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Anne Lake Prescott and Andrew D. Hadfield, eds. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry
by Christopher Burlinson

Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, ed. Anne Lake Prescott and Andrew D. Hadfield. Norton Critical Edition. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2014. xiv, 881 pp. ISBN 978-0393927856. $26.25 paper.

It would be churlish for a review of any critical selection of Edmund Spenser’s poetry as broad and as full as the fourth Norton Critical Edition, edited by Anne Lake Prescott and Andrew Hadfield, to write too much about the things that have been left out. So if later parts of this review will indeed say something about the consequences of the editors’ omissions and excisions, it will start by saying just how very good this book is. It is an excellent single-volume edition of Spenser, the very best on the market, containing selections from the poems (and some primary texts in their entirety) and a fine anthology of recent and historical secondary criticism. It is about fifty pages longer than the third Norton Critical Edition (which appeared in 1993), mostly because the critical section has been expanded and made even more substantial. These changes and revisions, and especially the new body of criticism, mean that this edition has a great deal to offer even to readers who already have the third Norton on their shelves. Prescott and Hadfield have a keen scholarly and pedagogical eye for the connections between their primary texts and the anthology of criticism with which they conclude, and for this very reason, if no other, the edition would make a tremendous text for any students who were beginning their work on Spenser, or for teachers who were planning a course of classes or lectures on him. It is well made: robust and readable. It isn’t intended as a full critical edition of The Faerie Queene or of Spenser’s shorter poems, and for any student doing advanced work on Spenser it couldn’t possibly take the place of the editions of Roche, Hamilton, McCabe or others (or, indeed, of the forthcoming Oxford edition that the editors mention in their preface), but it is written and edited to provide a very good sense of where someone who wanted to know more about Spenser’s works might want to go next, and concludes with a bibliography from which even teachers and scholars themselves are bound to benefit.

So what does it contain? It begins with roughly half of The Faerie Queene: the entirety of Books I and III, the “Letter of the Authors” (here placed directly after Book III), excerpts from the other four books, presumably chosen as ones that a lecturer or teacher might want to discuss separately in class—the beginning of Book II along with the sections on the Cave of Mammon, House of Alma and Bower of Bliss, the Proem from Book IV, the House of Isis from Book V, and the last four cantos of Book VI—and all of the Cantos of Mutabilitie. There follow sections from The Shepheardes Calender (the Januarye, Februarie, Aprill, October, November and December eclogues, as well as the two envoys and EK’s Epistle). Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubbards Tale, absent from the third Norton, has been included in this edition, along with The Ruines of Rome, which, along with Muiopotmos, allows it to give a much more copious account of the Complaints (1591) than its previous incarnation did. It concludes with Amoretti and Epithalamion, and then Prothalamion. Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, present in the third Norton, has been omitted from this one, and Fowre Hymnes, Daphnaïda, and the Theatre for Worldlings are once again absent.

Any editor looking to create a useable single-volume Spenser would have to make cuts like these, and the Norton has done so with sensitivity and intelligence, providing, for instance, a much more sustained coverage of Complaints. But what are the effects of Prescott and Hadfield’s selections? What kind of Spenser do they give us—and, since this is a volume created with the university classroom in mind, what opportunities and problems might it provide for a lecturer or teacher of Spenser? The Faerie Queene, to begin with, is well served, and readers and teachers alike will welcome the inclusion of the first and third books in their entirety (not least because it will allow them to work on the allegorical complexity and narrative structure of these two sections of the poem). But in other ways, and when dealing with other parts of the poem, the process of excision and selection presents The Faerie Queene as something more like a group of allegorical set-pieces. This is clear, for instance, in the pruning back of Book II to concentrate on Mammon, Alma and the Bower of Bliss, but also, more radically, in the way that Book V is presented only through the allegorical vision of justice in the Temple of Isis. And this creates a very particular version of that Book, in which the tests, compromises, and failures that Artegall’s justice encounters, the challenges that he faces when enacting it in the world—the politics of justice, as one might say—are dispensed in favour of the allegorical, the visionary. And Book VI, too, is cut back in a similar way: the editors’ decision to include only the final cantos makes it look like a rather more singularly pastoral poem than it really (or always) is, and thereby shifts Spenser’s focus away from the politics of courtesy, from the dialogue between that virtue and justice, and from the narrative resonances between the last two books of the poem.

