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Thoughts on Graduate Study in Spenser
by David Lee Miller, Helen Cooper, Judith H. Anderson, Bart Van Es

Thoughts on Graduate Study in Spenser

David Lee Miller (University of South Carolina)

The year was 1977, and I was at the MLA in Chicago interviewing for jobs. One of my mentors at U. C. Irvine, Robert Montgomery, introduced me to A. C. Hamilton, who, upon learning that I was writing a Spenser dissertation, told me he thought Spenser was pretty much played out, and the real action going forward would be in Sidney Studies.

I ignored Bert’s well-meant advice, and graduate students now will likely do well to remember that example as I fumble with the mantle of prophecy. I don’t think he meant to be daunting; given that Isabel MacCaffrey’s and James Nohrnberg’s two big books had both dropped the year before (like a cartoon safe hitting the sidewalk, I thought), I was pretty thoroughly daunted already. Students in graduate school now have even less to cheer their prospects, and the last thing they need is a dour prognosis delivered from the Recliner of Retirement.

Students embarking today on advanced study of Spenser or any other writer of the Middle Ages or Early Modern period not named Shakespeare face a weirdly disarticulated future in which the intellectual prospects for their work are bracing and wide open, while the professional outlook for meaningful and rewarding employent has never been worse. Since the culture wars of the 80s and 90s there has been no shortage of jeremiads accusing the professoriate of abandoning their true calling, but to blame the dire straits of the humanities on the content of our scholarship and teaching is, perhaps ironically, to grant that work far more political importance than it can hope to have.

Jobs – full-time, tenure-track jobs – have been disappearing because of the institutional transformation of the university, the same dynamic that has made undergraduate education increasingly unaffordable for students of limited means. Bill Readings diagnosed the problem in his 1996 book The University in Ruins, published by Harvard University Press: 

The current shift in the role of the University is, above all, determined by the decline of the national cultural mission that has up to now provided its raison d’etre … . For its part, the University is becoming a transnational bureaucratic corporation either tied to transnational instances of government such as the European Union or functioning independently, by analogy with a transnational corporation (3).

This may not be the place for an argument about global capitalism, but Readings does persuade me that literary study as a profession is no more immune to the ruthless logic of the global market than are manufacturing jobs. The allure for intellectual workers of life in an information economy is undercut by a harsh reality in which the rewards, the prestige, and the affluence enjoyed by the last two or three generations of research faculty are restricted to a dwindling cohort of the privileged whose positions are supported by extracting surplus value from the labour of adjunct instructors, and of graduate students on their way to becoming adjunct instructors, none of whom benefit from the steady increase in tuition and fees charged to undergraduates.

Responses to this slow-motion calamity, including a renewed emphasis on ‘public humanities’ and efforts to refocus graduate education to prepare students for careers outside the academy, may ease some of the damage; if so, perhaps Spenser’s prominent place in a tradition of ethical and political engagement may lend his work a new pertinence. Such is the hope we might take from (for example) the Public Humanities Design initiative developed though a broad partnership among Canadian and U.S. scholars and institutions:

The Public Humanities Design (PHD) Project: Learning from Shakespeare and his Contemporaries aims to recover old ways of reading and writing in order to design new, public-facing interpretative practices and new ways of making humanities knowledge public. The work will provide opportunities, mostly for early-career scholars, to develop new skills that will enable them to mobilize their learning, not only within but also outside the academy. To do this, the PHD Project will develop an ensemble of training workshops where humanities scholars will be able to play seriously and productively with how Shakespeare and many other early modern artists and thinkers read, wrote, and took their ideas, questions, and ways of knowing to a burgeoning public world.[1]

This is an appealing line of research even if it doesn’t cure the perennial crisis of the humanities.

In contrast to the bear market for jobs, the intellectual prospects for work on Spenser are alluring. A recent thread on the Sidney-Spenser Discussion List, ‘The Faerie Queene and Race’ (co-hosted by Dennis Britton and Kim Coles), opens a fascinating range of possibilities by attending to the strange cornucopia of life-forms inhabiting Faerie Land, and to the way the human coexists with, interpenetrating and interpenetrated by, supernatural, animal, mythic, monstrous, and unclassifiable modes of being whose uncertain ontology circles back to query what Stephen Orgel calls ‘the instability of our essence’.[2] Spenser’s poem is therefore an intriguing space in which to question what it means to be human.

