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Catherine Nicholson, Reading and Not Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’: Spenser and the Making of Literary Criticism
by Patrick Cheney

Catherine Nicholson, Reading and Not Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’: Spenser and the Making of Literary Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. viii + 311 pp.

In the title of Catherine Nicholson’s new book, Reading and Not Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’: Spenser and the Making of Literary Criticism, a lot is going on. The main title clearly announces the book project, which is to track the problem – including the history of the problem – of both reading The Faerie Queene and not reading it (more of which presently). Yet the subtitle might also interest readers of The Spenser Review, for Nicholson assigns Spenser a singular role in the modern academy of letters: ‘Spenser’ is coequal with ‘the Making of Literary Criticism’; Spenser is the inaugural figure in the making of what our colleagues across the fields also do. As such, Nicholson’s book is two things at once: a disciplined, innovative, and groundbreaking study of The Faerie Queene, but also a profound meditation on the history of ‘literary criticism’. While for readers of the present pages the full title will likely captivate, it may also catch the attention of the academy at large. For a book on ‘Spenser’, or ‘The Faerie Queene’, this is no small feat.

The large-scale idea at the centre of the book is Spenser’s central – pathbreaking – role in creating the discipline we and our colleagues practise. Yet the evidence for the idea is anything but expected. Rather than a triumphalist narrative about Spenser’s unparalleled greatness, Nicholson features a road not always taken, as captured in her main title: a history of the divided reception of The Faerie Queene. Spenser has been important for two things simultaneously. For the past 400 years, he has been so monumental that he has precipitated not only what we all recognize, the invention of a landmark work in English and European literature, but also the invention of a hitherto neglected phenomenon: an entire tradition of ‘not reading The Faerie Queene’. I am trying to think of another author who can boast of this bifold achievement. Importantly, ‘not reading’ does not mean neglecting to read or even avoiding reading. The history that Nicholson traces is not that of Ben Jonson, who, if anything, is not read for a different reason. Neither does her history pertain to William Shakespeare, or John Milton, who are always read. Or Isabella Whitney, George Gascoigne, or Edmund Waller, who are rarely read. The case of Spenser appears to be unique indeed.

Spenser’s uniqueness emerges in the two epigraphs to Nicholson’s Coda, titled ‘Reading to the End’:

The Faery Queen, it is said, has never been read to the end.

—Virginia Woolf, The Moment and Other Essays, 1947

 Without being insensible to the defects of the Fairy Queen, I am never weary of reading it.

—Robert Southey, Letter to Walter Savage Landor, 1811

Even Southey, as Nicholson points out, ‘seems to have felt the occasional twinge of impatience at the poem he loved so much’. Yet Woolf’s remark has more than meets the eye; it ‘could also be taken straight: The Faerie Queene never has been read to the end, for the simple reason that no one can quite say where, or if, it ends at all’ (241). Nicholson’s read of Woolf leads to an innovative discussion of the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie and the dispute that the work has long provoked: is Mutabilitie ‘meant for incorporation into The Faerie Queene’, as Andrew Zurcher argues, or is the work meant to ‘reflect Spenser’s most deeply felt longings’ for The Faerie Queene, as J.B. Lethbridge argues?  I shall return to the Coda at the end, but acknowledge here that for Nicholson the Mutabilitie Cantos are important to end with because ‘the divergent conclusions reached are rooted in divergent preferences, not only about how to read the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie but about how to read, period’ (252).

That ‘period’ speaks to the larger theoretical issue underwriting a book on The Faerie Queene. For Nicholson means it when she says that she pursues two mutually reinforcing – or perhaps two self-cancelling – projects: not simply ‘reading and not reading’ The Faerie Queene, but also reading (or not reading?) The Faerie Queene’s role in a 430-year history of ‘Literary Criticism’.

