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Spenser, Ecology and the Dream of a Legible Environment: An Eco-Cluster
by Steve Mentz, Alexander Lowe McAdams, Dyani Johns Taff, William Rhodes, Joseph Campana

Jump to: Steve MentzAlexander Lowe McAdamsDyani Johns TaffWilliam RhodesJoseph Campana



Steve Mentz, St. John’s University,


This cluster of eco-essays about Spenser and environmental thinking was born as an MLA panel. In January 2020, in what someday we may think of the last pre-COVID conference, I gathered together a panel of Spenserians to take poetic measure of our environmental bubblings-over, as bushfires and floods were lighting up our screens large and small. Early on Sunday morning I arrived at room 604 of the Washington State Convention Centre, wanting to set the scene for the beastly glories of session #666, lurking in the hangover slot at the bitter end of the conference. The room was empty. I moved some chairs and appropriated a red ‘1 Minute’ sign that, as it turned out, I would not need. The demon-sharp speakers who comprised the ‘Spenser, Ecology and the Dream of a Legible Environment’ panel filed in on time, with brilliant talks that would take us from bleeding forests and courtrooms all the way to New Jerusalems and Silicon Valley’s post-human paradises. Our session was marked by the beast’s number and haunted by visions of exhausted and ‘uninhabitable’ earths.[1] The panel didn’t proffer facile optimism but did show us ways, to adapt Alex McAdams’s analysis of the Legend of Temperance, to walk out ‘while weather serves, and wind’ (Faerie Queene This eco-cluster for the Spenser Review features revised versions of four papers from that session, by Alexander McAdams, Dyani Johns Taff, William Rhodes and Joseph Campana.

We started session #666 with two imperatives. The first was to think about how Edmund Spenser’s poetic allegories can speak to the challenges of ecocriticism in today’s literally blazing world. (The wildfires in January were in Australia; as I write they have set much of California on fire. What’s burning when you read these words?) Our second purpose was to explore how apocalyptic literary fictions can engage with, critique and perhaps re-imagine our catastrophic present. The stirring talks and conversation followed a pattern of looming disaster confronted if perhaps not fully avoided. To read eco-disaster with Spenser means to read allegorically, and to insist that disasters have meanings, even if those meanings are dispersed or hard to decipher. Our understandings of ecological order in the Anthropocene range from the tragic to the purely disruptive, as if we read our fractured environment without the interpretive clues that readers of Spenser have long employed. How can Spenser’s habits of form and interpretation, his poetic insistence on rendering meaning in repeated stanzas, cantos and books, influence our own habits of reading today? These essays suggest that combining Spenserian interpretive habits with environmental humanities methods will produce striking insight.

Alexander Lowe McAdams explores the paradoxes of Guyon’s quest for the Temperance in her essay, ‘A Virtue for All Seasons: Temperance, Ecology and Tempest in the Bower of Bliss’. Her careful unfolding of the shared etymology of time, tempest and temperance – all from the Latin tempus, which also connects to the French temps, the most common term for the weather – showed how Spenser’s epic recognises multiple meanings and attitudes toward the partly hostile and partly legible environments into which Spenser’s knight and we ourselves must walk, ‘while weather serves, and wind’ (Faerie Queene She reads this entanglement as evidence of Spenser’s internal conflict between Christian asceticism and the poet’s recognition of human engagement with the natural world. Gesturing toward a reconsideration of how Temperance functions in Book II, which she sees as less teleologically driven and more revealing of ambivalence, McAdams finds in Spenser’s allegorical landscapes a profound uncertainty that finds powerful resonance in our encounters with a disrupted natural world today.

Dyani Johns Taff’s essay, ‘Dark Holes and Violent Allegories in The Faerie Queene’ opens with a simple and powerful analogy between allegorical reading and violence. In a brilliant and insightful reading of watery horrors during Guyon’s voyage in The Legend of Temperance, Taff suggests that ‘real bodies and places – rocks, caves, waves, wombs and more’ – push back against simple allegorical structures in Spenser’s poem. Her analysis of the erasure of femininity in Spenser’s depiction of Scylla and Charybdis points toward an exciting new project that will address the much-needed intersections between early modern discourses of ecocriticism and Critical Race Theory. In rejecting the Palmer’s apparently authorised religious interpretation of Guyon’s adventures, Taff opens up new possibilities for ‘a rejection or break from the violence of allegory’ that might enable Spenserians to engage with ‘an environmentally entangled logic of messy reproduction’. Her feminist analysis will challenge and enlighten all who read and teach The Faerie Queene.

William Rhodes’s essay, ‘Reading the Colonised Environment’, turns the cluster away from Book II toward broader questions about Spenser’s involvement with colonialism in Ireland. Taking the Salvage Man of Book VI as prototypical example of ‘allegorical doubling’, Rhodes connects Spenser’s poem to the colonialist writings of Rowland White. His analysis serves as a powerful caution that dreams of legibility are also fantasies of colonial control. In exploring the overlapping interpretive modes that White and Spenser each bring to colonial figures, Rhodes identifies what he sees as Spenser’s vision of the ‘fundamental inseparability’ of nature and culture. Placing the efforts of literary critics to make sense of Spenser on a continuum with White’s reading of the Irish landscape and Spenser’s construction of the Salvage Man reminds we critics that our own interpretive modes are neither perfectly legible nor morally innocent.

Joseph Campana’s erudite speculations in ‘Allegory for Ecologists? Brief Meditations on Genres of Ecology’ gather up the allegorical reading practices central to Spenser studies with central claims of ecological thinking. Campana punctuates his essay with a series of engaging aphorisms – ‘Allegory is systems thinking’, ‘Allegory is other speaking’, ‘Allegory is a struggle to read’ – that connects powerfully to ecological habits of mind. His claim that allegory and other literary frameworks such as generic forms and variations speak directly to ecological ideas both underscores the insights of the other essays in this cluster and provides intellectual ballast for further investigations along comparable lines.

