Edmund Spenser is one of the key figures in the English Renaissance, and he made his name mostly by writing about dragons and knights. Pretty cool, right? Watch this video to learn about this important author and his biggest work, The Faerie Queene.
Are you familiar with the concept of fanfiction? It's when a writer, or a person, really, likes a fictional world so much that he or she is inspired to create more fiction in that world beyond the scope of the original work. For example, fans of the Harry Potter series who were heartbroken when the last book was finished might be inspired to write more stories set at Hogwarts and featuring Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Those stories would be set in the world that J.K. Rowling created but written by fans, hence the name.
Though we tend to think of fanfiction as a more modern phenomenon, the truth is that people have been writing stories like fanfiction for years. In fact, it used to be a really common thing to do - storytellers didn't just invent their own worlds but instead chose to build off of others. The fact that many stories were born from the oral tradition really helped feed that. One of the most famous writers to ever make a name for himself writing almost completely in a world that he had nothing to do with was Edmund Spenser.
Spenser was one of the key figures of the English Renaissance, which was a time during the late 16th and early 17th centuries when the arts - especially the literary arts - flourished in Great Britain. Like so many of his contemporaries, though, Spenser wasn't just a writer - he also had a political and a military career. But writing was one of his major passions, and he hoped to use his writing to make a little money - which a lot of writers did; not all were very successful. The ones who did were lucky, and they're generally the ones we still know today.
The Faerie Queene - Plot and Reception
In those days, one of the only ways to make money through writing was to court royal favor - to get patronage from the royals. And so he did. In an attempt to please the reigning Queen Elizabeth I (not to be confused with the current Queen Elizabeth), Spenser crafted The Faerie Queene, one of the first (and longest) written English-language epics. An epic, by the way, is a lengthy composition, often a poem, that narrates the tale of a hero or heroes through some important event. Classic epics include Homer's Iliad and Odyssey; also Beowulf; an example of a more modern epic could be The Lord of the Rings.
Remember that before I was talking about fanfiction? Well, Spenser based his epic The Faerie Queene mostly on the legends of Arthur - you know, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Though he was a real English king, Arthur's exploits had been the stuff of folklore for centuries, and poets loved to talk about him, but Spenser no doubt produced one of the most notable works of Arthurian lore. The first version we have of The Faerie Queene is actually six books long - although correspondence from Spenser indicates that it was meant to actually be even longer, but he never got to finish that piece. What we do have is a lengthy example of an allegory, which is basically something representing something abstract through something concrete - or, in the literary sense, it's using characters (or sometimes events or people) to stand in for higher ideas.
Spenser's idea with The Faerie Queene was to have each knight of Arthur's Round Table stand in for some kind of desirable virtue. They're all supposed to represent something more lofty and important than just themselves. For example, in the first book, a knight named Redcrosse (not like the charitable organization, but he did have a red cross on his shield) is meant to represent holiness - probably not a shock, with the cross - a most important trait in Queen Elizabeth's England. Throughout the journey, Redcrosse is faced with challenges that would separate him from a true spiritual path, like the temptations of women, and his conflict centers on attempting to wade through all the falsehood and distractions of the world to maintain a virtuous life. This kind of high-minded moralizing is pretty common to Spenser's work and might sound familiar if you've read The Pilgrim's Progress. I'm sorry if you have.
It also, by the way, made The Faerie Queene an easy sell to Elizabeth. Spenser took on some pretty massive historical liberties to connect the bloodlines of Queen Elizabeth and King Arthur, which was his poetical way of validating Elizabeth's reign. It would be like today if somebody tried to show that President Obama had descended from George Washington. Also, another major part of Spenser's allegory was incorporating Elizabeth into his story as the titular Faerie Queen. Her name is Gloriana - whose name, as you might guess, means 'glory,' so he's kind of being a kiss-ass. This tactic worked pretty well for Spenser; after presenting the epic to Elizabeth, he was granted a pension of 50 pounds per year, which is more money than it sounds like now.
The Faerie Queene - History and Form
We touched a little bit so far on The Faerie Queene's plot, but before we move on we should probably talk a little bit about how it fits into the larger literary culture. As you may have guessed, Spenser's work owes quite a lot to other classical pieces - besides the body of the legends built around King Arthur, critics have pointed out that his work has connection to Italian epics written during that country's Renaissance, which predated England's by about a century or so. There are significant connections to Virgil's Aeneid, another epic that was meant to validate the reign of a monarch - in this case, Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. (The Aeneid is long, and hard to read, but it's totally worth the time, so if you're not familiar with it you should check it out.) Spenser even covers some of the same plot area as Virgil; both works deal with the fall of the noble Trojan Empire and they attempt to connect it, in the modern day, to the monarchs that they each wish to praise and gain favor with.