The affordances of computational technology open a very different garden of forking paths.  The search engine Early Modern Print: Text Mining Early Printed English ( offers new opportunities to explore the lexical distribution of English words and phrases, and as the Text Creation Partnership continues to roll out new transcriptions, the range of the searches will continue to expand; with use, too, the transcriptions of EEBO texts will themselves be curated to make searches more accurate. (Some readers may recall that Martin Mueller has posted to the listserv about an effort to crowd-source the proofreading of transcriptions.) Eventually, the study of sixteenth-century syntax may benefit from computational methods as much as our awareness of the lexis has. Marking up any text in XML is as much a theoretical as a technical exercise; the effort to devise a set of tags that could capture the loose and floating syntax of The Faerie Queene might well challenge any descriptive syntax of early modern English to refine its terms.

Forthcoming work suggests new directions, too. Richard Danson Brown’s The art of The Faerie Queene, out this month from Manchester University Press, shows just how nuanced and imaginative an approach formalism can be; together with works of ‘historical formalism’ appearing in other periods, it suggests that aesthetic approaches to literary texts may be due for renewed attention.[3] It has also seemed to me for some time that, in spite of good work here and there, Spenser’s role in modern literary and cultural history is a relatively understudied and potentially exciting topic. Catherine Nicholson’s ‘Spenser’s Readers: The Faerie Queene and the Making of English Literature’, under contract to Princeton, shows just how rich with possibility that field is.[4]

These are the prospects that occur to me, no doubt an idiosyncratic clutch. There must be many more that elude my foresight. All I’m really sure of is that Spenser studies, like the broader domains within which it unfolds, will continue to be a powerfully stimulating field as long as there are institutions willing to employ scholars to do the work.


Of Shepherds and Fairies: Supervising Spenser

Helen Cooper (Magdalene College, Cambridge)

Since my academic interests range across both the Middle Ages and the early modern, doctoral students researching Spenser have formed only a small part of my total of doctoral supervision, and a number of those who included his work as part of their research were also looking much more broadly. Over the last four decades, I have overseen eight theses in which Spenser was a leading or important element. Three of these were focused on pastoral, wide-ranging but including Spenser’s, starting with the scholar who has become the leader in studies of Renaissance pastoral, Sukanta Chaudhuri. Three others were concerned centrally with the Faerie Queene, and two more included it as part of a larger study (Corinne Saunders on romance forests, Jocelyn Catty on rape and female autonomy). Of the eight theses, five have been published, and the most recent has strong interest from a publisher. The remaining two, equally strong, never sought publication, and deserve to be more widely used: Rosemary Laing’s ‘The Disintegration of Pastoral: Studies in seventeenth-century theory and practice’ (Oxford, 1983), a study of what happened after Spenser; and Tabitha Tuckett’s ‘Character, Moral Evaluation and Action in Virgilian and Elizabethan Pastoral’ (Oxford, 1997), a thoughtful exploration of the definition of literary ‘character’ conducted through how it emerged from the largely uncharacterized speakers of Classical eclogues, through the Shepheardes Calender and its Latin translations, to Shakespearean drama.  

This survey for the Spenser Review, however, asks for a concentration on the last twenty years. In those decades, interest in genre has declined, that perhaps accounting for the absence of more recent research students working with me on pastoral: an odd change, all the same, given the emphasis in early modern pastoral on historical allusion and political allegory, which one would have expected to bring in an abundance of New Historicists. It will be interesting to see if the genre’s other great interest, in poetics, will inspire increased attention to match the more recent critical emphasis on formalism. For the last two decades, my Spenserian supervision total comes down to three: Andrew King’s ‘The Matter of Just Memory: Middle English Romance and the Faerie Queene’ (Oxford, 1998), published by Oxford University Press; Matthew Woodcock’s ‘Renaissance Elf-fashioning: the Rhetoric of Spenser’s Faerie Queene’ (Oxford, 2001), published by Ashgate; and Victoria Coldham-Fussell’s ‘Spenser’s Divine Comedy’ (Cambridge, 2010), not yet published, which is an elegant and counter-intuitively persuasive account of Spenser’s sense of humour alongside a recognition of comedy’s potential for ultimate happiness.

The first thing to say about these is that in contrast to the main tenor of Spenser studies in this period, and while all three were theoretically and historically alert, none of them embedded themselves at all deeply in the more political elements of New Historicism, Ireland included. All three were also in their own ways outside the mainstream: products of individual minds that attended to the movements in Spenser criticism but that followed their own paths.

