Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 40, 2000
Redcrosse's 'springing well' of scriptural faith.
by Thomas A. Dughi
Few scenes in book 1 of The Faerie Queene are as puzzling - or as crucial to understanding the source of Redcrosse knight's spiritual strength - as the paired "falls" that refresh and renew him during the climactic battle of canto 11. Whatever happens as Redcrosse lies soaking, first in the "well of life," then in the "streame of Balme" flowing from the "tree of life,"(1) these scenes clearly are meant to represent the spiritual experience of the exemplary Christian warrior that Redcrosse has become; equally clearly, his victories over sin and death, and "that old Dragon," are contingent upon what happens during these moments. So what does happen?
The standard reading is that the falls allegorically represent baptism and communion, the two sacraments of the Elizabethan church; but most commentators do not press too hard on what it might mean to find allegories of church sacraments at such critical junctures.(2) John Wall's recent Transformations of the Word, however, sheds some much-needed light on precisely that question. For Wall, the corporate life of worship defined in the Book of Common Prayer is the fundamental identifying mark of the Church of England, and as such, the inescapable context of The Faerie Queene, even Spenser's use of biblical sources, he contends, is "mediated through their use in Prayer Book rites."(3) Wall pushes the sacramental reading of canto 11 to its logical conclusion, and in doing so discovers not only a wholehearted endorsement of Prayer Book ritual but an assertion about the source of Redcrosse's spiritual strength that would have been deeply disturbing to a committed sixteenth-century Protestant: Redcrosse's "victory over the dragon . . . occurs through the agency of the sacramental life of the church, the acts of baptism in 'the well of life' and Eucharist in 'the tree of life.'"(4)
Although I disagree with Wall, his conclusions are inescapable so long as one accepts the standard reading of Redcrosse's revival by the well and tree of life. If The Faerie Queene celebrates the corporate life of the Elizabethan church, then such a reading makes sense. But if one sees Spenser as a moderate Puritan - or militant Protestant - Wall's reading makes clear that we need an alternative interpretation of Redcrosse's refreshing falls. The case for a moderate Puritan Spenser has been persuasively argued in recent years by Anthea Hume and David Norbrook, and I will not reargue it here. But let me at least clarify the label. The moderate Puritanism to which Hume refers was a thoroughly Word-based Protestantism with four central concerns: "a desire for 'further reformation' of the Church of England in the light of the scriptures, a preoccupation with the need for an educated preaching ministry, a hatred of episcopal pomp and wealth, and a particularly fervent opposition to Roman Catholicism."(5) A moderate-Puritan Spenser would find himself in the tradition of John Bale, John Foxe, and the Geneva Bible, and in the company of militant Protestants like his patrons, the Earl of Leicester and Lord Grey; Sir Philip Sidney; and the reform-minded Edmund Grindal. The project of book 1, moreover - to "fashion a gentleman or noble person" in the "vertuous and gentle discipline" of faith - fits the pattern of Puritan activity in the late 1580s and early 1590s: during that period, Patrick Collinson has pointed out, most Puritans were directing their energies into sermons, devotional treatises, and the cultivation of the Christian life, rather than actively pursuing institutional reform.(6)
What I am proposing here is a reading of Redcrosse knight's falls that is consonant with just such a militantly biblical Protestantism. The inescapable context of book 1, I argue, is not the corporate life of the church but Protestant biblical theory and rhetorical practice. Book 1 as a whole is inspired by the great dream of the Reformation: that the words of a book possess the power thoroughly to transform the soul's deepest structures. Moreover, book 1's narrative shape and method are rooted in basic Protestant insights into how God's Word works its transforming magic. And canto 11's refreshing falls represent the end result of this process: when Redcrosse knight falls, he falls almost literally into God's Word; what the reader sees are scenes that figure the working of the Word as it generates - and regenerates faith within the soul of the righteous man.
From Luther through Bunyan (and beyond), nothing is more fundamental to Protestantism than the belief that the Word of God has the power to lay hold of and transform the deepest structures of the psyche. As one might expect, the effort to capture and convey this power begins with Luther. "The soul which clings . . . with a firm faith" to the promises of God, Luther writes,
will be so closely united with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them. If a touch of Christ healed, how much more will this his most tender spiritual touch, this absorbing of the Word, communicate to the soul all things that belong to the Word.(7)
Absorption, saturation, intoxication. A moment later, Luther adds yet another metaphor for the Word's transforming power - one he uses elsewhere for the divine presence in the Eucharist: "Just as the heated iron glows like fire because of the union of fire with it, so the Word imparts its qualities to the soul."(8) The proliferating metaphors and the doubled absorption metaphor (with the soul described first as absorbed into, and then as absorbing, the Word), suggest a process that exceeds his ability to describe it - dramatically emphasizing the sheer reach of the Word's power to disperse itself throughout the regenerate soul.
