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A Turn Toward Satire?
by Mark David Rasmussen

Hile, Rachel E. Spenserian Satire: A Tradition of Indirection. Manchester UP, 2017. viii + 202 pp. ISBN: 978-0719088087. $100.00 cloth.

 

People don’t usually think of Spenser as a satirist, but in this stimulating new book Rachel E. Hile proposes that they should, as she seeks “to write Spenser back in to the history of satire” (3). What most characterizes Spenserian satire, she argues, is indirection: addressing satirical targets through a process of oblique reference, rather than by frontal attack. Within the chilling constraints of Elizabethan state censorship, indirect satire protects authors, offering them the cover of deniability. Hile maintains that with the greater freedom of the press heralded by Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) the indirect tradition dies out, replaced by the candor of Restoration and Augustan satire, whose prominence in subsequent literary history has almost entirely obscured for us Spenser’s achievement in the mode. But the same was not true for satirists who followed more closely in Spenser’s wake and who signaled their recognition of his example with allusions of their own, by their indirections finding his indirection out. It is this allusive history that Hile now aims to recover.

Hile’s book falls into two main parts. In the first of these, her introduction and chapters one and two, she elaborates on her model of indirect satire and explores the implications of that model for understanding Spenser. Hile culls many of her critical terms from semiotics: reading indirect satire involves what she calls “an intersemiotic transfer of meaning” (2) from other sources, literary or otherwise, into the text, while later authors who refer to Spenser seek “to position themselves within the literary field” (2). An indirect satirist sets up shop somewhere on the continuum between general satire, where social groups and practices are targeted, but not particular individuals, and direct satire, where names are named and prisoners taken. A satirist operating in the indirect mode encourages readers to draw allegorical connections between elements of the text and aspects of the real world (Hile, 13, speaks of this as the awakening of an “allegorical intuition”), but doesn’t offer the gratification of one-to-one correspondence or interpretive closure.

In her first chapter, Hile points to three ways that authors may hint at real-world referents, through allusion, symbol, or analogy, and then shows how all three operate in Spenser’s most extended drawing of a satirical character, that of the Fox in Mother Hubberds Tale, published in the 1591 volume of Complaints. The adventures of the Fox and the Ape allude to both Aesopian and Reynardian beast fables, with their general satire on the clergy and the court, but also to the career of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, an allegorical intuition especially available to those aware that Burghley’s enemies sometimes referred to him as a fox. Relevant as well are the symbolic meanings attached to foxes in natural history, especially their reputation for uncleanliness and their fondness for inhabiting other creatures’ dens. Finally, though, it is the series of analogies between the Fox’s behavior and widely criticized elements of Burghley’s supposed conduct—his greed, his sway over the monarch, his favoring of his offspring—that leads readers closer and closer to satirical closure. Perhaps, indeed, too close; for these analogies take Mother Hubberds Tale away from the safe haven of indirect satire and into the perilous seas of specificity. In the event, the 1591 Complaints were called in (that is, all unsold copies of the volume were impounded by the government), and Mother Hubberds Tale was only included in the folio edition of Spenser’s Works after the death in 1612 of Robert Cecil, Burghley’s second son and his successor as chief minister.

In the final section of her first chapter, Hile proposes a narrative for Spenser’s career as a satirist, a story in which these events are pivotal. In his first collection of poems, The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Spenser’s satire was perhaps too indirect, too mild, to “make poetry matter” (32) in the way that a satirist wishes to do. Even today, while the character Roffy in the “September” eclogue alludes clearly to Spenser’s patron, John Young, Bishop of Rochester, the analogies between Roffy’s story and real-world events, if such analogies exist, have so far proved impossible to sort out and could hardly have packed much satirical punch. With Complaints, on the other hand, Spenser comes too close to naming his targets, both in Mother Hubberds Tale and in The Ruines of Time, and may be thought fortunate to have escaped further punishment beyond the calling in of his book. As precarious as this episode may have been for Spenser personally, for later poets it helped to establish his credibility as a satirist. However, Hile argues, in the 1596 installment of The Faerie Queene Spenser finds the right balance between direction and indirection, operating at peak satirical effectiveness in the Mercilla/Duessa episode in Book Five.

