The Faerie Queene

Composition

Spenser's intentions

While writing his poem, Spenser strove to “avoid jealous opinions and misconstructions” because he thought it would place his story “in a better light” for his readers.[15] In his letter to Raleigh, published with the first three books.[13] Spenser states that “the general end of the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline”.[15] Spenser considered his work “a historical fiction” which men should read for “delight” rather than “the profit of the ensample”.[15] The Faerie Queene was written for Elizabeth to read and was dedicated to her. However, there are dedicatory sonnets in the first edition to many powerful Elizabethan figures.[16]

In Amoretti 33, when talking about The Faerie Queene still being incomplete, Spenser addresses “lodwick”. This could be either his friend Lodowick Bryskett or his long deceased Italian model, Ludovico Ariosto, whom he praises in “Letter to Raleigh”.[17]

Dedication

The poem is dedicated to Elizabeth I, who is represented in the poem as the Faerie Queene herself, Gloriana,[18] as well as the character Belphoebe.[19] Spenser prefaces the poem with sonnets additionally dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Burleigh, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Northumberland, the Earl of Cumberland, the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Ormond and Ossory, High Admiral Charles Howard, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Grey of Wilton, Lord Buckhurst, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir John Norris, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Countess of Pembroke (on the subject of her brother, Sir Philip Sidney), and the Lady Carew.

Social commentary

In October 1589, Spenser voyaged to England and saw the Queen. It is possible that he read to her from his manuscript at this time. On 25 February 1591, the Queen gave him a pension of fifty pounds per year.[20] He was paid in four instalments on 25 March, 24 June, 29 September, and 25 December.[21] After the first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590, Spenser found himself disappointed in the monarchy; among other things, “his annual pension from the Queen was smaller than he would have liked” and his humanist perception of Elizabeth’s court “was shattered by what he saw there”.[22] Despite these frustrations, however, Spenser “kept his aristocratic prejudices and predispositions”.[22] Book VI stresses that there is “almost no correlation between noble deeds and low birth” and reveals that to be a “noble person,” one must be a “gentleman of choice stock”.[22]

Throughout The Faerie Queene, virtue is seen as “a feature for the nobly born” and within Book VI, readers encounter worthy deeds that indicate aristocratic lineage.[22] An example of this is the hermit to whom Arthur brings Timias and Serena. Initially, the man is considered a “goodly knight of a gentle race” who “withdrew from public service to religious life when he grew too old to fight”.[22] Here, we note the hermit’s noble blood seems to have influenced his gentle, selfless behaviour. Likewise, audiences acknowledge that young Tristram “speaks so well and acts so heroically” that Calidore “frequently contributes him with noble birth” even before learning his background; in fact, it is no surprise that Tristram turns out to be the son of a king, explaining his profound intellect.[23] However, Spenser’s most peculiar example of noble birth is demonstrated through the characterization of the Salvage Man. Using the Salvage Man as an example, Spenser demonstrated that “ungainly appearances do not disqualify one from noble birth”.[23] By giving the Salvage Man a “frightening exterior,” Spenser stresses that “virtuous deeds are a more accurate indication of gentle blood than physical appearance.[23]

On the opposite side of the spectrum, The Faerie Queene indicates qualities such as cowardice and discourtesy that signify low birth. During his initial encounter with Arthur, Turpine “hides behind his retainers, chooses ambush from behind instead of direct combat, and cowers to his wife, who covers him with her voluminous skirt”.[24] These actions demonstrate that Turpine is “morally emasculated by fear” and furthermore, “the usual social roles are reversed as the lady protects the knight from danger.[24] Scholars believe that this characterization serves as “a negative example of knighthood” and strives to teach Elizabethan aristocrats how to “identify a commoner with political ambitions inappropriate to his rank”.[24]

Poetic structure

The Faerie Queene was written in Spenserian stanza, which was created specifically for The Faerie Queene. In this style, there are nine iambic lines – the first eight of them five footed and the ninth a hexameter – which form “interlocking quatrains and a final couplet”.[25] The rhyme pattern is ABABBCBCC. Over two thousand stanzas were written for the 1590 Faerie Queene.[25]

Theological structure

In Elizabethan England, no subject was more familiar to writers than theology. Elizabethans learned to embrace religious studies in petty school, where they “read from selections from the Book of Common Prayer and memorized Catechisms from the Scriptures”.[26] This influence is evident in Spenser’s text, as demonstrated in the moral allegory of Book I. Here, allegory is organized in the traditional arrangement of Renaissance theological treatises and confessionals. While reading Book I, audiences first encounter original sin, justification and the nature of sin before analysing the church and the sacraments.[27] Despite this pattern, Book I is not a theological treatise; within the text, “moral and historical allegories intermingle” and the reader encounters elements of romance.[28] However, Spenser’s method is not “a rigorous and unyielding allegory,” but “a compromise among conflicting elements”.[28] In Book I of The Faerie Queene the discussion of the path to salvation begins with original sin and justification, skipping past initial matters of God, the Creeds, and Adam’s fall from grace.[28] This literary decision is pivotal because these doctrines “center the fundamental theological controversies of the Reformation”.[28]

Sources

Myth and history

During The Faerie Queene's inception, Spenser worked as a civil servant, in “relative seclusion from the political and literary events of his day”.[29] As Spenser laboured in solitude, The Faerie Queene manifested within his mind, blending his experiences into the content of his craft. Within his poem, Spenser explores human consciousness and conflict, relating to a variety of genres including sixteenth century Arthurian literature.[30] The Faerie Queene was influenced strongly by Italian works, as were many other works in England at that time. The Faerie Queene draws heavily on Ariosto and Tasso.[31]

The first three books of The Faerie Queene operate as a unit, representing the entire cycle from the fall of Troy to the reign of Elizabeth.[30] Using in medias res, Spenser introduces his historical narrative at three different intervals, using chronicle, civil conversation, and prophecy as its occasions.[30]

Despite the historical elements of his text, Spenser is careful to label himself a historical poet as opposed to a historiographer. Spenser notes this differentiation in his letter to Raleigh, noting “a Historiographer discourseth of affairs orderly as they were done…but a Poet thrusteth into the midst…and maketh a pleasing Analysis of all”.[32]

Spenser’s characters embody Elizabethan values, highlighting political and aesthetic associations of Tudor Arthurian tradition in order to bring his work to life. While Spenser respected British history and “contemporary culture confirmed his attitude”.[32] his literary freedom demonstrates that he was “working in the realm of mythopoeic imagination rather than that of historical fact”.[32] In fact, Spenser’s Arthurian material serves as a subject of debate, intermediate between “legendary history and historical myth” offering him a range of “evocative tradition and freedom that historian’s responsibilities preclude”.[33] Concurrently, Spenser adopts the role of a sceptic, reflected in the way in which he handles the British history, which “extends to the verge of self-satire”.[34]

Medieval subject matter

The Faerie Queene owes, in part, its central figure, Arthur, to a medieval writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his Prophetiae Merlini ("Prophecies of Merlin"), Geoffrey's Merlin proclaims that the Saxons will rule over the Britons until the “Boar of Cornwall” (Arthur) again restores them to their rightful place as rulers.[35] The prophecy was adopted by the Welsh and eventually used by the Tudors. Through their ancestor, Owen Tudor, the Tudors had Welsh blood, through which they claimed to be descendants of Arthur and rightful rulers of Britain.[36] The tradition begun by Geoffrey of Monmouth set the perfect atmosphere for Spenser’s choice of Arthur as the central figure and natural bridegroom of Gloriana.


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