Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser; drawing by David Levine

Eight-hundred-plus choked, allusive, erudite pages on The Faerie Queene! An impatient reader of James Nohrnberg’s enormous new book will be in danger of suffocating, from sheer exasperation, before he gets to the end of it; but if he’s really impatient, he will already have suffocated, in the course of his passage through Spenser’s poem, so the new mortality lists aren’t likely to be long.

Does Spenser’s poem, or any other poem, really need so much exegesis? Even granted that the Variorum is a monument to dead ideas and that most of the many attempts at explanation are unsatisfactory in one way or another, it’s as hard to say yes as no to that question. Readers whose experience of The Faerie Queene lies at any distance in the past are likely to remember the poem quite happily as a writhing, enchanted wilderness swarming with lost ladies and wandering knights, dwarves, dragons, giants, warlocks, witches, fascinating sluts, satyrs, salvage men, paynims, mythological masks, and allegorical abstractions. That there is a general tone of moral earnestness and—from time to time, in particular episodes—a strong didactic point of one sort or another is also likely to linger in memory. But what the specific moral teachings are (beyond the tritest of commonplaces) and what they amount to as a general view are matters likely to fade with the passage of time.

Yet I think that if one is enchanted with the poem, one will remain enchanted by it, even when most of the allegorical precision has evaporated from memory. It is a work in which one can wander and wonder, a poem of great beauty, ugliness, and many surprises, of tangled duplicity and shining idealism. Since it is so rich, it works in a great many, different ways besides being a systematic allegory—as spectacle, for example, as romance, charade, heroic fantasy. No doubt working out the allegory as fully as possible is a good idea. But because The Faerie Queene is so loosely articulated, and so vast (three times longer than Paradise Lost), it is bound to live in the retrospective mind as a mental tapestry which delights the reminiscent eye at least partly by bewildering it. So the poem does and yet doesn’t need to be accompanied by a monster of explication.

Nohrnberg’s new book substitutes the looser concept of analogy for the close analysis of allegory as an organizing principle of Spenser’s poem; and he displays immense resourcefulness, not to speak of patience, in weaving analogical connections, not only between various units of The Faerie Queene, but between the poem and the cosmos. What is The Faerie Queene analogous to? Rather, what isn’t it analogous to? In the first book alone, the legend of Redcrosse and Una, Nohrnberg makes analogies to the cycle of Adam, the cycles of Abraham and Moses, the later cycles of Israel (Babylon and the false prophets), six or eight cycles of Christ (as the repossessor of Paradise, the harrower of Hell, Christ the warrior and Michael his bannerer, Christ the gardener, numerous knights-errant of Christ, not to speak of the various manifestations of his mirror-image the Antichrist), the cycle of the English Reformation, the cycle of Saint George, the story of Perseus, the story of Astolfo, the story of Apollo and Python, stories of Ulysses and Hippolytus and Hercules and Huon of Bordeaux—not to mention much miscellaneous lore of witches, magicians, enchanters, sphinxes, psyches, and assorted succubae from European folklore—with indefinite extensions in the literature of the Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, the Zohar, the Talmud, the Cabala, the medieval commentators, the Biblical annotators, the heretics, apologists, controversialists, devotionalists, and sermon-writers of some twelve centuries. Nohrnberg also suggests analogies with hymns, lyric poetry, heathen and Christian philosophers, and the full resources of iconography.

A further set of optional and, so to speak, detachable analogies are those Nohrnberg makes between the adventures of a knight-errant and the development of the libido through anal and oral to genital stages of satisfaction—and, alternatively or additionally, the development of the psyche through the magic landscapes charted by Erik Erikson or any other psychologist of one’s choice. The labors of Hercules bear analogy to the sun’s travels through the zodiac, as also to the trials of Odysseus. Any analogy with the children of Israel in bondage to Egypt includes the potential analogy of the proletariat in bondage to the exploiters, the Irish in bondage to the English, blacks in bondage to whites, Greeks in bondage to Turks, Turks in bondage to Greeks, and so on to no fixed term.

