home‎ > ‎

Tracy Nieradka, "Spenser Reading Chaucer"

    Tracy Nieradka                                             "Spenser Reading Chaucer"

            Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is very much in debt to Geoffrey Chaucer.  However, Chaucer’s influence is not directly acknowledged until Book IV of The Faerie Queene, the book of Friendship.  This is when Spenser first invokes the spirit of “Dan Chaucer,” “that renowmed Poet”(IV.ii.32) as his Muse.  While the invocation clearly praises Chaucer, saying he is worthy to be filed on “Fames eternall beadroll,”(IV.ii.32) there is also an undercurrent of anxiety and doubt about claiming Chaucer as his predecessor, which figures into the narrative of Book IV.  This is revealed through the influence that Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale had on Book IV.

The Martial Spenser

Book IV of The Faerie Queene continues the plot of Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales.  Chaucer probably never actually finished writing The Squire’s Tale, but Spenser considered the ending to be lost.  Spenser laments the loss of the ending of Chaucer’s tale through the action of the “cursed Eld the cankerworme of writs”(IV.ii.33). This imitates the opening of Anelida and Arcite where Chaucer had lamented the near-loss of an old Latin story.  Spenser thus “sees himself in the same relation to Chaucer as Chaucer stood to his Latin predecessors”(Spenser Encyclopedia 382), both looking to older texts that had been almost lost or completely lost.  Spenser thus sets out to continue the story that Chaucer wrote through, as he says, “infusion sweete” of Chaucer’s “owne spirit”(IV.ii.34) into his poetry.

In a direct address to “Dan Chaucer”(IV.ii.32)  in Book IV of The Faerie Queene, Spenser calls the Chaucer that he is invoking a poet of “warlike numbers and Heroicke sound”(IV.ii.32).  But, who is this warlike or martial poet that Spenser is writing of?  The 16th century admired the Chaucer who wrote Troilus and Criseyde, who was “far less a poet of battle than of love”(Spenser Encyclopedia 382).  Although Troilus and Criseyde is a poem set during the Trojan War, the war is merely a backdrop to the romance plot, with battle briefly and rarely being mentioned.  Certainly Spenser would not have seen this Romance poem as “warlike” or “Heroicke.”  In fact, no period from the 16th century to the 21st century has admired Chaucer as a great martial poet.  So why does Spenser regard him as such, when Chaucer rarely ventured into the world of armed conflict?  Only in The Knight’s Tale is battle prominent in the tournament between Palamon and Arcite, but even then it is not very detailed.  Actually, as Larry D. Benson points out, it is clear that in The Knight’s Tale Chaucer purposely moves away from the genre of epic, casting the story from Boccaccio’s Teseida into the form of Romance (Higgins 20). 

In contrast, The Faerie Queene is fraught with bloody encounters and savage battles, even if they are connected to the many quests for love.  Spenser evens states in the first stanza of the Proem to Book I that “Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song”(I.Proem.1).  Here, since Spenser explicitly states that his poem is going to be fierce and warlike, he had to create a version of Chaucer that would suit these needs.  Instead of looking back to other classical Latin or Greek poems that are overtly martial, Spenser chose Chaucer because he was part of an English poetic heritage that Spenser was trying to continue.  Before The Squire’s Tale ends abruptly, the Squire speaks of adventures and feats of war so great that no one has ever heard anything like them.  Perhaps the martial Chaucer that Spenser had in his mind was “that renowmed Poet”(IV.ii. 32) who (had he finished The Squire’s Tale) wrote about these epic battles of Cambyuskan and Algarsyf, and Cambalo for his sister Canacee.

