermon, First Decade, p. 36.

  16. See Virgil Whitaker, The Religious Basis Of Spenser's Thought (Stanford, Cal., 1950), p. 26. Earlier Jortin and Upton, eighteenth-century annotators of Spenser, had disagreed on the effect of this passage. Recognizing its basis in the “sacred words” of Scripture, Jortin judged bluntly: “The Poet ought not to have placed them where he has.” Upton, however, saw the parodic value of the passage, an example of “Spenser's favorite iteration of letters … to shew how the best sayings may be perverted to the worst meanings.” See Variorum, II, p. 246.

  17. William Perkins, A Godly and Learned Exposition of Christ's Sermon on the Mount (1608), p. 1.

  18. Martin Luther, “Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount,” in Works XXI, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis, Mo., 1956), XXI, pp. 193-94.

  19. See, for example, Grace W. Landrum, “Spenser's Use of the Bible and his Alleged Puritanism,” PMLA 41 (1926), 517-44; Anthea Hume, “Spenser, Puritanism, and the May Eclogue,” Review of English Studies 20 (1969), 155-67; Naseeb Shaheen, “Spenser and the New Testament,” American Notes and Queries, 10 (1971), 4-5.

  20. The first major study of Protestant poetics is Barbara Lewalski's Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Lyric (Princeton, N.J., 1979). A study of similar literary values in the early Tudor period is provided by John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, N.J., 1982).

Maureen Quilligan (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Quilligan, Maureen. “The Comedy of Female Authority in The Faerie Queene.English Literary Renaissance 17, no. 2 (spring 1987): 156-71.

[In the following essay, Quilligan discusses Spenser's use of humor in writing about Queen Elizabeth I 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 thinges 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 audience 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, especially 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 Trompart's fear at having seen Archimago flap away to get Arthur's sword:

He stayd not for more bidding, but away
          Was suddein vanished out of his sight:
          The Northerne wind his wings did broad display
          At his command, and reared him vp light
          From off the earth to take his aerie flight.
          They lookt about, but no where could espie
          Tract of his foot: then dead through great affright
          They both nigh were, and each bad other flie:
Both fled attonce, ne euer backe returned eie.


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:

                                                            with that he crauld out of his nest,
          Forth creeping on his caitiue hands and thies,
          And standing stoutly vp, his loftie crest
Did fiercly shake, and rowze, as comming late from rest.


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:

But what art thou ô ladie, which doest range
          In this wilde forrest, where no pleasure is,
          And doest not it for ioyous court exchaunge
          Emongst thine equall peres, where happie blis
          And all delight does raigne, much more then this?
.....The wood is fit for beasts, the court is fit for thee.


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.

Who so in pompe of proud estate (quoth she)
          Does swim, and bathe himselfe in courtly blis,
          Does waste his dayes in darke obscuritee,
          And in obliuion euer buried is:
.....          Abroad in armes, at home in studious kind
Who seekes with painfull toile, shall honor soonest find.


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.

In Princes court, The rest she would haue said,
          But that the foolish man, fild with delight
          Of her sweet words, that all his sence dismaid,
          And with her wondrous beautie rauisht quight,
          Gan burne in filthy lust, and leaping light,
          Thought in his bastard armes her to embrace.


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 stope 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 magico-prophetic 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:

          And her lancke loynes vngirt, and breasts vnbraste,
          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 vndight,
And were with sweet Ambrosia all besprinkled light.
Soon as she Venus saw behind her backe,
          She was asham'd to be so loose surprized,
          And woxe half wroth against her damzels slacke,
          That had not her thereof before auized,
          But suffred her so carelesly disguized
          Be ouertaken.


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 (

          For he is faire and fresh in face and guize,
          As any Nymph (let not it be enuyde.)
So saying euery Nymph full narrowly she eyde.


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 ( 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.

There Faunus saw that pleased much his eye,
          And made his hart to tickle in his brest,
          That for great ioy of some-what he did spy,
          He could him not containe in silent rest;
          But breaking forth in laughter, loud profest
          His foolish thought. A foolish Faune indeed,
          That couldst not hold thy selfe so hidden blest,
          But wouldest needs thine owne conceit areed.
Babblers vnworthy been of so diuine a meed.


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” ( 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” (, 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:

          He to her lept with deadly dreadfull looke,
          And her sunshynie helmet soone vnlaced,
Thinking at once both head and helmet to haue raced.
But when as he discouered had her face,
          He saw his sences straunge astonishment,
At sight thereof his cruell minded hart
          Empierced was with pittifull regard


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:

Whom when as Artegall in that distresse
          By chaunce beheld, he left the bloudy slaughter,
          In which he swam, and ranne to his redresse.
          There her assayling fiercely fresh, he raught her
          Such an huge stroke, that it of sence distraught her:
          And had she not it warded warily,
          It had depriu'd her mother of a daughter.


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

          She her so rudely on the helmet smit,
          That it empierced to the very braine,
And her proud person low prostrated on the plaine.
Where being layd, the wrothfull Britonesse
          Stayd not, till she came to her selfe againe,
          But in revenge both of her loues distresse,
          And her late vile reproch, though vaunted vaine,
          And also of her wound, which sore did paine,
          She with one stroke both head and helmet cleft.


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.


  1. A 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 The 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 Cite 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 Cite 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:

    The wicked stroke vpon her helmet chaunst,
              And with the force, which in it selfe it bore,
              Her ventayle shard away, and thence forth glaunst
              A down in vaine, ne harm'd her any more.
              With that her angels face, vnseene afore,
              Like to the ruddie morne appeard in sight
    .....And round about the same, her yellow heare
              Hauing through stirring loosd their wonted band,
              Like to a golden border did appeare,
    .....And as his hand hevp againe did reare,
              Thinking to worke on her his vtmost wracke,
              His powrelesse arme benumbd with secret feare
              From his reuengefull purpose shronke abacke.
    .....And he himselfe long gazing thereupon,
              At last fell humbly down vpon his knee,
              And of his wonder made religion.


  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.

Richard Mallette (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Mallette, Richard. “The Protestant Art of Preaching in Book One of The Faerie Queene.Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. 7, edited by Patrick Cullen and Thomas P. Roche, Jr., pp. 3-25. New York: AMS Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Mallette examines Book I of The Faerie Queene in the context of English Reformation ideas about Protestant preachers and preaching.]

At a privotal point in Spenser's Legend of Holiness, with Redcross cast into Orgoglio's dungeon and Una's spirits languishing, Arthur makes his ceremonious entrance into the poem. The scene in which he consoles Una and volunteers as her champion deserves closer attention than it has usually received, because the method Arthur employs “in saving Una from despair” (to quote a recent editor)1 is firmly bound to Reformation ideas about the role of the preacher in the Protestant ordo salutis. The scene can therefore serve as the gateway to the wider implications of the art of preaching in Book One. More broadly speaking, I would like to demonstrate how an awareness of English Reformation homiletics casts a bright light on a signal dimension of the Book's artistry, how Spenser's preoccupation with “words of wondrous might” (I. x. 24) merges with the Protestant preacher's mindfulness of “how we heare Gods word, that it may be effectual to our salvation.”2

After Arthur approaches Una decorously and reticently, he learns of the “secret sorrow” afflicting her heart and resolves to “allay, and calme her storming paine” by encouraging her with “[f]aire feeling words” to express her misery. She responds with “bleeding words” (I. vii. 38) but resists his offer to give vent to grief: “My last left comfort,” she says, is “my woes to weepe and waile” (I. vii. 39). Arthur entreats again, urging her to “vnfold the anguish of your hart,” because, he says,

Mishaps are maistred by aduice discrete,
And counsell mittigates the greatest smart;
Found never helpe, who never would his hurts impart.

(I. vii. 40)

In his role as the giver of “counsell” Arthur makes an intriguing distinction between the emotional condition he discerns in Una (the “anguish of [her] hart”) and such external adversities as Redcross's imprisonment, her abandonment, and so forth, which may have prompted her misery. He makes it plain that, quite apart from any physical assistance he may be able to provide, his immediate purpose is to administer a spiritual balm to her “greatest smart,” her emotional wretchedness. The distinction matters because it helps to underline Arthur's particular duty as the primary spiritual, as well as martial, champion of the Book. His rescue of Una, entirely verbal and resonant of theological commonplace, has an important pastoral component, which centers on his quelling her despair with “faith”:

          O but (quoth she) great griefe will not be tould,
          And can more easily be thought, then said.
          Right so; (quoth he) but he, that neuer would,
          Could neuer: will to might giues greatest aid.
          But griefe (quoth she) does greater grow displaid,
          If then it find not helpe, and breedes despaire.
          Despaire breedes not (quoth he) where faith is staid.
          No faith so fast (quoth he) but flesh does paire.
Flesh may empaire (quoth he) but reason can repaire.

(I. vii. 41)

Their stichomythy rises above repartee or even exchange of opinion: Arthur corrects Una's feelings. His verbal prowesse—rational, proverbial, in fact homiletic—not only consoles but also has the affective power to induce “faith,” perhaps the key word of the Book:

His goodly reason, and well guided speach
So deepe did settle in her gratious thought,
That her perswaded to disclose the breach,
Which loue and fortune in her heart had wrought.

(I. vii. 42)

Healed of this much of her anguish, Una can now recount her story in full. At the conclusion of her recitation Arthur responds with these words, and the canto ends on an unequivocally hopeful note:

          But be of cheare, and comfort to you take:
          For till I have acquit your captiue knight,
          Assure your selfe, I will you not forsake.
          His chearefull words reuiu'd her chearelesse spright,
So forth they went, the Dwarfe them guiding euer right.

(I. vii. 52)

Two words in this passage call for attention: “comfort” (repeated three times in the scene) and “assure.” The theology of assurance and the preaching of comfort comprise a fundamental feature of the Protestant ministry and reflect a spirit of hope and perseverance heard across the spectrum of Reformation theology.3 “Show diligence,” says Richard Hooker, “to the full assurance of hope unto the end.”4 “Our dutie,” says Perkins, “is, to labour to bee setled and assured in our conscience that God is our God: for first in this assurance is the foundation of all true comfort” (II, 520). Responding to Paul's injunction that the preacher “speaketh unto men to edifying, and, to exhortacion, and to comfort” (I Cor. 14.3)5, Protestant commentators asked implicitly and repeatedly with John Downame “what peace can wee have, if wee be not assured of our election, but have our mindes racked between faith and doubting, hope and despaire?”6 It was a problem that dominated much religious discussion, particularly among the followers of Calvin: how can the elect be assured of their salvation and comforted in their doubt?7 It was a problem, moreover, not only to be thrashed out by theologians but also one that bore upon the everyday concerns of practical instruction and the guidance of souls. The duty of the pastor centered on the need to assure the flock of their salvation and to comfort them in their spiritual distress. Hence we hear of Richard Greenham's noteworthy work as a soother of distraught souls, in a description that has strong similarities to Arthur's comforting of Una: “… his masterpiece was in comforting wounded consciences. For although Heaven's hand can only set a broken heart yet God used him herein as an instrument of good to many, who came to him with weeping eyes and went from him with cheerful souls.”8 While Una's conscience has of course no cause for recrimination, she takes comfort and assurance and cheer from her new champion, a figure associated with Heavenly Grace, of the kind sought by the faithful at every stage of the order of salvation.

The preacher's words of assurance comprised of course only one aspect of his duties, words reflecting a more powerful Word which it was his more general mission to promulgate. As a bringer of comfort as well as a diviner of scripture, the preacher had as his goal to move his hearers to an emotional grasp of the truth—in Erasmus's words “to kindle fervent hearts.”9 As Perkins sums it up: “the word preached must pearce into the heart” (I, 200) to arouse feelings and inspire devotion. The emotional power of “the word preached” preoccupied Reformation writing, and was acknowledged by all Protestants and especially by Calvinists, as God's means of illuminating the darkened mind, softening the hardened heart, quelling doubt, and saving souls. All looked to Paul's words, from a text quoted tirelessly throughout the period: “How shal they heare without a preacher? And how shal they preache except they be sent? … For faith is by hearing, and hearing by the worde of God” (Rom. 10.14-17). Calvin's response to these words resounds across Reformation writing: “Because among so manie excellent gifts wherewith God hath garnished mankinde: this is a singular prerogatiue, that he vouchsaueth to consecrate the mouthes and tongues of men to himselfe, that his owne voice shoulde sounde in them.” He notes that the “Church is not otherwise builded but by outwarde preaching” and that “with God remaineth his power to saue, but (as the same Paul witnesseth) he vttereth and displayeth the same in the preaching of the Gospell.”10 Bullinger's adage sums up the thought: praedicatio verbi Dei est verbum Dei.11

The English Reformation affirmed the Calvinist predisposition towards preaching, especially among Puritans but also across the spectrum.12 Hooker, for example, calls sermons the “blessed ordinance of God” that serve “unto the sound and healthie as food, as physicke unto diseased mindes.”13 For the Puritan writer preaching was life, quite literally; Greenham states the situation baldly: “so it is that preaching brings hearing, hearing breeds beleeving, and by beleeving we are saved.”14 As an inherent part of the order of salvation preaching assumes central importance. Perkins states it clearly:

The preaching of the Gospell is the key of the kingdome of heauen: so that look how necessary it is for a man to haue his soule and to enter into Heauen, so behoouefull it is for him to heare Sermons: for that is the turning of the key whereby we enter into this kingdome. … He that is of God, heareth Gods word: and hee that heareth it not, is not of God.

I John 4:6 (III, 305)

Formulations such as this make clear why preaching assumed the urgency it did among Reformation writers. What William Haller has termed a “vital rage for utterance”15 lies behind the predominance of preaching in the scale of values in the age. While historians of the English Reformation have investigated the social, political, ecclesiastical, and liturgical impact of preaching,16 in literary studies preaching remains neglected, a situation not greatly improved from the one Haller complained about nearly fifty years ago when he noted that “preachers exercised an incalculable influence on the development of popular literary taste and expression, an influence no less great for having been ignored by critics and historians.”17

This influence is evident in Spenser's Legend of Holiness, and it would be a surprise if it were not, given the virtue of the Book and the primacy of preaching in the age. Arthur's remedying of Una's distress belongs clearly to the realm of the preacher's duties. When Una asks that Arthur's “wisedome will direct my thought” (I. vii. 42) she asks for the guiding spiritual power reserved in the literature of the age for the skill of the preacher. It is worth looking more closely at how Reformation writers formulated the role of the preacher in the drama of his listener's spiritual life, because we will see that their conception of that role bears closely on the remarkable amount of advice-giving we find in Book One. The various pieces of counsel offered over the course of the Book, mostly directed at Redcross, form a pattern worth examining in Protestant homiletic texts.

The function of the sermon changes radically in the Reformation.18 It now focuses more squarely on teaching and exhortation. The medieval homiletic tradition, which customarily teaches by anecdote and exemplum, gives way to a sermon whose chief purpose is more often reproof and amendment. In the new homiletics, the sermon frequently serves as an ethical function, perhaps as a kind of substitute for the pre-Reformation sacrament of penance.19 Richard Greenham summarizes the changes in his discussion of how the preacher is to “apply” his wisdom: “All application of doctrine must be referred to one of these heads: 1. To teach and establish true opinions; 2. Or to confute false opinions; 3. Or to correct evil manners; 4. Or to frame good manners; 5. Or to comfort the will.”20 This bias toward the ethical function of the sermon is echoed by Rogers when he says that the “Word is the first and principall” means and help to “strengthen the beleever and settle him in a good life.”21 And nowhere does one find a clearer ethical thrust than in the Book of Homilies, the collection designed and legislated to be read in lieu of weekly sermons in virtually every parish of the realm. The Homilies are preponderately didactic and straightforward, clearly intending to encompass the chief subjects upon which a clergyman ought to address his flock by way of instruction and admonition.22


We can look to the first canto of Book One as a miniature of patterns about advice-giving developed throughout. The first words of dialogue are Una's, admonishing Redcross as he stands before the cave of Error:

Be well aware, quoth then that Ladie milde,
Least suddaine mischiefe ye too rash prouoke:
The danger hid, the place unknowne and wilde,
Breedes dreadfull doubts: oft fire is without smoke,
And perill without show: therefore your stroke
Sir knight with-hold, till further triall made.

(I. i. 12)

The proverbial formulation of this common sense may disguise the nature of Una's authority. Certainly Redcross easily dismisses it with foolhardy self-righteousness: “Vertue giues her selfe light,” he says, “through darkenesse for to wade” (I. i. 12). And so Una advances a higher form of interpretation, as it were, and attempts on his behalf to “read” the language of the Wood, one obscured for the knight in the pun of Error's cave (Lat: cave). This language Una translates for him when she calls out that “wisedome warnes” caution: “Therefore I read beware” (I. i. 13). Redcross's failure to heed Una's authority compels her to demonstrate it more directly a perilous moment later. Her famous and perplexing counsel—“Add faith vnto your force, and be not faint / Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee” (I. i. 19)—rallies the knight, but neither here nor in subsequent episodes is there any evidence that he responds to or even actually hears the first of Una's two lines of admonition.

One way of approaching this scene and others that deepen Redcross's inadequacies is to suggest, with a metaphorical turn borne out by the text, that Redcross knows neither how to hear nor to read properly. He is spiritually illiterate and hard of hearing. In this episode, as later adventures will show only too clearly, he hears only the second half of Una's warning. As Greenham puts it, “we must know that there are two hearings. There is a hearing of the eare, and there is a hearing of the heart: there is a speaking to the eare and there is a speaking to the heart.”23 While Redcross saves himself in Error's cave, he does so only physically (“of the eare”) and not at all spiritually (“of the heart”). Perkins states the matter similarly when he warns that “the hearers ought not to ascribe their faith to the gifts of men but to the power of Gods word” (II, 670). We are saved, after all, not by our own efforts, but by faith.

The second half of Canto One presents another scene of advice-giving and hearkens back ironically to the motifs sketched in the first episode. Chancing to meet Archimago, disguised as an “aged Sire,” soberly clad, carrying a book, and knocking his breast “as one that did repent” (I. i. 29), Una and Redcross might well anticipate from his “sagely sad” figure some sort of higher counsel. In fact, however, everything about him suggests the antithesis of the godly Protestant preacher, a suggestion which holds true throughout the episode. His self-description, offered when Redcross asks him for direction to “straunge aduentures,” would immediately suggest to Spenser's Protestant audience the stereotypical portrait of a Roman Catholic monk, withdrawn silently from the world:

                                                                      … how should, alas,
          Silly old man, that liues in hidden cell,
          Bidding his beades all day for his trespas,
          Tydings of warre and worldly trouble tell?
With holy father sits not with such things to mell.

(I. i. 30)

Far from offering the help of the “preachers of God's gospel, as messengers, as servants, as ministers of Christ,” in Bishop Jewel's words, “God's messengers appointed to lead the guide,”24 Archimago's initial pose of severe monastic detachment would invite a hostile response from an audience conditioned to the newly developed image of an active clergy, living in the world.25

Archimago presently discards his detachment and, when it is in his interests to do so, joins Una in giving advice to Redcross. The knight's response is revealing. Una advises him to take rest at Archimago's dwelling, and the old man quickly confirms her words: “Right well Sir knight ye haue aduised bin” (I. i. 33). Earlier Redcross had rashly ignored her advice (about “stay[ing] the steppe” (I. i. 13) at Error's cave); here he accepts it, to their detriment. Redcross is unable, here and elsewhere, to discriminate between good and bad advice; he was not, in Perkins's metaphor, developed a “saving hearing” (III, 280). Hence he is unable to discern the diabolical in Archimago's speech, even when the old man displays it for them in terms none of Spenser's audience could mis-hear—or would have heard, for that matter, from any of its godly divines:

          With faire discourse the euening so they pas:
          For that old man of pleasing words had store,
          And well could file his tongue as smooth as
          He told of Saintes and Popes, and euermore
He strowd an Aue - Mary after and before.

(I. i. 35)

And if these hints are not enough, Archimago soon “choos[es] out few wordes most horrible,” the satanic negation of the preacher's Word:

He bad awake blacke Plutoes griesly Dame,
And cursed heauen, and spake reproachfull shame
Of highest God, the Lord of life and light.

(I. i. 37)

Of the “Sprights” Archimago summons up, he fashions one in the image and likeness of Una and sends her to seduce Redcross during the night. The encounter between them is especially noteworthy because it anticipates the one we have already examined between Arthur and Una at the end of Canto Seven, exactly half a book later. Like Una, the spright begins tearfully and then pauses:

Her swollen hart her speach seemd to bereaue,
And then againe begun, My weaker yeares
Captiu'd to fortune and frayle worldly feares,
Fly to your faith for succour and sure ayde.

(I. i. 52)

Key words such as “speach,” “faith,” and “sure ayde” heighten the correspondence between the two scenes. And in a parodic foreshadowing of Arthur's later charge, Redcross assumes the role here of the comforter. “Assure your selfe,” he tells the imposter, “I deeme your love, and hold me to you bound” (I. i. 54); he thus ironically anticipates Arthur's later words to Una: “Assure your self, I will you not foresake” (I. vii. 52). Though the spright's “doubtfull words made that redoubted knight / Suspect her truth” (I. i. 53), he nonetheless misreads, “fed with words, that could not chuse but please” (I. i. 54), misplaces his faith, and betrays Una. A selection from Perkins's catechism, “The Foundation of Christian Religion,” serves as an appropriate gloss upon this scene and throughout: “Q. How must we hear Gods word, that it may be effectual to our saluation? A. We must come to it with hunger-bitten hearts, hauing an appetite to the word; we must marke it with attention, receive it by faith, submit ourselves unto it with feare and trembling, euen then when our faults our reprooved. Lastly, we must hide it in the corners of our hearts, that we may frame our lives and conversations by it” (I, 7).

In the following episodes, as Redcross's errors deepen into sins, the patterns limned in the first canto continue to unfold. Spenser continually draws our attention over the course of the narrative to the power of words (in Perkins's phrase) to “pearce the heart”—or, in Redcross's declining spiritual state, to fail to do so. In the second canto, to choose a crucial example, Redcross succumbs to Duessa disguised as Fidessa. As she recounts her story, riddled with inconsistencies, Redcross responds in this fashion:

He in great passion all this while did dwell,
More busying his quicke eyes, her face to view,
Then his dull eares, to heare what she did tell.

(I. ii. 26)

His ears have been “dull” from the beginning; he listens only with what Perkins calls the “bodily eare,” neglecting the “sauing hearing which bringeth eternal life: all other hearing doth increase our sins to our further condemnation” (III, 280). Relying on that “other hearing” he makes a rash promise, one that we have heard now in two other contexts: “Henceforth,” he tells Duessa, “in safe assurance may ye rest” (I. ii. 27).

Oddly enough, however, even though he is spiritually hard of hearing, Redcross does in fact recognize that some words can deceive. No sooner has he given assurance to Duessa than Fradubio's “piteous yelling voyce was heard” (I. ii. 31). The knight at this point is still sufficiently aware of his own frailty to ask

What voyce of damned Ghost from Limbo lake,
Or guilefull spright wandring in empty aire,
Both which fraile men do oftentimes mistake,
Sends to my doubtfull eares these speaches rare?

(I. ii. 32)

Despite his claims to alertness, his ears are not “doubtfull” in any morally useful sense (although perhaps they are full of doubt, in a theologically harmful sense). He not only fails to recognize that he has already been victimized by his dull ears, but he fails to recognize that Fradubio's words apply to his own situation. Whatever other literary precedents lie behind Fradubio's compelling tale, it is also a derivative of the medieval homiletic exemplum, perhaps one drawn from “natural phenomena, especially the life of plants,” still current in the sixteenth century, despite changes in the Reformation sermon.26 The auditor, in this case, conspicuously fails to make the desired personal application. In failing to heed Fradubio's warning, Redcross's story becomes in turn an exemplum for the reader, as the narrator makes explicit when he later resumes the knight's tale and exhorts us to “beware of fraud, beware of fickleness”: “That doth this Redcrosse knights ensample plainly proue” (I. iv. i).

That proof is perhaps most effective in the House of Pride, where Spenser's narrative technique underscores Redcross's widening separation from the saving power of the word (and the Word). The episode up until the joust has relatively little dialogue; we hear nothing directly, for example, of what Lucifera says. And of course the procession of the Seven Deadly Sins is an exclusively visual event;27 we hear nobody speak until Sansjoy makes his rude entrance. Redcross's ominous response to the Saracen's accusations confirms his deepening insensitivity to the power of language: “He neuer meant with words, but swords to plead his right” (I. iv. 42). No wonder, then, that Redcross so easily misinterprets Duessa's famous words in the ensuing joust. When she cries out from the stands to Sansjoy on what appears to be the verge of his triumph “Thine the shield, and I, and all” (I. v. 11), Redcross mis-hears, mistakenly applies her words to himself, and ironically rises to the danger. His interpretive powers have been crippled. In these cantos it is Duessa and Sansjoy who communicate accurately and profoundly. In their secret colloquy she approaches him “with speaches seeming fit” (I. iv. 45), and he in turn “[w]ith gentle wordes he can hear fairely greet / And bad say on the secret of her hart” (I. iv. 46).

The profundity of Redcross's spiritual illiteracy and deafness deepens by Spenser's juxtaposing to his trials Una's wanderings in separate cantos. Already vulnerable without Redcross's protection, she is reduced to helplessness by the incomprehension of the characters she encounters. Corceca can neither “heare, nor speake, nor understand” (I. iii. 3) and is hardly bettered by her mother, whose speech is limited to “nine hundred Pater nosters every day / And thrise nine hundred Aues she was wont to say” (I. iii. 13). They swing to the opposite extreme, equally ineffective, after the death of Kirkrapine. They “loudly bray” at Una “with hollow howling, and lamenting cry / Shamefully at her rayling all the way” (I. iii. 23). Una's pliight in the midst of this inarticulacy reenforces Spenser's insistence on the necessity of the salvific power of language as a way out of the wilderness. Hence Una's stay among the savage nation adds a further dimension to the pattern, while also reflecting implicitly upon Redcross's parallel sojourn in the House of Pride. In the forest Una herself now becomes miserably speechless (“Such fearefull fit assaid her trembling hart / Ne word to speake no ioynt to moue she had,” (I. vi. 11); and yet she is understood more clearly, one suspects, by others than by Redcross: “The saluage nation feele her secret smarte, / And read her sorrow in her count'nance sad” and “comfort her” (I. vi. 11). Despite their superior powers as readers, the satyrs are nonetheless incapable (though perhaps no more so than Redcross, at this point) of comprehending the Word:

During which time her gentle wit she plyes,
To teach them truth, which worshipt her in vaine,
And made her th'Image of Idolytryes. …

(I. vi. 19)


In the second half of Book One, two crucial episodes rely upon the art of preaching: that in which Despaire exhorts Redcross to suicide and that in the House of Holiness where Redcross learns about mercy and salvation. Both episodes have been the focus of considerable attention, from both theological and rhetorical perspectives. These scenes now need to be placed more specifically in the context of Protestant preaching. When we do so we find that the advice Redcross receives from Despaire constitutes what Perkins calls “unprofitable hearing” (a danger which Perkins in fact associates with despair in his scheme of “tentations to the godly”) and that what the knight finds in the House of Holiness is “effectual preaching and hearing” (a benefit Perkins lists among the “causes of salvation”).28 Or to state the matter in the way one contemporary sermon manual puts it, in the last part of the Book Redcross hears two of the major categories of sermons: from Despaire he hears a “chidinge” sermon; from Contemplation he hears a “perswasible” sermon.29 The two, we shall see, are closely linked.

Critics have analysed Despaire's great speech with considerable skill and have traced its origins in a number of traditions.30 Two recent treatments are especially relevant here. Patrick Cullen extends earlier perceptions that Despaire's rhetorical strategy is to segregate the Covenants of Justice and Mercy by pointing out that Despaire delivers an “infernal sermon” based on distortion of scripture, particularly of Pauline texts. By “parodying New Testament doctrine” Despaire's speech becomes a “prophanation of divine [Pauline] metaphor.”31 More recently, Ann Imbrie has demonstrated how Despaire's rhetoric is based on a parody of biblical interpretation and that his method relies on the “fault of quoting out of context,” condemned in Reformation hermeneutics.32 Both of these valuable examinations rely on showing how Despaire distorts scripture. I would like to enhance this understanding by showing that Despire parodies not only scripture but also Reformation sermons, especially (though not exclusively) those based on Calvinist understandings of the depravity of human nature.

If regarded as a distorted form of the Reformation preacher, Despaire fulfills the role of what came to be called (after the figure from Revelation) a “false prophet,” in a particularly sinister counterfeit:

There are three kinds of false prophets. The first teacheth false doctrine. The second teacheth true doctrine but applieth it falsely. The third teacheth and applieth it well, but liue ill.33

Despaire embodies in varying degrees all three aberrations. And Redcross (in keeping with the constellation of admonitions the book unfolds) gets ample warning of the methods by which Despaire “teacheth false doctrine.” Trevisan, the young knight who directs Redcross to Despaire's cave, cautions against the “wounding words and termes of foule repriefe” by which Despaire plucks “from vs all hope of due reliefe” (I. ix. 29). Trevisan re-iterates the point when Redcross naively asks how “idle speach” could harm a man. “His subtil tongue,” says Trevisan, “like dropping honny, mealt'th / Into the heart” (I. ix. 31). Despaire employs, that is, rhetorical techniques (conveyed in similar terms of words-heart-hope) which are the diabolical counterpart to those Arthur has employed to console Una. Redcross, however, has become so deafened to wholesome advice that he ignores this warning and of course quickly proves vulnerable to the kinds of deceit Despaire employs.

Despaire's distortion of the Reformation sermon parallels his distortion of scripture noted by other critics: he suppresses half of his text. The Reformation sermon had two functions of equal importance: on the one hand to preach repentance, on the other to teach the forgiveness of sins. One sermon manual stresses the parity of the two functions by noting that the congregation must be convinced not only of their wickedness but also that “God will pardon and forgive their sins and that he will withdraw his anger and punishment.”34 The conclusion and culmination of Despaire's speech skillfully mimics the preacher's message of repentance:

Is not he iust, that all this doth behold
          From highest heauen, and beares an equall eye?
          Shall he thy sins vp in his knowledge fold,
          And guiltie be of thine impietie?
          Is not his law, Let euery sinner die:
          Die shall all flesh?

(I. ix. 47)

By ending here Despaire truncates the preacher's obligation to balance the sermon about penitence with the sermon about forgiveness. Or as Hemmingsen puts it in his sermon manual, The Preacher, translated into English in 1574, the “chidinge sermon,” used to reprimand and correct “the loytring or the offendinge, or the stubburne and disobediente hearer,” has an inherent danger, strictly to be avoided. “Conditions of repentance,” he says, ought to “be mingled, least any being discouraged, with somewhat more rougher chidinges, should fall into desparation or wilfullye kill himselfe.”35

Despair's speech is yet another kind of parody, one becoming commoner during the Reformation—the sermon on the depravity of human nature. Here one need only compare Despaire's final words with those of an immensely popular preacher of Elizabethan England, Henry Smith. In one sermon, “Trumpet, of the Soule sounding to Judgement” Smith preaches on the text “Rejoyce, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart bee merry in thy young days, follow the ways of thine owne heart and the lusts of thine eyes. But remember for all these things then must come to judgement. (Eccles. 1.9)”36 In another sermon he has this to say on the consequences of sin:

An Arrow is swift, the Sun is swifter, but Sin is swiftest of all: for in a moment it is committed on earth, it comes before God in heaven, and is condemned to hell. … For the wrath of God taketh up up on high, and throweth us down low upon the rocks of shame and contempt, and terrour of conscience: and so having crushed us with double death, the grave devouring us, hell swallowing us.37

Smith's words have their visual counterpart in the tableau Despaire shows Redcross at the end of his speech:

He shew'd him painted in a table plaine,
The damned ghosts, that doe in torments waile,
And thousand feends that doe them endlesse paine
With fire and brimstone, which for euer shall remaine

(I. ix. 49)

Despair's performance, then, parodies sermons of the age not so much by distorting them (he actually mirrors them—or an element of them—quite accurately) as by simply omitting what normally followed fulminations against sin, namely the assurance of salvation for the righteous.

The effect of Despaire's speech on Redcross is equally parodic—in this case, a parody of the congregation's response, summed up in Perkins's notion that the “word preached must pearce into the heart”:38

The Knight was much enmoued with his speach
That as a swords point through his hart did perse,
And in his conscience made a secret breach. …

(I. ix. 48)

Though Redcross appears to respond to Despaire's words with his heart (Spenser's choice of a simile is telling), in fact he hears this sermon only with a “bodily ear.” Despaire's sermon may heighten his listener's awareness of sin, but it does not encourage another kind of hearing, one that brings with it “faith, conversion, and obedience. … This is that saving hearing which bringeth eternal life: all other hearing doth increase our sins to our further condemnation” (Perkins, III, 280). As the narrator points out, Redcross has been “charmed with inchaunted rimes” (I. ix. 49), different only in degree from the “mighty charmes” and curses of Archimago (I. i. 36-37). To be spared suicide he needs Una's “saving” words about mercy.

Her succinct speech with its mordant questions (“In heauenly mercies hast thou not a part?” [I. ix. 53]), indebted as it is to Protestant commonplace and scriptural reminders of “greater grace,” needs to be understood in connection with two other relevant homiletic passages. The first is the narrator's, with the fervent Reformation generalizations and its high hortatory tone, at the beginning of the next canto:

          Ne let the man ascribe it to his skill,
          That thorough grace hath gained victory.
          If any strength we have, it is to ill,
But all the good is Gods, both power and eke will.

(I. x. 1)

The centrifugal force of these words, expanding those of Una to Redcross in order to encompass the human condition, prepare for yet another homily, that of Caelia in the House of Holiness:

                                                                                … So few there bee,
          That chose the narrow path, or seeke the right:
          All keepe the broad high way, and take delight
          With many other for to go astray,
          And be partakers of their euill plight,
          Then with a few to walke the rightest way;
O foolish men, why haste ye to your owne decay?

(I. x. 10)

All three homilies occur at the time when Redcross's heart has been sufficiently bruised and humbled for him to respond to their truths. As Una recognizes, he is ready to enroll in Fidelia's “schoolehouse” so “that of her heauenly learning he might taste, / And heare the wisedome of her words diuine” (I. x. 18). At last Redcross will learn how to hear, how to develop that “sauing hearing which bringeth eternal life” (Perkins, III, 280). Perkins notes that those who are hard of heart “must know that Gods judgement is on them; and if they would be saued, they must labour to come out of this estate, and endeauor to hear with their hearts, that they may be turned unto God both in minde, heart, and life. … We must use all good meanes to become good hearers of Gods word, bringing not only the bodily eares which wee have by creation, but the spiritual eares of the heart, which we have by regeneration” (III, 280).

This is exactly the condition Redcross is now in and hence can respond to the Word offered by Fidelia's preaching:

          And that her sacred Booke, with bloud ywrit,
          That none could read, except she did them teach,
          She unto him disclosed euery whit,
          And heauenly documents thereout did preach
          That weaker wit of man could neuer reach,
          Of God, of grace, of justice, of free will,
          That wonder was to hear her goodly speach:
          For she was able, with her words to kill,
And raise againe to life the hart, that she did thrill.

(I. x. 19; emphasis added).

At last Redcross is taught how to “read,” a skill he has lacked since the Cave of Error. And he learns at last how to “hear her goodly speach,” a hearing different in kind from that of his “bodily eares.” “So it is,” says Greenham, “that preaching brings hearing, hearing breeds beleeving, and by beleeving we are saved.”39 Redcross has now become what Perkins calls a “hearing hearer,” one of those who have “eares pierced in their hearts by the spirit of grace, whereby they do not only heare the word outwardly, but their hearts are also affected with it, and made pliable unto it” (III, 280).

His heart revived by this new hearing, Redcross can profit from the instruction offered to him. “If we do heare the Lord,” says Greenham, “he will heare us and communicate unto us the graces of his holy spirit and whatsoever is needful for our salvation.”40 Rogers suggests that those “who have had weake beginnings in the Church of God” are able through preaching to “cast off that which would hinder them, their inward corruptions especially; they prepare themselves to follow the rules which lead and guide them to their duty: by this they espy their weaknesses, and how they are hidden backe when they have fallen, and which is the right way of proceeding.”41 The various ministrations Redcross receives have exactly this purpose. The surgeon Patience, for instance, applies not only “salues and med'cines” to “that soule-diseased knight” but also “added words of wondrous might” (I. x. 24).

While all of these figures “instruct … him with great industree” (I. x. 45) none does so more effectually than the hermit Contemplation, who reveals to Redcross the vision of the New Jerusalem as well as his destiny as a man of knightly action and as a saint. Contemplation observes the various homiletic postures we have been at pains to identify throughout the narrative; moreover, his intricate role as both advice-giver to Redcross and his larger public role as spokesman of a communal vision mirror the shifts of the poet's focus in this episode. Something of the complexity of Contemplation's role is suggested in the multivalent structure of the episode: after an introduction by Mercie, he presents to Redcross the vision of the New Jerusalem (Stanzas 55-56); he then interprets the vision (57); there follows a debate on the meaning of the vision for Redcross's career (58-63), in which exchange Contemplation functions as ethicist and teacher; the episode concludes with the hermit's revelation of Redcross's identity and of his public role as Saint George (64-68).

Contemplation assumes his part as spiritual counsellor from Mercie. When she escorts Redcross to him, he instantly recognizes that she “doth lead / And shewes the way his sinfull soule to saue” and that (in the metaphor we have seen since the first episode) she “can the way to heauen aread” (I. x. 51). Contemplation's duties as Redcross's spiritual counsellor take two forms. First, like any good preacher he explicitly points the way to salvation: “Then seeke this path, that I do thee presage, / Which after all to heauen shall send / … Where is for thee ordained a blessed end” (I. x. 61). Second, he acts as a specifically ethical guide. He enjoins Redcross to complete his worldly chores, temporarily to “forgo” (I. x. 63) a desire to renounce his calling as a knight. In this hortatory capacity Contemplation's advice has close affinities with what Spenser's audience would recognize as a “perswasible” sermon, “whereby wee perswade the hearers, either to due, to suffer, or to forsake some thinge”;42 his advice in this respect is true, then, to the exhortative pronouncements directed toward Redcross from the beginning of the narrative. The difference here, of course, is that Redcross follows the advice.

In addition to what might be called this private counsel, Contemplation functions in a more broadly public posture. His vision of the New Jerusalem and his thoughts about the value of “Cleopolis for earthly fame” (I. x. 59) serve to expand the frame of reference of both the episode and the poem as a whole. The focus of this crucial episode moves from the individual to the community, as John N. Wall, Jr. has recently argued,43 a shift corresponding to Redcross's enlarged role as the future patron saint of the English nation. In this expanding arena Contemplation assumes not merely the commission of Redcross's spiritual counsellor but also takes on the mantle of the apocalyptic preacher. Recent investigation of Tudor apocalypticism has brought vividly to light the prominent role of this kind of preaching, particularly for our purposes by those preachers who found a ready audience as the confident, post-Armada fervor coincided with the cult of Elizabeth.44 Contemplation's vision would have been recognized by Spenser's audience for its close affinities with those sermons on political themes envisioning a triumphant England, presided over by a radiant monarch.45 Hence Contemplation's praise of both Cleopolis “the fairest piece, that eye beholden” and of its “soueraigne Dame” (I. x. 59).