With this diffuse and immensely various material, Professor Nohrnberg is willing to erect an analogical relation on almost any sort of evidential ground. The logic of analogies is characteristically loose but it must be said that on occasion Nohrnberg does attenuate the analogical relation pretty fine. Sometimes it’s the general pattern of a large narrative unit to which he draws attention; sometimes his argument hangs on a couple of rather fragile words spaced out far from each other. The first argument risks being obvious, the second arcane. To argue in extenso that Duessa is a sort of witch is not only to work without an opponent, but to document in detail what any sensible reader of Book I already senses. It’s overkill. On the other hand, when the satyrs, after first worshiping Una, fall away to worshiping the very ass on which she rides (I, vi, 19), not everyone will be altogether convinced by Professor Nohrnberg’s intricate argument that they retain, even in their degenerate idolatry, some vestige of the one true faith that is explicit in Una’s name. The Greek word for “ass” is “onos,” and the vocative form, we agree, is “one“—so, according to Mr. Nohrnberg, the satyrs still have a kind of half-ass Una. Well, maybe.


The truth is, when you mince Spenser very fine, and start shuffling the fragments into analogical relations with the rest of the world’s literature (minced equally fine), you are bound to come up with a lot of analogical relations. If you are a determined and ingenious fellow, you can hardly avoid doing so. Patristic and exegetical materials provide a particularly happy hunting ground for this sort of thing, because their authors were themselves engaged in an equivalent paper chase. For what this consideration is worth, Spenser was probably aware of some of their activity. That he was aware of, or interested in, more than a fraction of what the exegetes have amassed seems to me improbable. But Professor Nohrnberg provides little or no guidance for the reader who wants to discriminate between distinctively marked, clearly relevant influence and trivial or adventitious parallels.

A larger issue that arises from this judgment is: What sort of poem does The Faerie Queene become when read through Professor Nohrnberg’s stereoscopic eyes? Well, it becomes a more cluttered and less orderly poem than it was before. This is partly due to the nature of the critical process: it’s an agglomerative reading at which the commentator aims, and the work advances under the tacit rubric of the more the merrier. But partly also the clutter derives from the fact that Mr. Nohrnberg is a poor arranger and explainer of his materials. His paragraphs, for example, are often shapeless and unpointed; they begin and end in medias res, and their interiors slip or hop across wide gaps of undeclared private association.

Though Professor Nohrnberg has felt impelled to include an Analytical Table of Contents in the back of the book, it is neither very analytical nor particularly helpful, being simply a small-scale labyrinth attached to a large-scale one. The general progress of the study is through linked books of The Faerie Queene, with friendship analogized to chastity, temperance analogized to justice, and holiness analogized to courtesy. But there are hundreds of lesser analogies, both interior and exterior, and they assert themselves continually in the midst of larger arguments. The pursuit of particular themes involves a great deal of highly allusive jumping around. The author knows his huge text by heart, which is admirable; but he too often takes for granted that his readers do as well, and are ready to follow what he too rarely apologizes for as “acrobatics.” It isn’t always that the thought is arcane, but simply that the pointers are inadequate so that the book becomes an exercise in “Guess what I’m thinking about now.” All but a few readers will occasionally find themselves in the sorry plight of Redcrosse and Una, who

   wander too and fro in wayes unknowne,
Furthest from end then, when they nearest weene,
That makes them doubt, their wits be not their owne:
So many pathes, so many turnings seene,
That which of them to take, in diverse doubt they beene.

Because the book will be praised, and deservedly, for its extraordinary range of erudition, I don’t think it is niggling to point out that it should also be handled with caution because of its appalling and quite inexcusable inaccuracy. How can a man whose interest is English poetry quote a sonnet by Donne, omit one entire metrical foot from the fourth line, and not hear the jolt that results? A first-year student of Latin ought to sense that Augustine’s title can’t be De Genesi ad Litterarum, any more than the Latin numeral can be “quatour,” or Apuleius can be Apulieus. Who appointed Andrew Undershaft “Captain” Undershaft? No fewer than four obvious typographical or linguistic errors can be picked out of a single footnote, number 108 on page 137. Does Mr. Nohrnberg seriously propose to translate “Virginitas Amoris Frenum” as “Virginity with respect to the Frenzy of Love”? This particular howler occurs on page 479, where Mr. Nohrnberg also transcribes a title of Alciati’s as “Anteros, Amor virtutis aliun Cupiden superans” (the original is alium Cupidinem, of course)—and then translates it as “Virtuous Love Conquering Vicious Love,” instead of something like “The Love of Virtue Conquering the Other Cupid.”


