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.
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.
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.
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.