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Kenneth Borris, Visionary Spenser and the Poetics of Early Modern Platonism
by William Junker

Kenneth Borris. Visionary Spenser and the Poetics of Early Modern Platonism (Oxford: OUP, 2017), xv + 250pp.

Kenneth Borris’s Visionary Spenser and the Poetics of Early Modern Platonism shows us, in detail, how the language, imagery and narrative structure of Spenser’s poetry are informed by and revelatory of the ancient, and in Spenser’s day recently revitalised, tradition of ‘literary Platonism’ (24). What ‘literary Platonism’ amounts to, and how and why it comes to influence the intellectual culture of early modern Europe, is the focus of the book’s opening chapter. Its four subsequent chapters draw out the relationship between several important features of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender and his 1590 and 1596 Faerie Queene and some characteristic traits of this loosely-defined tradition. The end result is a series of closely-argued, critically-astute and philosophically-informed readings of Spenser that, taken as a whole, present the most compelling case for the poet’s fundamentally Platonic self-understanding since Elizabeth Bieman’s Plato Baptized: Towards the Interpretation of Spenser’s Mimetic Fictions (Toronto, 1988). Borris’s argument in Visionary Spenser and the Poetics of Early Modern Platonism, however, is more direct and approachable than Bieman’s, especially for the Platonically uninitiated, and is informed by and engages the most significant trends in Spenser studies over the past three decades. Visionary Spenser is therefore essential reading for students of Spenser and his contemporaries, and moreover for anybody interested in pre- or post-confessional approaches to early modern poetry, theology and politics.

The first chapter of the book—‘Platonism in Early Modern Poetics and Spenser’s Poesis’— offers an introduction to what Borris calls ‘literary Platonism’. By this term, Borris means to refer to all those aspects of and traditions within Platonism that are not anti-mimetic—i.e. that do not believe that Socrates’s expulsion of poetry from the city of the Republic represents Plato’s final word on the topic. Literary Platonists historically drew upon a number of other dialogues in the Platonic corpus—such as the Phaedrus, Symposium, Timaeus and Ion (which was not and need not be read wholly ironically)—to show that the mimetic arts, and poetry in particular, occupied a more elevated role in Platonism than a cursory reading of the Republic would suggest. Literary Platonism dominated European literary culture across most of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (24). Even the so-called ‘Horatian’ and ‘Aristotelian’ strands of Renaissance poetics, Borris reminds us, cannot really be disentangled from the Platonism together with which they were woven (37). Early modern readers of Horace’s Ars poetica, for instance, usually interpreted its famous dictum—that poets should mix teaching with delight—as an implicit, and implicitly Platonic, response to Socrates’s ethical critique of poetry in the Republic. Hence, when Horace says that poetry should teach and delight, early moderns interpreted him to mean that poetry should through its pleasing sounds and images contribute to those ‘privileged ends of moral, spiritual, and civic benefit’ that anti-literary Platonists (like the Republic’s Socrates) accuse it of undermining (54).[1] 

As this example suggests, early modern literary Platonism often functioned less like a single and distinct literary-critical school, and more like an elastic framework within which several more particularised models of poesis and criticism developed. Its influence on and presence within authors and texts of the period took on a variety of forms, and might be identified by a number of loosely overlapping features, held in different combinations and with different emphases. Borris lists six of them, and goes on to provide a detailed introduction to each. They are:

(1) an implicit or explicit affirmation of poetic furor or mania.
(2) an anagogic approach to natural and poetic beauty;
(3) an implicit or explicit affirmation of ‘cosmopoesis’, of the poem as a symbolic manifestation of the cosmos, deemed God’s creation;
(4) an implicit or explicit affirmation of poetry’s political legitimacy on account of its ‘instructive…value’ for individuals and society;
(5) an implicit or explicit belief in poetry’s mimetic relationship to the world’s appearances, conceived as reflections of ‘higher realities’, and [its] consequent powers for raising readers’ minds toward truth;
(6) a formal tendency toward allegory.                                                                                                                                                            (37)