These essays together suggest several important things about the current state of eco-studies in Spenser. Increasingly since Sean Kane’s 1983 essay, ‘Spenserian Ecology’, modern readers of the poet have found powerful analogies to the ‘world of interrelationship’ conjured by ecological ideas.[2]  Scholars such as Alf Siewers, Gail Kern Paster, Melissa Sanchez and Ayesha Ramachandran have recently contributed ecocritical approaches to Spenser studies.[3] The four essays in this eco-cluster extend this recent work and demonstrate that simple models of allegory, which feature one-to-one symbolic matches or the domination of a single discourse, do not do justice to the complexity of either Spenser’s poem or ecological thinking. These essays further suggest that figures in non-dominant positions, from colonised subjects to women to nonhuman actors, can produce special insights into ecological relations. As 2020’s wildfires have moved from Australia’s bush, where they filled our TV screens in January, to the wine country of northern California, where they have my extended family under an evacuation watch today, the dynamic catastrophes of the Anthropocene era are putting strain on traditional ideas about the ‘order of nature’. Attention to Spenser’s eco-poetics can remind us that nature has never been simply orderly. The disorder of nature, and the multiple orders made available through poetry, emerge as powerful truths, from the allegorical land- and seascapes of Faerie Land to our own eco-catastrophic world today.

[1] On this topic, see David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2019).

[2] Sean Kane, ‘Spenserian Ecology,’ ELH 50:3 (1983) 461-83, 461.

[3] Alf Siewers, ‘Spenser’s Green World,’ Early English Studies 3 (2010): 1-43; Kail Kern Paster, ‘Becoming the Landscape: The Ecology of the Passions in the Legend of Temperance,’ Environment and Embodiment in Early Modern England, Mary Floyd-Wilson and Garrett Sullivan, eds. (London: Palgrave, 2007) 137-52; Ayesha Ramachandran and Melissa Sanchez, eds., Spenser Studies 30 (2015). I previously reviewed these essays and Spenser’s potential for early modern ecocriticism in the essay, ‘Seep,’ in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, eds., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017) 282-96.


A Virtue For All Seasons: Temperance, Environment, And Tempest In The Bower Of Bliss

Alexander Lowe McAdams


But all those pleasant bowres and Pallace braue,
Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse;
Ne ought their goodly workmanship might saue
Them from the tempest of his wrathfulnesse.[4]


Despite his being the titular knight of the virtue, Guyon is astonishingly bad at exuding temperance. In one instance, the speaker describes the knight as ‘of immodest Merth’, one who is ‘led into loose desire’ (, argument). More recently, J. Carscallen memorably called Guyon ‘temperately intemperate’.[5] Perhaps this failing does not rest solely on Guyon’s shoulders, as philosophers have long remained vague on the specifics. Aristotle described temperance as hitting the ‘mean’ or ‘mark’ between excess and defect, and Pythagoreans and Platonists associated it with mathematical and musical harmony. Meanwhile, the Stoics moralised it as a code embedded within the sinews of earthly life. Spenser’s usage is no less confused. Book 2 brims with Aristotelian, Platonic, and Stoic philosophies, a detail that has flummoxed scholars for centuries. As Gillian Hubbard comments, Spenser’s ‘maze of ethical systems (classical and Christian) … are hard to disentangle’.[6]

The OED’s definitions of temperance offer a similar epistemological ‘maze’. They range from ‘the practice or habit of … rational self-restraint’ espoused by classical authors, to an overall avoidance of excessive feasting and inebriation.[7] But tagged onto the very end of the OED entry is one last valence, a reminder of its obsolete etymology in Spenser’s lifetime: ‘moderate temperature; freedom from extremes of heat and cold; mildness of weather or climate’.[8] Temperance, from the Latin temperantia, may in fact also derive its root tempus (time) and all that accompanies it, such as seasonal fluctuations in weather resulting from the Earth’s rotation. These etymological nuances become more crucial when one recalls that the poem’s speaker figures Guyon’s rage as a ‘tempest’, a word that also shares its roots with both tempus and temperantia, at the climax of action in the Bower of Bliss.[9]

I surmise this etymological overlap is not mere happenstance. Rather, I argue it is evidence that Spenser ecologically encoded his work to express a central conundrum: the demonstrated impasse between man’s enmeshment with nature and Christianity’s ascetic denial of all pleasures in the natural world. Carscallen argues in the Spenser Encyclopedia that in order for the virtue to be well executed, ‘humanity must ally itself with a power beyond nature’.[10] In Book II, however, that exercise is easier said than done. Guyon frequently finds himself mired in the trappings of literal weather distemperment as he navigates the epic. In moments of heated battle, Guyon’s temperament—his affective disposition—melds with the environment itself, and fits of ‘wrathfulnesse’ are figured as a ‘tempest’, a detail I suggest we read literally. Moreover, when anyone in the narrative acts extremely violent, intemperate weather manifests, as is the case in the knight’s destruction of Acrasia’s Bower.

The final words to the entirety of Book II are another indication of this ecologically enmeshed quagmire: ‘But let vs hence depart, whilest wether serues and winde’ (II.xii.87.9). The words are Palmer’s, and they close out the book. On its face, Palmer’s admonition is not unusual. After all, seeking shelter from the elements is first priority in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Considering, however, that Guyon’s intemperate behaviour throughout the whole book has at last metamorphosed into a ‘tempest’ in Canto XII, this language should give readers pause. Here, Palmer’s comment implies two important points.

