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2015 Spenser Studies

Spenser Studies Vol. XXX is out. We are pleased to provide abstracts for this year’s articles:



Humanism and its Discontents

A defining term for the Renaissance, “the human” is today a perilous term. But is it still a useful one—or is its intellectual history in early modernity too fraught, too deeply implicated in critiques of anthropocentrism? This essay argues for a reappraisal of “humanism” as a philosophical tradition and suggests how the history of “the human” in the early modern period already contains its postmodern and posthumanist unraveling. As a humanist’s humanist, Spenser plays a key, emblematic role in this history as his careful and sparing use of the term “human” in its various forms points to the idea of humanity as a boundary condition, a description of a limit. The essay concludes with a reflection on the continued importance of humanist modes of reading through an understanding of the text’s own agency.


Posthumanist Spenser?

In the pages that follow, I outline some key insights of the various schools of posthumanist theory (animal studies, ecocriticism and environmental studies, cyborg theory, actor-network theory [ANT], speculative realism [SR], object-oriented ontology [OOO], vitalism, thing theory), drawing attention to their common themes as well as points of disagreement. I then discuss posthumanism’s implications for literary study, and particularly for debates around historicism, contextualization, and periodization. Finally, I briefly examine how Spenser—who might seem an unlikely figure to include in posthumanist studies—incorporates, complicates, and challenges many precepts that have been associated with Renaissance humanism and thereby offers a valuable contribution to contemporary challenges to human exceptionalism.


Human Limitation and  Spenserian Laughter

The Faerie Queene explores the human through characters who attempt to transcend their humanity or who sink beneath it. Central to that exploration and the poem’s comedy is the body, which is untrustworthy in its impulses and vulnerable to external attack. Yet the body is not simply evil in Spenser’s poem: his comedy treats it with friendly laughter. If in the opening books of the poem the flesh is easily corrupted, in Book III bodies are essential to erotic love and hence to the working out of historical destiny. Treating Timias and Belphoebe in Book III, the comedy gently mocks Timias’s attempt to suppress his desire—“to be more than natural,” in C. L. Barber’s formulation. By contrast with Timias, Sans Loy in Book I and Malbecco in Book III become, in different ways, less than human, and Spenser shows them falling below the not-quite-human standard imaged in the simple bodily existence of his satyrs. These comic episodes all insist on the limits of human possibility, and its treatment of Spenser’s narrator further develops the poem’s concern with human limitation. While the narrator’s laughter at times calls attention to his godlike control of the poem, the later books often associate him with the historical Edmund Spenser, limited and frustrated by a resistant world. Spenser’s final satyr tale, in the Mutabilitie Cantos, provides a culminating account of human limitation, when in the hapless Faunus he mocks his own—or any—human attempt to know divine truth.


“The art of mightie words, that men can charme”:

 Language, Reason, and Humanity in The Faerie Queene

This essay investigates the vexed relationship between language, reason, and humanity in The Faerie Queene, tracing some of Spenser’s changing attitudes toward what Calidore in Book VI describes as “inhumanitie.” For Spenser, to be human is, partly, to be reasonable, eloquent, and well-mannered, to be “a gentleman or noble person [of] vertuous and gentle discipline,” as he states in the Letter to Raleigh. However, figures like Grylle, the Salvage Man, and Talus raise questions about the limits of what Spenser’s humanism—and humanism in general—can achieve. Reason and education, for instance—both central to Spenser’s understanding of humanity in some of the poem’s key episodes—are subjected to severe tests especially in Books II and V: what happens to humanity, Spenser asks here and throughout The Faerie Queene, when the humanist project fails?


Spenser’s Angels: Salvation, Retractation, and Superhuman Poiesis in Fowre Hymnes

Spenser claims that Fowre Hymnes, one of his last published poems, is a reformed and retractated work. But Spenser neither renounces nor excises the first two poems, on earthly love and beauty, in favor of the second two, on heavenly love and beauty. This essay argues that retractation is essential to the poem because it is an action that defines the human for Spenser. Retractation is an action angels cannot perform, since their salvation was determined once and for all after an initial moment of choosing. Humans, however, must persevere in a state of unassured ignorance of their salvific status. Spenser’s poem points up the paradoxical superiority of humans to angels: Humans are corporeal, they are further from God than angels, and they follow angels temporally, yet they also are superior to angels, since they are the form in which God chooses to become a hybridized being. From critical animal theory and post-humanity studies, Derrida’s semantic nexus of being / following exposes the temporal and hierarchical paradoxes of Spenser’s interest in what humans become. Spenser accents human superiority to angels through what I am calling “superhuman poiesis.” This poetic method treats retractation as a striving toward the divine component of humanity, all the while continually returning to a lower, prior, even creaturely component. Superhuman poiesis even affects our understanding of the material state of Fowre Hymnes, first printed in 1596 along with the elegy Daphnaïda, which was first printed in 1591. When read together, these poems demonstrate that Fowre Hymnes cannot be read as pointing straightforwardly from earthly to heavenly. Rather, the volume’s complex chronological relationships show that what humans become, both textually and salvifically, is a hybrid of past and present states, and of both human and divine.