Luther's description of the soul's internalization of God's Word is strikingly paralleled in Stephen Greenblatt's remarks on William Tyndale, who gave the Bible its English, as Luther gave it its German, voice. Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man, Greenblatt argues, "is precisely designed to be absorbed: one should not, in principle, be able to say where the book stops and identity begins"; its words "are destined . . . [to] be studied, absorbed, internalized." In Tyndale's eyes, of course, readers were not absorbing and internalizing his words but scriptural truth; thus The Obedience was serving the same goal as the Bible translation in which, as Greenblatt puts it, "the text strives to establish itself beyond interpretation as the personal history of the individual reader."(9)
Also relevant here is some advice from The Book of Homilies. First published in 1549 under Edward VI and reprinted with minor changes throughout Elizabeth's reign, The Book of Homilies was designed to help remedy a shortage of qualified preachers. It begins with "A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture," which urges that "as many as be desirous to enter into the right and perfect way unto God must apply their minds to know holy Scripture . . . as drink is pleasant to them that be dry, and meat to them that be hungry, so is the reading, searching, and studying of holy Scripture to them that be desirous to know God or themselves, and to do his will." While more prosaic than Luther, the "Fruitful Exhortation"'s author (probably Thomas Cranmer) also finds himself straining - and waxing metaphoric - as he struggles to express the radical transformation of self by Scripture for which the Christian should strive:
there is nothing that so much strengtheneth our faith and trust in God . . . as continual reading and recording of God's word. For that thing which, by continual use of reading of holy Scripture and diligent searching of the same, is deeply printed and graven in the heart, at length turneth almost into nature . . . And in reading of God's word he most profiteth not always that is most ready in turning of the book, or in saying of it without the book; but he that is most turned into it, that is most inspired with the Holy Ghost, most in his heart and life altered and changed into that thing which he readeth.(10)
These Reformation texts speak eloquently to the dream that, properly internalized, God's Word could take over and reform the soul, and the governing absorption metaphor recalls Redcrosse knight's saturation by biblical images in canto 11. But for a preacher or poet, more useful still was the reformers' deep awareness that the Bible is a powerfully rhetorical text - not a static repository of doctrine but a living Word that saves through threats and promises. Luther divides all Scripture into two parts - commandments and promises. Commandments "teach man to know himself, that through them he may . . . despair of his own ability [to do good] . . . [and] seek the help which he does not find in himself elsewhere."(11) Promises teach and arouse faith. The basic rhetorical structure of the Bible as Luther understands it thus functions at once theologically and psychologically: it teaches the doctrine of justification by faith alone by producing in the reader first the experience of his own innate corruption, then the joyful relief aroused by the promise of God's freely given grace. This basic insight into the rhetorical workings of the Bible is at the heart of Protestant rhetorical practice, which strives not simply to teach doctrine but simultaneously to create the psychological experience of humiliation and saving faith in its readers and hearers:
Christ, like his forerunner John, not only said "Repent" . . . but added the word of faith, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." We are not to preach only one of these words of God, but both; we are to bring forth out of our treasure things new and old, the voice of the law as well as the word of grace [Matt. 13:52]. We must bring forth the voice of the law that men may be made to fear and come to a knowledge of their sins and so be converted to repentance and a better life. But we must not stop with that, for that would amount to wounding and not binding up, smiting and not healing, killing and not making alive, leading down into hell and not bringing back again, humbling and not exalting. Therefore we must also preach the word of grace and the promise by which faith is taught and aroused.(12)
Under Luther's tutelage, Greenblatt notes, Tyndale arrived at a similar awareness that the Bible functions rhetorically, so that "by following the text in its proper sequence, the reader reenacts in his own spirit the passage from the Old Testament to the New, from the law that kills to God's free gift of grace."(13)
Both in its broad structural outlines and in the management of individual episodes, book 1 of The Faerie Queene is a textbook illustration of Protestant biblical rhetoric as Luther describes it. During the first nine cantos, Redcrosse is brought to an ever more feeling knowledge of his sinfulness, a movement which culminates during the Despaire episode in his harrowing discovery that he is guilty before the law. Having experientially realized the innate depravity of the human will - "If any strength we haue, it is to ill" (1.10.1) - his faith in God's mercy is then taught and aroused by words of promise, spoken first in canto 9 by Una, then repeated and amplified in canto 10 by Fidelia, Speranza, Patience, and Contemplation. Redcrosse is led down into Orgoglio's hell in canto 8, then, in canto 10, exalted by a vision of his destined place in the New Jerusalem.
