It’s been a long but worthwhile journey. I wish I had more knowledge of Spenser’s works, Elizabethan politics, and English poetry in general. I am planning to read more in these areas, but luckily such knowledge wasn’t a prerequisite to enjoying The Faerie Queene.
What can I say about such a seminal work of literature? I keep imagining Spenser in his ruff, dipping his pen over and over, scrawling out his iambic pentameters and hexameters. Like so many artists, he seems a paradox of pride and insecurity, waiting and longing for wealth and respect. He wove a complex moral story meant to please his fellow men while preaching to them, to praise some government policies while voicing his grievances on others, to give new life to old stories and old words. He wrote about his understanding of human nature, our potential (even his own ambitions) and our shortcomings (even his own failures).
What about this site? In the future I’d like to add more to all these categories. It would be awesome to have commentary for each canto with more notes and cross-references. For now, I hope that my experiences here might help anyone who finds this book intimidating.
This is it!
They arrive at the castle of Belgard. Its lord and lady have an interesting past. Sir Bellamour and Lady Claribell were lovers when they were young, but Claribell’s father intended to marry her to a prince. Instead she secretly married Bellamour. When her father found out, he threw him in a dungeon, but Bellamour was friends with his guards and often came to visit his wife. She got pregnant and had to get rid of the child so her father wouldn’t kill the baby girl.
Her servant Melissa left the baby in a field after taking note of her tiny yet distinctive birthmark (Spenser says it looked like a rose). The servant waited behind the bushes to see what would happen. A shepherd came by and carried the crying baby off. Eventually Claribell’s father died and she and Bellamour inherited the castle and lived in happiness.
Now Bellamour previously knew Calidore as a fellow knight, and Calidore is reminded of his quest for the Blatant Beast. He resolves to finish his duty. Pastorella stays at the castle. The same servant Melissa is taking care of her. When she sees Pastorella’s chest, she sees the birthmark she remembers from the long-lost babe, and runs to tell Claribell. Thus Pastorella is reunited with her biological mother and father.
Meanwhile Calidore is following the Beast’s trail of destruction. He corners it in a certain monastery where the Beast had defiled everything inside. Calidore is confronted by the Beast’s giant mouth, with double rows of iron teeth and a thousand tongues. The tongues are various voices, some animal, some human, some literally poisonous, most verbally poisonous. The human tongues gossip, blaspheme, revile, and hate.
Calidore triumphs and muzzles the Beast with iron. He leads it all the way back to Gloriana’s court. Spenser tells us, however, that someday the Beast is let free again…
Ne may this homely verse, of many meanest,
Hope to escape his venemous despite,
More than my former writs, all were they clearest
From blamefull blot, and free from all that wite,
With which some wicked tongues did it backebite,
And bring into a mighty Peres displeasure,
That neuer so deserued to endite.
Therfore do you my rimes keep better measure,
And seeke to please, that now is counted wisemens threasure.
It happens that the captain of the brigands falls in love with Pastorella. He treats her well, hoping to get her to like him, and though she does not love him she has enough presence of mind to be nice to him in return. This gets his hopes up, and finally she has no choice to but to feign sickness to avoid having sex with him. The captain sits by her sickbed, mourning his pretty captive, until a day comes when the slavetraders arrive.
The captain brings out Coridon and Meliboe and the rest of the pastoral people to sell them. Some of the men remember the fair shepherdess and ask for Pastorella, but the captain claims her for his own refuses to sell her. This brings them to blows and many of the brigands and the captives are killed in the scuffle, including Meliboe and his wife. Coridon manages to slip away. The captain dies with Pastorella in his arms, but she receives part of the same wound that kills him. She is finally discovered underneath a pile of bodies, wounded but still alive. The victorious men tend to her wound but she grieves sorely for her dead friends and family.