The Redcrosse Knight and the Limits of Human Holiness

This essay examines the anthropology of sanctity within Book I of The Faerie Queene. An analysis of Spenser’s use and transformation of the conventions of early modern hagiography shows that the Redcrosse Knight represents the rejection of a traditional, Pelagian-inflected conception of the saint as an autonomous miracle-worker, even as Spenser affirms the value of human spiritual effort against doctrines of absolute depravity. Finally, the essay suggests that Spenser’s recuperation of sainthood comes to play an important role in his rhetoric of royal praise, bolstering Elizabeth’s authority against the destabilizing political claims implicit in Calvinist understandings of human nature.


Irish Nonhumanness and English Inhumanity in A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland

In Spenser’s Vewe, the Irish are fragmented, in flux, contingent: they are “barbarous” “relickes” or “scumme” who break upon the English “like a sudden tempest”; they deny hereditary rights to land and leadership; and their culture is a heterogeneous pastiche of multiple origins with no common birthright or ethnicity. Their communities are mobile; their rulers are situational; and their most recognizable trait is their shared opposition to colonialism. The Irish categorically reject Elizabethan governmentality, and the Vewe justifies England’s right to subjugate them by stripping them of their humanity. However, the text contrasts the nonhuman Irish with problematic accounts of the English as “obedient,” “cyvill,” “degenerate” subjects who have shouldered the Norman yoke and now impose it upon their colonized others, and whose inhumanity reveals itself in their willingness to commit atrocities. As it explores the intractable corporality of the Irish, the Vewe disrupts the machinery of colonial biopolitics by spotlighting the physical body as the privileged site of resistance against state-sanctioned ideals. Spenser’s text rends apart inhumane fictions fueling English hostilities in Ireland to view the raw life buried under theories of population, and to expose how the ideologies of violent empire dehumanize colonizers and colonized alike.


Human, All Too Human: Spenser and the Dangers of Irish Civilization

In A View of the State of Ireland, cattle are a major topic of the discussion Irenius and Eudoxus hold. The speakers’ inability to stop talking about these animals, and natural factors more broadly, indicates that in A View Spenser anxiously confronts the question of how human culture interacts with nature. In particular, the dialogue forces readers to consider the threatening possibility that nature holds immense powers to alter human culture, powers human beings have little ability to resist. The power of nonhuman, natural factors threatens to undo any plans would-be colonial rulers like Irenius and Eudoxus might make, regardless of how carefully-laid such plans appear to human minds. The speakers attempt to counter this threat by asserting an anthropocentric ideal of the sovereignty of human culture over nature. To them, being human involves the imposition of civilized values upon natural environments. However, the speakers never fully convince the dialogue’s audience that such a conquest is possible. Instead, Spenser leaves open the possibility that Ireland’s natural environment perpetually threatens to draw English settlers away from their own ideas of civility.


Anthropology and Anthropophagy in The Faerie Queene

The foundations of modern cultural anthropology were laid in the sixteenth century, when European scholars began to shape older forms of comparative ethnology into a new theory of world history. For many of Spenser’s contemporaries, to study cultural difference across geographical space was to journey back through time; ‘savage’ populations both at home and abroad were thought to mirror the earliest stages of European civilization. Such claims forced a radical rethinking of Europe’s cultural past. Humanist scholars began to reject old legends of national origin in favor of evolutionary models of history, positing the growth of all human societies from primitive and violent roots. Book VI of The Faerie Queene grapples with this ethnological revolution, as Spenser’s cannibals and shepherds reflect two competing visions of early human social life: a golden age of pastoral innocence and a nightmare of archaic barbarism. Through a network of verbal and thematic parallels—especially motifs of eating and consumption—these episodes measure the impact of a new world history that threatens the boundaries between self and other, civility and savagery, the present and the past.


