English Renaissance: notes for a lecture scheduled for 10 Oct., 2003. When did Renaissance come into being? There is no strict date. Some critics find several qualities of the Renaissance spirit already in Dante's work (13th c); in the 14th c. Petrarch was expressing his grief at the fall of ancient Rome and the end of classical culture, and was dreaming of its return and rebirth (ri nascita). The term Renaissance was used consciously for the first time to describe a broad tendency in 15th and 16th c. art, by an Italian painter, architect, and historian of art, Giorgio Vasari, 1511-74 (n. b. his murals: Palazzo Vecchio in Florence; his designs: the Uffizi Gallery and new shape of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence); in his collection of biographies of famous Italian artists (1550), The Lives of the Most Distinguished Painters, Sculptors and Architects (vite dei piu eccellenti pit tori, scultori e architettori); he was a great admirer of Michaelangelo in all the arts (a true Renaissance artist: poet, painter, architect, sculptor).
Division into periods is a difficult task. The fact that later critics saw many signs of the coming humanism in the works of Dante (1265-1321) or Chaucer (1345-1400), does not mean that those two great masters can rightly be called Renaissance men. There are at least three reasons why we cannot find a clear division between the Medieval and Renaissance art: 1. Firstly, the Renaissance appeared as a result of a slow evolution. It evolved out of inherited Medieval values which combined with the new element = this led to a new synthesis.
We " ll see how the Renaissance outlook upon the world grew out of, and contains, the elements of Medieval thought. Even in artists who are undoubtedly Renaissance poets, like Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare, there are echoes of Medieval beliefs and literary motifs. 2. Secondly, the ideology and mentality of the middle ages and the new Renaissance world outlook coexisted until the 16th c. 3. Thirdly, the Renaissance arrived earlier in the South, later in the North of Europe, to say nothing of the East; some artists who traveled imported certain ideas earlier [Chaucer] but the full recognition of new ideology came later.
SO: Renaissance in Italy - from 14th until the beginning of 16th c; in the North - late 15th c. till the end of 16th c. In England: from the accession of Henry V in 1509 to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. The Renaissance is a result of a complex historical process, with the following factors playing the most important part: The first aspect: 1. The crisis of papal domination over Europe in matters of religion; the Reformation.
(In the Middle Ages - joint rule of Popes & Emperors. Medieval paintings show Christ giving the keys to the Pope (symbol of religious power), and the sword to the Emperor (symbol of civil power). In practice this joint rule did not work very well - there were frequent tensions and schisms. In the 14 thc there were antipopes in Avignon. The greatest shock to papal domination came in 1517 when Martin Luther published his 95 theses in Wittenberg - criticism of dogmatic Catholicism & Church practices. He called for the study of the Bible, and especially the evangelical writings; he attacked the monasteries, the cult of the saints, the cult of holy relics and pictures; he attacked Church hierarchy.
15th c - the age of religious wars. Reformation, Calvin, Protestantism. In England - national Church with King the head. Split with Rome.
Henry V - pretext: marriage with Catherine of Aragon (divorce) - true reason: the need for a political liberation of England from the dominance of the Roman popes. Liturgy and dogma - basically catholic - Henry strongly opposed Protestantism (Thomas Moore was executed for his refusal to recognize the notion of cuius regio eius religio): the king's religion becomes the state's. With time, the Church of England adopted much of Calvin's teachings and moved towards Protestantism. 2.
The second aspect: the end of feudalism and the coming of money economy; the rise of new national states after a period of feudal organization. Foreign trade and markets. End of feudal dependencies. Money economy. International cooperation (textiles - Holland and England) and rivalry (Spain and England). 3.
And the third aspect: Humanism and the renewed interest in the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanism is an intellectual trend which develops the ancient tradition of the interest in Man as it is expressed both in philosophy and in art. The new accent falls on enjoying this life in the world, rather than preparing for the next one. The Middle Ages were not totally ignorant of ancient culture, but their knowledge was fragmentary and distorted by later versions (e.g. they read commentaries on Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle by an Arab philosopher Averroes [in Latin] rather than the texts themselves [in Greek]. It was in the 15th c. that systematic study of the culture of Greece and Rome was undertaken in universities. New subjects - humaniora...
