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Writing at Hazard: Accidental Spenser
by Andrew Zurcher


While reading the chronicle history we know as Briton moniments, Prince Arthur encounters in the tenth canto of Book II of The Faerie Queene the wars of Brutus Greenshield. In a version of his mytho-historical adventures that departs temporarily from Geoffrey of Monmouth and instead follows Stow’s chronicle and details from Holinshed’s account, Spenser introduces one element that seems to connect Brutus to the later lineage for which his story, through Arthur’s readerly experience, is being told—that is, to the Tudors. To his account of Brutus’ campaign in the Low Countries against Brunchild of Henault, a revenging of Greenshield’s father Ebranck, Spenser almost inexplicably adds Welsh words:

Let Scaldis tell, and let tell Hania,
  And let the marsh of Estham bruges tell,
  What colour were their waters that same day,
  And all the moore twixt Eluersham and Dell,
  With bloud of Henalois, which therein fell.
  How oft that day did sad Brunchildis see
  The greene shield dyde in dolorous vermell?
  That not Scuith guiridh it mote seeme to bee,
But rather y Scuith gogh, signe of sad crueltee.[1]

As Charles Bowie Millican observed in 1932, “Spenser introduced these Welsh words obviously to give local color to the chronicle history, which places chief stress on the Welsh descent of the Tudors.”[2] The contamination of the green “field” of battle by vermilion blood “give[s] … color” to the scene in several ways: not only do the places themselves become dyed in blood, not only does the shield with its symbolic meaning pass from verdant, growing green to mortal, horrid red, but Brutus Greenshield comes to prefigure Henry VII, who at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 bore as his ensign the red dragon of Cadwallader—a blood-red Tudor serpent sprawling ferociously across a green field. In other words, here the once and future king reads an account of the past which has been adjusted to make the present look more like the past’s prophetic future.

This is, of course, a pretty everyday move for a poet so practiced at thrusting into the middest; but here the gesture interacts with a textual problem. For as we can see from an examination of two versions of this stanza as printed in 1590 (see Figure 1), the Welsh words were inserted— along with all but the first word of the ninth line of the stanza—as a stop-press correction in the 1590 edition of the poem; moreover, when they were at length inserted, they were inserted incorrectly (reading “Seuith” in both lines 8 and 9), a mistake corrected (to “Scuith”) in “Faults Escaped,” appended to the end of the 1590 quarto volume. It’s impossible to say why the Welsh words weren’t included from the start. The expert advice given the Variorum editors by the British Museum’s Idris Bell may suggest that Spenser had the words, but not the spelling he wanted— at least not right away:

Mr. Idris Bell, Keeper of the Manuscripts in the British Museum, has supplied for us the Welsh for “green shield,” ysgwyd werdd, and “red shield,” gygwyd goch. The compositor apparently did not understand these words and so left them out of the earlier sheets of 1590, but they were later inserted. Whether Spenser was responsible for the transliteration is impossible to determine.[3]

We know from other evidence that Spenser was present at John Wolfe’s shop during the printing of The Faerie Queene in 1590,[4] and we need not, therefore, assume with the Variorum editors that the delay in inserting the Welsh words was occasioned by compositorial incomprehension; for all we know, Spenser himself had misgivings about how to spell the Welsh words he had evidently planned for these blanks, and withheld them from the early sheets printed from this forme. All we can say for certain is that he seems to have known from the start that they would go in—the text is laid out ready to receive them—but something prevented someone from setting them right away.





Figure 1. (a) Spenser, The Faerie Queene (London, 1590), II.x.24 (sig. X7v). [Uncorrected state, British Library] (b) Spenser, The Faerie Queene (London, 1590), II.x.24 (sig. X7v). [Corrected state, Huntington Library]


