CHAPTER XII. ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE HISTORY IN THE FAERIE QUEENE.
The Faerie Queene. The Plan Proposed. Illustrations of the History. The
Knight and the Lady. The Wood of Error and the Hermitage. The Crusades.
Britomartis and Sir Artegal. Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots. Other
Works. Spenser's Fate. Other Writers.
THE FAERIE QUEENE.
The Faerie Queene is an allegory, in many parts capable of more than one interpretation. Some of the characters stand for two, and several of them even for three distinct historical personages.
The general plan and scope of the poem may be found in the poet's letter to his friend, Sir Walter Raleigh. It is designed to enumerate and illustrate the moral virtues which should characterize a noble or gentle person—to present “the image of a brave knight perfected in the twelve private morall vertues, as Aristotle hath devised.” It appears that the author designed twelve books, but he did not accomplish his purpose. The poem, which he left unfinished, contains but six books or legends, each of which relates the adventures of a knight who is the patron and representative of a special virtue.
Book I. gives the adventures of St. George, the Red-Cross Knight, by
whom is intended the virtue of Holiness.
Book II., those of Sir Guyon, or Temperance.
Book III., Britomartis, a lady-knight, or Chastity.
Book IV., Cambel and Triamond, or Friendship.
Book V., Sir Artegal, or Justice.
Book VI., Sir Calydore, or Courtesy.
The perfect hero of the entire poem is King Arthur, chosen “as most fitte, for the excellency of his person, being made famous by many men's former workes, and also furthest from the daunger of envy and suspition of present time.”
It was manifestly thus, too, that the poet solved a difficult and delicate problem: he pleased the queen by adopting this mythic hero, for who else was worthy of her august hand?
And in the person of the faerie queene herself Spenser informs us: “I mean glory in my general intention, but in my particular, I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our sovereign, the Queene.”
Did we depend upon the poem for an explanation of Spenser's design, we should be left in the dark, for he intended to leave the origin and connection of the adventures for the twelfth book, which was never written; but he has given us his plan in the same preliminary letter to Raleigh.
THE PLAN PROPOSED.—“The beginning of my history,” he says, “should be in the twelfth booke, which is the last; where I devise that the Faerie Queene kept her Annual Feaste XII days; uppon which XII severall days the occasions of the XII severall adventures hapned, which being undertaken by XII severall knights, are in these XII books handled and discoursed.”
First, a tall, clownish youth falls before the queen and desires a boon, which she might not refuse, viz. the achievement of any adventure which might present itself. Then appears a fair lady, habited in mourning, and riding on an ass, while behind her comes a dwarf, leading a caparisoned war-horse, upon which was the complete armor of a knight. The lady falls before the queen and complains that her father and mother, an ancient king and queen, had, for many years, been shut up by a dragon in a brazen castle, and begs that one of the knights may be allowed to deliver them.
The young clown entreats that he may take this adventure, and notwithstanding the wonder and misgiving of all, the armor is found to fit him well, and when he had put it on, “he seemed the goodliest man in all the company, and was well liked by the lady, and eftsoones taking on him knighthood, and mounting on that strounge courser, he went forth with her on that adventure; where beginneth the First Booke.”
In a similar manner, other petitions are urged, and other adventures undertaken.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE HISTORY.—The history in this poem lies directly upon the surface. Elizabeth was the Faery Queen herself—faery in her real person, springing Cinderella-like from durance and danger to the most powerful throne in Europe. Hers was a reign of faery character, popular and august at home, after centuries of misrule and civil war; abroad English influence and power were exerted in a magical manner. It is she who holds a court such as no Englishman had ever seen; who had the power to transform common men into valiant warriors, elegant courtiers, and great statesmen; to send forth her knights upon glorious adventures—Sidney to die at Zutphen, Raleigh to North and South America, Frobisher—with a wave of her hand as he passes down the Thames—to try the northwest passage to India; Effingham, Drake, and Hawkins to drive off to the tender mercy of northern storms the Invincible Armada, and then to point out to the coming generations the distant fields of English enterprise.
“Chivalry was dying; the abbey and the castle were soon together to crumble into ruins; and all the forms, desires, beliefs, convictions of the old world were passing away, never to return;" but this virgin queen was the founder of a new chivalry, whose deeds were not less valiant, and far more useful to civilization.
It is not our purpose, for it would be impossible, to interpret all the history contained in this wonderful poem: a few of the more striking presentations will be indicated, and thus suggest to the student how he may continue the investigation for himself.
