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should be the twelfth booke, which is the last; where I devise that the Faery Queene kept her annuall feast twelve daies; upon which twelve severall dayes, the occasions of the twelve severall adventures hapned, which being undertaken by xii. severall knights, are in these twelve books severally handled and discoursed."
The first book, of which two cantos are hereafter given, is the most interesting of all. In the letter already quoted it is explained as follows: "In the beginning of the feast there presented him selfe a tall clownish younge man, who falling before the Queene of Faeries desired a boone (as the manner then was) which during that feast she might not refuse; which was that hee might have the atchievement of any adventure, which during that feast should happen; that being granted, he rested him selfe on the floore, unfit through his rusticitie for a better place. Soone after entred a faire ladie in mourning weedes, riding on a white asse, with a dwarfe behind her leading a warlike steed, that bore the armes of a knight, and his speare in the dwarfe's hand. She falling before the Queene of Faeries complayned that her father and mother, an ancient king and queene, had bene by an huge dragon many yeers shut up in a brazen castle, who thence suffered them not to issew: and therefore besought the Faery Queene to assigne her some one of her knights to take on him that exployt. Presently that clownish person upstarting, desired that adventure; whereat the Queene much wondering, and the lady much gain-saying, yet he earnestly importuned his desire. In the end the lady told him, that unlesse that armour which she brought would serve him (that is the armour of a Christian man specified by Saint Paul, v. Ephes.) that he could not succeed in that enterprise, which being forth-with put upon him with due furnitures thereunto, he seemed the goodliest man in al that company, and was well liked of the lady. And eftesoones taking on him knighthood, and mounting on that strange courser, he went forth with her on that adventure: where beginneth the first booke, viz., –
'A gentle knight was pricking on the plaine,' etc."
The allegory of the "Faery Queene " is nowhere more worthy of study than in the first book.、 Like Bunyan's pilgrim, the Red Cross Knight shows the conflicts of the human soul in its effort to attain to holiness. This is the sublimest of all conflicts. The knight, clad in Christian armor, sets forth to make war upon the dragon, the Old Serpent. After a time the light of heaven is shut out by clouds, and the warrior loses his way in the "wandering wood," the haunt of Error.
"For light she hated as the deadly bale,
Ay wont in desert darkness to remaine,
Where plain none might her see, nor she see any plain."
Only after a long and bitter struggle, typifying the conflicts of the earnest soul in search of truth, does the knight succeed in vanquishing this dangerous foe. This danger passed, another follows. The hero, with his fair companion, at length
"An aged sire, in long blacke weedes yclad,
And to the ground his eyes were lowly bent,
Simple in shew, and voide of malice bad,
And all the way he prayed, as he went,
And often knockt his breast, as one that did repent."
This was Archimago or Hypocrisy, who deceives the Knight with his magic art. Truth is made to seem falsehood, and falsehood truth. This deception is the cause of all his subsequent trouble his struggle with Sans Foy or Infidelity, his companionship with Duessa or Falsehood, his sojourn and trials at the palace of Pride, and his capture and imprisonment by the giant Orgoglio or Antichrist. He is finally delivered by Arthur, and conducted by Una to the house of Holiness, where he is taught repentance. Spiritual discipline frees him from all his stains, and sends him forth once more
protected with his celestial armor. He meets the grim Dragon, and after a prolonged conflict gloriously triumphs. The book naturally ends with his betrothal to Una or Truth, emblematic of eternal union. Through trials and suffering to final victory and truth - this is the history of every earnest soul; and never before was it portrayed with such magnificent imagery and in such melodious language.
As will be readily comprehended, a striking feature of the poem is its unlikeness to actual life. In no small degree it appears artificial and unreal. The personages are somewhat shadowy. A large part of the incident and sentiment belongs to an ideal age of chivalry. All this is apt to affect the realistic or prosaic reader unpleasantly. But the poem should be approached in the spirit with which it was written. Instead of stopping to criticise the ideas, fashions, and superstitions of the Middle Ages, we should surrender ourselves into the magician's hands, and follow him submissively and sympathetically through the ideal realms into which he leads us. The poem then becomes, in the words of Lowell, “the land of pure heart's ease, where no ache or sorrow of spirit can come."
Spenser was surpassingly rich in imagination that faculty without which no great poem is possible. He possessed an extraordinary power for appreciating and portraying beauty. His mind was extremely capacious; and, gathering all the literary treasures of the past, whether mediæval, classic, or Chris tian, he gave them new and fadeless forms. His invention was almost inexhaustible. His facility in description sometimes betrayed him into tedious excess. In his fondness for details, he occasionally wrote passages that are simply nauseating. His style lacks the classic qualities of brevity, force, and self-restraint. But we shall nowhere else find a more flowing and melodious verse, an atmosphere of finer sentiment, and a larger movement or richer coloring. He may be fairly styled the Rubens of English poetry. Every canto of the "Faery Queene presents passages in which thought, diction, and melody are combined in exquisite harmony.
THE FIRST BOOKE OF THE FAERY QUEENE,
CONTAYNING THE LEGEND OF THE KNIGHT OF THE RED CROSSE, OR OF HOLINESSE.
Lo! I, the man whose Muse whylome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst, a farre unfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine oaten reeds,
To blazon broade emongst her learned throng:
Helpe then, O holy virgin, chiefe of nyne,
Thy weaker Novice to performe thy will;
Sought through the world, and suffered so much ill,
O, helpe thou my weake wit, and sharpen my dull tong!
And thou, most dreaded impe of highest Jove,
Lay now thy deadly heben bowe apart,
And with thy mother mylde come to mine ayde;
After his murdrous spoyles and bloudie rage allayd.
And with them eke, O Goddesse heavenly bright, Mirrour of grace and majestie divine,
Great ladie of the greatest isle, whose light
Like Phoebus lampe throughout the world doth shine,
Shed thy faire beames into my feeble eyne,
And raise my thoughtes, too humble and too vile,
To thinke of that true glorious type of thine,
The argument of mine afflicted stile:
The which to heare vouchsafe, O dearest dread. a while.
The patron of true Holinesse,
A GENTLE Knight was pricking on the plaine,
And on his brest a bloodie crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
Upon his shield the like was also scor'd,
For soveraine hope which in his helpe he had.
Right, faithfull, true he was in deede and word; But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad; Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad.