The Faerie Queene

by Edmund Spenser

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What evidence marks Spenser's The Faerie Queene as a political allegory?

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George Armstrong Wauchope, Ph.D. of South Carolina College explains in his introductory remarks to Book I of Spenser's text in Gutenberg Project that Book II is an allegory about "man's relationship to himself." He further points out that in early time periods, a poet's sovereign ruler was an integral part of that theme of man's relationship to man. It is in the opening lines of "The Legend of Sir Gvyon (Gwyn)" preceding the first Canto of Book II that primary textual evidence for a political allegory is found in that the Faerie Queene is expressly tied to the allegorical presence of the political head of England, Queen Elizabeth.. [Remember also, as Wauchope similarly points out, that poets in earlier eras were dependent upon the financial patronage of royalty and nobility in order to have leisure to pursue their masterpieces. Spenser was particularly in need of royal patronage since he did not come from an independently wealthy family and earned his way through his schooling on what may be called work-scholarships.]

Right well I wote most mighty Soueraine,
That all this famous antique history,
Of some th'aboundance of an idle braine
Will iudged be, and painted forgery,
Rather then matter of iust memory,
Sith none, that breatheth liuing aire, does know,
Where is that happy land of Faery,
Which I so much do vaunt, yet no where show,
But vouch antiquities, which no body can know.

But let that man with better sence aduize,
That of the world least part to vs is red:
And dayly how through hardy enterprize,
Many great Regions are discouered,
Which to late age were neuer mentioned.
Who euer heard of th'Indian Peru?
Or who in venturous vessell measured
The Amazon huge riuer now found trew?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did euer vew?

These two stanzas open Book II of The Faerie Queene. The first line is addressed to "most mighty Soueraine (Sovereign)." If that were all the textual evidence there was here to connect the allegory to a political theme by a connection to the Sovereign, it might conceivably be argued that the address was to a fantasy Queene who was part of the whole fantasy Spenser was meticulously building. However, this view cannot hold up once you read as far as lines 12 and 13 of the excerpt. These begin a passage that definitively identifies the "Soueraine" of the opening line and enumerates some political enterprises undertaken by the Faerie Queene. These lines read:

And dayly how through hardy enterprize,
Many great Regions are discouered, ....

Spenser is here referring to Queen Elizabeth's "enterprize" in exploring and conquering many distant lands in the navigational outflux that began discovering a whole world after Columbus opened the possibilities. There remains no doubt that Queen Elizabeth's political enterprise is precisely what Spenser refers to when the next lines reveal allusion to Peru, the Amazon River, and Virginia. As a result of Spenser's specific mention of things directly attributable to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, all textual doubt is removed that Spenser is addressing anyone but the Queen whom he hopes to gain as a friend and a patron. In so doing Spenser has established an unquestionable political element to his allegory.

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