Scope: Literature can be a corrupting or a civilizing influence on society; in its civilizing function, it articulates the elements and core values that hold a society together. We can perhaps point to no greater example of literature that fulfills this function than Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Spenser was a courtier and politician who wrote this poem as a literary gesture of devotion to the court. The subject of the poem is England itself, and it embodies the moral virtues of the nation in a band of knightly heroes. We’ll explore the “big three” literary devices—allegory, irony, and ambiguity—that help us understand English literature. For Spenser, allegory was paramount. Spenser was also an innovator in poetic diction and left a legacy of elevated, ornamented language to poets who would follow him for the next 500 years.


I. Literature has many functions: It can entertain, educate, and even corrupt us.

A. Exactly which works of literature are corrupting has been much disputed throughout the centuries; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a work that has been both censored and prescribed at different times.

B. If literature can corrupt, it can also civilize or at least contribute to the civilizing process by articulating the elements that hold a society together. Literature defines the core values on which a civilization founds itself.

C. This discussion brings us to Edmund Spenser’s magnum opus, The Faerie Queene, arguably the greatest poem composed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Faerie Queene is dedicated to the monarch who inherited a reformed England and who, during her 45-year reign (1558–1603), transformed a small northern island into a world power.

D. Spenser (1552–1599) was a courtier, a soldier, a political player, and a poet, and the values that formed his sense of a civilized society descended hierarchically from the fount of England’s honor, the queen.

1. The English honor system runs throughout England to this day but was at its most dynamic during the reign of Elizabeth I and received its finest literary celebration in The Faerie Queene.

2. Along with its stature as a great poem, Spenser’s work is a literary gesture of devotion to the court, as we see in its dedication.

II. Spenser was not a professional writer; no one will be able to claim that description until many years later. His pen was not his main source of income in life, and it was not his main ambition in life to be a writer.

A. Spenser was the son of a prosperous cloth-maker and was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School and at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

B. As a young man, Spenser was an assistant to the provincial governor in Ireland. His job there was to enforce martial law and root out sedition and rebellion. He outlined his authoritarian views on governing the Irish in pamphlets and, as a reward for his services, was given an Irish estate.

C. Spenser had ambitions to advance his career at court and, with that in mind, conceived The Faerie Queene. The poem won him a small pension but not the great favors he craved. Subsequently, his life was marked by disappointment.

D. Spenser’s castle was burned down by Irish rebels in 1598. He may have lost his wife and children in that attack, and he certainly lost his status in the colony. In 1599, he moved back to London, where he died in distressed circumstances, at age 46.

E. His career as a politician had been unsuccessful, but his reputation as a poet was outstanding. His tomb is next to that of Geoffrey Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.

III. The subject of The Faerie Queene is England itself. The epic was initially intended to run to 12 books, but Spenser completed only six.

A. The Faerie Queene addresses itself to six great virtues, which are anatomized in six books, arranged in 12 cantos per book, and made up of rhymed stanzas that came to be called “Spenserian stanzas.” The number 12 is an apostolic number, and numerology underlies the work.

B. The virtues that Spenser covers are holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy. These moral virtues are embodied in a band of knightly heroes.

C. The knights in the poem include five men and one woman, all in armor and all on quests to set the world to rights.

1. The female knight, Britomart, in Book III is, like the Virgin Queen, the embodiment of militant chastity.

2. Knights are warriors, but they also hold values that go beyond merely slaughtering their adversaries. Their battles are battles for virtue, as well as for victory. Spenser points out that life is often too complex for even the best-intentioned, purest knight.

D. The opening image of the first book, devoted to holiness, is stereotypical: A noble knight, wearing a red cross on his chest, gallops across the plain in search of “fierce encounters.”

1. This crusading young knight is called Red Crosse, named after the shape that serves as the basic constituent in the British national flag, as well as the symbol of Christianity.

2. This knight will later be identified as Saint George, the patron saint of England, who conquers the dragon, representing paganism, and brings civilization to England.

E. Spenser was a major innovator in poetry, and the techniques he invented would be passed on to other poets. His “Faerie” land is anything but the happy world we might imagine; it is a dangerous realm of magic, a literary zone where the poet’s imagination creates an alternative universe. The result is sometimes threatening and terrifying.

IV. The “big three” literary devices that help us understand English literature are allegory, irony, and ambiguity.

A. Allegory is, essentially, saying something by means of saying something quite different. A simple form of allegory is the simile: “My love is like a red, red rose.”

1. In general, allegory goes beyond simile into systematic parallelism. Consider, for example, Shakespeare’s meditation on kingship in Richard II. Here, one gardener instructs another in the care of plants, but he is really talking about the running of a country.

2. This gardener allegorizes the state of England in terms of a garden, and by implication, the king becomes the grand gardener, appointed by God to keep the nation well tended.