THE KNIGHT AND THE LADY.—In the First Book we are at once struck with the fine portraiture of the Red Crosse Knight, the Patron of Holinesse, which we find in the opening lines:
A gentle knight was pricking on the plain,
Ycladd in mighty arms and silver shield.
As we read we discover, without effort, that he is the St. George of England, or the impersonation of England herself, whose red-cross banner distinguishes her among the nations of the earth. It is a description of Christian England with which the poet thus opens his work:
And on his brest a bloodie cross he bore,
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweet sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead, as living ever, Him adored.
Upon his shield the like was also scored,
For sovereign hope which in his help he had.
Then follows his adventure—that of St. George and the Dragon. By slaying this monster, he will give comfort and aid to a peerless lady, the daughter of a glorious king; this fair lady, Una, who has come a long distance, and to whom, as a champion, the Faery Queene has presented the red-cross knight. Thus is presented the historic truth that the reformed and suffering Church looked to Queen Elizabeth for succor and support, for the Lady Una is one of several portraitures of the Church in this poem.
As we proceed in the poem, the history becomes more apparent. The Lady Una, riding upon a lowly ass, shrouded by a veil, covered with a black stole, “as one that inly mourned,” and leading “a milk-white lamb,” is the Church. The ass is the symbol of her Master's lowliness, who made even his triumphant entry into Jerusalem upon “a colt the foal of an ass;” the lamb, the emblem of the innocence and of the helplessness of the “little flock;” the black stole is meant to represent the Church's trials and sorrows in her former history as well as in that naughty age. The dragon is the old serpent, her constant and bitter foe, who, often discomfited, returns again and again to the attack in hope of her overthrow.
THE WOOD OF ERROR.—The adventures of the knight and the lady take them first into the Wood of Error, a noble and alluring grove, within which, however, lurks a loathsome serpent. The knight rushes upon this female monster with great boldness, but
... Wrapping up her wreathed body round,
She leaped upon his shield and her huge train
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand and foot he strove to stir in vain.
God help the man so wrapt in Error's endless chain.
The Lady Una cries out:
... Now, now, sir knight, shew what ye bee,
Add faith unto thy force, and be not faint.
Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee.
He follows her advice, makes one desperate effort, Error is slain, and the pilgrimage resumed.
Thus it is taught that the Church has waged successful battle with Error in all its forms—paganism, Arianism, Socinianism, infidelity; and in all ages of her history, whether crouching in the lofty groves of the Druids, or in the more insidious forms of later Christian heresy.
THE HERMITAGE.—On leaving the Wood of Error, the knight and Lady Una encounter a venerable hermit, and are led into his hermitage. This is Archimago, a vile magician thus disguised, and in his retreat foul spirits personate both knight and lady, and present these false doubles to each. Each sees what seems to be the other's fall from virtue, and, horrified by the sight, the real persons leave the hermitage by separate ways, and wander, in inextricable mazes lost, until fortune and faery bring them together again and disclose the truth.
Here Spenser, who was a zealous Protestant, designs to present the monastic system, the disfavor into which the monasteries had fallen, and the black arts secretly studied among better arts in the cloisters, especially in the period just succeeding the Norman conquest.
THE CRUSADES.—As another specimen of the historic interpretation, we may trace the adventures of England in the Crusades, as presented in the encounter of St. George with Sansfoy, (without faith,) or the Infidel.
From the hermitage of Archimago,
The true St. George had wandered far away,
Still flying from his thoughts and jealous fear,
Will was his guide, and grief led him astray;
At last him chanced to meet upon the way
A faithless Saracen all armed to point,
In whose great shield was writ with letters gay
SANSFOY: full large of limb, and every joint
He was, and cared not for God or man a point.
Well might the poet speak of Mohammedanism as large of limb, for it had stretched itself like a Colossus to India, and through Northern Africa into Spain, where it threatened Christendom, beyond the Pyrenees. It was then that the unity of the Church, the concurrence of Europe in one form of Christianity, made available the enthusiasm which succeeded in stemming the torrent of Islam, and setting bounds to its conquests.
It is not our purpose to pursue the adventures of the Church, but to indicate the meaning of the allegory and the general interpretation; it will give greater zest to the student to make the investigation for himself, with the all-sufficient aids of modern criticism.
Assailed in turn by error in doctrine, superstition, hypocrisy, enchantments, lawlessness, pride, and despair, the red-cross knight overcomes them all, and is led at last by the Lady Una into the House of Holiness, a happy and glorious house. There, anew equipped with the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, he goes forth to greater conquests; the dragon is slain, the Lady Una triumphant, the Church delivered, and Holiness to the Lord established as the law of his all-subduing kingdom on earth.
