LECTURE NOTES: Long Day's Journey Into Allegory--The Faerie Queene

Slides #1 & #2. Portrait of Edmund Spenser (artist unknown); 1839 English gold coin depicting Queen Victoria as Una with motto, "may God guide my footsteps" (this coin was never actually circulated)

EDMUND SPENSER (1552-1599)

In a letter Spenser wrote to his friend Gabriel Harvey in 1580, he asked, "why a God's name may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language?" Writers of Spencer's generation were determined to prove that English was second to no other language in beauty, dignity, and versatility. Spencer's means toward this end was to turn away from foreign and classical authors and to seek a literary model in Chaucer, whose work he praised as "the well of English undefiled." The Faerie Queene abounds in anachronisms--for example, the y-prefix in past participles like ycladd. Moreover, Spencer incorporated a lot of English words that Chaucer would have used in his poetry but which had fallen out of usage by the 16th century--for example, whilome ("before"), areeds ("advises"), and weene ("know"). Finally, Spenser also employed archaic spelling for some words that were still in common usage to make the language of the poem seem more antique, such as eyen for "eyes." Not everyone was happy with these experiments--Sidney did not "allow it" (see what he has to say about Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar in his Defense), Ben Jonson claimed Spenser "writ no language," and in the 18th century Samuel Johnson described the language of The Shepheardes Calendar as "studied barbarity."

As the Introduction to Spenser in our Norton Anthology tells us, "Spenser cannot be put into neatly labeled categories. His work is steeped in Renaissance Neoplatonism but is also earthy and practical. His is a lover and celebrator of physical beauty yet also a profound anlayst of good and evil in all their perplexing shapes and complexities. In his early days he was strongly influenced by Puritanism, remained a thoroughgoing Protestant all his life, and portrayed the Roman Catholic church as a demonic villain in The Faerie Queene; yet his understanding of faith and sin owes much to Catholic thinkers. He is a poet of sensuous images yet also something of an iconoclast, deeply suspicious of the power of images (material and verbal) to turn into idols. He is an idealist, drawn to courtesy, gentleness, and exquisite moral refinement, yet also a celebrant of English nationalism, empire, and martial power. He is in some ways a backward-looking poet who paid homage to Chaucer, used archaic language, and compared his own age unfavorably with the feudal past. Yet as a British epic poet and poet-prophet, he points forward to the poetry of the Romantics and especially Milton--who himself paid homage to the 'sage and serious' Spenser as a 'better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas'" (616).

I have included the gold coin above, which was struck early in Queen Victoria's reign--1839--in order to provide a piece (literally, a "gold piece") of British material history that illustrates the important place of Spenser's Faerie Queene in England's national cultural imagination well after the century in which the epic was written (in fact, if you want some idea of how important Spenser's epic poem also was to publishers and visual artists well after the 16th century, follow this link: The Classic Text: Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene). The coin depicts the young Victoria (at this time, twenty years old) as Spenser's Una (or "Truth") accompanied by the lion who guards her chaste virtue (and this is also the lion of the British standard--the lion who guards the empire and also makes it strong, as well as the lion who is often present in the legend of St. George, England's patron saint, upon whom Spenser modeled his Red Crosse Knight).

Slides #3 & #4. St. George and the Dragon (Paolo Ucello, 14th c.); knife being handed to Elizabeth by one of her courtiers after a hunt because "the Prince or chiefe" always makes the first cut (woodcut, from The Booke of Hunting, 1575)

