The Faerie Queene: A Critical Note on the Structure & Allegory

In John Buxton's 'Sir Philip Sidney and The English Renaissance' Buxton says that "The Elizabethans were at once able to recognize the master for whom they had been waiting. Whatever criticisms they may have made of Spenser's poetry in detail, they never had the least doubt that he was 'England's Arch-Poet,' the man who had done for English what Virgil had done for Latin."

Very soon the anonymous New Poet would be everywhere acclaimed for his Shepheardes Calender as the man who promised a new age in English poetry. In the Shepherdes Calender, we find Spenser experimenting in much the same ways as Sidney. His metrical invention, is so remarkable in all his work, is already shown here. 

Spenser was more daring than Sidney in his attempts to widen the diction of poetry: he was also more willing to draw on the resources which he found in Chaucer, rather than to use the French and Italian models, Sidney, desiring that English poetry should take its place in the European tradition, was inclined to be cautious. 

William Webbe, in his Discourse of English Poetrie, had given Spenser much higher praise as one who "in my judgment principally deserveth the title of rightest English Poet that ever I read." Whereas, Frank Kermode, in his essay 'Spenser and The Allegorists' says that Spenser has been 'dislodged' with no fuss at all.

Spenser is a known maker of all allegories. If you believe, as many people appear to, that allegory is necessary superficial, 'The Faerie Queene' is dull in so far as it is simple, and a failure so far as it is difficult. 

Coleridge, perhaps, first specified that allegory was a mode inferior to 'symbolism', and this is now commonplace. Dauthendey and Yeats observed that 'Allegory said things which could be said as well, or better in another way.' As such views gain ground, Spenser's fortunes wilt. 

'The Faerie Queene' is, after all, an heroic poem, extremely conscious of its peculiar relation to history to 'Now and England'. 

S.L Goldberg says that the mistake is to be led away into exploring the possible significance; the myths used may be thought to possess in themselves, into infinite speculations about their archetypal patterns and analogies, instead of the realized meaning of the work itself. On this issue Kermode says: "perhaps there will always be enmity between those who believe symbols and archetypes to have value of a symbol, is finally determined by its context."

Spenser looks back on history only to achieve ways of registering the destiny of the central situation: 'The reign of Elizabeth'.  He does not convert event into myth, but myth into event. His mood is acceptance; he welcomes history, not seeking to lose his own time in some transhistorical pattern.

Although professor Northrop Frye reduced 'The Faerie Queene' to a "Biblical quest-romance" he later acted on his belief that 'myths explain the structural principles behind familiar literary facts' and provided a brief and brilliant account of 'Faerie Queene'. 

In an essay entitled "The Structure of Imagery In The Faerie Queene" Frye claims that 'The Faerie Queene' in consequence is necessarily a romance, for romance is the genre of simplified or black and white characterization. The imagery of this romance is organized on two major principles. One is that of the natural cycle, the progression of days and seasons. The other is that of the moral dialectic, in which symbols of virtue are parodied by their vicious or demonic counterparts.

Frye continues to say that the "frame" is built out of the characters and places that are clearly announced to be what they are, not out of their moral or historical shadows. Spenser prefaces the whole poem with sonnets to possible patrons, telling several of them that they are in the poem somewhere, not specifying where: the implication is that for such readers, the allegory is to be read more or less at libitum.  

Of Spenser's intellect, Frank Kermode says that "the picture of Spenser as a very learned man is not in itself absurd, since he understood that the heroic poet should be a 'curious and universal scholar' and that his mind was trained in forms of knowledge alien to us, and habituated to large symbolic systems of a kind which are likely to strike us as almost absurdly frivolous. 

In 'Studies in Spenser's Historical Allegory', a book written by Edwin Greenlaw, Greenlaw's object is broadly to subordinate historical to ethical allegory. Historical allegory, he says, has reference principally to general topics; it refers to specific persons only momentarily and with no high degree of organization. To this Kermode says 'this is now, I think, the received opinion, and it certainly makes sense to relieve Spenser of barrenly ingenious commentary relating his poem to obscure, forgotten political intrigues. 

