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Close Reading: Introduction
by Patrick Cheney

The following papers were originally presented at the International Spenser Conference in Dublin, Ireland, on May 19, 2015, in a panel titled “Close Reading,” for which I served as convener. The occasion for the panel was the publication of two recent books that speak to a need in Spenser studies to move beyond a method of criticism for interpreting The Faerie Queene known as “close reading”: Julian Lethbridge’s introduction to A Concordance to the Rhymes of “The Faerie Queene,” compiled with Richard Danson Brown, and David Scott Wilson-Okamura’s Spenser’s International Style.[1] Of the three paper-givers at the conference—some of our leading Spenser scholars, David Lee Miller, Judith H. Anderson, and Roland Greene—Miller and Anderson have revised their papers for this special unit in The Spenser Review, and both have appended a personal reaction to the other papers. Needless to say, Miller and Anderson support close reading of The Faerie Queene—and of Spenser in general—but each does so in a quite different and perhaps surprising way.

As Miller reveals, the debate over close reading in Spenser studies has a long and venerable history, dating back to the mid-twentieth century. Since then, we have been through the wringer with New Historicism, which largely eschewed close reading in favor of the historical environment of “power” and its pressurizing of “the subject”; but, mercifully, many practitioners have emerged on the other side, recognizing that, as Anderson points out, close reading need not be divorced from historical understanding.

For starters, Anderson and Miller interpret the topic of “close reading” in similar terms. In Miller’s phrasing, it is “a familiar, highly variable critical practice whose defining mark is close attention to literary texts”; and, in Anderson’s, “the heightened, analytical attention we give to what Spenser’s poem is saying and to how it is doing so.” As Miller observes, “close reading is dull if mechanically applied but capable of eliciting wonder when wielded by a graceful and intense critical intelligence” (such as that of Harry Berger, Jr.): “The proper use of close reading is to keep texts alive.” For Anderson, close reading of Spenser’s “language, grammar, and figuration”—a handy lexicon—gives us “access to the subtle, complex comprehensive poem that Spenser created” (her emphasis). In contrast, Greene interpreted close reading as a critical practice made famous by the New Critics, not as something we might ourselves do today, and he continued his historicist analysis by pointing out that early modernists did not do close reading, however acutely they could attend to matters of language and meaning.

Possibly, an early modern poet like Spenser wrote poetry that prompts close reading. We might call it close-writing, the purpose of which can only be close reading. I cite a single example, from the conclusion to the Pageant of Elements, Seasons, and Months in The Mutabilitie Cantos, the twenty-nine stanza details of which (a total of 261 lines of poetry) I am happy not to read closely—until I encounter “Death”:

And after all came Life, and lastly Death,
      Death with most grim and grisly visage seene,
      Yet is he nought but parting of the breath;
      Ne ought to see, but like a shade to weene,
      Unbodied, unsoul’d, unheard, unseene. 

In this instance of an early modern sublime poetry (as Angus Fletcher classified it in 1964), might we find license for “close reading” within the practice of authorship—within the poet’s so-obvious artfulness—even, his play? Conversely, it is possible to read this passage the way I was invited to do when I first started studying Spenser in the early 1970s: quickly, en route to the rest of the stanza, and then the next stanza, and so on, so as to embrace the vast space that is the joy of “Faeryland”—so forward-thrusting is this long epic romance, it needs to keep not merely itself but the reader on the move. The glory of The Faerie Queene lies in its escalating story, the wide imaginative space of its evolving fiction, not its Miltonic or Shakespearean or Donnean fixation on language.

And yet, one could write a short essay on the masquer “Death,” even before we glimpse his partner, “Life,” who occupies the remainder of the stanza, and genially does not prompt close reading, but lets us pass him by:

    But Life was like a faire young lusty boy,
    Such as they faine Dan Cupid to have beene,
    Full of delightfull health and lively joy,
Deckt all with flowres, and wings of gold fit to employ. 