The Renaissance woodcut and medieval painting above provide an interesting pictorial diptych through which to "think" Book I of Spenser's Faerie Queene--think of them as the two "paste-downs" of an imaginary book that we are constructing for our reading of "The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse" (a "paste-down" is a piece of paper that is glued to the inside of the front and back covers of a book); therefore, in our imaginary book these two images "bookend" the Legend and also "enclose" and "enwrap" it. In Ucello's painting, which was created in the century Spenser's art sought to reconnect with--Chaucer's 14th century--we see the St. George of early Christian legend who rescued the princess of a town in 3rd/4th-century Libya (although, note the distinctly medieval Continental costuming of the figures in Ucello's depiction) from a dragon who was terrorizing that town and eating all the citizens. Even more important, after St. George saved everyone, they were so happy they all converted to Christianity. The "real story," of course, is that Libya is a predominantly Muslim country and has been for a long time (North Africa, generally, has been predominantly Muslim since the 7th century--give or take various rampaging Ottoman Turks, Christian Templar knights, Italian colonizers, and even Hitler), but that never stopped medieval Christians from trying to convert those they saw as "heathens," whether Jewish or Muslim or otherwise--usually by the sword, which meant, "convert or die" (or, even more horrible, "die and get out of the way"--that's a different "story," isn't it [?], and not altogether irrelevant to Spenser's epic). If you are curious about the religious Crusades launched in Europe from the 11th through 13th centuries, follow this link: Medieval Sourcebook: The Crusades. What this all means, of course, as with all fabulous tales, is that the dragon is never really a dragon, but rather, something more sublimely terrifying that can't be readily visualized, such as human greed and rapaciousness, or, the dark erotics of power (or . . . the Muslim? or . . . the Jew?).

The key to remember here is that Ucello's St. George represents a medieval fictionalization of a real 2nd/3rd-century Cappadocian "George" who was a soldier in the Roman army under Diocletian (245-313) who persecuted the Christians. When this George complained about Diocletian's violence against the Christians, he was promptly thrown in prison, tortured, and beheaded, and he became, of course, an instant martyr for the early Christian cause. But how did St. George become the patron saint of England? That would be because, in yet another "legendary" story, his spirit apparently appeared to the Christian army at the Battle of Antioch, and also to King Richard the Lion-Hearted during the First Crusade against the Saracens ("Saracen" = "Muslim" = Spenser's "Sarazin" = "Sansfoy" = "without faith").

Our second "paste-down" shows Elizabeth I in a hunting scene and I have included this in conjunction with Ucello's painting because it depicts another kind of violence done with a pointed weapon by the woman who, along with Red Crosse knight, forms the "dynamic duo" of Spenser's grand allegory and "darke conceit"--for Elizabeth was Spenser's "Belphoebe," his "Gloriana," and his "Faerie Queene" all rolled into one. She was, for Spenser, quite literally the "sun rising in the sky of history" toward which everything in England and the world would turn and bend. And that is why Spenser's epic is also a romance, between Spenser and his beloved queen, but also between Red Crosse and the Faerie Queene (and therefore, also between the Christian faith and England). As the Norton Anthology editors tell us in their Guide for Instructors, "For Spenser and many of his readers, the triumph of English Protestantism over Spanish Catholicism in the age of Elizabeth I was quite literally the historical fulfillment of biblical prophecies and ushered in a new age in which England would be, as Isaiah (42.6) had prophesied of Israel, a light among the nations" (52). And finally, Spenser's epic is also a romance with a kind of peculiar ending, for although Red Crosse and Una are "betrothed" ("the knitting of loves band"), Red Crosse leaves the festivities surrounding their engagement to return to his queen while Una stays behind and mourns. And this is because, in Spenser's epic, the past is the future and the end is really just the beginning, and yes, Elizabeth I is the "new" St. George.

