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The Problem of Poetry in The Faerie Queene, Book V
by Heather James

This essay is a preliminary attempt to come to grips with a subtle but deep problem in the poetry of The Faerie Queene, Book V that is both linked to and overshadowed by the concerns of history, ideology, and politics that permeate Spenser’s Legend of Justice as a narrative uneasily situated between Faerylond and the contemporary environs of France, the Netherlands, and Ireland. In Book V, Spenser hones in on a feature of poetry that pervades The Faerie Queene and generally works to illuminate and expand the imaginative prospects of the poem: this is the art of comparison, which comprehends matters great and small in Spenser’s book and in Elizabethan culture. It affects the practice of analogy, which extends across disciplines of knowledge (including mathematics, grammar, and law) to consider matters of proportion, correspondence, resemblance, and reasoning based on parallel cases; the humanist project of imitation based on classical as well as biblical models; and the epic simile, in which comparisons between one thing and another are drawn out in ways that make their prospects of success or failure seem to be co-extensive with the possibilities of poetic interpretation itself. The project of Book V depends heavily on the arts of analogy, imitation, and comparison, but the specific uses of these arts are less successful and persuasive than they are in earlier books of The Faerie Queene.

In the earlier books, analogies open onto yet more analogies, while literary imitations emerge as insignia of poetic creativity: ancient and medieval texts are never dead and new acts of poetic creation are never dwarfed or pre-empted by their prior models. Epic similes, moreover, gesture towards the openness—not the restriction—of comparison in terms of epistemology and interpretation. Comparisons are at the heart of Spenser’s efforts to cast his entire romance epic as poetic experiment with readerly states of wonder, awe, and marvel: in other words, comparisons reveal the way in which the poem situates itself—and the work of reading—on the border of ideas, perceptions, feelings, and forms of knowledge as they shuttle between the ancient and new, the familiar and strange, and the conventional and unexpected. The poetic genius of The Faerie Queene inheres in its sense of the indefinite possibilities of thought and cognition that comparisons may generate. This is true for the whole of the poem except Book V: here, the poet directs his mind towards the prospect of imminent failure in the technique of comparison. The stakes of failure in Book V are not less but greater than in the books devoted to holiness, temperance, chastity, and friendship. In the book of justice, it is essential that the scales that weigh competing claims and interests of any kind come to a balanced and fair result. Yet they never do, and each failure emerges as an elegiac lament, in which the limitations and defects of poetic form, down to its meter and favored tropes, measure the failures of equity as a philosophical as well as legal attempt to produce the effect of fairness in history.

In his “Letter to Ralegh,” appended to the first installment of The Faerie Queene in 1590, Spenser memorably explains his intent to situate the legends of all of his books in Arthurian times for two distinct reasons. First, there is the benefit of attraction: since readers respond to “historicall fiction” with pleasure, Spenser plans to give them the “variety of matter” they love while expanding the role of moral “profite.”[1] Second, a poet who wants to speak to truths would do well to place his work “furthest from the daunger of envy, and the suspition of present time.” Arthurian times are suggestive of history but nonetheless safe from immediate application. In Book V, however, Spenser reverses his course: he takes Artegall, the patron of justice and the proposed equal of King Arthur, out of the comforts and protection of historical fiction and requires him to cope with bracing pressures for which he, as the chosen pupil of Astraea, the goddess of Justice and last of the gods to abandon the temporal world, is ill-equipped: these are the iron-age pressures brought on by violence in contemporary history. Artegall has been trained to think of justice beyond and outside of the more local and time-bound considerations of law, and yet he is pressed into Gloriana’s service in the most local and time-bound of Spenser’s books. In the delimited space of Book V, Spenser gives up the charisma and aura of fiction based on antique legends. He presses hard on the difference between history and poetry. And he enlists readers in the unexpected project of reading locally but not objectively: it would be comforting to think that local or historical reading in Book V might lead to mastery over the book’s questions of moral and political philosophy, but Spenser characterizes the “local” view as a fall into passion, bias, and misinterpretation. To give up a focus on philosophical and transhistorical concerns and read for the moment, in Book V, is to read with “envy, and suspition.”[2] As Spenser pushes Artegall out of historical fiction, he also plunges his readers into unfamiliar territory: he subtracts a great deal of the traditional pleasure of poetry at the same time that he complicates its second basis in moral use. This is odd, and on numerous grounds.

