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Movement and the City in The Faerie Queene
by Jim Ellis

The larger project from which this comes explores place and performativity in Early Modern poetry. In this paper, I’ll be addressing the social and performative dimensions of The Faerie Queene: how poetry works to create a sense of communal or national belonging through the representation of movement. One place where we see this clearly in The Faerie Queene is in the portrayal of cities. There are two types of encounters with cities in the poem: those legendary cities we see far off in the distance, typically in the first half of the poem, and those we actually visit, which happens in the second half, and in particular, in Book V. The first kind of encounter, I’ll be suggesting, shows the role of cities in the formation of an individual national consciousness or a political subjectivity, while the latter shows us how a collective investment in the nation is secured through festive movement, or what George Puttenham calls “Triumphals.”[1] Both of these processes are central concerns for Spenser’s generation of poets and theorists: how can poetry remake the reader as a member of this new Protestant community? Their answer, I would say, was based on their understanding of the social and performative origins of poetry itself.

I will begin by looking more broadly at the function of movement in the poem, and I’ll start by drawing on mobility studies. Tim Cresswell has pointed to the lack of historically-informed approaches to place and movement and he has called for the investigation of what he calls “constellations of mobility,” which encompass “the fact of physical movement—getting from one place to another; the representations of movement that give it shared meaning; and, finally, the experienced and embodied practice of movement,” or, to put it more succinctly: actual movement, representations of movement, and the embodied experience of movement.[2] In being attentive to the constellations of mobility that inform The Faerie Queene, we might think, as a start, about the specifics of how people, things and ideas moved in the period (by ship, by horse, by cart, on foot), what they traveled on or across (streets, roads, paths, rivers, bridges, fords), the dominant routes they traced, what these routes connected, and the politics of who moved and how and why.[3] In thinking about the poem, we might consider how it draws upon these facts of mobility in the Elizabethan world, but also on the embodied practices of mobility: what the experience of mobility felt like and meant for those who moved around London, through England, or over to Ireland. Equally importantly, we might think of the ways that the poem draws on and transforms cultural representations of movement. In that regard, it is important to think about how both the fictional bodies of the knights and the “real” bodies of the readers are implicated in the processes of the poem, by considering, as geographers Mimi Sheller and Jerry Urry urge, “the corporeal body as an affective vehicle through which we sense place and movement, and construct emotional geographies.”[4] Their resonant term, “emotional geographies,” fortuitously echoes Coleridge’s description of Faery Land as a “mental space,” which highlights for me the interpenetration of place and subjectivity in the poem.[5] The landscape of The Faerie Queene is an emotional geography.

As Cresswell’s words suggest, constellations of mobility are inflected by the politics of class and by gender: as we see in the poem, these determine modes of travel as well as our understanding or readerly experience of those modes. A female rider such as Britomart on a warhorse would be an unusual and powerfully striking spectacle, quite apart from the thrill of seeing two chargers hurtling towards each other with armored knights on their back. Una’s solitary wanderings on her palfrey are more poignant and terrifying when understood in the context of a landscape that predates reliable maps and road signs, and where routes and landmarks changed according to the vagaries of the weather, water channels, and the comings and goings of humans and animals. Like Una, Florimell also rides a palfrey, the trappings of which help to establish her status when she first rushes into the poem; her pursuer, the “griesly foster” appropriately rides a “tyreling Iade” (III.i.17.2, 4). Their chase “Through thicke and thin, both ouer banck and bush” (17.5) would have had a more immediate resonance for the bodies of those readers who had themselves galloped on horseback through unfamiliar brush, lurching into and out of ditches and bushes; these details give the passage a more concentrated physical affect than the less realistically rendered chase later on, when knights on steeds cannot catch a lady on a palfrey, and the episode takes on comic undertones.

