And The Occult Philosophy John Dee And The Faerie Queene

Of the Elizabethan poets, the one who has been placed within a recognisable thought movement is Edmund Spenser, usually described as a Neoplatonist. This label, as formerly used, left out the Hermetic—Cabalist core which modern scholarship has revealed within Renaissance Neoplatonism, as formulated by Ficino and Pico. Notwithstanding the immense literature on Spenser, his Neoplatonism has not yet been tackled on modern lines, though much has recently been brought to light of which the older Spenser criticism never dreamed. Alastair Fowler has argued for intricate numerological patterns in The Faerie Queene, and for an astral or planetary pattern in its themes.1 Angus Fletcher has drawn attention to the Hermetic—Egyptian setting of Britomart's vision in the Temple of Isis.2 Thus there are movements stirring towards new solutions of Spenser's philosophy, if one can use that word of his outlook.

In this chapter, I make the attempt to place Spenser's thought within the history of the occult philosophy, as outlined in this book. I want to suggest that Spenser inherited much more than Neoplatonism as formulated by Ficino and Pico. He inherited the movement towards reform in later Christian Cabalists, like Reuchlin, Giorgi, Agrippa. He inherited the intensified Cabalist— Neoplatonism, or Cabalist—Neopythagorism, with its emphasis on number, of which John Dee was a leading representative. He inherited the thought of a 'more powerful philosophy', leading to a world-wide reforming movement, with Queen Elizabeth I in the leading role in which Dee saw her.

To a very serious Puritan like Edmund Spenser, the reforming side of the occult philosophy would have been likely to make a strong appeal. It will be argued in this chapter that a major influence on Spenser was the De harmonia mundi by the Christian Cabalist and Platonist, Francesco Giorgi.

In an earlier chapter in this book, the thought arose that Giorgi's philosophy might have been welcome to Tudor reformers because of the stand taken by the Friar of Venice on the subject of the divorce of Henry VIII. I cannot pursue that thought further here, beyond merely reminding of it, and reminding further that Giorgi's work was in the library of John Dee, and that we have had reason to think that it was a strong influence on the thought of Dee himself. Giorgi's work was particularly attractive to poets. His style has an intense lyrical and poetic quality. The French poets of the period had found Giorgi a most congenial philosopher; his influence would naturally extend to their contemporaries, the Elizabethan poets.

The first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590 but the poem had been begun more than ten years earlier, as we know from letters exchanged between Spenser and Gabriel Harvey, printed in 1580.3 At that time, Spenser was in contact with John Dee's pupils, Philip Sidney and Edward Dyer, both of whom are mentioned in the Spenser—Harvey letters. He was thus in touch with the leading poets of the Dee circle and could have become aware in this way of Giorgi's work. Seeking for a contemporary philosophy on which to base his panegyric of the queen and her imperial reform, Spenser might well have been drawn to the work on world harmony by the Friar of Venice. The French translation of 15 78 can hardly have influenced the conception of Spenser's poem, by then probably well begun, moreover, Spenser and his friends were adverse to Anjou and to the French match with which the French translation may have been connected. Yet the French translation is likely to have increased contemporary awareness of Giorgi's work.

The Spenserian Hymnes4 have always been taken as the clearest statement of the poet's Neoplatonism. The Hymnes were first published in 1596, that is six years after the first instalment of The Faerie Queene and in the same year as the second instalment. Spenser may have intended the Hymnes as an explanation of, or apology for, the philosophy behind The Faerie Queene. The Hymnes abound in references to Plato and to Platonic philosophy; their cult of heavenly love and beauty is Platonic in conception. Yet their basic structure is that of an Hermetic ascent and descent through the spheres of the universe.

In the Hymne of Heavenly Beauty, the poet rises through the three worlds; the elemental world; the celestial world, that round 'sown with glittering stars' wherewith God has encompassed this All; the intellectual world where the Platonic ideas merge with the angelic hierarchies. In the Hymne of Heavenly Love, he descends through the three worlds, beginning at the top where the Trinity reigns over a host of angels bright. The Hymnes culminate in outpourings of Christian devotion, in a rendering of the Gospel story in poetic language.

Just so does Giorgi's De harmonia mundi rise at the end — after his elaborate account of the three worlds — to an intense

Christianity,5 suffused in lyrical and erotic devotionalism, influenced by Giorgi's familiarity with Cabalist mystical texts. To my mind, it is in Spenser's lyrical evangelicalism in the Hymnes that the influence of Giorgi is most apparent, the influence of a Franciscan Cabalist.