Within individual episodes as well as over the long haul, the pattern - of fall and rise, law and gospel, God's threats and God's promises - is pervasive. One more example should suffice. In Redcrosse's opening battle with Errour, Errour's monstrous nature - half-woman, half-serpent - carries an oft-noted allusion to the temptation in Genesis 3, and hence to the doctrine of original sin. As Spenser manages the episode, the battle itself dramatizes the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Una's famous advice - "Add faith vnto your force, and be not faint" - momentarily rouses her knight, but it rouses him not to faith but merely to "[knit] all his force" (1.1.19; emphasis added). Moreover, although this surge of force (all his force) initially seems to help him in his struggle, it quickly proves to have been worse than useless, as the flood of Errour's vomit so chokes him that "His forces faile, ne can no longer fight" (1.1.22). The narrative thus clearly establishes the futility of trying to overcome Errour (to achieve saving faith) through even the most strenuous effort of human will. Only in the close of stanza 22 does the tide of battle turn in Redcrosse's favor, and it does so through an allusion to Revelation 9:4, where John promises that the stings of the locusts should hurt "only those men which have not the seale of God in their forheades" - a text in which the Geneva Bible found reassurance that "the false prophetes can not destroie the elect, but suche as are ordeined to perdicion."(14)
Despite recent claims to the contrary, Spenser carefully avoids any suggestion that Redcrosse overcomes Errour by adding faith to force through an act of will.(15) "Knitting up his force" does suggest a conscious effort of will, but does not help him overcome Errour. In stanza 24, he simply finds himself, through no effort of his own, "Resolv'd in minde all suddenly to win." The stress on grace rather than will finds expression in the narrative gap between stanza 22, where he seems to be down for the count, and stanza 24, where he strikes the decisive blow. This gap is filled by a pastoral simile in which a "gentle Shepheard" "High on an hill" effortlessly and repeatedly brushes off the mere "noyance" of"A cloud of cumbrous gnattes . . . / . . . striuing to infixe their feeble stings" (1.11.23). This simile does not simply anticipate the knight's victory, as Hamilton's note suggests; it represents the mysterious, unobservable bestowing of grace that dispels perplexity, providing the "more than manly force" that makes his victory over Errour possible. Redcrosse's faith is a gift from the shepherd watching over his flock, a gift given only after his unaided helplessness has been established. At this stage, of course, Redcrosse's theological understanding cannot keep pace with his experience; not until canto 10 is his faith set firmly on the foundation of scriptural truth. For Spenser's readers, however, the scene would have provided an experiential dramatization of the consequences of original sin, answered by a reassuring reminder that one can depend on God's promise to save his elect.
Spenser most clearly emphasizes Redcrosse's internalizing of law and promise in cantos 9 and 10. Despaire's speech, Richard Mallette has demonstrated, is thoroughly rooted in Protestant sermon rhetoric; as a glance at Naseeb Shaheen's Biblical References in "The Faerie Queene" will show, it is also dense with scriptural echoes and allusions.(16) Moreover, Despaire's effort to convince Redcrosse of his guilt under the law is an essential goal of Protestant preaching. "'[T]he word preached,'" William Perkins writes, "'must pearce into the heart.'"(17) As Despaire's words do just that, Redcrosse internalizes "the righteous sentence of th'Almighties law" and begins to review his sinful life with an overwhelming sense of guilt (1.9.50):
The knight was much enmoued with his speach, That as a swords point through his hart did perse, And in his conscience made a secret breach, Well knowing true all, that he did reherse, And to his fresh remembrance did reuerse The vgly vew of his deformed crimes.
For the reader who catches the allusion to Luke 2:35 - "and a sworde shal pearce through thy soule" - the moment is especially poignant, connecting as it does Redcrosse's sense of guilt with Mary's suffering at the crucifixion, an event necessitated by the human sinfulness over which Redcrosse is anguishing.
Of course without the word of assurance that Una ultimately supplies, Despaire's half-sermon is demonic.(18) As Luther puts it, "[A]lthough it is good to preach and write about penitence, confession, and satisfaction, our teaching is unquestionably deceitful and diabolical if we stop with that and do not go on to teach about faith."(19) In its context within Spenser's narrative, however, Despaire's speech is completed by Una's reminder that "Where iustice growes, there grows eke greater grace," quenching "the brond of hellish smart" and blotting out the "accurst hand-writing" of the law (1.9.53). The episode as a whole thus functions as a proper sermon, piercing the heart with guilt, then relieving it with grace. Although the moment of Redcrosse's surrender to Despaire may be seen as the nadir of his fortunes, it also exemplifies the prerequisite psychological preparation for receiving the word of grace. In canto 10, in fact, Fidelia's biblical teaching awakens in him precisely the same psychological pattern: first he is so "prickt with anguish" by "the dart of sinfull guilt" that he "desirde to end his wretched dayes"; then he is reassured by wise Speranza's "comfort sweet" (1.10.21-2).
In canto 9, both the piercing heart imagery and the psychological drama of Redcrosse's guilt convey the internalizing of the word of Law, which operates in the soul to generate guilt. In canto 10, Spenser's emphasis shifts to the internalizing of words that teach and arouse faith. Fidelia, Redcrosse's primary instructor, does carry a cup as well as her book, but her cup may emblematize faith rather than communion, since a cup with a serpent is an icon of the faith that allowed St. John to drink poison without harm.(20) In any case, even if one sees the cup as primarily sacramental, the relative importance of cup and book is never in doubt. After its initial mention, Fidelia's cup plays no role in Redcrosse's education. Rather, it is by hearing "the wisedome of her words diuine" that he is "agraste" and his "dull eyes" "opened" (1.10.18). As an allegorical representation of faith, Fidelia teaches Redcrosse to read, disclosing to him "heauenly documents," or doctrines which the "weaker wit of man could neuer reach." Like the Bible out of which she preaches, she is able "with her words to kill, / And raise againe to life the hart, that she did thrill" (1.10.19).
