Verse > Edmund Spenser > Complete Poetical Works
Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599).  The Complete Poetical Works.  1908.
The Faerie Queene
Critical Introduction
WHEN the first three books of the Faery Queen were published in 1590, Spenser had been at work upon the poem for at least ten years. The earliest records of its existence are worth transcribing. In the letter to Harvey of April 2, 1580, he writes: ‘Nowe, my Dreames and Dying Pellicane being fully finished … and presentlye to bee imprinted, I wil in hande forthwith with my Faery Queene, whyche I praye you hartily send me with al expedition, and your frendly letters and long expected judgement wythal, whyche let not be shorte, but in all pointes suche as you ordinarilye use and I extraordinarily desire.’ That was in the days just following the publication of the Calendar, some three months and a half before he went with Lord Grey to Ireland. There, probably in the year 1582, occurred that gathering in the little cottage near Dublin so memorably recounted by his friend Lodowick Bryskett. Being invited to speak of moral philosophy, its benefits and its nature, Spenser declined: ‘For,’ said he, ‘sure I am that it is not unknowne unto you that I have already undertaken a work tending to the same effect, which is in heroical verse, under the title of a Faerie Queene, to represent all the moral vertues, assigning to every virtue a knight to be the patron and defender of the same: in whose actions and feates of armes and chivalry the operations of that virtue whereof he is the protector are to be expressed, and the vices and unruly appetites that oppose themselves against the same to be beaten downe and overcome. Which work … I have already well entred into.’ The company were content to await its conclusion.  1
  Eight years passed, completing a decade, with but a quarter of the whole work done, and still this conclusion seemed to the poet within easy reach. The Letter to Raleigh shows him quite confident of achieving his hundred and forty-fourth canto, shows him even planning another hundred and forty-four in sequel. Mortality, that favorite theme of his generation, the theme of Complaints, was assuredly not in his mind when he thought of his Faery Queen. And, indeed, the second three books were executed much more rapidly than the first, at the rate, it seems, of about a book a year; for they can hardly have been taken up in earnest before his return to Ireland in 1591, and they were completed in the spring of 1594, under the pressure, one may think, of his approaching marriage. How he progressed with them is partly recorded in the thirty-third and the eightieth sonnets of the Amoretti. They were not published till 1596, apparently because he could not take them to London earlier.  2
  This eightieth sonnet of the Amoretti, which announces the completion of thus much of his poem, declares that, ‘being halfe fordonne’ (i. e. exhausted), the poet will rest, ‘and gather to himself new breath awhile.’ That is the last we hear about the further progress of the Faery Queen until the publication in 1609, ten years after his death, of the cantos on Mutability. These have been regarded by some as an independent poem (not unlike the Cinque Canti of Ariosto)—for the reason, it seems, that they are competent to stand alone. Yet the mere fact that they were numbered VI, VII, and VIII (surely not by the printer) indicates that they are part of a larger whole, and stanza 37 of the first of them gives the clearest possible evidence that they belong to the great romance. Were these cantos, then, all that Spenser found time during four years to compose for the remaining books of his poem, or did he write others, which may have perished in the disaster of 1598? Again, their being numbered as they are is suggestive: Spenser may be thought, at least to have planned this one book in outline, possibly to have executed other parts of it. A generation after his death, Sir James Ware asserted that the Faery Queen had been finished, and that the unpublished books had been lost in 1598 ‘by the disorder and abuse of his servant, whom he had sent before him into England.’ The story is, of course, apocryphal (that Spenser could have composed six books in four years is a manifest impossibility; nor would any so extensive a loss have failed to be recorded earlier); yet it may well be that the sack of Kilcolman deprived the world of not a few such fragments as this.  3