Slide #5. "The Redcrosse Knight overruled by Despair but timely saved by Una" (illustration by William Kent for 1751 edition)

Spenser wrote the greater part of The Faerie Queene in Ireland (1580s-1590s), where he served an oppressive and brutal colonial regime as the secretary to the new English governor of Ireland, Lord Grey of Wilton (Spenser mainly worked at odd jobs in the judicial bureaucracy). According to Elizabeth Fowler, in her Yale lecture "The Faerie Queene Among the Disciplines," Ireland was in a "terrible and terrified state" when Spenser was there working and writing his epic. Fowler also tells us that in Spenser's prose tract on Ireland he wrote "about an English captain who bragged about placing the severed heads of recently executed Irish rebels along the pathway to his tent so that if any local person came to beg a favor from him, she or he would be suitably undone by seeing the heads of her relatives or neighbors on the way to her English governor." Spenser himself, in his own writings on Ireland, did support the policies of the oppressive British regime, which included massacre, the burning of homes and crops with the intention of starving the inhabitants, and the forced relocation of whole communities, and in 1598, during an uprising in Munster where Spenser lived with his wife and infant child, Irish rebels burned down Spenser's house, forcing Spenser and his wife to flee back to England where Spenser died in 1599. His child apparently did not survive the fire. But was Spenser always 100% committed to the policies of the colonialist regime? Fowler writes:

Violent political conquest was as morally vexed a topic in medieval and early modern political philosophy as it is today. The law of nature allowed that power could be derived from military conquest (obviously power is derived from military conquest still in, say, Bosnia), but the question was posed, and remains: can it be morally justified? The English prided themselves on their  “mixed” constitution: English political philosophers called their polity a commonwealth, and sharply distinguished its form from absolute, tyrannical monarchy because the power of the crown was seen as limited by the power of the commons and by what is called the English common law, a body of customs and precedents. It was thus a limited monarchy, where the consent of the people (or at least some of them) was considered to be the source of the crown’s dominion. For example, Magna Carta is a series of legal documents from the thirteenth century that expresses the fundamental, constitutional nature of this consent. English political apologists claimed that their idea of the commonwealth was superior to the indigenous political structures of Ireland, which they called barbaric. They also claimed that Irish political leaders had surrendered to conquering English troops centuries earlier. But with the persistent rebellions of sixteenth-century Irish chieftains, could it reasonably be claimed that the primary virtue of the commonwealth, government by consent, was being conveyed by the English? Can you extend the benefits of consensual government to the natives by means of military force? It’s an oxymoron. Can we bring a democratic government to Somalia with tanks? Such a government is supposed to arise out of its citizens, so imposing it by force can be in some contradiction to the principles of democracy.

We could ask the same questions regarding U.S. policy, more recently, toward Afghanistan and Iraq--e.g., did the bombing campaigns in Afghanistan change its government for the better? Will war turn Iraq into a democracy? To sum up here, we'll agree that The Faerie Queene was written in a context of real, actual, and horrible colonialist violence, and also that Spenser was both a loyal advocate and mouthpiece for the colonialist regime while also functioning, perhaps, as the artist who raised in his epic the troubling questions Fowler outlines above, for which Spenser did not necessarily provide pat or easy answers. In other words, as Fowler also tells us, "the political imagination of The Faerie Queene is various and searching." And that is why Red Crosse's greatest enemy, as illustrated by William Kent above, is not Errour or Duessa or Lucifera or Orgoglio or even the dragon--it's himself. It's not the serpent in the cave, but the serpents of the mind.


The Spenserian Stanza


Defintions by Spenser's Contemporaries

from George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesie (1589)>

allegory is "a long and perpetual Metaphore" (in other words, as regards Spenser’s Faerie Queene, allegory is a metaphor that the poem elaborates to such a great degree that it becomes an aspect of the plot)

from Sir John Harrington (1561-1612)>

"The ancient Poets have indeed wrapped as it were in their writings diverse and sundry meanings, which they call the senses or mysteries thereof. First of all for the literal sense (as it were the outermost bark or rind) they set down in manner of a history the acts and noble exploits of some person’s worthy memory: then in the same fiction, as a second rind and somewhat more fine, as it were nearer to the pith and marrow, they place the moral sense profitable for the active life of man, approving virtuous actions and condemning the contrary. Many times also under the selfsame words they comprehend some true understanding of natural Philosophy, or sometimes of politic government, and now and then of divinity: and these same senses that comprehend so excellent knowledge we call the Allegory, which Plutarch defineth to be when one thing is told, and by that another is understood."

