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Tamsin Badcoe, Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space
by Jennifer C. Vaught

Tamsin Badcoe, Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019. 327pp. ISBN:9781526139672. £80 hardback.

In this fascinating, interdisciplinary study Tamsin Badcoe reads Spenser’s works alongside the practical arts of cosmography and navigation and considers the poet’s green, muddy and coastal settings in relation to the imagined spaces of William Cuningham, John Dee and Sir Walter Ralegh. By bringing together literary, cultural and historical geographers she explores how the imagination contributes to early modern developments in geographical knowledge. Badcoe’s theoretically sophisticated analysis of the spaces of romance, allegory, epic and pastoral in terms of the mapping of Fairyland provides fertile ground for examining the generic hybridity of The Faerie Queene.

Throughout Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space, Badcoe argues that late sixteenth-century imaginative literature was informed by epistemological shifts between ‘abstraction and experience’ (9), concepts with increasingly fluid ‘representational boundaries’ (13). Spenser’s own experience as a poet living and working in early modern Ireland imprints The Faerie Queene, ‘Colin Clouts Come Home Againe’, A View of the Present State of Ireland and the ‘Mutabilitie Cantos’. Badcoe, who discusses Spenser’s poetry alongside works by other writers concerned with geography and travel, reveals how thought and language are ‘historically and materially located’ (19). Like Spenser’s ‘errant knights’ as ‘situated knowers’, the poet’s own ‘imaginative and epistemological horizons were shaped by his lived and literary experiences’ in Ireland (15). Building on Wayne Erickson’s Mapping The Faerie Queene: Quest Structures and the World of the Poem, Badcoe shows how adeptly Spenser navigates the ecotonal, or ‘in betweenness’ of generic, rhetorical, and environmental spaces (6). The movements of imaginary minds and bodies through a variety of places transform how Spenser as a literary geographer represents inner and outer worlds. The poet’s depictions of such kinetic activity complicate Coleridge’s labelling of Faery land as ‘mental space’ alone.[1]

In Chapter One, ‘Strange Paths and Perspective Glasses’, the first of four chapters in Part I: ‘Orientations’, Badcoe examines mirrors, labyrinths, and extreme journeys in Books I-III of The Faerie Queene and in William Cuningham’s The Cosmographical Glasse (1559) and Lucas Janzoon Waghenaer’s The Mariners Mirrour (1584; trans. 1588). Technical writing informs works by Spenser and those by non-fiction writers imagining the cosmos, the sea and the shore. Similarly, literary techniques are interwoven into cosmographical and navigational treatises. Cuningham’s aesthetically appealing book with foldout maps is aimed at ‘armchair travellers’ and includes classical allusions and a dream vision (29). Badcoe’s own impressive study contains numerous handsome illustrations of title pages from Cuningham’s and Waghenaer’s printed books as well as maps, emblems and even a drawing of ‘armoured submarine figures’ resembling Spenser’s Talus, the ironman (226). Like Cuningham, Waghenaer in his epic-like The Mariners Mirrour and Spenser in The Faerie Queene address active readers well-aware of the operation of ‘rhetoric and figuration’ (53). In works by Spenser, Cuningham and Waghenaer figures of mirrors reflect interior and exterior spaces, many of which are labyrinthine. All three travel writers accentuate the fictional dimension of geographical conceptions based upon abstraction and physical experience. In fact, ‘that which is unseen and ungraspable is made navigable by figurative language’ (56).                                                                                                             

In Chapter Two, ‘Movement and Measurement’, Badcoe considers how forward motion together with proper guidance contributes to the acquisition of virtue and epistemological understanding in Redcrosse, Arthur and Guyon in The Faerie Queene. A number of Spenser’s figures progress through labyrinthine landscapes on foot, illustrating that ‘the nature of error is perversely generative and its progeny has the potential to carve out unexpected ways to travel’ (63). The Wandering Wood, home to Error and her young, is one of many settings in The Faerie Queene that illustrates that ‘allegory is an implicitly spatial practice’ (64). As Judith Anderson and Kenneth Gross have emphasised, allegory is intertwined with ‘mind, movement, and matter’ (76).[2] In Book I, pricking Redcrosse and labouring Arthur exemplify how ‘thoughts and dreams’ are dependent ‘on the body of the thinker’ (77) as they and other Spenserian knights stumble through a fallen world with scarce ‘divine guidance’ (69). For Recrosse and Arthur ‘an ascent above the labyrinth is unforthcoming’ (75). In Book II Guyon’s travel is guided by metaphorical ‘ways of knowing’ analogous to the technical arts of the mariner’s compass and the architect’s set-square (91). The temperate Palmer measures Guyon’s passions and orients the youth through his ultimate challenge in the Bower of Bliss.

In Chapter Three, ‘Feyned no where acts’, Badcoe shifts from allegory to ‘utopian drives of romance’ and focuses on how such imaginative literature, from medieval romance and chivalry to The Faerie Queene, nevertheless confronts ‘conditions of uncertainty and ignorance’ (19). She discusses The Faerie Queene in relation to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Hystorye of Olyver of Castylle and the Tale of Sir Thopas. These medieval and early modern romances tend to oscillate between the ‘marvellous’ and the ‘earthly’ and ‘everyday’ (118, 121). In The Unfortunate Traveller Thomas Nashe’s dismissal of romances as ‘feyned no where acts’ reflects a literary and cultural shift towards ‘a new value’ of ‘realism of place’ and ‘geographical description to educate a reader’ (124-25). In keeping with Northrop Frye, who ‘argues that romance fills the space between myth and realism’ (103), Badcoe contends that ‘the workings of Spenser’s romance … are of, and in, the world, rather than outside it’ (105). Throughout the geographically specific Faerie Queene uncertainty, drifting and the pleasure of detours recur.