  In that letter of April 2, 1580, from which our first knowledge of the Faery Queen is derived, Spenser, we have seen, called for the judgment of Harvey upon his new venture. Harvey, never loath to express an opinion, sent back one of those misguided verdicts to which men of his stamp are unluckily prone: it would be a mere curiosity of criticism, did it not by chance record the views of the poet himself. ‘To be plaine,’ is the summing up, ‘I am voyde of al judgement, if your Nine Comœdies … come not neerer Ariostoes comœdies … than that Elvish Queene doth to his Orlando Furioso, which, notwithstanding, you wil needes seeme to emulate, and hope to overgo, as you flatly professed your self in one of your last letters.’ In undertaking what he must have meant to be the grand work of his life, Spenser, then, was deliberately setting himself to rival Ariosto.  4
  This avowed rivalry is involved in the very origins of his plan. For, first and most obviously, he must build up an extended poem of action: the material in which his didactic purpose was to be worked out, was epic. In this field all the many influences that would control his choice drew him irresistibly to one quarter, the romance. The poetry in which the traditions of his native literature were embodied gave him, for epics, romances. The great legendary hero of his race, the ancestor of his Queen, Arthur, was at the very heart of romance. The highest embodiment of his own spiritual ideals was in chivalry, and chivalry implied romance. Romance, too, satisfied to the full his native delight in color and warmth and magic of beauty. The epics of antiquity, on the other hand, dealt with alien matter, in an alien, though noble, spirit. Such imitations of them as had been made by Trissino, Ronsard, and others, were too utterly dreary to encourage a like attempt, and the Gerusalemme Liberata of Tasso, in which the native glamour of romance was to be informed by their more spacious and simpler art, had not yet been given to the world. Nothing could be more natural, then, more inevitable, than that Spenser should set himself to rival the Orlando Furioso. In 1580 it still stood as the one really great poem of epicscope that sixteenth-century Europe had produced, the accepted masterpiece, moreover, of that variety of the epic to which he was irresistibly drawn, the romance poem.  5
  But this was not all. Ariosto was furthermore accounted a grave and moral poet, a master in the art of poetic edification. He had come by this repute through the cleares’ of critical necessities. His fertility and delightfulness, which seemed to revive the lost epical spirit of Homer, had captivated at once all lovers of poetry; but poetry could not in those days be its own raison d’être, it must make for moral edification: the inevitable concern of his admirers, therefore, had for generations been to expound the ultimate seriousness of his purpose. His easy-going scepticism, his irreverence, his delight in life and action, moral and immoral, for their own sake, without ethical prepossessions, these qualities they ignored or explained away: his seriousness (sometimes, by force of imaginative sympathy, very genuine, but more often conventional or factitious) they exalted to a level with the high seriousness of Virgil. The chief engine of their work was allegory. Ariosto, who made free use of whatever might enrich his poem, had adorned it here and there with frankly allegorical episodes: successive commentators had forced a like interpretation upon other passages, till, by 1580, the whole poem was expounded as a many-colored, comprehensive allegory of life, and all its admirers were agreed on its fundamental morality.  6
  ‘Our sage and serious Spenser,’ then, could find even in the moral aspects of the Orlando matter for sincere emulation: in particular, of course, that allegory which had been so thoroughly read into it by commentators. This was, at best, somewhat irregular: it illustrated the moral problems of life, efficiently perhaps, but rather at random: it left room for a more philosophic method. He must have felt that, in this regard, he might safely ‘hope to overgo’ the Italian. For, with a genuine fervor for allegory, impossible to the more worldly and modern Ariosto, impossible even to those commentators on the Orlando who had pushed allegorical interpretation so far, he had conceived a plan of vastly greater scope and more thorough method. His poem was to expound a complete system of Christian ethics, modelled upon the Aristotelian scheme of the virtues and vices, and this main allegory was to be enriched by another, to deal with notable contemporary events and personages.  7
