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Poetry Bee Blog #4: Fantasy of the 1500s

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Edmund Spenser

“The Faerie Queene”

What do you like to read? Poetry? Detective and mystery? Or works by classic authors, such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen? Doubtless, many young readers today would answer, “Adventure and fantasy novels.” They love to read about evil monsters, dragons, heroic knights and monarchs. But adventure and fantasy novels are not a recent invention. They existed long before the publication of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. One such work is The Faerie Queene, one of the greatest English poems. Written in the late 1500’s, The Faerie Queene has all the above mentioned—it has a hero called the Redcross knight; it has a dragon that the knight kills in a lair, called the Den of Error; and it has a Queen who sends the knight on the errand. Although it is too difficult for many modern readers now to enjoy, the poem was a real hit in its day.

The author of The Faerie Queene was Edmund Spenser. Born in London in 1552, Spenser was the son of a poor tailor. As a youth he went to the Merchant Taylors’ School, which had then been newly founded, but left the school at seventeen for Cambridge University, entering college as a sizar. A sizar received free board and lodging in his college in return for doing the work of a servant. A sizar’s life was not always a happy one. Why? Many of the other students looked down on them because they were so poor. And they could not hide the fact that they were poor because they had to wear a different cap and gown to distinguish themselves from their more wealthy peers.

Spenser’s first great poem was not, in fact, The Faerie Queene, but The Shepherd’s Calendar. The title of the work comes from the fact that it contains twelve poems, one for every month of the year. The Shepherd’s Calendar made the new poet famous and earned him a position as Secretary of State to Ireland. At that time Ireland was not a pleasant place to live and so, although the position gave Spenser prestige, it did not make him happier. The country was filled with trouble. Irishmen did not like to be ruled by the English and so the country was full of malcontent rebels. Added to that, the Irish nobles were fighting among themselves. Spenser had to live in the midst of the turmoil, but doubtless comforted himself with the thought that his position would be a stepping stone to some greater appointment in England. But eight years passed and he still found himself in exile. He had no love for Ireland and felt himself lonely and forsaken there. But soon there came another great Elizabethan to share his loneliness. This was Walter Raleigh, popularly recognized as the explorer who brought back potatoes and tobacco from America. But he was not just a famous discoverer; he was also an able poet.

When Spenser returned to England, Queen Elizabeth received him kindly. And when he presented his work for her to read, she was absolutely delighted with it. The reason for her delight, though, might not be that his work was so brilliant. It might be more due to the fact that it praised the Queen in an allegory. What is an allegory? An allegory is a story with two levels of meaning—a literal and figurative level. So, though the plot of The Faerie Queene involves a knight killing a dragon and saving Una, it is really has another level of meaning. It is about England saving the Church from foreign powers through the efforts of Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, then, was so pleased with the flattering poem that she ordered Lord Burleigh to pay the poet 100 pounds a year, which is about $30,000 in today’s money. “What!” grumbled the Lord Treasurer, “So much for a little song?” The Queen then said to give what he thought was reasonable, and so Spenser ended up receiving only 50 pounds a year. The little stipend did not allow the poet to give up his post in Ireland and live in England and so back to Ireland he went once more, with a grudge in his heart against Lord Burleigh.

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