Edmund Spenser 1552-1599
Review: A poet’s characteristics may be uncovered in two ways: first, by studying the meter, rhyme, language, thoughts, and feelings of the poems and second, by reviewing comments, letters, reviews, and memoirs of peers, critics, and the poet.
Our attention is given to Edmund Spenser in appreciation for giving us a new stanza. According to Thomas Warton this new stanza is “the finest ever conceived by the soul of man”. The Spenserian stanza was his greatest achievement. It was formed by adding an alexandrine to the ababbcbc stave of Chaucer thus the rhyme pattern ababbcbcc.
“He found the octave stanza not roomy enough so first ran it over into another line, and then ran that added line over into an Alexandrine, in which the melody of one stanza seems forever longing and feeling forward after that which is to follow." J. R. Lowell Works.
Chaucer’s A Monk’s Tale:
Creating Spenser’s Faerie Queene:
We witness the impact of the Spenserian stanza as poets throughout the ages have tried their hand. Here are some excerpts:
It became a favorite of the Romanticists.
John Keats The Eve of St. Agnes:
Percy Bysshe Shelley The Revolt of Islam: (Also in Adonais)
Sir Walter Scott in The Vision of Don Roderick. A remarkable 93 Spenserian stanzas:
Robert Burns in The Cotter's Saturday Night:
William Wordsworth in The Female Vagrant:
Alfred Tennyson in The Lotus-eaters:
Spencer lived though a memorable time in the history of England: the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, the solution to Mary, Queen of Scots, exploration of a new world, and the establishment of a new faith in itself, all fertile ground for a poet. There were three periods in his life: Cambridge, the years of education 1552-1576; the Wanderjahre, an unsettled time 1576-1588 divided between London northern England of this he says “Mery London, my most kydnly nurse, That to me gave this lifes first native sourse”; and the Meisterjahre, the achievement years,” in Ireland 1588-1599. No long travels abroad, or journeys to exotic worlds; he held all within his own mind. During his Cambridge period he studied Italian models like The Idylls of Sannazaro and the epics of Orlando of Ariosto and the works of a somewhat deranged Tasso. During this period Spencer wrote The Shepherdes Calendar published in 1579. In this work you will find both Chaucer and Spencer as characters.
Tityrus is Chaucer; Colin is Spenser.
Its significance lies in that the talk was rustic English in word and thought, not Latin, not French, not Italian.. A critic wrote “Sorry I am that I cannot find none another with whom I might couple him in his rare gift of poetry.”
The work marks the beginning of the English Renaissance. We have “a new poet among us”... “The poet and prophet of beauty” as Milton once described him. He returned to London with the first three books of The Faerie Queene. He planned for twelve, only six were completed.
First characteristic: melody.
Aristotle places melody as the first of three genres of "poetry.” Melody meaning words that are pleasant because of their rhythm, tone, and arrangement. “The emotional concord and sequence of sounds.” But his great glory is that he taught his own language to sing and move to measures harmonious and noble. It was Spencer to prove:
“In the softness and melody of his verse, the luxurious richness and harmony of his colorings, the delicacy of his fanciful conceptions...His verse,” said Matthew Arnold, “is more fluid, slips more easily and quickly along, than the verse of almost any other English Poet.”
“He had the subtle perfection of phrase and that happy coalescence of music and meaning, where each reinforces the other, that define a man as poet and make all ears converts and partisans...No other English poet has found the variety and compass which enlivened the octave stanza under his sensitive touch...The music makes great part of the meaning, and leads the thought along its pleasant paths...his fine ear, abhorrent of barbarous dissonance, his dainty tongue, that loves to prolong the relish of a musical phrase...There is no ebb and flow in his meter more than on the shores of the Adriatic, but wave follows back in fluent music to be mingled with and carried forward by the next...” James R. Lowell
“What he did was to reveal to English ears as it had never been revealed before, at least since the days of Chaucer, the sweet music, the refined grace, the inexhaustible versatility of the English tongue...This was the music and melody of his verse. It was this wonderful, almost unfailing, sweetness of numbers which probably as much as anything else set the Faerie Queene at once above all contemporary poetry...” Richard W. Church
“Spenser’s verse is like a river, wide and deep and strong, but moderating its waves and conveying them all in a steady, soft, irresistible sweep forward...no poem runs with such an entire absence of effort, with such an easy eloquence...” George Saintsbury
“He shows his mature hand in the the most airily fanciful of his poems, a marvel for delicate conception and treatment, whose breezy verse seems to float between a blue sky and golden earth in imperishable sunshine. No other English poet has found the variety and compass which enlivened the octave stanza under his sensitive touch. It can hardly be doubted that in Clarion the butterfly he has symbolized himself, and surely never was the poetic temperament so picturesquely exemplified.”