King was attracted to an area that has been a particular concern of my own for many decades, the link between the medieval and the early modern: a field that has burgeoned generously in the last couple of decades, and to which his own work has made a notable contribution. More is being done now on Spenser’s medieval roots, as witness the conference held at Bristol on Chaucer and Spenser in 2014 and the related forthcoming volume of essays. Chaucer is however the only medieval writer to have received extended attention in relation to Spenser: not surprising, in view of Spenser’s own emphasis on his debt to the earlier poet, but there is plenty in his work that draws on medieval legacies that remain under-studied. Far too few early modernists have any deep understanding of the living legacy of the Middle Ages in the Elizabethan era in almost every cultural area. For King, this included what was ‘still there’: the artefacts, buildings and landscapes that insisted on the continuing presence of the past. Too few scholars likewise have much experience of Middle English literature, despite the abundance of texts available in printed form – prints that provided King with his primary and rich research material. Many of these were popular literature in every sense of the term, cheap quartos that were regularly read to pieces, and so have largely fallen below the critical radar. The humanists despised them, and the educational systems of the West were shaped by humanism with all its prejudices and limitations. Again, there is real scope here for further work, not just on Spenser but on the whole of English Renaissance literature, Shakespeare included. A few years earlier, such a study might have been written simply as a matter of source-hunting; King’s accompanying emphasis on the historical was itself a measure of the changing critical climate that recognized the impossibility of writing about Spenser without taking proper account of contemporary politics.

Woodcock’s core question – why ever did Spenser choose to write his great national epic about fairies? – similarly looked below the humanist radar, for all its concentration on celebrations of the queen. It is such an obvious question to ask that one wonders whether sheer embarrassment has prevented critics of more humanist persuasion from asking it. His exploration of the uses of fairy mythology in the sixteenth century looked beyond court performances and their figures and metaphors to the populace more broadly, to folk beliefs and to what was happening on the Elizabethan stage, all informed by a sharp historical alertness that was none the less ready to acknowledge its limitations. Both King’s and Woodcock’s work showed how the synchronic emphasis of New Historicism was not enough. The diachronic wealth of historical excavation was required too: not just over the question of what sources were used, but the ideological weight carried by works from the English past that in turn inflected how Spenser understood and represented his own present.



Reflecting on Trends, Dissertations, and the Future

Judith H. Anderson (Indiana University)

Invited briefly to reflect on graduate studies treating Spenser and Elizabethan poetry over the past twenty years, specifically including dissertations, I tried listing salient trends in the period and relevant dissertations that I have directed.  Perhaps the strongest shift overall has resulted in the much greater prominence of social and cultural history in literary studies. Another is the tendency for the seventeenth century, as a whole, to stand apart from the Renaissance. But the more I thought about trends, the longer my list became and the more I tagged items as renewed or continuing. Many items on my list, such as those in the next paragraph, have roots readily traced to the last thirty years or so of the twentieth century, and some trace further back, such as religion, form, science (new and classical), emblematics, and Neoplatonism, all of which were strong influences when I was a graduate student. This is hardly to say there is nothing new about their present, rejuvenated expressions or that intervening theories, ideologies, and current events have not had a telling effect. New angles, which come and go with speedy regularity, are welcome, refreshing, and needed, but recurrence and continuity are as well.

Other topics currently trending, such as law, were familiar to earlier Renaissance studies but not memorably to poetry of the period, at least not as a focus and not with the extensive literary applications pursued nowadays. The same is true of politics, education, theorized language and rhetoric, and intellectual culture in general, whose relation to cognitive science (and vice versa) is relatively new, as well. Intertexuality has afforded a revisionary variation on other types of literary relationships, such as influence and allusion, and what I’ll call ‘difference studies’ – including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality – are perhaps the newer face of identity studies, as is ethics of morality.  Emphasis on the body and more generally on affect, while also much present in the later twentieth century, is now still further pronounced. If matter, materialism(s), and things per se also claim attention to a greater extent than before, the difference between the later twentieth century and this one so far is again one more of emphasis than kind. Ecology has become newly important, however, with sub-emphases such as studies centering on animals or on space and place.  Newer forms of book history, which bear on meaning as well as reception, seem genuinely different too.  Especially in relation to Spenser, the claims and accomplishments of Irish studies continue and greatly expand.  My list keeps growing, and the more opinions I venture, the more I realize I am likely to omit important trends – globalism and digital methods now come to mind – or to mischaracterize the ones I include.  To take a single, final example, hospitality studies, a broad and highly figurative (or meta-) topic, has conspicuously flourished of late, although I have not noticed it much in connection with Spenser, even though courtesy positively shouts its pertinence.