What is most remarkable in Spenser's account of Fidelia's teaching, however, is the way she makes biblical narrative live as present reality, overcoming the gap between reading and experiencing. When "she list poure out her larger spright," Spenser describes her not as relating miracles of faith, but as performing them:
She would commaund the hastie Sunne to stay, Or backward turne his course from heauens hight; Sometimes great hostes of men she could dismay, Dry-shod to passe, she parts the flouds in tway; And eke huge mountaines from their natiue seat She would commaund, themselues to beare away, And throw in raging sea with roaring threat.
The suggestion that she performs rather than relates miracles is a narrative trick, no doubt, but it effectively conveys the goal of Protestant Bible reading and preaching: to arouse the saving faith which, as Perkins puts it, can "take that thing in it felfe inuifible, and never yet feene, and fo liuely to reprefent it to the heart of the beleeuer, and to the eye of his minde, as that after a fort he prefently feeth and enioyeth that inuisible thing . . . as being really prefent to the view of it."(21) Spenser's belief in this "trick," of course, is firmly grounded in Protestant theology, for the faith that Fidelia allegorizes is itself the work of the Holy "Spright" that she pours out. Having both performed the miracles and dictated them to the inspired authors of the Bible, the Holy Spirit can (as it does here) bring them to life again in the fleshly tables of the believer's heart, fully bridging the gaps among acting, writing, and reading.
By the end of canto 10, Redcrosse's spiritual training is complete, and he is prepared for the spiritual warfare that is the reformed Christian's perpetual destiny. He is prepared not because his faith is perfected, but because he has internalized an ever renewable source of spiritual strength - one that can refresh and sustain him even in isolation from all external sources of support. In this regard it is significant that Una, the true church, who coaches Redcrosse in his battle with Errour and provides the saving Word in his battle with Despaire, can only pray from a distance during his climactic battle with "that old Dragon." And this brings us back to canto 11's refreshing falls. In Duessa as Theological Satire, Douglas Waters provides contemporary evidence that the gospel of God's Word often was referred to as a living well that renews the Spirit; he suggests that Spenser's well of life is "a symbol of the continuous washing of the soul in the Word of God."(22) Waters is on the right track, I think. The Book of Homilies, one notes, refers to Scripture as a "fountain and well of truth" and urges its readers to "diligently search for the well of life in the books of the New and Old Testament."(23) But Waters leaves unexplored Spenser's efforts to represent how the well into which Redcrosse falls renews him. When Redcrosse falls, he falls, so to speak, into a scriptural allusion - or rather into a set of allusions: to John 4:1-14, in which Jesus offers the Samaritan woman a "well of water, springing up into everlasting life"; to Revelation 22:1, in which the angel shows John "a pure river of the water of life, cleare as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God, and of the Lambe"; and apparently to Genesis also, since Spenser specifies that "Behind [Redcrosse's] backe vnweeting, where he stood, / Of auncient time there was a springing well," which had been called "The well of life" "before that cursed Dragon got / That happie land" (1.11.29). This third allusion is palpably strained, but has the effect of connecting the river in Eden with the "river of the water of life" in Revelation (Genesis 2:9-10 introduces the trees of life and the knowledge of good and evil, then the river; in Revelation 22:1-2 the river runs right next to the tree of life). Spenser seems to have wanted the scene to encompass the Bible's beginning as well as its ending, perhaps so that it might synecdochically represent the Bible as a whole.(24)
The allusions to waters in Genesis and Revelation are carefully framed by an opening reference to the "springing well" and a closing reference that announces its name - "The well of life" (1.11.29). That both phrases allude to John 4:14 suggests that that text is meant to govern our interpretation of the scene. In Jesus' exchange with the Samaritan woman, his wordplay aims to drive her from a literal to a spiritual conception of thirst, from the literal, external well that her ancestor Jacob gave to a metaphorical, spiritual, and internal well: "Iefus anfwered, and faid vnto her, Whofoeuer drinketh of this water, fhal thirft againe: But whofoeuer drinketh of the water that I fhal giue him, fhal neuer be more athirft: but the water that I fhal giue him, fhalbe in him a well of water, fpringing vp into euerlafting life" (John 4:13-4). Clearly, this is not the kind of well one actually can fall into or, for that matter, be washed in, since Jesus uses the figures of water and well in a way that insists on their figurative status; yet it is precisely to this figurative "well of life" that Spenser attributes miraculous powers in stanza 30:
For vnto life the dead it could restore, And guilt of sinfull crimes cleane wash away, Those that with sicknesse were infected sore, It could recure, and aged long decay Renew, as one were borne that very day.