Borris’s introductions to these points are tiny gems of exposition. Tracing each of them back to the relevant dialogues of Plato, he summarises the history of their reception and development through late-antiquity, across early medieval Christianity and into fifteenth-century Florence and beyond. He notes, when appropriate, competing Platonic interpretations of the same teaching—as happens in the case of Platonic furor, for example—and does an especially fine job of conveying the cross-confessional appeal of Platonism in Spenser’s own day. Throughout, Borris manages to keep a fine balance between clarity and detail. His historical-philosophical summaries of these main features of Platonic poetics are never simplifications, but they also never get stuck in the scholarly weeds. Borris illustrates each through examples judiciously selected from the poetry of Spenser and his contemporaries. What is more, Borris argues that, taken together, these features of Platonic poetics are coordinated by authors like Spenser to produce the effect of literary sublimity (as described by Longinus). While I was initially sceptical of this claim, in the end Borris convinced me of its worth. It opens up several possibilities for rethinking the history and theory of literary Platonism, and also encourages us to situate Spenser’s poetry within a wider ambit of authors than we usually think to do, including among them not only Dante, Virgil, Homer and Milton, but also Blake and Shelley, and perhaps Yeats, Woolf and Joyce as well.         

The second and third chapters of Borris’s book take as their focus Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender. In different but complementary ways, each of them seeks to show that the poem’s ‘Platonic affinities’ are extensive and significant (83). This is necessary because, although several features of the Calender have always cried out for Platonic analysis, very few scholars seem to have heard them. So that aside from the work of Patrick Cheney, Rebecca Helfer, Lynne Staley Johnson, Richard Mallete and one or two others, the question of The Shepheardes Calender’s—and so the young Edmund Spenser’s—relationship to Platonism has simply been left unasked by modern scholarship on the poem. It is a puzzlingly odd state of affairs, even for Spenser studies.

Borris traces back its roots to Robert Ellrodt’s 1960 monograph Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser. Ellrodt insists in that work that whenever Platonism appears in Spenser’s poetry before 1595, it is not really Platonism, but only a kind of ‘loose and poetical’ pseudo-Platonism, one that, in any case, should not be taken too seriously (by which I think he means, should not be taken to complicate a certain picture of Spenser’s religious identity) (83).[2] The impressive learning, argumentative zeal and convenient distinctions of Ellrodt’s book, Borris conjectures, were enough to convince most later scholars that the Platonism of the Shepheardes Calender was ‘too vague to merit investigation’, and so it almost never was (83). Still, Borris is well aware that the scholarly neglect of this topic cannot be due only to the influence of Ellrodt. Many other factors are at play. Chief among them is the Shepheardes Calender’s intentional shrouding of its own sources, so that while its language may be ‘understood of the moste’, as E.K. puts it, it may be ‘judged onely of the learned’; and ‘few, but they be well sented can trace [the poet] out’ (83).[3] This feature of the Calender makes Borris’s task in these chapters doubly difficult; he must not only ‘trace… out’ the shape of the poem’s more-than-casual Platonism on the basis of textual details designed in part to obscure it (assuming it exists), but he must also make the shape of this Platonism, as well as its connection to the textual details that warrant its presence, plain and compelling to a reader who may not have the nose that Borris does for this sort of thing.

I think that Borris largely succeeds in his endeavour. He reveals the Shepheardes Calender to be deeply influenced by and in dialogue with Plato’s Phaedrus and Symposium. The Platonic erotics that is jointly-constituted by these two texts is the model for the Calender’s depiction of the relationship between beauty and love. While the importance of the Symposium for the Calender has generally been acknowledged, the importance of the Phaedrus has not been (and indeed has been expressly denied). In Chapter 2, then, ‘Spenser’s Phaedran Calender’, Borris seeks to argue that ‘new imagistic and verbal evidence’ reveals Plato’s Phaedrus to be (pace Ellrodt) a major intertext for Spenser’s poem (83). Most of the verbal evidence Borris presents in this chapter is compelling (if not exactly airtight), but his analysis of a visual image on the woodcut accompanying the ‘Maye’ eclogue deserves special mention. The woodcut features a chariot drawn by a team of winged horses, one of which is unbridled and is violently rearing its head, and the other of which is bridled and, head held steady, is holding a sprig of leaves in its mouth. Borris argues that this winged team of horses visually frames and partially directs our reading of the eclogue. It does so, Borris goes on to explain, by making visually explicit the Phaedran framework that tacitly informs the eclogue’s verbal content. The woodcut not only replicates salient features of earlier well-known Phaedrus-inspired images found in the Emblemata of Andrea Alciato (1551) and Janos Zsamboky (1564), but outdoes them in one significant detail: only the ‘Maye’ woodcut pictures its horses as winged. The image corresponds very closely with the original description given in the Phaedrus itself, which speaks of the soul as ‘the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer’ (246a). The closeness of the correspondence, Borris claims, represents a degree of precision ‘unusual in early modern visual allusions to Plato’s fable’, indicating ‘that the soul’s whole Phaedran scope fascinated the picture’s designer’, who was in all likelihood Spenser (98).

