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Self-Interpretation in The Faerie Queene

Self-Interpretation in The Faerie Queene

Paul Suttie
Volume: 18
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Self-Interpretation in The Faerie Queene
    Book Description:

    Recent Spenser criticism has thrown much new light, and much doubt, on the nature of ‘The Faerie Queene’'s involvement in contemporary political and religious controversies. Material to these developments has been wide recognition of the unreliability of the poem's narrating voice and its often parodic relation to generic conventions. Nonetheless, some longstanding misconceptions about allegory still limit understanding of Spenser's approach to topical issues. This book re-examines ‘The Faerie Queene’'s allegorical method, showing what is gained by recognising that the poem's main locus of allegorical self-interpretation, as in the medieval ‘Quest of the Holy Grail’, is within rather than extrinsic to the story world. Like the knights of the ‘Quest’, Spenser's heroes are poised between rival codes of moral interpretation, in a way that illuminates the relative value of those codes as guides to action. But unlike its predecessor, Spenser's poem addresses an era violently divided as to which constitutes the true code of right and wrong. Amongst the oppositions it grapples with are the ideological conflict in England and Ireland between emergent monarchic absolutism and residual feudalism, the doctrinal division between the Elizabethan and Roman churches, and the Machiavellian challenge to received ideas about political and religious legitimacy. Dr PAUL SUTTIE is a Senior Member of Robinson College, Cambridge.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-506-2
    Subjects: Linguistics

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)

    • Chapter 1 ‘To direct your understanding’: Allegory, or ‘Authoritative’ Commentary
      (pp. 3-14)

      A.C. Hamilton, in The Structure of Allegory in The Faerie Queene, writes that “All discussion of Spenser’s allegory must begin with his letter to Ralegh.”² In a sense, I would agree. Not because, with Hamilton, I accept at face value the letter’s claim to give an authoritative exposition of the “whole” of the poem’s allegorical meaning;³ but because it seems to me that the letter’s claim to inter­pret The Faerie Queene in an authoritative and comprehensive manner gives it a uniquely important place within the allegory’s workings. What the letter purports to do is merely to tell us what the...

    • Chapter Two ‘This and That’: The Experience of Allegory
      (pp. 15-38)

      Any “Interpretation that goes against the text’s manifest intentions”,¹ be it a critic’s or the author’s own, could be said to ‘do violence’ to the text it comments on. Ovid’s medieval allegoriser Pierre Bersuire confesses that violence, in likening his extraction of Christian meaning from the pagan poet to squeezing oil from a stone.² Coleridge, objecting to the imposition of an allegorical design on any good narrative, goes so far as to speak of it as a criminal offence, “the most decisive verdict against” it being “Tasso’s own account of what he would have the reader understand by the persons...

    • Chapter Three Allegorical Characters
      (pp. 39-54)

      Twentieth-century criticism of allegorical literature placed extraordinary emphasis on the discussion of allegorical characters, and more particularly on a kind of character called the ‘personification’. Very frequently, personification was treated as the defining device, if not of the whole of allegorical literature, at least of its most common species; and that species, often called “personification allegory”, was presumed (like the “this for that” allegory with which it was effectively identified) to comprise all but a few truly exceptional allegorical works, notably Dante’s Comedy.¹ But such preeminence of personification in the conception of allegorical literature is, analytically as well as historically,...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 57-60)

      It has been widely observed that the ostensibly authoritative moral selfcommentary prominent in the first book of The Faerie Queene cannot be relied on to accord with the moral significance we would attribute to the story’s events in that commentary’s absence. Nor is it merely, as Paul Alpers argues, that the commentary we get en route is “provisional”, “true but incomplete”, but that, as Jerome Dees shows, it appears at least at times to be quite on the wrong track, “falsifying” the significance of what is commented on, actually construing as virtuous what appears on other evidence to be vicious,...

    • Chapter Four The Locus of Self-Interpretation
      (pp. 61-73)

      In the first half of the Legend of Holiness, the canto arguments and the pronouncements of the narrator are certainly amongst the most conspicuously unreliable of the poem’s self-interpreting voices. But it is not sufficient to regard them as doing the whole or even the chief work of misrepresenting the story’s moral significance. That remains the case, even if we ascribe to the narrator not only such reflective commentaries as appear at canto openings, but equally, moral valuations attributable to the storytelling voice which occur in the forward stream of the narrative itself.¹ For as I mean to show, it...

