Spenser's The Faerie Queene as a Picture Gallery

The Faerie Queene is, in fact, a picture gallery, and Spenser, the poet-painter, has given in it marvelous scenes, palaces caves, fights and journeys that can suitably match any work of a good painter. Spenser, as a word-painter, ranks matchless in the realm of poetry. Going through The Faerie Queene, one has the unmistakable impression of passing through an enchanted landscape, in which there is a dreamlike succession of pageants and dissolving views of forests, lakes, caves and palaces.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

One feels almost spell-bound in the midst of such a pageantry. With its pictorial charms we are bound to endorse the judgment of Campbell, who called Spenser 'Rubens of the poets', for Spenser does have some of the qualities of that great artist.

The Faerie Queene, is rich in imagery. His images here are varied and colored. He has drawn pictures of landscapes, palaces, courts and caves, with a length of description and a wealth of brilliance. The pictures of nature and landscape are exquisitely beautiful and attractive. In the Canto 1, Book I, Spenser has presented a very realistic picture of the clouds of gnats pestering a gentle shepherd in the evening:

As gentle shepheard in sweete eventide, When ruddy Phebus gins to walke in west, High on an hill, his flocke vewen wide, Markes which doe byte their hasty supper best; A cloud of cumbrous. gnattes doe him molest, striving to infixe their feeble stings, That from their noyance he no where can rest, But with his clownish hands their tender wings He brusheth oft, and oft cloth mar their murmurings.

Canto II abounds in pictorial richness. The very first stanza, describing the accurate positions of different planets in the sky at night and the imminent dawn, speaks of this fact:

By this the Noaherne wagoner had set His sevenfold terne behind the stedfast starre That was in Ocean waves yet never wet, But firme is fiat, and sender ii light ,front farce To al that in the wide deepe wandring afro ; And chearefidl Chaunticlere with his note shrill Had warned once, that Phoebus fiery carre In hast was climing up the Eastertie hill, Full envious that night so long his roome did fill.

Spenser shows a great skill in drawing pictures of human beings belonging to various ranks and classes of society. Pictures of old men, dwarfs, knights, and charming damsels are given in detail. Perhaps the two best portraits of old age have been those of Archimago and Orgoglio. The following lines represent the old man in Canto VIII, Book I:

At last, with creeping crooked pace forth came An old man, with bread as white as snow That on a staffe his feeble steps did frame, And guide his wearie gate both too and bro, For his eye sight him fayled long ygo; And on his arme a bounch of keyes he bore, The which unused rust did overgrow :

The pictures of the Red Cross Knight, Sansjoy and Sansloy are as graphic and precise as those of Tennyson's knights a later stage. The very first stanza of Canto I brings vividly before our eyes the picture of the Red Cross Knight on the plains:

A gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine, Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde, Wherein old dints of deepe woundes did remaine, The cruell markes of many a bloody fielde; Yet armes till that time did he never wield.

Sometimes Spenser can be very brief and striking in drawing his pictures, such as in the following while presenting Una and her purity and innocence:

So pure and innocent, as that same lambe, She was in life and every virtuous love.

Spenser is equally a perfect painter of buildings, palaces, castles, caves and dungeons. This establishes him as an architect in English poetry. The following is a grand picture of a stately palace, the construction of which might have needed the skilled craftsmanship of an able architect:

A stately Pallace built of squared bricke, Which cunningly was without morter laid, Whose wals were high, but nothing strong nor thick, And golden foile all over them displaid, That purest skye with brightnesse they disinald : High lifted up were many lofitie towers, And goodly galleries for over lard, Full of faire windowes and delightful bowers, And on the top a Diall told the timely bowers.'

Spenser is also skilled in painting supernatural characters, Dragons, Giants and Hell. Perhaps the most detailed picture is that of Dragon in the eleventh Canto of Book I. It covers many stanzas, and resembles the description of the stanza by Milton in Paradise Lost. The Dragon's flaggy wings are like two sails, and his pinions are like ‘mayne-yardes with flying canvas lynd'. The Dragon is a terrible creature.

The cloudes before him fledd for terror great, And all the hevens stood still amused with his threat.

The Picture of Orgoglio is equally graphic, especially in the presentation of the Giant's struggle with Prince Arthur. The picture of hill with Cerberus guarding the main with his three deformed heads curled with thousand ‘addres venemous’ is as glaring as the picture of Pluto's Kingdom could be. Spenser has also presented moving descriptions of bloody fights, and the blood gushing forth after such fights is terrifying. There are numerous pictures of such scenes in The Faerie Queene-the encounter of the Red Cross Knight with the Monster of Error, then with toe Sarazens, then with Orgoglio. Arthur's fight with the giant, etc. At the end of the Red Cross Knight's fight with the Dragon, we have a sea of blood spilled about.

Sometimes Spenser delights in presenting abstract qualities in concrete form with rich detail. Thus we have the pictures of Gluttony riding on a deformed creature with ‘belly upplowne with luxury’; of Avarice upon ‘a camel loaden all with gold',  of Envy sitting on a ravenous wolfe; of Anger sitting upon a Lion—are vivid enough to grasp the attention of any passerby. Three stanzas have been devoted to the presentation of each one of these vices harnessed in the chariot of pride. In a similar way, the picture of despair in the Cave of Despair has been personified in the man of despair.

Spenser has been quite successful in arresting the motion and gesture of his portraits. His art is, in a way, ruled by the pageants and processions of costumed characters with expressive gestures and motions. The attitudes of these characters revealed the abstractions they represented. Such is his description of the Seven Deadly Sins or his procession of the Seasons and the Months. In these, Spenser almost surpasses the limits of poetry in his desire to reproduce in detail those feasts of the eye in which, so many participants permitted the spectators simultaneously to enjoy every part. Nothing is too long for him. His joy in painting never flags.

Spenser was also influenced by the pantomimes so dear to his contemporaries, and in order to give a body and a countenance to everything, to eliminate obstructions from 'his poem, he stand the moral principles he wished to inculcate. He sometimes fielded in verse the acting of mimes who, as though, were taking part in a morality play, for example, in the episode of the fight between Sir Guyon and Furor and Occasion. So much was he carried away by his pleasure in a picture that he often half-forgot its symbolical and moral meaning. His verses look like all the great allegorical canvases of the Renaissance.

At last, Spenser borrows the idea or subject of his pictures from everywhere, from books as from paintings and pageants and the scenes on the stage of his time. He rejects no poetic source. Hence we find a rich diversity of picture-painting in his masterpiece, a mingling of different shades and colors. The total impression created by his work is that of a poet-painter ever out to draw magnificent and lively pictures of life.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Spenser's The Faerie Queene as a Picture Gallery." BachelorandMaster, 19 Mar. 2018, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/the-faerie-queene-as-a-picture-gallery.html.