The Faerie Queene: Overview

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Editor: D. L. Kirkpatrick
Date: 1991
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview; Critical essay
Length: 2,527 words

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The Faerie Queene, the great work which engaged Edmund Spenser during his years of semi-exile in Ireland, is the supreme expression of Elizabethan court poetry. No English poem of comparable literary stature has appealed, for widely different reasons, to so many later poets or proved so elusive to critical definition. Milton admired its author as ``a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.'' Keats, Shelley, and Byron used the Spenserian stanza to varied effect, and Wordsworth spoke of ``Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven/With the moon's beauty and the moon's soft pace.'' The variety of these responses suggests the difficulty which faces any attempt to define the nature of Spenser's achievement by confining it to any limiting critical formula.

The difficulty does not arise from any failure on the poet's part to state his purpose. In a letter to Sir Walter Ralegh, prefixed to the 1590 edition of the first three Books, Spenser said that ``the general end ..."of all the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtue and gentle discipline.'' He also pointed to the influence of previous writers—Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, and Tasso—``by example of which excellent poets I labour to portray in Arthur, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private moral virtues.'' He goes on to say that these virtues are ``the purpose of these first twelve books, which if I find to be well accepted, I may be perhaps encouraged to frame the other part of politic virtues in his person, after that he came to be king.'' Finally, he states that ``In that Faery Queen I mean glory in my general intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our sovereign the Queen, and her kingdom in Fairy Land.''

The application to the poem of this plan, which seems to envisage a work four times as long as the huge fragment actually completed, is fraught with difficulties. Most obviously, we have only six books and what seems to be the fragment of a seventh, published for the first time as ``Two Cantos of Mutability'' after the poet's death. Further, it is possible to find a certain completeness in the poem as it stands. A plan could be discerned in which Book I, dedicated to the adventures of the Knight of the Red Cross representing Holiness in search of the truth to be found in unity, might be linked to Book VI, in which the exploits of Sir Calidore, embodying the virtue of Courtesy, show holiness in action in the ideal courtly world. Similarly Book II, which presents in Sir Guyon the virtue of Temperance, might be linked to Book V, where the adventures of Sir Artegall show the same virtue engaged in advancing the values of Justice in a difficult public world. According to this plan Books III and IV, dealing with the stories of Britomart and of Cambel and Triamond, would constitute the turning-point of the whole...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420007608