In Chapter Four, ‘Compassing Desire: Cosmography and Chorography’, Badcoe focuses on Merlin’s magic mirror and Britomart’s journey in relation to practical tools such as a compass useful for the spatial arts of geography and the making of maps and globes. Referring to the work of Mary Carruthers in The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200, Badcoe displays how ‘literary metaphors in Spenser’s poetry often draw on historically and materially vital emblems and vocabularies used by particular trades and practices’ (90-91). In Book III, place-names anchor Merlin’s cave specifically in Wales, whereas in Book VI and the ‘Mutabilitie Cantos’ local landmarks familiar to Spenser as an English colonist living on the Munster Plantation tend to associate Faery land with Ireland.

In Part II: ‘Environments’, Badcoe places Spenser’s middle and later books of The Faerie Queene and ‘Mutabilitie Cantos’ as well as ‘Colin Clouts Come Home Againe’ and A View of the Present State of Ireland in relation to representations of Irish tides, wetlands, and islands. In Chapter Five, ‘Seamarks and Coastal Waters’, Badcoe reads the ‘tidal poetics’ of Books III of The Faerie Queene in dialogue with John Dee’s General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577). Like the rising and ebbing of the tide, this pair of works by Spenser and Dee oscillates between concepts of gain and loss, fiction and history, mystical and physical. Both Spenser and Dee dramatise the tension between ‘personal desire’ and ‘nationalistic dreams of empire’ (20). Badcoe situates Book IV of The Faerie Queene in conversation with Ralegh’s poems and The History of the World. Although Spenser, Dee, and Ralegh are concerned with memory, ‘the movement of water resists the monumental’ and poses the threat of erasure and ruin over time (201).                                                                               

In Chapter Six, ‘Wetlands and Spenser’s “Personal Curvature”’, Badcoe groups Books V and VI of The Faerie Queene with various prose works about travellers’ and colonists’ perceptions of the Irish environment. She illustrates that ‘Spenser and his fellow literary strategists struggled to find a rhetoric of discovery that could acknowledge the frustrations of partial and provisional knowledge’ about the West (21), disrupting ‘ideas of empire-building modelled on successful classical precedents’ (206). A number of early modern travel writers fashioned Ireland ambiguously as both “‘wasteland” and promised land’ (216). Throughout Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space Badcoe explores the tension between allegory, metaphor, and the ‘material landscape of Ireland’ (238). A question this book raises is the degree to which Spenser’s figurative language exists in binary opposition to the reality of matter.

In the seventh and final chapter, ‘Spenser’s Insular Fictions’, Badcoe demonstrates how Spenser attempts ‘to locate the abstract notion of insular space within a localized and historicized setting … considering Ireland itself” (244). She continues that ‘for Spenser, the Irish landscape offered a place where histories, myths, and identities could be written and re-written’ (249). In the ‘Mutabilitie Cantos’, for example, Spenser includes ‘local landmarks visible from [his] estate on the Munster Plantation in Ireland’ (270). Insularity, however, poses the danger of obfuscating the violence of colonisation. In addition, the very concept of allegory as ‘mental space’ apart from a moving body in a localised landscape becomes ‘a tool of propaganda’ in ‘the early modern colonial imaginary’ (21).[3] Yet Spenser’s variety of ecological landscapes and seascapes—realistic and locally situated as well as mythical and abstract—resist and are fundamentally irreconcilable with golden fantasies of Ireland by English colonists.

Badcoe’s Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space contributes vitally to the knowledge of early modern literatures and environments. This complex, highly nuanced analysis of literary and geographical works by Spenser and other makers of the spatial imaginary offers new, compelling readings of The Faerie Queene, ‘Colin Clouts Come Home Againe’, A View of the Present State of Ireland, and the ‘Mutabilitie Cantos’. This book will appeal particularly to those interested in Spenser and Ireland; ecocritical and environmental readings of his works and those by early modern geographers, mapmakers and travel writers; as well as Spenser and epistemology, genre and figuration. Badcoe’s brilliant inquiry, which charts the labyrinthine course of literary and geographical terrain and plumbs the depths of the English and Irish seas with literal and figurative navigational tools, is well worth a careful read.

                                                                                      Jennifer C. Vaught

                                                                                      University of Louisiana at Lafayette



[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridges Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor (London: Constable, 1936), p. 36.

[2] See Judith H. Anderson, Reading the Allegorical Intertext: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 5, and Kenneth Gross, “The Postures of Allegory,” in Edmund Spenser: Essays on Culture and Allegory, ed. Jennifer Klein Morrison and Matthew Greenfield (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), pp. 167-79, here p. 167.

[3] Coleridge, Coleridges Miscellaneous Criticism, p. 36


  • Akron Onsite Truck Repair 4 months, 1 week ago

    The poet’s depictions of such kinetic activity complicate Coleridge’s labelling of Faery land as ‘mental space’ alone.

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Jennifer C. Vaught, "Tamsin Badcoe, Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space," Spenser Review 50.2.7 (Spring-Summer 2020). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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