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How to Read The Faerie Queene: A Forum

A pair of roundtables at the 2014 Sixteenth Century Society Conference gathered Spenserians to reflect on the challenges of reading Spenser ourselves and helping our students through their first readings of The Faerie Queene. In the lively discussions that followed, it became clear that the question of “How to Read The Faerie Queene” continues to raise theoretical, methodological and pedagogical quandaries. In a new feature for The Spenser Review, we present shortened versions of the participants’ remarks followed by brief responses from members of the audience. We invite you to join the discussion in the comments section!

How to read The Faerie Queene has been a vexed topic since at least the early seventeenth century, when the resistant reader whose traces Stephen Orgel analyzes in “Margins of Truth” failed to see through Spenser’s critique of Archimago and registered his objections to the poem’s supposed Catholicism in a series of exasperated marginal notes.[1] In recent years, critics including Hester Lees-Jeffries, Jeff Dolven, and Jane Grogan have drawn attention to both the sophistication and the fragility of The Faerie Queene’s pedagogical strategies. The poem’s lessons in right and wrong reading are now familiar to us, and we are apt to perceive both our successes and our failures of reading as part of the poem’s complex yet generous embrace of the fallible reader and her need for education, in reading as in holiness and temperance and chastity.

In a teaser for an essay forthcoming in English Literary Renaissance, David Miller extends this exploration of what it is that we do when we read The Faerie Queene into the realms of cognition, recognition, and metacognition, as we learn not only to read the poem but to read ourselves reading the poem. Stressing the temporal nature of this cognitive work, Anne Prescott underscores the importance of learning from both Spenser’s characters’ misreadings and our own and reminds us not to curtail that pedagogical work through a readerly (or authorial) rush to correct the mistakes that the poem initially encourages. Timothy Duffy—through a striking rereading of a standard metaphor—emphasizes the only partially absorbed quality of Spenser’s own reading and the paradoxical need to perceive the layers of reading that lie behind The Faerie Queene in order to hear Spenser’s voice among them.

Bridging the gap between the study and the classroom, Christian Gerard uses The Faerie Queene in his creative writing classes to invite students (and us) to pay attention to the moments in which the poem verges on failure as its characters refuse to keep within their allegorical limits and perform their exemplary virtues, as prophecies go unfulfilled and narrative promises unmet. Capping a roundtable whose theme emerged as the snatching of recognition from the jaws of misreading, Gerard explains that The Faerie Queene’s moments of “improvisation” guide his students to read and value the moments in which their own works transcend their authorial intentions to become entities that compel their authors’ allegiance rather than the other way around.

How to read The Faerie Queene is a vexed topic in the classroom, too, as Spenser recedes from the front lines of the English syllabus and students arrive at their first encounters with Spenser increasingly unfamiliar with both his classical precursors and his English and Continental contemporaries. In the second roundtable, held on Sunday morning, Margaret Christian, Joel Dodson, and Leah Whittington shared their strategies for helping students encounter the poem. The sophomores in Christian’s British Literature I survey course keep reading journals as they make their way through Book I, revealing them to be attuned to the poem’s language, to its literary techniques, and to the enduring debts of popular culture and fantasy literature to romance in general and The Faerie Queene in particular. Christian’s conclusion that they read The Faerie Queene “with a sense of recognition” recalls David Miller’s opening argument that Spenser trains his readers—in 21st-century Allentown as in 16th-century London—to recognize themselves in the text as a springboard to further interpretation, even if that initial recognition takes very different forms today.

Joel Dodson assigns each student a keyword to track throughout Book I. Charting the multiplying contexts and connotations of their keywords offers students a way to discover for themselves The Faerie Queene’s engagements with subjects often thought difficult to introduce into the undergraduate classroom—from religion to the post-human—working from the inside of the text outward, rather than from contextual or theoretical readings towards the poem. And positioning her methods in relation to Heather James’s recent “Flower Power” in these pages,[2] Leah Whittington describes the difficulty in marrying critical analysis of deeper meanings and close attention to the poem’s sensuous surfaces.

The lively discussion that followed underscored the need to get students to slow down enough to interpret Spenser’s (or any) text. As several presenters and commentators remarked, students are quick to make the leap to “meaning” but tend to fly right past the words on the page as they do so. Whittington’s remedy begins by training our attention on the act of observation. In her expanded essay, she invites the larger Spenser community to join her in evolving a new vocabulary to describe the various states of consciousness that we pass through as we read, as a step towards valuing these aspects of encountering a text and their role in the more usual scholarly work of analysis and interpretation.

Whittington, like Ayesha Ramachandran before her in these pages, responds to Rita Felski’s call for “a form of post-critical reading that does not look behind the text—for its hidden causes, determining conditions, and noxious motives—but in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.”[3] Both share a concern that the result may prove to be (in Ramachandran’s words) “a rejection of mind for body, of rational analysis for sense impression.”[4] The lesson that emerges from both roundtables’ focus on learning to read The Faerie Queene is that Spenser provides the ideal ground on which to join attention to Felski’s “reading forward,” the unfolding of textual possibilities in the temporal progress of reading, with the unfinished and still valuable work of analysis of what lies ‘before, behind, between, above, below’ a text. And yes, there is a point beyond the sheer pleasure of textual play in my quotation of Donne’s erotic elegy. Our roving minds, and our students’, are most deeply satisfied when we can interact with a poem as both an artefact with a history and a context to be unpacked and explored—and a source of pleasure in which to immerse ourselves. Perhaps we most closely approximate Spenser’s “fit audience” when we link rational and emotional responses in the rueful recognition of our own mistakes of reading or in the satisfaction and relief of finally getting a reading right after having initially gotten it wrong. Reading Spenser in New Orleans underscores our need to develop a post-Cartesian understanding of what it is that we do when we read, one that acknowledges and appreciates that our emotional responses to reading and the intellectual activity of interpretation are inextricably fused.

                                                                                                     — Sarah Van der Laan


Part I: The Essays


David Lee Miller, “Allegory and Meta-cognition”

[This paper was drawn from an essay forthcoming in English Literary Renaissance; what follows here is an extended abstract.]

The strategy of recreating a protagonist’s struggle within the reading experience has long been recognized as a key feature of Spenser’s style. In this paper I focus on two episodes from Book II in order to take this observation a step further, arguing that Spenser’s allegory completes itself only in a specific act of self-recognition that it calls upon readers to perform.

Luther and Tyndale both emphasize that in the encounter between flesh and spirit, the protagonist “fights with himself.” The techniques of allegorical narrative stage scenes of combat as encounters with adversaries, but Spenser’s text shows us repeatedly that to defeat an allegorical foe, the protagonist must decode the allegory, in effect undoing the work of personification. He must re-place what has been dis-placed into the fictional adversary, recognizing that it belongs to the self. The protagonist’s recognition models a similar act of interpretation in which readers are called upon to become protagonists in their turn, in effect learning to read themselves allegorically.

I develop this point through a discussion of Arthur’s battle with Maleger in canto xi of Book II, focusing in particular on the moment in which Arthur defeats Maleger by interpreting his foe as a type of Antaeus, and through a complementary analysis of the Bower of Bliss episode in canto xii. As the climactic battle of Book II gets underway, the allegory asks us to recognize that the fable of a well-ordered castle besieged by monstrous armies involves a familiar form of misrecognition. However weirdly alien Maleger and his armies seem, they are an image of the flesh, and so the enemy attacking the body-castle from without is already within the gates—indeed, within the walls and foundations, “not built of bricke, ne yet of stone and lime, / But of thing like to that Ægyptian slime” (ix.21.4-5). For this reason, the enemy has no real body of his own: “For though they bodies seem, yet substaunce from them fades” (ix.15.9). Their body is our flesh.

