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Playing the Porter in The Faerie Queene
by Katherine Blankenau

As many critics have noted, Ben Jonson’s influential country house poem ‘To Penshurst’ concludes with an allusion to Spenser. Jonson praises the Sidney estate in comparison to architecturally grander, more decorative prodigy houses, which he disparages as ‘proud, ambitious heaps’ (101).[1] The words recall the phrase Spenser uses to sum up his description of the House of Pride: ‘It was a goodly heape for to behould’ (I.iv.5.1). The allusion compliments Jonson’s patrons by implicitly framing Penshurst as a holy house. While Jonson also drew heavily from classical sources, his use of Spenser situates the country house genre within a more contemporary hospitality discourse heavily influenced by Spenser’s allegorical houses. In country house poems, the poet, writing usually as a former guest, celebrates a patron by praising the house’s hospitality as opposed to that of less virtuous households. Jonson’s later imitators, particularly Robert Herrick and Thomas Carew, whose works I focus on here, similarly adopted the Spenserian practice of imparting moral instruction through architectural contrast. However, as I’ve dug further into the depictions of hospitable and inhospitable houses in both the country house genre and Spenser’s epic, I’ve been intrigued by a particular difference between those depictions: their treatment of the household porter.

In medieval and early modern aristocratic households, porters were charged with receiving guests, denying entrance to any unwelcome visitors, and distributing alms to the poor. As Paula Henderson has noted, porters ranked near the middle of the hierarchy of household servants.[2] In terms of hospitality, however, they played a crucial role, serving as the first point of contact between strangers and the household. Porters spent their time in porter’s lodges or gatehouses set within or before an estate’s walls. Intriguingly, Henderson observes that gatehouses fell out of fashion by the end of the sixteenth century, a trend that may be reflected in the differing depictions of porters in The Faerie Queene and later country house poetry (36). While The Faerie Queene’s great houses invariably feature a porter, in multiple country house poems the lack of a porter is a point of pride. In this paper, then, I explore the ramifications of a literary porter’s absence or presence, and, in doing so, examine what porters can teach us about how hospitality is defined and enacted in country house poetry and in The Faerie Queene itself.

As gatekeepers, guardians of thresholds, porters partake of the inherent liminality of their position; they are simultaneously open to a range of significations and allegorical functions. This is particularly true in The Faerie Queene, which is littered with porters. Like the allegorical houses themselves, none of the porters seem to work in quite the same way. However, broadly speaking, we might break them down into three categories. First, there are the more strictly personified porters who watch the gates of the various allegorical houses. These include Maluenù, porter of the House of Pride; Humiltá, porter of the House of Holiness; the porter of the hospital in the House of Holiness section; the tongue, the porter of the Castle of Alma; Doubt, porter of the Temple of Venus; and Awe, porter of Mercilla’s palace. Second, there are the two Geniuses: the evil Genius who is the porter of the Bower of Bliss in Book II, and the Old Genius of the Garden of Adonis in Book III.[3] The third category consists of the unnamed porters of the later books, who distinguish themselves primarily by being rude and sometimes by getting killed: the porter of the town of Radigone in Book V, as well as Briana’s and Turpine’s porters in Book VI.

That’s a lot of gatekeepers – too many, in fact, to articulate an overarching claim about the function of porters as such in The Faerie Queene. However, if we compare them with the porters of country house poetry, their mere presence suggests an important component of hospitality in Spenser’s poem. In country house poetry, the lack of a porter makes a household hospitable. For example, in Thomas Carew’s ‘To Saxham’, the speaker, addressing the house itself, declares:

Thou hast no Porter at the doore

T’examine, or keep back the poore;

Nor locks, nor bolts; thy gates have bin

Made onely to let strangers in;

Vntaught to shut, they doe not feare

To stand wide open all the yeare;

Carelesse who enters, for they know

Thou never didst deserve a foe. (49-56)[4]