“His best thoughts were born in music. The spirit of poetry is not only felt in his sentiments and made visible in his imagery, but it steals out in the recurring chimes of his complicated stanza.” Edwin Percy Whipple, American Critic.
“Of the color, the savor, the music of life, his poem is full; only the color is brighter, the taste sweeter, the music grander, than any which it is given to mortal senses to know.” R. M Lovett
Our Second Characteristic: Morality
At Pembroke College the “sage and serious Spenser” adopted the teachings of Puritanism. Where men were to live for things eternal and detach themselves from things temporal it became the conflict of flesh and spirit. Spenser called the evil force of the world “the Blatant Beast” also known as Scandal, a thousand-tongued monster produced by Cerberus and Chimaeram, the personification of the invidious voice in the world of envy and revilement. The word blatant derived from the Scottish word blatand meaning bleating. Eventually “blatant” came to mean mean “loud, clamorous” the additional meanings of “unashamed, flagrant” does not appear until the late 19th century.
Note: In Greek mythology the dog Cerberus guarded the entrance to the gate of the underworld. He had three heads, a snake’s tail and a row of serpent heads growing out of his back. He was charged with the duty of eating anyone who tried to escape and preventing the living from entering. Chimaeram was a fire-breathing female with the body of a lion in front, a goat in the middle, and a serpent behind. Finally destroyed by Bellerophon.
In Book VI, Canto 2 of The Faerie Queene Calidore pursues it Blatant Beast, overcomes it and chains it up. Unfortunately it escaped and “now he raungeth through the world againe.” and anyone who trie to restrain it “shall become a target for the Blatant Beast.” In subsequent Cantos of this Book, The hermit gives them the secret to overcome the Beast’s poison: only temperance, personal virtue, and honesty can overcome the effects of attack by the Beast.
In Canto 2 of Book Five of Faerie Queene Artegall and Talus find a crowd on the beach listening to the speech of a giant. In this speech, the giant encourages everyone to redistribute the resources of the earth, from forests and mountains to monetary wealth. Artegall argues against es this idea as a disruption of God’s system he counter-argues that right or wrong cannot be requantified and redistributed.
This sonnet an octave, sestet, followed by two couplets, the poem is based on the duality mortality and immortality; permanence and transiency of all matter.
This next is an interesting alliterative written in stopped heroic couplet:
“We must admire the intrinsic nobleness of Spencer’s general aim, his conception of human life, at once so exacting and so indulgent, his high ethical principles and ideals, his unfeigned honor for all that is pure and brave and unselfish and tender, his generous estimate of what is due from man to man of service, affection, and fidelity...It is the quality of soul which frankly accepts the conditions in human life of labor, of obedience, of effort, of unequal success, which does not quarrel with them of evade them, but takes for granted with unquestioning alacrity a continual struggle with difficulty, with pain, with evil, and makes it a point of hor not to be dismayed or wearied out by them...It is cheerful and serious willingness for hard work and endurance as being inevitable and very bearable necessities, together with even a pleasure in encountering trails which put a man on his mettle, an enjoyment of the contest and the risk, even in play...” R . Church
“The beauty of material objects never obscures to him the beauty of holiness.” E. P. Whipple
“His rebukes of clerical worldliness are in the Puritan tone...no man can read the “Fairie Queene and be anything but the better for it Through that rude age when Maids of Honor drank beer for breakfast and Hamlet could say a gross thing to Ophelia, he passes serenely, abstracter and hight, the Don Quixote of poets...With a purity like that of bolted snow, he had none of its coldness” Lowell
“Among very great poems, the Divina Commedia of Dante and the Faery Queene of Spenser stand alone in taking as their direct theme moral or spiritual virtue, to be exhibited, enforced, and illustrated.” Wm. M. Rossetti.
