Gateway to the Classics: Stories from the Faerie Queene by Mary MacLeod
Stories from the Faerie Queene by  Mary MacLeod

Front Matter


T HE object of this volume is to excite interest in one of the greatest poems of English literature, which for all its greatness is but little read and known—to excite interest not only in young persons who are not yet able to read "The Faerie Queen," with its archaisms of language, its distant ways and habits of life and thought, its exqisite melodies that only a cultivated ear can catch and appreciate, but also in adults, who, not from the lack of ability, but because they shrink from a little effort, suffer the loss of such high and refined literary pleasure as the perusal of Spenser's masterpiece can certainly give.

Assuredly, when all that cavillers can say or do is said and done, "The Faerie Queene" is deservedly called one of the greatest poems of English literature. From the high place it took, and took with acclamation, when it first appeared, it has, in fact, never been deposed. It has many defects and imperfections, such as the crudest and most commonplace critic can discover, and has discovered with much self-complacency; but it has beauties and perfections that such critics very often fail to see; and, so far as the status of "The Faerie Queene" is concerned, it is enough for the ordinary reader to grasp the significant fact that Spenser has won specially for himself the famous title of "the poets' poet." Ever since his star appeared above the horizon, wise men from all parts have come to worship it; and amongst these devotees fellow-poets have thronged with a wonderful enthusiasm. In one point all the poetic schools of England have agreed together, viz., in admiration for Spenser. From Milton and Wordsworth on the one hand to Dryden and Pope—from the one extreme of English poetry to the other—has prevailed a perpetual reverence for Spenser. The lights in his temple, so to speak, have never been extinguished—never have there been wanting offerers of insence and of praise; and, to repeat in other words what has already been said, as it is what we wish to specially emphasise, amidst this faithful congregation have been many who already had or were some day to have temples of their own. We recognise amongst its members not only the great poets already mentioned, but many others of the divine brotherhood, some at least of whom rank with the greatest, such as Keats, Shelley, Sidney, Gray, Byron, the Fletchers, Henry More, Raleigh, Thomson, not to name Beattie, Shenstone, Warton, Barnefield, Peele, Campbell, Drayton, Cowley, Prior, Akenside, Roden Noel. To this long but by no means exhaustive list might be added many of high eminence in other departments of literature and of life, as Gibbon, Mackintosh, Hazlitt, Craik, Lowell, Ruskin, R. W. Church, and a hundred more.

Now, of course, the acceptance of a poet is and must be finally due to his own intrinsic merits. No amount of testimonials from ever so highly distinguished persons will make a writer permanently popular is he cannot make himself so—if his own works do not make him so. Of testimonials there is very naturally considerable distrust—very naturally, when we notice what second-rate penman have been and are cried up to the skies. But in the present case the character of the testifiers is to be carefully considered; and, secondly, not only their words but their actions are to be taken into account. Many of our greatest poets have praised Spenser not only in formal phrases, but practically and decisively, by surrendering themselves to his influence, by sitting at his feet, by taking hints and suggestions from him. He has been their master not merely nominally but actually, and with obvious results. If all traces of Spenser's fascination and power could be removed from subsequent English literature, that literature would be a very different thing from what it is: there would be strange breaks and blanks in many a volume, hiatuses in many a line, an altered turning of many a sentence, a modification of many a conception and fancy. And we are convinced that the more Spenser is studied the more remarkable will his dominance and his dominion be found to be. To quote lines that have been quoted before in this connection—

"Hither, as to their fountain, other stars

Repairing, in their urns draw golden light."

"The Faerie Queene" is one of the great well-heads of English poetry; or, in other words, Spenser's Faerie Land has been and is a favourite haunt of all our highest poetic spirits.