In Chapter 3, ‘The Calender’s Visions of Beauty’, Borris turns his attention from ‘Maye’ to ‘August’, ‘Aprill’ and ‘November’, and from the Phaedrus to the Symposium. On the basis of the Calender’s discussions of beauty in these eclogues, Borris draws out a metaphysical anthropology that derives from, and most clearly corresponds to, the teaching of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium. This is an ambitious undertaking, and Borris pulls it off (if he does) only because his readings of Spenser’s poetry—and his knowledge of Spenser’s corpus as a whole—are generally superb. Because Borris shows us that both the Phaedrus and the Symposium inform the erotics of Spenser’s pastoral, he helps us better understand how the parts of the Calender fit together as a whole. Let me offer just one example. Whereas the ‘October’ eclogue’s celebration of Colin’s poetic mania has sometimes been regarded as an isolated excursus into Renaissance Platonism, it can now be explained as an integral component of the Calender’s broader erotics. This erotics is what justifies—yea, almost entails—the poem’s affirmation of Colins’s poetic mania. For on the one hand, the Phaedrus establishes that the poetic mania inspired by the Muses is, like the erotic mania inspired by beauty, a form of divine madness, superior to human reason and more beneficent in its effects; and on the other hand, poets themselves are described as falling under the Symposium’s broad definition of lovers. Just like other lovers, poets are full with child and desire to give birth in a beautiful medium—this medium being a particular human language. Taken together, then, the Phaedrus and Symposium draw so close a connection between the lover and the poet that whatever is essential to the lover’s experience of beauty would seem also to be essential to the poet’s. To affirm the truth of the lover’s mania is therefore virtually to guarantee the truth of the poet’s—that is to say, of Colin’s—as well.

Borris’s fourth chapter, ‘The (H)eroic Idealism of Spenser’s Faery’, provides the best reconstruction of the ‘fundamental creative procedure’ behind Spenser’s composition of The Faerie Queene—at least as presented by the work itself—since Michael Murrin’s The Veil of Allegory (158). There is a difference, of course, between what the work itself tells us about its fundamental creative procedure, and what other documentary sources tell us about its history of composition. But this difference need not imply a contradiction. And besides, Borris adds, one does not have to believe that the story the poem tells about itself is literally true; it is enough to suspend our own disbelief sufficiently to imaginatively engage it, especially if by doing so we can attain a better understanding of and appreciation for the poem as a whole. Keeping these provisos in mind, we can identify the ‘creative procedure’ of Spenser’s Faerie Queene as originating in a visionary insight the fullness of which transcends linguistic expression. After receiving this vision, the poet’s task is to translate its truth as accurately as possible into the discursive medium of language so as to enable others to participate, in a real but imperfect way, in its originary truth. The poem itself, then, is to be understood as the image of the truth of the vision that precedes it. Because it is the image of this truth, the poem appears idealised in relation to the sublunary world, which it does not so much seek to represent as to enlighten. And because it is the image of this truth, the poem unfolds in time according to a double dynamic. On the one hand, the poem constantly prods the reader to mount up from its narrative surface to the reality it aims to convey through it. On the other hand, the poem also, and almost as frequently, calls attention to its inability to convey the fullness of this reality, the brightness and splendour of which it can but faintly shadow. This double dynamic, by means of which The Faerie Queene, as the ‘image’ of the truth of Spenser’s vision, perpetually recalls us to its ambiguous and intermediate ontological status, is the hallmark of every properly Platonic allegory from Book 6 of The Republic onward. (And also of theological discourse more generally.)            

Borris’s chapter presents this creative paradigm in an especially convincing way, drawing it out—as is his usual practice—from the textual details of The Faerie Queene itself. He shows, for example, that the proems prefacing each of the Faerie Queene’s six books presuppose, and implicitly allude to, this paradigm in both their content and structure. He does the same for the poem’s particular orchestration of solar and celestial imagery, which is patterned not only after Scripture, as John N. King and James Nohrnberg (and others) have revealed, but also—Borris convincingly argues—after well-known passages and motifs of the Platonic mystical tradition.