The final dimension of Contemplation's homiletic vocation which we need to consider will return us to the opening of this essay, and that is his office as the bringer of assurance and comfort. Indeed, it can be safely said that his chief purpose in the narrative is to assure Redcross of his future victory, both temporal and spiritual. In this respect Contemplation has a strong affiliation with Arthur, with whom he shares the responsibility for conveying many of the Book's chief spiritual values. The stichomythy in which Arthur rescues Una from despair (I. vii. 41) has its counterpart in the stichomythy between Redcross and Contemplation (I. x. 62-63), in which the hermit predicts Redcross's destiny as a saint:

Vnworthy wretch (quoth he [Redcross]) of so great grace,
How dare I thinke such glory to attaine?
These that haue it attained, were in like cace
(Quoth he) as wretched, and liu'd in like paine.
But deeds of armes must I at last be faine,
And Ladies loue to leaue so dearely bought?
What need of armes, where peace doth ay remaine,
(Said he) and battailes none are to be fought?
As for loose loues are vaine, and vanish into nought.

(I. x. 62)

The terms of the debate here, however, differ significantly from those which motivated the dialogue between Arthur and Una. The focus of the earlier dialogue was “faith,” and that focus corresponds to the early stage of the Protestant ordo salutis known as Justification, wherein the individual first comprehends that he has been saved by his faith. The exchange between Redcross and Contemplation corresponds to a later stage of the ordo (Redcross having already understood Justification from his experiences in the House of Holiness). Here attention centers on the later prospect of how Redcross will “suche glory to attaine.” Contemplation's insistence on the ultimate redundancy of good works, imaged as “deeds of armes” and “Ladies loue,” corresponds to that stage of the ordo known as Sanctification. Moreover, he directs Redcross to the final stage of the ordo known as Glorification, the life eternal,

Where is for thee ordained a blessed end:
For thou amongst those Saints, whom thou doest see,
Shalt be a Saint. …

(I. x. 61)

The assurance Contemplation offers Redcross of his ultimate triumph fulfills the preacher's highest goal of kindling fervent hearts in the hope of salvation. Comforted by Contemplation's counsel of assurance Redcross can now go forth to slay the dragon and liberate Eden.


  1. The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London and New York: Longman, 1977), p. 104. All references to Spenser are from this edition and noted in the text.

  2. William Perkins, The Workes, 3 vols. (London, 1626-31). All references to Perkins are from this edition and noted in the text.

  3. See, for example, Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., Puritans and Predestination: Grace in English Protestant Theology 1525-1695 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982), pp. 45-52. The labored question of deciding where Spenser's sectarian allegiances lie may be helped by referring to historians of the era. The most distinguished, Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), p. 26, has referred to “differences of degree, of theological temperature” among English Protestants of the era, alluding to anachronistic and indecisive attempts to distinguish between “Anglican” and “Puritan.” See Anthea Hume, Edmund Spenser: Protestant Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 2-10, for a sensible discussion of Spenser's religious affiliations.

  4. See H. C. Porter, Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), p. 333. Hooker, of course, is referring to Heb. VI. 11.

  5. All quotations from scripture are from The Geneva Bible.

  6. John Downame, The Christian Warfare (London, 1612), p. 191.

  7. R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), passim.

  8. Quoted by Porter, Reformation and Reaction, p. 217; See also William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), pp. 26-28.

  9. Quoted in John S. Chamberlin, Increase and Multiply: Arts-of-Discourse Procedure in the Preaching of Donne (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1976), p. 71.

  10. John Calvin, The Institvtion of Christian Religion, trans. Thomas Norton (London, 1582), fols. 338v-339r.

  11. See Heiko Obermann, “Preaching and the Word in the Reformation,” Theology Today, 18 (1961), 26.

  12. A wide variety of scholarship documents this. Notable examples include: Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England From Cranmer to Hooker 1534-1603 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 227-254, 294-324; Charles H. George and Katherine George, The Protestant Mind of the English Reformation 1570-1640 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 335-343; Haller, The Rise of Puritanism, passim.

  13. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Book V, edited by W. Speed Hill (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 87.

  14. Richard Greenham, Works (London, 1605), p. 356.

  15. Haller, The Rise of Puritanism, p. 258.

  16. See especially Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), pp. 30-79; Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society 1559-1625 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 232, 257-259; Irvonwy Morgan, The Godly Preachers of the Elizabethan Church (London: The Epworth Press, 1965).

  17. Haller p. 21; A recent authoritative study redressing this neglect is John N. King's, English Reformation Literature: the Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982).

  18. See Joachim Dyck, “The First German Treatise on Homiletics: Erasmus Sarcer's Pastorale and Classical Rhetoric,” in Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, edited by James J. Murphy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 221-237; J. W. Blench, Preaching in England in the Late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964), especially pp. 228-320.

  19. Obermann, “Preaching and the Word,” p. 17.

  20. Greenham, Works, p. 420.

  21. Richard Rogers, Seven Treatises (London, 1630) p. 283.

  22. See John N. Wall, Jr., “Goodly and Fruitful Lessons: The English Bible, Erasmus' Paraphrases, and the Book of Homilies,” in The Godly Kingdom of Tudor England: Great Books of the English Reformation, edited by John E. Booty (Wilton, Conn: Morehouse-Barlow Co., Inc., 1981), pp. 47-138.

  23. Greenham, Works, p. 357.

  24. John Jewel, Works, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Parker Society, 1845-50), II, 1048.

  25. See Davies, Worship and Theology, p. 237.

  26. Blench, Preaching in England, pp. 131-132; see also pp. 171-172.

  27. For a discussion of Spenser's reliance on the medieval homiletic tradition in this episode see Joan Heiges Blythe, “Spenser and the Seven Deadly Sins: Book I, Cantos IV and V,” ELH, 39 (1972), 342-352.

  28. Perkins's table of the ordo salutis is included in his Works, edited by Ian Breward (Abingdon: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970), p. 169. It is cogently discussed by Andrew D. Weiner, “‘Fierce Warres and Faithful Loues’: Pattern as Structure in Book I of The Faerie Queene,The Huntington Library Quarterly, 37 (1973), 33-58.

  29. Niels Hemmingsen, The Preacher (Menston: The Scolar Press, 1972), fols. 64r, 53r.

  30. See especially Ernest Sirluck, “A Note on the Rhetoric of Spenser's ‘Despair,’” Modern Philology, 47 (1949), 8-11; Katherine Koller, “Art, Rhetoric, and Holy Dying in the Faerie Queene with Special Reference to the Despair Canto,” Studies in Philology, 61 (1964), 128-139; Harold Skulsky, “Spenser's Despair Episode and the Theology of Doubt,” Modern Philology, 78 (1981), 227-242.

  31. Patrick Cullen, Infernal Triad: The Flesh, the World, and the Devil in Spenser and Milton (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 57-63.

  32. Ann Imbrie, “‘Playing Legerdemaine with the Scripture’: Sermon parody in The Faerie Queene”, English Literary Renaissance (forthcoming). Professor Imbrie kindly sent me a typescript of her article.

  33. Greenham, Works, p. 418.

  34. Dyck, “First German Treatise,” p. 234.

  35. Fols. 64r-65r.

  36. Henry Smith, Twelve Sermons (London, 1632), sig. M7r.

  37. Smith, Twelve Sermons, signs. G6r-v.

  38. See Imbrie on Reformation uses of this metaphor.

  39. Greenham, Works, p. 356.

  40. Greenham, Works, p. 356.

  41. Rogers, Works, p. 285.

  42. Hemmingsen, The Preacher, fol. 53v.

  43. John N. Wall, Jr., “The English Reformation and the Recovery of Christian Community in Spenser's The Faerie Queene,Studies in Philology, 80 (1983), 142-162.

  44. See Katherine R. Firth, The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation Britain 1530-1645 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979); Bernard Capp, “The Political Dimension of Apocalyptic Thought,” in The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature: Patterns, Antecedents, and Repercussions, edited by C. A. Patrides and Joseph Wittreich (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 93-124.

  45. See, for example, Tudor Apocalypse, edited by Richard Bauckham (Abingdon: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1978).

I wish to thank the Newberry Library for the N.E.H. Fellowship that allowed me to write this article. I am also grateful to Harold L. Weatherby for his expert advice.

Mary R. Bowman (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Bowman, Mary R. “‘She there as Princess rained’: Spenser's Figure of Elizabeth.” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 509-28.

[In the following essay, Bowman discusses Spenser's treatment of Queen Elizabeth I in Book V of The Faerie Queene.]

“The woman who has the prerogative of a goddess, who is authorized to be out of place, can best justify her authority by putting other women in their places”: so concludes Louis Montrose with equal reference to Raleigh's vision of Elizabeth in the Discovery of Guiana and Spenser's reflection of her in Britomart in the Radigund episode in the fifth book of The Faerie Queene.1 In the case of Spenser at least that conclusion is an insightful one, suggesting that Britomart's actions can in part be explained in terms of the political and ideological constraints faced by the queen. It is an insight that I hope to pursue in this essay, for I find it leads to a better understanding of a rather bewildering episode.

On a simple narrative level, of course, the episode is straightforward enough: Artegall leaves Britomart, shortly after the two are betrothed, to continue on his mission; on the way, he encounters Radigund and her woman-ruled city of Radegone, where he loses a joust with her. While she keeps him imprisoned and dressed in women's clothing, and gradually falls in love with him, his servant Talus returns to tell Britomart what has happened; she follows him back, challenges Radigund, and, defeating her, frees her prisoners. So far, nothing is very surprising. But Britomart's victory produces an awkward moment. When she frees the captive Artegall, she does more than merely liberate him and the other knights; she completely alters the structure of the Amazon society, reinstating male authority:

          … she there as Princess rained,
And changing all that forme of common weale,
The liberty of women did repeale,
Which they had long usurpt; and them restoring
To men's subiection, did true Iustice deale.


Though it is her own martial prowess that enables the reallotment of authority, and though she is the sole actor in that restructuring, she assigns the ultimate authority in the society to Artegall, making the knights, now the “magistrates of all that city,” “sweare fealty” to him (V.vii.43). We can, of course, simply call this the establishment of Justice as the final authority of government, but to do so would be to ignore the complicating fact that Spenser assigns this task to a woman. She is not merely a knight exercising her abilities in the service of a higher authority, as knights frequently do for their sovereigns; she is, rather, effacing her own power. Her authority, won with her own sword, is employed to reinstate a hierarchy that calls female possession of “liberty” usurpation, and female “subiection” to men “true Iustice,” a hierarchy that men and women alike welcome and attribute to “wisedome” (V.vii.42); neither Britomart's transmutation, during the course of stanza 42, from “Princess” (line 3) to “Goddesse” (line 8)—from figure of female authority paradoxically outlawing itself to supernatural figure exempt from the laws she establishes for humanity—nor the curiously parenthetical exemption of the divinely ordained from an earlier denunciation of female “libertie” (V.v.25) succeeds in negating the paradox of Britomart's action. This is not to say, however, that the episode is inexplicable; I shall argue that Britomart's actions do make sense—first, within the context of Britomart and Artegall's relationship, and particularly in the intertextual context evoked by Spenser's use of Ariosto; and second, within the context of Elizabeth's reign. The result will be an appreciation of Britomart, in this episode at least, as a sophisticated and frank figuration of the queen, one more intricate—and hence potentially more critical—than simple praise, for it looks beyond the surface of the queen's public image to explore the processes behind it.

What is most troubling about Britomart's rejection of female rule in Radegone is that it seems to contradict her attitude toward herself. Until now she has been confident of her own capabilities and has shown no reluctance to utilize them. She is, moreover, destined to rule in her home country, and as her father's heir she has been accustomed to as much “liberty” as any crown prince: “nothing he from her reserv'd apart, / Being his onely daughter and his hayre” (III.ii.22). She is also well aware that she is a woman, and she never gives any indication that she sees anything inherently wrong in her own knightly activities, in her defeats of male knights, or in her expectation of rule. In Radegone, however, other considerations make a rejection of female power advantageous. Montrose is right in calling Radigund “Britomart's double, split off from her as an allegorical personification of everything in Artegall's beloved that threatens him.”3 There is an identification between the two women that presents a significant challenge for Britomart.

When Artegall concedes victory to Radigund, it is not the first time he has met defeat at the hands of a woman. Britomart has already mastered him twice in book four, at the tournament in canto 4, and again in canto 6, where the conquest also becomes an amorous one. This second encounter is remarkably similar to Artegall's battle with Radigund. After a period of fighting in which Britomart and Artegall seem equally matched, Artegall is at last able to strike an especially heavy blow, a blow that does not kill her but rather exposes her face:

The wicked stroke upon her helmet chaunst,
And with the force, which in it selfe it bore,
Her ventayle shard away, and thence forth glaunst
A downe in vaine, ne harm'd her any more.
With that her angels face, unseene afore,
Like to the ruddie morne appeard in sight.


Dazzled by her beauty, Artegall does not pursue his advantage, but instead kneels before her to ask pardon for “his errour frayle, / That had done outrage in so high degree” ( Britomart would keep fighting; she consents to stop only when Glauce persuades her to a truce and she learns that the man she is battling is the man she loves. Scudamour, who has witnessed the encounter, taunts Artegall with the indignity of having become “a Ladies thrall” (

The outcome of Artegall's fight with Radigund follows a similar pattern. After a period of inconclusive fighting, Artegall gains an advantage by destroying Radigund's shield and gives her a powerful blow to the head. This time the blow strikes home, knocking his opponent unconscious. But when he removes her helmet, in order to finish her off by decapitating her, he sees her face, and he is again disarmed by beauty:

At sight thereof his cruell minded hart
Empierced was with pittifull regard,
That his sharpe sword he threw from him apart,
Cursing his hand that had that visage mard.


Like Britomart, Radigund, when she comes to, continues fighting, but this time there is no aged nurse to propose a truce and, what is more important, no love of Artegall to stay Radigund's hand. She defeats the now unresisting Artegall, and he becomes in fact what Scudamour called him in jest: “a Ladies thrall.”

The similarity between these two battles compels us to see some sort of relationship between the two women, and the parallels doubtless strike Britomart herself when she hears the fight with Radigund recounted by Talus. It is significant that the similarity between the two episodes arises from Artegall's identical reaction to the two beautiful faces: the loving and chivalrous Britomart is also different in important ways from the woman who imprisons and kills men, yet Artegall makes no discrimination between the two in the way he responds to them; the very different outcomes of the two encounters depend upon the different attitudes of the two women themselves.4 When Britomart comes to rescue Artegall, therefore, she is caught in a dilemma: it has become clear that her powers are, to Artegall, indistinguishable from Radigund's. The beauty that wins his love can also entrap him; the martial force that conquers Radigund to set him free can equally be employed to enslave him. Radigund embodies an aspect of Britomart that now seems threatening to Artegall; how then can she avoid instilling fear in the man she loves, when her very ability to free him threatens him? Inverting the Amazon society enables her to respond to this dilemma. By reversing Radigund's social hierarchy Britomart asserts her difference from Radigund in a way that even Artegall can recognize; Britomart employs the power gained in her victory at arms ostentatiously in his service, the very paradox of her action emphasizing her submission to him. By this public show of deference she is able to allay the fear her autonomous power calls forth in Artegall. This seemingly strange action, then, is one that her love for Artegall can make appealing to her.

Other dynamics of the Radigund episode serve to increase that appeal, dynamics that become evident when we explore the episode's relation to the Orlando Furioso. It is always tempting to compare Spenser's Britomart with Ariosto's Bradamante, who is so clearly one of the models for the later character, and in this episode echoes of the Furioso are richly evocative, suggesting even subtler relationships between Britomart and her adversary.

The most obvious antecedent for Radigund and her realm is the Amazon city of Alessandretta. Beyond the gross characteristics of female rule and the imprisonment of men, the two cities share similar motivations for their existence and for the ways they treat men. Ariosto's Amazons, abandoned by the men who had earlier seduced them to desert their families, determine to establish their own society and to set about taking revenge on all men; every man who arrives at their shore is to be put to death. After a time, the need for propagation—abetted, no doubt, by frustrated sexual desire—moves the Amazons to alter their system, permitting a small number of men to survive, each to be the husband to ten women. Later, one of the men marked for death proves so attractive to the daughter of Orontea, the Amazon leader, that she pleads for a new adjustment of the law that will permit Elbanio to become her husband, and a new custom is instituted of giving each new arrival the choice of facing first ten knights in arms and then ten women in bed; this is the practice in force when Marfisa and her companions arrive.

Radigund's decrees are similarly influenced by romantic and erotic consideration. She too was rejected by the man “To whom she bore most fervent love” (V.iv.30), and in her anger at this rejection she determines to change “her love to hatred manifold,” taking revenge against all men who come her way. Some, like Terpine, are put to death; most are kept in the captivity Artegall experiences. But Radigund, too, is affected by her captive: her “wandring fancie after lust did raunge,” and she began to “cast a secret liking to this captive straunge” (V.v.26). Her attraction prompts her to entertain the possibility of lessening the severity of Artegall's captivity, of keeping him

Bound unto me, but not with such hard bands
Of strong compulsion, and streight violence,
As now in miserable state he stands.


Radigund's love turns again to anger and vengefulness when her messenger Clarinda, who herself falls in love with Artegall, lies about his receptiveness to Radigund's wooing, but it is clear that this temporary softening and the latest law of Alessandretta are similar and similarly motivated.

A more interesting counterpart for Radigund is Marfisa. This identification is not made as routinely as the other, but there are a number of parallels that suggest it. When Talus first brings the news of Artegall's imprisonment to Britomart, who is already anxious at Artegall's long absence, she falls into a fit of jealousy patterned after a similar moment in the Orlando Furioso:

There she began to make her monefull plaint
Against her Knight, for being so untrew; …
A while she walkt, and chauft; a while she threw
Her selfe upon her bed, and did lament. …
Like as a wayward childe, whose sounder sleepe
Is broken with some fearfull dreames affright,
With froward will doth set him selfe to weepe;
Ne can be stild for all his nurses might,
But kicks, and squals, and shriekes for fell despight:
Now scratching her, and her loose locks misusing;
Now seeking darknesse, and now seeking light;
Then craving sucke, and then the sucke refusing.
Such was this Ladies fit, in her loves fond accusing.


After a while she becomes calmer and, her “troubled wits” not eased by this emotional outpouring, she returns to Talus “And gan enquire of him, with mylder mood, / The certaine cause of Artegals detaine; / And what he did, and in what state he stood” ( Having recovered her self-control enough to act, she sets out to meet Radigund in battle and to wrest Artegall from her. This sequence has long been recognized as modeled after Bradamante's bout with jealousy in canto 32.5 When Ruggiero does not return at the promised time, she too grows anxious and fearful that he has deserted her. A stranger's report of the prevalent rumor in the Saracen camp—that Ruggiero and Marfisa are to be married—sends her into a fit of anger, jealousy, and misery that closely resembles Britomart's. A suicidal mood gives way to a plan for meeting Ruggiero in battle, so that she may either punish him for his faithlessness or die at his hands—a thought Britomart also entertains—and hopes that she may also “avenge [her]self on Marfisa” (XXXII.46).6

It is Marfisa, moreover, and not Ruggiero, with whom she ends up fighting. The fight between Marfisa and Bradamante is unusually vicious, even for the Furioso. Bradamante, filled with fury at her supposed rival, and Marfisa, equally enraged by the ease with which she has been unseated, are both unconcerned with chivalric courtesy at this moment; at an early stage they “grappled in a frenzy” (XXXVI.48);7 after Ruggiero disarms them their fight descends to an undignified grapple “with punches and kicks” (XXXVI.50)8 evocative of a schoolyard brawl.

Britomart's combat with Radigund remains on the level of a sword battle and ends rather typically with a blow to the head, but Spenser nevertheless takes pains to make it as lawless and as irrational with fury as that of Bradamante and Marfisa:

Ne either sought the others strokes to shun,
But through great fury both their skill forgot,
And practicke use in armes. …


Though they fight with swords, they are compared to beasts fighting tooth and claw over a meal:

As when a Tygre and a Lionesse
Are met at spoyling of some hungry pray,
Both challenge it with equal greedinesse:
But first the Tygre clawes thereon did lay;
And therefore loth to loose her right away,
Doth in defence thereof full stoutly stond:
To which the Lion strongly doth gainsay,
That she to hunt the beast first tooke in hond;
And therefore ought it have, where ever she it fond.


Their fight descends, as one critic describes it, to a “heroic cat-fight,”9 and the Lion's claim sounds uncomfortably like a schoolyard cry of “finders, keepers.” It is clear that Spenser's contest recalls Ariosto's.

Recognizing this connection encourages us to regard the contest between Britomart and Radigund as Spenser's reenactment of the fight between Bradamante and Marfisa and to look to that earlier fight for guidance in interpreting the later. Two features of Ariosto's fight are relevant to Spenser's version. The more obvious is that Ariosto's is explicitly Bradamante's fight to keep Ruggiero. The comparison, then, leads us to see Britomart less as rescuing Artegall than as winning him back from a rival. This suggestion is reinforced by Radigund's actual attempt to woo Artegall—a change from the situation in the Furioso—and by the sexual undertones of Artegall's capitulation and his willingness to entertain her suit, albeit only as a tactic to escape. This interpretation serves also to explain the peculiar focus of their blows, which are aimed quite specifically below the belt:

          … ne spared not
Their dainty parts, which nature had created
So faire and tender, without staine or spot,
For other uses, then they them translated;
Which now they hackt and hewd, as if such use they hated.


Sexual rivals, they vent their fury onto one another's genitals.

In giving greater weight to the erotic dynamics of Spenser's episode, the comparison with the Furioso supports the reading of the episode already offered: that Britomart's actions in Radegone are motivated by her need to allay Artegall's fear of her own autonomous powers. It also suggests a different motivation for Britomart's treatment of the other Amazons: defense against their threat, not to Artegall, but to Britomart herself. Followers of Radigund and lesser copies of her—and, therefore, bearing some resemblance to Britomart herself—these women are, like Radigund, potential rivals;10 their suppression serves to make them more unlike both Britomart and Radigund, to make Britomart distinctive among them, and to place them firmly under control.

The other feature of Ariosto's battle that has relevance here is the symbolic weight of the encounter between the two guerriere. By the time of their confrontation in the thirty sixth canto, the two women have come to embody two different female roles—two models of behavior and attitudes—available to the woman who wishes to achieve autonomy, self-definition, and authority in a world of exclusively male control.11 Both are effective characters in the world, but their stances in relation to it are quite different ones: Bradamante, bound in loyalty to family, sovereign, and lover, and aspiring to marriage, is the figure of community, cooperation, and generosity; Marfisa embraces isolation, self-reliance, and self-centeredness. The way they function as competing possibilities in the poem's presentation of women has been reflected even in the criticism of the poem, especially feminist criticism, which is divided on the question of which woman is more heroic, commands a greater share of Ariosto's admiration, and ought to win the greater share of ours.12 Ariosto, characteristically, does not make this decision easy; when the two maidens meet in combat, their contest is indecisive, their quarrel diffused when Atlante, Ruggiero's guardian, reveals that Ruggiero and Marfisa are siblings. But when Spenser rewrites the encounter, his figure of strength combined with the vulnerability necessary to admit true love decisively defeats the figure who combines Marfisa's forbidding independence with the vengeful cruelty of the Amazons of Alessandretta. The meeting of Britomart and Radigund becomes a psychomachia, a struggle between the two possible avenues of response that confront Britomart when she has cause to believe that Artegall has betrayed her; and she chooses the more vulnerable but ultimately more rewarding path of trusting and supporting love. Restructuring Radigund's city as she does, then, can be seen as an outgrowth of that choice. It places her, as we have already seen in another context, in unmistakable opposition to Radigund, minimizing and discrediting their similarities; it also serves as a demonstration of her attitude to Artegall. Her insistence that all women be under “mens subiection” displays her intention of not becoming independent of him, much less dominant over him, and she could give no clearer token of her willingness to be vulnerable to him than her final handing over to his authority of all she has won with her own strength. The very peculiarity of the self-effacing gesture that we remarked earlier serves to call attention to the offer of submissive trust she is making.

We have identified, then, much of the complex tangle of emotions that Britomart experiences when faced with the situation in which she finds Artegall, and have seen how the apparently bizarre and self-contradictory action of imposing the traditional social hierarchy on Radegone can answer the associated complex of needs. I turn now to put the episode in a specifically Elizabethan context, and to suggest that the insights gained by discussing it on a psychological level will serve to illuminate its political meaning. The passage itself invokes one particular historical context, that of the debate that raged during the sixteenth century over the validity of rule by women, when the narrative voice denounces Radigund's rule in very general terms, excepting only the divinely appointed:

Such is the crueltie of womenkynd,
When they have shaken off the shamefast band,
With which wise Nature did them strongly bynd,
T'obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand,
That then all rule and reason they withstand,
To purchase a licentious libertie.
But vertuous women wisely understand,
That they were born to base humilitie,
Unlesse the heauens them lift to lawfull soveraintie.


The debate over women's rule has been favored as a context for discussing Radigund by critics who analyze this episode to comment on Spenser's opinion about the issue.13 While the debate must always be borne in mind as a background to the poem, my approach will be different: the episode also reveals a great deal about Spenser's view of the particular female monarch that he had to deal with, in one way or another, with or without a general theory about female rule.

Associating Britomart with Elizabeth is a possibility throughout The Faerie Queene; as the figure of Chastity, she inevitably suggests the Virgin Queen, and in the fiction of the poem she is an ancestor of Elizabeth and, like Elizabeth, heir to her father's British kingdom. The parallel continues in detail in this episode, helping us to understand Spenser's perception of some of the dynamics of Elizabeth's self-figuration. Britomart is said to reign as “Princess” over the Amazon city, so adored by the inhabitants that she acquires the status of a “Goddesse”; the adoration of England's prince, now routinely called a cult, replaced the cult of the Virgin Mary and seemed almost to be a religion in itself.14 Radigund, on the other hand, has been routinely identified as Mary Stuart by critics of the historical allegory in the poem. Without challenging this identification, I would however suggest that it has implications beyond an objective depiction of contemporary events and an exposition of familiar ideas that has most often been seen in the episode.15

Reading the battle with Radigund as a psychomachia enables us to see it more generally, as embodying the motivational process of Elizabeth's image-making under the influence of Mary's quite different personal “style.” Much of the image Elizabeth chose to project evokes a favorable contrast with the Scottish queen. The Virgin Queen of England against the sexually scandalous Queen of Scots, the peace-bringing “naturall mother” of the country against the divisive and politically awkward mother of James VI, the nun-like virtuous bride of her kingdom against the husband-murdering adulteress—all contribute to an increasingly stark contrast between the saintly image of Elizabeth and the witchlike image Mary developed in the loyal Elizabethan imagination, an image Spenser later reflects in choosing Duessa as his clearest stand-in for Mary.16 Just as Britomart rejects the model for female autonomy exemplified by Radigund/Marfisa, choosing instead to follow the Bradamantean example, and in so doing enables her relationship with Artegall to develop to its prophesied fruition, Elizabeth rejected the antagonistic character of Mary's politics and chose a style in marked contrast to it, the style that enabled her relatively peaceful reign.

Mary was not only a useful foil for Elizabeth, however; she had also presented a very real threat. She was a rival claimant to the throne and the focus of attempts to depose or assassinate Elizabeth, a threat Elizabeth understood only too well, having herself occupied a similar position relative to Mary Tudor. To a woman in power, other powerful women are dangerous. I have argued that that fact has much to do with the reason why Britomart kills Radigund and sanctions the oppression of Radigund's disciples; I would further suggest that understanding that dynamic helps us understand Spenser's view of Elizabeth's relationship with other women. From Elizabeth's point of view, Mary had to die. She dies in this poem, in the hiatus between the ninth and tenth cantos of this book, and she dies the same death that is visited on Radigund by Britomart, who “with one stroke both head and helmet cleft” (V.vii.34); in opening up the motivation of that murder, and in making Britomart herself the agent of it, the episode with Radigund arms us to read the silence of the later hiatus. In Mercilla Spenser seems to let Elizabeth hide behind a veil of “piteous ruth” (V.ix.50)—the stance Elizabeth chose to take publicly—but for the reader who has cared to see it, he has already, with Britomart, shown what went on behind that veil.

Like Britomart, Elizabeth also sanctioned rather than challenged the oppression of other women. Recent feminist scholarship has lead us to see that Elizabeth, like many “outstanding” women in the Renaissance, through the way in which she was presented as an exceptional woman, acted more to reinforce than to challenge the attitudes and social structures that limited women's ability to act autonomously and effectively: “Women's subservience to laws made and interpreted by men presumably represented the natural order of things; Elizabeth's reign, considered a God-given exception, made no substantial difference in cultural attitudes or their theoretical justification.”17 She might therefore be said to have done symbolically and ideologically precisely what Britomart does in a more literal way—restore women “to mens subiection,” hail that subjection “true Iustice,” and empower her own exemption from that hierarchy by rising above it as she changes from “Princess” to “Goddesse” (V.vii.42). With Britomart Spenser examines the psychological dynamics of that political stance.

In that endeavor Spenser employs one of the staples of Elizabethan mythography: Britomart conquers and dismantles a society that clearly draws on the Amazon tradition. The concept of the Amazon occupies an ambivalent position in Elizabethan figuration; Elizabeth is both like and unlike an Amazon. She is an independent and powerful ruler, but she chooses to project an image not violent but loving, not sexually predatory but celestial and virginal.18 Amazons, therefore, were used relatively little as figures of Elizabeth;19 they were far more useful as figures to oppose. Montrose describes Sir Walter Ralegh's use of the Amazon in the Discovery of Guiana as providing such a figure: “Ralegh's strategy for persuading the queen to advance his colonial enterprise is to insinuate that she is both like and unlike the Amazon, and that Elizabeth can definitely cleanse herself from contamination by the Amazons if she sanctions their subjugation.”20

The opposition that Ralegh is seen manipulating here does not serve only to empower Elizabeth by suppressing other women, however; another effect of an opposition to the Amazon figure is to allay the fears invited in men by a powerful woman. Amazons were not so much “the foremost ancient examples of feminism”21 as a nightmare fantasy of powerful women. Amazons killed, disfigured, and enslaved men, humiliating by feminizing them, and murdered their own male children.22 Elizabeth needed to distinguish herself from such a figure; the male fear of female power given frenzied expression in the Amazon myth was an inevitable force in the Elizabethan court. As female ruler of an otherwise male-dominated society, Elizabeth was a preternaturally threatening woman; female power, in most spheres of life kept under male control and even then the locus of fear and fantasy, was here linked to supreme temporal and religious authority. Figuring herself in opposition to the sexually predatory Amazon served in part to insulate Elizabeth against disloyalty born of fear by diffusing the anxiety her peculiar situation necessarily bred, suggesting that this powerful woman was somehow different from the ones that really presented a threat to men.

This opposition did not, however, adequately meet the need. Elizabeth's deliberate and ostentatious choice of perpetual virginity had the potential to diffuse the sexual threat she embodied, but it also increased her anomalousness, deprived her subjects of even the slight comfort her submission to a husband might provide, and added anxiety over the succession. One of Elizabeth's principal tools for making herself more acceptable, because less unusual and therefore less threatening, to her subjects was the Petrarchan style of her court. The queen imposed upon her dealings with her courtiers the form of courtly love, casting herself as a Petrarchan mistress, her courtiers as her idealizing suitors. The strategy worked, primarily because it was well-calculated to allay male uneasiness with a female monarch. The queen, while remaining powerful, assumed the guise of a more conventional female role, and permitted the courtiers one they could more easily tolerate; being a man whose fate is subject to the whims of a distant and indifferent mistress was a role more familiar, and hence more comfortable, when the arena was love, not politics. She also, while retaining her possession of ultimate control, subtly allowed her courtiers the comfort of imagining themselves in ultimate control. The Petrarchan love convention as it developed in Elizabethan England was—as its name reflects—a male construction, and for all his complaints of helplessness the male poet always got the last word. What Mariann S. Regan says of Petrarch's control over Laura is applicable also to such English figures as Sidney's Astrophel: “Because she is not there, he can take charge almost entirely of her image, its appearance and disappearance: he ‘designs’ her.”23 In the English court, the mistress actually did the designing, but the use of such a predominantly male tradition kept that disturbing fact under the surface.

These strategies to pacify her possibly anxious male court—distinguishing herself from the Amazon, leaving patriarchy unchallenged, playing the coy mistress while still clearly the master—are, of course, precisely the strategies Britomart employs to ease Artegall's fears of her power. Thus, we are able to see that Spenser's depiction of Britomart in this episode analyzes, through its psychological allegory, the psychological dynamics of Elizabeth's court; he shows us why Elizabeth acted as she did. Such a tactic, while unconventional and certainly far from simple fulsome praise, would not necessarily be either laudatory or condemning, but here it does include some elements of criticism. One such element is Spenser's treatment of the court Petrarchanism. Britomart herself has throughout the poem embodied a critique of the Petrarchan tradition. Her feelings and her quest for Artegall are informed by an entire theory of love which is radically different from the one that controls Petrarchan love. As Lauren Silberman observes, “Britomart, who takes a very active role in a loving relationship, is an anti-Petrarchan heroine. Her warmth and vulnerability expose the essential sterility and self-absorption of Petrarchan lovesickness.”24 In her expression of frustration by the sea in III.iv, she appropriates the repertoire of the Petrarchan lover, demonstrating simultaneously how fruitless it is as a permanent state and how artificial is its masculine exclusivity. In the figure of Timias, the Petrarchan lover of Belphoebe whose will is broken by her rejection of him, Spenser also demonstrates the destructive potential of Petrarchanism, particularly of the female side of it. Reed Way Dasenbrock, who has recently examined the anti-Petrarchan force of the four squires in books three and four, speculates that “critics have not seen Spenser as criticizing the form of love exemplified by the Timias-Belphoebe relationship … [because] Belphoebe represents a type of chastity widely admired in Spenser's society and embodied in the most powerful person in the realm.”25 To take this suggestion a step farther, we remember that the Timias-Belphoebe relationship has for centuries been given a topical reading in which Belphoebe is Elizabeth, and Timias is Sir Walter Ralegh; Timias's plight operates, on this level, to illustrate how the misfortunes of Ralegh are the inevitable result of the Petrarchan form Elizabeth imposed on her court. Spenser is not merely criticizing someone like Elizabeth; he is criticizing Elizabeth herself.26

When Britomart defeats Radigund, the anti-Petrarchan figure soundly defeats one whose own treatment of men is, while not actually Petrarchan, uncomfortably akin to it. Radigund compels her victims into her “service” (V.v.17)—a term well-worn in the discourse of Petrarchanism—and into an unhealthy and debilitating stasis. Artegall in particular is embroiled in a dialogue of wooing in which both parties experience the familiar denial of the relief they seek. When Britomart kills her and, for the sake of reciprocal love, eradicates all trace of the climate she created, Spenser's hero—and Elizabeth's image—institute “true Iustice” by rejecting the model of Elizabeth's court.

The queen's virginity, too, is subjected to Spenser's ironic scrutiny. Britomart, like her predecessor Bradamante, has every intention to marry; Elizabeth, like Marfisa, determines to die a virgin. Elizabeth created the problem of her status, but it was Spenser who chose to present the queen—and, indeed, Chastity itself—in the marriage-bound figure of Britomart, and while he blurs the contrast somewhat by replacing the celibate Marfisa with the merely unsuccessful Radigund, the choice must be significant, the contradiction deliberate. Elizabeth's closer similarity to Radigund than Britomart in this respect suggests that Elizabeth has more in common with the Amazon than she pretends; her anti-Amazon claims are, Spenser reminds us, fictions. Published in 1596, the episode with its pointed misrepresentation of the virgin Elizabeth could hardly have been intended to persuade the sixty-three-year-old queen to marry, but it could certainly have been meant to criticize her for never having done so. On one level, I think, it does this, but Spenser goes farther. In the dream in Isis Church Spenser symbolically suggests a connection between the death of Radigund/Mary and Elizabeth's ability to preside a virgin over a Petrarchan court.

The argument to canto 7 grammatically connects the dream with the battle that follows it, implying with its colon that the dream is in fact a vision of that fight:

Britomart comes to Isis Church,
Where she strange visions sees:
She fights with Radigund, her slaies,
And Artegall thence frees.


The idol, as it is described when Britomart first enters the temple, itself seems to depict Britomart's victory over Radigund. Under Isis's foot is a crocodile whose subjugation, we are told, signifies Isis's suppression of “both forged guile, / And open force” (V.vii.7); Radigund, we have learned earlier, subdues knights “by force or guile” (V.iv.31). The crocodile, moreover, is female, not male as its identification with Osyris would dictate: she wraps “her taile” about Isis's waist (V.vii.6; my emphasis). The idol thus iconographically depicts Britomart's defeat of Radigund, and Britomart dreams what other successes can follow that victory. With this rival already symbolically subdued, Britomart is able to be figured in her dream, like Elizabeth, as both queen and goddess: she dreams that she wears a “robe of scarlet red,” a traditional royal symbol, and “a Crowne of gold,” a monarchial symbol but also the idol's symbol of “powre in things divine” (V.vii.13, 6).

The crocodile, the subdued Radigund, is transformed into a threatening and explicitly male figure that, having protected Britomart from a dangerous storm, turns his power against her as well: “swolne with pride of his owne peerelesse power, / He gan to threaten her likewise to eat” (V.vii.15; my emphasis). Again subdued, the crocodile engages in sexually suggestive and vaguely Petrarchan activity: “turning all his pride to humblesse meeke, / Him selfe before her feete he lowly threw, / And gan for grace and love of her to seeke” (V.vii.16). An analogy with Artegall is certainly possible, but the crocodile in Britomart's dream is far more suggestive of the men of Elizabeth's court. Elizabeth, like Britomart in the dream, needs the male figure to resist outside forces—the celebrated defeat of the Armada, for example, could hardly have been achieved without masculine as well as meteorological assistance—but to protect herself from that same potentially threatening figure uses her power to control it, taming the men into a Petrarchan “game” (V.vii.16). In the dream this game leads, without any explicit consummation, to a birth. Reading the dream as a prophecy of Britomart's marriage, we can read the lion as a symbol of her illustrious progeny and attribute the absence of explicit sexual contact to Britomart's repression or inexperience; in an Elizabethan context, however, we would need another way to explain the production of an heir from a stylized Petrarchan game. The juxtaposition of the idol, depicting the defeat of Radigund, and the dream, predicting a fruitful future, suggests that the first event enables the later ones, as it does literally in the case of Britomart and Artegall; the implication for Elizabeth is that all the things Britomart's victory over Radigund signifies—including the death of Mary Stuart, the paradoxical reinforcement of patriarchal structures, and a fictional deferral to male power—are what enables Elizabeth's success. In particular, the death of Mary allows Elizabeth, without submitting herself to a man sexually or in marriage, to obtain, in a manner, a son—Mary's son James, the heir Elizabeth was reluctant to acknowledge in her lifetime but whom she addressed in maternal terms. The symbolism of the dream, then, suggests that Spenser saw the connection between Mary's demise and Elizabeth's control of the succession. The priests of the temple serve to protect Spenser from the potential retribution for such a suggestion by offering a more politically safe, nationalistic reading of the dream, but their explanation of Osyris, representing Justice and Artegall, tempered by Isis/Britomart/Equity, leaves untouched the specific Elizabethan application that remains silently available.

