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Hazel Wilkinson, Edmund Spenser and the Eighteenth-Century Book
by David Hill Radcliffe

Hazel Wilkinson, Edmund Spenser and the Eighteenth-Century Book.  Cambridge: University Press. 2017.  263 pp.

Hazel Wilkinson’s study, a tour de force in bibliographical analysis, consists of a series of essays on the eighteenth-century printings of Spenser’s works, given a new bibliographic description in an appendix.  Following a preliminary essay on Spenser in the seventeenth century there are chapters on the Hughes edition of 1715, Spenser’s verse in miscellanies and florilegia, 1716-50, the illustrated Faerie Queene edited by Thomas Birch in 1751, on the rival editions edited by Upton and Church, 1758-59 and the cheap editions of Spenser printed in Scotland by Bell and Anderson in 1778 and 1787-88.  The essays engage economic, social and political contexts, as well as contemporary critical debates and Spenser’s status in the canon of British poets.  Wilkinson argues that ‘Spenser’s readers have often placed more value on Spenserian books-as-artifacts, and their manifold cultural meanings, than on the texts they contain.  This phenomenon has its roots in the eighteenth century’ (6).

Wilkinson assembles a formidable array of latent information about the social context involved with printing and marketing Spenser’s poetry.  She identifies printers from text ornaments, anonymous contributors from manuscript evidence, tabulates prices from auction catalogues and pores over correspondence, literary and political tracts, biographies of contributors and of course the formatting and paratext of the Spenser editions themselves.  She has located manuscript annotations by John Upton, Thomas Warton and Richard Hurd, which she compares to what they say about Spenser in print.  The discoveries made are too numerous to count, and if most are small, collectively they add considerably to the depth and breadth our knowledge of Spenser’s reception in the eighteenth century.

The argument that Spenser was more admired than read, while no doubt true, reflects a focus on the book as commodity.  It was always the booksellers’ intention to establish Edmund Spenser as a standard author by printing his works in one or another standard format.  This was a challenge, given the archaisms, the woodcuts and the visual characteristics of Spenser’s stanza.  Neither does the material turned up in Wilkinson’s essays fit very neatly into her standardised progress-narrative of canon-formation and the expansion of commerce.  Consider the dates: new editions of Spenser appeared in 1715, 1751, 1758, 1758 and 1805, and reprinted texts in 1750, 1758, 1778, 1787 and 1792, the latter three in uniform editions of British poets.  The long gaps between 1715 and 1751, and between 1758 and 1805, do not suggest a linear progress, nor does the sequence map tidily onto what we know of Spenser’s status and reception from other sources.  The complexity and contingency appearing in the printing of Spenser seems typical of eighteenth-century Spenserianism generally, whose disparate expressions came and went in separate though not unconnected trajectories.

The second chapter, ‘Spenser the Whig: John Hughes’s Clubbable Edition, 1715’ is a brilliant example of recovering the social text through various kinds of bibliographic evidence.  The extended political context is the Whig project developed in the seventeenth century that culminating with the Hanoverian succession in 1715—which not coincidentally corresponded to the publication of a new edition of Spenser.  It was undertaken by the Tonsons and printed in the small ‘Elzevir’ format to lend Spenser’s poetry a classical look suited to their other publications of English poetry.  This was reinforced by illustrations and paratext that represented Spenser as the ‘British Virgil’—making sense of Spenser in terms of a Whig conception of historical progress.  Whig connections are pursued through the Tonsons, the printers they hired, the Kit-Kat Club, du Gremier’s illustrations, John Hughes’s biography and writings, the subscription list and, crowning all, the Kneller portrait of the Whig statesman Baron Somers holding a volume of the Spenser edition he had patronised.

