The wonderfully strange Garden of Adonis presents readers with a vegetally regenerative world—one that grafts together living and nonliving things alike. The power of this scene is best exemplified by Book III canto vi stanza 33, which places a regenerative wheel as the source of all things, which, after being recycled, are ‘clad with other hew,/ Or sent into the chaungefull world agayne,/ Till thether they retourne, where first they grew… .’ [i]
This regenerative image not only serves to showcase the ecological interconnectivities of the early modern period, but it also makes the argument for recycling and expanding the knowledge and experiences of others. As such, the Garden has the power to delight and intrigue even the most [post]modern reader. As perhaps one of Spenser’s most vivid landscapes, Book III’s The Garden of Adonis shares concerns with 21st century theoretical turns—such as new materialisms, vitalism, OOO and posthumanism—that attempt to move beyond thinking anthropocentrically and see the interconnections amongst all things. As recent edited collections such as Campana and Maisano’s Renaissance Posthumanism demonstrate, the early modern period, and for our purposes Spenser, has much to offer ecocritically minded scholars. Thus, like Spenser’s regenerative garden, this special review section on Spenserian Ecological futures highlights advanced Ph.D. candidates and early career scholars who are thinking with Spenser to explore entanglements with the more-than-human world.
Tasked with offering an ecocritical close reading of a single stanza, the contributors explore these entanglements through political sovereignty, environmental catastrophe and racial injustice to name a few. A variety of voices from young scholars in England, Canada and the United States provide new perspectives. Collectively, they offer a wide array of new ecological angles on Spenser’s work as they think through water, soil, animals such as rams, allegorical ciphers like Errour and more. Traversing nearly every book of The Faerie Queene and the less-theorised Amoretti, this collection of short close readings showcase how our current ecological crises have long practical and theoretical histories within Spenser’s works.
As you prick with care through these readings, you are invited and encouraged to find the places where the human and nonhuman collide, intersect and blur entirely. As these emerging scholars demonstrate, Spenser studies is enlivened from broadly construed ecocritical readings. Given Spenser’s own fascination with ecology and world-building, readings focusing on his green and blue world are much less of a turn toward something new and more of a return to the source—the very ecology that shaped Spenser and his works.
There has never been a timelier or more urgent moment to listen to the voices of emerging Spenserians and environmental humanists. Amidst the climate crisis and the not unrelated spike in social injustice, these new voices mediate between our personal lived experiences and the literature we study. What this gathering ultimately brings into focus is a cautious optimism for a more inclusive and entangled future—one that moves beyond the self by reaching both backward and forward to better understand Spenser’s more-than-human world as well as our own. As a member of this emerging cohort of Spenserian ecocritics, I am attuned to the pressing tone of this collection. For scholars such as myself, there is an obligation to this kind of work; one which thinks both historically and locally to bridge an unnecessary divide between ecological pasts, futures and presents. Ultimately, it opens doors for new scholars to merge their various interests while keeping in mind the community that already exists. It is the kind of collection I desperately searched for at the beginning of my graduate career, so I am excited to share these voices with emerging and established scholars alike.
[i] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton et al., 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013), III.vi.33.6-8.
Bethany Dubow, University of Cambridge
And as she lay vpon the durtie ground,
Her huge long taile her den all ouerspred
Yet was in knots and many boughtes vpwound,
Pointed with mortall sting. Of her there bred,
A thousand yong ones, which she dayly fed,
Sucking vpon her poisonous dugs, eachone
Of sundrie shapes, yet all ill fauored:
Soone as that vncouth light vpon them shone,
Into her mouth they crept, and suddain all were gone. I.i.15
Unused to the syntactical inversions with which Spenser contrives the coincidence of verbs with rhyme words, it took me several readings of this stanza to realize that the first action being performed is overspreading. That is to say, as with the following rhyme terms, ‘bred’ and ‘fed,’ ‘ouerspred’ refers to an event that, at this narrative instant, is in process: we witness Errour’s ‘huge long taile’ as it extends over the terrain, pervading ‘all’ of the den. We know that this tail, like the death it promises, must resolve into a single, ‘mortall sting.’ Yet its ‘knots’ and ‘boughtes,’ torsions that it shares with trees and mountain ranges, hint at a nonlinear morphology – at something that grows by splitting and branching.
Half serpent, half woman, Errour herself is split into parts (I.i.14. ll.7-8). Her ‘thousand yong ones,’ born of a verse line split by a caesural full-stop: ‘Of her there bred,’ reproduce in miniature her hybrid morphology: ‘eachone / Of sundrie shapes.’ A few stanzas on we learn that these micro-Errours are ‘fruitfull’ too and contain the seeds of future, unrealized errors within their bodies. What is striking about the ecology of I.i.15 is its dynamic geometry. Patterns of self-similarity reproduce across scale such that each magnification – twice inaugurated by an ‘of’ – generates further fragmentation (ll.4 and 7). Repetition of ‘all’ and ‘yet’ plays into the recursive exchange between oneness and multiplicity such that the singular cavity of the den falls into a mass of tangled lines (ll. 2-3). There, the split shapes of the Errour-creatures are united in their shared monstrosity (ll. 6-7). Spenser’s triple and quadruple rhyme clusters are implicated in this geometry: in each, a terminal unit of sound has multiple new beginnings.
