In 1818, art critic William Hazlitt advised people to ignore the allegory and hidden codes in The Faerie Queene and to focus instead on the pleasures of Spenser’s poetry:
“Some people…are afraid of the allegory, as if they thought it would bite them: they look at it as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle. If they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them.” Lectures on the English Poets (1818), p. 74.
Hazlitt argues that if readers stop worrying about Spenser’s hidden meanings, they’ll find it easier to enjoy the beauty of his descriptions. This, Hazlitt says, is what’s really important about The Faerie Queene.
Compare that point of view with this Pre-Raphaelite painting from 1888 by the Victorian artist John Melhuish Strudwick. It shows Acrasia, a character from Book II of The Faerie Queene, who enchants knights on an island of sensuous pleasures known as the Bower of Bliss. The painting is full of luxuriantly detailed flowers and foliage detailed in gold paint. The figures are elegantly posed and the colours harmonious.
Hazlitt’s and Strudwick’s responses to The Faerie Queene tell us about how people interpreted the poem in the nineteenth century. How was that different to the ways in which it was originally interpreted in the 1590s? And how is that different to the ways in which Dr Nina Ramirez and the experts she talked to in the programme interpret the poem in the twenty-first century? For instance, consider how much attention Nina Ramirez paid to the history of Spenser and his times. Do you think that Strudwick’s painting was influenced by thinking about those questions? Or did he approach the poem in a different way?
You might also think about Hazlitt’s mention of pleasure. Elizabethans enjoyed decoding symbols and allegories. Do you agree with Hazlitt when he argues that we should ignore the symbolism and allegories in The Faerie Queene if we want to enjoy its other pleasures?
A complex poem like The Faerie Queene can mean different things to different readers at different times and in different places. Sometimes readers value a poem for very different reasons to those that its first readers thought were important. That does not necessarily make any of them wrong. We can learn more about a poem though if we pay attention to what other people have found important in it. Doing so also helps us to understand how the meanings of texts change over time depending on how they are read.
- What aspects do you enjoy most about The Faerie Queene? Add your comments at the bottom of this page.
Visit Poet's Corner
After he died in 1599, Edmund Spenser was buried near the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer in Westminster Abbey. Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, had died almost two centuries earlier. Burying Spenser next to him was a way of showing that he was recognized as Chaucer’s successor as the greatest poet of his age. A monument to Spenser was erected several years later and a tradition began of burying celebrated writers in this part of Westminster Abbey. By the 1730s, this area in the south transept of the abbey had become known as Poets’ Corner. Today, dozens of authors, including Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Samuel Johnson, are buried there alongside memorials to writers buried elsewhere.
You can visit Poets’ Corner to see the tombs of Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey Chaucer, and many other famous writers. Westminster Abbey is in central London and you can find instructions for visiting on their website at www.westminster-abbey.org/visit-us. There is a charge for admission as a tourist whilst entry to the Abbey for services is free.
- Tell us about your adventure in the comments at the bottom of this page.
More about The Faerie Queene
Why size matters: See the oldest editions of The Faerie Queene.
The lost key: Hear how Spenser removed the preface which explained what The Faerie Queene means.
The Secret Life of Books: Find out more about the other books in the series.