Elizabethan English Poetry
Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Qveene
16th century, Elizabethan English. Numerous printed copies.
The daughter dressed in white carries a golden chalice filled with wine and water in which a snake is curled. She is able, we are told, to kill and to raise again to life.
The English poet Edmund Spenser wrote a long epic in verse called The Faerie Queene that features a protracted search for a goddess. Spenser calls his goddess the Faerie Queen, perhaps in emulation of his hero Geoffrey Chaucer who, in one of the Canterbury Tales written two hundred years earlier, causes Sir Thopas to set off in search of an elf-queen whom he has fallen in love with. Spenser was an Elizabethan, probably born in 1552, and he revered the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. The Faerie Queene is an epic that is full of surprising allusions to ideas decidedly un-Christian. In Book One, for example, a Red Cross Knight is escorting a damsel named Una to her country, where a dragon is terrorising the land. On the way, they meet with Arthur, Prince Arthur, before he has become king. Price Arthur tells them that he has had a dream – it seemed to him to be more than a dream – in which a woman visited him one night and told him before they parted that she was the Queen of Faerie, the queen of the Otherworld. So now he searches this region for the creature he loves.
They go their separate ways, and Una brings the Red Cross Knight to the house of a holy woman. She is the lady of the house and she has three daughters. The lady greets them; and soon two of her daughters enter. One is dressed in white and carries a golden chalice filled with wine and water in which a snake is curled –
in her right hand [she] bore a cup of gold... in which a Serpent did himself enfold, that horror made to all, that did behold;. In her other hand she holds a book, within which, we are told,
darke things were writ, hard to be vnderstood. She is able, we are told, to kill and to raise again to life. The other daughter is dressed in blue and carries a silver anchor upon which she leans. Perhaps the snake is the snake of reincarnation. Perhaps the strange and unlikely anchor is an anchor that keeps us bound to the Earth, or perhaps by ‘anchor’ Spenser means ‘ankh’, the ancient Egyptian looped cross of pre-Christian origin. Or perhaps she is Hope of the female triad, Faith, Hope and Charity, where Hope is often depicted with an anchor. Una enquires about the third sister and is told that she is recovering from the pains of childbirth. They visit her; she is dressed in yellow and surrounded by a swarm of suckling offspring, like a goddess of fertility.
The Red Cross Knight is then taken to a hermit, to whom, we are told, the sister in white has given the keys to heaven. The sister in white has given him these keys. They climb the highest mountain, the hermit and the Red Cross Knight, and view the new Jerusalem.
Lo, Enitharmon, terrible and beautiful in Eternal youth!
Bow down before her, you her children, and set Jerusalem free.