And yet it is incontrovertible that this poem is very little known as a whole to most people. Everybody is familiar with the story of Una and the Lion, and with two or three stanzas of singular beauty in other parts of "The Faerie Queene," because these occur in most or all books of selections: in every anthology occr those fairest flowers. But the world at large is content to know no more. The size of the poem appals it. "A big book is a big evil," it thinks, and it shudders at the idea of perusing the six twelve-cantoed books in which Spenser's genius expressed itself—expressed itself only in incomplete and fragmentary fashion, for many more books formed part of his enourmous design. "Of the persons who read the first canto," says Macaulay in a famous Essay, "not one in ten reaches the end of the First Book, and not one in a hundred perseveres to the end of the poem. Very few and very weary are those who are in at the death of the Blatant Beast. If the last six books, which are said [without any authority] to have been destroyed in Ireland, had been preserved, we doubt whether any heart less stout than that of a commentator would have held out to the end." And Macaulay speaks truly as well as wittily. He is as accurate as Poins when Prince Hal asks him what he would think if the Prince wept because the King his father was sick. "I would think thee a most princely hypocrite," replies Poins. "It would be every man's thought," says the Prince: "and thou art a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks. Never a man's thought in the world keeps the roadway better than thine." Even so is Macaulay "a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks," and no doubt his blessedness in this respect is one of the characteristics—by no means the only one—that accounts for his widespread popularity. He not only states that people do not read "The Faerie Queen," but he shows that he himself, voracious reader—helluo librorum —as he was, had not done so, or had done so very carelessly; for, alas! the Blatant Beast, as at all events every student of the present volume will know, does not die; Sir Calidore only suppresses him for a time; he but temporarily ties and binds him in an iron chain, "and makes him follow him life a fearful dog;" and one day long afterwards the beast got loose again—

"Ne ever could by any, more be brought

Into like bands, ne maystred any more,

Albe that, long time after Calidore,

The good Sir Pelleas him tooke in hand,

And after him Sir Lamoracke of yore,

And all his brethren borne in Britaine land;

Yet none of them could ever bring him into band.

"So now he raungeth through the world againe,

And rageth sore in each degree and state;

Ne any is that may him now restraine,

He growen is so great and strong of late,

Barking and biting all that him doe bate,

Albe they worthy blame, or clear of crime;

Ne spareth he most learned wits to rate,

Ne spareth he the gentle Poets rime;

But rends without regard of person or of time."

And Spenser goes on to declare that even his "homely verse of many meanest" cannot hope to escape "his venemous despite;" for, in his own day, as often since, Spenser by no means found favour with everybody. Clearly even Macaulay's memory of the close of "The Faerie Queene" was sufficiently hazy. But even Milton, to whom Spenser was so congenial a spirit, and whom he acknowledged as his "poetical father," on one occasion at least forgets the details of the Spenserian story. When insisting in the Areopagitica  that true virtue is not "a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary," but a virtue that has been tried and tested, he remarks that this "was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his Palmer through the cave of Mammon and the bower of earthly bliss, that he may see, and know, and yet abstain." But the Palmer was not with Sir Guyon in the Cave of Mammon, Phædria having declined to ferry him over to her floating island. See "The Faerie Queene," ii. 6, 19:—

"Himself [Sir Guyon] she tooke aboord,

But the Black Palmer suffred still to stond,

Ne would for price or prayers once affoord

To ferry that old man over the perlous foord.

"Guyon was loath to leave his guide behind,

Yet being entred might not back retyre;

For the flitt barke, obeying to her mind,

Forth launched quickly as she did desire,


So Macaulay's lapse must not be regarded too severely, though, as may be seen, much more prominence is given by Spenser to the fact that the Blatant Beast was not killed, than to the absence of the Palmer from Guyon's side in Mammon's House. It seems probable, indeed, that Macaulay mixed up the fate of the Dragon in the eleventh canto of the First Book with that of the Blatant Beast in the twelfth of the Sixth. But we mention these things only to prevent any surprise at the general ignorance of Spenser, when such a confirmed book-lover as Macaulay, and such a devoted Spenserian as Milton, are found tripping in their allusions to his greatest work.

Now this ignorance, however explicable, is, we think, to be regretted. A poet of such splendid attributes, and with such a choice company of followers, surely deserves to be better known than he is by "the general reader"; and we trust that this volume may be of service in making the stories of "The Faerie Queene" more familiar, and so in tempting the general reader to turn to Spenser's own version of them, and to appreciate his amazing affluence of language, of melody, and of fancy.

