Jean de La Fontaine
One of the most beautiful works of the Arts and Crafts Movement - a gorgeous facsimile of a piece of publishing history.
The sixteenth century was the golden age of English poetry. Edmund Spenser burned to create an English equivalent to Virgil’s Aeneid. Instead of lauding the Caesars, he would glorify Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. Where Virgil connected Rome to the heroic past of Troy, Spenser would forge a link between Tudor England and the mythological age of King Arthur. The result was The Faerie Queene, a rich allegory which elevated Protestant virtues through the medium of a romantic, chivalric epic. Today the power of Spenser’s story and the beauty of his verse still live in ‘famous memory’.
Rather as Spenser himself looked to ‘antique times’, the Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th century looked back nostalgically to the Middle Ages. Walter Crane, an illustrator and associate of William Morris, was inspired by Edmund Spenser. He, after all, was a quintessentially English writer, dedicated to the noble aims of justice, honour and chivalry to which Crane himself, a socialist and romantic, was also committed. He illustrated the poem so lavishly that this sumptuous edition became a legend of book production in its own right.
Abroad in armes, at home in studious kynd,
Who seekes with painfull toile shall honor soonest find
Born in London around 1552 to a family of modest means, Edmund Spenser was educated as a poor scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He managed to gain work with the government, and served in Ireland, where he met the influential court favourite and poet, Sir Walter Raleigh. His own poetry, including The Faerie Queene, was written in between his official duties and he succeeded in gaining an introduction to read his works to the Queen in 1589. The Queen was so impressed with his epic that she granted Spenser an annual pension of £50. Elizabeth’s chief minister Lord Burghley is supposed to have grumbled, ‘What, all this for a song!’ Spenser’s Irish estate was burned during an attack in 1598. He left Ireland a year later and returned to London, where he died aged 47. His coffin was interred in Westminster Abbey close to Chaucer, an indication of the immense stature he had acquired. His inscription hails: ‘Prince of Poets in his tyme; whose Divine Spirrit needs noe othir witnesse then the works which he left behinde him.’
And thou, O fayrest Princesse under sky!
In this fayre mirrhour maist behold thy face,
And thine owne realmes in lond of Faery,
And in this antique ymage thy great auncestry
Spenser drew praise from Milton for his ‘forests, and enchantments drear/Where more is meant than meets the ear’. On one level The Faerie Queene works as a fabulous romance in which dragons, beasts, satyrs, foul enchanters, kind hermits, virtuous maidens and wicked seductresses are all to be found. On another, it is an allegory that is at once moral, political and biographical, from the many characters who reflect aspects of Elizabeth I (the virtuous Belphoebe, the warrior maid Britomartis, Gloriana and the Faerie Queene herself), to wicked characters who symbolise the Catholic Church, the Pope and Mary Queen of Scots. Some personifications are obvious – Despaire urging suicide, or three sisters called Fidelia, Speranza and Charissa who are healers in the House of Holinesse. Other dramatic allegories present subtle moral conundrums, which the reader, as much as the characters, must learn to decode. The Redcrosse Knight is too easily led to doubt his lady Una because of a trick; Amavia kills herself, splashing her baby with blood – a stain which cannot be washed away; a husband whose wife is unfaithful jumps into the sea, only to discover that he is so consumed by jealousy that he floats safely . . . Spenser’s imagination and inventiveness ensure his characters and situations are too lively and many-layered for any simplistic reading.
Each Book tells the adventure of a different knight, representing a virtue. Prince Arthur, who is searching for the Faerie Queene, acts as a common thread through the Books, assisting the various knights in their quests. Spenser wrote to Sir Walter Raleigh describing an ambitious plan of twelve Books, and perhaps even more. He completed six, which, at a total of 35,000 lines, makes The Faerie Queene the longest poem in the English language. Such is the quality of his poetry and storytelling that it is hard to think of The Faerie Queene as unfinished, rather it presents a series of adventures as timeless as any myth or legend.
Described as ‘the poet’s poet’, Spenser was the most widely read and highly regarded poet in English in his lifetime and long afterwards. He influenced not only Milton and Shakespeare, but Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats. Although the language in The Faerie Queene was deliberately archaic, Spenser also coined words still in use today – ‘blatant’ and ‘derring-do’ among them. Perhaps his most famous innovation was the poetic form in which The Faerie Queene is written. The Spenserian stanza is formed of nine lines with a tight, intricate rhyme scheme. It became an immensely popular form, powerful but distinctively English, unlike the sonnet which was of Italian origin. Many other poets used it successfully – Keats wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ in the form, Wordsworth his lament ‘The Female Vagrant’, and Tennyson ‘The Lotus Eaters’.
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose praises having slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broade emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithful loves shall moralize my song.
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Walter Crane was already a well-established illustrator, artist and wood-engraver who had worked with William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and other luminaries of the day when he embarked on his most ambitious project – the illustration and decoration of the longest poem in the English language. It is the most important and impressive work in his large and varied oeuvre. It was also the most demanding, taking him three years to complete and requiring publication in stages. He produced 88 large illustrations and 135 illustrative head and tailpieces, as well as overseeing the production of these large, beautifully printed volumes. He was undoubtedly influenced by the Kelmscott Chaucer, but his distinctive style – inspired by Japanese art as much as by the pre-Raphaelites – gives a lighter, fresher feel.
This Arts and Crafts masterpiece contains the first stirrings of Art Nouveau, especially in its delicate, varied borders. As Crane’s dedicatory poem indicates, this is a powerful, imaginative response to the poem: faithful, and yet highly original.