Whatever the historical cause or causes of the variant textual states of this passage, however, the various states of the text throw up fascinating interpretative possibilities. For Spenser does not write actual Welsh words here, but a phonetic transliteration of Welsh that could be pronounced by his presumably ignorant English readers, and would scan in his verse. The “real” words would have been spelled in 1590 more or less as Idris Bell spells them; so the gap in the text, later filled by the phoneticization, appears to be a kind of textual rupture, a place where the written quality of the language suddenly shifts toward an oral (or aural) texture. If we consider the material text of the poem to be a tissue of written language, the shift toward transliterated oral language in a sense leaves the textual gaps in early copies unfilled—even after that correction itself was re-corrected by “Faults Escaped.” The phonetic transliteration of the Welsh words remains an emphatic, almost evanescent speech trace in a written work, and one which accommodates the time it takes to say these Welsh words to the particular demands of Spenser’s iambic rhythms. The combination of Spenser’s textual gap, the confounding of historical time in the prophetic Welsh reimagination of Brutus Greenshield, the substitution of metrical spoken for probably inconstruable written Welsh— all this creates a complex confrontation between a thing or matter and its representation. It is remarkable that this encounter should become particularly fraught precisely at a moment in the poem when Brunchild is looking at a sign—the bloody shield—even as its impresa-like coating of blood is reimagined as a written or even heard name; indeed, the encounter between visual and verbal, the written and the heard, the English and the Welsh, occurs precisely at the moment in the historical narrative when the ear is belied by the eye: who is that warrior—Greenshield? But his shield is red!

The effect of the Welsh words of Book II, canto x is not dissimilar from a riveting line (the seventh) in Wallace Stevens’ “Of the Surface of Things,” where he writes that “the gold tree is blue”; just as a tree we know to be essentially gold can, because of the accident of the failing light at dusk or night, appear to be as blue as the darkening skies, so a man with a green shield—a man who for the sake of his green shield has been dubbed Greenshield—can, in a given circumstance, seem to be carrying a red shield. His green shield is red as a result of its accidental contamination with blood in the occasional, messy world of material contingency. Green in substance, it is red by accident. The textual mess created by Spenser’s phonetically represented Welsh words is thus accidental in two senses: first, because it seems to have come about by accident (a compositor unable to read his copy, then setting the correction incorrectly, then correcting the miscorrection; or a poet having second thoughts, communicating them badly, then fixing it); and second, because it endows the essence of the green shield, its greenness, with the accidental redness of the blood that contaminates it exactly at the moment that, in the text of the poem, the written account of the narrative becomes inflected with the oral (or, again, aural) qualities of spoken language. In a parallel movement, both the messy exigencies of actual, material print shop practices and the messy exigencies of actual, bloody, Welsh-speaking historical voices here intrude on the ideal text of the poem.

And yet, one of the most interesting aspects of the appearance of Spenser’s Welsh words, with all their apparent significance, is their mere appearance. The verse turns here on the words “seeme to bee” and “signe of,” alerting the reader to the return of Spenser’s usual preoccupation with the tension between that which is, and that which merely seems to be the case. “Full iolly knight he seemd,” says the narrator of Redcrosse, in the opening stanza of the first canto of the poem (FQ I.i.1.8)—and the play of appearances persists thereafter in the first as in the other books. To an underwriter, an “accident” is an unforeseen, usually negative thing that happens to, or befalls, persons or property. To a metaphysician or theologian, though, an accident is any property of an object or substance that is not essential to it in constituting or defining it as that substance or object. The connection between appearance and accident, in the metaphysical sense of the term, is acutely articulated by John Donne in his highly misogynistic but philosophically astute elegy, “Loves Progress”:

Who ever loves, if he do not propose
The right true end of love, he’s one that goes
To sea for nothing but to make him sick:

Love is a bear-whelp born, if we o’re lick
Our love, and force it new strange shapes to take,
We erre, and of a lump a monster make.[5]

A person should take to sea in order to travel somewhere, perhaps to trade; that everyone who goes to sea happens to become sick does not make sickness the essential end of going to sea—sickness is merely routinely incident to sea-going, an accident that always attends any journey (what John Stuart Mill would later call an “inseparable accident”), and yet still neither the end nor the essence of that journey. Poetical metamorphosis, of the kind to which Donne alludes in his invocation of ursine whelping, may explore the various facets of love, but even a lumpish love has a true-destined, “right true end” and, like a bear-cub, it should be licked into its proper—not just some accidental—form. In a neat paradox that echoes the essential greenness of Greenshield, Donne equates the “right true end” of love with its right true appearance, preparing for his claim that love’s end should be material, sexual, and—though mortal—individual:

Can men more injure women then to say
They love them for that, by which they’re not they?
Makes virtue woman? must I cool my bloud
Till I both be, and find one wise and good?
May barren Angels love so. But if we
Make love to woman; virtue is not she:
As beauty’ is not nor wealth: He that strayes thus
From her to hers, is more adulterous,
Then if he took her maid. (ll. 19-27)