    • Chapter Five Specious and Valid Paradigms of Self-Interpretation
      (pp. 74-92)

      I have argued that the early cantos of Book One present to us a hero who does not so much fall short of an agreed moral standard, as adhere to a moral standard itself revealed to be erroneous. But it remains to ask what exactly is the significance in the book of the misleading moral code, the ethos of knight-errantry, in whose terms the protagonist misconstrues his own role in the story. What is to be achieved by targeting again an ethos already widely critiqued and parodied, in works as far separated in time as The Quest of the Holy...

    • Chapter Six The Rhetoric of Self-Interpretation
      (pp. 93-122)

      I have argued that a fundamental aim of The Faerie Queene, Book One, is to distinguish a specious from a valid mode of self-interpretation, and that the former’s spuriousness is revealed chiefly in narrative terms, that is, in terms of where the protagonist’s subscribing to it really leads him (to Orgoglio’s dungeon by way of the House of Pride), as compared with where it seems to him to be leading (to knightly glory). On that basis, we might expect the contrasting genuineness of the latter ethos to be indicated in an equal and opposite manner, by the hero’s actually attaining...

    • Chapter Seven The Mythology of Self-Interpretation
      (pp. 123-146)

      At two crucial moments in the Legend of Holiness, the narrative is advanced past a point of crisis, and given new impetus towards a happy conclusion, by means of the virtuous community’s closing ranks against an individual it identifies as the source of evil and confusion in its midst. First Duessa (I.viii.45–49), and later Archimago (I.xii.34–36), are exposed as the rogue elements, the common enemy the community must expel in order to consolidate itself as a force for virtue. Of course, both characters are guilty parties. But only by a concerted revisionism can either of them, or both...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 149-150)

      In each successive book of The Faerie Queene, the titular virtue, however uncertainly defined, nevertheless continually asserts itself as a criterion in relation to which all moral interpretation is obliged to proceed. That is true not only for the hero and minor characters directly associated with each book, but likewise for those who, as it were, wander in from the different interpretative environments of the other books in which they had originally appeared. Thus for example Redcross, in the opening cantos of Books Two and Three, is perceived through the filter of local interpretative conditions not so much as the...

    • Chapter Eight The Legend of Temperance: Self-Interpretation from the Ground Up
      (pp. 151-163)

      The second book of The Faerie Queene, like the first, is in my view concerned less with portraying a particular character’s success or failure in living up to an agreed moral standard, than with exploring the viability of the different standards themselves that offer themselves as a basis for moral self-interpretation. But the terms of reference have changed. Book One in a sense dictates that the problem its successor inherits should be that of temperance, by arriving at the conclusion that the moral ideal is a middle course, between the arrogant self-assertion that leads Redcross to the House of Pride...

    • Chapter Nine Self-Interpretation and Self-Assertion in Books Three and Four
      (pp. 164-182)

      In the first and second books of The Faerie Queene, the relationship between ethical striving and political authority is made clear: legitimate political authority, whether so defined by divine will or national interest, provides the space wherein valid individual ethical endeavour can occur; and that ethical endeavour, in turn, directly enacts the authority of the prince. Books Three and Four, in contrast, put such a straightforwardly beneficent transaction between polis and ethos in question, by suspending the narrative pattern whereby each hero’s quest is assigned by Gloriana, and putting in its place a more fraught relation between sovereign power and...

    • Chapter Ten Self-Interpretation Beyond the Pale in Books Five and Six
      (pp. 183-206)

      The fifth and sixth books of The Faerie Queene seem to represent a return, after the hiatus of the central books, to the narrative and moral structure established in Books One and Two, a structure rooted in the political authority of Gloriana to assign the various heroes’ quests and to reward them for their achievements. But it is a return with a significant difference. For it is called to a reader’s attention much more obtrusively than before that the appearance of the story’s having such a structure is only one possible interpretation of the events that unfold in these books...

  7. Conclusion: The Mutability Cantos and the Limits of Self-Interpretation
    (pp. 207-212)

    On reaching the Mutability Cantos, we seem to have come full circle back to the first book’s procedure of grounding moral and political self-interpretation in a revealed metaphysical order. But here even “heauens eternall towers” ( figure as the rhetorical construct of a usurping regime asserting after the fact its own myth of aboriginal legitimacy; and though behind the dubious basis of Jove’s jurisdiction deeper grounds of judgement are asserted, avenues exist for the powerful scepticism directed at Jove’s authority to cascade onto them as well, much as the scepticism directed at Cynthia’s authority soon cascades onto Jove’s (,18).¹ For...

    (pp. 213-222)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 223-228)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-231)