Was Edmund Spenser a great poet or just overrated?

I tried to read Spenser’s poetry, especially The Faerie Queene, but I found it filled with deliberately archaic language, which sounded to me like a bad impersonation of Chaucer.

The poem also doesn’t seem to go anywhere, but is heavy on description which itself doesn’t impress me. The whole thing seems nice if you are the Faerie Queene herself (the Tudor queen it was written about), but seems to have aged badly, which I consider a sign of it not being truly great. Shakespeare, (or even Marlowe) on the other hand, was writing just a few years later, yet nobody questions the lasting value of his work.

Am I missing something? Please instruct me.

It has been literally decades since I touched Spenser, so others may have a better handle on this.

  1. Spenser was deliberately archaic in his word use, something like a modern writer deliberately choosing to write in Victorian prose.

  2. It’s explicitly an allegory, in the literal meaning of the word. (The Pilgrim’s Progress is another explicit allegory.) The characters’ names either are, or broadly hint at, philosophical and moral concepts. It takes absolute skill to pull this off in anything short of yawn-making, catastrophically bathetic prose – especially at the length of the Faerie Queene.

  3. C.S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love is a study of this sort of poem, focusing in large part on the FQ itself. It’s his masterpiece as a critic of serious literature, and definitely worth consulting.

Hope that’s some help.

What Polycarp said.

Spenser’s archaisms never bothered me and I’ve read The Faerie Queene more than once with great enjoyment. (Back when I had the large chunks of uninterrupted free time that are in my opinion essential for such a project.) While this is a dubious metric for judging Spenser’s greatness at least technically The Faerie Queene is an extraordinary achievement.

The book is something of a tour de force in that it manages to sustain a consistent diction through inordinate length in a new metre. In this it follows other great romaces like {i]Orlando Furioso*.

Back to a more personal level: I like Spenser’s use of language and allegory a lot. The political and religious views that he expressed by these means may be an entirely different matter.

I would recommend that you acquire a good scholarly edition of the book for obvious reasons. The one edited by A. C. Hamilton has a very good reputation and I found it very useful. (On checking availability on Amazon I find that a second, improved edition is out. Curse my empty purse.)
The Allegory of Love is possibly my favorite book by Lewis.

And it never hurts to suck up to the reigning monarch.