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Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 41, 2001

Spenserian Paralysis

William A. Oram

The worst thing that can happen to Spenser's characters is to    
get caught in an unnatural stasis, like the people in Dante's hell.

Kathleen Williams


The first episode of The Faerie Queene comes to a temporary halt when the monster Errour wraps the Redcrosse Knight in her coils "That hand or foot to stire he stroue in vaine." [1] The image-- an emblem of the mind immobilized by uncertainty and doubt-- brilliantly embodies the issues of the subsequent book. But this onset of furious helplessness is not limited to Redcrosse's adventures. It appears repeatedly in The Faeire Queene--for instance, in book 3 when three forsters (foresters) ambush Arthur's Squire Timias while he is fording a river. One throws a "dart" that pierces his mail without wounding him:

That stroke the hardy Squire did sore displease,

But more that him he could not come to smite;

For by no means the high banke he could sease,

But labour'd long in that deepe ford with vaine disease.


In these resonant Spenserian lines, Timias is not (like Redcrosse) pinned but he is equally helpless. The "vaine disease" of his condition (a particularly resonant phrase in The Faerie Queerte, with its associations of sickness, restlessness, inconsequential activity) results from his laboring desperately in the ford without being able to do anything.

This recurrent stalemate distinguishes the battles in Edmund Spenser's long poem from those in other epics and romances. One might call the typical epic or romance battle teleological: its actions look toward a meaningful end. When, in the Aeneid, Turnus attacks Pallas, the point of the battle rests in the opponents' inequality and the pathos of Pallas's inevitable death. We see it moving toward its tragic outcome. Even when opponents are evenly matched, traditional narrative stresses the movement toward an eventual resolution of the conflict. It may not be clear who is winning, but it is clear that the battle is going somewhere. [2] Spenser, by contrast, shapes his battle scenes to stress their frustrating indeterminacy.

When Prince Arthur fights with Maleger--one of the longest combats of Spenser's poem--the frustration modulates toward terror. Maleger--supported by his minions Impotence and Impatience--shoots arrows at Arthur, who rides after him but finds that "labour lost it was, to weene approch him neare" ( When he tries to exhaust Maleger's store of arrows, he finds that Impotence continues to gather them up for her master; the allegory suggests that Arthur's awareness of his own impotence further weakens him. Attempting to bind Impotence, he finds himself overthrown by Impatience: he's caught between knowledge of his weakness and his angry wish to be otherwise. Rescued by his Squire, Arthur manages to engage his enemy directly, only to find him unkillable. He smites him with his iron mace, rejoicing to see "all his labour brought to happie end" (, but finds that end deferred when Maleger rises again. "Halfe in a maze with horror hideous / And halfe in rage, to be deluded thus," Arthur strikes him again with the same result (

His wonder farre exceeded reasons reach,

That he began to doubt his dazeled sight,

And oft of error did himselfe appeach:

Flesh without bloud, a person without spright,

Wounds without hurt, a bodie without might,

That could doe harme, yet could not harmed bee,

That could not die, yet seem'd a mortall wight,

That was most strong in most infirmitee;

Like did he neuer heare, like did he neuer see.


Maleger is a walking riddle, but, unlike such incidents in, say, the Queste del Sante Graal, there is no hermit handy with an allegorical solution. Arthur will kill him again only to have him arise again, leaving the frustrated victor to think "his labour lost and trauell vaine" before he finally thinks to crush him and throw the body in the standing lake (

C. S. Lewis suggested once that, like most Elizabethans, Spenser wasn't good at describing warfare and that the dullness of his battle scenes is a forgivable weakness. [3] I want to argue, by contrast, that this image of violent stalemate is a Spenserian signature, and that understanding it fully will take us a good way into his historically specific vision of the world. The image of Redcrosse imprisoned by Errour joins two versions of a repeated theme--a stalemated battle and a paralyzed (or imprisoned) hero. These battles are one embodiment of The Faerie Queene's larger concern with paralysis--with a state in which characters find themselves vulnerable and helpless to influence their condition and that of the world around them. If, as Thomas Greene long ago argued, epic is partly concerned with the limits of human action, The Faerie Queene presents those limits at their most constricting. [4] No epic poem I know returns so insistently to the idea of paralysis in its various forms--stalemated battle, impris onment, amazement, astonishment, encumbrance. Lodovico Ariosto, for instance, stresses the emptiness of his heroes' frenetic activity, but his poem lacks the images of desperate stasis that distinguish Spenser's narrative. In Spenser's work, action is not worthless, but it often seems "vaine": incapable of success, either because the self cannot fully marshal its resources, or because the world limits what can be accomplished. In these passages Spenser draws out the battle interminably in frustration, amazement, self-doubt. Arthur's fear of "labour lost and trauell vaine" looks toward Timias's "vaine disease." Both knights must endure their weaknesses and persist despite the fear that they are, ultimately, helpless.

The interminableness of these battles differs from other, more generic, indeterminacies in Spenser that critics have discussed. Patricia Parker's account of how Spenser's romance epic suggests the delight of narrative dilation while simultaneously condemning the moral implications of straying from the straight and narrow path presents the impulse to defer ending as ultimately driven by delight. [5] But the image of interminable battle is less pleasant than nightmarish. The absence of closure in these conflicts is marked by a sense of frustrated helplessness. Further, eventually and blessedly, the battles do end: Redcrosse kills Errour, Timias the forsters, and Arthur, Maleger. In Spenser these extended battles appear at once unnatural and commonplace; and, when the end comes, it inspires relief.