Poetics. Aristotle; Plato; Horace; Cicero. The notion of decorum - fitness of function and style. Aim of art: do cere (teach), delectate (entertain), and permovere (move). The new universities replaced the old monastic schools.
Literacy was growing. There was easier access to books. It is probable that before 1477, when the first book was printed in England, a very small percentage of the English people could either read or write. William Caxton started a true avalanche of books (he published about 100 in his lifetime, and some of them were written by himself). While English literature of the Middle Ages was largely that of church and court, the literature after the beginning of the 16th c. came to be much more universal in its spread (middle classes): Shakespeare was a wood-dealer's son from a small town.
The earliest of English Renaissance poets, Sir Thomas Wyatt, was born in 1503; the greatest non-dramatic poet, Edmund Spenser, died in 1599. So, when we speak of the coming of the Renaissance to England, we are firmly locked with the confines of the 16th c. Sir Thomas Wyatt, 1503-1543; Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, 1517-1547; Tottel's Miscellany, 1559; Sir Philip Sidney, 1554-1586; Astrophel and Stella, 1591; Arcadia, 1598. Secondly, historians usually speak about Tudor England when they speak about the period from the end of the war of the Roses (i.e. from the accession of Henry VII in 1485, to 1603, when Queen Elizabeth I died - that is the age of the Tudor sovereigns. And what an age it was! In 1492 Columbus discovered America for modern Europeans; soon after, Vasco da Gama went to India by sea.
The race for controlling and dominating these overseas territories began, culminating, from the English point of view, with the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. But geographical discoveries, however stimulating they were to the imaginations of writers, were less immediately present in the lives of average citizens. The Reformation of the Church, on the other hand, concerned everybody. From 1517, when Martin Luther's Wittenberg Theses were made public, the ferment of reform within the Church spread over Europe. Starting with the reign of Henry 8th, the English king is also "Supreme Head on Earth" of the English Church. The split with Rome had tremendous consequences.
The pretext for the split was the king's marriage with Catherine of Aragon, and his need for a divorce; but the true reason was the need for a political liberation of England from the dominance of the Roman popes. The third and fourth terms that need a little bit of comment in the context of the English Renaissance are the Elizabethan Age and the Jacobean Age. Elizabeth I: from 1558 to 1602; she's the last of the Tudors. James I, 1603-1625; the first Stuart on the English throne. But literature is never as neatly divided into periods as history. Shakespeare [1564-1616] is the greatest Elizabethan, yet his career extended into the reign of James I; so did the careers of several of his contemporaries, e.g. John Donne [1572-1631]; Ben Jonson [1572-1637].
Yet the name Jacobean literature, i.e. the first quarter of the 17th c. is predominantly associated with a certain decadence of the Renaissance spirit and temper: using the European terminology, we are dealing with the Baroque sensibility in the literature of the early 17th c., though English literary historians prefer the names: Jacobean drama, Metaphysical poetry, or Cavalier poetry. Last week, talking about developments in the 15th c., I mentioned the work of the first printer, William Caxton. His role cannot be overestimated. He contributed to the process of creating one national language out of diverse regional dialects; he stresses the importance of English in every field - science, religion, the law, etc. Printed books were becoming cheaper and more available.
Literacy in England rose from about 30% in Chaucer's times to about 50% in Shakespeare's times. In 1557 the publication of Tottel's Miscellany (a large collection of Renaissance poetry, including sonnets by Wyatt and Surrey) was one of the great developments in English Renaissance poetry. Great developments in English Renaissance drama will be discussed at some length next week and in two weeks' time; let me just say today that the building of the first permanent theatre in London (simply called the Theatre) came in 1576. (N.B. the process of development of the theatre and the dramatic art from the middle of the 16th c. to the times of William Shakespeare, 1588-1610 are the years he spent in London, is one of the most fascinating subjects in English literary history). Some of the most wonderful English Renaissance poetry is to be found in Elizabethan drama - Shakespeare's greatest poetry is in his plays. But today we are talking about lyrical and epic poets of the Renaissance. Well, we managed to say when the Renaissance came to England, who its chief representatives were, we mentioned some political and religious changes, but we failed to define what it consists in.