We can see, then, that in the Radigund sequence Britomart becomes a psychologically and politically accurate reflection of Spenser's queen. In her Spenser shows his keen understanding of the forces to which Elizabeth had to respond, the significance of the steps she took, and the truth behind her fictions. The triumph of Radegone is, of course, Britomart's last appearance in the poem, implying perhaps that her effort to suppress women but exempt herself is futile; even more, however, the disappearance suggests that this demystified, even critical, portrayal of the queen must be disclaimed by the poet haunted by the fate of Malfont; he disclaims her by removing her from the poem altogether. He disclaims her similarly in the Letter to Raleigh, where he names only Belphoebe and Gloriana as figures of Elizabeth. There are many shadows of Elizabeth absent here, but Britomart is by far the most conspicuous; she is more visible in the poem than the other two and, while none of the figures is entirely simple, Britomart presents the most subtle and complex picture. Why then is she so remarkably omitted from the poet's own description of the poem? The answer, I think, is this: the omission serves simultaneously as a pointer to the unmentioned but important figure and as a gesture of denial that this potentially critical portrait is in fact of Elizabeth at all. It is the technique of the poet who must be cautious, but wishes nevertheless to speak.


  1. Louis A. Montrose, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture,” in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, eds., Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago, 1986), 79.

  2. All quotations from The Faerie Queene are taken from the edition by A. C. Hamilton (New York, 1977).

  3. Montrose, 78.

  4. Susanne Woods has also discussed the remarkable similarities and significant differences between the two fights in “Spenser and the Problem of Women's Rule,” Huntington Library Quarterly 48 (1985): 141-58, esp. 153.

  5. R. E. Neil Dodge records the parallel in his pioneering catalogue of such imitations; “Spenser's Imitations from Ariosto,” PMLA 12 (1897): 203.

  6. “farai vendetta di quella Marfisa.” All quotations from the Orlando Furioso are taken from the edition by Lanfranco Caretti (Milan, 1963); the English translation is that of Guido Waldman (Oxford, 1983).

  7. “fan da disperate la battaglia.”

  8. “a pugni e a calci.”

  9. Elizabeth Bieman, “Britomart in Book V of The Faerie Queene,University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (1967-68): 170.

  10. We might also recall that Ruggiero sees the warrior Marfisa only as a comrade, and responds sexually to the “feminine” characters Alcina and Angelica, but it is Marfisa who, Bradamante suspects even before she hears rumors to the effect, will steal Ruggiero's heart.

  11. Diana MacIntyre DeLuca also sees Bradamante and Marfisa, like other pairs of guerriere in Renaissance epics, as “two women warriors who represent rival traditions” and “two feminine possibilities”; Forgetful of Her Yoke: The Woman Warrior in Three Renaissance Epics, DAI 42.12 (June 1982): 5127A-5128A. The same understanding informs the discussion of the Furioso's women in Peter DeSa Wiggins, Figures in Ariosto's Tapestry: Character and Design in the Orlando Furioso (Baltimore, 1986), 161-204. My reading is indebted to his.

  12. For an example from each side of the debate, see Margaret Tomalin, “Bradamante and Marfisa: An Analysis of the ‘Guerriere’ of the ‘Orlando Furioso,’” Modern Language Review 71 (1976): 540-52; and Pamela Joseph Benson, “A Defense of the Excellence of Bradamante,” Quaderni d'italianistica 4 (1983): 135-53.

  13. See esp. James E. Phillips, Jr., “The Background of Spenser's Attitude Toward Women Rulers,” Huntington Library Quarterly 5 (1941-42): 5-32; and idem, “The Woman Ruler in Spenser's Faerie Queene,” ibid., 211-34; Woods; and Benson, “Rule, Virginia: Protestant Theories of Female Regiment in The Faerie Queene,ELR 15 (1985): 277-92.

  14. For a discussion of the quasi-religious nature of celebrations of Elizabeth, see Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (London, 1977), esp. chap. 4, “November's Sacred Seventeenth Day,” 117-28; also Robin Headlam Wells, Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Cult of Elizabeth (London, 1983), 18-21.

  15. It has been argued, for example, that Spenser is here representing debates about Mary Stuart but without adding to them (Kerby Neill, “The Faerie Queene and the Mary Stuart Controversy,” ELH 2 [1935]: 192-214), and that he is presenting the Protestant compromise position on the issue of female rulers which declared Elizabeth a divinely ordained exception to a general policy of disapproval (Benson, 1985).

  16. These features of Elizabeth's mythography are discussed by Allison Heisch, “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy,” Feminist Review 4 (February 1980): 45-56.

  17. Woods, 144. Also see Heisch; and Sheila ffoliott's discussion of another powerful woman's image-making (“Catherine de' Medici as Artemesia: Figuring the Powerful Widow,” in Ferguson, et al., 227-41) where she argues that much of Catherine's ability to take power derived from her tacit claim to be acting not in her own right but as a voice of her dead husband and servant of her young son.

  18. For a discussion of the image of the Amazon in the Elizabethan mind, see Montrose, esp. 77-80, and Celeste Turner Wright, “The Amazon in Elizabethan Literature,” Studies in Philology 37 (1940): 443-56.

  19. Winfried Schleiner, “Divina virago: Queen Elizabeth as an Amazon,” Studies in Philology 75 (1978): 163-80, discusses Amazonian figurations of the queen, but other types of figures are far more numerous; the Amazon imagery that is used emphasizes martial prowess and plays down other elements of the Amazon mystique.

  20. Montrose, 78.

  21. Wright, 433.

  22. See idem, 449-54. Gabrielle Bernhard Jackson has recently discussed the complexity of Amazon figures in this period and the ambivalent attitudes held toward them at greater length in “Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc,” ELR 18 (1988): 40-65.

  23. Mariann S. Regan, Love Words: The Self and the Text in Medieval and Renaissance Poetry (Ithaca, NY, 1982), 192.

  24. Lauren Silberman, “Singing Unsung Heroines: Androgynous Discourse in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene,” in Ferguson, et al., 259-71, esp. 260.

  25. Reed Way Dasenbrock, “Escaping the Squires' Double Bind in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene,SEL 26 (1986): 25-45, esp. 32.

  26. This is not to deny that Belphoebe, and Elizabeth through her, are also praised, but since that praise has received a share of critical attention it seems to me to be important to acknowledge the more bitter aspect of the episode: while Belphoebe cures Timias' wound, she also makes him suffer, and while Ralegh may have deserved Elizabeth's displeasure, Spenser can hardly have approved unambiguously of his patron's disgrace; and Elizabeth, unlike Belphoebe, never restored her Ralegh to favor.

Works Cited

Ariosto, Ludovico. Orlando Furioso. Ed. Lanfranco Caretti. Milan, 1963.

———. Orlando Furioso. Trans. Guido Waldman. Oxford, 1983.

Benson, Pamela Joseph. “A Defense of the Excellence of Bradamante.” Quaderni d'italianistica 4 (1983): 135-53.

———. “Rule, Virginia: Protestant Theories of Female Regiment in The Faerie Queene.ELR 15 (1985): 277-92.

Bieman, Elizabeth. “Britomart in Book V of The Faerie Queene.University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (1967-68): 156-74.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. “Escaping the Squires' Double Bind in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene.Studies in English Literature 26 (1986): 25-45.

DeLuca, Diana McIntyre. Forgetful of Her Yoke: The Woman Warrior in Three Renaissance Epics. DAI 42.12 (June 1982): 5127A-5128A.

Dodge, R. E. Neil. “Spenser's Imitations from Ariosto.” PMLA 12 (1897): 151-204.

ffoliott, Sheila. “Catherine de' Medici as Artemesia: Figuring the Powerful Widow.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, 227-41. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago, 1986.

Heisch, Allison. “Queen Elizabeth and the Persistence of Patriarchy.” Feminist Review 4 (February 1980): 45-56.

Jackson, Gabrielle Bernhard. “Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc.” ELR 18 (1988): 40-65.

Montrose, Louis A. “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, 65-87. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago, 1986.

Neill, Kerby. “The Faerie Queene and the Mary Stuart Controversy.” ELH 2 (1935): 192-214.

Phillips, James E. “The Background of Spenser's Attitude Toward Women Rulers.” Huntington Library Quarterly 5 (1941-42): 5-32.

———. “The Woman Ruler in Spenser's Faerie Queene.Huntington Library Quarterly 5 (1941-42): 211-34.

Regan, Mariann S. Love Words: The Self and the Text in Medieval and Renaissance Poetry. Ithaca, NY, 1982.

Schleiner, Winfried. “Divina virago: Queen Elizabeth as an Amazon.” Studies in Philology 75 (1978): 163-80.

Silberman, Lauren. “Singing Unsung Heroines: Androgynous Discourse in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, 259-71. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago, 1986.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton, New York, 1977.

Strong, Roy. The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry. London, 1977.

Tomalin, Margaret. “Bradamante and Marfisa: An Analysis of the ‘Guerriere’ of the ‘Orlando Furioso.’” Modern Language Review 71 (1976): 540-52.

Wells, Robin Headlam. Spenser's Faerie Queene and the Cult of Elizabeth. London, 1983.

Wiggins, Peter DeSa. Figures in Ariosto's Tapestry: Character and Design in the Orlando Furioso. Baltimore, 1986.

Woods, Susanne. “Spenser and the Problem of Women's Rule.” Huntington Library Quarterly 48 (1985): 141-58.

Wright, Celeste Turner. “The Amazons in Elizabethan Literature.” Studies in Philology 37 (1940): 433-56.

Donald V. Stump (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Stump, Donald V. “The Two Deaths of Mary Stuart: Historical Allegory in Spenser's Book of Justice.” Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. 9, edited by Patrick Cullen and Thomas P. Roche, Jr., pp. 81-105. New York: AMS Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Stump discusses the role of Mary Stuart (also known as Mary Queen of Scots) in Book V of The Faerie Queene.]

Scholars seem to have reached a consensus on Spenser's treatment of Mary Queen of Scots in Book V of The Faerie Queene. The prevailing view is that she is represented twice: first as Radigund in Cantos iv-vii and then again as Duessa in Cantos ix-x.1 This is, I think, a useful insight. As it has usually been presented, however, the theory leads to at least one embarrassment: it requires Mary to die twice, once when Britomart cleaves her helmet in Canto vii and again when Mercilla sends her to be executed after Canto ix. It seems bizarre that Spenser should present the death of Mary in some detail and then, only two cantos later, circle back to the same event all over again. The problem is further compounded by major discrepancies between the two accounts. In Canto vii the character representing Queen Elizabeth is seeking revenge and strikes furiously:

                                                                      The wrothful Britonesse
Stayd not, till she came to her selfe againe,
But in revenge both of her loves distresse,
And her late vile reproch, though vaunted vaine,
And also of her wound, which sore did paine,
She with one stroke both head and helmet cleft.


In Canto ix, however, the character who stands for Elizabeth is not furious but full of pity. Although she permits the execution to take place, she acts reluctantly, and her reasons have nothing to do with love-rivalry, reproaches, or wounds, but with her divine role as a just and merciful ruler:

But she, whose Princely breast was touched nere
          With piteous ruth of her so wretched plight,
          Though plaine she saw by all, that she did heare,
          That she of death was guiltie found by right,
          Yet would not let just vengeance on her light;
          But rather let in stead thereof to fall
          Few perling drops from her faire lampes of light …


The discrepancies between the two accounts have never been satisfactorily explained. The best attempt has come from Thomas Cain, who suggests that Mercilla's course of action represents what Elizabeth actually did and Britomart's behavior represents what Elizabeth ought to have done. Cain writes, “Britomart acts with clearheaded correctness, while Marcilla bungles and temporizes.”3 This interpretation is ingenious, but it also raises difficulties, for Mercilla is so thoroughly idealized in Cantos ix-x that it is hard to believe she is acting in direct opposition to Spenser's own views.4

The failure of critics to reconcile the two accounts is related to a second difficulty: the vagueness of current historical interpretations of the Radigund episode. Although scholars have supplied very full accounts of the relationship between the trial of Duessa and that of Mary Stuart, they have not examined in comparable detail the earlier material on the Amazons. No one has looked into the historical background of Artegall's rescue of Terpine, his skirmishes with Radigund in the city gate and in the lists, his subsequent imprisonment and dealings with Clarinda, or Britomart's battle to save him. In short, scholars have treated the episode as a historical allegory without demonstrating that its incidents are historical.

Of course, it is conceivable that most of the incidents are not historical. Spenser may have alluded to Mary only in the death of Radigund. Yet it is hard to think of a reason that he should be so erratic, writing all but the final moments of an episode without any topical reference and then suddenly calling to mind the most notorious and dramatic execution of his era. Since he was writing about the virtue of justice, one would expect him to have taken primary interest in the crimes committed and the just response to them, not in the bare fact of an execution.

In light of the difficulties raised by current interpretations, it seems worthwhile to reexamine the entire episode. I begin with the simplest hypothesis that seems plausible to me: that Spenser saw in the career of Mary Stuart an illustration of key principles of justice; that he set out to weave into his allegory an account of her injustices and the trial to which they led; and that he worked in more or less chronological order. What incidents in Mary's life, then, would have been most pertinent to his aims? What were the main phases in her relations with the English? How do these relate to the allegory of Mary's trial and execution in the later episode at the Palace of Mercilla? To find answers to these questions, we must step back for a moment to review Mary's career.


From the point of view of an Englishman loyal to Queen Elizabeth, Mary's first injustice was committed in 1558. After the death of Mary Tudor, Henry II of France claimed the crown of England for his teenage daughter-in-law, Mary Stuart, and this claim led to serious legal, diplomatic, and military struggles with Elizabeth. Although Mary actually wore the English royal insignia only briefly, she never formally renounced her right to it, and until her execution in 1587, she was repeatedly involved in schemes to gain the crown.

The first phase of Mary's struggle with the English began in earnest in 1559. In August, her mother, Mary of Guise—who was acting as Regent of Scotland during Mary's minority—brought in French troops to suppress a rebellion among the Scottish Protestants. The ostensible purpose of this move was to restore civil order, but the English feared that it was part of a long-range plot to supplant Elizabeth by a French invasion from the North. Consequently, in the winter of 1559-60, Elizabeth ordered an invasion of Scotland. By the following summer she had driven Mary's troops back to France and installed a Protestant government in Edinburgh. At about the same time, Mary's husband, Francis II, died and the young queen left France to take up active rule in Scotland.

The second phase of Elizabeth's struggle with Mary occupied the period 1560-68. It was not a time of military confrontation but of personal diplomacy, which was conducted with outward appearances of amity. Elizabeth tried to lure Mary into marrying an Englishman who could be trusted to look after Elizabeth's interests, and Mary responded by choosing one who could not: Lord Darnley. When the marriage went sour and the Scottish lords assassinated Darnley, Mary was implicated and her support began to wane. In 1567 she was forced to resign her crown, and in the following year she fled into England.

With her exile began the third phase of her quarrel with Elizabeth. For the first time she met the English face to face. In the autumn following her arrival, they tried her before a special commission for her part in the Darnley affair and for her conduct as the Scottish queen. At the same time, she became involved in various schemes to woo the English aristocracy to her side. She entertained many prominent lords and gentlemen and pursued a plan to marry the most highly titled peer in the realm, the Duke of Norfolk. He went along with the scheme, and in 1569 several Catholic lords in northern England rose in rebellion against Elizabeth, hoping to place Norfolk and Mary on the throne. Elizabeth responded dramatically, crushing the rebellion, depriving Mary of the means to regain power in Scotland, and placing her under indefinite house arrest.

The final phase of Mary's struggle lasted from 1571 until her death and consisted largely of a series of plots to assassinate Elizabeth. For the last of these, the Babington plot, Mary was tried and executed.

With this summary of the main events of Mary's career in mind, we may begin to perceive the outlines of Spenser's allegory. The Radigund episode follows the same course as the first three phases in Elizabeth's struggle with Mary. First, Artegall intervenes to save Sir Terpine, who is about to be hung by Amazons, just as Elizabeth intervened to save the Scottish protestants from the French. The Amazons represent the women who held sway in France and Scotland in this period: Mary Stuart, Mary of Guise, and Catherine de Medici. After a full-scale battle corresponding with the English invasion of Scotland in the winter of 1560, Artegall and Radigund begin a second phase of the struggle by exchanging gifts and emissaries and engaging in private combat in the lists. This matches well the period from 1560-68 when Anglo-Scottish relations were outwardly amicable and Elizabeth was dueling privately with Mary over the all-important marriage issue. Then comes the moment when Artegall has Radigund in his power, removes her helmet to kill her, and unexpectedly yields to her instead. This incident parallels the early days of Mary's captivity in England, when the English aristocracy first beheld her face to face, sought to try her for murder, and, at least in the case of Norfolk and the Northern Earls, fell under her power instead. After Radigund has mastered Artegall, she falls in love with him and makes amorous approaches, just as Mary courted Norfolk from 1568 to 1571. At this point Artegall's first love, Britomart, defeats Radigund decisively, ending her rule of the Amazons and releasing Artegall. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Radigund dies and Mary lived on, this stage in the allegory corresponds well with the third phase of Elizabeth's struggle with the Queen of Scots. In 1569-71, Elizabeth suppressed the rebellion of Mary's most powerful supporters in England, ended forever her power as a queen, and established a Protestant government in Scotland that became England's closest ally.

Laid out in this fashion, the correspondences between the Radigund episode and the career of Mary Stuart are promising. Yet questions remain. How detailed is the allegory? Are there, for example, specific events corresponding to each skirmish between Artegall and the Amazons? Are there historical counterparts for characters such as Sir Terpine, Clarinda, and the mysterious Bellodant? Is there any reason for Spenser to portray the first three phases of Mary's career in the character of Radigund, and then to switch in the last phase to portray Elizabeth's rival as Duessa? And finally, what are we to make of the problem with which we began, the two deaths of Mary? To answer these questions, and to reveal the extraordinary richness of Spenser's allegory of Mary Stuart, we need to examine the episode in more detail.5


Artegall first encounters the Amazons in Canto iv when he discovers them attempting to hang Sir Terpine. As he draws near the gallows, the women begin to threaten him as well, and he is forced to employ his servant Talus to disperse them. Afterwards, the grateful Terpine tells the story of their Queen—how she had fallen in love with a knight named Bellodant and, when he rejected her, had turned her bitterness against all men, particularly the Knights of Maidenhead. In response to a challenge from Terpine, she had fought and overpowered him, giving him two choices: to exchange his armor for “womens weedes” and do domestic chores, or else to be hanged. Terpine stoutly chose the latter. Once Artegall has heard this story, he resolves to avenge the Knights of Maidenhead and, with Terpine by his side, fights a pitched battle in the gates of Radigone in which he rescues Terpine a second time and forces the Amazons to call a cease-fire.

The beginning of Radigund's vendetta against the Knights of Maidenhead has a clear analogue in the experience of Mary Stuart. She, too, lost the first love of her heart, the sickly boy-king Francis II, and with this loss came a stinging personal rejection that did indeed turn her toward a course of open struggle with Elizabeth and her court (the Knights of Maidenhead). From her girlhood, when Mary was first betrothed to the young Dauphin, she had set her heart on being Queen of France, and when he died in 1560, she failed to win the support of the de Medici faction at court. Consequently, she was forced to make a tearful and humiliating retreat to Scotland.6 Once there, she seems to have consoled herself for the loss of France by turning her attention toward England. Thus, as Spenser's allegory suggests, the jilting of the young queen by the French made her rivalry with Elizabeth a major preoccupation. This interpretation is supported by the name of Radigund's lover. “Bellodant” means “one who makes a war,” and from the death of Henry VIII until the conflict with Spain began to brew in the 1570's England's chief military opponent was France. The two nations engaged in open hostilities in Scotland and France in 1548-49, in France in 1557-58 and 1562-63, in Scotland in 1560, and again in the Netherlands in 1572.

Several details of the incident with Sir Terpine confirm the view that it refers to events in the same period. When Mary of Guise sought to suppress the Protestant rebellion of 1559-60, her daughter, Mary Stuart, was not in Scotland but in France, and her absence may account for the fact that Radigund is not with the Amazons when Artegall first encounters them. His rescue of Sir Terpine also has a precise analogue in Elizabeth's intervention on behalf of the Scottish faction known as the Lords of the Congregation. During the rebellion of 1559, Elizabeth cultivated close ties with the leaders of this group, most notably with Mary's illegitimate half-brother, James Stuart. If Spenser meant Terpine to represent a particular person, it was probably Lord James. The knight's name means “thrice sorrowful,” and Stuart did indeed suffer three major defeats that are represented in Spenser's allegory.

The first calamity for Lord James came in late summer of 1559. From May through July, Stuart's rebels managed to control most of Fife and to occupy Edinburgh, but their volunteers soon lost their will to fight, and the Lords of the Congregation were forced to call a truce with the Regent and disperse. In July, on the death of Henry II, Mary Stuart became Queen Consort of France, and this emboldened her mother to bring in French reenforcements in August and September. Thoroughly out-manned and outmaneuvered, the Protestants then appealed to Queen Elizabeth for help. They received it in two forms: money to provision and pay their troops, and diplomatic aid to spirit the son of one of their most powerful potential allies, Châtelherault, out of France so that his father could safely join the rebellion. With money and Châtelherault, the Protestants were able in October to regain control of Edinburgh.7

These incidents are portrayed in Artegall's initial intervention to save Terpine. Like the English government in this period, Artegall hesitates to become directly involved; he regards it as “shame on womankinde / His mighty hand to shend” (V.iv.24). Yet, just as England was forced to reconsider its neutrality when French forces began to swarm into Scotland and occupied the strategic fortress at Leith, so Artegall is forced to defend himself against the sudden hostility of the Amazons. He sends Talus, his executive arm, to help disperse the crowd.

The second defeat and rescue of Terpine corresponds with the events of November 1559 through January 1560. In November, after a disastrous attempt to overrun the French garrison at Leith, the Protestants were again forced to withdraw from Edinburgh. By January, most of their strongholds in Fife had been retaken by the French, and the Protestants' plight was desperate. Elizabeth could not afford to remain on the sidelines any longer, and in January 1560 she sent Admiral Winter with a contingent of the English fleet into the Firth of Forth. Although Winter denied any military involvement—claiming instead that he was in search of pirates—he nonetheless managed to distract the French troops until Elizabeth could arrange a more forceful strategy. In February her representatives concluded the Treaty of Berwick, in which Elizabeth promised to defend the Lords of the Congregation, and in March an English army invaded Scotland under the command of Lord William Grey, the father of Spenser's friend Arthur Grey. The English directed their attack against the French stronghold at Leith, but after a number of bloody French forays, in one of which Arthur Grey was wounded, the troops were forced to settle in for a prolonged siege. In June, Mary of Guise died, leaving Mary Stuart without the means to prosecute the war from a distance. Consequently, in July 1560, France hastily concluded the Treaty of Edinburgh, which required that all foreign forces leave Scotland and that Mary Stuart cease wearing the English royal insignia. For a time, the Lords of the Congregation were finally in control. They assembled a Parliament, renounced the authority of the Pope, abolished the Mass, and adopted a Protestant confession of faith.8

Against this historical background, certain details of Spenser's allegory take on special meaning. For example, the hostilities take place in the gateway to the city and involve a preliminary verbal exchange between Artegall and the porter, surely because Leith is the “sea-gate” that controls access to Edinburgh from the Firth of Forth, and English diplomats protested loudly against the French presence there.9 After the first day of fighting, Radigund's women separate the chief combatants and cast their troops “far asunder,” probably because the end of the brief war of 1560 saw the English withdraw over their northern border and the French return to the Continent. Once Artegall has drawn back from Radigone, he leaves his servant Talus near the city “to keepe a nightly watch for dread of treachery” (iv.46). This I take to be a reference to the English forces left in Berwick after the Treaty of Edinburgh to keep an eye on the Scottish border.


The second day of Artegall's battle and his subsequent period of subjection to Radigund represent the next phase in Anglo-Scottish relations: the period of mingled enmity and rapprochement from 1560 to 1568. Spenser signals a change in the allegory by having Radigund propose a “single fight” with Artegall, which is not to take place on the open battlefield, as before, but in lists that are “closed fast, to barre the rout” (v.5). At the outset, there is an elaborate show of courtesy between the two combatants, Radigund sending “wine and juncates” with her messenger Clarinda, and Artegall responding with “curt'sies meete” and “gifts and things of deare delight” (iv.49, 51). Such civilities also characterized relations between Elizabeth and Mary in the early 1560s, when Scottish ambassadors were warmly greeted in London and returned with sisterly letters and tokens of affection from Elizabeth to their mistress. The man responsible for Mary's relations with England was William Maitland of Lethington, a man of whom I shall say more when we come to the sections on Clarinda later in the episode. He was committed, above all else, to promoting an alliance between Scotland and England. In September 1561 he brought Mary's first amiable overtures to the English court, and in early 1562 he became the prime mover in negotiations to arrange a personal meeting between the two monarchs.10

Under the surface of amity, however, a serious struggle for power was in progress. As Radigund suggests in setting the conditions for the tournament, the outcome of the battle was to decide who governed the British Isles. She says of Artegall, “if I vanquishe him, he shall obay / My law, and ever to my lore be bound, / And so will I, if me he vanquish may” (iv.49). The relevance of this compact to Mary is obvious. Although her agents had negotiated the Treaty of Edinburgh, she had never ratified the document and had therefore retained her right to claim the titles and insignia of the Queen of England. In the decade after 1560, her negotiations with England came to turn on this point, for Elizabeth interpreted her adversary's refusal as a sign that Mary still intended to supplant her.11 Of course, the terms of Radigund's challenge also apply to Elizabeth, for Henry VIII and Protector Somerset had recently made war on Scotland to enforce a claim of suzerainty over that country,12 and though Elizabeth did not openly assert her father's claim, she was certainly eager to extend her power. She particularly wanted to control Mary's policy toward the Protestant Lords at home and toward the Catholic opposition abroad.

To this end, Elizabeth made a bold but curious proposal that deeply offended Mary and began their struggle in earnest: she put forward her own favorite, Robert Dudley, as a prospective match for Mary. Obviously, Dudley was too low in station for a queen, but Elizabeth thought to overcome this objection by advancing him to the Earldom of Leicester. The advantage of the plan was that, even if Mary ultimately refused, the marriage negotiations would set back the day when she turned to Catholic princes on the Continent for a husband. And if Mary accepted, Leicester would help to draw the realms into a firm alliance.

That the private combat between Artegall and Radigund is an allegory of marriage negotiations is suggested in Radigund's attire and in the language of love used to describe the joust. The Amazon enters the lists dressed, not in the gear of battle, but in the delicate fashions of a coquette. She wears a light dress of “sattin white as milke,” probably because Mary was fond of white and had become so well known for splendid gowns in this color that, for a time, she was called “the lily of France.”13 Over Radigund's white dress, with its associations of purity, there is a quilting of “purple silke” (v.2), with suggestions of royalty but also, perhaps, of amorous passion. The latter connotation is reinforced in Spenser's statement that her dress was “short tucked for light motion / Up to her ham” (v.2). There may also be amorous overtones in the way she first approaches Artegall, “as if she had intended / Out of his breast the very heart have rended” (v.6). Not even the exposed “ham” and her “light motion” can win Artegall's heart, however, for the poet tells us that he “from that first flaw him selfe right well defended” (v.6). Once again, the point is historically accurate, for Leicester never succumbed to Mary's attractions or to the lure of a Scottish crown. Although publicly he “gan fiercely her pursew,” privately he was cool to the entire scheme.14

In the stanzas that follow, the poet continues the allegory of marriage negotiations by incorporating a series of double-entendres:

          Like as a Smith that to his cunning feat
          The stubborne mettall seeketh to subdew,
          Soone as he feeles it mollifide with heat,
With his great yron sledge doth strongly on it beat.
So did Sir Artegall upon her lay,
          As if she had an yron andvile beene,
          That flakes of fire, bright as the sunny ray,
          Out of her steely armes were flashing seene,
          That all on fire ye would her surely weene.
          But with her shield so well her selfe she warded,
          From the dread daunger of his weapon keene,
          That all that while her life she safely garded …

(v. 7-8)

In light of the earlier descriptions of Radigund's attire, Spenser's repeated references to heat carry inevitable overtones. The key point is that, although Radigund seemed at first to be “mollifide with heat” and “all on fire,” she was never really so. She was all along guarding herself from “the dread daunger of his weapon keene.” The point is historically apt, for, although Mary was outwardly receptive to the idea of marriage with Leicester, she was inwardly offended by the very idea of marrying a commoner of Elizabeth's choosing, and set herself resolutely against the match.

Artegall then shears away half of Radigund's shield, leaving her “naked” on one side. She counters by striking his thigh and letting forth “purple blood,” and he responds by shattering the other half of her shield and removing her helmet in order to slay her. It is tempting to associate the wound to Artegall's thigh with the act in which Mary's enemies insisted that she had shed the purple blood of English royalty: the murder of Darnley, who was high in the English line of succession.15 More certain, however, is the historical significance in the destruction of Radigund's last defences and the removal of her golden helmet. After the murder of Darnley, Mary made the mistake of marrying James Bothwell, the chief agent in the plot to assassinate the King. The Scots were outraged and rose in rebellion, driving Bothwell from the country and imprisoning Mary in Loch Leven Castle. There, in the summer of 1567, James Stuart demanded that she resign her crown to her infant son and, upon her compliance, assumed control of Scotland as the new Regent.16 This train of events is neatly represented in the the removal of Radigund's golden helmet, which is linked by the adjective “sunshynie” with the traditional symbolism of royalty.


The removal of Radigund's helmet is, of course, a turning point in the action, for the sight of the Queen's beauty arouses pity in Artegall. After beholding her face for the first time, he cannot bring himself to harm her and casts aside the sword of justice. At this point, she revives and attacks him ruthlessly, constraining him to accept the subservience and the women's chores that Terpine had previously refused. In consequence, Terpine suffers the third sorrow suggested by his name: Radigund puts him to death. Then a new period of wooing begins, brought on when Radigund unexpectedly falls in love with Artegall. Without understanding her motives, he agrees to sue for her favor in order to gain his freedom. Clarinda then comes to the fore again as a deceitful intermediary, seeming to act on behalf of Radigund but lying to her and to Artegall out of a newly conceived infatuation with the knight.

In these events the career of Mary Stuart continues to govern the action. In 1568, she escaped from Loch Leven, gathered a small army, and after a disastrous encounter with the superior forces of Lord James, fled over the southern border. When the English first beheld her, they were, like Artegall, moved to pity. She and her small band of adherents arrived in a state of exhaustion, without funds, baggage, or even clean linen. In Spenser's words, she was “voide of ornament, / But bath'd in bloud and sweat” (v.12). Although Elizabeth retained her under house arrest until she could be cleared of the Darnley murder, the English queen was genuinely appalled at Mary's destitute state. She undertook the maintenance of Mary's household and laid plans for her restoration as Queen of Scotland. More significant for the allegory, however, is the pity shown by Elizabeth's subjects. Important officials soon began to pay their respects, won by Mary's charm, or perhaps by the possibility that she might one day be their queen.

Not the slowest of those who courted Mary was Elizabeth's own Earl of Leicester. As Master of the Queen's Horse, he had reason to be in contact with the Scottish queen, for he was placed in charge of her stable.17 It was not long before rumors began to circulate that he had revived the old scheme to marry her—though this time the plotting was more dangerous because it was done behind Elizabeth's back. Apparently, he did not encourage such rumors himself, but he was eager to ingratiate himself with Mary and sent her several costly gifts, including gold and silver boxes containing prized antidotes for poison and a piece of what was sold to him as the horn of a unicorn.18 Of course, we cannot know how much Spenser knew of Leicester's life in the 1560s, but he may have heard scraps of the story while he was employed at Leicester House in 1579-80. In any case, there is an amusing parallel between the demeaning chores performed by Artegall in Radigone and Leicester's subservience to the Queen of Scots.

A more dangerous development in the English courtship of Mary was the scheme conceived in November 1568 to marry her to the Duke of Norfolk. In his ambition, Leicester so far forgot himself that, urged on by the Spanish ambassador, he became a prime mover in the plot. Other members of Elizabeth's council, including Cecil, knew of it too and gave it at least the sanction of their silence.19 It may be that Leicester and the others hoped that Elizabeth would welcome the arrangement. After all, she herself had once suggested Norfolk as a match for Mary in the early 1560s, and the points that recommended him then had not changed: he was a Protestant of rank and considerable power, and he could be expected to look after English interests in Scotland. All the same, the plan was self-serving and encouraged a dangerous division of loyalties. Leicester and the others tacitly admitted as much by keeping it secret for nearly a year.

The scheme was all the more unsavory because, when Norfolk first began to pursue it in earnest, he was the chief English commissioner in Mary's trial for the murder of Darnley, and Leicester later served on the same judicial panel. The proceedings took place in York and Westminster in the fall and early winter of 1568-69 and concluded without arriving at a judgment against the Scottish Queen, even though letters extremely damaging to her had been introduced in evidence. In fairness to Norfolk and Leicester, it should be added that Elizabeth herself intervened to dissuade the commission from rendering a judgment. Yet the marriage negotiations certainly compromised the proceedings and opened them to charges of partiality.20

To Spenser it must have seemed that Norfolk, Leicester, and the other commissioners had relinquished their just responsibility to condemn Mary for the murder of Darnley and, by their foolish subservience, had set the stage for the most disastrous act in the entire drama of Mary's imprisonment in England: the Rebellion of the Northern Earls, which took place in the following year. The poet gives numerous suggestions of his opinion, but the most obvious is that, upon seeing Radigund's countenance, Artegall throws away his sword, which here and elsewhere in Book V symbolizes retributive justice. The Amazon then awakens and resumes her former cruelty and “greedy vengeance,” just as Mary did after her trial. Immediately after the commission decided not to render a judgment, she sent out secret messages urging her allies in England and Spain to provide troops to release her. In Scotland her supporters responded with renewed violence against the government of James Stuart, and in England the powerful Earl of Northumberland began to plot with the Spanish ambassador to overthrow the English queen.21

The ceremony in which Radigund breaks Artegall's sword and takes him as her vassal is, then, an apt (if exaggerated) representation of Mary's effect on a key segment of the English nobility. As Cecil noted at the time, Mary's “cunning and sugared entertainment of all men” was surprisingly successful. Spenser makes the same point in describing Artegall's first impression as he enters Radigund's chamber to begin his servitude: he beholds there “Many brave knights, whose names right well he knew” (v.22). England's failure to render judgment against Mary at the end of her trial in 1568 had left the nation vulnerable, and it is a nice irony that, in portraying this period of Mary's imprisonment, Spenser suggests that it was Artegall—the character representing the English—who was beaten and in bondage.

The first consequence of Artegall's failure to bring justice upon Radigund is the death of Terpine. This has its historical analogue in the assassination of James Stuart in January 1570, less than a year after Mary had begun to stir up the Scottish Catholics against him. He was gunned down by an assassin hired by the Hamiltons, one of the Catholic families most loyal to Mary, and she personally granted the murderer a pension for the deed.22

A second consequence is that Radigund unexpectedly falls in love with Artegall. This infatuation probably refers to Mary's own overtures to Norfolk, which were revealed during his later trial for treason in January 1572. In the period from 1569 to 1571, Mary corresponded with Norfolk in openly amorous terms. When, for instance, she presented him with a pillow that she had embroidered, and he responded with a costly diamond, she pledged to wear it at her neck “until I give it again to the owner of it and me both.”23 Other details of the allegory also suggest Mary's involvement with Norfolk. Radigund employs her emissary Clarinda to communicate with Artegall, and for this purpose she must supply a ring to bring Clarinda past a prison guard, Eumenias. Similarly, Mary had to devise ways for William Maitland and others to convey messages past her warder, the Earl of Shrewsbury.24

Finally, the role of the double-dealing emissary Clarinda in the love negotiations corresponds neatly with Maitland's activities during this period. While he was serving as one of the Scottish commissioners at Mary's trial in 1568, he played an extraordinary game of diplomatic deceit. Like Clarinda, who unexpectedly falls in love with Artegall, Maitland seems to have been motivated by a personal desire to arrange an alliance with England. Moreover, like Clarinda, he played a key role both as a matchmaker and as an obstacle to the very match he was supposed to be arranging. It was Maitland who first approached the Duke of Norfolk with the idea of a marriage with the Queen of Scots. Yet, as one of the Scottish commissioners, Maitland also did something that helped to drive the English away from Mary, and thereby made the Norfolk scheme all the more difficult to support. During the trial he actually helped to make the case against Mary, bearing witness to the authenticity of the incriminating letters to Bothwell that turned the English commissioners against her. Throughout this double-dealing, he was also sending Mary messages, assuring her of his loyalty and warning her in advance that damaging evidence would be presented at the trial.25

Against this background, Spenser's description of the duplicity of Clarinda is very much to the point:

          Ne ever did deceiptfull Clarin find
          In her false hart, his bondage to unbind;
          But rather how she mote him faster tye.
          Therefore unto her mistresse most unkind
          She daily told, her love he did defye,
And him she told, her Dame his freedome did denye.


Maitland certainly did intend to keep those involved in the Norfolk scheme in “bondage” to Mary, but he also exploited Mary's fears of rejection, and all the while he was pursuing his own private aim: an alliance with England.


In the autumn of 1569, the secret scheming involving Mary came at last into the open. Elizabeth heard the full extent of Norfolk's involvement, and within a few weeks the Duke was imprisoned in the Tower and the Catholic Lords Northumberland and Westmoreland took arms in the North. After months of legal and diplomatic maneuvering, Elizabeth was finally forced to take military measures against the Marian Catholics in England and Scotland. Her initial deliberations and her ultimate victory are portrayed in Cantos vi and vii. From Talus Britomart learns of Artegall's surrender, and though she is deeply jealous, she nonetheless sets out to release him. After episodes at the House of Dolon and Isis Church (which, because they are tangential to the story of the Amazons, cannot occupy us here), she meets Radigund in battle, beheads her, releases Artegall, and restores male supremacy in the city of Radigone.

Even before she hears Talus's news, Britomart's first reaction is to fear that Artegall has found “some new love” or that his foe Grantorto has entrapped him, and this concern has an important basis in fact. Before Elizabeth had hard evidence of a conspiracy, she was shrewd enough to perceive that something was awry with Norfolk and Mary, and she was also deeply concerned about Philip II, whom Spenser allegorizes in Grantorto. In 1569, tensions were running high between England and Spain, and war seemed imminent. Moreover, the Spanish ambassador was at the heart of the treasonous plotting that Northumberland and his friends carried out behind the more honorable maneuvering of Leicester and Norfolk. It was widely—and correctly—rumored that, if the English Catholics had risen in force against their queen, the Spanish would have backed them using Alva's forces in the Netherlands.26

Britomart's next reaction, after hearing Talus's report that Artegall is in prison, is also important in the historical allegory, for it reveals one of Spenser's purposes in writing this section of the poem: to exonerate Leicester and his cabal. In judging Artegall's actions, the main question that Britomart considers is “whether he did woo, or whether he were woo'd” (vi.15). Talus's reply—that Artegall was “not the while in state to woo” because he was in “thraldome”—is more to the point than may at first appear. It was not the English but Mary's supporters, particularly Maitland, who had initiated the marriage talks, and Leicester and his faction seem to have played along mainly in order to stay in Mary's good graces. Of course, in light of the disastrous consequences of this maneuvering, Spenser could not very well let Leicester's error in judgment pass without condemnation. He could, however, paint it out as entirely human and understandable by citing the example of other men from the past who had been beguiled by women. This excuse, though flimsy, may well have been adequate to the occasion, for, like Britomart, Elizabeth seems to have been more interested in assuring herself that Leicester had remained loyal than in punishing him for his part in the fiasco. After subjecting him to a brief period of disgrace, she forgave him and turned to face her Catholic enemies in the North.

