The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

England’s Virgil: Spenser and the Formation of the Ostensibly English Epic

Joseph Muller

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This paper discusses the emerging literary nationalism of Elizabethan England by exploring the close intertext of FQ 3.3 and Aeneid 6, in which Spenser equates Elizabeth I to Caesar Augustus and himself to Virgil, thereby contributing significantly to the “cult” of Elizabeth, to the validity of English as a literary language on par with Latin, and to the idea of the poet laureate. It argues that Spenser’s synthesis of Virgilian narrative framework and surfaces from an idealized medieval England establishes a precedent for later poets seeking to capture “Englishness”—Romantics, at the very least, would define England in similar nostalgically medieval terms.


The emerging national identity of Elizabethan England had its literary manifestations earliest and most expansively in the work of Edmund Spenser. To avoid outrunning the scope of this essay by the same degree of expansiveness, I will focus on one canto of the The Faerie Queene, 3.3, which stands out from the surrounding cantos as especially synthesized from the roots of rough English antique poetry and Virgilian narrative framework. It has more significance than most because it single-handedly leads the reader acquainted with Virgil to the conclusions that Elizabeth I is England’s Caesar Augustus and that Spenser is England’s Virgil. The first comparison, between Caesar and Elizabeth, is significant because it shows the kind of new national pride that is typical of the Elizabethan outlook. The second comparison, the equation of Virgil and Spenser, constitutes a milestone in the development of Elizabethan literary nationalism, fusing the conspicuous Englishness of ostensibly Anglo-Saxon archaisms with the kind of Roman poetic vision that comprehends an empire.

In the year 1614, a man named Robert Ashton wrote a brief autobiography in Latin. It deals mostly with his education and reading interests. The following is a moment in his development as a boy, as interpreted by Ronald Crane:

While in [the grammar school in] Southampton he learned French by living in company with fifteen or twenty other boys of gentle birth in the household of his master, where on pain of wearing a fool’s cap at meals they were allowed to speak no English. He also improved his Latin, and studied Greek. (2)

This image of a boy under fifteen learning three languages at once is a characteristic example of the Renaissance humanist education; Ashton could have easily been Spenser. Another account brings to light a phenomenon that saw large numbers of continental Europeans making the trip across the channel because of the “respect with which England received learned Protestants” (Jones 1). The result was that “the universities were crammed with foreigners” (1). This is significant because in most other respects, England’s increasing Protestantism distanced it from the Catholic continent. Rather than polarizing it from other countries, this influx of multinational humanists would have increased the internationalism of England’s universities.

Cambridge, where Spenser finished his education, would have been no exception to this trend, but before attending Cambridge, Spenser was apparently compelled by at least one tutor to internalize nationalist sentiments. Several critics point to his study under the headmaster Richard Mulcaster as a pivotal part of his development. This man introduced him “to the best of liberal humanism, humanism with a fervent national bias” (Webb 64). At first, “humanism with a fervent national bias” seems merely paradoxical. It is easy for us to engage and understand a binary opposition between “national bias” and the multilingual, liberal, classical education. But such a distinction in such terms was only beginning to be created because the idea of nations the size and scope of Greece and Rome was only beginning to reemerge. England was becoming a more crystallized national entity at the same time that Renaissance humanism increased awareness of the classical heritage that all European nations shared. This is significant because, as we will see in the text of The Faerie Queene, Spenser chooses to weave the two together: Virgil’s Aeneid supports and pervades the poem but its surfaces and subjects are drawn from English history, lore, and literature. In an age when nationalism was crystallizing in juxtaposition to humanism, Spenser used humanism for the sake of nationalism.