The Species-Life of Worldlings

Marx famously derided Edmund Spenser as “Elizabeths Arschkissende Poet,” identifying Spenser as a steward of property at an integral stage in the genealogy of capital. Taking Marx’s comments on labor and species-being as points of departure, this essay examines Spenser’s poetic investigations of work as well as the distinctions among kinds of labor in a world before classes as we know (or knew) them, the class structures proper to capitalist modernity. In Book II of The Faerie Queene, for instance, Spenser imagined the Cave of Mammon as a mine, and the fiends as laborers. Drawing upon early modern mining and metallurgical writing—particularly Georgius Agricola’s monumental De Re Metallica (1556)—with an eye to later Marxist determinations of human labor—this essay demonstrates that Spenser’s depictions of Mammon’s hoard, together with the sites and processes proper to gold mining, are also detailed treatments of labor. Humanistic studies of mining and metallurgy like Agrippa’s confirm that these laborers are less demonic than they are proletarian, or whatever passes for “proletarian” in an early modern lexicon. Guyon employs the term “worldlings” for the laborers and those who are subject to their labor, an appellation that suggests that they all lack reflexive capacities and that reinscribes their productivity into a moral economy with which Guyon is familiar. It is with this that Guyon establishes anew the relevance of temperance, and Spenser tests terms for life and labor at the “fountaine of the worldes good.” Lastly, the piece assesses the continued relevance of this term “worldling” and demonstrates how Spenser uses it to question the limits and ends of the human in a scene of economic accumulation, production, and emergent horrors of the new economy at the end of the sixteenth century.


The Life Aquatic: Liquid Poetics and the Discourse of Friendship in The Faerie Queene

From Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of Friendship” to Jacques Derrida’s rearticulation of the former in The Politics of Friendship, scholars both early modern and modern have sought ways to address the fluid co-mixture of bodies from which the discourse of friendship can and does emerge. More recently still, new materialist thinkers of ontology have begun to shift our attention to the ways both human and nonhuman bodies inter-animate in the making of political, interpersonal, and artistic life worlds. Together with these investigations, I argue that an aquacentric account of relation is necessary to think the subject of friendship in Spenser’s epic. Beginning with Spenser’s queer address to Ralegh in Book III of The Faerie Queene and continuing through Book IV, I argue that Spenser reimagines the discourse of friendship in terms of a liquid, transcorporeal poetics, one that not only takes to its logical extreme humoral descriptions of bodies as conduits for liquids and passions but also importantly reworks human-exceptionalist readings of ontology in Spenser’s epic.


Spenser’s Dead

The posthumanist critique of the conviction that “the human” can be regarded as representing a distinct and privileged ontological category has had far-reaching implications in a number of disciplines. My goal here, however, is not to pursue and elaborate these implications but rather to explore and comment upon some instincts and problems that predate and even motivate the posthumanist critique, and to propose that we can discern their stirring in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. I propose that posthumanist scholarship reprises a move that Stanley Cavell sees as impelling “the motive to philosophy.” To read Spenser, and indeed posthumanist scholarship, in this light is not to see them as cooperatively engaged in a critique of humanity’s blind spots concerning its place in the world. Rather, it is to see each as living with and also working through the instincts that both constitute the human and spawn the philosophical enterprise.


Spenser’s Inhumanity

There seems to be no bear market in sight for what some call “animal studies” or, to include a larger swathe of creatures, the study of the “nonhuman.” Not only animals and insects and trees have been of interest, but more recently, a wide array of inanimate objects and substances. Scholars of early modernity have been no exception to this more general trend. It has been hard not to notice how large William Shakespeare looms in such conversations. But do the vagaries of literary celebrity explain the diminished presence of other figures? Why, that is, has Edmund Spenser not been a primary interlocutor in recent conversations about creaturely life in the Renaissance? And what might explain the relative dearth of conversation in Spenser studies itself? This seems especially remarkable given the way a variety of life forms run riot in The Shepheardes Calender, The Faerie Queene, and elsewhere. This essay will suggest two primary reasons for this trend, both related to forms of captivating inhumanity central to both Spenser and the critical tradition. First, the incredible gravity that instances of dehumanization have exercised on Spenser studies has made it difficult to see beasts as anything more than aspects of the bestialization of humans. Second, the inhumanity of allegorical reading and writing has made other forms of life hard to see in that certain allegorical reading strategies strip away creaturely life (human and nonhuman) to bare significance while allegorical writing has always been a complex and we might say inhuman mechanism of humanization and personation whose ultimate aim is to trap all life and all matter into some species of agentive, so-called humanity. Thus the task of reading Spenser is to consider to what extent his constitutive and signature inhumanity is a product of violence alone or an incitement to a greater range and vitality of life.