“Sundrie Doubts”: The Problems with Claiming Chaucer as a Predecessor and Doubtful Interpretations in The Faerie Queene

Spenser has invoked Chaucer as his martial Muse and predecessor in an English poetic heritage, but this legacy was in some ways problematic to claim.  Spenser directly addresses Chaucer in The Faerie Queene, and clearly praises him, calling him “Dan Chaucer, well of English vndefyled”(IV.ii.32).  “Dan,” a title equivalent of “Sir" usually reserved for knights, clearly shows Spenser’s admiration of Chaucer, as does his reference to him as the “undefiled well” of English poetry.  However, invoking Chaucer as an inspiration and model to look back to had its risks as well as rewards.  As Craig Berry quotes from Alice Miskimin, “the Middle Ages were paradoxically both despised by Elizabethans as the primitive darkness of superstition and ignorance from which they had emerged, and yet honored, as the origin of uniquely English institutions, the common law, the English language, and the monarchy itself”(Berry 107).  This fear and hatred of the Middle Ages caused Spenser to be criticized by several of his friends and contemporaries for imitating Chaucer.  For example, Roger Ascham thought that only Latin and Greek models were worthy of imitation, as he hated the “barbarous and rude Ryming”(Berry 108) of English poets such as Chaucer.  So, although Spenser looked to Chaucer as part of his English poetic heritage, he also found it necessary at times to distance himself from Chaucer’s “dubious associations”(108) from the Middle Ages.  Perhaps this is why Spenser claims an “infusion” of Chaucer’s “spirit,” rather than a direct imitation.  Critic Anne Higgins aptly writes: 

…where [Spenser] plainly acknowledges a debt to Chaucer he simultaneously denies it; where he is truly indebted to Chaucer he neglects to draw attention to his borrowing, and even disguises it.  At times his references to Chaucer are so oddly stressed they seem to be meant to undercut Chaucer’s authority while piously invoking his name. (Higgins 27)

Here, it is clear that Spenser did not quite know how to feel about having Chaucer as an influence.  Although Chaucer’s presence can be felt throughout The Faerie Queene, at times it is hidden while at other times it is extremely noticeable, as in Book IV.  However, to invoke Chaucer at all recognizes the dubious enterprise that Spenser was undertaking by claiming Chaucer as his inspiration.  Although, while sometimes distancing himself from Chaucer, it seems like the “deferral of extinction by spiritual infusion was an attractive model”(Berry 119).  Spenser’s goal in continuing The Squire’s Tale was to essentially prevent the extinction of the tale, which he does this through spiritual infusion of Chaucer’s “owne spirit.”  This mirrors how in Book IV the spirits of Priamond and Diamond pass into Triamond after their deaths, infusing him with the power of his deceased brethren. 

In taking on the task of finishing The Squire’s Tale, there was also the clear risk that Spenser would “appear either smaller than his medieval predecessor or smaller than he would have had he stuck with classical models and their less ambiguous reputations”(Berry 114).  Spenser’s doubts about following in Chaucer’s footsteps and finishing his tale figure prominently in Book IV, where characters must often overcome doubt to achieve the virtue of friendship.  Thus, the doubts of Spenser’s characters mirror the doubts of his readers, and also his own doubts, for claiming debt to Chaucer.

            Spenser struggled to overcome these doubts about his place in an English poetic heritage.  Not just in the creation of his poem, but also in its reception.  Spenser wrote Book IV of The Faerie Queene six years after the first three Books were published, giving him ample time to gauge the public’s response to his work.  In the Proem to Book IV, he mentions “Stoicke censours,”(IV.Proem.3) and those who are “ill iudge[s] of loue, that cannot loue”(IV.Proem.2) indicating that he felt at least some of his readers misunderstood his work up to that point.  Fitting with the English poetic tradition, misinterpretation and misreading was a theme that Spenser found prevalent in Chaucer, especially in The Squire’s Tale.  This tale is full of the theme of doubtful interpretations, especially those which arise from the unfamiliar or strange.  In his tale, the Squire criticizes those who cannot understand the tale’s magical elements.  He puts the blame on King Cambyuskan’s courtiers for not being able to understand the origins or workings of a magical horse, saying:

      Of sondry doutes thus they jangle and trete,

      As lewd peple demeth comunly

      Of things that been maad moore subtilly

Than they kan in her lewednesse comprehended;

They demen gladly to the badder ende (*Folio I, V.220-24).

Here, the Squire blames the readers for being too lewd and not sophisticated enough to comprehend the object.  Their “sondry doutes” make them misinterpret things to the worser end, an issue that Spenser fears his readers will also do.  It should also be noted that nowhere else in the Chaucerian canon do the words “sondry” and “doutes” appear together.  Therefore, it is clear that Spenser’s use of the exact same phrase (although spelled differently) comes directly from The Squire’s Tale.

