The illustrious name of Edmund Spenser occupies a place among the writers of England similar to that of Ariosto among those of Italy. Spenser was influenced by Gabriel Harvey, a noted humanist and by the religious atmosphere of his college.
Spenser’s Faerie Queene appeared in installments. In 1589, Spenser crossed to London and published the first three books; in 1596 the second three followed; and after his death two cantos and two odd stanzas of Book VII appeared.
The Faerie Queene (1590) is prefaced by a letter appeared to Sir Walter Raleigh in which the poet’s purpose is stated and the plan of the work outlined. The purpose is moral instruction through examples of virtuous conduct conveyed in the form of romantic allegory. Twelve “books” were planned, twelve being the traditional number of sections (cantos) in work of an epic scale since Homer’s Iliad.
Each of the twelve was to deal with some one aspect of virtuous conduct as practiced by the individual such as Holiness, Justice and Courtesy. Another twelve books were contemplated to deal with three virtues from the political angle. Each virtue was to be embodied in a separate hero. The figure of The Faerie Queene is not introduced at all, but Prince Arthur appears in each of the six finished books.
Spenser published only six books:
The book I deals with the adventures of the Red Cross Knight, representing Holiness.
The book-II tells the adventures of Sir Guyon, the knight of Temperance.
In book-III, the poet describes Britomar, the Maiden Knight of charity.
The book IV deals with the legend of Triamond as Cambell, exemplifying friendship.
The book V gives vividly the adventures of Artegall who is the Knight of Justice.
The last book deals with the adventures of Sir Calidore, exemplifying courtesy. The plot is exceedingly leisurful and elaborates. There is huge space for digressions.
The allegory of Spenser’s Faerie Queene is complex; it has imaginative force and magical music. Charles Lamb’s reference to Spenser appears to be “the poet’s poet”. The construction of the plot is very obscure because it is an allegory. The general scheme of the work is expounded in the author’s introductory letter addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh.
By Faerie Queene, the poet signifies Glory in the abstract, and Queen Elizabeth in particular. The Queen of Faerie holds a fast for twelve days. On each day a stranger in distress appears claiming help against a dragon or giant or tyrant. A Knight is assigned to each guest, and the twelve books were to be concerned with the stories of the twelve adventures. Further, each Knight was to represent a virtue, and his warfare the strife against the contrary vice. All the virtues were to the shown combined in Arthur, so that by this figure as well as by the nature of many of the incidents the poem was related to the great tradition of the “matter of Britain”
Though the story three strands keep running and twisting;
1. The unusual characters of the Arthurian and classical romance such as Arthur, Merlin, Fauns and Satyrs.
2. The allegorical moral & religious virtues or vice such as Una (Truth), Fidelia (Faith), Orgogio (Pride), Duessa (Deceit).
3. The Elizabethan political-historical-religious elements are also allegorized. For example, Glorina is Elizabeth, Duessa may be Mary, Queen of Scots, Archimago may be the Pope.
• Spenser is highly imaginative
• Subtle and sustained melody
• Graphic word-picture
• Magical color or atmosphere
• Archaic diction – where the occasion demanded. He invented words or word-forms; e.g. he uses “blend” for blind and “kest” for cast.
• He introduced Spenserian Stanza –longer than the usual stanza, but shorter than the sonnet, as unit it is just long enough to give an easy pace to the slowly pacing narrative.
• The alliteration, vowel – music