“The poet freely chooses what pleases his fancy in classical or neo-classical mythology; kyet at heart he is almost Puritan. Not, indeed, Puritan in any turning away from innocent delights; not Puritan in casting dishonor on our earthly life, its beaty, its plendor, its joy, its passion; but Puritan as Milton was when he wrote Lydicas in his weight of moral purpose, in his love of grave plainness in religion and humble laboriousness in those who are shepherds under Christ... The ethereal teaching of Spenser, extracted from his poetry, is worthy of careful study... By his enthusiasm on behalf of noblest moral qualities, by his strenuous joy in the presence of the noblest human creatures - man and woman - Spenser breathes into us a breath of life...” Edward Dowden
“Milton himself extolled his moral teachings; his philosophical idealism is evidently no mere poet’s plaything or parrot’s lesson, but thoroughly thought out and believed in.” George Saintsbury
“The moral seriousness which underlies the poem marks the great difference between Faerie Queene and its Italian prototype. Spenser...chose as the model of his great work the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto, Both Ariosto and Spenser deal with chivalry; but while Ariosto had merely the delight of the artist in the brilliant color which chivalry gave to life, with easy contempt of the cynic for its moral elements, Spenser found in its persons and ideals a means of making goodness attractive.” Wm. Moody
“Spenser is moral, too, (comparison with Chaucer) and lays great stress on distinctions of right and wrong, beautiful and ugly. Nature knows no such values. Whatever of hers happens to fit our desires we rightly enough call good or valuable. Such classifications belong not to nature but to our judging minds. Good and bad, high and low, noble and ignoble are words that express the relations which things bear to us. Parted from man nothing is good, nothing bad. Each object merely exists. To get moral or aesthetic worth it must be studied with reference to some human need. Chaucer, as a true naturalist, does not sit in judgment. He watches, whatever conduct occurs and reports it vivaciously, whether man call it good or bad. Nobody is condemned. The coarse is coarse, the refined, refined. Such natural equality is shocking to Spenser. He is ever applying moral standards, discriminating those desires which ennoble from those which degrade. In his ideal world the struggle between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, is incessant.” George H. Palmer
Our Third characteristic: Imagined Splendor
To examine for the “imagined splendor” of Spenser we look at the characters of Faerie Queene, the mother of all legends. It opens with Arthur the ancient king of the Brits aroung the 6th century then add Gloriana aka Faerie Queene aka Queen Elizabeth a character with no part just a destination. The Redcrosse Knight the hero of Book I; he stands for the virtue of Holiness aka George, and eventually St. George, the patron saint of England. “Saint George of mery England, the sign of victory” Book I Canto IX. He actually represents the Christian fighting against evil--or the Protestant fighting the Catholic Church. Then there is Una - another major protagonist. Meek, humble, and beautiful, but strong when it is necessary; she represents Truth. Then her opposite, Duessa, the alluring beauty, representing falsehood. My favorite is Archimago the sorcerer capable of changing his own appearance or that of others; in the end, his magic is proven weak and ineffective. Britomart is the heroine of Book III, the female warrior, representing Chastity. She searches for her future husband, Arthegall, whom she saw in a vision through a magic mirror. Then Florimell who represents Beauty. Many adore her but she has love for only one knight, who seems to be the only character who isn’t interested, isn’t that the case. Finally there is Satyrane a satyr, a half-human, half-goat creature. Dubbed "nature's knight," the best a man can be through his own natural abilities without the enlightenment of Christianity and God's grace.
Now with that we have “hideous giants and dragons, puissant knights, enchanted weapons, grim caves, and gloomy dungeons” Disraeli says “We do not often pause at elevations which raise the feeling of the sublime.” And this from Milton “To come fully under the spell of the ‘Faery Queen’ we must make ourselves as little children listening to the wondrous tales of a nurse...we yield ourselves to the poet in such a spirit, he makes hour hearts throb with...wonder and dread.”
Spencer was the poet of allegory thus The Faerie Queene is an allegory.
“The personages that move like cream figures through the cantos of the poem are thus no mere personified abstractions: they are rather pictorial emblems, many of which are lumed before us with such grandeur of conception and beauty...”
The characters are symbols of Christianity - faith, hope, and charity. Also there is politics. Spenser was a Protestant and Puritan and devoted to Queen Elizabeth and an enemy of the Catholic Church is corrupt.
Now to the legend:
“Una, who has been abandoned in the forest, is searching for her knight. She encounters a lion, who she tames with her beauty.
The lion becomes her guardian as she searches for Archimago, who has disguised himself as the Red Cross Knight. They find each other but immediately are attacked by Sans Loy, who does not recognize the disguised Archimago. When the lion intervenes to protect Una he is killed by Sans Loy. Una successfully resists Sans Loy's attempts to seduce her, and she is quickly rescued by Fauns and Satyrs, the wood gods, who worship her as a god.
