Spenser in the Moment. Edited by Paul J. Hecht and J.B. Lethbridge. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2015. xviii + 254 pp. ISBN: 978-1611476842. $75.00 cloth.
Spenser in the Moment, edited by Paul J. Hecht and J.B. Lethbridge, is a provocative volume, which pushes at the limits of what is usually expected from a collection of academic essays. Although the preface identifies the key focus of the volume as “music and prosody” (ix), the moments with which its sequence of authors concern themselves are characterized by multiplicity and difference: a drive to survey the burgeoning current critical interest in Spenser by identifying and re-evaluating key stances and attitudes outlined by previous studies; an interest in the lacunae opened by disagreement; an investment in the work to be done concerning Spenser and music; and a sense that there are opportunities to be seized in the pursuit of new ways of reading Spenser’s diverse writings. Indeed, as Hecht observes in his introduction to the collection, the drive behind the work “is a deep restlessness with aspects of the current consensus on Spenser, and a desire to press in new directions” (xiii). This restlessness charges the volume’s engagement with well-established frameworks for reading Early Modern literature, including classical imitation, periodization, and book history, and animates innovative approaches to reading Spenser’s portrayal of issues concerning sexuality and gender, his interest, or lack thereof, in music, the suitability of his writing for musical setting, and finally, how the time has come to formulate and theorize new ways of reading the idiosyncratic surfaces, textures, depths, movements and moments of Spenser’s poetry. The critical essays are complemented by the inclusion of creative responses to Spenser’s writing by the poets April Bernard and K. Silem Mohammad, whose contributions interrupt the texture of the critical prose by offering brief variations, both harmonious and discordant, on Spenser’s words and images.
The first section of the volume, “Classical, Medieval, Material,” presents highly informative and carefully positioned essays by Syrithe Pugh, Kathryn Walls, and Elisabeth Chaghafi. In each essay, the author situates the individual focus by providing an overview of the work of their most notable peers, then moves through original supporting readings before gesturing to the work still to be done. Syrithe Pugh, for example, in a series of moves that complement the work done by her monograph Spenser and Ovid, turns her attention to revivifying the relationships traditionally identified between Spenser and Virgil by overgoing familiar critical commonplaces in order to privilege more complex and ultimately more skeptical modes of imitation; as such, her readings have implications for our understanding of Spenser’s handling of genres and how we think about his self-consciously fashioned sense of what constitutes a poet’s career. What emerges from her essay, “Reinventing the Wheel: Spenser’s ‘Virgilian Career,’” is a model of Virgilian authorship that identifies not “so much a trajectory mapped out from the beginning, but rather a contemplated series of moves, like the moves in a dance or a game” (9). For Spenser, Pugh writes, this latent and responsive choreographic potential manifests in the “ambivalence and provisionality” implicit in his “negotiation with political power” (16).
For Kathryn Walls, who contemplates Spenser’s investment in representations of the past in her essay, “Spenser and the ‘Medieval’ Past: A Question of Definition,” there is an important argument to be made that the poet’s debts to earlier authors such as Langland, Chaucer, and Guillaume de Deguileville, and earlier modes including romance and Biblical exegesis, require further work to situate them fully, namely through an increased emphasis on Spenser’s own understanding of history and the “Middle Ages.” She anchors her investigation using what she identifies as two key historical moments for the author, namely the Incarnation of Christ and the Reformation, providing nuanced readings of The Faerie Queene, the “Maye” eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender, and Mother Hubberds Tale, in order to deconstruct Tudor England’s sense of itself and its religious identity. What Spenser ultimately “advocates,” she writes, “is mastery of the past; what he fears is subjection to it” (52).