I do not mean to suggest that this is not delightful poetry, or that it does not warrant attention. It does: from the gendered portraiture of an abstraction, “Life,” as a “faire young lusty boy,” to the comparison of “Life” with “Dan Cupid” (that’s thoughtful), to flowers and golden wings as metaphors for life, and even to the eye-catching final phrase, “fit to employ” (what does it mean? why does employment get the final word with life?).  However beautiful, the portrait is not sublime; it does not transfix us; it does not overwhelm our reason: it is not close-writing and does not compel the magic of close reading.[3] 

In contrast, Spenser’s portrait of “Death” is so sublime and close it is hard to know where to begin, what to say; and yet we must: for the verse language almost literally stops the action, stretching thought, including the thought of the author’s virtuoso performance. A.C. Hamilton, in his edition of The Faerie Queene, was caught by the portrait, and found himself reading closely. On “lastly Death,” he records the contradiction: “significantly, however, Time’s pageant concludes with the celebration of Life even as Day follows Night in 44” (p. 709). Hamilton cites Mark Heberle’s 1987 note in Explicator; in Hamilton’s words, “the ambiguity of the line—either death follows life or life follows death—indicates that both are integral to a larger natural process.” It is line 5, however, that transfixes Hamilton’s eye—and, I assume, our own: “This brilliant example of asyndeton, i.e. the omission of grammatical connections between words, which here share the same prefix, is made memorable by the two introductory iambs of Vnbodied and by being placed as the stanza’s central line” (p. 709).[4]

As an alternative to close-reading “Death,” I will end simply by calling attention to the lively set of contradictions Spenser communicates: not merely does line 3 contradict line 2, and the second half of line 3 contradict the first half, but to carry these contradictions out the poet inserts, within two lines, no fewer than four contradictory words, “Yet … but … Ne … but,” with each of the two lines carefully balanced in their contradictoriness. Caught in the echo chamber of “nought … ought,” and the rhyme of intense contradictory cognition (“seene … weene … unseene”), we strive to see what is not there. Pensively, Spenser broods over the enigma of death, his verse occupying the interval between sheer physicality and haunting ghostliness. Is Death alive? or not? Can he be seen? or not? Is death real, or spectral? The phrase “but parting of the breath” is practically unintelligible, taking us “deepe within the mynd” (FQ VI.Proem.5.8). How can we “see” a “shade”—and yet we do, for that is one of the goals of The Faerie Queene. The brilliant fifth line, the asyndeton-center of the stanza—the verse hinge between life and death itself—will not let us part. To take the cue of Miller, death keeps us alive. With Anderson, we might go further, to historicize, and wonder: why is Spenser doing this to death around 1595? We enter the poet’s allegorical workshop, right when Christian death-as-salvation is ceding authority to modern death-as-annihilation.[5]

In this historic space, it goes without saying that one could dilate on “Unbodied, unsoul’d, unheard, unseene” till doomsday. The sublimity of the verse enigma functions as a verbal contract between author and reader, virtually erasing the boundary between them. Spenser may be the first in English to attempt a virtual poetics.

Irrespective of “Death,” the two papers in this special unit do enliven the topic of close reading Spenser differently. Whereas Miller responds directly to the challenge to close reading mounted by Lethbridge and Wilson-Okamura (doing so by way of a fresh glance at Gordon Teskey on poetic “thinking”), Anderson pushes off of her experience in teaching The Faerie Queene (starting with the opening stanzas to Book 1), as well as relying on her extensive work on Spenserian allegory, to dilate on (among other things) the question of “metaphorical translation,” in the process “back[ing] … into the familiar debate between Ricoeur and Derrida about what is variously known as sublation or supersession”: “the partial cancelation, the partial continuation, and the partial elevation of the original meaning of a word.” Nonetheless, both Anderson and Miller help us enter a list that Spenser studies might wish to entertain: the traumatic life-and-death pleasure of reading The Faerie Queene—and other works of Spenserian poetry—closely: bodied, souled, heard, seen.

Patrick Cheney
Pennsylvania State University

[1] Richard Danson Brown and J. B. Lethbridge, A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013); David Wilson-Okamura, Spenser’s International Style (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013).

[2] All quotations come from A.C. Hamilton, ed., Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene (New York: Longman-Pearson Education, 2001). I modernize the archaic i-j and u-v, except when quoting Hamilton’s annotation.

[3] In particular, it does not meet any of the four criteria pertinent in Fletcher’s list of five for sublime poetry in The Faerie Queene: “it is enigmatic; it challenges all our powers of imagination and speculation; it ‘proves, in a peremptory manner our moral independence’; it further is marked by ambivalence of attitude toward moral dichotomies” (Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964], p. 268, quoting Schiller, “The Sublime”).

[4] Spenser’s ‘Death’ has caught the attention of many Spenserians; for a fine recent analysis, see David Lee Miller, “Death’s Afterword,” in Imagining Death in Spenser and Milton, ed. Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, Patrick Cheney, and Michael Schoenfeldt (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 185-99.

[5] Robert N. Watson, The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).



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Cite as:

Patrick Cheney, "Close Reading: Introduction," Spenser Review 45.2.26 (Fall 2015). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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