Theodore Spencer: Selected Essays
In a civilized society, nobody under the age of thirty would be permitted to publish any literary criticism. (Bibliographies might be allowed.) In our own, alas, the young are not only permitted but economically compelled to perform in a field for which they have, as yet, neither the scholarship, judgment, wisdom, nor good manners it requires. The result is only too visible in journals like the PMLA, where one is confronted by article after article which nobody could possibly read and its wretched author had obviously no desire to write. Tenure, however, insists that he get his name into print.
This selection of essays by Professor Spencer includes one piece of juvenilia, “Chaucer’s Hell: A Study in Medieval Convention,” written when he was twenty-five, and it is instructive to compare this essay with one written seven years later, “The Story of Ugolino in Dante and Chaucer.” The early piece has one virtue which augurs well for his future as a critic, modesty of aim. The young man confines himself to doing what is within the powers of any industrious student to do, namely, to read through the whole of Chaucer’s work, noting down every reference he makes to Hell. Then, with the assistance of the Widener Library and Professor Kittredge, he hunts down as many references to the subject in Classical and Medieval literature as he can find and appends them in columns of footnotes. The trouble is that he has no subject worth writing about. In the first place, Chaucer was not very interested in Hell, so that what he has to say about it is not very interesting: in the second, the mountain of research can in this case bring forth only a mouse of conclusion.
The most we can say is that Dante, as far as his picture of Hell is concerned, occupied a slightly more important place in Chaucer’s mind than Virgil or Claudian; the influence of convention was overwhelmingly predominant.
Did anyone who has read both Dante and Chaucer ever think otherwise?
How different is the later piece. The footnotes upon which only an expert can check have vanished: instead, we find a detailed comparative analysis, which a reader without any special knowledge can follow, of two related texts, the story of Ugolino as told by Dante and as retold by Chaucer. By showing us how Chaucer modified Dante, by omission, addition, and shifts of emphasis, Professor Spencer brings us to a clearer understanding of Chaucer’s cast of imagination.
Ugolino imagines that he is going to be starved to death, and the thought makes him weep:
“Allas!”, quod he, “allas, that I was wroght!”
Therwith the teeris fillen from his yen.
This directly contradicts, be it noticed, Dante’s account of Ugolino, who says at this point:
Io non piangeva, si dentro im- pietrai.
The next stanza is entirely of Chaucer’s invention.
His yonge sone, that thre yeer was of age,
Unto hym seyde, “Fader, why do ye wepe?
Whanne wol the gaylor brygen our potage?
Is ther no morsel breed that ye do kepe?
I am so hungry that I may nat slepe.
Now wolde God that I myghte slepen evere!
Thanne sholde nat hunger in my wombe crepe:
There is no thynge, save breed, that me was levere.”
Whereupon the child lies in his father’s bosom—in Dante the child that dies first mi si gitto disteso à piedi—and says, “Farewell, fader, I moot dye!” This again is different from Dante, where the child’s last speech is not passive, as here, but active; not an acquiescence, but a protest: “Padre mio, chè non m’aiuti?” And in Chaucer, but not in Dante, he kisses his father before he dies.
Having demonstrated, on the basis of the philological facts, Chaucer’s emphasis upon the pathetic at the expense of the tragic, Professor Spencer goes on to raise the historical question: “Is this emphasis an idiosyncracy of Chaucer’s, or is it characteristic of fourteenth-century sensibility?” Such a question, he admits, is dangerous, and only permits of tentative answers. A purely historical approach to literature tends to reduce it to a social epiphenomenon about which aesthetic judgments are irrelevant. In a review of Professor Lovejoy’s Essays in the History of Ideas, Spencer warns:
…though the study of the history of ideas can give, and has given, renewed vigor to the study of literature…it cannot do everything, and when it tries to do too much, it can produce as dry a harm as philology…It is useful chiefly when we are dealing with didactic and critical authors: much lyrical poetry, though not all by any means, has little to do with it.
The history of sensibility may be relevant to a wider range of authors and genres than the history of ideas, but it, also, cannot explain why, of two authors who display a similar sensibility, one is first-rate and the other fifth-rate.
STILL, HISTORICAL QUESTIONS are valid not only in themselves, but also as a corrective to the purely philological approach, which tends to regard works of art as if they were created not in time but in eternity, and each artist, like an angel, as a species-in-himself. To be able to maintain, as Professor Spencer does, a proper balance between the philological and the historical is one of the hallmarks of a good critic. Again, one of the hallmarks of the good literary historian is an ability to cite examples which nobody before him had noticed but nobody henceforth will forget.
One such observation by Professor Spencer strikes me as extraordinarily acute.
If we compare the tone of the Stabat Mater, dating from the end of the thirteenth century, with that of the Dies Irae, which was written two generations earlier, we have a clear indication of what was taking place. Jesus is not a stern judge, but a suffering human being; He is no longer above humanity. He is on the same level, a man for whose pains a human sympathy and pity can be felt.
Professor Spencer’s special field was Elizabethan literature, and the bulk of these essays are concerned with Elizabethan writers, some minor second-raters, Marston, Daniel, Davies, a first-rate but little-read one, Sidney, and, of course, Shakespeare.