First, it is clear that achieving temperance is a false goal. Because the two lose themselves in a ‘tempest of his wrathfulnesse’, affect and environment collapse into a single entity. As Guyon’s ‘wrathfulnesse’ transforms into a ‘tempest’, his immediate response is to destroy the ‘naturall’ Bower (46.5). Case in point: Guyon’s first flurry of actions is notably upon nature and environment itself. He fells the groves of trees, ‘deface[s]’ the gardens, and ‘spoyle[s]’ the ‘arbers’ in the Bower before razing the man-made structures—the garden cabins and ‘banket houses’—and burning them to the ground (83.6-9). Nothing about this scene suggests a life of temperate decision-making. That fact becomes clearer when we realise that, instead of rejecting the pleasures of the ‘naturall’ Bower, Guyon engages and interacts directly with it. It is at this moment when we see evidence of the Christian knight’s direct embeddedness within the contours of his ecological environment.

Second, the line also suggests that ecology and environment—’wether … and winde’—are the actual arbiters that dictate human survival, not Christian ethics. This line, which I argue demonstrates human enmeshment within the environment, appears also to suggest that Christian virtue does not make much (if any) difference in human safety and fortitude. Guyon likes his ‘tempest’ so much that Palmer advises the knight to gather himself and move along, ‘whilest wether serues and winde’, before their combined affective dispositions (their ‘tempest’) spirals further out of control. This line also indicates a potential indictment of Christian virtue—what might in fact be a textual hint that ethics are powerless in response to natural extremity. To invoke Maslow’s hierarchy once more, if the knight struggles to weather the harsh conditions of the elements, then it follows that he might—and indeed does—sideline his noble adherence to an ethical system.

While my argument here is speculative, the etymological and philosophical evidence of Guyon’s ‘tempest’ offers a provocative alternative to how we might approach Spenser’s allegorical epic. My reading also suggests new ways of theorising Spenser’s knights and their interactions with the natural world; it offers up a possibility that the poet might not take these titular virtues at face value. Perhaps we as readers should follow suit.

It is for these reasons that I suspect ‘temperance’ is so difficult to define in Book 2. We as humans cannot extricate ourselves from the extreme vicissitudes of nature long enough to get a good grasp on it. As Spenser’s epic shows us, it is nearly impossible to live ‘beyond nature’ when one is of nature. Spenser’s main source for understanding temperance would have been the Roman orator Cicero’s De Officiis, a treatise outlining the four cardinal virtues, one of which is temperantia, or self-moderation. ‘Humans, in their devotion to Nature and Reason’, the Roman orator writes, ‘must aim to preserve and maintain beauty, consistency, order’ (pulchritudinem, constantiam, ordinem) through the innate, natural powers of ‘temperance and self-control’ (modestia et temperantia).[11] But how possible is that reality when one’s religious code requires one, in Carscallen’s words, to ‘ally itself with a power beyond nature’? Herein lies the central crux of contention in the Legend of Temperance.

We see this ambivalence on display at the end of canto vii and opening of canto viii, after Guyon emerges from the Cave of Mammon, collapsing as his ‘sences were with deadly fit opprest’ (II.vii.66.8-9). The poet sustains this uncertainty, and he asks in the opening lines of canto viii, perhaps non rhetorically, ‘And is there care in heauen?’ (II.viii.1.1). A. C. Hamilton notes that this is the only moment when God intervenes directly in the narrative. Divine intercession might ultimately suggest the inescapable paradox of human enmeshment within nature. Guyon is so incapable of extricating himself from his ‘fraile flesh’ that it takes a literal miracle to resuscitate him (vii.50.3).[12] Spenser’s deployment of this ecological allegory thus appears to ponder man’s fervent, co-dependent, yet contentious relationship with the natural world. Palmer vocalises this unease when he advises Guyon in the very last lines of Book II: ‘let vs hence depart, whilest wether serues and wind’. This brief example illustrates that Spenser’s ecology of temperance sustains the narrative thrust of Guyon’s tale, at the same time that it merges uncomfortably with the human who tries, and largely fails, to restrain it. 

[4] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton, 2nd edn., (London: Routledge, 2016), book II, canto xii, stanza 83, lines 1-4. All references to The Faerie Queene book II are from this edition and appear parenthetically by canto, stanza, and line number.

[5] J. Carscallen, ‘Temperence’, Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Routledge, 2014), 680-682, 682.

[6] Gillian Hubbard, ‘Stoics, Epicureans, and the “Sound Sincerity of Gospel” in Book II of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene’, Studies in Philology 111, 2 (Spring 2014): 225-254, 226.

[7] OED, “temperance, n.,” I.1.

[8] OED, “temperance, n.,” 4.

[9] See Michiel de Vaan, s.v. ‘tempus, -oris’, in Etymological Dictionary of Latin and Other Italic Languages (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 611.

[10] Carscallen, 682.

[11] Cicero, De Officiis, ed. Walter Miller, LCL 30 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1913), book 1, chapter 4, sections 14-15, 15-17.

[12] It does not seem insignificant to note that Spenser’s evocation of ‘fraile flesh; in canto vii appears to riff on the ideals of early modern humanism, the contours of which Kenneth Gouwens has recently argued is part of the long trajectory of posthumanist critique. See Gouwens, “What Posthumanism Isn’t: On Humanism and Human Exceptionalism in the Renaissance,” in Renaissance Posthumanism, ed. Joseph Campana and Scott Maisano (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 37-63.


Dark Holes and Violent Allegories in The Faerie Queene

Dyani Johns Taff

Allegorical reading enacts violence. It conscripts real bodies and environments to perpetuate dominant logics about racial, gendered and human/nonhuman hierarchies: white over black, male over female, human over environment.[13] What do readers see when we look, with Guyon and his companions, into the dark hole of the Gulfe of Greedinesse (II.xii.3-9) in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1596)? Spenser offers—via the Palmer and the names of his sea monsters: the Gulfe and its pair, the Rock of Vile Reproch—an obvious prompt to read allegorically, to see the dark hole, the tearing rocks, and the terrible violence of the sea as allegories for challenges to Guyon’s masculinity and whiteness, and to his position of dominion over the nonhuman world which he must overcome to fulfil his role as the epic hero of book II. The text invites our complicity in the violent logic of Guyon’s heroism. But real bodies and places—rocks, caves, waves, wombs, and more—vie for our readerly attention, undermining the Palmer’s and Spenser’s own authority in upholding the dominant cultural norms.

