Other Places, Other Times: The Sites of the Proems to 'The Faerie Queene.'

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But forth to tellen of this worthy man That taughte me this tale, as I bigan, I seye that first with heigh stile he enditeth, Er he the body of his tale writeth, A proheyme . . .

Chaucer, "The Clerk's Prologue," lines 39-43(1)

Preceding each of the six completed books of The Faerie Queene stand groups of from four to eleven stanzas known as the "Proems."(2) The word "proem" first appears in English in the work of one of Spenser's most influential literary parents, Chaucer, but the form of Spenser's prefatory stanzas has no obvious source in his great predecessor's works. Nor does it have any direct source in the other principal literary forebears of The Faerie Queene. Similar invocations and introductory lines in the major epics that The Faerie Queene alludes to and imitates are not set apart from their narratives, but flow smoothly into the action, as do comparable appeals to muses and meditative asides that occur within the cantos of Spenser's own poem. Unless a clear source is discovered, it seems most plausible to regard the introductions/invocations of The Faerie Queene as hybrids of Spenser's own creation, combining Chaucer's fondness for elaborate framing fictions with appeals to the muses characteristic of the European epic tradition.

Whether Spenser invented the form of the Proems or imitated it from some obscure source that scholars have yet to identify, his deviation in The Faerie Queene from his chief models--The Aeneid, Chaucer's works, the Divine Comedy, the Gerusalemme Liberata, and the Orlando Furioso--implies that he attached considerable importance to creating a more elaborate, detached framing discourse than those found in the works of his predecessors. That implication in turn argues for giving the Proems some thoughtful scrutiny.

I propose in this essay to examine the Proems as a coherent subset of The Faerie Queene.(3) What kind of description accommodates them? How do they establish a context for the narratives that follow? How do those narratives retrospectively affect the Proems? Attending to such questions about the principal framing fiction of Spenser's epic clarifies the common themes anti functions of the Proems as a group. It also illluminates the rest of the poem, especially its conceptions of space and of time. The representation of narrative space in the Proems establishes the terms of existence of Spenser's Faerie Land and the authority of its fictive historian. The enactment of Spenser's theory of time--which appears in the Proems with particular insistence--unifies the multiple referents of the allegory of The Faerie Queene and constitutes a crucial part of the conceptual matrix that sustains its meanings. For the remainder of this essay, I shall consider the spatial and temporal dimensions embodied in the Proems and their implications for the narratives they precede.

I. Place and Perspective

By their own representation, the Proems create a juncture between The Faerie Queene and other imaginative or real worlds. They speak neither from fully within the fiction of Faerie nor from wholly outside it.

Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske, As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds, Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske, For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds, And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds.

(Proem 1.1.1-5)(4)

That the second word of Spenser's great poem should be "I" asserts quite clearly the importance of the poet-speaker to the work that follows. At this point, he appears partly within, partly outside his narrative. His involvement with and absorption in the poem as a dramatic if not a participating figure will grow as the story unfolds in Book 1 and in the other books. In all the Proems, however, he remains to a degree detached from the narratives that follow.

At the same time, he should not be confused with Spenser in propria persona. In "A Letter of the Authors" to Ralegh the contrast shows how far the speaker of the Proems is fictionalized and given a dramatic role. …