Furthermore, because such poetry had never been written in English before, such Poets had never existed in England. No epic poet had existed in England, but Spenser believed “the English language was as fit for poetry; the glory of the English nation as worthy of celebration. Yet there was no English Homer or Vergil, no English Ariosto or Ronsard” (Helgerson “New Poet” 677). The very act of writing poetry was still viewed as the pastime of the immature young lover. The role was not anything like the lifelong career it would later become with the title of “poet laureate.” Spenser began that tradition, for before his time poetry was “self-indulgence, . . . usually of short duration and was marked, whatever its duration, by much self-conscious defensiveness, leading quite often to repentance” (“New Poet” 676). That Spenser conceived of another form of poetry, superior to the shameful activity that spurred other poets to “mature” into the pursuance of civil careers in public service, at once marks him both as a visionary for what English poetry might become and as a humanist taken up with classical ideas of the form and purpose of poetry. Helgerson writes, “Where [Sidney and others] were lowered by poetry, Spenser, who never tired of insisting on his personal humility, was raised by it.” (“New Poet” 676).

Spenser’s innovation does not stop with his conception of a national English poet; his choice to write in English was also significant. Richard Rambuss suggests linguistic ramifications for Mulcaster’s tutelage of Spenser:

The core of Mulcaster’s curriculum was a rigourous training in reading and writing Latin, but he also innovatively established a place in his school for the study of the vernacular alongside the classical languages: ‘I love Rome, but London better, I favor Italie, but England more, I honor the Latin, but I worship the English,” Spenser’s headmaster patriotically rhapsodises . . . . “These sentiments,” notes William Oram, “cannot have been lost on a student who would try in his own tongue to surpass or ‘overgo’ the lyrics and the epics of other languages.” (Rambuss 16)

This is at least partly why Spenser, though thoroughly a humanist, chose not to write in Latin. Latin was the international language, no longer belonging in the 15th century to any one state except the Vatican, and least of all to England, the nation whose language was Germanic in origin.

Spenser’s disapproval of the infiltration of bits and pieces of Romance languages into English becomes clear in the Dedicatory Epistle to The Shepheardes Calendar, which most critics believe to have been authored by Spenser despite being signed “E. K.” (543):

. . . some endevoured to salve and recure, they patched up the holes with peces and rags of other languages, borrowing here of the french, there of the Italian, every where of the Latine, not weighing how il, those tongues accorde with themselves, but much worse with ours: So now they have made our English tongue, a gallimaufray or hodgepodge of al other speches. (503)

This passage itself shows, with fabricated but otherwise satisfactorily “Germanic” words like “gallimaufray,” that Spenser considered Englishness to be inherent in ostensibly Anglo-Saxon diction. As a humanist dedicated to bringing the scale of Rome to England’s poetry and language, Spenser thought of himself as the first of his kind, or more accurately the first English version of his kind. One of his clearest statements to that effect comes in a letter to Gabriel Harvey: “Why a God’s name may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language?” (qtd. in Helgerson Forms 1). With such a longing as he set out to “write” England, Spenser naturally did not write in any other medium than English.

In so doing, Spenser was involved in no less than “the promotion of English as a literary language on a par with Latin” (Rambuss 16). He had to decide what its formal characteristics would be. Quantitative verse, the dactylic hexameter of Vergil and Homer, was virtually impossible in English. This may seem trivial, but it was a hard to accept for the humanist intimately acquainted with the fine symmetry and framework of Greco-Roman meter and educated with the doctrine of classical superiority. After all, as Helgerson points out, “Only in contrast to the ancient artifice of quantitative verse can rime be seen as inescapably crude and trashy” (Forms 27). In choosing a stanzaic form, Spenser was able to borrow from Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale” (Fussell 146) and also from a product of the Italian Rennaissance, Ludovico Ariosto. He modified Ariosto’s ottava rima by adding an alexandrine, a sixth line. Thus in his adoption and modification of a medium in which to write, Spenser follows the English tradition and contributes to it. In choosing the rough barbarity of English over the smooth civility of Latin, Spenser is again both British and inventive: he embraces the rhyme of the fledgling English poetic tradition but invents his own formula, the nine-line stanza following the pattern a-b-a-b-b- c-b-c-c.

