NOTE: this article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 print edition of Ad Fontes.
Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene remains a celebrated work that no one seems to read. Like War and Peace, it looks majestic in cloth binding, a solemn monument to high culture, yet carries the reputation of tedious difficulty, even dryness. Spenser’s epic has not enjoyed the contemporary cachet of Homer’s Odyssey, or Beowulf, both recently appearing in new watershed translations by women scholars. Shakespeare, Milton, and John Donne remain perennially sexy, but The Faerie Queene, when thought of at all, seems a work that only a specialist–a C.S. Lewis–can enjoy.
I would like to argue that Christians ought to take an interest in Spenser, and especially The Faerie Queene. Careful readers have always found wisdom in it. Gordon Teskey has said that The Faerie Queene “comes closer to thinking–to speculative reasoning about the human–than any other work of literature known to me.” C.S. Lewis’s love of Spenser is a far cry from some donnish passion for “long, boring books” (a charge I once heard a tenured professor of literature make). In his paean to The Faerie Queene, he gushes that “the experience of reading it is like living,” and that “To read [Spenser] is to grow in mental health.” John Milton even spoke of “our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.”
These blurbs perhaps explain why Spenser remains revered but not popular. He seems more of an edifying mental exercise than a delight. Milton placing him alongside the Scholastics is not inaccurate: as we shall see, Spenser definitely saw himself as a teacher. And therein lies the reader’s discomfort: we don’t want our poets to try to teach us. It’s not that we don’t want to learn from a poem or novel, but the lesson should come as if by accident. Poets should show, not tell.
However, Spenser does have something to teach us; and, perhaps more importantly, his poetic mode of teaching holds unique value for today’s readers.
THE PURPOSE OF THE FAERIE QUEENE
Spenser states his purpose for The Faerie Queene in a letter to Walter Raleigh: “The generall end of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline: Which for that I conceived shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which for the most part men delight to read, rather for variety of matter, then for the profite of the ensample.” The poem is intended to form the reader into a noble person (whether man or woman). This is not merely an intellectual goal; Spenser does not seek merely to explain what virtue or “gentle discipline” is, but to train the reader in it. The fiction of the poem is designed to render this daunting training “plausible and pleasing”, sweetening an edifying pill. According to Spenser this was the method of other poets, including Homer, Virgil, Xenophon, and the Italian epic poets Tasso and Ariosto. All these aimed to set forth in fiction the perfect model of “a good governour and a vertuous man.”
Spenser’s moral lesson is aimed at his context: Protestant England in the late reign of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth herself is, of course, the real Fairy Queen, and the “good governour” Spenser intends to memorialize. She is also, however, an intended reader, and so Spenser’s student. This is one reason why Spenser includes both sexes in his audience. England already had a female ruler, so clearly women can govern, and therefore need formation in moral and political virtue. While not a “feminist” text in any modern sense, The Faerie Queene features an array of important and powerful female characters. Spenser seeks, through his fiction, to offer counsel to the monarch as well as to all men and women who hold sway in the kingdom.
This means the poem also has a religious purpose. As a Protestant kingdom on a world stage still partly hostile to Protestantism, England needed to be strengthened in its spiritual identity. So, though he tells Raleigh that he is allegorizing Aristotle’s twelve virtues, Spenser begins with “the Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or Of Holinesse.” Holiness is not an Aristotelian virtue, but it is Spenser’s ethical starting point.
Book I of The Faerie Queene, then, is intended to train its readers in holiness, by way of delight. Spenser sees this as the first task in ennobling and fortifying a Protestant nation under a pious queen. Spenser intended to cultivate what we might today call “Christian elites.” The educated reader, privileged with status and influence, was in the best position to edify the commonwealth by bringing holiness to bear on the life of a nation.
