Edmund Spenser in Context. Edited by Andrew Escobedo. Cambridge UP, 2017. xx + 384pp. ISBN: 978-1107094536. $100.00 cloth.
Edmund Spenser in Context is the latest in the long line of guides to Spenser. While Oxford handbooks have used the companion formula to go large, Cambridge’s series favours the small, using a large monograph size of about 150,000 words or so to contain a significant collection of shorter essays of about 5000 words. In this case we have 37 essays.
The collection is divided into three parts: Part one, Spenser’s Environment, covers his education, patrons, relationship to the printing house, as well as colonial experience; part two explores Spenser’s genre and craft, with essays on epic, pastoral, romance, the Bible, rhetoric, satire, allegory, as well as literary history and theory; and part three details a series of influences and analogues, including many of the usual literary suspects (Virgil, Chaucer, Petrarch), philosophical and theological subjects (saints’ lives, Plato, Aristotle, Protestant theology), and more miscellaneous subjects (ecology, gender, emblem books, cosmology and cosmography). Overall, it’s a satisfying and judiciously edited volume, as might have been expected from Andrew Escobedo, providing readers with subjects they should know that they ought to know; ones they might have suspected they might want to know; and others which they probably had no idea that they might need or want to know. The contributors are a good combination of established and upcoming Spenserians and other Early Modern scholars and critics. The editor provides only the sketchiest of introductions, usually a sign of weakness, but here one of strength, enabling the essays to speak for themselves.
I cannot review all of the essays included (all are at worst informative and useful, at best thoughtful and critically astute) so will confine my comments to particular extracts from pieces which struck me as especially insightful. Andrew Wallace’s piece on Spenser’s education teases out the balancing forces which shaped Spenser’s youth, arguing that his early work demonstrates the interplay of self-assertion and self-annihilation, carrying on the practices he learned at grammar school and in university of following a curriculum and learning techniques of rhetoric, and forging his own style as a means of self-expression.Pedagogy was both a straightjacket and a means of liberation, something that simultaneously inspired and contained the imagination to opposing principles which lie behind the experimental nature of his verse, particularly in The Faerie Queene. These insights are developing in the subsequent essay, William Oram’s study of Spenser’s “Laureate Career-Fashioning,” in which he argues that it was in Ireland that Spenser was able to develop his poetry (he published most of his work in a manic splurge of six frantic years, 1590-6), because “His physical distance from England gave him the freedom to breathe” (17), even though he was surrounded by people who were not terribly sympathetic to his presence.
I also enjoyed, admired and learned a great deal from Richard McCabe’s trenchant study of patronage, a subject he has made his own in recent years. Professor McCabe explains that patronage is yet another subject which has a paradoxical and complicated effect because “There are two problems with patronage: failing to gain it, and succeeding” (23). It is like that awful problem of gaining your heart’s desire far too early in life, or feeling bitter because your rivals have what you want. Here, the problem is that you either cannot devote your life to literature because you don’t have any money, or you have to warble forced hallelujahs to people who probably don’t deserve it (and warbling can become a bit tiresome and restricting). Spenser’s Irish career meant that, unlike his major contemporaries, he had “no royal, aristocratic, or civic commissions” (25). The three main figures in Spenser’s life are Ralegh (a patron); the earl of Essex (ditto); and Burghley (an enemy). I’ve never been sure how close Ralegh and Spenser really were—others are far more confident that they were allies—but Professor McCabe’s characterization of Ralegh as “Spenser’s ‘threshold’ patron, introducing him for the first time to the center of power” (27) is surely right. As is his description of the Blatant Beast forcing the gentle poet to resort to flattery, an onerous task he exposes by apparently chastising himself for producing unruly rhymes. As so often Professor McCabe has an appropriately neat turn of phrase: “Like Ovid, Spenser knew how to make symbolic capital out of social loss” (30). I agree, I just wonder whether he was thinking further afield than Lord Burghley.
Andrew Zurcher stresses the collaborative nature of Early Modern book production in his chapter, “Publication and the Book Marketplace,” and shows how anonymity suited the poet in the marketplace of early print. He is also interesting on a subject that many are now pursuing, notably Jennifer Richards, who has a major book forthcoming with OUP on the soundscape of early modern writing, the interface between the written and the spoken word, his poetry bamboozling the reader with “eye-rhymes and…aural rhymes…visual puns and… homophones” (61). As so often Professor Zurcher is an astute reader, his work replete with insights, albeit somewhat densely expressed on occasion. Brian Lockey’s essay, one of four on colonial contexts which conclude the first section of the volume, argues that Spenser tends to see the world through the eyes of the queen. Writing of the Radigund episode he argues that “Spenser seems to be suggesting that only through the sovereign’s application of the prerogative and the proper exercise of her conscience (i.e., her understanding of equity) can Ireland be reformed” (67). It’s neatly put but I’m not so sure: whenever Spenser pits one female figure against another I worry that he is teasing the reader with two versions of a monarch and exploiting a version of the hoary old doctrine of the monarch’s two bodies. Elsewhere he berates silly old Elizabeth for her capriciousness and failure to understand the country where he lived, which is also surely not the full story but does suggest that we need to be careful of clarity, which is one of the dangers of a volume which contains short, pithy essays on so many subjects. Thomas Herron uses his impressive knowledge of Irish history and culture to good effect in his essay, pointing out that Ralegh’s involvement in Ireland was probably at least as important for Spenser as his sponsorship of enterprises to the Americas (especially as Spenser could be seen to be critical of such ventures elsewhere). I wanted a bit more on Spenser’s use of counter-factual history—what happens in fairyland does not have to be related to what really happened—but it is a nicely judged piece.