B. Irony is saying one thing and meaning its opposite. Our example here comes from the most accomplished of literary ironists, Jonathan Swift.

1. In 1729, Swift, then a clergyman resident in Ireland, penned a savage satire on English maladministration of the province entitled A Modest Proposal.

2. The pamphlet purports to be written by an economist confronted with the contradiction that the Irish peasants were both starving and producing numerous children. To the economist’s mind, the solution is easy: The peasants should eat babies.

3. Swift, of course, believed quite the opposite: That the English government should accept its responsibilities toward its colonial territory and stop starving the Irish people.

C. Ambiguity (or polyvalence) is saying two things simultaneously.

1. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 contains the famously ambiguous line: “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” On the surface, the line refers to the expenditure of one’s talents to no good end.

2. If we unpack the line, however, we get a sly double entendre: Spirit can mean liquid. Waste means garbage, but waist is a part of the body, below which, according to Lear, everything belongs to Satan.

Expense means expenditure but can also mean expending effort.

3. In short, while speaking abstractly about degradation, the sonnet also conveys a subversive sexual image, the sexual act with an unworthy partner.

V. We’ll encounter these three literary devices many times on our journey through English literature, but with Spenser, allegory is paramount.

A. The cross on the chest of Red Crosse symbolizes Christianity, and it is red because it is by the blood of Christ that we are all redeemed.

B. The other knights in the Spenserian troupe have new armor, but Red Crosse’s armor is battered and beaten.


1. The fact that the metal is dented recalls the great battles of Christianity fought for us by our forefathers.

2. We did not have to suffer persecution, martyrdom, deprivation, or crucifixion to assert our faith because those who came before us did so. The armor we inherit and that protects us has been worn in bloodspattered battle by our victorious predecessors.

C. The personal virtue that the Christian must cultivate is humility; hence, the opening passage notes that Red Crosse is “solemn sad.”

1. For the Christian, the principal adversary is oneself, one’s pride. The enemy is inside.

2. This will be a recurrent theme in Red Crosse’s subsequent career in arms. He will almost come to grief in the House of Pride and in combat with the giant Orgoglio, which is Italian for “pride.”

D. The guiding principle of Red Crosse’s quest is unity, which is embodied in his patroness, Una. His most seductive enemy is her look-alike, Duessa, or duplicity. There is, in other words, only one religious truth.

E. In the opening episode of Book I, Red Crosse thinks he has found his enemy, the dragon, inside the cave of Error. He finds, instead, a great worm that looks like a dragon.

1. The description of the creature in the cave as half-monster/half-woman hints that sex may be a problem for those who are holy.

2. Red Crosse’s “glistring armor,” the light of religious teaching, gives him a little illumination but not enough.

3. Error later catches the knight in his toils, vomiting books and papers, and Red Crosse can only escape when he heeds Una’s advice to rely on faith and avoid trying to reason with error.

4. When we first meet Red Crosse, he is young; it is only when he becomes older, wiser, and wearier that he will meet and overcome his dragon, which is partly himself. We are baptized Christians, but we only become Christians in our maturity.

5. Red Crosse must learn in this early episode that one cannot engage with error on a rational level. Avoid the cave entirely, Una advises. Rely on faith, not reason.

6. A different theme is followed in the fifth book of The Faerie Queene, on justice. In this legalistic world, subtle logic chopping, rational discussion, and weighing of alternatives are essential.

7. Where religious faith is concerned, however, we must be single-minded. This is the first foundational virtue, which is why it’s the first book in the poem.

VI. Poetic diction is another feature of Spenser’s work that is critically important in the evolution of English literature.

A. Spenser established the principle that the language of poetry is not the language of ordinary people. It is elevated, or beautifully antique, or Latinate.

B. The history of English literature has seen recurrent moves to return poetry to the language of everyday men and women. But these corrective initiatives never succeed. Poetry retains its own special language and subtly revitalizes the language of everyday speech.

C. Such poets as Spenser remake the English language for their own purposes, creating a distinct idiom. Spenser’s personal tendency, like that of Sir Philip Sidney, is toward ornamentation. He describes, for example, the beautiful “bower of bliss” that tempts the knight who embodies temperance, Guyon.

1. In this description, Spenser recycles the poetic truisms of mutability, vegetation, and decay.

2. For this knight who requires self-control and discipline, the richness of Spenser’s language makes the temptation of despair in the face of mutability almost irresistible.

D. Spenser’s poetic diction is one of his great bequests to the poets who follow him. The Spenserian line—its richness, its poetic artificiality, its high diction—runs through the body of subsequent English fiction like a vein of gold. Other writers create works, but Spenser created a whole field of literary endeavor. He mapped out poetry, we may say, for 500 years of poets to follow.