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Editorial Introduction
by Richard Danson Brown, Craig A. Berry, Andrew Hadfield, Jane Grogan

Editorial Introduction: Creative Responses to Spenser


Why do we read Spenser now? To an extent, this is the meta-question of all Spenserian criticism, but it is particularly at the heart of this special edition of Spenser Review, dedicated to creative responses to his work.

Consider the views of three twentieth-century poets. First, T. S. Eliot: ‘who except for scholars, and except the eccentric few who are born with a sympathy for such work […] can now read through the whole of The Faerie Queene with delight?’[1] Eliot’s modernist disdain finds an answer in one of the final works of one of his protégés at Faber, Louis MacNeice, who confessed that ‘In poetry as a reader I have fairly catholic tastes but I would rather read Spenser than most: this is because of his exceptional depth and variety and because his work has the richness and complexity of the best dreams and the truth to life of the best fairy stories’.[2] It’s a striking contrast, and one that speaks to the problem of Spenser as an influence: is he an antiquarian irrelevance, or a sustaining source, with the ‘richness’ of dream, a term which inevitably comprises Freud as well as fairy tale?

A different approach – which has been at the heart of Spenser studies for the last forty years – is suggested by Marianne Moore’s ‘Spenser’s Ireland’, where the title serves as a springbroad for a quicksilver meditation on the ambiguities of Irish culture and ancestry:


                          The Irish say your trouble is their
            trouble and your
                        joy their joy? I wish
            I could believe it;
            I am troubled, I’m dissat-
                        isfied, I’m Irish.[3]


Though her footnotes make clear she had read the View of the Present State of Ireland, Spenser hardly appears in Moore’s poem – unless you count her slinky, mercurial stanza form, with its electric turns of pace and nuanced half-rhymes, or perhaps the hanging – dare I say it – unmoored-yet-Mooreish, generalization in the first stanza, ‘Denunciations do not affect/the culprit’.[4]

What emerges from the reactions of these three prestigious voices – all published in the UK by Faber – is that Spenser was a moveable property, amenable to rejection, celebration, or a kind of covert critical development. He doesn’t quite overwhelm or threaten in the way of a Milton or a Dante, both of whom weighed so heavily on Eliot. Spenser, we might say, is more to one side, which is perhaps one of the things that Eliot’s snort of dismissal still captures: as Spenserians, we are both scholars and ‘the eccentric few’, who (I suspect) still enjoy this reserved eccentricity. As Andrew Zurcher puts it in relation to the preservation of archaisms in critical editions: ‘Subtle academic readers congratulate themselves not only on their initiated capacity for understanding this spelling and this language, but on their determination to secure and protect it’.[5]

Nevertheless, Spenser’s work still continues to reverberate as poetry, not just as an elite sport. Spenserian echoes and rewrites are present in recent work by Jo Shapcott (Of Mutability, 2011), and in critical ‘translations’, such as Trevor Joyce’s Fastness (2017), which in different ways suggest that the qualities MacNeice and Moore found in Spenser exert a persistent hold over both readers and writers. Spenser is available both as a prompt and as a resistant colonising presence who, as in Seamus Heaney’s seminal ‘Bog Oak’ (1972), occupies a landscape he almost wilfully fails to understand. A related but subtly different example of this phenomenon is the songwriter Richard Thompson’s adoption of Amoretti LVII (‘Sweet warriour when shall I haue peace with you?’) for his 2007 LP, Sweet Warrior. The significance of the text is underlined by its being reprinted in full in the CD booklet, while the album as a whole – with its disturbed reflections on the Iraqi conflict and global terrorism – takes its lyrical energies in some part from Spenser’s soured yet flexible Petrarchan imagery.


