Spenser’s Allegorical Trap

Spenser WeekLast week I regretted that modern editors use olde fashyondde spelyng for The Faerie Queene, the grand poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary Edmund Spenser. We modernize spelling for Shakespeare and just about every author of that time, but not Spenser. And that puts an unnecessary barrier between Spenser and the modern reader.

And as I noted last week, olde spellynge is not the only barrier for modern readers. To begin with, the title Fairy Queen (to use modern spelling) has connotations today that give a false idea of what the poem is about. Then there’s the fact that it’s a daunting 35,000 lines long, the longest (good) poem in English, with a complicated plot involving a huge cast of characters. And finally, as dank48 commented last week, Spenser was seriously politically incorrect, involved in shockingly harsh campaigns against the Irish. In his writing, as a supporter of Queen Elizabeth, he was virulently anti-Catholic.

As if all this weren’t enough, The Fairy Queen is allegorical. Spenser says so himself, providing a lengthy introduction about it, in the form of a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh:

“Sir, knowing how doubtfully all allegories may be construed, and this book of mine, which I have entitled The Fairy Queen, being a continued allegory, or dark conceit, I have thought good, as well for avoiding of jealous opinions and misconstructions, as also for your better light in reading thereof, (being so by you commanded,) to discover unto you the general intention and meaning, which in the whole course thereof I have fashioned, without expressing of any particular purposes or by-accidents therein occasioned.”

What meat for the literary lion! How could any red-blooded scholar resist Spenser’s implicit invitation to “construe” his allegories? For the poem is indeed awash in allegory, and allegory cries for interpretation. Sometimes a poem just means what it says, but The Fairy Queen hides its meanings behind the allegories.

What an irresistible red herring, the opportunity for scholars to express and argue about the author’s “particular purposes or by-accidents.” What study questions for students!

Thus readers of The Fairy Queen are drawn to puzzle out the allegory. That’s a shame, because the allegory is complicated and distracts from the story. It’s great if you’re interested in Elizabethan politics and religion. But nowadays most of us aren’t.

What makes The Fairy Queen great poetry is not the allegorical meanings the characters have, or the complicated plot, but the genuineness of the characters themselves and their feelings. As an example, here again is my favorite stanza:

His lovely words her seemed due recompense
Of all her passéd pains: one loving hour
For many years of sorrow can dispense:
A dram of sweet is worth a pound of sour:
She has forgot how many a woeful stowre [turmoil]
For him she late endured; she speaks no more
Of past: true is, that true love hath no power
To looken back; his eyes be fixed before.
Before her stands her knight, for whom she toiled so sore.

In plain words mostly of one syllable, Spenser does better than any other author I know to express the relief one character feels at reuniting with her beloved. The reader knows that this really isn’t her knight but an arch-enemy disguised as her knight, but that doesn’t make her feelings any less genuine.

Allegorically considered, Una, the princess here feeling such relief, stands for Truth and True (protestant) Religion. But Una has no idea that she is an allegory. Poor girl, she thinks she’s a real person.

And so it is with the other characters. Una’s boyfriend, the Redcross Knight, represents Holiness, but he gets into one pickle after another just like the naïve and overconfident knight he is before he gets to be holy enough. At the end of the first of the poem’s six books, he slays a dragon, which stands for sin and Satan and the Catholic church (it’s a very anti-Catholic poem), but the dragon seems perfectly real. When the dragon is dead, the “rascal many” (Spenser wasn’t impressed with commoners) rush to the scene to get a look:

Some feared and fled; some feared and well it feigned [concealed];
One that would wiser seem than all the rest
Warned him not touch, for yet perhaps remained
Some lingering life within his hollow breast,
Or in his womb might lurk some hidden nest
Of many dragonets, his fruitful seed;
Another said that in his eyes did rest
Yet sparkling fire, and bade thereof take heed;
Another said, he saw him move his eyes indeed.

One mother, when as her foolhardy child
Did come too near and with his talons play,
Half dead through fear, her little babe reviled
And to her gossips gan in counsel say,
“How can I tell, but that his talons may
Yet scratch my son or rend his tender hand?”
So diversely themselves in vain they fray [frighten].
While some more bold, to measure him nigh stand,
To prove how many acres he did spread of land.

Not much different from what would happen nowadays if somebody happened to slay a dragon in a suburban neighborhood.

Spenser presents us with real persons in imaginary gardens—or rather, imaginary persons and creatures, dozens of them, with real feelings, in fascinating imaginary settings of what Spenser calls Fairyland, ruled by Queen Gloriana (allegorically Queen Elizabeth) in the days of young Prince Arthur, himself not yet king.

If you’re not burdened by being required to memorize the allegory and the plot, you can enjoy Spenser’s “fierce wars and faithful loves,” as he announces the matter in his opening stanza.

But how can you make your way through this seemingly endless poem? Fortunately, with the help of the stanza form that Spenser invented it’s not so hard. That form deserves special consideration of its own, which I’ll offer next time.

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