The geometry of nature that Spenser unfolds here marks a departure from sixteenth-century mathematical orthodoxy. The Neoplatonist metaphysics enshrined in the quadrivium, and well known to Spenser, taught of a world constructed of regular, Euclidean polyhedra: pyramids, cubes, octahedra, dodecahedra. The proportions that governed these bodies were rational and designed, as in the first organic triad in I.i. of The Faerie Queene: Una, oneness, rides ‘faire beside’ the Knight of Holiness. By Una ‘in a line’ is a ‘milkewhite lambe’ (I.i.1-4); a seemingly orderly row, an apparently godly geometry.
In Errour’s den, Spenser scrambles the lines of Euclid. The chaotic, dynamic geometry of I.i.15 might be better described as ‘fractal,’ a term from modern mathematics. Like Errour, fractals contain copies of themselves within themselves and expand in branching bifurcations. As images of chaos, they can help to make visual dynamical nonlinear systems, such as weather patterns and the spread of disease. These systems, of necessity, tend towards unpredictability. Clearly, Spenser was not a student of fractal geometry. But what if he sensed that there are forms in nature – the ‘knots’ and nodes of proliferating root systems, the ‘boughtes’ of a craggy coastline – that aren’t quantifiable by recourse to Euclid? Because fractals reveal self-similar detail at ever smaller scales, they cannot be measured by unit or rule. To say that in I.i.15 Spenser models a fractal ecological world is thus to witness how Errour, as the allegorical instantiation of the deviant and transgressive, overgrows the mathematical orthodoxies of the era. As ecocritics, we are alive to the ways in which literature refracts, through doubt or dissent, models that aid in the perceptual and descriptive control of the natural world. In Errour’s den, Spenser seeds forms which interrupt Euclidean order, opening up a fractal ecology that presents the possibilities of the unpredictable, the incommensurable, and the anxiously incomplete.
1 On Spenser’s verbal rhymes, see Catherine Addison, ‘Rhyming Against the Grain: A New Look at the Spenserian Stanza,’ in Edmund Spenser: New and Renewed Directions, ed. J. B. Lethbridge (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006), 341-42.
 This, on the basis that the primary meaning of a word does not shut down the signifying power of its other meanings, especially where these meanings relate analogous structures. As the OED records, “knot” can be both ‘An intertwining or complication of the parts of one or more ropes’ (sense 1a), and ‘A thickened part or protuberance in the tissue of a plant; an excrescence on a stem, branch, or root; […] the hard mass formed in a trunk at the insertion of a branch or round the place of insertion of an abortive or dead branch […]’ (sense 14a). Of course, we can also think of the stems and roots of intertwining plants as knotted in rope-like ways, as in Spenser’s image of knotted vines (see The Faerie Queene, II.ix.24.4-5). With regards to ‘boughte’: principally, ‘a hollow angle or bend in the animal body’ (sense 1a), but secondarily and analogously, ‘A bending in a coastline, mountain-chain, etc.’ (sense 1b). In I.xi.54.9, the serpentine body of the dragon, defeated by Redcrosse, ‘like an heaped mountaine lay’ [www.oed.com accessed 26 July 2020].
 Spenser, I.i.22.6. On how Errour “is not defeated but multiplied”, see Patricia A. Parker, Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 69.
 Spenser’s interest in classical number theory, and the Neoplatonist theory of a world derived in accordance with Euclidean geometrical principles, is well-known. See e.g., Alastair Fowler, Spenser and the Numbers of Time (London: Routledge, 1964); S. K. Heninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony: Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics (California: Henry E. Huntington Library, 1974), esp. pp. 351-393; A. Kent Hieatt, Short Time’s Endless Monument: The Symbolism of the Numbers in Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion (New York: 1960).
 The term “fractal” was coined by Benoit B. Mandelbrot in The Fractal Geometry of Nature (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1982).
“As when two rams stird with ambitious pride,
Fight for the rule of the rich fleeced flocke,
Their horned fronts so fierce on either side
Doe meete, that with the terror of the shocke
Astonied both, stand sencelesse as a blocke,
Forgetfull of the hanging victory:
So stood these twaine, vnmoued as a rocke,
Both staring fierce, and holding idely
The broken reliques of their former cruelty.”
The Faerie Queene (I.ii.16)
The nonhuman world in The Faerie Queene explicitly encroaches on the human and Edmund Spenser creates a continuum wherein the characteristics of wood, rocks and rams intermingle with humans. Spenser’s effort to entangle the human and nonhuman is evident in the battle between Redcrosse and Sansfoy that illustrates the extent to which the poet’s eco-poetics rejects anthropocentrism. Recent work in posthumanist theory reveals the surprising extent to which depictions of the human in early modern texts are ‘at once embedded and embodied in, evolved with, and de-centred amid a weird tangle of animals, environments, and vital materiality’.[i] A posthumanist reading of stanza I.ii.16 reveals that Spenser’s foregrounding of nonhuman elements provokes an awareness of the ecological intermingling of human and nonhuman actors.
