The Prince of Rays: Spectacular Invisibility in Spenser's The Faerie Queene 

Lisa Dickson
University of North British Columbia

Dickson, Lisa. "The Prince of Rays: Spectacular Invisibility in Spenser's The Faerie Queene ". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 1.1-31 <URL:>.

  1. Let us begin with Pliny, who says:
    The most learned authorities state that the eyes are connected with the brain by a vein; for my own part I am inclined to believe that they are also thus connected with the stomach: it is unquestionable that a man never has an eye knocked out without vomiting.
                                       (qtd. in Wade 101)
    Pliny's yoking of effects to erroneous causes provides us with a starting point, and suggests evocatively the connection between sight and upheaval which is the topic of this discussion.  Kepler takes up the question, theorizing the mechanisms by which optical information passes between the world and the judgment, and for him, the physical processes of perception are deeply imbued with social concern. He likens perception to a court of law where "the faculty of vision, like a magistrate sent by the soul, goes out from the council chamber of the brain to meet the image in the optic nerves and retina, as it were descending to a lower court" (qtd. in Wade 28).  In these two examples, we see mapped out the constellation of concerns that shapes my investigation of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, where in the faculty of vision we encounter strong lines of interacting force: embodiment, spectacle, and power in its judicial, social, monarchical and poetic forms.   Taken together, these terms comprise what I will call, for brevity's sake, "moral optics," which itself has implications for a model of penetrative, monological spectacle through which sovereign power and subjectivity are articulated. In Spenser's allegory, the model of penetrative spectacle is troubled by an unruly embodiment--represented interestingly by allegory itself--that opens monological power to the subversive effects of polysemy. The text effects a critique of empiricism, raising the threat of instability and moving to contain it, however contingently, within literary convention and a privileging of narrative voice and poetic mastery over monarchical spectacle.

  2. From its earliest days, the study of optics has engaged with the question of power.  For instance, the competing models of intromission (in which external rays enter the eye) and extramission (in which rays leave the eye to encounter the world) carry with them implications of passivity and activity respectively. But in the Christian context which is our particular interest, this debate takes on a distinctly moral consideration, such that the regularity and predictability of the geometry and mathematics of optics themselves are construed in medieval and Early Modern theory as proof of God's grace and its dissemination throughout the perceptible world.  Thus, as Nicolaus Cusanus argues in his Idiota (1450), the recta linea, or the straight line, is an expression of God's goodness, and units of measurement are an articulation of God's infinite knowledge (Edgerton 37).  In his Opus majus (ca. 1266), Roger Bacon suggests an optics of sin and salvation, for "[s]ince the infusion of grace is very clearly illustrated through the multiplication of light," it is clear that light should be accepted in the righteous and rejected in the sinner, "[f]or in the perfectly good the infusion of grace is compared to the light incident directly and perpendicularly, since they do not reflect from them grace nor do they refract it from the straight course which extends along the road of perfection in life.... But sinners, who are in mortal sin, reflect and repel from them the grace of God" (qtd. in Edgerton 75).  For Renaissance theorists of optics such as Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, linear perspective and the principles by which it was governed were, as Edgerton asserts, "to symbolize a harmonious relationship between mathematical tidiness and nothing less than God's will. The picture, as constructed according to the laws of perspective, was to set an example for moral order and human perfection" (24).

  3. Following the implications of this model into the political sphere, Alberti metaphorically links the goodness of God, the perfection of mathematics and the power of the monarch in his treatise on linear perspective, De pictura (1511), where he gives special attention to the perpendicular ray: "One thing should not go unsaid: this ray alone is supported in their midst, like a united assembly, by all the others [that is, the oblique rays], so that it must rightly be called the leader and the prince of rays" (qtd. in Edgerton 85). For Alberti, then, istoria, or history painting, was less about the realism we might commonly associate with linear perspective, and more about encoding "classical ideals and geometric harmony" where human figures are depicted "according to a code of decorous gestures" that represented "a higher order of virtu, onore, and nobilita" (Edgerton 31). Edgerton illustrates these classed and moral economies in a most concrete way with reference to Gianozzo Manetti's (1455) description of Pope Nicholas V's plans to connect Castle Saint Angelo to St. Peters: in the reconstructed model, the straight, wide Borgo Leonino "was to be reserved for the rich, while angular side streets were to be used by the lower classes" (87). Thus, the rigidly constrained optical space of linear perspective added to the concepts of right seeing and divine grace a discourse of right position as construed as a model of relative power.  Linear perspective encodes the central, mathematically correct viewpoint as axiomatic insofar as it is this gaze that literally organizes space and makes relative position meaningful. And while, theoretically, anyone can occupy this privileged position, this organizing power is explicitly identified as sovereign.