Spenser departs from Greek and Latin versions of the Scylla and Charybdis myths by making his Rock and Gulfe fully rock- and whirlpool-shaped, and by referring to them using only ‘he/his’ or ‘it/its’ pronouns. In the Odyssey these monsters are female, physical and non-humanoid.[14] Somewhere between Homer and Lucretius, Scylla acquires the upper body of a beautiful woman and the lower parts of a dog and a sea-creature.[15] Ovid in the Metamorphoses gives Scylla a back-story: Glaucus, who sees the nymph Scylla bathing, falls in love with her, and asks Circe for help in winning her love. Circe, in love with Glaucus, poisons Scylla’s pool, making her lower parts turn monstrous.[16] Several early modern writers combine Scylla with Charybdis into one terrifying, feminised embodiment of evil that sucks in or eats and spews out or births matter and monsters: Spenser’s Error is of this tradition, as is Milton’s Sin in Paradise Lost.

In complexly gendering Scylla and Charybdis in book II of The Faerie Queene, Spenser follows an Ovidian precedent both by making a female monster into a rock and by keeping our focus, nonetheless, on her (or its, or his) womb. Elaborating on Vergil’s version of the myth from The Aeneid, book 3, Ovid narrates Scylla’s surprise and then horror at her metamorphosis:

et corpus quaerens femorum crurumque pedumque,
Cerbereos rictus pro partibus invenit illis:
statque canum rabie subiectaque terga ferarum
inguinibus truncis uteroque exstante coercet.[17]

Looking for her thighs, her legs, her feet, [she]
Found gaping jaws instead like Hell’s vile hound.
Poised on a pack of beasts! No legs! Below
Her midriff, dogs, ringed in a raging row! (Metamorphoses 327)

A. D. Melville’s translation obscures what Ovid centralised: the monster has a ‘utero’—a womb—and can reproduce, but not in any way that creates a happy family or produces good imperial subjects.[18] Her dark hole and what might come from it focus the terror—Scylla’s own, and the narrator’s—of this episode. Next, Ovid gives Scylla a second and even perhaps a third transformation: he turns her first into a ‘scopulum’ (14.74)—a rock or reef—and finally refers to her using a non-specific, masculine deictic word: ‘Hunc ubi’ (14.75): this place.[19] Ovid highlights and then effaces Scylla’s monstrosity and her reproductive capacity, and makes her post-transformation gender unclear; as a rock, a place, a location, is she still a monster? Is she still a she?

In Spenser’s version, Scylla is this ‘scopulum’: the Rock of Reproch. The Boteman describes her allure, but does not use female pronouns. The Rock, ‘dreadful to sight, / Over the waves his rugged arms doth lift, / … yet nigh it draws / All passengers’ (II.xii.4.3-7; my emphasis). This draw is so powerful that ‘none from it can shift’ (II.xii.4.7) and those drawn in engage in sexualised dalliances; the ‘perilous Rocke’ is covered with the ‘carcases exanimate / Of such, as having all their substance spent / In wanton joyes, and lustes intemperate, / Did afterwardes make shipwrack violent’ (II.xii.7.5-8). Travellers have spent their substance—semen? Non-gender-specific products of desire?—on the Rock. The result has been not pregnancy and offspring but death and destruction. Spenser prompts readers to see non-heteronormative sexuality here by obscuring Scylla’s gender as well as that of the travelers who spend their lust.

As Guyon and his companions advance, it takes all of the Boteman’s strength to row them past the ‘wave’ around the Gulfe that would swallow them like a ‘grave’ (II.xii.5.6-8). There is no way out of the Gulfe: humans who go too near are ‘condemned to be drent’ (II.xii.6.9), and what does come ‘vomit[ed]’ and ‘belche[d]’ (II.xii.3.7-8) out of the hole is deemed by the Boteman ‘superfluity’ (II.xii.3.8)—excess, waste. The Gulfe echoes Mammon’s cave from canto vii in three important ways: first, it has ‘entralles deepe’ (II.xii.6.2) as does the cave: both dark holes are ‘wombe[s]’ (II.vii.17.1; 51.6), uteros. Second, what comes out of that womb is of dubious moral value. The Gulfe ‘deep engorgeth all this worldes pray’ (II.xii.3.5), paralleling Mammon’s claim that in being the progenitor of gold, he creates ‘all this worldes good’ (II.vii.8.6). Third, the narrator likens the Gulfe to ‘that darke dreadfull hole of Tartare steep’ (II.xii.6.4), linking this watery dark hole to Mammon’s hellish realm (II.vii.20-30; 56-66). As critics including Christopher Ivic, Dennis Britton, Kasey Evans, and Daniel Vitkus have shown, Mammon is racially coded: his skin is ‘tawny’, he’s ‘savage’ and ‘uncivil,’ and his black, sooty hands never wash clean (II.vii.4-9).[20] The cave, too is racialized. Spenser describes it as contaminated; dirty black slaves labor there, mining, and smelting (II.vii.20, 33-7). Mammon’s cave, the Gulfe and the Rock are wombs—male, female or both. They bespeak monstrous reproduction and illuminate the terror Guyon, his companions, and Spenser’s narrator feel about dark, racialized environments.