Spenser declined to benefit from the literary reputation of Latin with its quantitative verse and decided in favor of rough and unruly English. But though he ultimately chose to pit English against the Latin language, he imitated, in grand overarching strokes, the literary heritage of Latin—namely Vergil’s Aeneid. This brought antique English poetry, in the tradition of the chivalric romance, to the level of national epic. His poem thus has all the outward appearances of England but the size and weight of Rome. The surfaces are medieval and English but the frame is ancient Roman. We find one of the clearest attempts at this fusion in the chronicle embedded within the third book of The Faerie Queene. According to Helgerson, Chronicle “was the Ur- genre of national self-representation. More than any other form, chronicle gave Tudor Englishmen a sense of their own national identity” (Forms 11). Spenser hands Englishmen their identity on a silver platter in a chronicle in which Merlin prophesies the line of British kings culminating in Elizabeth.

The Canto begins with Britomart’s attempt to find the location of Arthegall (3.6) by visiting Merlin underground “In a deep delve, farre from the vew of day,/ That of no living wight he mote be found” (3.7). In an aside, Spenser cautions the reader never to enter this cave, but to stand above and listen for the sound of chains and rumbling cauldrons, “Which thousand sprights with long enduring paines/ Do tosse” (3.8). These spirits were eternally bound to build walls around Cairmairn just before the Lady of the Lake tricked Merlin and buried him in a tomb. They labor endlessly and painfully to erect the walls for fear of a master who will never return. The passage invokes Dante’s Inferno, but it has a more distant and significant intertext in Aeneid 6, where Vergil writes of numerous monsters (Centaurs, Harpies, etc.) huddling at the gate to the underworld through which Aeneas must pass to reach his father, Anchises. (VI.285-94).

In the next stanza Spenser describes Merlin as more than what we find in Malory; in addition to the characteristics of a medieval wizard, he takes on qualities of a Roman deity. The stanza begins:

For he by words could call out of the sky

Both Sunne and Moone, and make them him obay:

The land to sea, and sea to maineland dry,

And darkesome night he eke could turne to day; (3.12)

That Merlin can control the elements of nature elevates him from the status of an immortal among mortals to a supernatural being of the sky (or the underworld, as the case may be) as we would find with a Roman god. He does still have qualities associated with English magic, however. Upon their arrival he is writing strange symbols in the ground (3..14), his power comes “by words,” spells (3.12), and Britomart requests that he exorcize her friend of an inhabiting spirit (3.18). Merlin has the appearances of Englishness associated with wizardry, yet he operates within a classical construct.

Finally, Merlin gives a prophecy. It begins with the return of Arthegal to Britomart, from which union the royal line of England will result. He says:

For from thy wombe a famous Progenie

Shall spring, out of the auncient Trojan blood,

Which shall revive the sleeping memorie

Of those same antique Peres the heavens brood,

Which Greeke and Asian rivers stained with their blood. (3.22)

England’s royal blood is Trojan royal blood, a connection certainly widely seen in the writing of the era, but perhaps more significant in this context. What is more interesting is the “famous Progenie” prophesied. Arthur, arguably the most famous of English kings, is the one with whom Britomart will produce this descendant, so it cannot be him. The state of English sentiment towards their queen at the time Spenser was writing this canto (the 1580s) was such that she is most likely the monarch referenced. Spenser began the chronicle with Britomart, the allegorical representation of Elizabeth as warrior, and now he ends it with Elizabeth as the long-prophesied culmination of Arthur’s line.

