This article addresses Spenser’s curious preference for the lesser-known Greek version of the Orpheus myth, in which Orpheus successfully recovers Eurydice from the Underworld, over the tragic version promulgated by Virgil’s Georgics, exploring its significance in the middle books of The Faerie Queene and its implications for Spenser’s conception of his role as an “Orphic” poet. The rescue of Amoret from the House of Busirane and that of Florimel from Proteus’s cave both rework Eurydice’s release. Spenser’s chief concern is to differentiate between true and false love, which he identifies respectively with sympathy and with rapacious desire. Britomart’s capacity for sympathy and respect for Amoret’s freedom as a desiring subject enable her to perform the role of the liberating Orpheus, while Scudamour’s actions at the Temple of Venus are implicitly paralleled with Aristaeus’s attempted rape in Virgil’s account. In Book IV, Florimel’s lament brings out the connection of this sympathetic form of love with Orpheus’s traditional powers of poetic pathos, while the Orphic poet’s ability to promote a similar equity and “franchise” on the social and political level are evoked through allusion to Orpheus’s quelling of the Argonauts’s strife. Where Virgil’s fourth Georgic opposes political necessity to love and art, Spenser challenges this dichotomy. In assuming the role of the “Brittayne Orpheus,” and reasserting Orpheus’s victory over death, he dedicates his poetic powers to love conceived not as destructive madness but as the civilizing force on which society depends.
- The Faerie Queene