Wilkinson gives Hughes the attention he deserves: he may have been a minor poet and a secondary member of Addison’s circle, but as a textual editor and literary critic he was a major figure, as important as anyone in the long history of Spenser’s reception.  By regularising Spenser’s spellings as opposed to modernising them he intelligently balanced aesthetic and historical concerns with the requirements of modern readers.  It was through this text that most eighteenth-century readers encountered Spenser.  Most significant in the light of what he has to say about Spenser’s historical importance is Hughes’s remark that The Faerie Queene ‘ought rather to be consider’d as a Poem of a particular kind, describing in a Series of Allegorical Adventures or Episodes the most noted Virtues and Vices: to compare it therefore with the Models of Antiquity, wou’d be like drawing a Parallel between the Roman and the Gothick Architecture’ (54-56).  A poem of a particular kind—by attending to the poet’s liberties as opposed to applying critical rules and imposing bibliographic formats, Hughes proves a more profound Whig than his collaborators.  The 1715 edition is thus not quite all of a piece, and Wilkinson rightly observes that ‘His contributions to the edition suggest that equating Virgil and Spenser did not actually go far enough as a patriotic rehabilitation of Spenser’s reputation’ (52).

The two chapters on the 1750s editions of Spenser involve a backstory too complicated to summarise, but which illustrates conflicting priorities at work in early attempts to produce a critical text, engage with sources, and make sense of Spenser’s allegory.  We learn that William Kent’s deliciously ‘gothick’ illustrations were not created for the Birch edition, but were a bookseller’s fortuitous contribution; they are adroitly compared to the private allegories found in Spenser burlesques of the era.  In a complicated history of multiple editions simultaneously undertaken, Wilkinson shows how the Tonson concern, clinging to their supposed right to Spenser, twice reissued Hughes in attempts to flood the market in advance of the new editions edited by Birch, Upton and Church.  Meanwhile, Thomas Edwards (who had hammered Warburton’s Shakespeare) and Thomas Warton (author of the two-volume Observations on the Faerie Queene), who in a more rational world might have been selected as textual editor and annotator, did not proceed with their own projected editions.  This is more bookselling contingency.  John Upton, the Whig author of a particularly wooden Spenser imitation and very much a scholar of the last generation, got his massively annotated edition into print while young Warton—a more considerable poet and scholar, and at the cutting edge of romanticism—could only carp from the sidelines.

After all that drama, the chapter on the Bell and Anderson editions inevitably disappoints, partly because Thomas Bonnell’s Most Disreputable Trade (2008) has already covered this subject (not that Wilkinson hasn’t turned up new information) but mostly because these collected reprints of British poets had little to do with Spenser apart from disseminating his poetry.  Of more import is the unexplained (but presumably venal) decision of the London consortium of booksellers not to include Spenser in their edition of the English poets, thus depriving the world of a Samuel Johnson biography that would have been one for the ages.  It is also disappointing that Wilkinson, who engages with Spenser biography in all the earlier chapters, decided not to conclude her survey with the 1805 Todd edition, with its particular attention to Spenser’s life.  There was a storm brewing, for by the end of the eighteenth century it was becoming all too apparent that the historical Spenser was no Colin Clout.  Stopping at Bell and Anderson leaves important threads in Wilkinson’s contextual analysis stalled at where things stood in 1759.

As it happened, George III would ascend the throne the following year, marking the beginning of the end of the Whig hegemony which Hazel Wilkinson chronicles through the editions of Spenser running from Hughes to Upton.  Her attention to Whig politics is both a strength and weakness: a strength because it lends focus to a diffuse and complex series of events and a weakness because, like Touchstone’s egg, her book is roasted all on one side.  Wilkinson is not only a historian of Whig writers, she writes as a Whig historian, examining the past in the light of the present and using a series of historical figures to chart something like a linear progress from the ‘luxury editions’ (9) produced for an aristocracy to the ‘erosion of this cultural exclusivity’ (175) in the cheap, uniform editions of Bell and Anderson.  It’s not that she doesn’t mention Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Warton and Hurd—she does—but not in a way to suggest that they had anything very substantive to contribute to the story she is telling.  That these Tory writers, so important to the history of Spenser’s reception, would not figure in Spenser editions prior to Todd’s is a matter worthy of remark.