One place to start exploring in a historical register how movement functions in The Faerie Queene would be to think about streets, which occur in the context of cities. There are precisely two streets in the poem: one in Book I, in Una’s parents’ kingdom, and one in Book V, in Belgae’s city. They both occur in moments of collective celebration and triumphals, as a liberated city welcomes in its hero knight. In an epic that in some ways is all about the meaning of travel and movement, the paucity of streets might seem surprising. It becomes less surprising when we recall that the word “street” in the period typically designated one of two things, both of which are at play in the two uses in the poem: a paved road, often an old roman road or a highway; or a “road in a city, town, or village” (OED). The most common routes that the knights follow in the poem are paths and ways, both of which indicate routes that are formed by habitual, successive traversals rather than by active planning and construction. Streets and roads, on the other hand, are created by and expressive of collective civic purpose. As Andrew McCrae shows, the predominance of ways in the poem is broadly representative of the kinds of terrestrial routes in the period, which were far more likely to be paths or ways: “‘Ways’ had to be translated into ‘roads,’” he says, a process that started in earnest only in the seventeenth century (McRae 67).

The overwhelming predominance of routes that are formed by successive traversal bears an interesting correspondence to the poem’s dominant psychology, and its function as a mental space or emotional geography. In The Faerie Queene, both subjectivity and appearance are formed by habit: what we repeatedly practice, we typically become, as is seen most obviously in the case of Malbecco, whose habitual jealousy reforms him into the avatar of Jealousy. It is also clearly seen in the symptomatology of evil presented in the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins, which focuses on the things that normal sinners habitually do, and how those actions register themselves in the minds and bodies of those who have those habits. This is fairly directly linked to phenomena like the “pathes and alleies wide, / With footing worne” that lead into the Wood of Error (I.i.7.7-8), or the “broad high way” to the House of Pride, which is “all bare through peoples feet” (I.iv.2.8-9), or the “beaten broad high way” in Mammon’s cave, that leads straight to the underworld (II.vii.21.3).[6] Geographers call these sorts of paths “desire lines,” which again is strikingly appropriate as a designator of Spenser’s allegorical routes. Whereas streets are expressive of conscious collective purpose, paths and ways represent unconscious and unthinking habit. The successive, habitual sins of the many carve a collective mental tendency into the landscape of the poem.  

This gives another dimension to Coleridge’s view that Faery Land is a mental space: the ways and paths are its neural network, formed by repeated actions. But it also shows the sophisticated way that Spenser draws on what Cresswell calls the “embodied practice of mobility” in crafting the reader’s experience of the poem. Our bodies know that it is easier to follow a beaten path or a broad high way than it is to head off on one’s own through the high grass and the brambles, and the way we unconsciously understand or experience Redcrosse’s decisions and what we learn from Redcrosse’s travels are underpinned by this muscle memory of our own embodied experience of movement. This puts muscle on the bones of Philip Sidney’s theory of poetry, and in particular, his emphasis on moving: moving, he famously writes, “is of a higher degree than teaching.”[7] The reason for this, we might observe from reading The Faerie Queene, is that the representation of movement draws on our shared understanding of the cultural meaning of movement and our experience of the embodied practice of movement, rather than overt teaching or persuasion. Neither Sidney nor Spenser displays much faith in the power of the reader’s reason.

With that in mind, I will turn from streets to cities. Cities in The Faerie Queene, as I’ve said, fall into two groups. In the first half of the epic, we see cities in the distance. They do not figure at the level of the action, but they are clearly important in the emotional geography of the poem. As Lawrence Manley shows, visions of important cities anchor key poles of the allegory: Redcrosse sees the celestial city of New Jerusalem, and in the House of Alma, Guyon and Arthur read of the founding of those cities, Cleopolis and Troynovant, that are central to their respective nations.[8] Elsewhere in the poem we hear of the fall of Troy, one poignant rendition of which by Paridell brings tears to Britomart’s eyes. Indeed, these four seen but unvisited cities—Troy, Troynovant, Cleopolis and New Jerusalem—are versions or types of each other that, as Manley argues, form a critical sequence that indicates the connections between the spiritual and imperial ambitions of the poem.[9]