Calidore returns from hunting to find everyone (and their sheep) disappeared and their homes pillaged. He meets the fleeing Coridon, who – thinking Pastorella dead – tells him all that happened. After he recovers from his initial shock, Calidore decides to go look for Pastorella or her body and avenge her if he can. He talks Coridon into showing him the path to the caves.
On the way back they encounter a flock and some brigands who have stolen the sheep. They fall in with these thieves and are hired on as shepherds, since the thieves are ignorant of sheep-tending. They follow the thieves into the caves, and in the middle of the night start killing everyone to get to Pastorella. Finally Calidore finds her, “but like to one distraught / And robd of reason”. Calidore kills so many men at the room’s entrance that he is able to barricade the door with their bodies. In the morning he pushes his way out and kills the rest of the brigands on the surface.
Finally they are all gone. He retrieves all their plunder from the caves, gives Coridon back all the sheep that were stolen, and takes Pastorella somewhere safe.
No one is worried about the Blatant Beast anymore, but the poet can’t really blame Calidore for craving love and happiness over blood and battles.
Calidore finds a beautiful place called Acidale, the resort of Venus. It consists of a small hill ringed about by woods, with a waterfall and a stream flowing through. As he approaches he hears music and dancing. Though he dares not get too close, he views a hundred naked maidens in a ring, dancing around three ladies who are dancing around a central lady. Though they are all lovely, the lady in the middle exceeds them by far.
This canto is fun because Spenser makes himself a main character in the person of Colin Clout. He is the piper for this dance. Calidore finally makes the mistake to approach the group, and in true mythological fashion they all vanish at once except for Colin. Colin breaks his pipe in frustration*.
Calidore apologizes for his error and asks what was happening. Colin explains the scene – all the women are Graces, the servants of Venus who bestow on humans their beauty, courtesy, and grace. They are naked because nudity is honest. The three in the middle are the named Graces of higher degree. The lady in the center is his love, just a country lass, but one so honored by the Graces that they have given her a place among them. In stanza 28 he even apologizes to Gloriana for elevating this other woman, who appears to NOT be any aspect of Elizabeth I Now Calidore is even more sorry for driving them all away, but Colin isn’t mad at him and they spend a long time in conversation. Then he returns to Pastorella.
Coridon is still extremely jealous of Calidore. One day as all three of them are gathering strawberries, a tiger jumps out of the woods towards Pastorella. Coridon runs away. Calidore kills the tiger with nothing but his shepherd’s hook. Now Calidore has won Pastorella’s heart, and they are officially “together”.
Sadly it is not going to last long – while Calidore is out hunting one day, brigands find the pastoral people, rob their houses and capture them to sell as slaves. They have a hidden cave system underground, lit only by candles “which delt / A doubtfull sense of things”. Pastorella and her family end up in the caves.
*which according to my notes might indicate Spenser’s intention to cut off the poem here, as he will shortly do, instead of continuing it through twelve books as he originally planned.
Spenser returns to Calidore, whom we left in Canto III. He has been hunting the Blatant Beast this whole time, “through hils, through dales, throgh forests, & throgh plaines”. One day, in sheep country, he comes to a group of shepherds playing their pipes. Calidore asks them if they have seen the Beast. They say no, but offer him food and drink. He sits down with them and notices a beautiful girl named Pastorella. He falls for her, but she cares for no one, not even the shepherd Coridon who loves her most of all.
Later that evening Pastorella’s father, Meliboe, shows up to let her know it’s time to take the sheep home. Spenser informs us that Meliboe is not really her father – he found Pastorella abandoned as a baby and took her in. Coridon and Calidore go with her, Coridon helping her drive the flock. When Meliboe sees that Calidore is alone he invites him in. As they eat dinner they discourse about the happy, easy lives that these peasant shepherds lead. Meliboe affirms that while he has few earthly goods, he has lots of leisure time. Over the course of the evening Calidore becomes obsessed with the simple life and obsessed with Pastorella. He offers Meliboe gold in exchange for living with him, which Meliboe refuses, but he is welcomed to stay.
