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“Wallowing and Getting Lost: Reading Spenser with Heather James”
by Leah Whittington

It is occupationally impossible for Spenserians not to think about how to read the Faerie Queene—indeed, about how to read full stop—and Heather James’s bewitching essay on Spenser’s flowerbeds in the last issue of the Spenser Review has me at it again.  

I am in church, pacing the back of the nave. As sermons go, this one is not especially bad, but I can’t seem to will my mind into attention. I try to assuage my boredom by walking slowly, turning my awareness to the sensation of my body moving in space, like they tell you to do in mindfulness class. At the same time I try to keep my movement from disturbing everyone else. It doesn’t work. The zipper of my coat brushes up against the wall—scratch, scratch—and heads turn. I register a silent objection against church etiquette and note with scholarly self-justification that for the first fifteen hundred years of Christian worship nave-roaming was a perfectly acceptable form of behavior, pews being a brainchild of the Reformation.

I recall that “pew” is actually an interesting word, from Dutch puye, old French pui, and Latin podium, the parapet or balcony in a Roman amphitheater where the emperor and his family sat next to the arena. I glance around at my fellow parishioners and imagine them suddenly transported to the Colosseum, looking down from their seats at the sand below, where in place of our pastor expounding the good book are pairs of blood-spattered gladiators fighting with nets and tridents. Good grief. I shake the image away, disgusted. I let my eyes instead begin to trace the vaulting of the apse, following the lines of stone as they intersect and diverge web-like above the altar, in a last-ditch effort to tame my restless inattention. What I really want is something that will seize my mind and hold it still, something that will concentrate my vagrant thoughts into a single stream of focused absorption.  

The iPhone in my pocket suddenly feels heavier. I know there is a link in my email to the new issue of the Spenser Review. I know there is an essay in it by Heather James. That does it. I sneak out the door into the narthex—digital gratification seems a slightly less egregious offense out there—scrunch myself into a corner, and scroll through my messages to the link. After a few taps of my thumb, “Flower Power” is up on the screen, and my eyes flow eagerly over the words. 

The mental states of our readers are always mysterious to us. We never really know what modes of consciousness they will bring to the words we write, what rhythms of response will be generated by the scene of reading itself. Did James imagine me here, crouched on the floor outside church, glued to an iPhone, my distracted mind flitting here and there like Clarion the butterfly seeking “to refresh his sprights,” and to feed on her essay’s “sweet odors and alluring sights” (Muiopotmos 162-164)?[1] Did she know that at this moment I would long for nothing quite so much as the pleasure of being absorbed in her text? That her essay for me would be about the ways in which we immerse our conscious minds in the act of reading? 

As I take in the opening paragraphs, these improbabilities suddenly seem perfectly plausible. James is an expert in the art of captivation. She knows how to make us experience the events, ideas, and states of mind she is writing about. And she is writing about reading for pleasure.

Well, maybe not at first. “Flower Power” was originally presented at an RSA panel in honor of Thomas P. Roche, and it weaves together two great Spenserian topics: the tension between allegory and narrative and Spenser’s relationship to the Elizabethan regime. The essay begins in the mode of homage, and I find myself wishing I had been at the panel to share the admiration I imagine rippling across the room at the turn of each courtly compliment. Professor Roche, James tells us, championed in his work a certain kind of poetic freedom—Spenser’s freedom to let his fictional narratives float untethered, unattached to any single allegorical signification.[2] Meaning is bound up with the temporal experience of reading the story as a story, stanza after rumbling stanza, and for that reason meaning remains open-ended: “The elements of narrative action do not magically, or violently, disappear into the allegory.” As a corollary, we have “a poet who never loses hold of his poetic autonomy.”

James sees a connection between these two kinds of poetic freedom, the freedom of fictional narrative to escape the confines of allegorical meaning and the freedom of the poet to resist the claims of political power. Though I have never been persuaded by the mantra that behind every allegorical reading lies a totalitarian reader, I am keen to hear out the argument, and even more so when I learn that James intends to find evidence for Spenser’s political resistance to the allegorizing powers-that-be not in the anti-epic wanderings of his errant knights or in the nostalgic arcana of his chivalric pageantry but in his flower gardens—that is to say, in a group of ecphrastic passages that consist of lists of flowers. 