Spenserian Poetry


As the contributions to this edition of Spenser Review convey, creative work with Spenser comes in many different guises, from formal imitations and pastiches, poems which are imaginative glosses on his work, through to new texts which take off from the meagrest Spenserian hint. He is not a stable figure of authority – nor indeed just of colonial oppression – so much as a series of poetic motives and drivers which serve to remind readers of what might be called his covert, to-one-side, availability as a stimulus.

Consider the inventive pastiches here: Elisabeth Chaghafi recreates the full apparatus of a The Shepheardes Calender eclogue, in which Colin comically laments his lack of advancement. In a different vein, Dan Moss appropriates the Spenserian stanza and The Faerie Queene mode of narrating conflict for the purpose of telling the story of a baseball rivalry, establishing a brilliant comic equivalence between sport and epic combat. These playful poems have a serious formal undertow: Moss’s poem underlines the intrinsic technical difficulty of the Spenserian stanza. Until you try it out, you don’t realise quite how demanding it is, particularly in terms of the four-times repeated B-rhyme; Moss usefully reminds us of classic Spenserian tricks like auxiliary + infinitive formula to satisfy the demands of the stanza: ‘did imbrue’, ‘would dispatch’, and so on. Similarly, Chaghafi’s composite text underlines the necessary interplay between Colin’s text and E. K.’s notes as an intrinsic part of the Calender’s pleasures and interpretative challenges. Both poems are enormous fun, and suggest the ways in which pastiche and parody are effective teaching aids.

In the second category of imaginative glosses, I would place the poems by Julia Griffin and David Lee Miller. Griffin’s ‘In Praise of Glauce’ riffs on one of The Faerie Queene’s most neglected and yet curiously vivid characters, Britomart’s long-suffering nurse-cum-page, or as Griffin puts it, ‘A nanny in a coat of mail’. There’s an exuberant wit to this poem, which shows a contemporary writer extending a generous, comic sympathy to the physical discomfitures of Glauce’s adventures: ‘Shorn of her thermos, gloves, routines,/Hotwater bottles, hankies, mints,/Pills, glasses, knitting magazines:/All so her girl can land her prince’. More ambitiously, Griffin’s ‘Britomartis’ is a lyric condensation of Britomart’s adventures in Book III, somewhat in the manner of Christopher Logue’s – the poem’s dedicatee – radical reboot of the Iliad in War Music. There’s a terrific delicacy and speed in this recut of The Faerie Queene which is noticeable in her selection of key moments such as The Lament (Canto II), and The Enchanter’s sinister dance (Canto VII). David Lee Miller’s poem on the Gardens of Adonis also revisits Book III to force a double take on familiar poetic terrain: if the first stanza captures the sardonic, quizzical voice of a teacher at work in the business of explication du texte, the second more ruminatively repurposes the image of the Garden to suggest that paradise is itself always an earthly process ‘teeming with rot’. 

The final grouping of new poems from Spenserian hints includes Jillian Saucier’s ‘Franciscan Square’, which repurposes a typical moment of Faerie Queene lyricism to evoke a semi-deserted cityscape. James Nohrnberg’s ‘Legion and the Judas Tree’ fuses – much as in his criticism – a bewildering array of sources and motifs into a new and unsettling whole, as the poem ranges from the New Testament demon Legion through to the Palmer of Book II, and wolves on the wolds of an England ‘now quite past’. Writing this in September 2019 in the shadow of resurgent English nationalism and the fears of a no-deal Brexit, it’s hard not to feel a particular political pathos to the speaker of the second part’s fear that his ambivalent ‘palmer would leave me tonight/Alone on the desolate shore’. ‘The Deathwatch for Arthur Woodhouse’ meanwhile is a grand elegy-cum-fantasia, where the Spenserian resonance of his teacher’s first name resonates with particular poignancy in the seventh section. My own poems – selected for this edition by Jane Grogan and Andrew Hadfield – seem to me to fit in this grouping; my feeling is that though I don’t often consciously try to write something in Spenser’s vein (‘Faerie Queene Palimpsest’ is obvious an exception), riffs and modalities learned from him often claim me without my conscious volition in that process. As with all of these poems, I suspect that we write poems through Spenser not simply to celebrate or decry him but because his imaginative work furnishes us with rich landscapes, metaphors and ways of thinking poetically which are still plausible. To that extent, MacNeice’s sense of Spenser’s ‘exceptional depth and variety’ remains true.


