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A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene
by Andrew Zurcher

Richard Danson Brown and J. B. Lethbridge, A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013. xx + 547. ISBN 978-0719088889. $100.00 cloth.


Clavum clavo pellere, said the old scholar Erasmus, “one nail drives out another,” which as it served well the chiliadic kindalismos of his super-prolix pedagogicality, driving forth whole hundredweights of saw-toothed sagaciousness by his lampoil lucubrations, so has it ever been the only work-whistle of our own antiphrastical academicians, whose greatest boast is that the leaves of their books have like those of holly budded on others’ branches, and that they with a flaming brand have driven forth the fire. How pleasant is it, then, to leave ouroboros and the dogs among their vomit, and to turn instead to one of those rare ejections from the corpus of academic publishing, a reference work, a solid and stable artefact that, unlike the polemical pot-relics of the academic jar intestine, may survive a generation, or a few, before subsiding into obscure inutility. Richard Danson Brown and Julian Lethbridge have produced, in their Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene, just such a reference resource, to all appearances a new piece of the fixed furniture of Spenser studies. Taking its place alongside C. G. Osgood’s Concordance to the Poems of Edmund Spenser and Herbert Sugden’s Grammar of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, this volume should usher in a new era of work on the form and language of Spenser’s allegorical epic, scholarly research rigorously rooted in the sorts of numerical and linguistic data that Lethbridge and Danson Brown have collected and organized.

The thing is, paper-based reference resources are these days dying out nearly as fast as the forests from which they were once pulped, and the culture of the quaintly-turned proverb, of imitation, of nail upon nail and peg after peg, is giving way to a new web-based workspace where scholarly estates have become movables, and furniture, where you can find it, is modular. While this new printed concordance may thus initially look decidedly old school, within its covers anxieties and opportunities abound. First of all, not content with revealing a new vein of precious research ore, the editors of the Concordance have staked out parcels of the find. In fact, not only have they prefaced their reference tool with two monograph-length “introductions” rationalizing, contextualizing, interpreting, and reflecting on their own concordance, from two opposed critical perspectives that already exhaust much of what one might want to do with the data they have produced and curated; but in his footnotes Lethbridge has also laid claim to a wealth of further work, not yet published, which he informs us he has already done—so, don’t bother? Users of the volume might prefer, then, to consider the volume not so much a concordance as a collaborative monograph on Spenser’s rhymes, presented dialogue-wise, which combines in its covers in a range of appendices the data on which it is based (the combination of the concordance and its associated lists, at the rear of the volume, with a series of examples buttressing Lethbridge’s arguments in his introduction—the “core” material scarcely discriminated from his exempla—illustrates this confusion between horsecart and carthorse). Moreover, in an age when the computing power necessary to produce a concordance of this kind is widely available, and the requisite technical tools and competence so rife in the public domain, the concordance and dependent arrayed appendices may not ultimately prove as attractive to new readers—and especially to student readers—as the introductions that frame them.

The volume as a whole is a composite of different kinds of resources. First of all comes a preface, which outlines the basic principles by which was established the text of The Faerie Queene on which the concordance is based, and the methods used in the composition and presentation of the concordance and its various derivative appendices. There follows an essay by Danson Brown, “‘Charmed with inchaunted rimes’: An Introduction to the Faerie Queene Rhymes Concordance.” Danson Brown’s contribution is broken up into four main sections, which might be thought of as chapters: in (i) “Spenser and Rhyme,” he sketches the range of Spenser’s own comments on or representations of rhymes and rhyming, looking particularly at the poet’s ambivalent connections between rhyme, enchanting, and crime in The Faerie Queene; in (ii) the section on “Critical Reception,” he summarises the critical response to Spenser’s “rhymecraft” over four hundred years, beginning with E.K.’s and Spenser’s own comments, then moving forward through contemporary responses, seventeenth-century commentary, the misprisions of the Romantic poets, and the various approaches critical, formalist, historicist, linguistic, and textual taken by twentieth- and twenty-first-century academic critics; in (iii) he sets forth his own account of “Reading with Rhyme and Using the Concordance,” a section that taxonomizes different sorts of rhyming techniques and makes his signal contribution to the theory of Spenserian rhyming, an effect he registers and describes in the poem called “inter-stanzaic knitting”; and, finally, in (iv) he returns to “Spenser’s Rhymes, Spenser’s Times,” arguing that attentiveness to Spenser’s rhymes could help galvanize a return in Spenser criticism to the interplay between the “sonal and the semantic,” between the poem as interpreted and the poem as heard. Danson Brown’s scholarly discussion, thoughtful, much annotated, and comprehensive, will give student readers a sure foothold in the study of Spenser’s rhymes and rhyming in The Faerie Queene. His speculations on inter-stanzaic knitting, among other claims, may help to kindle new and innovative responses to Spenser’s versification. 