  It is one thing, however, to compose a great poem of action which commentators may find means to interpret allegorically, and quite another to develop a set of ideas allegorically in a great poem of action. For, given the action, it will go hard but some definite spiritual parrallel may be found for it (as Tasso, having composed his romance-epic, safeguarded the most seductive passages by ex post facto allegorizing): given the set of ideas, however, action, free, self-sustaining, moving of its own impulse in a plain path, is by no means easy to invent. And Spenser’s material was unusually stubborn. He had twelve ‘private morall vertues,’ each to be embodied in a knight, whose ‘feates of armes and chivalry’ were to show the workings of that virtue with regard to ‘the vices and unruly appetites that oppose themselves against the same.’ To devise twelve appropriate courses of action was manifestly but to begin: these must furthermore be held together; and how? If he carried them all forward simultaneously, by interweaving, after the manner of the Orlando Furioso, he might indeed achieve unity, but he would also confuse the philosophic development of each separate virtue: if he developed the action of each virtue separately and continuously, the second not begun until the first was ended, he would be composing not one poem but twelve. The alternative was certainly hard. In the philosophic scheme, however, after which his own was planned, Aristotle’s, Spenser found the rudiments of a solution. Concerning Magnanimity he read that ‘it seems to be a kind of ornament of all the other virtues, in that it makes them better and cannot be without them.’ From this hint he developed means of unification. The twelve virtues were to be treated separately, but at the same time brought into relation to the master virtue Magnanimity,—or, as he chose, Magnificence. In narrative terms, there was to be a hero, who, by playing an important, though it might be a brief, part in the enterprise of each knight, should be gradually developed as the central agent of the poem. Epical dignity would be furthered if this hero were historic, and romance pointed to the British Arthur. Then there must be a heroine—who could hardly be Guenevere. At this point the allegory gave an opening to loyalty—or, if one pleases, adulation. For according to Aristotle, the object-matter of Magnanimity is honor, or ‘Glory,’ and who could better stand for this than Spenser’s sovereign, Elizabeth? This choice determined the rest. She could not be introduced in propria persona, still less as another historic character. The poet, therefore, invented for her the disguise of Gloriana, Queen of Faery Land. For narrative function he gave her the initiation of the twelve enterprises.  8
  This general outline of action once conceived, the separate parts could be planned as the poem progressed. There was no need that the matter of each book should be determined at the outset; even the conclusion might be left for a time undecided. The one problem to be solved immediately was the beginning. The various enterprises were to start from the court of Gloriana on successive days of her great annual feast. Should this feast be described at the outset in a sort of proem, or should each separate book begin with an account of that particular day of the feast on which the knight of the book was sent forth? One or other of these methods would unquestionably have been the choice of Ariosto, who, as a genuine romance poet, believed in beginning at the beginning. To begin there, however, would not be epic (Ariosto himself had been blamed for just that); the genuine epic poet plunged at once in medias res; and the Faery Queen, though not epic in formal structure, ought none the less to acknowledge classical law. Spenser, therefore, determined to keep his beginnings, the feast, for retrospective presentment. Since he evidently felt also, however, that this feast was one great pageant, to be preserved entire and not distributed among the several books, it must manifestly, in default of first place, come last. So far his plan might seem to be clear. Yet the account given in the prefatory letter is oddly perplexing. According to one passage, the twelfth and last book is to be devoted entire to the beginnings; according to another, it would seem to be intended for the enterprise of the twelfth knight; and surely, one might expect from it some termination to the quest of Magnificence for Glory, of Arthur for his Faery Queen. One inclines to doubt if Spenser really knew just where his plan was taking him.  9
  So organized, the Faery Queen must manifestly be at a disadvantage with other great poems of action. Despite the ingenious device for linking the separate enterprises to the quest of Arthur and the rule of Gloriana, the poem could not have that unity, that centralization of forces, which distinguishes the epics of antiquity. In the six books composed, Arthur does not really become a controlling and guiding power in the action, nor is it likely that all the twelve could have made him that. Gloriana could never have become much more than a kind of presiding divinity, a transcendent looker-on. Nor, in lien of centralization, could the poem attain the forward energy of the Orlando Furioso. Ariosto’s romance moves like a broad river, in a dozen currents, now mingling, now separating, ever on, leisurely, irresistibly. In the Faery Queen, one enterprise must run its course uninterrupted to the end, and then disappear forever; a fresh start must be made, another enterprise, with new characters, set in motion and followed through; and then a third. That these enterprises succeed each other in time, that certain episodes are carried over from book to book, and certain characters, can hardly create the impression of forward energy. As it progresses, indeed, the poem takes on more and more the external aspect of the Orlando, but the ground plan of separate enterprises keeps its action fundamentally different. It moves without clearly perceptible goal.  10