A similar analysis of projection informs Spenser’s allegory in the Bower of Bliss. His description of the Bower mingles double entendres with suggestive descriptions of the vegetation’s erotic contortions. These passages form the textual equivalents of what Aquinas calls fomes peccati, the incipient motions of sin arising from the flesh. They recreate concupiscence as a temptation to be resisted—or not—in the moment of reading. Illusions of this kind are the stock in trade of the Bower’s Genius, “That secretly doth vs procure to fall, / Through guilefull semblants, which he makes us see” (48.5-6). Throughout the description of the Garden, Spenser’s verse performs the work of this evil genius, bringing the vegetation to life with orgiastic fantasies. In this sense, the gateway into the garden is the garden’s description.

Erotic fantasy shares with combative spirit a propensity for projecting itself outward, onto others or the environment. Maleger’s arrows arrive from outside their targets, but as yet another image of the fomes peccati or kindlings of sin, they arise from within the flesh they seem to penetrate. Acrasia’s concupiscent vegetation appears as invitation rather than assault, but like the castle’s return to earth and Maleger’s return from the earth, these seeming opposites figure the same thing, and the underlying mechanism in either instance is that of projection: what appears to arise from outside the subject inheres in his own flesh.

In attacking the Bower, Guyon once again misreads his relation to the scene before him, acting as if concupiscence were lodged in the bowers, groves, gardens, arbors, cabinets, banquet houses, and buildings he destroys. In this way the culminating “tempest of his wrathfulnesse” (83.4) offers a precise contrast to Arthur’s victory, repeating on a much larger scale the error with which Guyon began his quest—tempted by Archimago and Duessa into an unprovoked, if aborted, attack on Redcrosse. There too he was repressing lust, converting it to anger, and turning that anger against external adversaries. Now instead of attacking Redcrosse he trashes the landscaping, furniture, and décor of the Bower.

The Bower of Bliss is above all a textual place. If we think only of “actual” space we will indeed find “The art, which all that wrought” appearing, as the narrator teasingly informs us, “in no place” (58.9, emphasis added). But if we attend to its literariness we will find that art everywhere, for as Paul Alpers remarks, it is “in some sense his [Spenser’s] own.”  Indeed we may say that Spenser anticipates Alpers on this point. At a playful moment in the Amoretti (1595) he will invoke his beloved’s bosom as “the bowre of blisse, the paradice of pleasure” into which his thoughts (like Guyon watching the maidens bathing in the fountain) have been “too rashly led astray.” The Bower of Bliss is where you find it.

But already in 1590, the same stanza that describes “a place pickt out by choyce of best alyue” goes on to say that its pleasures are “poured forth with plentifull dispence” (42.8). This pun identifies Spenser as the artist of the Bower by inflecting the ancestral name De Spencier as a nominalized verb of sexual release: what Shakespeare would call “th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” is here the dispense of pleasure in erotic fantasy. It is an authorial signature hidden in plain sight.

The Bower over which Spenser’s punning signature asserts ownership is not quite the same one Acrasia inhabits: to identify them would be to miss the difference between Durling’s imagined “actual space” and Spenser’s “tropical” paradise, which keeps undoing in its own way the illusion Guyon thinks he can destroy.


Anne Prescott, “How to Read Spenser”

I have co-edited Spenser Studies for some years, have recently co-edited the fourth edition of the Norton Spenser, and have taught him for many, many years. So I should be able to answer this question. I’m not sure I can. How not to read him is easier, and Spenser shows the way by giving us readers in The Faerie Queene who read badly. Redcrosse misreads a forest (that’s a lot of leaves), not noticing that it was planted by Ovid, fertilized into further growth by Chaucer, and perhaps, since these varied trees are individually named, that it recalls the Many into which the One pours himself in Plato. Error is multiple—and human, to judge from what we think the trees are good for. Then there is reading an enchanter with book and beads and thinking he must be good if he has a Bible and … weren’t the beads a giveaway? But there are beads in the House of Holiness. Or what of reading books—and not just Error’s vomit—within Spenser’s book? It might be interesting, when teaching students how to read Spenser, to focus for a time on Spenser’s own textual readers reading badly or inadequately even if they are—or want to be—good. Please write a paper for next week on reading readers in The Faerie Queene. Perhaps reading badly is pedagogically valuable, though, for misreading trees and then wandering through them, can lead to the death of Error (sort of, kind of, maybe, and at least make her vomit). That is, after all, the point of St. Bernard’s lovely prodigal son allegory in which the boy moves from error to worldly lust to pride to holiness—the narrative sounds familiar.

Misreading in Spenser’s text is vital to the narrative, and there are many things to read, from people to glass, to dancing graces. But is misreading vital to reading Spenser? Once, when Judith Anderson and I had supper together that fine scholar spent some time scolding me for the footnotes in the third edition of the Norton Spenser—too many of them identified the figures before Spenser did. She was right to complain, and for the fourth edition I changed all I could find. For her point is vital: we are often meant to misread at first. That’s life. Otherwise how can we empathize with those bad readers in the text? Just scorning them for their obtuseness will do us no good as readers ourselves. The experience of error helps us read better.

And yet—perhaps we never learn to read perfectly, whether books or the world out there. I’m still not sure I have Book V’s Talus right, although I have my own somewhat world-weary and world-wary political opinion as to his necessity, and there are many other figures or scenes that remain … ambiguous? complex? flawed but for which we must settle … until … ? Do we ever leave error until the final two stanzas, if we do? After all, we end with either bad Hebrew or a complex pun on the Lord of Hosts and divine Sabbath, battle and rest. Maybe we can read perfectly only when leaning against those pillars of Eternity.

In the meantime, my favorite bit of advice comes from David Miller, who remarked during a discussion at Kalamazoo that if he thought Spenser’s figures could simply illustrate a virtue, “I wouldn’t be interested.” Right. It is the process that is pedagogical, although of course even that process is not always what a reader of our own time might want to learn. I’m with the Equality Giant, and I have friends who would fancy Duessa—at least with her clothes on. (Roger Kuin once said of her, parodying Herrick, “Evil’s self she is, when all her clothes are gone.”)

I suspect that students can be tempted to simplify Spenser because they thirst for (or think their professor thirsts for) a moral, a conclusion, albeit complex. The problem is that some dilemmas have no conclusion. Guyon never does answer Mammon’s question—who paid for your armor? Chivalry and capitalism make poor companions, and Spenser may be sneaking in a reminder that the queen paid her knights. Is holy zeal intemperate? Can you be just a little temperate or do you need to smash that bower? Can you love without neglecting friends? Be friendly without bending justice? Or be just without an occasional doff of the feathered hat to those you despise as you enter the court? My point is obvious, but the temptation to turn The Faerie Queene into something that the “Letter to Ralegh” might truly describe is powerful.

We judge easily and yet Spenser resists or complicates judgment and not merely by sometimes withholding names until we have spent a few stanzas, often, misjudging, but by suggesting that in this world we do not get the whole story, and that the whole story is not only complicated but contradictory—until maybe the end of Book XII.

And then, in reading—and teaching—Spenser we recognize that some of what he demonstrates is complex and subtle but not only wrong about cosmology (we can all agree that we circle the sun, I mean ellipse the sun) but about monarchy, marriage, gender, religion, gardens, income redistribution, even pigs (intelligent animals that they are). I can defend Talus (we too have cops and even executions) but I’m softer on those awful papists and even Saracens. This is an old story—how we read brilliantly imaginative and usefully complex texts that can indeed enlarge our imaginations but with which we cannot always agree.

There are more practical issues. To read Spenser well, must we have read Tasso, Ariosto, Ovid, Virgil, St. Bernard, Marot, Petrarch, Plato, Sannazaro, even Ronsard? Or will the notes in the forthcoming Oxford edition do? I leave that to David Miller and his fellow editors. They read well and yet can value misreading too. 


