The Art of The Faerie Queene is the first book centrally focused on the forms and poetic techniques employed by Spenser. Though much scholarly attention in recent years has been on the relationships between Spenser’s poetry and political and colonial history, the place of his epic in literary history has received less attention. This book aims to rectify that by re-reading The Faerie Queene as poetry which is at once absorbing, demanding, and experimental. The Spenser explored here ingeniously uses the tricks of his poetic style to amplify his symbolic agendas and to deepen the reading experience.

One of the book’s particular originalities is the way in which it reframes Spenser’s place in literary history. As opposed to the stylistic conservatism diagnosed by previous generations of scholars, The Art of The Faerie Queene presents the poem as more radical, more edgy, and less conventional, particularly as it appeared to Spenser’s first readers. As such, the book proposes new ways of understanding the Elizabethan poetic Renaissance and the ways in which Spenser is best understood in terms of literary history.

The book progresses from the choice of individual words through to questions of metre, rhyme, and stanza form up to the larger structures of canto, book, and the incomplete yet massive poem itself. It will be of particular relevance to undergraduates studying Elizabethan poetry, graduate students, and scholars of Renaissance poetry, for whom the formal aspect of the poetry has been a topic of growing relevance.

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Tightrope walking in an afflicted style

The introduction outlines the theoretical approach taken in the book as a whole, situating its arguments both in the practice of close reading and in Shklovsky’s thinking about the artificially distanced nature of poetic language. It considers the relationships between formalist and historicist approaches to Renaissance poetry and Spenser in particular in the light of 21st-century trends in criticism.

in The art of The Faerie Queene
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The vocabulary of The Faerie Queene

This chapter is concerned with the diction and choice of word in the poem. It focuses on questions which relate to the rhetorical character of Elizabethan thinking and the styles Spenser deploys and the choices he makes in the construction of his poem. The first half of the chapter considers questions surrounding how Spenser used language – was he diffuse or condensed; to what extent is his lexis formulaic? – through the debate around his use of archaic diction. The second half of the chapter considers the episode of Artegall’s encounter with the egalitarian Giant in V.ii in terms of the ways in which Spenser’s choices of epithet position the protagonists and the reader in relation to the episode’s complex political meanings.

in The art of The Faerie Queene
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Lineation and metre

This chapter argues that literary historians have underestimated the extent of Spenser’s radicalism, particularly in terms of the related phenomena of line and metre. The chapter begins with an exploration of the role played by such features in literary history, arguing that change in poetic fashion is not best understood through the evolutionary metaphors advanced by previous scholars. It then surveys a broad range of contexts for the verse of The Faerie Queene in English, including work by Tusser, Skelton, Phaer and Churchyard. Spenser’s verse emerges from this work as assimilative and flexible in its relationship to tradition, adapting and adopting old forms but almost invariably with an experimental twist. This aspect is underscored by comparisons with later poets.

in The art of The Faerie Queene
Rhyme, meaning and experience

This chapter considers Spenser’s rhymes in relation to a variety of contexts: sixteenth-century debate about rhyme, the practice of Chaucer, Spenser’s fondness for morphological distortion. Throughout, it is suggested that Spenser’s rhymes are semantic and meaningful in terms of the broader symbolic agendas of his poem. The first section discusses Spenser’s rhyming practice through a close reading of Merlin’s prophecy (The Faerie Queene Book III Canto iii), while the second describes Spenser’s rhyming relationship with Chaucer through a re-reading of his completion of ‘The Squire’s Tale’ in Book IV. The final section explores rhyme as a trope of recurrence, even to the extent of ‘reuolt’ and self-correction, through the example of Britomart’s entrance to Busirane’s enchanted castle in III.xi.

in The art of The Faerie Queene
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The archaeology of the Spenserian stanza

The argument of this chapter is that during the 1590s the Spenserian stanza was a new and controversial poetic technology. This involves recontextualising the Spenserian in terms of the dominant stanza forms of the sixteenth century. At the heart of this chapter is an analysis of the way in which Spenser’s form relates to the sixain, rhyme royal, and ottava rima, which focuses on the decision to design a stanza which is both interlaced and of an odd number of lines. Such work entails detailed comparisons with writers like Southwell, Drayton, and Shakespeare. The chapter also stresses the new and radical permissive syntax which is paradoxically fostered by the Spenserian as a restrictive stanza form.

in The art of The Faerie Queene
Canto form

This chapter asks the question of whether or not the Spenserian canto is simply a proxy term for a convenient division in a long work. It probes the question of how Spenser’s cantos work through the juxtaposition of two different parts of the poem: it begins with Spenser at his most fractured and seemingly casual, in the second installment at the heart of Book VI, with its incomplete narratives, and explores questions of canto structure and the role of the narrator. The second part of the chapter then moves on to the more networked composition which characterises the first installment, to look at thematic connections across sequential cantos where narrative connections less clear cut.

in The art of The Faerie Queene
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Narratives and narrators

The concluding chapter looks at narrative structure selectively and in the light of various different contexts. In the first place, it looks at the conflicting reception histories of the poem, and the problematics of organising a long and symbolic work as articulated by theorists from Tasso onwards. It then considers the structure of the individual books of The Faerie Queene through a diagrammatic comparison of Books I and VI, before finally turning to a discussion of the narrator as a potential unifying figure within the poem.

in The art of The Faerie Queene
Rhyme and stanza form in Spenser and Chaucer

This chapter explores Spenser’s technical debt to Chaucer arguing for the semantic character of Spenser’s rhyming practice, and the ways in which his choices of rhyme and stanza impinge on the broader meanings of his poems. The first section analyses Chaucer and Spenser’s use of rime riche, arguing that while the device shows the latter’s fealty to the former, it also shows the updating of Chaucerian language to the metrical norms of early modern English. The second section explores the question of stanzaic syntax, arguing that Spenser wanted a more restrictive mise-en-page than in the Chaucer folios; this is illustrated through a detailed reading of his continuation of the Squire’s Tale in The Faerie Queene IV.iii which stresses the extreme repetitions across stanzas in which Spenser specialised. In this view, repetition is a device used in context to enhance readerly wonder at the extraordinary deeds narrated, while Spenserian diction works to keep Chaucerian English in the reader’s mind. The final section reopens the old question of the origins of the Spenserian stanza, repointing an old answer: the Spenserian is a deliberate development of the rhyme royal stanza as practised by Chaucer.

in Rereading Chaucer and Spenser