  This peculiarity of organization, however, is hardly the cause that so many have found the Faery Queen tedious. They might complain, rather, that the poem is not grounded in action, that in those simple human energies which alone could sustain an epic or a romance at such length it is sadly wanting. And they would complain with some reason. Spenser’s knights pass from chivalric feat to chivalric feat with due enterprise, but the eye of their creator is less often upon the doing than the deed. Scene follows scene in the narrative, less often an encounter of active forces than a picture of spiritual conditions. Spenser, indeed, had not that delight in the realities of living action, that native sense for the situations that lurk in the conflict of living energies, which were the gift of the poet he particularly emulated. The combats of his knights, for example, how often they seem to be repetitions of a set ceremony! To Ariosto each combat is a new and quite peculiar act of life; it is the outbreak of forces that meet in a fresh combination or under fresh conditions; simple or intricate, it has a spirit and growth of its own. That unending recurrence of encounters, therefore, which is the special infirmity of romance, becomes in his poem a manifestation of exuberant vitality. In the Faery Queen, on the other hand, spirited as some few of the combats are, particularly those of the second book, one recognizes only too clearly that Spenser’s heart is not in this eager work. Nor is it in that active conflict of will with will, of purpose with circumstance, which is the life of the poetry of action. Even in those scenes which are most truly dynamic, not merely picturesque or expository, scenes like the meeting of the Redcross Knight with Despair, the action, the power, is mainly embodied in one personage; there is little interplay of forces. For situations his sense is at times curiously fallible; as when Britomart at the close of her combat with Arthegall, and during and after the negotiations for truce, is left standing, like an image, with her sword uplifted to strike.  11
  It would seem sufficiently clear that such failings as these, in so far as they are failings, spring from a native inaptitude for the poetry of action. Yet how often we hear them and others ascribed to the allegorical design! If, in any passage, the poet’s imagination seems to flag, the blame is always on the allegory. The combat of the Redcross Knight with the Dragon is conventional and lifeless—because the allegory obliges Spenser to draw the fighting out to the third day. Medina and her two sisters are desperately uninteresting, the domestic organization of the House of Alma is described in rather ridiculous detail—again because of the allegory. The allegory, in short, is mainly a check or drag upon the poet’s naturally spontaneous and fresh imagination. That many of the leading characters, for instance, are too shadow-like, not living men and women in whom one can take a living interest, is what might have been expected; as embodiments of abstractions they could not be other. Bunyan, to be sure, has shown that allegory can be made vital at length, but the length of the Pilgrim’s Progress is as nothing to that of the Faery Queen, and its plan is the perfection of simplicity. To an allegorical scheme, on the other hand, so vast and so complicated as that devised by Spenser, no poet could have given full imaginative life. Hence, in the end, the poem’s peculiar tediousness.  12
  In criticism such as this there is just enough truth to be misleading. The combat of the Redcross Knight with the Dragon Medina and her sisters, the House of Alma—it cannot be denied that these must be charged on the allegory. Yet when we survey the poem from end to end, how many such staring failures do we find, how many failures that can clearly be laid to allegorical pressure? It is true also that, if many of the leading characters are somewhat shadow-like and unreal, the fault may partly be that they personate abstractions. But has Spenser, anywhere in his work at large, shown signs of the power to create substantial men and women? If the Faery Queen had been designed as pure romance, would its leading characters have been more human? Is not their remoteness due quite as much to his absorption