Adultery as a metaphysical model for the shape-shifting derogation from essences to accidents has an ancient pedigree; Moses Maimonides (whom Donne read, and cited)[6] calls on Proverbs 6.26 when in The Guide of the Perplexed he figures the degradations of matter and accident as the sexual depravity of a married harlot who constantly puts off one material form for another.[7] Donne’s playful paradox, which lumps ideals such as virtue with more dubious desirables such as beauty and wealth, imagines universals as accidents, locating the essence of the individual beloved instead in her inalienable, if mortal, bodily self. At first sight, this might seem to rub pretty violently against Spenser’s own connection between adultery and metaphysics throughout the Legend of Holinesse in The Faerie Queene; there, taking Duessa in Una’s place (Redcrosse’s adultery) seems to pose a patent challenge to materiality (think of Duessa’s withered dugs and questionable use of oregano), rather than to endorse it. And who could imagine a more revolting representation of lump-licking, errant monster-make than Redcrosse’s first adventure in the Wandering Wood? But the Welsh words of Briton moniments pull in a different direction, implying a claim for the material, the situational, the temporal or historical—in short, for the accidental; here in the world of battlefield ideology, what seems to be may be all there is, and the actual scene, in all its material and bloody articulacy, reaches through history to turn its fingers in the text of Spenser’s poem.



The textual rupture occasioned here by the phoneticization of Welsh speech offers a pointed example of a phenomenon that occurs in different forms throughout Spenser’s allegory. In the line immediately preceding the Welsh words in canto ten, Spenser provides another example in the hypallactic compound, “dolorous vermell.” The red or “vermeil” (i.e. vermilion) color of Henalois blood is here endowed with the dolorous, that is grieving or sad, state of mind felt by Brunchild as she looks upon it; blood itself is not dolorous, but here it acquires the attribute (dolorousness) of the person viewing it. This sort of psychological seepage, in which things participate in the mental states of the people handling or experiencing them, may seem peculiarly appropriate to the description of a scene in which red blood is soaking, staining, and “dyeing” everything with which it comes into contact; but, in fact, material objects in Spenser’s poem constantly acquire—as if by accident—the attributes of those who see, handle, use, or encounter them. Indeed, Spenser’s allegoresis in The Faerie Queene might be said to be, at a deep level, accident prone. Spenser’s particular approach to allegory is the most distinctive element of his writing, that which differentiates him from even his closest models (Ariosto, Tasso) and his nearest imitators (for example, Phineas Fletcher); and what gives his allegoresis its peculiar quality is the pervasively hypallactic relation it creates between persons and things, a relation that is fundamentally accidental in both senses of the word.

The history of rhetoric and theology has thrown up surprisingly diverse accounts of the figure of hypallage. When they mentioned it at all, Greek and Roman rhetoricians considered hypallage another name for metonymy—a way to describe the taking, or “exchange,” of one thing for another. See for example Cicero’s Orator, book 27 (93), which is cited by Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria: “It is but a short step from synecdoche to metonymy, which consists in the substitution of one name for another, and, as Cicero tells us, is called hypallage by the rhetoricians.”[8] In the Protestant biblical criticism strenuously disseminated by Jean Calvin, hypallage emerged in a different form, almost as a synonym for hendiadys—that is, a figure describing the representation of a single, compound idea through the pairing of two discrete elements. So in the Harmonie vpon the three Euangelists (1584), Calvin says of the phrase “grace and truth” that it “may be expounded by hypallage for the true grace,” taking the noun “truth” as an adjectival complement to the noun “grace.”[9] Calvin’s English translators show some bafflement at his usage; Christopher Rosdall, in his 1583 translation of A commentarie vpon the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romanes, adds marginal notes attempting to rationalize Calvin’s practice whenever he mentions the figure: “Hypallage is when in speeche the order of things is turned,” he writes; then “Hypallage is when words are vnderstood contrariwise”; and, finally, “Hypallage is, when thinges are turned vpside downe.”[10] Rosdall’s wriggling reflects the uncertainty with which English writers responded to the tradition, but his attempts to characterise Calvin’s usage also insist on the accidental and material nature of the figure; hypallage simply means, in Greek, “exchange,” and it describes what happens when two words in a phrase or sentence are swapped, each taking the place of the other.

