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The lost key

Updated Monday, 7th September 2015
Hear how Spenser removed the preface which explained what The Faerie Queene means. 

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Dr Richard Brown discusses The Faerie Queene with Dr Janina Ramirez.


Dr Richard Brown: There is a key difference between 1596 and 1590, in that the letter to Raleigh has gone. So where, in 1590, we’ve got this document that’s sketching the whole of a twelve-book poem, in 1596 all that’s gone. So what’s going on? There are various explanations again for what’s happened.

Firstly, I think very tellingly, Walter Raleigh is no longer such a star. He’s in disgrace by 1596. So having a letter which explains the poem to Raleigh doesn’t quite cut it in the way that it did in 1590.

I think the other thing which is going on here is a sense that Spenser himself, by the 1590s, has changed tack with the poem. So does he still envisage quite the poem he described in the 1590 edition, by 1596.

Maybe the letter’s actually done its job or maybe Spenser’s lost confidence in the project that he outlines there, with its central emphasis on the praise of Elizabeth.

So what does this tell us, the absence of the letter? I think it tells us that he’s rethinking the whole of his project by the mid-1590s. So the whole of what he sketches in the letter to Raleigh perhaps no longer describes the poem he’s writing in quite the way it did five or six years earlier.

Dr Janina Ramirez: Everything’s changed.

Dr Richard Brown: Everything has changed.

In the original prefatory letter of The Faerie Queene, addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser explains how the poem is a celebration of Queen Elizabeth I and is an extended allegory intended to be interpreted as a code or game. But when the second edition of The Faerie Queene was printed in 1596, this letter disappeared. Why? And how might this have changed readers’ understanding of the poem? Perhaps the letter was removed because Raleigh was in disgrace, or perhaps it was because Spenser himself no longer felt confident about his earlier ideas about the poem.

Spenser’s alterations to The Faerie Queene show how the meaning of a poem or book can change in different contexts. As he fell out of favour at Elizabeth’s court and witnessed violent rebellion in Ireland, Spenser’s ideas about his poem changed. His alterations ensured that other readers would also experience it differently. The passages he changed may be short, but they show how relatively minor differences between versions of the same text can have important implications. 


More about The Faerie Queene

Why size matters: See the oldest editions of the Faerie Queene.   

Visit Poet's Corner: Go on an adventure to Westminster Abbey and take pleasure in a painting.

The Secret Life of Books: Find out more about the other books in the series. 


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