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"Close Reading: Theory, Assumptions, Practice"
by Judith Anderson

This session focuses on “the assumptions—the implicit theories—that underlie the way we read Spenser when we read him closely.” It therefore concerns the heightened, analytical attention we give to what his poem is saying and to how it is doing so. Equating our assumptions with “implicit theories” suggests that theory necessarily underlies the close reading of Spenser, yet we all know readers who profess that their practice is free of theory and others who read explicitly, not implicitly, in terms of a particular kind of theory, Lacanian, Foucauldian, or Augustinian, for example. My point is that assumptions about close reading might not be “implicit theories” or, conversely, that they might direct close reading rather than underlie it. Neither position is mine; I just want to recognize their existence.

The term theory itself also invites a look. As a technical term, theory implies a significant degree of abstract, systemic conceptualization. But understood as “awareness,” which translates Greek theoria, a kind of seeing, theory readily merges with practice, as it conspicuously did in the lives of Renaissance artists, philosophers, and scientists. As “awareness,” theory emphasizes its interaction with practice rather than their opposition as rigid versions of abstraction and embodiment, or idea and hands-on. Although I first met theoria as “awareness” in scholarship on Aristotle, to whose psychology it pertains, awareness would be a congenial conception with respect to the deconstructive contribution of Derrida, whose early linguistic work spoke to me and to an extent still does.

I can’t address the close reading of Spenser without awareness of my own practice of it, though I’ll try not to turn this into True Confessions. For me, close reading has been a developing practice, yet one with a base and recurrent threads. I still embrace most of my first book, which focused on allegory in Langland and Spenser, yet I read now with greater awareness: I’m older (much); I’ve learned more; I’ve engaged further disciplines. I read otherwise, but not basically. My awareness still focuses on language and process, or, with respect to literature, on language and poetic narrative, whether in epic, drama, lyric, or even prose. Genre matters, but it is not as basic as language and process. In any form of imaginative literature, “poetic” for me, as for Philip Sidney, essentially means “fictive” and “creative,” from Greek poiein, “to produce, invent, create, make.” Derrida and Ricoeur loom large in my background, although they were not there when I began to read closely or even Spenser closely. Ricoeur and Derrida are not alone, but they are important enough to specify. A list of others seems less useful, although I should probably mention Cicero, Lyotard, and Agamben, in addition to those I’ve already named—Sidney and Aristotle. 

My basic assumptions are first that language, grammar, and figuration inform thought and for this reason invite careful attention; and second, that reading, like writing, is a temporal process—again, a process, which is contextualized in a variety of ways, notably by history. Close reading is itself also a historical process, both a constant and a developing one. De-contextualization of the sort to be found solely in the definition of a dictionary, which is an abstraction from actual use, or in a wordlist or concordance, is, while useful, simply not the same thing. Here is the principle: a de-contextualization is also a re-contextualization. Whether done manually or by machine, it is a significant, abstractive change. These assumptions are theoretically, historically, and experientially informed, and they inform the practice of close reading. 

Language and the practices that derive from it, I stress, are embedded—that is, contextualized—in culture and history. Language is at once inseparable from, and absolutely fundamental to, both. Language and the practices in which it inheres are further, more immediately contextualized within a poem. Rather than being simply a neutral medium, the poem itself is a translative form of expression and potentially a transforming one. This is what it means to utter the commonplace that poetic language is metaphorical rather than logical, dense rather than documentary. To affirm that language is contextualized in a poem is not to neutralize the agency of the signifier, but to recognize it as play, supplement, and excess, without denying the force of historical, linguistic, and grammatical context.

In what follows, I intend a series of specific topics that pertain to the close reading of Spenser and particularly to the reading of his allegories, since I take allegory, understood as continued or moving metaphor, to be an encapsulation of the signifying process, which involves abstraction, embodiment, and change over time. My own awareness—indeed my own practice—is informed by a good deal of theory, but I usually don’t think theory first, practice second. I see the possibilities of theory emerging with actual analysis—from an interaction of what I see on the page and what I bring to it.  