Danson Brown’s introduction must come with footnotes close to 60,000 words; the essay by Lethbridge which follows, “The Bondage of Rhyme in The Faerie Queene: Moderate ‘this Ornament of Rhyme,’” is substantially longer still. Considerably denser in its style, too, this introductory essay goes beyond the mere contextualization of the resource, beyond an attempt to frame its contribution to the current generation of Spenser criticism, beyond a set of technical specifications or insider’s tips on how to use the data. Instead, Lethbridge has produced a study of Spenser’s rhymes, his methods and their effects, which connects Spenser’s rhyming practice to his larger tendency toward formulaic writing of various kinds: the repetitive structures apparent in his thought, narrative, diction, and syntax. Lethbridge’s claim, carefully couched in repeated protestations that Spenser’s poem is nonetheless good in its own terms, is that Spenser “drastically suppresses” his rhyme, “weakening” it to produce a “neutrality” that manifests a “formulaic mentality or habit” (77-79). Lethbridge allows that rhyme “is vital to The Faerie Queene in that it creates the stanza, in that it justifies Spenser’s manner (or style),” but allows, too, that to the modern eye it “seems a wasted resource” (79). The upshot of this argument must be that Spenser is at the stylistic and formal level a pretty formulaic, pretty repetitive, and pretty tedious writer. Lethbridge’s purpose, then, is to suggest why Spenser’s poem is this way, and he argues at length that Spenser’s rhymes and diction appear formulaic because he is an allegorist, that Spenser in fact aspired to the writing of blank verse—that is, truly blank verse—and that, pace Danson Brown’s claims for the salience of repeated rhymes, Spenser’s rhymes disappear precisely because it is not the texture of the poem, but its meaning, that is Spenser’s focus. Indeed, Lethbridge goes so far as to claim that, for Spenser, as for no other celebrated poet of his period or ours, “how you say something might matter a great deal—in its beauty, its grace and its persuasive power—but it does not change what it is that is being said” (158).

This view, a bravely polemical view, will probably not endear Lethbridge to the legions of his colleagues and their students who have been raised in the after-sweep of New Criticism. To such readers the way Spenser says what he says, no matter how he says it, constitutes what is being said—for, to uncase the old adage, a literary work is not a kernel shelled. Lethbridge’s sometimes meandering discussion may also raise some hackles. It follows the temperature of its author; as always when reading Lethbridge’s work, the reader feels the interests and particular history of the author guiding the argument. For the most part, any bumps or slides in the passage seem therefore enjoyable, like windows on a musing mind at work, but there are a few places where the discussion may demand a little too much forbearance. A refusal to translate Latin quotations, even those of considerable length, may rub some readers the wrong way. Of his long treatment of sixteenth-century blank verse, ostensibly included to show that lines without rhyme can hold their lineal shape, Lethbridge admits “there is a sense in which this analysis is a bit silly” (84), and there is: of course blank verse can hold its shape, and it needed no Nicholas Grimald clanging his Zoroasian tarantar to say so (83), nor does the later sustained attention to Pope, Byron, and Coleridge seem to fit naturally in a discussion of what Spenser was doing, and might have achieved or not achieved, with his rhyme in 1590. While the series of middle sections on Spenser’s weakening of his rhymes are of great interest—taking in arguments about punctuation, stanzification, rhyming “adjuncts,” pleonasm, and other devices—the central analysis of Florimell’s adventures in cantos vi and vii of Book III of The Faerie Queene seems to go too far. Here Lethbridge analyses the writing carefully to show how Spenser “pads his lines,” but to my mind his analysis neglects important kinds of curiosity and meaning. So, for example, in a discussion of The Faerie Queene III.vii.4.6-9 (117-18), Lethbridge argues that much of what Spenser writes in these four lines is plainly pleonastic; but he ignores the way in which words such as “subiect,” “couerd,” and “ouercame” resonate with other sorts of semantic force, both political and social, which (as usual in The Faerie Queene) reinscribe a physical landscape with the ethical, social, and political structures that, for the projected identity of the beholder or reader, it contains. (Nor is Lethbridge correct that the woods have overcome the hill; they have, as Spenser clearly says, overcome the valley, which is subject, overcome, and bewrayed.) Unsure footing in places like this makes it more difficult to stomach his overall argument, and the final sections of his introduction—which expand quite vertiginously to take in res and verba, decorum, Calvinism, Biblical editing, Hooker, and blasphemy—whirl a little out of compass. This seems a particular shame because the central stalk of the introduction, rooted in analyses of various sorts of formulae and repetition drawn from the concordance, is strong and vigorous.