Spenser does use the language of washing away, renewing, and rebirth much as, in the remainder of stanza 30, he introduces a variety of famous waters whose miraculous powers the well of life excels--including Silo and Jordan, which the Book of Common Prayer uses as types of baptism. But Spenser's allusion to John 4 suggests that the antitype of these waters is not a literal well of water at all: "the water that I fhal giue him, fhalbe in him a well of water, fpringing vp into euerlafting life" (emphasis added). This allusion to John's "fpringing well," I suggest, is meant to do to his readers what Jesus did to the Samaritan woman - preventing them from resting their faith in figures, the literal well and water, rather than in the spiritual reality, which in this case (according to the gloss in the Geneva Bible) is "spiritual grace." It is not the ceremony of baptism that renews Redcrosse, neither is it the literal words or images from Scripture; rather, it is the faith these arouse in the promise of spiritual grace that they figure forth - a promise, Spenser's allusions suggest, that informs the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. And a promise, one should add, to which Spenser's poem itself points, so that it too may become, as I think Spenser hopes it will, a vehicle of spiritual grace.
Spenser would not deny the value of baptism; as the reader enters the psychic landscape that regenerates Redcrosse's faith, he finds baptismal as well as scriptural images and allusions. But the episode's structure (which represents the inner structure of faith) is congruent with an orthodox Protestant understanding of the relationship between the sacraments and God's Word. Sixteenth-century Protestants of all stripes and colors agreed, in the words of the 1549 Zurich Consensus, that "the sacraments are appendages [appendices] of the gospel" and that their regenerative force depended on the gospel promises they figured forth.(25) "[I]t is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone," Luther writes, "but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added."(26) Similarly, Calvin holds that "a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself."(27) Calvin explicitly states: 1) that the sacraments "have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace";(28) 2) that they do not confer "anything more . . . than what is offered in God's Word";(29) and 3) that, while they provide vital nourishment for our feeble faith, they remain supplementary supports for a faith whose primary foundation is God's Word: "as a building stands and rests upon its own foundation but is more surely established by columns placed underneath, so faith rests upon the Word of God as a foundation; but when the sacraments are added, it rests more firmly upon them as upon columns."(30)
Spenser's exposition of the well of life's regenerative powers (1.11.29-30) foregrounds Christ's explicit promise of an inner - hence spiritual - well of water springing up into eternal life. The believer's faith rests first and foremost upon the sure foundation of that promise; only secondarily does it rest upon the additional signs of that promise with which Scripture is inscribed from beginning to end - represented here by the allusions to waters in Genesis and Revelation (one remembers The Book of Homilies' exhortation to "diligently search for the well of life in the books of the New and Old Testament"). The episode's baptismal imagery also springs out of the "well" of Christ's promise; like the images of scriptural waters, this imagery functions as a supplementary structure of support, confirming and deepening the believer's faith in the initial promise. When Redcrosse falls, it is ultimately Christ's promise that regenerates his faith; that promise works in the soul, however, not as a bare word but rhetorically amplified by the scriptural and baptismal images that God has supplied to make spiritual realities visible to fleshly creatures.(31)
Spenser's representation of Redcrosse's fall, then, suggests the way scriptural images and sacramental signs function to prop and sustain man's feeble faith. At the same time, however, the governing allusion to John 4:14 is designed to prevent the reader from sticking at the letter of the text, driving him instead to the spiritual reality of which scriptural waters and baptismal well are fleshly images. Like any ardent Protestant, Spenser would insist that the heart of the sacrament lies in the saving faith its word of promise arouses; like Luther, he would combat any suggestion that "there is some hidden spiritual power in the word and water," or that the sacramental sign itself contains any "power efficacious for justification."32 While the sacraments provide invaluable spiritual nourishment, the faithful will not mistake the signs for the spiritual realities they signify: "Indeed, the believer," Calvin writes, "when he sees the sacraments with his own eyes, does not halt at the physical sight of them, but by those steps . . . rises up in devout contemplation to those lofty mysteries which lie hidden in the sacrament."(33) To attribute Redcrosse's spiritual regeneration to the magical powers of baptismal washing (even in the river of the waters of life) would be to mistake the sign for the thing signified, a literal well for a spiritual one.(34) That is precisely the kind of misreading that Spenser is trying to deflect in stanza 36. By raising the issue of what effect the "holy water" might have had so evasively ("I wote not, whether . . ." [1.11.36]) and by articulating this issue in such comically material terms (did it harden or sharpen his sword?), he is mocking carnal readers who would rest their faith in the sign rather than in the spiritual reality that sign represents.(35)
Redcrosse's second "fall" works similarly. Again he falls into a composite biblical scene that functions as a synecdoche for the rhetorical workings of the Bible as a whole. The passage begins with an image of the tree of life promising "happie life to all, which thereon fed, / And life eke euerlasting"; it then moves on to the tree of knowledge, evoking a "mornefull memory" of man's first crime, the original disobedience that "hath doen vs all to dy" (1.11.46-7). And if, as has been suggested, stanza 48 conflates the Cross of Calvary with the tree of life, Spenser has managed to combine in a single image both the piercing awareness of man's sinfulness and the reassuring promise of God's grace.(36) Thus in his second fall, Redcrosse again recapitulates the dialectic of faith, reenacting in his spirit the passage from the Old Testament to the New, from the law that kills to God's free gift of grace.