In order to talk about Spenserian allegory, I need to switch to a pedagogical context, since my own ideas about allegory, which I’ve already mentioned, are not a blank slate. I like to approach the beginning of the first canto of The Faerie Queene, after a few comments about its subject and the role of its poet as these are announced in the first Proem, with a minimalist’s explanation of allegory—to the effect that the hero is not only a knight but also represents holiness, his lady not only a woman but oneness, and so on. I make the point that whatever else allegory is can best be seen by actually observing how it works—that is, by reading the first stanza, then the second and the third, then the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh in slow motion. The sixth and seventh stanzas get more of a pause because these are where the plot, earlier announced, really gets going, and it does so by pausing. I’ve modeled this process a number of times, starting with David Miller’s MLA collection on Spenser. To my mind, this kind of attention to Spenser’s own beginning, in which he effectually signals how to read his poem, is the best introduction to it. This beginning requires close reading and rereading, forward movement and then, with retrospection, the retracing of steps, like Redcrosse and Una’s entry into the Wood, only to wend back to the plain after the initial defeat of Error. There is no substitute for Spenser’s own introduction to the reading of his poem. This same kind of Spenserian signaling recurs in the beginning of each Book, and it shifts with each, playing off the earlier beginnings and developing over the course of the epic. Generalizations about Spenser’s methods want to take these shifts into account.

I’d like to return to the subject of abstraction, then theory. In this age of thoughtful emphasis on the body and more basically on matter, the idea of abstraction can cause alarm, not to say panic. But abstraction occurs the minute that we have used a concept or even a word; if it didn’t we’d all be walking around like targets of Swiftian satire with knapsacks of objects as a means to communicate wordlessly with one another. Words, like numbers, are regularized or abstracted, rather than uniquely or individually phenomenal and occasional. Abstraction is a drawing away from the immediate material thing (Latin ab, “away,” plus trahere, “to draw”). Figuratively speaking, a rotten apple and a sound one are still mathematically two, but, in the grocery store, not really. That is, actual reference in a situated context is what particularizes a word. 

Certainly, the historical study of language shows that words—even the copula “is”—have some degree of basis in physical and material existence and that metaphorical translation is fundamental to the construction of meaning—civilized meaning. Yet this knowledge does not alter the fact that the roots of language are only an earlier stage of language, not material existence itself—those knapsacks with objects again. Nor does it change the fact that, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, outside academia, our concepts have nowadays lost a vital awareness of their roots, something not true in earlier centuries. Investment in the stock market doesn’t mean “clothing” nowadays to non-lexiphiles unless they are putting money into the garment trade. I suppose one question is whether metaphorical translation, which clearly involves a shift, can establish real or valid meaning over time—meaning understood as history or culture or even ideology. And I suppose a partial answer is that it depends on what that thing is to which the material thing is transferred—another material thing, a conceptual thing, an imagined thing, or something still more abstract. In short, what is considered real or valid, which changes.

Without quite meaning to, I have backed into the familiar debate between Ricoeur and Derrida about what is variously known as sublation or supersession, German Aufhebung, which these two modern philosophers agreed to translate as “raising.” More exactly, sublation is the partial cancelation, the partial continuation, and the partial elevation of the original meaning of a word. I don’t want to pursue the Ricoeur-Derrida debate here beyond noting that Derrida asserts the continuing metaphoricity of the material roots of philosophical terms and Ricoeur asserts their transcendence in lexical practice and usage, a position oddly similar to the social-scientific pragmatics of Bourdieu, as well as to the argument from evolving usage that Thomas More opposed to Tyndale’s etymologism. Instead, I want to make a point about the relevance to close reading of the Ricoeur-Derrida debate, which implies two different notions of history. When my own discussion of this debate was reviewed, an otherwise generous reviewer was frustrated because I didn’t decide that either Derrida or Ricoeur had won. Unfortunately, however, neither’s view is just wrong or just right. Since my goal was practical use and I had analyzed the issues, the next step was to see how well either or both views operated in the cultural and creative Early Modern contexts that I then examined with benefit of their light, along with whatever else my own experience contributed, such as historical conditions of knowledge in the period. In other words, the Ricoeur-Derrida debate proved enlightening; it heightened my awareness. But the issue was finally not theoretical so much as practical. In contextualized Renaissance practice, both Derrida’s and Ricoeur’s views could be present in a single text, and their positions could also be the subject of textual engagement: Spenser’s Garden of Adonis, House of Busirane, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Milton’s War in Heaven offer cases in point. Instead of illustrating philosophical dichotomies, poetic texts like these show how much more inclusive—how much less simply abstract—the linguistic practice of poetry can be. At the same time, the views of the modern philosophers enable fuller and clearer understanding of what occurs in poetic texts.