A key term in Hile’s critical lexicon is “entry code,” a phrase she borrows from Annabel Patterson to describe “strange details, words or images that don’t quite fit” (31) the literal narrative or context of a work and thus may serve as pointers toward satirical meanings.[1] In her first chapter Hile borrows an especially vivid example from Bruce Danner: the reference in Mother Hubberds Tale to the ambitious building program of the Fox as royal advisor to the Ape (“But his own treasure he encreased more / And lifted up his loftie towres thereby,” lines 1171-72), a reference that leads nowhere within the poem and seems solely calculated to call out Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer.[2] “Entry codes” are especially important to the argument of Hile’s second chapter, where she considers how Spenser’s representation of his ties with other authors and texts helps to frame his identity as a satirist. The first section of this chapter concentrates on The Shepheardes Calender, excavating the satirical implications of the names Colin Clout (pointing to Skelton) and “the New Poet” (pointing to Skelton again, but also to Catullus), as well as the title of the volume itself (referring to The Kalender of Shepherds, a book with Protestant associations). Hile then turns to consider at greater length Spenser’s 1591 poem Daphnaïda, a work that is not generally regarded as satirical in mode. In an extended close reading of the poem, Hile argues that such “entry codes” as an initial invitation to the reader to view Alcyon as an allegorical figure, rather than as a narrative character, combined with the sheer badness of the verse and its excessive reliance on metaphor, signal a contrast with Spenser’s source-text, Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, that generates “allegory as satire, a biting commentary on the dangers of idées fixes in the real world” (58). The poem thus provides a specimen “of Spenser’s allegorical and allusive satire that requires an active reader” (63).

The second part of Hile’s book, occupying roughly two-thirds of its 176 pages of text, comprises its third through sixth chapters, plus a brief conclusion. Here Hile turns from considering Spenser’s work in indirect satire to examining how other writers responded to his example, both in the 1590s and in the early Stuart years. Much of Hile’s argument here is made through a series of detailed close readings that are hard to recapture in brief scope, so although this is the longer of the book’s two parts, my summary of it will prove to be somewhat more schematic.

Hile begins her third chapter, “Spenser and the literary system in the 1590s,” by articulating a general model for Spenser’s literary influence, drawing on the theories of the semiotician Itamar Even-Zohar. As a poet already recognized by the 1590s as canonical, but one who had also engaged in the perilous mode of indirect satire, Spenser offered a complex precedent that poets in the uncanonical genre of satire could look to as an authorizing example, a “brand.” To offer a foil for the complexity of what Spenser comes to mean to some writers, Hile devotes the remainder of her third chapter to two bishop/poets, Joseph Bedell and Joseph Hall, who addressed themselves to an especially reductive version of Spenser’s example. Both Bedell and Hall regarded Spenser as a mainstream, decorous author: Bedell with admiration, and Hall with scorn. In The Shepherds Tale of the Pouder Plot, which Bedell “read aloud to his household each year on November 5” (72), the bishop uses the potentially subversive mode of Spenserian pastoral to encode a ludicrously safe and transparent message: the Gunpowder Plot was a really bad thing. By contrast, Hall brings images from Spenser’s poetry into his own biting satire, Virgidemiae, but he demonstrates his contempt for Spenser’s example by making the images disgusting (so, for instance, Chrysogone’s impregnation by sun-beams in Book III of The Faerie Queen becomes the generation of steam from a pile of dung). Each writer in his own way responds to a simplified version of what Spenser can mean as a literary pretext.

In her fourth and fifth chapters, Hile turns to three poets who find in Spenser a more richly engaging example: Thomas Nashe, Tailboys Dymoke, and the very young Thomas Middleton.