Timothy Duffy,Projecting The Faerie Queene: Reading Spenser’s Beginnings”

On what was Spenser contemplating as he forged The Faerie Queene? Transcendent virtues naturally, but as we know, that’s not the whole story. In the “Letter to Ralegh,” his process is a bit more material. He asserts that “I have followed all the antique Poets historicall, first Homere, who in the Persons of Agamemnon and Ulysses hath ensampled a good governour and a virtuous man, the one in his Ilias the other in his Odysseis: then Virgil, whose like intention was to doe in the person of Aeneas: after him Ariosto comprised them both in his Orlando: and lately Tasso dissevered them again, and formed both parts in two persons, namely that part which they in Philosophy call Ethice, or vertues of a private man, coloured in his Rinaldo: The other named Politice is his Godfredo. By ensample of which excellent poets, I labour to portraict in Arthure, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private moral vertues, as Aristotle hath devised: the which is the purpose of these first twelve books … ” Indeed, Spenser defends his choice to use allegory by arguing that “so much more profitable and gracious is doctrine by ensample, then by rule” and “for this cause is Xenophon preferred before Plato.” The material and visible example is superior to the ideal form, the ideal possibility and yet Spenser is full of Platonic longing for the ideal.

So how does this controversy, banal as it may seem, come to make The Faerie Queene something of a unique intervention in the history of Renaissance Epic and Romance? The tension or at least dichotomy between the material and the transcendent is built into to the invocation of the whole work. Spenser asks Clio to “Lay forth out of thine everlasting scryne / The antique rolles which there lye hidden still” while later asking the “Great lady of the greatest Isle” to “raise my thoughts too humble and too vile”—to point upward like Plato in Raphael’s painting rather than point downward like Aristotle—down to the books on Spenser’s epic poetry and transcendent virtues 101 syllabus. There is from the very beginning an act of reading and of seeking transcendence. This will seem banal but it’s rather unique especially given the way Spenser begins his poem:


Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,

As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,

Am now enforst a far unfitter taske

For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine oaten weeds

And sing of knights and ladies gentle deeds;

Whose prayses having slept in silence long

Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds …

There is a humility to these lines and a modification, if not outright rejection, of the “cano” form—there is a sing but it is in an implied imperative form of what he is “enforst” to do, not what he claims to do. What he claims to do is uncover the past but he does not give into the vatic role of the person who sings. He must do it, he is asked to do it, but he is not asserting that he is doing it. This is different from the Homeric origins in which the poet is the relator of a direct line of plot, received from the muses away from any material source (“The wrath sing (aeide), goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles” in the Iliad or “Tell me (ennepe), Muse, of the man of many devices” in the Odyssey). Spenser too wants to know what happened, to be shown the rolls, but does not dissolve into the narrative without signaling a material source. He rejects a clear assertion that he is in fact singing—that he has taken on fully and successfully the epic mode.

This is unusual, if we consider some Roman examples, the obvious “arma virumque cano” where Virgil assures us he is singing. We get somewhere closer in Ovid’s beginning assertion: “In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora-” yet there is something internal and forceful and less self-deprecating in “fert … dicere” than in what Spenser offers. Lucretius comes close as well but when we land on the verb “disserere” later we get a sense of what it is Lucretius is doing—Spenser leaves all this implied, something his continental models, for the most part, do not do: Ariosto begins: “Le donne, i cavallier, l’arme, gli amori, le cortesie, l’audaci imprese io canto” and Tasso begins: “Canto l’arme pietose e ‘l capitano che ‘l gran sepolcro libero di Cristo.” Even turning to works Spenser almost certainly knew but doesn’t explicitly mention in the letter to Raleigh, we see that Du Bartas enriches his work with this request: “Eleve a toi mon ame, epure mes esprits / Et d’un docte artifice enrichis mes Ecris / O Pere donne-moi que d’une vois faconde / Je chante a nos neveus la nessance du monde” and Camoes in Os Lusiadas sings as well: “Cantando espalharei por toda parte, / Se a tanto me ajudar o engenho e arte.”

This avoidance, this linguistic modesty, places an emphasis on the exteriority of the challenge, of his literary, historical, and spiritual interlocutors, and puts a fascinating edge on his Platonism. Though Spenser is fascinated, especially in his shorter poems, with a contemplative ascendence and transcendence, his goals in The Faerie Queene are remarkably material and intertextual. As Paul Alpers notes, “imitation is digestion and absorption, not passive copying”—so there is a humanist sophistication to this marking of a textual source, the antique rolls within the poem and Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, and Tasso in the paratext—yet there may be a real challenge here to the model of the Bee as good reader. Spenser’s honey does not obliterate the pollen it swallows—indeed, the honey he pukes up has to coexist with the preserved artifact of the original pollen. Chew and swallow his copy of Tasso as he may, there are other copies. The poet, however prophetic and however bardlike, is adding new honey to old pollens and other honeys.

I’ve called this paper “Projecting the Faerie Queene” because I believe it helps us to get a useful model of deciphering Spenser’s origins. A projection is viewed and made use of in external space and, though, it comes from an interior source, the activation and the full realization is outside the mind and body. Yet this cinematic metaphor contains within it the psychoanalytic weight of projection that highlights that external perceptions are colored by the interior mind and subconscious. In this sense, we can perhaps begin to argue that the external spaces of Spenser’s work—the books of others, the cosmos, the ruins of Rome, and the poetic vision and urge to create that gave him the audacity to try to speak with the same voice as the greatest poets in history—remain external and acknowledged even as they become processed through Spenser’s approach at vatic vision. Spenser can perhaps be greatly and usefully understood as the great archivist poet whose visions acknowledge their sources and cite them in a processed form through his own projected sensibility. He is not subservient to his sources but wants to highlight they are there, in a form resonant with his own vision, but still external. He is not a copyist or a translator in this work but writing under the influence, intoxicated with other voices.  

Though Spenser makes clear in his “Letter to Ralegh” that he is working from sources and that he is endeavoring to place his work among others, within the proem to the work itself he does not call out his influences explicitly by name. He takes a line from Ariosto and borrows the rhetorical strategy of epic and romance writers from antiquity to his day and by sidestepping the assertion of what he does, by emphasizing the task over his own performance, he highlights something like a world republic of letters, as well as a more modern and realistic vision of what it is to be an epic writer. Yes, to write one must be inspired, one must aspire to a unique vision, and one must try to transcend the terrestrial—yet, in the mission itself, the material demands of putting ink on the page among so many other pages that are splashed by other people’s ink, the communal aspect of language and genre within the European community of letters asserts itself. Projection as a guiding metaphor helps us see the internal roots of the literary product while also highlighting the layering effects. Spenser projects onto Homer, onto Virgil, onto Ariosto, and onto Tasso, acknowledging the layering and producing a dynamic intertextual artifact while at the same time acknowledging that in the effect of a projection, as in poetry, what matters is not where it comes from or what has inspired it, but what is actually seen, what is actually produced—and once we see that Knight pricking on the plaine, we know what we see.


Christian Anton Gerard, “(An Almost) Failure Analysis:  Britomart, Calidore, and Reading The Faerie Queene in the Contemporary Creative Writing Classroom”

The term “fail” is, especially in literature, rather subjective. One need look no further than the illustrious Dr. Johnson to know, indeed, that taste can’t be argued with. But in the creative writing classroom “failure” is something else entirely. It is not simply a word used to judge another’s work, but often an attitude adopted by burgeoning writers themselves, a lance leveled at their own work’s heart and writerly identities; the same attitude one hears in Philip Sidney’s description of Astrophil & Stella as an “ink-wasting toy.” This essay places Spenser’s text alongside my students’ to explore one way to “read The Faerie Queene” and use the poem in the contemporary creative writing classroom, by focusing (briefly) on The Faerie Queene’s self-awareness as a text always on the verge of narrative failure.

