Edmund Spenser's Deliberate Dream

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, September 2012 | Go to article overview

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. …

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