My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Virginia Woolf opens her essay on Edmund Spenser’s epic romance, one of the signal literary monuments of the English Renaissance, this way: “The Faery Queen, it is said, has never been read to the end.” A recent monograph called Reading and Not Reading The Faerie Queene gathers many such skeptical remarks from the last four centuries, from Philip Larkin pronouncing Spenser’s epic “the most boring poem in English” to Spenser’s own rhetoric professor, who, upon being sent the manuscript by his former student, derided it as “Hobgoblin run away with Apollo.” The poem’s foremost living apologist, the controversial Camille Paglia, not unpersuasively blames its academic stewards for its popular neglect in her own magisterial Sexual Personae—Spenser’s critics, she says, “have thrown up a thicket of unreadable commentary around him”—but even she might acknowledge that The Faerie Queene (1590-96) is genuinely difficult, not only for readers today, but going all the way back to Ben Jonson, who complained that Spenser “writ no language.”
First, its 1000+ pages are written not only in verse but in a sequence of complex stanzas whose form Spenser himself devised, called Spenserians in his honor. Each stanza has nine lines with an ababbcbcc rhyme scheme; the first eight lines are iambic pentameter, while the last is an alexandrine. Page after page after page of this virtuosic jingling and jangling wears on the readerly nerves, especially when Spenser, who can’t always fit his characters’ multisyllabic names into the metrical scheme, writes endless battle sequences in which “he” did this to “him,” which caused “him” to attack “them” in turn, until you have no idea who is doing what to whom. Milton may have pronounced Spenser a “better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas,” but when he prefaces Paradise Lost with a dismissal of rhyme as “the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre; graced indeed since by the use of some famous modern poets, carried away by custom,” he might have had Spenser in mind. (Furthermore, the poem’s archaic spelling, needlessly preserved in many current editions—don’t we modernize Shakespeare and the King James Bible?—may irritate contemporary readers.)
The poem is also both exceedingly long and unfinished, a lengthy journey without a destination. Spenser’s plan for the projected 12-book epic, announced in a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh appended to the first edition, promises “a continued Allegorie, or darke conceit” meant “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” as well as to honor “the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene.” A brilliant syncretist or synthesizer of diverse traditions, Spenser, following the Continental Renaissance epics, adopts the classical epic as his model, but adds a medieval dimension of Arthurian romance and allegory, all to vindicate not only Christianity in general but English Protestantism particularly in that late-16th-century moment of Elizabethan national and religious consolidation.
While readers may fear the way this allegorical technique lends itself to didacticism, the poem’s bigger problem and biggest triumph is that Spenser quickly loses control of his conceit amid his wide-ranging sources—which eventually include Neoplatonic philosophy, Egyptian mythology, and Celtic lore in addition to Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian inspirations—not to mention his burgeoning, complicated plot.
Except for Book I’s linear allegory of the Redcrosse Knight’s coming to the New Jerusalem, The Faerie Queene defies brief (or even extensive) summary. Convinced he was writing not at the dawn of a renaissance but in a degenerate “stonie” (as opposed to golden) age, Spenser wanted to revive medieval ideals of holiness and courtly virtue, hence his chivalric subject matter. Each of the poem’s six books is supposed to narrate the adventures of a particular knight in the fantastic land of Faery to exemplify one Christian virtue. In practice only Books I and II and V and VI obey this rule, themselves not always consistently, while the interconnected narratives of Books III and IV offer a sometimes bewildering panoply of knightly adventures only loosely organized around the formidable female warrior Britomart.
Paglia is correct when she judges Britomart the epic’s most impressive character and “one of the sexually most complex women in literature,” a “warlike mayd” who travels in armored male guise, winning the love and inspiring the fear of some women, though destined to bear the Tudor line leading to Elizabeth. As an archetype, she progresses, as Paglia observes, from adolescent androgyne to great mother. James Joyce argued that Daniel Defoe invented both English imperialism and feminism in the dual figures of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but Spenser, in the figure of Britomart, beat Defoe by about 130 years. Spenser chastises men for their skepticism about female capacity:
But by record of antique times I find,
That women wont in warres to beare most sway,
And to all great exploits them selues inclind:
Of which they still the girlond bore away,
Till enuious Men fearing their rules decay,
Gan coyne streight lawes to curb their liberty;
Yet sith they warlike armes haue layd away:
They haue exceld in artes and pollicy,
That now we foolish men that prayse gin eke t’enuy.
