Literature Study GuidesThe Faerie QueeneAuthors Letter Dedicatory Sonnets Summary

The Faerie Queene | Study Guide

Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene | Authors' Letter–Dedicatory Sonnets | Summary

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The Faerie Queene is divided into seven books with the first six books containing 12 cantos each. The seventh book has only two cantos. This study guide examines The Faerie Queene in sections with three cantos each.

Summary

Author's Letter

Addressed to Spenser's friend and court superior Sir Walter Raleigh (c. 1554–1618), the letter explains Spenser's intentions in the poem. He wants the poem to model a virtuous life for aspiring gentlemen and nobles. His inspirations include the history of King Arthur and poems by the epic poets Homer (9th or 8th century BCE), Virgil (c. 70–19 BCE), Ariosto (1474–1533), and Torquato Tasso (1544–95)—an Italian poet who wrote the epic Gerusalemme Liberata. Each poet included an example of a noble hero. Spenser's version of Arthur will model the 12 moral virtues described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–22 BCE).

Some readers might prefer their moral lessons in clear sermons rather than vague allegories. But, Spenser believes an allegory is pleasanter to read and offers a better example of lived virtue. He'll draw on legends about Arthur to demonstrate this virtue. In his poem, Arthur will pursue the love of the Faerie Queene, also called Gloriana.

The character of Gloriana represents the excellence of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). The character of Belphoebe represents Queen Elizabeth's virtue and beauty. Arthur represents magnificence, the perfected form of all 12 virtues. The poem's first three books feature three knights who each portray a virtue. The Redcrosse Knight represents holiness, Sir Guyon represents temperance, and the female knight Britomartis or Britomart represents chastity.

A poet, unlike a historian, can relate events in any order he wants. So, Spenser's history will begin with the final chronological event of the Faerie Queene's annual 12-day feast. On the first day, a "tall clownishe younge man" asks the queen to send him on any quest she hears about during the feast. Soon a woman in mourning clothes enters riding a white donkey. A dragon has besieged her parents' castle and kingdom. The clownish man begs to defeat the dragon. The woman tells him he must first wear the armor of a Christian man whom St. Paul describes in his letter to the Ephesians. He agrees and becomes a knight. At this point, the first of the poem's books begins.

On the second day of the feast the Palmer enters the queen's court carrying an infant who has bloody hands. The infant's parents have been murdered by the enchantress Acrasia. The queen selects Guyon to go on the quest. On the third day, a groom reports the enchanter that Busirane has captured a young woman named Amoret. A knight named Scudamour is chosen for the quest but cannot perform it; Britomart takes over and succeeds. Many other secondary stories interweave with the main story in the poem.

Commendatory Verses

The commendatory verses were written by other poets to celebrate the writing and publication of The Faerie Queene. Some of the authors have been identified; others are unknown.

In "A Vision upon this Conceipt of the Faery Queene" the speaker imagines the souls of Italian poet Petrarch (1304–74) and his lover Laura weeping at the Faerie Queene's approach. The "hardest stones were seen to bleed," the speaker says, and "buried ghostes" cried out to the heavens, including the ghost of the Greek poet Homer, whose spirit, filled with grief, is trembling at the gravesite. The author of the poem is Sir Walter Raleigh.

"Another of the Same" by Raleigh says the virtues themselves will determine the merit of the poem.

"To the Learned Shepehearde" refers to the poet as Collyn or Colin Clout, Spenser's fictional alter ego. The speaker wishes Collyn luck as he transitions from shepherds' songs to poems about the heroic deeds of kings. The author is Spenser's Cambridge classmate Gabriel Harvey (c. 1550–1630). He signs his name Hobynoll, a nickname Spenser gave him in The Shepeardes Calendar (1579).

A fourth poem by the unidentified R.S. asks the rivers of London to be silent while the poet, a "Bryttane Orpheus," makes his music.

A fifth poem by the unidentified H.B. asks the Muses to honor the poet as he serves them. The speaker hopes the Faerie Queene will be praised as highly as Emperor Augustus of Rome (63 BCE–14 CE).

A sixth poem by the unidentified W.L. describes how the English poet Sir Philip Sidney (1554–86) encouraged Spenser to write about Faery land. The speaker compares Spenser to classical Greek heroes Achilles and Ulysses.

A sixth poem by the unidentified Ignoto says withholding praise seems like bad judgment. But delivering praise, when everyone can see the high quality of the poem for themselves, seems like envy. The speaker delivers a commendatory verse simply because this is the custom.

Dedicatory Sonnets

Spenser's 17 dedicatory sonnets honor several high officials in Queen Elizabeth I's court, including knights, lords, earls, and the ladies of the court. Each sonnet recognizes the official's work for England and Elizabeth. The poet hopes his Muses will praise the officials as highly as they deserve.

