Dark Conceit: Surface and Meaning in the First Book of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.
In his prefatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser sets out his intention in constructing The Faerie Queene as allegory. Its aim, he writes, is to ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous or gentle discipline’ He continues; the Knights of each book depict a journey towards respective states of virtue and Spenser’s re-imagining of the mythological Arthur prior to his kingship embodies the over-arching state of ethical consistency or ‘magnificence’ that both his fictional knights and his reader must strive to achieve. The virtues described are derived from Aristotle and, by overcoming the vices that they meet along the way, each knight reaches a state of virtue that evokes those set down in Nichomean Ethics. Yet, they also align Spenser with Courtesy literature of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier sets out, by way of example, the models of behaviour and social conduct to which the nobility ought to adhere to and cultivate. Yet if like Castiglione’s model, Spenser’s poem is effective by its transparency, why the elaborate detour of allegory? Because allegory communicates things that other media cannot? Spenser’s reason advocates ‘delight’ in reading over ‘good discipline deliuered plainly in way of precepts,’ (P.16) yet, the very act of constructing a letter of explanation acknowledges the difficulties posed by allegory. That the poem might present its meaning ‘clowdily enwrapped in allegory’ returns as both lure and anxiety throughout Spenser’s letter. He at once demonstrates an enjoyment in the complex threads and narrative structure of allegory and acknowledges the unethical potential of writing whose meaning is not always what it seems.
‘Seeming’ rather than ‘being’ reoccurs throughout The Faerie Queene as a constant problem for its characters. Spencer’s description constantly returns to surfaces and to the deceptive, often intricate facades that mask a hidden corruption. Perhaps one of the most clear examples of this can be located within the ‘foule witch’ Duessa. Duessa pervades the first book of the poem in the guise of a beautiful woman; bent on misleading and destroying the Red Crosse knight from his path to ‘Holyness’ (Prefatory letter, p.16) What Duessa ‘seems’ to be shifts from canto to canto. Spenser pays particular attention to her disguising apparel when introducing her character to the narrative:
A goodly lady clad in scarlot red,
Purfled with gold and pearle of rich array,
And like a Persian mitre on her hed
She wore, with crownes and owches garnished,
The which her lavish louers to her gaue; (I, II,13.)
‘red’, ‘gold’,‘mitre’, ‘crownes’, Spenser’s verbs pay attention to the outward appearance of his character. As emphasized by the color of her dress and golden mitre, Duessa is a thinly veiled figuration of the Roman Catholic Church and the implication that her ‘goodl[iness]’ is derived from her material dress offers a wry, albeit, well-worn aside to the reader. However, what is more interesting about Spenser’s stanza is the way in which the language of his description at once participates in the disguise and the disrobing of Duessa’s true nature. Unlike the Red Crosse knight who is taken in by her guise, Spenser leaves clear signals in his language that point towards the ‘fouleness’ lurking beneath the surface; the ‘tinsel trappings’ of her horse’s bridle – with all its connotations of artifice and Catholic dress, being one example. This is affirmed in Canto VIII in which she is stripped of her robe to reveal ‘monstrous’ deformity and ‘secret filth’ (I, VIII, 46.) and is cast into the wilderness. A reader then must perceive and avoid the allure of her character if they are not to fall into the same trap as Spenser’s knight.
Spenser’s basic premise appears straightforward; those characters that exhibit excess within their outward appearance frequently mark hidden internal deficiency. In many ways, this corresponds with the model of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics referenced in the poem’s prefatory letter; figuratively speaking, the Red-Crosse Knight must cut a clear course between the vices of deficiency and excess in order to achieve a holistic moral state. The dichotomy between deficiency and excess crop up repeatedly throughout the first book. In Canto IV, Queen Lucifera outshines the ‘glistening gold and peerless pretius stone’ of her throne with her own ‘bright, blazing beauty’. Yet, like Duessa’s hidden, disfigured form, a dragon lurks beneath her ‘scornful feet.’ Spenser’s architectural spaces often display a duel nature. His description of Lucifera’s castle provides a good example;
A stately palace built of squared bricke
Which cunningly was without mortar laid
Whose walls were high but nothing strong or thick
And golden foile all over them displayed. (I, IV, 4)
If Duessa’s dress masks a hidden, corrupt form, the castle of Lucifera appears to be a facade only; the building lacks foundation and its architectural ornament seems to constructed for its sake alone. Spenser’s language is similarly textured; rich in assonance, it is pleasing sonically as well as in terms of the imagery that it evokes. Spenser’s language corresponds to the subject described; his rhymes are balanced and contribute to the rhetorical shifting between binaries orchestrated by the stanza; ‘squared brick’ and ‘strong and thick’ are counter balanced by ‘without mortar laid’ and the flimsy ‘foile’ ‘displayed.’ Like the castle described, the stanza it is elegant and well-wrought. This parallel between description and thing described is intriguing; it denotes a linguistic attention to ornament; it hints at vacuous. Spenser’s conception of his poems as ‘enwrapped in Allegorical devices’, parallels this idea – consciously or otherwise. ‘Enwrapped’ is a slippery metaphor; it simultaneously suggests interior and exterior. The word both points towards a core meaning or truth and describes an outer casing. The notion that Spenser’s language may ‘clowdily’ disclose truth with its style is dubious and that the writing of so Protestant a man may unwittingly border on senseless ornament, even more so.