There are images in this scene that can be interpreted sacra-mentally. I'm not wholly convinced that the tree of life's fruit suggests Christ's body, but it is quite possible; and the "trickling streame of Balme" that flows from the tree almost certainly suggests Christ's blood. In any case, it makes sense to assume that Redcrosse's faith has been nourished by the sacramental rite of communion, the "chief function" of which, according to Calvin, is "to seal and confirm that promise by which [Christ] testifies that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink [John 6:55], which feed us unto eternal life [John 6:56]."(37) The episode as a whole, however, resists attempts to construe it as participation in an actual sacramental rite and discourages efforts to read Redcrosse's final victory as being dependent on the literal eating and drinking of Christ's sacramental body and blood.
To begin with, Spenser's substitution of "balme" for "blood" is significant, pointing as it does to the spiritual power rather than the material substance of Christ's blood. In this context it also is significant that the balme flows forth "[f] rom that first tree" (1.11.48; emphasis added), suggesting a source of spiritual renewal available to readers of Genesis as well as to participants in a sacramental feast. That the balme flows forth "as from a well," moreover, connects it (through the "well of life") to Jesus's parable about the superior power of spiritual to literal drinking. What is most important, though, is what the scene refuses to represent. Although the tree's fruit is said to bestow everlasting life on those who feed on it, and although its balme is said to save Redcrosse from death, Spenser carefully avoids suggesting that Redcrosse literally eats the fruit or drinks the balme (indeed, the imagery surrounding the balme suggests an ointment externally applied rather than a sacramental drink). He thus avoids implying that the promises signified by fruit and balme are to be obtained by literally incorporating their sacramental signs.(38)
Lying "as in a dreame of deepe delight" (1.11.50), Redcrosse knight can drink and feed only insofar as his heart and mind already have absorbed the spiritual significance of the Word in whose images he is lying. And of course a spiritual eating and drinking of the promise of eternal life is the only kind Spenser's poem can make available to its readers, who must read it, after all, in studies and chambers where they cannot literally partake of Christ's sacramental body and blood. "I can hold mass every day, indeed every hour," Luther writes, "for I can set the words of Christ before me and with them feed and strengthen my faith as often as I choose. This is a truly spiritual eating and drinking."(39)
After Redcrosse knight's second fall, when stanza 46 opens with "There grew a goodly tree him faire beside," Redcrosse seems to have been imaginatively transported into the pages of Genesis. He is not simply reading or hearing God's Word; he is living within it. For a moment, moreover, Spenser and his reader join him. For two full stanzas Spenser allows the biblical text to supplant his own. He ceases to be the narrator of Redcrosse's story and becomes instead a fellow Christian, confronting the Bible not as a book but as lived reality - Redcrosse's, his, and ours: "O mornefull memory: / That tree through one mans fault hath doen vs al to dy" (1.11.47). It's a moment that represents the fulfillment of a dream: for a poetic moment, at least, the Word has established itself as the personal history - the "mornefull memory" - not only of the Redcrosse knight, but of Spenser and his readers as well.
1 Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Long-man, 1977), bk. 1, canto 11, sts. 29, 48, 46. Further quotations from The Faerie Queene will be from this edition, occur parenthetically in the text, and cite book, canto, and stanza number respectively. Typographical features of contemporary texts have been preserved throughout the essay.
2 The current interpretative options are summed up in Hugh Maclean's edition: "Well and tree, narrowly interpreted, signify the sacraments of baptism and communion; in a larger sense, both symbolize the power of grace to free from sin and to renew man's strength in the spiritual conflict" (Edmund Spenser's Poetry, 2d edn. [New York: W. W. Norton, 1982], p. 132 n. 1). Maclean combines a sacramental reading with a general reference to the bestowal of grace; a few critics have rejected a sacramental reading, e.g., Rosemond Tuve (Allegorical Imagery: Some Mediaeval Books and Their Posterity [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966], pp. 110-2) and Anthea Hume (Edmund Spenser: Protestant Poet [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984], pp. 104-5). Carol V. Kaske's influential "The Dragon's Spark and Sting and the Structure of Red Cross's Dragon-Fight: The Faerie Queene, I.xi-xii" (in Essential Articles for the Study of Edmund Spenser, ed. A. C. Hamilton [Hamden CT: Archon Books, 1972], pp. 425-46), rprt. from SP 66, 4 [July 1969]: 609-38) supports the identification of well and tree with baptism and communion. Kaske generally sees the falls allegorizing sacramental participation, although in places she also suggests that they allegorize a psychological process (e.g., pp. 434-44). For Kaske, however, sacramental action is crucial: well and tree episodes dramatize a Christian's "use and need of both sacraments" (p. 446; emphasis added).
