ENG202Y: BRITISH LITERATURE FROM MEDIEVAL TO ROMANTIC
TUES. OCT. 22/13
Remember that your essays are due in less than a month. If you have anything to ask,
e.g. outlines, thesis statements, email me or come to my office Tuesday afternoons.
I posted more material on Blackboard that include writing and grammar tips, along with
some related websites (which treat the subject lightly). There is also a handout on how to
cite quotations, an area in which people struggle, e.g. punctuation, required information.
INTRODUCTION TO THE FAERIE QUEENE
Today and next week we are discussing Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, starting with a
general discussion and background, along with the letter I handed out (also printed as an
appendix to the original volume in 1590). In this letter Spenser conveys his intentions to
Raleigh, who expressed puzzlement, so we need to consider how Spenser characterizes
his own text.
What do you think of the text now that you have read at least some of it? What is
challenging and/or interesting?
For one thing, there is a “back and forth” narrative to deal with, which can be jarring,
especially in an already confusing text. We are removed many centuries from this book,
never mind that the many elements seem to be purposely confusing. Spenser
deliberately uses an older style, making his text even more complicated.
There are many levels to this text, which is no accident, since Spenser consciously tries
to make reading and interpretation difficult. There are many patterns that we don’t
recognize at first, e.g. the Redcrosse Knight’s struggle with faith is also a struggle with his
own nature. (The same reading instructions pertain here as to Sir Gawain.)
You will find yourself relying a lot on footnotes with this text, e.g. in order to explain the
moral, religious, political, and social allegory. A lot of this is hard to decipher because we
are so removed from the time. Social criticism relies on contemporary references that we
won't be familiar with (think of pop culture references today being read by people 100
years from now). Any single thing at one moment can have multiple meanings.
We have encountered allegory before, generally defined as a story using symbols to
convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, e.g. political, moral. There is a surface level and
a deeper one with which the author expects the reader to engage actively, unlike in a
fable, for example, which might work on a similar symbolic level but which provides the
explicit lesson at the end. In contrast, allegory requires hard work to interpret
(which is why we rely so much on scholarly apparatus for help). We are being tested as
we read, e.g. following the Redcrosse Knight’s experiences. Even when it was written,
readers were confused by The Faerie Queene.
Edmund Spenser was born around 1552 (the exact date isn't known), when Mary I was
on the English throne (we are several decades removed from Thomas More and Utopia).
Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was extremely
Catholic. Henry had renounced papal authority in order to nullify his marriage to
Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Yet Mary in her turn wanted to renounce this legacy
when she succeeded her brother Edward as monarch. Edward was even more Protestant
than his father Henry, but Mary reversed this trend completely. She executed many
ENG202Y, OCT. 22 Page 1 of 6 Protestant leaders, a policy that was ultimately self-defeating since Mary turned them into
martyrs, strengthening the Protestant and anti-Catholic cause (as we see in this poem).
After Mary’s short reign, Elizabeth I assumed the throne upon Mary’s death in 1558.
Elizabeth tried to compromise and be less extreme than her sister, but Protestantism
became the clear religion of the day, making Catholics increasingly marginalized.
Spenser himself was quite poor. He enrolled as a scholar in the Merchant Taylor’s school
and later entered Cambridge as a sizar or “poor student”, which meant he had to work for
his room and board. Later he became secretary to several important political figures and
eventually went to Ireland, but Spenser was out of sympathy with the Irish, and the life
there wasn’t what he expected or desired.
The Faerie Queene is partly a panegyric: a public poem of praise for an
authority figure, e.g. a birthday poem for a king or queen. Using the poem to
celebrate Elizabeth I was part of his plan to get royal support for his work; in fact, he
got an annual pension for his efforts (if not as much as he hoped for; Elizabeth called him
“a strange little man”).
The Faerie Queene remains an iconic text, but besides this Spenser wrote a great deal of
pastoral poetry, e.g. The Shepheard’s Calendar. Later he became a sheriff in Ireland, and
in 1599 he died under mysterious circumstances.
The Faerie Queene was published in 2 parts, the first 3 books in 1590 (with the letter to
Raleigh appended), and the next 3 in 1596. The Faerie Queene was part of a larger
project, and like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales it remained uncompleted on Spenser’s
death, with only 6 of the 12 planned books completed.