The recent developments in Spenserian scholarship which I have mentioned — the work of Alastair Fowler and of Angus Fletcher — have concentrated on eliciting numerological patterns in The Faerie Queene and on emphasising Spenser's use of the temple as a basic image. Both these preoccupations, the numero-logical and the templar, which are at bottom the same, are found in the highest degree of elaboration in the work of Giorgi. We have seen how the prefaces to the French translation by the La Boderie brothers stress the numerological and architectural imagery in Giorgi's work. His book, they say, presents the plan or model from which the Architect of the Universe worked. It is like the Temple of Solomon, the meaning of which is understood by those who know how to 'Pythagorise and Philosophise by Mathematics'.6

Spenser's description of the House of Alma (Faerie Queene, Book II, ix, 22) is an allegory of the human body and soul presented in architectural terms. The plan of the House of Alma is described as follows:

The frame thereof seemed partly circulare, And part triangulare, O worke divine; Those two the first and last proportions are, The one imperfect, mortall, foeminine: Th'other immortall, perfect, masculine, And twixt them both a quadrate was the base Proportioned equally by seven and nine: All which compacted made a goodly diapase.

The actual figure which Spenser is here describing is difficult to determine, but the general meaning would appear to refer to the three worlds. The cube, or quadrate, is the elemental world of the four elements; the seven is the celestial world of the seven planets; the nine is the supercelestial world of the nine angelic hierarchies, which form into the triangle of the Trinity. All three worlds are present in man as well as in the universe. Hence the geometry and architecture of the House of Alma would be an expression in architectural terms of the little world of man. The geometry of the house as a whole formed a 'goodly diapase' or octave. The stanza is fundamental for Spenser on the universal harmony, and for his understanding of its allegorical expression in architecture. Fowler has wrestled with this stanza, using Giorgi in his attempts to interpret it.7 Those who understand how to philosophise and Pythagorise by mathematics should be able to see the proportions of the Temple of Solomon rising behind it.

By a remarkable effort of the imagination, Spenser had absorbed the framework, the groundwork, of the type of thought which in the Italian Renaissance was productive of great creative works of art and architecture, the world in which Francesco Giorgi had lived. He expresses these ideas creatively through his poetry. It is his grasp of the basic ideas, his understanding of the numerology of universal harmony, of the perfect templar proportions of the great world of the universe and the little world of man, which gives that Renaissance quality of harmony to Spenser's poetry.

Let us now turn to the astral, or planetary, themes, which Fowler has tried to discover in The Faerie Queene. He thinks that the seven books of the poem refer in some way to the seven planets.8 We have to remember that Spenser intended the poem to have twelve books9 of which only six and part of a seventh were published. Caution must therefore be exercised in any attempt to interpret a work which was not fully executed as planned. Nevertheless I agree that Fowler is right in principle in seeking for planetary themes though I do not agree with his detailed interpretation. He tries to make the order of the planetary themes in the poem correspond to the order of the planetary week — Sun-day, Moon-day, Mars-day, and so on. The planetary-week order works for some of the books of the poem but not for all of them. Many years ago I drew up — for my own private edification, though I sometimes discussed it with students — a plan of what appeared to me to be the order of the planetary themes in The Faerie Queene. This, of course may also be wrong, but before bringing out my own ideas on the subject a general question must be raised.

The books of the poem are said by Spenser to be about certain, rather curiously chosen, virtues. Spenser's poem is profoundly ethical, as well as profoundly religious, and, in a way, profoundly Christian. Through what philosophy could the seven planets, with their associations with astrology, so opposite in its fatalistic determinism to the moral free-will which the poem teaches, have been so important for Spenser that he used them as basic themes in the moral and religious scheme of his ethnical poem? The answer is to be found in the planetary-angelic-Sephirotic schemes of Francesco Giorgi, though these were not original to him.10 We have been through this system before, but it needs to be repeated again here in relation to Spenser.

In the highest supercelestial or intellectual world, Giorgi puts the Sephiroth, or emanations of Cabala, the Platonic ideas, the Christian angelic hierarchies. All are as it were fused in that highest world, and they pour down their influences through the middle world of the stars — and by the stars Giorgi means the seven planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac. These stars give different characteristics to the influences but they are none of them in themselves bad. Saturn and Mars are not bad or unfortunate, as in astrology. All the influences of the stars are good as they pour down from the divine creator, though they have different virtues. It is only the bad reception of the