            At its most basic, then, it can seem little more than an accidental inversion, producing a comic effect, as in the hands of Henry Peacham:

Hypallage, when a sentence is sayde with a contrary order of wordes, as he came with a long side, by his sword. He tooke his eare from his fist. Syr quoth one to a scholer, I heare say, it is you that pluckt all of the geese of, of my feathers backe. Open the day, and see if it be the windowe. I would make no more a doe, but take a dore and breake open the Axe.[11]

Not much more serious is the example given by Angel Day in his English Secretorie of 1592, when speaking of the contaminated and pestilent corpse of a vicious man: “The stench of his corps admitted neither dailight nor company wherin to be buried.”[12] What Day means is that neither the daylight nor company would admit (that is, allow, tolerate) the stench of this man’s body; but, the grammatical slots inverted, the stench acquires a grammatical authority commensurate with its olfactory power. But if the figure can produce comic effects through its apparently accidental inversions, it also deals—as Calvin recognized when he saw in it the scope for creating adjectival complements—in metaphysical accidence. When an adverb or adjective shifts its place in a phrase or sentence, coming to modify not its proper but an alien object, we find hypallage produces the sort of transferred epithet described above—“dolorous vermell,” unhappy chances, cruel steel, rowsed couches, the sorts of hybrid objects and places for which Spenser’s allegory is famous. Here the quality, mode, affect, or intention with which a person or other figure approaches a thing becomes, by accident, an accidental quality of that thing. And yet, as we saw in Donne’s elegy as also in Brutus’s green shield, apparently accidental characteristics can take on the air of essences. Perhaps influenced by the adjective “dreary” (which originally meant “bloody” or “gory,” but had come by the early modern period to signal melancholy and sadness), vermeil is almost indistinguishable from the dolor that, having been attached to it, it imports.

Spenser’s whole artistic vision in The Faerie Queene might be said, then, to be rooted in hypallaxis, and this is an operation intimately connected with accident in both its everyday and its metaphysical sense. Objects or things in The Faerie Queene are infused with the states of mind, the ethical modes, the affective excitations, that would normally be attached to the agents who handle them. In order for those agents to experience or encounter those states of mind, those ethical modes, those affects, they must handle the objects, encounter the requisite personifications, go to the appropriate location. Their handlings, their encounters, their comings and goings, are apparently happy, in the original sense of the word—just a matter of hap, of chance, precisely because they are characterised by their hap-piness, that is, that they happen, take place, befall. But they are happy, too, in that they produce a neat, apt, or happy effect—a coordination of the agent with the thing that confers its identity, by accident, upon it. So in The Faerie Queene the knight comes to a cottage, or a dwarf appears, a villain rides out of the plain. There is no narrative or spatial reason why this or that should occur: Spenser repeatedly commits the fault against which Tasso warns allegorical epic poets most vigorously in his Discorsi del poemo eroico—he allows the needs of the allegory to drive an almost entirely irrational narrative. The reader’s experience of reading The Faerie Queene, then, is of an incoherent barrage of events, an incoherent sense of space, and an incoherent collection of incompatible times and time-spans. But the hypallactic allegoresis is accidental in the metaphysical sense, too, inasmuch as what is essential about a knife wielded by the enchanter Busirane is not that which makes it a knife (rather than a spoon, or a goji berry), but the quality predicated of it by the agent who will use it, that it is “cruel.” Over and over, throughout the poem, substances are displaced by accidents in this way. Another way of looking at this relation between agents and instruments, persons and things, in the poem would be to say that agents repeatedly find that their own substance is being revealed to them through an encounter with the accident of some thing. Virtue seems radically fashionable in the world of the poem precisely because we readers (like them, patron knights) are all of us susceptible to the accidental informations of the things, encounters, habits we experience; furthermore, the world of the poem seems fundamentally authored, full of figures who release themselves to chance (or error) only to discover that their chance encounters— happily—produce serendipitous and significant effects.



One of the most curious things about chance and accident is how uncomfortable we humans are with the simply contingent. Especially when the stakes are high, it’s almost impossible to accept that anything happens purely by accident; someone is likely to be responsible or to blame, and if no one at all is available, higher or malign powers must be at work. We deprecate material in favor of efficient causes. In the case of The Faerie Queene, both the highly artificial nature of the poem’s structure and its repeated emphases on accident create a distinct impression that a providential author is guiding the whole—that is, we are constantly reminded, through the operation of accident, of the mimetic nature of the literary experience. Meanwhile, in the real world, it’s hard for us to leave an accident alone—as the careers, and fortunes, of ambulance-chasing lawyers suggest. Even in situations where no one can be shown to have done anything to cause “an accident,” someone can probably be shown to have not done something—that is, to have been negligent. Someone must pay. Indeed, the rise of the tort of negligence in the nineteenth century made it possible for the first time not merely to recover damages in cases where someone had suffered an accident, but also to imagine that accident as caused—not by an action, but by the failure to act, on the part of some one whose action might have safeguarded the victim from the accident.

