Resurrection as Blasphemy in Canto 5 of Edmund Spenser's "The Legend of Holiness"

By Bergvall, Åke | Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Resurrection as Blasphemy in Canto 5 of Edmund Spenser's "The Legend of Holiness"


Bergvall, Åke, Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate


"... and so, who are you, after all? -I am part of the power which forever wills evil and forever works good."

(Goethe's Faust, as used as epigraph to Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita)1

Journeys to and from the netherworld are common occurrences in "The Legend of Holiness," Book 1 of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. From Archimago awaking Proserpina and Gorgon as he calls out of "deepe darkness dredd / Legions of Sprights" in canto 1 (FQ 1.1.37-38) to Redcrosse reenacting Christ's death and resurrection in the dragon fight of canto 11, the world of the living is in constant contact with the realm of the dead. As has been well-documented in Spenser scholarship, this interaction is fraught with literary echoes. Matthew Pike's Spenser's Underworld in the 1590 Faerie Queene (2003) is just a recent example of scholarship that elaborates on the connections between Spenser's epic and both Christian and classical descents, in particular Christ's harrowing of hell and Aeneas's and Theseus's journeys to the underworld, to name some prominent models.2

However, my contribution is neither a study of sources, nor of the historical setting. Instead I am offering a reading of a problematic section of "The Legend of Holiness," the second half of canto 5, in which Duessa meets with Night and then descends into the underworld to "save" Sansjoy (as the Argument to the canto puts it). I shall argue that Duessa's act of salvation is blasphemous and (consequently) ineffectual. The starting point for my reading is a useful suggestion by Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, Patrick Cheney and Michael Schoenfeldt. In the introduction to their excellent collection of articles, Imagining Death in Spenser and Milton, they point out that "Spenser seems attracted to narratives in which characters miraculously survive death" (5). While death is everywhere present in The Faerie Queene, the epic, they argue, is defined rather by "Spenser's notorious dragoness Errour," making the "Spenserian narrative [...] error's thriving terrain, where the finality of death is often deferred indefinitely" (4-5). That certainly seems to be the case in the story at hand. Duessa's attempt to find healing, and thus life, for the dying Sansjoy leaves the Saracen in a limbo: ever recovering from his wounds he is denied closure by never again being mentioned in the epic. A relevant question is whether he is in fact dead or alive. After all, to find healing Duessa does not bring him up from the kingdom of death, but down into hell, a realm from which, as Spenser clearly states, no one "back retourned without heauenly grace" (FQ 1.5.31). The consequences of Bellamy, Cheney and Schoenfeldt's pronouncement that "the finality of death is often deferred indefinitely" seems to be that Errour, for all her power and deviousness, may in fact be biting her own tail (or, to use Spenser's own image, is having her own "scattered brood" suck up her lifeblood [FQ 1.1.25]).

Like the powers of evil in both Goethe and Bulgakov, Errour, for all her textual havoc, may in fact be willing evil but working good. The contention of this paper is that Duessa and her "mother" Night, even as they bring linguistic confusion and stage a blasphemous mockimitation of Christ's harrowing of hell, may be suffering the same fate. Blasphemy, like "Errours endlesse traine" (FQ 1.1.18)-which includes both Archimago and Duessa-is "textual" and "linguistic" (Nitisor 70). That linguistic profanation can be felt in the semantic confusion of canto 5, first felt as a threat to the salvific status of Redcrosse, the putative hero of the whole book.

The closer one studies canto 5 the stranger it gets. According to the canto's Argument, it seems a straightforward enough story:

The four lines of the Argument divide the canto into its two main components: the daytime joust between Redcrosse and Sansjoy that occupies stanzas 1 to 19, and a second nighttime part, stanzas 20 to 44, that describes Duessa attempting to find a cure for Sansjoy, defeated but miraculously protected from Redcrosse's coup de grace by a "darkesome clowd" (FQ 1. …

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