Ramon Lull Trees Jew Gentile Christian

1 Gentile, Jew, Moslem and Christian under the Trees of the Lullian Art. Illustration to Ramon Lull, Liber de gentili et tribus sapientibus (written 1274 in Arabic), in Lull, Opera omnia, Mainz, 1721-42

ip- DP- V V. R » O MIRIFICO debunt ovines terrant m populi,quod nemeT#-trarrammaton voc at h entjbper tc, Qui qui-dem aceruui orationb ex i?t¡t tribut yidcli-ret}HonienTetra?raînntaton Voca turn, ft nut I eolteftw^mnino iuxta Calxïlttm I lebr¿omm fer sr/j/ii fr.jucitti rft* mtcHt^itur, rt ft -ultima rcfjtmdeat primi^niblt a hud h.ec pro-phetia cQtineat,quam f¡ audieril voce nVY1» hoc efl quando Tetragranimdton fut audible, »(ir/?) rjfibiU', tunc tiomtn Tetragrammatort yoc.tUint S(hin>erit fiifrer te,handfictii atq{(iilitcn't, Si nonirn ¡nefj.tbtlc Tetragram vtaton op or teat fer i ejjdbilt) ntceffario 'vccabi tur per confínate m qu* appellatur S<hin> yt fiat <}"' eritfopra te^aput tuit

W dommtis turn. i\entdiflut fît Dett* C7* pa • ter demini noSbi (YYJ^ft^ tí>sul¡ Chriítif qui dcfttper nishUiit nobtt cognitionem y cri tiottlinii vnigenitiplu fui faliMtotit noffriy yetfimndií Grecos fanatorit noílri. Hoc enint tío m en A mtdendo (y finando dtriuant Gr.e-eorum ¡tutores. I Xtprxorum ■vm* "rammatici tt faltt.uulo, tí iikm cjf Ü'stdi pu-

tcntqtiod pthfitor, A tqui fMuator commune norntn (JÏ, T^VJy'W1 ïfrtuh autem maxime propriH, ita quod ntdli altcri nifi filio IV< in-earnato omteniat.Yant hoc varietat l¡t erar it, exquiùtti diého confiât, quail à fcculo non eft audits

2 The Tetragrammaton and the Name of Jesus. Page from Johannes

Reuchlin, De verbo mirifico (1494), edition of Lyons, 1552

C A NT ICI 5ECVNDI.

tfeo<idiJti,*ur rrrjpiditari otviail ,S<\I turn ptoduilacjuilihtrconiinf/ aritur in CI« ill« hominr/tii liHoiiti producmtis.S! o|)riaiun,quf Cunt in Aidiftyp a coatiiunf iiiGmllo i)cu:Dequibdioi urubu* (lararcUi g Jtn m 111 It ulitrius ptcgftdiumur,^ pt.iifnsrxigu oputQuoy ri^lonHpn'iKipâlij nommiDd, Kijiu' irnjuou usui lin'piuia fjtn «¡munf/ialKx: nomine lift Iciucwûiiini.X'tumbribinnn.Hoc uomen qiiadtiliwum rfl ct|f bftiimiu«<4i L îï| iKrt ti film S, quod Uciai/ liimr njn'oiecsprimi potrilfd qiwmlj kgitut, pcontuuùiur Adonu", HLiiuïlutjiiKHiimisduJtlùrri pripiif » vjatqi | cCxinnir* in tiomlnt Duo uriii n min inio mylitrio inmiiur in ® iOialMl.itcrrtioffi liirojo/ d.i^fumttiujopiffï !)msfpiri(u3liiiom[ii( pi«)ii»itfx(ijLLHiiiiuuim iigiiifirati in priori V.Oirpcttlb iKTo prr utitutf (ign.itini in poflnfciri rT i t rutiioruiiù ptrucibum hiitnaii:iiiiiii,qu<id rtomio.vuf ItuiA dHai fiiirAn'nuies.aur ptopiiiuirj ipfcfignat* |hi ilh JiM fl ittcturklnf in «>. Ntdquh !ffii) dltd!,ÎC inillus ift noMs r in j ir.tf J'!>)t, « duftor id ucii quiiirqtir ill uirj .vtrrna,iiuol'j,-(ui id ipfi quitinfe, idn> in locodlc^c i!uok n ngnifioinriû rotrôsKipiKKÎpuifl nomin»Util poniiui w tft piinripium I'Qf'&bjtjii ipfum figciifint,{juoJ fnrrtpttittui Mqniti. r.ciiLjuotKijii.iiiMiitjrltriiiimportJiiLkif inuibusliiirishuiui m>ii ™J I liii ViNiin * diuinitaxffrt iîgniiîau.ut eft nottllimii spud ipfos duels/ goilarl>oremuitf,S! » Kijiik'nildrntiMiutip q. WumolV ritl-Jnuoi) uiiiitiram u [ ri<"p u il J ,Si (ifidt brAtifuis in reqtiJr i!Uftcm>.l:)itaiij(Kxp tliud imtnen (jmdrjliirs: alio mjftrrio fei nomine Ir(ù, ¡xr niim YJ niunt rorum adiunilo jKHttnw m»Iti»,«qti4 fuHHuim ooijx't'i traxit! Nim (jjiiii T InfTf illuisnominiscfdJuiH in minirro.t&K nûmf ru3ttii,()Utd rlt 0!?? mirii di(tyj;Qul liutomii inrvitui tii illij.ii.colli(ui(.ji<,tjui «iimnutnirti dim 1i|<T,ïiwiiiinlsW*.!ii ¡juodmoui nominitu ipfum x pin c Did, miirrtj: Eiumittî pro«ÎIi(!f. IV hartrandan utatn fivtno ramin iondudimus coiiciufum in Itfu illud ((ifiticuin nomfti 'WfiiUi: OJÎu» li«i*inimniftDdant.ji4:Ciiiii(inif(ofiadJitu[ biuliim^iilf"! (wraturim fign ifi« r U u it. j. s.qui tft mini tt u* hftrsra i ii tmnfaa W in iiupo diïliiiui,tîjtj c quo Unit uitcui illiuitioniiniiT? fa<JaJy qu« temper tmifW fiift io hummi s;cnn isi Vtidr in Pfalmo-jmqui U' pJ4J ¿tujtftîd «m'ndoj illos bditfs.dl'cit liop(icia:!n uHu .S'nJu'm^ili;/: Pfù t|UO noi hi h riiiut : ! ci prùitcli'wir l)tl c, 11 i foni i iioribùiir, Cum rgif OitMlujtegnoffïrti ipKut noniaib uiiiutr in ftio fuifïciontlufitn Ap^' Cflf-fljlijmjfttriiiiii lilii JU'( diiitiulo Aoniiormm dptiofi'i riicii«,(t t(/ SlVi ttrjijiif ¡il l'itur.filliju hpiiinomint Iffulioc n.imru «(.juoJOoiin lîgnrlùuti« ''Ai quod idfoi (ft ai fuo pluiiili OT^V^u/silÎijuiiDbM,