These floral catalogues are “splendidly useless for the moralist.” Clarion’s garden in Muiopotmos, the flowers heaped on the gnat’s tomb in Virgil’s Gnat, the Ovidian youths-turned-perennials in the Garden of Adonis: these passages are significant because they refuse to be allegorized as moral lessons or as celebrations of royal power. The sensuous beauties of Muiopotmos’s “gay gardins” (161) do not fall under the axe of moral censure, like the luxuriant growth of the Bower of Bliss destroyed by Guyon’s pitiless rigor, nor do they advance the cause of Elizabethan colonialism. Instead, these Spenserian flowerbeds, which might so easily be read as encomiastic nosegays thrown at the feet of the queen, retain the funereal associations of their fictional contexts—Clarion’s death in Aragnoll’s web, the swatted gnat, unhappy lovers metamorphosed. They become genuine complaints, subversively lamenting “the limits placed on the poet’s freedom to speak his mind.” As for the pet projects of the Elizabethan state—moralism and imperialism—Spenser “does not give even one flower to these causes.” Even in The Shepheardes Calendar, where Colin Clout’s praise of Eliza, Queene of Shepheards, includes long lists of flowers to be brought to her as gifts, James argues that the floral offerings never quite reach their intended destination. In the poem, the flowers “flow in the direction of Colin,” and the eclogue ends not with a tribute to the queen, but with the voice of dissent, a lament for the poet’s silence. 

“And he says it with flowers.” I look up from the tiny screen, jolted by the sense of an ending, and for a moment stare through the narthex doors towards the altar. The minutes have passed, and now everyone is kneeling. I have been engrossed for a while. The image of Spenser, Ginsberg-like, brandishing his flowers in protest against the interpretive hegemony of the Lord Burghleys of the world, flickers playfully in my mind, and I smile.  James has made me like Spenser even more than I did already: naturally, one wants one’s poet to resist the forces of oppression. Only now that I have read the essay, I am quite sure that even if this is the argument, it is not the point. The point came much earlier, when she was talking about Clarion the butterfly reading the flowerbeds—where was it? I scroll rapidly back through the text to look for that spot where I felt an unexpected gravitational pull. 

As I do this, my awareness shifts into a different mode, no longer folded inside James’s mind, as when I was enveloped in her words, but now lining up other reference points to assist in the judicial work of assessment. I am struck by the way that “Flower Power” bears out the claims frequently made about current practices of reading Spenser. Bart van Es and Richard McCabe, editors of the two most recent Spenser companions (Palgrave, Oxford), both note the eclecticism of current Spenser criticism.[3] McCabe includes chapters in the Oxford Companion on a multiplicitous array of topics: Spenser’s career as Lord Grey’s secretary, his early biographers, and his metrics, along with more traditional contexts (“Spenser and Religion,” “Spenser and Classical Traditions”) and microhistories of specific ways of reading (historicist, formalist, psycholanalytic, gender studies, and postcolonial criticism).          

James’s readings in “Flower Power” are likewise consciously eclectic. She attends to formal and taxonomical questions of genre—the relation of set-piece description to the rhetoric of encomium; the alignment of Spenser’s flower-catalogues with non-literary conventions, like those of medicinal recipes; the place of ecphrasis in the genre of complaint. While she mostly sees Spenser as an autonomous authorial agent, she occasionally conceives of the poet in the deconstructive vein as being not entirely in control of the text, sometimes fleeing his own creations. Her genial traffic with minor works and adaptations seems to draw on the reading practices heralded by the new Oxford Companion and its emphasis on the textual history of Spenser’s career—what McCabe calls a new “ecology” of the Spenserian book. And visible everywhere are the new historicist concerns with authority and power. Indeed, if it were not for my sense that the real center of gravity lay elsewhere, I would have to conclude that James sees allegory as identical (and not analogous or isometric) with political oppression. The “moralizations supplied by Court and Crown,” she says, “maintain too strong a hold over the interpretation of the poetic word.” As tempting as that thought may be, allegorical interpretation of the early modern sort is not inevitably a symptom of ideology. Readers of Marsilio Ficino or Natale Conti or Rabelais will attest that allegoresis can just as often be an exercise of interpretive freedom, an aggressive (playful) subversion of (indifference to) the author’s claim to control his or her text. 

