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.1
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 tortured “character-analyses,” such as must have exasperated the Elizabethan reader beyond endurance had the allegorical method really meant what twentieth-century scholars said it did. Striking a balance between a naïve and a tortured view of the poem was thus the new shape of an old problem; its complications may be judged from the fact that Mr. Hamilton, who advanced into the field as a reformer of allegorical excesses, has since come under general attack as a perpetrator of them.
MISS WILLIAMS’S BOOK, published in this country as Spenser’s World of Glass and in England as A Reading of the “Faerie Queene”, is a reader’s guide to the Queene very much along the lines of that by Sister M. Pauline Parker; that is, it proposes a central structure of moral teaching, clear, coherent, and emphatically Christian, conveyed primarily by an allegorical narrative which need only be paraphrased for its doctrine to be revealed. Hearty confidence is the mood. When Miss Williams tells her reader, in describing the first passage of Canto 1, Book I, “It is an opening as simple, and as effective, as that of any good adventure story, say as that of Treasure Island, where the homeliness of the Admiral Benbow is changed by the coming of Black Dog” (p. 2), one can only feel that a lot of sixth graders are in for a major disappointment. For though in fact paraphrase does enable one to hobble alongside the Faerie Queene’s twisting action, offering here and there a guess as to a particular narrative turn, it does not enable one properly to understand the poem.
For example, to take one passage of many: in Book II Canto 7, Sir Guyon, who has ventured into the Cave of Mammon, is brought into the presence of Philotime, a glittering lady against whose blandishments the reader is immediately warned by the poet’s comments on her makeup:
Her face right wondrous fair did seem to be,
That her broad beauty’s beam great brightness threw
Through the dim shade, that all men might it see.
Yet was not that same her own native hue,
But wrought by art and counterfeited shew,
Thereby more lovers unto her to call….
(II, vii, 45)
But the special feature of this lady, whose name in Greek means “love of honor,” is a remarkable golden chain:
There as in glistering glory she did sit,
She held a great gold chain y-linked well,
Whose upper end to highest heaven was knit
And lower part did reach to lowest hell;
And all that press did round about her swell
To catchen hold of that long chain, thereby
To climb aloft and others to excel;
That was Ambition, rash desire to sty,
And every link thereof a step of dignity.
(II, vii, 46)
In glittering and sitting on a throne, Philotime is like the dangerous lady of Pride in Book I, Lucifera; as such, she is clearly to be shunned. But love of honor cannot properly be an unqualified vice, and Spenser does not want us to think it such. In the House of Alma, several cantos further on, Prince Arthur will meet a lady dressed in Purple and carrying an emblematic poplar branch; her name is “Praise-desire,” and she is one who “by well doing sought to honor to aspire.” While she, by talking with Arthur, mirrors his character, so Guyon, meanwhile, chats with a lady who expresses his character—for he is shamefast, “but shamefastness itself is she.”
NOW out of this tangle of indications, what do we get of moral allegory? Miss Williams sees Philotime as a figure of Satanic pride—a temptation not very appropriate to a shamefast man like Guyon, and not very tempting to anyone, since steadily under cut by the poet’s critical comments. She sees and calls attention to the Philotime-Lucifera parallel, but says nothing of the Philotime-Praise-desire parallel; and of the golden chain she says nothing at all. All these omissions serve to reduce the text to a direct moral preachment; as Miss Williams passes with Guyon before Philotime, she is being taught to shun deadly sin and pursue true honor. But in fact Spenser shows no sign of being interested in so flat a preachment, and it is not relevant to anything else in Guyon’s moral nature. (The “true honor” which he pleads as an excuse for declining Philotime—a previous commitment to another mistress—is evidently a polite fiction; as readers, we have no knowledge of another mistress, and never see her.)
Spenser wants us to feel how hard it is to know false honor from true (since even false honor is connected by a golden chain to heaven); he also wants us to see the complexities of good and bad ambition, and of worldly wealth’s proper uses. And a strong sign of this interest (which enables us to see around Guyon, not through him) is the simplistic position he takes in a previous discussion with Mammon (II, vii, 9-18), where his naïve belief that he can be independent of the wealth of this world by living in a primitive and money-less society is easily rebutted by the money-god.
