Imagery In The Faerie Queene English Literature Essay

Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene is a text full of allegory, imagery and mystery. There is little wonder why it has been described as ‘one vast, dangerous and complexly allegorized forest’. Both the reader and characters within the text are, at times, confronted with uncertainty and confusion. However, it can be said that the use of imagery in Spenser’s poem acts as a sign post, guiding the reader toward the true meaning of the text. One important theme visible within the poem is that of error, and the imagery surrounding this is hugely significant. This essay shall look closely at book one of The Faerie Queene and consider to what extent the imagery surrounding error, guides the reader toward the deeper meanings of the text.

Canto I introduces the first example of error within the poem. It has been suggested that Spenser uses ‘the drama of opposites’ when presenting ideas such as error, and this is immediately apparent. The narrator describes in the opening line of the ‘A gentle knight was pricking on the plaine.'(I.i.1.1). Straight away the suggestion that imagery guides the reader is visible. The picture depicts a scene of openness and freedom. However, the text soon describes ‘The day with cloudes was suddeine ouercast’ (I.i.6.5), an opposition in the imagery. This is significant as it creates a sense of foreboding, guiding the reader toward an upcoming danger. As the knight and his company go forward on their journey, further oppositions to the openness of the first line are visible. The poem describes the path as a ‘labyrinth’ (I.i.11.4) which ‘brought them to a hollow caue, amidst the thickest woods.’ (I.i.11.6-7). The image of being lost in darkness is one of huge importance. It has been said that such imagery illustrates a ‘psychological place, the emblem of the mind’, and therefore the sense of loss and shadows that surrounds the knight is once again a foreshadowing of things to come.

The suggestion that the Redcrosse knight is approaching not only a literal, but a psychological and moral dark place is furthered as he and his companions approach Errour’s den. The poem describes Errour as, ‘her huge long taile her den ouerspread, yet was in knots […] pointed with mortall sting’ (I.i.15.2-4). Straight away the images conjured up here are vital in directing the reader toward the deeper meaning of the text. It is apparent that this beast is the theme of error personified. The serpentine imagery used to describe her connects Errour to the beast in Revelations, suggesting that the darkness Redcrosse is approaching is one of moral error. This is furthered as Errour’s children are described as ‘of sundrie shapes, yet all ill fauored […] into her mouth they crept’ (I.i.15.7-8). The picture created portrays the idea that evil can present itself in many forms, a suggestion visible throughout the poem. However, as the images of Errour develop, it appears the text seeks to present more than just moral confusion and error. It appears that upon the slaying of Errour, a political meaning behind the text can be discerned. The poem depicts how ‘she spewd out her filthie maw a floud of poison horrible and blacke’ (I.i.20.1-2) with ‘her vomit full of books and papers was’ (I.i.20.6). It could be said that these lines link directly to the context of the Protestant Reformation, during which the text was written. The images of Errour regurgitating false propaganda can be said to comment upon the Catholic Church, as they were viewed as the false faith.

As Redcrosse’s journey progresses he meets Duessa, and his descend into error deepens. Once again Spenser employs the ‘drama of opposites’, in his imagery to heighten the sense of error. At the beginning of the text, a picture of Redcrosse’s companion Una is depicted. The poem describes ‘a louely Lady rode him fair beside […] more white then snow, yet she much whiter, but the same did hide vnder a vele.’ (I.i.4.1-4). The imagery used here is overtly positive. The use of the colour white suggests a sense of purity and innocence, and as the description is not over elaborate a sense of truth exudes. Despite this, the poem illustrates her hidden beneath a veil. This is significant as it once again shows how imagery allows the reader to see what the characters cannot. Although it appears apparent that Una represents truth, it can also be said that such a truth is overtly hidden by the image of the veil. The imagery also leads the reader to the truth of Duessa that Redcrosse is also unable to see. Duessa is described as ‘a goodly lady, clad in scarlot red.’ (I.ii.13.2) Immediately the colour red acts as a visual sign post to the reader. Red signifies both danger and lust, and can be connected to the representations of the whore of Babylon in the Bible. This image of Duessa is not recognised by the Redcrosse knight, perhaps illustrating the depths of his fall into moral error.