I will consider this recurrent cluster of motives in two ways. I'll focus first on how specific contexts in books 1, 2, 3, and 5 give particular meanings to the motif. The theologically focused opening books use this image of paralysis to develop the weakness of the independent human will, while the more secular third book makes it dramatize a failure of love. In the second half of the epic, where psychological allegory is minimal, such stalemates register frustrations of action in the external world. Yet the ubiquity of the motif suggests that, beyond its local contexts, it responds to some deeper and vaguer unease. I will argue that the motif suggests Spenser's ambivalence toward the world itself, which appears both good and, ultimately, vain. This doubleness illuminates aspects of Spenser's work that have often been noticed but never fully explained. Although comic in form, telling of quests achieved, Spenserian romance undercuts or postpones final resolution. Spenser's tone is similarly mixed: although t he narrative typically distances itself, often playfully, from what it describes, the poem gives a dominant impression of meditative sadness. While I can't discuss this second dimension of meaning fully here, I'll trace it in the closing ambivalence of the Mutabilitie Cantos.


The image pattern is most programmatic in books 1 and 2 where it articulates a sense of human weakness and confinement before God. The opening books of The Faerie Queene show human nature as inherently sinful and insist on a late-sixteenth-century Protestant sense of individual helplessness to affect one's salvation. John Calvin puts it succinctly in the Institutes: "It is beyond a doubt, that whatsoever is laudable in our works proceeds from the grace of God: and that we cannot properly ascribe the least portion of it to ourselves. If we truly and seriously acknowledge this truth, not only all confidence, but likewise all idea of merit, immediately vanishes." [6] We are all damned without divine mercy. [7] Redcrosse's experience in the Cave of Errour announces this theme: his paralysis in the grip of the monster mirrors our common human experience in the world.

What's significant about Redcrosse's encounter with Errour is how imperceptibly he finds himself at her doorstep. His desperate battle is simultaneously culpable, the product of pride, and unavoidable, resulting as it does from a series of comparatively innocent actions. The decision to enter the Wood of Errour comes from a commonplace desire to get out of the rain and, once inside, Redcrosse starts to wander, enjoying the birds' harmony and failing to notice where he is going. Finding himself lost, he resolves to take the road that "beaten is most bare," apparently a mistaken choice, but also one hard not to make: what is one to do if one is lost in a wood? An allegorical reading of the passage hardly clarifies what Redcrosse should do. The catalogue of trees with its list of human arts and the familiar neoplatonic allegorization of the wood as the material world suggests that this wood presents another image of the World in its dangerous multiplicity and its distracting pleasures (1.1.8-9). [8] But it's no t clear that the Lost Soul has much choice in its wandering. When Redcrosse decides to attack Errour, disregarding Una's advice, his decision is clearly wrong, but it results from previous, morally neutral choices: it's impossible to say just where things start to go bad. The gradual progression suggests how hard it is not to lose the right path: one's "best" impulses insensibly betray one. If any power we have, the narrator says later, it is to ill.

The same subtle taintedness surrounds Redcrosse's victory. When Una urges that he look beyond himself for aid, "Add faith vnto your force and be not faint," she moves him to free his hand and grasp Errour by the throat, strangling and eventually beheading her ( Yet that victory is itself stained, for Redcrosse does not add faith unto his force:

That when he heard, in great perplexitie,

His gall did grate for griefe and high disdaine,

And knitting all his force got one hand free.

(; my emphasis)

Redcrosse here adds force unto his force. The latinate pun on "perplexitie" suggests not only that he is literally entangled but that his act is itself perplexed, enmeshed in error. His actions don't stem from the faith Una counsels; instead, they result from pain, anger, and "high disdaine," an unwillingness to admit limitations. "Disdaine" is a complex term in Spenser's lexicon. It usually has an element of pride in it: to disdain something is to see oneself as above it, as Lucifera does when she disdains earth ( Errour herself is "full of vile disdaine" ( While this may mean, as A. C. Hamilton suggests in the gloss to that line, "loathsomeness, exciting disdain," the context suggests that it's Errour who is disdainful. Redcrosse is participating in error when he despises Errour. She is, after all, not just a loathsome creature but a condition of his own nature. Redcrosse's fallen motives in the battle appear later when he is described as "fearefull more of shame, / Then of the certain e perill he stood in" ( Thus--as in every battle that Redcrosse will win until he enters the House of Holiness--the victory is a short-term necessity and longer-term descent into increasing sin. There is no right way for the fallen soul acting out of its own will.

Accordingly, in the first book of The Faerie Queene the image of paralysis joins with that of imprisonment. Redcrosse in Errour's coils mirrors Fradubio enclosed in the wooden walls of a tree, or Redcrosse in Orgoglio's Dungeon, or Arthur's Squire pinned by Duessa's beast so that "no powre he had to stirre, nor will to rize," or even Redcrosse burning in the "cruell cace" of his armor, unable to endure the dragon's fire (, Local instances differ slightly in function and meaning but they all reemphasize the trapped hero's helplessness. It is no accident that the Fradubio episode recalls Dante's treatment of Piero della Vigne in the Wood of the Suicides, for the Inferno, with its repeated images of terrible stasis, presents one of the closest literary analogues to the straitened world of book 1. Dante's sinners are obdurate, locked in their sins and unwilling to change. The immobility of the damned in Dante's hell becomes, in the first book of The Faerie Queene, an image of life for the liv ing. But there is an important point of difference. With the heretical exception of Michel Zanche, whom Dante condemns alive in canto 33 of Inferno, Dante's Catholic damned have assumed their terrible stasis only after death: alive they had the potential to repent. For Calvin, however, God has, from the start, frozen the human will into the shape He decrees, and human beings cannot affect their own salvation. Spenser's Redcrosse, for all his impulse to action, is ultimately passive: hellish images such as that of the knight burning in his armor present life in this world as an intolerable test in which one's best efforts are futile without divine aid, and the struggle seems more than one can bear. "Death better were" comments the narrator as Redcrosse roasts, "death did he oft desire" (

