Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's Faerie Queene

By Michael O'Connell | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Myth and History
in the Legend of Justice

In book 5 the historical dimension of The Faerie Queene reaches a climax. As the book progresses, history exerts an influence on the narrative that becomes virtual control by the final four cantos. By canto 9 even filial piety could not prevent James VI from seeing the reference to Mary Queen of Scots in the trial of Duessa. At the same time the artistry of the poem undergoes a crisis. No other book exhibits so much distance between high and low points. Spenser's mythopoeic powers are severely tested by the subject of the Legend of Justice, and both the successes and the failures of that testing are remarkable. Inevitably, and not without reason, some readers have blamed the insistence of historical reference for the failings of the book. From our distance of nearly four centuries, we know that some of the events and policies the poet asks us to consider were not unassailable examples of justice. But it is not simply Spenser's insistence on an historical context for justice that causes the crisis in the poem, for the historical immediacy of other books of the poem, especially book 1, has a fascination even for readers far removed in time. On the other hand, critical commentary by readers who believe the book a success has minimized or neglected history and attempted to show the workings of myth. 1 These readers have treated history as an unimportant—and perhaps embarrassing— appendage of Spenser's moral allegory; at most the historical allusions simply illustrate the moral allegory. But Spenser never uses contemporary history as mere illustration, and book 5 in particular is seriously engaged with the contemporary world. To avoid noticing that the Legend of Justice consistently directs readers toward

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Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's Faerie Queene
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Mirror and Veil - The Historical Dimension of Spenser's Faerie Queene *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Explanatory Note xiii
  • Mirror and Veil *
  • Introduction 3
  • Chapter 1 - The Method of the Poet His Torical 16
  • Chapter 2 - Holiness and Historical Fulfillment 38
  • Chapter 3 - History and the Poet's Golden World 69
  • Chapter 4 - Mirrors More Than One 99
  • Chapter 5 - Myth and History in the Legend of Justice 125
  • Chapter 6 - The Return to Pastoral Vision 161
  • Epilogue - Escape from Mutability 190
  • Notes 195
  • Works Cited 207
  • Index to the Faerie Queene 213
  • General Index 217
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