In order to appreciate his work today, even if we are not Protestant subjects of a pious queen, readers must submit to Spenser’s “gentle discipline” and consider how we might be of benefit to our own commonwealths. With this in mind, we should consider the poem’s plot. Book I follows the Redcrosse Knight, later revealed as a young St. George, future patron saint of England. In the opening stanzas, he rides across the plain on his first quest, wearing borrowed armor and followed by a young woman. The woman is Una, embodiment of Truth, whose parents’ kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Redcrosse is on his way to help. His first combat is against a serpentine monster called Errour, which vomits up books, ink, and blind toads. This fiend vanquished, he and his party stop to rest at the house of Archimago, a seemingly wise hermit who turns out to be a very popish sorcerer. To steer Redcrosse astray, he first sends a seductive sprite disguised as Una. When Redcrosse resists, a second sprite appears and seems to fornicate with the false Una. Redcrosse, outraged and distraught, abandons the real Una, only to fall into the grips of an evil hag disguised as a beautiful maiden–the deceitful Duessa. Duessa leads Redcrosse to the House of Pride, a kind of gaudy McMansion ruled by the demonic Lucifera and her counselors, the Seven Deadly Sins. Impressed with the house, Redcrosse lingers and wins glory in a duel, but soon discovers a dungeon full of skeletons and departs, horrified. He meets a giant named Orgoglio–the embodiment of pride–who imprisons him. Una, however, comes to his rescue, aided by none other than a young Prince Arthur. Redcrosse and Una reconcile and continue their quest, narrowly missing death in the cave of Despaire, before finding rest and healing in the palatial House of Holinesse. Equipped with spiritual wisdom, Redcrosse comes to Una’s country–a kingdom called Eden–and defeats the dragon on the third day of combat. A betrothal feast is held, and Redcrosse is required to leave his lady temporarily to return to his patroness Gloriana, the Fairy Queen.
With this brief overview in mind, a few sample scenes will suffice both to offer a taste of Spenser’s verse and to convey a sense of his way of teaching.
The Error of Fighting Error
Redcrosse’s encounter with the monster Errour is a fascinating beginning to an allegory about holiness. Una embodies Truth. Redcrosse himself is “the Patrone of true Holinesse” (I.i.arg.1). So the meaning of this first battle seems obvious: the truly holy knight or courtier must protect truth by suppressing error. Yet the episode itself undercuts this interpretation. For one thing, Una warns Redcrosse to think carefully before he decides to advance into Errour’s Den:
Be well aware, quoth then that Ladie milde,
Least suddaine mischief ye too rash provoke:
The danger hid, the place unknowne and wilde,
Breedes dreadfull doubts: Oft fire is without smoke,
And perill without show: therefore your stroke
Sir knight with-hold, till further tryall made.
Ah Ladie (sayd he) shame were to revoke,
The forward footing for an hidden shade:
Vertue gives her selfe light, through darkenesse for to wade.(I.i.12)
Una’s aphorism about fire without smoke highlights an important aspect of the literal situation: the knight himself is prone to error. Attacking at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or, worst of all, with the wrong target, can render courage fruitless. Redcrosse responds with his own pithy aphorism: “Virtue gives herself light.” He believes that, if the combatant and cause are good, then evil loses its power to beguile. The stanza’s dialectic raises a question: is virtue a sufficient protection against error?
Una tries to admonish Redcrosse that she knows the region and its dangers from experience and he should be wary (13.1-8), but in vain:
“But full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthfull knight could not for ought be staide,
But forth unto the darksom hole he went,
And looked in: his glistring armor made
A litle glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plaine,
Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide,
But th’other halfe did womans shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.”(14)
What stands out most here is the imagery of the gleaming armor. Redcrosse has boasted that his virtue will provide its own light. His armor does glow in the cave, but its light is “litle” and “glooming.” The latter word puns on “gloom” and “gleam,” evoking darkness and light at once. The light is “much like a shade”–a faintly glowing ghost or wisp. The armor gleams, but its light is like darkness, so that it obfuscates rather than illuminates. Having ignored the counsel of Truth, Redcrosse sees Errour erroneously, in a hazy half-light. By entering into Errour’s den, the knight actually falls prey to the monster he intends to destroy. Redcrosse’s eventual triumph can easily make us forget that his entry into the battle was itself an error. To approach Errour, even intending to overcome her, is to be implicated in her–caught in her coils. Redcrosse is tricked into abandoning Una in the very next scene. Blinded by error, he is cut off from Truth.