Through all these complexities, Miss Williams cuts boldly to her moral point; and this Procrustean procedure is not exceptional. Again and again she simplifies her text in order to provide a clearer narrative line and a more unequivocal moral statement than Spenser himself saw fit to provide. Thus the Bower of Bliss is transformed into a single-minded preachment against sensuality, and the delicate pathos of a stanza like III, vi, 45 is excised from the Garden of Adonis. Yet, for all criticism can do, the Faerie Queene will not readily reduce to a pattern of explicit doctrinal statements or to narrative episodes growing out of “character” in the customary fictional sense. What does it mean (II, ii, 11; II, iii, 4) when Guyon leaves behind horse and spear in his readiness to succor Amavia and Mordant—as a result of which, Braggadochio makes off with his equipage? Why can’t Ruddymane’s bloody hands be washed in the fountain that sprang from the tears of the nymph fleeing Faunus (II, ii, 3-10)?
The problem is not that one can’t make up moral reasons for these events, but that composing them entangles one in a secondary skein of “perhapses” to the detriment of the poem. Miss Williams has given herself only about 200 pages to paraphrase and offer capsule interpretations of the entire Faerie Queene; and these are far from generous proportions. But it’s likely that, with the method she has elected, another 200 pages would only render the confusion greater and compounds the sense of pervasive rationalization. Even as an introductory handbook, I am afraid, Spenser’s World of Glass closes off more fresh air and sends its reader off on more doomed snipe-hunts than can be justified.
GATHERING in the last sheaves of C. S. Lewis’s talent is a melancholy task indeed; for it was, and shows itself, even in its remnants, an extraordinary gift. Spenser’s Images of Life is a set of lecture notes in the first stages of moving toward a book; Alastair Fowler has arranged, supplemented, and on occasion gently corrected them, but the wide vision and direct responses of the master sign every line with his personality. Of Lewis it was literally true that he touched nothing that he did not adorn, usually by simplifying it. He was one of the great popularizers because he could block out generalizations and then add nuances afterwards. In these notes, the second stage is what one misses. The argument is sometimes over-schematic, the urbane qualifications and softening sidelights remain to be added; but the commentary is, as always, lucid and alive. What a wonderful idea, to write an answer to Spenser’s famous prefatory letter to Raleigh, pointing out with perfect courtesy some of the inaccuracies and anomalies of that “explanation” which has so often imposed upon the minds of susceptible critics a Faerie Queene wholly different from the one Spenser actually wrote!
A major though somewhat erratic thesis of the lectures picks up an idea sketched long ago in The Allegory of Love—the importance of pageants and public ceremonials to the art (and by consequence to the understanding) of The Faerie Queene. We need more accounts of these early triumph, tilt, pageant, and ceremonial art-forms, in which the raw materials were people, history itself; we need also more perceptive ways of recognizing how these experiences might influence Spenser’s presentation of moral concepts and human values without imposing on him the necessity of copying any specific prototype. Had Mr. Lewis been granted time to develop his argument fully, he might have given us a much-needed survey of the visual experience available to Spenser, a more exact notion of how much of the Renaissance world of art and ceremony he had seen, or could have seen. Our own museum-culture takes for granted that some sixteenth-century Skira kept Elizabethan poets abreast of artistic doings on the Continent, while an Early English Text Society gave them immediate access to the medieval romances. But in fact it’s hard to estimate the extent of Spenser’s knowledge in these matters without a great many detailed studies, and harder still to assess the spirit in which he dealt with them. Mr. Lewis was able, alas, only to sketch in some of the possibilities here; and his little book will therefore serve chiefly as a student’s introduction to the topic, a vade mecum which doesn’t pretend to penetrate very deeply into the Spenserian wilderness. Many scholarly books would profit from being sleeked down to the modest dimensions of this one; Spenser’s Images of Life should have had a chance to flower into its proper order of complexity.
Paul J. Alpers’s study, The Poetry of “The Faerie Queene”, on the other hand, has been a long time germinating, and shows on every page the marks of a steady, judicious meditation. (As somebody once said in another context, this young man has everything except youth.) A reader who approaches the book without a pretty thorough grounding in the recent literature on Spenser will probably do well to start his study of Alpers after about 100 pages, at Chapter Four, and pick up the thread of the first three chapters only after he has worked through the next five. These middle chapters are largely polemical; perhaps that is why Mr. Alpers has relegated them to the discreet midsection of his treatise. But they do a good deal more to make clear Mr. Alpers’s suppositions than do the painstaking analyses of stanzas and detailed explications of verbal textures into which the first chapters plunge us.
