The Faerie Queene
Edmund Spenser
1590 – 1596

Friend to Walter Raleigh and participant in English military campaigns to crush revolt in Ireland, Edmund Spenser is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential of English poets, and this in no small part due to one formidable poem – The Faerie Queene. Never completed, it includes 3 books published together in 1590 and another 3 published six years later, all presented in honour of Queen Elizabeth the 1st.

The Faerie Queene is a series of tales of Arthurian Knights, each of whom represents a particular virtue and each of whose stories teaches a particular moral lesson – the unwritten portions were intended to tell the story of King Arthur himself, and his embodiment of a host of virtues in his own right. Literary history, the trials of the English monarchy, myth, religion, political theory – the poem covers all of these and more, paying tribute to the greatness of the original Queen Liz and including several characters meant to represent her. Whether she ever read the thing is questionable; it certainly did, though, get her attention, earning Spenser a pension for life.

The poem is notable for a couple of reasons. One, at over a thousand pages in some printed versions it is one of the longest English-language texts in verse ever written. Two, with The Faerie Queene Spenser introduced a new poetic form; the Spenserian stanza is comprised of eight lines of iambic pentameter followed by a single line in iambic hexameter and employing a rhyming scheme ababbcbcc. The Spenserian stanza has seen acsendency and decline, like many poetic forms, but was adopted by a number of significant poets, including Burns and Tennyson as well as the Romantics (Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron).

The Faerie Queene is no easy read. It is full of references and metaphors that contemporary readers would struggle with at the best of times, its language is archaic even for the 16th century, and it’s real damn long. It’s worth a glance, though, and there is no question about the impact it left on us culturally – on our poetry, on our thinking about King Arthur and his knights, and for its part in the celebration of Elizabeth Rex and her near-mythical status. Oh, and a brief aside – Spenser is alive, too, in language we are all familiar with, a well-known turn phrase coming from a few lines of verse that he sent off to the palace when a payment was overdue. He got paid. We got “neither rhyme nor reason”.