Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 12. Allegory in The Faerie Queene

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XI. The Poetry of Spenser

§ 12. Allegory in The Faerie Queene

While adopting the form of the romantic epic as the basis of allegory throughout his entire poem, Spenser seems soon to have discovered that he could only travel easily by this path for a short distance. In his first two books, indeed, it was open to him to represent chivalrous action of an allegorical character, which might be readily understood as a probation undergone by the hero, prince Arthur, in the moral virtues of holiness and temperance. The first book shows the militant Christian, in the person of the Red Cross Knight, travelling in company with Una, the lady of his love, personifying wisdom or the highest form of beauty, on an enterprise, of which the end is to free the kingdom of Una’s parents from the ravages of a great dragon, the evil one. The various adventures in which the actors in the story are involved are well conceived, as setting forth the different temptations to which the Christian character is exposed; and this idea is still more forcibly worked out in the second book, which illustrates the exercise of temperance; for, here, the poet can appropriately ally the treatment of this virtue in Greek philosophy with the many allusions to it in the New Testament. In the allegories of the house of Mammon, the house of Alma and the bower of Bliss, the beauty of the imagery is equalled by the propriety with which treasures of learning are employed to bring the moral into due relief. At this point, however, the capacities of the moral design, as announced by the poet, were exhausted. “To fashion a gentleman or noble person” in the discipline of chastity, the subject of the third book, would have involved an allegory too closely resembling the one already completed; and it is significant that a female knight is now brought upon the scene; while, both in the third and in the fourth book, the moral is scarcely at all enforced by allegory, but almost always by “ensample,” or adventure. Justice, the virtue exemplified in the fifth book, is not, as would be anticipated from the preface, an inward disposition of the knightly soul, but an external condition of things, produced by the course of politics—scarcely allegorised at all—in real countries such as Ireland, France and the Netherlands; on the other hand, the peculiarly knightly virtue of courtesy is, in the sixth book, illustrated, also with very little attempt at allegory, by means of episodes of adventure borrowed, almost directly, from the romantic narrative of the Morte d’ Arthur.

The absence of depth in Spenser’s moral allegory is further shown by the multiplicity of his aims. He explains in his letter to Ralegh why his poem is called The Faerie Queene.

  • In that Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery land. And yet, in some places els, I doe otherwise shadow her. For considering she beareth two persons, the one of a most royall Queene or Empresse, the other of a most vertuous and beautifull Lady, this latter part in some places I do expresse in Belphœbe, fashioning her name according to your owne excellent conceipt of Cynthia, (Phoebe and Cynthia being both names of Diana.) So in the person of Prince Arthure I sette forth magnificence in particular; which vertue, for that (according to Aristotle and the rest) it is the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth in it them all, therefore in the whole course I mention the deedes of Arthure applyable to that vertue, which I write of in that booke. But of the XII. other vertues I make XII. other knights the patrones, for the more variety of the history: Of which these three bookes contayn three.
  • The attention of the reader is thus withdrawn from the purely ideal figure of the perfect knight, to unriddle, sometimes compliments addressed to great persons at court (e.g. queen Elizabeth, who, as occasion requires, is Gloriana, or Belphoebe, or Britomart; lord Grey, who is Artegall; Sir Walter Ralegh who is Timias), and sometimes invectives against the queen’s enemies, in the person of Duessa, who, when she is not Theological Falsehood, is Mary, queen of Scots.

    This ambiguity of meaning is intensified by the mixture of Christian with pagan imagery, and by the blending of classical mythology, both with local antiquarian learning and with the fictions of romance. In the fifth canto of the first book, for example, Duessa, or Papal Falsehood, goes down to hell, under the guidance of Night, to procure aid from Aesculapius for the wounded paynim Sansfoy, or Infidelity; and her mission gives an opening for a description of many of the torments mentioned in Vergil’s “Inferno.” On her return to the upper air, she goes to the “stately pallace of Dame Pryde,” in whose dungeons are confined many of the proud men mentioned in the Old Testament, or in Greek and Roman history. Shortly afterwards, prince Arthur relates to Una his nurture by the supposed historic Merlin; and the latter, in the third book, discloses to Britomart the line of British kings, as recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and prophesies the reign of Elizabeth.

    Such profusion of material and multiplicity of motive, while it gives to The Faerie Queene an unequalled appearance of richness and splendour, invalidates the profession of Spenser that the poem is “a continued allegory.” Allegory cannot be here interpreted as it may be, for example, in Plato’s Phaedrus, where the myth is avowedly used to relieve and illuminate the obscurities of abstract thought. It cannot be interpreted in Dante’s meaning, when he makes Beatrice say: “thus it is fitting to speak to your mind, seeing it is only from an object of sense that it apprehends what it afterwards makes worthy of the understanding.” Nor does it approach in moral depth the simple allegory of The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the author evidently employs the form of a story merely as the vehicle for the truth of Christian doctrine. In other words, the sense of Spenser’s allegory does not lie in its external truth: its value is to be found in its relation to the beauty of his own thought, and in the fidelity with which it reflects the intellectual temper of his time.