Clearly, Spenser does not appeal to everybody at first; we mean that to enjoy him fully needs some little effort to begin with—some distinct effort to put ourselves in communication with him, so to speak; for he is far away from us in many respects. His costume and his accent are very different from ours. He does not seem to be of us or of our world. "His soul" is "like a star": it dwells "apart." We have, it would appear at first sight, nothing in common with him: he moves all alone in a separate sphere—he is not of our flesh and blood. What strikes us at first sight is a certain artificiality and elaborateness, as we think. We cannot put ourselves on confidential terms with him; he is too stately and point devise.  His art rather asserts than conceals itself to persons who merely glance at him. But these impressions will be largely or altogether removed, if the reader will really read "The Faerie Queene."  He will no longer think of its author as a mere phrase-monger, or only a dainty melodist, or the master of a superfine style. He will find himself in communion with a man of high intellect, of a noble nature—of great attraction, not only for his humanism, but for his humanity. To Spenser, Wordsworth's lines in "A Poet's Epitaph" may be applied with particular and profound truth:—

"He is retired as noontide dew,

Or fountain in a nonnday grove;

And you must love him ere to you

He will seem worthy of your love."

The very opulence of Spenser's genius stands in the way of his due appraisement. There can scarecely be a doubt that if he could have restrained the redundant stream of his poetry, he might have been more worthily recognised. Had he written less, he would have been praised more; as it is, with many readers, mole ruit sua:  they are overpowered and bewildered by the immense flood. The waters of Helicon seem a torrent deluge. We say his popularity would have been greater, if he could have restrained and controlled this amazing outflow; but, after all, we must take our great poets as we find them. In this very abundance, as in other ways, Spenser was a child of his age, and we must accept him with all his faults as well as with all his excellences. Both faults and excellences are closely inter-connected. Il a les défaults de ses qualités.

He said that Chaucer was his poetical master, and more than once he mentions Chauncer with the most generous admiration:—

"Dan Chaucer, well of English undefyled,

On Fames eternal beadroll worthy to be fyled."

"That old Dan Geffrey, in whose gentle spright

The pure well head of Poesie did dwell."

And Chaucer too may be said to suffer from a very plethora of wealth. Chaucer is apt to be super-abundant; but yet he was a model of self-restraint as compared with Spenser. One cannot say in this case, "Like master, like man," or, "Like father, like son." Their geniuses are entirely different—a fact which makes Spenser's devotion to Chaucer all the more noticeable and interesting; and the art of the one is in sharp contrast with the art of the other. Chaucer is a masterly tale-teller: no one in all Enlgish poetry equals him in this faculty; he is as supreme in it as Shakespeare in the department of the drama. In his tales Chaucer is, "without o'erflowing, full." The conditions under which they were told beneficially bounded and limited them. Each is multum in parvo.  They are very wonders of compression, and yet produce no sense of confinement or excision. Spenser could not possibly have set before himself a better exemplar; but yet he so set him in vain. The contrast between the two poets, considered merely as narrators or story-tellers, is vividly exhibited in the third canto of the Fourth Book of "The Faerie Queene," where, after a reverent obeisance to his great predecessor, he attempts to tell the other half of the half-told story.

"Of Cambuscan bold,

Of Camball and of Algarsife,

And who had Canace to wife,

That owned the virtuous ring and glass,

And of the wondrous horse of brass,

On which the Tartar king did ride."

It is not without some misgiving that he adventures on such a daring task:—

"Then pardon, O most sacred happie Spirit!

That I thy labours lost may thus revive,

And steale from thee the meede of thy due merit,

That none durst ever whilest thou was alive,

And being dead in vain yet many strive.

Ne dare I like; but through infusion swete

O thine own Spirit which doth in me survive,

I follow here the footing of thy feete,

But with thy meaning so I may the rather meete."

