Edmund Spenser vs. Virgil and Ariosto
Some scholars believe Spenser did not have sufficient education to compose a work with as much complexity as The Faerie Queene, while others are still “extolling him as one of the most learned men of his time” (587). Scholar Douglas Bush agrees, “scholars now speak less certainly that they once did of his familiarity with ancient literature” (587). In contrast, Meritt Hughes “finds no evidence that Spenser derived any element of his poetry from any Greek Romance” (587). Several questions still remain unanswered: Was Edmund Spenser as “divinely inspired” to write The Faerie Queene as Virgil and Ariosto were in their works? Or did Spenser simply lack creativity, causing him to steal his storylines from theirs?
“The range and depth of Spenser’s reading have not been precisely discovered: and in the absence of definitive information, one should guard against the two extremes of exaggerating or underestimating the poet’s education” (Steadman 587). Although born to parents of modest income, Edmund Spenser, probably born in 1552, was still able to receive an impressive education at the Merchant Taylors’ School, and Pembroke College at Cambridge. He learned enough Latin to read and understand poets such as Ariosto and Virgil, both of whom his works are frequently compared to (Norton 614).
Born in 70 BC, Publius Virgilius Maro ranks among the greatest Roman poets who ever lived. With only a few Latin poets attempting to write an epic before him (Naevius and Ennius), Latin literature reached its peak wit the publication of the Aeneid shortly after Virgil’s death. His epic heavily influenced succeeding poets throughout Western literature. Ever since people have compared The Shepheardes Calender, one of Spenser’s early works, to Virgil’s Eclogues, “critics have judged Spenser’s poetry by its fidelity to Virgilian models” (Watkins 1). Another scholar testified that both Ariosto and Spenser did not observe Virgil’s conception of an epic as ‘a unified account of a single hero’s career,’ but instead got lost in their concentrations on wild, unnatural allegories that greatly displeased and ultimately confused the reader (1).
Spenser, who was referred to as the “English Virgil” by his contemporaries, was certainly influenced by Virgil’s success (Kennedy 717). The idea of modeling one’s career after Virgil’s is know as the rota Virgilli or cursus Virgilli, meaning “the Virgilian wheel or course” (717). It is explained in a four-line preface added to Renaissance editions of the Aeneid:
‘Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulates avena/ Carmen, et egressus silvis vicina coegi/ ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono,/ gratum opus agricolis, at nunc horrentia Martis’ (I am he who, after singing on the shepherd’s slender pipe and leaving the wood-side for the farmlands ever so much to obey their eager tenant; my work was welcome to the farmers, but now I turn to the sterner stuff on Mars)(717).
Virgil starts off writing the pastoral poem and ends with the epic. He begins his career with “shepherd’s slender pipe (the pastoral Eclogues), proceeds to the ‘farmlands’ (the didactic Georgics), and finally arrives at the ‘sterner stuff on Mars’ (the epic Aeneid)” (717). Spenser described his own career similarly in the first book of The Faerie Queene:
‘Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,/ As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,/ Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,/ For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,(717),
It is in Virgil’s three major poems that Spenser found most of his endeavor. As a young poet, he found inspiration for The Shepheardes Calender in the Eclogues. No single eclogue directly imitates Virgil’s; however, there are several similarities between the two. In August, the singing contest parallels those of Eclogue 3 and 7, and in November, the funeral lament recalls that of Eclogue 5. The writing of the beloved in January 55-60 to Eclogue 2.54-6, and the description of the locos amoenus in June 1-16 to Eclogue 1.48-58 are a few examples of closer imitations (Kennedy 718).
While the Eclogues had a profound influence on Spenser, the moral Georgics did not carry as much significance as Virgil’s other works, including the Aeneid, Virgil’s Gnat, and the Culex. More so, his direct copying from Georgics is far less obvious. In Book 1 of 1 of The Faerie Queene, the fall of the giants echoes Book 1 of Georgics. ”It is a sequence of didactic poems depicting varied endeavors as The Shepheardes Calender would do on a pastoral scale as The Faerie Queene would do on a epic scale” (Kennedy 718).
Virgil’s works provided insight for every Renaissance epic poet. In The Faerie Queene, Spenser twice interlocks versions of Eclogue 1 when he pastoralizes the iron age Ireland of Book 5 into the golden world of Book 6. He rewrites Virgil’s story of exile into one of return with Meliboe’s tale of his trip to the city. The “construction of ‘home’ out of distance from city and court parallels Spenser’s two-fold position as a kind of exile from England and a home-making colonizer in Ireland” (Lupton). Secondly, he softens the tragic Virgilian fate of Meliboe’s murder by restoring the country lands to Coridon. “In both cases, Spenser resolves Virgil’s painful, structural contrast between ‘exile’ and ‘home’ into a redemptive narrative sequence of exile followed by return or repossession” (Lupton).
When Renaissance poets began writing epics praising the hierarchy, the question of whether or not the stressed virtuous discipline to their readers was primitive to their acceptance as “vernacular Virgils,” those who imitated his way of writing (Watkins 52).
