Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Johnathan H. Pope, ed., Phineas Fletcher, The Purple Island; or, The Isle of Man
by Christopher Burlinson

Phineas Fletcher, The Purple Island; or, The Isle of Man, ed. by Johnathan H. Pope, Renaissance Society of America Texts and Studies Series, 8 (Leiden: Brill, 2017)


Imagine the description of the Castle of Alma stretched out to ten times its original length. Seven-hundred seven-line stanzas: an allegorical description of the human body (anatomised in comprehensive and painstaking detail, and surrounded on every page by learned marginal annotations), an account of the body’s faculties and emotions, its virtues and vices, a battle for the safety of that body, an account of human fallenness and salvation; and even more—a poem where that human body is also an island-nation, surrounded by a sea, a poem where the body and the self are subject to relentless scrutiny but barely come into contact with anyone or anything outside themselves, a poem that combines reflections on anatomy and ethics and metaphysics and geo-politics and devotion, all of them sung over the course of an imaginary week by a shepherd sitting with his friends by the banks of a thinly allegorised River Cam.

When Phineas Fletcher wrote from Norfolk to his friend and patron, Edward Benlowes, in May 1633, he described The Purple Island as a work of childish immaturity, newly presented in print: ‘these raw Essayes of my very unripe yeares, and almost childehood’. The Purple Island might perhaps have been a product of Fletcher’s youth, but, as Johnathan H. Pope’s excellent new edition (for the Texts and Studies series of the Renaissance Society of America) makes very clear, it is anything but negligible. Fletcher’s poem is daunting, mind-boggling, phenomenally learned, often grinding to a near halt under the burden of its own knowledge—but also a remarkable example of a certain seventeenth-century way of thinking about the body and the self, and an impassioned (and often inventively self-reflective) declaration of Spenser’s unique status in English poetry almost forty years after his death. In that respect, the publication of Fletcher’s poem in the 1630s, seemingly a good decade or so after much of it was written, was part of a still-persistent memory of Spenser, and a desire to imitate and respond to him: Ralph Knevet’s Supplement of the Faery Queene was completed in 1635,[1] and Samuel Sheppard’s Faerie King even later. The Purple Island is conscious at every turn of the debt that it owes to Spenser and openly alludes to him on every other page, but it is a very different project from The Faerie Queene. It takes almost everything as its subject, but almost nothing actually happens in it. And this ‘lack of narrative progression’, as Pope writes in the introduction to his edition, is ‘where [it] arguably fails in [its] conscious imitation of Spenser’s allegorical epic […]. Spenser gives his knights and their antagonists narrative purpose rather than purely burdening them with the weight of their allegorical significance’ (7). In spite of this ‘narrative stagnation’, though, The Purple Island does something quite remarkable on its own terms: what it gives us instead is a kind of devotional anatomy, ‘intended to address […] the native foreignness of the body, emphasizing the alterity of that which is closest to us and our need to overcome it by learning about the body from a devotional perspective’ (2).

Phineas Fletcher was born in 1582, to a family of poets, priests and Cantabrigians. His father, Giles Fletcher, had traveled to Russia in 1588 on diplomatic duty, went on to write Of the Russe Common Wealth (1591) and then Licia and the Rising to the Crown of Richard III (1593), became involved in the 1590s with the Earl of Essex (a figure mentioned with elegiac fondness in The Purple Island) and was eventually imprisoned, but later released with the assistance of Robert Cecil. Phineas’s cousin, John Fletcher, was a playwright, author of plays such as The Island Princess (1621), and his older brother, Giles Fletcher the younger, wrote a Spenserian allegorical poem of his own, Christs Victorie and Triumph (1610). Phineas talks explicitly (and admiringly) about Christs Victorie on a number of occasions in his own poem and marginal notes, and the end of Giles’s poem actually refers directly to the conclusion of The Purple Island: in that respect, it was a product of Phineas’s ‘unripe yeares’, even though he might well have added to it over the 1610s and 1620s. In 1615, Phineas left King’s College, Cambridge under the patronage of Henry Willoughby, Baronet of Risley, Derbyshire; he served for six years as chaplain and schoolmaster in Risley, and then, from 1621, as Rector of Hilgay in Norfolk, where he lived until his death in 1650.

