About this Recording
NA337712 - SPENSER, E. : Faerie Queene (The) (Abridged)

Edmund Spenser
The Faerie Queene


The Faerie Queene, the triumphant culmination of Edmund Spenser’s poetic work, dates from the 1590s. It belongs, therefore, to the late Elizabethan age, and is indeed a celebration of both the great queen herself and of ‘Glory in general’.

The poem is a kind of allegorical epic, planned and executed on a huge scale, although never finished. Spenser is a conscious imitator of his predecessors—Ariosto, the early 16th century Italian author of Orlando Furioso, and (for example) Virgil—and he seeks to create an English epic which will ‘overgo’ these earlier models. The six Books (each divided into twelve cantos) are intended to represent certain qualities, expressed in the adventures of twelve knights who must each undertake a particular mission on the successive days of the queen’s annual feast. These exploits are all essentially allegorical, so that The Faerie Queene may be read on two levels, the simpler being one of chivalrous enterprise, and the more complex embodying a variety of ideas or qualities which were important to the writer and to the courtly values of the age. Spenser employs a medieval setting for the more picturesque carrying out of this intention.

Book I explores the question of religious truth: Spenser here promotes the Anglican Church, symbolised by the Red Cross Knight of Holiness, who fights on behalf of his lady, Una. Book II advances the cause of Temperance, or moderation: amongst his deeds, Sir Guyon must destroy the Bower of Bliss, where sensuality reigns supreme. Book III develops the idea of Chastity through the characters of Britomart and Belphoebe, while Book IV focuses on Friendship in the persons of Scudamour and Amoret, amongst others. Book V narrates the achievements of Arthegall, the Knight of Justice. Spenser here includes interpretation of topical events such as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the recent troubles in Ireland under the governorship of Lord Grey of Wilton. Book VI recounts the adventures of Sir Calidore, who personifies Courtesy.

While The Faerie Queene is a representation of ‘Gloriana’—and ‘Glory’—Prince Arthur, borrowed from the ‘matter of Britain’, features intermittently as the symbol of what Spenser calls ‘magnificence’, but what we might term ‘magnanimity’ or even the Chaucerian ‘gentillesse’. Spenser makes life difficult for his readers by plunging into the action without introduction, a device true to the epic tradition (‘in medias res’) but somewhat confusing in a complex allegory. Perhaps this is not very important: what is memorable about The Faerie Queene is primarily the exquisiteness of Spenser’s language and his ability to conjure scenes which are both picturesque (even grotesque, on occasion) and movingly based on a strongly-felt moral vision. The self-conscious archaism of the style (vaguely Chaucerian) often succeeds splendidly, even if at times it may jar. Of special interest is the brilliant control and manipulation of the ‘Spenserian stanza’, devised for this poem: Spenser adds a ninth, longer line to the preceding eight. We therefore have eight pentameters and one hexameter (or ‘alexandrine’). This last line is used to sum up, crystallise or counterpoint what has gone before. Keats was much later to make splendid use of the stanza in his The Eve of St Agnes.

Edmund Spenser, born into a relatively modest family, was nevertheless probably connected to the Spensers of Althorp. Educated at Merchant Taylors’ School and Cambridge, he soon became a friend of Sir Philip Sidney and obtained employment as secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton. Spenser went with Grey to Ireland, eventually acquiring Kilcolman Castle in Co. Cork where he busied himself with The Faerie Queene. He married Elizabeth Boyle in 1594; the exquisite Epithalamion was composed for their wedding. The Irish troubles of 1598 saw the destruction of his home and his return to London, where he died a poor man in 1599.


Notes on the Selection

Book I, Cantos I–III

Holiness (the Red Cross Knight) encounters evil, or error, in various forms. His lady Una’s parents, representing mankind, are in thrall to ‘the dragon, that old serpent, which is the devil’ (Revelation xx 2). In Canto I the Knight kills the monster Error, but he is then tricked by the wizard Archimago into thinking his lady unchaste: the pair are therefore parted, and Cantos II and III recount their separate adventures.

