Part I: Spenser, Superheroes, and Ethics: Allegory in the 21st Century
I. “But why do you hate it?”
The sophomore student and I sat together in my cramped cubicle in Burrowes building. The student looked at me, looked back at his book on the desk, then lowered his eyes and shrugged. We changed the subject and discussed his upcoming writing assignment in the British literature survey course, for which I was currently a TA. As we weighed thesis statements and supporting evidence, my question hung in the air like the smell of the tuna fish sandwich I’d eaten too early for it to technically qualify as lunch.
I had asked him about The Faerie Queene by sixteenth-century English poet Edmund Spenser. In addition to being the assigned course text for that particular week, The Faerie Queene is a Renaissance tour-de-force, an extended moral allegory and epic romance that draws upon and responds to many of the major works previously written in English and the romance languages. The poem contains much effulgent praise of Elizabeth I, as well as veiled criticisms of the queen and commentary on nearly every aspect of early modern life. Spenser divides his magnum opus into books, with six of an originally prospective twelve completed and published before his death in 1599. Two sections of what appear to be an unfinished seventh book were published posthumously in 1609. With well over 30,000 lines of verse, The Faerie Queene ranks among the longest, most ambitious poems in the English language.
It’s also widely, powerfully loathed by undergraduates, graduate students, and even many professors.
Although my student elected not to expand on his shrugging response, others have articulated many reasons for their disdain of Spenser’s poem, dating back almost to the time of its initial publication. Here are some of the highlights: It’s too long. It’s boring. The characters are flat. The language is too difficult (much harder, in fact, than the verse or prose written by most of Spenser’s English contemporaries). The story is too disjointed. The allegory is too confusing. It’s boring (yes, I know I’ve written that already). There are too many footnotes in my edition. Shakespeare is better anyway. Since first teaching the text, I’ve thought up various strategies for tackling each of these responses head-on, creating opportunities for productive discussion. Here, though, I want to talk about my own understanding of how Spenserian moral allegory works and, more specifically, how it can work in ways that help us develop as ethical individuals today.
Spenser offers an account of his own allegorical project in the Letter to Ralegh, a document appended to the first three books of The Faerie Queene in the 1590 edition. He describes the work as “a continued Allegory, or darke conceit,” and he claims, “The general end therefore of all the booke, is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” That is, Spenser wants his audience to become more virtuous as a result of reading his work. Much like his contemporary Philip Sidney, Spenser upholds literary fiction as an effective tool for moral education because it is more entertaining than philosophy or prosaic precepts: “So much more profitable and gratious is doctrine by ensample, then by rule.” He then proceeds to align certain characters with “private moral virtues,” including holiness, temperance, chastity, and a capacious “Magnificence.”
The Letter to Ralegh—a far more complex document than my brief discussion allows for—provides a useful starting place for reading Spenser, but it’s far from a comprehensive roadmap. The Faerie Queene does not straightforwardly transmit doctrine or personify abstract virtues. It’s not a catechism encased in chivalric fiction. Like anyone, Spenser certainly had beliefs and principles to which he was profoundly committed. Some of these are reflected in his poetry, with certain sections of the text more transparent, perhaps, than others. But the poem cannot be reduced to a single, simple moral message. If it could be, then I might hate it too.
Instead, the poet proves remarkably adept at stimulating moral thinking. Almost nothing is spoon-fed to the reader, and when it seems like it is, you’re probably being tricked… read a little further. Rather than giving moral lessons as absolutes, Spenser encourages the reader to constantly revise his or her judgments about ethical significance with the accumulation of more data, to a truly overwhelming extent. The poem instills a need to be attentive, humble, and intellectually flexible. It shows how messy moral living can be in practice, and it allows the reader to hone the necessary skills within the safe-space of the poem. More than an insight into Spenser’s own moral precepts, The Faerie Queene offers us training in how to be responsible ethical agents in a world of tremendous contingency, variety, and even absurdity.
Still not sold on Spenser? Alright. How do you feel about superheroes?