Until the early modern European era, English literature was not considered of the same high caliber as its continental counterparts. By England’s renaissance and subsequent reformation, the kingdom began to distinguish itself as a major power. As a consequence, the English people became aware of their need for artistic achievement in order to prove themselves to the other nations. In competition with Italian and French renaissance writers as well as Classical poets like Homer, Virgil, and Petrarch, the British endeavored to recreate in English the forms that had instilled such prestige in other languages.
Accepting this quest was Sir Edmund Spenser, and his epic poem The Faerie Queene defined contemporary English culture. A glorification to Elizabeth I’s reign, The Faerie Queene recalled not only the epic, but the romance-cycle poetry of the Arthurian legends. Through the analogous stories of chivalric quests for virtue, not only was England’s ruler glorified, but the English nation’s Protestant religion and their ensuing values were endorsed as well. In juxtaposing England’s literary heritage with its contemporary moral attributes, Spenser’s purpose was to create a work that would show England’s worth to the entire world.
It is not just Spenser’s theme, but his writing form which is often investigated. Many critics debate whether The Faerie Queene actually merits the definition of “epic,” or whether Spenser had merely stolen aspects of epic form from previous literary works. Like many debates, there are two main proponents for each extreme side, with a third, intermediary whose views are a combination of these two extremes.
Sir Edmund Spenser
Sir Walter Ralegh
The second extreme interpretation of Spenser’s influence on English literature is that not only did Spenser imitate non-English writers, he directly stole from fellow English poet Sir Walter Ralegh (also spelled Raleigh). Spenser’s critics argue that it was Ralegh who was the poet most responsible for the development of English poetics in the Reformation; his writing was not complacent with set standards, whereas Spenser was writing to please Elizabeth I, supporting social conventions and literary constructions of his time and borrowing liberally from poets like Ovid, Virgil, and Ariosto. Ralegh challenged rather than complied with societal and literary conventions in English literature, and Spenser in turn copied Ralegh’s technique, reaping undue credit for Ralegh’s innovations.
Between the two extremes of Spenser the genius and Spenser the copycat lies the conciliatory opinion that Spenser was influenced by other epic poetry while he innovated its use in the English language. This intermediary argument doesn’t center on the possible contemporary influences on Spenser’s writing, but rather the classical models which Spenser may have used. Taken at its simplest points, The Faerie Queene contains obvious references to previous works. The plot scheme of a knight going on a quest—under the patronage of a virtuous lady, in this case the fairy queen Gloriana—is reminiscent of Arthurian romance cycles. Even in the introductory stanzas of The Faerie Queene, the stylistic parallels with such works as Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid is evidenced by the simple fact that all three begin in medias res: the Iliad and Aeneid begin in the middle of war, while The Faerie Queene begins in the middle of a quest with “a Gentle Knight was pricking on a plaine” (FQ I.i.1).
Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher, 1854
Another aspect of epic poetry that distinguishes Spenser’s poetry is that of Petrarchanism. The Faerie Queene illustrates Petrarchan characteristics in Spenser’s heroes, where the relationship between the hero and his lady defines the tone of an epic, and this significance is seen in the parallel of the heroes Dante and the Redcrosse Knight with their respective relationships with Beatrice and Una. Yet Spenser’s poetry is more of a continuation of traditional poetics with his own creative innovations. As in Thomas More’s Utopia, Spenser fabricates an ancient world that nevertheless looks to the future of the English civilization.
Queen Elizabeth I of England
Regardless of the many similarities to classic and foreign epics that The Faerie Queene contains, it’s also important to note differences in Spenser’s writing. As mentioned before, realism is also an alteration between traditional epic and The Faerie Queene. Although Spenser continues to write characters in the iconic caricature of traditional epic poetry, he also incorporates elements of issues pertinent to
time. Spenser sanctioned the values of
his English culture and supporting the stances of the queen. His opening, like that of Homer and Virgil,
evokes a muse, this time personified by Elizabeth I. This comparison is only natural, since England I patronized
Spenser just as Augustus Caesar sponsored Virgil’s Aeneid. The Faerie Queene offers an analogy between Spenser’s patroness and
the knight’s servitude to Gloriana; much like the romance cycle of the knight
serves his lady, the English gentleman is bound to obey his queen. Elizabeth
It may be easy to judge Edmund Spenser either as a pure creator of his own material or a plagiarist of superior works, but neither extreme is completely accurate. Spenser’s poetry is a direct evolution from medieval romance cycles, and Spenser was merely the latest contributor to the development of epic tradition. While borrowing extensively from other epics, Spenser’s poetry is also innovative in that it underscores the importance of issues significant to the society of his time.