To structure her bifold project, Nicholson includes an Introduction, six chapters, and the Coda. While the first chapter serves as further orientation for the Introduction, the five remaining chapters cover the Books of The Faerie Queene, with each Book receiving one chapter, except for Books 3 and 4, which appear in a single chapter. Structurally, in other words, Reading and Not Reading focuses on the progressive development of the 1596 Faerie Queene in the printed edition itself. Inside each of the chapters, two things happen. First, Nicholson provides an acute, fresh ‘reading’ of the poem inside each Book. Second, she provides an acute, original history of reading for each Book. For us, that means gains in two quarters: repeated insight about the intricate details of the poem – word, line, stanza, canto, Book, the whole poem itself – and an increased grasp of the history of commentary on the poem, from the Legend of Holiness through the Legend of Courtesy, and beyond. Since Nicholson engages larger professional questions of ‘literary criticism’, we might take away three things in particular: training in reading the poem; education in the history of reading the poem; and a reminder of just how the work of Spenserians contributes to the profession.

We will all read this book.

I’ve been reading The Faerie Queene for over fifty years, and I’m delighted to report that I still haven’t ‘read’ the poem in the slightest. That’s one discovery from this reader’s absorption in a work of ‘literary criticism’ three-hundred pages long. What’s absorbing is that, on the one hand, the book is dense – few will speed-read – while, on the other, it proves difficult ‘not [to] read’. Nicholson has done a wonderful job, not simply of structuring the book – keeping the argument going forward – but also of writing prose that sparkles at nearly every utterance.

Part of the reason for the sparkle is that the book is devoid of cynicism. This is a book about Spenser’s love of poetry – and the unsettling effect that that love has had on the history of readers. The book does not have a cynical bone in its body. For a book that in half its space rehearses the history of resistance to The Faerie Queene, this is something of a miracle. As Nicholson says at one point, ‘Rather than seeking to exclude or amend’ the ‘wrongheaded responses’ of so many readers, ‘this book cherishes them, as an index of the poem’s own ambivalently mixed signals, a sensitive barometer of shifts in literary culture, and an indispensable archive of repressed or forgotten episodes in the history of reading itself’ (22). Her ambition is not to celebrate her detached self but to engage her reader in the experience of The Faerie Queene and in its history – both eloquent objectors like Woolf and dumbfounded enthusiasts like Southey (and those like Southey who maintain enthusiasm despite objection).

Nicholson devotes a full book to The Faerie Queene because, as she says in her Introduction, she recognizes the poem’s ‘peculiar and discomfiting genius’: its capacity ‘to call reading into question’. ‘The Faerie Queene’, she continues, ‘invests the work of interpretation with extraordinary, even existential, power: in the densely coded, relentlessly violent world of Spenser’s poem, learning to read in the precise fashion that a particular text or occasion requires is the means to narrative survival’. What Nicholson values is that ‘the poem repeatedly confronts us with the image of our engagement with it, and summons us to do better’. But, she adds, the poem ‘can be unnerving, too’: ‘For all its faith in the transformative power of reading well, The Faerie Queene is a showcase of hermeneutic excess and incompetence, its pages littered with botched encounters between readers and texts’. When she says that ‘the poem subjects reading to a deeply skeptical accounting’, in which ‘reading comes up short’ (2), she permits me to underscore the miracle: if this book pursues a ‘skeptical’ methodology, it does not seem to know it.

Nicholson ‘argue[s]’ that ‘we bear the imprint of Spenser’s fashioning, whether we read The Faerie Queene or not’; and, she adds, for those who do read the poem, ‘the experience’ is the ‘opposite’ of what Spenser calls ‘discipline’ in the Letter to Ralegh: ‘not a steady progress toward understanding but a wild careening from one error or embarrassment to another’. Nicholson goes so far as to say, ‘That pattern of reaction and overreaction is both The Faerie Queene’s signature effect on readers and its distinct contribution to the history of literary criticism’ (5). What she values is that ‘reading perpetually begets not reading’: ‘this self-contradictory impulse serves as both a structural principle and an organizing theme’. Distinctively, The Faerie Queene scripts a reading … we read the reading script … and then we don’t read it: ‘What results is neither a reading nor a reception history … but a dynamic hybrid of the two’ (6), so that ‘Unreasoning animus and passionate attachment are the twin hallmarks of The Faerie Queene’s reception history’ (12).

