Edmund Spenser's Deliberate Dream
Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review
WHEN the first edition of The Faerie Queene was sent to the press in 1589, Edmund Spenser intended to reserve the beginning of his national epic for the last of its twelve Books. He had decided to follow the advice of the Roman lyricist Horace, which was that 'a poet thrusteth into the midst, even where it most concerneth him': in medias res. That procedure greatly puzzled Spenser's friend Sir Walter Raleigh, so, to oblige Raleigh, he gave an explanation of the twelve knights' quests in an introductory letter, which is prefixed to most editions of the poem. In writing that letter he did a service to future readers of The Faerie Queene, since the poem stops short at the end of Book VI. He also did his best to answer Raleigh's questions concerning the allegory and its meaning: 'Knowing', he wrote, 'how doubtfully all allegories may be construed'. Spencer here distinguishes between the 'general intention and meaning' of his allegory and its 'particular purposes, or by-accidents': between the 'intendments' and the 'accidents' of his story. That story relates the intertwined adventures of Spenser's knights, each of whom embodies a moral quality, in the realm of Faerie, which represents Spenser's poetic imagination.
The 'general intention or meaning' of Spenser's allegory can, indeed, scarcely be missed. Everyone can see that Sir Guyon in the Bower of Bliss (II xii) is a man founding his conduct upon moral principles rather than the love of pleasure; that Amoret in the Castle of Busirane (III xii) is a woman tormented by her own carnality. There is no difficulty about the Procession of the Deadly Sins, shambling two-by-two, bemired and slothful, but lashed forward through the fog by Satan amid the crowd's acclamations, over ill-doers' wreckage: Idleness and Gluttony, who introduce Lechery and Avarice, followed by Envy and Wrath--Gluttony lurching on the pig which carries him and swigging from a 'boozing-can'; Avarice counting his pennies upon his paralytic knees (I iv). Since each sin shows the signs of the ailment it is likely to bring about, it is clear that Spenser wants us to understand that sin is unwise as well as wrong, as dropsical Gluttony and syphilitic Lechery can attest. One can hardly fail to discern why the blaze of Pride, the mistress of these Sins, shines but does not warm. The aptness of the House of Pride can elude few people. It is built high but not strong, of bricks but not mortar, and faced with golden foil--the back part of it like some chichi conversion in an Islington square, held together by the lilac and canary paintwork, 'ruinous and old, but painted cunningly' (I iv 5).
The confusion starts with Spenser's 'particular purposes, or by-accidents'. Ever a lover of difficulties, he chooses to express subtle thought and sentiment in the hurly-burly form of chivalrous romance; to convey Platonic theories through the adventures of his sometimes absurd knights, enchantresses and necromancers. The only allowed ways of knightly arguing were with sword and the lance; so that Spenser is sometimes driven to glorify physical might too much. He is an antiquary as well as a moralist, and a great reader of old romances. His plot is pervaded with Gothic fantasy: hillsides at daybreak, battlements, knights with shields and helmets, ladies on palfries, ogres, wood-demons and dwarfs. The equations of his allegory are variable. At one point an outward sign has one inner meaning; at another point it means something else. Actual events trail off into the unsteady haze of the land of Faerie. The allegorical intentions wheel, transmute and interchange in a glamorous unfixed blur.