Spenser’s epic simile compares the knights fighting over Fidessa to ‘two rams stird with ambitious pride, / [that] Fight for the rule of the rich fleeced flocke’.[ii] The pronoun ambiguity that Spenser employs when discussing these two supposedly opposite knights is also evident in the syntactical complexity of this simile, so that the ‘horned fronts’ of the rams offer no distinction between ‘either side’. Spenser further emphasises this dualism through his usage of the word ‘twaine’ and the repetition of the words ‘both’ and ‘fierce’. While Spenser’s comparison to fighting humans and nonhuman animals evokes similar moments from classical poets such as Virgil (Aeneid 12.715) and Ovid (Metamorphoses 9.46), Spenser’s simile operates in an overtly posthumanist mode by expanding this comparison between human and nonhuman animals to incorporate the realm of plants and minerals as well. Spenser concludes his simile by transitioning from the fighting rams, whose colliding bodies ‘stand sencelesse as a blocke’,
to the two ‘rocke’-like knights. Thus, there is a spectrum that emerges as one progresses through the stanza from bone (the rams’ horns), to senseless wood and finally to rock.[iii] In his study of stone, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen suggests that pre-Enlightenment thinkers often evoked a worldview in which a ‘lithic enmeshment’ was possible with humans, who ‘share materiality and being with stone’.[iv] Similarly, the complexity of the Spenserian stanza establishes Faerie Land as a place where human bodies cannot be distinguished from the objects and organisms that surround them.
These associations provide a bridge to the stanza’s concluding line, where the wooden shards of the knight’s lances are all that remains of the ‘broken reliques of their former cruelty’. In addition to illustrating the ease with which these signifiers of chivalric romance can be reduced to their material origins, the passage evokes a posthumanist worldview that explores the transformative potential of humans and their tools. Todd Andrew Borlik has argued that the overtly-Ovidian echoes in The Faerie Queene, such as Redcrosse’s encounter with the tree-transformed lovers Fradubio and Fraelissa, ‘erases the distinction between sentient human subject and callous natural object’.[v] However, the more subtle transformations that occur to the lances in I.ii.16 have greater implications for the humans who wield those weapons because there is no magical metamorphoses occurring. It is not only the structure of the lances that have the potential to break down but the integrity of the human form as well, and this mutability (from human to nonhuman and back again) serves to marginalise the nationalistic implications of the battle in favour of a poetic depiction of unstable human forms. By decentring the human figures, Spenser’s poetics achieves an ecological worldview that comes close to the thinking of contemporary posthuman theorists.
[i] Campana, Joseph and Scott Maisano. Introduction. Renaissance Posthumanism, Eds. Campana and Maisano (Fordham: Fordham University Press, 2016) 3.
[ii] Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, Ed. A.C. Hamilton. (New York: Routledge, 2007) I.ii.1.
[iii] For early modern associations between humans and blocks of wood see Nardizzi, Vin. ‘Wooden Actors on the English Renaissance Stage’, in Renaissance Posthumanism, Eds. Campana, Joseph and Scott Maisano (Fordham: Fordham University Press, 2016) 195-220.
[iv] Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) 50.
[v] Borlik, Todd Andrew. ‘Mute Timber?: Fiscal Forestry And Environmental Stichomythia in the Old Arcadia’, in Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare. Eds. Hallock, Thomas, Ivo Kamps, and Karen L. Raber (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) 43.
Whom when the Prince, to battell new addrest,
And threatning high his dreadfull stroke did see,
His sparkling blade about his head he blest,
And smote off quite his right leg by the knee,
That downe he tombled; as an aged tree,
High growing on the top of rocky clift,
Whose hartstrings with keene steele nigh hewen be,
The mightie trunck halfe rent, with ragged rift
Doth roll adowne the rocks, and fall with fearefull drift.
Book I, Canto viii, Stanza 22
In the gristly fight between Prince Arthur and his Gyaunt foe, Orgoglio, the knight claves his opponent’s left arm, and losing a limb, Orgoglio’s massive ‘truncked stocke’ gushes streames of bloud from his body ‘like fresh water streame from riven rock’. This image of Orgoglio as a bleeding, mutilated tree is gory enough, but the whole scene explodes with the final arboreal downfall of the Gyaunt’s ‘mightie trunck halfe rent’.[i] Within the longer schema of the scene, the unique violence of ‘trunck’ intensifies the raw drama of the fight, but as this brief close reading emphasises, the unique metonym of ‘trunck’ wields concise, multivalent power as a lexical palimpsest in which the limb-shorn bodies of tree and Gyaunt elide.[ii] This play of ‘trunck’ is not the only moment in which Spenser’s heightened language blurs bodies within the natural world. In addition to trunckes, the vivid Faerie landscape teems and writhes with confusions of limbes, armes, braunches and boughs, all of which suggest metonymy as a form of grafting, the splicing and fastening of bodies in nature through language. However, only in this stanza do we encounter ‘trunck’ as a specific site of monstrous metamorphosis.
In this stanza, the spent body of the Gyaunt not only falls as though he is a colossal tree; he is transformed. ‘[D]owne he tomble[s]…as an aged tree’, the whole line reads, bucking the punctuation and electrifying the metamorphosis wherein it is not a Gyaunt that, like a ‘ragged rift’ dead log, ‘fearefull[y] drift[s]’ down the ‘rocky clift’, but the blade-butchered corpse of an ancient tree. A tree is natural. A Gyaunt is not. Gigantic trees should be natural, but they become unnatural when a slip of metonym tumbles the falling ‘trunck’ of a Gyaunt into the giant ‘trunck’ of a falling tree. In a flash then, ‘trunck’ shows how destabilised language begets epistemic instability in the natural world.