  4. Spenser takes up this model in his allegory, not only by positioning Queen Elizabeth (as patron and addressee) in this singular vantage-point from which the visual domain makes sense, but by identifying her sovereign presence as that which literally makes sense as the necessary precondition of the poet's work and being. In the much-quoted first proem, he calls her, "Great Lady of the Greatest Isle, whose light / Like Phoebus lampe throughout the world doth shine" (1.proem.4.2-3); she is the source of light that shines everywhere, expanding in an imperial sense to panoptically envelope the entire world. The poet entreats her to "Shed thy faire beams into my feeble eyne, / And raise my thoughts too humble and too vile" (1.proem.4.4-5). The supplicant does not look on the sovereign so much as he is penetrated by her light, which enters him and reconfigures his "humble thoughts" to higher aims, to give the poet the capacity to "thinke of that glorious type of thine, / The argument of mine afflicted stile" (1.proem.4.6-7). The "type" for which Elizabeth is anti-type is, of course, Gloriana, but in the context of this penetrating, elevating light, which engenders within the poet the allegorical Faerie Queene, we can read this language of typology in terms of the sovereign's power reproduce herself within the subject, in this case, the poet; the poet does not create or even reflect her glory except insofar as she has the power to remake him with her sovereign presence.  Spenser's language describing the relationship between sovereign and poet is analogous to Roger Bacon's theory of species, or the rays that carry optical data between world and mind. Bacon's model attempts to reconcile the competing theories of intromission and extramission in terms of an exercise of relative power: "Either from human eyes or from God himself, species travel in straight lines, acting on similar species coming from all other objects, the more active body (agens) influencing the more passive (patiens)" (Edgerton 76). In Spenser's encomium, then, the poet is the passive species giving way to Elizabeth's more active, subjecting power.  This dynamic is neatly illustrated by the famous "Rainbow Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth I with its caption, Non Sine Sole Iris, or "no rainbow without the sun."  In the portrait, Elizabeth, who is ostensibly the object of our gaze, is literally clothed in icons of surveillance; her dress is embroidered with eyes and ears.  In looking at her we find ourselves observed, and the queen as object is displaced into an iconographic narrative of power that challenges our mastery of her image and, by force of the aphoristic Latin tag, asserts that in fact it is she who has been the condition of our seeing all along.[1] As Clark Hulse argues in another context, Elizabeth is "that figure within the artistic vision who can gaze back, controlling the gaze of all who regard her and fixing them in their places. As the true maker, she implicitly rebukes the artist who flatters himself that he can make anything" (72).

  5. But this penetrative gaze is itself not sufficient to stabilize the scopic relation, for in the world of The Faerie Queene, subjectivity is as often as not dialogical rather than purely a function of sovereign penetrative power.  Consider the way, for example, Dante's Il Convivio posits an exchange of gazes along the axis visualis: "the nerve along which the visual spirit travels runs straight [from the brain] to that part [of the pupil which receives light at a perpendicular angle], and, therefore, in truth one eye cannot look at another without being seen by it, because as the eye which beholds receives the form in the pupil along a straight line, so also, its own form goes along by that same line into the eye which it beholds" (qtd. in Edgerton 86). As the prince of rays is mathematically correct, direct and pure, to look someone straight in the eye and to exchange information along the axis visualis is to engage in a communication of truth. "Look me in the eye and say that," we say today as we demand proof of a speaker's veracity.

  6. In Faerie Land, identity is likewise grounded in such an exchange. Consider Timias who, once withdrawn from all social contact after being rebuffed by Belphoebe, so loses the signs of his cultured human identity that Arthur, his own lord and the text's living embodiment of Grace, does not recognize him. The poem is replete with characters whose identity is largely or exclusively constructed in dialogic relation to another such that, in the absence of a returning gaze, their humanity itself comes into question. Consider Malbecco, banished by his jealousy to the verge of the sea where he becomes a goat, or even Marinell, whose excessive misogyny severs him from productive participation in the social economy of posterity and leads to his almost-fatal wounding. These examples suggest an alternative model of subjectification at work in the text, one that challenges sovereign monologia with a subversive, and yet constitutive, return of the gaze. The returning gaze is posited in the text as necessary, and as necessarily problematic, first, because of its objectifying power, and second because it is associated with the insecurity and limited perceptions of the physical world through which the ideal and idealizing power of sovereignty is articulated.

  7. The penetrative and refashioning power of the monarch, therefore, is one that carefully negotiates both visibility and invisibility; it is spectacular and compelling and at the same time must solicit the returning gaze while being carefully shielded, physically, epistemologically and narratively, from the objectifying power of that gaze.  A return is warranted here to the analogy of linear perspective where we can take up the example of Brunelleschi's peephole and mirror (1415). In this famous experiment, Brunelleschi positioned a peephole in such a way that, looking through it, the observer could see a particular view of the Santo Giovanni di Firenze baptistery.  Then, he placed a mirror between the baptistery and the peephole so that the mirror reflected a painting on the back of the peephole plank.  The painting was executed according to the principles of linear perspective and exactly duplicated the observer's view of the baptistery, thereby demonstrating how mathematical principles could be applied to render a three-dimensional object in two-dimensional space.   For our purposes the significance of this experiment is two-fold:  first, it proves that linear perspective encodes a strictly delimited point of view which organizes the representational space and, second, that this point-of-view necessarily stands outside the representational space as its defining condition.  The space, in other words, is objectified. Giancarlo Maiorino describes the application of mathematical logic to the subjective experience of observing as a kind of triumph of the artistic Ego, and in terms that approximate those of the discourse of transformative penetrative spectacle:
    Once this process [of marrying science and art] leads to representing life in terms of a reality which has been stabilized by the artistic self, then the Ego creates a distance between itself and reality.  This distance constitutes a filter which allows the artist to exceed the limits of imitation in favour of a conscious and intellectual reconstruction of the world. (481) 
    Thus, both Elizabeth, The Faerie Queene's patron and enabling gaze, and Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself, are outside the worlds over which they rule, and this abstraction is key to their sovereignty over it. The figure from whom the knightly quests derive, Gloriana never appears within the text, and is thereby never subject to the potential objectification inherent in the axis visualis.  Rather, her knights and the world of Faerie Land are objectified by her defining yet invisible gaze.  The metaphysical relation of sovereign gaze to the space it both enables and makes intelligible can be seen in a 12th-century Byzantine-Sicilian church at Monreal, where a mosaic depicts God sitting in a mystical golden region outside of the blue, finite, enclosed space of the created universe (Edgerton 159). 

  8. Elizabeth and Gloriana, however, have the advantage of being largely metatextual presences, motivators of the action rather than participants in it.  As it is centrally concerned with the embodiment of virtue in a fallen world (a subject to which I will return below), The Faerie Queene addresses the relationship between sovereign power and moral optics in the realm of human interaction, where this negotiation of visibility and invisibility is marked by risk and nuance and is sometimes successful and often less so.  It will be useful to look at the more successful negotiations, those of Arthur and Mercilla, before discussing the ways in which the dynamic is challenged.

