Edmund Spenser's Didactic Purpose in Book One of The Faerie Queene

"We receive this child into the congregation of Christ's flock, and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ's faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end. Amen."

-- The Anglican Rule of Baptism

The Moral Purpose of Spenser's Epic

"The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline: Which for that I conceived shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which the most part of men delight to read, rather for variety of matter, the which for profite of the ensample."

  • Specific type of person is shaped and created -- gentleman/noble
  • Such a one is trained in virtue and courtesy
  • Chooses a historical fiction (i.e. Arthur and related knights)
  • Stress on delight through variety
  • Ethical examples are embedded in the variety ("So much more profitable and gratious is doctrine by ensample, then by rule.")

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"For, as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy." -- Sidney, Defense of Poesy
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Epic, Allegory, Romance, and the Masque

Spenser's Faerie Queene adopts a number of methods to accomplish its purpose.  It weaves together both elements of the traditional epic and the medieval romance. Spenser draws on the epic for its high seriousness of purpose and its warlike imagery.  He draws on the romance for the pleasure of its loose, playful   variety.  [Click here for more on these.]    The Faerie Queene advances its lesson not only at the literal level of heroic purpose but at the allegorical level concerning the journey of salvation. Part of the growth and joy of the reader is moving back and forth between story and allegory, as well as puzzling out the meaning of the story and its implications.   Yet the reader does not lay aside the vechile of the romance once the meaning is discerned.   Spenser also uses the masque, a pageant and spectacle of figures and scenes which each represent certain abstract qualities.  This can be seen in particular with the Houses of Pride and Holiness.  The notion of the masque can also be expanded in general to apply to Spenser's essentially static, visual style.

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Spenser's View of Salvation

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  • The wisdom of election: "In heavenly mercies hast thou not a part?/ Who shouldest thou then despeire, that chosen art?" (9.53.473-474)
  • The fall's effect on the will and reason: Redcrosse's deception by hypocrisy/ Archimago.
  • The costs of pride and sin: Redcrosse's deception by Duessa, his imprisonment by the giant Orgoglio, and the temptations of the wight Despair.
  • The centralness of grace: "Ne let the man ascribe it to his skill,/ That thorough grace hath gained victory" (10.1.6-7)
  • The victory of Christ: Arthur's defeat of the giant and the freeing of Redcrosse is analogous to the victory of Christ for us which we cannot accomplish ourselves.
  • The role of repentance: "Her faithfull knight faire Una brings/ to the house of Holiness,/ Where he is taught repentance, and/ the way to heavenly blesse" (10.Precis).
  • The help of penance: "And bitter Penance with an yron whip,/ Was wont him once to disple every day" (10.26.235-236).
  • The work of good deeds: The seven Bead-men
  • The function of the sacraments: The Well of Life and the Tree of Life represent baptism and communion, both which are understood to assist Redcrosse in spiritual battle.
  • The call to service: "Of ease or rest I may not yet devize;/ For by the faith, which I to armies have plight,/ I am bounden am streight after this emprize" (12.18.155-157).