By my tally, there is a conspicuous lack of inspiration in Spenser’s use of creative imitation, analogy, example, and comparison in Book V. It is not my purpose to say that the poet tried but failed to get his poetic project off the ground. I am proposing instead that he used Book V to explore the social, political, and epistemological conditions that impoverish poetry. I suggest that he asked himself, and his readers, what happens to poetry when it lacks the freedom that allows for mobility in the poetic imagination. The figure in the poem who seems most closely tied to the failure of poetry is Talus, the iron man who begins as Artegall’s groom but comes to be his guide. Talus gains new power over the narrative, I think, after Artegall’s experiences in Radegone, where he voluntarily forfeits his own agency rather than carry out retributive justice on Radigund, the impatient, frustrated, and beautiful Amazon. At a certain point in my work on this talk, Talus started to take over: I did my best to resist, but he’s a hard man to deny: everyone who has read Book V—and everyone in Book V—knows how hard it is to shake him, once he’s on your tail.



Spenser has the capacity to illuminate the smallest or the greatest poem with amazement, astonishment, awe, and wonder. And so many a reader has come upon The Faerie Queene Book V and felt at a loss to know what to make of its fierce and disorienting pessimism. It is not always clear how readers, who come to the Legend of Justice with interpretive equipment conditioned by the earlier books, can and should make their way through the book. The pessimism of Book V entranced me from the moment I first encountered it as a graduate student. For me, the book was riveting, and it remains so. It begins with a powerfully negative and personal comparison of “the image of the antique world” and Spenser’s present time, when heaven and earth are moving towards a “dissolution” (pr.4.9) that anticipates the pessimism of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the opening acts of the tragedy and the new science of John Donne’s Anniversaries:

So oft as I with state of present time,
The image of the antique world compare,
When as mans age was in his freshest prime,
And the first blossome of faire vertue bare,
Such oddes I find twixt those, and these which are,
As that, through long continuance of his course,
Me seemes the world is runne quite out of square,
From the first point of his appointed sourse,
And being once amisse growes daily wourse and wourse.

In the opening stanza of the proem, Spenser suggests that his readers would be fools to expect a progress narrative in the book as a whole—just as they would be fools to expect one in life and in human history. He moves quickly from an image of a world that is out of joint and at odds with its origins to an even more distressing image of the degeneration of human beings, who are turning to stone in a reversal of the aetiology provided in Ovid’s story of Deucalion and Pyrrha. Although men were originally “framed / Of earthly mould, and form’d of flesh and bone,” they have performed their own perverse and “backwards” metamorphosis “into hardest stone” (pr.2.4-5).[3] As Katherine Eggert has pointed out, Spenser imagines a stoniness that threatens to “degender” humankind, stripping men and women of their humankindness (or “genre”) and the reciprocal relations of the sexes, in which women complement and modify the absolutism of men with female principles of equity, mercy, and kindness.[4] The Golden Age is gone, Spenser tells his reader in no uncertain terms, and this is the Iron Age.

Spenser prosecutes the idea of Iron Age injustice from his relentlessly gloomy proem to Book V’s thoroughly bitter end. In the final stages of canto xii, Artegall achieves a modest degree of success in his own book, when he finally meets and kills the tyrant Grantorto in a battle that lasts a mere ten stanzas. In the last of these stanzas, Spenser’s hero delivers the last and most courteous of the book’s many beheadings, when he lays Grantorto prostrate on the ground and “lightly reft his head, to ease him of his paine” (23.9), after which he duly sets about “reforming” Irena’s kingdom. This is an ideal moment for a conclusion—even a FINIS at the foot of the printed page. The hero, after all, has managed to cast the book’s many beheadings and mutilations in a courtly mood.[5] Yet the final canto drags on, ending on a note that is far from triumphal when Artegall is summoned back to Gloriana’s court before his work is done. Worse, he makes the return trip to court in a “cloud” of scandal that extends over 18 agonizing stanzas—almost twice the time devoted to his final battle. Instead of coming home to a hero’s welcome, he is dogged along the way by “Two griesly creatures,” with “foule and filthie” faces and “garments … all rag’d and tatter’d” (xii.28.8), the personifications of Envy and Detraction. Envy is the elder of the two. Like her counterpart in Book 2 of the Metamorphoses, she has “dull eyes” that “seem to looke askew,” “foule heare” that “Hung loose and loathsomely,” a wan and lean complexion, bad teeth, jutting bones, raw lips, and hands as “foule and dirty” and as untrimmed as “puttocks clawes” (xii.29.4, 30.1-3). Detraction is younger but “nothing better,” differing mainly in her ambition to “spred abroad … and throw in th’open wynd” all the words of malice, slander, and mischief that Envy secrets within herself. In the book’s final stanza, Talus hears Detraction “lewdly raile” against Artegall, and he longs to “chastiz[e]” her “with his yron flaile” (xii.43.1-3), but Artegall forbids him, and Talus for once listens and obeys—perhaps because Detraction is the personification of English sentiment and not Irish persons.