As Calidore tries to woo Pastorella in the knightly way, he discovers that she knows nothing of court and prefers music and the way of her people. He switches out his armor for shepherd weeds and learns to tend the sheep. Coridon notices his efforts and grows jealous, but Calidore is so kind and courteous to him that “euen they, the which his riuals were, / Could not maligne him, but commend him needs: / For courtesie amongst the rudest breeds / Good will and fauour.”
Arthur and Sir Enias (the knight hired by Turpine in the last canto) pass by Mirabella’s van. Timias keeps his head down, ashamed of being a thrall. Enias challenges Disdain and puts up a fair fight, but is beaten in the end and held, struggling, down on the ground by the fool Scorn.
Arthur then challenges Disdain. He has a better outcome, breaking Disdain’s leg so that he falls on the ground. As he is about to dispatch him, Mirabella stop him, saying that his death will mean her own. She explains her sad story:
In prime of youthly years, when first the flowre
Of beauty gan to bud…
I was belou’d of many a gentle Knight,
And sude and sought with all the seruice dew:
Full many a one for me deepe groand and sight,
And to the dore of death for sorrow drew…
But let them loue that list, or liue or die…
Thus I triumphed long in louers paine,
And sitting carelesse on the scorners stoole,
Did laugh at those that did lament and plaine:
But all is now repayd with interest againe.
She shows them her bottle, which she puts her tears into, and the bag on her back, which she puts her repentance into. They both leak out anything she puts inside, and she is scorned by Scorn for her sins.
Arthur at last recognizes Timias and frees him. The savage man fights Disdain (who is able to get back up again despite his leg) until Arthur stops him. Arthur gives Mirabella the option to leave this group, but she tells him she must carry out her penance. Then Arthur is gone from the poem.
Lady Serena is all alone and terrified. At last she sits down in the woods, blames Sir Calepine in her heart, and falls asleep. During the night she is discovered by a band of cannibal raiders, who decide to sacrifice her and then eat her. She wakes up as they are preparing their ritual, and ends up naked on the altar before Calepine is attracted by all the commotion. He kills all the cannibals and saves the lady, but he cannot discern her face in the darkness and she is too shy (being naked) to speak to him.
Turpine the coward follows Arthur from his castle. He stalks him through the woods, planning to kill him somehow. Turpine meets a pair of inexperienced knights that he convinces (by lying) to fight Arthur for him.
When the two knights catch up with him it goes badly for them. The first knight’s lance misses and he rides on by. The second knight is killed in the fall off his horse. The first knight turns around to face Arthur again and is knocked down. Arthur spares him when he begs for mercy, and the knight tells him all about being recruited by Turpine. He volunteers to bring Turpine to Arthur, and that he does. The knight returns to where he left Sir Turpine and tells him how the other fellow is dead and so is Arthur. He leads Turpine to the spot…but Arthur is only asleep (I guess he got tired of waiting). The knight declares Sir Turpine a villain and will not be swayed by his frightened bribes. The savage man returns and Arthur wakes up. You can’t fool him twice, so Turpine gets hung upside down on a tree.
Now we are introduced to the lady on the ass that Serena and Timias recently passed. Her name is Mirabella, and she is riding along on the ass with the fool and the carl*. Mirabella is a proud, stonyhearted beauty who used to ruin people’s love. She is in her present state because Cupid found out about it during one of his St. Valentine’s Day courts, when a lot of his men went missing. She had ruined, killed, or bound them all. He exiled her with this sorry company until she had saved as many loves as she ruined (22 in all). So far, after 2 years of wandering, she has saved 2.
The foul carl is Disdain, and the fool is Scorn. They assail her physically and verbally as they ride. The squire Timias is too noble to stay out of it, so he interferes but is quickly made hostage himself and tied up to walk before the wagon. Poo Serena flees the scene.
*Which I had to look up in the dictionary. It means churl, or boor.