The volume’s treatment of some of the shorter poems also contributes to this political shift. The replacement of Colin Clouts Come Home Againe with Mother Hubbards Tale, for example, transfers the focus away from the politics of exile and empire, and towards a more domestic political sphere. It makes Cecil a much more important Spenserian presence than Ralegh, for instance, and for that specific reason it makes a great deal of sense for the editors to leave the Proem to Book IV in. But along with the exclusion of A View of the Present State of Ireland, it creates a Spenser (among other things) much less rooted in or preoccupied by Ireland; and while it might be hard to argue for the inclusion of A View in an anthology of Spenser’s poetry, this is not a text well served by online versions, and perhaps not quite so easy for Spenserian novices or students to find, or to navigate. And something comparable has happened to The Shepheardes Calender. Prescott and Hadfield uphold the selection of the third Norton, preserving the eclogues (e.g. Aprill, October, November) that showcase Colin’s (and Spenser’s) poetic career, virtuosity, and self-fashioning, but omitting those, for instance, such as May, July, and September, which engage in contemporary theological controversy and politics. Queen Elizabeth (or, at least, Elisa, Queen of Shepherds) is still there, but Algrin and Roffy are absent, and the complex, veiled, and politically pointed accounts of priesthood, episcopacy and Catholicism are absent along with them. The omissions from the primary texts—necessary and sensitively handled as they are—portray a Spenser rather more focussed on court intrigue and Elizabethan myth-making than on Irish or ecclesiastical politics.

This slightly slanted attention corresponds with the interests covered (and not covered) by the critical essays in the second part of the volume. The selection of criticism is where this edition differs most from its predecessor. Prescott and Hadfield have retained texts by Helgerson, Giamatti, Frye, Anderson, Roche, Hieatt, Wofford, and a number of short pieces on Muiopotmos and Amoretti (two student-friendly “Mini-Casebooks” that provide a particularly effective focus on different critical approaches). To this, they have added pieces or excerpts by C. S. Lewis (on Platonism and Protestantism), Martha Craig (on wit, naming and etymology), David Lee Miller (on Romantic readings of Spenser), Gordon Teskey (on thinking), Paul Alpers (on moral awareness, and how to read the verse of The Faerie Queene), Jeff Dolven (on the poetics of the Spenserian stanza), David Wilson-Okamura (on rhyme), Jennifer Summit (on imagination and memory), Jane Grogan (on romance and quest), Hadfield himself (on Mutabilitie and Ireland), Colin Burrow (on The Shepheardes Calender), Lynn Staley (on the “Februarie” Eclogue), Lauren Silberman (on Mother Hubberds Tale) and A. E. B. Coldiron (on Spenser’s translations from Du Bellay). It is marvellous material—every one of the essays is well worth its place in the collection, and an undergraduate student who read even half of it would have a tremendous sense of Spenser’s literary accomplishment, and of the different kinds of critical ingenuity with which it is possible to approach his verse. It is a selection that foregrounds Spenser’s creative engagement in poetic forms, traditions, and tropes; it has much less to say, though, about the contexts and conditions that made him who he was, or about the material and textual history of his writing. A comparison with the first few chapters of Richard McCabe’s Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, for instance, shows what Prescott and Hadfield have chosen not to focus on. Their critical selection has little to say about humanism, for instance, about Cambridge, about episcopacy, about Ireland (with the exception of Hadfield’s essay), secretaryship, or plantation, about government or law (or, more broadly, about political theory or ethics). It has little to say about pensions or patronage, about the bibliographical or material history of the printed book, and very little (perhaps most strikingly of all) about theology; a new reader of Spenser would not get a deep sense from this collection of Spenser’s engagement in Protestant controversy and doctrine. These omissions, as well as being inevitable, may actually work to the Norton volume’s advantage: it focuses a new reader’s attention on the ways in which Spenser’s poetry works, rather than on his historical contexts, and then provides them with directions to other studies where they can discover more about those contexts. Most particularly, it pays tribute to The Spenser Encyclopedia, and acknowledges from the very start that any reader wanting to read about these subjects in more detail would find much more extensive work there than in its own notes. (Clearly, the Norton edition, Oxford Handbook, and Spenser Encyclopedia would make an excellent—and complementary—trio of books for an academic library.)