Spenser uses this direct quotation in Book IV canto i, when writing of the “sundrie doubts” in regards to the misinterpretation of Britomart.  In this canto, Britomart wins into a castle for herself, Amoret, and the knight she has defeated.  Thinking she is a man, those present express doubts when she removes her helmet and reveals herself to be a woman.  Spenser writes, “Such when those Knights and Ladies all about/ Beheld her, all were with amazement smit,/…So diuersely each one did sundrie doubts deuise”(IV.i.14).  When she was believed to be a man, there was no question of her martial actions, but in revealing herself as a woman, there are “sundrie doubts” and she is now a question of interpretation.  This reflects Spenser’s doubt of his own readers, exactly like the Squire’s doubts.  Spenser even acknowledges in his letter to Walter Raleigh that he knows “how doubtfully all Allegories may be construed”(“Letter to Raleigh” 714).  He goes on to speak of how he has “thought good aswell for auoyding of gealous opinions and misconstructions”(714).  However, it seems that the failure of his characters to make sound interpretations reveals his worry that he has not avoided the jealous opinions and misconstructions of his readers, and that they might be less perceptive than he hoped they would be.  Therefore, like those trying to interpret Britomart, he worries that his own readers will not be able to figure out, or worse, are unwilling to interpret his complex allegory in a favorable manner.  Spenser’s tale of Britomart is thus clearly connected to the “sondry doutes” of King Cambyuskan’s courtiers, both which “indicate a limited moral vision”(Berry 111) in readers to understand complex moral ideas.

The main difference between Chaucer’s “sondry doutes” and Spenser’s “sundrie doubts” is that Spenser takes steps to resolve the doubts among his characters for the sake of his moral allegory.  So, “by representing moral victory in spite of a conglomeration of misguided or inadequate readings, Spenser attempts to resolve doubts about the interpretation of his poem and its success in accomplishing the ambitious moral influence he intended for it”(Berry 112).  Although there are doubts about Britomart, she ultimately befriends the knight she defeated and restores him to his companions, and Amoret no longer fears to share a bed with her, as she knows she is a woman.  The doubts are resolved for the characters, reminding the reader that this is a moral allegory that can heal its problems, which hopefully resolves the reader’s doubts about the poem.  In contrast, Chaucer gives us no resolution of the doubt expressed in The Squire’s Tale. The courtiers never find out the secret of the magical horse that they were trying to interpret before, and the Squire is cut off in mid-sentence so the audience remains forever in doubt about the fates of Cambalo and Canacee.

The Squire’s Tale and The Knight’s Tale:  The Protestant Ending

            For Spenser, arguably the two most influential of The Canterbury Tales were The Squire’s and the Knight’s Tales, which are overtly present in Book IV of The Faerie Queene.  In this Book, Spenser effectively joins the Fellowship of The Canterbury Tales and sets out to recreate the substance of The Squire’s Tale in order to give it a proper ending.  However, he takes great liberties with the story, reworking it to make it resemble The Knight’s Tale more than Chaucer’s original version of The Squire’s Tale.

Spenser presumes The Squire’s Tale was meant to be a tale of battle, as that is how he completes it.  He probably deduced this because some of the last words the Squire says before the narrator interrupts him are: “And after wol I speke of Cambalo,/ That faught in lystes with the bretheren two/ For Canacee er that he myghte hire wynne”(*Folio I, V.667-69).  It clearly seems that The Squire’s Tale leaves off right before the Squire is going to explain the battles that Cambalo had to fight for Canacee.  Perhaps this is the martial Chaucer that Spenser was imagining: the Chaucer who finished the epic tale of battle, instead of cutting it off right before the action.