Suicide is accordingly the central temptation of book 1. The Spenserian desire for rest, an end to the misery of worldly instability, is ubiquitous in The Faerie Queene, and this desire is intensified if, as Despaire argues, worldly effort is only intolerably prolonged and ultimately useless effort. Suicide seems an easy short cut. The Despaire episode is central to the book because it articulates most clearly the fear underlying this experience of spiritual helplessness, a fear that since one is by nature corrupt, incapable alone of altering one's condition or of certainly knowing one's state, one is probably damned. All endeavor seems a mockery of endeavor and one's most furious efforts are vain. Better to relax in death, which is painted as rest and peace, a cessation of effort. [9] The concern with rest appears early, in the carelessness of Morpheus's walled town, an embodiment of the impulse to deny the demands of work in the world. By canto 9, what was only potential in Redcrosse has become actual: the knight recognizes his vanity but lacks the hope that would counteract his condition. Despaire's rhetoric puts him in a condition of "amazement" more devastating than his "perplexitie" in the Wood of Errour; the resulting conflict between the knight's impulse to stab himself and his awareness that suicide is a mortal sin registers in yet another image of stalemate: "He lifted up his hand, that backe againe did start" (

Yet, of course, Una intervenes with her message of hope: Redcrosse is "chosen" and God watches over him ( Her aid here is one instance of a leitmotif in the first books of the epic, an--ultimately divine--intervention that enables the hero to break the stalemate and overcome his opponent. We have already seen Una intervene when she stirs Redcrosse to vanquish Errour: however little Redcrosse understands her words, he is moved to act. The same divine rescue occurs on the two days of the Dragon fight, when the wounded hero falls into the Well of Life or beneath the Tree of Life, and as it does when Arthur rescues him from Orgoglio's castle. (Arthur also rescues his squire from Duessa's beast, and is saved himself when Orgoglio's violent blow looses his shield's covering and releases its salvific light. Orgoglio in effect destroys himself.) The most ironic of these rescues occurs when Duessa encourages Sans Joy: "Thine the shield, and I, and all" ( Redcrosse misinterprets the message as mean t for himself, and with "quickning faith" recovers himself to defeat his opponent ( While the ironies are multiple, the overriding irony comes from the willingness of Providence to make even Duessa into an instrument of salvation.

This reassurance, built into the book's fall-and-redemption paradigm, is nonetheless limited by its emphasis on intense and often almost hopeless suffering. It's especially notable, in the opening books of The Faerie Queene, that the protagonists are heroic largely by virtue of their endurance--by, for instance, Redcrosse's suffering in the burning amour during the dragon fight. [10] It's no accident that his leech in the House of Holiness is Patience, the ability to endure God's afflictions without complaint. One reason why the battles are dull by Lewis's standards is that Spenser doesn't emphasize his hero's fighting skills. No wonder: in the wars of patience and heroic martyrdom, human skill is useless.

Endurance is essential in Arthur's battle with Maleger who, as James Nohrnberg argues convincingly, embodies an attack of crippling melancholy, a felt inner weakness and worthlessness comparable to the Despaire of book 1. [11] It is a characteristically Spenserian insight to say that what drives the senses to assault the castle of Alma is an underlying despair, not the other way around: first comes the sense of hopelessness, then the willingness to yield to concupiscence. [12] Maleger resembles Antaeus, whose mother was the earth, because he is an aspect of the flesh itself, one (like Despaire) that will not die in this world. One can only fight this weakness by suffering patiently, enduring pain and claiming nothing for oneself from this life. Arthur bears Maleger to a "standing," or stagnant lake, an infernal opposite to the well of grace that saves Redcrosse from the dragon (

Him thereinto he threw without remorse,

Ne stird, till hope of life did him forsake;

So end of that Caries dayes, and his owne paines did make.


Like returns to like. The reflexively blurred pronouns of the passage suggest that what Arthur does to Maleger he does to himself: to crush Maleger, Arthur needs to deny his own hopes for this life. [13]


So far Spenser has developed his account of paralysis in religious terms, stressing the weakness born of original sin. But with book 3, we enter new, and secular, territory. Timias's battle with the three forsters seems partly familiar. Like earlier stalemated battles in the poem, the fight is a psychomachia: the forsters are usually read as "the luste of the Flesh, the luste of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). [14] Like Redcrosse and Arthur, Timias battles aspects of himself. Yet the stalemate's new context changes its meaning. The initial books of The Faerie Queene focus on the self, asking "how can I act in the world so that I may become whole or holy, master my passions?" The divine ironies mentioned above spring from a providential framework and reinforce the concern with ultimate questions. [15] Whatever one makes of Guyon's faint in book 2, it is clear that the care in heaven praised at the opening of canto 8 is recognizably the care that preserves the Redcrosse knight. But in the roman ce world of book 3 the sense of divine irony--of a God's-eye view--largely disappears. The divine presence diminishes to the providential genealogy announced by Merlin in canto 3 and the neoplatonizing picture of the cosmos in the Garden of Adonis. Instead of salvation, the book asks about the proper use of the world: how (to use one of the few biblical texts to appear explicitly in book 3) is one to be fruitful and multiply?

