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"Spenser and Historical Stylistics; or, The Case Against the Case Against Close Reading"
by David Lee Miller

Lately, it seems almost as if the spirits of Douglas Bush and Rosamund Tuve have been revisiting the glimpses of the moon. We thought that we had seen their canoniz’d bones, along with the earthly remains of their adversaries Empson and Brooks, quietly inurn’d, only to discover that the sepulchre hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws to cast them up again. The questionable shape in which they return may be called historical stylistics, at least when that learned and charitable enterprise mistakes itself as armed for combat, and declares the literary critical technique of close reading, when it comes to The Faerie Queene, to be a custom more honor’d in the breach than the observance.

The main source of this post-haste and rummage in the criticism is none other than Julian Lethbridge, who has not only the temerity to challenge close reading of the poem on historical, theoretical, and formal grounds, but what is more daunting, the bald effrontery to sound this alarum at the end of the introduction to a concordance of rhymes.[1] A very long, closely written introduction that runs to more than 100 pages. Big pages, folio sized. With a small font.

In marshalling his forces, young Lethbridge has shark’d up no list of lawless resolutes, but he has sought to forge alliances between Tübingen and the states of Teskey and Wilson-Okamura. In note 159, for instance (on page 159), he claims support from Gordon Teskey’s luminous essay “Thinking Moments in The Faerie Queene”: “I take it this is what Gordon Teskey means when he writes that close reading is anathema to The Faerie Queene for instance in ‘Thinking Moments.’” But these are not Teskey’s words. What does he actually write?

…  in Spenserian allegory matters become complicated and deepened not by looking farther into them where they are and analyzing them microscopically, by close reading. There is no poet for whom the techniques of close reading are more unsuitable if relied on exclusively, or more likely to mislead if mechanically applied. When we read The Faerie Queene we need a long memory and a distanced, somewhat relaxed view of its entanglements even more than we need the capacity for paying minute attention. [2]

Nothing there about “anathema,” but do notice the qualifications: “if relied on exclusively”; “if mechanically applied”; and in the next sentence, “even more than.” Now if you had declared that the best way to apprehend Spenser’s allegory is to rely exclusively on the mechanical application of techniques of close reading, this would be a devastating rebuttal, but who makes such a claim? Teskey is arguing for a relative shift of focus, toward a mode of reading that traces what he calls “entanglement,” exemplified by the way adjacent episodes in the opening canto of Book II—the Castle of Medina followed by Braggadocchio’s encounter with Belphoebe—complicate and correct each others’ allegory to demonstrate the limits of moderation as a pathway to Temperance.[3]

This is clearly a mode of reading that the poem invites and rewards. Far from anathematizing the techniques of close reading, the essay closes with a tour de force analysis of the final exchange between Mutability and Nature. In one especially fine moment, Teskey asks us to imagine how Nature hears Mutability’s demand, “Now judge then” (VII.vii.56.6). It’s a fine moment because it captures the way that an imaginative critical insight can emerge from close attention to the language of the text.

Like Teskey, Wilson-Okamura expresses reservations about close reading mainly to explain why he is doing something else: “for a long poem,” he writes, “there are better ways to prove something about its style.”[4] Again, notice the careful qualification: close reading, dwelling on a few specific passages to argue a broader point, is not the best way to prove an assertion about the poem’s style. All that really needs to be said in reply is that proving a point about the poem’s style is not the only purpose to which criticism may aspire. There is plenty of evidence in this learned book to demonstrate the value of its approach, but none at all to support a moratorium on close reading.

Indeed, one of the criteria Wilson-Okamura proposes is that of critical consensus “over a long period of time.” He’s talking about a consensus that goes back to the sixteenth century, but the last fifty years of Spenser criticism, which surely exceed the output of the previous four and a half centuries in volume, scope, and number of practitioners, offers a pretty impressive demonstration of the value of close reading. Not of its exclusive value, as if there were nothing else for criticism to do, but of its validity as a way of knowing the poem.

