Following John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, the next major work of literature which I’m going to tackle here is the next milestone in English writing: Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which has nothing to do with fairies, and whose stories aren’t much about a queen either. It remains one of the longest poems written in English, and is divided into six books, the first three of which were published in 1590, and the remainder in 1596.
Like Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which was a major influence on Spenser, it concerns itself with a series of knightly adventures. Rather than being solely action adventure involving knights in armour and beautiful maidens, its author tells us in his prefatory letters that it’s intended to be allegorical, and makes little attempt to disguise its inner meaning. Much of its allegory is aimed at examining Christian virtues such as temperance and chastity – which immediately distances Spenser from Ariosto! – but at its centre is the Faerie Queene Elizabeth I.
Surprisingly little is known about Spenser as a person, here shown in the portrait made of him in about 1800-1803 by William Blake. He is thought to have been born into relatively poor circumstances in London, either in 1552 or 1553. He had good fortune as a child, in winning himself a free place at the new Merchant Taylors’ School, an independent school established by the Merchant Taylors’ Company in the City of London in 1561. He received a fine education there, sufficient to win himself a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge, which transformed his prospects.
Spenser started a career of working for nobles in politics as a sort of civil servant, and writing, publishing his first poetry, The Shepheardes Calender, in 1579. When a newly married man, he went to Ireland in 1580, as secretary to the Lord Deputy, Lord Grey. It was while working there that Spenser served alongside Walter Raleigh, one of the key figures in Elizabethan England.
Lord Grey had led the English colonial forces in Ireland, and quickly acquired the reputation of a ruthless oppressor of the Irish, so much so that he was recalled to England because of his unacceptable actions. Spenser stayed on as a colonial settler, and between 1587-89 was granted just over two thousand acres of ‘plantation’ at Kilcolman in North Cork.
John Wykeham Archer’s engraving of Kilcolman Castle was made nearly three centuries later, in 1857, but may give a reasonable impression of the conditions that Spenser experienced. When he moved in, this castle was apparently so dilapidated that it was only fit for use as a cowshed.
Elizabethan England and its colonies weren’t for the fainthearted. Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland (but not Scotland) (1558-1603) was one of the most autocratic and successful British monarchs, and remained unmarried despite many rumours of relationships. She not only ruled by royal authority, but by stealth. Sir Francis Walsingham set up an intelligence network to protect the queen, and there was considerable intrigue. In his younger years, Spenser seems to have travelled as a messenger on official errands, although little more is known of those mysterious journeys.
Paul Delaroche’s famous painting of The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1828) shows the queen on her deathbed at Richmond Palace in 1603.
During the late 1580s, Spenser worked on his estate in Ireland, writing the first three books of The Faerie Queene. These were complete by 1590, when he took them to London for publication. With them went an open letter to Sir Walter Raleigh promising sequels in an ambitious programme which was never fulfilled completely. It’s thought that his poetry was presented at court, but Spenser himself probably wasn’t; nevertheless, as a result he was awarded a pension for life by the queen.
Spenser returned to his estate, and got on with writing his poetry, which continued to be successful. By 1596, he had completed the last three books of The Faerie Queene, which were then published together with reprints of the first three. His place in English literature was secured.
Life in Ireland was less than idyllic. His first wife had died before 1594, and he married again that year, to the sister of the Earl of Cork. With at least one young son, the family were driven from their home by Irish rebels in 1598, and forced to live in starvation. He returned to London in 1599, where he died in poverty. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in what’s known as Poets’ Corner, being only 46-47 at the time of his death.
As with so many of these classic works of literature, the many paintings of them are completely unreadable if you don’t know their literary reference. My main objective in this series is, once again, to set each painting in the context of Spenser’s words and story, so that the paintings at last make sense. I conclude this introduction with some examples.
Benjamin West’s Cave of Despair (1772) is based on a story from Canto 9 of Book 1. The Knight of Holiness, the hero of this book and bearing a red cross, vows to battle the creature Despair. When he finds the creature’s cave, it’s littered with corpses, and Despair has only just finished killing the latest. Despair then tries to convince the knight that he should kill himself – an action which Una, the heroine, prevents him from doing.
Una is at the far left, stopping the knight from stabbing himself with his own dagger. The figure of Despair sits looking frail rather than fearsome, with his latest victim lying dead at the lower right corner.
William Etty painted several scenes from The Faerie Queene, among them Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret (1833).
Britomart has her origins in Britomartis, the Minoan goddess of mountains and hunting, who passed into Greek mythology as a mountain nymph. She was adopted by Edmund Spenser as an allegory of virtue, based largely on military might. She is also held in part to represent Queen Elizabeth I. As one of the few female knights in myth and literature, she has more recently been adopted as an emblem of female power.
In Spenser’s account, Britomart is young and beautiful, and falls in love with Artegal when she first sees his face in her father’s enchanted mirror. She sets off on a quest to find him, carrying an enchanted lance which defeats all, until she loses to Artegal himself. Her quest takes her around the world, on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Isis, and to visit Merlin the magician. Eventually she finds Artegal who has been captured by the evil Radigund, and frees him and several other captured knights.
One of the most cryptic narrative paintings of the mid-nineteenth century, until you understand its literary reference, is Samuel Palmer’s highly accomplished watercolour of Sir Guyon with the Palmer Attending, Tempted by Phaedria to Land upon the Enchanted Islands from 1849.
Sir Guyon is the Knight of Temperance and hero of Book 2. In Canto 6 of that book, Phaedria ‘the shining one’ is giggling and singing to herself in a small boat in a river. Having taken another (Cymochles) to an island which entices all the senses, she meets Sir Guyon and the Palmer, an old man who has been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land so holds a palm branch. Phaedria gives Sir Guyon a ride in her boat, but refuses to carry the Palmer. She takes Guyon to the same enticing island, rather than just across the river, which upsets him. When delivered to the island, Cymochles and Sir Guyon fight one another, until Guyon shatters Cymochles’ helmet.
Samuel Palmer shows Sir Guyon and the Palmer standing in one boat at the left, being rowed by a woman. Phaedria is standing in her own boat in the middle of the water, and the enticing island lies behind, with nymphs dancing in the light of the setting sun.
Henry Fuseli was another devotee of Spenser’s epic, and this painting of his from 1783 may represent Britomart Delivering Amoretta from the Enchantment of Busirane, or perhaps Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma. If the latter, it seems to refer to a story which the artist made up for himself, something he is claimed to have admitted to. When we come to the story of Britomart and Amoret, I’ll leave you to be the judge of whether this scene tells Spenser’s or Fuseli’s tale.
The Faerie Queene is also unusual for having been published in many illustrated editions, although none, as far as I’m aware, using drawings by the prolific Gustave Doré. Tomorrow I’ll look at some of the more interesting of those, including a Pre-Raphaelite version which remains one of the great illustrated epics.
Richard Danson Brown (2019) The Art of the Faerie Queene, Manchester UP. ISBN 978 0 7190 8732 5. (Note: this isn’t about visual art, but literary art and poetics.)
AC Hamilton (ed) (2007) Spenser, the Faerie Queene, 2nd edn, Routledge. ISBN 978 1 4058 3281 6. (Critical edition.)
Elizabeth Heale (1999) The Faerie Queene, A Reader’s Guide, 2nd edn, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 65468 5.
Douglas Hill (1980) Edmund Spenser, The Illustrated Faerie Queene, Newsweek Books. No ISBN.
Richard A McCabe (ed) (2010) The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 1987 0967 1.