This remarkable poem, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, was Spenser's finest achievement. The first epic poem in modern English, The Faerie Queene combines dramatic narratives of chivalrous adventure with exquisite and picturesque episodes of pageantry. At the same time, Spenser is expounding a deeply-felt allegory of the eternal struggle between Truth and Error...
In his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh that now serves as an introduction to the poem Spenser claimed that:
"The General end therefore of all the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous snd gentle discipline"
From the high sounding tone of the letter it seems to me that Spenser was clear in his mind that he had written (or was going to write) the most important epic poem of the English Renaissance. It harks back to the most popular of books for the gentleman reader: Baldassare Castiglione's [The Book of the Courtier] which had been translated into English some thirty years previously and was still immensely popular. Spenser was just as ambitious for his poem and for his own inspiration and for the edification of his readers he chose to base his poem on the myths of the knight errants of King Arthur's round table. The poem looks backwards rather than forwards and would have appealed to his readers for this very reason. His readers would also be familiar with the use of allegory, as much contemporary printed material and some popular stage plays were still steeped in its usage.
The first three books of the Faerie Queen were published in 1590. With Sponsorship from Sir Walter Raleigh he was able to get the Royal Seal of approval from Elizabeth I which guaranteed its success and obtained for Spenser a pension for life of £50 per year. The fact that Queen Elizabeth I is celebrated as the glorious queen of the faeries throughout the poem probably did not hinder Spenser's ambition.
Some of the reasons for the Faerie Queene's popularity with readers in the late 16th century, no longer hold good for readers today. It is a poem after all and a very long one at that. The whole thing of 6 (or 7 books if you include the Mutabilitie cantos) amounts to over 36000 lines. Spenser's intention was to write 12 books celebrating the adventures of 12 knights for the Christmas feast, some of us may be relieved that he only managed to get to half way. Then there is the allegory, familiar to Spenser's 16th century readers but not for many readers today and so when we are introduced to the very first character with that famous first line "A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine" it is Red Cross who symbolises Holiness; actually he is trying to achieve holiness and so the reader must have this in mind when trying to account for his actions in the story. Allegory is used in other ways; for example when describing the seven sins, they are characterised, here is Gluttony:
And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
Deformed creature, on a filthie swyne;
His belly was up-blowne with luxury,
And eke with fatnesse swollen were his eyne,
And like a Crane° his necke was long and fyne,
With which he swallowed up excessive feast,
For want whereof poore people oft did pyne;
And all the way, most like a brutish beast,
He spued up his gorge, that all did him deteast.
However Spenser rarely leaves his readers floundering, he usually tells us who the allegorical figures are or what they represent: at the start of each book we are told the name of the knight and his/her allegorical representation.
Spenser's language is adapted to fit into his poetic rhyming scheme, but this will be familiar to poetry readers, however his language was said to be archaic even by late 16th century standards, but really too much has been made of this and people who have been exposed to other 16th century writing and spelling will have no problem, for others if you can get to grips with the example above of Gluttony then you will enjoy the poem without a lot of trouble.
The epic proportions of the poem, the allegory and the language may be reasons to hesitate before starting in on a long read, but Spenser's Faerie Queene may be worth a little effort for other reasons. The poetry can be sublime and the syntax is not difficult to follow with most lines being end stopped. The poem is made up of nine line stanzas with a regular rhyming scheme and the final line more often than not provides a summary or commentary on the preceding eight lines.
This is an example of Spenser using the popular trope of a ship lost at sea to describe the hopelessness of ill fortune, or restless needs. It is the female knight Britomart the hero of book three, representing chastity;
"For else my feeble vessell crazd and crackt
Through thy strong buffets and outrageous blowes
cannot endure, but needs it must be wrackt
On the rough rocks, or on the sandy shallowes
The while the love it steres, and fortune rows;
Love my lewd pilot hath a restless mind
And fortune Boteswaine no assurance knowes,
But sail withouten starres gainst tide and wind:
How can they other do, sith both are bold and blind?
The battle scenes are inventive and full of action and Spenser's descriptive powers are in evidence throughout. Oh! and there is the eroticism that always seems to be just below the surface but can erupt out into some sensuous stanzas or into the realms of sadomasochism. There are plenty of purple patches but also some longueurs. Spenser saw himself as a historian or more accurately as a poetic historian and so there are some long sequences of stanzas that seem intent on naming all the mythical rulers of ancient England. These of course can be skimmed, but do hark back again to a late medieval feel.
There is no doubt the poem has layers of meaning, however it can be read as a straight forward epic adventure poem about knight errants. Some of the actions of the protagonists may seem strange, but the beauty of the poetry and the action sequences and vivid locations may be of enough interest. The next layer down is the allegory with which I think you need to have some idea to grasp the reasons why the characters do the things that they do. After all the poem is aimed to provide moral instruction and so missing out on this will put a brake on some of the enjoyment. There are also references to the politics of 16th century England and it's history, some of which will remain obscure. Spenser never aimed to be obscure and he is always there to help the reader; he usually speaks directly to the reader in the first two or three stanzas of each canto to set out his main themes or ideas and at the very start of each canto there is a four line synopsis of the canto. The Canto's can be read as separate poems, although characters do appear and reappear throughout the length of the poem the reader never needs to know the back story to make sense of the events.
Some critics have warned about reading too much into Spenser's allegory. The question Did Spenser really mean to say all of this? is pertinent and following through an allegorical, political or philosophical idea can lead to confusion. This is down to the choice of the reader, how much time do you want to spend teasing out possible meanings?