Thus, ‘trunck’ stands out in this stanza and warns of metonymy’s transformative power, but it also gestures to a rich network of synaptic connections between blood and earth in the language. Through ‘trunck’, readers glimpse the ways in which grotesque stitches of paradoxical, chimeric and catachrestic speech emphasise a topos of essential monstrosity in the epic’s moralised land- and bodyscapes through in an endless wounding and mending of meaning. Along these lines, ‘trunck’ functions as a dangerous liaison between monster and nature because it brings metamorphosis in the moralised moment. The virtuous Arthur defeats the wicked Gyaunt, but the transformation of the falling ‘trunck’ does more than change a falling Gyaunt into a falling tree. Without the crash of the Gyaunt-tree in the epic, imagination tumbles this ‘trunck’ into the reality of the reader, crashing through the page and rolling to a stop as gygauntic trees in the natural world, but the falling does not end there, as, through ‘trunck’ the ancient trees become ancient monstrosities. Taken all together then, ‘trunck’ ignites the heroic impression that killing a Gyaunt and watching his ‘mightie [trunckated] halfe’ ‘roll adowne the rocks’ embodies the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘evil’ and illuminates a constellation of horrific patriotic imaginings: (1) the equating of Gyaunt or monstrous bodies with large trees and other massive natural forms, (2) the equating of the decimation and truncation of large trees and durable natural world features with defeating and destroying evil in order for virtuous humanity to prosper, and (3) the recommendation that these fallen creatures—a new Nephilim growing, rather than roaming, across the world—be used in the victorious creation of houses, businesses and towns as an act of community success, urban unity, industrial progress and, ultimately, nationhood: a whole country built out of the bodies of gyaunts in the earth, truncked and felled wooden monsters.
[i] In this moment, Orgoglio participates in the tradition of bleeding tree monster, akin to Spenser’s Fradubio, Tasso’s Clorinda, and Virgil’s Polydorus, but he is a perverse participant, as, unlike his predecessors, Orgoglio’s tree form does not grieve a human past. See Maik Goth, ‘Monstrous Humans’ in Monsters and the Poetic imagination in The Faerie Queene. (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2015), 123-170.
It fortuned (as fayre it then befell,)Behynd his backe vnweeting, where he stood,Of auncient time there was a springing well,From which fast trickled forth a siluer flood,Full of great vertues, and for med’cine good.Whylome, before that cursed Dragon gotThat happy land, and all with innocent bloodDefyld those sacred waues, it rightly hotThe well of life, ne yet his vertues had forgot. (I.xi.29)
The description of Redcrosse’s convalescence in the House of Holiness (I.x) prompted some early readers to cry Catholicism: this allegory for spiritual revival dwells at length in the physicality of caregiving in a way that risks suggesting souls can be saved through works, not grace. But another way of articulating what’s unnerving about this episode is that the House of Holiness seems less ‘holy’ than, simply, a ‘house’. Redcrosse’s miraculous recovery is due to the quite ordinary-sounding ‘salues and med’cines’, ‘corrosiues’, and wound-cleaning techniques of Cælia’s domestic staff, materials and practices that would be in any good early modern housewife’s repertoire (I.x.24-26).
We soon learn that this care work, far from completing Redcrosse’s remaking into holiness, is only the beginning of a series of renovations. In canto xi, Redcrosse is repeatedly vanquished by the dragon and repeatedly resurrected by a new treatment regimen, though it sounds more relaxing than the astringents and hot pincers of the previous canto: he soaks in the waters of ‘the well of life’ and the balm of ‘the tree of life’ over successive nights, waking up each morning a new man. As an allegory for spiritual repair, the magical spa sessions of canto xi feel like a step up from the laboriously administered home remedies of canto x. But canto xi keeps us in the housebound world of canto x by echoing the language of medicinal recipes.
In stanza 29, after getting scorched by dragon fire, Redcrosse falls into the well of life, ‘From which fast trickled forth a siluer flood, / Full of great vertues, and for med’cine good’. Rather than being imbued by something allegorically virtuous, Redcrosse literally receives an infusion of ‘great vertues’ from an eau de vie. This object-oriented morality recalls not only the Protestant claim that the healing properties of holy wells were due to their mineral deposits but also the many contemporary recipes that advertise the ‘vertues’ of both plants and their human-crafted products: one popular collection promises to teach readers how to make ‘sweet and pleasant Waters, of wonderfull Odors, Operations & Vertues’ and features chapters detailing ‘the sundry vertues of Roses, for divers medicins’, ‘the sundry vertues of Rosemarie’ and the sundry virtues of sundry other herbs and flowers.[i] The ideal Protestant housewife, expected to possess ‘inward and outward vertues’, must supplement those spiritual and practical assets with the ‘vertues’ of medicinal plants and the medicines she makes from them.[ii]
When the ‘salues and med’cines’ of canto x become ‘med’cine’ from the earth in canto xi, it is as if we never left the House. Domestic labour has been replaced by a spontaneous generation of the natural landscape, but in language that has not itself been completely naturalised, the proximity of ‘vertue’ to ‘med’cine’ interrupting a smooth interpretive move from the natural to the spiritual by resituating virtue in a material domestic setting. As with the ‘souerain’ ‘ointment’ of the ‘balm of life’ (I.xi.48), which recalls the ‘Sovereign Medicine for any Ach or Pain’ that would have been applied to everyday injuries, the well’s outpouring works like the pantry staple ‘water of life’ that makes a human body or other organic material ‘come to it self again’.[iii] Even if canto xi seeks to redeem grace by showing it can operate like nature, without human intervention, it does so with reference to the distillation and application of remedies by the kinds of workers we see in canto x. In positing that the natural world resembles a domestic economy, Spenser puts the oikos back into ‘ecology’.
[i] John Partridge, The Treasurie of commodious conceits, & hidden secrets and may be called, the huswives closet, of healthfull provision (London, 1573), n.p. For the attribution of sacred springs’ healing powers to natural substances, see Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 408-10.