BRITOMARTIS.—In the third book the further adventures of the red-cross knight are related, but a heroine divides our attention with him. Britomartis, or Chastity, finds him attacked by six lawless knights, who try to compel him to give up his lady and serve another. Here Britomartis represents Elizabeth, and the historic fact is the conflict of English Protestantism carried on upon land and sea, in the Netherlands, in France, and against the Invincible Armada of Philip. The new mistress offered him in the place of Una is the Papal Church, and the six knights are the nations fighting for the claims of Rome.
The valiant deeds of Britomartis represent also the power of chastity, to which Scott alludes when he says,
She charmed at once and tamed the heart,
And here the poet pays his most acceptable tribute to the Virgin Queen. She is in love with Sir Artegal—abstract justice. She has encountered him in fierce battle, and he has conquered her. It was the fond boast of Elizabeth that she lived for her people, and for their sake refused to marry. The following portraiture will be at once recognized:
And round about her face her yellow hair
Having, thro' stirring, loosed its wonted band,
Like to a golden border did appear,
Framed in goldsmith's forge with cunning hand;
Yet goldsmith's cunning could not understand
To frame such subtle wire, so shiny clear,
For it did glisten like the glowing sand,
The which Pactolus with his waters sheer,
Throws forth upon the rivage, round about him near.
This encomium upon Elizabeth's hair recalls the description of another courtier, that it was like the last rays of the declining sun. Ill-natured persons called it red.
SIR ARTEGAL, OR JUSTICE.—As has been already said, Artegal, or Justice, makes conquest of Britomartis or Elizabeth. It is no earthly love that follows, but the declaration of the queen that in her continued maidenhood justice to her people shall be her only spouse. Such, whatever the honest historian may think, was the poet's conceit of what would best please his royal mistress.
It has been already stated that by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, the poet intended the person of Elizabeth in her regnant grandeur: Britomartis represents her chastity. Not content with these impersonations, Spenser introduces a third: it is Belphoebe, the abstraction of virginity; a character for which, however, he designs a dual interpretation. Belphoebe is also another representation of the Church; in describing her he rises to great splendor of language:
... her birth was of the morning dew,
And her conception of the glorious prime.
We recur, as we read, to the grandeur of the Psalmist's words, as he speaks of the coming of her Lord: “In the day of thy power shall the people offer thee free-will offerings with a holy worship; the dew of thy birth is of the womb of the morning.”
ELIZABETH.—In the fifth book a great number of the statistics of contemporary history are found. A cruel sultan, urged on by an abandoned sultana, is Philip with the Spanish Church. Mercilla, a queen pursued by the sultan and his wife, is another name for Elizabeth, for he tells us she was
... a maiden queen of high renown;
For her great bounty knowen over all.
Artegal, assuming the armor of a pagan knight, represents justice in the person of Solyman the Magnificent, making war against Philip of Spain. In the ninth canto of the sixth book, the court of Elizabeth is portrayed; in the tenth and eleventh, the war in Flanders—so brilliantly described in Mr. Motley's history. The Lady Belge is the United Netherlands; Gerioneo, the oppressor, is the Duke of Alva; the Inquisition appears as a horrid but nameless monster, and minor personages occur to complete the historic pictures.
The adventure of Sir Artegal in succor of the Lady Irena, (Erin,) represents the proceedings of Elizabeth in Ireland, in enforcing the Reformation, abrogating the establishments of her sister Mary, and thus inducing Tyrone's rebellion, with the consequent humiliation of Essex.
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS.—With one more interpretation we close. In the fifth book, Spenser is the apologist of Elizabeth for her conduct to her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, and he has been very delicate in his distinctions. It is not her high abstraction of justice, Sir Artegal, who does the murderous deed, but his man Talus, retributive justice, who, like a limehound, finds her hidden under a heap of gold, and drags her forth by her fair locks, in such rueful plight that even Artegal pities her:
Yet for no pity would he change the course
Of justice which in Talus hand did lie,
Who rudely haled her forth without remorse,
Still holding up her suppliant hands on high,
And kneeling at his feet submissively;
But he her suppliant hands, those hands of gold,
And eke her feet, those feet of silver try,
Which sought unrighteousness and justice sold,
Chopped off and nailed on high that all might them behold.
She was a royal lady, a regnant queen: her hands held a golden sceptre, and her feet pressed a silver footstool. She was thrown down the castle wall, and drowned “in the dirty mud.”