  9. A representative of transcendent power in the text, Arthur, too, enacts this absent presence, even though he physically occupies the world of the poem.  His diamond shield, not made of "earthly mettals" (, partakes of the sovereign power to refashion through blinding effulgence. Kept carefully under wraps until it is needed to vanquish sin, the shield "Ne might of mortall eye be euer seene" (, for when Arthur exposes the sinner to the shield's supernatural brightness, "He would them gazing blind, or turne to other hew" (  "Men into stones therewith he could transmew, / And stones to dust, and dust to nought at all" ( Like the light of Elizabeth, Arthur's shield remakes those who are penetrated by its glory, while, like Gloriana, it cannot itself be gazed upon. In all three cases, the problem of the returning gaze is circumvented through a spectacular invisibility, an absent presence which organizes the moral landscape of the text but is not itself visible within it.

  10. Mercilla's self-display in her court offers a less straightforward, more delicate manipulation of exposure.  We are told that Arthur and Artegall "were guyded by degree / Vnto the presence of that gratious Queene: / Who sate on high, that she might all men see, / And might of all men royally be seene" (  At first glance, this last line appears problematic in the context of the model of powerful invisibility I've been constructing, for Mercilla's panoptic gaze is potentially undercut by a potentially promiscuous exposure to the gazes of "all men" and therefore to a disempowering objectification.  If sovereign mastery of the gaze is to be maintained, this returning gaze must be controlled; however, given Mercilla's function as judge, this gaze cannot simply be eradicated, insofar as truth is associated with the exchange of gazes along the axis visualis.  This careful balancing act plays out on several levels in the text.  First of all, the narrative in these lines, which asserts the importance of "degree," also gives priority to Mercilla's gaze while the returning gaze comes second in the verse as a response to her own act of self-disclosure.  Secondly, compared to "the bright sunne" (, Mercilla would be invisible or blinding to the naked eye except that she "Bate[d] somewhat of that Maiestie and awe" ( as an act of regal condescension "When she saw / Those two strange knights such homage to her make" (  This modulation of the blinding spectacle of monarchy happens in the context of an acknowledgement of the proper positioning of all players in the hierarchical structure.  The knights, after all, only come to the queen's presence by passing under the watchful gaze of Awe and with the help of Order "who commaunding peace, / Them guyded through the throng" ( 

  11. In his discussion of the Humanistic basis of Alberti's social philosophy of linear perspective, Giancarlo Maiorino articulates the ordering power of scientific abstraction and could be describing this scene when he states:  "Since nature exists before and after any human life, the writer organizes a geometric space before any figure enters it….  The world must be ordered before man enters life.  This leads the artist to provide the virtuous man with a pre-established set of values" (482).  In the cases of Spenser's allegory, which takes the attentive reader through a progressively developed program for the acquisition of interdependent virtues, and of Mercilla's court, with its guiding figures of Awe and Order, we can see an analogous construction of a world organized by concepts which make intelligible the human figure placed within it.  Arthur and Artegall are able to function in this world--that is, to see the "bated" Presence of good judgment and governance--because she has allowed it and because they submit to an ordering system of ideals of which she is the enabling condition and over which she rules.

  12. It is this carefully scripted self-disclosure that is key to Mercilla's ability to perform her role as judge, for in the highly ritualized ceremony of Early Modern penalty, justice must not only be enacted, but must be seen to be enacted.  The criminal is never simply eradicated, but that erasure must be demonstrated as spectacle.  Thus, Mercilla sits in regal state with a Lyon at her feet
    … that mote appall
    An hardie courage, like captiued thrall,
    With a strong yron chaine and coller bound,
    That once he could not moue, nor quich at all;
    Yet did he murmure with rebellions sound
    The Lyon is, of course, restive England held in check by royal power.  The narrator makes clear, though, that this vanquished beast is still characterized by "hardie courage" and "rebellions sound," and is visible to all who come to see the queen in state.  The threat is not simply eradicated, but demonstrably so in an act of visible exclusion.  Furthermore, the necessary co-presence of the crime and its containment is poetically emphasized:  the "saluage choler" ( of the beast is homonymically balanced with the "coller" by which the beast is bound. 

  13. In a similar way, Malfont with his seditious tongue nailed to a post (5.9.25) demonstrates the monarch's power to literally overwrite the identity of her subjects.  We are told that the traitor's sin is painted on a sign "In cyphers strange, that few could rightly read" and that his original name, "BON FONS," "[w]as raced out, and Mal was now put in. / So now Malfont  was plainly to be red" (  The poet's name has been crossed out, rather than erased, for otherwise how would we know that it originally read "BON FONS?"  Even if it is erased on the sign, it must be marked narratively so that the queen's act of re-vision is made visible.  The traitor's exclusion is secondary to the act of power over representation that Mercilla's revision effects; the "racing out" is the point, the site of Mercilla's power.  Furthermore, the description of the traitor's sin is written in obscure text "that few could rightly read" but Mercilla's emendation is "plainely to be red," demonstrating her control, not only of content, but of the medium of communication and by extension of her self-presentation.  Whereas visibility carries with it the threat of objectification and disempowerment, the examples of Mercilla's acts of visible exclusion and spectacular regulation yoke visibility--like the choleric Lyon with his collar--to her own power of representation.