Even Britomart draws the gender line, though, when she encounters a rival female warrior, Radigund, who reduces a company of male knights including Britomart’s betrothed, Sir Artegall, to women’s work (they have to sew and wear aprons) in her dungeon. Britomart kills her and overthrows her female tyranny, leaving Spenser uneasily to explain the difference between legitimate and illegitimate queendoms:
she there as Princess rained,
And changing all that forme of common weale,
The liberty of women did repeale,
Which they had long vsurpt; and them restoring
To mens subiection, did true Iustice deale:
That all they as a Goddesse her adoring,
Her wisedome did admire, and hearkned to her loring.
Yet Paglia invests too much in her theoretical case that Spenser is an Apollonian poet in a tradition extending from Nefertiti’s bust to Wilde’s plays; in this way, she is no less an allegorizing critic than those specialists she mocks. She sees Spenser’s love of armor and all the hieratic individuality it implies—is armor really individualizing, however, when it conceals the face and therefore the identity of the wearer?—but comparatively slights his loving, repeated, scenes of Britomart’s and other female warriors’ disrobing, his almost fetishistic obsession with tender female flesh and golden hair spilling out of glinting, dinted metal:
And eke that straunger knight emongst the rest;
Was for like need enforst to disaray:
Tho whenas vailed was her loftie crest,
Her golden locks, that were in tramels gay
Vpbounden, did them selues adowne display,
And raught vnto her heeles; like sunny beames,
That in a cloud their light did long time stay,
Their vapour vaded, shew their golden gleames,
And through the persant aire shoote forth their azure streames.
The knightly armor, and the ranked and steely stanzas that are its formal corollary in the poem’s design, is everywhere threatened by formlessness and sensuality, often represented by different kinds of women than Britomart (or Elizabeth) with their sovereign martial power. Spenser revels in images of the monstrous feminine, evil creatures with comely faces and grotesque lower halves, from the enchantress Duessa (“Her neather parts, the shame of all her kind, / My chaster Muse for shame doth blush to write”) to a sphinx-like prodigy coiled under an altar and representing the evils of the Catholic Church (“For of a Mayd she had the outward face, / To hide the horrour which did lurke behinde”).
Also posing a threat to virtue are the shapeless, surging masses. Here the depressing matter of our poet’s imperial politics demands our attention. He composed these many lines while serving as secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland, at the same time as he wrote memos recommending, in the matter of the Irish rebels, that, to borrow the words of a later imperial ideologue, the English should “exterminate all the brutes.” These events leave their bloody trace in the poem, especially Book V, the Legend of Justice. There Sir Artegall gallops through a series of political parables all pointing to Spenser’s faith in hierarchy. He is loyally served by his enforcer Talus, a proto-robot,
made of yron mould,
Immoueable, resistlesse, without end.
Who in his hand an yron flale did hould,
With which he thresht out falshood, and did truth vnfould.
While the poem cautions against avarice, most notably in Book II’s journey to the filthy Cave of Mammon and its hellish underworld annex, Book V is anxious about the leveling or inversion of hierarchies. The aforementioned episode of Radigund’s female tyranny offers only one example; when Radigund is defeated, Talus puts his flail to its customarily brutal work on her collaborators and subjects, astonishing even Britomart:
There then a piteous slaughter did begin:
For all that euer came within his reach,
He with his yron flale did thresh so thin,
That he no worke at all left for the leach:
Like to an hideous storme, which nothing may empeach.
An earlier episode in which Artegall and Talus dispatch a communist giant and the resentful rabble he’s roused up with his demagogy, likewise makes the case: “But when at them he with his flaile gan lay, / He like a swarme of flyes them ouerthrew.” It’s hard to think of an English classic this canonical that is also so saturated in openly genocidal ideology; Spenser makes a more notorious Victorian imperialist like Kipling seem a model of enlightenment. Why is Spenser not always seen in such a light? Two disquieting possibilities come to mind: either the further back in time an atrocity occurred, the less we care about it, or else the Irish have lately been so assimilated into “whiteness” and “Europe” that they lack the morally prestigious otherness imputed to imperialism’s later victims. Or maybe he is protected by his general obscurity; as Woolf implies, who makes it to Book V? Nobody, in any case, will read this poem for its politics.