In the first section’s final essay, “Spenser and Book History,” Elisabeth Chaghafi offers an illuminating survey of the key work already done to think about the material archive of Spenser’s poetry and his position as “an author who unambiguously belongs in the medium of print” (96). That there is more work to be done in this area is then modelled by Chaghafi in her use of the 1595 quarto edition of the volume that bears the title Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, but which also includes Spenser’s pastoral elegy for Sidney, “Astrophel,” as well as a further selection of elegiac verse which may or may not be by the same poet, to illustrate the complex reception of Spenser’s authorship. Her reading serves as an object lesson in thinking about the printed forms given life by communities of poets, and the editorial communities that have evolved around them. When read together, the essays make a strong case for the development of careful, historicized understandings, which are as attentive to still-emerging methodologies and cognate disciplines as they are to Spenser’s innovations.
The second section of the volume presents two chapters written on the theme of “Spenser and Music,” the first of which, by David Scott Wilson-Okamura, takes up Hazlitt’s evocative observation that Spenser invented not only a language but a “music of his own” for parsing our “waking dreams” (103). This essay, on “Music in Spenser,” prompts a series of investigations into Spenser’s musical knowledge and imagination, which includes the poet’s ability to use technical and instrumental vocabulary as well as the implications of Spenser’s musicality for an understanding of audience response. For Wilson-Okamura, who playfully observes that within a poem such as The Faerie Queene, in which there “is much pricking […], but never any prick-song” (104), the evidence for Spenser’s sustained musical engagement is somewhat fugitive; however, in a series of elegant close readings, well-supported by quantitative data detailing Spenser’s use of “instrument words,” he presents a fascinating and revisionary study of the distinctive Spenserian sounds that have provided a familiar undersong to previous criticism but which are here heard in their own right.
In a complementary essay entitled “Spenser in Music,” Gavin Alexander, in search of the potential of Spenser’s non-metaphorical musicality, turns to the relationship between “Spenser’s poetry and Elizabethan popular music” (138): a fruitful and under-researched avenue of exploration which generates a series of rich original observations concerning decorum, measure, the vagrancies of attribution, and the capacity of poetry to travel in other media. As Alexander writes, there are striking differences to be observed between the reception of Spenser and the reception of a poet like Sidney, whose verse perhaps seems more “consciously mindful of a musical end product” (146). The essay as a whole, which moves gracefully between musicology and the study of versification, offers a taste of the careful work that can be done by critics capable of wielding the requisite multidisciplinary and technical knowledge to comment authoritatively on the complex lives of both literary and musical compositions.
The final section of the collection, “Meter/Moment,” opens with two newly composed poems: an interlude that provides an alternative mode of giving form to the volume’s concern with restlessness. April Bernard’s “Trying to Like Spenser” offers a restive glimpse of images that are simultaneously reminiscent of The Faerie Queene and yet quite unlike the allegorical forms fashioned by the Early Modern poet; what Bernard provides instead, it seems, is an unrhymed vision of the subjective experience of reading Spenser, wherein “apparitions of magnificence / meeting one another in a dark green wood” seem to “make their own clearing, as we clutch / at allegory and then lose it again, it slips away […]” (8-11). Her ambivalence is beguiling; here is a poet wrestling with the aesthetic choices of another. “I choose / dissection and deflection” (47-48), Bernard’s speaker observes; yet, as one of Spenser’s many readers, “we are reeled back in to that epic that has no end” (63). K. Silem Mohammad then offers two experimental poems, “Amogram 1” and “Amogram 2,” which rearrange the letters contained within the first and second sonnets of Spenser’s Amoretti into new work. The reassembled sonnets delight in the rigidity of Spenser’s chosen form by meeting the challenge of creating meaning from deliberately limited resources; the overall effect is a hurtling series of associations, statements and questions, which range from the absurd to the startling: to invoke the final couplet of the second sonnet, “When dragonflies with human arms go mental, / Don’t hunt or cut or torture them; be gentle” (“Amogram 2,” 13-14). The original tone of Spenser’s sequence is obliterated by the process, creating new moments of collision and temporary coherence: “Is marketing atomic waste so wrong? / […] Shall any shepherds echo this my song?” (“Amogram 1,” 10, 12).
