December 2, 2012

Rhyme nor Reason and The Faerie Queene

Prince Arthur and the Faerie Queen - F├╝ssli, Johann Heinrich, 1788

I posted yesterday on another blog of mine about the origin of the phrase "rhyme or reason." I have always had a fascination for the origins of words, phrases, and the names we attach to people and things. (see Why Name It That? for more)

The poet Edmund Spenser gets credit for "rhyme or reason" and the story tells us something about the life of the poet back in Elizabethan times and his Spenserian stanza.

In 1589, Edmund Spenser was an admired poet by the rich and famous - which was the audience that mattered. His book of pastoral poems The Shepheardes Calender published in 1579 was a great success at court. But poets did not make a living selling books, but by having rich patrons. Running short on money, Spenser took on a position as a secretary to Lord Grey, the new Deputy to Ireland.

At 28-year, Edmund went to Ireland, where Grey crushed an Irish rebellion against the English, seized lands and gave Spenser about 3,000 acres, with hills, streams, and a castle to live on. Sweet deal.

Spenser worked for Grey for ten years and worked on his new epic poem.

Fellow poet and well known adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh, lived nearby on his own 12,000-acre estate. In 1589, Raleigh visited Spenser, who showed him the first three parts of his new epic, The Faerie Queene.

It was a very ambitious writing project. In a letter written by Spenser to Raleigh in 1590, he describes the goal as an allegorical presentation of virtues through Arthurian knights in the mythical "Faerieland". This letter is often presented as a preface to the epic in most published editions. It oulines plans for 24 books: 12 based each on a different knight who exemplified one of 12 "private virtues", and a possible 12 more centered on King Arthur displaying 12 "public virtues".

Spenser never completed all the books and actually diverged from the plan in the earliest books.

Raleigh thought that Spenser should present the first book personally to Queen Elizabeth. They traveled to England together that fall, and Spenser registered the poem for publication with a dedications to "the most mightie and magnificent empress Elizabeth."

Elizabeth heard him read his poem aloud and she did love it. He was hot in the circles of society again and hoped to receive enough patronage to stay in England.

Elizabeth suggested that Spenser be paid £100 but her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, who wasn't high on poetry or Spenser, objected. The story is that Elizabeth told him to pay the poet "what is reason."

Burghley didn't pay him at all.

After a few months, Spenser sent Elizabeth this short verse:

I was promised on a time
To have a reason for my rhyme;
From that time unto this season,
I received nor rhyme nor reason.

Spenser got his payment, and we got the phrase "rhyme nor reason." Today "rhyme or reason" means "without purpose, order, or reason" as in "The statistics were so disorganized, that the conclusions were without rhyme or reason."

Copley's Red Cross Knight and Ladies
The epic was written in Spenserian stanza, which was created specifically for The Faerie Queene. In this style, there are nine iambic lines – the first eight of them five footed and the ninth a hexameter – which form interlocking quatrains and a final couplet. The rhyme pattern is ABABBCBCC.

Suggestions for its construction were taken from three Italian metres: the Ottava Rima, the Terza Rima, the Sonnet and the Ballade stanza.

This would probably not make a popular poetry writing prompt. Each book of The Faerie Queene contains a proem and twelve cantos. Each cantos has forty eight stanzas. This means that each book as a whole has over 18,000 lines. Over 2000 stanzas were written for the 1590 Faerie Queene.

The poem begins:

Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
    As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
    Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
    For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
    And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
    Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
    Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
    To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.

There are several "modern English versions of Spenser's Middle English language (see link 5 below). One version paraphrases the opening this way:

Lo I the man, whose Muse while did mask,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepherds weeds,
Am now enforced a far less fit task,
For trumpets stern to change mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayers having slept in silence long,
Me, all too mean, the sacred Muse agreed
To blazon broad amongst her learned throng:
Fierce wars and faithful loves shall moralize my song.

  1. Spenser, Fairie Queene (free audiobook), Librivox.
  2. The Faerie Queene (free online edition), Luminarium.
  3. Edmund Spenser: A Life
  4. Edmund Spenser: The Complete Poetical Works (for the Kindle)
  5. You can download several versions of the poem (Kindle, epub etc.) free  from


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