Milton told Dryden that Spenser was his original 'the man who gave him lofty poetic ambition.' In "A Preface To The Faerie Queene," written by Graham Hough, Hough opens the first chapter with "To Milton, the poet of The Faerie Queene was our sage and serious Spenser, a better teacher than Scouts or Aquinas". To Hazlitt, it was equally clear that 'the love of beauty and not of truth is the moving principle of his mind.' Spenser's poetry, he says, is all fairyland, and if you do not meddle with the allegory it will not meddle with you.

Hough says that "Readers have been induced to believe that the Faerie Queene is uniformly allegorical and that allegory is uniformly didactic-or it has been pathless wandering through an enchanted forest. 

Modern poetic theories, tacitly or openly, have been centered on the lyric; they have notoriously had difficulties with the long poem. And the difficulties have been greatest with the long poem of relaxed and unobtrusive structure like 'The Faerie Queene.' 

In spite of incompleteness and loose ends, the Faerie Queene does arrive at an authentic form of its own. Spenser's poem is composed of parts each with a certain unity of its own. This offers the opportunity for a real sequence and development of thematic interest, for it is of course by its thematic content that each book is given its separate integrity. The internal structure of the book of 'The Faerie Queene' is capricious, sometimes continuos and sometimes interweaving. 

The Faerie Queene is more than a whole, more complete in itself than has generally been maintained. The poem can be sat as an example of the romantic epic. The essence of the romantic epic is in its material. This is the material of chivalric romance, but re-handled in an age when chivalry has become a remote legend. We should hardly call the romantic epic an artificial form, in the sense of something mechanically contrived; it has grown in response to a real taste. But the taste is not of the primary human needs; it is the result of a great deal of secondary elaboration. Spenser has the tendency to become encyclopedic in scope, to include extremes of experience and feeling to reduce to the picture-plane images drawn from very different depths and different levels. 

Structure of 'The Faerie Queene' by Graham Hough:
Incomplete as it is, The Faerie Queene has been judged very harshly from the structural point of view. Dr. Selincourt writes, "The plot was originally loose enough, and in the process of development it became looser still". 

We might be tempted to think, on reading this and similar judgements, that The Faerie Queene was a very artless production. But if there is one thing we can fairly deduce from the letter to Raleigh that it is not so. The letters show Spenser as very aware of epic decorum, of traditional structural principles, of great models, both classical and modern. 

In his letter to Raleigh Spenser says: "never trust the author, trust the tale." 
This means that much of the concern over construction that is evident in the letter to Raleigh is not fundamentally relevant. It is relevant formally and externally to the kind that Spenser believes himself to be practicing, but not to the real nature of his work. In fact, most of the critical questions about the structure of 'The Faerie Queene' becomes idle or simply disappear when it is actually read; for in fact it's all of a piece; we are always aware of being in a varied consistent world. 

The Faerie Queene is composed of many relatively small parts, each commanding our appreciation by itself and all harmonious with each other, for this is its structural principle. It displays a variety of incidents; the characters drawn from different realms; the unpredictability of narrative development which is suffused with a feeling of harmony that all belongs to the same world with all the solutions of narrative logic changes of direction and temper, yet there is a purpose. 

The organization of The Faerie Queene is like that of a dream. I don't use the word with the mere connotations of vagueness or enchantment, or in the sense in which it could be used of any romance, but in symbolist conceptions of 'le reve', and the free undetermined unlocalized setting. Spenser's scene is Fairyland; the events take place nowhere. As in dreams, the situation simply calls up its appropriate setting, which becomes vividly present for a time and then disappears. A single character represents a number of latent realities; composite characters are formed, or alternatively a single character is split up among several embodiments; the narrative sequence is used to present logical relations. These are all well-known elements of the dream process, and The Faerie Queene is full of them: the outward and obvious likeness to dream organization, the emancipation from time and space, the solutions of narrative continuity, the neglect to explain what is actually presented. 

Allegory in 'The Faerie Queene' By Graham Hough:
According to William Blake, Fable or Allegory are a totally distinct and inferior kind of poetry. Vision or Imagination is a representation of the Eternally Exists. Yet, different as they appear to be in value and direction, Blake says that there is seldom allegory without some vision. 