Another important aspect of The Faerie Queene is its form. It is, probably unsurprisingly, the first work written in the Spenserian stanzas - which are, in fact, named after Edmund Spenser. Each Spenserian stanza contains nine lines - two quatrains of iambic pentameter with differing rhyme schemes capped off by a single line in iambic hexameter. Does that mean nothing to you? That's totally fine. Let's look at an example of the opening stanza of The Faerie Queene to get a sense of how Spenserian stanza really works:
Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.
The first thing to notice is the very distinctive rhyme scheme - it's an ababbcbcc. So that just means that the first and third lines rhyme; the second, fourth, fifth, and seventh lines rhyme; and also the sixth, eight, and ninth lines rhyme. It's also good to note that the final line is a little bit longer than the others. If you didn't notice that, you can go back and look at it and see. That's because it actually has six 'feet,' or groups of syllables (when something has six feet, it's called hexameter), and the others have five (which is called pentameter). This really innovative structure (at the time) allowed Spenser to present his material in a formal poetic manner. Eight-line stanzas of iambic pentameter were an incredibly popular form, but that addition of the rhyming ninth line at the end gives him the ability to throw in a powerful narrative punch to cap off his thought. Thus, the Spenserian stanza capitalizes on both the traditional poetic format and the ability to surprise readers and drive them in a new direction. This form was embraced by a lot of writers to follow, including Romantic poets like Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson, all of whom, no surprise, were huge admirers of Spenser.
Sonnets and Essays
So that's a quick introduction to The Faerie Queene, and it's really Spenser's most well-known work, but that's not the only thing he wrote; he didn't stop there. In particular, he was a noted writer of love poems. His two big ones were the sonnet cycle Amoretti and his 'Epithalamion', which were published together in 1595. Real quick, a sonnet cycle is simply a collection of sonnets, and a sonnet is just a 14-line poem or 'little song.' You might be familiar with the term sonnet from Shakespeare, and Shakespearean sonnets were also of course widely popular. Spenserian sonnets are similar in a lot of ways, but also different, so they have different names. The main difference comes in the form. Both Amoretti and 'Epithalamion' were written for Spenser's bride-to-be, a woman named Elizabeth Boyle, to commemorate and celebrate their love. Actually, the word 'epithalamion,' if you've never heard of it (and it's totally fine if you haven't), is a general term that really just meant a poem written for a bride to celebrate marriage. Spenser's 'Epithalamion' is perhaps the most celebrated of its type.
There's one other work of Spenser's that's worth mentioning, though it wasn't actually published until decades after it was written. It might seem like a huge departure from Spenser's work if you're familiar with it or have an impression of what kind of guy he may have been. This comes from the political and military life that Spenser lived in addition to being a poet. This work was entitled 'A View of the Present State of Ireland'. This work was an essay, and Spenser writes about whether and how the rebellious Irish people that he really spent his whole military career fighting can never be integrated into the larger culture of Great Britain. His conclusions there are troubling, to say the least. It's basically advocating a 'scorched earth' method of completely destroying their culture and land so that the Irish really have no choice but to get on board with whatever England's doing. So, it wasn't great. In fact, it was pretty horrible; modern critics have even referred to it as 'genocidal.' There's a reason it wasn't published until after he died. This just goes to show you that even the best writers have some serious misfires.
Spenser produced some other poetry in his life, but we've covered the big ones. In particular, The Faerie Queene, an epic that uses the legend of King Arthur to validate the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is his major work, and that's what he's most associated with. Though The Faerie Queene is a massive allegorical work basically meant to put him in political favor with England's reigning monarchy, it's also a beautiful example of early literature and of a writer pushing the boundaries of everything that's come before. And even if it turns out Spenser had some not-so-great political opinions, and maybe you wouldn't have liked the guy very much if you had met him, there's no reason to think he wasn't a fantastic and important writer who's influenced so much of our culture today. And that's Edmund Spenser.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Summarize The Faerie Queene and its allegorical characteristics
- Understand why Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene
- Describe Spenserian stanzas
- Name some of Spenser's other notable works