The Faerie Queene is an epic poem of over 36,000 lines, written by the British poet Edmund Spenser in the late 1500’s. The first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590, then the final three books (along with a new ending of the third book) were published in 1596. A fragment of what might have become Book Seven was found after Spenser’s death.
The poem is written in nine-line stanzas, using a form Spenser created. Now known as the Spenserian stanza, Spenser used an ABABBCBCC rhyme scheme which allowed for thematic flexibility and maximized the musicality of his stories. Within each stanza, the first eight lines are written in iambic pentameter, followed by a final iambic hexameter alexandrine.
While The Faerie Queene contains allegory, it also functions beautifully as a stand-alone adventure poem in which prince Arthur (future king) encounters knights in Faerie Land attempting grand quests against forces of evil. Monsters, dragons, enchanters, witches, gods, goddesses, temptation, confusion, and inner turmoil plague Spenser’s heroes as they travel to strange lands. Many of the knights have been commissioned by Gloriana, queen of Faerie Land, to rescue or redeem those in need. Each book features a different virtue, though characters and plots also mingle between books. The Faerie Queene was written to honor Queen Elizabeth I, praising her while providing a British epic equal to the ancient works of Homer and Virgil.
A more thorough description can be found in the introduction to Book One on this site.
Edmund Spenser was born in London around 1552. Not much is certain about his family, but it’s likely they were not wealthy. Spenser attended Merchant Taylors’ School, then received a BA and MA while at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge after working as a sizar. After graduation, he began work as a civil servant, moving to English-occupied Ireland, eventually serving as secretary to Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton. Some of the political opinions Spenser expressed while living in Ireland are quite disturbing, a matter we address in our introduction to Book Five.
Spenser worked in Ireland while writing The Faerie Queene, though he hoped to please the queen well enough to be invited to return to his homeland. (See the aerial video below featuring the ruins of Kilcolman Castle, Cork where Spenser lived while writing his poem. Film credit, Donna and Joe Murray.)
As time wore on and Spenser did not receive this invitation, his stories grew more complex—ultimately taking on a life of their own and surpassing any conscious goals Spenser held for his poem. In 1598, Kilcolman Castle was raided in the Nine Years’ War by the troops of Hugh O’Neill. Spenser then fled home to England where he died the next year.
He was married twice, fathering between three and five children. Edmund Spenser is buried in Westminister Abbey.
Explore Kilcolman Castle
Video by Joe and Donna Murray