Reviving Spenser

Spenser’s World of Glass

by Kathleen Williams
California, 241 pp., $5.00

Spenser’s Images of Life

by C.S. Lewis, edited by Alastair Fowler
Cambridge, 144 pp., $3.95

The Poetry of “The Faerie Queene”

by Paul J. Alpers
Princeton, 415 pp., $12.50

Allegorical Imagery

by Rosemond Tuve
Princeton, 461 pp., $12.50

Spenser’s Image of Nature: Wild Man and Shepherd in “The Faerie Queene”

by Donald Cheney
Yale, 262 pp., $6.50

Trite as it is to exclaim over the amount of critical commentary piling up on a poet, one can’t help nothing how discussion of Edmund Spenser and his poetry has proliferated in the 1960s. There have been full-length studies by M. Pauline Parker (1960) and A. C. Hamilton (1961), by Robert Ellrodt (1960) and Graham Hough (1962), by T. P. Roche and Alastair Fowler (both 1964), and two by William Nelson (1961 and 1963), not to mention the five studies under review here and at least as many books on more general topics in which Spenser plays a major role. At a conservative estimate, it seems probable that the 1960s have already produced at least ten times as much commentary on Spenser as the two centuries immediately after his death.

A natural question is, Why? There are probably some interesting sociological reasons, such as the prevalent interest in fictive worlds and autonomous structures of myth; for some of the brethren, one suspects, Spenser is a Tolkien off whom it’s respectable to make a living. But most modern Spenserians seem to be wrestling with a specific and troublesome problem: allegory and the difficulties of historical reconstruction which it involves. Spenser himself said that his Faerie Queene was a “continued Allegory or dark conceit”; and there seems little doubt that contemporary readers recognized this traditional mode of discourse, though some grumbled mildly at its difficulties and most said nothing one way or the other. In effect, none felt impelled to describe in great detail his mental operations in the face of Spenser’s allegory.

During the seventeenth century, allegory largely fell from favor as a literary mode. Spenser was little read by the eighteenth century, and appealed to the nineteenth chiefly because of his images and versification; the allegory was dismissed as a harmless extravagance, which could be trusted not to bother a reader if he wouldn’t bother it. But, of course, such a relaxed and decorative concept of poetry could not long survive the turn of the last century. Allegory, political and historical as well as moral, was gradually reinstated in the Spenserian poem, and very generally propounded as the key to the poem’s “structure” and even to its “meaning.” Professor Padelford opened the question of historical allegory with a little book in 1911; Professors Millican and Greenlaw (both in 1932) pressed the matter further; C. S. Lewis’s classic Allegory of Love (1936) urged the claims of the moral allegory; and the great variorum edition of the poems put out by the Johns Hopkins Press (1932-1949) enshrined a great volume of learned commentary of all sorts, much of which was on the verge of becoming, if not obsolete, at least antiquated. For recapturing the understanding of allegory which came so easily, or at least mattered so little, to the Elizabethans, proved remarkably difficult three-and-a-half centuries later. As early as 1961, A. C. Hamilton was found protesting against strained and farfetched allegorical interpretations, overingenious moralizations, and …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.