[ii] Gervase Markham, The English house-wife, Containing the inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleate woman (London, 1631), 1.
[iii] Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (London, 1675), 129; The queen-like closet; or, Rich cabinet stored with all manner of rare receipts for preserving, candying & cookery (London, 1670), 14.
Colin J. Keohane
The God did graunt his daughters deare demaund,
To doen his Nephew in all riches flow;
Eftsoones his heaped waves he did commaund,
Out of their hollow bosome forth to throw
All the huge threasure, which the sea below
Had in his greedy gulfe devoured deepe,
And him enriched through the overthrow
And wreckes of many wretches, which did weepe,
And often wayle their wealth, which he from them did keepe.
(The Faerie Queene III.iv.22)
In Book III of The Faerie Queene, Britomart overthrows the knight Marinell on the ‘Rich Stronde’ (III.iv.20), a stretch of coast adorned by Marinell’s grandfather, the sea god, Nereus, with the jewels and treasures of countless shipwrecks. Spenser identifies two contact zones between the human and the ocean in III.iv.22: the shore and the ship/wreck. Implicit within Spenser’s text is a healthy corrective to 21st-century schemes that rely on technology to mitigate the effects of ecological destruction. As we look out at the world from the sinking deck of 2020, the perspective offered by a ‘shipwreck ecology’ seems more pertinent than ever.
Spenser’s sea is an animate being. Rather than dismiss this depiction as crude anthropomorphism, it behooves us to consider the way in which Spenser’s poetic license allows Nereus to embody the emergent (or divine) properties of the ocean as a complex superhuman system that has been the most consequential catalyst for life on Earth. Spenser identifies Nereus as the primary agent in wreck site formation whose ‘heaped waves’ expel material from the depths. The sea exercises two powers: to wreck ships and redistribute that wreckage in warning and exultation. As a ship sinks, it passes through a series of what archaeologists refer to as ‘extraction filters’ and ‘scrambling devices’ that determine exactly how the ship is ‘devoured deepe’ by the sea, but, specifics of its disintegration aside, it is worth confronting the reality that all ships inevitably succumb to the waves.[i] Spenser hammers this point home by dwelling on the greedy oceanic appetite for devouring ships into an insatiable ‘hollow bosome.’
The ship offers an appealing technological solution for survival in an otherwise inhospitable medium; however, the technological solution is temporary at best. ‘All ships are sinking’ is something of an axiom among underwater archaeologists in recognition of the fact that no technology can permanently resist environmental pressures. A functional ship requires two basic components: the hull, or shell that separates the habitable artificial environment from the aquatic element—an upside-down biodome, in effect—and a mechanism to expel water from the ship’s body. Once the volume of ocean entering the ship exceeds the amount of ocean that can be bailed out of it, the wrecking process begins.[ii]
Humans live on the sandy fringes of this deep blue planet and our primary points of contact for two-thirds of the Earth’s surface remain the ship (ever-sinking) and the shore (subject to constant negotiation of tide, storm and erosion). Spenser’s ‘Rich Stronde’ acts as a frontier for what Christer Westerdahl called the maritime cultural landscape, upon which exploitation of sea-based modes of production forces negotiation between local human societies and global oceans.[iii] The ‘huge threasure’ spread across the sand serves simultaneously as synecdoche for the vast prosperity generated through oceanic exchange and as memento mori. Those who make their living from the sea have always risked dying in it. The shore is a hybrid space whose shifting sands recall the ebb and flow of our reciprocal relationship with the ocean. The shore is neither land nor sea; rather, it is a place where the limits of both spheres change with the tides.[iv] At the shoreline, we meet the waves on their own terms. We can neither stop them nor move beyond them.
Spenser could not have predicted our current ecological crisis or the existential desperation that allows us to put our faith in billionaire hucksters promising technological arks to ferry us off our burning homeworld into the coldness of space or deep below the surface of the Earth. This reading of the ship as a symbol for averting species extinction through technology would not have been available to Spenser because he could not have known that humanity’s hopes would come to be pinned on artificial substitutes for an ecosphere we rendered inhospitable to ourselves, but he did understand historic realities of ship/wrecks and the sea—realities that have not and will not change.[v] In The Faerie Queene, Spenser captured a relationship between ship/technology and ocean/environment that has only accumulated significance over the centuries. By elevating enduring material realities into art, Spenser created a work that will continue to generate new meaning as long as waves crash and ships founder, thus allowing ecocritical analysis to draw new lessons from old wisdom.
Though the Rich Stronde contains its own hazards, we have managed to live beside the sea successfully for most of our history, both benefitting from its bounty and respecting its boundaries. By centring the shipwreck in our ecology, we are forced to acknowledge that as we make our world less and less liveable, ‘solutions’ seeking to mitigate corporate-sponsored climate change via artificial environments must be considered unsustainable. We have built ships as artificial environments since the earliest days of our species, and the lesson we have learned—and of which Spenser reminds us—is that all ships sink. Technology cannot provide a substitute for a healthy planet.
[i] Keith Muckelroy, ‘The Archaeology of Shipwrecks’, in Maritime Archaeology, ed. Lawrence E. Babits and Hans Van Tilburg (New York: Plenum Press, 1998), 267-91.
[ii] As Steve Mentz observes ‘The allegorical crux of nearly all shipwreck stories, in which human labor fails and divine forces assume control, makes itself felt through multiple ruptures of human and technological abilities’ in Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, (Minneapolis; University of Minnesota Press, 2015). 16.