Accordingly, sexual passion in book 3 (as opposed to either books 1 or 2) is not primarily a threat: it's a necessity. Whereas Redcrosse and Guyon both strive to achieve perfection--perfect devotion to God, perfect temperance of mind and body--the heroes of book 3 attempt to achieve a fruitful social relationship, a loving harmony of dissimilar selves. It's in this context that we need to consider Timias's comic mishaps. He is ambushed by the three forsters as he pursues one of their number, a would-be rapist of Florimell in canto 1. Why should he, who sets out to protect Florimell, find himself struggling with Lust? The text distinguishes him from Arthur and Guyon, who are faulted for pursuing Florimell, while Timias goes after her would-be rapist ( His woes here come less from the tendency to give in to Lust than his desire to punish it. The three forsters are, in a fashion typical of the first half of The Faerie Queene, both within Timias and without: they are lawless individuals and drives wi thin himself. Timias tries to suppress these drives absolutely just as, for instance, the Angelo of Measure for Measure wishes to separate himself entirely from the sexual license of Vienna. Measure for Measure shows the self-deception involved in such attempts: believing himself above his passions, Angelo finds himself unprepared to control them. Timias's case stresses less the resulting hypocrisy than the mistakenness of the effort. While he can't eradicate his own desires, he shouldn't have to: the effort is, as Spenser says elsewhere, "too too hard for liuing clay" (

In his well-meaning but ultimately comic efforts, Timias is a throwback to the ethos of the earlier books. He attempts to eradicate passion rather than to use it, and so he is hopelessly unable to deal with it. Sexuality is, for him, a wound in the thigh, a weakness in the armor of his completeness: it is an aspect of his inability to "come to fight" with his foes (3.5.20). When, at last "through wrath and vengeaunce making way," he arrives on firm ground and kills his three enemies, he immediately faints (3.5.21). The faint itself suggests something problematic in his victory. One might expect that, when Timias has got rid of the forsters, his wound would heal, but the moral allegory is more complex. The forsters are degraded versions of a vital energy necessary to life: to do away with them entirely would be to kill oneself. His virtue threatened, Timias's response is murderous, but, in suppressing these beings entirely, he deprives himself of the drive necessary to keep himself upright.

Spenser suggests this view when Timias beheads the forster who has wounded him: "The carkas with the streame was carried downe, / But th'head fell backeward on the Continent" ( Here, quite literally, Timias splits body from mind and sends the one down the river (with its associations of mutability, sexuality, temporal flux) while the other remains on firm ground. Metaphorically, he does this to himself. There is a ghostly pun in Continent: he tries to be continent by eradicating his natural desires, making himself into a Continent Head. The word, and Timias's resulting faint, suggests a backward look at Guyon's virtue in book 2. The point, I think, is that the repression sufficient for Guyon is inadequate for Timias, who needs to find how to include and direct his passions. [16]

Timias's experience here epitomizes his fortunes throughout the middle books. What Spenser uses him to explore are the dangers of repression, an idealistic if wrong-headed attempt simply to eradicate one's baser instincts. (Donald Cheney remarks that he has the most extensive medical history of any character in The Faerie Queene. [17]) In the middle books, Timias spends an inordinate amount of time on the ground, largely because he cannot accept his physical desires. Once saved by Belphoebe, he falls painfully in love with her and, feeling that his desire profanes its object, wishes for death. Belphoebe is "perfect," complete without a male complement as few mortals can be, while Timias is imperfect and mortal in his self-destructive love. Without meaning to, she has become his belle dame sans merci. Their comic mutual incomprehension develops a new mode of stalemate.

In book 3, then, the meaning of the frustrated stalemate changes: Spenser concerns himself less with human corruption than with the inability to use one's drives to good purpose in the world. And, if in book 1 paralysis is associated with imprisonment, in book 3 it's associated with infantile helplessness, an inability to grow up. As Jonathan Goldberg has noted, book 3 is full of men on the ground. [18] The image appears first in Malecasta's tapestry when Venus bends over Adonis whom she would keep a "boy," but it appears as well in the unhorsed Guyon, the wounded Marinell, the wounded Timias, Adonis in the Garden of Adonis, the Squire of Dames, the unhorsed Paridell, the angry, grieving Scudamour, and even the maddened Malbecco. [19] Even leaving out the complexly symbolic figure of Adonis in the Garden, these figures differ strikingly, but the differences mask important similarities. Unlike Malecasta's Adonis, Marinell is a man of arms, but he avoids love out of fear and so remains as much a "boy" as Venus 's minion. Full humanity in the middle books of The Faerie Queene demands that one recognize and make oneself vulnerable to the difficult mystery of another person's humanity. Such recognition involves a balancing of Mars and Venus, the "love" and "hate" of Venus's Temple in book 4. The supine lovers cannot achieve this balance and remain in a state of frustrated stasis. Those who are not frustrated (Paridell, the Squire of Dames) have sealed off their humanity to become Ariostan automata, compulsively seducing one woman only to turn to the next.

It is no accident, then, that one paradigm for the paralytic states Spenser maps in book 3 is the pastoral shepherd bewailing the absence of his love. Theocritus's Polyphemous and Virgil's Corydon both break into vain fantasizing to comfort themselves in their common stricken condition. Spenser had experimented with the generic type in the Colin of The Shepheardes Calender, whose lovelorn stasis suggests an unwillingness to transcend the pastoral limits of his art. [20] The Shepheardes Calender is largely concerned with process, and those who won't accommodate themselves to change find themselves useless--Cuddie in "October," Colin in "Januarye," "June," and "December." The ability to change is an essential test. If the knowledge of human sinfulness haunts the opening books of The Faerie Queene, perdition in the secular terms of book 3 is twofold: a retreat from contact with other human beings to dwell in empty fantasy and a refusal to accept and make use of time.