In Canto vii, after an eventful trip to the city of the Amazons, Britomart spreads her pavilion close by and prepares for battle. Radigund's first reaction, besides “joyous glee” at the prospect of battle, is the hope “that she the face of her new foe might see” (vii.25), and this detail may refer to Mary's well-known desire throughout this period to meet Elizabeth in personal interview.27 Like Mary, however, Radigund fails in this desire. Trumpets sound the battle, and Radigund sees only the hard exterior of her opponent's armaments.

Before she engages Britomart, the Amazon propounds the same conditions under which she fought with Artegall. This time, however, her opponent refuses to accept any law but that of chivalry. This point is worth noting because it corresponds with a crucial change in Elizabeth's policy in the years 1569-71. Previously, her ambassadors had been willing to offer, as one term of a comprehensive settlement with Mary, a clause granting the Scottish Queen the right to succeed to the English throne should she outlive Elizabeth and her heirs. However, once Mary's Catholic forces had attempted to overthrow the English government in the Rebellion of 1569 and in the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, Elizabeth changed her policy and never again offered to confirm Mary's right of succession.28 Like Britomart, Elizabeth was now “fully bent / To fierce avengement” of her opponent's pride (vi.18).

Spenser describes the ensuing battle as cruel and unseemly:

                                                  through great fury both their skill forgot,
And practicke use in armes: ne spared not
Their dainty parts, which nature had created
So faire and tender, without staine or spot,
For other uses …


The reference to blows against one another's “dainty parts” may have to do with charges of sexual immorality that passed between the two queens during this period. In 1571, Elizabeth allowed the publication of the incriminating letters that had been introduced in Mary's trial, and they were bound together with George Buchanan's Detectio Mariae Reginae Scotorum, which alleged that Mary had commited flagrant acts of adultery with James Bothwell. In return, Mary sniped at Elizabeth, on one occasion demanding that a proposed treaty allowing Elizabeth's heirs to precede Mary in the English succession include the requirement that they be “lawful issue.”29

Equally pointed is Spenser's assertion that “both their skill forgot,” for both sides fought badly in the Rebellion of 1569. The Earl of Sussex, who commanded Elizabeth's Northern troops, declined to engage the rebels for more than five weeks and was derided at court for failing to act sooner. When at last reinforcements from the south arrived, the army scattered the rebels and pursued them over the border into Scotland. Then it took terrible vengeance on the English villages that had supported the uprising, hanging more than six hundred suspects without due process of law. This excess is probably reflected in the depredations of Talus, who drives the enemy pell mell “into the towne” and then begins a “piteous slaughter” (vii.35). Similar reprisals took place the following spring, when the English army again invaded Scotland to punish Mary's supporters.30

We come, finally, to the point with which we began: the beheading of Radigund; and it should now be clear that it can have nothing to do with the actual execution of Mary Stuart. The dates and circumstances are wrong. As we have seen, the fall of Radigund represents events in the period 1569-71, when Mary had been a rival for the affections of several of Elizabeth's own noblemen and when she had cast reproaches against the honor of the English queen and had struck a painful blow against her in the Rebellion of the Northern Earls. Elizabeth's response had been angry and violent, just as Spenser suggests in describing Britomart's final attack on Radigund (vii.34). It was not until 1587, however, that Mary was finally sent to the block, and Elizabeth's attitude then was quite different. She took extraordinary steps to insure that Mary's second trial was scrupulously legal (at least by the standards of the day), and so reluctant was she to allow the death sentence to be carried out that she seriously alienated Parliament and her own Privy Council.31 Clearly, these circumstances correspond with Spenser's description of the trial and execution of Duessa in Cantos ix-x, but not with the events surrounding the slaying of Radigund.

It seems likely, therefore, that Radigund's death in Canto vii is merely symbolic. Like the dismemberment of Grantorto in Canto viii, which has nothing to do with the actual demise of Philip II in 1598 but only with the dispersal of his Armada ten years earlier, the slaying is not to be taken literally. Spenser hints at the true meaning when he writes that Britomart “with one stroke both head and helmet cleft” (v.34). As we saw earlier, the poet employs Radigund's golden helmet as a symbol for the crown of Scotland, and the head is, of course, a symbol of supremacy. I would suggest that Spenser has in mind, not Mary's death, but the final and irreparable loss of her right and her power to govern Scotland. In 1571, after Mary was implicated in the Ridolfi plot, Elizabeth sent word to the government in Edinburgh that Mary would never be allowed to resume her throne. Although the English queen had long hoped that Mary might somehow be restored and had therefore declined to recognize the government of Mary's young son, James VI, she now granted that recognition. From 1571 on, the ascendancy of the King's party was virtually assured.32

Once we recognize the true meaning of the blow to Radigund's head, then the remainder of the allegory falls neatly into place. Britomart's release of Artegall from prison corresponds with a new mood at court after the Ridolfi Plot. Never again were Elizabeth's chief courtiers involved in Mary's schemes, and Parliament went so far as to pass a bill removing her from the English succession and authorizing her execution without trial should any further insurrection be mounted on her behalf.33 Britomart's personal reign in Radigone and her reestablishment of male supremacy there reflect the role of English troops in maintaining order in Scotland after 1569. In 1570 and again in 1573, they crossed the border to aid the Protestant party, successfully defending them until a strong new Regent, the Earl of Morton, could take measures to repress Marian dissent and consolidate his power.34 Finally, the oath of fealty that the magistrates of Radigone swear to Artegall accurately represents the firm alliance between Scotland and England which was established during this period.

One question remains: why did Spenser risk misleading his readers by having Radigund killed, when he might simply have had her deposed? The answer must, of course, be speculative, but two reasons come to mind. In Book I, when the poet had been concerned with religion, he had alluded to Mary in the figure of Duessa. In Book V, where most of the allegory of Mary's reign explores issues of political justice rather than of religion, Spenser chose to recast Mary in the figure of Radigund. In the cantos after the death of the Amazon queen, however, there is once again a specifically religious point to be made. In 1571, the Pope issued his Bull of Excommunication against Elizabeth and thus transformed her political struggles with Mary into a religious conflict. Thereafter, all the chief Catholic powers of the Continent—Philip II of Spain, the Pope, the Guises—began machinations to depose the heretical English queen. I would argue that, in order to emphasize the terrible new danger posed by Mary after the Bull, Spenser chose to represent her once again in the figure of Duessa.

The shift also reflects a change in Mary's modus operandi. Before 1571, her struggle with Elizabeth was more or less open. It involved major diplomatic and military confrontations that lend themselves to the sort of heroic treatment that we see in the portrayal of Radigund. After 1571, however, Mary was reduced to scheming of the most ignoble sort, using empty beer barrels to smuggle letters to shady agents outside her prison and joining one murderous conspiracy after another. The suggestions of duplicity in the name “Duessa” become altogether appropriate again. The glamorous and proud Queen of Scots, figured forth so grandly in the armor of Radigund, did indeed die in 1571. Thereafter, all that remained was a bitter, aging woman, living out her life at Tutbury and Chartley in plots and empty dreams.


The detailed depiction of Mary Stuart as Radigund raises important questions about the nature and the aims of the historical allegory in Book V. It is often assumed that Spenser handled topical material allusively and that it is altogether in the service of the moral and political allegory of the poem. Edwin Greenlaw once wrote that historical allegory is included only “by way of illustration or compliment or ornament, never sustained for long”35 Albert Gough took a similar—though more radical—position when he wrote that “a complete and consistent allegory is not to be looked for. It is Spenser's habit to give a hint of a political meaning, and then to confuse the trail.”36 The allegory of Mary Stuart offers at least one major counter-example to the generalizations of Greenlaw and Gough. It is sustained, coherent, and largely chronological. It can hardly be called “compliment” or “ornament,” and if it is confusing, the difficulty lies with our own lack of historical knowledge, not with the allegory itself.

Yet what of Greenlaw's third possibility: that the historical allegory serves as an “illustration” of the principles involved in the moral allegory? Though topical references undoubtedly act in this way throughout the poem, I would argue that they also have a second and more important function in Book V. There, the topical allegory is not intermittent or occasional but pervasive, and it lies at the very heart of the poet's intention. In Cantos iv through xii, Spenser portrays the reign of Queen Elizabeth as a single, momentous struggle against the Catholic forces of the world. In Radigund he presents the rivalry with Mary Stuart in the 1550s and '60s; in the Souldan and Duessa the battles against Philip of Spain and Mary in the 1570s and '80s; in Gerioneo and Grantorto the wars in the Netherlands and Ireland in the 1580s and '90s.37 Far from being mere illustration, the historical allegory constitutes the main action of Book V. Moreover, the nature of this action is one of Spenser's most conspicuous innovations in the genre of the epic.

In the Letter to Raleigh, Spenser likens The Faerie Queene to the works of “Poets historicall” such as Homer, Virgil, and the Italians. In doing so, he is accepting a fundamental premise of classical epic: that the legendary history of a nation is the matter best suited to educate its people. As Spenser goes on to explain, this is true, in part, because legend provides a store of moral and political exempla. Yet it is also true because history unites the nation in a common view of its origins and its social order, and—through the visions of its founders and heroes—provides a way to establish its claims for the future.

The contemporary references in the Radigund episode and throughout Book V fulfill this larger epic intention. They set forth the greatness of Elizabeth's achievement in preserving justice and Reformed religion in the British Isles and in establishing England as a major force in the Western world. They do so, however, by transforming the present reign of Elizabeth into the stuff of the mythic past. As the poet announces in the proem to Book III, he intends to fit “antique praises unto present persons.” This transformation is Spenser's major innovation in the genre of the romantic epic. Earlier epic poets, such as Virgil and Dante, had alluded to current politics or brought it in by way of illustration, and Ariosto may have had it in mind in brief passages of allegory. Spenser, however, turns it into the main action of an entire book. In portraying Elizabeth and her ministers in the guise of legendary figures, he sets them in a heroic tradition reserved for the descendents of the gods. Their deeds are the beginning of a new destiny for England. Like Aeneas, they must carry on a great battle against an ancient civilization across the sea. Like him, they are destined to found a new and more glorious Troy. Prophetic passages throughout the poem confirm the English in this epic role. Their destiny is emphasized in the Briton Chronicles in Book II, in Merlin's prophecies and Britomart's account of the founding of Troynovant in Book III, and in Britomart's dream at Isis Church in Book V—which comes just before the decisive battle with Radigund.

As Spenser suggests after the death of Duessa, the ultimate significance of the episodes involving Mary Stuart lies in this epic pattern. For three decades, Mary was the single greatest threat to Elizabeth and to the new order that she sought to establish. After the allegorical portrayal of Mary's death, the poet can at last pause to celebrate a true epic victory. He sings of Elizabeth as if she were an ancient hero, honored by the gods, great in England's destiny, exemplary in the classical and Christian virtues. He writes of her (in the figure of Mercilla):

          What heavenly Muse shall thy great honour rayse
          Up to the skies, whence first deriv'd it was,
          And now on earth it selfe enlarged has
          From th'utmost brinke of the Armericke shore,
          Unto the margent of the Molucas?
          Those Nations farre thy justice doe adore:
But thine owne people do thy mercy prayse much more.


Spenser's adaptation of epic convention to allow this sort of glorification of a living ruler is bold almost to the point of presumption. Yet his words—at least those concerning Elizabeth's role in England's new destiny—were prophetic. By ensuring the survival of the Protestant Reformation, by consolidating a centralized government in England, and by laying the first foundations for the British Empire, Elizabeth did indeed alter the course of Western civilization.

As the Radigund episode reveals, the historical allegory of Book V is not simply a set of illustrations to support the moral allegory. It is also a new form of epic action, comparable in scope and global implications with Virgil's account of the founding of Rome.


  1. See, among others, Albert B. Gough, The Faerie Queene, Book V (Oxford, 1918), cited in Edwin Greenlaw, et al., eds., The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, 11 vols. (Baltimore, 1932-57), V, 221 and 246; Edwin Greenlaw, Studies in Spenser's Historical Allegory (Baltimore, 1932), pp. 142-47, cited in the Variorum, V, 304-306; H. S. V. Jones, A Spenser Handbook (New York, 1930), pp. 262-64, cited in the Variorum, V, 316-17; Thomas Cain, Praise in “The Faerie Queene” (Lincoln, Nebr., 1978), p. 152.

  2. I cite the text of The Faerie Queene edited by A. C. Hamilton (London, 1977). Archaic spelling inverting i and j, u and v has been modernized.

  3. Cain, p. 152.

  4. See Donald V. Stump, “Isis Versus Mercilla: The Allegorical Shrines in Spenser's Legend of Justice,” Spenser Studies 3 (1982), 87-98.

  5. Before beginning, one would like to be able to identify Spenser's sources of information. Unfortunately, however, Mary's case was the subject of countless tracts and histories, and we have no way of knowing which of them Spenser may have read. He could, moreover, have learned all that he needed without opening a book, for he served under two officials who knew the case intimately: the Earl of Leicester and Lord Arthur Grey. As I shall discuss below, Leicester was a principal figure in several of the incidents woven into Spenser's allegory, and Grey fought in one of its key battles and was also a commissioner at Mary's trial in 1586. I have, therefore, confined my documentation in sixteenth-century sources to two of the best known histories: George Buchanan's History of Scotland and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. Buchanan is useful because he shares Spenser's bitterly anti-Marian stance and often follows the official English line on Mary's conduct. Holinshed offers detailed accounts of military engagements. For further bibliography, see Kerby Neill, “The Faerie Queene and the Mary Stuart Controversy,” ELH2 (1935), 192-214, and James Emerson Phillips, Images of a Queen: Mary Stuart in Sixteenth-Century Literature (Berkeley, 1964).

  6. George Buchanan, The History of Scotland, tr. James Aikman, 4 vols. (Glasgow, 1827), II, 437.

  7. Buchanan, History, II, 406-420. See also Gordon Donaldson's concise history of the rebellion in The Edinburgh History of Scotland, edited by Gordon Donaldson, III: Scotland: James V to James VII (Edinburgh, 1965), pp. 85-106.

  8. See Buchanan, History, II, 420-34. A detailed account of day-by-day military operations and the terms of the subsequent treaty appears in Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, 1808), IV, 188-201.

  9. On the strategic importance of Leith, see Holinshed, Chronicles, IV, 189.

  10. See Buchanan, History, II, 441-48, and E. Russell, Maitland of Lethington, the Minister of Mary Stuart: A Study of His Life and Times (London, 1912), pp. 146-58.

  11. See J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth (New York, 1934), pp. 106-113, 124, 151-52, 164.

  12. Donaldson, Scotland: James V to James VII, pp. 66-72, 76-79.

  13. See Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (New York, 1969), pp. 48, 90.

  14. See Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester (New York, 1962), pp. 93-95, 134-35.

  15. Buchanan gives detailed accounts of Mary's quarrels with Darnley and charges her with complicity in his assassination. See History, II, 471-502, and Detectio Mariae Reginae Scotorum, in The Tyrannous Reign of Mary Queen of Scots, tr. and ed. W. A. Gatherer (Edinburgh, 1958), pp. 163-80.

  16. See Buchanan, History, II, 502-27.

  17. Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester, p. 154. Many critics simply equate Artegall with Leicester, but, as Artegall's connection with the actions of Elizabeth's other ministers shows, he represents no single person but rather the Queen's justice as it was carried out by all her agents. See Greenlaw, Studies in Spenser's Historical Allegory, p. 101.

  18. Jenkins, pp. 154-66; Fraser, p. 420.

  19. Neale, Queen Elizabeth, pp. 179-82.

  20. As one of the Scottish commissioners, Buchanan had an insider's knowledge of Norfolk's involvement with Mary. See History, II, 540-44.

  21. Buchanan, History, II, 544-45, 552-54; Neale, p. 180.

  22. Buchanan, History, II, 569-71; Maurice Lee, Jr., James Stewart. Earl of Moray: A Political Study of the Reformation in Scotland (New York, 1953), pp. 273-74.

  23. Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots, pp. 417-18.

  24. Buchanan discusses Norfolk's secret arrangement to send letters to Mary through William Maitland and suggests that the marriage was first negotiated through the wife of Mary's earlier warder, Lord Scrope. See History, II, 543-44, 562.

  25. See Buchanan, History, II, 543-44; Lee, James Stewart, pp. 237-41; Russell, Maitland, pp. 370-84. Lee and Russell have proposed plausible theories to explain Maitland's bizarre behavior in this incident, showing that it was neither self-serving nor intentionally destructive of Anglo-Scottish relations. To someone like Spenser, however, who knew less about the man and who had more intense feelings than we do about the disastrous results of the Norfolk marriage scheme, Maitland's maneuvering must have seemed plain treachery with but one plausible explanation: that Maitland was trying to curry favor with the English for his own personal advancement.

  26. See Neale, Queen Elizabeth, pp. 185-86.

  27. See Neale, pp. 161-64, 168.

  28. Neale, pp. 195-96.

  29. Neale, pp. 190, 196.

  30. Holinshed's account of the rebellion reveals the bumbling and the excesses of both sides. See Chronicles, IV, 234-52. See also Neale, pp. 183-87.

  31. See Neale, pp. 272-77.

  32. See Neale, pp. 195-96.

  33. Neale, pp. 198-201.

  34. Donaldson, Scotland: James V to James VII, pp. 163-67.

  35. Greenlaw, Studies in Spenser's Historical Allegory, p. 96.

  36. Gough, Variorum, V, 211. For arguments against these and other scholars with similar views, such as A. C. Hamilton and Graham Hough, see Frank Kermode, “The Faerie Queene, I and V,” in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne (New York, 1971), pp. 33-59.

  37. See Jones, A Spenser Handbook, pp. 26-71.

Julia M. Walker (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Walker, Julia M. “Spenser's Elizabeth Portrait and the Fiction of Dynastic Epic.” Modern Philology 90, no. 2 (November 1992): 172-99.

[In the following essay, Walker discusses Spenser's exposition of Queen Elizabeth I and her royal lineage through the epic narrative of The Faerie Queene.]

Suggesting that the royal houses of Renaissance Europe were “consciously … intensifying the mystique of monarchy” because rulers were “assuming more and more of a messianic role in an age which had witnessed the breakdown of the universal church and the shattering of the old cosmology,” Roy Strong argues for the consequent importance of images of the monarch.1 Recent work on the “Siena/Sieve” portrait and the “Rainbow” portrait has established in impressive detail just how true this intensification had become for court artists in the last years of Elizabeth's reign.2 Strong's assertion, I will argue, also holds true for the work of Edmund Spenser as he produced perhaps the greatest portrait of Elizabeth's reign: Britomart in The Faerie Queene. Spenser's Elizabeth portrait surpasses all the painted panels, however richly encoded with meanings, because through the force of epic narrative it can present a changing image, one confronted by physical and political realities and altered by those confrontations. Because the changing portrait of ink on paper is linear, it presents the identity of its central figure to the eye only gradually, as the veil of allegory is gradually withdrawn by the poem's narrative to reveal the image of a virgin whose motherhood is merely fictive.

Spenser introduces the analogy between poetic representation and painting in the proem to book 3 by speaking of Elizabeth's virtue of chastity as “the pourtraict of her hart, / If pourtrayd it might be by any liuing art.”3 In the next three stanzas he develops the conceit of the poem as painting, making it the controlling principle of representation for the legend of Britomart.

But liuing art may not least part expresse,
Nor life-resembling pencill it can paint,
All were it Zeuxis or Praxiteles:
His daedale hand would faile, and greatly faint,
And her perfections with his error taint:
Ne Poets wit, that passeth Painter farre
In picturing the parts of beautie daint,
So hard a workmanship aduenture darre,
For feare through want of words her excellence to marre.

[Proem to 3, 2.10-18]

Protesting that no single image can represent Elizabeth, Spenser argues that since “choicest wit / Cannot your glorious pourtraict figure plain,” he himself cannot “shadow it” in “colured showes” by fitting “antique praises unto present persons” (proem to 3, 3.6-9); instead, he must seek alternative forms of representation. As David Lee Miller observes: “Poetry can cap the sequence of forms that are inadequate to their original while still leaving open a space for the emergence of allegory as an alternative to the poetics of sensuous realism.”4

Continuing the trope of displacement in stanza 4, Spenser offers first not his own but Raleigh's poetry. But by linking Raleigh's poetry to the painting of a specific image—its use, according to Spenser, of “liuing colours and right hew” to “picture” Elizabeth as Cynthia—Spenser prepares for the last stanza of the proem where he ultimately displaces the artistic achievement of Raleigh. Spenser overgoes Raleigh's with his own which offers not a single classical figure but a mirror, not a single mirror but “mirrours more then one” (proem to 3, 5.6) for Elizabeth to find in the single text which is Spenser's poem. This, then, is Spenser's revision of the episode in which Sir Christopher Hatton and another knight challenged each other's ability to present “the truest picture of hir Majestie to the Queene”; one offered a flattering picture, the other a mirror.5 According to Louis Adrian Montrose, what “the poet conventionally deprecates as his inability to produce an adequate reflection of the glorious royal image is [in the proem to bk. 3] the methodical process of fragmentation and refraction by which the text appropriates that image, imposing upon it its own specificity.”6 But surely Spenser's conventional deprecation here becomes the frame for a text which glorifies the very multiplicity of images Elizabeth generates, foregrounding her multivalency to enable his allegorical epic portrait. Thus Spenser can augment what Miller calls the “poetics of sensuous realism.”

The poetic story—the (hi)story of Elizabeth's “ancestor” Britomart—is foregrounded by the proem to book 3 and the generic expectations generated by Spenser's invocation of Ariosto's multiplot dynastic epic, only to be gradually erased by the narrative of books 3,4, and 5. If the story and the narrative were consistent,7 we would find a wedding in book 5; instead we find Mercilla and lose sight of Britomart as she bids “farewell to fleshly force” ( and the fiction of dynastic motherhood. Using the fiction of a dynastic epic as pigment and framing his portrait with allusions to two epic couples—thus overgoing also the painter of the “Sieve” portrait—Spenser offers the queen a text which mirrors her own multivalent image.8 The multiple nature of Elizabeth's image—monarch, virgin, mother, warrior, lover, goddess—is daunting enough to make any artist “fear through want of words her excellence to marre” by highlighting one aspect of this image at the expense or to the exclusion of another. I agree in part with Elizabeth J. Bellamy that one quest (but not the “ultimate quest”) of the poem is “the poet's unsuccessful effort to nominate Elizabeth”;9 I would argue, however, that the failure to name Elizabeth is a consequence of Spenser's success at representing her. The paradigm of dynasty becomes a fiction, a prop, an element of representation which enables the historical reality of the portrait. Monarchy and dynasty are complexly and inextricably linked, but to avoid any suggestion of dynastic failure on Elizabeth's part, Spenser must find a way to transcend this element of the paradigm. As he develops the complex metaphor of portraiture and mirroring, Spenser delineates the nature of his delicate task. In the proem to book 1 Spenser calls Elizabeth herself the “Mirrour of grace and Maiestie diuine”; in the proem to book 3 he offers his own text as “mirrours more then one” in which Elizabeth can see herself. Naming Gloriana and Belphoebe as two of those mirrors, Spenser leaves unnamed his major representation of Elizabeth—unnamed in the proem, that is, but named in the title of the book: Britomart. Neither the perpetually deferred Gloriana nor the fatherless Belphoebe with her twin sister Amoret offers as accurate a reflection of Elizabeth as does Britomart, the heir of her father's kingdom and a figure of female power—not in Faerieland or on the lower slopes of Olympus but in a male-dominated society. No less graphically than the “Siena/Sieve” portrait in its depiction of Dido's love-inflamed death, Spenser—through Britomart's struggles with various manifestations of fleshly force—undertakes to depict the sexual as well as the political implications of Elizabeth's evolving transformation from queen and virgin to Virgin Queen.


Beginning very much “in the middle of things,” book 3 opens the epic-within-an-epic which continues through books 4 and 5. Mirroring the structure of the Aeneid, Spenser presents us with one canto of present-tense action and two of history. The mirror scene and the rest of canto 2 and all of 3 are supposedly Britomart's means for explaining to Red Cross how she came to be as she is, but it is significant that these two cantos are narrated not in the first person, as Aeneas tells his story—and, indeed, as Odysseus tells his—but in the third. Spenser thus objectifies Britomart as a speaking picture, not a “character,” and depersonalizes her experience for the reader from enactment to representation. This shift jars with the story (Red Cross does, after all, inquire of Britomart directly, not a third party) and thereby heightens the tension between story and narrative already present in book 3. This tension results from Spenser's secret depiction of Elizabeth through the presentation of Britomart.

The word “secret,” as an adjective (often linked to “fear”) and as a noun, is associated with Britomart from her first appearance in the poem (bk. 3, canto 1) and reiterated through all her key episodes—the mirror vision, Merlin's cave, the House of Busirane, her first sight of Artegall, Isis Church—right up to her rescue of Artegall from Radigund and her disempowering of herself and all women rulers. “Secret” seems a dissonant note to sound in the presentation of so public a figure unless, perhaps, it is meant to suggest a secret kept from a figure even more public.10 The reader knows the secret of Britomart's identity but not her story, so her problems in Malacasta's castle do not initially seem as strange as they should. The trouble Britomart encounters in the first canto of book 3 springs from her failure to recognize the elements of sexual secrecy in Malacasta's castle. The tapestries which Britomart sees on Malacasta's walls are described in detail by the poet/narrator, who gives pride of place to the story of Venus leading Adonis to some “secret shade” ( where she “secretly” ( courts him and attempts to enjoy his love “in secret” ( The repetition of “secret” in three consecutive stanzas is hard to ignore, and thus the reader is not greatly surprised by Britomart's failure to read the tapestries, for it might be argued that a secret knight of chastity has yet to confront openly the forces of antichastity. At any rate, after recognizing no threat, secret or otherwise, in the castle's decor, Britomart fails either to see the danger of the “secret darts” ( Malacasta throws at her or to anticipate the danger of Malacasta's coming with “secret purpose” ( toward her bed. Thus she receives her first wound.

The narrator speaks of secrets to the reader, not to Britomart. I think the purpose here is to sensitize the reader to the word “secret” and to its associations with sexuality as encountered by Britomart. Therefore, when we are finally given the details of Britomart's first encounter with sexuality in the second canto of book 3, we may be expected to remember and reflect upon this knight's failure to read properly the story of Venus and Adonis. The naive reader of the first canto of book 1 may not expect the Knight of Chastity to know the story of Venus's sex-denying lover. But when we realize that Britomart is familiar with such Ovidian oddities as Myrrha, Biblis, and Pasiphae (, we must recognize Britomart's reading of the tapestry for what it is: a failure of awareness which amounts to suppression of knowledge. Britomart's secret fears, generated by the mirror vision of an Other in book 3, canto 2, have been neither assuaged nor displaced by her transmogrification from a weak, sick girl into a successful knight; they have merely been placed below the level of her immediate consciousness. For although Britomart is an allegorical figure, she is a figure developed to represent both the physical and psychological elements of the female. Spenser figures forth Britomart's psychological confusion by playing on the immediate ignorance of the reader in canto 1. When we are given Britomart's history of secret fears about the secrets of sexuality, we remember the Malacasta episode and are forced to reread it.11 Britomart herself misreads and is wounded because of her failure to remember the sexual lessons she has already learned.

This failure, a result of denial, goes far to explain the lies Britomart tells to Red Cross at the beginning of canto 2. Denying the reality of her own girlhood, she offers Red Cross a tale which conflates the childhoods of Virgil's Camilla and Tasso's Clorinda—significantly, two women who live and die not only as warriors but as virgins. And once again Spenser forces the naive reader into an inescapable misreading, offering no reason to disbelieve or even to question Britomart's tale of a martial childhood. Not until the end of canto 3 do we learn that Britomart's hands were “weake” and knew not the use of “dreadfull speare and shield” ( As there seems to be no necessity for Britomart to tell this lie, we can read it as a rewriting of history. We also realize that, if her Amazon childhood is fictive, Britomart's desire for a male-defined identity was not a manifestation but an outgrowth of the mirror vision. As in the Malacasta episode, Spenser once more uses narrative placement to privilege the topos of reflected knowledge that is associated with mirrors in general and Britomart's mirror vision in particular. Britomart has still failed to externalize her own vision of sexuality beyond the oblique confines of the mirror vision.

It is not possible to separate Britomart's psychosexual reaction to the mirror from the artistic/historic context of the poem as Elizabeth's mirror, for the mirror into which Britomart gazes is presented to us in a double context.12 It is first the mirror of romance and then the mirror of public policy. We initially hear from the narrator (in of “Venus looking glas.” The next mention, of “a mirrhour plaine” (, is quickly superseded by its description as a work of Merlin's “deepe science, and hell-dreaded might, / A looking glasse, right wondrously aguiz'd, / Whose vertues through the wyde world soone were solemniz'd” ( This famous “world of glas” (, given by Merlin to King Reynce so that the latter might never be surprised by an enemy attack, is now presented as an instrument of public policy, neither “plaine” nor having to do with Venus. Since this mirror had been “a famous Present for a Prince” ( and strategically important to the Prince's kingdom, we must find it all the more strange that Britomart, Reynce's “onely daughter and his hayre” (, seems to know nothing about it although she has access to it. If she had known its properties, she would not have expected to view herself in “that mirrhour fayre” ( That she seeks for herself “in vaine” comes as no surprise to the reader, for the narrator's description of the mirror precedes Britomart's viewing by only three stanzas:

It vertue had, to shew in perfect sight,
What ever thing was in the world contaynd,
Betwixt the lowest earth and heauens hight,
So that it to the looker appertaynd;
What euer foe had wrought, or frend had faynd,
Therein discouered was.


If Britomart knew what the reader knows, fear of the mirror would not be an inappropriate response.

But does she know? After first vainly seeking her own face, Britomart, “auizing [generally glossed as ‘remembering’] of the vertues rare, / Which thereof spoken were” (, looks once more for that which might “to her selfe pertaine” ( According to the narrative of stanza 23, the particular “that” for which Britomart looks is a husband: “So thought this Mayd (as maydens use to done) / Whom fortune for her husband would allot” ( What she sees is Artegall wearing the armor of Achilles. When Britomart sees this image and acquires an external focus for her vague thoughts of marriage, the inscription linking Artegall to Achilles seems inappropriate at first. But the allusion to the dead Achilles suggests a pattern for reading Britomart's response to the vision. In book 11 of the Odyssey Odysseus learns from the shade of the dead Achilles that he should alter his goals and values; far from wanting to be the world's greatest hero among the dead, Odysseus should realize that it is better to be a slave and alive. As this speech of Achilles changes the way Odysseus looks at the rest of his life, so the vision of Artegall/Achilles changes Britomart.

We now must ask exactly how much Britomart remembers about the mirror. She recalls enough, albeit belatedly, to look for someone “that mote to her selfe pertaine,” but does she specifically remember that the mirror was devised to reveal the foe or the feigning friend? This question makes stanza 23 all the more problematic. Spenser's language there depicts quite vividly the psychological construct we now call the unconscious; Britomart is not actively seeking or thinking about a husband, but the idea is in her mind. If she remembers everything about the mirror's vision, does she therefore unconsciously see her destined husband as a foe? Is Spenser trying to show the workings of Britomart's mind or to plant ideas in the minds of his readers? Specifically, is he figuring forth a political situation in which any alliance would be somehow disempowering? Stanza 26 would seem to answer “both” (or “all”) to these questions. Britomart is seemingly unaffected—she viewed well, “liked well, ne further fastned not, / But went her way” (—yet she is simultaneously the unknowing victim of Cupid's secret arrows, which wound her in the arena of public policy, that is, the mirror. Here the reader is told that Britomart is unaware “that her vnlucky lot / Lay hidden in the bottome of the pot” ( “Unlucky lot”? This phrase and the description of “the false Archer, which that arrow shot / So slyly” are the language which Virgil uses of Dido in order to evoke a male/female paradigm which features not Achilles, but Aeneas. Dido became “unlucky” when the gods placed her in a position where her private emotions became a threat to the public good. By searching the mirror, an instrument of public policy, for private (however heedless) pleasure, Britomart may have placed herself in a similar position—or her position as her father's (problematic) female heir may have so placed her.

After her mirror vision, Britomart falls ill and speaks “fearefully,” arguing with her nurse that she does not suffer from love, while describing equally negatively what she has seen in the mirror: “Nor Prince, nor pere it is” (, “Nor man it is, nor other liuing wight,” but “th'only shade and semblant of a knight, / Whose shape or person yet I never saw” (, 3-4). Tracing her misfortune to her “fathers wondrous mirrhour” (emphasis mine), Britomart goes on to detail its effects on her “bleeding bowels” in terms more sensuously realistic than allegorical:

                                                                                                                        so sore
Now ranckleth in this same fraile fleshly mould
That all mine entrailes flow with poysnous gore.


Although “ranckleth” is a key term for love wounds in the Faerie Queene (Arthur's in bk. 1, canto 9, and Marinell's in bk. 4, canto 12), Britomart's sufferings as described in these lines seem more symptomatic of severe discomforts of the menstrual cycle than the “ulcer” she diagnoses in herself. The vision of Artegall, which replaces the nonimage of herself, generates physiological and psychological reactions, both unpleasant to Britomart; the first, however, is necessarily and naturally linked to female sexuality, the second is a sign of conflict over that sexuality. Denial or lack of recognition of her private female self causes Britomart's public activities to suffer (stanza 27), and Glauce observes that she no longer “tastest Princes pleasures” ( In addition to her physical diminution and pain, Britomart also becomes “Sad soleme, sowre, and full of fancies fraile” ( and experiences both bad dreams and a loss of sleep.

Glauce tries to comfort Britomart by arguing that it is love from which she suffers; moreover, that this is a good and natural love. Her secondary claim compiles an interesting list of negative examples from Ovid to argue that Britomart's love, despite its “strange beginning” (, is really good. The implications of the negative examples are not lost on Britomart, however. Making the obvious comparison between herself and Narcissus, she concludes that she is worse off “than Cephisus foolish child” ( whose mirror vision found a substantive correlative in his own face. Hereupon, Glauce's renewed offer of comfort shades again into sinister overtones, as she suggests that the object of Britomart's vision might be identified “by cyphers, or by Magicke might” ( and vows “by wrong or right / To compasse thy desire, and find that loued knight” (

Accepting at face value Glauce's “chearefull words,” the “sick virgin” is able to sleep (,2). The next day Britomart and Glauce repair “Vnto the Church” for a religious exercise as odd and contradictory as the stanzas of comfort that precede it. They pray

With great deuotion, and with litle zeale:
For the faire Damzell from this holy herse
Her loue-sicke hart to other thoughts did steale;
And that old Dame said many an idle verse,
Out of her daughters hart fond fancies to reuerse.


Unsurprisingly, Britomart returns home only to relapse. Now, however, the narrator tells us outright that Britomart's problems are psychological, and that they stem from a lack of self-knowledge: “the royall Infant fell / Into her former fit; for why, no powre / Nor guidance of her self in her did dwell” ( Abandoning both reason and religion, Glauce now tries a series of folk remedies which also prove unable to “slake the furie of her cruell flame” ( At the end of the canto, Britomart is left to waste away from a “hart-burning brame”; she “like a pyned ghost became, / Which long hath waited by the Stygian strond” (

The word-picture of Britomart consumed by the cruel flames of a love that is somehow wrong again brings to mind Virgil's Dido.13 Britomart, shot by Cupid's arrow, has a series of physical responses to her vision of Artegall: she suffers from bad dreams, tells her female confidante of her pain, hears in return that what she feels is only natural—“No guilt in you, but in the tyranny of loue” (—is only temporarily relieved, seeks comfort in the Church, and remains the victim of burning love. In similar straits Dido turns for comfort to her sister, Anna; and both narrative and story in book 4 of the Aeneid form a pattern which Spenser's poem shadows. Anna argues that Dido's love should not be viewed as unnatural:

                              O luce magis dilecta sorori,
solane perpetua maerens carpere iuventa,
nec dulcis natos, Veneris nec praemia noris?(14)

Heartened by Anna's opinion, Dido goes to the temple to seek confirmation. But, as the narrator explains, her state of mind will not allow her to benefit from any possible religious consolation:

Heu vatum ignarae mentes! quid vota furentem,
quid delubra iuvant? Est mollis flamma medullas
interea, et tacitum vivit sub pectore volnus.(15)

Unhappy Dido still burns with ill-fated love: “Uritur infelix Dido.”16

If Spenser draws on the story of Dido to model Britomart's history, this may be a strategy for alleviating the conflict of erotic and dynastic discourses in his own poem. The problems raised by such a strategy, however, soon come to seem even more troubling than the conflict being addressed. But Spenser does not confine Britomart to the paradigm of Dido; he places her in the footsteps of Aeneas,17 and of other heroes—errant as well: Odysseus, Dante the pilgrim, and Bradamante. Before she can go upward and outward in canto 3, Britomart must first go down and inward to learn the nature of her goal.18

Guided by Glauce, Britomart finds Merlin “low vnderneath the ground, / In a deep delue, farre from the vew of day” ( Critics often link this scene to Bradamante's encounter with Merlin's ghost in Orlando Furioso. Except for the persona of Merlin, however, the episode is much closer to book 6 of the Aeneid than it is to Ariosto's poem.19 After hearing the dynastic history, Britomart, like Aeneas, is changed and pursues her destiny with vigor, while Bradamante is directed but not revitalized. Britomart arrives in Merlin's cave still shadowing Dido, for she is inflamed and weakened by a passion which she imperfectly understands. She leaves somewhat comforted, now possessed of a specific goal of public identity and reshaped after the model of Aeneas. Britomart's gender, however, does not conform to the pattern she must follow. Like the artist of the “Siena/Sieve” portrait of Elizabeth, Spenser makes allusion to the male Aeneas through a female figure, although the tradition of epic romance provides the poet with a solution unavailable to the painter. While the narrative seems to question the rightness of her actions—she acts at Glauce's “foolhardy” suggestion (—Britomart dons her father's armor and thus identifies herself with the figure presented in her father's magic mirror. That Glauce prefaces her suggestion with a catalog of women warriors is, I believe, less significant than her remarks about Britomart's person: Britomart can become “a mayd Martiall” ( because she can be made to look and act like a man, like an Aeneas or an Achilles. But, in secret, she remains a woman, like Penthesilea or Camilla or Clorina, women who do not marry, but die. Of this secret, however, only the reader has full knowledge, for Britomart herself seems as confused as ever about her sexuality, just as the others will be when they see her in armor. Breaking with her literary antecedents, Britomart does not proclaim herself a woman warrior. Similarly, Elizabeth had declined to change the gender of the ideal ruler, choosing instead to find ways to speak of herself, legally and metaphorically, as a man. Indeed, as Belsey and Belsey remind us, Elizabeth's pose in portraits often constitutes a graphic reference to portraits of her father.20 But however cleverly Elizabeth made reference to the tradition of male monarchy, she could do not more than invoke and revise its metaphors; the reality of her own sexuality remained immutable.


