Spenser as a Child of Classical Renaissance

The Renaissance or the revival of learning may be said to have started in Europe after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. It led to the dispersal of Greek scholars; they mostly migrated to Italy and Italy became the home of the Renaissance. It meant the revival of the study of Greek art and literature with a new perspective, and it resulted in the liberation of human mind and intelligence from the dogmatism and inhibition of the Middle Ages. It marked a total break-away from the medieval conception of lire. People now began to be more interested in the world in which they lived than in the world to come.  It was a revolt against the monastic spirit of the Middle Ages. Individualism. not in a bad sense certainly, was the gift of the Renaissance. A man began to think for himself and of himself too. So there was the spirit of rebellion in the sense that the rites and doctrines of the Church began to be questioned, and even rejected, that earthly passion with all its intimacy, its freedom, its variety, its subtlety began to be studied, cultivated and analysed, and physical beauty worshipped. A free play of human intelligence, a love of beauty, a critical and analytical attitude, and a rational and essentially human way of thinking and approach to the recurring problems of life were fostered by the Renaissance.  Spenser was born to the heritage of the Renaissance and we find in him a passionate love of beauty, and it is beauty both sensuous and spiritual, a free exercise of his intelligence (so he revolted against the irrational dogmas of the Catholic Church), knowledge of the ancients Greek, Latin, Italian. that is, the full possession of Renaissance culture which must have a liberalizing influence upon any individual- and we understand why Spenser is called a Humanist (a Humanist was after all a Renaissance scholar with a broad outlook on life and a consciousness of its unlimited potentialities).

The Reformation was a parallel movement, started by Luther in Germany in 1517 by publicly protesting against the sale of indulgences. In fact, it was a challenge to the rites, practices and doctrines of the Catholic Church. It began in Germany and spread to Switzerland, and affected France too. It seemed to have sprung upon England as a matter of accident. Henry VIII had perforce to break away from the Papacy on the issue of divorcing Catherine and marrying Anne Boleyn.

It was a bold step taken by him, declaring himself to the head of the Church. The translation of the Bible into English which was substituted for the Latin Bible in the Church and the issue of the Book of Common Prayer marked important stages in the Reformation in England. Mary, who came to the throne in 1563, reversed the policy of her predecessor. Edward VI. And of Henry VIII. Reinstated Catholic bishops and imprisoned some of the leading reformers who were later executed, and received a papal legate, and reconciliation was effected with the Pope of Rome. But Elizabeth came to the throne with a definitely Protestant bias, and she consolidated the Reformation in England.

The impact of the Renaissance upon Spenser has been already indicated. Here we shall have to consider the position Spenser actually took in respect of the issues of the Renaissance and the Reformation. He is a poet with Renaissance culture, with the Renaissance love of beauty and freedom of intellect a poet richly sensuous and melodious, with a wide-ranging imagination. But for the Renaissance he would net have been the poet he was. In this sense he is the true child of the Renaissance.

The Reformation has quite a profound influence upon him. It seems to have an almost obsessional effect when we see that he moralizes, as he openly declares his purpose. A romance of chivalry. Milton calls him “our sage and serious poet”: and may be right too in a sense. He wrote The Faerie Queene with a very serious purpose indeed, and when we analyse the allegory of the First Book of The Faerie Queene, we find that it is practically a defense of the Church of England against the Papacy, and therefore it is upholding the case of the Reformation.

As a poet his pronounced leanings are Renaissance leanings. He seems to have deliberately chosen the preacher’s role, but when we read The Faerie Queene, we find that it does not come easy and natural to him. We might say that he sought to mediate between the two. In Spenser there is the happy blend of Renaissance humanism and Protestant zeal.

It should be noted here that Spenser had nothing of a Puritanic trend, as we understand it. He was a Protestant, and a zealous Protestant too. And so we see that in the First Book of The Faerie Queene his purpose is to maintain the purity and integrity of the Church of England against the Papacy. Defense of the Crown and the Church that seems to be his motto: it is worked out in the First Book of The Faerie Queene and elaborated in later Books. We discover in Spenser nothing of the narrowness. Fanaticism, cant and hypocrisy of a Puritan.

Perhaps it will not be right to say that Spenser was a Puritan. Milton might greet him as our sage and serious poet, but that cannot mean that he has a Puritanic cast of mind. Milton was a Puritan. But his Puritanism was tempered by his Renaissance culture. By his passionate love of freedom, political and religious, by his intoxicating sense of beauty. He might have sought to justify the ways of God to men.

He did not share the bigotry, the narrowness and the self-righteousness of a Puritan. Milton was a Puritan with a difference, and this ought not to be overlooked. Spenser says. “Fierce, warrens and faithful loves shall moralize my song. Is that a ground for thinking that Spenser is a Puritan? He is going to tell stories, as he does in The Faerie Queene, but he reads a moral meaning into them. Any story may have moral. All that Spenser does is to make the moral of story manifest. But that does not and cannot make him a Puritan. His aim is to blend allegory with romance, but he has not been able to keep up the allegory without a break.

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The story seems to be the main thing, and the allegory is subordinate. His moral seriousness has led some critics to assume that he is a Puntan. But, as we see, he often discards his moral seriousness. Even his moralizing when he goes on with his story. Self-righteousness is a sort of obsession with a Puritan. To none of his characters in The Faerie Queene. Spenser ascribes this sense of self-righteousness not even to Prince Arthur who is the perfection of virtues. And it is knightly virtue which is embodied in Prince Arthur- and knightly virtues will have little appeal to a Puritan. Then again a Puritan has a hunting sense of sin and corruption.

We may take the Redcross knight who lapses, but who has little sense pf sin until his eyes are opened. A Puritan could not have drawn such a character. The penance that the Redcross knight goes through-sackcloth and ashes- smacks rather of Catholicism than of Puritanism. Spenser denounces the Romish Church, but he has not been able to renounce the paraphernalia of its ritual and ceremony. He seems to have more leanings towards Catholicism which he denounces than towards Puritanism. What he does in the First Book of The Faerie Queene is to vindicate the Church of England, and the Church of England did not discard all the ritualism of the Romish Church if it dropped some of its doctrines.

Then again Spenser draws freely upon classical myths and legends, and makes use of the idea of Plato and Aristotle: a conscientious Puritan could not have done that. Perhaps Spenser could have nothing to do with Puritanism; in tis time Puritanism was not a growing force. Percival seems to put it the right way. “Spenser’s Christianity did not destroy his paganism; neither did his paganism destroy his Christianity,

Milton’s Puritanism saw no beauty in paganism: the Epicureanism of the neo-pagan sees no truth in religion: in Spenser, the beauty of paganism exists side by side, with, but distinct from the truth of religion. Having drawn this sharp line in essentials Spenser leaves his fancy to range without restrain, but always on the right side of the line. To him, therefore, as to Date, the confusion of heathen mythology with the mere rimes or imagery of Christianity, gives no shock.”

In conclusion,

Edmund Spenser can be considered a child of the classical Renaissance due to his deep engagement with the classical literary traditions and ideals. His extensive use of classical mythology, adherence to epic conventions, incorporation of philosophical themes, and embrace of classical aesthetics all demonstrate his affinity for and assimilation of classical influences into his work. Spenser’s writings stand as a testament to the enduring impact of the classical world on Renaissance literature and continue to be celebrated as a significant contribution to the legacy of the Renaissance.



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