Here, ideal hospitality is free and undiscerning, as represented by the absence of the porter, the person charged with evaluating potential guests. If we look to The Faerie Queene for a similarly open household, however, we find primarily ominous examples. For instance, in Book VI, Arthur wreaks vengeance on the inhospitable castle of Sir Turpine, where a porter had previously denied entrance to Calepine and Serena: “Arriuing there, as did by chaunce befall, / [Arthur] found the gate wyde ope, and in he rode, / Ne stayd, till that he came into the hall” ( The porter has apparently abandoned his post; like the inhabitants of Saxham house, he is ‘careless who enters’. Turpine’s porter was earlier emphasized, singled out for his bad manners, so his absence now is all the more noticeable. It indicates that, in The Faerie Queene, bad hospitality is as much about letting too many people in, as it is about keeping too many people out. In fact, one of the most open households in The Faerie Queene is Book I’s house of Pride. On arrival there, Red Crosse and Duessa ‘passed in forth right; / For still to all the gates stood open wide, / Yet charge of them was to a Porter hight / Cald Maluenù, who entrance none denide’ (I.iv.6.1-4). The combined examples of Maluenù and Turpine’s porter reflect the centrality of wary discernment in matters of hospitality within The Faerie Queene. Such discernment is the primary role of porters like Humiltá, Maluenù’s counterpart in the House of Holinesse, or the porter of Mercilla’s palace in Book V. Mercilla’s porch is ‘open wyde to all men day and night; / Yet warded well’ by the porter, Awe, whose giant size implicitly makes him a good bouncer (V.ix.22.4-5). In the House of Holinesse, the porter is not imposing, but he is attentive and on guard at his post. Redcrosse and Una find the door ‘fast lockt; / For it was warely watched night and day, / For feare of many foes: but when they knockt, / The Porter opened vnto them straight way’ (I.x.5.1-4). If the house of Pride gives a bad welcome by being too open, the house of Holinesse exercises superior hospitality through swift access to a closely-guarded household.

Overall, then, the role of porters in The Faerie Queene suggests that the poem aligns good hospitality with gates and gatekeepers. Well-guarded gates signify that there is something worth guarding, a community held together by standards that necessarily exclude those who cannot meet them. The Faerie Queene thus reflects the emphasis on regulation and control that characterizes early modern English hospitality.[5] In comparison, the porter-less Saxham Hall reads like a more radical idealization of entertainment. Visitors are neither excluded nor examined to determine whether they meet criteria for entry – no watch is kept, and the gates are never shut to strangers. Yet I think we should be suspicious of such idealization coming from country house poetry. Real practices at places like Penshurst or Saxham Hall did not resemble their flattering poetic descriptions and, in general, the genre relentlessly mystifies aristocratic country life. Consequently, I’m hesitant to take at face value Carew’s suggestion that an estate without a porter is necessarily more hospitable. Instead, I’d like to link the role of porters to a broader question: who is allowed to “do” hospitality? Is it a communal performance in which the enactment of hospitality as a virtue is shared among members of a household? Or is hospitality something that belongs to the host alone? Depictions of hospitality in which the hosting function is solely occupied by the householder reflect Derrida’s observation that hospitality normally relies upon ‘despotic sovereignty and the virile mastery of the master of the house’ who enforces the rules of engagement with the outside world.[6] In contrast, Julia Reinhard Lupton has pointed out that scenes of hospitality can bring to the fore ‘persons normally hidden by the routines of service [who] enter into some kind of exchange, negotiation, or deliberation with strangers to the home’.[7] I suggest that the role of the porter highlights precisely the tension between these two aspects of hospitality, as either the demonstration of a householder’s mastery or the concerted actions of the household community.

Let’s consider, for example, one of the few porter-less castles in The Faerie Queene: Malbecco’s house in Book III. Paridell, Satyrane, and the Squire of Dames decide to stay the night at a nearby castle but are unable to get inside. Halted by the closed gate the knights are ‘wondrous sore…displeased’ at the lack of ‘ready entraunce, which ought euermore / To errant knights be commune’ (III.viii.52.4-6). They learn that Malbecco, the house’s owner, forbids the entry of strange knights not, as in later books, because the custom of the castle requires a guest to first do combat, but because Malbecco is an old and impotent miser married to a much younger woman. When the knights knock, Malbecco himself answers:

The good man selfe, which then the Porter playd,

Him answered, that all were now retyrd

Vnto their rest, and all the keyes conuayd

Vnto their maister, who in bed was layd

…and therefore them of patience gently prayd. (III.ix.10.2-7)

Here, Malbecco is not the porter, he merely ‘plays’ one. He guards his own door, suggesting that he cannot trust other members of the household to be watchful enough to satisfy his paranoid insularity. As I noted earlier, Derrida warns that hospitality asserts the ‘virile mastery of the master of the house’, who does not fear being usurped by a guest-turned-would-be-adulterer. Virility, of course, is precisely what Malbecco lacks. He cannot perform his sexual role as the head of the house, and this fundamental failure in the patriarchal power structure means that he is not secure in his mastery of his household. As a result, he cannot employ a porter to whom he could delegate the role of deciding who can enter. Malbecco’s jealously guarded authority thus not only renders his house inhospitable but also, more specifically, deprives his servants of the opportunity for hospitable action.