Beginning undergraduate creative writing students often think of writing in terms of “good” and “bad.” One of my tasks as the more experienced writer in the room is to somehow level the playing field. Because “good” and “bad” aren’t words doing any work in identifying how a piece of writing works based on the choices a writer has made, I ban “good” and “bad” from classroom discourse. I ask my students to think of their poems and stories as infinite sets of outcomes or effects based on infinite sets of possibilities and opportunities created by their pieces in conjunction with the act of writing itself. Spenser’s Faerie Queene becomes an excellent model for identifying the possibilities and opportunities inherent in the creative endeavor because it acts, in many ways, just like my creative writing students. 

The Faerie Queene is an incredibly self-conscious narrative always aware of its own (and its author’s, by proxy) possible failure. In his “Letter to Ralegh,” Spenser writes: “I labour to pourtraict in Arthure, before he was king, the image of a braue knight … which is the purpose of these first twelue books: which if I finde to be well accepted, I may be perhaps encouraged, to frame the other part of polliticke virtues in his person, after that hee came to be king.”[5] Such a moment strongly correlates with the conversations I often encounter in the creative writing classroom.

In the workshop setting, a student’s work is made public to the class. The individuals comprising the class “critique” the poem/story up for discussion by talking about how they are reading the work being discussed. Though I ask the author of the work up for discussion not to speak until the end of their critique, new writers can’t often resist the urge to interject with what they “were trying to do” or by explicating the verisimilitude the work bears to a “real world” setting. This temptation is largely produced because writers are always anxious about their work’s reception. Like Spenser in the “Letter to Raleigh,” writers view their work as an extension of themselves, or rather, as something contributing to the public perception of the self they perform. In those terms, if their work fails, then they have failed. 

Asking my young writers to think, though, of what Spenser wants his text to do versus what it might do instead or simultaneously allows them to see the possibilities present in the act of writing. Because Spenser is everywhere worried his reader won’t “get it,” he provides not only the “Letter to Ralegh,” but also a summary of each canto at each canto’s beginning.  For the purposes of workshop, this Faerie Queene feature means I can give basic background and let my students engage, for instance, Britomart and Calidore as characters resisting their maker’s “intentioned” making of them, which allows my students to understand the importance of letting the work do and be what it will. The harder we see Spenser trying to make Britomart an image of Elizabeth or Calidore the picture of gentlemanly behavior, the more we see these characters live their own lives within the text, I tell my students, which is infinitely more interesting than the one-to-one allegory Spenser guides us to in the “Letter to Ralegh.”

I call attention, for instance, to the fact that Spenser identifies Britomart as “her” only after revealing “That of a single damzell thou [Guyon] wert mett / On equall plaine, and there so hard beset; / Euen the famous Britomart it was” (III.i.8), in an attempt to correctly identify a Britomart already resisting firmly identifying language. This multiplicity means she is always a both/and for the reader because the text requires her to be. As Lauren Silberman has noted, “Spenser emphasizes improvisation as a principle both of individual self-fashioning and of narrative.”[6]Such improvisation is easy for my students to see when the poem’s narrative action is compared to each book’s introduction or other textual promises the narrative makes that go unfulfilled, such as Merlin’s prophecy for Britomart. Merlin tells Britomart that from her wombe 

                                 a famous Progenee

Shall spring, out of the ancient Troian blood,

Which shall revive the sleeping memoree 

Of those same antique Peres, the heauens brood.


But, as my students come to see, Merlin’s prophecy doesn’t impede Britomart’s ability to improvise, in fact, it encourages improvisation because the prophecy never specifies Britomart will remain safe. Merlin never tells Britomart how to proceed in her quest or how the adventure will allow her to “submit [her] wayes vnto his [Artegall’s] will, / And doe by all dew means thy destiny fulfill” (III.iii.24.8-9). Interestingly, though, and illustrative for my students, Britomart does not submit to Artegall’s will, she rescues him, and she doesn’t marry him, which is a feature of the poem’s, not Spenser’s, Britomartian destiny.

I will, for the sake of time, give just one brief example I use to further demonstrate the excellence possible when a poet loses control of the narrative (which I encourage my students to willingly let happen). In Book VI, Canto iii, Stanzas 20 and 21, Calidore,

as he was pursuing of his quest

He chaunst to come whereas a iolly Knight,

In couert shade him selfe did safely rest,

To solace with his Lady in delight,

and as he comes upon Selena and Calepine making love, “he so rudely did vppon them light, / And troubled had their quiet loues delight.” Turning my students’ attention to this moment allows them to read Calidore not as the embodiment of Courtesy, but as a bumbling counter to courteousness. Though Calidore is self-aware enough to have “pardon crau’d for his so rash default, / That he gainst courtesie so fowly did default,” the fact the incident occurs at all is enough to incite laughter (or at least a chuckle) in my students. Calidore appears to have a mind of his own rather than enacting only his author’s desires, which is demonstrated again during his detour to pursue the shepherd’s life before returning to hunt the Blatant Beast.

The beginning writer’s takeaway here is that if she/he is allegiant to the work, then the work will force choices that render the text’s idiosyncrasies visible, making the text more human, less threatening, more like her/him. Showing these portions of The Faerie Queene to my students and asking them to imagine their texts not as extensions of themselves, but as idiosyncratic entities they guide allows them to see the creative act is more messy than we’d like it to be. The Faerie Queene helps us see our work’s anxieties, more often than not, have positive implications for our work (though, much to my continued dismay, not at all for ourselves as authors).

Thinking about the text as a living entity often out of its author’s control allows my apprentice poets to see there is only so much a poet can control; why in our minds on and off the page we’re always on the verge of failure. Emphasizing these “verging” aspects of The Faerie Queene’s craft has pedagogical applications/implications that make Spenser’s poem a welcome participant in the contemporary creative writing classroom, because it challenges me to pedagogically expand the early modern influence, but also because I’d be lying if I said Calidore’s bumbling into my classroom doesn’t often rescue my lecturing, which is yet another narrative in need of an (almost) failure analysis.


Margaret Christian, “‘given what I know about lions’: How They Read Book One at the Two-Year Campus”

I would like to begin by lowering the intellectual tone, and your expectations: I have no prescriptions (“How to read The Faerie Queene”) for anybody. I have read Book One with sophomores in the first half of the Brit Lit survey exactly three times during my 25-year career at a Penn State branch campus (full-time enrollment around 950) just outside of Allentown. My contribution this morning is less “how to read” than “how the other half reads”—if indeed non-majors at two-year campuses make up half of Spenser’s readers. It occurs to me that another way to formulate my contribution is “how the future reads The Faerie Queene”—or “how they read The Faerie Queene”—when fewer of them read, period. 

I can answer that, and here’s why:  I did this very vogue-ish thing in the sophomore survey during the Fall 2013 semester: I “flipped the classroom.” Yes, I gave my students the responsibility for that “first exposure” to the material by assigning them to read the text before class. They demonstrated their fulfillment of this expectation by journaling their impressions, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this group, half from around Allentown and half from around Pittsburgh, were intrepid enough, and had enough cultural literacy, to find their way into the poem. (“Their way,” not mine.) Here’s how they read The Faerie Queene.

They notice the language:

  • it is a little hard for me to understand the actual reading but what has been really helping me is find a reading of the particular Cantos we are assigned on YouTube and follow along that way and for me that is definitely helping me understand these readings a lot more.
  • […] the first thing I noticed was that the language came easier to me than it had with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. By reading the words aloud, I was able to understand the poem a lot better. I also liked the way the work was set up— in stanzas. This made it easier to read, because I did not feel swamped with too much reading. Also … it is interesting that “choler” is the word for anger in this poem (Spenser 825).[7] “Colère” means anger in French.
  • I did like the way the dragon’s death was described, “So downe he fell, and forth his life did breathe,/That vanisht into smoke and cloudes swift;/So downe he fell, that th’earth him underneath/Did grone,as feeble so great load to lift” (923; 54). I liked how “So down he fell” was repeated multiple times, as if it were a glorious song or chant.