There is a fallacy that troubles most arguments against this or that critical procedure, arguments that try to limit what a text can mean by making rules about what critics ought to say. We see this problem when in a recent essay Wilson-Okamura takes on Louis Montrose’s reading of the blazon of Belphoebe, the same episode Teskey was tangling with:

     … a silken Camus lylly whight,
Purfled upon with many a folded plight,
Which all above besprinkled was throughout,
With golden aygulets, that glistred bright,
Like twinckling starres, and all the skirt about
Was hemmed with golden fringe[5]

Montrose thinks that the half-line which breaks off at the hem of Belphoebe’s tunic indicates that the poet is censoring himself just as his blazon approaches the genitals.[6] No, says Wilson-Okamura, it’s one of six half-lines in Spenser all of which occur in Virgilian contexts and should be understood as “allusion-markers. What they indicate is not censorship, but discipleship.”[7]

The problem is that this argument assumes the half-lines can only be doing one thing: not that, but this. There is no reason the half-line in question can’t be doing both of those things and more. Montrose sees self-censorship because he’s tracking power-relations, but the blank space at the end of the stanza may also be seen as a peculiarly apt way of representing what Hamlet will refer to as “a fair thought to lie between a maid’s legs”: the feminine “no-thing.” There’s a similar play between concealment and display in the description of the bathing damsels who tempt Guyon in the Bower. One of the two, you recall, bewrays her “lilly paps” to the knight’s enkindled gaze, while “the rest hidd underneath, him more desirous made” (II.xii.66.6-9).

So too with Belphoebe, the poet bewrays, or half-bewrays, “her daintie paps” (29.7) while calling attention to his concealment of the genitals. There is that “golden fringe” at the hem of her dress, which clearly suggests pubic hair. And there are the knots that fasten her buskins:

Before they fastned were under her knee
In a rich jewell, and therein entrayld
The ends of all the knots, that none might see,
How they within their fouldings close enwrapped

It is not enough to say, as Wilson-Okamura does, that “there are … no epic crotches. For blazonneurs, the epic subject is breasts” (50). In Book VI we will get a thoroughly epic crotch in the blazon of Serena, complete with “goodly thighes, whose glorie did appeare / Like a triumphal Arch” (viii.42.7-8), but already in this blazon Spenser is playing with the conventions of the topic. His description represents not only the breasts but also the non-representation of the genitals, unseen because close enwrapped in their “fouldings.” The blank space in the half-line signals their concealment; the golden fringe and the knots whose ends “none might see” offer a displaced representation of what cannot be displayed. In this way Spenser is not only respecting the decorum for which Wilson-Okamura argues, but reflecting upon it.

Wilson-Okamura is clearly right that Spenser’s half-lines are Virgilian allusions. I just think he’s wrong to say we should leave it at that. Let me offer one more example, this one not given in Wilson-Okamura’s list because its half-line is concealed within a metrically perfect pentameter line:

After him Uther, which Pendragon hight,
Succeeding There abruptly it did end,
Without full point, or other Cesure right …

This too is a Virgilian allusion. Spenser’s chronicle history belongs to his extended imitation of the procession of Roman worthies shown to Aeneas by Anchises in Book 6 of the Aeneid, and the corresponding lines in Virgil contain a precisely analogous syntactic break. Hailing the shade of Marcellus, last in the procession, Anchises laments,

heu, miserande puer, si qua fata aspera rumpas,
tu Marcellus eris.

The syntax is broken because the subjunctive if-clause, si qua fata aspera rumpas (“if you could break through your hopeless fate”), is not completed; instead the line shifts to simple future tense with the bare words tu Marcellus eris (“you will be Marcellus”).

Some Latin editions and most translations make an effort to smooth the ruptured grammar here, but to do so is to lose the poignant irony of the form. The grammar is broken just at the word rumpas, break, and in place of the missing then-clause the simple declaration of the name arrives like a death-sentence, cancelling the alternative future that opens momentarily with the subjunctive. Spenser’s broken grammar in the line “Succeeding There abruptly it did end” shows how carefully he read Virgil’s Latin. He equates the missing “full point” with the absence of a proper Caesar—the figure Marcellus would have been, if he could have broken through his fate. At issue in both texts is the problem, potentially the crisis, of imperial succession, and Spenser equates this political issue with the literal succession of words in the poetic line.[9] He was, clearly, himself a close reader.