[iii] Christer Westerdahl, ‘The Maritime Cultural Landscape’, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (1992) 21.1:5-14.
[iv] For more on Spenser’s use of coastal spaces, see Tamsin Badcoe’s ‘The compasse of that Islands space’: Insular fictions in the writing of Edmund Spenser’ in Renaissance Studies 25.3 (2010): 415-32.
[v] In addition to wreck salvage practices common to all shore communities, while composing The Faerie Queene Spenser would have been aware of the fates of several ships from the Spanish Armada that wrecked along the coast of Ireland. For more on possible connections between The Faerie Queene and the Armada, see Thomas Herron’s ‘The Spanish Armada, Ireland, and Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’ in New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua 6.2 (2002): 82-105.
Like as the tide that comes fro th’Ocean mayne,
Flowes vp the Shenan with contrarie forse,
And ouerruling him in his owne rayne,
Driues backe the current of his kindly course,
And makes it seeme to haue some other sourse:
But when the floud is spent, then backe againe
His borrowed waters forst to redisbourse,
He sends the sea his owne with double gaine,
And tribute eke withall, as to his Soueraine. (FQ IV.iii.27)
‘Thus did the battell varie to and fro’. Like all epic similes, this stanza simultaneously describes something about the motion of the poem, and itself interrupts and qualifies that motion. It refers to the fight between Cambell and Triamond, comparing their exchange to the flow of the Shannon, the largest river in Ireland, into the Atlantic, and the counter-flow at high tide of the ocean back up the river. Remarkably, this is the third epic-simile stanza of the canto: the two combatants have already been compared to tigers, and to birds; but this stanza, I briefly argue, engages more profoundly what has been called Spenser’s ‘liquid poetics’, inviting the reader to conceptualise the movement of the poem in a rich and unusual way.[i]
The Shannon is known for its large estuary, over 100km long, and its breadth, described later in book four as ‘spreading like a sea’ (IV.xi.41). It has been chosen for this simile because its flow is genuinely bidirectional, seawater reaching up almost a third of its total length, and hence appropriate for describing such an evenly matched struggle. But it also gives us a sense of turn-taking rhythm, embodied by the stanza itself. The colon at the end of line five is the pivot where the tide turns, the high water mark of the Ocean’s influence. The enjambment across lines six and seven makes the momentum of the river’s counter-flow felt, as it spills back in the opposite direction. The delayed main verb ‘backe againe […] He sends’ prolongs the effect, with line seven coming between as a kind of grammatical eddy, ‘forst’ working as a past participle with a different subject. Line eight is more neatly contained; while the capacity of line nine to break into two smaller syntactic and metrical units is reflected by its punctuation in print, as the sweeping effect of the enjambment is gradually dispersed. The breadth of the alexandrine is here beautifully co-opted to mirror the widening spread of the river into the sea.
The stanza insists on the forcefulness of this process: ‘contrarie forse’ on the part of the ocean which ‘driues back’ the river, ‘ouerruling him’, before ‘his borrowed waters [are] forst to redisbourse’. But the political language of usurpation, culminating in the disturbing idea of obscuring a rightful source, makes the modulation towards the sovereign/tributary relationship declared in the last line sit uncomfortably. This is partially explained by Spenser’s use of the tidal river elsewhere as a metaphor for his poetry’s relationship with the queen (VI.proem.7), which itself modifies a poem-as-river trope going back to Virgil’s Georgics.[ii] The movements of the battle and the poem are held together here, in the estuary’s ecotonal space.
Writing of book four, Tamsin Badcoe claims that ‘the forms of romance’ are ‘written in the tidal eddies of the poem’s hydrographies’.[iii] This stanza gives us one such form, adapted from and projected onto the opening of the Shannon as Spenser would have seen it from visits to Limerick. What would it mean for a poem to read like this? Its language of coursing and redispersal points to endless prolongation and renewal; a forceful process of attack and counter-attack, in turns; and, most importantly, the possibility of ‘ouerruling’ the poem’s onward flow through time. These lines encourage a redispersal of attention back up the stanza: how has the canto been like this? What is its source? They offer not only watery conflict, but a space which reflects the rush and dispersal of the Spenserian stanza, and the ‘kindly course’, with its opposite motion, of the poem as a whole.
[i] Steven Swarbrick, ‘The Life Aquatic: Liquid Poetics and the Discourse of Friendship in The Faerie Queene’, Spenser Studies 30 (2015), 229-253. Compare Steve Mentz’s ‘thalassic poetics’ next to a discussion of Spenser in Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), xix.
[ii] See Ch. 2 of David Quint’s Origin and Originality in Renaissance Literature: Versions of the Source (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).
[iii] Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), 186-7.