To put the matter broadly: Mr. Alpers has joined the revolt against allegorical excess and carried it further by viewing Spenser’s poem as essentially an address to the reader, a sustained rhetorical manipulation of the reader’s responses. Among the “rules” he lays down for reading the poem is one which, if understood, is a pretty good rule for reading poetry of any sort: Follow the line of least resistance. To be sure, one has to take a pretty strenuous line with this relaxing rule. (As with Bernard Shaw’s maxim, “The love of economy is the root of all virtue,” it is a principle of vital energy that is being evoked; one avoids waste and irrelevance in order to exhaust one’s energy where it really counts.) Mr. Alpers’s repeated injunctions to pay attention to the “surface” of Spenser’s verse clearly involve us in a reading the very reverse of superficial. He wants us to deal with the real poem, not with the much more manageable paraphrases of it which have often provided material for ingenious schemata; but he does not suppose that “the real poem” is accessible to any limp, uninformed reader who happens to wander along. Nor is it likely that any reader who has followed Mr. Alpers’s 400-page argument from beginning to end will be found lacking in primitive energy. Not, indeed, that the book imposes adventitious difficulties; it is lucidly written and consecutively argued. Still, it’s a lot of close critical argumentation, which requires to be read as it was written, with the text at hand for frequent reference, and a good deal of miscellaneous background information suffusing the mind as well.
ESSENTIALLY, Mr. Alpers would clear the way for us to concentrate on Spenser’s awareness of the moral and emotional duplicities surrounding certain great ethical commonplaces and religious dogmas. He believes that Spenser’s purpose was to remind us of the conditions attached to knowing what we think we know. It is with considerable satisfaction that the critic concludes, again and again, that a particular passage is not primarily dramatic (in the sense of a narrative revealing character), not primarily moralistic (in the sense that the action transposes a moral abstraction into behavioral terms), but “formulaic.” For instance, the wretched squire Phedon who is rescued by Guyon from the clutches of Furor, tells (II, iv, 18-36) a story of treachery, betrayal, and jealousy based on Ariosto’s narrative of Ariodante and Ginevra (Orlando Furioso, Cantos 4-6). But the focus of this tale is not on the comedy of social misunderstanding (as it is in Ariosto), nor on Phedon’s portrayal of his own feelings. The narrative doesn’t culminate in any properly rendered episodes; it culminates in Guyon’s offer to help Phedon with his troubles, and a therapeutic speech by the Palmer on the need to control one’s passions.
Thus the whole episode leads up to a psychological formula. Phedon does not “stand for” something else; he is not a character in depth or in action; he is an example of self-destroying rage and self-devouring jealousy; and Mr. Alpers can point to line after line in the passage where Spenser has clearly emphasized this way of looking at him. Perhaps a reader who has not yet got over the notion that “formula” is the last thing he wants in poetry will have some trouble with this terminology but increasingly, as he reflects on the impression the poem actually makes, he will see that mottoes and formulas are what Spenser often builds toward. And these summary sentiments he did not hide away for the reader to unearth; they are on the surface of his poem, and he has identified them pointedly.
What Mr. Alpers means by poetic “surface” is fortunately rather flexible. Sometimes he means simply close verbal texture; and while such a meaning is often legitimate, this reader must confess to a certain impatience at being told (p. 69) that a certain passage is “nothing but a rhetorical scheme, a formal arrangement of words—precisely a stanza of poetry and nothing else.” (A stanza of Spenser’s poetry is, for me; a texture of statements and feelings as well as a formal arrangement of words—and the latter, essentially, as the most effective way to be the former.) Sometimes, again, Mr. Alpers includes in the concept of “surface” elements what used to be called “plot” either in the sense of dramatic events or in the sense of managed, sequential reader-responses. Sometimes he means units of narrative action and elements of character, not to mention established symbols and their overtones, traditional imagery, such correspondent elements as the positioning of the various Houses, Castles, Gardens, and Courts, and mythological overtones from Ovid or wherever. In a word, the line between what Mr. Alpers calls “surface” and what old-fashioned critics used to call “structure” is not hard and fast; the question often reduces itself to which end of the stick one should catch hold of first. Yet this is not an unimportant question; Mr. Alpers’s approach frees him to hop aboard the allegory when it moves us forward, jump off it when it doesn’t, and to concentrate on those elements of the poem most likely at any specific point to repay concentration. Given such an opportunist approach, one is apt to emphasize relatively small elements, such as stanzaic patterns, poetic textures, and rhetorical definitions of attitude, rather than towering, skeletal structures of abstract propositions.