3 The Tetragrammaton and the Name of Jesus. Page from Francesco Giorgi, De Harmonia mundi, Venice, 1525

Harmonia Mundi Francesco Giorgi

4 Numerological relationships between the Three Worlds. Diagram illustrating discourse by Nicolas Le Fèvre de la Boderie in Francesco Giorgi L'Harmonie du monde (French translation by Guy Le Fèvre de la Boderie of De harmonia mundi), Paris, 1578

Occult Philosophy Durer

5 Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, engraving, 1514

Melencolia 1514 Albrecht Durer

6 Albrecht Dürer, St Jerome, engraving, 1514

Witch Painting

7 Lucas Cranach, The Melancholy Witch, painting, 1528

Francesco Giorgi

8 Francesco Giorgi, De harmonia mundi, Venice, 1525. Title-page, with note by the censor that the work abounds in arguments of Platonists and Cabalists and is therefore to be read with caution

John Dee Spells

9 Francesco Giorgi, De harmonia mundi, Venice, 1525. Page showing deletions by the censor

Monas Hieroglyphica

10 John Dee, Monas hieroglyphica, 1564, title-page

Dee General And Rare Memorials

11 John Dee, General and rare memorials, 1577, title-page

John Dee Letter

12 Dee and his Enemies. Title-page of Dee's Letter addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, 1604 (written earlier)

John Dee Conjuring Spirit

13 Faustus conjuring a Devil. Title-page of Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, edition of 1620

Melancholy Matthias Gerung

14 Matthias Gerung, Melancolia, painting, 1558

15 William Shakespeare, memorial bust, Stratford-on-Avon

Inspired Scholar

16 Rembrandt, The Inspired Scholar, etching, c. 1651-3

influence by the evil will of the recipient which turns their intrinsically good influences into vices.

This system does not do away with free-will. It is against the determinism of judicial astrology, as was Pico della Mirandola. When well-received by the will of the recipient, the planetary influence is a virtue; when badly received it is a vice. Thus the opposites of the seven planetary virtues are the seven deadly sins. This system is traceable in Dante's Divine Comedy, where the spheres of Hell are the spheres of Heaven in reverse. Spenser's poem is also a divine comedy, a universal presentation of conflict between good and evil in a cosmic setting. The Spenserian knights, representing virtues, have to fight the bad opposite sides of their temperaments, the seven deadly sins.