They practice deploying literary terms:

  • […] hyperbole was used a few times. For instance, in Canto 3, the “rage” of the lion that is about to attack Una, is suddenly “asswaged with remorse, [a]nd with the sight amazd, forgat his furious forse” (Spenser 808). This moment was very hard for me to believe given what I know about lions. I had to remind myself that it was only a story and the moment was probably included to convey Una’s innocence to the audience.
  • I thought the imagery in the work was great—especially in canto eleven. I liked the imagery in “Three ranckes of yron teeth … [i]n which yet trickling bloud, and gobbets raw [o]f late devoured bodies did appeare” (Spenser 913). While gross, the language was captivating.

They update plot points:

  • In Canto ten when the work talks about how when Una takes the Redcrosse Knight to the house of holiness to regain his strength in which he then meets the three daughters named, Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa in which he then confesses his sins and learns to do things the right way really reminded me of how when people have some form of addiction (smoking, alcohol, drug) how they go to a rehab center to get some form of help and when they go they get some form of treatment to get better and regain their strength.

They make plot comparisons to anime, Nintendo, fantasy literature in general, and action movies:

  • One thing that caught my attention is the fact that the knight Redcrosse actually left Una behind because he thought she was romancing another man. I can understand that he felt betrayed, but I was surprised when he just decided to leave her behind; especially since the girl he saw was not even Una but a sprite that shape shifted in order to look like Una. Considering Redcrosse is a knight, it was not very chivalrous to leave his lady behind, “Still flying from his thoughts and gealous feare;/Will was his guide, and griefe led him astray” (798). The whole scenario makes me think of a magical soap opera where an evil twin fooled one of the main love interests.
  • I … liked that Redcrosse’s backstory was revealed in the House of Holiness. He was taken as a baby and raised in the Fairy Land. The scenario reminds me of a story called The Legend of Zelda. The main character was taken away and raised in a Fairy Land as well; I thought the similarity was interesting.
  • As an avid fan of fairytales of dwarves and fairies, this is by far one of my favorite stories I have read in class thus far …  I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the stories that set a precedent for them … It is so interesting from the half man-half animals, the sprites, the beasts and the battles to the interesting love triangles and quest to find one another. The story is so scattered and there are so many creatures that arise from nowhere … I love it!
  • in Canto 8 when there is a battle between Arthur and Orgoglio … there is the part where Arthur ends up wounding Orgoglio by cutting off his left arm, for me this really painted a vivid picture in my mind for a couple of reasons. First, when this happened I … found it a little amusing trying to picture Orgoglio trying to fight with only one arm after this happening. Also this immediately reminded me in action or superhero type movies and battle scenes like this would occur but most wouldn’t go as far as … showing … a arm getting cut off.
  • during Canto 11 the whole battle took 3 days to complete and in like action type/superhero movies when a battle seen is going on it is over in just a couple of minutes so for this to go on for 3 days is pretty different that’s for sure.

They take the narrative personally:

  • After being spiritually and physically cured by these women and the men at the hospital, Redcrosse goes on top of a mountain where his true identity is revealed to him. I think that this part is significant in the story because Redcrosse did not know the truth about his true identity until this very moment. If someone had told me that I was stolen by somebody and … that the name I have been called my entire life is not my actual name, I would be distraught. Redcrosse does not show too much grief but he sure is surprised.
  • I was a little sad that Redcrosse and Una cannot get married for six years, but if you truly love someone, I guess it is okay to wait.

So, in conclusion, how do 21st-century students read The Faerie Queene at a two-year campus? Those of you who teach it routinely no doubt knew this already, but I was relieved to find that, with the help of YouTube, and popular culture, the answer is—with a sense of recognition. Especially after the strenuous exertion of reading Chaucer in the original, Spenser is a refreshing surprise for students. The good news is—it’s easier “to make Spenser accessible to all” than I thought. 


Joel M. Dodson, “‘Was Edmund Spenser a Catholic / a Protestant / a Humanist?’: Keywords and The Faerie Queene”

I would like to contribute to this discussion some brief thoughts about the value of keyword studies for teaching and reading The Faerie Queene.

My thoughts have to do with the intersection of critical and practical pedagogy, though also with a set of larger questions—particularly as I teach Spenser again this semester in a course on English Reformation literature at a regional state university—about where exactly the past decade and a half of criticism has left us pedagogically. Did the “turn to religion,” for example, ever happen in the undergraduate classroom? Should it have? Has it—have any such recent turns, to non-human animals, to ecological crisis, to objects and things—made us better readers and teachers of Spenser’s poem? 

The answer to the latter question, I believe, is certainly yes, though the answer to the first less than certain. We need to do more thinking in 2015 about how exactly to marshal the textual resources The Faerie Queene already gives us in order to introduce our students to what Joseph Campana terms the peculiar “vulnerability” of Spenser’s religious and political allegory.[8] It is a vulnerability that sits uncomfortably in the digital age, when the average predictive search results a fledgling student may find on typing “was edmund spenser …” into Google includes “a catholic? a protestant? a humanist?” As a teacher, one feels less like Guyon’s Palmer in the sea of smart phones and more like Pyrrochles’s Atin—struggling to teach Spenser’s Reformation world by un-teaching it, and to help the new reader out of a mire to which we’re both “beduked,” “the one himself to drowne, / The other both from drowning for to save” ( 

One way out of the mire without grasping, as Atin and Pyrrochles do, for the “Archimago” of pedagogical simplification is to renew our focus on what Raymond Williams’s 1976 book termed “keywords.” The past year alone has seen a resurgence in keyword studies, from the work of Glenn Hendler, Bruce Burgett, Colin MacCabe, and the UPitt Keywords Project, to the newly revised Oxford edition of Williams’ Keywords and RSA panels on individual “keywords” in Shakespeare.[9] These new studies have enlarged our understanding of the relevance of keywords beyond Williams’s “shared vocabulary” of “culturally significant” words to what MacCabe terms a “new philology” and Hendler and Burget “a counterpoint to the discourse of expertise.” It is an approach already familiar to Spenser studies, as the combined resources of The Spenser Encyclopedia and individual studies like Elizabeth Fowler’s study of “fit” or Andrew Hadfield’s analysis of Spenser’s “salvage” idioms have long elucidated the political force of Spenserian neologisms and archaisms.

Over the past thirty years, however, another valence of keywords has emerged in our own and students’ reading lives: what the field of corpus linguistics terms “keyness,” or the rate and frequency of individual words within a given corpus or text, common through expanded digital search capabilities like Google.[10] As linguists Scott and Tribble call it, this is the sense of keywords as “markers of aboutness,” an oddly elegant phrase that suggests the horizontal experience of words in a given text in contrast to the vertical, philological sense that Williams, cultural studies, and even Spenser criticism, with its synthetic vision of what is “significant” in the Spenserian oeuvre, signals to readers. And, of course, it is our students’ fear that their horizontal experience of reading The Faerie Queene’s “mutability” requires a priori vertical knowledge of its historical and religious significance that sends them to Google in the first place.

There is an affective dimension to this. Pyrrochles cries to Atin, “I burne, I burne, I burne” (, and when our students burn with the text, we want to help them keep their armor on, not take it off, because we know their armor is, in fact, just fine. Well-designed keyword projects, I propose, do just this by helping both strong and struggling students navigate the The Faerie Queene on equal footing—viz., a single word. In my own keyword assignments, students typically choose one word at the beginning of a semester—common words like “true,” “false,” and “faith,” or novel choices like “green,” “book,” or “thing”—and then track that word in every work they read, via weekly journal posts, throughout the semester. These keyword assignments can often lead to substantial final projects (e.g., presentations or papers), but they also produce, I believe, a more consequential “turn” in students’ reading of The Faerie Queene: they turn allegoresis into textual affect, and that affective engagement into a vulnerability—to borrow Campana’s term—attuned to the diverse religious and ideological effects of Spenser’s poem.