A final word of praise for the judiciousness and lucidity with which The Poetry of “The Faerie Queene” has been written. An impatient student will perhaps find the pace a trifle slow, the examples numerous to the point of oppression; but such a student can hardly look forward to a happy life with Spenser on any terms. Mr. Alpers’s is a rich and various analysis—indeed, the limited space of a review can scarcely suggest the many ways in which the author turns and displays the facets of his single theme. A painstaking account of the sort of understanding with which Spenser approached Ariosto, and neglected his allegorizers, was, for this reader, the most memorable chapter; but every student will have his own favorite, and none will emerge from the book without new insights, theories, and questions, as well as some new inhibitions and doubts about past enthusiasms. For the moment, at least, this is clearly the Spenser book for Spenserians to beat, a critical and scholarly achievement of the very first order.
MR. ALPERS pays generous tribute, in his book, to the work of Rosemond Tuve, who died in 1964; and the last volume of this great lady comes to hand to make us sensible of our loss. Like Mr. Lewis’s volume, Miss Tuve’s Allegorical Imagery appears without the author’s last corrections; it has been prepared for the press by Professor Thomas P. Roche, Jr.2 But, unlike Mr. Lewis’s book, this one was substantially completed by its author; the problem is, rather, that Miss Tuve might have cut it down from its present dimensions had she had time to do so. Allegorical Imagery approaches Spenser, not with an eye to the modern reader’s convenience in interpreting him, but by way of medieval allegorical traditions; it proposes to cast light on Spenser’s allegory by studying earlier allegories which we know were accessible and even popular during the Renaissance.
Yet from their different starting points, Miss Tuve and Mr. Alpers move toward remarkably similar conclusions. By describing how allegory works “intermittently” in some medieval romances, Miss Tuve undertakes to show how a figure like Duessa in The Faerie Queene can “be” Falsehood, and the Church of Rome, and Mary Queen of Scots, and an ordinary witch, and none of these characters at all, as narrative circumstances allow and without a fixed commitment to any of them. In effect, she argues that “following the line of least resistance” (which Mr. Alpers recommends as convenient for a modern reader) was traditional for medieval and Renaissance readers as well. In the process she reaffirms the strength of a relation between Spenser and medieval literature which, over the years, has been consistently minimized (by Greenlaw and Lewis, to pick a pair of random examples); in particular, she shows the possibilities of allegory for flexible and free interplay between narrative and abstraction, character and prototype.
By deliberate limitation, Miss Tuve’s book concentrates on medieval texts known specifically to English Renaissance writers, or knowable to them; not the least interesting evidence of knowledge is the survival of fourteenth-century texts in seventeenth-century copies—of which there turn out to be several. Readers acquainted with Miss Tuve’s previous work will not have to be told how knotty and knowing and frequently funny she could be. Her book is copiously illustrated with delightful little manuscript illuminations and its jocose narrative episodes are retold with warmth and wit. No doubt it’s a bit special, the taste for medieval allegorical humor on the subject of the virtues and the vices—but high scholarship should and can have literary rewards, and Miss Tuve’s never failed to. Her wit was wry and dry; all sorts of wise sayings and abrupt cross-generalizations got packed into her books. Allegorical Imagery is not without its longueurs; particularly an extended discussion of the Roman de la Rose in Chapter IV seems to have been shoved bodily into the manuscript from an earlier redaction. Probably with more time Miss Tuve would have integrated this section less obtrusively into her argument. Nevertheless, the book sets forth a cogent and consecutive argument about the way allegory works for its best practitioners.