It is a weird ending in total defeat and silence after a number of books ending in qualified, but not fully compromised, triumph. Yet this ending suits a book that begins with the poet’s, or narrator’s, sense of an irrevocable fall from the Golden to the Iron Age. The book’s ending is often read in terms of the cloud of scandal that attended the career of Arthur, Lord Grey, the Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1580-1582, who carried out the Elizabethan colonial policy in Ireland with more violence than anyone at home and in the court wanted to hear about. In my view, Detraction is the bogey waiting for Lord Grey, at the close of Spenser’s Legend of Justice, with her “cursed tongue full sharpe and short … like Aspis sting” (36.4): a new and modern horror, she thrives on gossip and contemporary news reports. I suspect, however, that her older and scarier companion is genuinely uninterested in Lord Grey. Envy is after bigger prey: she has been lying in wait for Spenser since the outset of Book V and she presides over his poetic homecoming.

Envy, after all, is the traditional enemy of poetry: she has been poetry’s enemy since the time of Callimachus and, more important to Spenser, since the times of Ovid in Augustan Rome and in exile. Throughout his career, Ovid cast her as his great opponent: in set pieces of the Amores and Metamorphoses he asserts his victory over envy—his poetry will endure through the ages and his wit will remain irrepressible, even in oppressive times. At the end of his poetic career, however, Ovid throws in the towel. In the final verses of his last poem from exile, Ovid concedes that Envy has won the battle:  there is no room left in his body—or the body of his work—for another wound. Addressing Liuor, or Envy, he writes,

         quid iuvat extinctos ferrum demittere in artus?
              non habet in nobis iam nova plaga locum.
        (Ex Ponto 4.16.51-2)

[What pleasure to thee to drive the steel into limbs already dead? There is no space in me now for a new wound.][6]

In his last verses from exile, Rome’s wittiest elegist speaks of his poetry and his own poetic inspiration in the past tense: they were great, but in the here and now of poetic endings, they have fallen to earth.

In reflecting on the end of Book V and the end of Ovid’s poetic corpus, I am suggesting that Spenser sets up the Legend of Justice to trace the failure and disgrace of Arthur, Lord Grey, through the assault of Detraction on Artegall—that is the endpoint of his historical project—while, on another level of the fiction, he traces a larger story of poetic failure. What makes a poem “fail”?  Why write a poem with its own failure in mind? It should be obvious that I think Book V is brilliant, and even stunning, as a work in which the poet’s inspiration is on display as a virtue at risk and in imminent danger of complete loss. The endgame of Envy is silence. She wins. In a way, it matters less to Book V why she wins—although I think it is clear that Spenser has allowed local history to overwhelm the protective limits set by fiction. The main question in Book V is how.

I propose to read Book V as Spenser’s experiment in how poetry fails in a climate of envy that may be characterized as zero-sum thinking: i.e., if you have that desirable thing, then I do not. And this kind of thinking has two effects in Book V. It replaces amity as the glue of society with enmity, as do all imperial and colonial ventures that cast themselves as innocent settlement narratives, starting with Vergil’s Aeneid. And it undoes the magic of comparison, in which the sustained exploration of relationship between one thing and another creates an imaginative space—the space of fiction—for creativity and change.



Most of the lofty comparisons—analogies, imitations, and epic similes—in Spenser’s Legend of Justice fall to earth. Part of me would dearly love to catalogue the many ways in which Spenser renders epic similes, generally seen as opportunities for virtuosic performance in epic poetry, both strange and effectless. I have space for a few examples. In some cases, comparisons seem deliberately thin and reductive, as when an epic simile boils down to a piece of ideology. As birds of prey, for example, Radigund is a puttock or kite to Artegall’s gentle falcon:

Like as a Puttocke hauing spyde in sight
A gentle Faulcon sitting on an hill,
Whose other wing, now made vnmeet for flight,
Was lately broken by some fortune ill;
The foolish Kyte, led with licentious will,
Doth beat vpon the gentle bird in vaine,
With many idle stoups her troubling still:
Euen so did Radigund with bootlesse pain
Annoy this noble Knight, and sorely him constraine.

This is a full-scale epic simile, and yet it does little to illuminate the battle between Artegall and the Amazon: its task is to act as a poultice to Artegall’s wounded masculinity, unhurt by her scimitar but perilously damaged by the sight of her beauty. The entrancing light of her face, “Like as the Moone in foggie winters night” (v.12.8), pierced and softened the knight’s “cruell minded hart”: “No hand so cruell, nor no hart so hard, / But ruth of beautie will it mollifie” (v.13.1, 5-6). Artegall has gone soft, and the simile makes an ideological point that has been cogently argued by Katherine Eggert: Argetall’s only cover is a hardening of the narrative attitude toward womankind, one that recalls the stony “degendering” of man in the proem and simultaneously prepares for the book’s ultimate rejection of Britomart as Radigund’s double. As a woman with authority, even Britomart must become a puttock and kite to Artegall’s “gentle Faulcon”: distressingly, Britomart is cast out of the poem in a triple comparison to Delilah, Iole, and Cleopatra (viii.2). She shoulders the burden so that Artegall may recover—and harden—his heroic masculinity, and she disappears from the poem in due silence.