In the final stanza of this episode, Palmer proposes that Guyon can ‘red’ in the maritime environment what happens to people who pursue lust and waste:

The Palmer seeing them in safetie past,
Thus saide, ‘Behold th’ensamples in our sightes,
Of lustful luxurie and thriftless wast:
What now is left of miserable wightes,
Which spent their looser daies in leud delightes,
But shame and sad reproch, here to be red,
By these rent reliques, speaking their ill plightes?
Let all that live, hereby be counselled,
To shunne Rock of Reproch and it as death to dread.’ (II.xii.9.1-9; my emphasis)

The Palmer reads the allegory of the Rock and Gulfe, teaching Guyon and readers of the poem that to shun greed and reproach is to civilise oneself. By reading right, Guyon can avoid the ‘darke,’ escape the stain of sin and guilt, and shore up the right kind of masculinity, temperance, and whiteness. And yet, the matter, the real stuff of this maritime world intrudes on the scene of reading. Spenser emphasises a realistic maritime environment with ‘raging surges’ (2.12.2), ‘sharp cliftes’ (2.12.6), and ‘yelling Meawes, with Seagulles hoars and bace, / And Cormoyraunts’ (2.12.8). This place is real, but also agential: the ‘streame’—current—around the Gulfe is ‘greedy,’ the wave ‘threatful,’ the Gulfe itself raving and roaring (2.12.5). In making his allegories defy one-to-one correlations, in making them allegorical and real at once, and in making his Rock and Gulfe multiply gendered, Spenser leaves open the possibility for readers to reject the Palmer’s reading, and instead see generation and fecundity and possibility in the dark holes. Such a rejection of or break from the violence of allegory could enable us to read for an environmentally entangled logic of messy reproduction that condemns Guyon’s violence and that uses the poem to resist racist, gendered, and environmental violence. Whether or not we have Spenser’s permission for such a reading, I think, matters little.

Works Cited

Britton, Dennis. Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance. New York: Fordham, 2014.

Campana, Joseph. ‘Spenser’s Inhumanity’. Spenser Studies 30 (2015): 277–99.

Dawson, Brent. ‘Making Sense of the World: Allegory, Globalization, and The Faerie Queene’. New Literary History 46, no. 1 (2015): 165–86.

Evans, Kasey. ‘How Temperance Becomes “Blood Guiltie” in The Faerie Queene’. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 49, no. 1 (2008): 35–66.

Feerick, Jean. ‘Spenser, Race, and Ire‐land’. English Literary Renaissance 32, no. 1 (January 2002): 85–117.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Emily Wilson. New York: Norton, 2018.

Ivic, Christopher. ‘Spenser and the Bounds of Race’. Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 32, no. 3 (Fall 1999): 141–73.

Lewis, Charlton T., and Charles Short. ‘Uterus, i, m’. In A Latin Dictionary, n.d.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Trans. Martin Ferguson Smith. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A. D. Melville. New York: Oxford, 2008.

Naso, P. Ovidius. Metamorphoses. Edited by Hugo Magnus.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, Book Two. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006.

Vitkus, Daniel. ‘The New Globalism: Transcultural Commerce, Global Systems Theory, and Spenser’s Mammon’. In A Companion to the Global Renaissance, edited by Jyotsna G. Singh, 29–49. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Werth, Tiffany Jo. ‘“Degendered”: Spenser’s ‘yron Man’ in a ‘Stonie’ Age.’ Spenser Studies 30 (2015): 393–413.


[13]I would like to thank Steve Mentz for convening and including me in our beastly panel at MLA 2020, Tiffany Jo Werth for inviting us to reinvent the panel for The Spenser Review, Val Billing for invaluable advice, and my colleagues at Ithaca College, without whom, nothing.

[i] For the particular ways in which early modern Christian allegorical readings enact violence on Jewish, Black, and Muslim bodies, see Dennis Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), especially chapter 1. I also have in mind Brent Dawson’s discussion of allegory’s role in world-making (both early modern and modern) in ‘Making Sense of the World: Allegory, Globalization, and The Faerie Queene’, New Literary History 46, no. 1 (2015): 165–86, and Joseph Campana’s elucidation of allegory as a means by which we can see inhuman-ness capaciously in Spenser’s work in ‘Spenser’s Inhumanity’, Spenser Studies 30 (2015): 277–99.

[14] Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Emily Wilson (New York: Norton, 2018), book 12.

[15] Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. Martin Ferguson Smith (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), 5.892-4.

[16] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Melville (New York: Oxford, 2008), book 14.

[17] P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses, edited by Hugo Magnus,, 14.64-7; my emphasis.

[18] ‘Uterus, i, m.’ in Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary ( In classical Latin, the word can refers both to ‘belly’ and to ‘womb’; Lewis and Short also cite Lucretius, in De rerum natura V.806, using ‘uterus’ to describe ‘the cavities of the earth, from which the first creatures are represented to have come forth’.

[19] Tiffany Jo Werth provides a means for thinking about ‘stonie’ humans and more than humans in The Faerie Queene, book V, another Ovidian transformation adapted by Spenser. See Werth, ‘“Degendered”: Spenser’s ‘yron Man’ in a ‘Stonie’ Age’, Spenser Studies 30 (2015): 393–413. I’m interested, further, in the gender of ‘degendering’, and what engendering/degendering has to do with masculinities and femininities.

[20] Ivic, ‘Spenser and the Bounds of Race’, Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 32, no. 3 (1999 Fall 1999): 141–73; Britton, Becoming Christian; Evans, ‘How Temperance Becomes “Blood Guiltie” in The Faerie Queene’, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 49, no. 1 (2008): 35–66; Vitkus, ‘The New Globalism: Transcultural Commerce, Global Systems Theory, and Spenser’s Mammon’, in A Companion to the Global Renaissance, edited by Jyotsna G. Singh (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 29–49. Britton in particular brings to light how Spenser draws from real people—for example, Muslims—in order to animate the allegory, which in turn does violence to real people by enabling racist thinking: ‘Pyrochles and Cymochles do not appear or act as other than the “paynims” that they are. Their literal characters are not transformed by the allegory into representations of wrath and lust; instead, they merely act out racialized character traits’ (Becoming Christian, 72).