My second list consists of dissertations – again, with some uneasiness, lest I omit one. The main difference is that the few entirely on Spenser belong to a period well before the present century. Limiting myself to dissertations at least partly on poetry in the Elizabethan period, I count eight – nine if I include one on conscience that treats Hamlet, a dramatic text, to be sure, but a highly poetic one, and clearly an Elizabethan product of the fin de siècle; ten if I include a dissertation on animals in The Merchant of Venice, an Elizabethan drama, and King Lear, a Jacobean one; and eleven if I include a dissertation on the riddle from the Anglo-Saxon period through Spenser and Shakespeare, which I did not direct but for which I represented the Elizabethan period. This dissertation drew on speech-act theory and other theories of language and rhetoric.  Just last week (as of this writing), I chaired the defense of a dissertation on the Antiquarian Movement; it  ranged from Anglo-Saxon studies to Milton, with focal consideration of language, topography, and law; Spenser’s Calender, Faerie Queene, Complaints, and View got attention in half the chapters. Another recent dissertation, one with an ecological focus, treated the relation of environment to identity from the medieval period (Wales, Scotland, England) to Spenser (Calender and Faerie Queene). Still another student’s dissertation focused on embodied reading in the late medieval and Renaissance periods; this dissertation was focally affective, psychological, and somatic, with chapters on Spenser’s major and minor poems. 

Three dissertations have treated Shakespeare’s sonnets, one by a native speaker of Greek with a MFA in poetry, who related an extensive study of Greek myth to the sonnets; the second treated the Reformation Bible and the sonnets, relating biblical language, exegesis, and translation to the theories and practices of English sonneteers; the third dissertation included a chapter on time and tradition in the sonnets, with other chapters on seventeenth-century poets. This theorized dissertation also ventured into areas such as genre, print, shape, and layout. Still another dissertation centered on female-voiced complaint poetry of the 1590s, with chapters on Spenser’s Complaints.  A final dissertation was about counsel and the hermeneutics of the subject (to borrow Foucault’s title), with chapters on Elyot, Sidney, Spenser (Faerie Queene, I-III), and Donne’s sermons.

Reviewing the previous paragraphs, I should remark that my university has a strong medieval program, from Anglo Saxon through the fifteenth century, whose influence is evident in many of the dissertations I have listed. Local context makes a difference, as do the interests of faculty. My own approach has been to advise students to be aware of broad trends, including the topical fashion du jour, and to address these where relevant. Above all they should choose a topic that interests them, one in which they are invested.

The real issue with respect to Spenser studies at present is the increasing absence of Spenser from the undergraduate curriculum (at least in the US), especially where some kind of survey of the early periods has disappeared. What happens on the graduate level and with hiring/jobs is inseparable from this issue. If Spenser isn’t taught, Spenserians are not going to be hired, and graduate students are less likely to focus on his poetry or even to include it in their projects. Of course if Spenser is also absent from the graduate curriculum, a vicious circle is firmly in place. I hope that a future issue of The Spenser Review will offer ideas about Spenser in the undergraduate and graduate curricula, both about reasons for including his poetry and attractive ways of teaching it. In the US, aside from departmental curricula, I wonder whether anyone has recently offered a NEH summer seminar that includes Spenser for high school teachers (yes!) or for those in colleges and universities, or does anyone have ideas for doing so?



Bart Van Es (St Catherine’s College, Oxford) 

Just this week (on 21st January 2019) I received the examiners’ report on the dissertation of the student of mine who has most recently completed a doctoral thesis on Spenser.  I am pleased that the examiners (Professors Laurie Maguire and Andrew Hadfield) commended William Humphries for an ‘ambitious and wide-ranging thesis [that] explores the significance of the coastal encounter in early modern English literature and culture’.  It is an impressive piece of work.  Chapter 2 of the thesis explores coastal encounters in The Faerie Queene, picking up on moments such as Guyon’s passing of the ‘Gulfe of Greedinesse’ on his way to the Bower of Bliss; Marinel’s confrontation with Britomart on the ‘sea-coast’ of Faerieland (III.iv); and Artegall’s defeat of the Giant with the scales, who tumbles from his rock into the sea (V.ii). Will read these encounters in the light of Homeric and Virgilian precedent in epic and also in the light of English law and colonial exploration.  Overall, he placed the coastal trials of Spenser’s characters within a tradition of early modern composition that spanned prose (Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations), poetry (Drayton’s ‘Ode on Virginia’), and drama (from Marlowe’s Dido to Shakespeare’s The Tempest).  He was much helped, of course by Elizabeth Jane Bellamy’s Dire Straits: the Perils of Writing the English Coastline from Leland to Milton (which appeared just as Will was starting out).  Like Jane’s wonderful book, Will’s thesis combined literary reception with emerging ‘Island consciousness’ in Britain a very ambitious way.