Again, the similarity to Virgil’s Book 6 continues. Aeneas’ father Anchises tells him, “Nunc age, Dardaniam prolem quae deinde sequatur / gloria, qui maneant Itala de gente nepotes” (6.756-8)—“Now see! what glory follows Dardan generations, what famous children will come in the Italian race.” Anchises tells Aeneas that he will marry Lavinia, just as Merlin reassures Britomart that her union with Arthegal is certain (Aeneid 6.764; FQ 3.3.26). He speaks of many Roman kings and emperors, but spends most time by far on Caesar Augustus, the emperor for whom Virgil wrote. Anchises says, “Augustus Caesar . . . aurea condet / Saecula . . . rursus Latio” (6.792-93)—“Augustus Caesar will bring once again an age of gold to Latium.” Not to omit any part of the pattern, Spenser crowns Merlin’s prophecy with the following lines:

Then shall a royall virgin raine, which shall

Stretch her white rod over the Belgicke shore,

And the great white Castle smite so sore with all,

That it shall make him shake, and shortly learne to fall. (3.49)

The “great white Castle” is both the Spanish Armada defeated in the same half-decade that this book of the poem was written and “Castile” minus one letter, representing the whole of Spain. Elizabeth I is the “royall virgin” at the center of this transparent political allegory.

The narratives mirror each other: Virgil wrote for Augustus a poem in which mythical Aeneas travels through the underworld past monsters to his father Anchises, who tells him who it is with whom he will produce a royal line eventually leading to Augustus. In an almost exactly parallel structure, Spenser wrote for Elizabeth a poem in which Britomart travels past tortured spirits to the cave of Merlin, who tells her who it is with whom she will produce a royal line eventually leading to the golden age under Elizabeth. The summative outcome of this elaborate and masterful imitation is that Elizabeth I is equated to Caesar Augustus. Indeed, the parallels between Augustan Rome and Elizabethan England really do present themselves quite readily. Just as Rome’s first emperor brought the pax romana to the empire, Elizabeth introduces England to a golden age of prosperity. Under her the literary arts flourish in Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare much as poetry flourished under Augustus in the works of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. And, as Caesar kept wars from the heart of the empire by fighting enemies on the frontier, she defeated the Spanish Armada at sea so that an invasion of English soil did not occur. Other Cult glorifications of Elizabeth as a monarch rarely approach this greatness. In mirroring Vergil’s Aenean prophecy of Caesar Augustus, Spenser makes the highest of tributes to his queen and nation.

The momentum with which Spenser’s creation barreled towards glory took not only the patron with it but also its author. The brilliance, of course, of Spenser’s construction is that when Elizabeth becomes Caesar, he becomes Virgil. Paul Alpers writes that “The Faerie Queene itself was cited and imitated before 1590 . . . and its publication prompted a torrent of praise and imitation. Spenser was regularly hailed as the English Homer or Virgil” (252). His accomplishment, of course, is not without flaws and eccentricities, but these imperfections do not seem to matter when we remember that he pulled several sets of binaries together; he breathed though inhabiting a virtual vacuum. Helgerson writes:

What is surprising is that, . . . in a country that had known no major poet for two hundred years, Spenser could have created a body of work sufficient to give form and substance to an ideal that other men entertained only in the realm of hypothetical speculation. (“New Poet” 685-86)

Such is the nature of the accomplishment that merits giving the title of “laureate” to its author. That Spenser was considered England’s Virgil is not often debated; what I suggest beyond this is that the imitation by later English poets of his peculiar tendency to approach English national identity as a backwards-looking visionary was assisted by Virgilian influence. I mean that he was interested in helping to birth England’s identity by molding the mythic roots of its past into an ideal which his readers could call English, and others imitated him partly because of his Virgilian clout. Let us tease out the common idea of Vergil’s nostalgia for early England. Again we return to the appearances of “antiquitie” present in The Faerie Queene. To begin with, Christoph Kuper states that Spenser’s rhymes “reflected the phonological system of Chaucer’s age, and partly even his vocabulary” (120). His endeavor is not only English, it is thoroughly based in the medieval “antiquitie” of England. Words like “haydeguies,” for which there exists no entry of even similar spelling in the OED, and “queeme” are examples of antiquated diction in Spenser’s work (McElderry 150). The sense of archaism is much enhanced for the modern reader, but the Elizabethan reader would have found it so to a lesser degree: “the presence of deliberate archaism” is “undoubted” (157). Willy Maley goes so far as to say that “the attribution of archaisms to Spenser is so common as to demand no further explanation” (166).

