Apocalyptic Spenser

Apocalyptic Spenser January 21, 2016

In her contribution to The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, Florence Sandler suggests that “Spenser presents to the Elizabethan reader a moral allegory with an Erasmian cast,” a “poem modelled on the Apocalypse” (150). The whole first book of the Fairie Queene, she suggests, can be read as a reimagination of John’s Revelation:

“The Red Cross Knight, the hero of the Legend, is introduced as one ‘Faithful and True’ (cf. Rev. 19:11), who must yet endure temptations and oppressions, the equivalent of the Apocalypse’s plagues and tyrannies that try and winnow the just on the earth. He is deceived at first by the evil ones, in this case Duessa and Archimago who fill roles similar to those of the Apocalyptic Whore and the False Prophet. Yet he perseveres, learning more clearly the character of his enemies and friends. From the time that the Knight has his vision of the New Jerusalem he is charged with new strength and goes forth like St. Michael to fight the Great Dragon; during the three days o the battle he is sustained and replenished through the night by the power of the Well of Life and the Tree of Life; finally while the whole city rejoices, the victor becomes also the Bridegroom, betrothed to Una, whose face is now finally unveiled. The Whore of Babylon has been exposed at last, and the True Bride, Jerusalem, revealed” (150). Most of the basic elements of the story have some correlation to the Apocalypse, with an added layer: Like the Reformers, Spenser uses the Apocalypse in anti-Catholic polemics. 

Sandler concludes, “Spenser, reading the Apocalypse as Quest, has refocussed the story by setting one heroic figure, the Red Cross Knight, firmly in the middle to participate in all actions, while having Una represent the cause for which he fights and the prize he wins after his encounters with the various shapes of evil” (150).

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