May 2014 Book of the Month: The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (1758)

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is an ambitious, landmark work in the development of a rich tradition of English literature.


The title page of The Faerie Queene: Fellows’ Library N.8.20-21 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

An extended allegory in which each character embodies a virtue such as Chastity, Holiness, or Truth, it draws on medieval tales of knights and holy quests. Overtly political, it praises the Faerie Queene—Elizabeth I—and the Protestant faith. It was originally published in two parts: the first three Books in 1590, and the second three in 1596. Spenser intended to write twelve Books in total, but died before completing the second half. For his epic, Spenser developed the Spenserian stanza, a cross between a Scottish ‘rhyme royal’ and an Italian ‘ottava rima,’ thus combining vernacular lyric with a privileged literary language and form. Each book has twelve Cantos, and each Canto has forty-eight stanzas: even incomplete, it is one of the longest poems in English.


First entry in the historical glossary (© Jesus College, Oxford)

This scholarly, two-volume edition was published by John Upton with notes and a glossary. It includes the twenty-six individual dedicatory sonnets which were printed together in the first edition in error. Both volumes are printed on high quality paper with wide margins and large type, and have a fine gilt binding. The volumes have been restored through the generosity of our Old Member Dr Julie Bowdler.

Sources and further reading:

  • Catalogue record on SOLO
  • Brink, Jean. ‘Materialist History of the Publication of Spenser’s Faerie Queene‘. Review of English Studies 54 (213), 2003, pp. 1-26.
  • Hadfield, Andrew. ‘Spenser, Edmund (1552?–1599)‘. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
  • McCabe, Richard. The Oxford handbook of Edmund Spenser. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Anna Thomas (Graduate Library Trainee, 2012-13)

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