These legendary cities also indicate the important role that place plays in the foundation of subjectivity: each of the first three central knights, as well as Arthur, the hero of it all, learns the story of their place at a key juncture in their formation, and their responses to these narratives of place are similar: a disorienting flood of affect, tears and even incoherence that occasions a new understanding of self, in relation to this place (“Deare countrey, O how dearely dear,” says Arthur, “rauisht with delight” [II.x.69.3, 1]). The knights are, in other words, moved by this vision of their city, and this impels a movement at the level of subjectivity: a changed understanding of self, and the self’s relation to its proper place, and not incidentally a changed understanding of the meaning of their quest. It is at one such moment, for example, that the Redcrosse Knight becomes “Saint George of mery England” (I.x.61.9).

Cities function differently in the second half of the epic, as we might expect with the different orientation of the virtues outwards, in what Humphrey Tonkins calls the “movement from self to society, from treatment of the virtues of the individual to consideration of those of the collective.”[10] Unlike those legendary cities that we only hear about, or see far off in the distance, we actually visit two cities in Book V, and in Book VI Calidore travels from the court to the cities and “from the citties to the townes” (VI.ix.3.7), although the cities and towns he travels to are not named or described.

In Book V of The Faerie Queene, various knights visit the cities ruled by Radigund and by Belgae. Radegone, we hear, is “A goodly citty and a mighty one” (V.iv.35.8-9), although we don’t actually get many details. (Spenser uses the words “city” and “town” more or less interchangeably, as seen in the descriptions of both Radegone and Troy.) As with the mythical cities of the first half, we know that it has a wall and a gate; when Britomart sets up her pavilion outside the city walls, “they of the towne in fright, / Vppon their wall good watch and ward did keepe” (V.vii.26.5-6). This, it turns out, is a repeated scene in the epic: citizens watching action or spectacle from city walls: we see this in Redcrosse’s battle with the dragon, here in Radegone, and later in Arthur’s battle with the Seneschall. In Artegall’s battle with Radigund we see the reason for this: there, the way the battle is described in Canto v, stanzas 4 and 5, particularly with the crowds pressing into the lists, makes it resemble the Accession Day tilts or other city spectacles; part of the original power of these passages was no doubt how they summoned up in the reader the body’s memory of the exhilaration of being part of these crowds, watching these moving displays of movement.

A little later, in Mercilla’s court, we get our first description of Belgae’s city, the second city of Book V, which combines both mythical and realistic elements. In Canto x, Belgae’s complaints about the Souldain’s predations echo the earlier descriptions of Troy: “My cities sackt, and their sky-threating towres / Raced, and made smooth fields now full of flowres” (23.4-5); Belgae is forced to take refuge in the surrounding “marishes, and myrie bogs” (23.6), which oddly evoke Spenser’s own estate in Ireland.

Prince Arthur agrees to help Belgae, and they travel

                        vnto a Citie farre vp land
     The which whylome that Ladies owne had bene;
     But now by force extort out of her hand,
     By her strong foe, who had defaced cleene
     Her stately towres, and buildings sunny sheene;
     Shut vp her hauen, mard her marchants trade,
     Robbed her people, that full rich had beene,
     And in her necke a Castle huge had made,
The which did her commaund, without needing perswade. (V.x.25)

In his notes on these stanzas, A. C. Hamilton says that the city is Antwerp, which was sacked by the Spanish in 1585; the Duke of Alva erected a citadel on the river to control it; “that same citie, so now ruinate, / Had bene the keye of all that kingdomes crowne; / Both goodly Castle, and both goodly Towne” (x.26.3-5). While slight, the description of the castle, the city and its surroundings constitutes the fullest and most realistic description of urban geography in the poem. In one regard this is unsurprising, since this is the place where Spenser comes closest to describing actual current events.