David Quint’s essay on epic opens part two. He shows how epic concerns decrease and peter out as The Faerie Queene continues: “Calidore’s story bears the imprint of pastoral, romance, both chivalric and Greek, and Book I’s own pseudo-scripture: but none of this is epic” (104). This is another splendid short essay which shows how Spenser fashions epic to his own purposes even as he fashions a gentleman. Again, Spenser emerges as a writer squaring a circle: on the one hand epic is classical and Virgilian; on the other, it is “morally re-formed by Arthur and the poet” (109). Katherine Little’s complementary essay on pastoral also explores the range of the mode, showing how many styles, forms and subjects it can encompass. Ecclesiastical pastoral—to take just one strand—can be nurturing and consoling, serious and dutiful, as well as angry and satirical, all contained in the various eclogues which constitute The Shepheardes Calender. Clare Kinney’s neat and thoughtful essay on romance ends by comparing the last unfinished verse of “Two Cantos of Mutability” to the conclusion of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a telling comparison, as well as a reminder of the central presence of Chaucer throughout Spenser’s writing career. Jamie Ferguson’s essay on “The Bible and Biblical Hermeneutics” is alive throughout to Spenser’s close reading of Protestant theology. He argues persuasively that when confronted by Archimago that the danger to Redcross is not Scripture as interpreted by the Catholic Archimago but his own failure to read. What the reader witnesses in Redcross is a blinded Christian seeing only “the bare text of Scripture, read without the illumination of faith” (137). In writing an epic-romance informed by Luther and Calvin Spenser is showing us how the Bible has to be brought to life by the active Christian. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible should be read without inner illumination or literary exegesis.
I also enjoyed and profited from Judith Anderson’s essay on allegory, yet another intervention which shows how allegory is inevitably a complicated form divided against itself, alive to differences and divisions within its own form “such as abstraction and embodiment, emblem and narrative, mind and matter, and they develop and explore the exchanges, tensions, and other relationships between them” (139). Professor Anderson follows Stephen Barney in arguing that we should pay attention to the “allegorical ‘boundary case’” (141), apparently static scenes which read like emblems or triumphs. These feature throughout allegorical narratives as moments which enable the development of real allegorical thinking. Boundary cases force readers to think about the nature and substance of allegory, key examples in The Faerie Queene being Malbecco, the personification of jealousy, and Munera, who can be understood both literally and symbolically. Gordon Teskey continues the book’s predominant theme in his essay on literary theory: “Spenser was influenced through and through by the literary theory of his age and yet uninhibited by it” (160). Cathy Shrank explores Spenser’s use of the tradition of commonwealth poetry (something that has, to my knowledge, never received a complete essay in a collection on Spenser before), and shows how he takes the “role of public poet to a metaphorical extreme.” Whereas commonwealth poets used their writing to outline the political problems of the body politic, Spenser “fashions himself as embodying the nation itself” (183). John Curran makes a similar case about Spenser’s use of history, showing how he appropriates historical narratives in his poetry in order to assert his own control. Paul Hecht’s essay on prosody is suggestive, but the case requires further development which will undoubtedly be made at some future point. The argument is that we should be wary of assuming that Latin prosody does not inform Spenser’s English verse as conventional histories of poetry assume because a more nuanced reading of his verse would realize that quantitative meter was assimilated not discarded.
Part three is the longest section with fifteen essays. Syrithe Pugh continues her excellent work on Ovid in Spenser by producing some more subtle and thoughtful readings of the verse. I was particularly taken with the suggestion that Spenser may have cast himself as Mutability as well as Faunus, eager to expose the “Olympians’ hubris” (230). If the essay has a fault it is that it is too dense and packed with ideas, a fault that vitiates other essays but which is probably the price one pays for such a varied volume. William Junker’s useful piece on Plato and Platonism makes the now familiar case that Spenser’s use of this tradition is “more sophisticated and ambiguous than we had thought” (273). Joe Moshenska analyzes Spenser’s use of Aristotle to show how his art always values process and explores “the Aristotelian difficulty of identifying a static, final form of any given virtue” (288), each book ending with “leftovers” so that we can never be sure whether the virtue has in fact been realized or whether it will be outlined properly in the next book. In her essay on Protestant theology and devotion, Beth Quitslund shows how Spenser combines the old and the new in matching traditions to innovative theology and showing how the problem with the church was not that it was wrong but that it lost sight of its intentions, values and purposes. This insight should be developed at much greater length and might well lead us to the hidden core of Spenser’s religious belief.
Spenser in Context is a volume which neatly packages a vast amount of learning and critical thinking. Throughout it offers a myriad of ways in which we might approach Spenser’s poetry and use it to further our own literary understanding. It is hard to imagine how the collection could be much better and it should illuminate the works for some time to come.
University of Sussex