                                                                                                            Richard Danson Brown


This issue also presents three further sections of different kinds of creative responses to Spenser:

‘Spenserian Poets’ presents short reflections by four poets, each of whom have published substantial works engaging directly with Spenser. Seán Lysaght’s Spenser (2011), brought his subject’s life and poetry together in a ‘verse narrative of Spenser’s life’ that gave no quarter to notions of his poetry’s sequestration from Spenser’s colonising life in Ireland. A sequence of ‘Sonnets to a Tudor Poet’ in Lysaght’s Carnival Masks (2014), reflected on the process and implications of that work for the poet himself. Trevor Joyce, who has now published two works of ‘radical translation […] from the English of Edmund Spenser’, Rome’s Wreck (2014) and Fastness (2017), reflects on his own ‘entanglement’ with the history and poetry of Spenser, and on how that entanglement mutates and endures to the present moment. John McAuliffe’s The Way In (2015) was anchored by a sequence of poems responding to Colin Clouts Come Home Again, with the whole collection prefaced by an epigraph from that poem: Cuddy’s bemused question, ‘But if that land be there (quoth he) as here, / And is theyr heauen likewise there all one? Leanne O’Sullivan’s rapprochement with Spenser is of a more personal order, as she explains here, kindly offering us ‘Anamnestes’ from her prize-winning 2018 collection, A Quarter of an Hour, one of two meditations on Book II of The Faerie Queene. Finally, that all four are Irish, but with very distinct approaches to Spenser, is something to note.


‘Creative Criticism’ presents three very different approaches to working creatively with Spenser. Ewan Fernie describes the concept and fortunes of the Redcross project, a 2011 multimedia ‘Celebration of England and St George’ through the lens of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. With scholars, artists and theologians from different faith traditions involved, as well as the not-unchallenging figures of Spenser and St George, it is perhaps not surprising that the project evoked the ire of the British National Party, and earned a critical mention in The Daily Star. But more importantly, it produced new music, pageants and a book, all of which explored questions around historical constructions of Englishness, of faith and society, and of the parallels between the historical moment of Spenser’s ‘militant poetics’ and the present. Simon Palfrey writes of another bold, collaborative multimedia project, Demons Land, the  latest iteration of which brings the Spenserian imagination together with Australian indigenous communities and practices. As ‘a shared experimental space, a conceptual land, an imaginative country’ in which to engage and reimagine pasts and futures, Demons Land draws on the resources not just of poetry but of film, sculpture, live performance, sound and intermedial technologies, Finally, Joe Moshenska and Leah Whittington describe a radically deconstructed recent Shakespeare Association of American seminar on ‘Pleasure and Interpretation in Shakespeare and Spenser’, in which layers of creative responses to the scholarship, as well as the authors themselves, became part of the mission – and ludic practice – of the seminar. They offer us the rationale for their critical mission and methods, three examples of creative responses (by Hannah Crawforth, Clare Kinney and Alice Leonard) to three scholarly papers on Spenser, before concluding with an account of a final ‘game’ they set the seminar contributors: ‘a version of the interplay between organisation and contingency that characterizes the texts of Spenser and Shakespeare’.


Digital Spenser


These days the word ‘creative’ seems to appear quite often as a noun, and when it does, it generally refers to a person engaged in some form of digital artistry. The moniker conveniently elides the differences among a range of activities from inventing characters and plots to choosing a typeface for a web site to polishing the pixels of a digital animation. We may be reminded of Cuddie’s struggle with the mixture of aspiration, inspiration, and perspiration in the October eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender, where he longs for a state in which his ‘nombers flowe as fast as spring doth ryse’ (108), yet admits that his ‘corage cooles ere it be warme’ (115). 

