The Faerie Queene

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The Faerie Queene is an incomplete English epic poem by Edmund Spenser. The first half was published in 1590, and a second installment was published in 1596. The Faerie Queene is notable for its form: it was the first work written in Spenserian stanza and is one of the longest poems in the English language.[1] It is an allegorical work, written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I. Largely symbolic, the poem follows several knights in an examination of several virtues.

The Faerie Queene found political favour with Elizabeth I and was consequently a success, to the extent that it became Spenser's defining work. The poem found such favour with the monarch that Spenser was granted a pension for life amounting to 50 pounds a year.[2]

Contents

A Celebration of the Virtues

A letter written by Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1589 contains a preface for The Faerie Queene, in which Spenser describes the allegorical presentation of virtues through Arthurian knights in the mythical "Faerieland." Presented as a preface to the epic in most published editions, this letter outlines plans for 24 books: 12 based each on a different knight who exemplified one of 12 "private virtues", and a possible 12 more centred on King Arthur displaying twelve "public virtues". Spenser names Aristotle as his source for these virtues, although the influence of Thomas Aquinas can be observed as well. It is impossible to predict what the work would have looked like had Spenser lived to complete it, since the reliability of the predictions made in his letter to Raleigh is not absolute, as numerous divergences from that scheme emerged as early as 1590, in the first Faerie Queene publication.

As it was published in 1596, the epic presented the following virtues:

  • Book I: Holiness
  • Book II: Temperance
  • Book III: Chastity
  • Book IV: Friendship
  • Book V: Justice
  • Book VI: Courtesy

In addition to these six virtues, the Letter to Raleigh suggests that Arthur represents the virtue of Magnificence, which ("according to Aristotle and the rest") is "the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth in it them all"; and that the Faerie Queene herself represents Glory (hence her name, Gloriana). The unfinished seventh book (the Cantos of Mutability), appears to have represented the virtue of "constancy."

Politics and the poem

The poem celebrates and memorializes the Tudor dynasty (of which Elizabeth was a part), much in the tradition of Virgil's Aeneid's celebration of Augustus Caesar's Rome. Like the Aeneid, which states that Augustus descended from the noble sons of Troy, The Faerie Queene suggests that the Tudor lineage can be connected to King Arthur. The poem is deeply allegorical and allusive: many prominent Elizabethans could have found themselves—or one another—partially represented by one or more of Spenser's figures. Elizabeth herself is the most prominent example: she appears most prominently in her guise as Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself; but also in Books III and IV as the virgin Belphoebe, daughter of Chrysogonee and twin to Amoret, the embodiment of womanly married love; and perhaps also, more critically, in Book I as Lucifera, the "maiden queen" whose brightly-lit Court of Pride masks a dungeon full of prisoners.

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