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The Faerie Queen Book II (Temperance) ¦ Edmund Spenser (1590)

Updated: Oct 30, 2022



When raging passion with fierce tyrannie

Robs reason of her due regalitie

And makes it seuant to her basest part:

The strong it weakens with infirmitie,

And with bold furie armes the weakest hart;

The strong through pleasure soonest falles, the weake through smart


But temperance (said he) with golden squire

Betwixt them both can measure out a meane,

Neither to melt in pleasures whot desire,

Nor fry in hartlesse grief and dolefull teene.

Thrise happie man, who fares them both atweene:

But sith this wretched woman ouercome

Of anguish, rather than of crime hath beene,

Reserue her cause to her eternall doome,

And in the meane vouchsafe her honorable toombe.


Spenser's second book in the Faerie Queen is a more straightforward morality tale than the that of the Redcross Knight and Lady Una in book 1. Here we follow Guyon, Knight of Temperance, on his way, with his faithful Palmer, to defeat a wicked enchantress named Acrasie in her Bower of Bliss.


The central plot of the story is less interesting to me than that of the first book. What makes the Knight of the Redcross a compelling character is his emotional journey. He begins the story with psychological scars from old battles; and then is captured, beaten down, tricked and humiliated, and loses his faith in God and life in pursuit of his quest. Through Una, he finds his way back to his faith and with that he can slay the dragon and marry Una. While Guyon does have a quest of his own, and while the story ends with his completing it, he is already developed as a character from the outset. Though he has small temptations and weaknesses, he is already the temperate knight at the start of the story, and so there is little in the way of psychological complexity ore development. Instead of conveying the moral of temperance through Guyon's development, the moral is shown by contrasting the already virtuous knight with other knights who lack it.


Another reason for the less satisfying story in this book is that it doesn't feel as complete as the others. Spenser is starting to introduce themes and characters that will recur later on, and while this did happen in book 1, he was careful to make sure that all had their part to play in the narrative. This poem does this less effectively, for example, with the introduction of one of its greatest characters, Belphoebe, but only for a single canto.


Still, despite her brief appearance, it is Belphoebe whose presence dominate this book of the poem. Spenser has already shown his ability to admire female beauty (inner and outer), in works like the Epithalamion, his ode to his second wife. Belphoebe gets a similar treatment here, with a full 12 stanzas dedicated to her beauty of her body and spirit.


Eft through the thicke they heard one rudely rush;

With noyse whereof he from his loftie steed

Downe fell to ground, and crept into a bush,

To hide his coward head from dying dreed.

But Trompart stoutly stayd to taken heed,

Of what might hap. Efstoone there stepped forth

A goodly Ladie clad in hunters wee,

That seemd to be a woman of great worth,

And by her stately portance, born of heauenly birth.


Belphobe's only scene is with two of the (many) loutish knights that dominate this book. Upon seeing a woman (gasp!), dressed in ivy, not to mention armed and alone in the dangerous woods, they attempt to persuade her that "The wood is fit for beasts, the court is fit for thee". I wonder if they recognise the irony of that line.


In any case, she claps back with the following speech, which reveals Spenser's ambigious feelings towards courtly life, which I noted in my discussion of his Prothalamion.


Who so in pompe of proud esrate (quoth she)

Does swim, and bathes himself in courtly bluis,

Does waste his dayes in darke obscuritiee,

And in obliuion euer buried is:

Where ease abounds, ty's eath to do amis;

But who his limbs with labours, and his mind

Beahaues with cares, cannot so easie mis.

Abroad in armes, at home in studious kind

Who seeks with painfull toile, shall honor soonest find.


Belphoebe sees through the self-importance and vanity of courtly life. She understands that it is nothing when compared to the power and importance of nature. And she seems to see the forest as a place of action and therefore moral, intellectual and physical development, while civilisation is a bedrock for indolence and obscurity. So, it is no surprise that, when the men turn their persuasion towards the romantic, culminating in a rape attempt, she beats them back with her javelin and vanishes for the rest of this book.


Outside of Belphoebe's appearance, I think this is one of the weaker books in the Faerie Queene. Guyon is a less interesting Knight, and the moral lessons are more apparent and constructed in a simpler way than in the first book. Still, the culmination of the book, as he travels through the Bower of Bliss towards Acrasie and confronts hundreds of visions of various kinds of temptation, reminds me a little of Dante. That said, because Guyon is already complete in his virtue, there is no real tension in these scenes, since there's no reason to think he won't always be able to resist them.

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