Italian epic poetry
Spenser's Faerie Queene is rooted in the European Renaissance struggle to produce a modern epic poem worthy to stand beside the works of Homer and Virgil. A survey of this should precede discussion of Spenser's own work.
Mention has been made of the new attitude toward the poetry of Classical times. In the 16th century, "emulation" (striving to do as well as or better than the best others can do) was an acceptable form of aspiration. The highest form of poetry, since Aristotle, had been recognized as the epic and it was humiliating not to be able to point to any contemporary works equal to those of Homer or Virgil. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, poets in every part of Europe strove (in vain) to produce such a work.
For Spenser and his contemporaries, the most impressive modern epic was the Orlando Furioso (Roland Insane) (1532) by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1535) which had been inspired by an earlier poem by the fifteenth century poet Boiardo, Orlando Innamorato (Roland in love) published in 1495. The court of the Este family at Ferrara in the later 15th century was deeply interested in the 12th century French romances about Brittany, as well as the heroic stories found in the Chansons de Geste. Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441-94) combined the two in his unfinished poem about Roland in love.
A summary of Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato:
Angelica, the pagan daughter of the king of Cathay, arrives at Charlemagne's court intending to carry off christian knights to serve her father; several, including Orlando, try to woo her. Angelica drinks from a magic fountain and falls in love with Rinaldo, who drinks from the opposite fountain, which makes him detest her so much that he runs away until they arrive at her home. There Orlando comes to rescue her from a dangerous siege, carrying her off to France where Charlemagne is fighting Agramant, king of the Moors. Angelica and Rinaldo again drink from magic fountains, in the reverse order, so that he now loves her, and she detests him. Orlando fights Rinaldo until Charlemagne stops them, entrusting Angelica to Namo, duke of Bavaria.
Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1535) undertook to continue this
strange story for the Este family, who claimed to be descended from Rogero, one of the heroes of French heroic verse. Ariosto's poem is one of the greatest works of European literature, and has always been greatly admired, although serious-minded critics have at times found it rather too entertaining for their taste. Its opening lines inspired not only Spenser, but also Milton:
I sing of knights and ladies, of love and arms,
of courtly chivalry, of courageous deeds,
all from the time the Moors crossed the sea
from Africa and wrought havoc in France.
I shall tell of the anger, the fiery rage
of young Agramant their king, whose boast it was
he would avenge himself on Charles, Emperor of Rome,
for King Trojan's death.
I shall tell of Orlando, too, setting down
what has never before been recounted in prose or rhyme
A summary of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso:
As the poem begins, Orlando hears that Angelica has escaped from Namo, and neglects the call of his duty to Charlemagne to follow her. Meanwhile Rogero has fallen in love with Bradamante, Rinaldo's sister who is a warrior, and their adventures are interwoven with those of Orlando and Angelica. Angelica finds a wounded Moorish foot-soldier, Medoro, and falls in love with him while caring for his wounds. They marry and pass an idyllic honeymoon alone in the woods. Orlando happens to hear of this and becomes mad; he runs naked through the country, destroying everything. At last Astolfo makes a journey to the moon with St John, riding on the hippogriff, and finds there the land of lost things; he recovers Orlando's lost wits, and brings him back to his senses in time to kill Agramant in a final battle.
Ariosto tells the tale with humour and considerable irony. Spenser failed to follow him in this, but took the external romance material of love and knightly prowess, and greatly increased the moral and allegorical levels of meaning. Ariosto's work was so popular that it was published in 154 editions before 1600 and inspired a number of other Italian poets to write long verse romances on similar topics.
When he published the first three books of The Faerie Queene in 1589, Spenser prefaced them with a letter addressed to Sir Walter Ralegh in which he outlined what he claimed to be his "whole intention". The letter even includes a narrative account of his plan for the final, 12th book. This letter, confused and confusing, was not included in the 1596 edition of the completed six books, and it ought not to be taken as a reliable guide to what we find in the existing text. Yet the 1596 edition's title page still proclaims that the poem contains 12 books "fashioning 12 moral virtues" which echoes the words of the letter to Ralegh:
The general end therefore of all the book is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline. (...) To some I know this method will seem displeasant, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, than thus cloudily enwrapped in allegorical devices.