Readers of The Spenser Review will especially delight, and benefit from, Nicholson’s history of Spenser criticism in her Introduction (14-20), and indeed throughout the book, with many familiar names and faces: Frye, Hamilton, Tuve, Berger, Alpers, Fletcher, Nohrnberg, Anderson, Goldberg, Quilligan, Montrose, Greenblatt, Prescott, Miller, Loewenstein, Fowler, Hadfield. In fact, the book manages to return us to our own (individual) point of origin with The Faerie Queene: that originary encounter. (For me, that was in the Fall of 1969, in a class taught by the late Walter N. King, a graduate of Nicholson’s university, at the University of Montana, where I was captivated by the Poetry of Faerie in the original 1590s spelling. It was the knights, the ladies, the forest, the magic, the verse: no wonder it led to a dissertation at the place of Frye titled ‘Magic in The Faerie Queene’).

The Faerie Queene’s original spelling turns out to be the topic of Nicholson’s Chapter 1, ‘“The Falsest Twoo”: Forging the Scholarly Reader’, which features the curious orthography at, when Archimago confronts his sprites and chooses ‘two , the falsest twoo’: ‘The gratuitous “o” in “twoo” throws the phrase off-balance, exposing a lurking gap between the written word and the stable, self-similar meaning it is pledged to represent’, opening the poem’s ‘Una’ to ‘Duessa’. Yet ‘the phrase […]  may also herald the comeuppance of the poem’s attentive close reader’ (33): ‘Ignoring the difference between “two”  and “twoo” might be a capitulation to Archimago’s double-dealing, but assigning meaning to that difference risks burdening the poem with an anachronistic expectation of orthographic regularity’ (34). In other words, what Nicholson finds is an orthographical issue that gives ‘an uncanny charge’ to ‘the narrative content of book 1, canto l’, with its blurring of the distinction between the False Una and Una (35). This issue leads to a fascinating history of editors confronting the orthography of the original text, from Hughes in 1715 to the always-emerging (occasionally in the public eye) Oxford Edition of the Collected Works of Edmund Spenser. What Nicholson’s opening chapter aims to do is ‘bring’ the ‘repressed antecedents’ of the poem ‘back in view, as a step toward recognizing and reckoning with their continued influence on how we read the poem now’ (44).

Chapter 2, ‘Una’s Line: Child Readers and the Afterlife of Fiction’, which first appeared excerpted in The Spenser Review, continues to explore Book 1, but it focuses on another word, Una’s ‘line’ – that by which she leads the milk-white lamb in the Book’s opening emblem of Knight, Lady, and Dwarf. Taking C.S. Lewis’ inference that The Faerie Queene is not always ‘allegorical’, Nicholson tracks the despondent Una after Redcrosse abandons her (cantos 3 and 6) in what Nicholson calls ‘the lapsed middle of Spenser’s allegory’ (50). Remarking that ‘Una is one of The Faerie Queene’s richest symbolic nodes’, she offers a reception history of a lady herself, from the eighteenth century forward, communicating that, ‘For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, […] Una was at the epicenter of The Faerie Queene’, to the extent that she ‘represented The Faerie Queene’: ‘not because she signified eternal truth but because she embodied a transitory fiction, a pleasure fated to give way to more serious and lasting pursuits’. Una’s capacity to be at once ‘cherishable and vulnerable’ made her stand ‘not only for The Faerie Queene, […] but for the imagined or recollected idyll of childhood reading’ (51). Nicholson then details a history of childhood reading of Una that ‘intersects in complicated ways with the history of childhood itself’ (54). Invaluably, she pinpoints a ‘split’ between ‘allegorical instruction and narrative wildness’ (55) – a split that her book showcases at large. Reminiscent of and influenced by Alpers (see below for a startling complication), Nicholson is principally concerned to read, not the ‘allegory’, but the ‘narrative’, and what she finds – even in, especially in, Una – is ‘wildness’ indeed: ‘it is childishness to which Spenser himself seems intermittently prone’ (56).