Book V’s similes often specialize in distraction and ideological reduction rather than the epistemological focus and expansion that Spenser’s readers have been trained to expect from the first installment of The Faerie Queene. Some strip the basis of comparison to a single—and small—element of a stanza that bustles with unrelated details but does nothing to support the narrative action through a coherent visual image. When Artegall encounters Pollente in canto ii, for example, they carry their fight into a river, where they go at it like a dolphin and seal: “They snuf, they snort, they bounce, they rage, they rore, / That all the sea disturbed with theire traine” (ii.15.6-7). It may be true, as A.C. Hamilton (following Aptekar) notes in his Longman addition, that “the dolphin signifies guile, particularly that which the good man uses to overcome a guileful opponent.” The allegory might be applied to the simile as its moral point. But in the act of reading, moral allegory is lost in the hyperactivity of the two men in the flood. If I were to sum up the point of the simile in a single word, it would not be “guile” but “water.”

In yet other cases, Spenser piles on allusions but to similarly reductive effect. I think here of his treatment of the Souldan and his wife Adicia in canto viii. Both are described through the dazzling array of Ovidian myths and metamorphoses. Over an extended account of his battle with Arthur, he is likened to Diomedes (“Like to the Thracian Tyrant, who they say / Vnto his horses gaue his guests for meat,” viii.31.1-2), then Phaethon (“As when the firie-mouthed steeds, which drew / The Sunnes bright wayne to Phaethons decay,” viii.40.1-2), and then Hippolytus (“Like as the cursed sonne of Theseus, / That following his chase in dewy morne,” viii.43.1-2), while his wife is likened to Ino, Medea, and all the Maenads in a single stanza:

Like raging Ino, when the knife in hand
She threw her husbands murdred infant out,
Or fell Medea, when on Colchicke strand
Her brothers bones she scattered all about;
Or as that madding mother, mongst the rout
Of Bacchus Priests her owne dear flesh did teare.
Yet neither Ino, nor Medea stout,
Nor all the Mænades so furious were,
As this bold woman …

The enraged Adicia may be a “bold woman,” but Artegall has her number (“But Artegall being thereof aware,” viii.48.1)—she is Ino, Medea, Agave, and the whole rout of Maenads—and he stays her “cruel hand” (48.2), thus preventing her from acting in accordance with her Ovidian models. In this episode, Spenser sends Adicia spinning through an exhaustive repertoire of classical examples of female rage, then piles on yet more: she becomes Hecuba-as-a-mad-bitch (“As a mad bytch, when the franticke fit / Her burning toungue with rage inflamed hath,” 49.1-2) until she finally—and literally—metamorphoses into a tiger. In the simile-heavy case of canto viii, it seems plausible to suggest that the Souldan and his wife have lost their status as the main targets of the poet’s allusive hyperactivity: Spenser seems to have set his sights on the evocative power of Ovidian metamorphosis—and epic simile itself—with the aim of containing and then destroying them in the persons of the Souldan and Acidia.



The most privileged comparison of the early cantos of Book V unfolds in the optative mood: this is the analogy of Artegall with Solomon the judge from Kings, an example I examine in detail in order to underscore the ways that it proposes its own pessimism as a riveting object of readerly attention. First, it features a golden-age optimist, Artegall, betrothed to the luminous Britomart but elegiacally linked to an iron man, Talus, who executes the justice that Artegall dreams up but also destroys it in the process. Artegall and Talus are the saddest of tragic pairs by the end of Book V, but they are not the first. The first, in fact, is the weeping Squire and his lady in canto i and, shadowing them, the headless lady romantically tied to Sir Sanglier. The poem’s first adventure focuses on Artegall’s efforts to reunite a painfully divided couple and, as best he can, make a wronged woman whole (in judicial terms, since he cannot heal her body). His ventures begin when he comes across the weeping Squire in an unlucky stanza—number 13—and, in the next stanza, spies what he takes to be the proximate cause of the Squire’s tears: a “headlesse ladie” (i.14.3) in a pool of blood. Despite appearances, the lady is not the cause of the Squire’s distress: he is despondent because he has lost his own lover, he tells Artegall, who was stolen from him by the aristocratic lover of the headless lady. As for the lady, she is the first of many figures in Book V who fail to understand that they have somehow slipped out of the protected world of romance fiction. The unfortunate lady was linked to a standard-issue cad of romance, who abandoned her when he clapped eyes on a fairer maiden (the weeping Squire’s love). This is a routine event in romance epic: not all lovers are faithful. But nothing prepares us for what Sir Sanglier, her lover, does next. She chases after him and delivers, on cue, a standard line for abandoned women in romance epic: she would rather die at his hand than see him “so to leaue her, [and] away to cast” (i.18.3). Stunningly, he takes her at her word: “With that his sword he drew all wrathfully, / And at one stroke cropt off her head with scorne” (i.18.5-6). (I note in passing that his “cropping” anticipates the reaping of lives by Talus in the later portions of the book.)

