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

XI. The Poetry of Spenser

§ 13. The knight in the social organism

The main difficulty that Spenser had to encounter in treating the subject of The Faerie Queene lay in the conduct of the action. His design was at once ethical and practical, namely “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline”; and this he proposed to do by portraying “in Arthure, before he was King, the image of a brave Knight, perfected in the twelve private Morall Vertues, as Aristotle hath devised.” But the knight, as such, no longer, in any real sense, formed part of the social organism. He had been rapidly vanishing from it since the epoch of the crusades, and almost the last glimpse of him in English poetry is in the fine and dignified person of the Canterbury pilgrim, the “verray parfit, gentil knyght,” who is represented as having warred against the infidel on behalf of Christendom in Prussia and Lithuania. So long as it was possible to believe in his existence, men pleased their imaginations with reading of the knight’s ideal deeds in the romances; but the time was close at hand when the romances themselves were, necessarily, to be made the subject of just satire. Absolutism had everywhere crushed the energies of feudalism; the knight had been transformed into the courtier; and the “vertuous and gentle discipline,” deemed requisite for him in his new sphere, was, for the most part, to be found in such regulations for external behaviour as are laid down in Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano. Long before the close of the eighteenth century, it would have been possible to write, mutatis mutandis, the epitaph of feudalism in the glowing words of Burke:

  • The age of Chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroick enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.
  • Spenser himself felt that he was dealing with a vanished state of things:

  • So oft as I with state of present time
  • The image of the antique world compare,
  • When as mans age was in his freshest prime,
  • And the first blossome of faire vertue bare;
  • Such oddes I finde twixt those, and these which are,
  • As that, through long continuance of his course,
  • Me seemes the world is runne quite out of square
  • From the first point of his appointed sourse;
  • And being once amisse growes daily wourse and wourse.
  • Under these altered conditions, it would be unreasonable to look in The Faerie Queene for a “continued allegory” of action. What we do find there is the chivalrous spirit, such as still survived in the soul of Sidney and a few others, uttering itself, when opportunity offers, in short bursts of enthusiastic and sublime sentiment, as in the following stanza on Honour:

  • In woods, in waves, in warres, she wonts to dwell,
  • And wil be found with perill and with paine;
  • Ne can the man that moulds in ydle cell
  • Unto her happy mansion attaine;
  • Before her gate high God did Sweate ordaine,
  • And wakefull watches ever to abide;
  • But easy is the way and passage plaine
  • To pleasures pallace: it may soon be spide,
  • And day and night her dores to all stand open wide.
  • There is nothing in Orlando Furioso so lofty as this; nor can the great poet of Italian romance for a moment compare with Spenser in “that generous loyalty to rank and sex … that subordination of the heart,” which, as Burke observes, is one of the noblest characteristics of chivalry. Not only does the ancient tendency to woman-worship, common to the Teutonic race, survive in the figure of Gloriana, The Faerie Queene, but in all Spenser’s treatment of female character there is a purity and elevation worthy of his chivalrous subject. His Una and Amoret are figures of singular beauty, and his handling of delicate situations, involving mistakes about sex or descriptions of female jealousy, contrasts finely with that of Ariosto. The gross realism in the painting of Bradamante’s feelings, when suspicious of Ruggiero’s relations with Marfisa, set side by side with the imitation of that passage in the episode of Britomart, Radigund and Artegall, shows how wide a gulf of sentiment separated the still knightly spirit of England from the materialism of the Italian renascence.

    Finally, the genius of heroic action which, in the romances of chivalry—as became the decentralised character of feudal institutions—is diffused over a great variety of actors, places and situations, tends, in The Faerie Queene, to concentrate itself in the person of the sovereign, as representing the greatness of the English nation. The patriotic spirit of the times constantly breaks forth in emotional utterance, as in the stanza describing the enthusiasm with which prince Arthur reads the books of “Briton documents.”

  • At last, quite ravisht with delight to heare
  • The royall Ofspring of his native land,
  • Cryde out; Deare countrey! O how dearely deare
  • Ought the remembraunce and perpetuall band
  • Be to thy foster Childe, that from thy hand
  • Did commun breath and nouriture receave.
  • How brutish is it not to understand
  • How much to her we owe, that all us gave;
  • That gave unto us all what ever good we have.
  • With the glorification of a patriot queen, Spenser was able, appropriately, to link all the legendary lore handed down to him by Geoffrey of Monmouth, together with the fables of the Morte d’Arthur, and with that local antiquarianism which, in the historical researches of men like Camden and Holinshed, had done much to kindle the English imagination. Contemporary politics and personal association also furnished him with a large part of the material in his fifth book.