The poem The Faerie Queene (1552-1599) by Edmund Spenser follows the adventures of a number of medieval knights and is deliberately written in an archaic style to draw inspiration from myth and history, particularly the legends of Arthur. As mentioned by the author himself, the reading of the work should fashion “a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline” (qtd. in Radcliffe 165). It is an example of a work filled with figurative means, in particular, extended similes. They allow the author to influence the reader, add meaning to words, or make a poem more embellished, they can reveal characters, create vivid images, and reflect the experiences of the heroes.
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One of the similes, found in Book III, Canto I, describes a lady who slipped into a knight’s dream to seduce him. Spenser writes: “Her fickle hart conceived hasty fire, // Like sparkes of fire, which fall in sclender flex, // That shortly brent into extreme desire, // And ransackt all her veines with passion entire” (33). This quote allows the author to paint the picture of the knight coped with the glamor and managed to resist the seduction. These lines make readers conclude that this character is strong, courageous, and pious. Such a comparison of human feelings and fire allows Spenser to convey their brightness and intensity.
The image of such a bright appearance is necessary not only for external characteristics. It can also be useful for describing inner characteristics. Being so bright and radiant, the lady seems kind and safe to the readers. In addition, it immediately becomes clear that she can attract and amaze men with her appearance. Undoubtedly, all these qualities can ultimately turn out to be deceiving and adversely affect the main characters’ well-being. Nevertheless, the first impression is positive and contributes to the creation of contact between the characters. On the one hand, an innocent beautiful woman indeed does not seem dangerous. On the other hand, some authors often depict women as gorgeous to show that it is unsafe to interact with them. Thus, it is clear that something may be hidden behind this beauty.
In Book I. Canto I, the author reconsiders wandering as an act and gives it moral meaning along with the spatial one and uses a simile as well as a set of comparisons on of the Nile river and the shepherd. The simile, which pertains to the world of nature, begins with a reference to fertility and the healthy abundance, as well as the changing of seasons bringing flood and rain: “As when old father Nilus gins to swell// With timely pride aboue the Aegyptian vale,//His fattie wauves do fertile slime outwell// And ouerflow each plaine and lowly dale” (Spenser 21). However, later in the same stanza, the author complicates the idea of regulation, painting a different image: “Huge heapes of mudd… wherein their breede// Ten thousand kindes of creatures partly male// And partly female of his fruitful seed” (21). To continue the idea of the first passage, as it should, “fertile slime” produces “fruitful seed,” but it is perverted. The author intentionally obscures the seed’s maternal and paternal belonging, pointing to the mixed male and female orientation. The next passages further the description in which the process of wandering in nature, as well as its procreation, become tainted. Spenser writes, “such ugly monstrous shapes elsewhere may no man reed,” “most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine” (21). The author implies that error in nature is always breeding, lying dormant in fertile ground, and the romantic wandering within the world’s landscape becomes epic wandering, which is morally suggestive rather than innocent.
The strong nature of Spenser’s poetic imagery further returns in Canto I. Through the stanzas of 36 and 38, the author revisits the literary device of simile: “From these books, Archimago chooses a few verses,// And for the he cald out of deepe darkness dred// Legions of Sprights, the which like little flyes// Fluttring about his euer damned hed,// A-waite whereto their seruice he applyes” (Spenser 38). In the previous stanzas, readers encounter a shepherd who becomes an Archimago in the stanza 38 of the poem, and the flies become sprites, which is an epic simile that world of the poem, which is largely metaphorical, to become the real and tangible world of the narrative and the events occurring throughout the story. Therefore, readers can anticipate the giving of physical features to allegorical characters and images of the story.
In the tender quality of form and nature, Spenser complicates the images and meanings over the course of his poetic work. The similes that he uses are raw, which makes the storytelling exciting and tender. The author not only strives to tell something but wants to do it as vividly as possible. This is how readers get the most out of what they read and remember this all. Vivid images will remain in their minds for a much longer time than just dry facts and boring stories that seem superficial.
Radcliffe, David Hill. Edmund Spencer, a Reception History. Camden House, 1996.
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Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Online Archive.