Biography of Edmund Spenser (1553-1599)
Edmund Spenser was born in 1552 or 1553. No documentation exists to establish his exact date of birth, but the year is known in part due to Spenser's own poetry. InAmoretti Sonnet 60, Spenser writes that he is forty-one years old. We know this poem was published in 1594 (and written only shortly prior to its publication), so the year of his birth can be closely guessed.
Spenser matriculated at the University of Cambridge on May 20, 1569. Ten years later he published his first publicly-released poetic work, The Sheapheards' Calendar, to positive reviews. He then began work on his magnum opus, The Faerie Queene, publishing the first three of the projected twelve books in 1590.
Spenser was an English subject during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, to whose court he aspired. He offered Elizabeth The Faerie Queene in an attempt to gain her favor. Unfortunately, Spenser held to political views and associated with individuals that did not meet the approval of Elizabeth's principal secretary, Lord Burghley. Through Burghley's influence, Spenser was given only a small pension in recognition for his grand poetic work.
Sent to Ireland to hold English property on the oft-rebellious island, Spenser there met and wooed Elizabeth Boyle, a young woman from an important English family, who was probably half his age. His year-long suit to win her hand in marriage is recorded (with a deal of poetic license) in Spenser's Amoretti. Spenser also dedicated a marriage song,Epithalamion, to his young bride. As was the custom, both seemingly personal works of poetry were published for mass consumption in 1594 and helped Spenser's literary career to improve. In the meantime, Spenser completed the fourth through sixth books of The Faerie Queene and published them, along with revised versions of the first three books, in 1596.
Spenser is best known for his immense epic poem The Faerie Queene. Dedicated to Queen Elizabeth (herself represented by the title character) the work was envisioned by Spenser as encompassing twelve books, each one detailing a quest by some knight of King Arthur's court on behalf of Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. Spenser was only able to finish the first six books (and begin a draft of the seventh) before his death in 1599.
from The Faerie Queene: Book I, Canto I
But full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthfull knight could not for ought be staide,
But forth unto the darksome hole he went,
And looked in: his glistring armor made
A litle glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plaine,
Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide,
But th'other halfe did womans shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.
And as she lay upon the durtie ground,
Her huge long taile her den all overspred,
Yet was in knots and many boughtes upwound,
Pointed with mortall sting. Of her there bred
A thousand yong ones, which she dayly fed,
Sucking upon her poisonous dugs, eachone
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill favored:
Soone as that uncouth light upon them shone,
Into her mouth they crept, and suddain all were gone.
Their dam upstart, out of her den effraide,
And rushed forth, hurling her hideous taile
About her cursed head, whose folds displaid
Were stretcht now forth at length without entraile.
She lookt about, and seeing one in mayle
Armed to point, sought backe to turne againe;
For light she hated as the deadly bale,
Ay wont in desert darknesse to remaine,
Where plaine none might her see, nor she see any plaine.
Which when the valiant Elfe perceiv'd, he lept
As Lyon fierce upon the flying pray,
And with his trenchand blade her boldly kept
From turning backe, and forced her to stay:
Therewith enrag'd she loudly gan to bray,
And turning fierce, her speckled taile advaunst,
Threatning her angry sting, him to dismay:
Who nought aghast, his mightie hand enhaunst:
The stroke down from her head unto her shoulder glaunst.
Much daunted with that dint, her sence was dazd,
Yet kindling rage, her selfe she gathered round,
And all attonce her beastly body raizd
With doubled forces high above the ground:
Tho wrapping up her wrethed sterne arownd,
Lept fierce upon his shield, and her huge traine
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stirre he strove in vaine:
God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine.
His Lady sad to see his sore constraint,
Cride out, Now now Sir knight, shew what ye bee,
Add faith unto your force, and be not faint:
Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee.
That when he heard, in great perplexitie,
His gall did grate for griefe and high disdaine,
And knitting all his force got one hand free,
Wherewith he grypt her gorge with so great paine,
That soone to loose her wicked bands did her constraine.
Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.
As when old father Nilus gins to swell
With timely pride above the Aegyptian vale,
His fattie waves do fertile slime outwell,
And overflow each plaine and lowly dale:
But when his later spring gins to avale,
Huge heapes of mudd he leaves, wherein there breed
Ten thousand kindes of creatures, partly male
And partly female of his fruitfull seed;
Such ugly monstrous shapes elsewhere may no man reed.
The same so sore annoyed has the knight,
That welnigh choked with the deadly stinke,
His forces faile, ne can no longer fight.
Whose corage when the feend perceiv'd to shrinke,
She poured forth out of her hellish sinke
Her fruitfull cursed spawne of serpents small,
Deformed monsters, fowle, and blacke as inke,
Which swarming all about his legs did crall,
And him encombred sore, but could not hurt at all.
As gentle Shepheard in sweete even-tide,
When ruddy Phoebus gins to welke in west,
High on an hill, his flocke to vewen wide,
Markes which do byte their hasty supper best;
A cloud of combrous gnattes do him molest,
All striving to infixe their feeble stings,
That from their noyance he no where can rest,
But with his clownish hands their tender wings
He brusheth oft, and oft doth mar their murmurings.
Thus ill bestedd, and fearefull more of shame,
Then of the certaine perill he stood in,
Halfe furious unto his foe he came,
Resolv'd in minde all suddenly to win,
Or soone to lose, before he once would lin;
And strooke at her with more then manly force,
That from her body full of filthie sin
He raft her hatefull head without remorse;
A streame of cole black bloud forth gushed from her corse.
Her scattred brood, soone as their Parent deare
They saw so rudely falling to the ground,
Groning full deadly, all with troublous feare,
Gathred themselves about her body round,
Weening their wonted entrance to have found
At her wide mouth: but being there withstood
They flocked all about her bleeding wound,
And sucked up their dying mothers blood,
Making her death their life, and eke her hurt their good.
That detestable sight him much amazde,
To see th'unkindly Impes of heaven accurst,
Devoure their dam; on whom while so he gazd,
Having all satisfide their bloudy thurst,
Their bellies swolne he saw with fulnesse burst,
And bowels gushing forth: well worthy end
Of such as drunke her life, the which them nurst;
Now needeth him no lenger labour spend,
His foes have slaine themselves, with whom he should contend.
Book I tells the story of the knight of Holiness, the Redcrosse Knight. This hero gets his name from the blood-red cross emblazoned on his shield. He has been given a task by Gloriana, "that greatest Glorious Queen of Faerie lond," to fight a terrible dragon (I.i.3). He is traveling with a beautiful, innocent young lady and a dwarf as servant. Just as we join the three travelers, a storm breaks upon them and they rush to find cover in a nearby forest. When the skies clear, they find that they are lost, and they end up near a cave, which the lady recognizes as the den of Error. Ignoring her warnings, Redcrosse enters and is attacked by the terrible beast, Error, and her young. She wraps him up in her tail, but he eventually manages to strangle her and chops off her head. Error's young then drink her blood until they burst and die. Victorious, the knight and his companions set out again, looking for the right path. As night falls, they meet an old hermit who offers them lodging in his inn. As the travelers sleep, the hermit assumes his real identity--he is Archimago, the black sorcerer, and he conjures up two spirits to trouble Redcrosse. One of the sprites obtains a false dream from Morpheus, the god of sleep; the other takes the shape of Una, the lady accompanying Redcrosse. These sprites go to the knight; one gives him the dream of love and lust. When Redcrosse wakes up in a passion, the other sprite (appearing to be Una) is lying beside him, offering a kiss. The knight, however, resists her temptations and returns to sleep. Archimago then tries a new deception; he puts the sprite disguised as Una in a bed and turns the other sprite into a young man, who lies with the false Una. Archimago then wakes Redcrosse and shows him the two lovers in bed. Redcrosse is furious that "Una" would spoil her virtue with another man, and so in the morning he leaves without her. When the real Una wakes, she sees her knight is gone, and in sorrow rides off to look for him. Archimago, enjoying the fruits of his scheme, now disguises himself as Redcrosse and follows after Una. As Redcrosse wanders on, he approaches another knight--Sansfoy, who is traveling with his lady. He charges Redcrosse, and they fight fiercely, but the shield with the blood-red cross protects our hero; eventually, he kills Sansfoy. He takes the woman into his care--she calls herself Fidessa, saying that she is the daughter of the Emperor of the West. Redcrosse swears to protect her, attracted to her beauty. They continue together, but soon the sun becomes so hot that they must rest under the shade of some trees. Redcrosse breaks a branch off of one tree and is shocked when blood drips forth from it, and a voice cries out in pain. The tree speaks and tells its story. It was once a man, named Fradubio, who had a beautiful lady named Fraelissa--now the tree next to him. One day, Fradubio happened to defeat a knight and win his lady (just as Redcrosse did)--and that lady turned out to be Duessa, an evil witch. Duessa turned Fraelissa into a tree, so that she could have Fradubio for herself. But Fradubio saw the witch in her true, ugly form while she was bathing, and when he tried to run away, she turned him into a tree, as well. When Fradubio finishes his story, Fidessa faints--because she is, in fact, Duessa, and she fears that she will be found out. She recovers though, and Redcrosse does not make the connection, so they continue on their way.
