1583, Spenser wished ‘to represent all the moral virtues, assigning to every virtue a knight to be the patron and defender of the same; in whose actions and feates of armes and chivalry the operations of that virtue, whereof he is the protector, are to be expressed, and the vices and unruly appetites that oppose themselves against the same to be beaten down and overcome.’ The poet subsequently explained in the prefatory letter to Ralegh that, following what he conceived to be the aims of Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, and Tasso, he laboured to portray ‘the image of a brave knight [under the name of Prince Arthur], perfected in the XII private moral virtues as Aristotle hath devised.’ Twelve books were needed for this purpose, and if the effort were well received, the author looked forward to expounding in another twelve the twelve political virtues that were essential to a perfect ruler of men. In working out his scheme, the poet imagined twelve knights, each the champion of one of ‘the private moral virtues,’ who, under the direction and in honour of the Faerie Queene, should undertake perilous combats with vice in various shapes. Prince Arthur was introduced into the design as a type of the Aristotelian virtue of magnanimity, and was represented in quest of his fated bride, the Faerie Queene, in whom Spenser, with courtier-like complacency, shadowed forth Queen Elizabeth. The prince, moreover, was to fall in with each of the twelve knights, and by his superior virtue to rescue them in turn from destruction. The careers of the Red Cross knight of holiness, and of the knights of temperance, chastity, justice, friendship, and courtesy, were alone completed. Of the rest of the design there only survives a fragment dealing with the knight of constancy (first published in the first folio edition of 1609). But in the unfinished poem Spenser found opportunity to depict allegorically not merely all the moral dangers and difficulties that beset human existence, but all the ideals of manliness and of righteousness in religion and politics that were current in his day. But it is neither as an ethical tractate nor even as an allegory that the poem lives. The fertility of Spenser's invention impelled him to lavish on each of his numerous characters and incidents a luxuriance of pictorial imagery which owed little or nothing to his allegorical or ethical intention. Monotony is inseparable from a scheme which involves an endless recurrence of contests between types of vices and virtues, and there is some justification for the charge of tediousness which was brought against the poem by Landor, and has been frequently repeated. ‘Very few and very weary are those,’ Macaulay wrote, ‘who [having perused the first canto] are in at the death of the Blatant Beast’—an unfortunately inaccurate reference to the last incident of the sixth book, which, as a matter of fact, dismisses the Beast unscathed. Nevertheless, the patient reader is rewarded at every turn by episodes which are informed by a wealth of fancy and of musical diction that gives the ‘Faerie Queene’ a place among English narrative poems not far below the greatest of them—Milton's ‘Paradise Lost.’ ‘The nobility of the Spencers,’ wrote Gibbon in his memoirs, ‘has been illustrated and enriched by the trophies of Marlborough, but I exhort them to consider the “Fairy Queen” as the most precious jewel of their coronet.’
The nine-lined stanza in which the ‘Faerie Queene’ was written was invented by Spenser, and has since been called ‘the Spenserian stanza.’ The rhymes run a b a b b c b c c. The stanza was formed by adding an alexandrine to the ten-syllabled eight-line stanzas known among the French poets as ‘rhyme royal,’ and among the Italians as ‘ottava rima.’ The latter was occasionally employed by Chaucer, while Spenser in his ‘Virgil's Gnat’ and ‘Muiopotmos’ admirably illustrated its capacities. The Spenserian stanza tends, in a far greater degree than the ‘ottava rima,’ to monotony and languor; but Spenser gave it sustained spirit and energy by the variety of his pauses.
Except Milton, and possibly Gray, Spenser was the most learned of English poets, and signs of his multifarious reading in the classics and modern French and Italian literature abound in his writings. Marot inspired his ‘Shepheards Calender.’ The ‘Faerie Queene’ was avowedly written in emulation of Ariosto's ‘Orlando,’ and Sackville's ‘Induction’ to the ‘Mirror for Magistrates’ gave many hints for the general outline (cf. Faerie Queene, prefatory sonnet to Sackville). Throughout the great work Homer and Theocritus, Virgil and Cicero, Petrarch and Tasso, Du Bellay, Chaucer, and many a modern romance writer of Western Europe, are laid under repeated contribution. Spenser's scholarly proclivities moulded, too, his vocabulary, in which archaisms figured with such frequency as to jeopardise his popularity in his own day and later; Daniel wrote of his ‘aged accents and untimely words’ (Delia, 1592, sonnet 46). None but a very zealous scholar would have borne with equanimity the apparatus of notes and glossary with which a friend encumbered his early poems. But Spenser's subtle æsthetic sense permitted him to assimilate nothing that