Arthur first fights with the Seneschall, and then marches to the castle. He slays the three knights who guard it and restores it to Belgae. Both the spectatorial dynamics and the theatrics of the ensuing fight with the giant Geryoneo and his monster the next day resemble Redcrosse’s fight with the dragon in Book I, and the battles occur in a similar place in their respective adventures. When the monster is slain, Belgae “gan reioyce, and shew triumphant chere, / Lauding and praysing his renowmed worth” (V.xi.33.2-3). This is followed by a more general celebration:

Then all the people, which beheld that day,
   Gan shout aloud, that vnto heauen it rong;
   And all the damzels of that towne in ray,
   Came dauncing forth, and ioyous carrols song:
   So him they led through all their streetes along,
   Crowned with girlonds of immortall baies,
   And all the vulgar did about them throng,
   To see the man, whose euerlasting praise
They all were bound to all posterities to raise. (V.xi.34)

The action of leading Arthur “through all their streetes along” clarifies that this is one of the very few cases in the poem where a knight is actually inside a city.

We see a parallel representation of popular triumphing in Book VI, when Calidore has captured the Blatant Beast and is parading him through the countryside: “all the people where so he did go, / Out of their townes did round about him throng, / To see him leade that Beast in bondage strong” (VI.xii.37.3-5). While Calidore doesn’t get the maidens with timbrels that celebrated Redcrosse’s victory, or the damzels with garlands that greet Arthur, Calidore’s triumph does resemble the crowds that would greet Elizabeth or her courtiers when they visited the cities and towns of England, and indeed, the spatial dynamics of these city triumphs reproduce the key elements of city visits that Mary Hill Cole outlines in her study of Elizabethan progresses.[11]

In both the civic triumphs of The Faerie Queene and Elizabethan civic welcomes, there is a spatial dynamic that is important: they take place at the limits of the city, then ceremonially welcome the other into the center. They thus redraw and reclaim the place of the city, the content of the ceremony recolonizing the whole place with a mythology that is cemented by affect, an affect that is generated through movement and the stimulation of the body. The street, that materialization of collective purpose, is the literal support of that social affect, where the quotidian and the festive join.

So what might these city triumphs, which work to manufacture a corporate identity, tell us about how Spenser believes poetry can or should function in the creation of national sentiment? Here I will turn briefly to George Puttenham, and his attention to the social origins of poetry. In Book I, Chapter 23 of The Arte of English Poesy he addresses the “form of poetical rejoycings,” arguing that “nature and civility have ordained … public rejoicings for the comfort and recreation of many.” Puttenham ties the ancient origins of poetry to the contemporary celebrations of Elizabeth: “those of victory and peace are called triumphal, whereof we ourselves have heretofore given some example by our Triumphals written in honour of her Majesty’s long peace. And they were used by the auncients in like manner, as we do our generall processions or litanies with banquets and bonfires and all manner of joys” (Puttenham 134, 135). We can find similar arguments about the public origin and performative dimensions of poetry in Sidney’s Defense and in William Scott’s The Model of Poesy. But here Puttenham echoes earlier calls by the Protestant propagandist Richard Morison for public celebrations that would generate powerful nationalistic affect. To gain public support for Henry, Morison argues for the value of “goyng in procession, laudyng god, shotyng gonnes with the noyse and melodye of trumpettes and other instrumentes, to the great reioysyng of your subiectes beyng aged, the comforte of them that be able men, the enouragyng of yong children.”[12] Triumphal poetry originates in triumphs, and both work towards the same end: the cementing of corporate identity through affect that is generated by joyful movement, whether this is actual movement or poetic representations thereof.