Aha, I’ve found it, the gravitational pull. I stop the flow of words over the screen with my finger, and reread the sentences introducing James’s interpretation of the flowerbeds in Muiopotmos and Virgil’s Gnat: “I have a simple point to make about both passages,” she says.  “But in order to make it I must first invite you to wallow in Spenser’s flowerbeds long enough to get lost in the act of reading.” I have been scanning for those words “wallow” and “get lost.” They, more than the argument about Spenser the flower child, are the beating heart of the essay. James is asking us to think about how we read, how we turn ourselves to the object encountered in the act of reading, and what it means to read for pleasure. What are we doing when we foreground a mode of reading that makes no demands on ourselves (or the text) other than enjoyment? When we agree to wallow and get lost? 

James takes her cue from Clarion the butterfly: we are to “follow Clarion’s lead in our own perusal of the garden,” to approach Spenser as Clarion approaches flowers, “greedily devouring them for their sensual pleasures.” And it is true: Clarion is a consummate wallower. His romp through the “gay gardins” (161) amounts to an entire taxonomy of modes of aesthetic engagement, of reading for pleasure without thought for profit or future use. He flits about “from bed to bed” and “takes survey” with his “busie eye” (170-171). He bathes “his tender feet” in the “sap of herbe” and perches on tiny branches “his moist wings to dry” (180-184). He “tasteth tenderly” and “pastures on the pleasures of each place” (173, 176). He chooses flowers indiscriminately, without regard for whether their virtues are “good or ill” (201). His wallowing is so systematic and exhaustive that at the end of it the poet’s voice bursts forth in an exultant makarismos to celebrate the cumulative effect of Clarion’s horticultural delectation: “What more felicity can fall to creature / Then to enjoy delight with libertie?” (209-210). 

I picture myself dipping my tender feet in the nectar of James’s prose, and smile again.  There is no doubt about it: she writes so graciously that I have been pasturing on her words like Clarion on his marigolds. I have been wallowing and getting lost, and my mind, so restless before, is now calm and refreshed. I stand up, put the phone away, and slip back into my pew.

Two days later, I am still thinking about “Flower Power.” In the interim I’ve had a visit from my friend Suspicion, and he has pointed out, in his usual way, that it is just a little too convenient for me to conclude that James’s essay is really about modes of readerly attention. After all, that is very nearly what I had been thinking about when I escaped to the narthex with my phone. He has another concern too. He thinks James has hoodwinked me into accepting her proposition that reading for pleasure is antithetical to reading for profit. Must it be? Suspicion always means well, and I know he sometimes offers good advice, so I thank him for stopping by, and return again to James. I print out the essay, stack the white pages on my desk, and start again from the beginning. 

The essay reads differently this time—how did I miss the choice remark that Clarion dies in a “web” of allusions?—but the heartbeat is still where I thought it was, and now I am even surer. I’ve found another tell. James goes out of her way to insist that Clarion’s flower-tasting is not directly related to his death in Aragnoll’s web. James knows that Spenserians tend to read characters’ experiences of pleasure as moral traps, and Clarion’s flight is laced with moralizing language that could easily convict him of sensuality. As he flits about the garden, he “casts his glutton sense to satifie” (179) and “greedily doth pray” on the garden’s beauties (204). When he has had his fill, he “rests in riotous suffiaunse” (207). But James takes the offensive against the assumption that the immorality of sensuous pleasure is what is at stake in Clarion’s flight: “I am not sure we can draw a moralizing line between his death and the hedonism and narcissism of his reading habits. Whether he is modestly tasting or greedily devouring, he is arguably a very good reader of flowers.” There is nothing wrong with the way Clarion frolics in the garden, she insists. His untimely demise is the result of Aragnoll’s envious spite, not his reading habits. On the contrary, Clarion is a good reader of flowers precisely because he takes delight in their beauties, because he wallows and gets lost.

I pour Suspicion a cup of tea. It is time to break him the bad news. James is definitely writing about states of readerly consciousness, no doubt about it now, and she does not really think that pleasure and profit are invariably opposed. It is true, I tell him consolingly, on the face of it “wallowing,” “getting lost,” and “greedily devouring” do not fare well as Spenserian terms. In the Legend of Chastity, Spenser reviles the sexually grotesque giantess Argante, who “Did wallow in all other fleshly myre, / And suffred beasts her body to deflowre” (III.vii.49). “Getting lost” in The Faerie Queene is usually a painful inevitability of fallen human nature that Spenserian knights must strive to combat with vigilance and circumspection. But Clarion’s garden-tour tells another story. The heroic butterfly tastes, pastures, bathes, and plays with “gladfulness” and “joyaunce” (208). He meets a bad end, to be sure, but James has convinced me: Clarion’s death does not erase the value Spenser ascribes to his aesthetic enjoyment: “What more felicitie can fall to creature? / Then to enjoy delight with libertie?” Indeed, on James’s reading, Clarion’s flight asks us to think seriously about the phenomenology of reading for pleasure, free of any concern for profit. Every detail of Clarion’s flower-play discreetly captures a different form of readerly perception. But even more, James suggests that aesthetic absorption itself is a kind of profit—profitable as a way of knowing and understanding the textual garden (after sucking flower sap, Clarion is no doubt an expert in its sweetness) and profitable as a form of response that is ethically suited to its object.  After all, Clarion is dealing with flowers. What way of relating to flowers could be more just, James seems to say, than responding to their beauty with pleasure and appreciation?