This is a breath-taking opening scene that, I suggest, leaves Spenser’s readers unsure of what to expect in the narrative to come. It is not tragic but is shocking enough to require triage: Artegall quickly sorts the injured parties into groups based on need and likely benefit from his attention, and sets to work on helping the weeping Squire recover his lady from the brutally forceful Sir Sanglier. When neither man gives up his claim to the lady, the resourceful Artegall reprises the story in Kings of the two women who come to Solomon with rival claims to a single baby. Since neither man claims responsibility for the dead woman, and both claim the living one by rights, Artegall serenely offers to divide both ladies between them: “Let both the dead and liuing equally / Deuided be betwixt you here in sight, / And each of either take his share aright” (i.26.3-5), he decrees, and then waits for the man who actually loves her—the weeping Squire—to release his title in order to save her life. Artegall’s job is half done. The case of the headless lady remains. But the best that Artegall can do is force her severed head on Sir Sanglier, with instructions to carry it with him as a badge of shame. The hot-headed knight resists Artegall’s sentence until he is threatened by Talus, at which point he takes it up “As rated Spaniell takes his burden vp for feare” (V.i.29.9). I imagine that he carries the severed head—and his hangdog expression—until he comes to the next bend in the road. Canto i, then, marks a division between Artegall’s faith in the authoritative and virtuous examples that he learned from Astraea, and the reader’s growing awareness of Spenser’s dark ironies.

Canto ii begins on a bright note when Artegall demolishes a badman-on-a-bridge, Pollente, who differs in one respect from his comparison pool in romance: he is less interested in challenging wandering knights to duels than in charging peasants for the right to walk on a public access road. Artegall manfully knocks him off the bridge and into the drink, where they sport about like a seal and dolphin: “They snuf, they snort, they bounce, they rage, they rore” (ii.15.6). It’s an energetic and comic simile, as I noted above, but it has nothing to do with the action or moral of the narrative. The fun ends, however, when Artegall cuts off Pollente’s head or poll and places it on a pole. The puns further distance the work of the simile from Artegall’s athletic efforts to effect justice. But his heroic credentials remain intact until he and Talus storm Pollente’s castle and turn their violence, in amplified form, on Pollente’s daughter, Munera. Talus turns his “huge yron flaile” first on the castle door and then on the daughter: he finds her hiding under a pile of gold, pulls her up by her hair and, when she holds up her “suppliant hands” and kneels “at his feete submissiuely,” he cuts off  “her suppliant hands … And eke her feete” (24.2, 26.4-7). The fact that Munera has silver hands and gold feet should relieve the scene of some of its burden of cruelty and violence, but it doesn’t.[7] The confusion of literal and figurative modes of representation in her figure might even intensify the confusion between justice and brutality. Her metal extremities somehow make it harder to tell whether a living person or an allegory of greed is being mutilated.

The scenes on Pollente’s bridge and in his castle are bracing for Spenserian readers, who are still feeling their way into the difference between this book and the larger poem of which it is a part and from which it stands apart. If the reader is hoping for a breathing spell—perhaps even a bit of blank space between cantos—she doesn’t get it. Artegall and Talus travel all day and with considerable fatigue before they arrive at their next adventure, but in the poem, they have moved through only three lines and, astonishingly, they are already preparing to lay into a new opponent, a “mighty Gyant” armed not with weapons but instead with a set of scales in which he hopes to weigh the distribution of wealth in “realmes and nations,” with the object of restoring them to their ancient form of equality (30.1, 32.6). The giant is not all bad: like Artegall, he hopes to defend the feeble in their right. But he’s evidently not the man for the job. As Elizabeth Fowler succinctly puts it in a superb analysis of Artegall’s legal games and sleights, “he falls into his opponent’s trap, by submitting to Argetall’s narrowing of the discourse of justice,” and, in the end he simply “is not Artegall.”[8] Perhaps for this reason alone Talus applies his iron flaile, tosses the giant over a great cliff, and leaves him and his scales in (and as) a pile of rubble:

Whom when so lewdly minded Talus found,
Approching nigh vnto him cheeke by cheeke,
He shouldered him from off the higher ground,
And down the rock him throwing, in the sea him dround.