The data presented in the concordance and its appendices will beguile and perhaps fascinate the hours, not just at once but as new stimuli for consultation arise over the years. I have already inserted permanent bookmarks in my copy, which will take me in years to come directly to the sections I find most helpful. Pre-eminent among these is the concordance itself; the consistent and meticulous detail with which Danson Brown and Lethbridge have mapped out the lemmata, their associated rhyme clusters, their relative positions in their respective stanzas, and their location in the poem is, in short, astonishing. Organised alphabetically, this list throws out the long skeins of “knight,” “might,” and “hight” which Lethbridge has raveled up in his introduction, as well as tiny, dazzling braids on words such as “sticke” or “soueraintie” (and its variant spellings), or knots around clusters such as “inquire,” “aspire,” and “desire.” I might have quibbled with the editors’ decision to represent abbreviated infinitives (“t’abye,” “t’eschew,” “t’offend,” etc.) between “syre” and “ta’ne,” because it may be that users of the concordance will miss important detail; and the inclusion of terminal punctuation—which varied between texts in Spenser’s lifetime and afterwards—may confuse or mislead users. Some might feel, of course, that a concordance to the rhymes of Spenser’s collected poems, rather than just those of The Faerie Queene, would have been preferable, and there are certainly moments in both introductory essays where I thought the best comparative context for Spenser’s rhyming practice in The Faerie Queene would be his own shorter poetry, and not the work of his near contemporaries. But for what it does contain, and the completeness and clarity of its presentation, this concordance is and should remain a great aid to scholars approaching the poem in a wide range of different ways.

The further appendices are a more mixed bunch. Following the concordance comes an “Alphabetical List of Rhymes with Frequency and Distribution,” a list abstracted from the concordance that shows in a more tabular form how often rhyme words are used in the poem, and roughly where they are distributed. Lethbridge’s presentation here makes it straightforward to see how the words shake out by book and even by canto (the detail goes no finer), so that sprees of “sin” (11 of its sixteen appearances in rhyme position are in Books I and III) and runs of “reward” (half of its 14 rhyming slots occur in Book III) are easily discoverable. The list of “All Words in The Faerie Queene Arranged Alphabetically” (with frequencies) does what it says on the tin, and includes proper names (though without italics or capital letters); this list is slightly confusing because the editors have chosen not to gather variant forms under a main term, so that one must look up not only “varie” but “vary,” not only “change” but the much more common “chaunge,” and different parts of speech often lie dispread abroad in unruly pockets. On the other hand, this master list of Spenser’s words, and their variant forms, is a quick-stop shop for anyone interested in Spenser’s words and his (and his compositors’) spellings. Lists of “Rhymes in Order of Frequency of Occurrence” and “All Words in The Faerie Queene Arranged in Order of Frequency of Occurrence” may help certain individuals embarked on singular journeys, so long as they continue to recall that Lethbridge has not gathered variant spellings; these are not lists that can be used to find words—you’d have to know the frequency first—but rather to rank them, and thus perhaps only useful to those with an interest in literary linguistic corpora (though I have a feeling scholars of this stamp will be using electronic rather than printed tools?). The “Reverse Index of Rhymes” is to my mind a curiosity; here the user can find a list of Spenser’s rhymes indexed by terminal rather than initial sequence of letters, so that it begins with hyphenated terms and those ending in “a,” and works its way to “fantazy.” Lists of “Hapax Legomena in Rhyme Position,” of “Rhymes on Two Separate Words,” of “Variant Forms Included in the Concordance,” of “Names in Rhyme Position,” and of “Hyphenated Rhymes” follow. The concordance also includes a thorough bibliography of critical work concerning Spenser’s language and versification.