We can see here Spenser’s sensitivity to the logic of poetic imagery. A knight wrestling with a serpent may be trying to kill it, but from another angle he is also embracing it. Can the Christian gentleman attack error head-on, whether by legislation or education, without doing likewise? In this scene, it is apparently more important to talk to Truth and listen to her than to jump to her defense. The fiery zeal of the young apologist, or the young politician, needs to be checked by Truth’s most vital service: learning. So the Christian gentleman, for Spenser, must be a careful student of the truth, not just a spirited watchdog. Other virtues like honesty and courage are not sufficient to keep us out of error’s coils–better to withdraw and avail oneself of wisdom than rush headlong into debate. We might go further and note that Errour was not the dragon Redcrosse was recruited to fight. If he had gone straight for the serpent tyrannizing Una’s kingdom, perhaps this other dragon might have been nullified in the process. In the soul as well as in the commonwealth, spiritual tyranny is the great threat; wrong thinking is only a symptom. Christian “elites” should be led by a pious devotion to truth and a hatred for the devil’s works, not by an obsession with rooting out bad opinions. Such an obsession only leads deeper into confusion.
A Properly Protestant Piety
Now, any reader of Spenser knows that his notion of spiritual tyranny includes the scourge of Roman Catholicism. Each villain in Book I (Archimago, Duessa, Corcera, Lucifera, the dragon) is redolent of papistry. Take, for instance, the satirical description of the blind Corcera:
“[T]hat old woman day and night did pray
Upon her beades devoutly penitent;
Nine hundred Pater nosters every day,
And thrise nine hundred Aves she was wont to say.”(I.iii.13.6-9)
Corcera and her daughter Abessa live in isolation, praying penitently and apparently encountering hardly anyone, except for Kirkrapine, a church robber to whom Abessa prostitutes herself in exchange for stolen sanctuary ornaments (iii.17).
The satire here is multifaceted, but the anti-monastic invective is clear. For Spenser, the blind devotion of medieval religion had opened the door for impious interlopers to pillage the Church and abuse the faithful. Corcera, caught up in endless ritual, turns a literal blind eye to the corruption of her daughter by a blasphemous rogue. As an attack on monasticism (Abessa’s name suggests “abbess”), this passage is of course retrospective–there were no functioning monasteries or abbeys in Elizabethan England. It is also a conventional satire, with a well-trodden satirical message: pious practice, isolated from ethical and social concerns, is not genuine holiness. As an Elizabethan Protestant, Spenser is typical in attributing this empty piety to the ever-present specter of popery.
But as an attack on popery, Book I is quite idiosyncratic. The Redcrosse Knight encounters a kind of foil to Corcera’s cottage toward the end, in the House of Holiness. The mistress of this house is Caelia. She is
a matrone grave and hore;
Whose onely joy was to relieve the needes
Of wretched soules, and helpe the helpeless pore:
All night she spent in bidding of her bedes;
And all the day in doing good and godly deedes.(I x 3.5-9)
In contrast to Corcera, Caelia spends her days in works of charity. But what about the beads? Commentators have long been puzzled by this detail, reiterated a few stanzas later (8.3). Why does Spenser include such an obviously Catholic note?
This is not the only such detail we find in the House of Holiness. While there, the Redcrosse Knight has to undergo an elaborate process of repentance to clear himself of his sins and consummate his holiness. This process, far from being “by faith alone,” involves penance by flagellation and red hot pincers (x 26.8, 27.1), as well as fasting and mandatory works of mercy, guided by “seven Bead-men” (36.3). Spenser passes up an obvious opportunity to ridicule medieval asceticism and advance a simpler, more Protestant poetics of salvation.
Lewis says the Catholic furniture of the scene is unproblematic, because Protestants only object to literal beads and whips, not allegorical ones–something of a dodge. Other commentators, such as Paul McLane, have concluded from the same evidence that Spenser was himself a “Catholic-leaning,” rather than Puritan, sort of Anglican. For our present purposes, what is most interesting about these details is their context. The House of Holiness is not a monastery, but a private home. Caelia oversees it with the aid of her three daughters, Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa–the theological virtues. Fidelia and Speranza are virgins, though betrothed, but Charissa, the emblem of Christian love, is married with many children (I x 4). We also know that their house employs a porter (5), a groom (17), and an in-house doctor (23). The site of Redcrosse’s spiritual healing is not a monastery or church, but the estate of an aristocratic family. It seems that Spenser inserts conventional ecclesiastical imagery into the scene in order to highlight its distinctly non-ecclesial setting. The sanctifying role formerly assigned to religious orders is taken up by pious laypeople, whose homes become spiritual hospitals.
