poem by Edmund Spenser
(1552?-1599). It comprises six books of twelve cantos
each, plus the "Mutabilitie Cantos" (two complete and one unfinished), which might have been intended as part of a book on Constancy
. The Faerie Queene
was originally intended to have twelve books but was not completed.
Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene in a deliberately archaic style--though he was roughly a contemporary of William Shakespeare, his language in this work is far less comprehensible than Shakespeare's. The diction of The Faerie Queene, which Spenser essentially made up, is intended to sound ancient, noble, and otherworldly. As an example, here's his Invocation to the Muse, from Book 1:
Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.
The other factor that tends to make students detest the work is its preponderance of allegory. Almost everything in the poem stands for something else. A basic understanding of the political climate of the day (the poem is dedicated to Elizabeth I and contains numerous references to monarchical issues), the Bible, the Elizabethan worldview, influential authors such as Petrarch and Ovid, Elizabethan science and medicine, and Arthurian legend won't even fully prepare you. If you're reading it with background knowledge and some guidance, however, the richness of the work is staggering.
The six completed books of The Faerie Queene, and their heroes (each of whom embodies the book's central virtue), are as follows:
Book 1: Holiness (Redcross)
Book 2: Temperance (Guyon)
Book 3: Chastity (Britomart)
Book 4: Friendship (Cambel and Telamond)
Book 5: Justice (Artegall)
Book 6: Courtesy (Calidore)