in the ideal as to his love of mere allegory? Indeed, this supposed domination of the poem by allegory, the allegory of abstractions. will hardly bear the test of simple reading. In the first two books, of course, those with which everybody is familiar, it is indisputable. The Redcross Knight and Una, Sir Guyon and his Palmer, and the long array of personages among whom these two champions execute their ‘feates of armes and chivalry’ very manifestly stand for qualities. ideas, and the like, and the ‘feates of armes and chivalry’ for successive ‘operations’ of the spirit. With Book III, however, there comes a sudden and most curious change. Britomart, the heroine, is still nominally of the old order, the formal embodiment of chastity, and she is accompanied by a few figures like Malecasta, also of the old order; but other figures appear, and in the greater number, who can be reduced to abstractions by nothing short of violence. Florimel is no more than a beautiful maiden of romance, faithful to her love amid disasters; Hellenore is but a frail wife, Malbecco, up to the time of his transformation, but an old and jealous husband; and their actions are equally unsymbolic. In a word, barring personal and historic allusions, most of the characters in Book III are no more than men and women of certain general types engaged in actions which are typically moral. One may, of course, with Spenser, call such work allegory, but it is manifestly not that kind of allegory which can hamper free movement of the imagination; and when one notices that it prevails throughout the better part of the remaining books, one wonders at the persistence of the old cry.  13
  Yet after this much-abused allegory of abstractions has ceased to dominate the romance, it still remains a mode of the poet’s rarest creative power—among the minor figures. Throughout the poem, indeed, these figures are, on the whole, more vivid than those which lead the action, and when they are particularly vivid it is often because of their allegorical intensity. The main characters draw but little life from the allegory; when they impress us, it is rather as types of ideal humanity; but those others, among whom they move, how often their life is the very quintessence of an emotion or an idea! It is not the procession at the House of Pride, or the Masque of Cupid, that one need cite anew. Splendid as these pageants are, they are mainly ornamental, and the value of allegory as ornament has always been recognized. But those strange figures that play a small but real part in the action, one succeeding another in brief stages, how much of the power of the poem issues from them! We may be indifferent to Arthur, to Belphœbe, to Duessa, to Cambell and Triamond; but Despair and Atin and Guile and the blacksmith Care and Talus (if he be a minor figure), these are unforgettable. They are not human beings; their very life of feature and action is rooted in the immaterialities they embody. If ever abstractions took flesh and walked, it is these. And beside them are half-human creatures, such as Ignaro, to link them with wholly human and delightful creatures such as Phædria, whose charm is forever at odds with her allegorical duty. Surely, had the Faery Queen been pure romance, it would have been a much less exquisite creation.  14
  For, in fine, the world of the Faery Queen is not altogether the world of romance; it is, if possible, more remote, more strange, more diverse. By its forest fountains meet Venus and Diana, almost within the ken of Christian knights and ladies, and in its castles or upon its open hillsides and heathes, among gentry and retainers and shepherds and very rabble, side by side with giants and monsters, move sheer incarnations of the immaterial. It is a world of jarring elements gathered from antiquity and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and harmonized by the serenest of poetic imaginations. In such a world as this, if we can breathe its atmosphere, we shall not crave the vigor and sparkle of movement that are at such full tide in the Orlando Furioso, nor even the graver human energies of the great epics: it has a life to which these are not essential. For, externally a poem of action, meant to rival Ariosto’s, the Faery Queen is at heart but the vision of a contemplative mind to which the main realities of life are beauty and the law of the spirit. If it quickens at rare intervals into action full and vigorous, the quickening is but for a moment, and when it subsides we are not regretful. Faint in passion, faint even in pathos, the poem appeals most intimately to that ‘inward eye’ which can read forms and hues of beauty, and feature and bearing as they reveal the spirit, and to the mind that can read the spirit in speech. And this world that Spenser has created can never be to us a mere Kubla Khan paradise of romance. Amid its throng of ideal creatures, though we may not feel the force of the express moral doctrine they enact, we shall feel the force of the poet’s own bent. His temper of grave and sweet spirituality, always human, that tone of the mind which is ever the chief spring of moral influence, this will be unescapable, and, in the end, it will be this as much as the pure magic of his imagination that will seem to impart to the poem its peculiar and imperturbable atmosphere.  15