St George, the Redcross Knight, is sometimes England, sometimes the patron of the Order of the Garter, sometimes a simple medieval knight--a peasant on horseback, his feet still drenched from dew from the grass of a May morning--sometimes Sir Philip Sidney, sometimes an early Christian, sometimes Christianity itself. He shifts his identity with the inconsequent coherence of a reverie. In profile Prince Arthur is a patriotic tradition and a political group dedicated to war against Spain; full-faced he is, at times, the ghost of the Earl of Leicester. He is in love with the Fairy Queen Elizabeth and yet (according to credulous historians such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote in the twelfth century) her ancestor. Prince Arthur dreams that the Fairy Queen is asleep at his side but awakes to find that she is not there, although the grass at his side is flattened in her form (I ix 13-15). Across a thousand years, British history stretches out its arms to embrace Queen Elizabeth in whose cheeks, according to Spenser's heraldic gallantry, the red rose of Lancaster mingles with the white rose of York (Shepheardes Calender, Eclogue IV). Like the sea, like the sea--god Proteus in Book III of The Faerie Queene, the allegory is ever-changing and always the same. Nothing is certain but everything is true. True, that is, within the shifting bounds of Spenser's Intendments', his high tides and ebb tides and spreading waves. There are some things which he did not intend. The Faerie Queene is not a merely topical poem, dealing in a veiled way with Tudor history. The allegory is loose and casual, not particular. Some commentators have maintained that Prince Arthur is at every point the Earl of Leicester, who died two years before the publication of the first edition of The Faerie Queene, having married Laetitia Knollys instead of the Gloriana to whom he is said to have aspired; or that he is the Earl of Essex, who was under fifteen when Spencer began to write The Faerie Queene; or that Essex is Sir Guyon, the Knight of Temperance. On the contrary, the only fixed identification is that of Gloriana and Belphoebe as the public and private aspects of Elizabeth I:
In either Gloriana let chuse, Or in Belphoebe fashioned to bee; In th' one her rule, in th' other her rare chastitee (III proem 5).
Even here the designations are fluid: the allegory shifts. The Tudors thought their claim to the throne better than that of the Planta-genets because, as ingratiating historians assured them, they were descended from King Arthur and the ancient kings of Britain, and indeed, through them from Aeneas the Trojan (II x 9). That is why Henry VII christened his eldest son Arthur. When Britomart seeks out Merlin in Carmarthen, he prophesises the return of the Welsh line, or the Tudors, eight hundred years after the Saxon conquest (II x). Spenser's Prince Arthur is, for the most part, simply the spectral testator of the Tudor line.
Spenser's allegory is at its most simple and medieval in the first two Books; although he continues to use throughout the poem, from time to time, the features of a thirteenth-century romance, such as the Roman de la Rose: the symbolic enclosure (grove or garden, great house or temple, other world or underworld) with its symbolic porters and servitors. The House of Holiness, like the Garden of the Rose, is guarded by personifications, but they are personifications of Christian qualities, such as Humility, Zeal and Reverence, instead of Idleness, Courtesy and Mirth, the concomitants of Courtly Love. (The completion of the Romance of the Rose entailed 22,000 lines, two poets, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung, and three quarters of the thirteenth century. Well, it was the age of the cathedral-builders. It is no wonder that Spenser left The Faerie Queene unfinished.) In his account of the Castle of the Body in Book II Spenser even allegorises the whole human digestive system (II 29-32). The sea-monsters encountered by Sir Guyon on his voyage to the island of the Bower of Bliss have an allegorical sense, but are also wonders from fabulous Natural History, such as the Rosmarus. According to Conrad von Gesner, the Rosmarus was as big as an elephant. It climbed on shore to eat grass and slept hanging by its teeth to a rock (Gesner p.249). The late Middle Ages are renewed through Spenser's copious antiquarian reading. St George's dragon, the dragon of the Book of Revelation, is Satan; but also a hobgoblin dragon from the bestiaries and the old romance of Sir Bevis of Southampton. The Blatant Beast is Malory's Questing Beast of the Morte d' Arthur but made allegorical to represent religious intolerance on both sides in Ireland.
The centre of The Faerie Queene (as it stands) is the romance between Britomart, the female Knight of Chastity, and Artegall, the Knight of Justice. Both Britomart's triumphs in Book III are only incidental to her quest, which is to unite with Artegal to found the Tudor line. She flows to him like pollen on the wind, like a river which circumvents each contour to reach the sea. It is Scudamore's task, not hers, to free Amoret from the enchanter Busirane. She takes his place only because of his faint-heartedness. As for Marine11, whom she lays low upon the coastline of Faerie, she fights him, not knowing quite why she does so, except that he has defied her and she is accustomed to meet defiance with defiance.
In Books III and IV Spenser has become a Platonist, and Love supersedes Temperance as his theme. He claims that Love is the cause of all great actions, and cites Socrates:
all the works those wise sages, And brave exploits which great heroes won, In love were either ended or begun; Witness the Father of Philosophy (IV proem 3).
