Spenser's Burning Light: The Soul's Transformations in the Faerie Queene

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University of Alabama Libraries

The extent of Spenser’s Neoplatonic influence has long been the subject of debate, and even proponents of a more fully Neoplatonist Spenser have often hesitated to read The Faerie Queene in the full light of this tradition. While the general consensus has acknowledged the deep and abiding influence of Neoplatonism in The Fowre Hymnes, published late in the poet’s career, Spenser uses some of these doctrines and paradigms as early as The Shepheardes Calender. A survey of the shorter poems reveals certain constants in Spenser’s representation of the soul: its immortality, preexistence of the body, and tri-partite structure, and the doctrine of transmigration, which represents spiritual progress through a series of transformations. These characteristics resurface in The Faerie Queene, where they provide an indispensable guide for Spenser’s plan to “fashion” the soul of his reader. While some would object that these Neoplatonic borrowings contradict the poet’s overt Protestantism, especially regarding the doctrine of original sin and the implications of humanity’s fallen nature, Spenser resolves these conflicts through the apophatic teachings of Christian mysticism in the last half of Book I. Spenser’s paradigm of the soul’s progress begins with Holinesse, by which the soul examines its fallen nature in the presence of the divine, before turning to confront worldly and cosmic evil as embodied in the dragon of Book I’s climax. The book’s other evil figures—Archimago, Duessa, and the “Sans Brothers”—reflect the soul’s failure to resolve its own disharmonies in the absence of grace, culminating in Redcrosse’s hellish imprisonment in Orgoglio’s dungeon. Arthur enters the narrative as both a vehicle of divine grace and an adumbration of Redcrosse’s unrealized potential. Redcrosse then enacts the soul’s reorientation towards grace in the House of Holinesse. The subsequent books present the soul’s further development in a series of virtues that project the internal harmonies of the sanctified and sufficiently-fashioned individual into human relationships, through which they can begin to reshape the world of fallen nature in such a way that prefigures the eventual reintegration of the soul, and possibly the entire universe, back into the divine presence.

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Christian Platonism, Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene, Holinesse, Neoplatonism, Soul