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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

§ 9. The Faerie Queene

In The Faerie Queene, Spenser applies the allegorical method of composition on the same principle as in The Shepheards Calender, but, owing to the nature of the theme, with great difference in the character of the results. He had taken up the idea of allegorising romance almost at the same time that he contemplated the pastoral, and had submitted specimens of his work on it to the pedantic judgment of Harvey, who thought little of the performance in comparison with other poems by his friend, written, probably, more in accordance with his own affected taste. These latter, as Spenser informed Harvey, comprised Dreames, Stemmata Dudleiana, The Dying Pelican and Nine Comedies in imitation of Ariosto; none of them survive. He may have been discouraged by Harvey’s want of appreciation of The Faerie Queene; but, at any rate, he was soon called away to more practical work by accepting, in 1580, the position of secretary to lord Grey, who had been appointed lord deputy in Ireland. Public duties and the turbulent state of the country, doubtless, only allowed him intervals of leisure for excursions into the “delightful land of Faerie,” but we know that he continued to develop his design—of which he had completed the first, and a portion of the second, book before leaving England—for the work is mentioned by his friend Lodowick Bryskett as being in progress in 1583. Spenser’s name appears as one of the “undertakers” for the colonisation of Munster, in 1586, when he obtained possession of Kilcolman castle, the scenery in the neighbourhood of which he often mentions in The Faerie Queene. Here, in 1589, he was visited by Ralegh and read to him the three books of the poem which were all that he had then completed. Ralegh, delighted with what he heard, persuaded Spenser to accompany him to England, no doubt holding out to him prospects of preferment at court, whither the two friends proceeded in the winter of 1589. The first portion of The Faerie Queene was published in 1590.

In estimating the artistic value of this poem, we ought to consider not only what the poet himself tells us about the design, but the motives actually in his mind, so far as these discover themselves in the execution of the work. Allegory, no doubt, is its leading feature. The book, says Spenser, is “a continued allegory or darke conceit.” But he goes on to explain the manner in which his main intention is to be carried out:

  • The generall end therefore of all the booke (he says in his letter to Ralegh) is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline: Which for that I conceived shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which the most part of men delight to read, rather for variety of matter then for profite of the ensample, I chose the historye of King Arthure, as most fitte for the excellency of his person, being made famous by many mens former workes, and also furthest from the daunger of envy, and suspition of present time. In which I have followed all the antique Poets historicall; first Homere, who in the Persons of Agamemnon and Ulysses hath ensampled a good governour and a vertuous man, the one in his Ilias, the other in his Odysseis: then Virgil, whose like intention was to doe in the person of Aeneas: after him Ariosto comprised them both in his Orlando: and lately Tasso dissevered them againe, and formed both parts in two persons, namely that part which they in Philosophy call Ethice, or vertues of a private man, coloured in his Rinaldo; the other named Politice in his Godfredo.