The Four Levels of Allegory (adapted from Elizabeth Fowler, "The Faerie Queene Among the Disciplines")

Why Allegory?

Allegory is a natural mode of writing in a largely religious society which sees history and nature as charged with hidden divine meanings that can be revealed to a studious, attentive reader. There were three main justifications in Spenser's culture for allegory:

Genres and Forms in The Faerie Queene

(adapted from J.M. Richardson, "Review Notes for The Faerie Queene, Book I", with some additions of my own)

1. PERSONIFICATION ALLEGORY-a form of extended metaphor in which persons and their actions in a narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The characters are often personifications of abstract qualities, the action and setting showing the relationships among these abstractions. There is a dual interest-1) in the characters, settings, & events presented; 2) in the ideas they are intended to convey. The meanings could be moral, religious, political, scientific, or many of these at once. Examples include George Orwell's Animal Farm and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

2. EPIC-a long narrative poem in elevated style, presenting characters of high position in a series of adventures which form an organic whole. Usually the incidents are important to a nation or a race. One main hero. Common features and conventions: the hero is of imposing stature, of national or international importance & of great historical or legendary significance; setting vast in scope (nation, world, cosmos, etc); actions tend to be deeds requiring great valor; supernatural forces interest themselves in the action and may intervene; style is of sustained elevation; narrator is objective; theme stated explicitly; muse(s) invoked; begins in medias res (Latin for "in the middle of things"); catalogs; epic similes; extended formal speeches by main characters. The most famous examples is, of course, Vergil's Aeneid.

3. ROMANCE-stories of knights and ladies set "a long time ago in a faraway time"; scenes & incidents remote from daily life; romantic love is an important theme; many digressions; loose structure; numerous characters, episodes, & adventures; often lighter in tone than epic; social rank of characters is important; fighting is often spontaneous, less well-motivated than in epic; quest motif with plenty of side-tracking common (e.g. rescue maiden, meet a challenge, fulfill a kingly command, find Holy Grail, etc.). Examples include Orlando Furioso, by L. Ariosto, Jerusalem Delivered, by T. Tasso, Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale," and Malory's Arthurian stories.

4. COURTESY BOOK-not to be confused with books of etiquette; class of books dealing with the training of a "courtly" person; originated in Italy, often in dialogue form; discusses the qualities of the perfect gentleman or court lady, the education of a courtier or prince, love, the duties of a courtier as a state counsellor; the most famous example is The Book of the Courtier, by B. Castiglione (1528), translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561. Elyot's The Boke Named the Governour is at least partly influenced by the tradition.

5. EMBLEM-consists of a motto expressing some moral idea, a picture, and a short poem further illustrating or clarifying the idea. The picture, which was originally the "emblem," is symbolic not representational. Collections of emblems (i.e. emblem books) were extremely popular throughout Europe from the 15th through the 17th centuries. Indeed the same pictures often appear in several books, with or without the same verses, and with differing degrees of artistic expertise shown in the execution. Shakespeare and Spenser were especially influenced by emblem books--Archimago is based in part on a couple of emblems; Error is based in part on an inverted or parodic form of the pelican emblem (see also Lear's "pelican daughters"). Originally erudite and frequently multilingual, emblem books became increasingly instruments of popular education; nonetheless, they remain a gold mine of imagery for poets. Examples of emblem books: Alciati's Emblematum Liber, Whitney's Choice of Emblems, Quarles' Emblems.

