Revision Imprinted: The 1590 and 1596 Printings of The Faerie Queene
In 1596, Part Two was published, comprising Books IV-VI, Legends of Friendship, Ivstice, and Covrtesie. A slightly revised edition of Part One was also published in 1596, with a few minor changes, none as important as the altered ending of "The Legend of Chastity."
Parts One and Two were sold as separate editions and bound together into composite volumes. So that leftover pages from the 1590 printing were not wasted, some composite volumes included the original stanzas that ended Book III, instead of Spenser's revision.
English Renaissance readers who owned 1590 editions of Part One would have purchased Part Two in 1596, and therefore did not receive the revised stanzas. Similarly, some who purchased composite volumes in 1596 did not receive the revised stanzas. So, some of those who read Books I-VI would have read the original ending of Book III, and some the revised one.
Records of Revision
A Second Ending
In Spenser's original stanzas, the Third Book ended with Amoret and Scudamour silently entwined, "like two senseless stocks in long embracement dwelt. / Had ye them seene, ye would haue surely thought, / That they had beene that faire Hermaphrodite, Which that rich Romane of white marble wrought" (1590 Book III, Canto XII, stanzas 45-46). Britomart, the Knight of Chastity, stands apart, half full of longing for her own lost lover.
In the revised stanzas, Spenser replaced the tableau of the lovers with a list of the reasons for Scudamour's absence, indefinitely deferring the end of the love story (an end that the epic ultimately lacks). In place of the image of the excluded knight is that of Britomart paired with Amoret, which provides the possibility of the fledgling friendship with which Book Four, "The Legend of Friendship," begins.
The second edition of Part One also included the addition of a single stanza to Book I, Canto XI.
Spenser's revisions were not limited to the un-writing, re-writing, and annexing of stanzas. He also appears to have revised his conception of the scope of his epic. The title pages of the 1590 and 1596 editions describe a Faerie Queene "disposed into twelue books," and in his "Letter to Raleigh," Spenser implies the possibility of at least twelve books, referring to "these first twelve books."
The Faerie Queene Completed
In the end, Spenser finished six books of The Faerie Queene, to the extent that he wrote twelve cantos for each of them. In 1609, a decade after Spenser's death, fragments from a seventh book, "The Legend of Constancie," were published. These included Cantos VI and VII, "The Cantos of Mutabilitie."
Even the six books "completed" books may not be complete. Some critics argue that Spenser's failure to provide an ending for the love story of Amoret and Scudamour--whose reunion is never represented in the epic--indicates that Book Four was unfinished, while others argue that the lack of resolution reveals the way that Spenser calls attention to storytelling by pointedly avoiding an expected conclusion. The writing of the story thereby becomes a part of the story.
For those readers who never saw Spenser's revised ending of "The Legend of Chastity," a smooth passage between books was prevented by the disjointed shift from the reuniting of the lovers to their sudden, unexplained separation.
There is no authoritative way to determine exactly how many readers of Spenser would have stumbled upon this plot upset. It is possible to estimate such numbers based on the extant copies of each edition.
There are at least sixty-five extant copies of the 1590 printing of Part One, Books I-III of The Faerie Queene. In 1933, Francis R. Johnson estimated there to be about seventy-five to one hundred extant copies in good condition.
There are at least twenty-three extant copies of the 1596 Second Edition of Part One. Johnson suggests that there may be additional copies in existence, but that the total number is considerably less than the number of extant copies of the First Editions of Part One or Part Two.
The First Edition of Part Two of The Faerie Queene, also published in 1596, is survived by at least fifty-eight copies. Johnson estimated at least another fifty sound copies to be extant, as well as many other imperfect copies.
At least fifteen of the Second Editions of Part One and the First Editions of Part Two are bound together in a single volume.