Whether Spenser really approved of beads and whips, these objects signify the passing of that mantle. Caelia and Charissa balance prayer and charity, as medieval satirists encouraged their readers to do. But Spenser adds a third component: by engaging in marriage and childrearing, his holy women have a stake in the natural life of the commonwealth. Redcrosse, too, is destined for marriage and family after defeating the dragon. These characters signal Spenser’s ideal of Christian “elites” as the spiritual lifeblood of their nation–linked to society through family, and sanctifying society by prayer and charity.
There is considerable tension implicit in this ideal. How can a gentleman or lady, bearing the demands of the family and the commonwealth, reconcile such demands with the life of holiness? Spenser is aware of the problem. At the end of his period of convalescence in the House of Holiness, the Redcrosse Knight is led up a hill by a sage called Contemplation, to view from afar the city of New Jerusalem. After Redcrosse marvels at the city’s beauty, the sage tells him that he must journey there after his knightly career is complete: “Thenceforth the suitt of earthly conquest shonne,/And wash thy hands from guilt of bloody field:/For blood can nought but sin, and wars but sorrows yield” (60.7-9). Shockingly, Contemplation claims that the necessary bloodshed of knighthood leads only to sin and sorrow. This makes for puzzling allegory. Must the public virtue required of the noble Christian be an occasion of sin? The question seems to occur to Redcrosse as well, because he asks to be allowed to give up knighthood:
O let me not (quoth he) then turne againe
Backe to the world, whose joyes so fruitlesse are,
But let me heare for aie in peace remaine,
Or streight way on that last long voiage fare,
That nothing may my present hope empare.
That may not be (said he) ne maist thou yitt
Forgoe that royal maides bequeathed care,
Who did her cause into thy hand committ,
Till from her cursed foe thou haue her freely quitt.(I x 63)
Redcrosse’s desire is not to die and hasten to heaven, but to trade the active for the contemplative life. His hope of heaven is impaired by the dangers of moral striving. The peaceful and saintly life seems the surer road. But Contemplation himself corrects this error. In fact, Redcrosse’s pledge to help Una and his duty to destroy the satanic dragon are the first directives of holiness. Allegorically, we may say that, by contemplating heaven, Redcrosse rediscovers his earthly task. It seems necessary to long for the purely spiritual life, to despise earthly warfare, but to accept one’s duty humbly.
But how is the Christian to engage in warfare without incurring the stains of bloodguilt? Contemplation’s answer might not sit well with us today. The sage tells Redcrosse that, while the Fairy Queen’s court may not compare to the glory of the New Jerusalem, it is yet the greatest seat of power on earth, and it is no wonder that knights flock there to “[do] their service to that soueraigne Dame,/That glory does to them for guerdon graunt:/For she is heuenly borne, and heauen may justly vaunt” (59.7-9). The Fairy Queen gives glory as a “guerdon” or reward to faithful knights. But the glory she grants is not identical with the mere praise of men. Being “heavenly born,” the Fairy Queen offers a glory that mirrors heavenly glory. A godly sovereign, who receives her majesty from God, may rightly accept earthly honors. Likewise the godly knight who excels in the sovereign’s service may rightly accept earthly honors, since he derives glory from the sovereign, who avowedly derives it from God. The noble Christian avoids the vanity of earthly pursuits by serving a godly ruler. For Spenser, this is Elizabeth Tudor.
We may recoil from the apparent suggestion that all acts done in service of a Christian magistrate receive the stamp of God. Spenser does not press the point, and this comment about the Fairy Queen actually precedes Contemplation’s pronouncement that Redcrosse must eventually wash his hands of war. There is still the great difficulty of sifting just and unjust works, and the reality remains that earthly duties are never perfectly coterminous with one’s duty to God. One must walk the narrow path to the New Jerusalem. But Spenser would have us look meanwhile to the God-given outposts of righteousness on earth. Marriage is one; selfless public service, especially under a godly prince, is another. In these spheres we can live out a genuine–if penultimate–earthly holiness, prevailing over sin by faith and daily combat. The vision granted by contemplation stirs the holy mind to action.