As to Graham Hough, "It is the contrast between allegory as kind of picture-writing, a translation into visible form of concepts that were formulated in advance, and some other process in which an object perceived is taken as a revelation of some super-sensible reality not previously apprehended. If the concept comes first and is then translated into a visible equivalent, this is allegory. If the visible object comes first and an immaterial reality is seen behind it or through it, this is symbolism. 

In the letter to Raleigh Spenser calls The Faerie Queene "a continued Allegory, or dark conceit." 'Dark' in Elizabethan literary discourse steadily means obscure, and 'conceit' in this context means conception, idea and thought. Allegory then is an obscure conception that needs explanation. And Spenser "knowing how doubtfully all allegories may be construed" sets out in the letter "to discover unto you the general intention and meaning, which in the whole course thereof I have fashioned, without expressing of any particular purposes or by-accidents therein occasioned." 

Most of the letter (To Raleigh) is far more concerned with plan and narrative structure than with allegorical intention as such-that is, more concerned with the disposition of the images than with discovering the theme hidden behind them. The conventions of romantic epic, the desire to reconcile the antique unity with modern variety, had a great deal to do with giving the poem its general shape. And this has nothing to do with allegory at all. Nor is the central idea as the letter expounds it expressively allegorical: "To fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline," and to present this "coloured with an historical fiction," is the announced "general end" of all the book; that is to portray the ideal knight in the person of Prince Arthur.

The poem is called 'The Faerie Queene', and by that Faerie Queene Spenser tells us in the Letter, he means glory in general intention, "but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our sovereign the Queene, and her kingdom is Faerie land." Queene Elizabeth then and her England is very near to Spenser's central intention however little she may appear in the structure as it stands.

The announced general hero is Arthur, the legendary embodiment of the glory of Britain, in love with the 'Faerie Queene', and again one of the historical Queene Elizabeth's putative forbears. 

The "Amoretti" & "Epithalamion" Analysis (Edmund Spenser)


These were printed in one volume in 1595. It is unlikely that all the sonnets of Amoretti were written at one time, or that all were originally addressed to Elizabeth Boyle, whose marriage to Spenser is celebrated in the Epithalamion. It is possible that the form of the volume, which presents a sonnet sequence dealing with the vicissitudes of a courtship, crowned by a marriage-ode, is accidental: a pleasing fancy of the publisher, William Ponsonby. If so, he had an original mind: this is the only example of a sonnet sequence in English leading to such a conclusion. It seems more likely that Spenser collected existing sonnets, adding to their number with such an arrangement in mind. This would be in keeping with his conception of love, as creative and fruitful both physically and spiritually, and marriage, as sacramentally presenting this fulfillment. The figure of Charissa (Charity-Faerie Queene I, 10), and the quest of Britomart which is to end in marriage, present the same essential image.

Amoretti is a sonnet-cycle tracing the suitor's long courtship and eventual wooing of his beloved. The work begins with two sonnets in which the speaker addresses his own poetry, attempting to invest his words with the power to achieve his goal (the wooing of Elizabeth Boyle). From the third sonnet through the sixty-second sonnet, the speaker is in an almost constant state of emotional turmoil and frustrated hopes. His beloved refuses to look favorably upon his suit, so his reaction ranges from despairing self-deprecation to angry tirade against her stubbornness. Most often the speaker dwells upon his beloved's beauty, both inner and outer, and the overpowering effects this beauty has upon him. He uses a variety of motifs to explicate his feelings and thoughts toward the subject of his ardor: predator and prey, wartime victor and captive, fire and ice, and hard substances that eventually soften over long periods of time. Each of these is intended to convey some aspect of his beloved's character or his own fears and apprehensions.His use of sonnets written in praise of other beauties would be in keeping with this Platonic conception of Love, for in Elizabeth Boyle he saw a closer approximation to the Idea of Beauty itself than in all other women: all praise given to them was by right indirectly hers. As Donne says in The Good Morrow: 

                                    But this, all pleasures fancies be,
                                    If ever any beauty I did see
                              Which I desired and got, 'twas but a dream of thee. 