The epic’s most memorable and influential single sequence, the episode of the Bower of Bliss that concludes Book II, draws all these themes together and is the poem’s real, if displaced, climax. There Sir Guyon, the knight of temperance, travels to the witch Acrasia’s erotic and aesthetic paradise, where “art striuing to compaire / With nature” creates a half organic and half artificial haven of sportive sexuality:
The wanton Maidens him espying, stood
Gazing a while at his vnwonted guise;
Then th’one her selfe low ducked in the flood,
Abasht, that her a straunger did avise:
But th’other rather higher did arise,
And her two lilly paps aloft displayd,
And all, that might his melting hart entise
To her delights, she vnto him bewrayd:
The rest hid vnderneath, him more desirous made.
Yet Sir Guyon, with the help of his holy sidekick, the Palmer, recovers himself and stops acting the voyeur. He marches to the Bower’s heart, where he finds a knight disarmed and unmanned in the lap of the sexy witch, “Whilst round about them pleasauntly did sing / Many faire Ladies, and lasciuious boyes.” They catch the lovers in “A subtile net, which onely for the same / The skilfull Palmer formally did frame,” while Sir Guyon tears the place apart: “But all those pleasant bowres and Pallace braue, / Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse.” Protestant and Platonic iconoclasm could have no better monument than the extraordinary mini-epic that is Book II, Canto XII—except that Spenser had to envision it all, all the “shapes of naked boyes” and “naked Damzelles,” while his poetry itself vies with nature for command of an elaborate artifice, a subtle net intricating deliriously liquescent sensuality to its ramrod denunciation. As Plato instructs, it is in the end a sin to make art at all, especially art as wild as The Faerie Queene.
Much as Spenser looks back to Homer and Chaucer—and I am intensely moved by his tribute to “old Dan Geffrey (in whose gentle spright / The pure well head of Poesie did dwell)”—his proliferating text anticipates late modern epics like Faust, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow, deliberately written to exceed any one reader’s power to hold the whole in mind. The criticism Paglia disparages, as evidenced by the sometimes detailed endnotes in the Penguin Classics edition, strains too hard to make a unity of the Spenserian sprawl, whereas Paglia more wisely refers to Spenser’s “quarrel with himself.”
A poem that begins in certitude, with the relatively straightforward Christian allegory of its almost self-contained first book narrating the journey toward holiness of the Redcrosse Knight (AKA St. George), breaks off in a fragmentary myth of Spenser’s own invention about the goddess Mutabilitie’s attempt to overthrow the Olympian gods. The androgynous Dame Nature puts down this coup by assuring the chaotic upstart deity that what looks like change is only the universe’s static essence unfolding:
I well consider all that ye haue sayd,
And find that all things stedfastnes doe hate
And changed be: yet being rightly wayd
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being doe dilate:
And turning to themselues at length againe,
Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
Then ouer them Change doth not rule and raigne;
But they raigne ouer change, and doe their states maintaine.
It’s a neat philosophical point, prepared earlier in the poem by Book III’s sojourn to the Garden of Adonis, where souls grow in preparation for life, and where the ceaseless change of underlying substance creates a paradoxical stability, “eterne in mutabilitie.” This mind-twisting concept is the poem’s best self-defense: just as its rigidly formal stanza can hold (more or less) a bewildering diversity of content, so does the entire massive structure retain its shape even as its interiors teem and flower.
This justification is even true to a point, but in the end Spenser’s merit is not allegory or even narrative—the poem’s many stories themselves, whatever their higher significance, are often narrated loosely and confusingly—but rather phantasmagoria. He is at his best describing visionary places. Russell J. Meyer, in his useful Twayne’s Masterwork Studies introduction to the poem, goes so far as to recommend that we “follow A. C. Hamilton’s advice in his edition of the poem and think of it as analogous to a dream.” As with my dreams, I am not left with specific characters or stories—it’s all a blur; one person and event dissolves into another—but a memory of having been to a place other than the daytime world, a place not without menace, but where anything seemed possible.
Spenser’s first harsh critic, his blunt old professor, got it right when he wrote, “Hobgoblin run away with Apollo.” The Mediterranean god of song and measure goes on holiday with a gothic sprite in the dark labyrinth of the Northern woods, there to see monstrous couplings and marvelous changes.