As we have seen, Giorgi sets out a list of the planets in their association with angels and other entities,11 and in what follows I shall compare Giorgi's list with the astral themes of the books of The Faerie Queene. I shall quote these in what I think is Spenser's order, suggesting that Giorgi's list is illuminating for the interpretation of Spenser's meaning.

The first book of The Faerie Queene is about the Red Cross Knight who represents Holiness and is accompanied by the lady, Una. It is a solar book (as Fowler agrees), full of solar imagery.

For Giorgi, the Sun represents the Christian religion, also the theological virtue of Charity.12 It will be remembered that the episode of the House of Charity occurs in Spenser's first book which would thus be presenting, in its solar astral theme, a religion of love and charity. Red Cross and his companion Una, or the Monas, would thus be Christianity struggling to illuminate a dark world, dominated by its evil opposite. The angelic hierarchy to which Sol corresponds in Giorgi's scheme is that of the Powers.

Spenser's Book II is on Sir Guyon, or Temperance. It seems obviously a Mars book. Mars is frequently named; fire imagery is constant; and a kind of wrath or sternness prevails.

In Giorgi's list, Mars corresponds to the angelic hierarchy of the Virtues; the Friar expounds connections between the cleansing power of fire and that of virtue.13 Spenser's placing of Mars-Virtues after Sol-Powers is thus consistent with a visionary scheme in which a righteous wrath must find a place, and knights must fight in defence of the Solar religion.

Book III is on the female knight, Britomart, representing Chastity. Spenser himself states that its subject is the same as that of Raleigh's poems to Cynthia, that is to Diana, the Moon. It is a Luna book on Chastity. In Giorgi, Luna corresponds to the hierarchy of Angels, and to Malkuth, or the Kingdom, among the Sephiroth of Cabala.14

Book IV, on Cambel and Triamond, or Friendship, describes fighting opposites, and is dominated by the image of fighting opposites reconciled, the Caduceus. It must surely be the Mercury book. Giorgi puts Mercury with the hierarchy of the Archangels; he says that Mercury and the Archangels propose divine numbers to us for contemplation.15

The fifth book, dedicated to Saturn and Justice, to Astraea and the Golden Age, is quite obviously the Saturn book. Saturn, as defined by Giorgi,16 is the 'revalued' Saturn of the Renaissance, promoted from his unhappy medieval position to being the star of profound scholars and highest intellectual insight. Whilst emphasising the deep studies of the Saturnian, Giorgi stresses still more the importance of Saturnian leadership in religion. The Saturnian religion, says Giorgi, is the form of religion from which all others derive. The people who have received the fullest inspiration from Saturn are the Hebrews. Giorgi equates the Law revealed to Moses, when he ascended to Binah, one of the highest of the Sephiroth, with the Justice of Saturn. The angelic hierarchy to which Saturn corresponds is the Thrones.

Book VI, with its courtly hero, Sir Calidore, or Courtesy, and its vision of Venus and the Graces, is the Venus book. In this book, Spenser gives to the complex religious and ethical themes of his poem the colour of courtly Neoplatonism, as does Giorgi when discussing Venus. Giorgi on Venus17 combines three trains of thought. He sees first of all the planet Venus, star of love, whose gifts of grace and beauty, when rightly received and not turned by evil will to lust, are so attractive. Then comes the Neoplatonic Venus, representing the beauty of Him through whom all things are beautiful, with many references to Plato, particularly Phaedrus and Symposium. And finally there is the angelic Venus, for Venus is at her best when the angelic hierarchy of the Principalities favours her. Then indeed Venus shines forth, full of grace and charm, courteous and gentle. Such Venereans are agreeable to both God and man.

Spenser's unfinished seventh book would presumably have been the missing Jupiter book. The full twelve which were planned must surely have had reference to the twelve signs of the zodiac which shine in the sphere of fixed stars, to which corresponds, in Giorgi's list, the angelic hierarchy of the Cherubim.18

But how are we to reconcile this astral interpretation with the fact that Spenser himself states in the letter to Raleigh printed with the first instalment of The Faerie Queene that he intended the twelve books to portray the twelve private and moral virtues, as defined by Aristotle, and that if these books were well received he might go on to write twelve more on Aristotelian political virtues? These Aristotelian virtues have always given trouble to the critics; Holiness and Courtesy are not Aristotelian virtues; it is not easy to see how this Aristotelian scheme was to be fitted in to the scheme of the poem.

The operative word is 'twelve'. Spenser is thinking numero-logically. As Giorgi recounts, following numerological tradition, twelve can include with the signs of the zodiac many other dozens, such as the Twelve Tribes of Israel,19 and the Twelve Apostles.20 Why not twelve Aristotelian virtues?21

Moreover, the appearance of Aristotelian virtues within Spenser's Neoplatonic and numerological schemes is consistent with Giorgi's exposition, in the De harmonia mundi of his manner of reconciling the philosophy of Aristotle with that of Plato.