Spenser is in fact putting his earlier work to its proper purpose, now revealed to him in the beauty of his beloved.

The sonnets are in Spenser's own rhyme scheme, which appears occasionally elsewhere in his work: a strict variation of the 'Shakespearean' form (abab/bcbc/cdcd/ee). The sequence is made up of eighty-nine sonnets, with three lyric pieces at the end.

The sonnets themselves express the moods of the courtship at different stages. There is a definite progression from distant adoration to the intimacies of mutual and accepted love, with adoration to the intimacies of mutual and accepted love, with various vicissitudes on the way. The subject of the sonnets is love for a woman whose beauty and virtue show their divine origin. They deal not so much with this human revelation of beauty, as with the lover's reaction to it. Each sonnet presents a point of view, a part of the whole subject. The presentation of the actual, personal relationship is disciplined at every point by the appropriate conventions of thought and expression. (Spenser owes much to other writers, notably Desportes and Tasso, as well as Petrarch.)

This magnificent sequence is far too complex in its detail to examine closely, but certain points may be noted. The progress of the courtship's, like Colin's love in The Shepheardes Calendar, linked to the passing of the seasons. At the opening it is spring: 

Then you faire flower, in whom fresh youth doth rain, 
Prepare your self new loud to entertain.   Amoretti IV

Again, the penitential season of Lent has its parallel in the devotions of the lover: 

therefore, I likewise on so holy day,
for my sweet Saynt some seruice fit will find.

In the sixtieth sonnet he says his courtship has now lasted a year, and in the sixty-second hopes that the passing of winter may bring him grace: 

So likewise loue cheare you your heavy spright,
and change old years annoy to new delight.

This year it is not Lent but Easter which suggests a more direct plea (this sonnet is often-disastrously-sung as a hymn):

So let us love, dearer love, lyke as we ought, 
love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Such an application of religion to love is not blasphemous: his love and service to his 'saint' is inspired by what is divine in her: it is not a distraction from his adoration of his Creator, but and aid to it. 

The sequence ends on a minor tone, and the imagery is autumnal. Spenser laments his love's absence, 'Lyke as the Culuer on the bared bough' (LXXXIX). This melancholy conclusion, to be reversed by the triumph of the Epithalamion, perhaps an effect of the convention by which sonnet sequences end, for the most part, either in rejection and despair, or as in Petrarch's case, with the loss of the beloved through death: at least the loss of her physical presence.

One of the most interesting aspects of the courtship is Spenser's approach to his beloved. At first, he adores her from afar, overawed by her beauty and right pride. He is her servant, not her equal. It is through his power, as a poet, to immortalize her transient manifestation of eternal beauty, that he attains her level: 

Faire be no lender proud of that shall perish, 
but that which shall you make immortall, cherish.  XXVII

This recalls the end of the Epithalamion, when he bids his song: 

Be to her a goodly ornament, 
And for short time an endlesse monument

The three lyrics at the end of the Amoretti provide a transition to the triumphant joy of the Epithalamion. They are slight, witty exercises, on the theme of Cupid's arrows, and recall the March Eclogue.


The Epithalamion is an ode written to commemorate the nuptials of the speaker and his bride. The song begins before dawn and progresses through the wedding ceremony and into the consummation night of the newlywed couple. It is without doubt the most glorious celebration of marriage in English. It is written within an established genre, for which there are many models in classical antiquity, notably in the work of Catullus and Theocritus. Spenser would also have been familiar with examples in French. Of all the traditions available to him he makes full use. It is interesting to compare this poem with the various epithalamia of other writers of the period, especially Herrick and Donne, a little later.

Spenser's inventive genius for devising verse forms here reaches its supreme triumph. He has developed a verse of eighteen lines, with the most complex orchestration of rhyme, and varying line lengths, and a refrain- 'The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring'- subtly altered as the poem proceeds, tracing the progress of the wedding-day from dawn to night.