But it can scarcely be allowed either that he follows the footing of his master's feet, or that he caught the breath of his master's spirit. There are "diversities of operations"; and Spenser's method and manner were not those of Chaucer, however sincere the allegiance he professed, and however sincere his intentions to tread in his footsteps and march along the same road. He wanted some gifts and some habits that are necessary for the perfect story-teller—gifts and habits which Chaucer, by nature or by discipline, possessed in a high degree, such as humour, concentration, realism. The very structure of "The Faerie Queene" is defective. It begins in the middle—as its opening it takes us in medias res,  seemingly in accordance with the precedent of the Iliad  or of the Æneid,  but only seemingly, for both Homer and Virgil very soon finish the explanation of theit opening initial scenes, and their readers know where they are. But the first six books of "The Faerie Queene" are very slightly connected together; and what the connection is meant to be we learn only from the letter of the poet to Sir Walter Raleigh, which it was thought well to print with the first three books, no doubt in consequence of some complaints of obscurity and dis-attachment. This letter is significantly described as "expounding his" (the author's) "whole intention in the course of this work," and as "hereunto annexed, for that it giveth great light to the reader for the better understanding." Certainly a story ought not to require a prose appendix to set forth its arrangement and its purpose, even if only a fourth of it is completed. The exact correlation of eleven books was to remain unrevealed till the Twelfth Book appeared. In fact, had the poem ever been completed, we should have had to begin its perusal at the end! Thus "The Faerie Queene," as has often been remarked, lacks unity and cohesion. It is not so much one large and glorious mansion as a group of mansions. To use the metaphor of professor Craik, to whom many subsequent writers on Spenser have been so considerable indebted, and often without any at all adequate acknowledgement, it is a street of fine houses, or, to use another metaphor of Professor Craik's, which also has been freely adopted by other critics, it is in parts a kind of wilderness—a wilderness of wonderful beauty and wealth, in which it is a delight to wander, but yet a wilderness with paths and tracks dimly and faintly marked, often scarcely to be discerned.

Such was the abundance of Spenser's fancy, and so various and extensive was his learning, that he wrote, it would seem, with an amazing facility, never checked by any paucities of either knowledge or ideas. His pen could scarcely keep pace with his imagination. His material he drew from all accessible sources—from the Greek and Latin classics (his sympathetic acquaintance with Plato is one of his distinctions), from the Italian poets (not only from Ariosto and Tasso, but Berni, Boiardo, Pulci, and others), from the old Romances of Chivalry (especially the Arthurian in Malory's famous rendering, Bevis of Southampton, Amadis de Gaul), from what there was of modern English literature (above all, Chaucer's works, but also Hawes and other minor writers) and of modern French literature (especially marot), from contemporary history (all the great personages of his time are brought before us in his pages): but all these diverse elements he combines and assimilates in his own fashion, and forms into a compound quite unique, and highly characteristic both of the hour and of the man. No wonder if the modern reader is at first somewhat perplexed and confused; no wonder if he often loses the thread of the story, and fails to comprehend such an astonishing prodigality of incident and of personification. Figure after figure flits before his eyes—the cry is still "They come"; one seems to be in the very birthplace and home of dreams, knights, ladies, monsters, wizards, and witches; all forms of good and evil throng by in quick succession, and we are apt to forget who is who and what is what. Probably some candid good-natured friend complained to Spenser of this complicatedness, which is certainly at its worst in the Third and Fourth Books; and in a certain passage in the Sixth he makes some sort of defence of himself for what might seem divisions or aberrations in the story of Sir Calidore. He compares himself to a ship that, by reason of counter-winds and tides, fails to go straight to its destination, but yet makes for it, and does not lose its compass; see VI. xii. 1 and 2.

We are sure that for all young readers such a version of Spenser's stories as is given in this volume may be truly serviceable in preparing them for the study of the poem itself. And with some older readers too—and it is to them this Introduction is mainly addressed—we would fain hope this volume may find a hearty welcome, as providing them with a clue to what seems an intricate maze. What we should like to picture to ourselves is young and old reading these stories together, and the elder students selecting for their own benefit, and for the benefit of the younger, a few stanzas here and there from "The Faerie Queene" by way of illustration. Of course we do not make this humble suggestion to the initiated, but to those—and their name is Legion—who at present know nothing or next to nothing of what is certainly one of the masterpieces of English literature.


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