While Spenser states his intention to re-create the lost ending to The Squire’s Tale, what he essentially does in the process is rewrite the Knight’s Tale.  Spenser does this by first reworking a problem in The Squire’s Tale.  This is the problem of incest, for in what other sense can Cambalo “wynne” his sister Canacee?  Instead of continuing this disturbing state of affairs set up in Chaucer’s tale, he instead creates a situation in which Cambalo fights other men to prove their worthiness before giving the winner his sister’s hand in marriage. Thus, Spenser sets up the battle of Cambell against Priamond, Diamond and Triamond that Chaucer did not.  Spenser also takes influence from The Knight’s Tale, which focuses on the cousins Palamon and Arcite who compete against each other for the love of Emelye, who does not want to marry either of the men. Perhaps the most notable scene of armed combat in Chaucer occurs in this tale, with the deadly tournament between the cousins for Emelye’s hand.  Essentially, Spenser takes the battle scene from The Knight’s Tale and replaces the two cousins with three brothers (Priamond, Diamond and Triamond) while Canacee functions as Emelye.  However, in Chaucer’s ending of The Knight’s Tale, Emelye ends up being unhappily married to Palamon, who wins by default after Arcite, the original victor, dies unexpectedly.  Spenser fixes this problem of an unhappy marriage by aid of a magical potion which makes Cambell forget his fight with Triamond, the last standing brother, so he can happily give him to Canacee to marry.  Anne Higgins proposes that he does this to give The Knight’s Tale a more optimistic ending of a happy, Protestant marriage instead providing a view of marriage as “a necessity born in sorrow,”(Higgins 23) as in Chaucer's ending.

The theme of willingness to love and/or marry is an important one in Spenser, and must be discussed, as it has a clear origin in Chaucer.  Critic A. Kent Hieatt argues that Spenser bolsters his message by borrowing lines from the The Franklin’s Tale, which he paraphrases once in Book III and two times in Book IV.  The Franklin says:

Loue wol not be constrained by maistrie

When maistry cometh, the God of loue anon

Beateth his winges, and farewell he is gon

Loue is a thing, as any spirite free (**The Frankeliens tale. fol. 1)

Here, the Franklin is saying that love cannot be gotten by force, and if it is, love will fly away because it is a free spirit.  Spenser closely paraphrases this in three distinct spots, first with Britomart, who, criticizing Malecasta, says “Ne may loue be compled by maisterie;/ For soone as maisterie comes, sweet loue anone/ Taketh his wings, and soone away is gone”(III.i.25).  Extraordinarily, “these words and others in the Chaucerian passage above are paraphrased twice more—something that happens to no other borrowing from another poet in Spenser’s entire canon”(Hieatt 157).  The second paraphrasing occurs in Book IV and is directed at Scudamor who is jealous that his love Amoret has shared a bed with another knight (as he does not know Britomart is a woman).  Duessa tells him, “For Love is free, and led with selfe delight,/ Ne will enforced be with maisterdome or might”(IV.i.46).  Finally, again in Book IV, Arthur reproaches the knights who are all fighting over Amoret.  He makes his address to women, saying “The world this franchise ever yielded,/ That of their loves choise they might freedom clame”(IV.ix.37).  It is clear that the Franklin’s words about amatory choice found a stronghold in Spenser’s moral sensibility.  The theme is present throughout The Faerie Queene and culminates in the marriages of Triamond and Canacee, and Cambel and Cambina, who all become happily married.

It is clear that Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is very much in debt to Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, despite doubts about claiming Chaucer as his predecessor.  Spenser, with his martial Chaucer in mind, reworks The Squire’s Tale and The Knight’s Tale to make them suit the values of a Protestant England and to “inherit, renew and enrich the native poetic tradition”(Higgins 36).

Works Cited


Berry, Craig A. “‘Sundrie Doubts:’ Vulnerable Understanding and Dubious Origins in Spenser’s Continuation of the Squire’s Tale,” in Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance, ed. Theresa M. Krier (University Press of Florida, 1998), 106-127.

Burrow, John A., “Chaucer, Geoffrey,” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton  (University of Toronto Press, 1990), 144-48.

Hieatt, Kent A.  “Room of One’s Own for Decisions: Chaucer and The Faerie Queene,” in Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance, ed. Theresa M. Krier. (University Press of Florida, 1998), 147-164.

Higgins, Anne “Spenser Reading Chaucer: Another Look at the ‘Faerie Queene’ Allusions.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 89:1 (Jan 1990), 17-36.

Spenser, Edmund, “Letter to Raleigh,” The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton, (Longman, 2007), 714-718.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (Longman, 2007).


Spenser Comments