SPENSER’S 1590 LETTER TO RALEIGH
(This letter is also in your anthology.)
Despite the difficultly of Spenser’s prose, e.g. very long sentences, odd syntax, this letter
at least provides more explanation than most authors give in terms of explaining their
work. Even taking for granted the fact that an author’s written statements of intentions
are always crafted for a specific reader and/or purpose, what are Spenser’s influences as
stated in the letter? Is there anything similar to something we have already read?
For one thing, Spenser draws on Homer and Virgil, almost in a boastful way. His
mentioning other famous people emphasizes the grand ambitions he has for his poem.
Virgil, for example, had a career that progressed in a similar way, from pastoral to epic.
Spenser consciously positions himself as another great writer of epic, not to mention that
Virgil also wrote his epic The Aeneid in 12 books or cantos.
An epic is a long narrative poem in elevated style, usually related to national or
cultural history. Epics often begin in medias res (“in the middle of things”), and
Spenser differentiates between poets and historians (“historiographers”). The Faerie
Queene starts in the middle of a forest, e.g. what is happening in this quest? This is a
standard epic opening similar to how Virgil began his work.
Spenser desires to focus on “moral virtues” in his 12 books, e.g. temperance, holiness,
chastity, justice, courtesy. He mentions the meaning of some of the central figures in his
poem, e.g. Arthur (who appears in the 2 ndhalf), and the Faerie Queene herself, who is
ENG202Y, OCT. 22 Page 2 of 6 “the most excellent Queen Elizabeth”. He uses other figures to represent aspects of
Elizabeth, shadowing the real person in a way, i.e. a vague remembrance.
Shadow, darkness, and light have a huge significance in the poem. For example,
darkness is aligned with ignorance or an inability to see past false appearances.
Occasionally we get criticism of Queen Elizabeth or Gloriana, however, as when
other queens are described in the text.
Spenser acknowledges to Raleigh that the poem is a “dark conceit”, and that the reader is
liable to find his poem tedious and confusing. Yet this is also part of the allegory’s form.
Spenser wants to “fashion a gentleman or noble person” – conduct literature, i.e. a book
that can be used to show someone’s rising in virtue. As an example, the Redcrosse
Knight doesn’t begin as a knight; instead, he is a “rustic clown” (i.e. a country bumpkin)
who wants the Queen to allow him to take part in any adventure that comes up (similar to
the opening of Sir Gawain). He is ill-fitted for his task although he is willing enough, i.e. he
is inexperienced but gradually learns from his mistakes, rising through the ranks and
becoming a hero.
This rising through the ranks has parallels with Spenser’s own background: from a poor
boy to receiving the favour of the Queen. A gentleman can be fashioned from humble
beginnings, showing Spenser’s view of what education can do – an important value in
Spenser chooses King Arthur because setting a story in the past situates it furthest
from the “danger of envy and suspicion of present time”, making it possible to criticize
contemporary events. Many authors use similar distance in order to protect themselves
when criticizing “the powers that be”.
We also see the influence of romance, e.g. the knights on a quest. The use of disguise is
common in these types of work, e.g. Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain, which celebrate
chivalric values while also interrogating them. Spenser’s work includes people who
encounter similar types of challenges, e.g. sorcery figures, people in disguise. All of this is
Although Spenser operates on different levels of symbolic meaning, it is important to keep
these genres in mind as you read. The term epic romance which has often been applied
to The Faerie Queene, e.g. arming the hero with the ornate shield is taken directly from
►It is important to be able to make connections between the 2 texts you choose to focus
on in your essay, i.e. similarities, differences, along with the exam – how do different texts
THE SPENSERIAN STANZA
The epic genre is highlighted in the first stanza, the proem of the book. Spenser is talking
about himself in this stanza, but we also meet here another important formal feature of
the text: what has become known as the 9 line Spenserian stanza.
• first 8 lines are in iambic pentameter
□10 syllables per line, 2 syllables per foot (unstressed, stressed, e.g. “Lo I the man
whose Muse whilome did maske”)