Canto IX includes the brilliant episode of the Cave of Despair, in which the Knight is exposed to the persuasive, self-destructive allure of Despair—which is, of course, intrinsically sinful. Because the Knight is by now weakened by pain and remorse, the idea of yielding to suicide has a certain appeal.

Cantos XI and XII provide the climax of Book I. In defeating the Dragon—a conflict described with almost grotesque vividness by Spenser—the Knight earns the right to wed his lady.

Book II, Canto VII Sir Guyon is led by Mammon into the cave which bears his name. Here the knight sees a succession of figures who are eaten up by the excess of their passionate obsessions.

Canto IX Alma (the Soul) must be rescued by Sir Guyon and Prince Arthur from the sensual desires which dwell in her body, here represented by a castle, at the top of which is a turret housing the Mind. Three great chambers lie within this turret: they belong to Imagination, Judgement and Memory.

Canto XII Sir Guyon, now guided by the Palmer (or Pilgrim), is led to the Bower of Bliss. In another of the great set-piece episodes of The Faerie Queene, Sir Guyon must resist the temptations laid out before him, then bind Acrasia, who rules this realm, and finally destroy the Bower.

Book III, Canto VI Spenser introduces a female knight, Britomart. She is disguised, and is thus thought by those who encounter her to be a man. Her task is to guide the noble Scudamour to a true understanding of Love and Chastity. As part of this process, Spenser describes to us the Garden of Adonis. This belongs to Venus, Goddess of Love, and is named after her lover. Within the Garden lie the seedbeds of all living things: from this stock nature is constantly replenished.

Canto XII features another of Spenser’s pageant or masque episodes. Here Britomart witnesses the Masque of Cupid, a procession in which ‘love’s spoyles are exprest’: in other words, the destructive effects of unconsidered and uncontrolled physical passion are displayed. At the rear of his procession rides Cupid himself, delighting in the sin and misery he breeds.

Book IV, Canto VI Britomart seems to have abducted Scudamour’s beloved Amoret. In his rage Scudamour meets Arthegall: uniting, they successively encounter Britomart in deadly fight. Scudamour is unhorsed, but Arthegall eventually succeeds in overcoming Britomart. When he strikes off her helm he discovers Britomart’s true nature; the pair immediately recognise each other as their true loves, leaving Scudamour still mourning the disappearance of Amoret.

Book V, Canto II The Giant presumes to set the world to rights, thus blasphemously attempting to usurp the power of God. Spenser here alludes to civil disobedience, glancing especially at troubles in Ireland, and so defending the status quo. Arthegall exposes the fallacies in the Giant’s intentions; then Talus the Iron Man casts down and destroys the foolish Giant, before sternly rebuking the discontented people of that land.

Book VI, Canto X Sir Calidore, the champion of Courtesy, pauses in his quest of the Blatant Beast to sample a life of pastoral ease. Spenser here indulges a favourite convention, introducing Colin Clout the shepherd and praising the simple life. Sir Calidore is privileged to witness the Dance of the Three Muses upon the Hill of the Graces.

Book VII, Canto VII In another beautiful pageant, Spenser shows us the passage of the seasons. The Masque of the Seasons and the Months demonstrates the unavoidable power of Mutability: all that lives must change, and die.

Canto VIII In ‘Nature’s Reply to Mutability’ the poet recalls to himself the solace of eternity: all earthly things are transitory, but God and His heaven shall live for ever.

Notes by Perry Keenlyside


The music on this CD is taken from the Naxos catalogue

BYRD Consort and Keyboard Music

Rose Consort of Viols with Red Byrd

DOWLAND Consort Music and Songs

Rose Consort of Viols
Jacob Heringman, lute

DOWLAND Flow My Tears

Dorothy Linell, lute
Steven Rickards, counter tenor

REDFORD Early English Organ Music

Joseph Payne, organ

Music programming by Nicolas Soames

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