In his pornographic poem A Choise of Valentines, Nashe uses the name “Tomalin” and a series of verbal echoes as “entry codes” to signal the “March” eclogue from The Shepheardes Calender as an ironic intertext. The effect is not only to mock naïveté in love, but also by invoking Spenser’s dangerous allusion in that poem to Lettice Knollys (“And learne with Lettice to wexe light,” line 20) to awaken the possibility that the prostitute Frances in Nashe’s poem may refer to Frances Walsingham, with Elizabeth herself cast as madam of the brothel. In short, Nashe uses Spenser here both as a stand-in for an excessively idealistic view of love that his poem seeks to debunk, and as precedent for his own stab at satiric indirection.

The “chief claim to fame” of Tailboys Dymoke’s Caltha Poetarum is its “having been named in the Bishops’ Ban of 1599,” for reasons that remain obscure (100). For Hile, this poem, too, targets Elizabeth by means of indirection. In particular, Dymoke alludes to the myth of Venus and Astery recounted in Spenser’s Muiopotmos to enforce a satirical critique of the heresies of both Elizabeth and her Church, when viewed through a Catholic lens.

Hile’s fifth chapter turns to the example of Middleton, whose volume Micro-Cynicon: Six Snarling Satyres, composed during his teens, also fell under the Bishops’ Ban and was burned. Nationalist and Protestant sympathies that twenty-five years later would get Middleton in trouble again with the performance of his play A Game of Chess (1624) already surface in this very early work, which signals its indirect targeting of Robert Cecil by alluding to Spenser’s attacks on his father in Mother Hubberds Tale. In the process, Middleton declares his allegiance to Spenser’s example as a writer of oppositional satire. Hile rounds out her book with a sixth chapter surveying the “loose alliance” (145) of the so-called Spenserian poets writing in the Jacobean period—Michael Drayton, William Browne, and George Wither—and the varying uses that each makes of Spenser’s precedent as an author of indirect satire.

For this Spenserian, Hile’s book made for a compelling read, not least because of its relevance to several of our most lively current debates. I will just mention three of them here. First, of course, is the long-standing controversy about how best to describe the arc of Spenser’s career. All of us, I think, continue to feel the influence of Richard Helgerson’s powerful paradigm, the “laureate” model for Spenser’s career based on the example of Virgil, though our response often takes the form of resistance.[3] (Incidentally, we often forget, or at least I often forget, how thoroughly Self-Crowned Laureates was informed by the method and language of semiotics—a recent re-reading of its opening chapter, “The Laureate and the Literary System,” forcibly reminded me of this—and this debt to semiotics is certainly something that Helgerson and Hile share.) Critics like Patrick Cheney and David Scott Wilson-Okamura have further amplified the Virgilian, laureate paradigm in some powerful and influential ways.[4] Many years ago, Richard Rambuss proposed that we need to understand Spenser’s poetic output not simply in terms of his literary ambitions, but also in the light of his other public commitments, especially throughout his career as a secretary.[5] As Rambuss observed, and as many others have noted since, the Complaints volume poses a particular problem for the Virgilian paradigm, since it appears in 1591, one year after the first installment of The Faerie Queene, and thus seems out of sync with any imaginable version of the so-called Virgilian progression.[6] Two of our strongest recent critics, Syrithe Pugh and Rebeca Helfer, offer important qualifications of the laureate model, as well. Pugh decries the simplifications that come with granting unqualified assent to this model, observing that Virgil’s own poetic agenda and practices are nuanced and ambivalent in ways that do not easily fit into any triumphalist plan, while Helfer maintains that Spenser’s poetic project of deriving new cultural significances from ruins should actually be characterized as anti-Virgilian in its intent.[7] It seems clear that Hile’s book participates in this ongoing movement to correct and/or to recalibrate the Virgilian paradigm, specifically in this instance by paying fresh attention to Spenser’s work as a satirist.