In his “Letter to Raleigh,” Spenser mentions the influence of Lodovico Ariosto’s work, Orlando furioso (1516), in The Faerie Queene:
“In which I have followed al the antique Poets historicall, first Homere, who in the Persons of Agamemnon and Ulysses hath ensampled a good governour and virtuous man…after him Ariosto comprised them both in his Orlando…”
Ariosto’s epic is generally regarded as the finest expression of the literary tendencies and spiritual attitudes of the Italian Renaissance. Orlando furioso is an original continuation of Boiardo’s Orland inamorato. Ariosto was determined to finish Boiardo’s work, who died before completing the Inamorato. It derived from the epic, romances, and heroic poetry of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. The influence of the Furioso is apparent in The Faerie Queene, in which Spenser had openly admitted wanting to “overgo.” “Ariosto redirected the course of chivalric poetry, effecting a wedding of classical epic and medieval romance” (Marinelli 56). Thus, this epic provided Spenser with his closest model for The Faerie Queene. Spenser arranged his epic into twelve books, just as Ariosto did. The books celebrated different virtues through the actions of several heroes. They serve to join the characters’ adventures with the virtues they strive for (Redcrosse strives to reach the virtue of Holiness). Early passages develop symbols of virtues in their abstract or common meaning (Marinelli 57). It is only after the characters attempt to attain a particular virtue that they ultimately embody the virtue. This element of intervening adventures appear like Ariosto’s at first, but are, in fact, more related to a medieval element—they have far more moral sense than the adventures of most romances.
The Faerie Queene also differs from the Furioso in its flowing transitions from episode to episode. Ariosto is noted for using a formula that reads “Mes a tant laisse li contes a parler de…et retorne a…”(“Now I stop telling the story of…and return to…”)(Fowler 135). An example of fluidity in The Faerie Queene is in Book 3, Canto 6, when in the birth of Belphoebe and her ‘twinship’ with Amoret, “an inset Ovidian tale of Chrysogone provides the canto’s first mythological treatment of generation (Fowler 135):
It were a goodly story to declare,/ By what straunge accident faire Chrysogone/ Conceived these infants, and how them she bare…”
A distinct similarity between the Furioso and The Faerie Queene is the allegorical meaning behind the marriage or uniting of two characters. Orlando, whose name is Italian for Roland, is the Furioso’s hero. He is united with the enchantress Angelica, which symbolizes the two great commentaries of narrative in the Middle Ages: “the martial Matter of France, associated with Charlemagne’s wars, and the romantic Matter or Brittany, associated with Arthurian knighterranty and enchantment” (Marinelli 56). The marriage of Thames and Medway in Book 4 of The Faerie Queene is the only allegorical wedding in the entire epic. Their wedding ceremony is symbolic in two ways. It can be considered political as in the marriage of England to Elizabeth, or generally understood as “referring to the unity of life and the significance of generation in nature (Lerner 455).
Not only are Spenser’s characters and storylines reflections of Ariosto’s but its very shape also derives from a few developments in fifteenth and sixteenth century Italian literature. In his personal pressure to “overgo” Ariosto, Spenser wove extended narratives of heroism, chivalry, comedy, history, and allegory into his epic. For example, The Faerie Queene’s action is divided into cantos and stanzas rather than in blank verse. This represents the survival of popular Italian Renaissance poetry to the storytelling tradition that became popular during the Middle Ages (Marinelli 56). A minstrel recited tales to the townspeople in a public place so that citizens other than those who could afford books were able to hear and pass on the popular tales of the time. Another clear imitation is Spenser’s conglomeration of several different epic and romance forms in The Faerie Queene. The mixture of scramble, bravery and surprise “is probably his principal Italian ingredient” (Fowler 132). One may attribute this to the idea that each Renaissance epicist aimed higher and further at including more illusion and complexity than the work before his.
Edmund Spenser did write his own epic. However, to credit him as a great author is a clear slap-in-the-face to the poets from which he stole their ideas—specifically Virgil and Ariosto. He wrote the epic in hopes that Queen Elizabeth would be impressed by his work and bring him back to England from Ireland, reversing his exile. From what is known today, he has been known to despise the natives who live there. The Irish were highly discriminated against since they were considered the scum of England by a very large part of the population. The Faerie Queene has moral value, conveys important meanings, and pleasures the reader. However, his storylines, characters, and ideas severely lack both creativity and originality. He found inspiration to write and modeled The Shepheardes Calender on Virgil’s Eclogues, and even followed Virgil’s steps of writing before attempting to write his epic. His narrative consisted of twelve books, just as Ariosto’s did, and also had his characters strive for the same thing, virtues, in his attempt to outdo the Italian poet. In all, if one were not intensely learned in either Virgil’s or Ariosto’s works, he or she would not know The Faerie Queene was similar to their works in so many ways. However, this paper is able to show that person that Edmund Spenser is not the genius he and so many others credit him to be.