Well, paradoxically, it consists in a huge leap forward in a number of areas, a going-away from narrow medieval standards, and at the same time a return to the past, to classical antiquity, to all its experience and good advice in the realms of philosophy and aesthetics. In politics and social organization: MED: The feudal order. The local feudal lord and the local priest. Feudal lords held real power. The Church, and Rome.
The popes. Feudal lords and the Church - patrons of art. REN: Absolute, centralized power of the Kings. 3 generations of Tudor monarchs: 1485-1603. Main patron of the arts - the royal court. In religion: MED: Christianity in Western Europe is united!
The enemy is external - wars with Islam. Crusades. Knights. REN: The unity is broken. Islam is a lesser danger. Religious wars within Western Europe.
Trade wars, economic rivalry, spheres of influence. (England and Spain) Firearms = the age of chivalry wanes. In the study of the classics: MED: Antiquity. Learned monks knew something about antiquity, Greek philosophy and art, but not directly: e.g. Aristotle's Poetics was known through the mediation of commentators like the Arab philosopher of the 12th c., Abdul Mohamed Averroes. REN: Antiquity plays a leading role in the general system of values, in ethics and aesthetics. Return to the original sources: texts, languages.
Birth of Humanism as the fundamental intellectual current in the Renaissance. Moore. Erasmus. In education: MED: Education: Church. Monastic schools.
Theology. Scholasticism. REN: Education: Universities and academies. New subjects: philology; rhetoric; grammar; philosophy; literature; languages.
Humaniora. In economy: MED: Economy: Subsistence farming. Local markets. Sheep, corn. The centre of medieval life was the country, the local church, the village green. REN: Economy: money economy.
Merchant capital. Foreign trade. Craftsmen from Europe - Dutch textile workers. Prosperity. Sea power. Enclosures.
Now the city grows in importance. The court and its aristocracy. "Civility and civilization", connected with the town culture, are new notions - first used in print in 1601. The position of man in the general scheme of things: MED: Man was God's creature, part of a religious community which has a stable, static social hierarchy. The social order is God-given and must not be questioned. The virtue of meekness.
REN: Man is free, he has individual potential. His wisdom and ambition decide about his worth and position. There is new freedom to create norms and moral values. New dignity of man. Conventions of love: MED: Love: the convention of courtly love, strongly relying on feudal values.
Strict code of behaviour - a courtly game. REN: Courtly love survives, but there is a new dimension: woman is idealized not in abstract but as a particular, individual person. Remember Shakespeare's sonnet? My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.
And yet, in the end, the poet's love is "rare", unique, beyond "false compare". All this does not mean, however, that the Renaissance was a completely new start, that nothing was taken over from the Middle Ages. The Tudors inherited from the medieval world-view a coherent system of belief concerning the social order. They believed in the existence of a certain harmony or as they called it "degree" within the universe. All creation consists of numberless, interconnected "degrees" of being: from the inanimate elements (minerals, fire, water, air), through plants, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals; MAN stands in the very middle; above him there are saints, seraphim, angels, and God the Creator himself. So man's position is special: he is half-way between the natural order, he is close enough to the animal world, there is danger of slipping back to animal instincts; but he is also close enough to the angelic and the divine: there is a chance to aspire to spirituality and saintliness.
The whole universe was governed by divine will; Nature was God's instrument, and the social hierarchy a product of Nature. Subordination and unity were the natural rules for families, corporations, guilds and the state, called "a body politic" which, naturally (if it is imagined as a living organism), should be subject to a single head. The finest exposition of these ideas is the analysis of Law (understood broadly as a system of God-given rules for controlling the course of Nature) is Richard Hooker's treatise, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, written between 1593 and 1597: He speaks of divine laws, regulating the realm of religious belief; of natural laws, regulating the realm of creation; and of man-made laws, regulating the affairs of the State: Richard Hooker: Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 1593-97. If Nature should change her course and leave but for a while the observation of her own laws; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loosen and dissolve itself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief: what would become of man himself, whom these things now do all serve?