Analysis

The opening letter is addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh, an English adventurer and writer Spenser and Queen Elizabeth I both admired. Raleigh was instrumental in getting The Faerie Queene to Elizabeth.

Beyond its praise for the monarch, the letter defends the power of poetry as art. Spenser believes fantasy and fictional allegory can teach as well as entertain. Noble characters serve as role models for readers. Wicked characters let them know what behavior to avoid. But readers enjoy themselves so much along the way, they may not even notice they're learning lessons. Though his poem is fantasy, Spenser says, it embodies universal truths. His characters exist in a moral universe with high stakes, similar to the real world his readers must navigate. To prove his point Spenser contrasts two ancient Greek authors. The philosopher Plato (428–348 BCE) taught moral lessons through his work. The historian Xenophon's (c. 430–349 BCE) work taught the same lessons while providing a more enjoyable experience for the reader. Spenser's narration in the poem indicates he enjoys his own stay in Faery land.

Other poets proved to be a larger influence on Spenser. He cites several epic authors whose fictional heroes modeled courage and leadership. The works he imitates include Greek poet Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Roman poet Virgil's Aeneid, Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, and more. The Faerie Queene adapts settings, characters, and even whole plots from these poems, revealing Spenser's desire to place his poem in a literary epic tradition. And his predecessors also borrowed from legend. Virgil and Homer based their epics on the myth of the Trojan War (12th century BCE). Ariosto's Orlando has much in common with the epic hero Roland in older French poetry.

Epics often combine mythology with historical fact. Spenser's work includes several references to historical events in England and the British Isles. But, he adds a healthy dose of invention. He recognizes a poet has a different job than a historian. The poet's role is more magical and expansive. Not only can poets honor the past, they can imagine the future. And they have a responsibility to tell an exciting story. Spenser says the poet "thrusteth into the middest," referencing epics' tendency to begin in medias res or in the middle of events. This technique heightens dramatic tension.

While Spenser wants to entertain, he mainly aims to model virtue. He uses the virtues in Aristotle's (384–22 BCE) Nicomachean Ethics as a starting point. The Ethics discuss private virtues governing individual behavior. Aristotle's Politics described public or political virtues governing the behavior of communities. Spenser never completed the political books he had in mind. Nor did he follow Aristotle's outline. Only three virtues in The Faerie Queene—temperance, friendship, and justice—come from Aristotle. The other three—holiness, chastity, and courtesy—come from Spenser's Christian beliefs and the medieval chivalric code.

Similarly, Arthur doesn't play as large a role in the poem as Spenser claims he will. Great Britain held the Arthurian legend as important to the history and identity of their nation. So, Spenser weaves in many features of Arthurian myth. Magnificence, the virtue Arthur demonstrates, means splendor, grandeur, and nobility. It's a virtue appropriate to kings. Fittingly Spenser wants Arthur the future king to marry Gloriana the queen. But, the wedding doesn't take place—one more indication Spenser's original ambition exceeded his actual output.

The story he proposes in the letter lacks consistency with the main narrative. He abandons the conceit of the Faerie Queene's 12 feast days. The character of the Redcrosse Knight is more earnest and experienced than the young, clownish would-be knight Spenser describes. But, he includes the Redcrosse Knight's armor. The biblical book of Ephesians describes the armor of God as an allegorical representation of the virtues that a true believer needs. Just like a knight puts on armor, the Christian prepares himself for a struggle against otherworldly forces of good and evil. Spenser makes the symbol literal by featuring actual armed knights.

The commendatory verses place Spenser in a noble tradition by comparing him to other poets, including Homer, Virgil, and the love poet Petrarch, with particularly frequent comparisons to Virgil. Spenser and Virgil have a lot in common. Both poets transitioned from pastoral poetry to heroic political epics, a move Gabriel Harvey acknowledges in "To the Learned Shepeheard." Both epics included a hero who founds a great city in the poet's country. Virgil's Aeneas founds Rome; Spenser's knights Britomart and Artegall found London.

And both epics praise a royal patron—English Queen Elizabeth I and Roman emperor Augustus. "Grave Muses" indicates that Spenser will be crowned with the same laurel leaves Augustus used to honor Virgil. "When stout Achilles" compares Spenser to Odysseus, a mythological warrior who defended his country against danger. Spenser's poem defends Elizabeth I and her fictional stand-in Gloriana against threats to her crown.

The dedicatory sonnets were Spenser's way of currying favor with important English court officials. Spenser honors their political achievements and praises their defense of Protestantism against Catholic rebels, an idea he'll expand on in the poem. He suggests the lords and earls of the court resemble the heroes of The Faerie Queene. The allegory becomes a way for his royal patrons to see themselves glorified in his work. As a monarchist who believed rule by kings and queens was the best form of government, Spenser also calls on the court members to govern correctly and make wise decisions for England.

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