Against these usually male stalemates Spenser sets Britomart's capacity for growth--for directed movement. Her battles are decisive: the magic spear dispatches her enemies at once. When Scudamour remains on the turf outside Busirane's house, Britomart charges unscathed through the flames of its moat. Yet, once arrived, she slows and stops. The description of Busirane's establishment stresses her wandering admiration and suggests her danger. She is "amazed" and "amazement" here involves its usual Spenserian pun ( Her fascination with the house and her dismay when it vanishes contrasts with her normal impetuous, commonsense activity (,,, She is arrested by the sight because Busirane's view of love corresponds partly to her own when she first finds herself in love with Artegall, a connection intensified by the reference to her "busie eye" ( Busirane lives in Britomart's imagination as well as in Amoret's. Critics are right to see in Busirane an image of a male poet, busily consigning women to an imprisoning fantasy, so long as they allow Spenser's characteristic multiplicity of reference. [21] While he embodies an imprisoning literary tradition, he also embodies that tradition as it is internalized in the imaginations of his female readers--in women like Britomart or Amoret.

Busirane insists that love consists mostly of pain and frustration, and leads necessarily to disaster. ("Yet" the narrator apostrophizes Apollo, mourning for Daphne, "was thy loue her death, and her death was thy smart" [ His vision is tyranny because it insists that love is always the same instead, as the narrator says, of acting differently on different minds (3.5.1-2). His house figures an imagination dominated by one way of seeing--so that love seems necessarily to end in despair. The masque form in which Amoret is embedded suggests that, just as the masquers move forward in preordained sequence, all love affairs will follow the same disastrous pattern. Taken as sole truth, such a vision freezes the soul in fear, separating it from its own loving feeling, as has happened to Amoret, whose heart has been removed from her breast. It is necessary for Britomart to master that fear in herself as she masters the enchanter, but she can't kill it any more than Redcrosse can kill Despaire. Instead, for Amoret to be healed, Busirane must undo his charm. She must revise her conception of love if she is to pass beyond the paralysis created by his half-truth. [22]


Fewer stalemates occur in the second half of The Faerie Queene. Analogous moments occur: Timias's difficulties fighting Lust in book 4 recall his problems with the forsters, and the in-somniac Scudamour tossing and turning in the Cave of Care recalls the insomniac Arthur of book 3, unable to escape his inward unquietness. The battle in book 4 between Cambell and Triamond develops the motif to the point of parody. The battles between Artegall and Britomart and Artegall and Radigund ring changes on the related pattern of astonishment, the moment when the lover is transfixed by the sight of the beloved, a topic developed more fully in the Amoretti. Yet the motif of stalemated battle in particular does appear less often in the second installment, and one reason for the change seems obvious. The image originates, as we have seen, in the psychomachia, and the second half of Spenser's poem deals mostly with the forces governing history and society rather than those ruling the individual mind. The helpless souls of the opening books or the conflicted lovers of the third are not the primary concern of the epic's second half.

Yet, in these books concerned with the social and political world, several episodes repeat the trope in unmistakable form. In book 5, Arthur fights on the ground against the Souldan riding in a chariot. His situation, unable to reach his attacker, resembles that of Timias floundering in his ford. Here again the pagan throws a wounding "dart":

Much was he grieued with that haplesse throe,

That opened had the welspring of his blood

But much the more that to his hatefull foe

He mote not come, to wreake his wrathefull mood.


Critics usually see the passage as an image of the battle between the high galleys of the 1588 Spanish armada and the lower, smaller English craft. [23] Just as the Protestant English saw God's hand in the storm that dispersed the armada, wrecking much of it on the Scottish and Irish coasts, so the divine light of Arthur's shield saves him, blinding his opponent and his horses. Spenser's allegorical representation, however, alters the historical situation to create an image of stalemated battle. Historically, it was the heavily manned Spanish ships (figured by the Souldan) that tried unsuccessfully to board their English attackers while the English kept their distance, harrying the larger, clumsier craft from afar. The English ships used the Souldan's tactics. But, in Spenser, the paradigm of frustrated stalemate imposes itself, creating a hero who cannot get at his foe, enraged but nearly helpless.

What should one make of the motif's persistence in this new context? How much did Spenser project on the external world a dynamic originating in the mind, and how much did his actual historical situation seem baffling? The image here is overdetermined, joining several contexts. Recent criticism has stressed Spenser's membership in the generation that came of age as the opportunities of the Elizabethan reign were drying up. [24] The 1580s and '90s were lean years for young courtiers looking for advancement, and many hoping to make their fortunes at court, such as Spenser's friend Gabriel Harvey, were disappointed. Spenser's own frustration with the court is a leitmotif in his poetry, from Cuddle's complaint in The Shepheardes Calender (1579) to the "long fruitless stay" he mentions in Prothalamion (1596). It appears in his savage account of being a suitor in Mother Hubberds Tale (1590):

To loose good dayes, that might be better spent;

To wast long nights in pensive discontent;

To speed to day, to be put back to morrow;

To feed on hope, to pine with feare and sorrow;

To have thy Princes grace, yet want her Peeres;

To have thy asking, yet waite manie yeeres;

To fret thy soule with crosses and with cares;

To eate thy heart through comfortlesse dispaires;

To fawne, to crowche, to waite, to ride, to ronne,

To spend, to give, to want, to be undonne. [25]

Again we have stalemate. What the first half of each line gives, the second removes, leaving the suitor helplessly torn between hope and frustration.

Yet, despite these similarities, Spenser's situation at court differed from those of other courtiers. He depended less than many on the queen's direct favor, and the pension of [pound]50 that he received after the first installment of The Faerie Queene is surely her most lavish reward for a poem. His discontent derives more, I think, from his exalted, perhaps fantastic, belief that poetry matters in the political realm. When Colin attacks the court in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, it's because the courtiers refuse to hear him and use him as a moral guide. While lack of advancement and delays in paying his annuity may have compounded his anger, it consists of more than the disappointed hopes of a young courtier grown old.

