Herbert Spenser’s achievement in “The Faerie Queene” was to embody the great antitheses of the Elizabethan era: both the magnanimity and grace of the age that inspired poets and sent adventurers around the world, and the frantic cruelty that degraded even the most civilized. He managed, beyond that, to resolve both worlds, creating a synthesis that mirrors Elizabeth’s achievement in creating the unity of the Elizabethan State. Spencer is the poet of opposites and their reconciliation. And to experience his struggle n reconciling the contradiction of Elizabethan life makes the epic books of “The Faerie Queene” worth reading. …
The Elisabethans stare from museum walls, strangely contemporary yet remote. There is a presumption that we should recognize in these portraits of Raleigh and Drake and Edmind Spenser, the prototypes of modern man, freed from the old patterns and relative simplicities of the Middle Ages and possessed of a sensibility similar to our frame of reference. Alas, they remain strangers. Specimens pickled in time. Despite the frank confident expression in their eyes, there is a problem in discerning distinct individuality. There is a contradictory juxtaposition; Faces of a man’s man, short hair and trim beards are at odds with the peacock display of their bright ornamented attire.
Although we know the Elisabethans to have been passionate and volatile, they are portrayed with a stiffness and formality close to heraldry. There is a sense we are viewing heroes emblazoned on canvases, emblems of chivalry rather than unique personalities. The essential mystery of what it felt to be alive in the middle years of Elisabeth’s reign remains an unsolved enigma.
Edmund Spenser comes closest to unraveling the mystery behind these public faces, for his “The Faerie Queen” is a record of man’s mind responding to and being modified by the Elisabethan Age. At first, the journey through the poem seems daunting. From the first stanza we are in a strange, abstract world.
A gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe woundes did remaine,
The cruell markes of many’ a bloody fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield.
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full jolly knight he seemed, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
Like the Elizabethans of the portaits, the poet’s personality is elusive. The knight pricking on the plain quickly vanishes into that golden haze that surrounds the Elisabethan Age. The images that define “England’s Glorious Hour” is imbued with images of the queen addressing her troops at Tilbury, flame haired and dazzling, a silver corselet over her white velvet dress; Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe while the Armada sweeps through the channel; Raleigh’s absorbent cloak, Hilliard’s miniatures; Ben John son roistering at the Rose; the gardens of hampton Court; the lascivious pleasing of a lute.