MISS TUVE’S CONCLUSIONS are precisely, though tacitly, opposed to those put forward by Professor Angus Fletcher in his recent book, Allegory (Cornel University Press, 1964). She sees the mode as a device of freedom, not of compulsion. Though the opposition couldn’t be more direct, it isn’t hard to explain. Fletcher defines allegory much more liberally than Miss Tuve, gathers more samples, but then abstracts more boldly toward a presumed “essence” of the mode. Also, he looks at the “agent in an allegorical fiction,” and finds him “a daemon for whom freedom of choice hardly exists” (Allegory, pp. 286-7)—presuming, thus, explicitly that he is a fictive character in an imaginary world. But it is a different purview that Miss Tuve takes; the operative agents she has in mind are reader and writer, and their freedom is purchased precisely at the expense of the “character’s.” Allegory is a device by which several varieties of information can be simultaneously conveyed, delayed, interrelated, or withheld; and the imaginary world of allegory need have, at any given point, only so much consistency and self-possession as the author finds convenient. Fletcher’s view derives from Freud, who in Totem and Taboo described hysteria as a caricature of artistic creation; but the modern critic comes close to inverting this discreet formulation, and making the work of art a caricature of hysteria. Meanwhile, Miss Tuve’s investigations into what allegory actually was for real readers and writers in the palmy days of the mode will lend plenitude and humanity to what is all too easily dismissed (or, worse still, accepted) as a rigid and mechanical structure of abstractions.
At first glance Professor Donald Cheney seems to be working the same side of the street as Mr. Alpers, in his emphasis on close ironies of texture rather than on large structures of allegorical statements; but this is only partly true. Spenser’s Image of Nature: Wild Man and Shepherd in “The Faerie Queene” is not really about a pair of images, but about Spenserian imagery, and ultimately about the coherence of the poem as a whole. Wild Man and Shepherd appear in the poem, Mr. Cheney argues, at points where certain balancing and reconciling pressures are felt in the relation between Nature and Grace; so that to understand the working of these images is to understand something more—just what more, the author discloses only reluctantly and in part at long intervals.
It is not easy to say how much of Mr. Cheney’s difficulty in making his argument clear is owing to his own troubles with the English language. They are labyrinthine troubles indeed. One section begins (p. 98): “A recurrent motif in The Faerie Queene is the failure to interpret correctly the physical images presented to the various characters.” What this means is simply: “Characters in The Faerie Queene often misinterpret the evidence of their senses.” One has to read Mr. Cheney’s book by translating it into English a sentence at a time. The process is melancholy and slow. As one reads, to be sure, it becomes increasingly clear that Mr. Cheney, whatever else he may be up to, is not out to oversimplify the poem along any of the familiar lines. The explication, even more than the structure with which it deals, is intricate, allusive, and, alas, largely humorless. When a “salvage nation” of cannibals menace Serena, strip off her clothes, and start to look her over with an eye to dinner, Spenser takes occasion to anatomize the lady:
Her yuorie neck, her alabaster brest, Her paps, which like white silken pillows were, For loue in soft delight thereon to rest; Her tender sides, her bellie white and clere, Which like an Altar did it selfe vprere, To offer sacrifice diuine thereon; Her goodly thighes, whose glorie did appeare Like a triumphall Arch, and there- upon
The spoiles of Princes hang’d, which were in battel won.
(VI, viii, 42)
From the enormous riches of this passage (comic, sensual, grotesque, mock-heroic, blasphemous), Mr. Cheney culls chiefly the following point: “The comparison of Serena’s belly with an altar ‘To offer sacrifice divine thereon’…points to the sacramental overtones of a reverent love; at the same time it foreshadows the monstrous impiety of the sacrifice envisioned by the savages” (p. 116). As for the triumphal arch, its extraordinary decorations, and its fascinating reversal of perspectives, not a word. Mr. Cheney is right to discover incongruities in the passage; but when he defines them as chiefly comprising a double-barreled reprobation of “primitivism” and “Petrarchanism” (on the score that both constitute an abuse of nature), one suspects that his ideas of poetic repertoire are limited indeed.