Further, Spenser was only a part-time courtier. As Richard Rambuss makes clear in a recent essay, his stay in Ireland runs counter to New Historicist accounts of him as a court poet. [26] He differed from Harvey, Philip Sidney, and Walter Ralegh, with whom he is often compared, in moving to Ireland and settling there for life. His was a career at a distance, insulated from the intimate struggles of court politics by the Irish Sea. In Ireland he lived partly independent of court favor: he worked as a civil servant, gained a plantation in the distribution of the forfeited Geraldine estates, and continued through his life to invest in Irish property. [27]

Yet Spenser's Irish experience suggests a second source for the frustrated stalemates in the later books of The Faerie Queene. As an Irish landowner, he depended on the crown for support against the Irish and the Anglo-Normans. Irish resistance to English rule shifted between stubborn uncooperativeness and open revolt, and Spenser, as an "undertaker" with a plantation, felt himself at its mercy. The queen, to whom the New English colonists looked for aid, remained unwilling until the end of her reign to spend the money necessary to subdue the Irish and tended to second-guess and undermine her Lord Governors. "I wonder" comments Eudoxus at the opening of Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland, "that no course is taken for the turninge [of Ireland] to good uses, and reducinge that salvage nacion to better government and Cyvilitie." [28] The View complains repeatedly about the hesitations of the English crown where decisive action would save--in Spenser's eyes--the nation. It is the queen whom he sees as paralyzed, and her paralysis affects the kingdom. In book 5, Mercilla, Spenser's most explicit portrait of Elizabeth, hesitates to execute Duessa (Mary, Queen of Scots). Justice is clear: against Mary stand Zele, Kingdomes care, Authority, law of Nations, Religion, and Justice. Yet these seem insufficient. Despite the righteous forces arrayed against Duessa, Mercilla remains undecided, feeling "piteous ruth," and preserving her from "iust vengeance" (, Duessa's execution appears only in a later aside. [29] Much less was the actual Elizabeth willing to commit the resources necessary for the subjugation of Ireland--at least until after the Munster rebellion had resulted in the burning of Spenser's manor, Kilcolman, and Spenser himself was dead.

For Spenser in Ireland, the situation surely involved daily frustration. He lived as a member of an occupying force, inadequately protected from the possibility of violent revolt and aware of its growing likelihood. Irenius comments in A View that "everye daie we perceaue the trowbles growinge more vppon vs and one evil growinge on another, in soe much as theare is no parte now sounde or ascerteined but all haue theire eares vprighte waytinge when the watcheworde shall Come That they shoulde all rise generallye into Rebellion and Caste awaye the Englishe subjeccion." [30] The anger and--to some degree--the guilt involved in his position contribute to the contradictions that Ciaran Brady and others have found in the View, between its humanist rhetoric and the scorched-earth policies it advocates. [31]

In book 5, Spenser's frustration creates its opposite, a fantasy of easy victory over Malengin, whose "long curld locks" may associate him with the Irish rebels, who were distinguished by a "glib" of hair ( (Alternately, he may represent the Catholic priests sent by the Pope to the Irish.) Malengin is nimble, wily and hard to catch: he runs up mountains where Artegall can't reach him (in this he resembles the Souldan) and changes shape when caught. But in the poem, Artegall can dispatch Talus to catch and punish him. In Spenser's eyes, the Irish rebels were exasperatingly hard to pin down, willing to give in when pressed only to revolt again later. The iron man embodies the clear, consistent Irish policy Spenser advocated, grimly following his enemies until he collars them, killing them if they attempt escape. Once caught, Malengin becomes a serpent, but Talus smashes him 'That all his bones, as small as sandy grayle / He broke, and did his bowels disentrayle" (5.9.194-5). The episode's violence su ggests an underlying frustration.

In the second half of the epic, then, the angry helplessness associated with the paralysis motif gains new meaning as Spenser focuses on external limits to human action. Although the motif only rarely takes the form of an extended battle, there are analogous moments of frustration. In book 6, Arthur can strip Turpine of his armor but cannot shame a man naturally shameless. He can break the leg of the giant Disdain but cannot rescue Mirabella, whose life depends on the social conventions Disdain embodies. The sudden, unexpected outbreaks of violence in the book--from lawless knights, or from the tribes of Cannibals and Brigands, all of which shadow the Irish Spenser was describing in the View-- leave their hapless victims dead, wounded, or imprisoned until the reassuring romance plot enables a Calepine or a Calidore "with huge resistlesse might" to scatter them like a flock of doves or a swarm of flies (,, 6.11.48). [32] These endings recall the fantasy victory of Talus over Malengin.

The sixth book's concern with the persistence of evil leads it to exaggerate a Spenserian mannerism critics often remark, the undermining of his fictive resolutions. The romance form he chose to work with typically resolves its stories: even in Spenser monsters are dispatched, enchantresses imprisoned, and dynastic marriages assured. Yet Redcrosse is betrothed, not married, and Una must mourn as he leaves to serve Gloriana; Guyon destroys Acrasia's garden but can't persuade Grill to change his hoggish mind. Britomart may meet Artegall, but, in the poem, she never marries him. This emphasis intensifies in the second half of the epic: Britomart's marriage remains unconsummated: Artegall's attempt to reform Ireland is interrupted before it can take effect; and, most strikingly, after being captured and tamed, the Blatant Beast escapes. The actual endings Spenser gave to his books suggest the ultimate failure of all human attempts to shape the world--whether personal or national.