Getting Spenser’s Goat: Calepine, Spenser’s Goats, and the Problem of Meaning

Spenser describes Calepine fleeing “like a wilde goat” from Turpine at FQ IV.iii.49.3. No editor glosses this simile, so how is Calepine like a goat?  Modern readers might be tempted to ignore the simile, or dismiss it as a stock comparison. Yet Spenser rarely uses animals as simple one-to-one comparisons based on a single shared attribute. Spenser’s animals repeatedly pose questions about interpretation, and in posing those questions, the animals also present solutions to their meaning through the cumulative hermeneutics the poet employs. Calepine’s simile must be set against the context of the meaning of goats in early modern English and in the rest of Spenser’s poem in order to fill what initially seems like an empty simile and to see the blurred lines between human and animal that mark Spenser’s use of animal imagery.


“Man is not like an Ape”: Facing Life in PROSOPOPOIA. / Or / Mother Hubberds Tale

Throughout his oeuvre, Spenser shows a distinct interest in varieties of life. Often found in indistinguishable heaps, these congeries present grounds for deeper thinking about how humans categorize themselves and others. In both the title page and the poem proper of Mother Hubberds Tale, this concern is brilliantly displayed for readers to ponder. The title page takes what might have been a comforting hierarchy of being and upsets it in several ways. The poem then develops this anxiety through its investment in discourses of taxonomy and a thematic emphasis on the face as a locus of acknowledgment. Thus, the poem and its paratext need to be seen for what they are: radical statements about the contestability and uncertainty of the early modern project to draw boundaries between life-forms.


Going Outside: Human Subjectivity and the Aesthetic Object, The Faerie Queene, Book III

Thing-oriented posthumanist thinkers attempt to go “outside”  the subject-object divide by focusing on things. However, in focusing on things like computers and trash and prosthetics, such posthumanist thinkers often neglect the one kind of object that may actually challenge this divide—namely, the fully complex humanist art object, in this case, The Faerie Queene. In this article, I plot a paradoxical trajectory from posthumanist “quasi-object” back to humanist art object. Drawing on the aesthetics of Theodor W. Adorno, I argue that such art objects uniquely challenge their own status as things by virtue of the inner dynamics of their form, which draw into question the poem’s own ideologies, ultimately rendering it “nonidentical” with itself. Looking at a sequence of images of going outside in Book III, I explore how this poem endlessly postpones its own closure, providing a dynamic model of self-reflective human subjectivity.


Wonder, Artifacts, and the Human in The Faerie Queene

This essay attends to Artegall’s and Britomart’s peculiar relationships to wonder in order to argue that Spenser understands the human in part as that creature capable of responding to and learning about artifacts with wonder and curiosity. It focuses on two key encounters with artifacts: Artegall’s viewing of the False Florimell in V.iii, and Britomart’s viewing of the tapestries and the masque of Cupid in the House of Busirane in III.xi–xii. Taking up the question of the human by means of wonder illuminates Spenser’s impossible desire for a particular relationship between knowledge and action, one in which action need not be grounded in prior knowledge and knowledge need not be learned at all, but simply known. The conclusion proposes Artegall and Britomart as two models of readerly response to The Faerie Queene.


“Degendered”: Spenser’s “yron man” in a “stonie” age

In The Arte of English Poesie, Puttenham defines “prosopopoeia” as a rhetorical term that attributes “any humane quality, as reason or speech to dombe creatures or other insensible things.” Spenser exploits this trope by providing foxes, apes, and a Blatant Beast with biting tongues that can speak what a man may not. But he also applies this trope on a larger scale; mankind, Spenser (following Ovid) laments, lives in an Iron Age, an age full of “wicked maladie,” a “stonie one” (Prosopopoia or Mother Hubberd’s Tale 8; Faerie Queene V.Proem.2). Here, Spenser ascribes an insensible thing, an “age,” with ethical and moral—but in- and non-human—characteristics. In this “age,” men of “flesh and bone” risk being “degendered,” “transformed into hardest stone” (V.Proem.2). What, we might ask, can Iron or stone say to us (or about us) that otherwise might remain mute? This paper quarries Spenser’s “degendering” of Iron and man, human and stone, to put pressure on the distinction between what Jane Bennett terms “dull” and “vibrant” categories of matter. Spenser’s prosopopoeia, I argue, presents us with an indistinct vision of the human and invites reflection on what it means to inhabit a world both indifferent and intimately continuous with us. 


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Cite as:

"2015 Spenser Studies," Spenser Review 46.1.22 (Spring-Summer 2016). Accessed September 26th, 2018.
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