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In the old times it was considered that a poet is a great poet only if he writes an epic. The great poets of ancient times like Homer and Virgil achieved the zenith of fame in poetry because of their epics. In contrast to those ancient languages, English was comparatively a new and developing language, so it did not boast of any epic. Edmund Spenser is known as the first English epic poet and by writing his epic the Faerie Queene he rendered a valuable service to the language. He was well versed in foreign epics and it inspired him to develop a new epic in his own language.
Before writing his own epic he keenly studied the Greek and Italian epics and then based his own epic on those models, but he did not blindly imitate those epics, rather he developed a style of his own. Spenser’s is an innovative style, he experimented with rhyme and rhythm and instead of using the used and worn out styles he invented his own style. Spenser developed his own nine lined stanza known as the Spenserian stanza. In a Spenserian stanza the first eight lines are in the iambic pentameter and the ninth one is in the iambic hexameter or Alexandrine.
Spenser’s meter is so ample and smooth that it introduces a slumber and the reader feels himself getting absorbed in the images of the Faery land. The poet used this stanza in all books but throughout there is not even a single quiver or obstacle that disturbs the powerful monotony. And thus the epic induces a hypnotic effect on the reader. J. R Lowell remarks: “The service that Spenser did to literature by his exquisite sense of harmony is incalculable” Spenser made another innovation in the epic tradition by using avant-garde themes.
Before the Faerie Queene all epics had grand, godly themes and a common reader could not relate to them but following the zeitgeist of his time of lofty moral ideals ‘the poet’s poet’ said: “Fierce warres and faithful loves shall moralize my song” It was very easy for a common man of Elizabethan society to relate the theme with his life. In Elizabeth’s time the ancient traditions of chivalry and romance were being revived and the concept of a gentleman was also very popular so Spenser included all those elements in his epic.
Sir Philip Sidney, an eminent gentleman of the Elizabethan times, said: “The Function of literature is to instruct and delight” Sidney was also a source of inspiration for Spenser, so Spenser used his epic as a tool to moralize. In his essay “Defense of Poesie” Sidney said that poets: “Do merely make to imitate and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodnesse in hand, which without delight they would flie as from a stranger” Spenser’s Faerie Queene is a wonderful example of the poetry that delights and teaches the reader at the same time.
With his command on language and the flow of stanzas the poet delights the reader with romance, but buried under that delight is the allegory that teaches. Emile Legouis remarked: “That he was a moral and religious minded person is obvious from his poems. He never wrote anything that did not aim at edification. ” Also in the Faerie Queene Christian themes are used instead of pagan themes that were used in ancient epics. Although the poet starts his epic with invoking Greek Muses but then shifts to strictly Christian themes embodying the Protestant morals that the Protestant Spenser highly valued.
Spenser changed the concept of protagonists in his epic, instead of battles between gods and super manly quests Spenser provided actual heroes that faced worldly problems. Spenser came out of that shell of supernatural, grand characters and elevated the human characters on the basis of their virtues to the status of ancient epic characters. Instead of gods and goddesses Spenser’s epic talks about gentle knights and chaste ladies who deserved to be praised as Spenser says: “And sing of knights and ladies gentle deeds Whose praises having slept in silence long”
Moreover Spenser’s protagonist in the first book, unlike traditional epic heroes, encounters both physical and mental challenges, not only his physical powers are challenged by the Monster Errour described as “most loathsom, filthie, foul and full of vile disdain” but also a schism develops in the protagonist’s mind and he undergoes an internal conflict when he meets the “bold bad man” Archimago. So to tackle his enemies Spenser’s contemporary hero of his time needs both wisdom and bravery. Another innovation in the tradition of the epic that Spenser made in his epic was that his epic blends and fuses both allegory and romance in itself.
The old epics had allegorical structures but they never amalgamated romance and allegory, and this blend in Spenser’s epic provides the Faerie Queene with the attraction that entices the readers. H. M Percival observed: “The frost of allegory that may have benumbed the imagination of the reader vanishes in an instant before the glow of romance in the Faerie Queene. ” The Faerie Queene is an allegorical and multi-layered epic that functions on many levels ranging from individual to national, political, historical and universal levels.
As we read the epic we unmask many hidden meanings. In his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh while clarifying the intention of his epic Spenser said his epic was: “A continued allegory or darke conceit” And by virtue of this allegory the Faerie Queene is still alive and remains one of the most popular epics of English because the modern reader can relate to it easily. In the first book there is an excellent moral allegory and all the characters represent moral virtues. The Red Cross knight represents holiness accompanied by Lady Una, the epitome of truth.
On their way they encounter a monster and this encounter represents every man’s battle with error, as human beings we get trapped in “Errours endlesse traine” and face error of all kinds specially the error of doctrine and like the Monster Errour’s offspring we also encounter the widespread products of error. In the next encounter when the Red Cross Knight encounters Archimago who represents hypocrisy, again we can relate it to ourselves. There are a lot of people who look like “godly father”s and “agely sire”s but later turn out to be “bold bad” men.
Hypocrisy separates Truth and Holiness and again it is very realistic. Along with the moral allegory the epic also includes religious and political allegory. Spenser wanted to please the Protestant queen and so there is a lot of anti-Catholic propaganda.
The poet dedicates the poem to Queen Elizabeth, in his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh Spenser said: “In that Faery Queen I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery land” So Gloriana represents Queen Elizabeth and is depicted as a glorious queen nd prophetess because she is also called Tanaquil in the first canto . Elizabeth was a paragon of virtue in the protestant Spenser’s eyes so immediately after invoking the gods Spenser shifts to Queen Elizabeth, indirectly elevating her title equal to gods. The introduction of the Red Cross knight in the first canto reinforces the glory of the Faerie Queene. “Upon a great adventure he was bond That greatest Gloriana to him gave (That greatest glorious Queene of Faery land) To winne him worship and her grace to have
Which of all earthly thinges he most did crave” The Earl of Leicester is shown in the character of the “Britton Prince” Arthur, and by that the poet is actually flattering Queen Elizabeth because the Earl of Leicester courted Queen Elizabeth. Monster Errour represents the corrupt Roman Catholic Church and its offspring represent the institutions associated with it. When the Red Cross knight attacked the Monster Errour and it spewd its vomit contained books and papers “Her vomit full of books and papers was With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke”
The books and papers represent the sacred religious texts and polemical works of Catholic Church. And the frogs and toads represent the sycophants and Svengalis who support the wrong practices of the church. After their encounter with Monster Errour the Red Cross knight and lady Una meet Archimago, represented as a “godly father” who seemed very sober and pious hanging “And by his belt his booke he hanging had” the images strongly resemble the pope and so all this anti-Catholic propaganda was infixed in the poem to please the protestant queen and to promote Protestantism.
The poet skillfully wove the allegory in the flow of his epic and so it complements his smooth style. The Faerie Queene’s flawless style and superb allegorical structure with wonderful usage of imagery makes it interesting for the reader of his time as well the modern reader and keeps it from being outdated and bland.