In a chapter on how the Peripatetics accord with other philosophies on essential things, and on those two Princes of Philosophy, Plato and Aristotle,22 Giorgi explains that both Plato and Aristotle teach a way to God, but that Aristotle starts at the bottom of the ladder with the elements, whereas both Plato and the Pythagoreans begin with number which gives them an advantage. This is a greatly over-simplified statement of the argument which, however, brings out the point that Giorgi thinks of Aristotle's philosophy as a kind of Hermetic ascent, rising from the sphere of earth through the spheres of the other three elements, thence up through the spheres of the planets to the highest divine realms. This Hermetic interpretation of Aristotle is greatly assisted by the fact that Giorgi believes that the Pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata, a work which he knows and cites, is actually by Aristotle.23 As we have seen, the Pseudo-Aristotle of the Problemata was the source for Agrippa's theory of inspired melancholy, as set forth in his De occulta philosophia.

It certainly helps the conflation of Aristotle with the Giorgi type of astral Neoplatonism if one believes that Aristotle taught that Saturnian melancholics are inspired by Platonic furor. And in speaking of heroic virtue, Giorgi notes that Aristotle has said that through the exercise of virtue man can rise to union with the intelligences.24 This may also be a reference to the Pseudo-Aristotle, and it indicates how Spenser's 'Aristotelian virtues' could allude to much that is hardly to be found in the genuine Aristotle.25

Yet there was a sense in which genuine Aristotelian teaching on virtue could be worked into the universal harmony. Aristotle in his Ethics defines justice in terms of proportion, an idea which suggests proportion as an ethical quality. As John Dee noted in his Preface to Euclid of 15 70: 'Aristotle in his Ethikes . . . was fayne to fly to the perfection and power of numbers for proportions arithmeticall and geometricall.'26 Thus the Aristotelian virtues could be worked into numerological schemes. To the student of Giorgi, accustomed to find Aristotle always included with the Neoplatonists as fundamentally in accord with them, Spenser's inclusion of Aristotelian virtues in an astrally based scheme of universal harmony, comes almost as a final proof that Spenser's source was the De harmonia mundi.

The question of the influence of Giorgi on Spenser is complicated by the fact that Spenser is adapting the thinking and outlook of the Friar of Venice to his panegyric of Queen Elizabeth I and her imperial reform, the main concern of The Faerie Queene.27 Spenser tells Raleigh that the whole poem was planned in honour of the queen. The dedications of the individual books refer to the queen as the supreme example of the virtue which they celebrate. And the astral themes, the astral plan of the poem, are dedicated to the same object.

The suggestion that I would make is that the planetary themes of the poem should be seen as arranged, not in the fixed order of the planetary week (as Fowler has argued) but in an order deliberately selected to express the idea and purpose of the poem, the presentation of an ideal portrait of a religious and moral leader, of Queen Elizabeth I and her imperial reform. That portrait has a variegated planetary and angelic colouring. Lighted by a Sun of Christian religion and Christian Charity (Book I), it includes red glints of Martial firmness (Book II). The white Chastity of the Moon (Book III) expresses the purity of the Virgin Queen's reform. Mercury (Book IV) includes all colours and can reconcile opposites with spiritual alchemy. The Justice of Saturn (Book V) represents the wise rule of Astraea. And with Venus (Book VI) this complex movement, or religion, or personality, takes on the colouring of a courtly cult, a court ruled over by the messianic figure whom the poem as a whole celebrates.

The work of Francesco Giorgi will not alone account for the inspiration of The Faerie Queene; I have been making enormous omissions. Though Giorgi has chapters on the Just Empire of the Prince, and on the rule of champions (or knights),28 he naturally has nothing about the sacred British-Imperial descent of the Tudors and its associations with Arthurian chivalry, so important an element in Spenser's poem. The Giorgi influence must somehow have merged with an Arthurian-British element to form a kind of 'British Israel' mystique. Such a linkage would be quite possible in the highly charged atmosphere of sacred destiny, of religious mission, with which Elizabethan Englishmen maintained their morale in their dangerously isolated position. And it seems obvious that the circle whence such ideas could have emanated can only have been the circle of John Dee.