All that the average reader is likely to know of the work of a minor poet is what the anthologists have chanced to provide, and anthologists are notoriously lazy. Thanks to Professor Spencer, any future anthology of Elizabethan poetry will stand condemned if it fails to include at least one of Sir John Davies’s Epigrams and the following poem by Marston.
What should I call this creature, Which now is grown unto matur- ity?
How should I blaze this feature As firm and constant as Eternity?
Call it Perfection? Fie! ‘Tis perfecter than brightest names can light it:
Call it Heaven’s mirror? Aye. Alas, best attributes can never right it.
Beauty’s resistless thunder? All nomination is too straight of sense:
Deep contemplation’s wonder? That appellation give this excel- lence.
Within all best confin’d, (Now feebler Genius end thy slighter rhyming)
No suburbs, all is Mind, As far from spots, as possible de- fining.
Sidney is very much a poet’s poet, and Professor Spencer’s essay is, quite rightly, primarily addressed to practitioners of the art. He knows that, for readers in this century, Sidney’s “matter,” a combination of Frauendienst and neo-Platonism, has little appeal.
Even the most devoted admirer of Sidney finds it something of a chore to read through all the poems in the Arcadia because they are virtually all about the same thing; one lover after another—men and women, shepherds and kings—all rejoice or lament (chiefly the latter) about the condition of their affections.
Accordingly, he concentrates upon Sidney as a verse technician, his metrical experiments, his rhyming structures, his rhetorical devices, and shows how it was Sidney, even more than Spenser, who was responsible for the transition from what Professor C. S. Lewis has called the Drab Verse of Wyatt to the Golden Verse which culminated in Shakespeare.
As often happens when a poet is struggling to break with the immediate literary past, Sidney turned for help to literatures other than his own. One was Classical Latin verse.
The situation which existed before 1576 had drastically to be changed. The practice of verse technique needed a violent wrench to get it out of its dusty rut. And this wrench, this virtual dislocation was, I suggest, largely accomplished by the experiments in classical meters… [What they did] was to make people think about words; in order to “versify,” words had to be broken up, each syllable had to be weighed and considered, and new rhythmical combinations had to be found which were as far removed as possible from the unthinking jog-trot of the prevalent iambic habit.
The other was Italian poetry.
The classical experiments were valuable chiefly as showing what variations could be made inside the individual line; the Italian gave practice in variations from one line to another. Both provided exercises in movement, but the movement in the Italian forms was of a broader kind. It was stanzaic, not linear; it could train the ear in a more elaborate melody and counterpoint.
PROFESSOR SPENCER’S essays on Shakespeare were probably, I should guess, based upon lectures. His observations about Hamlet, Troilus, and the last plays are not, and make no claim to be, startlingly original. Novel readings of Shakespeare are out of order for undergraduates who are still barely acquainted with the traditional ones. What undergraduates need, and Professor Spencer admirably supplies, is enlightenment upon points where, because of the difference between shakespeare’s world and their own, in cosmology, moral pre-suppositions, medical and psychological schemata, they may be nonplussed by or even misread the text. It is much to Professor Spencer’s credit that, in these essays, he makes no effort to secure applause for a brilliant performance, but concentrates upon doing his duty as a professional teacher of Shakespeare.
I must add, however—he is too modest to mention it—that he was the first scholar to notice that the hitherto accepted punctuation of the “What a piece of work is man” passage in Hamlet, required emendation, that
How like an angel! In apprehen- sion, how like a God!
is nonsense, and should run:
How like an angel in apprehen- sion! How like a God!
I am glad that Mr. Purves has included in his selection a few light and humorous pieces. The one I enjoyed most—it reminded me of E. M. Forster—is “The History of an Unfortunate Lady.” Lady Eleanor Davis (1590-1652) was very nutty indeed. Her suspicion, aroused by a heavenly voice, that she possessed the gift of prophecy was confirmed when she discovered that the letters of her maiden name ELEANOR AUDLEY could make the anagram REVEALE O DANIEL.
From then on there was no stopping her. Her two husbands tried; one dropped dead, the other went mad. In 1628 she prophesied that the Duke of Buckingham would die in August; he did. Emboldened by success, she foretold that King Charles would come to a bad end like Belshazzar. This was too much, and she was arrested. At her trial, she was momentarily disconcerted when one of the judges, taking her married name DAME ELEANOR DAVIS, produced the anagram NEVER SO MAD A LADIE, but not for long. Her persecutors, Archbishop Laud and King Charles, both ended on the scaffold, and she hailed Cromwell as the deliverer of his people. By this time, however, her crossword skill seems to have deteriorated.
O. CROMWEL: what could that mean but HOWL ROME? It was the last, and also (for she had added an H and forgotten the C) the worst of her anagrams.
From the time, soon after I came to the States, when I first met Professor Spencer, he became both a friend and a literary mentor, to whom I would show my unpublished writings and whose criticisms I found to be invariably just and helpful. To me, therefore, his premature death was and has remained, both a personal and a professional loss.