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Poem of the week: The Faerie Queene, Canto XI, Book One, by Edmund Spenser


A fearsome closeup of the dragon facing down the Redcrosse knight makes full use of Spenser's nine-line stanza form

This week we're looking at stanzas X-XV from Canto XI, Book One, of Edmund Spenser's vast allegorical poem The Faerie Queene. In fact, Spenser published a little over half of his projected epic. Some of the new material may have been lost when Irish rebels set fire to the Spensers' estate, Kilcolman Castle, the year before his death. Inspired by a range of sources, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth's fanciful History of the Kings of Britain, and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the six published allegories celebrate the private virtues: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice and courtesy. The public virtues were to have been examined through the adventures of Prince Arthur in the next six books. Each 12-canto book describes the challenges faced by one of the knights dispatched by the Faerie Queene (Elizabeth I) during her 12-day festival, and Book One is the story of the Redcrosse knight, representing holiness and England (he will in fact turn out to be St George). The parents of his beloved Una, who embodies the true church (Anglican, of course), are enclosed in a "brasen towre", terrorised by the dragon that has usurped their kingdom. The extract begins shortly after the dragon, glimpsing the "glistering armes" of the approaching knight, has roused himself from a spell of sunbathing to launch his attack, "halfe flying and half footing in his haste …"

The Faerie Queene isn't consistently flawless poetry. Spenser's customised stanza sometimes seems to hinder rather than help the narrative. It's often in the set-pieces, where action accommodates illustration, that the nine-lined form seems to fulfil its complex design: it allows the poet to develop and "fix" a vivid but not overly fussy closeup. Spenser's widescreen, stanza-crossing portrayal of the dragon is magnificent.

Stanza X focuses on the monster's "flaggy winges" – "flaggy" meaning "loose" but also suggesting proud self-advertisement ("flagging up" in modern English). They resemble the "sayles" of a huge ship, enabling the dragon to travel speedily in a fair wind. The eighth line and the final alexandrine withdraw from the closeup to register nature's response to the unnatural beast, with a nice antithesis of terrified clouds in flight and planets stalled by amazement. But Spenser hasn't finished with his dragon. The resplendent tail occupies stanza XI: extended, it's almost three furlongs in length, and "bespotted as with shieldes of red and black". Notice Spenser's rhyming of the noun "foldes" and the verb "unfoldes", ingeniously making a single entity of the body and its movements. In the next stanza (XII) the reference to stings and steel recurs. This immediate recapitulation sustains descriptive tension and emphasises the viciousness of the dragon's weaponry by adding superlative to superlative. The two stings exceed the sharpness of the sharpest steel, and the "cruel rending clawes" are sharper even than the stings. "Dead" and "deathly" repeat "deadly" from the previous stanza, so that we're caught in a ring of steel, compounded further by the "three ranckes of yron teeth" in stanza XIII.

The depiction of the eyes as "two brightly shining shieldes" recalls the shield-like patterns of the tail. That satanic colour combo, red and black, recurs when the eyes become glaring lamps set far back in deep dark sockets. The comparison with "two broad beacons, sett in open fieldes" is a master-stroke of realism amidst the fantasy, and a reminder that Spenser's age had no lack of conspirators wielding "fire and sword" around the shires.

Never so idealised that he's immune to human weakness or emotion, the Redcrosse knight proceeds bravely but fearfully, and a protracted battle ensues. But there we must leave them, with an assurance that Spenser's epic still has much to offer the reader. Of course, The Faerie Queene is not mere Arthurian fantasy: it's political and moral allegory, and an epic of national identity-building. Acres of commentary have been devoted to the work's symbols and sources, and are often very helpful. But there's a lot of fun to be had from reading it primarily as a colourful, monster-packed romantic adventure – with some moments of splendid poetry. Welcome to Faerieland.

From Book One, Canto XI of The Faerie Queen

His flaggy winges, when forth he did display,
Were like two sayles, in which the hollow wynd
Is gathered full, and worketh speedy way:
And eke the pennes, that did his pineons bynd,
Were like mayne-yardes, with flying canvas lynd,
With which whenas him list the ayre to beat,
And there by force unwonted passage fynd,
The cloudes before him fled for terrour great,
And all the heavens stood still amazed with his threat.

His huge long tayle, wound up in hundred foldes,
Does overspred his long bras-scaly backe,
Whose wreathed boughtes when ever he unfoldes,
And thicke entangled knots adown does slack,
Bespotted as with shieldes of red and blacke,
It sweepeth all the land behind him farre,
And of three furlongs does but litle lacke;
And at the point two stings in-fixed arre,
Both deadly sharpe, that sharpest steele exceeden farre.

But stings and sharpest steele did far exceed
The sharpnesse of his cruel rending clawes;
Dead was it sure, as sure as death in deed,
What ever thing does touch his ravenous pawes,
Or what within his reach he ever drawes.
But his most hideous head my toungue to tell
Does tremble; for his deepe devouring jawes
Wyde gaped, like the griesly mouth of hell,
Through which into his darke abysse all ravin fell.

And that more wondrous was, in either jaw
Three ranckes of yron teeth enraunged were,
In which yett trickling bloud and gobbets raw
Of late devoured bodies did appeare,
That sight thereof bredd cold congealed feare;
Which to increase, and all at once to kill,
A cloud of smoothering smoke and sulphure seare
Out of his stinking gorge forth steemed still,
That all the ayre about with smoke and stench did fill.

His blazing eyes, like two bright shining shieldes,
Did burne with wrath, and sparkled living fyre;
As two broad beacons, sett in open fieldes,
Send forth their flames farre off to every shyre,
And warning give, that enemies conspyre,
With fire and sword the region to invade;
So flam'd his eyne with rage and rancorous yre:
But farre within, as in a hollow glade,
Those glaring lampes were sett, that made a dreadfull shade.

So dreadfully he towardes him did pas,
Forelifting up aloft his speckled brest,
And often bounding on the brused gras,
As for great joyance of his newcome guest.
Eftsoones he gan advance his haughtie crest,
As chauffed bore his bristles doth upreare;
And shoke his scales to battell readie drest;
That made the Redcrosse knight nigh quake for feare,
As bidding bold defyaunce to his foeman neare.

flaggy – loose; pennes – feathers; whenas him list – when it pleased him; boughtes – folds; eftsoones – soon after; ravin – plunder; chauffed – enraged; bidding – praying

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