Edmund Spenser

Across history humanity has always been orientated by, and sometimes obsessed with, the timeless combat between what is considered according to each epoch as 'good and evil'. The combat is often 'religious', but it doesn't always have to be. Religion is frequently used however, as a justification to wage war against whatever is decreed as 'evil', determined by whatever interests are at stake at such times.

When opposing forces claim that God is on their side, the combat against 'evil' is thus often relative to one's interests.
When 'progress' is the criterion, for example, those who try to oppose it would be classed as evil elements- the baddies, as the North American Indians defending their land and way of life were regarded and characterised, even up until the early 60's. Or when, for life's survival, the defence of the environment becomes more important, technological progress tends to be ostracised in favour of the former. Whatever the historic facts, we then start believing that the North American Indians, who were either wiped out or exiled to allocated reserves, were right after all.

Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings magnificently exposes the evil of hate, greed and obsessive desire for power, but the recent film Avatar could be regarded as a more up to date version of this particular modification of values.
In today's world the abuse of tyrannical and/or financial power are continuing to culminate causing radical consequences of enormous social impact world-wide. And as a further, minor example, words such as immigration and integration are bound to take on new connotations when increasing numbers of hosted immigrants refuse to integrate. Inevitably this too contributes to social change.

The Crusaders had 'God on their side' and their enemies were the 'heathens'. Concurrently, the Muslims had 'God on their side' and their enemies were the 'infidels'.

But evil certainly exists. Whatever it claims, it never has God on its side. From time to time it raises its ugly head and spews its hate on the entire human race and life in general.

In Edmund Spenser's epic poem, The Faerie Queene, evil has many faces. Spenser gave it hideous, complex and perfideous forms that remind us of modern interpretations brought to horrific vividness via computer technology. This, even though the poem was written as long ago as the 16th century.

Edmund Spenser is classed as 'the greatest, nondramatic, English poet of the Elizabethan era'. (Nondramatic meaning he wasn't a playwright).
He was born ca. 1552, in London and started his schooling at the Merchant Taylor's School before going to Cambridge in 1569 as a 'poor scholar' (sizar).  His interest in poetry grew from his translating verses from anti-Catholic propaganda. He experimented in quantative versification with his friend and humanist, Gabriel Harvey.
Spenser received the A.B. degree in 1573 and the A.M. in 1576 after which he served as personal secretary to Dr. John Young, bishop of Rochester, as well as Queen Elizabeth's favourite, the Earl of Leicester. During this period he made acquaintances with Sir Philip Sidney and Edward Dyer, courtiers interested in launching 'new English poetry'. Spenser's contribution to this was The Shepheardes Calender (1579). He dedicated it to Sidney.

Spenser, who greatly admired Chaucer, used archaic, Chauceresque language to give his poem more rusticity. Sidney however, being a purist, didn't approve.
Since then Spenser's skill and the 'melody' and variety of his verses are widely recognised and appreciated. He was a great experimenter. There are 13 different meters in The Shepheardes Calender. Most of them were new. Only three or four of them were fairly common in 1579.

Such innovations are best known in The Faerie Queene. It's nine-line stanza and it's six-foot line finale are fine examples.

Spenser is sometimes referred to as the 'poet's poet', because so many poets learnt from him and were inspired by him.

After the publication of The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser had to go to Ireland as secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton, lord deputy of Ireland. He tried to obtain posts in England but in vain. During his stay in Ireland he wrote a strong apology for the brutality of the English colonial regime- A View of the Present State of Ireland.

Sir Walter Raleigh visited him when he was writing his epic The Faerie Queene, in Kilcolman Castle. Spenser was hoping, with Raleigh's influence, that his poem would gain the favour and patronage of the queen. The six book epic was published in 1596. He wrote this letter to Raleigh regarding his master-piece in 1589.

During the Irish revolt and civil war, Kilcolman castle was destroyed. Spenser was then sent to England to convey messages from the besieged English garrison.

He died the 13th January, 1599 in Westminster and was buried in 'poet's corner' of Westminster Abbey near the grave of Chaucer. He had always revered Chaucer, and like many romantics, preferred the past to his own era, yet his innovations paved the way forward and inspired great poets such as Milton, who regarded him as 'a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinus'.