I have argued here that Spenser gives the paralysis motif different meanings in different contexts. But the persistence of the image and its linkage with other aspects of Spenser's work suggests that the various instances meet in a common perception, a melancholy sense that human actions are, finally, vain. This is not the place to attempt a psychological analysis of this attitude, but I do want to draw attention to its conflict with a countertendency in Spenser's epic, a delight in the richness of creation, including the work of his own imagination. The Faerie Queene moves between near-despair and awed delight, both mediated by the poem's distanced, ironic, often comic narrative voice. The opposition creates a characteristic ambivalence in the treatment of the world's value. The Mutabilitie Cantos, which recall and revise much of Spenser's earlier poetry, give philosophical formulation to this ambivalence. [33] The Cantos don't present an image of stalemated battle: the standoff between Mutabilitie and the classical gods remains a matter of rhetoric. But, in considering change and constancy, the Cantos articulate a sense of both the world's richness and its vanity. The figure of Mutabilitie herself sums up this ambivalence and the poem's ending gives it a final shape.

In their comic, low-key, undramatic way, the Cantos develop a theodicy, an attempt to reconcile God's goodness with the fact of evil, and their form, as Harry Berger Jr. has pointed out, is Dialectical. [34] The poem's narrator begins with a five-stanza complaint in which he makes Mutabilitie the cause (not the effect) of the fall and of all subsequent evils. The narrative modifies this inadequate account when it becomes clear that Mutabilitie is not only terrible but beautiful (;; and, by the time Nature has assigned her the rule of earth, Mutabilitie has been redefined as necessary to life in this world. Her creatures "dilate" their beings, making what is potential, actual ( She does Nature's work and, by extension, God's.

So far the poem presents a conventional Christian conclusion, but, in the final stanzas, the narrator re-opens the case, not by denying the affirmation, but by stubbornly reiterating his sense of Mutabilitie's destructive power. He mixes angry repudiation with longing:

When I bethinke me on that speech whyleare,

Of Mutability, and well it way:

Me seemes, that though she all vnworthy were

Of Heav'ns Rule; yet very sooth to say,

In all things else she beares the greatest sway.

Which makes me loath this state of life so tickle,

And loue of things so vaine to cast away;

Whose flowring pride, so fading and so fickle,

Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle.


Here the speaker's loathing for this world is intensified by his love for it; the desire to "cast [it] away" stems from disappointment at its fragility. The ambivalence is the ground of Spenser's text: it consists of a reverence for the world's goodness coupled with an awareness of transience that makes all human endeavor ultimately "vaine." The world's sorrow is finally that it promises more than it can deliver. For some writers, such as Thomas More, this realization prompts a cool irony at the prospect of worldly good; for others, such as John Milton, it confirms the priority of the world beyond this one. But Spenser remains a poet of this life, unable to renounce it and yet unsatisfied with its limitations. In this passage, the various limits on clear and purposeful action-from the paralysis of the will in its attempt to serve God, to the frustrations of the lover, to the erosion of English political and military plans in Ireland and elsewhere-combine in a vision of change that leaves the narrator nostalgi c and resentful.

The Cantos end with a final formulation of this ambivalence:

Then gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd,

Of that same time when no more Change shall be,

But steadfast rest of all things firmely stayd

Upon the pillours of Eternity,

That is contrayr to Mutabilitie:

For, all that moueth, doth in Change delight:

But thence-forth all shall rest eternally

With him that is the God of Sabboath hight:

O thou great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight.


The passage quietly echoes the desire for eternal rest heard in Despaire's cave. While it is not, of course, suicidal in intention, the longing comes from weariness at the world's incessant changes. Yet the world is also a loved abode: as part of "all that moveth" the speaker also delights in change, and the poet has made a capacity for change an essential sign of health in his poem. The final prayer, as many commentators have pointed out, is both ambiguous and ambivalent. [35] Is it a desire for the end now or a prayer for eventual salvation? The latter reading values this world: the former, only the next. Like the speaker, the poem remains divided.

William A. Oram is Helen Means Professor of English at Smith College. He is the coordinating editor of The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser (1988), and the author of Edmund Spenser (1997) and of articles on Spenser, Milton, and other Renaissance writers.


I would like to thank Marshall Brown, Kirby Farrell, Elizabeth Harries, Anne Lake Prescott, Sharon Seelig. Lauren Silberman, and Harold Skulsky, who read various versions of this essay and left it better for their advice.

(1.) The epigraph Is from Kathleen Williams, "The Moralized Song: Some Renaissance Themes in Pope." ELH 41, 4 (Winter 1974): 578-601, 584-5. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London and New York: Longman, 1977), Hereafter, all references to The Faerie Queene are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text by book, canto, stanza, and line numbers.

(2.) Although the desperate battle in book 3 of the New Arcadia between Musidorus, disguised as the forsaken knight, and Amphialus continues for six pages. it never gives the Spenserian impression of shapeless inconclusiveness. Philip Sidney organizes its violence, underlining its progression as the fighters pass from horseback to foot, from initial strength to subsequent exhaustion. Each stage is marked by an exchange between the opponents and sometimes also by Sidney's analysis of their thoughts, giving the conflict a shape and direction.

(3.) C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1936: rprt. 1948), p. 347.

(4.) Thomas Greene, The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 12-7.

(5.) Patricia Parker, Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 54-64.

(6.) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen, 7th American edn., 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936), 2:27.

(7.) In my analysis of the Calvinist dimensions of book 1, I am deeply indebted to Harold Skulsky's "Spenser's Despair Episode and the Theology of Doubt," MP 78, 3 (February 1981): 227-42.

(8.) See William Nelson, The Poetry of Edmund Spenser (New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 158-60.

(9.) On the centrality of despair and the desire for death in book 1, see Richard A. McCabe, The Pillars of Eternity: Time and Providence in "The Faerie Queene" (Dublin: Irish Academic Press. 1989), pp. 67-72.

(10.) On suffering in The Faerie Queene see Georgia Ronan Crampton, The Condition of Creatures: Suffering and Action in Chaucer and Spenser (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1974).