Reading the Colonised Environment

William Rhodes, University of Iowa

If we want to understand how the fictional environments of The Faerie Queene generate meaning in concert with the actions of their inhabitants, then we need to attend to the ways Tudor agents and sympathisers constructed the relations between Irish people and their ecosystems. Colonial ecology cannot escape being allegorical. Its theorisation in sixteenth-century tracts on Irish colonial reform show that viewing Ireland as a colonist requires the kind of allegorical doubling that we are familiar with as readers of The Faerie Queene. These tracts both read the material environment of Ireland in order to transform it into a moralised, reformable landscape, and set this landscape in relation to human figures in order to generate the meaning of Irish land and culture that is most congenial to colonial ambitions. The Salvage Man of Book VI exemplifies how Spenser’s immersion in the Irish colonial project informs a mode of allegorical doubling that creates meaning not just in the tension between the allegorical sign and the conceptual signified, but in the dynamic relationships between a human figure and a place, such that even the distinction between figure and place begins to breakdown in ways that are either amenable to or recalcitrant to the coloniser’s gaze.

For Rowland White, writing around 1569, rendering the interrelations of ecosystems, cultural forms, and collective behaviours required an allegorical reduction to make Ireland legible to those that would seek to exploit it. White depends on a mode of colonial allegoresis that reads into the Irish landscape a contest of economic morality and its ecological effects in a style replete with personifications and allegorised itineraries. Colonisation is an ecological process, even though its violent and exploitative progress is antithetical to the ethical significance we might attribute to ecological consciousness today. Nevertheless, explaining how to colonise Ireland involved an ecological theory of social change to complement legal and territorial definitions and disputes and to guide the policies of settlers and to re-make Irish nature-culture into a profit-generating machine. Formulating these theories requires a vision of Irish land, labor, and social order that makes every unplowed pasture and uncut woodland into a place on an allegorical map that might be labeled ‘The Forest of Wasted Plenty’ or ‘The Field of Idleness’.

White performs such a reading of the Irish environment when he formulates his plan to settle 4,000 English ploughmen throughout Ireland.[21] White describes how English workers on Ireland’s so-called wastelands would increase godliness, trade, and general prosperity. Such a sequence of events depends on the construction of Irish social ecology as both wasteful and perfectable. Since, as White claims, ‘the maner of the man’ should be ascribed ‘rather to his educacion then to his natural disposicion’ (‘Discors’ 449), then Irish culture as a whole should be forcefully enrolled in an education in civility that depended not primarily on book learning, but on learning how to work. He goes on to say that after ‘the outrootinge of wickednes[,] the provision of plowmen (as good sedes) must be planted in place thereof, to the end their frutefull travels over growing the weedes of incyvilitie maie bringe the contreys to plenty and welthe’ (‘Discors’ 457). This wealth is at once the literal produce of newly extended arable land and the moralised product of the good English example. White’s discourse relies on fairly simplified figural language to transform the intricate relations between Irish society and landscape into a moralised allegorical encounter. Simplified as it may be for the purposes of imagining a docile Irish nature-culture, this allegorised encounter depends upon relations between human figures and a largely fictionalised place of moral lassitude for its significance, and this fundamentally relational approach to allegorical signification defines the proliferation of possible meanings in the dynamic interactions of The Faerie Queene, especially in the Salvage Man episode of Book VI.

The episode exemplifies how the relations between a personified figure and its fictional ecosystem can be made into a source of meaning that mirrors the moral allegoresis of colonial reform tracts. In the fourth Canto, the Salvage Man rescues Serena and Calepine from Turpine and immediately turns his attention to caring for their wounds before leading them to his wild home. There, in the otiose shade, the Salvage man offers only ‘the frutes of the forrest’ foraged for his guests as a meal: ‘For their bad Stuard neither plough’d nor sowed, / Ne fed on flesh, ne euer of wyld beast / Did taste the bloud, obaying natures first beheast’ (VI.iv.14.6-9).

Although the Salvage Man is a ‘bad Stuard’, he has an innate and affective sense of justice and hospitality paired with an intimate knowledge of the local flora. On the one hand, his neglect of the plow marks his relations with the landscape with the negative moral valuation given to the Irish by New English propagandists. He does not plow because he lacks cultivation in both the literal and civil sense. But, on the other hand, this peaceful relationship to his surroundings suggests that he is capable of reform. The Salvage Man is naturally gentle, thanks to his noble lineage. Even though he does not speak, he can benefit from the presence of models of courtesy like Arthur. The meaning of the Salvage Man, in short, is ambivalent and emerges from his varied relations to his social and natural surroundings; his meaning does not give itself up as if he were a static pictograph. In this way, the Salvage Man does more than just embody Ireland, as if Spenser were pouring a non-human landscape into a human-shaped allegorical vessel; instead, the Salvage Man’s ambivalence arises from being the simultaneous manifestation of an in-born ‘nature’ and a mutable site of relation from which different meanings issue depending on whom or what he encounters. This is a method not unknown to Tudor inventions of colonial Ireland, even if their constructions of Irish ecology are far less open than Spenser’s poem to multiple levels of signification from which potentially discordant readings may emerge.

Book VI repeatedly asks how people become what they are. The shorthand for this process of interrogation is the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. But to frame the question of courtesy in terms of nature versus nurture glides over Spenser’s interest in using their fundamental inseparability in order to propel allegorical meaning-making. As in colonial tracts, which construct the meaning of Ireland from the myriad imagined relationships between Irish culture and ecosystems, the meaning of the Salvage Man emerges from the clash between his inherited traits and his entanglement in a particular socio-ecology. This kind of allegorical creation is marked by the mode of allegoresis in which writers like White and Spenser attempt to decipher the colonised landscape and Irish people’s place within it. They do this in much the same way we try to make sense of the fundamental multiplicity of Spenser’s allegory: by identifying relations between figure and landscape, and individuals and groups, and trying to discern which direction influences and affects flow. In this sense, the coloniser’s attempt to create a legible environment in Ireland likewise embraces the blurriness of the nature/nurture dichotomy, selectively naturalising vices that then become allegorical markers on a blighted landscape, while also selectively de-naturalising those traits by making them amenable to the coloniser’s civilisational curriculum.

