The Faerie Queene

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The Faerie Queene is an incomplete allegorical poem by Edmund Spenser. As he explains in a letter to Sir Walter Ralegh accompanying the first edition, the aim of the work is "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline" by setting out twelve moral virtues in the narratives of twelve books. For this purpose, the person who connects the twelve books is Prince Arthur, not yet come to his kingdom, but the virtue of each book is set out in the person of a particular knight. Only six of the books were completed and published. These are:

Book I: The knight of the Red Cross, or Holiness
Book II: Sir Guyon, or Temperance
Book III: Britomartis, or Chastity
Book IV: Cambel and Telamond, or Friendship
Book V: Sir Artegall, or Justice
Book VI: Sir Calidore, or Courtesy

Each book has twelve cantos, of varying length, amounting to 33,588 lines. In addition, there are two cantos on mutability, presumably intended as part of a book on Constancy.

Character of the poem

The poem is written in the Spenserian stanza.

Book VI begins with

The waies, through which my weary steps I guyde

In this delightfull land of Faery
Are so exceeding spacious and wyde,
And sprinkled with such sweet variety,
Of all that pleasant is to eare or eye,
That I nigh ravisht with rare thoughts delight,
My tedious travell doe forget thereby;
And when I gin to feele decay of might,
It strength to me supplies, and chears my dulled spright.

This expresses one way in which Spenser wishes his work to be seen, and is an apt introduction to the Book on Courtesy, which is largely pastoral in character. But not all the variety to which he refers is "sweet". Some parts are stern, others (notably much of Book V, on Justice) positively brutal, others dogmatic though not necessarily unsubtle, while much is dramatic, carrying the reader forward through the narrative flow.

The stanza quoted also hints at the poet's divergences from the main theme of each book, and the introduction of characters not strictly necessary to the plot.

There are also striking passages of imaginative or natural description.

The allegory

It is generally accepted that the allegory is on more than one level. There is the moral allegory already mentioned, which itself is manifested in more than one way, but there is also a continuing reference to events and persons in recent history, for instance the defeat of the Spanish Armada (book V), and Sir Philip Sidney represented by Sir Calidore.

Development of the narrative

The first two books proceed in a fairly straightforward manner. In Book I, the Redcross knight is found in the company of Una on a mission to rescue her parents from the depredations of a dragon. After various adventures and setbacks, in one of which he is rescued by Arthur, he succeeds. Likewise in Book II Sir Guyon sets out to capture Acrasia (idle luxury) and destroy her Bower of Bliss, and similarly achieves this. Book III follows a different pattern. Whereas the first two knights have set out from the court of the Faerie Queene,Gloriana, the heroine of this book, Britomart, is out to seek Artegall, whom she has seen in a vision. In her quest, she eventually encounters Sir Scudamour, who has failed in his attempt to free Amoret from the house of Busyrane. Britomart achieves this for him, and rescues the maiden.

The first three books were published in 1590, and in the version then published, Amoret is simply restored to Scudamour. But then Spenser started to complicate his plot. When the second edition, containing six books, was published in 1596, the ending of Book III was changed, so that Sir Scudamour, outside the house of Busyrane, had given up waiting for Britomart to return. Book IV, supposedly about Cambel and Telamond (or Triamond), actually devotes little of the narrative to them, and centres on reuniting Amoret and Scudamour, with various sub-plots.

Books V and VI, however, revert to the more straightforward plan, though some of the sub-plots are continued from book to book. Sir Artegall succeeds in his mission to free Belge from the tyrant Grantorto. Returning victorious, he is befouled by the Blatant Beast (signifying scandal, slander, and perhaps other evils), and it is the task of Sir Calidore, in Book VI, to capture this beast, which he eventually does.

The poem was not composed sequentially: there is evidence that it incorporates independent works previously composed;[1] and the Mutabilitie cantos are numbered VI and VII, showing that they were to be slotted in to a framework, with the other parts not yet written. The later books contain some references to the places and scenery of Ireland.

Influences and derivatives

Influences on Spenser

There was a tradition of allegorical literature in England, but previous works were very unlike what Spenser produced. As far as versification was concerned, he considered himself to be carrying on the Chaucerian tradition after a long gap. He was also influenced by the Italians, particularly Ariosto, but whereas Ariosto was out to entertain while praising his patrons, Spenser aimed at a high seriousness. Ariosto, writing of two knights on the same horse, joked, O gran bontà de' cavalieri antiqui ( O noble chivalry of knights of old).[2] An equivalent line in The Faerie Queene is O goodly usage of those antique times,[3] but Spenser is not joking. To a limited extent he drew on Arthurian legend, and particularly the idea of knights on an errand, coming across various testing adventures on the way.

Spenser's influence

Before the publication of the first edition, Spenser was just another Elizabethan poet, not particularly productive as far as public works were concerned. The poem brought him to the fore as the successor to Chaucer. In so doing, it set before his own successors the ideal of a long sustained narrative poem as the identifying achievement of a great poet. He also established an easy and free-flowing style which outlasted the more artificial accomplishments of the metaphysical poets and the later use of end-stopped heroic couplets. The means he used, the Spenserian stanza, was based on the iambic pentameter which became the dominant metre in English prosody.


No major works derive directly from The Faerie Queene. Purcell's semi-opera of 1692 The Fairy Queen is based loosely on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.


  1. Hadfield, Andrew. Edmund Spenser: a Life. Oxford University Press. 2012. p 94
  2. Orlando Furioso canto I, stanza 22, l 1.
  3. Bk 3, canto 1, stanza 13