The woodsman, Satyrane, helps her to escape. They meet Archimago who informs them of the death of the Red Cross Knight. While Satyrane engages Sans Loy in a battle, Una flees. Meanwhile, Duessa catches up with the Red Cross Knight. As the knight drinks from an enchanted spring, the giant, Orgoglio, appears and attacks the knight. Duessa agrees to become the giant's mistress in the hope that it will help in her effort to kill Arthur. Duessa and the Red Cross Knight become the prisoner of the giant. The dwarf takes the knight's spear, armor, and shield and leaves. He meets with Una and tells her of all that has happened.
Next, Prince Arthur appears and assures Una that he will rescue the Red Cross Knight from Orgoglio. After a fierce battle, Arthur kills the giant and disarms Duessa. Book II Faerie Queene
What the readers said:
“In the world into which Spenser carries us, there is neither time or space, or rather is is outside of and independent of them both, and so is purely ideal, or more truly, imaginary; yet is is full of form, color, and all earthly luxury, and so far if not real yet apprehensible by the senses.” James Lowell Works
“This work (FQ) is full of life and light and other-wordliness of poetry...This place, somewhere between mind and matter, between soul and sense, between the actual and the possible, is precisely the region which Spenser assigns to the poetic sensibility of impression.” Lowell
“He waves the wand of enchantment, and at once embodies airy beings...The two worlds of reality and of fiction are poised on the wings of his imagination” William Haslitt
“Spenser’s power of taking up real objects, persons, and incidents of plunging these in some solvent of the imagination and then of recreating them...The mere visible shows of Spenser’s poem are indeed goodly enough to beguile a summer’s day in some old wood and to hold us from morning to evening in a waking dream.” Edward Dowden
“This fount of living and changing forms is inexhaustible in Spenser; he is always imaging; it is his specialty. He has but to close his eyes and apparitions arise; they abound in him, crowd, overflow; in vain he pours them forth; they continually float up, more copious and more dense...Magic is the mold of his mind, and impresses its shape upon all that he imagines or thinks. If he looks at landscape, after an instant, he sees it quite differently. He carries it, unconsciously, into an enchanted land; the azure heaven sparkles like a canopy of diamonds, meadows are clothed with flowers, a biped population flutters in the balmy air, palaces of jasper shine among the trees, radiant ladies appear, carved balconies above galleries of emerald. A moist twig is cast into the bottom of a mine and is brought out again a hoop of diamonds...He leads us to the summit of fairy-land soaring above history, on that extreme verge where objects vanish and pure idealism begins.” Hippolyte Taine
“The conventional supposition was that at Court, everyone knew better, all was perpetual sunshine, perpetual holiday, perpetual triumph, perpetual love-making. It was the happy reign of the good and wise and lively. It was the discomfiture of the base, the faithless, the wicked, the traitorous.” R. W. Church
“Spenser is the farthest removed from the ordinary cares and haunts of the world of all the poets that ever wrote except, perhaps, Ovid; ...The poetic faculty is so abundantly and beautifully predominant in him above every other...that he always been felt by his countrymen to be what Charles lamb called him, ‘the poet’s poet.’” Leigh Hunt
“If readers want poetry, if they want to be translated from a world which is not one of beauty into a world where the very uglinesses are beautiful, into a world of perfect harmony in color and sound, of an endless sequence of engaging event and character, of noble passions and actions not lacking in their due contrast, then let them go to Spenser with certainty of satisfaction.” George Saintsbury.
Our Fourth Characteristic: Incongruities. hmmm Not all is well with the critics.
The famous “hate” Canto:
“His own errors are the confusion and inconsistency admitted in the stories and allegorical passages of the ancients and the absurd mixture of Christian heathenish allusions.” Thomas Chalmers.
"Spenser's incongruities, as well as his beauties, are without end. Shepherdes Calender, April. From the ridiculous insignia of 'violins' and 'Tamborins' ["June"], that are here assigned to the Muses, we might almost be led to imagine that Spenser had seen a painting by Carlo Maratti, who have very facetiously drawn Apollo, playing on the fiddle, surrounded by the nine muses." Gentleman's Magazine 56, (February 1786) p. 136.
“Shepherds in real life do not sit in the shade playing on pan pipes, improvising songs for wagers of lambs and curiously carved bowl and discoursing in rhymed verse about morality, religion, and politics... we miss the whole intention and effect of the poetry if we exact from the poet an adherence to the conditions of the actual life of shepherds. The picturesque environment of hill, wood, dale, silly sheep, and ravenous wild beasts is all that the poet cares for...He represents tantalus and Pontius Pilate suffering in the same place of punishment.” William Minto
Note that Tantalus in mythology was punished by being made to stand up to his neck in water which, when he attempted to drink from it, flowed away from him. Thus the word “tantalize”.
