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Anne Lake Prescott, William A. Oram and Andrew Escobedo, eds. Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual XXIX
by Andrew Hadfield

Anne Lake Prescott, William A. Oram and Andrew Escobedo, eds. Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual. XXIX. New York: AMS P, 2014. 332 pp. ISBN: 978-0404192297. $178.50 cloth. 

Things change and the issue of any journal devoted to a single author is a good index of how the world sees and imagines them at present. Many years ago one of the then editors of Spenser Studies complained to me that no one was submitting anything except essays on A View of the Present State of Ireland; a very senior—and modest—Spenser scholar confessed at about the same time that he had never actually read the whole thing, a sign of how scholarly generations can have very different expectations and intellectual horizons. The inspiration behind Spenser Studies XXIV (2009) was the need to right a particular wrong. Neo-Platonism had been one of the main areas of Spenser criticism well into the 1980s but had fallen by the wayside as political criticism kicked in and booted everything else out of the way—surely it was all those essays on a View that were to blame. Indeed, in the first term of my first year as an undergraduate at a university in a rather black and grimy northern English city (it is now white and clean and has very posh shops in its once Gothic centre) the course on Renaissance literature involved four lectures on The Faerie Queene and Epithalamion that explained that these were Neo-Platonic allegories celebrating the natural order of the universe. I had no idea that Spenser had ever been to Ireland (I didn’t know this until my third year). I read the whole of The Faerie Queene before Christmas and hatched a characteristically hare-brained and never carried out plan to leave university and join the navy, so miserable had Spenser made me. I got my revenge—sort of—when reviewers complained that my Spenser Companion was a state of the art snapshot of Spenser studies which was why it did not contain a chapter on Neo-Platonism.

We now live very much in the wake of politicized criticism in Spenser studies and in Renaissance studies in general. Things have not gone back to how they were—thankfully.  Some familiar subjects have returned, often in a new guise, and some new subjects have emerged. It is possible to write more extensively about form than it once seemed to be: although, if we are honest, perhaps one should really state that it is possible to claim that it is important to write about form, as not that many people write about such issues because they are hard to master and many of the finest new Historicists were alive to matters of form anyway. Even more welcome to my mind has been the extensive research and thinking about religion. It is no longer possible to claim that early modern people chose one side of the religious divide which explains their work. Catholic and Protestant poets employed similar models of devotional poetry; many Protestants were afraid of the threat of international Catholicism spearheaded by the twin forces of the Papacy and mighty Spain, but did not necessarily hate their neighbours and were probably rather traumatized by the schism of the English church; lots of ferocious anti-Catholic material now looks as if it was written by Catholics covering their tracks; and, whatever they thought about each other, varieties of Catholics and Protestants had to live cheek by jowl. Indeed, if there is a new orthodoxy it is that everyone was a church papist and nobody really wanted to argue about religion apart from the puritans and the Jesuits, but, of course, that cannot be right either.

And other issues and subjects have developed. There has been an interest in material culture and the impact of the everyday on people’s imagination: clothes, houses, chimneys, toilets, hairstyles, toys, food, shoes, candles, jewellery, amphibious landing craft, and so on. In its most extreme form interest in material culture has given rise to the idea of “thing theory” and the absolutely absurd label the “New Historicism” (yes, it really is true, I’m afraid). But, on balance this has also been a welcome development (although has it really hit Spenser scholarship yet? Perhaps we have missed the boat). Alongside the interest in material culture there has been greater concentration on the history of the book, its form, production, use, the annotations and marks contained within it. This has been aided by the development of digital technology, which has led to the irresistible rise of the “digital humanities,” in some ways a very good thing but one that has persuaded many university chiefs and funding bodies in the British Isles that the arts can now be like the sciences and work in terms of research teams with big grants, which is very silly indeed. But it is more than useful to have so many resources at our fingertips – as long as we remember that reading literature is not just a side-line to heavy duty statistical gathering because it is what we do and that searchable databases are not the only way forward. There has been a wealth of excellent research into the hitherto un-noticed interaction with Islamic culture and the Ottoman Empire, which has been a vital new area for Spenser scholars. Indeed, the rise of Islam has partly come at the expense of interest in Ireland, which has forced people like me to find pastures new. I’d also suggest that the longstanding interest in gender and sexuality has combined with historical research to explore the significance of marriage (represented by two essays here), and that research into the history of the emotions has started to make its mark on Spenser criticism.

So, how does Spenser Studies XXIX measure up to current agendas? Pretty well, in my view. There are two essays on Spenser’s allegory, a constant presence over the years; two on national and ethnic identity, one English, one British, and a further one on Ireland; two on the legend of chastity; two on the relationship between Spenser and the Medieval past (another important development in early modern studies for which we should be grateful), one on the Harrowing of Hell and another on Merlin; one on the Saracens and Islam, with another on the Sans brothers; one on the nature and style of Spenser as he represents himself as a poet; and one on pity in the Amoretti and The Ruines of Time. This collection represents a lively and varied range of subjects one that reflects well on the editors and the authors, suggesting a vital and engaged relationship between the two. It is hard to imagine that Spenser scholars and critics—both are amply represented here—will not find much of interest in the issue. One possible criticism is the concentration on The Faerie Queene, as only three essays deal with other works (even the two notes are on the poem, dealing with proverbs in the Mammon episode and the significance of “imply”). But you can’t have everything.