After concluding the flashback of both the mirror vision and the prophecy, the narrator returns the now-knowledgeable reader to the narrative present in the encounter with Red Cross, offering what seems at first to be an externalization of the vision and prophetic gloss: Britomart's apostrophe to the sea in book 3, canto 4, stanzas 7-10. Hamilton calls this speech an allegorical projection of “her inner emotional disorder into nature's disorder,”21 and so it appears as Britomart begins:

Huge sea of sorrow, and tempestuous griefe,
Wherein my feeble barke is tossed long,
Far from the hoped hauen of relief,
Why do thy cruell billowes beat so strong,
And thy moyst mountaines each on others throng
Threatning to swallow up my feareful life?


As we read to the end of the stanza, however, we find that Britomart is not projecting her own emotions on the disorder of nature but, rather, internalizing (unsuccessfully) nature's disorder within her own body:

O do thy cruell wrath and spightfull wrong
At length allay, and stint thy stormy strife,
Which in these troubled bowels raignes, and rageth rife.


If Britomart were able to locate within her own “troubled bowels” the storm of which she “thus complaynd” (, then she could allegorize and thus objectify her own troubles: the physical, sexual sea of troubles upon which she sees the “feeble vessell” ( of her own identity tossed and manned by the “bold and blind” ( figures of “Love my lewd Pilot” ( and the “Boteswaine” Fortune (—the former with “a restlesse mind” ( and the latter knowing “no assuraunce” ( So that her “ship” may survive such irrational mastery, Britomart calls upon the “God of winds” (, Aeolus, who—according to Comes—represents reason.22 If reason will rule Love and Fortune, she pleads, the storm will become “some gentle gale of ease, / The which may bring my ship, ere it be rent, / Vnto the gladsome port of her intent” ( where “I shall my selfe in safety see” ( Britomart's syntax places “selfe” between “I” and “see,” creating a verbal paradigm of identity both self-empowered and solitary; she is a figure in control, as the object of her own gaze.

But Britomart is not a text to be allegorized; as the representation of a complexly public and private woman, she cannot be so neatly dismembered, not even by her “self.” Britomart's fleeting attempt to allegorize her emotion foregrounds the impossibility of this mode of representation: a woman is not a sea, a ship, a storm—or a male monarch. Britomart can only describe herself in terms of what she is not, as Elizabeth does with sieves, suns, moons, and phoenix and pelican intaglios in her portraits.

At this point Glauce once again intervenes to remind Britomart that good is supposed to come of her sexuality, the public, dynastic good of those who will “fetch their being from the sacred mould / Of her immortall wombe, to be in heauen enrold” ( Glauce thus attempts to soothe Britomart's secret, private fears. Once again, also, we are presented with a conflict of narrative discourse and poetic action: after the narrator tells us that Glauce's elevated, dynastic interpretation of sexuality has “recomforted” Britomart (, Marinell appears on the shore and Britomart promptly prepares to attack this pure young man (cantos 13-14), whom she hears “with deep disdaine” ( She smites with “so fierce furie and great puissaunce” ( that she leaves him “tomblen on an heape, and wallowd in his gore” ( “The martiall Mayd stayd not … to lament” the hurt of the man who challenged her for trespassing; instead she rides onward over beaches strewn with gold, pearls, and other jewels, and “despised all; for all was in her powre” (,9). A realistic reading of Britomart's dynastic future would include acknowledgment of the boundaries set for women. But Britomart cannot or will not acknowledge even the restraint imposed on her freedom of movement by an armed encounter.

We have here no Virgilian Camilla who will pause, even in battle, to seek for glittering treasure. She, along with “Penthesilee” and “Debora,” are mentioned by the narrator in the first two stanzas of this canto as examples of “Antique glory” who cannot compare with Britomart “Aswell for glory of great valiaunce, / As for pure chastitie and vertue rare” ( Britomart is more brave, more pure, more chaste, and more virtuous than these women warrior/virgins, and—as we must understand from the implicit comparison with Camilla's specifically female love of plunder—less feminine.

In her “feigning fancie” Britomart “did portray” Artegall as “Wise, warlike, personable, curteous, and kind” (,9), but these “selfe-pleasing thoughts” made “her wound” worse: “her smart was much more grieuous bred, / And the deepe wound more deepe engord her hart” (,3-4). Fulfilling her apparent function in the poem, that of a “gloss” on Britomart's problems with sexuality,23 Glauce offers comfort not by bringing Britomart to terms with the immediate reality of sexual difference but by displacing this into a lofty, future-tense vision of dynasty. The immediate result is that Britomart rises to attack yet another man, yet another version of her internalized mirror vision. Not until the House of Busirane does Britomart, who never sees the Garden of Adonis, see and begin to recognize external projections of her internal sexual fears.

Not to lose myself in the toils of Busirama (or the Busirane Tournament of Interpretation),24 I would nevertheless point out that here, once again, the reader is given information whose significance is deferred. The Masque of Cupid can be read in terms of Britomart's fears, even though she herself does not seem to do so. Not until book 4, canto 1, however, do we learn that this is the masque which generated in Amoret the sexual fears which manifest themselves as the figure of Busirane. So, in a sense, Britomart succeeds because she is unaware of the implications of what she sees—this being the same reason why she failed at Malacasta's. The reader is likewise unaware of the significance of her ultimate success with Busirane until the story of Amoret's wedding in book 4. But at the close of book 3, Britomart has more in common with most icons than she does with most women; this is also the case, again within Spenser's poem, for Elizabeth.25 Britomart's private, female self has become a secret, placed outside the bounds of representation by circumstances, by other figures in the poem, and most of all by herself—just as Elizabeth's public image as nonvirginal female was displaced in lines that she herself wrote to Parliament in 1563: “Though I can think [that marriage is] best for a private woman, yet I do strive with myself to think it not meet for a prince.”26 In book 3, canto 12, Britomart is less a private woman than a prince, and every time she approaches a realization of her female self—as in her first encounter with Artegall—she is diminished, weakened by secrets, by fear, by “secret fear.” And yet, the poem and the tradition imply, she must accept—nay, achieve—the realization of her private female identity. Maureen Quilligan observes that “Spenser may counsel his female readers to follow Belphoebe's example of virginity, but the chastity he truly extols is Amoret's; it is the chastity not of a virgin queen, but of a wedded wife.”27 If Quilligan is right to find Spenser exalting Amoret over Belphoebe, perhaps the figuring of Britomart as a conflation of the figures of Dido and Aeneas constitutes a middle ground which will keep Elizabeth—married to no man but to a nation—from taking offense at the “hail wedded love” theme.28 Some such line of implication would explain why Britomart does not recognize Amoret's sexual fears as her own. It does not explain, however, how we are to read Britomart's sexuality.

As long as Britomart's sexuality is located within the paradigm of dynastic epic, we must read it realistically. If, however, we see the dynastic construct as a fiction, the poetic equivalent of an iconic symbol in a painting like the miniatures on the pillar in the “Siena/Sieve” portrait, we can look beyond this foregrounded icon to the main figure. The icon adds richness to the central figure, as the globe in the “Siena/Sieve” portrait adds a cosmic dimension to Elizabeth's monarchy, but the globe in the portrait does not suggest that Elizabeth rules the world. Neither does the fiction of dynasty mean that Britomart is going to marry and have children. As the eye moves beyond the globe in the portrait, so the reader moves beyond the fiction of dynasty within the poem. Throughout book 3 and also in books 4 and 5, Britomart's sexual image is reflected, deflected, refracted, and finally deferred. By choosing to begin Britomart's odyssey of self-knowledge with a literally untrue but metaphysically and psychologically significant mirror image, after calling attention to Elizabeth's mirror images in the proem, Spenser foregrounds the traditional topos of the mirror. By displacing Britomart's vision of herself, by reinscribing her changing identity again and again in Elizabeth's textual mirror, Spenser offers us a mirror image of multiple truths, a vision which by its inherent trope of exchanged positions, the chiasmus, enables multiple representations and dislocates truth from the world of pragmatic and psychosexual politics into the text. The image of the mirror becomes the portrait of a multivalent image: Elizabeth. How, then, can we read Elizabeth looking into the textual mirror/portrait of Britomart's quest? By watching Elizabeth watch Britomart transmute herself from a royal maid seeking a dynastic marriage and become an icon of the elements of just rule that will secure her immortality.

For the moment, let us suspend our acceptance of Spenser's formulaic references to the dynastic epics of Virgil, Tasso, and Ariosto, just as I have suggested we set aside the limitingly literal references to Gloriana and Belphoebe in the proem to book 3. If we no longer think of Britomart primarily as a future wife and mother, what does she then become? One answer is: an icon of female power beset by secret fear. True, Britomart endears herself to us as we follow the development of her private fears, because she seems more like a young woman of flesh and blood than does any other figure in the epic. But as the cantos proceed, she becomes more and more objectified and public; we are privy to fewer and finally none of her personal thoughts and reactions. In canto 2 of book 3 Britomart starts out with a full complement of psychological and physiological baggage. How, then, does she turn herself into an icon? By undergoing a perceptual exchange which turns her from an icon of the female into a female icon, from a reflection of psychosexual dynastic potential into a chiastic portrait of public female power.


If Britomart is one of Elizabeth's mirrors, what happens when Britomart comes face-to-face with her own mirror vision? In book 4, canto 6, Britomart sees not a mirror vision but a flesh-and-blood Artegall. Significantly, much of this canto's vocabulary recalls the mirror scene in book 3. By reading book 4, canto 6, in the context of these mirror tricks of identity, we may uncover a more complex and possibly disturbing correspondence between Britomart and Artegall than is suggested by the conventions of dynastic marriage. We may also find a more direct correspondence between the dynastic pair and Elizabeth than is usually suggested by critics. We will certainly discover a most complex presentation of the convergence of sexuality with temporal power.29

The confrontation and courtship of Artegall and Britomart once more presents us with a conflict between the story and the narrative of the poem; this conflict becomes a crucial element in Spenser's representation of Britomart in the remainder of book 4 and in book 5. In the confrontation scene, Glauce appeals to Britomart for a “truce,” thus implying Britomart's control of the situation. But Glauce's three-stanza explication first individually addresses Artegall and thus ascribes the male knight the place of privilege. Artegall, who had been winning the battle when he was overcome by Britomart's beauty, is seen as at once gaining and relinquishing control. Britomart's initial control of the conflict by martial means is restored by her all-conquering beauty and further affirmed by Glauce's appeal for a truce. Having made such a complex presentation of the issue, Spenser is able to begin the actual courtship story leaving the balance of power in question. This is a question which he contrives to sustain rather than resolve by shaping the conflict between story and narrative into a crux that centers on empowerment.

As the narrative discourse of stanzas 40 and 41 suggests greater control on Britomart's part than does the story of those stanzas,30 so the story of stanzas 42-46 conflicts with the traditional narrative situation of a lady loath to be parted from her lover. That language of romance is subverted by a story which presents Britomart as a knight involved in her own quest, not as an ultimate locus for male endeavor: “That all so soone as he by wit or art / Could that atchieve, where to he did aspire, / He vnto her would speedily reuert” ( In fact, as the story speedily reminds us, Britomart will not be there to be reverted to; she will be off on her own adventure, which has not concluded with finding Artegall. As Britomart gazed into the mirror in book 3, canto 2, she began the chiastic trajectory of her quest for identity, initially locating that identity in the figure of Artegall. Here, in book 4, canto 6, she makes contact with the tain of the mirror, the man himself, and is reflected back on another journey of re-imaging. This time the reflection will emerge as the face of Mercilla, the face of Elizabeth.

It is very important, I believe, that Scudamour's plaintive inquiry about Amoret intervenes between Artegall's and Britomart's dawning physical passion in the recognition scene and its extension in the conflicted wooing that commences with stanza 40. No mere comic incursion in a long-delayed love scene, this inquiry serves, I suggest, to remind the reader of a larger emergent pattern, for Scudamour's quest will take us to the Temple of Venus and the vision of the hermaphrodite relocated from the 1590 ending of book 3. That the Garden of Adonis episode is followed, not preceded, by that of the Temple of Venus makes a certain sense within the Scudamour/Armoret plot but is of the greatest importance for Britomart's quest. If she were going to fulfill the prophecy of Merlin on the literal, dynastic level by finding the man in the mirror and having children by him, would it not make better sense to follow up their meeting with a set piece on generative love rather than one of sexual ambiguity? Both the conventions of dynastic epic and society's conventional romantic endings for heroines—who marry princes (of one sort of another) and live happily ever after—gravitate against an easy recognition of Spenser's revisionist strategies. He works the reader's expectations like pigments applied to canvas, softening the contrast between his narrative and his story. As we can see by looking at Elizabeth's public portraits, there are no icons or patterns of representation which are immediately identifiable as those of a female monarch. Elizabeth's court painters had to rely on putting recognizable icons in new contexts: a phoenix intaglio, an ermine with a lacy crown around its neck, a sieve associated with an imperial crown, a single pearl where a codpiece should be. Just as the court painters force us to reread these icons, so Spenser leads us through recognition into revision. In fact, the standard assumptions about reading Britomart as dynastic mother are made fourfold difficult by the Temple of Venus, by Isis Church, by her own actions at the end of book 5, canto 7, and by the appearance of Mercilla as the key figure of female power at the end of book 5. Might we not better question those assumptions than perform complex overreadings on the poem?


I here raise more strongly my suggestion that we suspend our belief in Spenser's dynastic intentions, in what I call his dynastic fiction. If we look at the poem as Spenser has taught us to from book 1 on—treating structure and composition as functions of meaning—we can trace two patterns for the Britomart story, neither of which leads to the nursery. For the meaning of Britomart's chiastic journey both within her own quest and within Spenser's dark conceit, we must look to Isis Church and to her dream where, as Kenneth Gross observes, “diverse levels of discourse … intersect within an almost obsessive construction of ambivalence.”31 Britomart's dream is a crucible that melds the major elements of her mirror vision, her victory in the House of Busirane, and the hermaphroditic Venus of book 4. What heats this crucible is the friction between two types of allegorical design: the dynastic design of English history and the iconographic design of Elizabeth's reign. In her dream, Britomart fuses the two; she becomes mother not of a dynasty of Englishmen but of a dynasty of virtues.32 Gross argues that it is the dream in Isis Church, “as opposed to her early mirror-vision,” which allows Britomart to find her “place within a mythic and political story.”33 I agree, but would argue that it is the dream which allows the mirror vision to end.

That Isis Church is intricately related to Britomart's other significant adventures soon becomes clear. What she sees in the Isis statue forms an iconographical palimpsest with elements of other statues: the statue of Cupid, which she has seen, and the statue of Venus, which she has heard described. The text is the nature of her own sexuality which must be read within herself, and thus psychologically, in a dream.

This dream is a prophecy of what might be if Britomart continues to follow the path the poem has set for her; it is a warning. Britomart is happy though puzzled by her transfiguration in the red garments of sexuality, just as she has accepted, but not without doubts and fears, Merlin's foretelling of her role as Artegall's dynastic consort (an acceptance which also involves a change of clothing). When she is threatened with the onset of sexual desire, the flames, she sees Artegall—the reality of her mirror vision—as a possible source of rescue. Although the Crocodile devours the flames which threaten Britomart and the world of her dream, he himself becomes a threat as he turns “her likewise to eat” ( Britomart is saved from the Crocodile by the Goddess who beats back the beast and humbles it34—just as Radigund has done to Artegall. The Crocodile makes obeisance at Britomart's feet and seeks her love—just as Artegall did in book 4, canto 6. Britomart accepts his suit and becomes pregnant by him, bringing forth “a Lion of great might” (—just as Merlin tells Britomart she will do (3.3, stanzas 29-30).

In a sense, Britomart's dream tells her nothing which she did not already know. But it presents her with unavoidable connections between events which she has perceived separately and over a long time. Her reaction, therefore, becomes the most significant part of the entire episode. She awakes “full of fearefull fright, / And doubtfully dismayd through that so vncouth sight.”35 She lies awake the rest of the night and thinks about what she has seen, but the result only adds “melancholy” to her doubt and fear. True, when the priest gives his dynastic reading of the dream, Britomart is “much eased in her troublous thought” (, but the dream that the priest is reading is not the dream Britomart has. Britomart is not Isis in her dream; Isis is a force able to subdue the Crocodile to which Britomart submits. This “misreading” is not the priest's fault, for he can only read what he was told, told by Britomart “As well as to her minde it had recourse” ( As the narrator presents her, Britomart does not or cannot tell the whole truth of her dream. Luce Irigaray observes that the dreamer awakened from a dream “restricts himself to reframing, remarking, or ‘analyzing’ its contours, re-stratifying its stages, so that order, good ‘conscious’ order, may prevail. Elsewhere.”36 Likewise, Britomart denies the reality of what she has dreamed just as she denied the reality of what the mirror vision offered her. But her reaction to the sexual reality underlying the allegorized dream and overlaying the priest's reading does indeed appear elsewhere: in book 5, canto 7.


While it is possible to regard mirror visions, magic prophecies, and dreams as modes of representation which need not be privileged as “reality” within the world of the poem, actions and scenes presented in the present-tense narrative when Britomart goes forth “To seeke her loue” ( cannot be similarly unprivileged. When Britomart fights and kills the Amazon Radigund, she subdues the aspect of female power which can, by its exclusionary nature, be read as a threat to male empowerment. Britomart is not, however, able to place herself within the male-dominated dynastic paradigm, because of the circumstances of her union with Artegall. Artegall, like the Crocodile of her dream, has been humbled by a woman. Britomart awoke from her dream “dismayd” by her “vncouth” coupling with just such a figure. Britomart must find a place for herself within the poem, but that place cannot be with Radigund, whose female power threatens the natural order and continuity of life, as did the rule of Mary Tudor. Nor can it be with Artegall, whose male power has been compromised by defeat at the hands of one woman and rescue at the hands of another. Like Elizabeth, Britomart, in the closing stanzas of canto 7, feels responsibility for the larger social order without being able to find any place for herself within that order. Spenser foregrounds this disordered order with a reference to the romantic climax of the Odyssey:

Not so great wonder and astonishment,
Did the most chast Penelope possesse,
To see her Lord, that was reported drent,
And dead long since.


Britomart's wonder, astonishment, and uncertain fears must be reckoned greater than Penelope's, for—as Spenser here cleverly reminds us—it is Britomart who has been out having the adventures and remaining chaste while Artegall has donned woman's clothes and done exactly the woman's work of Penelope and her ladies, while displaying none of the Greek queen's strength or cleverness but only his own failure. Here, I suggest, Britomart is presented as at once greater than both Penelope and Odysseus at their best—as an androgynous image not unlike the Dido/Aeneas allusions of book 3—while Artegall is both less capable than Penelope and more wretched than the king disguised as a beggar.

What can Britomart do when she is confronted with such a vision? How can she honor—or even repair—such a society? Any action she takes will further violate the order of a male-dominated universe, an order already damaged by Radigund. To help this society, Britomart must place herself outside of it. All five of her questions in stanza 40 question the justice of a society which can both define roles of sex and power and then render those roles inaccessible to one who is placed by circumstances in an ambiguous role. As closely as he dares, Spenser is depicting the predicament facing Elizabeth when she ascended the throne. In stanzas 41-43 Britomart addresses her situation in much the same way that Elizabeth came to terms with hers; in stanzas 44-45 the poet, like Elizabeth, draws a rhetorical screen to prevent the radical action from threatening the sensibilities of the established order.

Britomart answers her five questions herself with the only solution available to her: “Then farewell fleshly force” ( The literal, fleshly dynastic level of empowerment is no longer a possibility; there remains only the power of the icon. Now, in stanzas 41-43, Spenser presents his most carefully crafted conflict between narrative and story:

Thenceforth she streight into a bowre him brought,
And causd him those vncomely weedes vndight;
And in their steede for other rayment sought,
Whereof there was great store, and armors bright.


The story restores Artegall's masculine garments, outlaws female rule, and returns him to the action of the poem, leaving Britomart “sad and sorrowful.” The narrative, on the other hand, shows us a Britomart who never relinquishes but, indeed, heightens her control of the action. In stanza 41, as Artegall is being doubly redressed, all of the active verbs belong to Britomart; Artegall is presented only in the passive. The complicated sequencing of stanza 42 mirrors the policy of Elizabeth when she found herself on the throne following the rule of a wrong-thinking woman:

So there a while they afterwards remained,
Him to refresh, and her late wounds to heale:
During which space she there as Princess rained,
And changing all that forme of common weale,
The liberty of women did repeale,
Which they had long vsurpt; and them restoring
To mens subiection, did true Iustice deale:
That all they as a Goddesse her adoring,
Her wisedome did admire, and hearkned to her loring.


This “she” must privilege her own position without changing the position of all women; she must privilege the male-dominated social order without relinquishing the means of her own empowerment. She must, as Spenser openly shows, be both Gloriana and Belphoebe, public queen and private virgin. But she must be both in one—Britomart, as she has been so complexly presented in books 3, 4, and 5. The female power which she “restores” to men's subjugation is the female power linked to physical force, to blood, and to the “secret feare” of sexuality, the female power in dynastic succession. Britomart is not such a female figure now, but a “Goddesse” ( to be adored for her wisdom. She is far removed from her psychologized presentation in canto 2 of book 3 and very close to her final representation as Mercilla in book 5, canto 9. Britomart of book 5, canto 7, the narrator tells us, changes the “forme of common weale” by “restoring” women to “mens subiection”; and yet it is the men who needed to be “restored.” Stanza 42 constitutes a double negative; the story and narration cancel each other out. In stanza 41 Britomart restores Artegall's private person to his place in the social order. In stanza 43 Britomart restores Artegall's public person to a position of control: she “did from thraldome free” the other captive knights and “Made them sweare fealty to Artegall” (,6). But, just as if stanza 42 had not intervened, Britomart continues to give the orders. Her actions are still narrated in the active voice, the men's in the passive. At the end of stanza 43, Artegall leaves—ultimately still the object acted upon—“Vppon his first aduenture, which him forth did call” (

In stanza 44 the rhetoric of romance masks the actions of political power. Britomart recognizes that the social order depends upon establishing the honor of the Knight of Justice and, in turn, that “his honor, which she tendred chiefe, / Consisted much in that aduentures priefe” ( Having cleared the way for Artegall to succeed when “he redeemed had that Lady thrall” (—that Lady who will be Belge and/or Irena, not Britomart—Britomart departs from the scene and from the poem. When she bids farewell to fleshly force she finally accomplishes that for which she has been striving since her first sight of Artegall in the mirror, a way “her anguish to appease” ( She renounces the physical world and her place in it as a woman; by privileging the iconographic lessons of Busirane's House, the Temple of Venus, and Isis Church above the discourse of dynastic prophecy, Britomart leaves the poem as a flesh-and-blood figure so that she may reappear, Elizabeth-like, as an icon of justice.


In the Isis Church dream, Spenser begins to depict Britomart as a dynastic mother; but the vision of that identity, compounded of past and present knowledge and of dynastic prophecy, is somehow wrong and leaves her “doubtfully dismayd.” The priest counsels her to tell him her troubles, using almost exactly the same words as Glauce in book 3, canto 2: “Say on,” he urges, “the secret of your hart” ( Britomart leaves the dream world just as she left the mirror. She has dreamed of bringing forth the Lion of Merlin's prophecy but has gone forth from that dream to fight Radigund and be described as both a “Lionesse” and a “Lion” herself (,7). She becomes not a mother through “fleshly force” but an icon. This icon has neither sex and both, figures both Dido and Aeneas, both Odysseus and Penelope. The offspring of an icon must be an abstraction: not of flesh and blood but of public policy, of Justice which will overcome all secret fear.

As for the larger pattern of the poem, this iconic representation explains why, when we look for an end-of-book set piece featuring Britomart, we find instead Mercilla's court. The book 5 representation of Mercilla is another iconographical palimpsest of Britomart's mirror vision and quest, a surface as densely inscribed as any of the later presentations: the House of Busirane, the statue of Venus which so suggestively mirrors the “faire Hermaphrodite” of Britomart herself in the 1590 ending of book 3, the statue of Isis, Britomart's dream, and Britomart's final battle with Radigund. Indeed, the presentation of Mercilla's court overgoes both the Isis Church dream and Britomart's final actions in the poem. In stanzas 27-34 of book 5, canto 9, Spenser offers us Mercilla as a compounding of the high points of Britomart's iconographic encounters: the statue of Cupid in Busirane's House, the figure of Venus as drawn for Britomart and the reader in the words of Scudamore, the Isis Idol, and the Isis Church dream. Mercilla represents a state of permanence, of peace; she alone of all these iconic presentations is seated, specifically on a royal throne. She is clothed not with “a slender veile” ( nor in “garments made of line” trimmed with silver fringe (, “Nor of ought else, that may be richest red” (, but she wears “a cloth of state” which is “like a cloud” yet gives off light “with bright sunny beams, / Glistring like gold” and “shooting forth siluer streams” (,6-7,8). These imperial coverings are made distinct from the earlier garments through their association with temporal power. Like Venus, Mercilla is surrounded by fluttering putti: “A flocke of litle loues … With nimble wings of gold and purple hew … Whose shapes seem'd … like to Angels” (, “those litle Angels” on “their purpled wings” ( As with both Cupid and Venus, there are prostrate figures at Mercilla's feet; but rather than the lovers of the tapestries ( or “great sorts of louers piteously complayning” (, these are “kings and kesars” ( Like the Isis statue, Mercilla holds a scepter; and like both the Idol and Britomart in her dream, she wears a crown. But the sword at Mercilla's feet is “rusted” by “long rest” (, signifying the peaceful years of reign achieved by one who accepts herself as an icon. The animal at Mercilla's feet—in contrast to the wounded Dragon and the self-consuming regenerating snake and the seductive Crocodile—is a “huge great Lyon” (, the symbol of royal power. Like the serpent on Elizabeth's sleeve in the “Rainbow” portrait, the Lion is a powerful symbol but one which must be both remembered and reread here, just as the “reader” of the “Rainbow” portrait must revise the artist's allusion to Eve, seeing a different relationship between woman and knowledge. This is the Lion of Britomart's dream, the Lion Britomart herself becomes in her fight with Radigund, the Lion of Merlin's prophecy, and hence even the ancestor of Una's Lion. Mercilla's Lion is the most physical, vital element of her iconographic presentation, and for that very reason it is kept chained and “coller bound” (, lest its strength and courage overpower the abstract nature of Mercilla and the virtue which Mercilla represents.

The flesh-and-blood Britomart of book 3, canto 2, has become an icon of justice and has thus been reinscribed as the perfectly allegorical Mercilla, Mercilla who can clearly—not secretly—be read as a representation of Elizabeth. The cumulative iconography of Britomart's dream reenters the narrative of the poem through and in the figure of Mercilla/Elizabeth. The dream, then, is a gap in the poetic narrative, a gap refiguring the gap between the title and the proem to book 3. Through this gap Britomart exits as a dynastic heroine in order to reenter the poem as an icon of justice. As Spenser anoints the historical wounds left by Mary Stuart's execution with the balm of Duessa's trial, he puts the finishing touches on his linear portrait, the Elizabethan mirror trick begun in book 3. We are faced with a poem which gives us not a dynasty of Englishmen but a dynasty of ideas, of virtues. Britomart and Artegall and their dynasty have become a fiction which is first deflected, then transcended, by the complex icon of political reality which is Spenser's portrait of Elizabeth in the last years of her reign.

There have been poets who would go to any lengths to slip something by at odds with tradition—men capable of … imagining the woman who would hold out against oppression and constitute herself as a superb, equal, hence “impossible” subject, untenable in a real social framework. Such a woman the poet could desire only by breaking the codes that negate her. … But only the poets—not the novelists, allies of representationalism. Because poetry involves gaining strength through the unconscious and because the unconscious, that other limitless country, is the place where the repressed manage to survive: women, or as Hoffmann would say, fairies.37


  1. Roy Strong, Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (New York, 1987), p. 11. This revised edition of Strong's 1963 Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I constitutes the single most exhaustive study of the topic. See also Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (Berkeley, Calif., 1977); Jonathan Goldberg's discussions of several Elizabeth portraits in Endlesse Worke: Spenser and the Structures of Discourse (Baltimore, 1981); and Andrew Belsey and Catherine Belsey, “Icons of Divinity: Portraits of Elizabeth I,” in Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540-1660, ed. Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (London, 1990), pp. 11-35.

  2. Constance Jordan, “Representing Political Androgyny: More on the Siena Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I,” in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, ed. Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky (Amherst, Mass., 1990), pp. 157-76. At the 1988 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, the late Joel Fineman discussed the “Rainbow” portrait, arguing that Elizabeth's dress is covered not only with eyes and ears but with vaginas. I use portions of this argument in “From Allegory to Icon: Teaching Britomart with the Elizabeth Portraits,” in Approaches to Teaching “The Faerie Queene,” ed. David Lee Miller and Alex Dunlop, MLA series (forthcoming).

  3. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (New York, 1977), proem to 3, 1.8-9; all subsequent references are to book, canto, stanza, and lines in this edition (except proems, where references are to stanzas and lines only).

  4. David Lee Miller, The Poem's Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 “Faerie Queene” (Princeton, N.J., 1988), p. 151. See pp. 147-53 on the etymology of “portrait” in Spenser's representation of Gloriana and Elizabeth.

  5. Diary of John Manningham of the Middle Temple, and of Braddbourne, Kent, Barrister-At-Law, 1603-1608, ed. John Bruce, intro. William Tite (Westminster, 1868). The entry for February 12, 1602, seems odd since Hatton died in 1591, but Manningham neither explains the time lag nor records which representation Elizabeth preferred.

  6. Louis Adrian Montrose, “The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text,” in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore, 1986), p. 325. On this problem of representation, see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago, 1980), p. 192. For a very different reading of Britomart in relation to Elizabeth, see Philippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen (London, 1989), esp. pp. 163 ff.

  7. Here I utilize the distinction developed in Gérard Genette's Narrative Discourse (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980). I am indebted to the precedent of Mary Nyquist in “The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost,” in Re-Membering Milton, ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson (New York, 1987), pp. 99-127.

  8. Analyzing a series of ten medallions on a column in the background of the “Siena/Sieve” portrait of Elizabeth, Frances Yates points out that one “shows an imperial crown” while the other nine “tell the story of Dido and Aeneas in little scenes” (Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century [London, 1975], p. 115). See also Lucy Gent, Picture and Poetry, 1560-1620: Relations between Literature and the Visual Arts in the English Renaissance (Leamington Spa, 1981), pp. 45-46.

  9. Elizabeth J. Bellamy, “The Vocative and the Vocational: The Unreadability of Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene,ELH 54 (1987): 1. Bellamy elaborates (p. 3): “Even as Arthur's search for Gloriana informs the structure of The Faerie Queene, we may surely go one step further and claim Spenser's parallel, and equally futile, search for Elizabeth as the epic's ultimate quest.” Bellamy rightly compares the two quests and provides an excellent discussion of the strategies by which Spenser avoids naming Elizabeth; I differ, however, with her judgment that these devices constitute a series of “futile” failures.

  10. When Britomart appears in bk. 3, canto 1, the narrator describes her spear's “secret power unseen” (, a weapon whose “secret vertue” only the Palmer knows ( Britomart—whose true identity is also a secret from all except the reader (thanks to the narrator) and Glauce—does not acknowledge the secret power of her weapons which she took from her father's church because they were “for her purpose fit” ( and never otherwise explained. The appearance of Florimel, whose story at that point is a secret from the reader, suspends the immediate narrative, setting in action Guyon and those who witness his defeat by Britomart. Reiteration of “secret” sensitizes the reader to notice that the “secret feare” in Britomart mirrors the “secret feare” felt by Artegall when he sees her face for the first time. Although she has just acquitted herself honorably in anonymous battle, when Britomart meets Artegall face to face she immediately begins to manifest symptoms of feminine weakness as significant as those in canto 2 of bk. 3. Her symptoms are not merely girlish, however; when she “heard the name of Artegall, / Her hart did leape, and all her hart-strings tremble, / For sudden joy, and secret feare withall” ( This “secret feare,” when discussed at all, is generally read as fear of sex, an interpretation which I do not discount but rather extend by suggesting that it may also be—for both Britomart and Artegall—fear of losing the male empowerment of knightly armor.

  11. On the narrative framing of this episode, see John B. Bender, Spenser and Literary Pictorialism (Princeton, N.J., 1972), pp. 98-100.

  12. On the mirror and its relation to Arthur's shield, see Kenneth Gross, Spenserian Poetics: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Magic (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), pp. 145 ff.

  13. Barbara J. Bono, Literary Transvaluation: From Vergilian Epic to Shakespearean Tragicomedy (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984), pp. 61-77, discusses what she calls the Venus-within-Diana paradigm of Dido that Spenser used to represent Elizabeth. Regarding the “Siena/Sieve” portrait Goldberg argues: “Even though she [Elizabeth] is in the position of Dido in the painting, her destiny fulfills the model of Aeneas” ([n. 1 above], p. 156).

  14. Virgil, The Aeneid, ed. J. B. Greenough and G. L. Kittredge (Boston, 1895), bk. 4, lines 31-33.

  15. Ibid., bk. 4, lines 65-67.

  16. Ibid., bk. 4, line 68.

  17. On Spenser's use of Virgil in connection with the Britomart narrative, see Mihoko Suzuki, “‘Unfitly yokt together in one term’: Vergil and Ovid in Faerie Queene, III.ix,” English Literary Renaissance 17 (1987): 172-85; and Gross, p. 154.

  18. Thomas Greene implies that Britomart's descent into the underworld may be more complicated than the act of simple imitation would allow (The Light in Troy [New Haven, Conn., 1983], p. 237). Bono takes quite a different view; see p. 77.

  19. Bradamante does not seek Merlin; she arrives in his tomb because she has been lied to and tricked by another figure in the poem. Furthermore, she has no prior knowledge of her dynastic role or of the knight with whom she will fulfill it. While not so aware of her fate as Aeneas, Britomart deliberately seeks underworld counsel on a problem which she acutely recognizes. Finally, Spenser's Merlin, like Anchises, relates the entire dynastic story himself rather than resorting to another narrator as Ariosto's Merlin does with Melissa.

  20. Belsey and Belsey (n. 1 above), pp. 12-18.

  21. Hamilton, ed. (n. 3 above), p. 337n.

  22. Ibid., p. 338n.

  23. The uncertain pronunciation of Glauce's name makes the saliency of a pun on “gloss” unclear. We know the name must be a disyllable, but is the c hard or soft? If it is soft, the resonance of the pun becomes inescapable. In The Shepheardes Calender epistle Spenser uses the term to mean “an accompanying explication”: “I added a certain Glosse or scholion for the exposition of old wordes and harder phrases” (Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt [Oxford, 1975], p. 418). In the “old wordes” of Chaucer, whom Spenser praises at length for his language, “glosse” and “Glauce” could be near homonyms.

  24. In avoiding a detailed reading of the House of Busirane, I align myself with those who argue that the episode has more to do with Amoret than with Britomart. For the most coherent reading of the episode, see Thomas P. Roche, Jr., The Kindly Flame (Princeton, N.J., 1964), pp. 72-88, which construes the House of Busirane “as … an objectification of Amoret's fear of sexual love in marriage” (p. 77); this “explains why Scudamour cannot rescue her,” while “Britomart, on the other hand, can attack these fears on both the moral and physical grounds. As a woman she understands Amoret's attitude toward the physical side of love, and as the exemplar of chastity she is able to make the moral distinction between marriage and adulterous love” (p. 83). On readings of the Busirane episode, see James W. Broaddus, “Renaissance Psychology and Britomart's Adventures in Faerie Queene III,” English Literary Renaissance 17 (1987): 186-206; and James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of the Faerie Queene (Princeton, N.J., 1976), pp. 471-91.

  25. The 1590 ending of bk. 3 provides an example of poetic pentimento, as Spenser gives us the image of Britomart “halfe enuying” “that faire Hermaphrodite” (3.12, cancelled stanza 4), an image he later replaces with bks. 4 and 5. See Lauren Silberman, “The Hermaphrodite and the Metamorphosis of Spenserian Allegory,” English Literary Renaissance 17 (1987): 221.

  26. Quoted in J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1559-1581 (New York, 1958), p. 127.

  27. Maureen Quilligan, Milton's Spenser (Ithaca, N.Y., 1983), p. 197.

  28. See Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988), pp. 31-64, which discusses Elizabeth's reactions to marriages of her ladies and her wards.

  29. Although a detailed reading of bk. 4, canto 6, is beyond the scope of this argument, the elements of reflection and power associated with Britomart's vision in bk. 3, canto 2, are represented here as Britomart and Artegall fight, literally mirroring each other's actions in stanzas 21-29.

  30. The story of Artegall and Britomart as lovers follows very traditional lines. Artegall “with meeke seruice and much suit did lay / Continuall siege vnto her gentle hart” ( while Britomart tries “with womanish art / To hide” her wound of love ( The language is Petrarchan—e.g., the metaphor of the woman as a hunted thing brought “at the length vnto a bay” (—and it remains so until the woman's inevitable capitulation. Here, however, the narrative begins to undermine the story. Britomart's response to Artegall shifts from passive to active—she “was content … to relent” and finally “yeelded her consent” to “take him for her Lord” (, 5, 7, 8)—and the active verb forms ironize Britomart's seeming surrender.

  31. Gross (n. 12 above), p. 179.

  32. Arguing that Britomart's sexuality is not “constrained by her historic mission,” Bono accepts the priest's version of the Isis Church dream. She adds: “Britomart then constructively employs her erotic energy as a chaste and faithful wife, rescuing her husband, tempering his justice with equity, securing their succession. Understanding this reciprocity through the dream vision enables her to free Artegall” ([n. 13 above], p. 78). I find it very difficult to reconcile Bono's summary with Spenser's poem. A contrasting but equally implausible position is taken by Susanne Woods in “Spenser and the Problem of Women's Rule,” Huntington Library Quarterly 48 (1985): 140-58. Woods argues that “Spenser's handling of Britomart, including setting her at the core of contradictory statements about women's rule, is genuinely subversive of patriarchal assumptions” (p. 156). Both Bono and Woods fail to consider that what Spenser is subverting in bk. 5 is the patriarchal narrative of the dynastic epic.

  33. Gross, p. 179.

  34. To say that Britomart identifies with or becomes the Isis statue is too easy. As her dream begins, Britomart is clearly separate from it: “Her seem'd, as she was doing sacrifize / To Isis” ( “All sodainely,” however, she sees herself “transfigured,” her “linnen stole” becoming a “robe of scarlet red” and her “Moone-like Mitre … a Crowne of gold” (,5-6). While the Isis statue, as described in stanzas 5 and 7, does wear a golden crown, silver and gold are the only colors mentioned in connection with her linen garments. The red of Britomart's robe is the blood red of the psychosexual physical wounds she receives in cantos 1 and 12 of bk. 3, as well as the red of the flames which in stanza 14 soon threaten her self-generated “felicity.” Britomart and the Isis statue do not become one. When in stanza 15 we are told that the Crocodile awakes from under “the Idols feete” (, most critics concur with Hamilton in taking the female pronouns to refer to both Britomart and the Idol/Goddess she is becoming. This presents no serious problem up to the point where the Crocodile is beaten back by “the Goddesse with her rod” ( Britomart, whose dream appearance is so carefully described in stanza 13, has no rod. Hence the two are two separate figures, and the separation is enforced by the grammar, in which all female subject pronouns refer to Britomart, whereas Isis is always called “Goddesse” or “Idole.” The Crocodile is Artegall, seen first as a “she,” just as Britomart first saw him when looking for her own image in the magic mirror. Iconographically linked to the twisted, fatally wounded dragon at Cupid's feet ( and the snake “whose head and tail were fast combyned” ( to constitute Venus's legs and feet, the dream Crocodile represents to Britomart a threat which she perceives as male, the threat of sexual difference that traps female sexuality within the dynastic paradigm. What we see in stanzas 15 and 16 is indeed prophecy, but not the dynastic prophecy of the priest's interpretation.