A second debate in which Hile’s book usefully intervenes is that over the importance of topical allusions in Spenser’s poems—and here, too, a bit of critical history, familiar to most of us, is in order. The great vogue for excavating references in Spenser’s poetry to particular people, places, and events came in the early twentieth century, with the chief monuments to this approach being Edwin Greenlaw’s Studies in Spenser’s Historical Allegory (1932) and the countless topical allusions enshrined in the pages of the Variorum (1932-57). In the second half of the twentieth century, with the New Criticism’s emphasis on formal integrity, searching for topical references fell desperately out of fashion, but among Spenserians it has staged a remarkable comeback in recent years, with the two most prominent examples being Thomas Herron’s work on identifying Irish allusions and Bruce Danner’s monograph on Spenser and Lord Burghley.[8] But the question remains: how important is it to our understanding and appreciation of a poem by Spenser to get the topical references right? Essential, somewhat important, or who cares? Here, Hile’s book charts a promising middle course. For the most part, her readings of poems by Spenser and his followers do not stand or fall on the basis of whether a particular topical identification is correct. (Her reading of Middleton’s Micro-Cynicon as alluding to Robert Cecil strikes me as a partial exception.) Instead, what intrigue her are not so much particular references as the air of referentiality that indirect satire provides, and that constitutes an important element of many of Spenser’s works, not to mention those of his followers. 

The third controversy to which Hile’s book pertains is a related one: to what extent do we interpret and value Spenser’s poems as deliberate attempts to intervene in the circumstances of his world, and to what extent do we interpret and value these poems as ironic reflections on the possibilities of such intervention? Danner’s book on Spenser and Lord Burghley follows this first path, as does William Oram when he speaks of Complaints as “an explosion of frustration at the court.”[9] Critics who view Spenser’s poems as primarily ironic and self-reflexive follow the lead of Harry Berger, Jr., one of the most influential Spenserians from the 1960s to the present. It is interesting that Berger’s name does not appear in the index of Danner’s book or in the bibliography and index of Hile’s; for that matter, Berger’s name does not appear in the index to Andrew Hadfield’s magisterial biography of the poet, and Hadfield’s extensive bibliography includes only one, relatively minor, article by that critic.[10] Needless to say, Berger is very far from the only writer who has viewed Spenser as a self-reflexive ironist—the matriculated members of the “School of Harry” are numerous and well-known, including the outgoing editor of this Review, David Miller, and I regard my own work on Complaints as counting toward a degree.[11] Here, too, Hile would seem to occupy something of a middle ground. Important to her account is Spenser’s unironic desire to “make poetry matter” (32) within the world, but her category of indirect satire seems sufficiently flexible and rhetorically informed to preclude an overly literal reading practice. For me, though, the most stimulating recent engagement with Spenserian self-reflexiveness is Lauren Silberman’s essay on Mother Hubberds Tale, where she argues that irony may itself be a form of strategic misdirection, a cover for the act of deliberate engagement.[12] Silberman’s essay, among the best on Complaints to appear in many years, is cited in Hile’s book and seems both compatible with and a productive extension of its line of thought.

These, then, are a few of the intriguing ways that Hile’s book connects with some of our most vigorous current debates. How successful is the book as a work of criticism? When it comes to her theoretical model of indirect satire, I must confess to a mild case of déjà lu. For all the semiotic terminology that Hile brings into play, I cannot see that her model differs greatly from the concept of “functional ambiguity” that Annabel Patterson introduced in her seminal book of thirty-three years ago, Censorship and Interpretation, a book that Hile readily and properly acknowledges as one of her sources.[13] Like Hile’s “indirect satire,” Patterson’s term denotes a practice of obfuscation that writers adopt in order to achieve deniability under a régime of state censorship. Of course, in speaking of “functional ambiguity” (my italics), Patterson sought to contest both the Kantian disinterestedness allegedly associated with ambiguity by the New Critics and deconstruction’s embrace of aporia as a defining characteristic of literary language. Today, the New Criticism and deconstruction are not dragons that a young critic like Hile must slay. But it strikes me that where she deviates from Patterson is not so much in the terms of her model of “indirect satire” as in how and where that model is applied. Patterson found “functional ambiguity” almost exclusively in poetry that aimed at covert political critique. Hile is much more eclectic in her practice, discovering strategic indirection in all kinds of poems on all kinds of topics, from Daphnaïda to A Choise of Valentines. This gives her criticism a kind of reckless abandon that I thoroughly enjoy, though I find I am persuaded more by some of her readings than I am by others. In short, Hile’s originality resides primarily not in her concept of “indirect satire,” but in the free-ranging way that she applies that concept in her work.

