Elizabethan English Poetry
Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Qveene
16th century, Elizabethan English. Numerous printed copies.
Knights ride from the court of the Faerie Qveene, the Elf Queen of popular Medieval English legend, out into a land where they often encounter Prince Arthur. King Arthur before he became king.
Edmund Spenser was an Elizabethan poet about ten years older than William Shakespeare. There is no record that these two English poets ever met one another although both found some measure of success during their lives (unlike ‘poor Blake’).
Spenser was born in London, probably East Smithfields very close to the Tower of London, in 1553. His father, although descended from a titled family, worked as a wage-earning tailor in the city of London (this was not so unusual for these times) and Edmund was sent to the Merchant Tailors’ School in the city where he demonstrated such aptitude as a scholar that he secured a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1569, graduating in 1573.
Spenser’s subsequent career brought him into the service of the Earl of Leicester, where he became friends with Sir Phillip Sidney, and then secretary to Lord Grey who was then the lord deputy of Ireland. The last twenty years of Spenser’s life was spent largely in Ireland, in the service of Lord Grey. Spenser acquired Kilcolman Castle near Cork and published the first six books of his major work The Faerie Qveene during this period.
During the Irish rebellion of 1598, Kilcolman Castle was burnt to the ground and Spenser’s youngest child killed. He died in London a few months later, in January 1599, in Ben Jonson’s words ‘for lack of bread’.
The Faerie Qveene tells of the journeys of a succession of Medieval knights in pursuit of their chosen quests across an enchanted and imaginative landscape that often has a hint of classical antiquity about it. The quests have taken these knights from the court of the Faerie Qveene, the Elf Queen of popular Medieval English legend, out into a land where they often encounter Prince Arthur. King Arthur before he became king. Prince Arthur is himself on a quest. In Book I he explains: he does not know who his parents are but only that Merlin has told him that he is the son of a king. He was taken by a fairy knight, beside the River Dee in North Wales, and brought up there. Recently he had a dream – it seemed to be more than a dream – that a woman visited him during the night. She told him before they parted that she was the Queene of Faerie. So now he searches fairyland for the creature he now loves.
Curiously, none of the knights who have set out from the court of the Faerie Qveene to pursue their quests, and whom Prince Arthur encounters, ever offers to take him to the Faerie Qveene. A dream quality pervades the whole work, as though its adventures are truly set in an Otherworld.