Strong in the abundant but unsifted learning of his day a style of learning which, in his case, was strangely inaccurate, he not only mixed the past with the present, fairyland with politics, mythology with the most serious Christian ideas, but he often mixed together the very features which are most discordant in the colors, forms, and methods by which he sought to produce the effect of his pictures...He did not trouble himself with inconsistencies or see absurdities and incongruities.” Church.
Our Fifth Characteristic: Women on a Pedestal
And our last reference from Colin Clouts Come Home Againe - reminder “Colin” is the name Spenser frequently uses. This particular poem is an allegorical pastoral written in 1591 on the occasion of a visit to London:
“Spenser is the creator of some of the most exquisite embodiments fo female excellence...He has been called “the poet’s poet” he should also be called “the woman’s poet,” for the feminine element in his genius is its loftiest, deepest, most angelic element...The tenderness, the ethereal softness and grace, the moral purity, the sentiment untainted by sentimentality, which characterize his impersonations of female excellence, show, too, that the poet’s brain had been fed from his heart, and that reverence for woman was the instinct of his sensibility before it was confirmed by the insight of his imagination.” E. Whipple
“He pours out the wealth of his respect and tenderness at the feet of his heroines. If any corse man insults them, he calls tho their aid nature and the gods. Never does he bring them on his stage without adorning their name with splendid eulogy.” H. Taine
“Coleridge writes ‘The perfection of woman is to be characterless” meaning that no single prominent quality, however excellent, can equal in beauty and excellence a well-developed. harmonious nature.” E. Dowden
“The mode in which Spenser associated the virtues as well as the graces with his special idea of womanhood...is nowhere more beautifully illustrated than in Book IV, Canto ix, where Scudamour describes the temple of Venus and the recovery of his lost Amoret.” Aubrey DeVere
“Where else is woman in her pure ideal, still so humanly beautiful?” Dover Wilson
Our Fifth Characteristic: Cryptical, Obscure, Disguised
The challenge: Is there another story wherein the main character never appears? Lends truth to the criticism that in the allegory it is easy to find the moral thought, not so easy to find the political. As one critic puts it when speaking of the Faerie Queene “We can hardly lose our way for there is no way to lose.”
“The poet contains great beauties, a sweet and harmonious versification, easy elocution , a fine imagination. Yet does the perusal of his work become so tedious that one never finishes it from the mere pleasure that it affords. If soon become a kind of task-reading, and requires some effort and resolution to carry us on the end...Spenser keeps his place upon our shelves, among the classics, but is seldom seen on the table...” Alexander Hume
“Dryden and others have complained of intricacy and incoherence in the Faerie Queene...for a fact it is that Spenser does often violate the plain laws of space and time. To maintain coherence prolonged actions must sometimes be supposed to happen in no time; and personages are sometimes present or absent as it suits the poet’s convenience, coming and going without remark...The real explanation is, that the poet wrote with great facility and that in ‘winging his flight rapidly through the prescribed labyrinth of sweet sound, he someimes sang himself to sleep, and forgot exactly where he was.” William Minto
“A vein of what are manifestly contemporary allusions breaks across the moral meaning, and one of which it is the work of dissertations to find the key...In Spenser’s allegories we are not seldom at a loss to make out what and how much was really intended, amid a maze of overstrained analogies and oversubtle conceits and attempts to hinder a too close and dangerous identification...There is an intentional dislocation of the parts of the story, when they might make it imprudently close in its reflection of facts or resemblance in portraiture.” Church
“One unpardonable fault, the fault of tediousness, pervades the whole of the Faerie Queene. We become sick of cardinal virtues and deadly sins, and long for the society of plain men and women.” E. P. Whipple
“Exaggeration, profuseness, prolixity, were the literary diseases of the age; an age of great excitement and hope, which had suddenly discovered its wealth and its powers, but not the rules of true economy in using them..There was in Spenser an incontinence of description faculty...But when he gets on a story or scene, he never knows when to stop... The “FQ” as a whole, bears on its face a great fault of construction. It carries with it no adequate account of its own story; it does not explain itself or contain in its own structure what would enable a reader to understand how it arose...The truth is that the power of ordering and connecting a long and complicated plan was not one of Spencer’s gifts.” Church
Our Sixth Characteristic: Pictures, Images
The old man Palinode mournes the loss of his limber muscles and is unable to engage in dance:
“Vivitur ingenio, caeter mortis erunt.” "Genius lives on, all else is mortal."