Study Guide

The Faerie Queene Book 1, Proem

By Edmund Spenser

Book 1, Proem

  • Book 1 has the lengthy title "On Holiness, The first Booke of the Faerie Queene, contayning The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse, or Holinesse".
  • Reader, meet Spenser, who introduces himself as a poet by describing his own authorial journey. Before, he was writing all about shepherds—i.e. pastorals—but now he's moving up and onto bigger things.
  • Brain bite! Pastoral? Just think pastures. Pastoral is a literary mode or genre that involves shepherds and shepherdesses hanging around singing about love and (sometimes) taking care of sheep. It was very popular during the Renaissance, and Spenser wrote a very famous series of Pastoral poems called The Shepherds Calendar.
  • Now what's Spenser writing about? Knights and battles and love.
  • Spenser's a little nervous about beginning such a major task—he's not sure he's up for it—but knights deserve to be sung about, so he's going to try.
  • Spenser calls upon a "holy virgin"—possibly the Classical muse Clio—to help him out with this big job. He asks her to reveal to him some "antique scrolls" which contain some nifty tales about knights and King Arthur.
  • Brain bite! King Arthur. Kind of a big deal. Does Sword in the Stone ring any bells? He's a legendary king of England who is associated with all that Medieval jazz like knights-in-shinning-armor, damsels-in-distress, The Round Table, jousts, chivalry, etc. We think you get the idea, but if you're looking for more, Sir Thomas Malory made him famous about 100 years before Spenser.
  • Spenser is still nervous, and asks the holy virgin to give him some poetic and moral support too.
  • He then asks Cupid, the son of Venus, to behave himself, and mentions that Cupid once made Arthur fall in love, although he doesn't explain this any further.
  • He needs Cupid to behave because he needs his help too, along with his mother's, to bring the god Mars to him, since Mars can get kind of violent and worked up—he is the god of war after all—but finds love a fun post-battle activity.
  • He finally then asks for the help and blessing of another bright "goddess", Queen Elizabeth I, to make Spenser up the task of writing a glorious poem about her and the ancestors of her throne.
  • Brain bite! Elizabeth I was one of the most famous and important monarchs to ever rule over England. She is often called "the great" and, just like we're seeing in this poem, inspired a huge number of artists and poets to produce some of England's greatest works of art.