Like as a ship, whom cruell tempest driues
Vpon a rocke with horrible dismay,
Her shattered ribs in thousand peeces riues,
And spoyling all her geares and goodly ray,
Does make her selfe misfortunes piteous pray.
So down the cliffe the wretched Gyant tumbled;
His batterd ballances in peeces lay,
His timbered bones all broken rudely rumbled,
So was the high aspyring with huge ruine humbled.

This is arguably the most complex and richly suggestive epic simile in the whole of Book V, especially if read in light of Spenser’s legal thinking, which Fowler traces through Selden’s analogy of law to a ship that is constantly changing as its boards are replaced over time but is nonetheless enduringly the same (i.e., not metamorphic). The job of the simile, however, is to overturn just this kind of subtle and complex thinking about law. To Selden we might add Sir Thomas Egerton, who devoted himself to the question of how to bring the text of a statute to the case it is supposed to inform rather than tap the destructive power of a fixed and literal reading.[9] Artegall may approach legal theory with a zeal for interpretation, but in the end it is Talus, the literalist, who acts.

How exactly do the acts of Talus relate to, and affect, Artegall’s achievements in the world of justice?  They act as a nefarious variant of the Derridean supplement: the deeds of the groom fulfill and exceed the aims of the master. In so doing, they begin to separate Artegall from his cherished role as a second Solomon. By the end of canto ii—an early point in his quest—Artegall has slipped from the judicious example of Kings and is lurching towards the despondent world of Ecclesiastes, in which there is nothing new under the sun, and experience in the world means vanity and vexation of spirit. In retrospect, Artegall’s reprise of Kings takes on the appearance of fool’s gold. Artegall fully believes in his judicial game, in which he cleverly tests the love of the Squire and the knight by proposing to divide the lady in equal halves. But he might have saved himself the trouble: he might have just asked her which of the two men was her lover. The lady has a voice: the infant in Kings does not. And so a new point to the story emerges in the failed analogy with its Biblical model: first, silence and silencing are to be major themes of the legend of justice—and they culminate, I think, in the terrible of image of Bonfont/Malfont, the poet whose tongue has been cut off and nailed to a post in Mercilla’s court. In addition, we learn that analogies and comparisons may let us down in Book V, the very book in which they should count for most. The book depends, after all, on the power of equity—represented by the twin scales of justice—to create meaningful relationships between one thing and another. Without equity, the love that binds the community together devolves quickly into the invidious and zero-sum thinking that vitiates even the most intimate social relations. This is the clear and forceful point of a later canto, canto iv, which recounts the story of the sons of Milesio, who are locked in a struggle over property and power that is as corrosive—and apparently inevitable—as the eternal conflict between land and sea.



Equity largely fails in the Legend of Justice, and it is not entirely Artegall’s fault. He does not understand the huge gap between his own golden age optimism in the power of law to bring errors, odds, and differences back into the geometrical shape of justice, represented by the square. Let me lay my cards on the table: I blame Talus. I don’t blame him as a character or even an allegorical personification bordering on the human: he is neither of these things. He’s an iron flail. Standard editions of Spenser’s poem provide explanatory notes on the significance of Talus’s name, but they do not go far enough. It is true that he is the namesake of Plato’s Talos, a lover of law, but this aspect of his classical lineage sits uncomfortably next to a second, and quite obvious, meaning of his name: he is associated with talic law, the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” conception of justice that has little to do with Artegall’s original brand of justice, namely, equity. Talus pursues an ethic of identity in matters of law and punishment and not, as Artegall wants, the appearance of fairness. Talus does not accept a view of the law that embraces and depends upon context and interpretation (as Egerton did), and so he is badly joined to Artegall as his groom and then his partner and guide (when Britomart, who has assumed the role of equity during Artegall’s confinement in Radegone, is written out of the Legend of Justice).

