The virtue discussed in Book VI is the virtue of Courtesy. Here, as elsewhere, Spenser is surprising. We should all know the importance of Holiness, Chastity, or Justice but who knew that Temperance was the self-control and guidance necessary for fulfilling the cultural/dominion mandate, or that Friendship was the creative force holding the very universe together? Like Temperance and Friendship, I wasn’t sure that Courtesy was important enough to spend a whole book on. But, as usual, Spenser’s concept of the virtue was stunningly huge and entirely relevant.
So, what is courtesy?
To begin with, courtesy is true nobility, nobility deep in the heart. Some of us are born with it, and some of us achieve it only through painstaking discipline, but all of us must cultivate it. It is emphatically not merely an outward thing: “But virtue’s seat is deep within the mind, And not in outward shows, but inward thoughts defined.” Like Friendship, it is unattainable apart from true goodness: Sir Calidore “loathed leasing [falsehood], and base flattery, And loved simple truth and steadfast honesty.” A noble hermit whom some of our characters meet shows hospitality—
Not with such forged shows, as fitter beenThis is important, because there is a kind of counterfeit courtesy that flatters and courts in order to deceive and hurt. True courtesy is, at root (though it may be cultivated and polished) the plain and honest appearance of entire affection. And cultivating courtesy means, not feigning greater affection than one feels, but actually stirring oneself up to more love and good works. By contrast, the courtesy shown by Blandina simply exists to manipulate and entrap those around her. But, even though false courtesy can mask evil for a little while, eventually cracks begin to show, and you’ll know the tree by its fruit:
For courting fools, that courtesies would fain,
But with entire affection and appearance plain.
Like as the gentle heart itself bewrays,
In doing gentle deeds with frank delight,
Even so the baser mind itself displays,
In cankered malice and revengeful spite.
|Though Spenser's a bit more fun than Austen.|
The effect of courtesy is also a little unexpected. The practice of courtesy, according to Spenser, does not (as we may think of it today) mean treating everyone equally well! That smacks of egalitarianism, and we already know what Spenser thought of that. Rather, courtesy means rendering the service and duty which are required from someone in your position towards another whose position deserves it.
What virtue is so fitting for a knight,Courtesy is thus not merely good manners. It’s fitting service, done cheerfully. This definition may jar on modernist egalitarian ears, but I much prefer it to the modern definition, which says, treat everyone equally well (equally badly?), but be sure to take some “me time”. Spenser’s definition is much closer to the truth: Serve everyone to whom you have a duty. Yield what you owe promptly and cheerfully.
Or for a Lady, whom knight should love,
As Courtesy, to bear themselves aright,
To all of each degree, as doth behove?
For whether they be placed high above,
Or low beneath, yet ought they well to know
Their good, that none them rightly may reprove
Of rudeness, for not yielding what they owe:
Great skill it is such duties timely to bestow.
In practice, this means that courtesy involves the obedience and service due to authorities. But even this is not the bottom of the mystery. In Canto IX, an aged shepherd and paragon of courtesy finishes telling Sir Calidore of his humble prosperity by saying, “What have I, but to praise th’Almighty that doth send it?” Courtesy is inextricably linked with contentment and with gratitude and praise given to God. It is the right response not just to the Fifth, but also to the First commandment.
Spenser’s definition, however, comes with a flipside. The definition requires yielding not just what you owe, but also what the recipient deserves: the heaven-sent Graces
teach us, how to each degree and kindSo what does Civility look like when directed to foes? Like every other virtue in The Faerie Queene, from temperance to friendship, Courtesy is militant. Perhaps Lewis had Spenser in mind when he said that courage is every virtue at the testing-point. Certainly all the virtues are found shedding blood in this epic. Holiness slaughters Error and Sin. Temperance defaces and tramples the Bower of Bliss. True Love, in her duel with Feminism, is the most ferocious and terrifying of all, taking just a few stanzas to split her enemy’s head open. And Courtesy is just as stout in battle as the others, though he is reviled by those he fights for his awful rudeness (take note that it is the offensive and discourteous people who will be most offended if you confront them about it).
We should ourselves demean, to low, to high,
To friends, to foes, which skill men call Civility.
In Canto I, for example, he defeats the evil henchman of a discourteous and villainous lady; she immediately heaps him with reproaches for his incivility to a poor weak woman:
Much was the Knight abashed at that word;Civility and courtesy is double-edged. Not only does it impose a duty to do cheerful service to those who deserve it, but it also imposes a duty to cheerfully punish those whose evil acts require justice. However, as the story continues, we discover that courtesy will gladly extend mercy to its defeated foes if they show themselves willing to change.
Yet answered thus; Not unto me the shame,
But to the shameful doer it afford.
Blood is no blemish; for it is no blame
To punish those, that do deserve the same,
But they that break bands of civility,
And wicked customs make, those do defame
Both noble arms, and gentle courtesy.
No greater shame to man than inhumanity.
The enemies of Courtesy include all the vices (since, if courtesy is the result of a pure heart, then it is menaced by evil hearts of whatever nature), bullies, flatterers, robbers, and ruffians. But most of all its enemy is Scandal, the Blatant Beast, whose bites fester without healing (by contrast, Courtesy thinks the best of everyone). When Prince Arthur’s squire Timias and the lady Serena are bitten by the Beast, the only remedy is to avoid even the slightest appearance of evil, so that they may be above reproach.
|Folks! It's a damsel in distress!|
Book VI is, sadly, the last complete book in the epic. In 1598 Spenser’s home at Kilconen was attacked and burned to the ground; his youngest child, a baby, died in the fire. He fled to London where he died, possibly of hunger, early in 1599 aged about 46. All we know is that Book VII would have discussed the virtue of Constancy, as compared to Mutability, who features in the two-canto fragment he left at his death.
Book VI shows no signs of clouds on the horizon. Indeed, it seems to depict an Edmund Spenser happy in the glorious hills of Ireland, surrounded by gentle and courteous shepherds and blessed by the companionship of a fourth Grace…
Another Grace she well deserves to be,This is, of course, Mrs Edmund Spenser.
In whom so many Graces gathered are,
Excelling much the mean of her degree;
Divine resemblance, beauty sovereign rare,
Firm Chastity, that spite nor blemish dare;
All which she with such courtesy doth grace,
That all her peers cannot with her compare,
But quite are dimmed, when she is in place.
She made me often pipe and now to pipe apace.
I thoroughly enjoyed Book VI of The Faerie Queene—full, as it was, of heart-string-twanging pathos, rollicking comedy, last-second rescues, and thrilling adventure. From the hilarious cowardice of Turpine to the dramatic rescue of Pastorella from the robber band, Spenser yet again succeeds in cloaking profound doctrine in enthralling, multi-faceted allegory.
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