Let me offer a brief example, from a student keyword journal written in the 7th week of a recent British Literature survey course, on the appearance of the word “thing” in the opening cantos of Book One (typos and sentence errors preserved):

In the first five cantos of book one of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the word “thing” often refers to spiritual behavior, knowledge, or power sometimes conveyed with negative connotations or implied duplicity. This use of the word “thing” is first encountered when Redcrosse and Una arrive at the “Hermit’s” dwelling place. The narrator describes the “Hermit’s” dwelling place and explains how in the “Chappell,” the “Hermit” says “his things each morne and eventide” (i.34). In this instance, the word “things” refers to “prayers” (as noted by Norton editors). At this point, Una, Redcrosse, and the reader are unaware that the “Hermit” is actually Archimago. It may be inferred, then, that in using the word “things” to describe the “Hermit’s” spiritual endeavors, the narrator is hinting at something “unknown,” hidden, or duplicitous about these “prayers” and that perhaps these “prayers” are actually spiritual “things” of another kind. It is worth noting that prayers are not consistently referred to as “things” so far in book one and are instead described in other ways (e.g. aves) so the use of “things” appears to be used intentionally to foreshadow the revelation of the “Hermit” as a sorcerer.

In this keyword post, the student, Rachael, demonstrates some significant readerly virtues.[11] She is reading, for one, with and against her footnotes. “Thing,” the Norton editors say, refers to Archimago’s prayers. But since Rachael knows from tracking her keyword that prayers in The Faerie Queene are not always “things”—sometimes they are “aves”—she observes that “things” connotes a kind of spiritual misdevotion that raises allegorical flags about the pole of irreligion in the Legend of Holiness, beyond Archimago:

The idea of “things” as spiritual knowledge and power is again encountered when Duessa goes to hell to seek help from Aesculapius to heal Sansjoy. In responding to Duessa’s request, Aesculapius states that she “temptest [him] in vaine, / to dare the thing” (v. 42) which was the original cause of his enduring pain. In this instance, Aesculpalius’s power to heal seems to be spoken with particularly negative tone. His powers are a “thing” that has led to so much pain that they cannot even be named. The ominous tone of this use of “thing” is amplified by the inclusion of the word “dare” which suggest further that his power and knowledge is a “thing” of high stakes. In both instances discussed above, the use of the word “thing” refers not just to spiritual knowledge or power but to such knowledge and power as potentially duplicitous, ominous, or otherwise something undesirable and to be wary of.

“His powers are a ‘thing’ that has led to so much pain that they cannot even be named.” In following her word as thing and name, Rachael exemplifies the value of reading with keywords: she uses the horizontal, or diegetic, space of the Spenserian text to chart through individual instances of “thing” (its keyness) the vertical, or mimetic, significance of “things” (as keyword), discovering Spenser’s painful, messy allegory of fallenness in the process. It is an object-oriented reading and thinking that goes beyond Catholics and Protestants. Moreover, it anticipates by several cantos the tenuous “name and nation” that Rachael, like Redcrosse, has not yet learned “to read aright”; not yet, because, at the time of writing the entry above, she was only through Canto 6. She was instead on Redcrosse’s journey, toward a version of intellectual and Reformation history she did not and could not yet know, built from words (and things) on up.

How to read The Faerie Queene? There is perhaps little new in this keyword approach, much less a turn in itself. In his recent book You Must Change Your Life, Peter Sloterdijk argues that we might consider replacing such disciplinary turns with renewed attention instead to the art of the training or the exercise—to forms of iterated practice that create new forms of care and attention, for a new century.[12] Keywords offer one such practice for reading and teaching The Faerie Queene, and one Spenser studies might consider more broadly.


Leah Whittington, “Wallowing, Getting Lost, and Greedily Devouring: Reading Spenser with Heather James”



Part 2: Responses


Tiffany Jo Werth, “How to Read The Faerie Queene: A Response”

A seemingly simple mandate: respond to how to read The Faerie Queene. Many of us have been doing it for years and consider ourselves armored for the task. Yet like an eager, pricking Redcrosse Knight, we might wisely rein ourselves in before plunging into the forest, for even though the trees might look familiar (elms, oaks), they have a way of shape shifting, as paths narrow into thickets when we confidently urge our steeds, and students, forward through the stanzas. A game set of scholars, following the lead of Gloriana’s knights, accepted the challenge “How to Read The Faerie Queene” at the tournament of the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in the unpredictable and ever mutable city of New Orleans (2014). Each encountered a different monster: for David Miller, Self-Recognition and Meta-Cognition in the Fairy Glass; Vital Misreading for Anne Lake Prescott; the Ghosts of Antique Poets for Timothy Duffy; Failure for Christian Anton Gerard; Lions for Margaret Christian; Getting Lost Amongst Flowers for Leah Whittington. Each wielded a differently enchanted lance—perhaps summed up by Joel M. Dodson’s apotropaic keywords to stave off Despayre (if not misprision). One outcome was indisputable: all of the players, even the creative writing students and sophomores at two-year colleges who might not have known they were playing, were quite happily “wallowing” (to borrow Whittington’s citation of Heather James) in The Faerie Queene. But before you judge them all to be Grylls, let me hasten to unpack the allegory. All signs point to something that likely won’t surprise Spenserians (although it might certainly rattle our neighboring Shakespeareans): in our age of the Tolkien franchise, the GRR Martin phenomenon, Spenser may not be so dead or strange—prickly perhaps but enchantingly so—or maybe it is that his version of alien, his Phantastes, looks familiar, a meme recombined from a pre- to a high-digital era. Something about his unfurling, digressive, violent, yet beautiful landscape teeming with hybrids, shadows, and flowers strikes a note of familiarity for digital age readers immersed in video games and CGI scripts. It may be that 2014 and beyond, readers recycled (as fans, as critics) are re-emerging into the Garden of Adonis, where we find ourselves in a world greatly changed—ever lost but still reading.


Yulia Ryzhik, “Through Looking-Glasses: A Response to ‘How to Read The Faerie Queene’

Two of the essays on “How to Read The Faerie Queene” meditate on the idea of projection.  David Lee Miller addresses a type of misreading that occurs within the poem—a misreading that the reader himself is at risk of committing—in which a protagonist fails to recognize an apparently external threat as an internal weakness. Timothy Duffy sees in The Faerie Queene an outward projection of highly processed literary materials, “colored” by Spenser’s interior mind and “resonant with his own vision, but still external.” The former essay focuses on the importance of inward projection and the process of reading; the latter focuses on outward projection and the process of composition. I would like to suggest that despite using different denotations of “projection,” and approaching the concept from opposite directions, both these essays point toward a similar reading practice.

Miller notes that Spenser’s protagonists “approach,” but “never achieve,” complete self-recognition, which remains ever on the horizon. The same could be said of our reading of The Faerie Queene as we try to make sense of Spenser’s protagonists. The poem works both like a telescope, with an infinite series of lenses, and like a kaleidoscope, with angled mirrors and colorful fragments. As Spenser’s figures are, by turns, arrested as emblems and set into narrative motion, their identities come into and out of focus, but the intermediate, emblematic projections seldom show exactly the same pattern. Duessa changes her guise almost as often as she changes company, and by the time she is executed as Mary, Queen of Scots, in Book V, we barely recognize the Duessa we knew in Book I. Spenser seeks to represent Elizabeth “in mirrours more than one,” but these mirrors are themselves changeable, taking on different attributes over the course of the poem, often projecting into the unfinished, and resisting final definition. They also resist being read as mere reflections, as is especially clear in the case of Britomart. Mediation through mythology and other sources can assist the reading process, but just as Britomart finds the myth of Narcissus insufficient for understanding her lovesickness, so too is the parsing of the poem’s intertextual layering insufficient for our understanding of The Faerie Queene. Britomart must make her own mythology, Spenser must project his own vision, and we as readers must walk through a series of looking-glasses—the gate of the Bower of Bliss, surely, among them. The “meta-cognition” required in reading The Faerie Queene entails, then, an infinite number of mediated inward and outward projections. Telling the inside from the outside: hoc opus, hic labor est.


