Study Guide to the Faerie Queene

The Faerie Queene is a romance epic (not a romantic epic). The Everyman edition contains a bit less that half of the work Spenser wrote and about a quarter of what he planned to write--that's epic! Be sure you read the handout on the Classical Epic and apply what you find there (and what you find in your dictionary of literary terms) to this work. A few of its epic features are his invocation of a muse (know what a muse is), his stated feelings of inadequacy to the task he is undertaking and call for the muse's help, and his announcement of a double subject (at the end of the first stanza).

Spenser (second half of the fifteenth century) was a great admirer of Chaucer. His poetry is consciously old fashioned. This is the first work you are reading in "old spelling." If you just think creatively (how do you spell when you're in a hurry?), you'll get used to it fairly quickly. It often helps to read a bit of it out loud; you'll be surprised at how much more sense it will sometimes make.

In the opening stanzas the poet, who just finished writing a pastoral poem [look it up in your dictionary of literary terms] called The Shepeards Calendar, trades his shepherd's flute for trumpets, i.e., instruments to accompany heroic poetry. You have a glossary in the back of the book. Remember: gentle means "noble."

Like the Gawain-poet, the poet goes back to old sources (or claims he does) to find the real true story to re-tell. The chief muse is Clio [why?]. "Fairest Tanaquill" is Gloriana, the fairy queen; the Briton prince is Arthur (later King Arthur).

The "most dreaded impe" in Venus' son [what is his name?], who has shot an arrow into the heart of Prince Arthur, making him fall in love with Gloriana. Do you know the story of Venus and Mars, god of war? So the poet asks the aid of Venus and her son, in addition to Clio. Why?

Even that is not enough; he goes on to ask for help from the "Great Lady of the greatest Isle." Why would that be? The greatest isle is, of course, England.

Canto 1

Each canto begins with an extremely brief summary in italics, so you have two summaries at your disposal. The "gentle Knight" is the Redcrosse Knight, the hero of this book, who stands for Holiness (look up allegory in your dictionary of literary terms); his lady is Una, which means "one" or "unity," a lady of royal blood whose parents are imprisoned by a dragon. He has ridden out from Gloriana's court to help this damsel in distress. "Ycladd" is a typical archaism (look it up) of Spenser's. It denotes a past participle. If you don't know what that is, just call it a past tense verb, drop the y, and read "clad," i.e., clothed. "Giusts" is "jousts." "Ydrad" is "dreaded," "feared."

Caught in a rainstorm, they take refuge in a shady grove. Since this is allegory, that is a dangerous thing to do. (The long list of trees is in imitation of a passage in Chaucer.) As you might expect, if you are reading allegorically, they get lost. Then, in spite of Una's warning, the Redcrosse Knight heads right into "Errours den." What is error like? Here Spenser gives us a full-blown allegorical figure. Every detail of her body and her habits says something about the nature of error, so you have to read on two levels. You want to read the story (it's a great battle), but you must also sort out the allegory. What is Spenser saying about the nature of error (primarily religious error)?

. . . more notes.

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Rev 2/98