Write a paragraph describing the dramatic power of the opening stanzas of Spenser’s The Fairie Queen. Try to point out why this poem is really worth reading.
The Faerie Queene fits in the category of important books so big that they often stay in our “to read” pile for years. But finally, after having studied in high school the context of Elizabethan age, I have the chance to deal with the text and form my own idea about it from what I have read.
The opening stanzas of Spenser’s work recounts about the adventures of a hero, a typical knight errant on a quest for adventure; he is young and anxious to prove himself and consequently goes through a process of maturation and personal development, emerging as a hero. (So in this sense we can say it is a kind of Bildungsroman.)
From the second stanza I started to realize the Christian allegory from the view of the shield and of the Redcrosse as a symbol for Holiness or perhaps more specifically, a person who wants to learn how to be holy. Redcrosse is therefore a symbol of the Everyman sinner trying to achieve holiness. The allegory about holiness and goodness is to me a more general allegory about Protestants learning to resist the tempting seduction of Catholic images.
Going through the poem, in the thirteenth stanza we come through another allegory in his enemy’s looking as “Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide, But th’other halfe did womans shape retaine”¹. Here the figure of a woman, which is one of goodness, is represented only in half as a sign of corruption. We are therefore able to associate and interpret these hero adventures and encounters as a spiritual struggle against many evils and temptations, doctrinal error and hypocrisy.
This constant desire of the hero to fight for his honor can be read as a celebration of human heroism:
And ever as he rode, his hart did earne
To prove his puissance in battell brave
Vpon his foe, and his new force to learne²
It is clear here how much effort the hero puts in defeating himself from the evil, which is seen as a potent force and how he is constantly reminded of the sovereignty of God by carrying the “bloudie Crosse”³ upon his breast. These descriptions, together with the figure of the “milke white lamb”, the serpent and the poison, make the religious aspect immediately clear. This is to me the most striking aspect that we get by going through the first stanzas of the allegorical poem.
The poem is really worth reading because it gives us a precise idea of what was the religious situation in that time, when England had just broken away from the Catholic Church and formed its own Protestant Church. Reading The Faerie Queene from a close point of view make us aware of how religion was for Spenser often not just an exploration of good living and ethical decisions, but specifically a defence of Protestant principles against Catholic ones. In other words, religion motivates almost every aspect of TheFaerie Queene, from the desires of the main characters to the representation of villains.
I have to admit it was not easy to read the poem as sometimes I had the feeling of not really “getting” Spenser, but once going through it carefully, it became a very enlightening and interesting poem.
“But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore
The deare rememberance of his dying Lord. (I.2)”
¹ The Faerie Queene, E. Spencer, 1590, Book I, Stanza 14, Line 8, 9.
² The Faerie Queene, E. Spencer, Book I, Stanza 3, Line 6, 7, 8.
³ The Faerie Queene, E. Spencer, Book I, Stanza 2, Line 1.