Colonial theorists like White made the Irish environment legible by generating problems and solutions out of the tensions between the image of a flourishing social ecology and its shadows of overgrowth and idleness. The colonial allegoresis that enables the construction of such a fraught landscape haunts Spenser’s invention of fictional ecologies, where the need to understand beings relationally outweighs their apparent significance in static isolation.

[21] Rowland White, ‘Discors Touching Ireland, c. 1569’, ed. Nicholas Canny. Irish Historical Studies 20 (80), 1977, 439-463.


Allegory for Ecologists? Brief Mediations on Genres of Ecology

Joseph Campana, Rice University


Tragedy, comedy, romance. We think, so often, through genres, which serve not merely as disciplinary or taxonomical formalities but often-supple ways of organizing worlds. Often supple, often troubling, and always worth considering. Literary genres direct us to horizons of expectation, from the point of view of the reader, and horizons of aspiration, from the point of view of the creator. Aspiration and expectation being so much of cultural life, genre offers surprising insights for environmental thinking. Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism considers several tropes, topoi, and genres both healthily reflected in the literary tradition and particularly influential in the broader conceptions of environmental writing, including in classic works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which memorably begins with a pastoral fable.[22] Wilderness is another such term, which has been so importantly explored by William Cronon.[23] Moreover, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of terrestrial (and aquatic) topoi for organizing our aspirations and expectations. Two other terms Garrard invokes, pastoral and apocalypse, capture what I think of, and no doubt many of us think of, as genres of ecology.[24]

The last few decades of environmental thinking have much to say to scholars of early modern literature, Spenser particularly, which a swell of eco-critical Spenserian writing confirms (including this very issue). Here I want to spend a little time considering a particular genre of ecology as well as an alliance of genre and ecology. It is easy enough to see the comic or the tragic, more often the latter, in planetary life from early modernity to last week. Ditto the apocalyptic. And certainly genres like ever-more popular speculative fiction, more specifically the relatively recent sub-genre of cli-fi, draw immense power from a long history of tales of the end of the world even as speculative fiction should allow for a range of futures and associated affects. Pastoral, which Garrard discusses, has been most obviously a critical if also complex touchstone for environmental thinking.[25] The question I want to ask here, in this all-too-brief moment, concerns the insanely capacious phenomenon of allegory, which is both a genre and a mode, a means of interpretation and a form of interactivity or even, arguably, interrelation. If we are to say that the study of literature, the study of early modern literature, has a role to play in difficult conversations about both environmental histories and futures, then that literature must also be more than the site of eco-critical readings or the material on which such reading are performed with an eye to present-circumstances.[26] So just as students of allegory have, I hope, been learning from ecologists of various disciplines (and surely there is more to learn), I would also like to think there is an allegory for ecologists, a set of insights that might animate eco-critical futures and more broadly an environmental and ecological humanities not content desperately to assert relevance and topicality of older literatures or literary studies writ large but confident in a capacity to elucidate some of the thorniest problems, the ones that drive human life on the planet closer to tragedy and apocalypse than comedy or romance.

Allegory is systems thinking, systems of meaning specifically. If we understand ecology to be either a way of describing the relationship between system and environment (OED) or a system of networked interrelations, then we can also say that thinking about environments and ecologies requires ever more expansive capacities. Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin’s recent The Environment: The History of An Idea, traces the mid-twentieth century rise of the concept noting the consolidation of a relatively new constellation of four characteristic dimensions: a concern for the future, the rise of expertise, a trust in numbers, and the importance of scale and scalability.[27] Certainly, recent works of environmental studies, like Heather Houser’s Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data consider the rise of data and information in our core ecological concepts. While there’s much to be said both about the what and the when of allegory, which certainly has its heyday long before the post-WWII rise of the environment concept, I would suggest allegory had already long developed a capacity for what Gordon Teskey describes as ‘ritualized information processing.’[28] Long before we learned to trust in numbers and rely on big data, allegory processed, in a highly scalable manner, the coordinates of interrelation between subject, objects, and environments.        

Allegory is other speaking. One might imagine this as mere duplicity, like Duessa, who says one thing and means another or, more properly, who is one thing and appears to be another. Una, who ironically suggests singularity, would be similarly if not maliciously double in being both a woman in an adventure plot (with an accessory lamb) and an eventually signaled embodiment of the one true church. The questions raised by allegory, then, are those that might concern what it means to endow agency, speech, and status to a variety of entities. Allegory is that assemblage of tactics that creates a heightened environment in which the strategies that allow trees to speak and stones to signify, no less humans (and other creatures) and entities (like concepts or corporate assemblages).<[29] These practices are especially evident because allegory so often eschews the constraints of an obfuscating style of realism Timothy Morton discusses in Ecology Without Nature using the term ‘ecomimesis.’[30] That is to say, styles of representation create environments as well as rely on concepts of an environment; and yet we take some, particularly those enshrined in a long tradition of nature writing, to be more authentic and real representations of nature than others. The complex irreality of allegorical environments, subjects, and events requires a heightened attention to the way styles of representation determine how we conceive of environments and ecologies, which is to say how we conceive of living systems.