The usual glosses on Talus’s name and nature are not enough. We may learn more about his significance by breaking him down into his etymological parts. I therefore propose the following senses of Talus’s name and significance that come down to Spenser’s poem from classical Latin:

  1. As a talus or tali, he is the die or dice made from the knucklebone: in this sense, he evokes the element of a game played with justice, with all its risks and hazards, and he thus affirms Elizabeth Fowler’s sense of Artegall’s ties to sleights and competitive games.
  2. More literally, he is a knucklebone: as a talus, he is a joint. More specifically, he is the joint of the ankle and hands, suggesting the speed at which he carries out his will, which is, by no coincidence, a passion to disjoin bodies. He starts his memorable career in dismemberment with the body of Pollente’s daughter Munera, whose silver hands and gold feet he cuts off at the knucklebone. By the end of the poem, he is hewing bodies on a grand scale, and it is no longer possible to imagine him settling for hands and feet when he can leave the bodies of men and horses “scattred ouer all the land, / As thicke as doth the seede after the sowers hand” (xii.7.8-9).
  3. Finally, I suggest, he is the joint in a poetic comparison. The name Talus evokes the Latin word that initiates extended as well as brief similes: talis, tale, talia, or in Spenserian English, “Like to,” “As when,” and “Like as.”  This is the word that is joined to qualis, “just so.” But in the case of Book V, the art of comparison is bent on division and difference. It breaks down the elements of comparison, although sadly not to bring them together in a new synthesis that reflects meaningfully and morally on the narrative events it is supposed to illuminate. In the narrative action of Book V, Talus takes apart bodies. In the field of poetry, the rhetoric of “like as, like to, and as when” also takes apart the objects it purportedly brings together.

Is there a “talic principle” and iron age mood to Spenser’s epic similes in Book V?  If so, then the epic similes of this book work to the opposite effect of those in Book 1 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, where, as Geoffrey Hartman brilliantly demonstrated some years ago, they expatiate on the “counterplot” of God’s peace that will ultimately prevail over Satan’s dramatic plot of revenge and revolt.[10]

On the face of things, it seems unfair to compare Spenser’s Talus to Milton’s Satan. Talus, after all, is a personification of an iron flail: he destroys all that he touches, but he would seem to be an instrument and not an agent of justice. Yet I have granted him will and agency. And I go further to lay blame on him. So let me place more of my cards on the table: the fact that Talus is made of metal does not let him off the hook. In one conception of the elements of nature, iron has vibrancy and even intent. Our hightened perception of this valence of Spenser’s poetry in Book V derives from the ecocritical movement generated by critics such as Jane Bennett and Michael Pollan. Spenser, however, derived his conception of matter that is animated, vibrant, and intentional from the account of the Iron Age in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the last and least of the metals described is also the most important to the work of poetry. The Golden Age is a matter of negation: to imagine it, you must paradoxically begin with the present day and start subtracting its ills until you have nothing. The Iron Age, by contrast, is magnetic: it attracts and generates the aggression and outright violence of history.

When Ovid gives an updated treatment to the Hesiodic account of the ages, the Iron Age serves to meld the core elements of Greek tragedy to the violent period of Roman history leading up to the rise of Augustus Caesar to imperial power. In Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s poem, the Iron Age begins when “Craft, Treason, Violence, Envie, Pryde and wicked Lust” come to dominate human life.[11] Ovid dwells on human ambition to dominate nature by measuring and laying claim to land (the surveyor’s art), felling trees to build ships, and digging metal out of the earth’s entrails. But the scenes of greatest horror are devoted to the pain that humans visit on each other—strangers, neighbors, and especially their own family members:

Men live by ravine and by stelth: the wandring guest doth stand
In daunger of his host: the host in daunger of his guest:
And fathers of their sonne in laws: yea seldome time doth rest
Between borne brothers such accord and love as ought to bee,
That goodman seekes the goodwives death, and his again seekes shee.
The stepdames fell their husbands sonnes with poyson do assayle.
To see their fathers live so long the children doe bewayle.
All godlynesse lyes under foote. And Ladie Astrey last
Of heavinely vertues from this earth in slaughter drownèd past.

These scenes of vitiated family relations come partly from Greek tragedy but, as the telltale instance of the father-in-law at odds with his own son-in-law reveals, they come from local history, namely Rome in the period leading up to the civil war and the rise of Augustus to absolute power. The identities of the historical men in question are obvious: they are Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. The anonymous family members who turn on each other evoke a slightly later and much sadder chapter of Roman history: this is the historical turmoil brought on by the proscriptions, the list of Roman citizens whose lives and property were forfeit to the colossal egos and envy of the triumvirs, and especially Octavius, the future Augustus Caesar.[13] Family members were forced by circumstance to sue and testify against each other for the sole purpose of keeping hold of family property. Ovid’s Iron Age invokes this chapter of Rome’s social and political life, and it argues that iron as a metal absorbs the violence and bad faith of history and carries it forward to future times. Iron intends. It has a will, a plan, and a destination.

