Spenser's account of the design of the Faerie Queene is given in this undated letter to Sir Walter Raleigh. The letter is titled, "A Letter of the Authors expounding his whole Intention in the course of this Worke: which for that it giveth great Light to the Reader, for the better understanding is hereunto annexed."
Thomas Warton: "It must, however, be confessed, that there is something artificial in the poet's manner of varying from historical precision; a conduct which may be best illustrated from his own words. 'But because the beginning of the whole work seemeth abrupt, and as depending upon other antecedents, it needs that ye know the occasion of these three knights several adventures. For the method of a poet historical, is not such as of an historiographer [. . .]' Thus according to this plan the reader would have been agreeably surprised, in the last book, when he came to discover, that all the adventures which he had just gone through, were undertaken at the command of the FAERIE QUEENE, and that all the knights had severally set forward to the execution of them from her annual birth-day festival; but Spenser, in most of his books, has injudiciously forestalled the first of these particulars; which certainly should have been concealed till the last book, not only to have prevented a needless repetition of the same thing, but that he might likewise secure an opportunity to himself of amusing the reader's mind with a circumstance new and unexpected" Observations on the Faerie Queene (1754) 9-10.
William Oldys?: "In the letter to Sir Walter he says; 'In the person of Prince Arthur I set forth Magnificence in particular.' Probably this Magnificence (as the plan was certainly settled early) was frequently alluded to in the Cambridge correspondence. Harvey in 1580 says to him, 'I fear your Magnificence will hold us in suspense as long for your nine comedies': &c. meaning, I suppose, his being employed about Arthur will hinder other things. In Spenser's latin verses to him, Oct. 5, 1579, he says, 'you banter me (so great is your Magnificence)' &c. 'Tu tamen illudis (tua Magnificentia tanta est), &c.' A good deal of this letter alludes to this scheme" Faerie Queene, ed. Church (1758) 1:xxiv.
John Upton: "In every poem there ought to be simplicity and unity; and in the epic poem the unity of the action should never be violated by introducing any ill-joined or heterogeneous parts. This essential rule Spenser seems to me strictly to have followed: for what story can well be shorter, or more simple, than the subject of his Poem? — A British Prince sees in a vision the Fairy Queen; he falls in love, and goes in search after this unknown fair; and at length finds her. — This fable has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is, the British Prince saw in a vision the Fairy Queen, and fell in love with her: the middle, his search after her, with the adventures that he underwent: the end, his finding whom he sought. But here our curiosity is raised, and we want a more circumstantial information of many things. — Who is this British Prince? what adventures did he undergo? who was the Fairy Queen? where, when, and how did he find her? Thus many questions arise, that require many solutions" Faerie Queene (1758) 1:xx-xxi.
John Payne Collier: "The Poet's Letter to Raleigh, 'expounding his whole intention,' bears date nearly two months subsequent to the date of the entry [in the Stationer's Register], viz. '23 January 1589,' that is, in fact, 1590. There is little doubt that this letter was written last (because some explanation of the kind was thought by Raleigh to be necessary), and printed, with the seventeen sonnets to the leaders of the aristocracy, &c., after the whole body of the poem had been worked off the press" Poetical Works of Spenser (1862; 1875) 1:lxx.
To the Right noble, and Valorous, Sir Walter Raleigh, knight, Lo. Wardein of the Stanneryes, and her Majesties lieftenaunt of the County of Cornewayll.
Sir knowing how doubtfully all Allegories may be construed, and this booke of mine, which I have entituled the Faery Queene, being a continued Allegory, or darke conceit, I have thought good aswell for avoyding of gealous opinions and misconstructions, as also for your better light in reading thereof, (being so by you commanded,) to discover unto you the general intention and meaning, which in the whole course therof I have fashioned, without expressing of any particular purposes or by-accidents therin occasioned. The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline: Which for that I conceived shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which the most part of men delight to read, rather for variety of matter, then for profite of the ensample: I chose the historye of king Arthure, as most fitte for the excellency of his person, being made famous by many mens former workes, and also furthest from the daunger of envy, and suspition of present time. In which I have followed all the antique Poets historicall, first Homere, who in the Persons of Agamemnon and Ulysses hath ensampled a good governour and a vertuous man, the one in his Ilias, the other in his Odysseis: Then Virgil, whose like intention was to doe in the person of Aeneas: after him Ariosto comprised them both in his Orlando: and lately Tasso dissevered them againe, and formed both parts in two persons, namely that part which they in Philosophy call Ethice, or vertues of a private man, coloured in his Rinaldo: The other named Politice in his Godfredo. By ensample of which excellente Poets, I labour to pourtraict in Arthure, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private morall vertues, as Aristotle hath devised, the which is the purpose of these first twelve bookes: which if I finde to be well accepted, I may be perhaps encoraged, to frame the other part of polliticke vertues in his person, after that hee came to be king. To some I know this Methode will seeme displeasaunt, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, then thus cloudily enwrapped in Allegoricall devises. But such, me seeme, should be satisfide with the use of these dayes, seeing all things accounted by their showes, and nothing esteemed of, that is not delightfull and pleasing to commune sence. For this cause is