I look up from the objects accumulated on my desk—James’s essay, my copy of Spenser’s Shorter Poems, The Spenser Encylopedia, my web browser unfurled in an accordion of tabs—and glance out the window, pleased with my sleuthing. Still, I can’t help but feel that James has been a bit cagey about her endorsement of Clarion’s reading habits. I suppose I understand why. With those terms “wallowing” and “getting lost,” she is advocating a set of mental activities that would seem to risk being “uncritical,” encouraging a temporary retreat from the faculty of judgment—and the work of the critic.  But James is not alone in seeing Spenser as a poet who especially invites the mental activities of involvement and immersion, and she is also not alone in thinking that experiencing pleasure, both sensual and intellectual, is fundamental to the critic’s task. 

In 1875 the American poet and essayist James Russell Lowell wrote of Spenser: “to read him puts one in the condition of reverie, a state of mind in which our thoughts and feelings float motionless, as one sees fish do in a gentle stream, with just enough vibration of their fins to keep themselves from going down with the current, while their bodies yield indolently to all its soothing curves.”[4] It is not hard to recognize the state of consciousness Lowell is describing.  We have all experienced it—that trance-like absorption, absent the mental actions of evaluation and judgment, in which thoughts and feelings float together inseparably and we are engrossed in the here and now of being.  But Lowell’s description is strange in that he seems to imagine that the reader’s suspended reverie is achieved without effort. The Spenserian stream is gentle, the fish’s fins need to vibrate only just enough, and the whole enterprise is described as one of indolence and inactivity. But floating motionless in Spenser’s verse is anything but effortless. It requires exertion, training, and attention. Biologists will tell us that fish stay still by exploiting the vortices in the water flow, opening their gills to intensify these vortices and adjusting their movements ever so slightly with their tails to slide between vortices in the current.[5] Thousands of years of environmental adaptation and countless hours of practice have given Lowell’s fish their ability to remain stationary in the current. 

For that reason, it has sometimes seemed dangerous for the human reader to float motionless in the Spenserian stream. Theresa Krier takes Lowell’s fish metaphor to suggest that intimacy with the Spenserian text, by means of the immersion Lowell describes, has serious risks.[6] A reader unable to sustain the fish’s vibration of fins might drown; a reader who succeeds in staying afloat might become too fish-like, taking on adaptive traits that are less than fully human. But there is a wide space to be mapped between Lowell’s indolent yielding and Krier’s perilous submersion. Lowell’s metaphor directs us to consider how we might attune ourselves so carefully to the currents of Spenser’s stream that we too can catch the vortices and intensify them with our own mental movement. This means getting a feel for the water, registering its deeps and shallows, noticing how the currents move and where the light bends around the rocks, and attending to the sensations of swimming. It means that taking pleasure in being in the stream is an important part of understanding what the stream is or could be. 

Practicing fish-like immersion offers particular attractions to the teacher of Spenser. I often have the difficulty—as do others—that my students want to move quickly from the experience of reading to the assessment of “what it means.” They are all too adept at critical thinking, if by that we mean evaluating and judging, searching for an under-meaning by connecting the stanzas they have read to various types of context that will allow them to construe, demystify, or expose. What they resist is looking, perceiving, noticing what is there. Of course, these activities are not unconnected: observation and analysis are both rooms in the castle of interpretation. But the mental discipline of reading has an order of operations. Ideally the process of discernment and selection that goes into analysis will be informed by a period of sustained attention. How do we cultivate that attention? James’s essay offers one answer: to highlight the pleasure of wallowing and getting lost. The focused absorption of rigorous wallowing is intensely pleasurable. It is not merely Barthes’s plaisir du texte or even jouissance, the passive enjoyment of a readerly text or the bliss of active participation in a writerly text. It is the fish’s floating and the psychologist’s “flow.”

