In “The Faerie Queene” Edmund Spenser tells a tale of “darke conceit” in which Prince Arthur, the future king, goes in search of the Faerie Queene, Elizabeth. In each of the six books completed, Arthur representing Magnanimity- in Spenser’s system , the combination of all moral virtues- meets a knight of the queen’s court. Each knight represents a particular moral virtue-Holiness, Temperance, Charity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy- and has been set “pricking on the plaine” in search of some allegorical monster to slay. Along the way the knights are attacked and seduced by saracens, witches, giants, wizards, monsters- all representing some spiritual, moral, or political viciousness. In these clashes with the virtuous knights, we hear the impact of the opposites; from “England’s Glorious Hour” to another darker world of appalling cruelty.
There was undoubtedly another purpose as well. Spenser must have realized that by writing a poem dedicated to Elizabeth that he might eventually regain his favor:
The most high, mightie, and magnificent
Renowmed for pietie, vertue, and all gratious government,
by the grace of God,
Queene of England, Fraunce, and Ireland,
and of Virginia,
Defendour of the Faith, etc.,
Her most humble servaunt
doth, in all humilitie,
dedicate, present, and consecrate
these his labours,
To live with the eternitie of her fame…Read More:http://talebooks.com/images/bs/480.pdf
The poem is more, however, than an extended piece of flattery. Gradually, it creates its own world, subject to its own inner laws. Spenser uses “The fairie Queene” to contain and transmute his experiences and observations, and the bright and dark aspects of his historic present. The allegorical method allows him to include references to actual happenings, as in his description of Duessa, a witch who stands for deceit, Blasphemy, and by implication, the Roman Catholic Church.
Duessa, a beautiful damsel, has been captured; she has almost succeeded in seducing the Red Cross Knight from his quest, but now she is confronted with the Lady Una, who is Truth. Una orders her stripped of her finery, and in this stanza Duessa stands revealed:
Her crafty head was altogether bald,
And, as in hate of honorable eld,
Was overgrowne with scurfe and filthy scald;
Her teeth out of her rotten gummes were feld,
And her sowre breath abhominably smeld;
Her dried dugs, lyke bladders lacking wind,
Hong downe, and filthy matter from them weld;
Her wrizled skin, as rough as maple rind,
So scabby was that would have loathd all womankind.
When Mary, Queen of Scots was executed in 1587, she came to the block in a black dress of velvet and satin, her hair in coils and covered in a long veil. She was ordered undressed and knelt at the block in a blood-red silk petticoat. When the axeman
finally succeeded in chopping off her head, he bent to pick it up. The auburn wig came away in his hand, revealing Mary’s short-cropped gray hair. By incorporating the incident into his description of Duessa, Spenser not only tied the allegory to a political reality- the witch who for so long was Elizabeth’s greatest threat- he also intensified the battles between the dualities of his own world.
Where is the synthesis between these endlessly metamorphosed antitheses? It lies in the whole poem, even in the way it seems to be going on forever, just as life itself appears to be going on and on. There is a sense that Spenser was looking for something behind the proliferation of dualities: an order, a Platonic Form, if you like, from which everything in the poem and in the world has derived.
It is this quest, Spenser’s own, that transcends the purposes of moral education and political rehabilitation. Only six of the projected twelve books of “The Faerie Queene” were ever completed, but it is a mistake to think of the poem as unfinished. Perhaps it always would have been, for the poem was Spenser’s world and it could only end with his death. As Yeats, also a Platonist, wrote:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? Read More: http://www.web-books.com/Classics/Poetry/Anthology/Yeats/Among.htm a
Witches are hanged, or sometimes burned; but thieves are hanged (as I said before) generally on the gibbet or gallows, saving in Halifax, where they are beheaded after a strange manner, and whereof I find this report. There is and has been of ancient time a law, or rather a custom, at Halifax, that whosoever does commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confesses the fact upon examination, if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen-pence-halfpenny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days (which fall usually upon the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or else upon the same day that he is so convicted, if market be then holden. The engine wherewith the execution is done is a square block of wood of the length of four feet and a half, which does ride up and down in a slot, rabbet, or regall, between two pieces of timber, that are framed and set upright, of five yards in height. In the nether end of the sliding block is an axe, keyed or fastened with an iron into the wood, which being drawn up to the top of the frame is there fastened by a wooden pin (with a notch made into the same, after the manner of a Samson’s post), unto the midst of which pin also there is a long rope fastened that cometh down among the people, so that, when the offender hath made his confession nd hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth forth his arm so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing to see true justice executed), and, pulling out the pin in this manner, the head-block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall down with such a violence that, if the neck of the transgressor were as big as that of a bull, it should be cut in sunder at a stroke and roll from the body by a huge distance. If it be so that the offender be apprehended for an ox, oxen, sheep, kine, horse, or any such cattle, the self beast or other of the same kind shall have the end of the rope tied somewhere unto them, so that they, being driven, do draw out the pin, whereby the offender is executed. Thus much of Halifax law, which I set down only to shew the custom of that country in this behalf….
Rogues and vagabonds are often stocked and whipped; scolds are ducked upon cucking-stools in the water. Such felons as stand mute, and speak not at their arraignment, are pressed to death by huge weights laid upon a board, that lieth over their breast, and a sharp stone under their backs; and these commonly held their peace, thereby to save their goods unto their wives and children, which, if they were condemned, should be confiscated to the prince. Thieves that are saved by their books and clergy, for the first offence, if they have stolen nothing else but oxen, sheep, money, or such like, which be no open robberies, as by the highway side, or assailing of any man’s house in the night, without putting him in fear of his life, or breaking up his walls or doors, are burned in the left hand, upon the brawn of the thumb, with a hot iron, so that, if they be apprehended again, that mark betrayeth them to have been arraigned of felony before, whereby they are sure at that time to have no mercy. I do not read that this custom of saving by the book is used anywhere else than in England; neither do I find (after much diligent enquiry) what Saxon prince ordained that law…. Read More: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1577harrison-england.html#Chapter%20XVII