Rachel Eisendrath, “A Response to Timothy Duffy”

In this appealingly textured and intellectually chunky account, Timothy Duffy begins by showing how The Faerie Queene points both up and down. Spenser calls upon the heavens, but also claims to have followed “the antique rolles” here on earth. I wondered how this tension represents a departure from, say, Sir Philip Sidney’s account of poetry. In the Apology, Sidney positions poetry between two figures: On the one side stands philosophy, who is wise but too distant and obscure and removed from the stuff of life. And on the other side history, who is “loaden with old mouse-eaten records.” Here, too, poetry points both up and down, embodying the truths of philosophy in the stuff of actuality.

How is Spenser different? If I’m understanding correctly, Spenser preserves the earthly sources (e.g., “the antique rolles”), rather than “dissolve” them into his poem. See Duffy’s terrific twist on the traditional metaphor of the bee: “Spenser’s honey does not obliterate the pollen it swallows—indeed, the honey he pukes up has to coexist with the preserved artifact of the original pollen.” So, we’re not just talking about allusiveness. Duffy emphasizes the material origins of Spenser’s interaction with other authors: “his process is a bit more material”; “his goals in The Faerie Queene are remarkably material and intertextual”; and, near the end of the essay, he refers to “the material demands of putting ink on the page among so many other pages that are splashed by other people’s ink.” Recent critics have focused on the materiality of Spenser’s allegory and of his places; what does the category of the material mean for Duffy’s account of Spenser’s origins?


Rachel Eisendrath, “A Response to Margaret Christian”

How should we teach students who are like Margaret Christian’s and tend to relate texts to themselves? I had one adult student who, after reading King Lear, tilted his head to one side and addressed the book: “Dad?” If such readers can go wrong by projecting themselves into the text, so, too, can more critically experienced readers go wrong by failing to recognize themselves in the text. (See the problems of self-recognition raised in David Lee Miller’s insightful essay.) At least The Faerie Queene provides for both kinds of readers and often at the same time—ones that project themselves into the text, and ones that analyze it from a distance. The Faerie Queene is even interested in bad readers; as Anne Lake Prescott says, “we are often meant to misread at first.” That’s Spenser, and, as Prescott puts it, “that’s life.” What strategies might help us to respond expansively and critically to inexperienced readers—not shaming them for having a personal response, maybe even honoring them for it, while also finding a way to encourage them to engage critically?

The personal, as Christian suggests, is a foothold that might get such students over the wall and into the text—which, in the context that Christian describes, is no mean feat. But what then? Perhaps the poem itself can guide us. Does anyone have examples of how they’ve used The Faerie Queene’s own tendency to critique its stories to help students do the same?


Catherine Nicholson, “Reading Like a Lion, Reading Like an Ass”

Like Margaret Christian’s students, I am fascinated by Una’s lion, whose brief career Book One, canto three, defies what I think I know both about lions and about reading The Faerie Queene. The lion is that rare creature, the ideal reader. He sees Una unveiled and, from that encounter, acquires not only an un-lion-like tenderness but also an unparalleled capacity for accessing and apprehending meaning: “From her fayre eyes he tooke commandement, / And euer by her lookes conceiued her intent” ( But the lion is also an object of bemused incomprehension within the poem: it isn’t only students who wonder what he’s doing with Una; Archimago himself wonders aloud “what the lion ment” ( The levity of that half-line makes momentary light of what’s to come: Una, exposed to the rapacious assault of Sansloy by Archimago’s deception, “Amased stands, her selfe so mockt to see” (; the lion springs to her defense and is promptly run through by Sansloy’s iron spear. His perfect intuition of Truth means nothing against an enemy who “feates of armes did wisely understand” (1.3.425). It isn’t the end of the poem, of course, or even of Book One, but it is the end of a certain kind of faith in the efficacy of right reading. No one comprehends Una more fully and fluently than the lion; no one is more helpless to protect her. Indeed, it’s worse than that: having killed the lion and seized Una, Sansloy becomes his dreadful double. He too sees Una unveiled at the start of canto six, but his encounter with unmediated truth only inflames his impulse to destroy it: “Then gan her beautie shyne, as brightest skye, / And burnt his beastly hart t’efforce her chastitie” ( If this, too, is an allegory of reading, it is one that suggests texts do not survive encounters with readers intact: interpretation is indistinguishable from violence.

We might take some comfort, however, from the final stanza of canto three, which assures us that Una is not utterly abandoned to her fate; other ways of being with texts are possible: “Her servile beast yet would not leave her so, / But follows her far off, ne ought he feare, / To be partaker of her wandering woe” ( Una’s ass is a less inspiring model for readers than the clairvoyant lion: he is a constant but plodding companion, and there is never any hint that he understands a bit of what is going on around him. He, too, has a double in the satyrs who rescue Una from Sansloy in canto six. The satyrs are, in many ways, terrible readers: even when Una takes pains “to teach them truth,” they refuse to see it, “worship[ping] her in vaine”—clinging to the letter at the expense of the spirit. So obstinate is their idolatry that when Una “restrayne[s]” them from worshipping her, they redirect their fervor to her donkey. But the poem never fully repudiates this “barbarous truth” (—although the satyrs may fail to comprehend Una’s allegorical significance, they are exemplary readers in other ways, who “feel her secret smart, / And read her sorrow in her countnance sad” ( Partaking in woe, reading sorrow: understanding is not the only readerly virtue; empathy counts as well in this poem. Una stays with the satyrs a “long time,” the narrator tells us, “To gather breath in many miseries,” and that is a grace this episode extends to readers as well. It’s hard to say, finally, what the satyrs mean: “In vaine he seekes that hauing cannot holde,” the narrator moralizes, but that’s a gloss that seems wholly inadequate to describe the satyrs’ accidental, providential intersection with Una’s story. The “Letter to Ralegh” ends by observing that in the interstices of the vast allegorical design, “many other adventures are intermedled, but rather as Accidents, then intendments”: what kind of reading do such unintending adventures either require or reward? Sometimes the poem asks only that we stick with it, following along as best we can.


Kimberly Anne Coles, “How [not] to read The Faerie Queene

“Words fearen babes” (III.iv.15), Britomart tells Marinell, before her actions leave him “wallow[ing] in his gore” (III.iv.16). But the use of words, and the production of meaning that attends their use, was anxious work at the time of Spenser’s writing. (And Marinell’s visage might serve as a cautionary tale.) Several of the essays gathered in this forum declare its stated question—“How to read The Faerie Queene”—impossible to answer. Anne Lake Prescott is (as usual) the most direct: “How not to read [it] is easier” to ascertain. The Faerie Queene is not meant to be read, or at least, not read correctly. The strategies of the text promote active misreading. As Prescott observes, the reader of The Faerie Queene is subjected to a process of misreading, misnomer, misdirection. Marinell himself is left “sadly soucing on the sandy shore” (III.iv.16) because of a misapprehension of the story of his downfall. The terrain of Fairy Land is populated by subjects without integrity: the virtuous and villainous alike are a multiplication of signs and signatures. The lone figure who is as she seems ultimately resides in Eden: Una’s return to the paradise of her parents seems to indicate that the integrity of signs is only guaranteed in the prelapsarian world. Or, alternatively, as Prescott writes, “Maybe we can read perfectly only when leaning against those pillars of Eternity.” Our current optic “through a glass darkly” (I Cor. 13:12), affords imperfect sight. Spenser’s text reproduces the experience of fallen interpretation.