Like later chapters, Chapter 2 is brimful with insights about the text, as when Britomart, Belphoebe, and even ‘Hellenora’ ‘suggest a distinct pattern: allegorical intendment seems to loosen its grasp on the poem whenever its female characters assume the lead’ (58). Instead of featuring the high points or even low points of Book 1 (the Mount of Contemplation, the Underworld of Dame Night), Nicholson attends to ‘incidental details’ (62), to profound effect: ‘The forests and fields in which Una wanders […] offer […] a respite: not an escape from reality, […]  but an escape to it’ (63). Tracking Una’s lonely sojourn in scrupulous detail, she sees the lady’s stay among the satyrs as ‘a self-reflexive account of allegorical instruction’ (74): those mis-readers of Una, the cheerful, loyal satyrs, help us see that ‘benign misreading has a vital, even redemptive place in the poem’s system of hermeneutic value’ – what Nicholson calls Spenser’s commitment to ‘accommodation with uncertainty, a willingness to accept accident as the operation of grace in a fallen world’ (75). Readers may be especially grateful for Nicholson’s history of Una in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, complete with enticing illustrations (83-9). In the end, Una becomes ‘the object of Spenser’s own deepest ambivalence about the transitory nature of allegorical images’ (93): ‘Una’s function [is] as a figure of fiction itself, and particularly for the fictions of childhood… . [T]he partial revelations of poetry need not give way to an apocalypse of understanding’, but rather, ‘the affective and aesthetic pleasures of childish reading might persist into maturity and after’ (101).

Chapter 3, ‘Load Every Rift: Avid Readers in the Legend of Temperance’, takes its title phrase from a line that Keats memorably pulled out of the Mammon episode (, to signify Spenser’s ‘desirable linguistic richness’ (109), and allowing Nicholson to shore up her own commitment: not to allegorical meaning but to the ‘richness’ of Spenser’s poetry (110). To Berger’s idea in The Allegorical Temper – that ‘the critic’s task is to solve’ the ‘difficulty’ of ‘poetic unity’ (116) – Nicholson offers a ‘historicist revision’ (117), focusing on the Cave of Mammon and the Bower of Bliss. She begins by recalling the rich presence of Spenser – including these two episodes – in Renaissance miscellanies as another assault on allegory, illuminating the poem as ‘at odds with’ its ‘didactic aims’ (122). Additionally, she examines how three of Spenser’s early readers – Ben Jonson, Thomas Hoby, and Thomas Warton – read the poem differently: Jonson, registering ‘his pleasure in the poem’s figurative language’ (126); Hoby, the ‘particularities of plot’ (128); and Warton, ‘moral sententiae’ (133). Next, Nicholson looks at what she calls ‘The Inexhaustible Stanza’ (135), 2.9.22, which so fascinated Sir Kenelm Digby. In particular recalling that Digby’s well-known observations were first made by his friend Jonson in the margins of his copy of the poem, she observes: ‘As the career of FQ 2.9.22 suggests, the detachability of a stanza or a line or a phrase from its poetic context can serve as an index of its value as a commodity among readers’ (141) – in particular, as ‘a sense of mystery and profundity quite apart from the castle [of Alma’s] […] significance’ (141-2). Downplaying the value of allegorical reading, Nicholson features ‘lenses’ that are ‘diffractive and prismatic’ (144).