But the central and, in my view, most compelling piece of evidence for Borris’s case turns out to be hidden in the title of the poem itself: Faerie. Why does Spenser refer to this kind of queen, present this kind of realm, in his romance? Borris suggests that, for Spenser, the adjective ‘faery’ identifies the ‘domain’ of the poem and its action. This domain is ‘the high-mimetic Spenserian domain of the poetic imagination’ (156); it is to be found nowhere in space, but nonetheless occupies a specific ontological position. Much like the daemon Eros of Plato’s Symposium, Spenser’s faery is neither ‘the [fallen] mutable world of humankind’ nor ‘the transcendental realm’ of the New Jerusalem, but is located between, and mediates, as it were, these two other realms. (156). As such, different aspects of the land of faery resonate with features of each of them. The desire the faery King Arthur feels for Gloriana, or that the faery princess Britomart feels for Artegall, for instance, must resonate enough with the experience of love in our own human world to draw us into sympathetic identification with Spenser’s characters; for it is only by recognising in Arthur or Britomart an idealised image of our present self that we can be moved to imitate in our own lives the superior qualities of their heroic love. By the same token, moreover, Spenser’s faery lays bare those defects of character that prevent us, in this world, from attaining to these erotic ideals. It does so by presenting us with blown-up (but too often too accurate) versions of our worldly selves: ‘such characters as Despair, Lucifera, Philotime, Gryll, the False Florimell’s libertinous admirers…and [the] tyrannical Gerioneo’, Borris explains, ‘all in various ways discount prospects of anything better beyond what they can sense, seize or crave in their immediate physical milieus’ (169). By means of ‘this interplay of [contrasting] viewpoints’, the idealised world of faery is able to engage the real complexity of ethical life in this one (169).

Yet Spenser’s faery does not only work to ‘enkindle heroism’ in the human world; it also seeks—like Eros again— to uplift our minds beyond it, toward the ‘transcendental ideals’ of the New Jerusalem (156). Faery participates more fully in these transcendental and eschatological realities than the human world does. It is thus able to mediate heavenly realities to earthly experience, translating the timeless truths of God and Nature into language and imagery we can understand. The complexity of the relationship between these three realms is encapsulated in the figure of the faerie queen herself, Gloriana. It is thus fitting that the final chapter of Borris’s book, ‘Gloriana’s ‘True Glorious Type’, should be devoted to exploring the full scope and variety of her significations within the poem.

Like other entities of faery, Gloriana inhabits the middle space of Spenser’s mimetic idealism. She is ‘an inspirational intermediate figure’ interpolated between Queen Elizabeth I, on the one hand, and God and his glory on the other (191). As such, she does not ‘stand’ for Queen Elizabeth I in any simple sense; rather, Borris writes, ‘Gloriana is extrapolated from Elizabeth, hence beyond her’ (193). Because she is the ‘true glorious type’ of England’s flesh and blood queen, she reveals that queen to be but an imperfect approximation of herself—an image of which she is the type—and hence as subject and answerable to her own superior status. It is not hard to imagine how such an understanding of Gloriana’s ideality might seem to infringe upon the prerogative of Spenser’s actual sovereign. What protects against this possibility, Borris explains, is Spenser’s consistent and oft-repeated assertion that Gloriana, albeit in one sense the ‘true glorious type’ of Elizabeth, is in another sense simply the noblest, truest version of Elizabeth’s own self, reflected back to her through the clarifying mirror of Spenser’s imagination. Borris’s subtle explication of the dynamics of this relationship will complicate, but also enrich, more topical accounts of Spenser’s two queens.

Borris’s main interest in this chapter, however, is to explore ‘Gloriana’s capacities for transcendental significance’ rather than her bearing upon earthy realities (189). How does Gloriana, in other words, imitate, symbolise or anticipate the majesty of God himself in the poem? To what extent can Gloriana, sovereign of Cleopolis, reveal the glory of the New Jerusalem? Borris pursues these questions with his characteristic learning and sensitivity to textual detail. To motivate the ‘anagogical aspect’ of Gloriana, he draws on The Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysius, the Wisdom of Solomon (a crucial book for Spenser) and Ficino’s Platonic Theology, in conjunction with a number of passages from The Faerie Queene itself. One of the most important of these is the final stanza of the proem to Book I in which Spenser petitions Elizabeth:

Shed thy fair beames into my feeble eyne,
And raise my thoughtes too humble and too vile,
To thinke of that true glorious type of thine,
The argument of mine afflicted style:
The which to heare, vouchsafe, O dearest dread, a while.