As the images of Duessa get more elaborate, so does extent of what she represents. She is described as ‘like a Persian mitre on her hed she wore, with crowns and owches garnished.’ (I.ii.13.4-5). Such a portrayal is in stark contrast to the simple and humble description of Una. The idea that Duessa is Una’s opposite is enough to further display to the reader, a sense of Duessa’s falsehood. As well as this the imagery used to depict Duessa directs the reader toward the deeper meanings of the text. The elaborate and overly garnished representation of Duessa implies a sense of falsehood. This idea of extravagance as symptom of falsity can also be said to link Duessa to the Catholic Church. Catholicism, at the time the poem was written was being outlawed for its materialism and false faith, leading people to religious error. Duessa’s later portrayal as her falseness is revealed, could also link directly to the issue of Catholicism. She is described as having ‘wrizled skin as rough, as maple rind, so scabby was’ (I.viii.46.8-9). This grotesque and disturbing image that depicted once her façade is removed is shocking. It can be said to illustrate and guide the reader toward the dangers of being ignorant to such error and falsehood, which once again links to the political situation at the time.

The final example of error within The Faerie Queene is represented through the image of the dragon. At this stage in his journey, Redcrosse is considered to be free from error, making his battle with the dragon hugely important. Once again it appears that imagery concerning ‘the drama of opposites’ is used to guide the reader toward the underlying message of the poem. The text describes the landscape of the battle, ‘where stretcht he lay vpon the sunny side, Of a great hill, himselfe like a great hill.’ (I.xi.4.5-6). If the imagery surrounding Errour’s cave represented Redcrosse’s darkening mental state, then perhaps this more open and bright landscape is an illustration of his awakened mind. Nevertheless, the presence or perhaps even fear of error is still visible. The dragon is depicted being ‘swoln with wrath, and poison, and with bloody gore.’ (I.xi.8.10). Such an image links closely to that of Errour at the beginning of the text. However, this confrontation does not lead to a downward spiral of error as before. This idea is sign posted once again by the imagery. The poem describes the Well of Life, ‘from which fast trickled forth a siluer flood, full of great vertues, and for med’cine good.’ (I.xi.29.4-5). This juxtaposing image of light allows the reader to feel a sense of optimism, and restoration, suggesting that Redcrosse can overcome error.

Although the positive imagery is significant, the depiction of the dragon can also be said to lead the reader toward underlying meanings of the text. The beast is described ‘Like plated cote of steele, so couched neare […] With dint of swerd, nor push pointed speare.'(I.xi.9.2-4) it has been suggested that such a portrayal allows the dragon to ‘resemble the Leviathan in Job […] but also the great dragon of the Apocalypse.’ (I.xi.9.2-4.n). The idea that the images surrounding the beast, link it to sin and biblical evil is important. If the dragon is a type of Satan, that it can perhaps be said the Redcrosse is now a type of Christ figure. Such a use of figuring allows the reader to clearly see the battle as a conflict between good and evil. However, it can also be said that Redcrosse and the dragon are icons of a political struggle. Once again the issues of the Reformation are pointed out by the imagery of the poem. The use of images related to hell surrounding the dragon, are perhaps there to highlight the evil and falsehood of the Catholic Church, aligning them with Satan. If this is the case then Redcrosse’s defeat of such error allows him to be seen as a symbol of the true Protestant faith. The defeat of the dragon frees the landscape from the corruption of error as it ‘like a heaped mountaine lay’ (I.xi.54.9) and ‘vanisht into smoke and cloudes swift’ (I.xi.54.2). These images suggest a sense of restoration as not only moral error is eradicated, but also the icon of political opposition.

Spenser’s Faerie Queene, it seems is a complex and often confusing text. It has been suggested that ‘the reader’s initial experience of confusion is a deliberate effect’ and to some extent this appears true. The poem appears to be about the dangerous of error and falsehood, and perhaps the disorientation that readers feel is a deliberate example of such confusion. Despite this it is apparent that the imagery of text is vital. It allows many important issues and ideas to be revealed to the reader, guiding them through the maze.

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