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.