The Whig poet James Thomson supplies corrective binocular vision in his Spenserian burlesque The Castle of Indolence, an allegory pitting a Wizard of Indolence against a Knight of Industry.  Thomson, unlike Hughes, recognised something dangerously (if also attractively) un-Whiggish about Spenser.  Spenser was, his anti-Catholicism excepted, an unlikely candidate for the Whig pantheon: so far from being an advocate for liberty under the law, he was patently monarchical, fond of mysteries, and laboured under an idolatrous worship of the past.  His poetry was pedantic rather than polite and his stories written in stanzas rather than couplets; he pursued tale-weaving as opposed to probable narrative, and introduced obscure and uncouth archaisms into heroic verse.  Early eighteenth-century readers, despite their well-attested tolerance for allegory and long, desultory narratives, found him undigestible.  Where Whigs had little fondness for chivalry and barbarism, Spenser’s zest for what the eighteenth century was pleased to call ‘rust’ is everywhere apparent.  Rust appealed to persons with an unaccountable predilection for indolent old things like superstition, Roman Catholicism and Stuart monarchs.

With rust and medievalism in mind, it seems worthwhile to consider the ‘British Virgil’ in the context of John Dryden’s Jacobite-encoded translation of Virgil’s works (a more valuable Tonson copyright than Hughes).  As an expression of French criticism and Roman Catholic aesthetics, this was just what Hughes was opposing with his native Spenser and what Upton was pursuing in his foolish attempt to discover the unities in The Faerie Queene.  Spenser’s medievalism was a source of naughty pleasure for humanist advocates for progress like Thomson and Johnson.  But Tom Warton—like Johnson accused of dabbling in Jacobitism—was happy to be led down the paths of pleasure into medieval romance.  Then there was Richard Hurd, scion-of-Warburton-scion-of-Pope (who really was Catholic) who was led by a reading of Montesquieu to embrace Spenser as the anti-Virgil and quintessence of romance.  In the second half of the eighteenth century, about which Wilkinson has very little to say, indolent Warton succeeded indolent Dryden as poet laureate.  Times were changing; in the days of Whig hegemony admiration for progress was priced into the value of Spenser’s books, the latest editions selling for pounds while the original quartos went for shillings; were Wilkinson’s auction tables continued down to 1800 a reversal of fortune, or at least of book prices, would become apparent.  Rust had turned to gold.

This was the broader context for eighteenth-century Spenserianism as found in the apparatus of Todd’s Spenser.  Wilkinson herself exposes this subtext in one of her richer excursions into the bibliographic tall grass.  In an anonymous pamphlet Warton accused Upton of stealing his discovery of Spenser’s borrowings from Malory.  Wilkinson found a copy, once the property of Robinson’s Coffeehouse, in which one manuscript annotator identifies the author while another makes ‘a confused defence of Upton, taking issue with the claim that “Mr. Warton is the first who observed, that Spenser made great use of an old romance, extremely fashionable in his time, entitled Morte Arthur”’ (166-67).  From a third mangled notation, she is able to make out that the annotator is confusing John Upton with his father James, who in 1711 produced an edition of Ascham’s Scholemaster, which the annotator had seen in a 1747 reprint, in which book Wilkinson finds the pertinent passage—written not by John or James, but Roger Ascham himself:  ‘In our Forefathers time, when Papistry, as a standing Pool, covered and overflowed all England, few books were read in our Tongue, saving certain books of Chivalry, as they said for Pastime and Pleasure; which, as some say, were made in Monastaries by idle Monks or wanton Canons.  As one for Example La Mort d Arthure….’ (167).  By drilling down into this tangled chain of references Wilkinson uncovers not only the bone of cultural contention between Upton and Warton, but the basis for Thomson’s allegory, and with that, a prime source of eighteenth-century ambivalence about a slippery poet whose wanton ways were as resistant to bibliographic standardisation (how typesetters struggled with those unruly alexandrines!) as they were to canons of criticism and progress narratives in literary history.


David Hill Radcliffe

Virginia Tech



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Cite as:

David Hill Radcliffe, "Hazel Wilkinson, Edmund Spenser and the Eighteenth-Century Book," Spenser Review 49.1.5 (Winter 2019). Accessed July 16th, 2019.
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