Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
Recognized by his contemporaries as the greatest nondramatic poet of England.
In Tudor England, poetry shared the task of formal education: to prepare an informed and wise rulership. Since poetry could in this way be of value to the state, poets were patronized and officially honored. Ministers and councils of state, as well as noblemen and clergy of high rank, needed assistants who could draft important letters and documents and even help with routine functions of administration. A university-educated poet was ideal for the purpose. His skills could be put to good practical use, and his reputation could grace the name of his employer. He might in time, advance to an administrative post himself.
Such a one was Edmund Spenser. That Spenser did not ascend higher in governmental service than he did was due to no lack of ability or ambition. Rather, he had the wrong friends. He invariably adopted, or was adopted by, courtiers who had fallen from royal favor . . .
Spenser’s epic, entitled The Faerie Queene, was destined to be composed, for the most part, beyond the shores of the island kingdom it celebrates. In 1580 Spenser was appointed secretary to Lord Grey, the new governor of Ireland. It was the first of a series of minor governmental appointments that kept Spenser in Ireland until the last month of his life. In 1586 Spenser acquired Kilcolman Castle and lands in the county of Cork. In 1588 he took up residence on his estate and became a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose vast tract was only thirty miles away. They read their poetry to each other with mutual admiration. Raleigh wrote:
He pip’d, I sung; and when he sung, I piped,
By change of turns, each making other merry,
Neither envying other, nor envied,
So piped we, until we both were weary.
Raleigh was so impressed with the portion of The Faerie Queene he had seen that he brought Spenser with him to London in 1590 to present it to the queen and have it published. The queen was evidently pleased, for she granted Spenser an annuity of L50 for life.
In 1594 Spenser, a widower, married again and bestowed on his second bride the wedding gift of a sonnet sequence (Amoretti). These sonnets were published in 1595, a year before he brought to London the second installment of The Faerie Queene. The resulting edition containing Books I-VI, was the last to appear in print during Spenser’s lifetime.
In 1598 Spenser’s castle was overrun by a band of Irish rebels. Three months later, having come to London with dispatches from Ireland to the queen’s council, Spenser was dead. He was buried in Westminster Abbey not far from Chaucer in what is now called Poet’s Corner. The monument erected over his grave proclaims him “the Prince of Poets in his time.”
. . . More than any other poem in English, The Faerie Queene has been credited with teaching the love of virtue and the hatred of vice. With the plays of Shakespeare, it gave England a literary standing unexcelled by other European literatures and a poetic traditon whose premises were essentially Christian.
(notes adapted from British Literature for Christian Schools)
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The Faerie Queene
Background for Understanding The Faerie Queene:
As an epic The Faerie Queene may seem odd to modern readers of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, or even Beowulf. It is allegorical (a “dark conceit”), and its materials are those of medieval romance. We must understand, however, that it was very much in line with current thinking about the epic, which favored combining the epic and the romance and which regarded the classical epics as allegories.
The main story, which links the books but only occasionally affects their narratives, is the quest of Arthur for Gloriana, queen of Fairyland. It presents Arthur’s career before he became king—a career mostly invented by Spenser. Arthur, the ideal gentleman-warrior, aids the heroes of the separate books, demonstrating the virtues they less fully represent. The six books Spenser completed treat respectively holiness, temperance (self-control), chastity (chaste love between the sexes), friendship, justice, and courtesy. There were to be six others also.
The knights, assisted by Arthur, have undertaken missions assigned them by Gloriana and are therefore journeying from (rather than, like Aurthur, toward) Gloriana’s court in her capital city of Cleopolis. Having completed their quests, they will reassemble at Gloriana’s court and be honored for their achievements. Not all the knights are mature in their virtues at the outset of the quests; Red Cross (from our excerpt) is obviously a learner. But by the end they will fully embody the virtues they champion, and these virtues will have become part of the ideal represented in Arthur.
Book I: Of Holiness—Spenser’s assigning holiness to Book I implies that regeneration—the source of holiness—is the starting point of successful moral education. Red Cross is the immature, aspiring Christian, capable of either success or failure and totally dependent upon divine grace.
The lovely lady riding with him, later identified as Una, represents truth: on the historical level of the allegory, true religion in general, and the Anglican church in particular; on the personal level, true Christian faith. Una’s mount, “a lowly ass,” represents the institution of the church and in particular the clergy. The church is the vehicle of religious truth. The whiteness of Una’s mount implies the moral purity that should characterize those who bear the truth. Una’s servant, a dwarf, represents reason in relation to faith.
The Wandering Wood signifies that which hides the light of truth and confuses moral choice. The forest throughout The Faerie Queene is the realm of the lawless and bestial—of that which is not subject to conscience or reason. The monster Error (Errour) is the prototype of all representations of evil in The Faerie Queene. The name Error suggests the fundamental nature of evil as deviation from what is true and right and good.
Reading the Epic Poem: As you read The Faerie Queene, you will soon discover that it is written in the old English. Expect irregular spellings. If you read it according to it punctuation, and according to the way the words sound, you will understand what is happening. You may even want to read it aloud to yourself.
INTRODUCING….”The Faerie Queene” by Edmund Spenser:
For ECS Students:
1. What purpose did poetry serve in Tudor England?
2. Who was instrumental in Spenser’s publishing of The Faerie Queene?
3. How is Spenser honored at his death?
4. What is the significance of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to English literature?
Background for The Faerie Queene:
5. What is the main story linking the books in The Faerie Queene?
6. What does Spenser’s naming of BOOK I: “Of Holiness” imply?
7. a) How would you describe Red Cross (based on these introductory notes)? b) Who does he represent?
8. Who is Una and what does she represent: two levels?
9. What is the significance of the color of Una’s mount?
10. How is the monster’s name significant?
11. What does the Wandering Wood symbolize?
12. Unlike Arthur, the knights in “The Faerie Queene” are journeying away from Glorianna in Cleopolis, having been given their missions. Based on the events at their return, how might this journey be likened to the Christian life? (This question requires inference.)
READ POETRY SELECTIONS & ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS:
1. a) How is Red Cross clad? b) Significance?
2. Who has Glorianna sent Red Cross to fight? (What kind of creature?)
3. How many battles has he fought before?
4. a) Why do they go into the Wandering Wood? b) How do we know it is a woods from the poem? Clues?
5. What happens when they try to leave?
6. Which path do they take? Where does it lead them?
7. a) What advice does the lady give Red Cross as he dismounts? b) What advice does the Dwarf give
8. How does Red Cross respond? Choose a telling quote.
9. From line 114 on, what monster does Red Cross fight?
10. a) What does the monster look like? Describe her. b) How can Red Cross see her?
11. What is she doing when they come upon her den in the Wandering Wood? (Read carefully so that you
understand the scene.)
12. What happens to the knight when the monster sees him?
13. What does the lady traveling with him (whom we have been told is “Una”) tell him he must do?
14. Then what happens? Outline the details that follow.
15. Of what is the knight more afraid than he is of death?
16. How does he kill the monster?
17. Once the monster is dead, what do her children do? What is the result of this? Describe the “detestable