For this reader, the most exciting and informative portion of Hile’s book was its second part, and especially chapters three, four, and five, where she surveys the engagement of various authors, mainly from the 1590s, with Spenser’s example as an indirect satirist. Here, too, Hile acknowledges an important critical precedent: Michelle O’Callaghan’s landmark study of Spenser’s reception by early Stuart writers. In a sentence that Hile quotes approvingly, O’Callaghan speaks of the “unsettling doubleness” of Spenser’s reputation among poets of the period: “he was simultaneously the laureate poet gloriously serving his monarch and the oppositional poet, the persecuted critic of the corrupted times.”[14] In my view, Hile’s book does a brilliant job of demonstrating that by the 1590s this doubleness already marked the reception of Spenser, so that authors like Bedell and Joseph Hall and Thomas Nashe could regard the poet (either with admiration or scorn or ambivalence) as a mainstream traditionalist, while a young Thomas Middleton could draw support from the example of Spenser as occupying a space of political opposition. Hile’s claim that Spenser’s reception was already bifurcated in this way during the 1590s strikes me as entirely persuasive, and I predict that it will change my own understanding of his reception history. (In this regard, Hile’s fourteen-page analysis of Nashe’s Choise of Valentines in dialogue with the “March” eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender offers what is to my mind the best sustained piece of close reading in her book.)

Hile makes it clear from the outset that she does not intend to offer a comprehensive survey of Spenser’s engagement with satire over the course of his career; her main concern is with how later writers responded to his example, and the proportions of her book (about one-third on Spenser, about two-thirds on other writers) bear this emphasis out. Hile’s candor about the scope of her project is admirable, but the diminished attention paid to Spenser’s own practice as a satirist gave me a nagging sense, as I became engrossed in reading about the Tailboys Dymokes of this world, of Hamlet without the prince. It doesn’t help that Hile’s most extended engagement with one of Spenser’s poems, her seventeen-page reading of Daphnaïda, struck me as by a considerable margin the weakest portion of the book. Hile does point to some vivid details that helped me to a fuller understanding of the work—I particularly liked her observation that the poem’s reader is initially misdirected to read the mournful Alcyon as an allegorical figure—but ultimately Hile’s reading of Daphnaïda as satire of the mourner’s excessive grief does not take us very far beyond canonical interpretations of the poem offered by William Oram and others, and it is not immediately evident why the need for deniability that motivates indirect satire would be felt in a poem that makes its topical allusions (Alcyon as Arthur Gorges, Daphne as Douglas Howard) abundantly clear from the start, in its dedicatory epistle.[15]

All this is to say that there is room for further work on Spenserian satire, including the kind of comprehensive survey of Spenser’s work in the mode that Hile places beyond the scope of her current project. Such a survey would attend, at a minimum, to the satirical eclogues in The Shepheardes Calender, to the satirical moments in both installments of The Faerie Queene, and to Complaints and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. It would also engage, I think, the still-vexed relation between satire and complaint. Readers of Hile’s book with long memories may remark how closely the initial term in her three-part taxonomy for satire (general, indirect, and direct) matches John Peter’s definition of complaint in contrast to satire as “conceptual” and “impersonal.”[16] But 1956 was a very long time ago. Two recent publications by William Kerwin and Yulia Ryzhik have reflected on the distinction between the two modes in more critically sophisticated ways.[17] Both pieces, like Hile’s book, have just appeared this year. If 2017 comes to be remembered as an annus mirabilis for work on Spenser and satire, future scholars and critics will surely take careful note of Hile’s thought-provoking study as they find directions of their own.

 

Mark David Rasmussen
Centre College


[1] For Annabel Patterson’s original use of this term, see Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England, U of Wisconsin P, 1984, p. 57.

[2] See Hile, p. 21. For Bruce Danner’s more extended discussion of the allusion, see Edmund Spenser’s War on Lord Burghley, Palgrave, 2011, pp. 151-75, where he excavates a reference to Burghley’s lavish building program at Theobalds.

[3] Richard Helgerson, Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the Literary System, U of California P, 1983.