To some extent, the debate about form and content comes into play again. The debate has traditionally separated the outer coating of style from the inner stuff of thought; a suggestion that is now well worn. When writing on the human faculty of judgement, Francis Bacon considers the possibilities of formal style to obscure and alter the meaning of the words expressed. A ‘delight in the manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing’, according to Bacon, has led men to ‘study words and not matter’. He continues; the ‘sweet falling of the clauses’ and the ‘illustration’ afforded by ‘tropes and figures’ detracts from the ‘weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment of a piece of writing. Emptiness of meaning is not Bacon’s only concern; he bestows a sinister agency to words themselves as they impose upon the judgement of their creators; like ‘a Tartar’s bow,’ they ‘do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pevert the judgement’.
This is intriguing; Bacon not only advocates clarity of style, he equally calls for careful reading and warns against misinterpretation. It is worth considering Spenser’s choice of the ‘Cunningly’ in his description of Lucifera’s castle. The word describes the enchantment by which the bricks are constructed and connotes trickery; deceit. Spenser at once aligns his writing with a fine architectural space and acknowledges the potential for words to mislead and be misread.
In his book-length study on Spenser’s allegorical rhetoric, Michael Murrin sets out the difficult ways in which rhetoric and allegory intersect throughout much Renaissance thought. For Murrin, ‘the allegorical poet’ was frequently ‘asked to perform the function of orator’; delivering clarity of meaning within the genre of allegory. Yet, as Murrin points out, clarity and allegory seldom hand in hand. This duel ask of the poet ‘strikes at the heart of the confusion between oratory and poetry’; poetry is notoriously ambiguous, oratory relies on clarity of speech. Murrin’s observationreturns to the point made in Spenser’s introductory letter; the intention of his allegory is to provide a model of ethics that is challenged by its own narrative structure; oration relies on clear speech and allegory is concerned with ambiguity. Yet at the same time, it is expected to have at its core a definable truth or value. It is as though Spenser’s poem in caught between the desire to say something paraphrasable, transitive and moral and a narrative structure that renders any such neat expression impossible with its shifting ‘Allegorical devices’.
Bacon’s essay emphasizes the significance of readerly interpretation. The Faerie Queene corresponds to this; throughout all six book, Spenser’s characters must observe, choose and act according to their interpretation of a situation and thus to their moral judgement. At the heart of this is the notion of work and active engagement with moral choices. Before introducing the Castle of Lucifera, Spencer sets out a warning; ‘Beware of fraud, beware of fickleness’ (I, IV, 1) The warning is addressed to the ‘Young knight’, yet it is equally concerned with the reader. Throughout the poem, the reader must concentrate on the processes of observing, distinguishing, and finally preferring; the complexity of Spenser’s narrative thread demands the kind of attention and awareness that he induces his character to apply to moral decision-making. Like the knights of each book, the reader must constantly assess the ethical significance of the characters with which they place their sympathy. In many ways, this active engagement with both characters and moral choices corresponds to the ‘two lures’ of allegory, as figured by Jonathan Goldberg. In a footnote in his chapter on ‘Others, Desire and the Self’ within the Faerie Queene, he sets out the following premise; ‘allegory offers the reader two lures.’ The first ‘is the set of characters who act in the text’; their actions often serve the story at hand and it is possible for the reader to respond to characters as though they were people. ‘This’, writes Goldberg, ‘is the lure of the proper name, in Barthes term.’ The second lure is that of allegory; ‘the possibility of substituting an abstraction for a name or character, thereby leaving behind the narration and its characters for the sake of meaning.’In many ways the two are joined; Spenser’s characters are figures whose pronounced characteristics are involving yet at the same time, nothing comes alone; each figure is accompanied by the awareness their hidden significance; no matter how thinly veiled this may be.
One way of thinking about this dichotomy between textual surface and allegorical meaning is in terms of the imagery of darkness and light to which Spenser constantly returns throughout the first book. When Duessa is stripped of her disguise in Canto VIII, the darkness beneath her ‘dazzling’ garments is made plain for all to see. Conversely, the ‘chaste’ Una hides the inner brightness that radiates from her beauty ‘under a veil that wimpled was full low.’ (I, I, 4) Veils and veiling crops up again in Spenser’s dedicatory sonnets; In his address to Lord Burleigh, he imagines the ‘deeper sence’ of his allegory as concealed by ‘the dim vele, with which from comune vew | The fairer parts are hid’ (p.25). Spenser’s metaphor seem clear; the narrative structure and language of his allegory at once conceals and conveys its meaning. Thus, it is the task of the reader to discover its sense through careful reading. Spenser’s sonnet correlates with Thomas Nashe’s description of poetry as a ‘more hidden and diuine kind of Philosophy, enwrapped in blinde Fables and dark stories.’
‘Enwrapped’ returns; Spencer and Nashe’s shared use of the term implies a central meaning that must be discovered, yet it also draws attention to the importance of disguise. In pointing to the divine, Nashe unavoidably connotes scripture and in doing so, implies the kind of meaning that can only be known through allegory. It is worth noting the violence of Spenser’s metaphor when Una’s veil is ripped away by the Serazin in Canto Six. Her ‘beauty’, now revealed turns upon her aggressor and ‘burnt his beastly hart l’efface her chastitye.’ (I, VI, 4) The scene’s implications of defilement do not only come from the Serazin’s subsequent rape of Una, but from his rough exposing of that should be ‘veled’. There is a certain elitism to this implied method of reading; the significance of Spenser’s allegory becomes available only to those whom will read it correctly. As Murrin puts it; the ‘veil’ of allegory ‘makes truth valuable for a few people in the poet’s audience.’Or, to put it slightly differently, Spenser’s allegory creates the value of the truth conveyed by establishing difficulties with which the reader must carefully engage.
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