See we not plainly that obedience of creatures unto the law of nature is the stay of the whole world? The law of Nature is an infallible knowledge imprinted in the mind; the need to maintain a regulated order is dictated by man's place in the universe. The stay = basis, support, foundation. Hooker is not isolated in these beliefs (notice the date: 1590's, right in the middle of the great Elizabethan period).
Shakespeare himself was also a believer in this natural order, something called A Great Chain of Being. The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre Observe degree, priority, and place, Insist ure, course, proportion, season, form, ( = stability, persistency) Office, and custom, in all line of order; And therefore is the glorious planet Sol In noble eminence enthroned and sphere Amidst the other; Take but degree away Troilus & Cressida, Untune that string ActI, Sc., l. 109 And hark what discord follows. (spoken by Ulysses, that wise, experienced old man). The order of the universe is compared to a musical instrument, like a lyre or a guitar. Untune one string, and the whole instrument is out of tune. Comparison to music, which itself is symbolic of harmony.
So: disturbance at one level leads to similar disturbances on other levels. When Macbeth kills the king, all kinds of unnatural events occur: storms, plagues, horses eating one another, because the killing itself was so unnatural (Duncan was Macbeth's king, his superior and his benefactor; he was his kin or his blood-relation, a distant cousin; and he was his guest). The Humanism was the fundamental intellectual current in the Renaissance. England's chief representative is Sir Thomas Moore; on the Continent - one of the greatest thinkers of his day was Erasmus of Rotterdam, who visited England, lived and worked there, made friends in England, and influenced the English Renaissance in a variety of ways, but chiefly through his views on the new education in universities; the importance of classical learning. Thomas Moore is the author of the famous UTOPIA, written in Latin, but soon (in 1551) translated into English.
It is a critique of European politics and social institutions. A perfect society should be guided by reason. But we must not forget that Moore's vision of perfect society was not altogether serious: more like Swift's Gulliver's Travels. He shows a society which uses slave labour, wears uniforms, practices euthanasia and rewards its best citizens with golden chamberpots; on the other hand, it is a society which cherishes science and the philological study of old texts. In the Renaissance the courtly, aristocratic patronage of literature and the arts in the early Tudor period (the Henrys), gives way to professionalism in Queen Elizabeth's reign. Dramatic artists, actors and playwrights make their living in the theatrical companies, and some of them even make their fortunes, like Shakespeare.
So, when we talk of the Renaissance in English literature, we cover the period from the beginning of the 16th c., (Henry V 1509; Elizabeth I, 1559-1602), till the end of the first quarter of the 17th c. (James I, 1602-1625). Speaking otherwise, the high Renaissance in England coincides with what is known as Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. It is one of the great phenomena of European culture, a period of immense and concentrated literary activity. Drama, poetry, but also prose. Of course, signs of the coming Renaissance can be noticed before 1550, and some Baroque writers who were active in the early years of the 17th c., like John Milton, went on to write magnificent pieces in the second half of the century.
This immense mass of material must be ordered somehow, so that we may pick our way through it with convenient guidelines. One way of doing it is to view the period through the central achievement of William Shakespeare's poetry and drama. So, the writers who came before him will be viewed as his predecessors, those who paved the way for his success; his contemporaries will be discussed in relation to his work; and his younger contemporaries will be seen as continuator's and his disciples. It is an arbitrary procedure, perhaps, but it is natural that we approach the epoch in this way, grouping the lesser writers around the towering figure of William Shakespeare. Sir Thomas Wyatt was a courtier and a diplomat who never treated writing verses as his chief task; he was a courtier to King Henry V, an ambassador to France. Arrested twice for his alleged love affair with Anne Boleyn and kept in the Tower of London; but he kept his head and died of natural causes at the age of 40.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, went to the scaffold at the age of 30. A great loss. Wyatt's first aim was to restore to English verse the nobility, grace and harmony it lost in the 15th c. Why? Changes in the language, discussed last week. 16th c. poets could no longer use the forms and metres worked out by Chaucer and his contemporaries.