Borris suggests that the phrase ‘that true glorious type of thine’ has a double referent. It refers in the first case to Gloriana, who is the ‘true glorious type’ of Elizabeth I. It refers in the second case to God. ‘That true glorious type’, in other words, is the true glorious type ‘of thine’ true glorious type. God is the true glorious type of Gloriana, who is herself the true glorious type of Elizabeth I. Borris’s reading might be unconventional, but it might also be right. One can hardly accuse him, obviously, of needlessly complicating the straightforward syntax of the Spenserian line. His reading arguably better captures the grammar of Spenser’s actual phrasing, and the meaning it actualises makes the stanza a fuller expression of the structure of mediation that Borris has already shown to be fundamental to the poem.

As the above suggests, Borris’s reading of Gloriana in this chapter charts its course between interpretations that would deny her anagogical meaning altogether and those that would wholly transform her into the divine she rather images. Borris’s sense of Gloriana’s relation to the latter emerges most clearly in his discussions of Redcross’s vision of the New Jerusalem atop Mount Contemplation in Book I of the poem and (with a slightly different register) Calidore’s encounter of Colin and the Graces in Book VI. Both these episodes might be read as raising doubts about Gloriana’s anagogical significance. Some of the things Contemplation says about the New Jerusalem make it appear to be the negation of Cleopolis and not its fulfillment; some of what happens to Calidore in the clearing appears unrelated to and (perhaps) incompatible with the quest he is supposed to be performing. Borris argues that such readings overlook features of both episodes that reaffirm Gloriana’s participation in, and symbolic continuity with, their revelatory offerings. His own reading of these episodes draws out patters of correspondence with Fowre Hymnes, the anagogical symbolism of which is similarly self-correcting. Borris’s discussion of these issues count among the finest pages in his book, and, coming as it does near the end of it, in many ways seems to recapitulate his argument as a whole.

The visionary Spenser that emerges from Borris’s argument is not going to appeal to everybody, and is certain to make some people a little uncomfortable. For one, it is not at all clear how this visionary Spenser fits into any of the several confessional get-ups scholars have clothed him in. Borris himself sometimes describes Spenser as a Protestant Christian Platonist, other times as a Christian Platonist and he reminds us, at least once or twice, that the latter phrase cannot always be taken to mean something like ‘broadly orthodox’. Borris’s book, which must be considered one of the most theologically learned studies of Spenser to appear in recent memory, turns out also to be one of the least religiously precise. I do not think this is an accident. But still it makes me wonder. What, for Borris, is the difference between Protestant Christian Platonism and Christian Platonism in the later sixteenth century, and is this difference primarily theological, or political and why? (I ask because, had Dante lived when Spenser did, I am pretty sure he would today be called a ‘Protestant Christian Platonist’.) How, specifically, does the theology of the Reformation bear upon or inflect Spenser’s visionary poetics?

Readers who are committed to one or another kind of materialist Spenser will find Borris’s Visionary Spenser discomfiting for a different reason. Borris’s sympathetic reconstruction of Platonic poetics gives us a much better appreciation for the theoretical subtly, explanatory range and intellectual currency of Platonism in the sixteenth-century (and maybe not only then). Those who seem to believe that only materialist readings of Spenser can be truly sophisticated ones will be especially challenged by Borris’s own, which are at once theoretically informed, historically grounded, responsive to textual detail and unabashedly idealist. Other, wiser materialists, however, will be reminded by Visionary Spenser of the truth of Lenin’s adage, that intelligent idealism is more like intelligent materialism than stupid materialism is. One does not finally have to agree with the book to learn from it, in other words. It will make anybody who reads it a more intelligent reader of Spenser’s poetry as well. And so I hope that everybody does.


William Junker

University of St. Thomas

[1] It is not obvious that early modern readers were wrong (cf. Ars poetica 309-310).

[2] Robert Ellrodt, Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser (Geneva, 1960), 31-33.

[3] William A. Oram et. al, eds., The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser (New Haven, 1989), 17, 19.


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Cite as:

William Junker, "Kenneth Borris, Visionary Spenser and the Poetics of Early Modern Platonism," Spenser Review 48.3.9 (Fall 2018). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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