So does The Purple Island date from Phineas Fletcher’s time in Cambridge? Abram Langdale’s seminal Phineas Fletcher: Man of Letters, Science, and Divinity argues that much of it does, although as Pope’s edition shows, it also owes a lot to Helkiah Crooke’s Mikrokosmographia (1615), suggesting that Fletcher must have been working on it after his brother’s Christs Victorie, and possibly well after he left Cambridge, too. But there’s no doubt that it is a poem conscious of its Cambridge setting, a scholarly song for scholarly ears, which begins with ‘the shepherd-boyes’ who have gathered to choose their ‘May-lords’ for the ensuing year: ‘Now were they sat, where by the orchyard walls / The learnèd Chame with stealing water crawls, / And lowly down before that royall temple falls’ (Canto I Stanza 2)—a ‘royall temple’ that Pope glosses as King’s College Chapel. Fletcher’s intellectual and poetic connections, as Pope’s introduction shows, included men such as Benlowes and Francis Quarles who shared that world. And indirectly, in that respect, it plays a part in a long seventeenth-century tradition of Spenserian pastoral written in and around Cambridge University (not least by younger writers such as John Milton)—often learned, often rooted in the past but often also experimental and forward-looking.

This all gives the learnedness of The Purple Island a peculiarly bookish quality. ‘Who ha’s not often read Troye’s twice-sung fires’, asks Thirsil, Fletcher’s pastoral representation of his own poetic voice, before adding, with critical judiciousness, ‘And the second time twice better sung?’ (Canto I Stanza 11). And the allegorised account of the body that follows, and indeed takes up a good half of the poem, casts the human frame as a book: ‘He cast to frame an Isle, the heart and head / Of all his works, compos’d with curious art; / Which like an Index briefly should impart / The summe of all; the whole, yet of the whole a part’ (Canto I Stanza 43). The Purple Island describes the human body part by part, reducing it to its components and taking them all in turn—but in that respect, as Pope says, it is no different from any other anatomy of the time; it reads, as he says, ‘like a versified rendition of Mikrokosmographia’ (18). Fletcher aims for dissection, not narrative progression, and his poem ‘hold[s] up each part [of the body] to the eye of the reader before moving on to the next stage of the dissection’ (19).

And it is among the many achievements of this edition that Pope demonstrates Fletcher’s indebtedness to contemporary thinking about anatomy, while also cutting through the critical argument about whether The Purple Island demonstrates a modern or outdated view of the human body. Clearly, one noteworthy peculiarity about Fletcher’s poem is its obliviousness to William Harvey’s contemporary work on the circulation of the blood (1628); Fletcher’s body seems to be governed by heat and by humours, rather than by circulation—not necessarily to be expected in 1633. But Pope argues that by rehearsing this debate in isolation—that’s to say, by asking simply whether Fletcher’s body is governed by a pre- or post-Harvey anatomy—we can miss the fact that this kind of thinking ‘surviv[ed] in English anatomical and devotional texts late into the seventeenth century’ (9). Pope encourages Fletcher’s readers not to be limited by the question of whether this view of the body is an old-fashioned or a modern one: this can limit our understanding of his poetic ambition, and our appreciation of the many devotional contexts in which The Purple Island places the human body. The poem provides a devotional perspective: ‘an inward-looking gaze that prioritizes self-knowledge, both corporeal and spiritual, above all else’ (4). But it works, still, like an anatomy book, which breaks down the body piece by piece ‘until there is nothing left but understanding’ (p. 19).

‘Why, then’, Pope asks in the final section of his introduction, ‘does The Purple Island call for a new edition, when there exists little to no editorial controversy in the original 1633 printings?’ (33). This question undersells the critical re-evaluation that his new edition successfully achieves. By re-thinking the poem as a devotional anatomy, Pope restores attention to Fletcher’s marginalia, often mangled by previous editors (in an anonymous edition of 1783, for instance, the first edition of the poem after its original publication) in their attempt to adjust apparent inconsistencies in his anatomical knowledge. It allows us to read ‘his corporeal allegory […] through the lens that the poet himself offers’ (37). It’s an excellent editorial achievement, and will be of great interest to readers of seventeenth-century poetry and of Spenser’s afterlives.

Christopher Burlinson

Jesus College, University of Cambridge

[1] See Ralph Knevet, A Supplement of The Faery Queene, ed. by Christopher Burlinson and Andrew Zurcher (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015). See also <>.


  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Christopher Burlinson, "Johnathan H. Pope, ed., Phineas Fletcher, The Purple Island; or, The Isle of Man," Spenser Review 49.2.7 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
Not logged in or