  14. This scene of state begs comparison, of course, with its demonic double, that is, Lucifera's court in the Castle of Pride in Book One, where, like Arthur and Artegall, Redcrosse and Duessa pass through the throng to the Presence of the resident queen.  Lucifera's grand court is described in terms that anticipate Mercilla's, while marking a crucial distinction between them.  Like Mercilla's, Lucifera's Presence engenders awe, for when Redcrosse and Duessa first enter her court, her "glorious vew / Their frayle amazed senses did confound" (  The state of amazement has important implications in the text, to which I will return below. At this juncture, though, it is important to note the invocation of penetrative spectacle which appears to remake the observing subject.  However, this effulgence is a superficial effect, not of majesty, but of a "pompous pride" that outstrips even that observed in the exoticized and presumably morally dissolute "Persia selfe" (, and which is a function of "sumptuous shew" ( quite at odds with Mercilla's condescending and gracious "bating" of an innately royal brightness. 

  15. But the real case is not made only in the narrative assertions that Lucifera's spectacle is a parody of truly powerful visibility, but in its effects as they play out in the throng of observers and the exchange of gazes between them and the passing knights.  When Arthur and Artegall are guided by Order to Mercilla's court, their effect on the throng is quelling; the language describing them reveals their righteous propinquity to the seat of power. We are told that the throng "ceast their clamors vpon them to gaze" (, suggesting perhaps that the two virtuous knights are open to disempowering objectification.  However, their armor, "bright as day / Straunge there to see" ( terrifies the crowd into silence.  While Arthur and Artegall are here objects of the gaze, their presence is a penetrative spectacle, amazing the onlookers whose speculative power is deflected by the knights' shining armor which itself reflects the regal power they enforce as martial heroes and, in Artegall's case, as an officer of the law.  While Redcrosse and Duessa are "amazed" and "confounded," Arthur and Artegall have this effect on those they pass.  Moreover, moving through the city with the guidance of Order, their own power is carefully represented as a fulfillment of right positioning. It is this proper capitulation to hierarchy that is key to their virtuous reflection of Mercilla's glory and, by extension, of the organizing power of virtue itself. 

  16. By contrast, Redcrosse and Duessa are queue-jumpers and are given special privilege to pass to the head of the line of supplicants and admirers "There waiting long, to win the wished sight / Of her, that was the Lady of that Pallace bright" (  Also contrary to the clear priority and active power of Arthur's and Artegall's presence, Redcrosse's and Duessa's passing among the "Infinite sorts of people" ( is marked by a telling grammatical ambiguity:  "By them they passe, all gazing on them round" (  Who is doing the gazing here?  Is Redcrosse gazing on all whom he passes, or are all whom he passes gazing on him?  As at many important junctures in the poem, the vague pronoun reference marks a moment when ostensible virtue collapses into its demonic opposite,[2] in this case through a loss of control of the gaze.  Redcrosse is rather puffed up with pride at the moment because passing through the throng reveals his special privilege, but at the same time this passage--and note there is no Order here--makes him the object of infinite gazes and culminates in his own "amazement" and confounded senses.  And this, then, is the way that moral optics articulates the condition of pride, as a kind of fold in the power structure where ostensibly masterful self-display doubles back perversely into self-deluded subjugation.[3]  While the faculties of the poet in the opening Proem are augmented and raised to new poetic heights by exposure to the sovereign presence, Redcrosse's judgment is undone and diminished.  In just a few verses, the wayward and morally confused Redcrosse will be reduced to fighting a son of Aveugle for the "honour" of being the Queen of Pride's thrall, and, blinded by his own pride, will be unable to see the irony in his situation. 

  17. While the two episodes are ostensibly poised as true and false instances of penetrative spectacle, however, and while Lucifera is clearly contextualized as a Lucifer/Phaeton figure usurping the spectacular power of proper monarchy, the language of her episode demonstrates how, in a fallen world where the senses are often confounded, this very medium of power's articulation is painfully and poignantly vulnerable.  The mirror into which Lucifera gazes is a case in point.  We are told that "in her hand she held a mirrhour bright, / Wherein her face she often vewed fayne" (  John N. King notes the fungibility of the image of the mirror:  "The bright mirror in her hand symbolizes the pride for which she is blamed. (In different contexts, the mirror may symbolize the opposite virtue of prudence.)" (118).  For Lauren Silberman, the mirror as it appears in Book Three is a representation of the text's epistemological crisis:  "Instead of presenting the reflection in human history of the divine will, Book III focuses on the partiality and the contingency of mirrors," concerning itself with "the limitations of human understanding" (13).  Such uncertainty with regard to the image destabilizes the encomiastic nature of the narrator's epithet for Queen Elizabeth that appears in the first Proem:  "Mirrour of grace and Maiestie divine" (1.1. Proem 4.2).  On one hand, Elizabeth is protected by absent presence:  she is the surface in which Grace and divine Majesty are reflected and are made visible, but she, herself, is elided except as a condition of that visibility.  In this way, she is Christlike, as Harold L. Weatherby notes in his discussion of Christ's incarnation:  "[B]y taking flesh Christ had made flesh a mirror in which to behold--physically, visibly--the glory of the Lord" (78-9).  On the other hand, however, the mirror is associated in Spenser's poem with the false majesty and faulty visibility of Lucifera, and with the limitations of human knowledge and the temptations of the flesh:  Britomart, for instance, is plunged into despair by her vision in the mirror, succumbing to a crippling fear of her own capacity for lust that can only be purged by Merlin's mystical, rationalizing gaze.[4]  The Faerie Queene is itself a mirror in which Elizabeth is asked to see her own reflection in the poem's eponymous monarch.  Given that the text's encomium is qualified on a number of occasions as Elizabeth's character is refracted in both positive and negative representations, the image of Elizabeth holding the allegory up in order to read it resonates with that of Lucifera gazing on her face in the mirror, and with Britomart's angst-ridden response to her mirror vision.  The reflection here between these sites of self-contemplation suggests that Elizabeth can be prideful and vain or she can be prudent, depending on how she perceives herself in the mirror Spenser provides for her, but the mirror itself, as metaphor, is unstable.