In The Pain of Reformation, Joseph Campana observes that Spenser refuses the ethical recuperation of poetry that Philip Sidney attempts; he will not provide a bulwark against Calvinist claims of poetry’s misleading effects (108). I might amend this observation: that rather, Spenser magnifies these effects in order to alert the reader to the consequences of fleshy housing and a terrestrial plane. Sidney’s Defense, if we accept the claims of Henry Woudhuysen, was circulated only among a few intimates, and his “translation of Salust de Bartas” was entered into the Stationer’s Register but never printed. Spenser’s own poetic translations of scriptural material (if we accept the claims of William Ponsonby) were also held in tight circulation and never printed (Complaints Containing … Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie). Spenser knew as much as anyone about the consequences of mistranslating the Word. But deciphering the word in a postlapsarian world was not much less treacherous, particularly when the imagination—the instrument of the sensitive, rather than the rational, soul—is the appliance used. The experience of reading The Faerie Queene is one of alienation, in which our greatest vulnerability is to signs that shift shape. Such is the state of the fallen creature, who necessarily apprehends the world through sense-perception—who, like Lear, “see[s] it feelingly” ( We go on. “Words fearen babes”: in The Faerie Queene, we are forced to give ourselves up to not knowing and move forward anyway.


Rebecca Rush, “Responses to ‘How to Read The Faerie Queene’”

Although, perhaps channeling Spenserian humility, Timothy Duffy describes the controversy he raises in the opening of this piece as “banal,” I find his suggestion that we consider Spenser’s poetry in terms of the tension between the material and the transcendent extremely useful. Indeed, the dichotomy seems to shed light on Spenser’s choice of genres in The Faerie Queene: by infusing allegory with the lifeblood of romance, Spenser allows himself to occupy a peculiar middle ground between the heavenly and the earthly. In contrast to Milton, who also “can sing both high and low,” to use Feste’s phrase, but does so by zooming at dizzying speed from hell to earth and earth to heaven, Spenser seems to constantly hover between two worlds, imbuing the earthly with spiritual meaning without ever leaving it behind. In fact, Spenser says as much himself in Amoretti LXXII, which Duffy’s piece has led me to see as a guide for reading Spenser’s poetry more generally: 

OFT when my spirit doth spred her bolder winges,
  In mind to mount up to the purest sky:
  it down is weighd with thoght of earthly things
  and clogd with burden of mortality,
Where when that souerayne beauty it doth spy,
  resembling heauens glory in her light:
  drawne with sweet pleasures bayt, it back doth fly,
  and unto heauen forgets her former flight.
There my fraile fancy fed with full delight,
  doth bath in blisse and mantleth most at ease:
  ne thinks of other heauen, but how it might
  her harts desire with most contentment please.
Hart need not with none other happinesse,
  but here on earth to have such hevens blisse.

Both here and elsewhere, Spenser certainly displays ambivalence about being drawn by the sweet pleasures of the earth, but, as Duffy’s analysis of Spenser’s invocation reveals, his poetry constantly seeks to have heaven’s bliss here on earth and by earthly means. For me, Duffy’s depiction of Spenser as a poet of the middle ground is a valuable reminder not to indulge in the temptation to “decode” Spenser’s tales of knights and ladies for their transcendent spiritual truths. As Margaret Christian’s piece reveals, it is precisely the material and pictorial aspects of Spenser’s allegory that attract students and gradually draw them into his more philosophical aspects.  

I have not yet had the opportunity to teach Spenser, but reading Margaret Christian’s account of student responses makes me look forward to teaching The Faerie Queene and appreciate the insights that energetic first-time readers can bring to the poem. In my own work, I examine the ways that formal features were interpreted by Renaissance writers and readers and, in reading this piece, I was struck by the fact that, in some ways, student readings of form approximate those of their sixteenth-century predecessors. Instead of trying to describe the Spenserian stanza in a pseudo-mathematical scheme (the alphabetical notation we use to describe rhyme patterns was not introduced in England until about two hundred years after Spenser wrote), the second student notes with astute simplicity that she likes the “way the work was set up—in stanzas” because “This makes it easier to read, because I do not feel swamped.” Like Renaissance prosodic theorists, the student is interested in the effect form has on the reader’s experience, and, with the straightforward observation that stanzas prevent the reader from feeling swamped, she manages to capture something significant about the way that stanzas satisfy a desire for limitation and rest in a lengthy narrative.

Since I read this piece after considering Timothy Duffy’s reflections on the material nature of Spenser’s poetry, I also found it noteworthy that students were attracted to the most vivid and physical moment of the poem and both noticed and appreciated Spenser’s skill as an image-maker. The dragon fight with its “gross” but “captivating” imagery seems to be a favorite for precisely this reason. Since it is easy to lose sight of Spenser’s image-making in my attempts to track down Spenserian allusions and interpret the dark conceit of the poem, it is a pleasure to be reminded by fresh and energetic readers that one of the greatest appeals of Spenser’s poetry is, as one student puts it, the vividness of the pictures he paints in the mind. This is certainly what attracted later poets like Cowley and Keats to Spenser’s poetry, and re-recognizing image-making as the source of Spenser’s peculiar charm will certainly help me in future pedagogical efforts as I try to give life to a text that students often find demanding and unfamiliar. 

[1] Stephen Orgel, “Margins of Truth,” in Andrew Murphy, ed., The Renaissance Text: Theory, Editing, Textuality (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000), 91-107.

[2] Heather James, “Flower Power,” The Spenser Review 44.2.30 (2014).

[3] Rita Felski, “Digging Down and Standing Back,” English Language Notes 51.2 (2013): 22.

[4] Ayesha Ramachandran, “Allegory and Our Discontents: Thinking “Post-Critically” while Reading Judith Anderson,” The Spenser Review 44.1.1 (2014).

[5] Edmund Spenser, “Letter of the Authors expounding his whole intention in the course of this worke: which for that it giueth great light to the Reader, for the better understanding is hereunto annexed,” in Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen: Second Edition, edited by A.C. Hamilton (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007), 715.

[6] Lauren Silberman, Transforming Desire: Erotic knowledge in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene (Berkeley: U of California P, 1995), 21.

[7] All student parenthetical references are to pages in Volume 1 of the 9th edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, New York: Norton, 2012.

[8] Joseph Campana, The Pain of Reformation: Ethics, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham, 2012)

[9] See Glenn Hendler and Bruce Burgett, Keywords for American Cultural Studies, 2nd edn. (NYU, 2014), Colin MacCabe, “In Words We are Made Flesh: Towards a New Cambridge Philology,” Critical Quarterly 50.1 (2008): 64-84, and for other recent work on “keywords” by MacCabe, Alan Durant, Seth Mehl, and others, see the collection of essays at The Keywords Project (University of Pittsburgh) at

A new, expanded edition of Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (originally published Oxford, 1976; revised 1985) was released November 2014, with a forward by Colin MacCabe.

[10] On corpus linguistics and keywords, see the companion volumes of Mike Scott and Christopher Tribble, Textual Patterns: Key Words and Corpus Analysis in Language Education, Studies in Corpus Linguistics 22 (John Benjamins, 2006), and Marina Bondi and Mike Scott, eds., Keyness in Texts, Studies in Corpus Linguistics 41 (John Benjamins, 2010).

[11] Note: though the student has given written permission to share her work, I have changed her name to preserve her anonymity.   

[12] Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics, trans. Wieland Hoban (Polity P, 2013).



  • Elizabeth Fowler 9 years, 3 months ago

    Thanks to all ! I'm grateful for these intelligent pieces & to the Review for circulating them -- I've just sent them to a new crop of readers in my graduate class who are opening Book I for the first time. A prismatic introduction into the experience of reading and teaching and thinking about all those things as you do them is just the way to begin. Again.

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  • Riverside Mobile Truck Repair Co. 5 months, 2 weeks ago

    The poem’s lessons in right and wrong reading are now familiar to us, and we are apt to perceive both our successes and our failures of reading as part of the poem’s complex yet generous embrace of the fallible reader and her need for education, in reading as in holiness and temperance and chastity.

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Cite as:

"How to Read The Faerie Queene: A Forum," Spenser Review 44.3.56 (Winter 2015). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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