3 John N. Wall, Transformations of the Word: Spenser, Herbert, Vaughan (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1988), p. 124.
5 Hume, p. 5; see pp. 1-9 for Spenser's "'moderate episcopalian Puritanism'" in the 1570s and his lifelong adherence to a "fervent Protestantism" (p. 9). David Norbrook's complementary argument places Spenser in a militant, prophetic, and iconoclastic Protestant tradition (Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984], pp. 59-90 and 109-56).
6 Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967), pp. 432-7.
7 Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, trans. W. A. Lambert, rev. Harold J. Grimm, in Three Treatises in The Works of Martin Luther, vol. 44 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), pp. 261-316, 283-4.
8 Luther, Freedom, p. 284.
9 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 84, 86, 104-5.
10 John Griffiths, ed., The Two Books of Homilies Appointed to Be Read in Churches (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1859), pp. 7, xxvii, and 10; my emphases.
11 Luther, Freedom, p. 282.
12 Luther, Freedom, pp. 300-1.
13 Greenblatt, pp. 103-4.
14 Biblical quotations and Geneva Bible marginal glosses are from The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
15 In "Predestination and Free Will: The Crux of Canto Ten" (Spenser Studies 10 : 175-95),James Schiavoni argues that Spenser tries to reconcile a Calvinist belief in predestination with a Catholic (or high Anglican) belief in free will. His reading of the battle with Errour stresses Redcrosse's efforts: "the knight must play a part by remembering that faith when under trial as well as by employing his force (actions, works). Red Cross overcomes the vomit of foul doctrines by faith, which he 'provides on his own responsibility at the urging of Una'" (p. 186). In fact, Spenser's narrative opposes this idea, as I show. Schiavoni's other examples also are unconvincing; in all of them, the giving of grace precedes any effectual action by the knight. That justification by faith alone provides its theological core makes book 1 unequivocally Protestant without committing Spenser to a particular brand of Protestantism; justification by faith was a doctrinal bedrock, uniting reformers of all stripes and colors (see Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700), vol. 4 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984], pp. 138-55). The allusion to election in 1.1.22 also is uncontroversial; Luther, Calvin, and the Thirty-nine Articles (Article 17) all affirmed predestination to salvation. Moreover, if Spenser were trying to carve out a role for free will within a predestinarian theology, he would not have been alone. The Arminian challenge of the 1590s was only the most theologically rigorous effort to accommodate free will within the Reformed tradition; many English Calvinists "reserve[d] some role, however ambiguously stated, for human response to divine grace" (Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979], p. 20). That Spenser could have worked out a position like Arminius's does not seem implausible (for Arminius, see Dennis Danielson, Milton's Good God [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982], pp. 62-75).
16 Richard Mallette, "The Protestant Art of Preaching in Book One of The Faerie Queene," SSt 7 (1986): 1-25; Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in "The Faerie Queene" (Memphis: Memphis State Univ. Press, 1976).
17 Quoted in Mallette, p. 6.
18 Mallette, pp. 14-7.
19 Luther, Freedom, p. 300.
20 As an emblem of faith and communion, Fidelia's cup could even emblematize Protestant sacramental theory, according to which it was only through faith in God's promises (symbolized by their sacramental signs) that sacramental rites conferred grace. For the significance of a cup with a serpent, see Clara Clement, A Handbook of Legendary and Mythological Art (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1893), pp. 153-5.
21 William Perkins, A Commentary on Hebrews 11 (1609 Edition), ed. John H. Augustine (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1991), p. 2.
22 Douglas Waters, Duessa as Theological Satire (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1970), pp. 116-7.
23 Griffiths, ed., p. 7.
24 In suggesting that this scene synecdochically represents the Bible, I am not denying a typological relationship between its images; I am suggesting (here and on pp. 20-1) that Spenser is making the Protestant point that the Old Testament promises the same spiritual grace that the New Testament offers.
25 Quoted in Pelikan, p. 189.
26 Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, trans. A. T. W. Steinhauser, rev. Frederick C. Ahrens and Abdel Ross Wentz, in Three Treatises, pp. 123-260, 188; hereafter cited as BCC.
27 John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), bk. 4, chap. 14, sect. 3.
28 Calvin, 4.14.17.
29 Calvin, 4.14.14.
30 Calvin, 4.14.6.
31 For Luther and Calvin alike, a sacrament is, in Augustine's phrase, "a visible word" - a kind of rhetorical supplement to God's (promising) Word (Pelikan, p. 178; Calvin, 4.14.6). "To every promise," Luther declares, "God usually adds some sign as a memorial or remembrance . . . so that thereby we may serve him the more diligently and he may admonish us the more effectually"; the sacraments are the culminating instances of God's rhetorical method: "in the mass . . . the foremost promise of all, he adds as a memorial sign of such a great promise his own body and his own blood in the bread and wine. . . And so in baptism, to the words of promise he adds the sign of immersion in water" (Babylonian Captivity, p. 162). For Calvin, too, the signs with which God seals promises and the sacraments are closely linked. While distinguishing between "simple signs" and ceremonies (e.g., circumcision, baptism), he extols the sacraments on overtly rhetorical grounds: "they bring the clearest promises; and they have this over and above the word because they represent them for us as painted in a picture from life" (Calvin, 4.14.18; 4.14.19; 4.14.5).