“But the stream washed away her guilty blood.” Did it wash away Elizabeth's bloody guilt? No. For this act she stands in history like Lady Macbeth, ever rubbing her hands, but “the damned spot” will not out at her bidding. Granted all that is charged against Mary, never was woman so meanly, basely, cruelly treated as she.
What has been said is only in partial illustration of the plan and manner of Spenser's great poem: the student is invited and encouraged to make an analysis of the other portions himself. To the careless reader the poem is harmonious, the pictures beautiful, and the imagery gorgeous; to the careful student it is equally charming, and also discloses historic pictures of great value.
It is so attractive that the critic lingers unconsciously upon it. Spenser's tributes to the character of woman are original, beautiful, and just, and the fame of his great work, originally popular and designed for a contemporary purpose only, has steadily increased. Next to Milton, he is the most learned of the British poets. Warton calls him the serious Spenser. Thomson says he formed himself upon Spenser. He took the ottava rima, or eight-lined stanza of the Italian poets, and by adding an Alexandrine line, formed it into what has since been called the Spenserian stanza, which has been imitated by many great poets since, and by Byron, the greatest of them, in his Childe Harold. Of his language it has already been said that he designedly uses the archaic, or that of Chaucer; or, as Pope has said,
Spenser himself affects the obsolete.
The plan of the poem, neglecting the unities of an epic, is like that of a general history, rambling and desultory, or like the transformations of a fairy tale, as it is: his descriptions are gorgeous, his verse exceedingly melodious, and his management of it very graceful. The Gerusalemme Liberata of Tasso appeared while he was writing the Faery Queene, and he imitated portions of that great epic in his own, but his imitations are finer than the original.
HIS OTHER WORKS.—His other works need not detain us: Hymns in honor of Love and Beauty, Prothalamion, and Epithalamion, Mother Hubbard's Tale, Amoretti or Sonnets, The Tears of the Muses or Brittain's Ida, are little read at the present day. His Astrophel is a tender “pastoral elegie” upon the death of the most noble and valorous knight, Sir Philip Sidney; and is better known for its subject than for itself. This was a favorite theme of the friendly and sensitive poet; he has also written several elegies and aeglogues in honor of Sidney.
SPENSER'S FATE.—The fate of Spenser is a commentary upon courtiership, even in the reign of Elizabeth, the Faery Queene. Her requital of his adoration was an annual pension of fifty pounds, and the ruined castle and unprofitable estate of Kilcolman in Ireland, among a half-savage population, in a period of insurrections and massacres, with the requirement that he should reside upon his grant. An occasional visit from Raleigh, then a captain in the army, a rambler along the banks of the picturesque Mulla, and the composition and arrangement of the great poem with the suggestions of his friend, were at once his labors and his only recreations. He sighed after the court, and considered himself as hardly used by the queen.
At length an insurrection broke out, and his home was set on fire: he fled from his flaming castle, and in the confusion his infant child was left behind and burned to death. A few months after, he died in London, on January 16, 1598-9, broken-hearted and poor, at an humble tavern, in King Street. Buried at the expense of the Earl of Essex, Ann Countess of Dorset bore the expense of his monument in Westminster Abbey, in gratitude for his noble championship of woman. Upon that are inscribed these words: Anglorum poetarum nostri seculi facile princeps—truer words, great as is the praise, than are usually found in monumental inscriptions.
Whatever our estimate of Spenser, he must be regarded as the truest literary exponent and representative of the age of Elizabeth, almost as much her biographer as Miss Strickland, and her historian as Hume: indeed, neither biographer nor historian could venture to draw the lineaments of her character without having recourse to Spenser and his literary contemporaries.
OTHER WRITERS OF THE AGE OF SPENSER.
Richard Hooker, 1553-1598: educated at Oxford, he became Master of the Temple in London, a post which he left with pleasure to take a country parish. He wrote a famous work, entitled “A Treatise on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity,” which is remarkable for its profound learning, powerful logic, and eloquence of style. In it he defends the position of the Church of England, against Popery on the one hand and Calvinism on the other.
Robert Burton, 1576-1639: author of “The Anatomy of Melancholie,” an amusing and instructive medley of quotations and classical anecdotes, showing a profound erudition. In this all the causes and effects of melancholy are set forth with varied illustrations. His nom de plume was Democritus, Jr., and he is an advocate of the laughing philosophy.
Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679: tutor to Charles II., when Prince of Wales, and author of the Leviathan. This is a philosophical treatise, in which he advocates monarchical government, as based upon the fact that all men are selfish, and that human nature, being essentially corrupt, requires an iron control: he also wrote upon Liberty and Necessity, and on Human Nature.
John Stow, 1525-1605: tailor and antiquary. Principally valuable for his “Annales,” “Summary of English Chronicles,” and “A Survey of London.” The latter is the foundation of later topographical descriptions of the English metropolis.
Raphael Hollinshed, or Holinshed, died about 1580: his Chronicles of Englande, Scotlande, and Irelande, were a treasure-house to Shakspeare, from which he drew materials for King Lear, Cymbeline, Macbeth, and other plays.
Richard Hakluyt, died 1616: being greatly interested in voyages and travels, he wrote works upon the adventures of others. Among these are, “Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America,” and “Four Voyages unto Florida,” which have been very useful in the compilation of early American history.
Samuel Purchas, 1577-1628: like Hakluyt, he was exceedingly industrious in collecting material, and wrote “Hakluyt's Posthumus, or Purchas, his Pilgrimes,” a history of the world “in Sea Voyages and Land Travels.”
Sir Walter Raleigh, 1552-1618: a man famous for his personal strength and comeliness, vigor of mind, valor, adventures, and sufferings. A prominent actor in the stirring scenes of Elizabeth's reign, he was high in the favor of the queen. Accused of high treason on the accession of James I., and imprisoned under sentence of death, an unsuccessful expedition to South America in search of El Dorado, which caused complaints from the Spanish king, led to his execution under the pending sentence. He wrote, chiefly in prison, a History of the World, in which he was aided by his literary friends, and which is highly commended. It extends to the end of the second Macedonian war. Raleigh was also a poet, and wrote several special treatises.
William Camden, 1551-1623: author of Britannia, or a chorographic description of the most flourishing kingdoms of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the adjacent islands, from the earliest antiquity. This work, written in Latin, has been translated into English. He also wrote a sketch of the reign of Elizabeth.
George Buchanan, 1506-1581: celebrated as a Latin writer, an historian, a poet, and an ecclesiastical polemic. He wrote a History of Scotland, a Latin version of the Psalms, and a satire calledChamaeleon. He was a man of profound learning and indomitable courage; and when told, just before his death, that the king was incensed at his treatise De Jure Regni, he answered that he was not concerned at that, for he was “going to a place where there were few kings.”
Thomas Sackville, Earl Dorset, Lord Buckhurst, 1536-1608: author, or rather originator of “The Mirror for Magistrates,” showing by illustrious, unfortunate examples, the vanity and transitory character of human success. Of Sackville and his portion of the Mirror for Magistrates, Craik says they “must be considered as forming the connecting link between the Canterbury Tales and the Fairy Queen.”
Samuel Daniel, 1562-1619: an historian and a poet. His chief work is “The Historie of the Civile Warres between the Houses of York and Lancaster,” “a production,” says Drake, “which reflects great credit on the age in which it was written.” This work is in poetical form; and, besides it, he wrote many poems and plays, and numerous sonnets.
Michael Drayton, 1563-1631: a versatile writer, most favorably known through his Polyolbion, a poem in thirty books, containing a detailed description of the topography of England, in Alexandrine verses. His Barons' Wars describe the civil commotions during the reign of Edward II.
Sir John Davies, 1570-1626: author of Nosce Teipsum and The Orchestra. The former is commended by Hallam; and another critic calls it “the best poem, except Spenser's Faery Queen, in Queen Elizabeth's, or even, in James VI.'s time.”
John Donne, 1573-1631: a famous preacher, Dean of St. Paul's: considered at the head of the metaphysical school of poets: author of Pseudo-Martyr, Polydoron, and numerous sermons. He wrote sevensatires, which are valuable, but his style is harsh, and his ideas far-fetched.
Joseph Hall, 1574-1656: an eminent divine, author of six books of satires, of which he called the first three toothless, and the others biting satires. These are valuable as presenting truthful pictures of the manners and morals of the age and of the defects in contemporary literature.
Sir Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, 1554-1628: he wrote the Life of Sidney, and requested to have placed upon his tomb, “The friend of Sir Philip Sidney.” He was also the author of numerous treatises: “Monarchy,” “Humane Learning,” “Wars,” etc., and of two tragedies.
George Chapman, 1557-1634: author of a translation of Homer, in verses of fourteen syllables. It retains much of the spirit of the original, and is still considered one of the best among the numerous versions of the ancient poet. He also wrote Caesar and Pompey, Byron's Tragedy, and other plays.