Literature Study GuidesThe Faerie QueeneTwo Cantos Of Mutability Cantos 6 And 7 Summary

The Faerie Queene | Study Guide

Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene | Two Cantos of Mutability, Cantos 6 and 7 | Summary

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Summary

Two Cantos of Mutability, Canto 6

The opening summary of the Two Cantos of Mutability is "Which, both for Forme and Matter, Appears to be Parcell of Some Following Booke of the Faerie Queene under the Legend of Constancy."

These cantos represent another incomplete book about the virtue of Constancy. They follow the attempts of Mutability or Change to rule the gods.

A powerful daughter of the Titans, Mutability has already caused great change on Earth. She alters the laws of nature, justice, and policy, changing good fortunes to bad ones and right to wrong. After conquering Earth Mutability wants to conquer the heavens.

First she asks Cynthia the ruler of the moon to give up her throne. Cynthia refuses. Enraged, Mutability makes the moon stands still. The heavens grow dark. Mercury the messenger god notices the change and tells Jove, the ruler of the gods. He sends Mercury to the moon to demand Mutability leave. When she refuses, Jove holds a council with the rest of the gods to decide what to do.

Mutability, determined to make her case to the gods, arrives in their court. She argues that her race of Titans has been held in hell too long. Jove wonders if mortals will ever stop challenging Heaven. He is about to condemn her to death but notices her beauty and stops. Instead he tells her the gods are Heaven's rightful rulers. Mutability asks to take her case to the god of Nature on Arlo Hill.

The poet stops to tell the story of Arlo Hill's destruction. Long ago the gods, especially Cynthia, loved to spend time in Arlo Hill. She frequently bathed in the hill's streams. (Cynthia is also called Diana, her name in Roman mythology). The god Faunus wants to see Cynthia naked and bribes her nymph Molanna to tell him where Cynthia is bathing. But Faunus laughs, giving himself away, and Cynthia catches him. She punishes Faunus and Molanna and leaves Arlo Hill forever. Eventually wolves and thieves take it over.

Two Cantos of Mutability, Canto 7

The gods assemble on Arlo Hill to hear Mutability make her argument. The goddess Nature comes forward with her face veiled.

Mutability begins by arguing that Nature treats heaven and earth the same way. Earth undergoes constant change. Seasons transform, animals die, and humans age. Water, air, and fire also change their forms; the weather can change suddenly and violently. The gods of air, fire, earth, and water should be under Mutability's power. To show these transformations Mutability brings out the seasons Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, which progress from youth to old age. She then brings out the 12 months of the year. Finally, she brings out Day and Night, the Hours, Life, and Death. She argues that time, which is always changing, rules over heaven as well as earth.

Jove replies time may rule all earthly things, but the gods rule time. In response Mutability says the gods undergo change too. As evidence she points out the movement of the moon, the sun, and the planets Mercury, Venus, and Mars. She argues that Jove himself was born a mortal man and is under her rule.

Nature considers the case and delivers her verdict. She agrees all substances undergo change. But the change is designed to return them to their perfect form. They will eventually become their true selves again. Change doesn't rule all things; everything rules over change. Mutability must be content to be ruled by Nature until the time when all change ends.

In a third incomplete canto the poet agrees Mutability rules earth. Life is temporary, and time makes everything disappear. But the poet looks forward to the day Nature promises when everything rests eternally in its ideal unchanging state.

Analysis

Spenser's title positions the virtue of constancy—permanence and dependability—against the vice of mutability or change. This opposition echoes his general belief that the world has changed for the worse over the years. Canto 6, Stanzas 5–6 describe the evil Mutability causes in the world. Morals have eroded and justice has been corrupted.

Though Spenser accepts that change is inevitable, he laments the hardships of living in a world where nothing seems sure or certain. The Two Cantos of Mutability show his attempt to grapple with a universal question. When the planet itself is impermanent and all life ends in death, how are people meant to live?

He continues the device of allegory in these cantos by using characters to represent abstract concepts. The main character Mutability is a maverick goddess attempting to unseat heavenly justice. To Spenser the chaotic world needs divine order. Drawing on the gods and goddesses of Greek myth, he imagines how these deities would respond if their order was threatened, examining whether they would allow Mutability to take over.

His idea of the cosmos is central to his argument. Spenser bases the cantos' universe on the theories of the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy and the Greek philosopher Aristotle, still accepted as truth in the 16th century. The Earth was stationary at the center of Ptolemy's universe. Other known planets rotated around the Earth in spheres. Beyond the planets lay the stars in an outer celestial sphere. Aristotle believed this celestial sphere was unchanging and governed by a prime mover similar to a God. Readers in Spenser's time would also believe in an unchanging celestial sphere beyond the planets. The idea of change in this area of the heavens would surprise them.