It would be foolish to predict where the Concordance will lead Spenser scholars, but it might be helpful to propose a few alternatives to the strong push offered by its editors. There is always the possibility that The Faerie Queene is often repetitive and formulaic because it is badly written. There are passages in the poem where a reader may feel pretty keenly the temptation to censure Spenser along just these lines. More plausible, perhaps, might be a claim similar to Lethbridge’s, which lies a little closer to Danson Brown’s discussion: that Spenser in places distressed his poem in much the way that he had The Shepheardes Calender, with quaint formulae, twee archaisms and mock-archaisms, and a healthy dose of proverbial, pastiched, and other formulaic language and rhetoric. One way of removing one’s writing from the endless cycle of displacing and eventually displaced fashionability, from the immemorial succession of nails driving out nails, is to be utterly unfashionable, so very well known, so very couth that it cannot but be kissed. The poetry of The Faerie Queene may be in places not simply rhyme-weakening, but downright self-deprecating. But there are also passages where the rhymes do not behave in the way that Lethbridge argues for, here, and the Concordance will reveal not only pattern, but lack of pattern. “Luxury,” for example, rhymes in The Faerie Queene with “Gluttony,” “superfluity,” “incessantly,” “tree,” “see,” and “he”; vision and embowered excess dominate this rhyme cluster, and no interminable end of rhymes on “found” and “ground” will change that. The Concordance will thus reveal formulae, but it will also provide a resource for critics who want to investigate Spenser’s use of proper names and non-standard diction; in this aim, the ancillary lists of proper names and hapax legomena will be indispensable. It is likely, then, that the uses to which the Concordance will be put will be most interesting when they do not conform to the over-arching sorts of narrative for which Lethbridge has argued. Instead, we may see studies attending to sound and phonic contortion, to the sensory and cognitive experiences of familiarity and rupture, to rhyme structure or lack of structure in relation to proper names, verbs, monosyllables, or words with particular etymological or semantic associations, to emphasis and metaphor, studies comparing Spenser’s practice of rhyming to that elsewhere in the period or in his own works, and so on. To all such projects, and many more as yet unprophesied, this resource could be a great aid.

But I end with a wish. The Manchester Spenser series—to which Julian Lethbridge has consecrated his lifeblood as series editor, regular author, copy-editor, and demogorgon—produces very pretty books: good card covers, light but sturdy pages, where appropriate (or necessary …) huge formats, ample margins, no paratext left behind. Notwithstanding this high design standard, and as might be expected in a work so large, copious, and complex—really, three books in one—in this Concordance there are many errors: from minor typographical faults and misplaced quotations to lapses in the concordance and lists. Given that the project as a whole would be of considerable use online, joined to the version of the text of The Faerie Queene from which its data were compiled, I hope at some point an updated and corrected version can migrate to an electronic format. The kinds of inquiries and processes that corpus-wide study of this kind often provokes, to my mind, are better pursued where thought can move by clicks and strokes, and lemmata, including variant spellings, can be located and plucked from the mass at will. It may well be, too—for all the great number of lists Danson Brown and Lethbridge have produced to accompany their concordance—that more ways of organizing and analyzing the data will be required; an online text and source file for the concordance, fully tagged and lexicalized, would enable this.


Andrew Zurcher
Queens’ College, Cambridge



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Cite as:

Andrew Zurcher, "A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 44.2.32 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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