  18. In light of these contradictory semantics, Elizabeth as "mirror" represents a complex metaphorical slippage between the ideal and the idol.  An assertively iconoclastic text, The Faerie Queene must deal with the difficulty of constructing reverential images without collapsing into idolatry.  For King, the answer is to be found in the Neoplatonic eidolon, "as a true idea or 'image' in the mind rather than the kind of 'idol' that St. Paul attacked as a demonic object (1 Cr 10:19-20)" (111).  Thus, one might argue that, in making her physical being the object of her love, Lucifera is trapped in demonic idolatry while, in reading the allegory, Elizabeth is gazing at Gloriana--an eidolon--who pervades the text but is invisible within it.  Maiorino's reading of Albertian philosophy provides an interesting corollary here.  Linear perspective posits an escape from the physical world, using that world as the starting point of a trajectory that aims at the transcendent potential of human perfection: "Therefore, nature must be arranged and then visualized in a space of geometric perfection, in which human features become stable patterns" (482).  This trajectory follows the laws of visual perspective and culminates in the vanishing point.  Maiorino continues: 
    [T]he vanishing point provides only the illusion of physical limitation; in point of fact, it represents an intellectual abstraction that organizes a total reality, as narrow or extended as the artist wants it to be.  It could thus be added that it helps the artist shatter the physical limitations of the frame.  The vanishing point can organize a continuous and homogeneous space which, through that point, symbolically leads to infinity. (484)
    For Alberti, the social correlative of the vanishing point is virtu, which, as that which orders individual action and its relationship to progressively broader contexts of social obligation "can potentially be extended toward infinity" (Maiorino 484).  The Faerie Queene recapitulates this model, as each book addresses a broader social context than the one before, beginning with the individual's relationship to his own soul and expanding to end (provisionally, in the unfinished Mutabilitie Cantos) with an articulation of cosmic hierarchy and order.  In their capacity to order the physical world and to align it toward transcendent potential, linear perspective and virtu, like the concept of the eidolon, refer to "things" in such a way that ultimately transcends them.

  19. However, while the concept of the eidolon offers a solution to the conundrum of idolatry/iconoclasm which Spenser takes up in the absent presence of Elizabeth and Gloriana, and Arthur provides a model of virtu whose transcendent quality is intimated by his shield's transforming effulgence, at the same time these strategies sidestep the central concern in Spenser's text, which is the enactment and demonstration of ideal virtue in the physical world.  The abstract Albertian world "avoids the imperfections and weaknesses which accompany educational processes" (Maiorino 483), but only at considerable expense:  "[T]he fact remains that the strict application to forms in space of exact mathematical perspective, as developed in the fifteenth century, tends to drain figures of  their emotional content, to stifle those hidden impulses which bring them to life.  So that from a certain point of view, 'existence becomes unthinkable'" (André Chastel as qtd. in Maiorino 483).  Unlike Alberti, Spenser is not fully committed to avoiding "the imperfections and weaknesses which accompany educational processes."  On the contrary, and as the failures of the Redcrosse knight clearly attest, it is these very processes he aims to explore.  For all its emphasis on the ideal, the text cannot escape its fascination with the physical world that is the place where the ideal, both literally and figuratively, comes to matter.  The mirror as metaphor, therefore, is powerful because it is doubly inflected, poised, like the language of spectacle, like allegory itself, at the seam between the ideal and the carnal, the transcendent and the fallen.

  20. The consequences of this necessarily risky engagement between the ideal and the physical are epistemological and social. Allegory, as Spenser has constructed it, traces the epistemological interdependence of the earthly and the divine.  For Roger Bacon, the correspondence between these realms is indicated by the analogical relation of the divine light of Grace, or lux, to physical lumen as that relation is demonstrated by the mathematical purity of optics. Thus, he concludes optimistically: "if these matters relating to geometry, which are contained in the Scripture, should be placed before our eyes in their physical forms" then "the evil of the world would be destroyed in a deluge of grace" (qtd. in Edgerton 17-18).  However, the poignancy of the allegory's conceptual structure derives from this very dependence upon the limited perceptions of fallen beings through which ideals are expressed. As Alexander Nowell notes in his Catechism (1549, 1570), even the purest of desires and deeds deriving from the spirit of God must run through the muck of the flesh, where "they receive corruption, as it were by infection, like as a river otherwise pure and clear is troubled and mudded with mire and slime, wherethrough it runneth" (qtd. in Gless 37). Thus, Guyon's temptation in Mammon's cave strengthens and illustrates his powerful abstinence, but leaves his body starved and exhausted and therefore vulnerable to predation by Pyrochles.  Redcrosse's lust for virtue is inextricably bound to his pride, rash action and erotic weakness.  Even Arthur's ostensibly transcendent dream-vision of Gloriana reflects disturbingly Redcrosse's sordid visitation by the False Una. 