I’d like to conclude with an analogue to Spenser’s Talus in an experimental and disturbing poem by Rita Dove: “The Bullet,” from “Meditation at Fifty Yards, Moving Target,” in American Smooth:

dark dark no wind no heaven
i am not anything   not borne on air   i bear   
myself   i can slice the air   no wind
can hold me   let me   let me
go   i can see   yes
o aperture o light   let me   off
go off   straight is my verb   straight   
my glory road   yes   now i can   feel
it the light i am flame   velocity o
beautiful body i am coming i am yours   
before you know it
i am home

Like Dove’s bullet, Talus comes alive when he destroys and silences. In this, he is a figure—and a terrible one—of the problem of poetry in Book V. For the poetry of Book V is not awe-inspiring, wondrous, or amazing: it’s stunning. It is like a flail, that longs to come home, and come to rest, in living flesh.

Heather James
University of Southern California

[1] “Letter to Ralegh,” lines 7-9, in Appendix I to Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London and New York: Longman, 1977). All references are to this edition.

[2] Tobias Gregory provides a nuanced account of the historical engagements of Book V in “Shadowing Intervention: On the Politics of The Faerie Queene Book 5 Cantos 10-12,” English Literary History 67.2 (2000): 365-397. Gregory deftly and persuasively describes Spenser’s book as a critique of Elizabeth I’s half measures in foreign policy, especially as it concerned protestant causes in the Netherlands and France. 

[3] Ovid’s mythic couple interpreted or “red” the Delphic oracle metaphorically and inventively, with the consequence that they transformed stone to men and women.

[4] See Katherine Eggert, Showing Like A Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). In “Gender, Justice, and the Gods in The Faerie Queene, Book 5,” David Lee Miller approaches similar concerns with politics, gender, and myths of origin from the unexpectedly ironic and skewed representation of the gods, who theoretically underpin cosmologies of order. See Reading Renaissance Ethics, ed. Marshall Grossman (London: Routledge, 2007), 19-37.

[5] If the book ended here, in fact, the entire character of Book VI’s Legend of Courtesie would also change: Calidore would have no blatant beast to pursue, no pastoral world to romance, and no Colin Clout to enrage. For a reading of Spenser’s skeptical approach to his own poetic project in Book VI, see Harry Berger, Jr., “The Prospect of Imagination: Spenser and the Limits of Poetry,” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 1.1 (1961): 93-120.

[6] Ovid,Tristia. Ex Ponto, Trans by Arthur Leslie Wheeler, 2nd edn. rev. by G. P. Goold (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[7] In “The Knight of Justice in Book V of Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene,’” PMLA 85.1 (1970), Judith Anderson argues that the entire episode emphasizes an “externality [that] seems to be coincident with its inhumanity, and this is true of Artegall as well as Talus; consequently, the fact that Munera has “hands of gold” and “feete of siluer trye” “cannot cancel the dominant tone of the passage, even though they fail to harmonize with it” (67-68).

[8] “The Failure of Moral Philosophy in the Work of Edmund Spenser,” Representations 51 (1995): 47-76, 63.

[9] Consider, as just one example among many: “For synce that wordes were but invented to declare the meanynge of men, we muste rather frame the wordes to the meanynge then the meanynge to the wordes. Yt is therfore to be knowen that sommetyme statutes are taken by equytye more then the wordes, sommetyme contrary to the wordes, sommetyme it is taken strayctelye accordinge to the wordes, and sommetyme, where there are no wordes in the statute and yet a case happenethe upon an estatute, the commen law shall make a construction.” 140 Ca 7. Construction de Statute per Equytye &c. in A Discourse upon the Exposicion & Understandinge of Statutes &c. with Sir Thomas Egerton’s additions, ed. Samuel E. Thorne (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1942).

[10] “Milton’s Counterplot,” English Literary History 25.1 (1958): 1-12.

[11] Arthur Golding, The xv. bookes of P. Ouidius Naso: entituled, Metamorphosis. A worke verie pleasant and delectable (London: William Seres, 1567).

[12] Quoted from Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Arthur Golding, ed. Madeleine Forey (London: Penguin Books, 2002).

[13] On Augustus’s role in the proscriptions and his “ambiguous position as both the destroyer and restorer of the Republic,” see Gary B. Miles, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), especially 164-171.


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  • Everett Glimson 1 year, 2 months ago

    I've only read the first book, The Fairy Queen. Luo did not reach the next hands, because I did not really like it. I got into antigone essay more, found for this. There is more meaning there than anywhere else. Interest does not disappear completely and keeps reading in suspense.

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    Yet they never do, and each failure emerges as an elegiac lament, in which the limitations and defects of poetic form, down to its meter and favored tropes, measure the failures of equity as a philosophical as well as legal attempt to produce the effect of fairness in history.

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Cite as:

Heather James, "The Problem of Poetry in The Faerie Queene, Book V," Spenser Review 45.1.1 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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