My favorite essay in the volume was Katharine Cleland’s exploration of marriage politics and their relationship to English national identity after the Reformation. Professor Cleland shows how the chaotic marriage practices of the late Middle Ages often permitted clandestine marriages and led to confusion about promises and who had said what to whom. Marriage, in the post-Reformation age, needed to be regulated by proper church ceremonies that made it clear who was married to whom, as marriage, as there would no longer be a separate class of divines, would be the state in which most people lived. Professor Cleland explores the significance of the return of Duessa to spoil the betrothal party at the end of Book I, arguing that Duessa does indeed have some prior right to the Redcrosse Knight (“Redcrosse’s infamous lustiness makes him susceptible to the trap of clandestine marriage” (84)), but that her claims originate from a time before marriage was properly regulated. However, Duessa’s claims are trumped by the pre-existing contract that the knight had with Una. For Professor Cleland Spenser’s poem urges his countrymen to accelerate the Reformation and introduce proper regulated marriage laws so that “children and courtiers can marry for love and serve their sovereign at the same time” (97).

It’s a good argument and I learned a lot from an article that also made me think. I’m not sure I quite agree with the conclusions. It may be that Duessa’s claim is stronger than the argument suggests and can be read allegorically as a sign of England’s long-term marriage to the Roman church that will take time to undo. And, is it so obvious that Spenser simply wants to accelerate the Reformation? On the one hand this is probably true; but on the other there is surely a sadness at the split of the church and a nostalgic backwards look to a time when everyone worshiped together.

Which brings me to the other standout essay in the volume, Russ Leo’s learned and powerful analysis of Guyon’s swoon in terms of English Reformation politics, a further sign that analysis of religious politics will be a way forward for Spenser critics. Professor Leo is concerned to show that after the Reformation English writers did not look backwards with nostalgia but with a sensible understanding that they could reshape and refigure earlier ideas in terms of Protestant ideas and debates: “Spenser retrieves medieval sources in order to inform and correct what was fast emerging as English orthodoxy; his is not a nostalgic revision of English Protestantism but, rather, an attempt to use medieval materials to reframe debates gone awry” (112). For Professor Leo the descent of Guyon into the Cave of Mammon has to be read in terms of the Harrowing of Hell outlined in the Gospel of Nicodemus and then expanded and recast in Piers Plowman a crucial influence on the development of The Faerie Queene, as Judith Anderson and others acknowledged some time ago. The most interesting claim of this impressive essay is that Spenser was not relying on Scriptures to rethink Christian doctrine and ethics but late medieval writing, suggesting to me that Spenser should not be read simply in terms of what we sometimes imagine Protestantism to have been (anti-Catholic, pious, reliant on sola scriptura). In casting Christ as Guyon Spenser is able to explore the humanity of Christ without risking blasphemy, showing Guyon as fearful and struggling to resist hostile forces, reliant on his guile.

Jerrod Rosenbaum’s impressive and useful essay on Merlin is written in memory of Darryl Gless, an urbane and incisive voice on Spenser’s religion who is much missed. Professor Rosenbaum argues that Spenser sought to rehabilitate Merlin to conform to Protestant doctrine, distancing him from Catholicism so that he could support Elizabeth’s Protestant genealogy as a “godly magistrate” (149). I very much enjoyed this learned piece which discussed Augustine as well as the Harvey brothers on demonology, and which made a powerful case that Glauce misreads Merlin as a demon, the poet warning his readers not to make the same mistake. I also wonder whether there’s not more to say about Spenser’s representation of such a complicated and ambiguous figure.

Jeffrey B. Griswald contributes an impressive essay which explores the uncomfortable connections between political and erotic subjection in The Faerie Queene arguing that “Spenser uses scenes of sexual enthrallment to contemplate tyranny and just government” (221), while stopping short of a more cohesive political outlook. Outlining a pointed contrast between Florimell and Amoret who “have female bodes that serve as vulnerable vehicles for political allegories of state violence” and Radigund who “foists femininity upon the male knights” (223), Professor Griswald shows how Artegall’s submission to Radigund reveals him to be a “feminised slave” who represents “contradictory political images of forced subjugation and consensual governance” (227). In the end Spenser “unveils the allegoresis of political domination to expose the human bodies beneath” (233). The essay shows a more sympathetic political Spenser than the brutal colonist of a View and so suggests that there is still a debate to be had about Spenser’s political beliefs. It should help foster further debate and I hope this is part of a larger project as comparisons of Spenser’s political language in his erotic poetry could bear fruitful comparison to the Sidney circle, especially Mary Wroth. Ruth Kaplan’s thoughtful essay on pity in the Amoretti and Ruines of Time provides a neat companion piece to Professor Griswald’s essay, one I also hope is part of a larger study. She neatly compares and contrast the two poetic sequences, showing how the sonnet sequence represents pity as “powerful and potentially overwhelming,” whereas the complaint “portrays it as easily resisted, and ultimately beside the point” (285). Such work is a sign that the extensive research into “affect” is bearing fruit so that we are now able to combine careful readings of poems with an understanding of how such literature may have been read. The same might be said of Kelly Lehtonen’s short, suggestive piece on Malbecco as a representation of all that chastity should not be, as he consumes himself with a negative emotion that overwhelms him and transforms him into an abstract allegorical figure. Professor Lehtonen shows Spenser cleverly manipulating and maneuvering the reader of his poetry so that allegory here occurs as a limitation of human life not a means of decoding its complexities. For Professor Lehtonen, the Malbecco episode “not only serves as an inverse or negative counterpart to bring Chastity fully to light but also leaves that virtue—perhaps more than any other—unfathomably deep and complex.” Marital chastity can then be revealed as “the most terrifyingly grand ecstasy represented in The Faerie Queene” (192). I’m not sure I’d put it quite that way but I do take the point.