(11.) James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of "The Faerie Queene" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 317-23.

(12.) Arthur's situation here recalls that of Saint George in 1.7. Duessa seduces Redcrosse when he has given up on the worldly honor imaged in the House of Pride. He is, so to speak, already depressed and aimless when she comes upon bun disarmed (1.7.2-3).

(13.) The standing lake puzzles critics of the poem. Kenneth Borris has pointed out to me that a "standing lake" need not be stagnant: it may simply be a lake (OED 6). On this reading, the drowning of Maleger may suggest a baptism resembling, rather than opposed to, its counterpart in 1.9. Such an interpretation would, however, make baptism able to erase the human weakness Maleger embodies, a view hard to square with Spenser's Protestantism. James Carscallen ("The Goodly Frame of Temperance: The Metaphor of Cosmos in The Faerie Queene, Book II," UTQ 37, 2 [January 1968]: 136-55) discusses book 2 as a conflict between cosmos and chaos. He sees the lake as "'non being,' the final opposite of any goodly frame to which even chaos must come in the end" (p. 149).

(14.) Cited in Hamilton, p. 348.

(15.) Most of the stalemate/paralysis images in book 2 resemble those of book 1: interminable battles appear in the opposition of Sans Loy and Huddibras, of Arthur and Maleger; paralysis appears in Furor's triumph over Phedon, in Guyon's faint. Without divine aid, Guyon is at sea: hence the importance of his faint and the angel sent to aid him in Canto 7.

(16.) In Spenser and the Discourses of Reformation England (Lincoln and London: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1997), p. 102, Richard Mallette notes the pun, although he draws different conclusions about its meaning in the episode.

(17.) Donald Cheney, "Spenser's Fortieth Birthday and Related Fictions," SSt 4 (1984): 3-31, 22.

(18.) Jonathan Goldberg. "The Mothers in Book III of The Faerie Queene, TSLL 17, 1 (Spring 1975): 5-26, 14.

(19.) For Malecasta's tapestry, see 3.1.36-7; for unhorsed Guyon, 3.1.6; the wounded Marinell, 3.4.34; the wounded Timias, 3.5.29; Adonis in the Garden of Adonis. 3.6.46; the Squire of Dames, 3.7.45; the unhorsed Paridell, 3.9.16; the angry, grieving Scudamour. 3.11.8, 27; and maddened Malbecco, 3.10.47, 57.

(20.) See, for instance, John Watkins, The Spectre of Dido: Spenser and Virgilian Epic (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 70-5.

(21.) The most persuasive of these readings are those of Suzanne Lindgren Wofford. "Gendering Allegory: Spenser's Bold Reader and the Emergence of Character in The Faerie Queene III." Criticism 30, 1 (Winter 1988): 1-21, esp. 9-14, and Lauren Silberman. Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of "The Faerie Queene" (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995), pp. 63-7.

(22.) As Maureen Quilligan points out in Milton's Spenser: The Politics of Reading (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 19831, pp. 209-18, John Milton reworks this moment in Comus when the Lady is imprisoned "in stony fetters, fixt and motionless" only to be freed by Sabrina (Comus, line 818, in The Poems of John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alistair Fowler [New York: W. W. Norton, 1972]). His revision of this signature image suggests what he owes to Spenser and how he differs. Spenser stresses Busyrane's power and Amoret's terrified pain, Milton the process of release. Unlike Amoret's, the Lady's imprisonment is only a momentary setback between her rhetorical victory over Comus and her physical liberation by Sabrina: her mind remains free. Spenser characteristically dwells on the mind's captivity while the young Milton minimizes this stress on limitation.

(23.) John Upton first suggested this interpretation in his 1758 edition of The Faerie Queene. See The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw et al., 9 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1932-49), 5:226-8. See also Jane Apteker, Icons of Justice: Iconography and Thematic Imagery in Book V of "The Faerie Queene" (New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press. 1969), pp. 79-83.

(24.) See Anthony Esler, The Aspiring Mind of the Elizabethan Younger Generation (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1966). pp. 3-25.

(25.) Mother Hubberds Tale, lines 897-906. quoted from The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press. 1989).

(26.) Richard Rambuss, "Spenser's Lives, Spenser's Careers," in Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography, ed. Judith Anderson, Donald Cheney, and David A. Richardson (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1996), pp. 1-17, esp. 11-7.

(27.) Alexander Judson, The Life of Edmund Spenser, vol. 8 in The Works of Edmund Spenser, 8:174-5, 195.

(28.) Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, in The Works of Edmund Spenser, 9:43.

(29.) See Thomas H. Cain. Praise in "The Faerie Queene" (Lincoln and London: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1977), pp. 141-4.

(30.) Spenser, A View. 9:147.

(31.) Ciaran Brady, "Spenser's Irish Crisis: Humanism and Experience in the 1590s," Past and Present 111 (May 1986): 17-49. See also Anne Fogarty, "The Colonization of Language: Narrative Strategies in A View of the Present State of Ireland and The Faerie Queene Book 6." in Spenser and Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Patricia Coughlin (Cork: Cork Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 75-108.

(32.) Robert Stillman, "Spenserian Autonomy and the Trial of the New Historicism: Book Six of The Faerie Queene," ELR 22, 3 (Autumn 1992): 299- 314.

(33.) On relation between the Mutabilitie Cantos and Spenser's earlier poetry, see Anne Lake Prescott, "Spenser (Re)reading Du Bellay: Chronology and Literary Response," in Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography, pp. 131-45, esp. pp. 142-5.

(34.) Harry Berger Jr., Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 243-5.

(35.) See, for instance, Berger, pp. 269-73 and Elizabeth Bieman, Plato Baptized: Towards the Interpretation of Spenser's Mimetic Fictions (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 237-43.