Our brief survey has illuminated how The Faerie Queene is, despite first appearances, a pertinent book for today. The beauty of Spenser’s allegorical approach is that the concrete problems of his day–corrupt courtiers, the Church of Rome, ignorant clergy–appear as images that transcend their real context. Spenser’s fairyland is an attempt to universalize Elizabethan England, to abstract from its national struggles the great spiritual struggles of humanity. For Spenser, the responsibility to meet these struggles falls primarily to rulers, gentlemen, and noble persons. His poem is a course in moral wisdom for Christian elites.
How can Spenser’s ideal inform our own practice? Above all, we may find in him an exhortation to take spiritual responsibility for our respective societies. The uniquely Protestant contribution of The Faerie Queene is that it imagines the lost monastic class of England replaced by a class of semi-monastic nobility. Consider Caelia, engaged in both household affairs and charitable acts by day, steeped in prayer at night. Her daughter Charissa is both a busy mother and a spiritual teacher for pilgrims. Their home looks like a spiritual commune, open to the whole gamut of pious practices from charity to study to contemplation. In order for Redcrosse Knights to arise in our world and fight evil, we may infer, it is first necessary for the homes of privileged Christian families to become Houses of Holiness. Communities ordered toward piety and civil service are the best instrument with which to sanctify a nation. Spenser imagines such communities founded not on celibacy but on marriage, the natural institution whereby God binds human beings together. In our day copious advice is heaped on young Christian families, but how much of it advises couples to convert their homes into spiritual retreat centers? Spenser’s vision begins with the family, but the family must be open to the broader Christian community and ultimately remember that it serves the spiritual good of the commonwealth. The image of the House of Holiness is that of grace repairing nature.
Just as family life overlaps with religious and political life for Spenser, so the life of contemplation mingles with the life of action. Much of The Faerie Queene Book I can be read as a warning not to allow one to eclipse the other. How can you wage war with Errour if you’ve spent no time learning at the feet of Truth? On another allegorical level, however, the same scene could also be read as a warning against frivolous learning. Redcrosse indulges his curiosity about a monster who vomits paper and ink instead of attending single-mindedly to his knightly duty. In the 2020s, the serpentine monster of Errour might be the endless chain of hyperlinks or the endless scroll of social media, distracting from active virtue. We need Spenser’s reminder that our duty involves both study and work–that one is incomplete without the other. We need more leaders chastened by thinking, and more scholars emboldened by conviction.
Embedded in all this is a slightly tragic outlook on earthly life. Although Spenser thought highly of his nation, his Christian knight wages war in an imperfect society that is only a shadow of the kingdom above. In this earthly kingdom, moral striving often produces collateral damage; differing duties run crosswise; loves and loyalties compete. It is no wonder that the Redcrosse Knight’s greatest temptation, before he reaches the House of Holiness, is despair. The Faerie Queene, in its immense length and complexity, manifests the tensions present in every virtue, and this is part of the point. Through his poem, Spenser manifests vigorous thinking about the task of life. He does not give us the formula, but asks that we follow his example and think along with him. Our Christian elites could do much worse than to join Spenser in this–what he called his “endless work.”
Joshua Patch is PhD candidate in Literature at the University of Dallas and Rhetoric School English Teacher at The Covenant School, Dallas, Texas.
- The Odyssey was translated by Emily Wilson in 2017 (W.W. Norton & Company), and Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headly in 2021 (Scribe UK). The latter proudly bears the subheading “A New Feminist Translation of the Epic Poem”. ↑
- Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2019), 314. ↑
- C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 447-448. ↑
- John Milton, Areopagitica, accessed April 8 2022, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/608/608-h/608-h.htm.
- Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (London: Routledge, 2013) 714-715. ↑
- Spenser, Faerie Queene, 14. ↑
- Lewis, Allegory of Love, 403. ↑
- Paul E. Maclane, Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender: A Study in Elizabethan Allegory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 117-118. ↑