His spelling has never been altered. Only his confusing punctuation has partly been modified. His spelling suggests rhymes to the eye though often incorrect, even according to his own era. But it was also the fashion of the Elizabethan epoch, not only for poets, to exercise considerable licence regarding spelling.

Spenser was a great analyst of good and evil, recognising the latter in all its diabolical and insidious forms and appearances. As a staunch Protestant he diabolised the Roman Catholic Church which was considered a dangerous threat to the English Crown also under Queen Elizabeth.

The Faerie Queene, consists of six books of twelve cantos each, thus imitating Virgil's Aeneid. It exposes the virtues of Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice and Courtesy. It's basically an epic combat between good and evil in all its forms. It depicts Knights and ladies, chivalry, nobility, Arthur, Merlin, magic trees, 'Saracens', dragons, guardian lions, magicians, giants, evil hags, warlocks and witches, etc., including a vivid description of the parade of the seven deadly sins, whipped along by Satan.
English patriotism and Queen Elizabeth herself are symbolically incorporated and fiercely defended. The Redcrosse Knight is the virtuous knight (as well as St. George, patron saint of England).
The poet often draws on Italian and Greek classics as well as classical theology and allegories. His sources include Ovid, Virgil and Homer.
In the following, very short excerpt, Spenser even associates Roman Catholicism with the most vile and evil dragon, which well illustrates the above argument that what is often conceived to be 'good and evil' is more often than not based on the historic evolution of social, geopolitical and economical interests and requirements.

Much daunted with that dint,° her sence was dazd            °blow
Yet kindling rage, her selfe she gathered round,
And all attonce her beastly body raizd
With double forces high above the ground:
Tho° wrapping up her wrethèd sterne arownd,                  °then
Lept fierce upon his shield, and her huge traine°               °tail
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stirre he strove in vaine:
God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine.

His lady sad to see his sore constraint,°                             °entrapped state
Cride out, "Now now Sir Knight, shew what ye bee,
Add faith unto your force, and be not faint:
Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee."
That when he heard, in great perplexitie                        °his fettered state
His gall did grate for griefe° and high disdaine,               °wrath
And knitting all his force got one hand free,
Wherewith he grypt her gorge° with so great paine,         °neck
That soone to loose her wicked bands did her constraine.

Therewith she spewed out her filthy maw
A flood of poyson horrible and black,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of books and papers was,¹
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake° all the place defilèd has.²                  °vomit

¹ The books and pamphlets consisting of Catholic propaganda attacks against Queen Elizabeth in 1588.
² Revelation 16.13: And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.


Without considering the Jewish religion, the Roman Catholic Church might still consider Protestants and Anglicans as heretics, and Eastern Orthodox as schismatic. Yet the schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church was made irredeemably worse by the Fourth Crusade, (1202-1204) instigated by Pope Innocent III and cunningly exploited by the Venetian Doge. It led to the shameful sack of the Christian port of Zara and Christian Orthodox Constantinople.

Protestants were also known to victimise and execute 'heretics' after the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. But it was also the era of enlightenment, and it was this enlightenment (in sciences, astrology and the arts, etc.) that was perceived to be a threat to certain religious institutions, especially the Roman Catholic Church.

The inquisition was also initiated by the Church to suppress 'heresy'. They were active in several European countries and were fervently supported by the civil authorities. The most brutal inquisitional methods were practised by the Spaniards. They included burning 'heretics' at the stake.
The last victim to be burnt alive on orders from Rome was Giordano Bruno in 1600.
In his case the 'heresy' consisted of beliefs including Copernicanism. Most likely considered the worst 'evil' even then was his belief in an unlimited universe with countless inhabited worlds. A belief that certainly wouldn't be considered unreasonable or sacrilegious today.
More unbelievable is the fact that the last recorded execution for 'heresy' by Catholic authorities was that of the Spanish Schoolmaster Cayetano Ripoli in 1826. (His alleged crime consisted of teaching the principles of Deism).
There's no doubt that thousands of so called 'heretics' have been executed by diverse ecclesiastical authorities throughout 'civilised' history, far more out of fear and self-interests than for any professed sacrosanct combat against what was then falsely decreed as 'evil'.

Text © Mirino. Source- The Norton Anthology English Literature, with grateful thanks. Portrait of Spenser by an unknown artist, with thanks to Wikimedia Commons. August, 2011

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