They had to begin anew, and they did this by imitating the poetic forms and meters of Renaissance Italian poetry, chiefly the Petrarchan sonnet. Gradually, first by translating Italian poems into English, later by paraphrasing them, and finally by composing his own original sonnets, Wyatt attained a comparative regularity. The form itself, the sonnet, the restriction of the 14 lines and a very regular rhyming pattern, forced him to elaborate his poetic diction and his vocabulary. With Wyatt, lyrical poetry comes back to England. He introduced the sonnet but he is not perhaps England's greatest sonnet writer (Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton or Keats are much superior).
It is true most of his sonnets are translations or imitations of Italian poetry; there are still signs of great effort in the way his sonnets are made; as if the powerful emotions and the poet's reflections still refused to be packed into the narrow confines of the short lyrical form; but: he made personal, authentic feeling the subject of his poems. It was the shifting of the centre of interest from the convention to the poet's actual states of mind that was typically a feature of the Renaissance. Some of Wyatt's sonnets are paraphrases from Petrarch, like this one, called My Galley (ship, boat) in which the speaker's state of mind is compared to a ship during a dangerous, stormy passage. There is a complex, extended simile: the ship = man's life, the storm = a moment of crisis. My galley charged with forgetfulness Thorough sharp seas, in winter nights doth pass 'Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas, That is my lord, steer eth with cruelness, And every oar a thought in readiness, As though that death were light in such a case. An endless wind doth tear the sail apace Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain, Hath done the wearied cords great hinderance; Wreathed with error and eke with ignorance. The stars be hid that led me to this pain. Drowned is reason that should me consort, And I remain despairing of the port. Not just one comparison but a complex set of comparisons: sea, rocks, oars, wind, sails, ropes, stars, danger of losing one's way and drowning. Is there a foot missing in some lines?
Or a foot too many? It all depends on rather uncertain, changing rules of stress. A state of emotional agitation is compared to the stormy sea. Rocks stand for doubts; fate is the helmsman; thoughts are oars; wind is the poet's sighs; rain is his tears; clouds stand for contempt; the hidden stars represent error and ignorance. Surrey's lyrical poems are smoother, there is less evidence of hard work. His verse is more fluent; more elastic.
His sentences are longer, he frequently uses run-on lines, as if the expression of emotion demanded more room. Surrey simplified the Petrarchan sonnet (octet + sestet) - to the Elizabethan form which Shakespeare also adopted - (3 quatrains with different rhymes followed by a rhymed couplet). SURREY: A Complaint by Night of the Lover not Beloved Alas so all things now do hold their peace. Heaven and earth disturbed in nothing: The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease: The night's chair the stars about doth bring: Calm is the sea, the waves work less and less: So am not I, whom love alas doth wring, Bringing before my face the great increase Of my desires, whereat I weep and sing In joy and woe, as in a doubtful ease. For my swede thoughts sometime do pleasure bring: But by and by the cause of my disease Gives me a pang, that inwardly doth sting, When that I think what grief it is again, To live and lack the thing should rid my pain. It is a peaceful, quiet meditation; there is tranquility in the poet's thoughts about love.
His images are less contrived, less artificial than Wyatt's. He uses a flexible line. There are 3 run-on lines in this sonnet! Less ornamental than Wyatt's poem which seems to be obsessed with comparison. Freer of imitation or translation.
Smooth, quiet. So gentle, so simple: line 2, line 5. Contrast of peaceful night and the Lover's passionate grief. When we speak of the 2 poets, one is tempted to repeat David Daiches's opinion: Surrey has less strength and more polish. His form, meter and diction are smoother than Wyatt's, but the elder poet [Wyatt] is emotionally and lyrically more intense and powerful. Surrey must also be remembered for his role in the creation of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters).
He did this in his translation of Virgil (2nd and 4th books of the Aeneid). His lines are unrhymed, regular, but flexible and run-on lines (in which the sense of the line does not stop with the end of the line, but runs on to the next). This helps him to avoid monotony. This form, blank verse, was destined to become the greatest dramatic line, picked up by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Keats and Alfred Tennyson. Sir Philip Sidney, 1554-86, wrote sonnets.