  21. At doomsday when we are liberated from our flesh, St. Paul says, we will see clearly, but until that day, we see "through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). In The Faerie Queene, the very embodiment that enables the knights to exercise an active virtue simultaneously limits their ability to see correctly, to identify truth, and very often it is art itself that becomes the metaphor for this poignant paradox.  The complex relationship here between truth and its appearance, between reality and realism, and between the ideal and the embodied can be illustrated by James J. Gibson's distinction between the "visual world" and the "visual field."  The "visual world" is that which we experience as we move through space encountering objects in their three-dimensional form wherein our vision is supplemented by other senses, primarily touch, which intimates to us the nature of objects in themselves, their invariant size and shape.  The "visual field" is that which we experience from a single vantage point, "the distortion of shape and size and distance in the aspect of the seen objects according to the viewer's eyepoint."  The visual field is organized by systems of relative position between objects in space, one of these systems being linear perspective:  "Thus, the ordinary dinner plate is recognized as quite circular in the visual world, but as being an ellipse in the visual field" (Edgerton 10-11).  Neither visual world nor visual field represents an ideal, for both are bound to the physical world.  However, they mark a distinction between understanding and perceiving, for, having synthesized a vast array of sensory data and experiences, we know that the dinner plate is round, regardless of how we perceive it visually.  The distinction between visual world and visual field is one that neatly illustrates the position of the knights moving through the moral landscape of Faerie Land, where they are limited to the visual field--trapped in the singularity of their own points of view--while attempting to come to an understanding of objects in themselves, to grasp a reality that exists beyond and independent of the limitations of a localized human perspective.  The model also qualifies the power ascribed to the sovereign gaze in linear perspective, since this organizing gaze is likewise limited to the visual field, and observes a world that looks real and true but only from a particular point of view.  Transcendence is always just out of reach, and in Spenser's Christian context, so should it be, since real truth can be seen, as St. Paul would tell us, only after death, when the human being encounters the Presence of Presence of which the earthly monarch is itself but a reflection in a dark glass.

  22. For Spenser, however, this lamentable limitation is also necessary to the processes of education and can be illustrated by an examination of the poet's use of "amazement."  For example, Redcrosse's knightly identity, bound in dialogic relation to the purity of his lady, Una, is undone in Archimago's hermitage when he is informed of her unfaithfulness: "Come see, where your false lady doth her honour staine. // All in amaze he suddenly vpstart.... / The eye of reason was with rage yblent" (1.2.4-5). "Amazement," as Thomas McAlindon usefully defines it, is "a state of mind which registers that sign and referent, name and identity, appearance and essence, have become wholly disjoined" (2).  In Spenser's language then, seeing is coincident with amazement; verification--"Come see"--is fatally bound with a loss of bearings and identity. And while amazement poignantly demonstrates the vulnerability of identity itself to the distortions of earthly perception, it is potentially regenerative and enlightening in its destabilization of understanding and the concomitant incorporation of new, world-changing experience.[5]  Redcrosse is undone because his own nobility is degraded by the thought of Una's fornication with a lowly squire, and he himself forfeits that knightly nobility when in his rage he abandons her, forcing her to wander Faerie Land without escort or protection. Both "right seeing" and "right positioning" are disrupted and will only be reconstituted when, in the House of Holiness, Redcrosse comes to understand his proper relation to Grace.  It is no wonder then that even the representative of truth and unity, Una, is beguiled by Archimago in redcrosse armor, for in the physical world, signs are notoriously unreliable. When "with fearfull humblesse towards him shee came" (, the ostensibly emblematic re-placement of lord and lady in their proper relation is illustratively ironic. 

  23. Epistemological crisis of this sort infects almost every aspect of a text which asserts that the human eye is not an adequate organ of truth or insight, that the empirical world is only imperfectly apprehended by the senses and, even more importantly, is not always the proper ground for right interpretation.  Signifiers and signifieds slip away from each other easily, or can be perverted, as the image of Archimago riding forth in redcrosse armor neatly illustrates.  The punishment Artegall prescribes for Sir Sanglier is equally pertinent and shows how deeply the spectacular language of justice may be compromised.  Having slain his own lady, Sir Sanglier is sentenced to carry the woman's severed head for one year "to tell abrode [his] shame" (  If he has any idea of resisting, Talus is there, at least at the outset, to enforce the sentence.  However, Talus is not there forever and, once carried beyond Artegall's and Talus's immediate enforcement, this sign of Sir Sanglier's guilt becomes open to interpretation.  He could throw the head away, or rewrite its significance when he tells his story.  Having received special training from Astrea, Artegall weighs the contradictory stories told by Sir Sanglier and the Squire and "by signes perceiuing plaine," is able to make an accurate judgment "That he [the Squire] it was not, which that Lady kild" (  Artegall sees "signs" but what these may be are not revealed for our edification, and those observers Sir Sanglier is likely to meet on his travels will not have been trained as Artegall has to read signs accurately.  As part of the spectacular language of justice, the sign of the severed head has the potential to become polysemous once beyond the physical coercion represented by Talus and the interpretive power represented by Artegall.  Thus, ideological control grounded in the visible is revealed in this episode to be deeply tenuous. 

  24. Polysemy and irony could themselves be allegorical figures in the text, and indeed appear in the guise of Duessa and False Florimell, whose beauty is attended by Ate, the embodiment of discord.  Figures like these two false maids represent a concentration of epistemological anxiety that is typical of the era, when women carry the weighty responsibility of guaranteeing hereditary purity (recall the numerous digressions into genealogy in the poem) and embody the difficulty of knowing the truth of that purity by outward signs.  Blushing, for example is simultaneously a sign of feminine modesty and of an awareness of sexual alluringness, for modest blushing is a "performance" of modesty that can point to either true virtue or a judicious schooling of appearances, becoming rather "a vehicle for self-display or a tactical advertisement of feminine charms and virtues in attempts to attract rather than rebuff a suitor" (McManus 171).  Thus, the modest woman is caught in a double-bind, trapped between visibility and invisibility, as Caroline McManus asserts:  "… the virtue is notoriously contextual and demands an audience if it is to be recognized as a virtue.  On the other hand, modesty must seem to be oblivious to such an audience if it is to be recognized as genuine" (150-1).  The very language through which modesty is articulated, then, makes such an articulation virtually impossible:  "The truly 'good' woman is inevitably implicated in this deferral of meaning and is thereby deprived of the means to prove herself virtuous, since the signs could be usurped so easily, as Hero's plight in Much Ado About Nothing demonstrates" (McManus 173). 