Spenser's love for the Irish countryside is clear through his vivid descriptions of the natural world surrounding the couple, while his political views regarding English supremacy is hinted at in the relationship between the bride and groom themselves.

Other critics have seen Spenser's gift to his bride not simply as a celebration of their wedding day, but a poetic argument for the kind of husband-wife relationship he expects the two of them to have.

Analysis of Sonnets 58 to 85:

This set of sonnets continues to express and explore the ongoing struggle of the speaker in dealing with an unresponsive beloved. He reiterates previous motifs, such as the battle and the contrast of fire and ice. He also introduces another motif of analogies: predator and prey. The beloved is the hunting beast, ferocious and bloody, while the suitor is her prey, helpless and--in one case--submissive to her attack. He knows he will be devoured; he wants only to stay the pain in favor of a quick kill.

The speaker also voices desperation at his beloved's enduring indifference to his love. He goes so far as to seek solace in the fact that she continues to torment him with rejection: if she continues to speak to him, even negatively, it is perhaps because she cannot resist interaction with him. On this increasingly precarious ground the speaker stands, desperate to squeeze some hope out of his miserable plight.

Despite the threat of sorrow, this section of the sonnet cycle does take a turn for the better. The speaker has won the hand of this beloved and is eager to set a wedding-date. His former criticism of her cruelty and pride are all but gone--even her pride becomes a source of admiration rather than frustration for the speaker, to the point that he defends her seeming haughtiness as a misperception based in the envy of her critics. He also reverses two major motifs: the predator-prey motif and the battle motif.

The predator and prey image changes to the speaker-as-hunter and the beloved-as-exhausted-deer, finally accepting her inevitable capture. The battle motif sees the suitor in the role of victor, with the beloved a vanquished and submissive captive. Both give higher place to the suitor than previous sonnets, but also insist that he will be a merciful winner (unlike the beloved) and there will be lasting peace between the two of them.

In Sonnet 63, the Amoretti undergoes a drastic change in tone. The long-sought beloved has acceded to the speaker's request, making her his fiancee. Several sonnets of rejoicing occur, followed by several expressing the speaker's impatience at the lengthy engagement prior to the wedding day. Here, too, the speaker turns his attention from his earlier aspects of the beloved's physical beauty--her eyes and her hair in particular--and begins to be more familiar with her, to the point of describing in detail the scent of her breasts. From Sonnet 63 through Sonnet 85, the speaker revisits many of his earlier motifs, changing them to suit the new relationship between himself and his beloved. Now he is the hunter and she is the game; he is the victor, and she the vanquished. His earlier criticisms of her pride and stubbornness also change to become admiration for her constancy and strength of mind.

From Sonnet 86 to the end of the sonnet-cycle proper (Sonnet 89), division enters into the relationship. Sonnet 86 marks a moment of wrath on the part of the fiancee, a result of some lie told to her by an individual whom the speaker curses in no uncertain terms. Sonnets 87 through 89 dwell upon the speaker's misery at being separated from his beloved, but there is an implied expectation that they will, eventually, be reunited.

The sonnet-cycle ends with a set of stanzas returning to the poem's title character, Cupid. The first set of stanzas describe how Cupid led the speaker into harm when he was young by drawing his attention to a hive full of honey; when the speaker reached for the honey, he was stung by the resident bees and Cupid flew away. Later, Cupid wounds the speaker with an arrow plaed there by Diane, goddess of the hunt. Instead of instilling passionate love into the speaker, it instead causes pain.

The next set of stanzas turn Cupid's attention from the speaker and toward the beloved. They describe an incident in which Cupid comes across the speaker's beloved, but mistakes her for his own mother, Venus, goddess of love and beauty. The speaker tells Cupid that the mistake is understandable, as he has not been the first to confuse the two.

The final set of stanzas focus almost entirely on an incident involving Cupid and Venus. As a child, Cupid is annoyed by a bee buzzing around him as he tries to rest. His mother warns him to leave the bee alone, but Cupid instead impetuously grabs the bee in his hand. He is, of course, stung and releases the bee; his mother attempts to soothe him while teaching him a lesson: he has had no pity on many mortals whom his arrows have "stung," so perhaps he should show the same kindness to them that she is now showing to him. Cupid, however, misses the lesson entirely and goes on arbitrarily firing his arrows at mortals without thought for the consequences of unrequited love. The speaker returns to himself as the target of Cupid's indifferent attentions, resigning himself to languish in unconsummated love until Cupid sees fit to end his suffering.