  35. The puns on “maid” (in its various spellings) and “dismaied” are another narrative means by which Spenser subverts the dynastic argument of his story. Red Cross conflates the two meanings when he asks “this Briton Mayd … what … Made her dissemble her disguised kind” (; the pun subsequently becomes central to reading Britomart's adventures. In the Isis Church scene, Britomart is ultimately and permanently “dis-maid.” After looking at the statue, “the warlike Maide” reposes beneath it (; she awakes from her dream “doubtfully dismayd through that so vncouth sight” ( Never thereafter is Britomart called “Maid.” After she defeats Radigund and rescues Artegall, occurrences of “made” figure forth Britomart's empowerment: she asks Artegall, “What May-game hath misfortune made of you?” (; she proceeds to free the other captive knights “And magistrates of all that city made” ( and “Made them swear fealty to Artegall” ( Britomart begins her journey as a “Maid,” struggles with being “made” and “dismaied,” and is “dismayd” by the Isis dream, to become at last a maker. By contrast, Radigund is never referred to as a “Maid,” while Mercilla is called “a mayden Queene of high renowne” (

  36. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), p. 138.

  37. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs 1 (1976): 879-80.

I am intellectually indebted to the close readings and valuable suggestions of Marshall Grossman, Thomas P. Roche, Jr., and Lauren Silberman, and otherwise indebted to grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Brown University, and SUNY at Geneseo.

Jeffrey P. Fruen (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Fruen, Jeffrey P. “The Faery Queen Unveiled? Five Glimpses of Gloriana.” In Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. 11; edited by Patrick Cullen and Thomas P. Roche, Jr., pp. 53-88. New York: AMS Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Fruen discusses the place and significance of Queen Elizabeth I in the allgorical scheme of The Faerie Queene.]

In a previous essay I argued that Gloriana, despite appearances to the contrary, is indeed to be regarded as the unifying “argument” (I.Pr.4) of Spenser's narrative, her pivotal importance being obscured only by the “couert vele” (II.Pr.5) of an autonomous but quasi-biblical typology.1 The question of her allegorical significance I left at that time for later consideration, and a comprehensive treatment I must still postpone, but the preliminary observations that follow point clearly, I think, to a decisive answer. For in what little Spenser does tell us about his elusive heroine we get at least five glimpses of an allegorical characterization that well befits both the poem's “generall end” of “fashion[ing] a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” (“Letter to Raleigh”) and the scripture-like manner in which its title character is presented.


Naseeb Shaheen has all but exhaustively cataloged the wealth of biblical allusions in The Faerie Queene through comparisons with the various sixteenth-century English Bibles and the Vulgate.2 Yet further research might serve to identify references to the various sixteenth-century Protestant Latin Bibles as well; certainly there is one twice-repeated allusion, bearing on the interpretation of the faery queen herself, that depends on such a text. For both of Spenser's accounts of the vision that inspired Arthur's quest for Gloriana seem distinctly reminiscent of a single verse from the Apocrypha of the Zurich Latin Bible of 1543, and so imply that she is to be associated with the personified Wisdom celebrated there.

Spenser mentions Arthur's vision in two places. In the “Letter to Raleigh” he writes:

… Arthure … I conceiue … to haue seene in a dream or vision the Faery Queen, with whose excellent beauty rauished, he awaking resolued to seeke her out. …

The poem itself is slightly more expansive:

But whether dreames delude, or true it were,
Was neuer hart so rauisht with delight. …
From that day forth I lou'd that face diuine;
From that day forth I cast in carefull mind,
To seeke her out with labour, and long tyne,
And neuer vow to rest, till I her find. …


Both of these texts are related to the apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon.3 In Wisdom 8:2, as part of an allegorical expansion of the vision described in 1 Kings 3, Solomon is presented as recounting how he came to go in quest of Wisdom, here personified as a visionary mistress. The Zurich version translates:

Hanc ego dilexi & a iuuentute mea quaesiui:
Hanc studui sponsam adiungere mihi,
& pulchritudinis eius amore captus sum.(4)
(Her I loved and from my youth sought out:
I bent my mind to make her my bride,
and with love of her beauty I was ravished.)

Before comparing the Latin text to Spenser's, we may seek to avoid tendentiousness by noting some of the definitions of its key words in Thomas Cooper's Latin dictionary of 1565, a work Spenser would have used extensively at the Merchant Taylors' School.5

quaesiui: from quaero “to desire to haue: to seeke for … to labour or trauayle to gette”

studui: from studeo “to applie the minde, or care for a thinge”; cf. studiosus “that setteth his minde to a thinge”; studium “An earnest bending of the minde to any thinge,” “care and studie”

pulchritudinis: from pulcher “beautifull … excellent”

captus: “Rauished … Delighted”

In the case of dilexi, on the other hand, Cooper's “To … loue meanely” does not give a very good idea of the intensity of feeling expressed by diligo in biblical Latin. When we are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37), for example, the verb in the Vulgate, Zurich, and Tremellius-Junius versions is Diliges, and the bride's “welbeloued” in the Song of Songs is her dilecte; while in the Vulgate the love of bride and bridegroom that is “strong as death” (8:6) is not amor but dilectio.6 The word is thus well suited to suggest both profound moral commitment and passionate sexual love.

With these definitions in mind, we can observe the following instances in which Spenser's diction seems to reflect the Latin:

“Letter to Raleigh”:

with whose excellent beauty rauished, [pulchritudinis, captus]

he … resolued to seeke her out … [studui, quaesiui]

I.ix.14.6, 15.5-7:

Was neuer hart so rauisht with delight. … [captus]

From that day forth I lou'd that face diuine; [ego dilexi … a]

From that day forth I cast in carefull mind, [a … studui]

To seeke her out with labour, and long tyne … [Hanc … quaesiui]

The close configuration of “excellent beauty” with “rauished,” “resolued,” and “seeke her out” in the “Letter to Raleigh,” or of “rauisht with delight” with “cast in carefull mind” and “seeke her out with labour and … tyne” in the poem itself, would certainly seem to bespeak a connection with the expressions of the Bible text (pulchritudinis, captus, studui, quaesiui) as one who had learned Latin using Cooper's dictionary would translate them.

And there is ample reason to regard these parallels as more than a matter of coincidence. For one thing, the poet's invocation of Elizabeth as a “Mirrour of grace and Maiestie diuine” (I.Pr.4) has already been shown to establish her “true glorious type” as a counterpart of Wisdom, herself a “mirroure of the maiestie of God” (Wis. 7:26).7 And other, more general parallels with the account in I.ix.14-15 are at hand in other biblical Wisdom-quests:

Mine heart reioyced in her … & from my youth vp soght I after her.

(Ecclus. 51.15)

Seke after her, and searche her. …
For at the last thou shalt finde rest in her. …

(Ecclus. 6:28-29)8

In addition to the direct parallels between Gloriana and scriptural Wisdom, we may also adduce the strong and long-noted resemblance between Gloriana and the Sapience of An Hymne of Heauenly Beautie, a figure herself known to be derived largely from biblical Wisdom allegories.9 Since Sapience recalls both biblical Wisdom and Gloriana, we should hardly be surprised to find that Gloriana herself is presented as a sapiential figure, even if two of the most striking allusions linking the faery queen to Wisdom do depend on expressions peculiar to the Zurich Latin Bible.

For Spenser was not the only Elizabethan on whose mind the Zurich reading of Wis. 8:2 left its imprint. Cicero had quoted Plato as saying that, if only we could behold the face of Virtue, “it would excite a wonderful love of Wisdom” (“mirabiles amores … excitaret sapientiae”).10 But Sidney in the Apologie, as we now can see, has conflated Cicero's familiar phrasing with Solomon's “pulchritudinis eius amore captus,” leaving us with his own memorable formulation of “the saying of Plato and Tullie”: “who could see Vertue would be wonderfully rauished with the loue of her beauty.”11 However neglected its readings may be in our day, Spenser apparently had good reason to think that his first readers would recognize an allusion to at least this one verse of the Zurich Latin Bible.


The primary objection to a simple identification of Gloriana's allegorical significance with that of Sapience in An Hymne of Heauenly Beautie has always been that Sapience is a heavenly figure whom “Both heauen and earth obey” (HHB 197), while Spenser's emphatic contrast of Gloriana's city Cleopolis with the New Jerusalem (FQ I.x.55-63) shows that, while Gloriana herself is “heauenly borne” (59), the scope of her rule and the values that she sponsors are earthly and secular.12 Yet it is not so difficult as it may seem to reconcile this secular characterization of Gloriana's rule with the biblical allusions that characterize her as a sapiential figure; for biblical Wisdom also had a secular significance.

We can begin by clarifying the contrast of Cleopolis with the New Jerusalem, which would seem to be that drawn by A. S. P. Woodhouse between the orders of Nature and Grace,13 or by Calvin between “earthly” and “heavenly things”:

I call “earthly things” those which do not pertain to God or His Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call “heavenly things” the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom.

(Institutes II.ii.13)14

Concerning “the present life,” as Calvin goes on to say, “[t]here is nothing more common than for a man to be sufficiently instructed in a right standard of conduct by natural law” (ii.22), so that “[i]n every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life” (iii.3):

Indeed, I admit that the endowments resplendent in [such persons] were gifts of God and seem rightly commendable if judged in themselves. …

… [Yet] anything in profane men that appears praiseworthy must be considered worthless. … As for the virtues that deceive us with their vain show, they shall have their praise in the political assembly and in common renown among men; but before the heavenly judgment seat they shall be of no value to acquire salvation.


Most Christians had long agreed that merely to follow “a right standard of conduct by natural law” was “of no value to acquire salvation,” and that to rest confident in natural virtues as if they had such value was positively damnable. But it was also widely agreed that, in Hooker's words, “[w]hen supernatural duties are … exacted, natural are not rejected as needless”; on the contrary, “Scripture [itself] is fraught even with laws of Nature” (Laws I.xii.1).15 Thus even for Calvin the values we can discover through “the light of reason” have their place, and a place ordained by God, in “civic … order” and “the arrangement of this life” (Inst. II.ii.13); but if considered as either a means or an alternative to “acquir[ing] salvation,” they must be repudiated with vehement contempt.

This relation between “earthly” and “heavenly” values accounts for the way Spenser's Hermit seems to endorse the values of Cleopolis heartily in their own right, while dismissing or even condemning them from the perspective of the New Jerusalem.16 What remains to be seen is why the same biblical figure who is the basis for Spenser's emphatically heavenly Sapience should also be reflected in his portrayal of Gloriana, whose reign is limited to the decidedly “earthly” Cleopolis.

That personified Wisdom in the Bible was commonly understood by Spenser's contemporaries to image the Logos or “eternal Sonne of God” (Geneva gloss on Prov. 8:22) has long been recognized;17 less familiar is the fact that other interpretations of the figure were also well-established. Of these, the Wisdom who presides over the “natural” values of “civil life” is presented with particular clarity by one of Gabriel Harvey's favorite theologians, Philip Melanchthon.18 In the 1555 vernacular edition of his Loci Communes, Melanchthon elucidates the authority of those laws of nature with which, as Hooker says, even the Scripture is “fraught”:

Many ask, what is natural law? The answer is that it is precisely the eternal unchangeable wisdom in God which he proclaimed in the Ten Commandments. … God planted the glory of this, his own unchangeable wisdom, in men in the first creation. …

… External civil life is to be regulated according to this natural light, and note well that this natural light and the Ten Commandments, when truly understood, are one single wisdom, doctrine, and law.

(Art. VII, p. 128)

“External civil life is to be regulated according to this natural light” or “law,” which is also “wisdom.” As we will see, Melanchthon was not alone in treating the “law” and “light” of nature as synonymous. More to the point here is that his “wisdom” is recognizably the personified Wisdom of the Apocrypha. For Melanchthon's identification of Wisdom with the Ten Commandments unmistakably derives from Ecclus. 24:26 and Bar. 4:1 (these will be quoted in due course); and that he is consciously thinking of Wisdom as personified there is confirmed by a number of less emphatic parallels, such as the imperative to “love … this very beautiful wisdom,” which is given as our “light” (Loci 127-28; cf. Wis. 8:2, 7:29, 7:10).

Melanchthon's explicit identification of biblical Wisdom with the natural light might seem to be exceptional, but the same idea can be traced in Aquinas (ST [Summa Theologica] I-II.91.2 is a fitting gloss on Ecclus. 1:10), and in Calvin, who, after referring “the light of men” in John 1:4 to “the light of understanding,” goes on to draw a further connection:

And since this light, of which the Speech [i.e., the Logos] was the source, has been conveyed from him to us, it ought to serve as a mirror, in which we may clearly behold the divine power of the Speech.

(Commentary on the Gospel According to John)19

This is to say that, as Aquinas puts it, “the intellectual light itself which is in us is nothing other than a participated likeness of the uncreated light” (I.84.5), “wisdom created [being] a kind of participation of the uncreated Wisdom” which is the Logos (41.3). But what is most striking from our point of view is that Calvin's image of the light of understanding as a mirror of divine power derives from the same verse in the Wisdom of Solomon to which Spenser alludes in making Gloriana the “type” of Elizabeth as a “Mirror of … Maiestie diuine” (I.Pr.4)—though to be sure Calvin adopts the reading later reflected in the Authorized Version and takes Wisdom to mirror not the majesty but the “power” (Zurich “virtutis”) of God (Wis. 7:26). And, curiously enough, Calvin and Melanchthon may well have been correct in identifying this goddess-like figure from the Wisdom of Solomon with the light of understanding or agent intellect.20 For one thing, the energeias which the English translators render as “maiestie” or “power” corresponds to the energeia “activity” which Aristotle characterizes as the “essential nature” of the agent intellect or nous poietikos (De Anima III.5).21 Even more striking, the philosopher explains that the agent intellect “is what it is by virtue of making all things” in that it recreates them in the possible intellect; and so, as we learn from A Discourse of Ciuill Life by Spenser's friend Lodowick Bryskett, “some haue said this … agent vnderstanding to be the worker of all things” (p. 124).22 What makes this striking is that exactly the same phrase is used apropos of Wisdom:

And all things bothe secret and knowen do I knowe: for wisdome the worker of all things, hathe taught me it.

(Wis. 7:21)

If riches be a possession to be desired in this life, what is richer then wisdome, that worketh all things?


It is with some justification, then, that Calvin, like Melanchthon, recognizes in the Wisdom of the Apocrypha a symbol of the natural light; and he, like Melanchthon, finds that “civic … order” and “the arrangement of this life” are to be “regulated” in accordance with that very “light of reason” (Inst. II.ii.13), since by it human beings discern “the distinction between good and evil” and are “endued with prudence for regulating their lives” (Comm. John 1:5).

Here, then, is a scriptural Wisdom whose influence is emphatically limited to “earthly things.” Though represented as “the brightnes of the euerlasting light” and “mirroure of the maiestie of God” (Wis. 7:26), though “conveyed from [the Logos] to us” and serving as the “mirror” of his “power” (Comm. John 1:4), still it is only “[e]xternal civil life [that] is to be regulated according to this natural light” (Loci 128), which can avail us nothing with respect to “the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom” (Inst. II.ii.13). The Gloriana who not only resembles heavenly Sapience but in her own right recalls the Wisdom of the Zurich Latin Bible, the Gloriana who is the “type” of Elizabeth as “Mirrour of … Maiestie diuine” (I.Pr.4), who is “heauenly borne,” and yet who is “soueraigne” only in the “earthly frame” of Cleopolis (I.x.59) and sponsors only that “suit of earthly conquest” which the seeker of heaven must learn to “shonne” (60)—this Gloriana may very fittingly be seen as alluding to a Wisdom so conceived. And it may also readily be seen, given that this Wisdom is the “mirror” and “likeness” of the Logos, why her embodiment in Spenser's poem should be made the focus of an “earthly” typology both distinct from and yet analogous to that which culminates in the Incarnate Logos, Christ.


Yet, however fitting it might be in these respects for Gloriana to recall Wisdom as an image of the light of understanding, is it really plausible that a light which was, after all, understood to be a universal endowment, one integral to every human soul, should be imaged in a figure characterized predominantly by absence? For in the poem even her own knights can enjoy her “royall presence” (II.ii.44) only in memory and expectation, while for Arthur she is merely a tantalizing apparition “Whom that most most noble Briton Prince so long / Sought through the world, and suffered so much ill” (I.Pr.2), “Yet no where can her find” (II.ix.7, 38). Can this be an image of the light of nature as personified by Wisdom?

Yes; for the light personified by Wisdom, the “vndefiled mirroure of the maiestie of God” (Wis. 7:26), is not merely the light of nature as men and women commonly experience it. It is, more characteristically, an unusually pristine and radiant illumination, “aroused and … fortified,” one by no means to be enjoyed universally or without intermission.

To a great extent this conception is reflected in the theologians. According to Melanchthon, it will be remembered, “God planted the glory of this, his own unchangeable wisdom, in men in the first creation”; yet “[i]n the wake of sin,” as he goes on to say, “the light in human reason was not as clear and bright as before” (Loci 128), and so it must be “strongly aroused and the sense of it fortified” by our own strivings (xxix).23 Calvin, as might be expected, lays a greater emphasis on both the severity of its impairment and the necessity of grace for its restoration: “to begin with, God's image was visible in the light of the mind” and “in some part … now is manifest in the elect, in so far as they have been reborn in the spirit” (Inst. I.xv.4); but for humankind in general, “in this corrupted and degenerate nature light has been turned into darkness,” albeit “not wholly extinguished” (Comm. John 1:5; cf. Wis. 7:10, 29-30). Yet Calvin would also seem to allow that the light of nature can shine with more than usual brightness even in those not “reborn.” For it is not only in the arts that the “impious” sometimes reveal an exceptional clarity of reason that serves “to display in common nature God's special grace” (Inst. II.ii.14, 17):

[Other] examples … seem to warn us against adjudging man's nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by its prompting not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life. …

… For either we must make Camillus equal to Cataline, or we shall have in Camillus an example proving that nature, if carefully cultivated, is not utterly devoid of goodness. …

Here, however, is the surest and easiest solution to this question: these are not common gifts of nature, but special graces of God, which he bestows variously and in a certain measure upon men otherwise wicked.


By clear implication, then, a light of the mind which exceeds the “common gifts of nature,” which goes beyond the “universal reason and understanding by nature implanted in men” (II.ii.14), would nonetheless seem to be available even to “men otherwise wicked.” And it is noteworthy that, between the “special grace” of Calvin and the personal striving called for by Melanchthon (Calvin's “nature … carefully cultivated”), we have precisely the means by which Arthur takes Guyon to have won Gloriana's favor: “gracious lot, and they great valiaunce / Haue made thee soldier of that Princesse bright” (II.ix.5). Not that we are intended to see Gloriana or those who serve her as excluded from salvation: if the pathway to the New Jerusalem “neuer yet was seene of Faeries sonne” (I.x.52), that is simply because no one, insofar as he or she is “borne of the flesh” and not of the spirit, can “se the kingdome of God,” much less “enter into” it (John 3:6, 3, 5).24 Yet the fact that those who seek the New Jerusalem must come to “shonne” the “earthly conquest” she upholds (I.x.60) shows that the service of the faery queen has nothing to do with salvation as such, so that the natural light as she seems to image it, while it may be enhanced by God's “special grace,” cannot be that which Calvin finds only in the elect.

With these distinctions in mind we can more readily identify the similar ones in the Bible's Wisdom allegories, which likewise sometimes specify a “universal” and natural endowment—though, indeed, one so proportioned as to display “God's special grace” in “common nature”—and sometimes one peculiar to the “pious” and “elect”:

He hathe powred her out vpon all his workes, and vpon all flesh, according to his gift, and giueth her abundantly vnto them that loue him. …

… [She] was made with the faithful in the wombe. …

(Ecclus. 1:10, 15)

Most commonly, however, Wisdom—particularly the Wisdom of those texts in which Calvin and Melanchthon recognize her as a symbol of the light of nature—is imagined as the all-but-unattainable object of an effort which takes the form of an erotic quest, a quest in which her prospective lover must undergo the discipline and tribulation of living up to the moral law. For though she may take the initiative in making herself known, to find her again and win “possession” of her “light” (Ecclus. 4:16, Bar. 4:2) is not an easy matter:

For she goeth about, seking suche as are mete for her, and sheweth her self cherefully vnto them. …

For the most true desire of discipline is her beginning: and the care of discipline is loue;

And loue is the keping of her lawes. …

(Wis. 6:16-18)

For first she wil walke with him by croked waies, and bring him vnto feare, and drede, and torment him with her discipline vntil she haue tryed his soule, and haue proued him by her judgements.

Then she wil returne the straight way vnto him, and comfort him, and shewe him her secrets, < and heape vpon him the treasures of knowledge, and understanding of righteousnes. =

(Ecclus. 4:17-18)

Seke after her, and searche her, & she shal be shewed thee; and when thou hast gotten her, forsake her not. …

Let thy minde be vpon the ordinances of the Lord, and be continually occupied in his commandements: so shal he stablish thine heart, and giue thee wisdome at thine owne desire.

(6:28, 38)

Who hathe gone ouer the sea, to finde her, and hathe broght her, rather than fine golde? …

This is the boke of the commandements of God, and the Law that endureth for euer …

(Bar. 3:30, 4:1)

In this “unchangeable wisdom” which God “proclaimed in the Ten Commandments,” Melanchthon recognized the natural light (for “this natural light and the Ten Commandments … are one single wisdom, doctrine, and law”) (Loci 127-28). Yet, while the scripture tells us that Wisdom has been “powred … vpon all flesh,” it also specifies that God, as Calvin says, “bestows [it] variously” (Inst. II.iii.4), “according to his gift” (Ecclus. 1:10). And certainly it is clear that the Wisdom of the passages we have just quoted is not effectively present in every person or at all times. Though she “may first shewe her self vnto … such as are mete for her” (Wis. 6:13, 16), she will also abandon the man would follow her and leave him to wander in “feare, and drede, … torment[ing] him with her discipline,” until she “returne[s] the straight way vnto him” (Ecclus. 4:17-18).25

Such a Wisdom, who appears before her chosen lover long enough to let him know that “desire of discipline is her beginning” and “loue the keping of her lawes” (Wis. 6:17-18), then vanishes “vntil she haue tryed his soule” (Ecclus. 4:17), is scarcely less characterized by her absence from those who would serve her than is Gloriana. In effect, as our quotations from Calvin and Melanchthon suggest, her disciples receive an intimation of what the sin-darkened light of nature was before the Fall, and what in some measure it can be again if enhanced by “special grace” or “aroused and … fortified” by arduous discipline; but they are then left in humanity's accustomed “light [that] has been turned into darkness” to undertake precisely such discipline in the hope of enjoying her resplendent clarity again.26 If the “vndefiled mirroure” that is the most characteristic sapiential version of the light of nature is so nearly inaccessible as this, the very fact that Gloriana's crusading knights do know her presence only in memory and expectation makes her a more fitting image of it. The fact that she appears to Arthur only long enough to entice him to wander “through the world” in quest of her serves not to cast doubt on her association with this sapiential light, but to confirm it. And the fact that Spenser's typology results in her near-total exclusion from his narrative proves to be even more in keeping with her allegorical significance.


Gloriana is thus, with respect to those who have seen and hope to see again “the person of her Maiestie” (II.ii.41), the image of a sapiential light more resplendent than the norm. To Arthur she is

                                                                                                              that Princesse bright,
Which with her bounty and glad countenance
Doth blesse her seruaunts, and them high aduaunce,


and as such recalls the Wisdom whose reward to her disciple is, in Coverdale's version, to “make him a glad man, … and heape vpon him the treasures of knowledge” (Ecclus. 4:18),27 or who in the Vulgate “[j]ucunditatem et exultationem thesaurizabit super illum” (Douay “shall heap upon him a treasure of joy and gladness”) (15:6). For Guyon, moreover, it would appear that the faery queen's “bountie,” in which he finds “the beautie of her mind,” is all but identical with her “imperiall powre” (II.ix.3); and this recognition of “imperiall powre” as a faculty of mind points us to three particular prerogatives of the intellectual light or agent intellect which Gloriana, like Wisdom, seems to exercise par excellence.28

The role of the agent intellect in human understanding is conveniently explained by Bryskett. From sense impressions the common sense and fantasy abstract the immaterial species of things, which are then received by the conscious or “possible” intellect; but those species would there remain “blind and obscure” if not for the light of the agent intellect, which “worketh the same effect towards things intelligible that the Sun doth towards things visible”:

… for it illumineth those kinds or formes which lie hidden in that part possible, dark and confused, deuoyde of place, time, and matter. … And hence it commeth that some haue said this possible vnderstanding (as we may terme it) to be such a thing, as out of it all things should be made, as if it were in stead of matter; and the other agent vnderstanding to be the worker of all things. … [For by its power] the [possible] vnderstanding, and things vnderstood, become … properly and truly one selfe same thing. …

(pp. 123-25)

In this respect, as Aristotle himself says, “the soul is in a way all existing things” (De Anima III.8): as we think of the world or any part of it, the agent intellect by its sun-like radiance “illumineth” and in that sense recreates it in our minds.29

What does all this have to do with Gloriana or with Wisdom? We have already seen that such “work[ing]” is apparently the source of Wisdom's intellectual bounty:

If riches be a possession to be desired in this life, what is richer then wisdome, that worketh all things?

(Wis. 8:5)

And the fact that Wisdom's illuminating power encompasses the shaping of the entire world shows clearly how it might be taken as imperial:

She also reacheth from one end to another mightely, and comely doeth she order all things.


In each of these respects, accordingly, the imperial sway of the agent intellect over “all things” is reflected in the portrayal of Gloriana. The “Great guerdon” (II.ix.6) she bestows on her servants we have already seen. Spenser does not, of course, make her the creator of his world; she is, after all (or so I take it), not a mere personification but a feigned person, one who figures forth the light of the mind even as the historical Moses was held to figure forth the Law (2 Cor. 3:13 and gloss). The poet does contrive, however, through rapturous hyperbole to make her the illuminator of her world, and even to make her “soueraigne power” that which “sustene[s]” all faery land, just as the agent intellect presumably sustains the world which it creates:

Sunne of the world, great glory of the sky,
          That all the earth does lighten with thy rayes,
          Great Gloriana, greatest Maiesty, …


Whose glory shineth as the morning starre,
And with her light the earth enlumines cleare; …


Great and most glorious virgin Queene aliue,
That with her soueraigne powre, and scepter shene
All Faery lond does peaceably sustene.


In our first two quotations here, he has even described her in terms belonging more properly to the “euerlasting light” of which Wisdom is the “brightness” (Wis. 7:26):

And beholde, the glorie of the God of Israel came from out of the East, … and the earth was made light with his glorie.

(Ezek. 43:2)

I Iesus … am … the bright morning starre [gloss: “that giueth light to euerie one that commeth into this worlde” (John 1:9)].

(Rev. 22:16)

As to the third quotation, Calvin reminds us that the Logos himself, by whom “all things were created,” is also “said to uphold all things” (Heb. 1:3)—and that the light of understanding is, as we have seen, the “mirror” in which we may behold his “divine power” (Comm. John 1:4).

It is thus the world-making capacity of the agent intellect, essential to all human understanding, which Spenser can most immediately be seen to hint at in the radiance and “imperiall powre” of his heroine, particularly if we identify the latter with her “bountie.” But this is not the only sense in which a capacity of the light of understanding could be called imperial, and certainly not the one most obviously relevant to our poet's “vertuous and gentle discipline.” “External civil life,” as we saw earlier, “is to be regulated according to this natural light” (Loci 128), and so the contrast between Gloriana's capital and the New Jerusalem points up the distinction between the values appertaining to “the arrangement of this life” and those belonging to “the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom” (Inst. II.ii.13). In heeding these respective value-systems, we may now go on to observe, our objective was to be the attainment of “two distinct felicities” or “end[s]” (Discourse 22, ST I-II.62.1), both ordained by God;30 and within human society, as Dante explains, “to direct the human race to temporal felicity” is particularly the function of the emperor:

[God's] unutterable providence, then, has set two ends before man to be contemplated by him: the blessedness, to wit, of this life, … and the blessedness of eternal life. …

… [T]o the first we attain by the teachings of philosophy, following them by acting in accordance with the moral and intellectual virtues. …

Wherefore man had need of a twofold directive power according to his twofold end, to wit, the supreme pontiff, to lead the human race, in accordance with things revealed, to eternal life; and the emperor, to direct the human race to temporal felicity in accordance with the teachings of philosophy.

(De Monarchia III.16)31

For the supreme pontiff, of course, Spenser had little use. But Dante was an authority of some standing in Elizabethan imperial theory,32 and his words make doubly clear another sense in which that light which is within us the “directive power” to “temporal felicity” can be called “imperiall”: it is both a faculty of mind which a succesful emperor must possess in eminence, and one which serves within every individual as a microcosmic emperor, dictating how “civil life is to be regulated.” Presumably it is to this function of the agent intellect that Guyon is literally referring when he specifies of Gloriana that “the beautie of her mind” lies not only in her “bountie,” but in her “imperiall powre.”

The “imperiall powre” of the agent intellect therefore extends to the faculty by which an emperor is able to propose the laws which enlighten his subjects and hold his polity together (“By me, Kings reigne, and princes decree iustice,” as Wisdom tells us in Prov. 8:15); and in this respect, no less than in creating the world anew within our minds, it could no doubt be said, like Gloriana, “all the earth [to] lighten” and “Faery lond [to] peaceably sustene.” But it is not enough to say that this power enables an emperor to reign, or even that it holds an imperial position within each individual. Rather, just as Gloriana purports to be the “type” or original (I.Pr.4) of that “most royall Queene or Empresse” Elizabeth (“L.R.”), so the “imperiall powre” which ought to reign within each of us could be seen as in its own right “the first and originall mistris” of the world, the prototype of all lawgivers in history. On this view the directives of actual emperors are called for only because, as we have already seen, the light of the mind is for most of us all but “extinguished” (Comm. John 1:4) until it has been “aroused and … fortified” (Loci xxix). As Pierre Charron explains (Of Wisdom, 1601):

[T]his law and light is naturall in vs, and therefore it is called Nature, and the law of nature. … The law of Moses in his decalogue, is an outward and publicke copie, the law of the twelue tables, and the Romane law, the morall instructions of diuines and Philosophers, the aduisements and counsels of lawyers, the edicts and ordinances of Princes are no other but petie and particular pourtrai[t]es thereof. … [Of this] first and originall mistris … all the lawes of the world, are not other but copies and abstracts[;] … [thou] holdest hidden the original, and makest as if thou knewest it not, extinguishing as much as in thee lieth this light, which enlighteneth thee within. …


Doubtlesse, Nature in euery one of vs is sufficient, and a sweet Mistris and rule to all things, if we will hearken vnto her, employ and awaken her. …

But we doe not only not hearken vnto it, … we endeauour to auoid it, … louing better … to runne to studie and arte. … [W]e esteeme only that which is bought, which is costly, and is brought from farre. …


In this “sweet Mistris” (evidently she is both prince and paramour), then, we have a “law and light” of nature whose sway is in one sense universal—from her all lesser princes derive all their authority—but which is nonetheless, in its most effectual form, for all practical purposes absent; indeed, due to our suffocating neglect, it is now she who seemingly must be endeavored after and “brought from farre.” Wisdom, too, appears as such a mistress, frankly claiming to be rightful ruler of the world, yet now requiring to be sought out:

My dwelling is aboue in the height, and my throne is in the piller of the cloude. …

I possessed the waues of the sea, and all the earth, and all people, and nacion,

Come vnto me all ye that be desirous of me …

(Ecclus. 24:7, 9, 22)

This Wisdom is a mistress, moreover, of whome we find a “copie” in the Law of Moses:

All these things are … the Law that Moyses


This is one of the texts that led Melanchthon, as we have seen, to recognize “this natural light and the Ten Commandments … [as] one single wisdom, doctrine, and law” (Loci 128). Its significance for us, like that of the first passage from Charron, is more particular. Both serve to emphasize that, even though the agent intellect as a faculty of the soul exercises its world-making and life-directing powers within each of us individually, there was nonetheless a very cogent sense in which it could be regarded (in its most pristine form at least) as “the first and originall mistris” not of the individual microcosm, but of the external world at large.34

In presenting Gloriana as a “soueraine Queene” and “mightie Emperesse” whose concern is with righting wrongs (V.i.4), as a monarch who “all the earth doe[s] lighten” (VI.x.28) and “Faery lond does peaceably sustene” (II.ii.40), and as one of whom “the beautie of her mind” lies in “her bountie, and imperiall powre” (ix.4), therefore, Spenser is merely reinforcing what we have already seen: the faery queen images the light of nature as it is portrayed in the Wisdom of the Bible. She represents an intellectual splendor which is “the worker of all things,” “[b]y [whom] Kings reigne,” and who once from her throne “possessed … all the earth, and all people, and nacion.”


Gloriana as we have seen her thus far seems eminently suitable as the focal character of a work whose “generall end” is “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline”; but much less clear is the basis on which the poet can claim that “In that Faery Queene I meane glory” (“Letter to Raleigh”). In this essay, accordingly, we need to elucidate Spenser's overall conception of glory as one in which the light of nature is by rights pre-eminent and pivotal. In many respects his conception simply reflects (and presumably derives from) that of Calvin, as a cluster of verbal echoes suggests; but in others he reverts to a view that helps to mark a sharp divergence from Calvin's viewpoint.

Before proceeding to Calvin's own conception of glory, therefore, we need to have some notion of three much earlier (indeed, ancient) developments which it presupposes. The first of these is the impact of the application of the word glory itself to God by the Bible's major prophets; for their usage led to a shift in the semantic ground covered by the word generally. Hebrew kabod had originally denoted “weight,” as Greek doxa had “opinion,” and Latin gloria, “fame”; but with the appearance of the Septuagint and Old Latin versions of scripture, the recurring prophetic conception of God's kabod as a dazzling theophanic splendor carried over to doxa and gloria as the words by which kabod was ordinarily translated. Each word came to have “light” or “splendor” as a key part of its meaning; and this connotation of radiance prevailed even outside of theophanic contexts.35 Thus Paul uses doxa both of the insupportable radiance that manifests the power of God (e.g., 2 Cor. 3:7) and of the purely material splendor of the sun, moon, and stars (1 Cor. 15:41); while by the time of Aquinas “radiance” had come to seem the root meaning of gloria in every sense, including fame:

Glory means a kind of radiance, so that in Augustine's words being the recipient of glory is the same as being radiant with light. Now radiance implies both a certain beauty and its manifestation. So the term glory strictly connotes the manifestation by someone of a thing which in our eyes seems beautiful, whether it is a physical or a spiritual good.


“Glory” in the sense of a self-revelatory splendor, though initially attributed only to God himself, thus became the characteristic of any “physical or … spiritual good” whose “beauty” is widely manifested by (or as if by) an inherent radiance. And, as a glance at the relevant entries in Osgood's Concordance will show, this conception was still very much alive in Spenser's time.37

A second key development came with the recognition that examples of this kind of “glory” or splendor among created things could themselves be seen as theophanic: “For by the greatnesse & beutye of the creature, the maker therof maye playnely be knowne” (Wis. 13:5 [Cov.]). This doctrine is most explicitly developed in terms of glory by Sirach, who makes it the theme of several consecutive chapters of Ecclesiasticus. His initial emphasis is on the splendor of the heavenly bodies and other wonders of nature, but even fame is included among those glories of creation which he takes to manifest the glory of God:

The sunne that shineth, loketh vpon all things, and the worke thereof is ful of the glorie of the Lord. …

Oh, how delectable are all his workes …

The one commendeth the goodnes of the other, & who can be satisfied with beholding Gods glorie?

This high ornament the cleare firmament, the beautie of the heauen so glorious to beholde. …

… [T]he Lord hathe made all things, and giuen wisdome to such as feare God.

Let us now commend the famous [Vulg., Trem. “gloriosos”] men. …

The Lorde hathe gotten great glorie by them, and that by his great powre from the beginning. …

(Ecclus. 42:16, 22, 25; 43:1, 33; 44:1-2)

In short, because the workmanship of all things is “ful of the glorie of the Lord,” to gaze upon “the beautie of the heauen so glorious to beholde” is in its own right a way of “beholding Gods glorie”; and even mere earthly fame, like the gift of “wisdome” that secures it, is one of the workings of his “great powre.”

The final development we need to consider before turning to Calvin also takes the splendors of creation to be revelatory of the creator, but emphasizes as specifically moral the content of their theophany. This view is glanced at as early as the Psalms:

The heauens declare his righteousness, and all the people se his glorie.


But it is most conspicuously argued, though without explicit reference to glory, in Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Where Sirach had cited both the visible creation and the “wisdome” bestowed on the pious as revealing God's glory, the apostle instead names both the visible creation and the sense of right and wrong found even among Gentiles as revealing God's law:

For the inuisible things of him, that is, his eternal power and Godhead, are sene by the creation of the worlde, being considered in his workes. …

… [Thus even the Gentiles] knewe the Law [gloss: “Or, righteousnes”] of God. … [Gloss: “Which Law God writ in their consciences, and the Philosophers called it the Law of nature. …”]

(Rom. 1:20, 31)

Thus, as Melanchthon was later to explain, all of nature is replete with “traces of God” (“vestigia Dei”), so that “everything in the universe testifies that there is a God, that there is wisdom, goodness, and justice”; yet the clearest such testimony is to be found in the human mind and in the knowledge of good and evil imprinted on it.38 If this emphatically moral theophany-via-creation were to be put back into Sirachian terms (as theophany via created glory), we would clearly have a conception of glory which not only included the law or light of nature “written in [our] hearts” (Rom. 2:15), but actually recognized a moral force in all created splendors.

Calvin comes very close to formulating this conception. Usually, it is true, he reserves the word glory for the glory of God, declining to apply it directly to God's works. Yet his argument in Institutes I.v. is precisely that the glory of God is splendor, that in beholding created splendors we behold that glory, and that such splendors thereby promulgate the moral law. The emphasis on glory as light in the opening of the chapter is unrelenting:

[U]pon his individual works [God] has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent … [that] the prophet very aptly exclaims that he is “clad with light as with a garment” [Psalm 104:2]. It is as if he said: Thereafter the Lord began to show himself in the visible splendor of his apparel, ever since in the creation of the universe he brought forth those insignia whereby he shows his glory to us, whenever and wherever we turn our gaze. … And since the glory of his power and wisdom shine more brightly above, heaven is often called his palace 39

(Inst. I.v.l)

And what we see “shining in heaven and earth,” as he explains elsewhere, extends even to God's “virtues” (Lat. virtutes, Fr. vertus): “kindness, goodness, justice, judgment, and truth” (x.2; cf. v.10).40 Of course, this is not to say that creation's visible splendors afford moral guidance sufficient to direct our lives, since we know that “all mortals ‘became vain in their reasonings’

It is therefore in vain that so many burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe to show forth the glory of its Author. Although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no way lead us into the right path.