If we return to country house poems with this in mind, it’s possible to reconsider the ideological import of the absence of porters in that genre and their emphatic presence in Spenser. The lack of a porter might indicate a truly open household – but it could also hint at despotic overreach on the part of the master of the house. In fact, I’d like to suggest that the aristocratic houses of country house poetry have more in common with Malbecco’s castle than with the House of Holinesse, precisely because of the fate of their porters. For example, in Robert Herrick’s country house poem, ‘A Panegerick to Sir Lewis Pemberton’, the speaker declares that

… no black-bearded Vigil from thy doore

Beats with a button’d-staffe the poore:

But from thy warm-love-hatching gates each may

Take friendly morsels, and there stay

To Sun his thin-clad members, if he likes,

For thou no Porter keep’st who strikes.[8] (13-18)

The poem conjures up an inhospitable porter whose presence matters only insofar as he is absent from the house itself. If, however, we look for hospitable action – for someone doing hospitality, who might be held up in contrast to the inhospitable porter – we find only a something rather than a someone. Feeding the poor, thereby ‘hatching’ warmth and love, becomes the work of the gates. Historically, an usher or porter might have dispensed a household’s leftovers to the poor. But the anthropomorphic poetic conceit elides the need for a porter. This anthropomorphism suppresses the possibility, posed by Lupton, that the scene of hospitality can bring normally unacknowledged actors into the sphere of virtuous action. The porter has been replaced by an inanimate yet actively hospitable object, suffering a fate not unlike Lumiere and the other enchanted servants in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Something similar happens in ‘To Saxham’, in which the speaker welcomes readers to gather around Saxham’s fire,

Whose cherishing flames themselves divide

Through every roome, where they deride

The night, and cold abroad…

Those chearfull beames send forth their light,

To all that wander in the night,

And seeme to becken from aloofe,

The weary Pilgrim to thy roofe. (31-9)

In dividing themselves, the flames participate in the sua sponte trope, which depicts inhabitants of the natural world giving themselves up to the lord’s table of their own accord; so, for example, earlier in ‘To Saxham’ ‘the willing Oxe, of himself came / Home to the slaughter’ (23-24). Critics since Raymond Williams have pointed out that this trope mystifies the economic reality of country life by erasing the labour of agricultural workers.[9] In the case of Saxham’s fire, the poem specifically erases the labour of domestic servants who divide the coals and maintain the hearth in ‘every room’. Anthropomorphically, the household’s fires perform one of the key components of hospitable action, the invitation which precedes entertainment. In the only early modern English treatise on hospitality, the minister and former refugee Caleb Dalechamp outlines the importance of ‘earnest invitation’. Drawing on Biblical precedent, he insists that ‘a man given to hospitalitie will not stay till strangers obtrude themselves upon him, and crave entertainment, but he will seek and invite them, as Abraham did’.[10] In ‘To Saxham’, the house’s lights reach outside the house’s walls, ‘beckoning’ strangers in from the cold winter’s night. In thus extending outside the home, the lights exert an active invitation, rather than passively waiting for someone to knock. Notably, however, as a result of the poem’s anthropomorphism, the action of hosting is not performed by a person. Instead, the poem presents cheerful light fixtures inviting passers-by to ‘be our guest, be our guest’.[11] In a sense, then, country house poetry makes Malbeccos of its householders: by anthropomorphizing the house, the poems jealously guard hospitality on behalf of the poet’s patron. When the actions of hospitality are performed by the house rather than the household, the virtue of being hospitable redounds solely to the one who owns the house.

If we revisit the role of the porter in The Faerie Queene, however, I think we see a more inclusive picture. The personified porters mentioned earlier – Malvenù, Awe, and Humiltá – highlight an ideological difference between personification and the anthropomorphic style of the country house poems. In allegorical terms, each personified porter suggests something different: Malvenù denies entrance to none because all people may fall into the sin of pride; holiness is difficult to achieve without Humility; and whether we read Mercilla’s palace as Elizabeth I’s putatively merciful governance or as Mercy itself, mercy is open to anyone who approaches with appropriately reverent Awe. Despite these diverse allegorical meanings, however, structurally the role of each of these porters is the same: they supplement the gates themselves. In each case, the porter appears after a ‘yet’ or ‘but’. Mercilla’s gates are ‘open wyde to all men day and night; / Yet warded well’ by Awe (V.ix.22.5, emphasis added). The porter balances the openness of Mercilla’s gates. In contrast, Humiltá’s alacrity keeps the tightly guarded house of Holiness from inhospitality: it is ‘warely watched night and day… For feare of many foes: but when they knockt, / The Porter opened vnto them streight way’ (I.x.5.2-4, emphasis added). In Malvenù’s case, the ‘yet’ is ironic, indicating an opposition that should be present but is not: the gates ‘stood open wide, / Yet charge of them was to a Porter hight’ (I.iv.6.2-3, emphasis added). The ‘yet’ implies that Malvenù will monitor the open gates; however, the next line declares he denies no one. Spenser’s repeated syntax, which yokes the porter’s function to a ‘yet’ or ‘but’ indicates that in The Faerie Queene the porter serves as an active, and reactive, persona who mediates the unreactive gates. Hospitality, Spenser implies, is not a static mode of being that can inhere within plaster, wood or stone. A gate without a porter to open it is just a gate, and while Carew suggests that Saxham’s gates were built to let strangers in, we all know what gates are really for.