Redcrosse is the hero of Book I, and in the beginning of Canto i, he is called the knight of Holinesse. He will go through great trials and fight fierce monsters throughout the Book, and this in itself is entertaining, as a story of a heroic "knight errant." However, the more important purpose of the Faerie Queene is its allegory, the meaning behind its characters and events. The story's setting, a fanciful "faerie land," only emphasizes how its allegory is meant for a land very close to home: Spenser's England. The title character, the Faerie Queene herself, is meant to represent Queen Elizabeth. Redcrosse represents the individual Christian, on the search for Holiness, who is armed with faith in Christ, the shield with the bloody cross. He is traveling with Una, whose name means "truth." For a Christian to be holy, he must have true faith, and so the plot of Book I mostly concerns the attempts of evildoers to separate Redcrosse from Una. Most of these villains are meant by Spenser to represent one thing in common: the Roman Catholic Church. The poet felt that, in the English Reformation, the people had defeated "false religion" (Catholicism) and embraced "true religion" (Protestantism/Anglicanism). Thus, Redcrosse must defeat villains who mimic the falsehood of the Roman Church.
The first of these is Error. When Redcrosse chokes the beast, Spenser writes, "Her vomit full of bookes and papers was (I.i.20)." These papers represent Roman Catholic propaganda that was put out in Spenser's time, against Queen Elizabeth and Anglicanism. The Christian (Redcrosse) may be able to defeat these obvious and disgusting errors, but before he is united to the truth he is still lost and can be easily deceived. This deceit is arranged by Archimago, whose name means "arch-image"--the Protestants accused the Catholics of idolatry because of their extensive use of images. The sorcerer is able, through deception and lust, to separate Redcrosse from Una--that is, to separate Holiness from Truth. Once separated, Holiness is susceptible to the opposite of truth, or falsehood. Redcrosse may able to defeat the strength of Sansfoy (literally "without faith" or "faithlessness") through his own native virtue, but he falls prey to the wiles of Falsehood herself--Duessa. Duessa also represents the Roman Church, both because she is "false faith," and because of her rich, purple and gold clothing, which, for Spenser, displays the greedy wealth and arrogant pomp of Rome. Much of the poet's imagery comes from a passage in the Book of Revelation, which describes the "whore of Babylon"--many Protestant readers took this Biblical passage to indicate the Catholic Church.
The Faerie Queene, however, also has many sources outside of the Bible. Spenser considers himself an epic poet in the classical tradition and so he borrows heavily from the great epics of antiquity: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. This is most evident at the opening of Book I, in which Spenser calls on one of the Muses to guide his poetry--Homer and Virgil established this form as the "proper" opening to an epic poem. The scene with the "human tree," in which a broken branch drips blood, likewise recalls a similar episode in theAeneid. However, while these ancient poets mainly wrote to tell a story, we have already seen that Spenser has another purpose in mind. In the letter that introduces the Faerie Queene, he says that he followed Homer and Virgil and the Italian poets Ariosto and Tasso because they all have "ensampled a good governour and a vertuous man." Spenser intends to expand on this example by defining the characteristics of a good, virtuous, Christian man.
Arthur - The central hero of the poem, although he does not play the most significant role in its action. Arthur is in search of the Faerie Queene, whom he saw in a vision. The "real" Arthur was a king of the Britons in the 5th or 6th century A.D., but the little historical information we have about him is overwhelmed by his legend.
Faerie Queene (also known as Gloriana) - Though she never appears in the poem, the Faerie Queene is the focus of the poem; her castle is the ultimate goal or destination of many of the poem’s characters. She represents Queen Elizabeth, among others, as discussed in the Commentary.
Redcrosse - The Redcrosse Knight is the hero of Book I; he stands for the virtue of Holiness. His real name is discovered to be George, and he ends up becoming St. George, the patron saint of England. On another level, though, he is the individual Christian fighting against evil--or the Protestant fighting the Catholic Church.
Una - Redcrosse's future wife, and the other major protagonist in Book I. She is meek, humble, and beautiful, but strong when it is necessary; she represents Truth, which Redcrosse must find in order to be a true Christian.
Duessa - The opposite of Una, she represents falsehood and nearly succeeds in getting Redcrosse to leave Una for good. She appears beautiful, but it is only skin-deep.
Archimago - Next to Duessa, a major antagonist in Book I. Archimago is a sorcerer capable of changing his own appearance or that of others; in the end, his magic is proven weak and ineffective.
Britomart - The hero of Book III, the female warrior virgin, who represents Chastity. She is a skilled fighter and strong of heart, with an amazing capacity for calm thought in troublesome circumstances. Of course, she is chaste, but she also desires true Christian love. She searches for her future husband, Arthegall, whom she saw in a vision through a magic mirror.
Florimell - Another significant female character in Book III, Florimell represents Beauty. She is also chaste but constantly hounded by men who go mad with lust for her. She does love one knight, who seems to be the only character that doesnot love her.
Satyrane - Satyrane is the son of a human and a satyr (a half-human, half-goat creature). He is "nature's knight," the best a man can be through his own natural abilities without the enlightenment of Christianity and God's grace. He is significant in both Book I and Book III, generally as an aide to the protagonists.