Apart from their serious inaccuracies, a good many of the abundant footnotes are cryptic to the point of indecipherability. On page 184, for example, an allusion to Northrop Frye’s comment on the waste-land myth and the grail quester bears the following note: “Galahad(t) is the healer-balm of Vlg. Jer.22.8: so Craig Davis.” Of course the reader will turn to Jeremiah in his Vulgate Bible, and discover that the passage in question isn’t 22:8 but 8:22; he will guess that the parenthetical (t) is a shorthand allusion to Dante’s use of the word in the form “galeotto” (Inferno, V, 137), with its derivation from the French Lancelot “Galehaut.” He will see that the whole point of referring us to the Vulgate is that the Latin for Gilead is Galaad, and will wonder in passing why, out of about a hundred uses of Galaad in the Vulgate, only this one should be identified with Galahad. He will ask himself, more in sorrow than in anger, which of Northrop Frye’s several volumes he should explore for the reference in question. And after all this, he will still be left to speculate on who Craig Davis is, and where he said what he’s said to have said.

In fact, much of Nohrnberg’s erudition seems designed for ostentation rather than for utility. When he tells of the “book of life,” and cites the Biblical passages that refer to it (Ps. 69:28, Dan. 12:1, Phil. 4:4, Rev. 3:5, 13:8, 20:12, 21:27), he can’t expect all these cross-references to be useful. Everybody knows it’s a common Biblical phrase; the parallel passages can be transcribed from any Biblical concordance, and should be left there unless they serve some sort of function. When Nohrnberg cites Luther’s Auslegung des dritten und vierten Kapitals Johannis, referring to the Werke (Weimar, 1912), vol. 47, pp. 67f., I’m impressed, but I think it would be more helpful if he referred to the English translation from which he got the reference. I’m not being generous here, but a man with as much real learning as Nohrnberg obviously possesses doesn’t need to create adventitious difficulties for his readers; he hasn’t been very generous himself in making his tracks easy to follow.

In this matter of clarity, I’m bound to phrase my criticisms of the book’s faults as if they were the author’s responsibility, as indeed they are; but the editor of the book, whoever he was, should share the blame. Specialists have an unavoidable tendency to neglect the convenience of the reader, to assume that everything will be clear to him because it is clear to them; it’s an editor’s business to make a writer explain, be clear and accurate, so far as he is capable of those qualities. Some such challenge, issued now and then, would have helped Professor Nohrnberg to deliver himself of a workable book instead of (too often) inchoate materials toward a book, a mere mola.

Yet, despite all its exasperating qualities and complications, the book left me with a new feeling for the depth and intricacy of Spenser’s workmanship. One can’t sense what a complex and layered poem it is unless one works and draws it (wire-draws it, perhaps), as Mr. Nohrnberg has done in this Byzantine work of scholarship. Had the book developed more of its own counter-energies, challenged its own exuberant ideas more drastically, one might feel fewer reservations about it.

Nevertheless, I think anyone writing about Spenser really has to work through Nohrnberg’s book. He commands not only a wide if erratic erudition but a subtle and ingenious critical mind. He suggests more than he can conceivably prove, more than most readers can possibly hold in their minds, more than anyone will want to accept. But refining the ore is every serious reader’s business, and to read and mark up a copy of Nohrnberg, to cut and emend it, to try to clarify what one finds muddled, will be a splendid exercise for the heroic Spenserian. At the end of such strenuous work, I think it likely that one would have a book of 200 pages. Nevertheless, the exercise will have forced one to turn over many old books and old ideas, to do a lot of fresh difficult thinking about a demanding as well as a delightful poet. Spenser is too fine a writer to be oversimplified on the one hand, or burdened on the other with extraneous erudite lumber or irrelevant ingenuity.

Isabel MacCaffrey’s book, Spenser’s Allegory, proposes to illustrate from the rich poetic materials available in The Faerie Queene an underlying thematic purpose of Spenser’s, to explore the ways of knowing available to men, and particularly the workings of the imagination. The study begins accordingly with an extended account of the imagination as a philosophical and psychological concept in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Those who are interested in this material may begin the book at the beginning; those who want to get on with the argument about The Faerie Queene can start their study, without major penalties, at Part II, on page 133.

The main argument falls, it seems to me, into two parts. The reader as he adventures through the poem learns slowly to see through verbal appearances, to interpret visual signals, to foresee and back-read the consequences of artful indications. And so too with the characters; Redcrosse, Guyon, Britomart, Artegall, et al. have to learn not only the conditions of their sometimes ambiguous existence in The Faerie Queene, but their own unsure identities. They aren’t by any means the achieved and perfected virtues that stand as the titles of their legends, and so they discover or create themselves as they enact those legends.

