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Further Reflections
by Judith Anderson, David Lee Miller

Judith Anderson

(GREENE)   My primary post-panel thoughts concern the position assumed by Roland Greene. Whereas I defined close reading at the outset as the heightened, analytical attention we give to what Spenser’s poem is saying and to how it is doing so, Roland defined it more narrowly as the old New Criticism’s assumptions of integrity, unity, and autonomous objectivity. Having radically constricted close reading, he then denied its practice in the early modern period—whole books in recent decades offering evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. He also collapsed the difference between poststructuralism and structuralism, perhaps because they both emphasize/d the fundamental role of language. The version of New Criticism that he stressed was a greatly oversimplified, institutionalized one, which hardly recognized the diversity of views that New Criticism encompassed—René Wellek’s for instance. Roland’s view also seems worrisomely out of touch with the current situation in most of our schools, where students are not being taught to read carefully or closely. If close reading is no longer important, the translatable skill—translatable to law, politics, government, and thoughtful citizenship, for example—the skill that vitally authorizes the study of English, is greatly undermined, if not erased. By English, I refer primarily to the use of English (practice, both documentary and creative), rather than to the abstractions of linguistics, to the technicalities of neurology, or to the ideologies of cultural studies. Relevant but differing examples: famed justices of the U. S. Supreme Court in the past have spent time just reading the dictionary; and more recently, one benighted justice, misunderstanding a supersessionary process over time, argued in “Citizens United” that a corporation, deriving from corpus, was a body with the rights pertaining thereto. A final thought: consider a world in which thought comes only in emoticons, not in the subtle distinctions and connections of language.

(MILLER)   To the extent that David Miller’s remarks took issue with published views that language is transparent and that modern views of language simply oppose older ones, I am in full agreement—predictably so, since I am courteously mentioned as a friendly opponent by Julian Lethbridge in the Brown-Lethbridge Concordance to Spenser’s rhymes (but notably without reference to Words That Matter or Translating Investments, my relevant books on language and metaphor). Having since read David’s paper, I should add that its fine tuning benefits greatly from reading and urges its publication. For some, I gather, his paper raised the issue of whether it is acceptable critically and explicitly to engage published essays and books in talks and publications other than officially commissioned book reviews. I think it is. Ideally, I want engagement to be both diplomatic and direct—desiderata that might temper humor without banishing it. (Even a recent picture from the nuclear negotiations in Geneva included grins!)


David Lee Miller

One thing the panel in Dublin made obvious is that we aren’t talking about the same thing when we speak of “close reading.” Judith Anderson and I took the phrase to refer to a familiar, highly variable critical practice whose defining mark is close attention to literary texts, and especially to their figurative language. Roland Greene—and, I gather, Julian Lethbridge—mean something rather different. They associate the term with Modernist aesthetics and a correlative set of assumptions about symbolism and an expressive poetics.

It would take some time to sort out this basic divide, so for now I will just ask why we should limit the term “close reading” in such an odd way. When Roland draws his distinction between “reading closely” and “close reading,” for example, I wonder: if you don’t mean the practice of reading texts closely, then why don’t you call what you do mean something else? And why do you then go on to say you would prefer readings of The Faerie Queene from “a middle distance”? Haven’t you just slipped back from “close reading” to “reading closely,” in such an observation?

 There’s a similar equivocation about what is meant by this term in Julian’s introduction to the rhymes concordance. Neither critic is taking into account the magisterial treatment given to the methodological issues surrounding the practice of close reading in Harry Berger’s major essay “The Interpretive Shuttle: The Structure of Critical Practice After World War II.”[1] It’s going to take a more rigorous and extended theoretical argument to convince me of the claims they are making. In the meantime, I suspect that the slippage from a circumscribed reference to the general practice of “reading closely” serves to enlarge the rhetorical stakes of the argument in a way that doesn’t seem fully earned.

 I don’t want to take the space and time in these reflections to pursue so extensive a historical and theoretical argument, but I do want to address a question that has been put to me more than once since the panel: why did I not respond to a question from Julian Lethbridge? Evidently this gave some members of the audience the regrettable and, for me, unintended impression of rudeness or arrogance.

When Julian asked the question in question, I was already trying to puzzle out some of the misunderstandings that seemed to grow out of the panel as a whole, and in that moment his question threw me. He was asking about a certain detail from the description of Belphoebe in II.iii.27: if her garment trails down to her ham, how can the viewers see the knot that secures her buskins just below the knee? It’s embarrassing in retrospect to realize that what threw me wasn’t the question itself, but the form it took, for what he asked was what Montrose would make of the lines, and having taken some pains (as I thought) to distinguish my own reading of the passage from the limitations (in my view) of Montrose’s historicism, all I could think was, “How am I supposed to know what Montrose thinks?” I had about enough presence of mind to squelch that comment, but not quite enough to invent a better one.

So I come back to the question now. At the risk of putting words into Julian’s mouth, I take it the point is that we are not meant to visualize the details of the description. Wilson-Okamura suggests something similar about the lines in stanza 28 on Belphoebe’s thighs: 

Like two faire marble pillours they were seene,
Which doe the temple of the Gods support,
Whom all the people decke with girlands greene,
And honour in their festiuall resort;
Those same with stately grace, and princely port
She taught to tread, when she her selfe would grace,
But with the woody Nymphes when she did play,
Or when the flying Libbard she did chace,
She could them nimbly moue, and after fly apace. 

Citing the tradition stemming from the Song of Songs, Wilson-Okamura is able to read Belpheobe quite plausibly as a figure of Elizabeth’s devotion to the English Church.[2] What he can’t do is erase the competing image of Belphoebe’s genitals as the “festiuall resort” of great crowds—or of her legs as marble pillors put into graceful motion or nimble flight. Like the impossibility of seeing knots that are hidden by a trailing camus—and that therefore, in my reading of the passage, are wittily twice-concealed—these absurdities might be taken as evidence that a certain kind of close reading isn’t suited to such poetry.

 Such an argument assumes that we aren’t supposed to notice the inconsistencies and absurdities. But Spenser and his contemporaries were clearly able both to savor the strange beauty of Song of Songs imagery and to be amused by the absurdity of visualizing the conceits of a poetic blazon. Spenserian verse is never so pointed as Shakespeare’s famous anti-blazon, but in his characteristically indirect and understated way Spenser is quite willing to let that perspective contaminate his blazons, whether of Belphoebe or Serena. They are at once blazons and anti-blazons, and Spenser is the poet who was capable of that. Readers who could enjoy illustrations like this one from The Extravagant Shepherd were no doubt able to appreciate such effects:



Illustration from Charles Berger, The Extravagant Shepherd (1653), trans. John Davies.

[1] Harry Berger, Jr., Situated Utterances: Texts, Bodies, and Cultural Representations. Introduction by Judith H. Anderson. (New York: Fordham UP, 2005).

[2] Wilson-Okamura, “Belphoebe and Gloriana,” ELR 39.1 (2009): 60-2.


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Cite as:

Judith Anderson, David Lee Miller, "Further Reflections," Spenser Review 45.2.30 (Fall 2015). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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