This kind invitation from Spenser Review gives me the opportunity to reflect on the ways that Will’s thesis might be typical of this ‘critical moment’ in Spenser Studies—the ways it differs, methodologically, from the kind of work I was supervising a decade and a half ago, when I started out as a tenured faculty lecturer at Oxford.  In 2004, when I took my first batch of doctoral students, there were three dissertations assigned to me that touched on the work of Spenser.  One looked at ‘Early Modern Literary Afterlives’ and considered Spenser’s fashioning of the biography of Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophel and other publications.  One was on early modern antiquarianism and considered Spenser in relation to Camden’s Britannia.  And one concerned gender politics and thought especially about Spenser’s use of the Dido myth.  Those all turned into successful doctorates.

On the surface, there is nothing there radically different about Will’s 2018 thesis and the work that these three earlier students were doing a decade and a half ago.  The big questions (such as Spenser’s experience in Ireland, his imitation of classical poetry, and his engagement with gender) are still in place. Although new modes of enquiry have gained in prominence (for example eco-criticism; animal studies; object-oriented theory; and textual materialism) and although there have been numerous landmark publications (from Andrew Hadfield’s splendid new biography to David Wilson-Okamura’s Spenser’s International Style), there has—on the surface—been no absolute revolution in the field.  The doctorates I started supervising fifteen years ago could still be proposed and accepted at Oxford today.

At the granular level, though, the work being done now, even at a fairly conservative institution like my university, is more ‘of its moment’ than would appear from mere titles alone.  For one thing, the many important books that have come out are making a difference.  It is invidious to give examples, but the influence of something like Jeff Dolven’s Scenes of Instruction is, for instance, palpable in Will’s thesis: there is a new subtlety to the way that today’s students think about the interplay between authorial intention and the reading habits of the culture.  New resources (such as Brown and Lethbridge’s rhyme concordance to The Faerie Queene) are also enriching the way that current researchers are approaching the sonic texture of Spenser’s poetry.  Books like Joe Moshenska’s Feeling Pleasures present the poet’s work as a much more all-encompassing (and less goal-oriented) entity than was the case a decade earlier.  All of this is second nature to students of Spenser’s poetry today.  Were I to edit a new edition of A Critical Companion to Spenser Studies (which is urgently necessary) that evolution would be at the core of revisions.

  Individual books are one part of how the conversation has changed at an incremental level below the surface.  Cumulatively, however, a bigger conceptual shift has occurred: it is a change in how ‘the literary text’ and ‘the culture’ as an object of study is conceived.  I think that change is there in the focus of Will’s thesis on ‘encounters’ rather than ‘depictions’: this is something reciprocal, both literary and political, and ‘open’ in way that would rarely have been acknowledged in work like his a decade and a half ago.  Somehow, through the influence of eco-criticism (as, say, set out by Todd Borlik in his intriguing study), through object-theory, and through a multitude of individual publications, the current critical moment seems much more open to the experience of Spenser and less restricted to his personal investments at the material level. 

Last term, I had a new student starting on her doctorate.  Her focus is on rhyme in early modern literature.  Though in one way, that sounds like a topic from the 1950s, in another it is also very now.  There is no very clear plan at the present, but seems to me also quite current.  I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

[1] I quote from the draft of a grant proposal kindly shared with me by Paul Yachnin, one of its architects.

[2] Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge UP, 1996), 27.

[3] If aesthetics is riding a wave, it’s one that has been building for some time: see for instance Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton UP, 1999); Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton UP, 2007); and Michael Clune, Writing Against Time (Stanford UP, 2013): “At this moment in the history of the disciplines, literary criticism’s best opportunity for creating new knowledge lies not in the description of art’s embeddedness in contexts recognizable to historians or sociologists, but in the description of the forces by which art attempts to free itself of such contexts and such recognitions” (17). See also Clune’s and ‘Judgment and Equality’, Critical Inquiry (forthcoming Summer, 2019). I should note that for him as for other theorists, the aesthetic is not reducible to formalism.

[4] Readers of the Fall 2016 issue of The Spenser Review got a preview of Nicholson’s book in ‘Una’s Line’, Spenser Review 46.2.6 (Fall 2016).




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Cite as:

David Lee Miller, Helen Cooper, Judith H. Anderson, Bart Van Es, "Thoughts on Graduate Study in Spenser," Spenser Review 49.1.3 (Winter 2019). Accessed February 19th, 2019.
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