Early modern lawyers, facing the same problem but without the tort of negligence, were able to draw on an ancient legal tradition in order to displace and make safe the potential for pure accident. This was the law of deodand, derived from the Latin phrase deo dandum, “that is to be given to god.” As John Cowell defines it in his 1607 legal dictionary, The Interpreter: 

Deodand (Deodandum) is a thing giuen or forfeited (as it were) to God for the pacification of his wrath in a case of misaduenture, whereby any Christian soule commeth to a violent ende, without the fault of any reasonable creature. For example, if a horse should strike his keeper and so kille him; if a man in dryuing a cart, and seeking to redresse any thing about it, should so fall, as the cart wheele running ouer him, should presse him to death: if one should be felling of a tree, and giuing warning to one coming by, when the tree were neere falling, to looke to themselues, and any of them should bee slaine neuerthelesse by the fall of the tree. In the first of these cases the horse, in the second the cart wheele, carte and horses, and in the third the tree is to be giuen to God: that is, to be sold and distributed to the poore, for an expiation of this dreadfull euent, though effected by vnreasonable, yea sensles & dead creatures … And though this be giuen to God: yet is it forfeited to the king by lawe, as susteining Gods person, and an executioner in this case, to see the price of these distributed to the poore, for the appeasing of God stirred vp euen against the earth and place by the shedding of innocent blood thereupon.[13] 

Cowell suspects that the origins of the tradition of the deodand may go back to the twenty-first chapter of the book of Exodus, but it is obvious that in some form the tradition of the polluted object, which required divine purification through ritual practice or some performance of exchange, goes back historically well beyond even Exodus, in various traditions both within Europe and beyond. In all these traditions, the deodand or similar object involved merely accidentally in the death of a person has to be attached to the divine in some way—that is, god has to take authority for the object or receive it, in order that it not remain to trouble the community of its victim.

The poet, logician, lawyer, and rhetorician—not to mention meticulous reader of Spenser—Abraham Fraunce deals with deodand in his bizarre 1588 compendium of law and logic, The Lawiers Logike. His interest in deodand develops from a discussion of the contrast between efficient and material causes; he is particularly curious about recent legal cases that turn on simply material causes, that is, deaths or other injuries caused not by design but by material accidents. Among these examples, in connection with deodand, he remembers this strange tale:

Concerning casuall homicide, I remember an odde historie of a certaine man who falling from the top of a house, lighted on an other mans necke, and crushing him to death, preserued himselfe. The sonne of the dead man, procuring the reuenge of his fathers death, caused him that fell to bee had before the Iudge: Where hee no lesse pretily then reasonably, offered him this faire play: gett thee vp, qd hee, to the top of the same house: I will stand where thy father did: and if by falling vpon mee thou bruse mee to death, and saue thy selfe, I promise thee, my sonne shal neuer seeke to reuenge my death.[14]

What is so odd about this history is that it is a case of accidental (or casual) death, and yet there is no possibility of deodand, for the object which as fallen on the victim and crushed him is not inanimate but animate, and not only animate but purposive and agentive—albeit, here, a live body discharging the part of a thing. The vengeful son seeks to charge the defendant as if he were culpable of an intended murder, which is not necessarily a crazy idea; in this period, as Edmund Plowden’s reports on a number of difficult cases show, judges were sometimes willing to go to extreme lengths to imply or even fabricate an intention to murder in order to ensure that someone should receive justice for the Queen’s loss of a subject. The response of the defendant, then, is clever, for by his thought experiment he demonstrates that the event, which is surely unrepeatable precisely because it was an accident, and ludicrously improbable, cannot establish a precedent. Law, like tragedy, generally allows the families and communities of victims of murder to have their revenge against a murderer. Deodand offers some relief in cases where mourners have only an object, a thing, and not an agent who used it intentionally to kill. In a case of Fraunce’s kind, where the body is the instrument, even deodand is impossible.