[4] Patrick Cheney, Spenser’s Famous Flight: A Renaissance Idea of a Literary Career, U of Toronto P, 1993, and David Scott Wilson-Okamura, Virgil in the Renaissance, Cambridge UP, 2010. Wilson-Okamura’s essay, “Problems in the Virgilian Career,” Spenser Studies, vol. 26, 2011, pp. 1-30, offers a characteristically learned and spirited rebuttal to some objections to the Virgilian model.

[5] Richard Rambuss, Spenser’s Secret Career, Cambridge UP, 1993.

[6] Rambuss, pp. 84-7. On this point, see also William A. Oram, “Spenser in Search of An Audience: the Kathleen Williams Lecture for 2004,” Spenser Studies, vol. 20, 2005, pp. 23-47, especially 25-32.

[7] Syrithe Pugh, “Reinventing the Wheel: Spenser’s ‘Virgilian Career,’” in Spenser in the Moment, edited by Paul J. Hecht and J. B. Lethbridge, Fairleigh Dickinson P, 2013, pp. 1-31, Spenser and Virgil: The Pastoral Poems, Manchester UP, 2016, and Rebeca Helfer, Spenser’s Ruins and the Art of Recollection, U of Toronto P, 2012.

[8] See, for instance, Thomas Herron, “Plucking the Perrot: Muiopotmos and Irish Politics,” in Edmund Spenser: New and Renewed Directions, edited by J. B. Lethbridge, Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2006, pp. 80-118, “Outfoxed?: Mother Hubberds Tale, Adam Loftus, and Lord Burleigh in Irish Context,” Spenser Studies, vol. 28, 2013, pp. 221-32, and Danner, Edmund Spenser’s War.

[9] Oram, “Spenser in Search,” p. 26.

[10] Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life, Oxford UP, 2012.

[11] Mark David Rasmussen, “Spenser’s Plaintive Muses,” Spenser Studies, vol. 13, 1999, pp. 139-64, and “Complaints and Daphnaïda,” in The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, edited by Richard McCabe, Oxford UP, 2010, pp. 218-36.

[12] Lauren Silberman, “Aesopian Prosopopoia: Making Faces and Playing Chicken in Mother Hubberds Tale,” Spenser Studies, vol. 27, 2012, pp. 221-47, especially p. 27: “the poem’s meta-level examination of its own rhetorical tools is revealed as potentially one more defensive strategy: just as an attack on Burleigh or a critique of Elizabeth can masquerade as a fable about a fox or a lion, so sedition can purport to be discourse about sedition.”

[13] Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation, especially pp. 18-23.

[14] Michelle O’Callaghan, The ‘shepheards nation’: Jacobean Spenserians and Early Stuart Political Culture, 1612-25, Clarendon P, 2000, p. 1, cited by Hile, p. 127.

[15] William A. Oram, “Daphnaïda and Spenser’s Later Poetry,” Spenser Studies, vol. 2, 1981, pp. 141-58, and see also, for instance, Donald Cheney, “Grief and Creativity in Spenser’s Daphnaïda,” in Grief and Gender: 700-1700, edited by Jennifer C. Vaught, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 123-31.

[16] John Peter, Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature, Clarendon P, 1956, p. 9.

[17] William Kerwin, “Complaint and Satire,” in Edmund Spenser in Context, edited by Andrew Escobedo, Cambridge UP, 2017, pp. 148-57, and Yulia Ryzhik, “Complaint and Satire in Spenser and Donne: Limits of Poetic Justice,” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 47, no. 1, winter 2017, pp. 110-35. Any fresh consideration of the relation between complaint and satire will want to heed the line of argument and the many nuanced readings found in Richard Danson Brown, The New Poet: Novelty and Tradition in Spenser’s Complaints, Liverpool UP, 1999, as well as an essay by Emily Shortslef, “Second Life: The Ruines of Time and the Virtual Collectivities of Early Modern Complaint,” The Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 3, summer 2013, pp. 84-104.

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47.3.53

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Mark David Rasmussen, "A Turn Toward Satire?," Spenser Review 47.3.53 (Fall 2017). Accessed January 18th, 2018.
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