History has not been so very kind to Spenser's faerie Queene. The Cambridge History of English literature says:
"He tried to do too many things at once. and, in elaborating intellectually the allegorical plot he has confused the imaginative substance of the poetic narrative........ Spenser tried to tell his lies while clinging to a disabling kind of truth and so he does not convince his readers. He lives as an exquisite word-painter of widely different scenes and as supreme poet-musician using with unrivalled skill a noble stanza of his own invention. unparalleled in any other language"
This summary misses the excitement of the action and the underlying eroticism that lingers in the story telling. To my way of thinking Spenser has taken us into a wonderful world of faerie land, which sometimes resembles the real world too uncomfortably. It is a long poem with some passages more exciting and entertaining than others, however with a little knowledge of the allegorical structure the poem takes on another life and the reader can easily become absorbed. It is a 5 star read of course as there is nothing like it, but at times it can feel like a three star read.
I think Spenser does very well to keep up the poetical form he uses, over the lenght of the book, and slips up in metre only rarely, which can be excused. The poetical imagery is a bit repetitive, but in a work of this lenght containing many tales of a simple formula - good knight goes on quest to kill foe/save fair damsel - it cannot be avoided.
Some readers unused to 16th Century language may struggle a bit, but those who do not mind it should find it interesting. Many of the words are out of usage now, or have changed since, in the text a lot more of the Germanic influence on our language is visible, which is not noticible in the same way in modern English. There is a big list of the unfamiliar words and phrases at the end of the second volume, which is useful to consult when you come across something unfamiliar.
Some of the stories, I found, were more engaging than others. I doubt a lot of people will have the patience to read both volumes front to back, it is not the same as reading a novel, and due to the lack of a strong overarching plot, the reader is unlikely to find themselves unable to put it down.
It's almost like fan fiction. One imagines Spenser getting high over his copy of Malory one night, and then falling asleep and having a feverish opium dream about it. The Faerie Queene is the result: errant knights, evil witches and dragons, cross-dressing heroes, splenetic deities, and lots of damsels who get tied up in becomingly abbreviated outfits to await rescue. Despite this list of clichés, though, Spenser can also be fascinatingly transgressive, especially when it comes to gender roles: women in the Faerie Queene are by no means all passive weaklings, and there are no fewer than two different ‘warrior maids’ who ride around in full armour kicking the shit out of people who question their sense of agency or look at them funny. Note also the intriguing walk-on parts such as the giantess Argantè, who keeps men locked up ‘to serve her lust’ – a nice inversion of the usual trope of women being carted off as sexual prizes – and who is moreover defeated by the female knight Palladine.
Incidentally, Spenser likes to come up with inventive perversions to characterise his villains: Argantè is accused of prenatal incest, which I have to admit was a new one on me:
These twinnes, men say, (a thing far passing thought)
While in their mothers wombe enclosd they were,
Ere they into the lightsom world were brought,
In fleshly lust were mingled both yfere,
And in that monstrous wise did to the world appere.
I don't think enough has been written about Spenser's language. There is a tendency for modern readers to gloss over the tricky bits, and think: ‘Well, presumably this was an easy read back in the 1590s.’ It really wasn't. Spenser's language was, even to his contemporaries, extremely archaic and convoluted, with a distinct taste for inventive coinages. It's like a kind of Elizabethan Clockwork Orange (A Clockwork Potato?). Some of this is now invisible to modern readers. Words like amazement, amenable, bland, blatant, bouncing, centered, discontent, dismay, elope, formerly, gurgling, horrid, invulnerable, jovial, lawlessness, memorize, newsman, Olympic, pallid, red-handed, sarcasm, transfix, unassailable, violin, warmonger – all of them, and hundreds more, seem uncomplicated now, but that is only because Spenser invented them and we have become used to them in the centuries since. This is not to mention the hundreds of other words he coined that did not catch on and have now become obsolete (there's another).
I particularly like his flair for euphemism. Here's another awesome section, where a hapless husband has tracked down his wife after she was kidnapped by a group of satyrs. He hides nearby in the bushes, only to find out that she's actually having quite a good time:
At night, when all they went to sleepe, he vewd,
Whereas his louely wife emongst them lay,
Embraced of a Satyre rough and rude,
Who all the night did minde his ioyous play:
Nine times he heard him come aloft ere day,
That all his hart with gealosie did swell…
‘Come aloft’ of course meaning something along the lines of ‘mount sexually’. There's a lot of this kind of thing – Spenser not always coming across as the most secure guy in the world. The stanza concludes with another fun figurative flourish:
But yet that nights ensample did bewray,
That not for nought his wife them loued so well,
When one so oft a night did ring his matins bell.
Haha. Love it. This form of stanza – now known as ‘Spenserian’ – was his own creation, and the way each one concludes in a jaunty rhyming couplet makes him very quotable. I actually wrote this bit out in a notebook more than two years ago, which shows how long I've been reading this – it's been a sort of long-term project that I've dipped in and out of in between other books. This makes it hard to review, because I've now long forgotten half the stuff that happened in the first couple of sections. (Indeed when I started reading it, I was using a version on the internet, but I fell in love with the poem so hard that I ended up buying a luxury Folio Society limited edition bound in goatskin, probably the most expensive book in my entire collection – which, as Hannah was not slow to point out, seems hard to justify for a poem that you can read online for free.)
So OK, the paperback looks incredibly dull and imposing, and, yes, the idea of a 1500-page allegorical poem about Queen Elizabeth I does sound like a living nightmare – but The Faerie Queene is the opposite of boring. It's pure incident from start to finish. And if there's a message to the epic, taken as a whole, I think Spenser's closing lines point us in the right direction. He shows us that what matters in this world is not money or power – nor even, in the final analysis, the virtues that he has been exploring for nearly 40,000 lines. What matters is taking the time to find pleasure – in love, in knowledge, and, most of all, in literature:
Therefore do you, my rimes, keep better measure,
And seeke to please; that now is counted wise mens threasure.