Of Prince Arthur, Spenser writes:
Love lifts up the noble mind: that else would lowly fall. It lets not fall, it lets it not to rest; It lets not scarce this Prince to breathe at all (III v 2).
So Love has replaced the Twelve Moral Virtues as the afflatus of Arthur's knighthood. The allegory from book III onwards therefore becomes less simple, with fewer signposts and personifications. Instead Book III includes a series of representations of desire: desire as courtly dalliance at the Castle Joyeux (III I); desire as lechery in the fornication of Hellenore and Paridell (III x); desire as perversion in the importunities of the monsters Argante and Oliphant; desire as a procreative force in the Garden of Adonis (III vi); desire as infatuation in the Tapestries and the Masque of Cupid (III xi--xii). The original ending of Book III, later suppressed, leaves Britomart half-envious of the married love of Amoret and Scudamore:
Lightly he clipt her twixt his armes twaine, And streightly did embrace her body bright, Her body, late the prison of sad paine, Now the sweet lodge of love and deare delight: But she faire Lady overcommen quite In huge affection, did in pleasure melt, And in sweet ravishment pourd out her spright: No word they spake, nor earthly thing they felt, But like two senceless stocks in long embracement dwelt (III xii 45, 1590 ed.).
They embrace so closely, says Spenser in the next stanza of the 1590 edition, that they could be taken for a single hermaphrodite. To Spenser, Chastity (represented by Britomart) meant above all faithfulness within marriage. Book III is his survey of the looseness and adultery which he regarded as threats to marriage. Opposed to Britomart's chaste constancy stand various examples of salacity, such as Lady Malecasta at the Castle Joyous.
Here Spenser bids farewell to medieval courtly love, to:
Dancing and revelling both day and night, And swimming deep in sensual desires (III i 39).
Henceforth it is to be Plato for him. Lady Malecasta presides over the castle, with a pack of faded busy-bodies from The Romance of the Rose as her liegemen. Britomart is far from pleased by the Castle Joyous. Unwilling to reveal that she is a woman, she sits, as in a dream, in full armour throughout Malecasta's feast. Later Malecasta, convinced that Britomart is a man, infuriates her by slipping into her bed during the night; a situation which grave Spenser describes without a smile.
Spenser's contempt for the quite unsentimental recruits to courtly love, gathered at the castle, is illustrated by Paridell, expert in meaningful glances and speaking looks. His gallantry is 'exceeding fair: /Yet was that all but painted and purloined' (III xii 14). Having abducted Malbecco's wife, he tires of her and curtly deserts her:
Her up he cast To the wide world, and let her fly alone: He mould be clogged (III x 3).
He leaves her to the dangerous wilds. 'I take no keep of her', he says: 'She wonneth in the forest there before' (III x 38).
Amid so much insecurity and such slippery loves, Britomart's loyalty to Artegall holds firm. Her devotion to him is not physical but idealistic. She fell in love with her future husband, long before she met him, by seeing him as her reflection in Merlin's magic looking-glass; his male justice being equated with her female loyalty, as two aspects of truth. Donning heroic armour, she rides out into the hazardous land of Faerie to find him. She is no idle courtly lover who:
As he that hath espied a vermeil rose, To which sharp thorns and briars the way forestall, Dare not for dread his hardy hand expose, But, wishing it far off, his idle wish doth lose (III I 46).
Britomart outdoes the male knights in valour, faith and prowess, yet is no feminist. Having helped Artegall to conquer the Amazons, she restores them to male subjection (V vii 42). Plato sees earthly love (Symposium 206-7) as a form of sexual selection: the summons to propagate oneself in what one finds desirable. Merlin's prophesy reveals to Britomart who Britomart's descendants will be: the House of Tudor.
Four codes uneasily come together in The Faerie Queene: Plato's idealisation of beauty, Aristotelian ethics, Christianity and chivalrous honour. Prince Arthur is at the same time Aristotle's virtue of Magnanimity, a champion of the Church, and a zealot for the rules of knighthood. He is outraged when Pyrochles attacks him without prior defiance. He refuses to exploit the unsporting advantage which his blinding shield gives him (II viii 26). He prefers to win over his adversaries after he has overpowered them in equal combat; but if they repulse his offer, they do so at grim cost to themselves (II viii 52). The duties of a knight include personal justice. Because Lady Briana ill-treats and humiliates passing travellers, Sir Calidore, the Knight of Courtesy, cleaves her steward in two, slays her porter in his lodge, and slaughters her retainers. When she reproaches him for this, he replies:
Blood is no blemish; for it is no blame To punish them that do deserve the same (VI I 26).