Fraunce’s “odde historie” is particularly interesting in connection with The Faerie Queene because there is, in Book II of the poem, an episode that shares many of its features, and seems to involve some of the same sorts of thinking. Fraunce’s passage from The Lawiers Logike could hardly be said to be a source for Spenser, but the aptness of the analogy helps, perhaps, to make sense of Spenser’s episode. There are few places in Spenser’s poem where the patron heroes’ encounters with vicious villains are not mediated with instruments and objects; on the contrary, Spenser seems to take pains to arm his heroes with hypallactic prostheses—Britomart’s charmed lance springs to mind, Artegall’s execution of justice through the iron man Talus, Redcrosse’s armor, Prince Arthur’s famous sword Mordure (that only he can wield) and his sunshiny shield. But there is one very important example, and it happens to coincide with a figure whose own genealogy in Greek myth—and in neo-Latin tragedy—turns on the entanglement of persons and things, and on the role of chance in the good life. Prince Arthur, having parted from Guyon toward the end of Book II, undertakes to defend the princess Alma from a crew of villains that are attacking her castle. The castle, a transparent figure for the human body, is being assailed by a rabble of sensory stimulations under the command of Maleger, a notably diaphanous villain: “Full large he was of limbe, and shoulders brode, / But of such subtile substance and vnsound, / That like a ghost he seem’d, whose graue-clothes were vnbound” (FQ II.xi.20.7-9). Again:

As pale and wan as ashes was his looke,
  His body leane and meagre as a rake,
  And skin all withered like a dryed rooke,
  Thereto as cold and drery as a Snake,
  That seemd to tremble euermore, and quake:
  All in a canuas thin he was bedight,
  And girded with a belt of twisted brake,
  Vpon his head he wore an Helmet light,
Made of a dead mans skull, that seemd a ghastly sight. (FQ II.xi.22)

Maleger, then, lacks a substantial body, so much so that his skin may be the canvas tied about him, and his head the helmet of another man’s dead skull; though he is large, he is also ghostly. He is both there and not there, and like the ancient Parthians he attacks while retreating (IFaerie Queene II.xi.26). Arthur discovers as in the course of combat with him that Maleger cannot die: every time he kills him, the villain falls upon the earth and, like Antaeus in his battle with Hercules, takes strength from the earth and returns to the fight. Arthur recognises at length that the villain facing him has paradoxical qualities not unlike the accidental body in Fraunce’s “odde historie”:

His wonder farre exceeded reasons reach,
  That he began to doubt his dazeled sight,
  And oft of error did himselfe appeach:
  Flesh without bloud, a person without spright,
  Wounds without hurt, a bodie without might,
  That could doe harme, yet could not harmed bee,
  That could not die, yet seem’d a mortall wight,
  That was most strong in most infirmitee;
Like did he neuer heare, like did he neuer see. (FQ II.xi.40)

Having killed him several times, Arthur finally abandons his sword and shield (II.xi.41), and attempts to choke Maleger to death; this again works, but again having fallen to the earth, he rises. Finally Arthur, “hauing scruzd out of his carrion corse / The lothfull life” (II.xi.46.2-3), still holding him high in the air, carries his body “three furlongs” to a “standing lake” (II.xi.46.5-6) where he throws him into the water, from which Maleger cannot rise. Arthur uses his own body as the weapon—dispensing with his sword—perhaps because the stakes here go deep into the hypallactic structure of the poem itself. In coping with Maleger, Arthur is grappling with the poem’s construction of the relation between person and thing—exactly what you would expect from the Legend of Temperance.

Maleger’s name should tip us off that his relationship with the earth is essential to understanding his meaning. Generally critics read his name as a compound of mal, “bad” or “evil,” and aeger, “sick, sorrowful.” This seems to me perverse. Meleager, the hero of the Calydonian boar-hunt, was magically entangled from birth with a burning log, so that upon his murder of his uncles after the hunt, his mother Althaea had only to throw the log back on the fire in order to end her son’s life, and have her revenge. The story was memorably constructed in a Latin tragedy by William Gager at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1582, and performed there, twice, the second time in 1585 before Spenser’s patrons the earl of Leicester and Philip Sidney. It was printed in 1592.[15] Gager’s Meleager includes a great deal of intense scrutiny of the relationship between individual identity and material objects—not only the log, but the spoils of the boar, the hunting weapons by which men are known, and the clothes and objects by which women are (so the play’s men argue) generally to be known. The relation of persons to things is one of preoccupations of the play in Gager’s version. This version also includes a fascinating exchange between an old man and king Oeneus, Meleager’s father, in which the old man tells the king that he must give up his foolish belief that chance governs all things. But the king will not, and as the play ends—Meleager having already died, and his mother the murderer on her way to the chamber to commit suicide—Oeneus insists that he must be held responsible for his son’s death, because he failed to prevent Meleager from having such a cruel mother. That is, Oeneus develops the tort of negligence in order to give his son’s death some sort of meaning; the play ends with his self-punishing leap from the castle’s citadel.