In canto 4 of Book 5, Artegall, the Knight of Justice, happens upon two brothers locked in a fierce dispute. After Artegall stops to ask what the brothers are arguing about, stanza 7 explains that:
To whom the elder did this aunswere frame;
Then weete’ ye sir, that we two bretheren be,
To whom our sire, Milesio by name,
Did equally bequeath his lands in fee,
Two Ilands, which ye there before you see
Not farre in sea; of which the one appears
But like a little Mount of small degree;
Yet was as great and wide ere many years,
As that same other Isle, that greater bredth now beares.[i]
As Bracidas, the elder brother, explains, each brother received an island of equal size. These islands are described as being so close together that ‘the one appears but like a little Mount of small degree’ to the other. This description of distance is important for underscoring how likely erosion between one island and the other is to occur. In the last line of this stanza, Artegall and the audience learn that over time ‘that same other Isle’, of the younger brother, has now become wider and more substantial due to the erosion of the older brother’s land and the depositing of that sediment onto the other’s land. This dispute over property due to erosion is known as the legal doctrine of alluvion.[ii]
While these details of alluvion are fleshed out further in the subsequent stanzas, we learn from the very start— before Bracidas explains the property dispute in full— that his father’s name was ‘Milesio’. According to racial mythologies that many Anglo-Irish settlers held about Ireland, Milseio was a Scythian warrior who invaded Ireland and whose two heirs fight over the island.[iii] From this context, the poem makes clear that the land under dispute is Ireland and not simply a portion of Faery-Land. Moreover, given that the first identifying feature of the geography of the property dispute is the identifier ‘Milesio’, the audience is drawn to racialised lore to make sense of the ecological undoing of one island to the benefit of the other. In A View of the Present State of Ireland, Irenius considers Scythian blood as one of the causes of the defective Irish character, particularly in terms of land husbandry.[iv] The Scythian-ness of this episode nests this dispute about erosion and land within discourses about husbandry and race that Spenser draws upon in the View. In particular, these discourses of land use and racial genealogy code Ireland as a land that is mismanaged due to the supposed hostile and deficient character of Irish peoples. Thus, the land dispute between the two brothers (emerging from the ecological process of erosion) brings to the fore spectres of land mismanagement and racialised tropes of Scythian savagery that served to justify the Elizabethan colonisation of Ireland. In this way, the text inextricably ties race and land together and invites the audience to understand questions of land possession through a discourse of savagery. Thus, we should place Artegall’s rich opportunity to arbitrate land ownership based on ecological damage in the context of Elizabethan efforts to colonise Ireland, and the racial mythologies upon which these colonial practices were predicated.
[i] All references to the text come from Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene: Book 5, ed. Abraham Stoll. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006).
[ii] Stoll glosses this episode as following: ‘The brothers’ two equal islands have become unequal through erosion. This judicial problem is called alluvion, in which the movement of water causes the formation of new land, setting off property disputes.’
[iii] As Abraham Stoll explains in the gloss of his 2006 edition of Book 5, ‘Gough suggests a relation to Milesius of Irish legend. Milesius was a Scythian invader of Ireland, whose sons quarreled over the island.’
[iv] See for instance, Irenius’ contention that ‘…the customes, that now are in Ireland, being some of them indeede very strange and almost heathenish, were first brought in…by those nations from whom that countrrey was first peopled; for the difference in manners and customes, doth follow the difference of nations and people. The which I have declared to you, to have beene three especially which seated themselves here: to wit, first the Scythian, then the Gaules, and lastly the English’ (54). After this initial overview of Irish ‘heritage’, Irenius proceeds to explain to Eudoxius that a variety of untoward behaviors, such as lack of stationary farming, singing, and loud funeral rites come from Scythian heritage. I refer to the following edition of A View: Edmund Spenser, A View of the State of Ireland: From the first printed edition (1633), ed. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).
Jeffrey B. Griswold
I well consider all that ye haue sayd,
And find that all things stedfastnes doe hate
And changed be: yet being rightly wayd
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being doe dilate:
And turning to themselues at length againe,
Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
Then ouer them Change doth not rule and raigne;
But they raigne ouer change, and doe their states maintaine.
Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabilitie ends with Nature adjudicating the competing claims of Jove and Mutabilitie. Spenserians tend to read her brief words in either metaphysical or political terms, separating these categories. One branch of knowledge becomes an allegory for the other. In this brief close reading, I will ask what happens when we understand these terms as necessarily intertwined. After all, the Cantos interrogate the ontology of change through a dispute about political domain. They juxtapose competing claims, one founded on ‘the Roman law concept of the right of conquest’ and the other ‘the common law system of property rights’.[i] Dame Nature, however, bypasses the debate between Jove and Mutabilitie by ruling neither sovereign. She instead asks Mutabilitie to be ‘content…to be rul’d by me’ (VII.vii.59). Nature (rather than Mutabilitie or Jove) has legal, political and ontological domain over all things.
To say that Nature has absolute dominion is to say that natural processes are sovereign. Things themselves ‘raigne ouer change’, rather than being subject to chaotic transformations as Mutabilitie’s lineage would suggest. Things change and thereby unfold their being. They maintain their states—a pun on things as material bodies and things as political bodies. As in Aristotelian metaphysics, change occurs teleologically according to form.[ii] Ontologically speaking, sovereignty is neither found in state violence nor in legal systems, as Jove and Mutabilitie would respectively have it. It is grounded in things themselves. But what does it mean to say that beasts or stones are political? Whereas living beings can be afforded a shared sense of rights within the scope of justice, it seems to make less sense to discuss the sovereignty of water. Nevertheless, recent theorists of political ecology contend that we need to understand human and nonhuman actors to be part of coherent publics or democracies. Humans are imbricated in vast networks of nonhuman agencies. This new materialist sense of politics, however, seems ill-suited to fully account for an immanent sense of sovereign domain structured by Protestant theology. There is something weirder going on here.