  25. Once again, a vague character reference in Spenser's poem provides a good example of the way the true purity is compromised by falsehood in such a way as to make any absolute determination difficult and the language of articulation suspect.  Consider the transition between Cantos two and three of Book One.  At the end of Canto two we see Redcrosse doting on a swooning Duessa.  Canto three opens with these lines:
    Nought is there under heau'ns wide hollownesse,
    That moues more deare compassion of mind,
    Then beautie brought t'vnworthy wretchednesse
    Through enuies snares or fortunes freaks vnkind
    Of course, it is Una, not Duessa, who is the subject of these lines, but the poet delays the identification of the lady, thereby creating ambiguity and leading the reader into a position analogous to that occupied by Redcrosse at the end of the preceding canto, that is, one in which we are confused about the proper object of our compassion.  The way that the juxtaposition delays the edifying contrast between Redcrosse's misplaced compassion and the narrator's solicitation of proper compassion for Una highlights the ease with which such mistakes can be made, the way that vicious and virtuous women can be mis-placed and misidentified unless there is some kind of special intervention.  In this case, that intervention comes from the narrator who strategically produces an edifying confusion through carefully controlled dissemination of information.  It is this intervention that will be a key strategy in the poem's resolution of its epistemological crisis.  A final example, an exploration of Serena's troubled sojourn among the Saluage Nation, will illustrate this strategy and bring this discussion to its conclusion.

  26. McManus's formulation of the catch-22 of feminine modesty reveals the vexed relationship between the visible and the invisible that is in many ways analogous to the visual economy of Spenser's allegory and its struggle to embody truth and virtue in a fallen world. The anxiety regarding the debasing and obfuscating role of the flesh in the scopic relation between the ideal and the earthly is pointedly demonstrated in Serena's encounter with the Saluage Nation. Encircling her as she sleeps, the cannibals submit "Those daintie parts, the dearlings of delight / Which mote not be prophan'd of common eyes," to a "loose lasciuious sight" ( that is both devouring and leveling:  the clan's "gurmandizing" scopic desire serves Serena up "[t]o make a common feast" ( Linked in this way to the plague (which, according to Thomas Dekker, makes a "mingle-mangle" of social rank [31]), to prostitution, the Leveling Giant of Book Five, and the Irish nation as a whole, the cannibal gaze is figured as "beyond the pale"; it confounds all degree, even that between self and other, eater and eaten.  Furthermore, the Saluage Nation "prophanes" Serena's feminine delicacy, seeing her as both a sacrifice to their god and a meal to their stomachs, and thus, the distinctions between the divine and the fleshly are conflated and undone. (Andrew Hadfield notes that, etymologically, "sacred" means both "preceding from God" and "accursed" [182]).  As in Redcrosse's experience, Serena's identity is threatened to the extent that her own lord, Calapine, does not recognize her even after he saves her from her captors: she is hidden in darkness "So that all night to him vnknowen she past" ( This instance begs comparison with Timias, who likewise goes unrecognized by his lord. Timias' loss of identity arises from the crippling lack of dialogic relation, hers from its powerful, disruptive excesses, revealing the painful conundrum of a subjectivity that depends upon the scopic relation, but which is made vulnerable to its distorting limitations in a fallen world of oblique gazes and eyes disabled by rage, pride and appetite.

  27. In response to this complex problem, Spenser offers two strategies, both of which seek to escape the paradox of the visual economy by denying or severely circumscribing vision itself.  The first we have already explored, that is, his deployment of a careful dynamic of absent presence in the figures of Elizabeth, Gloriana and Arthur's shield.  Penetrative spectacle and the related model of visible exclusion as exemplified by Mercilla's spectacular subduing of the Lyon and her revision of Bonfont's identity are part of a visible economy that locates true power beyond the physical world, or, in the case of worldly representatives of that power such as Mercilla and Arthur, in a carefully controlled scopic relation between the sovereign gaze and that of those it subjects.  The second strategy involves a shrewd deployment of narrative power that escapes the contradictions of the visible economy by positing a greater power found in narrative voice and poetic authority.

  28. Let us return a last time to Brunelleschi's peephole and mirror. Here we see the reassertion of the poetic agency ostensibly elided by penetrative spectacle presented in Spenser's opening encomium in the first Proem. The construction of "proper" perspective in Brunelleschi's experiment is predicated on the strict control of the viewer's "sovereign" gaze by the artist's own vision. Even as the monarch occupies the privileged position of "right seeing," she is placed by the representational economy of the painting in such a way that makes any deviation from that placement a movement beyond the pale, into visual--and by extension, moral--distortion; in this sense, the "sovereign" gaze can be seen to be itself predicated upon the artist's vision. A poetic equivalent of this artistic usurpation of power is apparent in Spenser's treatment of Archimago's disguise as Redcrosse and in Serena's modest concealment in darkness. Riding out in false armor, Archimago is described this way: "Full iolly knight he seemde, and well addrest, /.../ Saint George himself ye would have deemed him to be" (, my ital.). Una herself is unable to distinguish between a true and a false Redcrosse and neither are we, the narrator points out tellingly, if not for narrative intervention and the privileged access we are granted.  

  29. In the case of Serena, even her anatomization by the Salvage Nation can be recuperated by literary convention, for, in their literalizing way, the cannibals are engaged in fashioning a blazon, a poetic genre in which the female body is anatomized--or, more precisely, atomized--in poems dedicated to the description of a single body part abstracted from the whole. The blazon tradition is characterized by a sense of competition as poets demonstrate their sophistic skill.[6]  The cannibals sitting around Serena picking out choice morsels with their eyes are blazoneurs who reveal that the poetic gaze is dangerously subversive even as it is potentially recuperative, for as Nancy Vickers asserts, in the artistic dis-membering of the female body, the poet himself is re-membered because of his skill and artistry (7).  The Saluage Nation's literalizing undermines and is at the same time potentially contained by the conventions of poetry.  Flirting with bodily dissolution and materiality reinforces abstract notions of poetic artistry while acknowledging the refinement of poetic consumers who can recognize the ideal form of a literary genre in the lineaments of the text.  After all, the horrific scene of Serena's captivity is itself offered up to us in the form of a beautiful and edifying poem.