6. MORAL PHILOSOPHY (ETHICS)-In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle sought to describe and understand the highest good and to prescribe ways to achieve it. In Aristotle’s view, among all the sciences and disciplines there was a "master" or "controlling" discipline that aims at the highest good—Aristotle called this "architectonike" (you might recall Sidney’s reference to this in his Defense of Poesy, where he writes that the sciences are all directed "to the highest end of the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks architectonike, which stands . . . in the knowledge of a man’s self, in the ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well doing and not of well knowing only . . . So that, the ending end of all earthly learning, being virtuous action, those skills that most serve to bring forth that have a most just title to be princes over all the rest."). Aristotle considered politike as the highest discipline (under architectonike) because it studies not only the good of individuals, but the good of the polis—the political community of individuals. Spenser, too, by turning his Red Crosse knight, at the end of Book I, back out into the world to work and fight, is obviously concerned "with the end of well doing and not of well knowing only." You might recall that in his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh that he appended to The Faerie Queene Spenser wrote that he was attempting, in his epic poem, to portray "the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private morall vertues, as Aristotle hath devised" (NAEL, 625). Aristotle did not actually devise twelve moral virtues, and of the virtues he dud prescribe, one of them is not "Holinesse," the virtue Spenser indicates for Book I. For a brief illumination of what Aristotle did say about virtue (and also happiness), follow these links: Moral Virtues and the Mean & Aristotle's Ethics.

Slide #6. St. George and the Dragon (Raphael, 1505-06)

Overview of Book 1 as a Whole

(adapted from Jean McIntyre, "The Faerie Queene: Book I: Toward Making it More Teachable," College English 31 [1970], 473-82)

The allegory of The Faerie Queene is enormously complex. RCK=Holiness, St. George, England, Everyman; his foes are Error, Falsehood, the Catholic Church, types of Pride, Despair, the Devil, Evil; his allies are Truth, magnificence, Grace, and the abstractions in the House of Holiness; his quest is to conquer Satan, restore Eden, become England's patron saint. All these translations of the story (and others) make sense individually, but it is hard to synthesize them into a coherent single reading (various meanings come to the fore and recede). To make things easier, we can examine some larger patterns to which the individual episodes contribute. RCK's adventures fall into four broad groups: Error, Sin, Regeneration, and Victory,

Error->detour through the wandering wood, the deceit of Archimago, flight from Una, enticement of Duessa (Fidessa). All these arise from mistakes about the appearance of things, & his consequent actions would be correct if only the appearances were true. Cantos 1 and 2.

Sin->RCK's actions at the House of Pride, dalliance with Duessa, capture by Orgoglio, and uncalled-for visit to Despair (cantos 4, 5, 7, 8, 9). Here RCK's mistakes lead him to do misdeeds, and the actions would be wrong in any circumstances.

Regeneration->cure and education in the House of Holiness, canto 10.

Victory->slaying dragon (canto 11), betrothal to Una, discomfiture of the surviving enemies, separation from Una to serve Faerie Queene for 6 more years (canto 12). In these last two sections, RCK corrects and redeems earlier errors and sins.

Una's adventures and the material with Arthur are significant largely in relation to RCK's adventures. illuminating them by means of comments, spoken or implied. They enlarge our way of considering the predicament in which RCK has embroiled himself.

The SIN section is the most complex in some ways. It is organized around the ancient formula of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Furthermore, in each adventure here the opponent RCK thinks he is fighting is in fact himself as he then becoming, a kind of prophetic Doppelganger. Sansjoy, e.g., is RCK as he will be if he is captivated by the World; Orgoglio if he is overcome by the Flesh; Despair if he is seduced by the Devil. In each case the identity is only temporary because by the Grace of God someone intervenes and RCK is rescued. These things are permanent hazards to the warfaring Christian.

House of Pride-organized as a royal court, the embodiment of the fair-seeming evil which is the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. Characterized by glitter and the scramble for wealth, place, and power. Contains a catalog of the fall of princes who were powerful in this world, gave all for this world, and lost all for this world. Sansjoy is its champion since those who choose this world place felicity in a finite good that cannot last nor be finally satisfying.