Like Artegall's, Calidore's justice is medieval and martial. As that stout Spenserian scholar John Upton remarked, the system of knightly honour is 'downright madness' (Baltimore Variorum Ed. VI p.26). Calidore's Christianity is military: his sword-hilt provides his cross. He applies justice by 'his own sword and by the cross thereon' (V i 43). Thus right is what is established by superior force: a dangerous principle. Only when he has been knocked off his horse by Prince Arthur does Sir Enias regret his misconduct (VI vii 15). Having pushed the egalitarian demagogue, the Giant of the Balances, over a cliff, Sir Artegall's retainer Talus disperses the Giant's followers with an iron flail:
As when a Faulcon has with nimble flight Flowne at a flush of Ducks foreby the brooke (V ii 54).
As much in Spenser's moral allegory is decided by feats of arms as in Homeric epic; but Homer is not primarily a moralist. Addressing his chosen audience of aedoubted Knights, and honorable Dames' (HI ix 1), Spenser goes so far as to extol tournaments as a method of sexual selection: the hardiest wins the most desirable (IV v 1). Yet in the Tournament of the Girdle which Spenser introduces with that equation the sham Knight Braggadochio wins a simulated Florimell. In the Sixth Book of The Faerie Queene Spenser shows signs of wearying of the code of chivalrous romance. Artegall, having defeated the tyrannous warlord Grantorto, is recalled in disgrace because of a court intrigue, and returns from his victory 'half-sad' (V xii 27 and VI i 4). Calidore's task is carried out in vain: he chains up the Blatant Beast, but it soon breaks loose.
It is hard to see how Spenser could have continued The Faerie Queene beyond Book Six without departing from his original intentions. The ambition and the rewards of the knights in the earlier Books is fame at Gloriana's court. But Calidore, disheartened by 'troubles and toilsome pain' and warned by the ingratitude shown to Artegall, renounces 'shadows vain / Of courtly favour' (VI ix 31 and VI x 2). He no longer seeks fame, but only repose and retirement among his friends the shepherds, and when he resumes his arms it is only in his friends' defence. Like Timias in the Fourth Book, he says adieu to feats of arms, and would like to make his helmet a hive for bees:
His wonted warlike weapons all he broke And threw away, with vow to use no more (IV vii 39).
'Ne certes might he greatly blamed be', adds Spenser. Gone is the reproach with which Spenser speaks of that other truant knight, Sir Verdant, captivated by Acrasia in the Bower of Bliss:
His warlike arms, the idle instruments Of sleeping praise, were hong upon a tree: And his brave shield, full of old moniments, Was fowly ras't, that none the signs might see; Ne for them, ne for honour cared he, Ne ought that did to his advauncement tend (II vii 80).
For a while Calidore too hangs up his armour, and forgets alike Gloriana and his quest; and when he returns to his quest, it proves futile. Spenser concludes the Book in some despondency. Like Calidore's errand, The Faerie Queene begins in Fairyland and ends in disillusion, although there are dazzling achievements all the way. The allegory is near collapse; its moral scheme is breaking down. But the allegory only initiates what is more important: Spenser's poetic entrancement.
Note: A fuller account of Artegall and of Book V of The Faerie Queene is given by the author in Notes and Queries (September 1992, vol. 237, no.3, pages 355357) and in Contemporary Review (March 1995, vol. 266, no.1550, pages 129-138).
Donald Bruce has for many years taught English Literature in the University of London. The Poet Edmund Spenser's epic work, The Faerie Queene (which he first read during his boyhood in Wales and has devotedly researched since), has been a life-long inspiration.…
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Publication information: Article title: Edmund Spenser's Deliberate Dream. Contributors: Bruce, Donald - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 294. Issue: 1706 Publication date: September 2012. Page number: 343+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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