His Astrophel and Stella, a sonnet cycle, or a series of sonnets on one subject, created a fashion which was later picked up by Spenser, Shakespeare and others. A story of love is told in these sonnets. The lover complains, because his lady is cold, cruel, distant, unresponsive - a convention. Arcadia, on the other hand, is a pastoral romance in prose. Though it is written in prose, its style and manner became tremendously influential in its time. Its plot need not concern us here, though Arcadia is sometimes mentioned as one of the forerunners of the novel.
It is a story of shipwrecked princes and beautiful princesses - a romance! It is important, because in it prose is treated in a similar way to poetry. Its language is highly elaborate, artificial, full of stylistic and rhetorical devices. It is over-refined both in its style and feeling. Its eloquence is overabundant.
It is a sort of verbal game, embroidery of the smallest detail and incident. It is true that Arcadia is full of images, some of them in bad taste, over-refined, over-abundant, but the poet was the first to try and use all the resources of the English language. It is poetic prose, and it is very remote from everyday prose style. Sidney's object was to give the language flexibility and precision it lost in the 15th c. His sentences are often too long, there are too many matters discussed in one sentence, they are too heavy with parentheses, ornaments and images. His style is a conscious effort at verbal painting.
Sidney's poetic prose influenced the poets, the whole century of writers, including Spenser, and Shakespeare, and the metaphysical poets of the 17th c, but also John Keats in the 19th c., and through Keats a whole line of post romantic poets. John Lyly 1554-1606. His two prose romances about Eupheus, 1580, are again, like Sidney's Arcadia, examples of prose writing in which the style is far more important than the plot. Lyly reduces the plot to a minimum; it is episodic and digressive; but he is excellent in his discussion of manners, sentiment and moral reflection. From the title Eupheus comes the term eupheuism, i.e. a peculiar literary style whose two main characteristics are: 1. a principle of balance and symmetry in sentences; his prose is as regulated and measured as verse; 2. his wish to decorate his style by images and similes, by constant attention to sound and rhythm; the sources of his similes are ancient mythology and history, medieval bestiaries and herb aries. Endless comparison in which similarity and contrast are most prominent.
Here you might take a look at a fragment from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, p. 1031. His extravagant comparisons and the symmetrical order of his sentences were readily imitated by other writers. The only real value of eupheuism is its mastery over language. It helped to give language a flexibility, lightness and musical grace which it had lost in the 15th c. It helped to prepare the English language for its role in drama (remember that Lyly was ALSO a successful playwright). Notice that there are excellent scenes of verbal combat in plays by Shakespeare, e.g. Falstaff in Henry IV.
And finally, among the great writers of the English Renaissance (perhaps the greatest non-dramatic writer), Sir Edmund Spenser, 1552-99. He was a fully professional, very prolific writer, specializing in pastoral poetry, the sonnet, and great allegorical epic poems like The Faerie Queene, his great unfinished masterpiece. I can only mention here his collection of sonnets, The Amoretti, and The Faerie Queene. His sonnets are addressed to the woman he loved and courted, Elizabeth Boyle.
Like many other Renaissance sonnet cycles, it describes the love story, the growth, development of love between two people, the poet himself and his beloved; but Spenser is untypical in that he is writing the story of a happy love: only at first is the lady (according to convention) cool and unresponsive, but then she returns the poet's emotion, and agrees to become his bride. It is the image of a perfect love: happy, without sin, and crowned with fulfillment, described in Epithalamion, the longer lyrical piece describing and celebrating the day of the wedding. Sonnet # 67, Norton 1, p. 769. Love as a game, a chase or hunt. The hunter gets rewarded.
Like as a huntsman after weary chase, to beguile = to deceive, Seeing the game from him escaped away, to trick. Sits down to rest him in some shady place, But also: to charm, With panting hounds beguiled of their prey, to attract. So there is So after long pursuit and vain assay, an interesting When I all weary had the chase forsook, ambiguity in the poem. The gentle deer returned the self-same way, Thinking to quench her thirst at the next brook.