The claim that this poem is a "courtesy book" designed to instruct the noble reader should not be taken too narrowly. The poem is first and foremost one of the greatest works of imaginative literature in English. Spenser makes an apology in his letter for the use of "an historical fiction", realizing that an opinion was growing up in certain protestant circles against every form of literary imagination. His own genius lies in the recreation of images, and this is a fruitful way of approaching the poem.
The Faerie Queene is full of images taken from classical poetry, from the Bible, and from the medieval romance tradition; in many ways, Spenser recomposes the images, making them yield new meanings through the use of various kinds of allegory, religious, moral and historical. As moral allegory, the kind that Spenser learned from Tasso, events such as journeys and battles can be interpreted in terms of the quests and struggles in individual human existence. As historical allegory events in the poem refer indirectly to contemporary society or recent political events in Spenser's world. There are also moments when we encounter simple personification, as in characters named "Ignorance" or "Despair." Yet all the events can and must be read first as part of the poem's on-going fictional narrative. The virtue that forms part of the title of each Book of the work has in some cases caused more trouble than it should in interpreting the contents!
The work in its surviving form, if we exclude the Mutability Cantos, consists of six Books, each containing 12 cantos, and each with an introductory prologue of a few stanzas. Following the example of Ariosto and almost all the other Italians, Spenser writes in epic stanzas. The "Spenserian stanza" used in the Faerie Queene was his own creation, and represents a tremendous poetical achievement. There are nine lines rhyming ababbcbcc, all but the last having 10 syllables, the last 12. The use of only three rhymes in each stanza parallels the pattern of rhyme royal (Troilus and Crisseyde) and ottava rima (Wyatt) stanzas. Equally important is the variety employed in the use of end-stopping and enjambment, by which Spenser maintains the rhythm of his narrative:
Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did mask, (previously)
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheardes weeds, (clothes)
Am now enforst a far unfitter task,
For trumpets stern to change mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds; (noble)
Whose praises having slept in silence long,
Me, all too mean, the sacred Muse areeds (instructs)
To blazon broad amongst her learned throng:
Fierce wars and faithful loves shall moralize my song.
When he published the Shepheardes Calendar, Spenser had remained nameless. Now, publishing his epic, he turns like Virgil to a nobler task. The first Book begins:
A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plain,
Y-clad in mighty arms and silver shield,
Wherein old dints of deep wounds did remain,
The cruel marks of many a bloody field;
Yet arms till that time did he never wield:
His angry steed did chide his foaming bit,
As much disdaining to the curb to yield:
Full jolly knight he seemed, and fair did sit,
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit.
This First Book tells in a quite new way the traditional story of Saint George, the patron saint of England; Redcrosse (so called from his coat of arms, that of England) is no mere martial hero. His story epitomizes the Holiness which in the Calvinistic view of Spenser's protestantism was the essential quality of every true Christian. Part of Redcrosse's problems come from his difficulty in distinguishing between Una and Duessa; Una is clearly a representation of the "true" Church, veiled and often helpless compared with her corrupt and deceptive rival.
The adventures of Redcrosse depict the history of the salvation of an individual soul; at first content to imitate others (using old armour), the hero does not realize his own limitations. He is able to see through the superficial deceptions of the House of Pride, all the temptations of worldly society, but is easily made prisoner by Orgoglio. The giant's name also means "pride" but in this case it is theological pride, the sin of thinking that a person can live a good life entirely by their own strength. From Orgoglio's prison, Redcrosse is rescued by Arthur who represents God's special providence for England, and so for all humanity.
Redcrosse recognizes that he is utterly weak and helpless, and it is at this point that he finds himself tempted by Despair. Una, acting as the Grace offered in the true Christian Church, saves him from this and brings him to the House of Holiness where he is restored to health and strength. Now he is able to live by a strength given by faith, not simply by his own human nature. Even so, during the fight with the dragon which is part of the original St George legend but also recalls one the fundamental images of the Christian victory in the Apocalypse, Redcrosse is in frequent need of supernatural refreshment.
During the three days of the fight, the well of life and the tree of life restore the exhausted hero; these indicate that in the Church there are the "Means of Grace" or sacraments by which the individual Christian is day after day renewed in his fight against Satan. Thus Redcrosse gains a victory and is able to gain the hand of Una; but the marriage is delayed, both for the demands of the poem's structure, and because the wedding in question cannot take place until the Last Judgement.
None of the other five books has the unity or the self-contained power of the first; yet it is wrong to isolate Book I for the intention of Spenser goes beyond it and the other five books certainly expand and challenge its almost too tidy vision of human existence.