There are a few things, then, to conclude about the cities of The Faerie Queene. They fall into two categories but in neither case is Spenser very interested in representations of the city as such. Rather, he is interested in them as sites of movement of a particular kind; what is really important is how this movement serves to generate a communal or national identity, particularly for the key knights. What is worth noting about the second group of cities is that they are among the very few places in the poem where we see positive representations of groups of ordinary people.[13] And, interestingly enough, these representations happen in relation to popular spectacle and communal festivity. The comic presentations of the people who tumble out of their cities and towns to see the dragon in Book I, Geryoneo’s monster in Book V, and the Blatant Beast in Book VI are a contrast to the credulous rabble who are mercilessly slaughtered by Talus. Rather than the gullible, faceless mob that accompanies the Egalitarian Giant or that flees into Radegund’s city, here the crowds are more differentiated and representative of the composition of an English town, humanized by details such as the mother who fears her child might be scratched by the dead dragon’s claw. Taken together, these two views of the city offer us two perspectives on the relation between place and subjectivity in the poem: the first an analysis of the role of national narratives in the formation of individual subjects, and in particular, how narratives of place subtend subjectivity. The second offers us a more real-world picture of how this relation can be fostered and sustained through popular festivity: how joyful movement secures investment in the mythologies that make a place meaningful and readable.

Being attentive to where, how and in what contexts the Early Modern reader experienced streets, and thinking about that reader’s embodied understanding of the difference between a street and a path, is one way in which a closer attention to the representation of movement can open up the poem in new ways. This goes beyond the value of a finer-grained historical understanding of the Early Modern “constellations of mobility” that Spenser drew on when constructing Faery Land, although there is certainly considerable value in that. But in a larger context, being attentive to how Spenser is drawing on cultural understandings and the embodied experience of the facts of mobility when crafting the emotional geography of the poem, can help us to see how Spenser understands the process of reading to be an essentially performative one. For Spenser, as for Sidney, movement is key to poetry’s effects, through the generation of affect: it is the reader’s movement through the emotional geography of the poem that ultimately works to gain the reader’s assent to the poem’s ideology.


Jim Ellis
University of Calgary

[1] The Art of English Poesy by George Puttenham: A Critical Edition, edited by Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn, Cornell UP, 2007, p. 135.

[2] Tim Cresswell, “Towards a Politics of Mobility,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 28, issue 1, February 2010, p. 19.

[3] On the specifics of travel in the period, see especially Andrew McRae, Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England, Cambridge UP, 2009.

[4] Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” Environment and Planning A, vol. 38, issue 2, February 2006, p. 216.

[5] Qtd. Michael Murrin, The Allegorical Epic: Essays in its Rise and Decline, U of Chicago P, 1980, p. 143.

[6] All quotations from the poem are from Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, edited by A.C. Hamilton, rev. 2nd ed., Pearson, 2007.

[7] Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, edited by Geoffrey Shepherd, Manchester UP, 2002, p. 94.

[8] See Gail Kern Paster’s entry on “Cities” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, edited by A. C. Hamilton et al., U of Toronto P, 1990, pp. 167-8.

[9] Lawrence Manley, Literature and Culture in Early Modern London, Cambridge, 1995, p. 173.

[10] Humphrey Tonkin, Spenser’s Courteous Pastoral, Clarendon P, 1972, p. 9.

[11] Mary Hill Cole, The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony, U Massachusetts P, 1999.

[12] Sydney Anglo, “An Early Tudor Programme for Plays and Other Demonstrations against the Pope,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 20, no. 1/2, Jan.-June 1957, p. 178.

[13] For the negative representations of crowds, see Stephen Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre and the Representation of Rebellion,” Representations, vol. 1, no. 1, Feb. 1983, pp. 1-29. We also get crowds of spectators at representations of less positive spectacle: the procession at the House of Pride, and the crowds that watch Artegal and Radigund joust.


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Cite as:

Jim Ellis, "Movement and the City in The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 47.1.3 (Winter 2017). Accessed March 22nd, 2018.
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