Xenophon preferred before Plato, for that the one in the exquisite depth of his judgement, formed a Commune welth such as it should be, but the other in the person of Cyrus and the Persians fashioned a governement such as might best be: So much more profitable and gratious is doctrine by ensample, then by rule. So have I laboured to doe in the person of Arthure: whome I conceive after his long education by Timon, to whom he was by Merlin delivered to be brought up, so soone as he was borne of the Lady Igrayne, to have seene in a dream or vision the Faery Queen, with whose excellent beauty ravished, he awaking resolved to seeke her out, and so being by Merlin armed, and by Timon throughly instructed, he went to seeke her forth in Faerye land. In that Faery Queene I meane glory in my generall intention, but in my particular I conceive the most excellent and glorious person of our souveraine the Queene, and her kingdome in Faery land. And yet in some places els, I doe otherwise shadow her. For considering she beareth two persons, the one of a most royall Queene or Empresse, the other of a most vertuous and beautifull Lady, this latter part in some places I doe express in Belphoebe, fashioning her name according to your owne excellent conceipt of Cynthia, (Phoebe and Cynthia being both names of Diana.) So in the person of Prince Arthure I sette forth magnificence in particular, which vertue for that (according to Aristotle and the rest) it is the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth in it them all, therefore in the whole course I mention the deedes of Arthure applyable to that vertue, which I write of in that booke. But of the xii. other vertues, I make xii. other knights the patrones, for the more variety of the history: Of which these three bookes contayn three. The first of the knight of the Redcrosse, in whome I expresse Holynes: The seconde of Sir Guyon, in whome I sette forth Temperaunce: The third of Britomartis a Lady knight, in whome I picture Chastity. But because the beginning of the whole worke seemeth abrupte and as depending upon other antecedents, it needs that ye know the occasion of these three knights severall adventures. For the Methode of a Poet historicall is not such, as of an Historiographer. For an Historiographer discourseth of affayres orderly as they were donne, accounting as well the times as the actions, but a Poet thrusteth into the middest, even where it most concerneth him, and there recoursing to the thinges forepaste, and divining of thinges to come, maketh a pleasing Analysis of all. The beginning therefore of my history, if it were to be told by an Historiographer, should be the twelth booke, which is the last, where I devise that the Faery Queene kept her Annuall feaste xii. dayes, uppon which xii. severall adventures hapned, which being undertaken by xii. severall knights, are in these xii books severally handled and discoursed. The first was this. In the beginning of the feast, there presented him selfe a tall clownishe younge man, who falling before the Queen of Faries desired a boone (as the manner then was) which during that feast she might not refuse: which was that hee might have the atchievement of any adventure, which during that feaste should happen, that being graunted, he rested him on the floore, unfitte through his rusticity for a better place. Soone after entred a faire Ladye in mourning weedes, riding on a white Asse, with a dwarfe behind her leading a warlike steed, that bore the Armes of a knight, and his speare in the dwarfes hand. Shee falling before the Queene of Faeries, complayned that her father and mother an ancient King and Queene, had bene by an huge dragon many years shut up in a brasen Castle, who thence suffred them not to yssew: and therefore besought the Faery Queene to assygne her some one of her knightes to take on him that exployt. Presently that clownish person upstarting, desired that adventure: whereat the Queene much wondering, and the Lady much gainesaying, yet he earnestly importuned his desire. In the end the Lady told him that unlesse that armour which she brought, would serve him (that is the armour of a Christian man specified by Saint Paul v. Ephes.) that he could not succeed in that enterprise, which being forthwith put upon him with dewe furnitures thereunto, he seemed the goodliest man in al that company, and was well liked of the Lady. And eftsoones taking on him knighthood, and mounting on that straunge Courser, he went forth with her on that adventure: where beginneth the first booke, vz.
A gentle knight was pricking on the playne. &c.
The second day there came in a Palmer bearing an Infant with bloody hands, whose Parents he complained to have bene slayn by an Enchauntresse called Acrasia: and therfore craved of the Faery Queene, to appoint him some knight, to performe that adventure, which being assigned to Sir Guyon, he presently went forth with that same Palmer: which is the beginning of the second booke and the whole subject therof. The third day there came in, a Groome who complained before the Faery Queene, that a vile Enchaunter called Busirane had in hand a most faire Lady called Amoretta, whom he kept in most grievous torment, because she would not yield him the pleasure of her body. Whereupon Sir Scudamour the lover of that Lady presently tooke on him that adventure. But being unable to performe it by reason of the hard Enchauntments, after long sorrow, in the end met with Britomartis, who succoured him, and reskewed his love.
But by occasion hereof, many other adventures are intermedled, but rather as Accidents, then intendments. As the love of Britomart, the overthrow of Marinell, the misery of Florimell, the vertuousness of Belphoebe, the lasciviousnes of Hellenora, and many the like.
Thus much Sir, I have briefly overronne to direct your understanding to the wel-head of the History, that from thence gathering the whole intention of the conceit, ye may as in a handfull gripe al the discourse, which otherwise may happily seeme tedious and confused. So humbly craving the continuance of your honorable favour towards me, and th' eternal establishment of your happines, I humbly take leave.
23 January. 1589.
Your most humbly affectionate.
[Hopkins Variorum (1932-57) 1:167-70]