In the digital projects section of this issue, John Ladd and Stephen Pentecost haul Spenser’s numbers into the laboratory, mix in some numbers of their own, and heat the reagents over a Bunsen burner until they begin to pop and crackle with enlightening juxtapositions. Ladd’s ‘Spenser’s Color Wheel’ and Pentecost’s ‘The Mutable Stanzas’ both slice Spenser’s verse on line boundaries and recombine the lines according to principles that are partially random but constrained by color (Ladd) or rhyme scheme (Pentecost). The results are artfully playful, seriously delightful, and surprisingly coherent. Ladd’s ‘@endlessmonument, A Twitter Bot for Spenser’s Epithalamion’, ups the numerological ante by emitting lines from Epithalamion as tweets appearing at the appropriate time dictated by the sidereal and diurnal time schemes of the poem.

Cora Rozencohn’s video Her Anticipation offers an entirely different form of temporal control, specifically the video artist’s ability to dictate the unfolding of time such that the viewer has leisure to feel the sensual echoes of The Faerie Queene, offered in primarily non-verbal form, though punctuated with occasional textual guideposts. Water, wind, and the slowly creeping shadows of dusk supply most of the movement in the piece. Reflection is a major theme, sometimes in water, sometimes in the glass of an office building or a museum case, usually of natural surroundings but sometimes of the videographer. The mirrors more than one provided for our reflection in the contemplative sense include bees and butterflies gorging on flowers to evoke the Garden of Adonis, cardboard cut-outs of famous artworks fluttering in the breeze that echo the poem’s scenes of ekphrasis, and Egyptian sculpture that gives three-dimensional heft in a section paying homage to the Temple of Isis.

It may be no coincidence that all of these examples of digital playfulness were produced by people from Washington University in St. Louis, the current epicenter of digital experimentation with Spenser. I do hope they warn their students that playing around may lead to something serious.


Craig A. Berry

Chicago, Illinois


This issue is the last one with Richard Danson Brown serving as reviews editor. Richard has undertaken this demanding role for five years, taking over from Julian Lethbridge in 2014 and he has been an exemplary colleague. He has commissioned a wide range of exciting and interesting reviews always ensuring that these will be of great interest to Spenserians and other readers, one main reason why the journal is accessed by so many people and why authors are eager to have their work reviewed here. He has been assiduous in overseeing reviews, making careful last corrections much appreciated by authors as well as the journal editors. Most of all he has been wonderful to work with and his advice has been greatly appreciated by everyone concerned with producing the journal, as have his wicked wit and good humour. Richard’s interest in matters of form and style have helped shape the journal’s identity. It is a great pleasure, as well as entirely fitting, that we are able to include some of his poetry in this special issue dedicated to creative responses to Spenser. 

We warmly thank all of our contributors, and wish you, the readers, every pleasure from their labours.

                                                                                    Andrew Hadfield and Jane Grogan



[1] T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 495

[2] Louis MacNeice, Varieties of Parable (London: Cambridge UP, 1965), 8.

[3] Marianne Moore, New Collected Poems, ed. Heather Cass White (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 154-55.

[4] Moore, New Collected Poems, 371, where she traces her phrase ‘Venus’ mantle’ to the mantles described in the View as well as Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. In an earlier poem, ‘Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns’, Moore quotes directly from The Faerie Queene II.xii.23, ‘mighty monoceroses with immeasured tayles’ (78).

[5] Andrew Zurcher, Spenser’s Legal Language (D. S. Brewer: Cambridge), 7.


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Cite as:

Richard Danson Brown, Craig A. Berry, Andrew Hadfield, Jane Grogan, "Editorial Introduction," Spenser Review 49.3.1 (Fall 2019). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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