  30. The leveling and literalizing gaze that undoes her with shame is ultimately defeated by poetic power, represented as well by narrative elision.  Calapine's vision is both clear and strangely impaired.  While by "vncertaine glims of starry night" he is able to "perceiue a litle dawning sight / Of all" (, 3-4), he is unable by this same light to identify his naked lady. Modesty, naturalized as night that "did couer her disgrace" (, gives way to poetic elision: "But day, that doth discouer bad and good, / Ensewing, made her knowen to him at last: / The end whereof Ile keep vntil another cast" ( Nothing can stop the sun from rising and shamefully exposing Serena to Calapine's gaze, except the poet, who supercedes the inevitability of nature with the shaping, excluding and limiting power of narrative.  Thus, as Erwin Panofsky asserts in what could be a summation of Spenser's strategy here, "nature could be overcome by the artistic intellect, which--not so much by 'inventing' as by selecting and improving--can, and accordingly should, make visible a beauty never completely realized in actuality" (qtd. in Maiorino 482). The social codes of modesty are naturalized in this episode and the natural world is itself shown to be subject to the poet's own necessity, bringing us back to moral optics, specifically to linear perspective, which attests not only to God's power, but to that of the artist.  Maiorino states:  "Instead of mere scientific formulas at the service of art, the geometric and social rules which guide man's mastery of the world represent a symbolic articulation of the artist's creative powers" (482). 

  31. Embedded in the world, Spenser's characters are blinded in ways that we are not, and truth is not located in the events of the text at all, but outside it, in the metatextual space of authorial control.  Like the sovereign gaze, and superseding it in key ways, the absent presence of the narrator occupies a position analogous to God's Grace with his timely interventions into the world of limited perception. Unlike Una or Redcrosse, who wander winding paths and find themselves in the thrall of literal and figurative blindness, the reader is positioned at Brunelleschi's peep-hole, regarding the world in a mirror, both privileged and contained.


[1] For a discussion of the portrait, see my article, "'No Rainbow Without the Sun':  Visibility and Embodiment in 1 Henry VI."  Modern Language Studies 29.2 (Fall 2002): 137-156.

[2] See, for instance, the slippery pronoun reference when Archimago is tormenting Redcrosse with lusty dreams and alluring visions:

Having yrockt asleepe his irksome sprite,
That troublous dreame gan freshlie toss his braine,
With bowers, and beds, and Ladies deare delight,
But when he saw his labour all was vaine,
With that misformed sprite he back return againe. (

The vaine labour in the final lines refers not to Redcrosse, who is the subject of the earlier pronouns in the passage, but to Archimago; however, the vague pronoun reference blurs the distinction between the two so that, in the grammatical slippage, we might see that it is Redcrosse, too, whose labour (in this case, his struggle to be virtuous) is "vaine" and that it is his "misformed sprite" which is backsliding here as he gives in to his lust and pride.

[3]   There are any number of instances where the exchange of gazes produces such an ambiguous doubling back of virtue into ignorance and vice.  The penetration of Paridell's heart by Hellenore's "firie dart" ( which "Past through his eyes" ( is felt by him to be "Ne paine at all" ( but rather the normal course of lust misconstrued as love.  We should also consider in this vein Malacasta's unbridled passion and sumptuous self-display, which, like Lucifera's, expose the vice by which "So shamelesse beauty soone becomes a loathly sight" (, and which effects a lamentable transformation: "Such loue is hate, and such desire is shame" (  Malacasta's vision, again opposed to Mercilla's, is both loose and flawed.  Unlike Mercilla, who rewrites and defines the identities of her subjects, Malacasta misconstrues them, taking Britomart for a man, thereby indulging in a passion that is coded as both lascivious and a violation of proper place in the dominant heterosexual economy.  The complex exchange of glances in the Malacasta episode is worthy of its own lengthy discussion, but is regrettably beyond the scope of this paper.

[4] While it is Artegall whom Britomart sees in the mirror, the event, and the feelings it elicits are experienced by her as a "crime" ( that reflects her own threatened capacity for idolatrous love.  Her "wicked fortune" is to "feed on shadowes" (, 3).  Like "Cephisus foolish child, / Who having vewed in a fountaine shere  / His face, was with the loue thereof beguild" (3.2.446-8), Britomart construes her encounter with Artegall in the mirror as a Narcissistic moment, where the vision of the other provokes a captivating, enervating and indulgent self-contemplation.

[5] The Lyon who encounters Una "is with sight amazed" (, as is Una by Archimago when his false guise as Redcrosse is revealed ( and by the Satyrs ( and they by her (  Whether positively or negatively inflected, the moments of amazement mark an encounter with the new and signal that the character so struck by wonder is in the process of change as their preconceptions are challenged or exploited.

[6] According to Nancy Vickers, the literary blazon was a mid-sixteenth-century vogue epitomized by a challenge issued by Clement Marot in 1535 that asked poets to compose short encomia to a particular part of the female anatomy.  Clement himself began with a blazon and counterblazon (a poem of denigration), "To the Breast."  See Vickers for a lengthy discussion of the sexual politics and poetics of the blazon tradition, including its potential embodiment of heretical and seditious challenges to powerful metaphors like the Body of Christ and the Body Politic (7). By Spenser's day the vogue had passed and the blazon was an object of parody, as can be seen in Shakespeare's "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," and Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress."

Works Cited

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