It is also pleasurable to recognize and identify the different modes of awareness that a text evokes in those who read it. Indeed, James’s key point is that Spenser evidently places value on Clarion’s floral pursuits and their analogues in the conscious movements of the reader’s mind by enumerating them with such articulacy and copia. In other words, to acknowledge the states of mind that arise in readerly engagement, we have to name them. This is not an easy task, but it is an important one. Naming the states of consciousness and forms of mental activity that we bring to reading and that are created by reading ascribes value to them and makes them available for collective scholarly reflection—and this is a moment in literary studies when such naming is very welcome.

Like many Renaissance scholars, I have followed with interest the work of Rita Felski, Heather Love, Sharon Marcus and others who have challenged literary criticism’s devotion to contextual interpretation and the hermeneutics of suspicion, and who have wanted “to imagine a form of post-critical reading that does not look behind the text—for its hidden causes, determining conditions, and noxious motives—but in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.”[7] Felski’s concepts of unfurling and calling forth overlap more or less with the empirical orientation of Heather Love’s “thin description” or “fine-grained attention to phenomena” and Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s “surface reading.”[8] All of these approaches have in common a focus on observation, description, and reading practices that emphasize the experience of materiality (“A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we train ourselves to see through,” explain Marcus and Best). They are sometimes called “post-critical.” For an appealingly aestheticizing set of reading strategies this is a singularly unappealing term, not only because the “post” prefix dismisses into the category of passé so many forms of indispensible intellectual work, but also because it does so little to fill in the needed vocabulary. The resulting spectrum of mental activity divides starkly between reason and perception, judgment and sensation, intellect and affect. Indeed, in the pages of the Spenser Review, Ayesha Ramachandran has summarized resistance to the post-critical position in the following way: “The call to transcend critique has seemed too much like another swing of the pendulum—this time, a rejection of mind for body, of rational analysis for sense impression.”

Readers of Spenser know that an infinite mental landscape exists between those poles of rational analysis and sensory perception. Most states of conscious engagement depend on both ends of the mental activity spectrum. Most exist in between, traversing the length of that spectrum hundreds of times in a single minute of concentration. Why segregate sense perception from reasoned judgment or vice versa? Are not these activities allied? What we are really looking for are ways not to rush past the encounter with a text, but to allow it to open into a period of sustained attention, to wallow and get lost in a rigorous way such that conscious absorption becomes a mental discipline full of texture and shades of awareness. Clarion’s flight, James suggests, invites us to develop a better vocabulary that acknowledges the interdependent roles of sensation, analysis, and pleasure in the work of reading.  Clarion presents a host of possibilities for developing such a vocabulary—flitting, surveying, tasting, pasturing, bathing, perching, playing, spoiling, resting. Can we do more? 

Leah Whittington
Harvard University 


[1] References are to Edmund Spenser: The Shorter Poems, ed. Richard A. McCabe (Penguin, 1999).

[2] Thomas P. Roche, The Kindly Flame: A Study of the Third and Fourth Books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Princeton UP, 1964).

[3] Bart Van Es, ed., A Critical Companion to Spenser Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Richard A. McCabe, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser (Oxford UP, 2010).

[4] James Russell Lowell, The Writings of James Russell Lowell in Prose and Poetry, vol. IV: Literary Essays (Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1900), 334.

[5] James C. Liao, David N. Beal, George V. Lauder, and Michael S. Triantafyllou, “Fish Exploiting Vortices Decrease Muscle Activity,” Science 28 (2003): 1566-1569, and Callum Coats, Living Energies: An Exposition of Concepts Related to the Theories of Viktor Schauberger (Gill & MacMillan, 2001).

[6] Theresa Krier, “The Faerie Queene (1596),” ed. Bart van Es, A Critical Companion to Spenser Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 188-209.

[7] Rita Felski, “Digging Down and Standing Back,” English Language Notes 51.2 (2013): 22.  Also “Suspicious Minds,” Poetics Today 32.2 (2011): 215–34; “Context Stinks!,” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 573–91.

[8] Heather Love, “Close Reading and Thin Description,” Public Culture 25.3 (2013): 401–34, and Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108.1 (2009): 1–21.


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Cite as:

Leah Whittington, "“Wallowing and Getting Lost: Reading Spenser with Heather James”," Spenser Review 44.3.54 (Winter 2015). Accessed December 6th, 2022.
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