In addition to the formal aspects which make the epic seem older than it is, McElderry again observes that “the subject matter of The Faerie Queene is itself the most powerful factor in creating the impression of archaism” (159). Indeed, there are clear longings in the text for the virtue, morality, and innocence of medieval England:

O goodly usage of those antique times,

In which the sword was servant unto right;

When not for malice and contentious crimes,

But all for praise, and proofe of manly might,

The martiall brood accustomed to fight:

Then honor was the meed of victorie,

And yet the vanquished had no despight;

Let later age that noble use envie,

Vile rancour to avoid, and cruell surquedrie. (3.1.13)

The knighthood idealized here appears as a nebulous reference to medieval chivalry. Its context is crucial, however, because by its placement Spenser seems to praise English characters for following this ancient code, this “goodly usage.” The characters involved in the narrative surrounding this stanza are thoroughly British. One is “the famous Briton Prince” (3.1) Guyon; the other “Even the famous Britomart it was, / Whom straunge adventure did from Britaine fet” (3.8). Guyon and Britomart have just jousted and then made peace at the point that Spenser inserts this stanza, which praises the act of jousting with a friend. He is suggesting that these most English of English icons can realize the ideal past (the honor of comradeship despite combat) in the present.1

As the new laureate of England, Spenser would be imitated in many ways. One of the most interesting of these imitations comes not until the Romantic era. Alpers asserts, “Except for Milton, no English poets felt Spenser’s influence more deeply or pervasively than the Romantics” (263). Kucich goes so far as to say, “the Romantics loved [Spenser] in an exceptional way and to an extreme that is unique in literary history” (1). With poems like Byron’s Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage and Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” Romantics approached medieval subjects in the tradition of Spenser. A lecture published in 1818 provides an expression of the more general sentiment with which many Romantics, especially Keats, read Spenser:

Spenser’s poetry is all fairy-land . . . We wander in another world, among ideal beings. The poet takes and lays us in the lap of lovelier nature, by the sound of softer streams, among greener hills and fairer valleys. He paints nature, not as we find it, but as we expected to find it. (Alpers 266)

If this is any indication of the view of Romantic poets towards The Faerie Queeene, it is not hard to imagine how Spenser provided fertile ground for Romantics to frolic on. His medieval nostalgia and ethereal romance was interpreted as Romantic. Of course, this was probably not the most significant result of the fact that Spenser makes himself England’s Virgil. It is merely with the attitude of assigning particular significance to Spenser’s feat of becoming England’s first laureate that I suggest how his approach to the past opened itself up to being idealized by the Romantics.

In conceiving of a national literary identity, Spenser operated out of a humanist mindset. He bravely took up the task of “subdu[ing] with use” the “rough words” (Helgerson 25) that were the English language, even though his excellent classical training might have caused him to let go of Latin with regret. He became Virgil for a country to which the idea of a Vergil would look silly until he proved its worth. With a masterful stroke in The Faerie Queene 3.3, he called England Rome, Elizabeth Caesar Augustus, and himself Virgil. In addition to contributing to the identity of the nation by giving it the weight and grandness of Rome, he participated brilliantly in the Cult of Elizabeth and set himself up as the first poet laureate. This accomplishment put him with all his eccentricities at a spot within the English canon that would later prompt the continuation of imitation—the Romantics would interpret his poem to recreate it in their own terms two centuries later.


Joseph Muller is a recent graduate of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he majored in English literature and minored in Latin and piano performance. He will be spending ten months in Poland at the University of Silesia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant before returning to the United States to pursue doctoral work in medieval literature in English and Latin. 


1  By extension, Elizabeth I (in Britomart) is alone able to embody the ideals which have been largely lost on the rest of the Elizabethan generation.

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