Chapter 4, ‘Half-Envying: The Interested Reader and the Partial Marriage Plot’, focuses on the way that Books 3 and 4 solicit ‘reading “characterologically”’ in order to ‘secure’ the reader’s ‘interest’ (145). Hence, these Books recurrently stage scenes of reading, so that we ‘perpetually trip […] over fictionalized incarnations’ of ourselves: ‘But the primary – and ultimate – audience for The Faerie Queene was a singularly potent historical subject’, identified in the 1590 dedication: Queen Elizabeth. Nicholson finds that part of the poem most likely to have attracted Elizabeth to be ‘the middle books where the politically fraught theme of marriage comes to the fore’ (147). Featuring ‘The Faerie Queene’s narrative plenitude’ as ‘the ethical and formal antidote to allegorical stringency’, Nicholson tracks Spenser’s ‘seemingly perverse unwillingness to distribute the goods of marital satisfaction’ (148). (In passing, she draws attention to Spenser’s narrative strategy here to ‘countenance, and even to assign value to, a truth academic criticism of The Faerie Queene usually works to suppress: no one reads the poem all at once, and many readers never finish it’; ‘partial’ reading’ is what The Faerie Queene ‘rewards or even cultivates’ [151]). Reading Britomart and her ‘Half-envying’ of Amoret and Scudamour embracing at the end of Book 3 as ‘a sinister stand-in for the queen’, Nicholson tracks ‘the specter of her erotic jealousy’ as it ‘haunts his poems’ (155): the ‘tension between desire and duty is the hallmark of Spenserian marriage’, which the poet imagines as ‘a challenge to friendship, hospitality, and commonality – values that in turn are liable to force departures from its supreme but selfish bliss’ (156). Noting that ‘forced departures are in fact among the most familiar narrative devices in The Faerie Queene’, Nicholson finds marriage resoundingly to be an ‘ambivalent […] figure for the poet’s relationship to his verse’ (156).

This is the one place I found myself a questioner. Falling into a longstanding trap in Spenser criticism, Nicholson says that ‘The Shepheardes Calender and the Prothalamion bracket an oeuvre in which neither sexual propriety nor poetic authority are maintained without cost; both vows and verses are in perpetually short supply, and someone is always left wanting’ (157). For her, Spenser’s verse becomes ‘anxious’, characterised by ‘rivalry and resentment’: ‘Envy is the uninvited guest at every Spenserian wedding’ (158). Authoritative in her even-handed voice, and skillfully citing nervousness among the Reformers about marriage, Nicholson nonetheless falls into an unfortunate commonplace of Spenser criticism: that Spenser became disillusioned with The Faerie Queene and indeed with poetry itself – especially a poetry of ‘marriage’, which at the end ‘constellates’ his ‘anxieties’. What ‘motivates’ Spenser, she avers, is a ‘nervous accounting of gain and loss, as much as any vision of balance, wholeness, or hermaphroditic perfection’ (160). What she doesn’t seem to entertain is a third possibility: that Spenser uses his poetry not to represent the condition of his psyche but to combat that condition, and to make that cheerful warfare the work of his art on our behalf. Nonetheless, Nicholson’s subsequent discussions of Florimell, Malbecco, and even Orpheus in Epithalamion all merit attention, including the intrusive appearance of Queen Elizabeth peeking through the window of the bridal chamber as ‘Cynthia’.