In the ever-changing things that make up the world, there is a metaphysical sense of political domain. ‘First estate’ in Nature’s decree is not only an ontological term, but also a legal one that refers to an original property-owner’s claim to land.[iii] Even as things change, they nonetheless maintain possession of themselves as property. This sense of individual sovereignty is further indicated through the word ‘dilate’, which also has territorial connotations. While the term suggests extending, diffusing or spreading through a space, ‘dilate’ had a distinctly political valence in the early modern period referring to a military expansion of domain, often in a colonial setting. The theologian Rudolph Gwalther, for instance, critiques ‘the Princes of this world, which labour to dilate and stretch out their borders a farre’.[iv] ‘Dilate’ is a particularly suggestive word in the context of the Cantos’ debate about dominion. In this light, when things change, they expand the realm of their sovereignty. Their being dilates. Every creature and object works their own perfection. Change is an expression of form. In this radical vision, politics (and potentially colonialism) is an immanent expression of ontology. If as Aristotle argues, the polis is ontologically prior to the individual, then Nature’s decree extends this claim beyond the human, suggesting that all human and nonhuman actors are part of a political body structured through a divine order. God’s political ecology is constituted by an innate drive toward form.
[i] Elizabeth Fowler, “The Failure of Moral Philosophy in the Work of Edmund Spenser,” Representations 51 (1995): 69.
[ii] For more on materialism and Aristotelian teleology, see Ayesha Ramachandran, “Mutabilitie’s Lucretian Metaphysics: Skepticism and Cosmic Process in Spenser’s Cantos,” in Celebrating Mutabilitie: Essays on Edmund Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos, ed. Jane Grogan (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 220–45.
[iii] Alex Davis, “Between Courtesy and Constancy: The Faerie Queene, Books 6 and 7,” English Literary History 83.3 (2016): 672–74.
[iv] Rudolf Gwalther, An hundred, threescore and fiftene homelyes or sermons, vppon the Actes of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke (Oxford, 1572).
Spenser’s Helicon is not a body of still water; rather, it is a ‘sacred brooke,’[i]as the flowing headwaters of the Amoretti. As sources of inspiration, the Helicon and its attendant Muses take their customary place at the sequence’s beginning. Yet, the movement of a brook makes the Helicon more than mere aestheticism—as Andrew McRae notes, rivers ‘imply directions and connections’.[ii] As such, this brief reading considers how the Helicon mobilises the figure of Elizabeth Boyle. By implicating Boyle in both inspiration and destruction, the Helicon initiates a type of liquid movement indicative of a poetic water cycle.
Sonnet I dedicates the Amoretti to Boyle, but it also gives her a far more complicated role. The third quatrain reads,
And happy rymes bath’d in the sacred brooke
of Helicon whence she derived is,
when ye behold that Angels blessed looke,
my soules long lacked foode, my heavens blis.[iii]
Here, Boyle is ‘derived’ from the Helicon, and she resembles its angelic Muses. She is thus no mere addressee. Indeed, the Muses are simply alluded to here, whereas Boyle is the one invoked. Association with the Helicon makes Boyle a dual figure, both dedicatee and inspirer. This multiplicity is compounded with the simultaneity of her temporal positioning. Parallel to her past derivation is the future moment when Boyle ‘will … look / and reade’ the sonnets (I.6–7). Invoked as a muse and forecast as an audience, Boyle is essential to the Amoretti both before and after its composition, and she moves fluidly with the Helicon between her different roles and moments.
For all its generative powers, though, water is also capable of erasure. Sonnet I hints at this when it describes the Amoretti as ‘written with teares’ (I.8), but we see water’s full destructive potential in Sonnet LXXV, in which Spenser writes Boyle’s name ‘upon the strand’, only for it to be ‘washed … a way’ (LXXV.1–2). Though a source of inspiration, water is not the best medium for preservation. Waves wash away and tears evaporate. Both generative and destructive, water is defined by multiple functions thus Boyle derives her own multiplicity and simultaneity not just from water’s movement but from water itself. Indeed, she tells Spenser, ‘I my selve shall lyke to this decay, / and eek my name bee wyped out lykewize’ (LXXV.7–8). Association with water increases Boyle’s qualities; water imbues her with the tension between inspiration and ‘decay’. What is inspired by or derived from the Helicon is also prone to impermanence thus water threatens to disappear Spenser’s writing and even Boyle herself.
To recall the liquid motion of Sonnet I, however, water suggests movement and direction. As Greta Gaard asserts, ‘[i]n nature’s energy model, production and consumption form a continuous flow’,[iv] so the artistic energy generated by the Helicon drives creation and destruction together not in contradiction but in continuity. Boyle’s name, written in the sand, is not exactly washed away—it is washed ‘a way’, as if this act of erasure simultaneously creates a route to somewhere else. If water disappears poetic subjects, then perhaps it does so to reconfigure them. Within Sonnet LXXV, this watery cycle repeats with Spenser’s poetry. Like Boyle, the ‘rymes’ are saturated with water—‘bath’d’ as they are in the Helicon. Thus, when Spenser declares, ‘whenas death shall all the world subdew, / our love will live, and later life renew’ (LXXV.13–14), he describes a cycle of death and renewal that not only is enacted by his verse but also is empowered and encapsulated by liquid movement. In indicating the flow of this movement into the larger world, these lines ultimately mark how water cycles out of the physical confines of the sequence, carrying Boyle and Spenser with it.
[i] Edmund Spenser, Amoretti, in The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William Oram et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), I.9.
[ii] Andrew McRae, ‘Fluvial Nation: Rivers, Mobility and Poetry in Early Modern England’, English Literary Renaissance 38, no. 3 (2008): 509.
[iii] Spenser, Amoretti, I.9–12.
[iv] Greta Gaard, ‘Women, Water, Energy: An Ecofeminist Approach’, Organization & Environment 14, no. 2 (2001): 167.