32 Luther, Babylonian Captivity, pp. 186-9. Despite his literal reading of "This is my body," Luther adamantly rejects the idea that sacramental rites possess any intrinsic efficacy: "It cannot be true" that they contain "a power efficacious for justification, or that they are 'effective signs' of grace" (Babylonian Captivity, p. 189). Calvin concurs (see Calvin, 4.14.2, 4.14.15-7), as does the moderate Puritan William Perkins, who sounds much like Calvin as he tries to walk the fine line between viewing sacraments as mere signs and as efficacious signs (A Golden Chain, in The Work of William Perkins, ed. Ian Breward [Appleford, England: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970], pp. 171-259, 214-6).
33 Calvin, 4.14.5.
34 Luther and Calvin agree that a magical (or ex opere operato) conception of the sacraments is dangerous and diabolical. See Luther, Babylonian Captivity, pp. 154, 183-4, 190; Calvin, 4.14.14.
35 I disagree sharply with Schiavoni, who thinks the well of life episode dramatizes that the sacraments are necessary for salvation and confer grace ex opere operato (pp. 179, 188-90) - a view well beyond the pale of Protestantism. Where he sees participation in a sacramental rite, I see a psychological/spiritual process taking place in Redcrosse's mind and offered for absorption into the reader's mind: thus the baptismal images may strengthen the reader's faith as they do Redcrosse's, by reminding him of the promise of spiritual regeneration - of which baptism is the foremost but not the only outward sign. The well of life episode is wholly consistent with mainstream Protestant sacramental theory: it in no way suggests that baptism is necessary to salvation - a view rejected even by conservative Anglicans like Richard Hooker and James Ussher (Charles H. and Katherine George, The Protestant Mind of the English Reformation, 1570-1640 [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961], p. 349); it actively resists an ex opere operato view of sacramental efficacy; and it blurs the difference between sacrament and Word as instruments of grace. The scene's baptismal imagery, however, does suggest the central role many reformers accorded baptism in the spiritual experience of the faithful - for which it provided a master trope, as the following passage suggests: "Thus, you have been once baptized in the sacrament, but you need continually to be baptized by faith, continually to die and continually to live. Baptism swallowed up your whole body and gave it forth again; in the same way that which baptism signifies should swallow up your whole life, body and soul, and give it forth again at the last day, clad in the robe of glory and immortality. We are therefore never without the sign of baptism nor without the thing it signifies. Indeed, we need continually to be baptized more and more, until we fulfill the sign perfectly at the last day . . . our whole life should be baptism, and the fulfilling of the sign or sacrament of baptism" (Luther, Babylonian Captivity, pp. 192-3).
36 David Cornelius, "Spenser's Faerie Queene, I, xi, 46," Expl 29, 6 (February 1971): no. 51.
37 Calvin, 4.17.4.
38 The difference between the well and tree episodes is significant: the well episode enacts baptism's central sign - immersion in water; the tree episode alludes to Christ's sacramental body and blood, but refuses to enact communion's central signs - the eating and drinking of body and blood. This refusal seems calculated to avoid suggesting that communion's benefits are conferred through the corporeal eating and drinking of transubstantiated elements, reflecting instead the mainstream view expressed in the Twenty-eighth Article: "The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith." Where the Protestant consensus on communion broke down was over how far to take the reduction of sacramental eating and drinking to mere metaphors. Spenser seems more anxious to exclude corporeal eating and drinking than worried about reducing eating and drinking to mere metaphors, clearly a Reformed emphasis. His willingness to divorce the mysteries promised in the supper from their sacramental signs may suggest views closer to Ulrich Zwingli than Calvin; either Calvinist or Zwinglian views would be in the mainstream of the English Church. See Pelikan, pp. 189-203; and Horton Davies, From Cranmer to Hooker, 1534-1603, vol. 1 of Worship and Theology in England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 80-5 and 95-123.
39 Luther, Babylonian Captivity, pp. 161-2. Schiavoni's argument that the tree of life episode dramatizes ex opere operato sacramental action depends on the assumption that the episode allegorizes actual participation in a sacramental rite. That Redcrosse is lying "as in a dreame of deepe delight," however, strongly suggests that it allegorizes the inner process through which he spiritually feeds upon and absorbs scriptural and sacramental images (which have taken over his very dreams). Moreover, since Redcrosse's faith clearly is active even in his dreams, there is no relevance to Schiavoni's objection that because he is unconscious "he cannot be receiving the sacrament through that conscious faith which Calvinists believed necessary to make the sacrament beneficial" (p. 190).
Thomas A. Dughi teaches English at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, Florida.