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’.