The problem that brings Wilson-Okamura up short—the difficulty of arguing that something isn’t there—bedevils Lethbridge too. He is in an awkward rhetorical position, a bit like the police officer at a crime scene crying out “Nothing to see here! Move along, move along!” If there really were nothing to see, there would be no police tape and no officer shooing spectators. But there it is: not a crotch, but a corpse. It is the dead body of Tudor ideology, to which critics who label modern criticism anachronistic seek to bind the text.

Lethbridge calls this corpse the res. Summarizing what he calls “the allegorical view of language,” he says it entails the belief

that res and verba are separate things: that the words of the poem are not the thing itself or the end of poetry, but something different to what they talk about—to which they point with a gesture directed outside of or beyond themselves. 

The problem with trying to use res and verba in the service of such an argument is the familiar logical circle, and of course Lethbridge knows this: “we can only come to the res through the verba,” he admits, “even while the verba is not the res, and that is why, despite pointing to a conceit not themselves, the exact words used, the ipsissima verba, are nevertheless of the greatest importance” (159).

Mary Carruthers offers a lucid illustration of the way the res/verba distinction works in practice. She is quoting Petrarch from the Secretum. Writing in the person of Augustine, Petrarch responds to his own interpretation of some lines from the Aeneid:

I cannot but applaud that meaning which I understand you find
hidden in the poet’s story … for, whether Virgil had this in mind
when writing, or whether without any such idea he only meant to
depict a storm at sea and nothing else, what you have said about
the rush of anger and the authority of reason seems to me expressed
with equal wit and truth.[10]

The crucial point, as Carruthers explains, is that the res is “something understood to reside in the text itself,” not in the intentions of an author, and that subsequent readers are therefore entitled to discover and extend the res by attending to the verba.

The res, in other words, may in principle act as a brake on the proliferation of meaning, but in practice it underwrites readerly discovery. It doesn’t finally matter whether we believe that what we are discovering is the manifestation within language of something intrinsically extra-linguistic, nor indeed whether we believe such a thing is possible. The res/verba distinction is quite compatible with Roland Barthes’ famous description of the “readerly” and “writerly” dimensions of a text. What Barthes calls “readerly” is that portion of the res which is already known; the writerly is that which remains for us to discover. If the res were static—like the corpse at the crime scene—reading itself would be condemned to endlessly recycle the same meanings. It would fall victim to historicism as the compulsive repetition of the past.

This makes the recourse to Teskey especially odd, for what Teskey celebrates as Spenser’s version of  “poetic thinking” is a process that does not know its own end:

Spenser repeatedly found his dead materials seeming to take on a life of their own and speaking to him, driving his thoughts into unexpected channels. Spenser was a prophetic poet because he was willing to listen to the voice of a material other emerging from the process of making his poem.

Such a view authorizes prophetic reading, on whatever scale: a critical practice of listening to the voice of a material other emerging from the process of reading the poem.

There is one final, unaccountable irony to the case against close reading as Lethbridge makes it, for he does so by relying almost exclusively on close reading.

Take one example among dozens: on page 81, Lethbridge quotes 18 lines from Surrey’s translation of Virgil, to which he then devotes four dense paragraphs of minute analysis. The analysis is almost purely descriptive—it’s what we used to call a lemon-squeezer, proceeding word by word and line by line, inventory-style, to characterize the interplay of rhyme with syntactic patterns in reinforcing the unit of the line.

The problem with these readings is not that they fail to capture certain formal properties of Spenser’s verse; they are meticulous. But as Andrew Zurcher remarks in his review of the concordance, in spite of protestations that Spenser’s poem is really quite good in its own terms, “The upshot of this argument must be that Spenser is at the stylistic and formal level a pretty formulaic, pretty repetitive, and pretty tedious writer.”[11] Many of my students already hold this view, if they’ve read any Spenser at all. In challenging this perception of the text, I find no strategy so successful as a combination of close reading and thinking through what Teskey calls the “entanglements” of the allegory.

