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An After-dinner Toast
by Roger Kuin

 A mostly-Sidneian, invited to address a prandiality of Spenserians, must perforce feel some pudeur or shamefastness. After all, this is an august company, though gathered in June: I forbear to name any or all of the distinguished scholars gathered here, you know who you are. 

It occurred to me that at this stage in the proceedings I might remind you of a crucial moment in Spenserian history of the last century. Let me take you back—whether or not you were there the first time—to a sparsely furnished student lounge, tucked into the leafy depths of Goldsworth Valley in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Spread over a number of orange-Dacron-covered armchairs and sofas you are to imagine a sozzled rout of Spenser specialists, from Harry Berger via David Richardson and Donald Cheney to the young and the restless who, now being here, shall be nameless. Thickly-voiced, someone criticizes the conference dinner we have just eaten. Surely, the likes of us can improve on it? What would we put on the menu for such an occasion?

As you know, we are an inventive and quick-spirited lot, even when in spirits. Within a few short minutes, names of dishes filled the air. Archimagichokes Marinell served with Belphoebe’s extra-virgin Orgoglio d’oliva; Harry Bergers with Northrop Fryes; Cissy and Flossy Tarts; not to mention a friture of tender-footed fish. We drank, as I recall, a forty-year-old Malbecco. All ingredients purchased at the local Britomart; and dishes washed with tears dried afterward with Colin-clouts. This appalling travesty was actually published, as an insert, in the following number of Cogito Interruptus, the Porlock Society’s irregular but never impotent journal. However, I do not think any copies survive, so one of the things the irresponsible among us might consider doing before we leave Ireland is creating a new version. 

How far we have come. I remember as a very young scholar attending—though not understanding—the first international Spenser Conference, in Fredericton New Brunswick in the fall of 1969. I looked at William Nelson, Kent Hieatt, A.C. Hamilton and Alastair Fowler as Britomart might gaze at a new and awesome pageant. “Be bold, be bold—be not too bold,” my conscience murmured. And now here we are, in Dublin and Christendom, an established institution in grave danger of respectability. 

Luckily, though, this is a land that knows ghosts and hosts ghosts. I am confident that the ghost of Spensers past—the ghost of Lord Grey’s secretary, to be sure, but the ghost of Gryll’s creator also—is with us even as we quaff. How does he look at us? Does he approve of our deliberations? Is he intrigued as we attempt to recover so much that is lost and that he, of course, remembers but cannot tell? Is he bemused at our calling into question much that he took for granted? Is he quizzical at the mention of posthumanism and ecocriticism? Does he feel grave compassion at our stumbling careers, insecure without patronage and threatened by austerity? Above all, does he smile—a ghostly, tender, Cheshire grin—at the solemnity of our undying love for him and all his works? 

At this point I felt that I should perhaps contribute a snippet—the merest shaving—to the great edifice of thought and learning anchored in our collective presence. So I consulted the mighty Spenser Encyclopedia for interesting gaps. There are very, very few. Sins? No, there they are: “Sins, seven deadly.” Ireland? Heavens, no: two long and excellent articles, on cultural and historical contexts. Even the oeuvre Spenser may never have written is listed, under “Works, lost.” Among these last, however, there is one title calculated to intrigue a Sidneian: the Stemmata Dudleiana. My Latin dictionary defines stemma as “a garland, a chaplet, a genealogical tree.” Since the work is lost, we may guess: and I should here like to present a conjectural summary of Spenser’s Stemmata

It is not, I believe, likely to have been a chaplet. Tempting though it is to imagine bead upon bead telling the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Duke of Northumberland, or the Joyful Mysteries of Joseph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, such Popery would scarcely have charmed the painter of Duessa’s portrait. 

It may have been a garland of garlands: twelve chains, let us say, of twelve sonnets each, fragrant and highly-coloured, to hang about the necks of Ambrose and Robert as they adorned the gardens of Warwick and Kenilworth. A solemnity of sonnets, true in affection, eterne in mutability, an Amoretti of honour. 

In verdant meads of Kenilworth’s demesne
The nymphs and swains display posthuman charms:
Their fessiers tailed; the claws that tip their arms
Trimmed harmless to the touch, fair to be seene;
With greenest touch they tend the grateful green
Composting shepherds’ shit to tenant farms
Install recycling bins and smoke-alarms
Though careful to conceal such things, unseen.
Great honoured Dudley! Master of this place!
All living creatures wait on thee, and sing
Their praises to thy prudence and thy face.
Thy cows all milked, thy lambs all safely shorn,
Thy flowers shall not fade, and these I bring,
Thy Stemmata, shall live to times unborn. 

You get the idea. But it may have been something quite different, of course: a family-tree, a genealogical construct; and this is something Sidneians do know about. You may remember a character written by a great Irishman who told his son, “You should study the Peerage, Gerald … it’s the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.” Sir Henry Sidney, in whose temporary lodgings we have been honouring a colonial civil servant, had Robert Cooke, Clarenceux King of Arms, draw up a pedigree for the Sidney family, a Stemmata Sidneiana as it were, that largely bore out Oscar Wilde’s opinion. Let us then imagine Our Edmund, Faerieland’s King of Arms, drawing up a pedigree for Ambrose and Robert, adapting it only later to Book Two of his little poem. I imagine him beginning with a same-sex marriage between Britannia and Irena, who then adopt a splendid male child, Glorianus. Growing to a fine perfection, Glorianus in turn weds his long-time partner Arthurius, a were-bear; and from their artful arrangement of surrogate motherhood spring their twin sons Ambrose and Robert, originally small, cute, and irresistible, who eventually thought it prudent to change their name from Cuddley to Dudley. 

As we roam around civilisation’s archives, we should keep our eyes open for the Stemmata’s lost manuscript. But meanwhile, I propose a toast to our favourite ghost. To Edmund Spenser, the vanishing point of all our lines of inquiry; to Edmund Spenser, the center of our interest; to Edmund Spenser, the Faery King, the Prince of Poets!

Roger Kuin
York University, Emeritus

 

Comments

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45.2.31

Cite as:

Roger Kuin, "An After-dinner Toast," Spenser Review 45.2.31 (Fall 2015). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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