Thus far we move along pretty well worn paths, and in declaring this argument Professor MacCaffrey lays out, lucidly and sympathetically, a familiar landscape. In a decisive section she contemplates and rejects the possibility that all the action of The Faerie Queene is figurative or psychological in nature, preferring to see the poem as tracing the encounter of the mind with the complexities of the outside world, as well as with itself. But as anyone can see, this double formula covers a lot of ground—nearly all the ground there is. It could apply to practically any poem or novel in the world. So I don’t find the thesis of MacCaffrey’s book very weighty as an argument, though as a frame for sensitive and capacious analysis of individual passages it’s adequate.

On the whole, Professor MacCaffrey deals with smaller narrative units than Nohrnberg does, and attempts to do less with them: indeed, she sometimes falls into a kind of stately paraphrase that results in some distinctly starchy prose:

Amoret’s and Belphoebe’s presences in the poem enable us to trace the process by which the human imagination, relating its desires and its intuitions concerning the human soul to a realm of imaginatively apprehended forms, contrives for itself emblems of potentiality.

Another difficulty with the paraphrase is the author’s fondness for adorning her prose with bits and tags from other writers (Yeats, Marvell, Shakespeare and Stevens) that have only a tangential relation to the subject under discussion—and irk one by their incongruity more than they define the central subject. Spenser says (III,ix,7) that women provoked by lust will not be barred from a man by walls or watchers; the parallel, if one is needed, is with Corvino in Volpone, but Professor MacCaffrey gives us, to almost ludicrous effect, highflown Lovelace: “Stone walls do not a prison make.”

Still, her point, such as it is, can hardly help being made. The actors in the various legends do indeed come to understand more or less the conditions of their existence through long struggle with the dangers and temptations of the world, and with their own fantasies about it. The reader also comes to understand Spenser’s imagination in its relation to various actual and possible modes of being.

Much of the time the book sheds its illumination where the street lighting is already pretty good; the dark corners are left dark by the simple process of not being mentioned; and sometimes what we learn is not much more than that Concord is Good while Discord is Bad. But I think Professor MacCaffrey’s argument culminates in a persuasive and eloquent account of Book VI, where allegory recedes, romance takes over, and the poet achieves his brief, culminating vision before being forced back into struggle with the Blatant Beast. The mode of MacCaffrey’s final section is appreciation primarily, not criticism or scholarship; but it is informed and discriminating appreciation, and crowns her book with its finest piece of writing.

In both books (adding up to some 1,200 pages of commentary on Spenser in addition to the 2,500 pages which I reviewed for this publication several years ago* ) one finds a deep and uneasy awareness, mostly to be traced in the footnotes, of predecessors. How much of what one reads in a contemporary book about Spenser is plain repetition (now in summary form, now with extra documentation, rarely with more than minor variations of emphasis) of what has been written before, perhaps several times over? At a rough estimate, the overlap can hardly be less than 90 percent.

The later authors are nothing if not generous in recognizing the work of their predecessors: the footnotes link together a chain of praise for previous treatments of each successive aspect of the poem. (Where they differ with a previous emphasis, it’s almost shyly, as if saying to the reader, “I don’t see eye to eye with Professor Blank on this matter, but it’s all very complicated, and you wouldn’t be interested in the details.”) This is civilized indeed, but the bleary reader can hardly be blamed for yearning after a bit of clearly defined discovery, however modest.

Meanwhile, the poem itself remains the primary experience; and while the poem “itself” is no doubt the very thing that is in question, one is bound to put heavy emphasis on the claims of the text, if only because the quantities of reading are so immense. Refreshing one’s acquaintance with a Shakespeare play or a Dickens novel is a relatively modest undertaking; to reread The Faerie Queene as it should be reread—slowly, attentively, ruminatively, uninteruptedly—is not given very often to most of us. A prolonged convalescence on the Riviera or a winter in the Outer Hebrides would be appropriate occasions. And during all that time, the volumes of exegesis will be piling higher.

At their best, the commentaries complement the text and send the reader back to strike his own mental balances with regard to it; as they enrich, they also schematize. No one can say categorically what is too much of these dipolar charges, but it’s not hard for any reader to know what’s enough for him. It’s what springs spontaneously to life in his rereading of the old text suddenly made new; and in that brief flare of joyous recognition much can be forgiven.

This Issue

June 23, 1977