But it may also seem odd to a new reader of Spenser that Prescott and Hadfield should begin their Preface by talking about the current state of literary criticism. They discuss recent “shifts in scholarly and critical interest” (ix), the ways in which an interest in “a text’s paratexts […] as well as its mise en page” relates “to our less-recent-but-still-lively concern for poetry’s relation to gender, for example, or to political, economic, and cultural power,” and “the increased attention to early modern religion, not least to the persistence of Catholicism in officially Protestant England, has affected Spenser studies, as has a continuing attention to the dawn of English transoceanic colonial enterprise.” These questions do not leave a great impression on the critical anthology of this Norton edition, even if the short editorial essays that accompany the texts do touch upon them. “Those interested in gay, lesbian, and queer studies also have material to consider here,” Prescott and Hadfield write, “and ecocriticism has begun to notice Spenser,” but neither of these kinds of criticism is served by their own selection. This collection focuses on poetics and on literary traditions, and on first-rate secondary criticism that thinks in these ways: it leaves its readers to look elsewhere for these other critical approaches.

This is consistent, too, with its approach to glossing and annotation. Like the third Norton, this edition provides brief marginal glosses for unfamiliar or difficult words, and brief explanatory annotations at the foot of the page. The editorial essays and notes are printed (as in the previous edition) at the ends of their respective poems. Prescott and Hadfield write in their Preface that they have deliberately excised, avoided, or deferred any commentary that might “spoil the experience of reading Spenser, especially The Faerie Queene, for the first time” (x), in particular anything that would explain the identity (or allegorical meaning) of an individual before Spenser chooses to do so. In doing so, they write about their desire to attune their readers to Spenser’s own narrative and allegorical delays, perhaps caused by his “reluctance to be morally simple,” in telling us “what is going on or who is who”; and their method fits well with their critical principle that if a reader wants to know more, they should be pointed to other sources that can tell them more. It produces a readable and unencumbered text, too, and doesn’t burden us with more information than we need. Inevitably, though, there are things that the anthology doesn’t or can’t provide. The explanatory glosses tend to focus on unfamiliar words rather than interesting ones; they explain, in other words, but tend not to elucidate ambiguity or wordplay.

The first stanza of the first canto of the poem, for instance, illustrates this very well. A reader encountering this for the first time will have “pricking,” “jolly’” and “giusts” glossed for them (and the editors have retained those original spellings, while normalizing u/v and i/j). But a number of verbal points, which a much fuller edition (such as the second Longman) has space to note, are left out. The Norton doesn’t gloss “dints” (to note either the neologism, or the way in which the word embraces both blow and indentation); it doesn’t point out Spenser’s characteristic interpretive warning, “seemd”; it doesn’t account for the complexity of the word “jolly” (which it glosses just as “gallant”). It is also deliberately selective in the kind of explanatory annotation that it provides. Throughout the first canto, Prescott and Hadfield point out a good number of scriptural allusions, and mention some of Spenser’s broader literary and textual parallels (the Parliament of Fowls for the catalogue of trees, Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the account of spontaneous generation at I.i.22, Ariosto for Archimago, and so on), as well as indications of some of his more formal and conventional parallels: a note at the start of the Proem to Book I, for instance, mentions, Servius, Virgil, and the epic tradition. There is much less, though, on the iconographic or literary history of St. George, material that (one supposes) could be picked up through a reading of the relevant article from The Spenser Encyclopedia. And this is a model for the edition as a whole, the things that it does very well and the things that it chooses not to do. The emphasis falls on the explanation of difficult or unfamiliar terms, while preserving the ambiguities and uncertainties that Spenser writes into his own narrative; it points out textual and scriptural parallels or allusions but doesn’t elaborate them. It is a first stop for a new reader of Spenser—not complete or even comprehensive in its interests, but well served by its instructions for further, and more detailed research, and keen to allow its readers to experience and enjoy the poems as they encounter them for the first time.


Christopher Burlinson
University of Cambridge


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Cite as:

Christopher Burlinson, "Anne Lake Prescott and Andrew D. Hadfield, eds. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry," Spenser Review 45.1.12 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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