Talya Meyers’s “Spenser in Faeryland” will stand as a contribution to recent studies of Islam in literature and a piece that will inspire further reflection on the nature of the poem’s allegory. Professor Meyers explores the representation of Spenser’s Saracens in terms of Virgil’s depiction of Turnus’s death to try and understand whether the Sans brothers are irredeemably “other” or whether they are reintegrated into a more inclusive intellectual framework. The conclusion is that the Saracens are to be seen as an ever-expanding issue: “whether Spenser intended an ultimate, cataclysmic battle between Christians and Muslims, the fact remains that the text stresses repeatedly that its Saracen figures cannot be contained by conventional literary means” (56). Once one Saracen figure is killed off another takes its place, suggesting that Spenser imagined a conflict that would stretch forward indefinitely. Perhaps this is wisdom with hindsight and the argument that the Saracens “emerge as one of its [The Faerie Queene’s] stronger forces of thematic and formal cohesiveness, even as they are moved to the margins of its storyline” (57) is a bit overstated. Even so it is a valuable essay. Robert Lanier Reid’s essay on Sansloy’s double-meaning makes a similar argument about the future threat of the Saracens but is rather too compressed in its current form to do more than gesture towards large issues that I hope Professor Reid explores more fully in due course. 

David Baker, David Lee Miller and Jean Brink are the three senior scholars contributing to the volume. Professor Baker provides a sensible and stimulating overview of recent debates about the nature of Britain and Britishness and how they relate to Spenser. In doing so he charts the move from a critical culture which sought to analyze how English writers imagined Britain to one in which critics explain how such writers might have fitted into a diverse, polyglot British Isles. Professor Baker cites with approval the work of Pat Palmer—whose recent book on severed heads is required reading for anyone with the slightest interest in this subject—who argues that an old colonial model of scholarship is “replicated by a predominantly monophone scholarship armed with the well-meaning but dangerous conviction that by listening with finely-honed scepticism to the colonists’ outpourings … we can somehow hear the voices of the colonized as well” (27). Only scholarship armed with polyglot expertise can lead us forward.

David Lee Miller, who delivered the 2014 Kathleen Williams lecture, seeks to build on Maureen Quilligan’s reading of female perspectives—and those of other critics—to provide an understanding of desire in Spenser’s legend of Chastity. It is perhaps a sign that critics sometimes reach similar conclusions at the same time that Professor Miller’s conclusion can be read alongside Kelly Lehtonen’s reading of the Malbecco episode: “we see Spenser anticipating, intuiting perhaps, the transformation of chastity into intimacy as the fully human experience of love” (15). The essay is yet another thoughtful contribution to our understanding of the slippery and complicated nature of allegory and how it might be read that Professor Miller has made over the last thirty odd years.

Jean Brink’s essay is equally characteristic: a sensible and hard-headed overview of the confusing evidence of the publication of a View in 1633. Professor Brink argues that the manuscript submitted by Humphrey and Matthew Lownes in 1598 to be licensed for publication—Rawlinson B.478—was probably a text that was owned by Thomas Man, under warden of the Stationers’ Company. Humphrey Lownes was, for a short time, Man’s son-in-law, which would explain the provenance of the manuscript, even if it does not explain why the dialogue was not published in 1598/9. But we cannot assume, argues Professor Brink, that Rawlinson was the manuscript used by James Ware when a View was finally published, as Ware stated that he based his text on an analysis of three manuscripts. It is a welcome essay that contributes much to our understanding of this difficult and controversial text that raises so many questions. Accordingly it seems almost churlish to mention that, twenty years on, this is the essay that publicly marks Professor Brink’s acknowledgement that Spenser did write a View, in the same forum where she first published her conclusion that he did not. Like many others I eagerly await Professor Brink’s future explorations, as I do the next issue of Spenser Studies.

Andrew Hadfield
University of Sussex


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Cite as:

Andrew Hadfield, "Anne Lake Prescott, William A. Oram and Andrew Escobedo, eds. Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual XXIX," Spenser Review 45.1.13 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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