The Faerie Queene
Book III, Cantos vi & vii
The poem now relates how Belphoebe, who recently saved the poor squire Timias, came to be such a fine example of virginity and chastity. She was born from a woman named Chrysogonee, under the most unusual circumstances-- Chrysogonee never knew man, but she was impregnated by the rays of the sun as she slept by a lake. Worried that her conception would bring her disgrace, she fled into the wilderness. It happened at the time that Venus had gone looking for her son, Cupid, who had run off. Everywhere the goddess looked, Cupid had already been and left many in misery with his arrows of love. Finally, Venus finds the goddess Diana in the forest, resting after a hunt; Diana agrees to help her look for Cupid. As they search, they suddenly come across Chrysogonee, who has just given birth to twins in the same manner she conceived them--while asleep. The goddesses decide to each take one child (both are girls) and raise her. Diana calls her baby Belphoebe and takes her off to the forest to raise her in the ways of chastity; but Venus takes the other, naming her Amoretta, and takes her to the Garden of Adonis.
The Garden is a mythical place; it is "the first seminarie [seed plot] / Of all things, that are borne to live and die (III.vi.30)." There, the forms of all living things grow. They take on matter from the pit of Chaos and then leave through one gate of the Garden to enter Earth. When their time in the world is over, they come back through the other gate, shed their matter, and, after a certain time, are reincarnated with new substance. Time is the only enemy of the Garden; otherwise, all things are happy. It was there that Venus brought Amoretta, and raised her "to be th'ensample of true love alone (III.vi.52)."
The poem now returns to the plight of Florimell, who is still fleeing, though she is no longer chased. Having worn out her horse, she stops at a nearby house, where an old hag takes pity on her and lets her stay for a time. The old woman, however, has a lazy son, who is filled with lust for Florimell as soon as he lays eyes on her. When she suddenly leaves, he is torn apart by desire and goes into a fit. His old mother (who, it turns out, is a witch) now resents Florimell; she conjures up a beast to chase after the maid. The animal nearly catches up to her, but she outruns it on her horse until she reaches the seashore. There, to save herself, she is forced to abandon her horse and jump into an old fisherman's boat. She pushes off from the shore while the fisherman sleeps. The thwarted beast then attacks the horse and kills it.
Just at that time, the good Sir Satyrane happens by; he sees the dead horse and Florimell's golden girdle (left behind in her haste) and fears the worst. He overcomes the beast by tying it up with the girdle, but at that moment, a "mighty Giauntesse" rides by with a squire held captive on her lap, being chased by a knight. She knocks down Sir Satyrane, but when the other knight approaches, she tosses away the squire and flees. The squire explains the situation to Satyrane--the giantess was Argante, daughter of the Titans, a monstrous embodiment of lust who delights in sinning against nature.
The principal point of interest in these two cantos is the Garden of Adonis. This passage is the best example of Spenser's wide diversity of sources; he draws on everything from Homer to Chaucer to The Romance of the Rose in constructing this remarkable Paradise. The theme of an idyllic garden, of course, has its origin in the Garden of Eden--but as a part of the fanciful land of The Faerie Queene, the Garden of Adonis is not particularly grounded in Christian theology. The philosophical ideas expressed in the passage are mostly Platonic or neo-Platonic: the relation between form and matter, the reincarnation of beings, the cyclical nature of life. Of course, at the least reincarnation was incompatible with mainstream Christian thought in Spenser's time; the Garden is not so much an expression of the poet's beliefs as it is an elegant creation for its own sake.
There is no allegory here--in general, the meaning of the place is presented straightforwardly. The association of the Garden with Venus immediately gives it a mythical quality, and the poet treats the philosophical ideas as he has treated the classical myths: useful in creating an imaginative setting but only because the Christian truth is another layer deep. The Christian meaning of the Garden of Adonis naturally relates to the theme of Book III, chastity. The important element is the healthy sexuality of the place, where "each paramour his leman [lover] knowes, / Each bird his mate, ne any does envie / Their goodly meriment, and gay felicite (III.vi.41)." Spenser is by no means in favor of a sterile chastity when he champions that virtue; though those in the Garden may have too much pleasure, it is a productive pleasure, which keeps the wheel of life turning and does not promote jealousy or lust. We have seen, and will continue to see, many worse uses of sexuality in Book III, by way of contrast.
For example, in Canto vii, we see the continued misfortune of Florimell to be lusted after by each man she meets. She does not try to use her beauty for seduction, and yet upon seeing her, the old hag's son "cast to love her in his brutish mind; / No love, but brutish lust, that was so beastly tind (III.vii.15)." Spenser fully realizes the danger of beauty without a positive chastity and, perhaps, admits a generally lustful character in most men--we will see such incidents as these repeated. On the other hand, in the "giauntesse" Argante, we have the embodiment of the extremes to which a woman's sexual desire can go. Her great size allegorically represents the enormity of her pride and perversion: She has committed incest and even "suffred beasts her body to deflowre (III.vii.49)." While characters like Florimell and Belphoebe represent chastity missing an essential element, they are made to look holy by Argante, who represents the total rejection of chastity or even discretion. Thus, only true chastity can conquer the giantess; as the squire reveals, the knight who chased Argante off is actually a warrior maid like Britomart--Palladine is her name.
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