From here, I’ll segue to a couple of related topics on which I’ve already touched. The first is the difference between a systematic doctrine, be it philosophical, theological, psychoanalytical, linguistic, or something else, and the working of any actual poem deserving the name. Language itself, not unlike math, is a system of signs, and grammar systematically organizes these. Doctrines and systems can be more or less abstract, but most familiar ones involve rational ordering—perhaps randomized atomic theories least of all. The pursuit of systematic doctrine can be illuminating in localized contexts, but as a master plan for interpreting a moving, developing poem, it involves some skewing—and may it ever be seen to do so. Recently, I read what I consider a valuable article on Spenser that was seeped in Calvin’s theology. It kept taking issue with its main contender, an earlier, similarly valuable article that invoked Lutheran theology. As with Ricoeur and Derrida, such opposition invites readers to see where either claim is valid and where either closes down the text or simply misreads it. In other words, more close reading is the most reliable and effective antidote for what I’ll term Procrustean Desire, even when that desire has employed close reading—the close reading of select passages, which are then theorized, systematized, doctrinalized to the whole—with a little help from Procrustes. 

The second topic is universality. I’ve not worried this term since assigned topics in grade school, except to puzzle over its contextualized, applied meaning in Aristotle’s Poetics. Oddly enough, a kind of universality is precisely what enables the many more specific applications of figures and events in The Faerie Queene. What can get lost is that these applications, historical, doctrinal, and otherwise, are multiple by definition and by the very particularity and situatedness of what we call history. It is the conceptual, abstract dimension of allegory that allows and ensures that they are multiple. For a clear example, take Duessa, double being, duo esse: she represents the fundamental duplicity that finds particular expressions in nature and history, the psyche, philosophy, theology, the Bible, the polity, and the church. Within the poem or from the perspective of its fiction, she is the larger term, these multiples her various, partial manifestations. To make her exclusively one of them is to make her a metonymic substitution for it, rather than a figure, a complex poetic construction, in tensive relation with it. This is not to deny that specific connections are enlightening, but only to wish that they might show a larger awarenesstheoria.

With little time remaining, a final topic I want to mention explicitly is form, which includes narrative sequence, something which one recent study of Spenserian stylistics enhances and another qualifies. (One of Spenser’s favorite puns, “still moving,” notably includes both views.) I’ve often been struck by the way form coincides with content and, when noticed, enforces, extends, or modifies it. This perception has typically occurred when I’ve not been looking for it—a sudden, pleasing surprise. On reflection and with closer attention, the care with which the poem has been crafted then comes into clearer view. But sometimes the relation of form to content seems to be quite fortuitous, as surprising to the writer, who keeps or further develops it, as to readers. The relation of form to content also changes over time—indeed, over extended sequence in The Faerie Queene. Two formal features in Spenser, however, strike me as crucially meaningful—again sequence, including retrospection, which I’ve already mentioned, and the figuration of agents—agents, not puppets of doctrine. The word agent, or “doer,” has many meanings, from a bleaching agent, to a shipping agent or “factor” in Renaissance parlance, to an individuated being with reason and will. In Spenser, agents range and shift from simple personifications like Charissa or Ate to relatively more rounded ones, like Britomart.  To respond to such differences with a reading practice that respectfully differentiates them is to gain fuller access to the subtle, complex, comprehensive poem that Spenser created—which is a good word to end on. 

Judith Anderson
Indiana University, Emeritus



  • Minneapolis Mobile Truck Repair 5 months, 2 weeks ago

    The relation of form to content also changes over time—indeed, over extended sequence in The Faerie Queene.

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  • Phoenix Mobile Auto Mechanic 2 weeks, 6 days ago

    o affirm that language is contextualized in a poem is not to neutralize the agency of the signifier, but to recognize it as play, supplement, and excess, without denying the force of historical, linguistic, and grammatical context.

    Link / Reply

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Cite as:

Judith Anderson, ""Close Reading: Theory, Assumptions, Practice"," Spenser Review 45.2.27 (Fall 2015). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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