Gager’s play focuses on a celebrated case of person-thing entanglement, and uses it to raise questions about accident before delivering a mad and suicidal king who would do anything, even die, in order to stem the proliferation of accident. Spenser’s Maleger teaches a similar sort of lesson. Guyon, the knight of temperance, has resisted worldly goods in the delve of Mammon, and will break the Bower of Bliss in canto xii. Arthur, meanwhile, in his fight with Maleger discovers that the only way to defeat assaults on the body is to separate it entirely from the earth from which it is derived—that is, free it from accidents—and plunge it in a “standing lake.” Note that Maleger is, at the end of canto xi of Book II, not dead but suspended; he can no more die than chance, hap, and accident can be cleared from the romance landscape of The Faerie Queene, or from the cognition of essences and forms. Accident is the condition of essence, matter of form; as Hobbes would later put it, the “ACCIDENT [is] the Manner of our conception of Body.”[16] The gold tree is blue, the green shield, red.

[1] Spenser The Faerie Queene, London, William Ponsonby, 1590, II.x.24.

[2] C. B. Millican, Spenser and the Table Round: A Study in the Contemporaneous Background for Spenser’s Use of the Arthurian Legend, Harvard UP, 1932, p. 202.

[3] “Critical Notes On the Text,” in the Variorum edition of Book II of The Faerie Queene, Variorum, ii, p. 512.

[4] See Andrew Zurcher, “Printing The Faerie Queene in 1590,” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 57, 2005/06, pp. 115-50, and, more generally, the essays in The 1590 Faerie Queene: Paratexts and Publishing, edited by Wayne Erickson, Studies in the Literary Imagination, 38, 2005.

[5] John Donne, “Elegie XVIII: Loves Progress,” ll. 1-6, in The Poems of John Donne, edited by Herbert Grierson, Oxford UP, 1933, p. 103.

[6] See Donne’s sermon on Psalm 32, verse 7, in The Sermons of John Donne, edited by Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter, 10 vols, U of California P, 1962, IX, p. 348. My thanks go to Mary Ann Lund for drawing my attention to Donne’s citation from the 1629 edition of Buxtorf’s translation of Maimonides’s Doctor Perplexorum, or The Guide of the Perplexed.

[7] See Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, III.8, translated and edited by Shlomo Pines, 2 vols, U of Chicago P, 1963, II, pp. 430-31.

[8] Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, edited and translated by H. E. Butler, 4 vols, Harvard UP, 1943, III, p. 313. The Greek word hypallage derives from the verb hypallasso, meaning “to interchange, to exchange.”

[9] A harmonie vpon the the three Euangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke with the commentarie of M. Iohn Caluine, translated by E. P., 2 vols, London, Thomas Dawson for George Bishop, 1584, II, p. 20.

[10] A commentarie vpon the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romanes, translated by Christopher Rosdall, London, John Harison and George Bishop, 1583, ff. 12r, 29v, and 132r.

[11] See Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence, London, 1577, sig. G1r.

[12] Angel Day, The English Secretorie, London, Robert Waldegrave for Richard Jones, 1586, p. 78.

[13] John Cowell, The Interpreter, Cambridge, John Legate, 1607, sig. Y3r— Y3v.

[14] Abraham Fraunce, The Lawiers Logike, London, William How for Thomas Gubbin and Thomas Newman, 1588, f. 20r.

[15] William Gager, Meleager Tragoedia noua. Bis publice acta in aede Christi Oxoniae [Maleager, a new tragedy. Twice publicly acted in Christ Church, Oxford], Oxford, Joseph Barnes, 1592.

[16] Thomas Hobbes, Elements of Philosophy, London, R. and W. Leybourn for Andrew Crooke, 1656, p. 76.


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Cite as:

Andrew Zurcher, "Writing at Hazard: Accidental Spenser," Spenser Review 47.3.41 (Fall 2017). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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