Calvin thus makes the point that the moral law is somehow implicit in the visible splendors of creation only to dismiss it as of little practical importance. On the other hand, as we have already seen, he recognizes that the natural light, in earthly matters, often does suffice to “lead us into the right path”: “There is nothing more common than for a man to be sufficiently instructed in a standard of right conduct by natural law” (II.ii.22), so that “[i]n every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life” (iii.3). We need hardly be surprised, then, to find that the natural light holds for Calvin a place of rare distinction among created manifestations of God's glory.

That both the physical and mental attributes of humanity manifest God's glory with unusual clarity is something Calvin more than once is at pains to emphasize. If the most impressive way “to look upon [God's] glory” is to consider the “innumerable and yet distinct and well-ordered variety of the heavenly host” (I.v.2), he maintains, still man is the single work of God in which his glory shines most brightly, being in his own right a “microcosm” and “a rare example of God's power, goodness, and wisdom” (3). Indeed, “each one [of us] undoubtedly feels within the heavenly grace that quickens him,” so that the Psalmist, in praising “the admirable name and glory of God which shine everywhere,” emphasizes especially that “a clear mirror of God's works is in humankind,” while Paul stresses that “by adorning us with such great excellence [God] testifies that he is our father” (3, citing Psalm 8:2 and Acts 17:28). The obvious traces of divinity in man are even cited as evidence for the divine governance of the universe:

[Human beings] have within themselves a workshop graced with God's unnumbered works and, at the same time, a storehouse overflowing with inestimable riches. … Do all the treasures of heavenly wisdom concur in ruling a five-foot worm while the whole universe lacks this privilege?


In short, as Calvin never tires of repeating, “in forming man and in adorning him with such goodly beauty, and with such great and numerous gifts, [God] put him forth as the most excellent example of his works” (xiv.20).

Yet the part of man in which Calvin finds glory to be most resplendent is precisely that which Spenser images in Gloriana. For while “the likeness of God extends to the whole excellence by which man's nature towers over all the kinds of living creatures” so that “God's glory shines forth in the outer man,” nevertheless from the time of Adam's creation “the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers” (xv.2-3). And of “those faculties in which man excels, and in which he ought to be thought the reflection of God's glory,” the light of understanding is pre-eminent:

[T]o begin with, God's image was visible in the light of the mind, in the uprightness of the heart, and in the soundness of all the parts. … [Of these John singles out] “… the light of men”


Prior to the Fall, at least, “the light of the mind”—the same light which Scripture images in Wisdom, and Spenser in Gloriana—was thus for Calvin the single most striking “reflection of God's glory” in all creation. And even though it has been darkened by the Fall, that light remains such a resplendent gift that for once even Calvin is willing to designate a mere created splendor by the name of “glory”:

… God's wonderful goodness is displayed the more brightly in that so glorious a Creator, whose majesty shines resplendently in the heavens, graciously condescends to adorn a creature so miserable and so vile as man is with the greatest glory, and to enrich him with numerous blessings. …

… [For the Psalmist] represents [men] as adorned with so many honours as to render their condition not far inferior to divine and celestial glory …, [chief among them] the distinguished endowments which clearly manifest that men were formed after the image of God. … The reason with which they are endued, and by which they can distinguish between good and evil; the principle of religion which is planted in them; their intercourse with each other, which is preserved from being broken up by certain sacred bonds; the regard to what is becoming, and the sense of shame which guilt awakens in them, as well as their continuing to be governed by laws; all these things are clear indications of pre-eminent and celestial wisdom. David, therefore, not without good reason, exclaims that mankind are adorned with glory and honor. To be crowned [Psalm 8:5], is here taken metaphorically, as if David had said, he is clothed and adorned with marks of honour, which are not far removed from the splendour of the divine majesty.

(Comm. Ps. 8:4-5)41

Obviously, “all these things”—these “indications of … celestial wisdom” which are also the marks of that “greatest glory” with which humanity has been “adorned”—are the fruits or functions of the natural light, essential as it is to “the arrangement of this life” (Inst. II.ii.13). And if what Calvin takes to be the Psalmist's glorification of this light with its “sacred bonds” seems extravagant with regard to the darkened illumination most of us experience, it would surely have seemed fitting for the restored splendor to be enjoyed by one who has succeeded in the quest for Wisdom:

Then shal her fetters be a strong defence for thee, … & her chaines a glorious raiment. …

Thou shalt put her on as a robe of honour [Vulg., Trem. “gloriae”], & shalt put her vpon thee, as a crowne of ioye.

(Ecclus. 6:30, 32)

Thus Calvin has taken the ancient recognition of created splendors as theophanic “glories” and, while declining to describe most of them as “glorious” in their own right, has both singled out the intellectual light as supreme among such splendors and explicitly recognized in all of them a certain moral force. In so doing, he has prepared the way for Spenser to reintegrate these conceptions and so arrive at a generalized notion of glory which has the light of nature at its core.

For we are now clearly in a position to account for the fact that the faery queen, while said to represent glory, so forcefully recalls Wisdom as a symbol of the light of nature. Like Aquinas, it would appear, Spenser accepts any literal or figurative radiance as being “glorious”; like Sirach, he accepts all created glories as implicit theophanies; and like Paul or Melanchthon or Calvin, he understands the main thrust of such natural theophanies to be the inculcation of the moral law. But the most resplendent of created glories, as Calvin makes clear, and by far the most efficacious in making plain to us the demands of a “vertuous and gentle discipline,” is the light of understanding. The glory imaged in the faery queen is thus simply glory in its most general sense as radiance or splendor, for any God-created splendor tends to promulgate the natural law;42 but the ne plus ultra of such glory is the natural light.

In Spenser's allegory, therefore, that quintessence of glory which is imaged in the very person of the faery queen seems to consist entirely of the light of understanding, while the lesser splendors encompassed by the term are presented as her garments. The scope of his conception is articulated in a single stanza:

In her the richesse of all heauenly grace
          In chiefe degree are heaped vp on hye:
          And all that else this worlds enclosure bace
          Hath great or glorious in mortall eye,
          Adornes the person of her Maiestie;
          That men beholding so great excellence,
          And rare perfection in mortalitie,
          Do her adore with sacred reuerence,
As th'Idole of her makers great magnificence.


This stanza abounds with words or concepts we have seen Calvin use repeatedly in describing the glory manifested in humanity: “riches,” “(heavenly) grace,” “great,” “glory,” “adorns,” “majesty,” “excellence,” “rare,” “perfection”; so much so that I presume the recollection of Calvin to be deliberate, though Spenser's application is often different.43 Here, appropriately enough, “the richesse of all heauenly grace” points to the plenitude of the natural light with which God “graciously condescends to adorn a creature so miserable and so vile as man” (Comm. Ps. 8:5), bestowing it even more generously on some by “special grace” (Inst. II.ii.17). That Gloriana's person is “Adorne[d]” with all visible splendors, however, points to the function of that light as “the worker of all things” (Wis. 7:21). According to Calvin, after all, God as creator of the external world is invisible, yet “clad with light” (Ps. 104:2) in the sense that the “visible splendor” of his creation is the “apparel” in which he “show[s] himself” (Inst. I.v.l); by the same token, therefore, it might be said that the agent intellect is clad with the splendors of the universe which its radiance creates anew within the mind. (In that sense “this worlds enclosure bace” extends to “these heauens which here we see,” for even they are “bounded” and “corrupt” with respect to the supercelestial world [An Hymne of Heauenly Beautie, ll. 64-66]). Once it is thus appareled, however, we can see that the intellectual light (especially when enhanced by “special grace”) does indeed exhibit a “great excellence, / And rare perfection in mortalitie”; for in it we see not only the “excellence by which man's nature towers over all the kinds of living creatures” (Inst. I.xv.3)—itself the result of “God's singular grace”—but an approximation of “the perfect excellence … which shone in Adam before his defection” (4). We may even recognize this light as worthy of our “sacred reuerence,” and not only for its “rare perfection,” nor even because it promulgates God's law, so that Guyon can say “To her I homage and my seruice owe” (II.ii.42). Rather it may also be revered as constituting, in a dual sense, “th'Idole of her makers great magnificence”: for it is not merely the single most glorious work of God's “great power” (Ecclus. 44:2; Vulg., Zur. “magnificentia”), but is also in its own right a great maker, being the mirror of his “power” or “maiestie” (Wis. 7:26) and so “the worker of all things” (7:21) within the intellect, even as God himself is “the worker of all things” tout court.

Of course, Gloriana is also explicitly associated with glory in the sense of fame. Whether Spenser considered this to be a conspicuous part of the glory actually imaged in his heroine, however, seems to me uncertain. Sirach, as we have seen, does regard glory even in this sense as theophanic (Ecclus. 44:1-2); but in Spenser such glory is not something which the faery queen can be seen to represent, but something she bestows (I.x.59). In this respect, as in so many others, she has been made to resemble Wisdom:

Length of daies is in her right hand, & in her left hand riches and glorie.

(Prov. 3:16)

Exalt her, and she shal exalt thee: she shal bring thee to honour, if thou embrace her.


As Spenser's contemporary Peter Muffet says in paraphrasing these verses, “wisdom, as a bountiful queen, giveth to those who obey her, not only long life, but worldly wealth, and earthly glory,” so that “if thou shalt exalt and entertain wisdom, she as a queen will make thee honourable, and as it were a knight” (A Commentary on the Whole Book of Proverbs [?1596]).44 Such a figure is less suited to represent fame itself than to image the natural light, which fame is to be sought by heeding.45

If the high regard for fame which he shares with Sirach further aligns Spenser with the Bible's Wisdom allegories, however, it no less clearly marks his divergence from the thought of Calvin, whose nod to “common renown among men” is not so much grudging as disdainful (Inst. II.iii.4; cf. III.xiii.2, xiv.16). Up till now the reader may have felt that Calvin as he appears in this essay sounds suspiciously like Hooker in the respect he seemingly accords to the autonomy and dignity of human reason in the wake of the Fall. This is partly because the differences between Calvin and Hooker on this point are more a matter of emphasis than is always recognized (least of all by Calvin's Elizabethan followers, who often seem determined to out-Herod Herod, as Hooker himself points out [Laws]). Mostly, though, it is because I have been using Calvin to elucidate Spenser's thinking rather than his own. Spenser limits the denigration of Gloriana's values to a few stanzas (I.x.58-62) in a poem which is designed to celebrate them, and makes her the presiding spirit of all the “priuate morall vertues” (“Letter to Raleigh”) while relegating “Holinesse” to a single (albeit pivotal) book; in Calvin the proportions are reversed. While Spenser may have relished the opportunity to turn Calvin's eloquence to his own purpose, then, he generally prefers to go like Melanchthon or Hooker on his own more or less Thomistic way.46 “When supernatural laws are … exacted,” Hooker tells us, “natural are not rejected as needless” (I.xii.1), but rather “laws of nature … are … necessary also even in themselves” (; and thus “when we extol the complete sufficiency of … the Scripture, … the benefit of nature's light [must] not be thought excluded as unnecessary” (I.xiv.4). In his exaltation of Gloriana, Spenser does more than merely anticipate Hooker's characteristic emphasis on the authority of reason. By making her the focus of a Bible-like typology, he in effect puts his poem forward as a complementary scripture in its own right, one dedicated to “the benefit of nature's light” just as the Bible is dedicated to “salvation through Christ” (ibid.). That nature's light is itself a “mirror” of the power of the Logos (Comm. John 1:4) would scarcely have seemed to Calvin to justify such huge audacity.

Even for Calvin, of course, the natural light and created splendor in general have their role in “the arrangement of this life.” But not even Aquinas, Melanchthon, and Hooker, not even the Cambridge Platonists, go so far as Spenser in magnifying the autonomy and prestige of the light of nature and its attendant glories. What even the Bible's Wisdom allegories exult in over the space of only some dozen scattered pages, Spenser makes the “argument” of a vast heroic poem intended to rival Homer. What Charron aggrandizes in a few short chapters, what Melanchthon honors in a few short paragraphs, what Calvin enthuses over in the occasional odd sentence, Spenser makes the culmination of a laudatory typology like the biblical typology that culminates in Christ. Yet, if we remember how extraordinary were the prerogatives ascribed to the Bible's (and Melanchthon's) Wisdom, to Charron's “mistris,” and even to Calvin's “greatest glory”—and if we remember that for Spenser this quintessential “glory” is enhanced by “special grace,” as Gloriana's very name suggests47—we may come to the view that his “generall intention” in the faery queen was not entirely unfitting.48 We may come to the view that what the poet tells Burleigh concerning the apparently “ydle rimes” of The Faerie Queene in general is particularly true of those “rimes” pertaining to its heroine:

          Vnfitly I these ydle rimes present,
          The labor of lost time, and wit vnstayd:
Yet if their deeper sence be inly wayd,
          And the dim vele, with which from common vew
          Their fairer parts are hid, aside be layd,
          Perhaps not vaine they may appeare to you.

(Ded. Son. to Burleigh)

When the veil is laid aside from his accounts of Gloriana, we find a life-directing glory truly integral, on Spenser's terms, to the poem's “generall end” of “fashion[ing]” its readers “in vertuous and gentle discipline.”


  1. Jeffrey P. Fruen, “‘True Glorious Type’: The Place of Gloriana in The Faerie Queene,Spenser Studies, VII (1987), 147-73; on the typological thrust of the “vele” with respect to Gloriana, see pp. 161-64. All quotations from Spenser are from the one-volume Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912). My title also throws a cautionary sidelong glance at the overweening of “C” in “The ‘Faerie Queene’ Unveiled,” N & Q ser. 3, 4 (1863): 21-22, 65-66, 101-103; partially reprinted in The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw, et al., I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1932), 451-52.

  2. Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in “The Faerie Queene” (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1976).

  3. All Latin and English Protestant Bibles of the sixteenth century included the Apocrypha. The Geneva Bible of 1560, while of course denying them canonical authority, does refer to them as ‘“scriptures” (headnote to the Apocrypha) and even “Holy Scriptures” (general title page); and the books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, which chiefly concern us here, are so frequently cross-referenced with the Old and New Testaments that the essential soundness of their theology can hardly have seemed doubtful. See The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, with an introduction by Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). Except where otherwise noted, all of my biblical references are to this edition. (In the Geneva translation of Ecclesiasticus, passages recognized as interpolations are included in square brackets; I change these to pointed brackets to distinguish them from my own alterations or additions.)

  4. The Zurich Latin Bible of 1543 was perhaps the most influential Protestant Latin Bible during Spenser's years at the Merchant Taylors' School and Cambridge (1561-76), being superseded only by the Tremellius-Junius version as it appeared (NT 1569, OT 1575-79). In 1545, Robert Estienne reprinted it, identified only as a “new” version, in parallel columns with his own critically restored text of the Vulgate. See The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. S. L. Greenslade, III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 65-66, 71; and The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, s.v. “Bible,” II, 455. My quotations are from Estienne's edition: Biblia. Quid in hac editione praestitum sit, vide in ea quam / opere praeposuimus, ad lectorum epistola. / Lutetiae / … Roberti Stephani … / M.D. XLV. In all of my quotations from sixteenth-century texts, contractions are expanded, long-s changed to s, and ligatures omitted. In this case, for clarity of reference, I have also restored the poetic verse-lineation ascribed to the text by modern scholars.

  5. Thomas Cooper, Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae, 1565; facsimile reprint (Menston: Scolar Press, 1969). The definitions I cite come not only from Cooper's main entries, but also from the translations given with his contextual quotations. On the use of Cooper at Merchant Taylors', see T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine & Less Greeke (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944), I, 421.

  6. Often-reprinted versions such as the Vulgate I quote variously from whatever editions come first to hand (the Douay and Authorized Versions are also in this category). The Tremellius-Junius version is quoted from the London edition of 1585: Testamenti Veteris / Biblia Sacra / Sive / Libri Canonici / Prisce Iudaeorum / Ecclesiae a Deo Traditi, / … / … Immaneuele / Tremellio & Francisco Junio / … / Londini, / Excudebat Henricus Midletonus, / … / M.D. LXXXV.

  7. Thomas E. Maresca, Three English Epics: Studies of “Troilus and Criseyde,” “The Faerie Queene,” and “Paradise Lost” (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), p. 62; see also Fruen, p. 158. In the sequence of the poem, Gloriana is the “type” of Elizabeth in the quasi-biblical sense that Elizabeth as addressed in the proems is “the first draught and purtrait” of Gloriana, “the liuelie paterne to come” (gloss on Heb 10:1)—“paterne” here being picked up from the last half of Heb. 8:5, where it translates “typon”; see Fruen, pp. 159-61.

  8. While the Wisdom allegories in the first nine chapters of Proverbs are also relevant, those in Wisdom (ch. 6-9) and Ecclesiasticus (ch. 1, 4, 6, 14-15, 24, 51) are particularly significant here. And Spenser may not have thought himself the first author to use these biblical materials in a faery mistress story. When Arthur of Little Britain tells his friends of the dream in which his own visionary mistress appeared to him in the form of an eagle, his phrasing comes almost as close to that of the biblical texts quoted here as it does to Spenser's:

    And euer syth I woke my herte and loue hath ben so set on that egle that I can not draw my herte fro her. For I loue her so entyerly that as longe as I lyue I shall neuer cease to trauell & labour tyll I haue founde her.

    See Arthur of Brytayn: The hystory of the moost noble and valyaunt knyght Arthur of lytell brytayne, trans. John Bourchier, Lord Berners (London: Robert Redborne, [ca. 1550]), cap. xvi, fol. xiiiv. The influence of this episode on Spenser was first noted by John Colin Dunlop, History of Prose Fiction (1814), rpt. as History of Fiction (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1896), I, 260. Perhaps less striking in terms of verbal parallels is the encounter with the faery mistress in Syr Lamwell, the form in which Spenser presumably knew Marie de France's Lanval: “Lamwell behelde that lady bryght / Her loue hym rauysshed anone ryght.” See the appendix of Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances, ed. John W. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall (London: Trubner, 1867), I, 525. On the other hand, as the poet who treats “Medway” as a form of “Medua” (IV.xi.8, 45), Spenser may well have recognized that “Lamwell” is a form of “Lamuell,” a name which in turn reflects the “Lamuel” of Prov. 31:1 in the Vulgate (see A. J. Bliss, “The Hero's Name in the Middle English Versions of Lanval,” MAE, 27 [1958], 82 and n.); and that regal figure, according to the Geneva gloss, is really Solomon himself, the Bible's pre-eminent quester after Wisdom.

  9. See especially FQ II.ii.41, ix.3, 5 and HHB 242-48, 253-59. The virtual identification of Gloriana with Sapience was first made by Jefferson B. Fletcher, “A Study in Renaissance Mysticism: Spenser's Fowre Hymnes,PMLA, 26 (1911), 474-75, and most recently restated by Douglas Brooks-Davies in his Introduction to Spenser, The Faerie Queene: A Selection (London: Dent; New York: Dutton, Everyman's Library, 1976), p. x. Especially intriguing applications of this view are those by Josephine Waters Bennett, “Spenser's Muse,” JEGP, 31 (1932), 217, and Janet Spens, Spenser's “Faerie Queene”: An Interpretation (London: Edward Arnold, 1934), pp. 50, 112, 113, 114. The biblical provenance of Sapience was first thoroughly (though not exhaustively) documented by Charles Grosvenor Osgood, “Spenser's Sapience,” SP, 14 (1917), 167-77.

  10. Latin quoted from Cicero, De Officiis I.v, trans. Walter Miller, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press; London: Heinemann, 1913); alluding to Plato, Phaedrus 250d.

  11. Sir Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetry (ca. 1583), in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), I, 179; emphasis added to the final phrase. Raleigh, in 1590 a confidante of Spenser's for a relatively short time, may intend this identification of Cicero's Virtue with the Bible's Wisdom in referring to “true vertues face” in his second commendatory poem (Spenser's Poetical Works, p. 409). For that matter, Spenser himself may be making the same identification in FQ III.iii.1, again reflecting Wis. 8:2, but taking diligo in its other sense as synonymous with deligo “to choose”: “that doth true beautie loue, / And choseth vertue for his dearest dame” (cf. Zurich pulchritudinis, amore, dilexi, sponsam).

  12. See Isabel E. Rathborne, The Meaning of Spenser's Fairyland (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937), 17-19; and Robert Ellrodt, Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser (Geneva: Librairie E. Droz, 1960), 50, 58. Also relevant in establishing the purely secular values of Cleopolis are Thomas P. Roche, Jr., The Kindly Flame: A Study of the Third and Fourth Books of “The Faerie Queene,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), 38-43; and Carol V. Kaske, “Spenser's Pluralistic Universe: The View from the Mount of Contemplation (F.Q. I.x),” in Contemporary Thought on Edmund Spenser, ed. Richard C. Frushell and Bernard J. Vondersmith (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), 130-41.

  13. A. S. P. Woodhouse, “Nature and Grace in The Faerie Queene,ELH, 16 (1949): 194-228; “Nature and Grace in Spenser: A Rejoinder,” RES, n.s. 6 (1955): 284-88; “Spenser, Nature and Grace: Mr. Gang's Mode of Argument Reviewed,” ELH, 27 (1960): 1-15. I am indebted to the third essay for a number of my citations from Aquinas, Calvin, and Hooker. The unfortunate personal animus of this third essay may be what has kept it from being reprinted, but Woodhouse's impatience seems even more understandable in retrospect, for dismayingly few of the many who have offered to challenge or correct his original argument show much sign of having read it carefully. In her chapter “Nature and Grace Reconsidered,” for instance, Anthea Hume is right to insist that Guyon is a Christian and so cannot be a “natural man” as Woodhouse defines the term, but this has virtually nothing to do with Woodhouse's overriding question of whether temperance as Guyon exemplifies it is natural or supernatural in its “motivation and sanction.” See Anthea Hume, Edmund Spenser: Protestant Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 59-71.

  14. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20-21 (London: SCM Press, 1960); henceforth cited in the text as Inst. Calvin's distinction (see also II.ii.12) is surprisingly close to that of Aquinas, as in The “Summa Theologica” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, revised by Daniel J. Sullivan, in Great Books of the Western World, vols. 19-20 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1952), I-II.62.1, 63.4; 109.2; II-II.23.7. Where not otherwise noted, all references to Aquinas are to this selection, cited in the text as ST.

  15. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine Mr. Richard Hooker, arranged by John Keble, revised by R. W. Church and F. Paget, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), vols. I-II.

  16. Kaske does an especially good job of bringing out this contrast, though it is hardly necessary to conclude that in drawing it Spenser “contradicts not only Christian tradition but himself” (p. 135). On the contrary, such ambivalence was an integral feature of Christian tradition, clearly reflected in the distinction between Nature and Grace which Woodhouse documents in figures ranging from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to Hooker (“Spenser, Nature and Grace,” 3-6). The tension, indeed, had been built into Christianity by no less a figure than St. Paul. Having established that the moral content of the Mosaic law corresponds to what pagans call the law of nature (Rom. 1:31 and gloss, 2:14-15), the apostle repeatedly denounces trust in that law as a means of seeking salvation: it is merely “the strength of sinne” (1 Cor. 15:56) and serves us only “vnto death” (Rom. 7:10), bringing a spurious righteousness worth no more than “dongue” (Phil. 3:8). Yet, for all this, we must nonetheless strive to adhere to it: “Do we then make the Law of none effect through faith? God forbid: yea we establish the Law” (Rom. 3:31). (See also Rom. 3:20, 24, 27, 28; 6:14-15; 7:6; 10:3; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 2:16, 3:10-11; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:6). Adherence to the law thus corresponds to Spenser's “earthly conquest,” which we are duty-bound to pursue in this life and yet must “shonne” altogether at the end of life when we can turn all our hopes to heaven (I.x.60).

  17. See the Spenser Variorum, VII (1943), 561, 564.

  18. On Harvey's esteem for Melanchthon, see Virgil K. Whitaker, The Religious Basis of Spenser's Thought, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1950), 66. The influence of Melanchthon in Elizabethan England is also noted in H. S. V. Jones, “The Faerie Queene and the Mediaevel Aristotelian Tradition,” JEGP, 25 (1926): 292-98, and in the preface to Philip Melanchthon, Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine: “Loci Communes” 1555, trans. Clyde L. Manschreck, introduction by Hans Engelland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), xx-xxii. Except where otherwise noted, all quotations from Melanchthon will be from Manschreck's translation, cited in the text as Loci.

  19. John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel of John, trans. the Rev. William Pringle, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847); henceforth cited in the text as Comm. John.

  20. Spenser may have thought that Aristotle got the idea from the author of Wisdom, since there were purportedly at least thirty passages in which Plato could be seen to be “imitat[ing],” “paraphras[ing],” and “all but translating” texts from the Hebrew Scriptures; see Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, trans. Edwin Hamilton Gifford, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903), books XI-XIII, passim.

  21. Aristotle, De Anima, trans. J. A. Smith, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941); the Greek is quoted from Aristotle, De Anima, trans. R. D. Hicks (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1965).

  22. Lodowick Bryskett, A Discourse of Ciuill Life (1606); facsimile reprint in Literary Works, ed. J. H. P. Pafford (London: Gregg International Publishers, 1972); henceforth cited in the text as Discourse. See also chapter 4, below.

  23. The last phrase quoted is not from the 1555 Loci, but from the 1543 version as quoted in Hans Engelland's Introduction.

  24. For a different view, see Kaske, pp. 131-32.

  25. I take it that “the straight way” here means “by the straight way,” as at 1 Sam. 6:12; cf. the Douay version. Whether Arthur and Gloriana would have been similarly reunited if the poem had been completed is something the Wisdom analogues do not enable us to decide, since many of them leave the love-quest still in progress. My own inclination is to agree with Rathborne (p. 233) that Arthur and Gloriana, like Redcrosse and Una, would have been allowed a brief time together before Arthur was summoned to manage the cares of his own kingdom; but it is certainly possible that our expectation of finally encountering the faery queen in Book XII was to be rewarded only with the recounted memory of her feast, which is all that the “Letter to Raleigh” promises.

  26. Hence the thematic fitness of Arthur's tirade against Night at III.iv.55-60; stanza 58 is based in part on Job 24:13-17, where what the “rebelles Lumini” resist, according to Spenser's old schoolfellow Lancelot Andrewes, is the light of nature: see A Preparation to Prayer (1611), Sermon 2, p. 15; reprint appended to The Morall Law Expounded (London: Sparke, Milbourne, Cotes, and Crooke, 1642). Arthur himself is clearly subject here to the “vnreasonable affections” that “darken the light of reason” (Bryskett, Discourse, 190), though less so than some critics would have us believe: in an outlaw-infested wilderness where no unarmed person is safe without an armed escort, he is more than justified in trying to catch up to Florimell to offer his protection, as her own servant gratefully attests (v.10-11).

  27. The Holy Scriptures, trans. Myles Coverdale (1535; rpt. London: Samuel Bagster, 1838). I have not been able to check the readings of the Great or Bishops versions.

  28. On this “bountie” and “imperiall powre” as a political prerogative of Elizabeth, see David Lee Miller, The Poem's Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 “Faerie Queene” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 155-57. A fully-rounded critique of Gloriana would of course show how the poet accommodates his overriding “generall intention” in the faery queen to his “particular” intention to “shadow” Elizabeth (“Letter to Raleigh”), and vice versa; but this “generall intention” has been so generally neglected that for the moment it requires our full attention. We might also remember that even those aspects of Gloriana that seem to point directly to Elizabeth ultimately have a different origin:

    [O]n those islands which I have called Fortunate there was a queen of surpassing beauty, adorned with costly garments and ever young, who still remained a virgin, not wishing for a husband, but well contented to be loved and sought. And to those who loved her more she gave a greater reward. …

    This is not Spenser or Sidney or Lyly currying favor with Elizabeth, but Cardinal Bembo allegorizing the beauty of God. See Pietro Bembo, Gli Asolani (1505), trans. Rudolf B. Gottfried (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954), 184-85; the passage is cited in connection with Gloriana by Merritt Y. Hughes, “The Arthurs of The Faerie Queene,” EA, 6 (1953): 195. Abetted by Leone Ebreo's identification of the divine beauty with Wisdom and the Logos (see Ellrodt, 183-93), Bembo's queen “adorned with costly garments” becomes Spenser's Sapience “Clad like a Queene in royall robes” (HHB 185); and since even Scripture is wont “in one text to speak of the Wisdom begotten and wisdom created” (ST I.41.3), the same imagery of a “virgin Queene” enthroned “in widest Ocean” (FQ II.ii.40) can be applied with equal fitness to the light of nature.

  29. That faery land is “enlumine[d]” (II.ix.4) by the faery queen may therefore suggest a putative etymology of faery from Gk. phaeos “light” and Fr. faire “to make.” That Gloriana images a supercelestial Neoplatonic sun of intelligibility is more or less clearly suggested by both Spens, p. 112, and Brooks-Davies, Spenser's “Faerie Queene”: A Critical Commentary on Books I and II (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977), 3, 127.

  30. See Roche, pp. 39-43.

  31. In A Translation of the Latin Works of Dante Alighieri, trans. A. G. Ferrers Howell and Philip H. Wicksteed (London: Dent, Temple Classics, 1904), 277-78.

  32. See Frances Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 41, 45-47.

  33. Pierre Charron, De la Sagesse (1601, 1604); quoted from Of Wisdome, trans. Samson Lennard (before 1612); facsimile reprint (Amsterdam and New York: Da Capo Press, 1971).

  34. The faery land Gloriana illumines is thus what Coleridge calls “mental space” only in that it represents the external world as experienced and dealt with by us internally as moral agents; I am not claiming that events in The Faerie Queene take place as psychomachia within an individual or typical personality.

  35. Up to but not including the citation from Aquinas, this paragraph is based on A. J. Vermeulen, The Semantic Development of Gloria in early-Christian Latin (Nijmegen, Netherlands: Dekker and van de Vegt, 1956), pp. 5, 6, 9, 12-16, 18, 22-23, 26-27.

  36. Quoted from Summa Theologiae: Latin Text and English Translation, vol. 41, trans. T. C. O'Brien (New York: Blackfriars with McGraw Hill, 1972).

  37. Charles Grosvenor Osgood, ed., A Concordance to the Poems of Edmund Spenser (Washington: Carnegie Institute, 1915). The OED and the concordances to other Elizabethan authors tell a similar tale.

  38. From the 1535 Loci, in Corpus Reformatorum 21:369; I follow the translation and paraphrase in Carl E. Maxcey, Bona Opera: A Study in the Development of Philip Melanchthon (Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1980), 137.

  39. That Spenser knew this chapter and was influenced by it in An Hymne of Heauenly Beautie has been recognized since 1914, when it was pointed out by F. M. Padelford; see Variorum VII, 555. I have changed the square brackets used by Calvin's editor or translator to pointed brackets in order to distinguish his inserted scriptural references from my own references, additions, and alterations.

  40. In view of the attributes listed, Battle's translation of “virtutes” as “powers” seems rather beside the point. For the Latin and French I cite Iannis Calvini, Institutio Christianae Religionis (Berolini: Gustaum Eichler, 1834); and Jean Calvin, Institution de la Religion Chrestienne (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1957), respectively.

  41. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. the Rev. James Anderson, 5 vols. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845-1849). Here “the principle of religion” refers of course to natural religion, not the true “mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom” (Inst. II.ii.13).

  42. The qualification “God-created” is essential, for one of Spenser's recurring themes is the danger presented by fraudulent or disproportionate glories, seen with particular clarity in his accounts of Lucifera (I.iv.8-9) and Philotime (II.vii.44-46). On the other hand, the more vivid among God-created glories can justly be used to figure forth such purely intelligible splendors as might otherwise remain obscure, and the attempt to do so is a hallmark of Spenser's poetic practice. Compare Sidney's agenda for the poet in the Apologie, in Smith, I, 165, 179.

  43. Similar language—along with “magnificence”—appears in Calvin's preface to the New Testament, in Commentaries, trans. Joseph Haroutunian with Louise Pettibone Smith, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 23 (London: SCM Press, 1958), 58-60. Jan Karel Kouwenhoven, Apparent Narrative as Thematic Metaphor: The Organization of “The Faerie Queene” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), offers a very different interpretation of Spenser's stanza (pp. 22-23) and of his notion of glory (passim), one avowedly Calvinist (p. 27) and yet not remarking any verbal parallels.

  44. Peter Muffet, A Commentary on the Whole Book of Proverbs (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1868), 19, 24. I rely on the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature for the date of 1596; this reprint purports to be from a second edition of 1594. For Muffet, personified Wisdom includes any of “the means and instruments which th[e] eternal Wisdom useth to lighten men by” (p. 8).

  45. On the other hand, Petrarch's personified Glory in Rime Sparse 119 (Canzone 12 in vita) is clearly modeled on biblical Wisdom (cf. lines 1-21, 26-28 of the canzone with Wis. 7:29, 8:2, 6:16-17, 8:13, Ecclus. 4:11, 17-18). This Glory (= Fame) makes vivid the nature of her invisible twin sister, Virtue—whom Cicero, as we saw, identifies with Wisdom. And Raleigh, at least, does take pains to evoke the Rime Sparse in connection with Gloriana, his commendatory sonnet (Spenser's Poetical Works, p. 409) harking back to RS 186-87 (Sonnets 153-154 in vita).

  46. That “Spenser emerges as the religious fellow of Hooker” is Whitaker's conclusion (p. 69), though it may be noted that to agree with Calvin against Hooker is not necessarily to swerve from a basically Thomistic viewpoint. For example, the distinction between natural and supernatural values seen in the contrast between Cleopolis and the New Jerusalem is less close to Hooker's version of that distinction than to that of either Calvin or Aquinas, both of whom explicitly distinguish natural values as those pertaining solely to human society on earth from supernatural as those proportioned to divine society in heaven (see chapter 2, above, and the citations in n. 14). Yet Spenser's emphasis on the indispensability of natural values even for those guided by the values of heaven is much closer to either Aquinas or Hooker than to Calvin.

  47. How much Hebrew Spenser remembered from the Merchant Taylors' School is unclear, but the Geneva Bible's “Brief Table of the Interpretation of the Propre Names … in the Olde Testament” makes plain that “Hanna” (listed s.v. “Anah”) means “gratious or merciful.” Since “Tannakin” was a nickname for “Ann” (see the OED), Gloriana's other name of Tanaquill may also suggest this secular grace; or tana- might be associated with Titan as a name for the sun (see C. Bowie Millican, “Spenser's and Drant's Poetic Names for Elizabeth: Tanaquil, Gloria, and Una,” HLQ, 2 [1939]: 255), or with Hebrew tanna “teaching.” Since the meaning of English quill “feather” was regularly extended to “wing” in one direction and “pen” in the other, the possible significances for Tanaquill become numerous: to name only two, it may point to the natural light as a gracious sun with wings (mirroring the divine sun of Mal. 4:2), or as the pen that inscribes the teaching of the law on our hearts (Rom. 2:15).

  48. Harvey, despite initial misgivings, certainly seems to have come around to this view. The Commendatory Verses by H. B. (Spenser's Poetical Works, p. 409) show that their author had at least an inkling of Gloriana's sapiential significance, since the reference to “that most princely doome, / In whose sweete brest are all the Muses bredde,” recalls The Teares of the Muses, where those goddesses “in the bosome of all blis did sit” (308) as “the brood of blessed Sapience” (72), the latter phrase apparently being equivalent to “The golden brood of great Apolloes wit” (2). The link between this “Sapience” and Apollo is noteworthy in view of Harvey's complaint in 1579 that The Faerie Queene as it existed then was “Hobgoblin runne away with the Garland from Apollo” (Spenser's Poetical Works, p. 628). In his 1590 Commendatory Verses to the poem (p. 409), however, he not only picks up on the relation between Gloriana/“Sapience” and the Muses, but shows himself both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the significance of her world-illumining “imperiall powre” as we have explored it in chapter 4:

    And fare befall that Faerie Queene of thine[:]
    Subiect thy dome to her Empyring spright,
    From whence thy Muse, and all the world takes light.

    Since all identifications of the seemingly well-informed H. B. remain conjectural, a further conjecture may as well be added: that H. B. is either simply a misprint or a compositor's misreading of L. B., Lodowick Bryskett, H and L being quite similar in the secretary hand.

    Note: Despite the coincidence of our titles, Francesco Perez's La Beatrice Svelata (Palermo, 1865) came to my attention too late to affect this essay. For him, it is Dante's heroine who recalls, partly by way of apocryphal Wisdom, that “eternal empress” the agent intellect; but he means the external, unitary agent intellect of the Arab Aristotelians.

Andrew Hadfield (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Hadfield, Andrew. “Another Look at Serena and Irena.” Irish University Review 26, no. 2 (autumn-winter 1996): 291-302.

[In the following essay, Hadfield explores the characterizations of Irena and Serena in The Faerie Queene in relation to Queen Elizabeth I and to Spenser's general attitude toward women.]

There has been much recent criticism of The Faerie Queene which has concentrated on Spenser's representation of gender. Sheila Cavanagh's attack on Spenser's misogyny and his masculinisation of concepts of virtue has been countered by Pamela Joseph Benson and Lauren Silberman, who have argued that Spenser was, in fact, a proto-feminist, keen to challenge the hierarchical assumptions underpinning gender roles.1 Interestingly enough, the arguments of all three critics include most of the obviously eroticised women in the poem—Britomart, Amoret, Belphoebe, Florimell, Radigund. With the exception of Benson, they are more concerned with an understanding of sexual politics as a politicisation of sexual relations rather than the sexualisation of wider or more formal political relations. One should have no particular problem with this emphasis, as such an enterprise is long overdue; however, it is noticeable that in their readings of the poem, Benson, Silberman and Cavanagh pay little attention to the figures of Irena and Serena, or the very deliberate portrayal of Mutabilitie as a female figure in the remaining fragment of Book VII.2 I would contend that such representations of women within the text significantly qualify the conclusions that the narrative might have appeared to have reached and endorsed. The poem is a self-consciously endless work, as Jonathan Goldberg argued.3 The allegory is never actually able to arrest the “skid” of meaning sideways and remain fixed at a final point.4 In fact, if the poem can be characterised as a battle between Orpheus and Proteus over the struggle to name and so bring the allegory to its conclusion, it needs to be taken into account that the transgressive figure of Proteus is tamed when he presides over the imperialistic marriage of the Thames and the Medway at the end of Book IV.5 His place as opponent of order is taken first by the ungendered Blatant Beast, the creature of the two hags, Envy and Detraction, and, in the posthumously published Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, by Mutabilitie herself.