The remaining essays return the collection to the realm of more traditional literary criticism; yet the drive to provoke an audible response remains strong. Paul J. Hecht’s essay, “Queer/Ordinary: Thinking Spenserian Sex and Aesthetics,” offers a considered response to recent arguments by Jeff Dolven and Melissa E. Sanchez concerning the episode from Book III of The Faerie Queene detailing Hellenore’s “disruptive” desire (159). By identifying the resonant empty space currently separating the existing critical viewpoints, Hecht advocates for new ways of reading allegory that can better handle the ways in which “Elizabethan discourse […] presses one to see aesthetic matters as intertwined with sexual morality,” whereby “poets could be incontinent in giving in to their desire for the beautiful in a way directly parallel to sexual incontinence, lust, ungoverned appetite” (163). His interest in sufficiency, excess, and questions concerning “uselessness” (167) in poetic style, anticipate the thrust of the subsequent essay, by J.B. Lethbridge, which builds in part on previous work published as part of the Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene (as “The Bondage of Rhyme in The Faerie Queene.” For Andrew Zurcher’s review of this impressive resource see http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/spenseronline/review/item/44.2.32/). In something of a polemic, Lethbridge’s erudite appreciation of The Faerie Queene’s characteristic patterning and rhetorical density gives shape to an argument that strongly advocates for the need to dispel the idea that Spenser’s longest poem can be read as being “expressivist” or “dramatistic.” In “The Poetry of The Faerie Queene,” Lethbridge delineates a concise and careful history of how our ways of reading Spenser have been shaped by foundational close readers and critics before offering a series of striking juxtapositions that compare Spenser’s images with related moments from the plays of Shakespeare and Milton’s Paradise Lost respectively. The examples given are utterly compelling, taut and vital; however, some readers may find Lethbridge’s wider arguments controversial, particularly regarding his perception that the “drift of the poet’s claims and demands on our attention is not emotional or expressive in the least, nor consistently maintained at a high level” (176). Lethbridge’s appreciation of Spenser’s use of habitual repetition and cumulative formulae is forceful, as is his sense that Spenser “husbands his unconscious and filters its effects” (177) across a wide canvas, which admits much surface variation while limiting the creation of affective depth.
In the final essay, “Notes on Reading in The Faerie Queene: From Moment to Moment,” Gordon Teskey provides what is perhaps the key concept of the collection: a reading of The Faerie Queene as a “poem of moments” (219), which glosses the momentary as “an effect of stillness in motion” (221). At the restless heart of the chapter is the image of Florimell, who exists in Spenser’s poem as both chaste and chased, always the same yet always in flight, and who functions for Teskey as an emblem of how “stasis and kinesis” can be bound together (222): a phenomenon he terms kinestasis (227). In his vision of dynamic etymologies and of stanzas standing, Teskey makes space for contemplating what is often absent in Spenserian criticism: an account of “what it is like to read The Faerie Queene, episode by episode and moment by moment,” an omission owing to what he identifies as “our lack of an adequate phenomenological account of reading allegory” (224). Indeed, this is perhaps even what April Bernard was also searching for in her poem: though classed as “Irreverent Spenseriana” by the chapter in which it can be found, her speaker’s encroaching sense of her own inescapable subjectivity tells a story more earnest than irreverent, in which “personal thought” (22) inevitably intrudes on the lived and recollected reading experience. When framed thus, it would seem that the shadowing of allegorical meaning belongs as much to our own series of individuated moments as it does to that of the poet.
In his introduction to the volume, Hecht writes that the final group of essays is intended to suggest a “new way or ways of reading and ‘hearing’ Spenser” (xvii). Through its inclusion of both critical and creative practices and its commitment to both retrospective review and prospective groundwork, the collection as a whole certainly accrues the momentum to make this a possibility. The reader perhaps has to do more work than usual to consent to the volume’s logic, owing to the particularity and diversity of the assembled approaches; however, the impression of “a sense of expectation, as of held breath” (ix) is palpable, in both what the collection accomplishes and in anticipation of the kind of future work the authors’ collaborative efforts are capable of prompting. There are silences, yes, but these become all the more provocative for being invited to remain.
University of Bristol