And so I suggest that Lethbridge’s case against close reading is based on a mistake about its value and purpose. It isn’t meant to prove things, and this is why Wilson-Okamura’s objection, that three to five examples can’t prove anything about a long poem, seems beside the point. If you think that close reading is the way to “prove something about Spenser’s style,” you wind up doing what Lethbridge does, piling exhaustive analyses of examples one upon the other, Pelion upon Ossa.

The right use of close reading is to model acts of discovery and communicate the pleasure they afford. It is to bring texts to life by bearing witness to the moments when their dead matter seems to stir and speak with what Teskey calls “the voice of a material other.” The argument of an essay in literary interpretation is therefore its occasion but not its purpose. Its purpose is to expand the possibilities of reading by discovering genuinely new things, new res, in the moment of their emergence from the verba of the text, like Venus rising up out of the surf—or like Michelangelo’s Boboli Captives in Judith Anderson’s wonderful description: “rough, unfinished, sometimes inchoate forms emerging from massive blocks of stone … . What I see, and the sculptures show, is not only struggle but also a kind of organic continuity, an involvement with the substance of the stone, a proximity too massive and powerful ever to be broken.” [12]  

Anderson goes on to add, “Rather than feeling oppressed, I feel moved, awed—perhaps, in a phonic pun shared by Chaucer and Spenser, even ‘astonied’ (astonished).” When close reading manages such moments, we are not convinced of an argument so much as enabled to see a familiar text with astonished eyes, as if for the first time.

David Lee Miller
University of South Carolina


[1] J. B. Lethbridge and Richard Danson Brown, A Concordance to the Rhymes of  The Faerie Queene: With Two Studies of Spenser’s Rhymes (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013).

[2]Teskey, “Thinking Moments in The Faerie Queene,” SpSt XXII (2007): 111.

[3] It is worth noting that the rhymes concordance features a lively internal debate between the authors of its two studies, sometimes explicit but often implicit as well; Brown’s engagement with what he describes as Teskey’s “discussion which is alert to the pitfalls of mechanical or decontextualised close reading” (8) is one such moment.

[4] Wilson-Okamura, Spenser’s International Style (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 5.

[5] II.iii.26.4-9. I cite the text of The Faerie Queene from an as yet unpublished version prepared for the forthcoming Oxford edition.

[6] Louis Adrian Montrose, “The Elizabethan Subject in the Spenserian Text,” in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986), 328.

[7] Wilson-Okamura, “Belphoebe and Gloriana,” ELR 39.1 (2009): 48-9.

[8] Vergil. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics Of Vergil. ed. J. B. Greenough (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1900). Quoted from Perseus Digital Library, accessed 5/15/2015.

[9] See Dreams of the Burning Child: Sacrificial Sons and the Father’s Witness (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), 70n22.

[10] Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990), 191.

[11] Andrew Zurcher, “A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene,” Spenser Review 44.2.32. Accessed August 30, 2015.

[12] Anderson, Reading the Allegorical Intertext: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton (New York: Fordham UP, 2008), 8. Italics mine.


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  • Wedding Cakes Leander 7 months, 1 week ago

    The simple proclamation of the name enters like a death sentence in place of the missing then-clause, canceling the alternate future that the subjunctive momentarily opens. The grammar is broken right at the word rumpas, break.

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  • ragdoll archers 2 months ago

    Instead of the then-clause, which briefly opens an other future, the simple announcement of the name enters like a death sentence.

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  • Quick Draw 1 month ago

    resolution is “something understood to reside in the text itself,” not in the author's intention, and thus subsequent readers have the right to explore and expand the resolution by paying attention to the original text.

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  • Patty Black 1 month ago

    Exploring Spenser's work through Historical Stylistics offers a nuanced understanding of his prose. "The Case Against Close Reading" overlooks this approach, but an IB extended essay studying this topic can illuminate its significance. By delving into linguistic and historical contexts, students can unravel layers of meaning, enriching literary analysis. Embracing Historical Stylistics enhances comprehension and appreciation of Spenser's timeless contributions to literature.

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Cite as:

David Lee Miller, ""Spenser and Historical Stylistics; or, The Case Against the Case Against Close Reading"," Spenser Review 45.2.29 (Fall 2015). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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