Allegory is other speaking but also, in a related vein, allegory is personation. We might describe allegory as a process for making persons. Some might even suggest it is a process for making humans, although it more often seems that even so-called humans must be made into persons through the operations of allegory. Particularly literary devices spring to mind, like, but not limited to personification or prosopopoeia.[31] Angus Fletcher’s influential exploration of the ‘daemonic agent’ in allegory already offers a way of disrupting habitual assumptions about both humans and persons so long as we do not assume that the odd intensities of daemonic personification are simply one strange province of allegory, which is not only other speaking but other than the rest of the real or natural world.[32] The particular figures and agents of allegorical writing should in fact convince us that although we may or may not be creatures of jealousy, or Gealousie, but that our affects and our ecological relations alike might make Malbeccos of us all, creatures gradually and inexorably re-embodied by and through interrelated systems and environments that expose how both aspirational and conventional categories like ‘person’ and ‘human’ really are.[33]

Allegory is a struggle to read, which is to say a struggle to interpret living systems as a system of signs of a world and a landscape of the mind. The very familiar idea that one might read Nature, like a book, stripping away materiality and exteriority to find inner truth, adds to an assemblage of bad ideas about a usable and expendable planet. Recent conversations about energy and the environment focus on a term like ‘extractivism,’ a way of thinking of the planet as merely a resource, and, even more potently, a source of what Jason Moore has described as ‘cheap nature,’ especially in his recent book with Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet.[34] But the struggle to read involves other factors as well while also signaling a set of strategies that allegorical reading and writing offer. When Maureen Quilligan describes allegory as a practice of ‘building narrative out of word play’ she perhaps also indicates a resource we might draw from allegory, which maps in space and time the ambiguity of both signs systems and the ‘information processing’ to which Teskey alludes.[35] When Michael Murrin describes allegory as ‘veiled communication’ meant to ‘accommodate the multitude’ while it ‘communicated truth to the elite’ he indicates the extent to which allegory might highlight a struggle over what both early modernists and many environmentalists consider through the concept of the commons.[36] And finally, to consider allegory a ‘process of thinking’ that ‘combines mind with matter, emblem with narrative, abstraction with history,’ as Judith Anderson does,[37] or that creates a ‘phenomenologically simultaneous appearance of two things in the same image,’ as Brenda Machosky does,[38] is to consider allegory’s ancient capacity to understand the interlacing embodiments and interpenetrating materialities that constitute the shared environments and ecologies of which we are a part.[39] That, too, has been the subject of speculation in recent approaches to a variety of materialities and ontologies.[40] Moreover, in as much as thinkers ranging from Teskey to Judith Butler remind us of the fundamental gendering of ancient conceptions of matter at stake in allegory, allegory also offers particularly vivid instances in which the core questions of gender, sex, and sexuality, must be part of any ecological thinking, as the work of Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche especially makes clear.[41]

Allegory is other speaking. These few, initial thoughts on which I hope to build suggest that not only must we attend more closely to genres of ecology but also that allegory is absolutely for ecologists. Its ancient engagements offer other ways of speaking at a moment when our expectations and aspirations for planetary life can leave us otherwise without words.

[22] Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (New York; Routledge, 2011), 37.

[23] William Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,’ in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90.

[24] See especially Steve Mentz, “Tongues in the Storm: Shakespeare, Ecological Crisis, and the Resources of Genre”  in Ecocritical Shakespeare, eds. Lynne Bruckner and Daniel Brayton (London: Ashgate, 2011), 179-196.

[25] Ken Hiltner’s What Else Is Pastoral? Renaissance Literature and the Environment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011) addresses the subject most directly in early modern studies.

[26] This is not to write against presentist readings or the practice of thinking about present problems with early modern perspectives. See Sharon O’Dair’s especially fine reflection on this subject, ‘Is it Ecocriticism if it isn’t Presentist?’ in Ecocritical Shakespeare, eds. Lynne Bruckner and Daniel Brayton (London: Ashgate, 2011), 71-85.

[27] Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin, The Environment: A History of the Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

[28] Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), ix.

[29] For a recent approach to the speaking trees and legal standing, see my essay, ‘Should (Bleeding) Trees Have Standing?’ in Renaissance Personhood, ed. Kevin Curran (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2019), 87-116.

[30] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[31] For a recent approach to inhumanity and personification in Spenser, see my essay, ‘Spenser’s Inhumanity,’ in ‘Spenser and the Human,’ Spenser Studies 30 (2015): 277-299.

[32] Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964), pp. 1, 3.

[33] The massive proliferation of recent reflections on the question of the human prevents extensive citation, but for maximum relevance in this occasion, see Ayesha Ramachandran and Melissa Sanchez’s recent special issue ‘Spenser and the Human’  Spenser Studies 30 (2015).

[34] Raj Patel and Jason Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).

[35] Maureen Quilligan, The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979), 22.

[36] Michael Murrin, The Veil of Allegory: Some Notes toward a Theory of Allegorical Rhetoric in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), ix, 39.

[37] Judith Anderson, Reading the Allegorical Intertext: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2010), 5.

[38] Brenda Machosky, Structures of Appearing: Allegory and the Work of Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 1.

[39] See also, of course, Teskey, Allegory and Violence, particularly chapter X, for a potent reflection on allegory’s relationship to both ancient theories and ongoing early modern conversations about materiality.

[40] The ever-growing range of work makes citation difficult but Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) looms.

[41] See Jennifer Munroe, ‘Is It Ecocritical If It Isn’t Feminist?’ in Ecological Approaches to Early Modern Texts, eds. Jennifer Munroe, Lynne Bruckner, and Ed Geisweidt (Burlington: Ashgate Press, 2015, 37-50; and Rebecca Laroche and Jennifer Munroe, Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).


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Cite as:

Steve Mentz, Alexander Lowe McAdams, Dyani Johns Taff, William Rhodes, Joseph Campana, "Spenser, Ecology and the Dream of a Legible Environment: An Eco-Cluster," Spenser Review 50.3.2 (Fall 2020). Accessed June 27th, 2022.
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