  Spenser was long ago called ‘the Rubens of our poets,’ and the phrase is still passed about. The vision which it evokes of large, plump, pink-and-white women and of big-limbed, tawny men, of superb physical vigor and of bright magnificence of color, will hardly appeal to the judicious as Spenserian. If one must have a phrase, let it be Charles Lamb’s ‘the poet of poets,’ since that, despite its apparent vagueness, has a meaning. For what finally impresses us in the Faery Queen is its triumph over a dozen capital defects by the power of a very few, and those the essential, poetic qualities. Its narrative plan is fundamentally vicious, the narrative execution of the various episodes is weakened again and again by the most singular blunders, it is neither consistent allegory nor consistent romance, it gives over one canto to rhymed genealogy, another to rhymed chronicle, another to a merely ingenious transmogrification of the human body almost as crude as that at the conclusion of the Roman de la Rose; one might continue the story of its defects, general and particular, for pages. And yet, as unmistakably as the Divina Commedia, it has the imaginative and spiritual tone of high poetry. Perhaps just because of these defects, moreover, no poem makes us feel more keenly the mere virtue of style. Spenser’s almost unerring sense for language and his apparently inexhaustible power of welling out the most limpid and exquisitely modulated verse, these make poetry of material that his imagination cannot vivify. It is these, too, that have made him master to so many poetic spirits of alien temper. He has taught more poets than almost any other poet in our literature.  16
  The most patent, though not the most intimate, mode of his influence has been his great stanza. Much has been written about its qualities of form, which have been illustrated by a long line of masterpieces; a word, therefore, about its origins may be better worth while, especially since critics have not always remembered that, if he invented this stanza, it was, in part, of necessity. When he began the Faery Queen, indeed, the forms among which he might have chosen were few and not all good. Blank verse had not yet been suppled to free movement by generations of dramatic artists; it was a yet new and strange invention. The ten-syllable couplet labored under the name of ‘riding rimes’ and was associated chiefly with the more humorous passages of the Canterbury Tales. Spenser might well have disregarded this prejudice, but it was of weight. In stanzas, the accredited form for high poetry was the rhyme royal, the stanza of his own Hymns. This was capable of sweetness and grace, even of vigor: seven lines, however, was rather narrow compass for the more extended harmonies of verse, and the arrangement of the rhymes at the close restricted free movement. Finally, there was the Italian ottava rima, the stanza of Ariosto’s romance and of his own ‘Virgil’s Gnat.’ For such a poem as he was about to undertake it might seem to have been the most natural form. Yet, admirably adapted to a rapid and flexible style and to the ready interchange of pathos, humor, and lively action, as also to facile sweetness, it was hardly capable of graver modulations, of such higher harmonies as Spenser was then dreaming. The first six lines were too fluent, the distinct couplet at the close was too epigrammatic. In defect, then, of satisfactory models, he was driven to invention. He knew, in Chaucer and Lyndesay, a fine, sonorous old stanza in eight verses, built of two quatrains linked by rhyme. Such linking by rhyme was familiar to him from Marot as well, and he had practised the art in the Calendar. He had also there experimented with the alexandrine, had learned to moderate and vary its pendulum movement, and had found that, in combination with other measures, it was capable of the most unexpected sonorities. For his Faery Queen, therefore, he merely added to the old stanza that he knew a final alexandrine, and by that simplest combination transfigured them both.
        ‘Beauty making beautiful old rime,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights.’
Those verses of Shakespeare might seem to have been meant for motto to the Faery Queen. Read somewhat fantastically, they might also fit the stanza to which the Faery Queen owes so much of its abiding charm.
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