Dee was a Christian Cabalist and a British imperialist. Though in the Preface to Euclid he cites Agrippa rather than Giorgi on the three worlds, yet Giorgi's schemes are the same in principle as those of Agrippa, though less overtly magical. The emphasis on number, the architectural imagery, and Vitruvianism, all this could have come to Spenser from the Dee circle, together with British-Arthurian legend and Cabala. Giorgi's De harmonia mundi, though in itself an important guide to Spenser, is perhaps most important because it leads back to Dee, or to the Dee circle, as the great formative influence on Spenser.

Eleven years before the publication of The Faerie Queene, Spenser had published his Shepherd's Calendar (15 79), a poem which already contains elements of the epic - the cult of the queen, the Puritan outlook. And it is based on a twelve, the twelve months, illustrated with twelve cuts of the signs of the zodiac. The commentator on the poem, the mysterious 'E.K.', discusses the question of in what month the world was created and refers to the opinion of 'the best Rabbins'. The poem is in fact truly a calendar with a learned background. It is surely significant that, at about the same time that Spenser was writing his Shepherd's Calendar, John Dee was exercising his mathematical, astronomical, and astrological knowledge on the project of the reform of the calendar.29 It seems probable that Spenser was in contact with Dee or members of his circle when composing his Shepherd's Calendar, absorbing the fund of scientific knowledge which he was to use in The Faerie Queene, and evolving its astral and numerological allegories.

Seen as a whole, the argument which I am putting forward is that Spenser's philosophy was based on the Neoplatonic Christian Cabala of Giorgi and Agrippa, but that this had been modified by passage through the influences of the Tudor Reformation. Basically, it was a reflex of the philosophy of John Dee who had expanded these influences in new scientific and politico-religious directions. Dee was the true philosopher of the Elizabethan age, and Spenser, as its epic poet, reflected that philosophy.

It has been said of Spenser's epic that it expresses a 'prophetic moment', after the Armada victory, when the queen appeared almost as the symbol of a new religion, transcending both Catholic and Protestant in some far-reaching revelation, and transmitting a universal Messianic message. It would seem from the present investigations, fragmentary and incomplete though they are, that an influence of Christian Cabala underlies the profound seriousness of the courtly Puritanism which was Spenser's religion, and which he infused into his vision of the religious role of Elizabethan England. The identification of this influence on Spenser will help to link Elizabethan thought with later movements, such as the 'Rosicrucian' philosophy of Robert Fludd, or the Cabalist influence on Milton and the Puritans.

A word must be said of that other Hermetic—Cabalist missionary, Giordano Bruno, in relation to Spenser. In an extraordinary way, the missions of Dee and of Bruno overlap, or run parallel to one another. Dee leaves for the continent just before Bruno arrives in England in 1583. Whilst in England (when Dee was abroad) Bruno preaches a Hermetic—Cabalist philosophy which has some reference to a Messianic role for Elizabeth.30 Dee and Bruno both visited Prague,31 whence Bruno went to Rome to his death, and Dee eventually returned to disgrace in England.

Bruno, like Dee, is very strongly influenced by Agrippa (much less so, if at all, by Giorgi). He preaches an 'Egyptian' Hermetic reform in which Cabalist magic, almost entirely derived from Agrippa's De occulta philosophia32 has a place. The comparison of Dee and Bruno and their respective influences has not yet been seriously undertaken, though there would certainly be much to learn from such a comparison which would also be important for assessing the possibility of an influence of Bruno on Spenser. I mention only one point which may be relevant.

In his Spaccio delle bestia trionfante, Bruno outlines a vast moral reform in which the good sides of stellar influences predominate over the bad sides.33 Virtues associated with the constellations mount to heaven and rule, whilst the bad opposite vices descend and are extinguished. Thus a universal celestial reform is effected, associated politically with England and France and opposed to Spain. One wonders whether this scheme may have influenced Spenser's presentation of reform in terms of victory of good planetary influences over bad in his epic of reformed chivalry. There are, however, notable differences between the Brunian and the Spenserian outlook, though there would have been much in Bruno's 'Egyptianism' to interest Spenser.

Dee, Bruno, and Spenser, in their widely differing ways, all represent those European stirrings of protest against the reactionary suppression of the Renaissance.

As I said in the previous chapter, it is most important when thinking of Dee to keep constantly in mind his three periods. Particularly is this true when thinking of Spenser in relation to Dee.

The Faerie Queene was conceived and partly written during Dee's first period, when he was such an important centre of influence, favoured by the queen and Leicester, imparting scientific and mathematical knowledge to Elizabethan navigators and scientists, pursuing his historical studies and connecting these with hopes for 'British Empire' linked to Arthurian legend, presiding over his wonderful library frequented by all the cognoscenti of the day. Those were the days when Spenser began to think about The Faerie Queene and began to write the poem.

