Spenser’s great poetic work, described by its author in his letter to Raleigh as a ‘continued allegory or darke conceit’, works on two allegorical levels: private and public. It also follows in the literary tradition of the dream Romance.
On the private level, Redcrosse is on a quest for holiness. On the public level, the poem is a tale of English patriotism.
Published within two years of the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), the poem was dedicated to Elizabeth I, who appeared as Una. Redcrosse Knight, symbolising England, finds his identity in Book II as St. George. Una is a manifestation of Elizabeth whose virgin purity unites England in its return to the true Church of Christ on earth. Beginning with the Faerie Queene, the poem fans out on to a fairy land sprinkled with miraculous monsters, chivalric knights and damsels in distress.
First edition of Books I-III (1590)
The first edition of Books I-III of The Faerie Queene, printed in quarto in London for William Ponsonbie, 1590, contains one woodcut, of the Red Cross Knight. The College’s copy is from the Keynes bequest.
Second edition of Books I-III/First edition of Books IV-VI (1596)
In 1596, an imprint combining the second edition of the first three books and the first edition of The Second Part of the Faerie Queene, containing Books IV-VI was printed by the same printer, who now gave his name as William Ponsonby. The College’s copy, from George Thackeray’s Library, is bound in medium brown calf, with double gold fillets at the edges, five raised bands, and spine gold-tooled in a floral design, with author and title in a faded red panel.
Illustrated edition (1751)
An illustrated folio edition of the Faerie Queene – also from Thackeray’s Library – was published in three volumes in 1751 by J. Brindley and S. Wright in London. This edition carries 32 copper plates made from the pen and ink drawings by William Kent, ‘architect and principal painter to his Majesty’ (George II). The images in the slideshow above are from this edition.