Mutability's descent from the Titans already makes her a rebel. In Greek mythology the Titans were the descendants of Earth, gods older than but inferior to the Olympians. After a battle Zeus cast the Titans from power, but they continued to fight for authority. In Canto 6, Stanza 20 Jove—the Roman name for Zeus—calls the Titans "Earth's cursed seed" or descendants of Earth trying to rule the heavens. Stanza 29 lists other mortals Jove punished for opposing his rule. He thinks mortals should know better by now.

But Mutability thinks she has an ancestral right to leadership. She places herself on equal footing with the gods in Canto 7, Stanza 15, presuming she and the gods see the universe in the same way. Her defiance recalls the biblical figure of Lucifer or Satan, an angel banned from heaven after vying for God's power.

Spenser fears Mutability will cause as much trouble as Lucifer did. When Mutability stops the movement of the moon, she throws the heavens off course. The planets fear the return of Chaos, or the original emptiness of the universe before any celestial bodies took shape. Mutability's threat becomes clear. She will make her case or plunge all life forms into darkness.

Pausing at a tense turning point in the main narrative, Spenser offers a myth he hopes will make the story clearer to readers. He transitions from Calliope the muse of epic poetry to Clio the muse of history. By invoking Clio, Spenser presents his myth as a historical narrative, lending a sense of authenticity to the cantos. Arlo Hill is a real hill near Spenser's adopted home in Ireland.

His story of Arlo Hill's demise is a retelling of the myth of Diana and Actaeon. After Actaeon sees Diana bathing, she turns him into a tree as punishment. It's a tale of a fall from grace spurred by a single rebellious action. The fall of man in Christian myth, in which Adam and Eve rebel against God and are cast from the Garden of Eden, tells a similar story. The insolence of Faunus is meant to parallel the risky actions of Mutability. Just as Arlo Hill suffers for Faunus and Molanna's antics, the heavens and the earth might suffer if Mutability gets her way.

Nature, the judge of the case, is a leveling force compared to Mutability's chaos. Nature represents divine providence, wisdom, and a promise of order. She is positioned as the ultimate ruler of the gods, even the gods of the underworld. By invoking "Dan Geffrey," or the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, Spenser places himself in a long tradition of poets writing about nature.

Mutability's ultimate goal is to convince Nature that change and transformation are necessary parts of all life. She starts by describing her own domain, Earth. And at first her points seem hard to refute. Canto 7, Stanza 19 describes the constant transitions in human life. People change their minds, their opinions, and their moral codes. Even if they don't, they are still subject to decay and mortality.

In fact, she argues, the natural world requires change in order to exist. Spenser could possibly be nodding here to the change from Catholicism to Protestantism. Mutability presents the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Aristotle believed all physical matter in the universe came from these elements. Mutability points out that each element goes through stages. Fire is quenched. Water evaporates. Earth erodes. To her these transitions represent the instability of creation itself. She later names the gods of each element to prove they're controlled by change as well.

Next she proves humans order their existence according to a changing calendar. The progress of the seasons mirrors the journey from youth to age, showing that humans relate the changing seasons to their own life experience. Her parade of the months includes the labors associated with each month, a theme in medieval and Renaissance art based on the farming cycle. And her final salvo in the parade is Death itself, demonstrating the temporary nature of all earthly life.

By Stanza 50 of Canto 7 she's moved on to the realm of the gods. Each planet she names is associated with a god, and she calls these gods to account. Her argument relies on Ptolemy's observation the planets followed irregular courses. Stanza 55 refers to "the sundry motions of your Spheres" as evidence the gods' realm follows a random course subject to change.

Nature's conclusion offers hope in a chaotic world. She believes with Aristotle all elements will return to their natural state despite surface-level changes. Though their forms may fluctuate, their essence or substance does not. Artegall the knight of justice makes similar arguments in Canto 5, Stanza 2 when he says the sea and the earth take up exactly as much space as they need.

By applying Nature's argument to human life Spenser reveals a Christian worldview centered in a divine plan. In Christianity humans' souls will outlive their bodies. Souls return to their original perfect state in the afterlife. Earthly existence is simply a temporary stopping point.

Spenser hopes for this afterlife in the final incomplete canto. If he lives a virtuous life on Earth he'll earn a place in the unchanging life to come. He's aware life is short and death is coming, but he has hope in the afterlife—similar to the Redcrosse Knight anticipating the perfection of Hierusalem in Book 1. Ending with a prayer, Spenser calls on the Sabbaoth God or the God of the heavenly hosts. His reference to Sabbaoth may also refer to the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week in which God rested after six days of creation in Christian tradition. Spenser hopes he too can earn eternal rest in heaven.

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