Spenser was continuing to write it during Dee's absence on his continental mission. How much did Dee's friends in England know about his activities abroad between 1583 and 1589, the date of his return? So far as I know, this question has never been asked. There was one person who would have known all about it, namely Sidney's friend Edward Dyer who took some undefined but important part in Dee's activities abroad during those years. Rumours of Dee's missionary activities abroad, if they reached influential circles at home, might well have aroused those fears of foreign complications which shadowed the Elizabethan aspirations and caused the queen and her advisers to draw back from commitments which might involve them in dangerous confrontations with powerful enemies. The recall of Leicester in 1586 was just such a nervous drawing back from involvement. And when Dee arrived home in 1589 from his foreign exploits, coldness and withdrawal awaited him.

It is very important to remember that The Faerie Queene, conceived and written during Dee's successful and expansive periods, was actually published, the first part of it, in 1590, one year after Dee's return to England, when his third period of semi-banishment and fall from favour had begun. The members of the 'Sidney circle', much diminished by the deaths of Leicester and of Sidney himself, were no longer there to hail the arrival of Spenser's epic. The poem entered a harder world and one cautiously and doubtfully disposed towards the enthusiasms of former years. The encouragement of Spenser had been taken up by Walter Raleigh, with whom the poet was in contact in Ireland and who is mentioned as a close friend and adviser in the prefatory matter to The Faerie Queene. And it was Raleigh who introduced Spenser at court in 1592. But no rewards or favours were forthcoming for the author of the great epic of the Elizabethan age. Spenser went back to his semi-banishment in Ireland, returning to London in 1599, but only to die in poverty and neglect.

Moreover, misfortune also overtook the friend at court who had encouraged Spenser and his poem. Walter Raleigh lost the royal favour and was banished from court in 1592, ostensibly on account of his marriage.

I believe that much in the chilly reception of The Faerie Queene can be explained if it is realised that the poem expressed Dee's vision for Elizabethan England, an expansionist vision which had become too dangerously provocative by the time it was published. After Dee's activities abroad, he received no reward on his return home, and was never adequately rewarded for his outstanding contribution to the greatness of Elizabethan England. Semi-banishment, ill-success and poverty were to be his fate in his third period. No wonder that a similar fate befell the author of The Faerie Queene.

I try in this book as far as possible to avoid detailed linking to historical situations, concentrating on the thought evolving in those situations. The above brief and inadequate sketch seemed necessary to place Spenser and his poem within the Elizabethan situation, but I now return to the wider, and necessarily vaguer, effort to place them within the history of European thought, and of the partial breakdown of the Renaissance under the pressures of the later sixteenth century.

The hopes of some vast all-embracing reform through Hermetic-Cabalist influence and particularly through the influence of Christian Cabala, belonged to the earlier sixteenth century, though they were never forgotten nor completely discarded amid the disappointments of the later sixteenth century.

We have seen that one of the dangers was the reaction against Renaissance magic, the obsessive fear of dangerous spiritual forces, which swept over Europe, one of the manifestations of which was the witch craze. We saw that the cry of 'conjuror' was strongly raised against Dee, and operated strongly against him, in spite of his protestations as to the purity and whiteness of his magic.

The Faerie Queene is a great magical Renaissance poem, infused with the whitest of white magic, Christian Cabalist and Neopla-tonic, haunted by a good magician and scientist, Merlin (a name sometimes used of Dee), and profoundly opposed to bad magicians and necromancers and bad religion. The Spenserian magic should be read not only as poetic metaphor (though it is that) but also in relation to contemporary states of mind in which such attitudes could become polarised in terms of the religious differences. In fact, they are so polarised in Spenser. The white magic of the pure imperial reform is opposed to the bad necromancy of its enemies. Thus, even for Spenser, the cries of 'conjuror' raised against Dee would not have been without danger. As a great magical Renaissance poem The Faerie Queene came rather late in time and ran into the period of the witch crazes.

The label, in terms of European trends, which seems to me most applicable to The Faerie Queene is 'Rosicrucian', the movement representing the late form of Renaissance Magia and Cabala, of which Dee had been an exponent and which he had been preaching on the continent whilst Spenser was writing his poem. It is not for nothing that the poem opens with Red Cross and Una (the monas). German Rosicrucian writers of the early seventeenth century were aware of deep-rooted connections with Dee's monas,34 and some echoes of Spenser's chivalric formulation can be detected in that literature.35

In studying Spenser's poem, and the reactions to it, we are thus dealing with major European currents of religious thought and aspiration.

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Responses

  • Duncan Dickson
    Who is john dee in the faerie queene?
    5 years ago

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