Book V of Spenser’s great poem is gloriously complex and currently in severe danger of being over simplified by a whole range of critics. The main reason for this is that most of Book V is ‘about’ Ireland and in parts can be read as a thinly veiled argument for a much more brutal attack on the Irish people. This has been the cause (post Said) of much liberal hand wringing in the past two decades none of which seems to have taken too much notice of what Said actually wrote.
The problem is further compounded by Spenser’s ‘View’ which proposes a genocidal strategy as a means of dealing with the Irish “problem”.
For those who don’t know, The Faerie Queen is an exploration of six virtues achieved by means of allegory (described by Spenser as a “dark conceit”) and it is very, very long. Book V uses the figure of Artegall to explore the nature of justice. There are some critics who see Artegall as ‘standing for’ Arthur Grey as Spenser acted as his secretary when he was lord deputy of Ireland.
Grey was one of the most thuggish of Tudor thugs and his brief period (1580-82) in Ireland was marked by quite extraordinary violence including the creation of a famine in Munster in a failed attempt to starve out the leader of the current rebellion.
Before we go any further, I probably need to make it clear that I am not in any way sympathetic to the English presence in Ireland, in fact I am of the view that English efforts to deal with Ireland have been marked by ignorance, greed and indifference in equal measure. One of the saddest facts is that the sentiments expressed in ‘A View’ are shared by most of my compatriots. We do not understand the Irish obsession with religion and with the past and we view the annual disturbances around the Orangemen parades as utterly bizarre- both the protests and the need to parade. We also wish that the people of Ulster could be more like us- indifferent to religion and largely ignorant of the past. The English presence in Ireland has been characterised throughout by the doomed attempt to make the Irish more like us and Spenser is just one of many commentators to propound this view.
What isn’t of ten remarked upon is Spenser’s acute observation of the strength of the bardic tradition in Irish culture and his solution- that it needs to be destroyed by sending the children of the Irish elite to be educated in England. This I think indicates that Spenser was primarily a poet rather than a colonial civil servant.
Spenser introduces the Faerie Queen by means of a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh in which he explains his use of allegory in that the use of ‘delightful’ images is a more effective way of propounding moral worth. This method has attracted a wide range of critical attention and produced many different ways of reading the poem. I’m of the view that we should focus on where the allegories break down because I think these give us a fuller understanding of what might be going on.
Each of the six books is divided into 12 cantos and the ‘Grey’ analogy works to some extent for the first two cantos and then quite abruptly breaks down in canto III which describes a wedding feast and is further disrupted by the appearance of Radigund in Canto IIII.
Before we get to Radigund, it’s probably as well to say a few words about Britomart who is destined to marry Artegall. Britomart represents or stands for chastity which is the theme of Book III, she undertakes various quests and ordeals disguised as a man, she is also deeply troubled by her obsessive love for Artegall whom she has never met. In Book IV Artegall fights with Britomart and is victorious but falls in love with her when he removes his helmet.
It is also worth noting that Spenser is more successful in portraying female characters- both Britomart and Una are more realistic than their male counterparts who fall into a variety of contrived traps.
Radigund leads a bunch of violent Amazons, she defeats knights and then allows them to choose between death and a life spent dressed as a woman doing women’s work (spinning, carding etc). After an initial affray Radigund and Artegall have a more formal fight which Artegall wins but cannot finish his foe off when he lifts her helmet and sees her face. He therefore submits to the life of servitude outlined above.
I also ought to mention that Artegall is assisted by an iron man called Talus who tends to do all the really brutal stuff on behalf of his master. It is Talus who (instead of simply killing Radigund) alerts Britomart of Artegall’s dilemma. Things become a little more complex when both Radigund and her assistant fall in love with Artegall.
The Radigund episode takes up a lot of Book V and there isn’t a clear link in any of it to Ireland although there is much on emasculation, cross dressing and the general blurring of gender roles. It is also incredibly well written so that even now the reader is swept along by the story and is compelled to engage with the various layers of meaning. All of which is a very long winded way of saying that it would be good if critics could concentrate a bit more on the poetry and much less on the politics because it would then be obvious that the Artegall / Grey analogy doesn’t actually work and that Book V has much more interesting and challenging things to say other than the rather tired ‘might is always right’ quip.
Re-reading this in the Longman edition has also reminded me about the weakness of Bert Hamilton’s gloss- he seems to take delight in explaining things that should be left alone and ignoring the stuff that we (I) actually need help with. Or am I just being perverse and failing to recognise that North American readers might need this level of simplification? It is my view that the current notes actually detract from the brilliance of the original.
I’m also aware that this problem is much more acute with 17th century poets like Marvell who seems to have been almost completely hijacked by the political perspective.
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