"Fair is my love, when her fair golden hairs"

Fair is my love, when her fair golden hairs
With the loose wind ye waving chance to mark:
Fair, when the rose in her red cheeks appears,
Or in her eyes the fire of love does spark:
Fair, when her breast, like a rich laden bark
With precious merchandise she forth doth lay:
Fair, when that cloud of pride, which oft doth dark
Her goodly light, with smiles she drives away
But fairest she, when so she doth display
The gate with pearls and rubies richly dight,
Through which her words so wise do make their way,
To bear the message of her gentle sprite.
The rest be works of nature's wonderment,
But this the work of heart's astonishment. 

Sonnet 78

The speaker feels a separation from his fiancĂ©e deeply, wandering “from place to place,’lyke a young fawne that late hath lost the hynd” (lines 1-2). The poet’s usual motif of the predator and prey is here transformed into that of a baby deer for its mother. He longs to be near to her, so seeks out those places she has recently frequented: “the fields” where she has recently walked and “her bowre with her late presence deckt” (lines 5-6). However, he can only find reminders of her, which in turn remind him of her absence and he finds himself “but fed with fancies vayne” (line 12). He resolves at last to stop looking to the outward world to remind him of her presence, and instead to turn his eyes inward, that he might “Behold her selfe in mee” (line 14). It is within himself that the most perfect picture of his beloved resides, so it is there he will turn in his loneliness.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 27 Analysis

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body's work's expired: 

For then my thoughts--from far where I abide--
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:

Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.

   Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
   For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

This sonnet deals with the subject of the absent lover who can't sleep or if he sleeps, he dreams of his beloved. He can't find rest or happiness apart from her whether awake or asleep.

In the first quatrain Shakespeare writes about his beloved who is absent and how he has been left in bitter and painful state. In her absence, Shakespeare is physically and psychologically sick, and in losing her he seems to have lost all happiness and hope.

In the second quatrain he develops his problem more to show that her image (memory) visits him at night and immediately his thoughts intend a holly and lonely remembrance of his beloved. This suggests loyalty and devotion that Shakespeare bears for her love and memory, but his eyes are still open in the dark night: see what the blind man sees "darkness".

In the third quatrain he results to consolation. Shakespeare says that love makes his soul see the darkness of the night light and beautiful and the old face of his sweet love even fresh and new. Love makes his soul like a jewel glittering the dim night, so he describes this image with psychological accuracy and precision.

In the last couplet Shakespeare sums up his situation and says that neither his body at day nor his mind at night can find any rest. For him days are not ceased by night nor by day, each oppresses the other to say "night makes his grief stronger".

To Shakespeare love is a source of joy and happiness. For when it flashes into the soul of the lover, it lightens his state and changes his heart with hope and strength. Shakespeare tries to reveal that the absence of his beloved can shift him to a state of bitter disappointment and that love is a divine light that conquers the darkness of the spirit and supplies lovers with confidence and deep satisfaction.

This sonnet illustrates the Elizabethan humanistic touch in which the poet deals with love and man in ideal terms. He looks at love as a perfect and extraordinary human experience. He talks about himself as a constant lover and when her memory visits his thoughts, he shows a "zealous pilgrimage" of her as a kind of devotion and deep spiritual love.

Shakespeare uses some figures of speech to enrich his language and make his poem more attractive; he uses simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, paradox and imagery. For instance, he makes use of a bright simile when he declares: "Which like a jewel hung in vastly night."
Also we have personification: "to work my mind." 
Metaphor: "intend a zealous pilgrimage thee". 
Alliteration: "Weary with-my mind-from for-travel time."
Paradox: toil / repose, limbs / mind, open / blind, day / night, old / new.
The rhyme scheme is the iambic pentameter: abab / cdcd / efef / gg