There she beholding me with milder look, Sought not to fly, but fearless still did bide, Till I in hand her yet half trembling took, And with her own goodwill her firmly tied. Strange thing me seemed to see a beast so wild, So goodly won with her own will beguiled. In some of his sonnets Spenser still follows the example of Petrarch (as here) and Tasso, but the poet's own individual voice can be heard quite often. Spenser's sonnets are extremely well written, with a high sense of craftsmanship. But it is The Faerie Queene which was his masterpiece. Unfinished, but as it is, we have 500 pages of extraordinary poetry.
It took him 20 years to write; he was proud of being English and he wanted to equal with his English epic those of ancient times. The poem is written in the form of a medieval allegory, using the pattern of medieval romances, and the tradition of King Arthur and the Knights. He wanted to surpass Ariosto's early 16th c. epic poem Orlando Furioso, and planned 12 books, or 12 epics as parts of one bigger whole. He wrote only 6, of which the First Book is the best and most representative. Spenser's aim was didactic: he wanted to "fashion a perfect gentleman"; to give the model of King Arthur to English gentlemen. But he also wanted to praise Queen Elizabeth under the guise of the Faerie Queene or Magnificence.
There are several dimensions of this poem: it mixes history and legend; it is a patriotic and public poem, with allegorical and symbolic meanings concealed underneath medieval emblems. The meaning of the allegory, its moral, religious, and national meaning is multi-layered, complex, and too confused for the modern reader to grasp its full significance. But that is of lesser importance. Spenser is a great, inspired poet, a painter in words; in his descriptions of pastoral settings, medieval characters, legendary figures of myth, he is a great poet of the imagination. His pictures are not motionless; it seems he is describing an idealized medieval pageant, the procession of costumed characters with expressive gestures, whose attitudes reveal their abstract meaning. He goes into great detail, his work flows like a huge slow river (nothing is too long for him! ), and surprisingly, given enough time, it is not too tedious or too monotonous even to modern readers.
His description of the idealized medieval world creates a strange atmosphere of unreality; it is the world of magic and fantasy and legend; of dragons, beautiful ladies in distress, and allegorical figures. Obviously, given the character of his poem, Spenser borrows heavily from his predecessors: Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Guillaume de L orris, Chaucer, Langland, Ariosto and Tasso. But he gives his epic a sense of unity by creating a harmonious atmosphere of the whole poem: everything is strange, bathed in fantastic moonlight; the forests are limitless and wonderful. The lady in distress is always chaste and beautiful; the questing knight is honest and loyal. It is a dream world with certain operatic charm, full of music, wonder and enchantment. (If there is time: read 3 stanzas, Norton, p. 549) [slightly modernized] A Gentle Knight was riding on the plain, Y clad in mighty arms and silver shield, Wherein old dints of deep wounds did remain, The cruel marks of many a bloody field; Yet arms till that time did he never wield: His angry steed did chide his foaming bit, As much disdaining to the curb to yield: Full jolly knight he seemed, and fair did sit, As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit.
But on his breast a bloody Cross he bore, The dear remembrance of his dying Lord, For whose sweet sake that glorious badge he wore, And dead as living ever him adored: Upon his shield the like was also scored, For sovereign hope, which in his help he had: Right faithful true he was in deed and word, But of his cheer did seem too solemn sad; Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was yd rad. (i.e. others feared and respected him). Upon a great adventure he was bound, That greatest Gloria na to him gave, That greatest Glorious Queen of Faerie Land, To win him honour, and her grace to have, Which of all earthly things he most did crave; And ever as he rode, his heart did yearn To prove his puissance in battle brave Upon his foe, and his new force to learn; Upon his foe, a Dragon horrible and stern. Book 1, about the adventures of a Red Cross Knight - emblematic representation of England. A romantic epic: the knight slays the dragon, liberates his lady's imprisoned parents, and wins her hand (the adventure level). Spiritual allegory: every Christian encounters evil (error, hypocrisy, 7 deadly sins), but overcomes it, returns to true faith, and is saved..