In fact, what his argument narrows to is an assertion that the poem is far from schematic or one-sided or incomplete, but “it is the poem’s richness, its refusal to reduce its world to any neat conceptual pattern, or to exclude any discordant impulse when it arises, which must in the end constitute its chief claim to imaginative validity” (p. 247). For a man working from these premises, Mr. Cheney discovers little enough of fresh and challenging discords; but, more fundamentally, trying to view the poem in this light leaves it wide open to charges of confusion and disorder. “Refusal …to exclude any discordant impulse when it arises”—is that really a principle on which a poem like The Faerie Queene could be written? And if it were (against all probability), is it a principle on which the poem can profitably be read? This is not what “following the line of least resistance” means—or, if it is, the effect of following several lines of “least resistance” at once may well be to bog us down in a swamp. I suppose it is a triumph of sorts to have shown that a poem doesn’t have a flawed, imperfect structure because it doesn’t have any structure at all—for surely discord is not a principle. But the student is likely to feel, with Pyrrhus, “one more triumph like this, and we’re done for.”
TO BE SURE, the conduct of the critics toward Spenser doesn’t fill one with confidence. Our forces seem to be conducting what used to be called “limited tactical readjustments”; this involves a good deal of backing and filling, and an unconscionable amount of going over the same ground to effect slight changes of emphasis on details which one suspects Spenser himself may not have conceived any too clearly. There are gross narrative anomalies in The Faerie Queene; Satyrane and Sansloy are left at the end of Book I, Canto vi, locked in deadly combat—its outcome is never described. The palmer, who never uttered a word when Guyon heard of Acrasia from Amavia (II, i, 51), turns out to have known all about her for a long time, and to have publicly asked Gloriana for Guyon’s help against her (II, ii, 43). In addition to loose narrative ends like this, Spenser’s basic metaphor of knight errantry wasn’t adequate to communicate many of his insights—fencing and foining may express part, but only part, of what is implied in the Christian life. Finally, the very immensity of his scheme, the constant interlacing of the many actions, the intricacy of his metrical form, make one skeptical about whether Spenserian interpretation can ever be expected to achieve absolute clarity. Certain sorts of logical order and clarity, very precious in the seminar room, may well have been the last thing in the world that Spenser, alone in his Irish country house with his huge, archaic dream of a poem, had in mind to seek, or even allow.
A contrast can be drawn with his most important contemporary, Sidney, who was born into the courtly, chivalric, ceremonial world, and is continually trying, in his poetry, to get out of it—insisting on his reality and complexity as a person, scoffing at literary convention, introducing deliberate colloquialisms and fragments of anti-poetic reality and social comedy. Spenser, on the other hand, having been born far from the world of chivalry, romance, and courtliness (his father was probably a London clothmaker, a hosier, or journeyman tailor), plunged into it as into an enchanted landscape, beckoning us continually to adventure deeper and learn more. But of course it is a condition of this venture that the poet must never satisfy us, never allow his readers’ expectations to become the measure of the poem. Thus labyrinth begets labyrinth, as a generation trained to solve literary enigmas by verbal analysis is led through bogs and thickets—and sometimes to the mountain-tops as well—by its unquestioned premise that all enigmas are not only soluble but worth a solution. It might well be a spectacle to inspire melancholy reflection on the fickle state of human affairs, if there weren’t a new study just out on Book V of The Faerie Queene, to which, if he’s going to “keep up,” the harried, hurried Spenserian must turn his troubled eye. But that’s a problem for the next reviewer of Spenser.
June 6, 1968
Spenser’s poetry was not in great demand after the first years of the seventeenth century; there was just one edition of the Works after 1617 (in 1679). The eighteenth century reprinted him twice (Hughes eds. 1715, 1750), and Upton edited a Faerie Queene in 1758. Apart from isolated allusion and passing comments, there were brief critiques and appreciations only by Jortin (1734), Warton (1754-1762), and Bishop Hurd (1762). ↩
I do not wish to be ungrateful about it, but the editorial job on Miss Tuve’s manuscript leaves something to be desired. A reference on p. 359 to “Ariosto’s figure of the web of poetry in 1381” should properly direct us to Orlando Furioso, VII, 81; a reference on P. 97 to “those Job meant when he said that the life of man or woman ‘fareth as knyghthood’ ” should point us elsewhere than to the Book of Job (to EETS 217, p. 161, as a matter of fact); and flagrant typos are to found on pp. 339 and 345. None of the these bloopers is particularly damaging in itself, and, not knowing the state in which Miss Tuve left the manuscript, we must be charitable; but caveat lector. ↩