The poem can be read as an ever-more desperate attempt to impose an order on material which is always threatening to escape from the allegorist's grasp (although I think this problem is acknowledged from the start of the poem). Significantly, the representation of disorder acquires progressively strong associations with the feminine, culminating in the figure of Mutabilitie. This is a clear irony in a poem ostensibly concerned with the praise of a Queen.6 Much has been made of the multivalent portrayal of the Queen within the text, particularly in the light of Spenser's comment in the letter to Raleigh appended to the first edition of the poem that the figure of the Faerie Queene represented both a general idea of glory and Elizabeth herself. This letter also claims that within the poem Elizabeth was depicted as two bodies or figures, the one “a most royall Queene or Empresse, the other of a most vertuous and beautuful Lady”, Gloriana and Belphoebe, respectively.7 Pushed further, it can be contended that all the women in the poem are types of Elizabeth.8 To give two relevant examples, Book III opens with a confrontation between Britomart and Malecasta, the abuser of chastity who is labelled as “incontinent” by the narrator. Britomart has traditionally been read as a type of Elizabeth, who is urged to marry and preserve the bloodline of the dynasty. However, she can also be read as an antitype who performs the legitimate actions which Elizabeth neglects. There is therefore a suggestive hint that Elizabeth may really be more of a Malecasta.9 Such a reading is strengthened if one also bears in mind that the Red Cross Knight appears “halfe unarmed” (III.i.63) when Malecasta shrieks, evidently having fallen prey to the charms of Castle Joyeous and its “Errant Damzell” (III.i.24), neglecting his betrothed Una, a sign that all is not well in the state of England. Similarly, the conflict between Britomart and Radigund can be read less as a celebration of the Queen's triumph over false female government than as a battle about the forms and effects of female rule. Both of these views are plausible interpretations of Elizabeth's reign.10

In the same way, I want to suggest that Irena and Serena demand to be read as types of Elizabeth. Both are represented as inadequate and dangerous figures, unable to stem the tide of chaos which threatens to engulf the meaning of the poem; in effect, both prefigure the ultimately threatening female menace, Mutabilitie.11

Book V opens with a description of the upbringing of Artegall, the Knight of Justice, by Astrea, the Goddess of Justice. Astrea teaches Artegall to separate right from wrong, using the example of the wild beasts found in the forests as is appropriate for a savage knight.12 However, Astrea eventually finds that it is no longer possible to remain on earth:

Now when the world with sinne gan to abound,
Astrea loathing lenger here to space
Mongst wicked men, in whom no truth she found,
Return'd to heuen, whence she deriu'd her race;
Where she hath now an euerlasting place


Thereafter, Astrea is significantly absent from the narrative of the book, unable to tolerate the devious and messy world where sorting the good from the bad is a fiendishly difficult task. The goddess deems herself too pure to perform the actions which will serve to implement justice; instead, she delegates responsibility to a male deputy.

Elizabeth's representation as Astrea is too well established to merit further comment here.13 It is important to note that Astrea is shown to be unable to sort out any problems herself, and, in fact, seeks to avoid them. Such criticism demands that the reader return to the Proem to the book and re-read the seeming praise to Elizabeth as “Dread Souerayne Goddesse, that doest sit / In seat of iudgement, in th'Almighties stead” (V.Proem.11). These lines appear to portray Elizabeth as a deity, but, equally, they could be taken to represent her as an absent usurper of the true principles of justice. They demand that she and her advisers take heed of the unpleasant lessons Spenser is about to teach them in his poem. The Proem warns that the present time is not the golden age of Saturn when “all the world with goodness did abound: / All loved vertue, no man was affrayed / Of force, ne fraud in wight was to be found” (V.Proem.9), but the stony age where “simple Truth” (V.Proem.3) no longer reigns, but “that which all men then did vertue call, / Is now cald vice; and that which vice was hight, / Is now hight vertue” (V.Proem.4). In such a world, justice can only be maintained by the use of force and fraud, a dangerous policy which will always run the risk of transforming what it seeks to implement into what is supposedly opposed. Orpheus may turn into Proteus, or even Mutabilitie.14 Spenser's narrator equates the age of gold with the age of Saturn; ironically, Astrea gives Artegall the sword of Jove, Chrysaor (V.i.9), which he used to suppress the revolt of the Titans. She is seemingly unaware that Jove overthrew his father in classical legend, thus marking one of the crucial stages which caused the degeneration of the world. Astrea, it would seem, wants to live with the Gods, having little time for the world of men, yet she gives her Knight of Justice a weapon which symbolises the very process she wishes to pretend never happened.15

This legend assumes an even more important role within the unfolding allegory of the narrative in the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, as does the symbolic action of the goddess/queen leaving the world for her male subjects to sort out. The specific quest which Artegall has to complete is the standard romance narrative motif of the knight having to rescue a damsel in distress. The tyrant, Grantorto, has laid a false claim to the land which should rightfully belong to Irena. She appeals to the Faerie Queene, “that mightie Emperesse, / Whose glorie is to aide all suppliants pore, / And of weake Princes to be Patronesse” (V.i.4). Irena promptly disappears from the narrative and only reappears in the last canto, in which Artegall duly defeats Grantorto, and restores Irena to her rightful rule. Her grateful subjects grant her an enthusiastic welcome on her return to sovereignty when Artegall finally kills Grantorto:

Which when the people round about him saw,
They shouted all for joy of his successe,
Glad to be quit from that proud Tyrants awe,
Which with strong powre did them long time oppress;
And runninge all with greedie ioyfulnesse
To faire Irena, at her feet did fall,
And her adored with due humblenesse,
As their true Leige and Princesse naturall;
And eke her champions glorie sounded ouer all


With the kingdom restored to peace, Artegall and Talus set about reforming “the ragged commonweale”; the former studies “true Iustice how to deale”, the latter, is sent out to root out any opposition, “that usd to rob and steale, / Or did rebell gainst lawfull gouernment” (V.xii.26). However, before the land can be properly reformed, the Faerie Queene recalls Artegall to her court leaving Irena in a perilous position, and her land without a secure system of justice.16

The allegory is a veiled apologia for Lord Grey de Wilton's Deputyship in Ireland (1580-82), as has long been recognised.17 What is of interest for my purposes here is that the episode provides a clear defence of male action against female weaknesses, and, worse still, capricious vacillation. The Faerie Queene promises to save Irena from the tyranny which threatens her rule, but actually undermines that stability herself by her premature recall of the means of implementing justice. The move clearly mirrors Astrea's rather squeamish attitude to justice. The reason for the historical recall of Grey was the complaints generated by what was perceived to be his excessive use of violence, a point noted in a View.18 The women are seen to arrange matters, but it is the men who actually try to resolve them, only to be prevented by the further interventions of the women.

Who, after all, is Irena? Her name would seem to refer both to the classical name for Ireland, Erin, and to derive from the Greek for “peace”.19 Graham Hough once remarked, rather impatiently, “and heavens knows what Ireland his Irena signifies, for it seems to exclude the entire population of the land”.20 Such a reading takes the book at face value and would appear to miss any of its ironic complexities; the actual verses reveal a more paradoxical situation than the mere propaganda which Hough's reading detects. On the one hand, those living in Ireland are seen to flock to Irena, delighted to be free from Grantorto's tyranny; on the other, Irena's land, Ireland, badly needs the services of Artegall and Talus to root out all subversive elements. When Artegall finally leaves, the narrator comments, “So hauing freed Irena from distresse, / He tooke his leaue of her, there left in heauinesse” (V.xii.27). It would seem odd if the author were not at least partly conscious of this problematic inconsistency, especially given the careful echoing of words and phrases throughout the narrative of the poem which continually force the reader to revise his or her judgements (e.g. the use of the word “sa(l)vage”).21 Those who flocked to Irena, glad of her restoration, are most likely to be the colonial class of the New English, to which Spenser belonged. These colonists and administrators generally felt undervalued by the crown for their efforts in governing Ireland and extending the English legal apparatus there. In the later years of Elizabeth's reign, they constantly demanded greater military intervention on her part so that a stable basis for such efforts could be established.22 This is precisely the case made in Spenser's own political writings on Ireland.23 The New English are the subjects who saluted the vigorous suppression of the native Irish—and the displacement of the Old English—and who clearly feel most bereft, abandoned and insecure when the policy of a military reconquest was not fully carried through. It is no coincidence that Lord Grey seems to have been as popular among the New English in Ireland as he was unpopular at the English court.24

Irena is, in effect, a cipher, an empty figure who stands for a blank Ireland which needs to be represented and defined by the New English colonists. Book V depicts her at present as the Irish representative of the Faerie Queene, resembling the rather pathetic damsel-in-distress of Victorian cartoons who needs the martial maid, Britannia, to defend her from the Fenian menace.25 If the requisite policies were to be carried out, then she would cease to be this parasitic ghost, a pale shadow who has nothing to do with the complex reality of Ireland, something Spenser was keen to describe at length elsewhere; she would have to represent the people who flock to her, not simply the monarch she shadows, and in so doing, would be transformed herself, fleshed out, and made into a substantial figure of government. Irena may be depicted as the “true Liege and Princesse naturall” of Ireland, but the word “naturall” is ambiguous, given the ironies developed in the Proem and first canto of the Book. Irena can only have a right to Ireland if she recognises that it is more than likely that the only laws the universe obeys are those of conquest. This is in itself a fearful admission of arbitrariness, but without conquest, Ireland can only be represented by a pale slip of a girl.

In withdrawing Artegall and Talus from Ireland, the Faerie Queene is abandoning the land to the feminine forces of chaos and disorder. In the process, Ireland disappears from view as the object of Artegall's quest. In its place, the Blatant Beast appears, ready to become the object of the quest of the Calidore, the Knight of Courtsey, in the last completed book of the poem.26

The case of Serena is, I would argue, an even more aggressive and brutal attack on Elizabeth's rule. Serena plays a role in the narrative of Book VI which is only slightly more elaborate than that of Irena in Book V. She and her lover, Calepine, are surprised by Calidore, and, whilst the two men talk, she wanders off, only to be seized by the Blatant Beast. Calidore rescues her, but Calepine, believing she needs further care, carries her off but is forced to confront the aggressive Turpine. They are rescued by the salvage man who heals Calepine, but Serena, still suffering from her wounds, sets off with the salvage man to find a cure. She encounters Arthur who takes her and his squire, Timias, also wounded by the Blatant Beast, to a hermit, who finally succeeds in healing her. She and Timias venture out together—we are not told where they are heading—and run into Mirabella who is being punished by Scorn and Disdain. When Timias is attacked by Disdain, Serena flees again, only to suffer her greatest indignity, when she is captured by the salvage nation who strip her and prepare her for ritual sacrifice. Calepine rescues her, but she is so ashamed of her experiences that she is unable to describe them until the next day, at which point she disappears from the narrative despite the narrator's promise that he will conclude the story later: “The end whereof Ile keepe untill another cast” (VI.viii.51).27

Serena's experiences have excited considerable comment from critics, particularly regarding her role within the pastoral plot, the discussion of courtesy in Book VI, the images of savagery developed within the poem, and Spenser's representation of religion.28 Critical analysis has centred too on her treatment at the hands of the cannibalistic salvage nation and it is this aspect of her fate which I wish also to concentrate upon in this essay. It should be noted first that Serena is one of the only characters in the poem who encounters two forms of savagery, the “good nature” of the vegetarian salvage man who lives on the fruits of the forest, followed by the “bad nature” of the salvage nation, who are cannibals.29 In the opening canto of Book VI, Calidore meets up with Artegall, who tells him that he has seen the object of his quest, the Blatant Beast, when returning from “the saluage Island” (VI.i.9). This indicates that the sequence of representations of savages throughout the poem is related to representations of Ireland and the Irish, especially given the corroborating evidence of A View of the Present State of Ireland, which opens with Eudoxus asking Irenius how to start “reducinge that salvage nacion to better gouernment and Cyvilitye” [my emphasis].30 Serena, significantly enough, cannot be cured by the good salvage man and is almost destroyed by the bad salvage nation.

The salvage nation are represented as a pointed contrast to the salvage man. Neither work by tending the earth and cultivating crops, a sign of their incivility; but whereas the former “Ne fed on flesh, ne euer of wyld beast / Did taste the bloud, obaying natures first beheast” (VI.iv.14), the latter, “did liue / Of stealth and spoile, and making nightly rode / Into their neighbours borders” (VI.viii.35), behaviour which links them to Spenser's representation of the Irish elsewhere in his poetry and prose.31 They appear to have been carefully separated from civilised humanity by their practice of cannibalism:

Thereto they usde one most accursed order,
To eate the flesh of men, whom they mote fynde,
And straungers to devoure, which on their border
Were brought by errour, or by wreckfull wynde.
A monstrous cruelty gainst course of kynde.
They towards euening wandring euery way,
To seeke for booty, came by fortune blynde


This description resembles accounts of cannibal practices recently (re)discovered by travellers to the New World.32 What happens is an inversion of human nature, a jettisoning of reason so that the dictates of the body rule the head and all order is cast aside. This is reflected in the random attacks on those unlucky enough to stray over the unseen borders. It was a motif of accounts of cannibals, from Herodotus to Columbus and beyond, that they always lived just over the next hill.33 The wandering Serena, a woman who clearly does not know where she is going—perhaps like Elizabeth when confronted by Ireland in Spenser's eyes—meets her nemesis in the savage people who inhabit “wylde deserts” (VI.viii.35) and invert all accepted forms of stability in their behaviour.

In marked contrast to their savagery is the elaborate ritual prior to the sacrifice of Serena, who is left naked before an altar ready for the priest's knife. The salvage nation listen to the latter's charms and “diuelish ceremonies” (VI.viii.45), before sounding their bagpipes and horns and shouting so loudly that they make “the wood to tremble at the noyce” (VI.viii.46). This parody of Orphic music creating a harmony with nature links their behaviour and its effects to that of the Blatant Beast.34 The priest is just about to plunge the knife into her breast and “let out loued life” (VI.viii.48), when Calepine stumbles upon the scene, “by chaunce, more than by choice” (VI.viii.46), and is able to save her.

The preparations for slaughter are described in great detail, as are the reactions of the cannibals to the sight of the naked Serena, creating a voyeuristic spectacle which has disturbed numerous readers because of its pornographic lingering over the helpless female body and its explicit interconnection of sex and male violence.35 The problem is that the language used to describe Serena's body uncomfortably resembles that of much Elizabethan lyric poetry, culminating in the blazon:

Her yvorie necke, her alablatser brest,
Her paps, which like white silken pillowes were,
For loue in soft delight thereon to rest;
Her tender sides, her bellie white and clere,
Which like an Altar did it selfe uprere,
To offer sacrifice diuine thereon;
Her goodly thighes, whose glorie did appeare
Like a triumphal Arch, and thereupon
The spoiles of Princes hang'd, which were in battel won


Although the previous stanza has condemned the “sordid eyes” and “lustfull fantasyes” (VI.viii.41) of the salvage nation, the reader is drawn into the pornographic gaze because the language used clearly comes from a “civilised” quarter, not a savage one (we never hear the salvage nation actually speak—although they do shout a lot—and it should be remembered that the salvage man has no language or speech other than “senselesse words” (VI.iv.11)). As John Pitcher has pointed out, what should serve to separate cannibals and Elizabethan (male) readers, actually draws them closer together.36

What is the point of this episode? I would suggest that on one level, Serena stands as—yet another—representation of Elizabeth and as a counterpart to Irena. Both are connected by their links to the salvage nation, a verbal echo which would appear too strong to ignore. Whilst Irena is unable either to represent adequately or command the salvage nation over which she has nominal control, Serena is stripped naked and left heplessly terrified by the salvage nation who abduct her. Only the chance intervention of a knight saves her, surely a comment on the perilous nature of her power in Ireland after her failure to support Grey's violent initiatives, as well as a reflection on her own aimless wanderings. Neither woman is represented as anything other than an empty, passive vessel, subject to the control of the active males who surround her and dictate what she must be or do. In effect, because she has refused to seize the initiative—in contrast to Britomart—Elizabeth's encounter with Ireland has reduced her to a pathetic creature. This problem is registered in the increasingly hostile representations of her throughout the second edition of the poem, culminating in her exclusion from the dance of the Graces (VI.x.28).37

What, though, of the voyeurism of the description of the naked Serena? One context within which it might be read is the Diana-Faunus episode in the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie. This fable within a fable tells the story of Faunus who desired to see Diana naked in Ireland where she used to come and bathe with her nymphs. Faunus could not contain himself at the sight of the bare lady, and burst out laughing. As a result, he was chased off by Diana's hounds, the goddess abandoned Ireland and left it under a curse, so transforming it from the most flourishing of the British Isles into the dangerous and inhospitable land which the New English bemoaned in the 1590s (

This myth would seem to suggest—more obviously than the case of Serena among the cannibals—that, in Ireland, Elizabeth is exposed because her masks of power do not serve to protect her there.39 Embarrassed and angry at the exposure of her naked body, she flees Ireland, abandoning it and its inhabitants to the forces of chaos:

Them all, and all that she so deare did way,
Thence-forth she left; and parting from the place,
There-on an heauy haplesse curse did lay,
To weet, that Wolues, where she was wont to space,
Should harbour'd be, and all those Woods deface,
And Thieues should rob and spoile that Coast around.
Since which, those Woods, and all that goodly Chase,
Doth to this day with Wolues and Thieues abound:
Which too-too true that lands in-dwellers since haue found


There can be no doubt that Diana stands for Elizabeth, given the letter to Raleigh, and the notorious verse in the cantos which mocks the Queen (as Cynthia) for her fickleness and her failure to face the ravages of time and accept that she is mortal:

Euen you faire Cynthia, whom so much ye make
Ioues dearest darling …
Then is she mortall borne, how-so ye crake;
Besides, her face and countenance euery day
We changed see, and sundry forms partake,
Now hornd, now round, now bright, now brown and gray:
So that as changefull as the Moone Men use to say


Such a memento mori also serves as a condemnation of Elizabeth's vacillating court politics and failure to establish a secure succession for her subjects.41

The resemblance between the treatment of Serena by the salvage nation and Diana in Ireland—the salvage island—is hard to deny. I would suggest that Spenser carefully and deliberately draws readers into the voyeuristic scene of scopic desire for Serena's body because they will have to confront the reality of her nakedness and its malign effects, especially if they are New English colonists in Ireland.42 The stripping of Serena—an exposé which looks back to the stripping of Duessa (I.viii.46-50)—is an explicit attack on female rule. This comic image suggests that when confronted by a lawless territory like Ireland, only masculine government which recognises the one fundamental reality, the law of conquest, and does not fall back on notions of natural rights—associated with the anaemic and ineffective figure of Irena in The Faerie Queene—can function. Serena is exposed to a male gaze; the description of her in terms of the Petrarchan poetry fashionable at court and fostered by Elizabeth, turns that poetry against the Queen in the name of her English colonial subjects in Ireland who were caught between the incompetence of their central government and the savagery of the Irish.43 The great fear of the English was that they would “degenerate” and become Irish as many of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman or Old English settlers had done; drawing the reader into the savages' hostile gaze at the vulnerable woman/queen, is a brilliant means of making this point.44 Without proper masculine government the chaos of savagism will transform civilisation rather than vice versa.

Serena's reaction to her ordeal is one of “inward shame of her uncomely case” (VI.vii.51); Diana's reaction, like Astrea's, is to flee in anger because the world is not pure enough for her. All three episodes, in effect, lay the blame on the woman ruler, whether she recognises the problem or not. Cynthia in the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie is a figure nurtured by Jove; nevertheless, she is prey to the ravages of Mutabilitie. Jove wins the formal debate with the Titanesse on Arlo Hill and one recalls that Astrea gave the sword that he used against the Titans to Artegall. But one is also continually reminded that it is only such weapons and the ability to use them which separate the harsh civilisation which the usurper Jove won from the enveloping chaos of Mutabilitie—a lesson which female rulers would do well to learn, especially those wishing to govern Ireland.


  1. Sheila T. Cavanagh, Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in The Faerie Queene (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Pamela Joseph Benson, The Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1993); Lauren Silberman, Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene (Berkeley: California University Press, 1995).

  2. I am being unfair to Silberman whose book is, after all, a study of III and IV. Nevertheless, restricting Spenser's discussion of sexuality to those passages tells only half the story.

  3. Jonathan Goldberg, Endlesse Worke: Spenser and the Structures of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981). See also Elizabeth J. Bellamy, “The Vocative and the Vocational: The Unreadability of Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene”, English Literary History, 54 (1987), pp. 1-30.

  4. Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, translated by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), pp. 92-3.

  5. A. Bartlett Giamatti, Play of Double Senses: Spenser's Faerie Queene (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), chapters 2-3.

  6. Giamatti, Play of Double Senses, pp. 124-30. See also, James W. Broaddus, Spenser's Allegory of Love: Social Vision in Books III, IV, and V of The Faerie Queene (London: Associated Universities Presses, 1995), pp. 57-8.

  7. See Louis A. Montrose, “The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text”, in Patricia Parker and David Quint (editors), Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 303-40; David Lee Miller, The Poem's Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

  8. See Elizabeth J. Bellamy, “The Vocative and the Vocational”, pp. 1-30.

  9. See Judith H. Anderson, “Britomart” and Mark Rose, “Castle Joyeous”, in A.C. Hamilton (editor), The Spenser Encyclopedia (London and Toronto: Routledge, 1990), pp. 113-15, 136-37. See also Kathleen Williams, Spenser's Faerie Queene: The World of Glass (London: Routledge, 1966), chapter 3.

  10. See Carol Schreifer Ruppecht, “Radigund”, Spenser Encyclopedia, pp. 580-81; Benson, Invention of Renaissance Woman, pp. 293-303; Jane Aptekar, Icons of Justice: Iconography and Thematic Imagery in Book V of The Faerie Queene (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), chapter 11. On the general background, see Constance Jordan, “Female Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Political Thought”, Renaissance Quarterly, 40 (1987), pp. 421-51.

  11. See John Guillory, “The Ground of Authority: The Mutabilitie Cantos”, in Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), pp. 46-67; William Blissett, “Spenser's Mutabilitie”, in Millar MacLure and D.W. Watt (editors), Essays in English Literature from the Renaissance to the Victorian Age (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1964), pp. 26-42.

  12. Judith H. Anderson, “Artegall”, Spenser Encyclopedia, pp. 62-4, at p. 63; Andrew Hadfield, “The ‘Sacred Hunger of Ambitious Minds’: Spenser's Savage Religion”, in Donna B. Hamilton and Richard Strier (editors), Religion, Literature and Politics in Post-Reformation England, 1540-1688 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 27-46, at p. 39.

  13. See Frances A. Yates, Astrea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1975); Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pagentry (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), pp. 47-55; Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977), pp. 76-7; Philippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 39-41 et passim; Helen Hackett, Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 31-2, 109.

  14. Aptekar, Icons of Justice, chapter 7.

  15. Williams, Spenser's Faerie Queene, pp. 155-57.

  16. See Sheila T. Cavanagh, “‘Such Was Irena's Countenance’: Ireland in Spenser's Prose and Poetry”, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 28 (1968), pp. 24-50. See especially pp. 39-40, 45-6.

  17. See, for example, H.S.V. Jones, “Spenser's Defence of Lord Grey”, University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, 5 (1919), pp. 151-219; Richard A. McCabe, “The Fate of Irena: Spenser and Political Violence”, in Patricia Coughlan (editor), Spenser and Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Cork: Cork University Press, 1989), pp. 109-25.

  18. McCabe, “The Fate of Irena”, p. 122; Steven G. Ellis, Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community and the Conflict of Cultures, 1470-1603 (London: Longman, 1985), p. 284.

  19. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, edited by A.C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977), p. 530.

  20. Graham Hough, A Preface to The Faerie Queen (London: Duckworth, 1962), p. 192.

  21. Hadfield, “Spenser's Savage Religion”. More generally see Paul J. Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).

  22. On the New English, see T.W. Moody, “Introduction: Early Modern Ireland”, in T.W. Moody et al. (editors), A New History of Ireland, III, Early Modern Ireland, 1534-1691 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. xxxix-lxiii, at pp. xlvii-xlviii. On demands for greater intervention, see Ciaran Brady, The Chief Governors: The Rise and Fall of Reform Government in Tudor Ireland, 1536-1588 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 291-300.

  23. Ciaran Brady, “The Road to the View: On the decline of Reform Thought in Tudor Ireland”, in Coughlan (editor), Spenser and Ireland, pp. 25-45; “A Brief Note of Ireland”, Spenser Encyclopedia, pp. 111-12.

  24. See Andrew Hadfield, Spenser's Irish Experience: Wilde Fruit and Salvage Soyl (Oxford: Clarendon Press, forthcoming, 1997), chapter 1.

  25. Liz Curtis, Nothing But the Same Old Story: The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism (London: Information on Ireland, 1984), p. 56.

  26. See Andrew Hadfield, “The Course of Justice: Spenser, Ireland and Political Discourse”, Studia Neophilologica, 65 (1993), pp. 187-96, pp. 193-94. It should also be noted that the mother of the Blatant Beast, Echidna, is described at much greater length than the father, Typhaon (

  27. A recurring narrative device in Book VI: compare the promise to tell the reader of the Salvage Man's genealogy (VI.v.2).

  28. Roy Harvey Pierce, “Primitivistic Ideas in The Faerie Queene”, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 44 (1945), pp. 139-51, at p. 150; Donald Cheney, Spenser's Image of Nature: Wild Man and Shepherd in The Faerie Queene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), pp. 104-16, 192-214; Waldo F. McNeir, “The Sacrifice of Serena: The Faerie Queene, VI, viii, 31-51”, in B. Fabian and U. Suerbaum (editors), Festschrift Für Edgar Mertner (Munich: W.F.V. München, 1968), pp. 117-56; Humphrey Tonkin, Spenser's Courteous Pastoral: Book VI of The Faerie Queene (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), passim; Kenneth Borris, “‘Diuelish Ceremonies’: Allegorical Satire of Protestant Extremism in The Faerie Queene, VI, viii.31-51”, Spenser Studies, 8 (1987), pp. 175-209; Anne Fogarty, “The Colonisation of Language: Narrative Strategies in A View of the Present State of Ireland and The Faerie Queene, Book VI”, in Coughlan (editor), Spenser and Ireland, pp. 75-108, at pp. 100-01; Leigh DeNeef, “Serena”, Spenser Encyclopedia, p. 637.

  29. See Harvey Pierce, “Primitivistic Ideas in The Faerie Queene”, pp. 147-48; Cheney, Spenser's Image of Nature, pp. 195-214; John D. Bernard, “Salvage Man”, Spenser Encyclopedia, pp. 624-25. On “good” and “bad” nature see Bernard W. Sheehan, Savagism and Civility: Indians and Englishmen in Colonial Virginia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), chapters 2-3.

  30. Edmund Spenser, A Viewe of the Present State of Irelande, in Rudolf Gottfried (editor), The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, Vol. X: The Prose Works (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1949), pp. 39-232, at p. 43.

  31. See View, pp. 97-9; Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), lines 316-20.

  32. See, for example, Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Carribean, 1492-1797 (London: Methuen, 1986), chapters 1-2.

  33. Hulme, Colonial Encounters, pp. 80-1.

  34. Compare, V.xii.41.

  35. Useful comment is provided by Fogarty, “Colonisation of Language”, pp. 100-01.

  36. John Pitcher, “Tudor Literature, 1485-1603”, in Pat Rogers (editor), The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 59-111, at pp. 89-90.

  37. Pastorella, the woman who links the last stages of Book VI, is also kidnapped by brigands who could resemble the Irish and she retires to a monastery (VI.xii.23), leaving Calidore to fight the Blatant Beast. See Richard T. Neuse, “Pastorella”, Spenser Encyclopedia, pp. 532-34.

  38. For further comment, see Andrew Hadfield, “Spenser, Ireland, and Sixteenth-Century Political Theory”, Modern Language Review, 89 (1994), pp. 1-18, at pp. 13-18. On the classical precedents of the story, see Michael Holahan, “Iamque opus exegi: Ovid's Changes and Spenser's Brief Epic of Mutability”, English Literary Renaissance, 6 (1976), pp. 244-70.

  39. Helena Shire, A Preface to Spenser (London: Longman, 1978), p. 64.

  40. See David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge, 1984), pp. 152-54; Berry, Of Chastity and Power, pp. 163-65.

  41. See Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 200.

  42. On the motif of scenes of “scopic desire”, see Fogarty, “Colonisation of Language”, p. 99.

  43. See Arthur F. Marotti, “‘Love is Not Love’: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order”, English Literary History, 49 (1982), pp. 396-428.

  44. On the Old English, see Moody, “Introduction: Early Modern Ireland”, pp. xlii-xlvii.

Donald Stump (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Stump, Donald. “A Slow Return to Eden: Spenser on Women's Rule.” English Literary Renaissance 29, no. 3 (autumn 1999): 401-21.

[In the following essay, Stump focuses on Spenser's perception of Queen Elizabeth I as a female monarch of the English Reformation in Books III and V of The Faerie Queene.]

A number of recent studies of gender roles in The Faerie Queene have concentrated on what has been perceived as the narrator's shifting (and perhaps shifty) appraisal of women's ability to rule.1 In Book III, the narrator suggests that women are at least as capable as men in “warlike armes,” the “artes,” and “pollicy”—which are, of course, the principal areas in which a Renaissance prince was expected to excel (ii.2).2 In Book V, however, the narrator seems to retreat from the conclusion implicit in his earlier claims, saying of women that “wise Nature did them strongly bynd, / T'obay the heasts of mans well ruling hand” (v.25).

Although the apparent shift in the poet's attitude has been the subject of a good deal of critical debate, little has been resolved. Some scholars (best represented by Susanne Woods) see an outright contradiction between the two books, although perhaps one that is part of an intentional dialectic with the reader.3 Others argue that, by and large, Spenser takes a consistent stand on the issue, although there has been considerable disagreement about the nature of his position. On the one hand, Josephine Roberts4 stresses details that make the poet's views seem closest to those of relatively liberal Anglicans, whose principal spokesman, Bishop John Aylmer, argues that nothing in divine or natural law denies women the right to rule and that they have done so ably “in al ages, in many countreis, and vnder euery monarck[y].”5 J. E. Phillips and Pamela Benson,6 on the other hand, ally the poet with the conservative reformer John Calvin, who regards women's rule as a deviation from the proper order of nature, although one that God occasionally brings about “to condemn the inactivity of men, or for the better setting forth his own glory.”7

To dispel the impression of inconsistency between Books III and V, such scholars have had to interpret one or the other of the stanzas in question in special ways. Roberts, for example, dismisses the passage opposing women's rule in Book V as nothing more than “the narrator's immediate, impassioned reaction to the humiliation of Artegall.”8 By contrast, those who accept a Calvinist reading regard the stanza in Book V as the clearest statement of the poet's position, and treat the praises of women's abilities in Book III as limited to the great women of antiquity and a scattering of more recent queens, such as Matilda and Elizabeth.9 According to this interpretation, Spenser may well have admired certain female rulers, but he was still committed to the general proposition that “wise Nature” binds women to obedience “Vnlesse the heauens them lift to lawfull soueraintie” (v.25).

Although I admire the scholarship that has been brought forth in support of the Anglican and Calvinist positions, I have never been quite comfortable with either one, since I suspect that their proponents too hastily dismiss, or too narrowly circumscribe, one or the other of the statements about women that other scholars find troubling. I would like to propose a different way to reconcile Books III and V, one that seems to me truer to the language of the passages in question. Before I do, however, I must again raise the difficult issue of Spenser's religious position, for it seems to me that we cannot make much progress until we recognize that the relevant passages in The Faerie Queene do not accord very well either with the views of the liberal Anglicans or with those of the moderate Calvinists.

The contrasts stand out most clearly when we consider not just general statements about the nature of women, their capacities, and their proper role in the public sphere, but also the authors' interpretations of key biblical texts on those issues. In the sixteenth-century controversy over women's rule, the Bible was central to the debate. In responding to it, both sides had to contend with a number of texts that were not easy to harmonize: the opening chapters of Genesis, which depict the relationship between the genders before and after the Fall; the Old Testament accounts of female judges, prophets, and queens; the verses in the Epistles of St. Paul that set forth women's proper role in church polity; and the New Testament passages on the equality of the sexes after Christ's Second Coming. As historians of Reformation theology such as John Lee Thompson and Jane Dempsey Douglass have recently shown, the book of Genesis and the Pauline Epistles were sites of particularly contentious debate.10 Since these texts figure prominently in my analysis of Spenser's position, I begin with them. I then contrast the stands of Aylmer and Calvin on the issues raised by the biblical passages with the much more complex views implicit in The Faerie Queene. Finally, I analyze a series of idealized female rulers in Book V, arguing that they best illustrate the differences between Spenser's position and those held by most Anglican and Protestant churchmen in his day.


The book of Genesis offers a good deal of support for the view that the rule of men over women—whether in the home or in society at large—was not part of the original order of creation. For one thing, God commands both sexes to “subdue” the earth and to “rule ouer” it (1.26, 28, Geneva version).11 For another, he creates male and female in his own “image” and according to his own “lickenes” (1.26), and since one of God's primary capacities is governing, the fact that women share the divine image suggests that they also share the ability to rule. Finally, the rule of husbands over wives does not begin until after the Fall. When God punishes Eve for eating the forbidden fruit, saying, “thy desire shal be subiect to thine housband, and he shal rule ouer thee” (3.16), the statement implies that Adam has previously held no such sway. Woman's subjection is a consequence of the Fall and is therefore to be regarded, not as a good in its own right, but as the withdrawal of a good. Prior to the Fall, neither gender had dominion over the other because both were expected to subject their desires and their will entirely to God.

To be sure, differences in the treatment of the genders are implicit from the outset. In the interval before the Fall, God spends more time with Adam than with Eve, allowing him to witness the creation of the garden of Eden and its inhabitants and to name the animals and birds (2.7-8, 15-20). God also designates Eve as a “help” to Adam and gives to him alone the command about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, apparently expecting him to communicate it to his spouse (cf. 2.16-17 and 3.2-3). Clearly, however, such priority in knowledge and experience is not sufficient to establish the “rule” or “dominion” of Adam over Eve, for that begins only after the Fall.

Evidence of the initial parity of the genders may be found in the letters of St. Paul. According to the Epistle to the Colossians, the divine “image” in human beings, which has been defaced by Original Sin, will be renewed “When Christ which is our life, shal appeare” (3.4). Once restored to their first perfection, people will no longer be divided or bound in subjection to one another. Paul writes, “Lie not one to another, seing that ye haue put of[f] the olde man with his workes, And haue put on the newe, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him, Where is nether Grecian nor Iewe, circumcision nor vncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bonde, fre: but Christ is all and in all things” (9-11, my italics). In a similar passage in Galatians the Apostle applies this process of unification and equalization to the genders as well. There he writes, “all ye that are baptized into Christ, haue put on Christ. There is nether Iewe nor Grecian: there is nether bonde nor fre: there is nether male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Iesus” (3.27-28). In Christ, then, the old distinctions between chosen and not-chosen, freemen and slaves, no longer pertain, and neither do those between men and women. Just as the human race was one in the beginning, created in a single divine image and ruled by God alone, so it will be in the end—at least for those who have “put on Christ.”

Now it is important to note two points on which Paul remains silent. First, he does not extend the principle that man should rule over woman from the family to the state. One might argue, of course, that if wives are barred from rule in the home, then Paul can hardly have intended that women should rule in the state. Since the demands of the two settings are different, however, biblical commentators who take that position have generally felt obliged to seek support elsewhere—notably in Paul's discussions of male “headship,” in his strictures against allowing women to speak in church, and in his requirement that they cover their heads in the congregation.12 Since these passages address the role of woman in the church rather than in the state, and since the Old Testament treats women rulers such as Esther and Deborah favorably, the evidence remains inconclusive. Second, although Paul discusses the beginning and the end of the process by which male and female are to become equal, he is silent on the intervening stages. The relevant passage in Galatians states that the return to Eden begins in baptism, when Original Sin is washed away and believers “put on Christ.” As the parallel passage from Colossians suggests, however, baptism is not necessarily sufficient to release wives from subjection. The Greek participial form anakainoumenon, which the Geneva version renders “is renewed,” implies that baptized believers are still in the process of “being renewed.” Paul's stress falls, in fact, on the last stage of the transformation, when Christ will come again “in glory” (3.3-4, 10). Nonetheless, a process of sanctification leading up to this final stage is clearly implied, and to the extent that both genders are being restored to the image of God, they might be expected to share more equally in matters of governance.

Now this line of reasoning is not one followed by most Protestant biblical commentators in Spenser's day. Although most accept the Pauline teaching that distinctions based on gender—including the so-called “curse of Eve”—will pass away at Christ's return, few concede that even the unfallen Eve shared in God's iustitia. To avoid the implication that the rule of men is a consequence of the Fall, they tend to slant their interpretations of Genesis, first by excluding the capacity to govern from the list of attributes inherent in the “image of God”13 and then by contending that Adam's “rule” over Eve is simply the heightening of a natural authority that he enjoyed from the outset.14 Such views are frequently tied to Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 11.7 that “[the man] is the image and glorie of God: but the woman is the glorie of the man.” Although nothing can logically be derived from the Apostle's failure to say here that the woman is also the image of God, most sixteenth-century Protestant commentators take the passage to imply that women are not like God in the same sense that men are.15 Few, therefore, even consider the possibility that, as women are “renewed” in the image of God, they might take on more responsibility in matters of governance. Since God has not exempted believers from “sorrow in childbirth” or from the other punishments imposed in Genesis 3.16-20, commentators generally regard any attempt to lessen women's subjection before the Last Judgment as an evasion of divine justice.16

Nonetheless, interpretations that presuppose an initial ruling parity between the sexes and treat the Second Coming as a return to that prelapsarian state were well known in the sixteenth century. They had, in fact, been widely disseminated from the patristic period on, principally through the influence of St. John Chrysostom.17 Although no supporter of women's rule in the present state of the world, Chrysostom concedes that before the fall the genders were equal in rank and authority. In his Homilies on Genesis he states that, even before creating the first woman, God intended that she share in his governance (archên). In a later passage from the same work, he imagines God reproaching Eve after the Fall: “In the beginning I created you equal in esteem to your husband, and my intention was that in everything you would share with him as an equal, and as I entrusted control of everything to your husband, so did I to you; but you abused your equality of status. Hence I subject you to your husband. … Because you abandoned your equal … I now subject you to him in future and designate him as your master.”18 Only a small step was required to see the ultimate equality promised to women in the Pauline Epistles, then, as a return to this Edenic state. From the fact that Protestant commentators of the sixteenth century so often feel the need to argue against such egalitarian readings, we may infer that they were widely known.19

Spenser rejects the position of most of his usual religious allies on this issue and adopts one that better accords with an interpretation of Genesis like that of Chrysostom. He regards the Fall as a lengthy process in which, having lost Paradise, men and women gradually lose their parity as well. Although he speaks of the women of antiquity as men's equals, and sometimes even their superiors, he also asserts that they have since been deprived of liberty and hindered in developing their full capacities:

          by record of antique times I finde
          That women wont in warres to beare most sway,
          And to all great exploits them selues inclind:
          Of which they still the girlond bore away,
          Till enuious Men fearing their rules decay,
          Gan coyne streight lawes to curb their liberty;
          Yet sith they warlike armes haue layd away:
          They haue exceld in artes and pollicy,
That now we foolish men that prayse gin eke t'enuy.


As the story of Britomart and Artegall makes clear, however, the poet does not think that women should languish in this diminished state until the Second Coming. Unlike most Protestants of his day, Spenser laments the subordination of women and supports a restoration of their original “liberty.” Unlike most of his contemporaries who advocate women's rule, however, he thinks the abilities of women so little developed in his own day that only the most exceptional are ready to take an active role in public affairs. A comparison of his views with those of Calvin and Aylmer reveals the unusual nature of his position.


Even when Spenser praises the achievements of women, as he does in Book III, his position bears little resemblance to that of John Aylmer. In supporting