The personified porters in The Faerie Queen thus can be read as proleptic reprimands of the anthropomorphism of country house poetry. Allegorical personification is, of course, not at all the same as personhood, but I think it is a step up from a singing candelabra, or the country house equivalent. Unlike in country houses, in each allegorical house, the hospitality of the household is not possessed by the host alone. Rather, it is collectively maintained through the labour of groups of servants, who are recognized as enacting the household’s entertainment – they “do” hospitality. And in the case of porters, those servants are vested with significant decision-making power, even though that power is of course subordinate to the householder’s.

I’d like to conclude, then, with the most explicitly didactic porter in The Faerie Queene. In the House of Holiness section, the Red Cross knight is taken to a bedehouse or hospital where the corporal works of mercy reside as bedesmen who offer hospitality to those in need:

Their gates to all were open euermore,

That by the wearie way were traueiling,

And one sate wayting euer them before,

To call in commers-by, that needy were and pore. (I.x.36.6-9)

At the hospital’s open gates sits ‘one’ who, as Hamilton points out, acts as a porter. This porter doesn’t merely wait for someone to knock, though; he plants himself before the gates and ‘calls in’ potential guests, reminding readers that true hospitality does not begin and end within the house’s walls. What’s more, this porter may be the personification of hospitality itself. It’s not clear whether the ‘one’ who sits before the gates is the same figure as the eldest bedesman who represents the Christian obligation to shelter the needy, described immediately in the next stanza:

The first of them that eldest was, and best,
Of all the house had charge and gouernement,
As Guardian and Steward of the rest:
His office was to giue entertainement
And lodging, vnto all that came, and went:
Not vnto such, as could him feast againe,
And double quite, for that he on them spent,
But such, as want of harbor did constraine:
Those for Gods sake his dewty was to entertaine. (I.x.37.1-9)

The eldest bedesman is the steward of the hospital, and hospitality is his office. Like the other works of mercy he is not named – appropriately so, as hospitality is not a static designation. It is a work that must be performed. But the lack of a name makes the relation between the eldest bedesman and the porter a bit vague. If the steward and the porter are the same person, then we can read this figure as a kind of inverted Malbecco – rather than a miserly householder playing at being his own porter, this is a porter who is revealed to be the steward of the entire house. Yet he is only the steward, and guardian – not the solitary master. On the other hand, if we read these as different figures, then the porter is just another porter. In The Faerie Queene, however, that is no small role to play.


Katherine Blankenau  

[1] Ben Jonson, ‘To Penshurst’, in The Forest (1616 M), edited by Colin Burrow, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online, edited by Martin Butler et. al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), n.p.

[2] Paula Henderson, The Tudor House and Garden: Architecture and Landscape in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 36.

[3] I do not examine the two Geniuses here; for analysis of their liminal natures see Harry Berger, The Allegorical Temper: Vision and Reality in Book II of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Archon Books, 1967) and Katherine Eggert ‘Harry Berger’s Genius: Porting Pleasure in the Bower of Bliss’, in A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr., and the Arts of Interpretation, ed. Nina Levine and David Lee Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009) 92–103. 

[4] Thomas Carew, ‘To Saxham’, in The Poems of Thomas Carew, edited by Rhodes Dunlap (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 27–29.

[5] See Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 8.

[6] Jacques Derrida, “Hostipitality”, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 5.3 (December 2000): 3–18, at 15.

[7] Julia Reinhard Lupton, ‘Hospitality and Risk in The Winter’s Tale’, in Thinking with

Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 161–85 (166).

[8] Robert Herrick, ‘A Panegerick to Sir Lewis Pemberton’, in The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, edited by Ruth Connolly and Tom Cain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 138–41.

[9] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 32.

[10] Caleb Dalechamp, Christian Hospitalitie Handled Common-Place-Wise (Cambridge: Thomas Buck, 1632), 18-19; accessed on EEBO.

[11] ‘Be Our Guest’, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, in Beauty and the Beast, dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Walt Disney Pictures, 1991).


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Cite as:

Katherine Blankenau , "Playing the Porter in The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 52.2.5 (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed December 6th, 2022.
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