Chapter 5, ‘Reading Against Time: Crisis in The Faerie Queene’, traces the well-worn path from ‘the erotic, emotional, and narrative entanglements of the Legends of Chastity and Friendship to the more narrowly political aims of the Legend of Justice’ (177). Starting with the line at, ‘It was no time to scan the prophecie’ (spoken about Proteus’ prophecy regarding Marinell so troubling to his mother), Nicholson recognizes that ‘understanding is sometimes too little, too late’: ‘What’s needed to keep the poem going is an inhuman reader’, and she finds that reader in Talus, for the Iron Man serves as ‘a guide to the peculiar temporalities of reading in the Legend of Justice’ (178). Whereas generations criticize the brutality of Talus, Nicholson refreshingly sees the Iron Man ‘mak[ing] […] a case for the unpoetic reader, for whom the demands and the insights of the moment supersede the values of patience and diligence on which poetic reading […] depends’ (179). Here we might remain especially attentive. Taking issue with critics who either criticize Book 5’s brutishness or defend its ‘complexity’ (185), Nicholson follows Angus Fletcher’s Prophetic Moment in rescuing the poem from ‘mere politics’, offering instead ‘a straitened extremity of the poem in which reading itself is both accelerated and attenuated, exposed as less profound and less transformative an enterprise than we often wish to believe’ (187). Viewed from this perspective, The Faerie Queene proceeds as a ‘pedagogy […] in which knowing how to read very often means knowing how—or what—not to read. From this angle, book 5 looks less like a revolt against the poem’s faith in interpretation than an intensification of the shortcuts and half-measures such faith has always, in practice, entailed’ (194). In this way, Book 5 ‘offers us an opportunity to reflect more openly, and less defensively, on the instrumental, expedient, and urgently motivated character of criticism’ (195). The chapter closes with an intriguing unit on Talus as a figure anticipating the modern digital age: the Iron Man as ‘“big data”’ (209).

Chapter 6, ‘Blatant Beasts: Encounters with Other Readers’, sees a similarity between the ‘space’ of the Legend of Courtesy and the ‘scene’ of reading, a scene that Nicholson discovers to be filled with ‘the awareness that one is not alone with what one reads’: ‘Shame and irritation are far more pervasive in the Legend of Courtesy than understanding or delight, and they must be managed or modulated rather than dispelled’ (219). In particular, she finds that the ‘improvisatory quality’ of courtesy makes an ‘eminently useful frame for thinking about reading’. Here, we encounter a further digestion of value: ‘the delicate balance of ambition and reticence that Spenser terms courtesy’ (220). Once more featuring the poem’s ‘lapse in confidence’ (225), Nicholson sees the poet full of ‘disappointment’, ‘frustration’, and ‘pessimism’, which ‘seems to be a shift from the anxiety of influence’ in earlier books ‘to the anxiety of reception’ (226) – an acute insight in itself. What’s especially breathtaking here is her measured indictment of Paul Alpers, who in ‘How to Read The Faerie Queene’ engaged in ‘book reviewing as blood sport’ against Donald Cheney’s Spenser’s Image of Nature: Wild Man and Shepheard’ (235) – a sport that Nicholson says calls ‘the humanities’ into question and an extreme violation of ‘Spenserian courtesy’ (237), one that Nicholson herself is uncannily careful not to commit, even as she remains critical of our late colleague’s essay. Usefully, she contrasts Spenser’s ‘minimal ethic of courtesy’ (238) with the poison of the academy today: ‘Alpers’ review essay strikes me as a fitting place to conclude this book, for both the pleasure and the embarrassment of being caught off guard have been an enormous part of the experience of researching and writing it’, given how often her own ‘confidence’ was ‘shaken […] in what [she] […] knew, about the poem and about reading itself’, however much she was able to rest content to ‘resist […] the basic expectation that readings must be relevant in order to qualify as such’ (239).

We should not quarrel with Nicholson devoting a whole book to only one part of the Spenser canon, as long as we recognize that The Faerie Queene is not co-equal with ‘Spenser’. Indeed, the book is surprisingly reticent in its references to the remaining body of Spenser’s work (that is to say, her book is well focused, however wide-ranging). It has more references to A View of the Present State of Ireland (8) than to Fowre Hymnes (0), and it never mentions Complaints, Daphnaida, or Astrophel, while references to other works remain minimal (many tucked into notes): The Shepheardes Calender (7), Amoretti and Epithalamion (4), Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1), Prothalamion (2). For a book of this title and scope, who can quarrel? But we might also be cautioned: this is not, finally, a book about ‘Spenser’, despite its subtitle. It is a book about one of Spenser’s poems: his most sublime poem (a word that Nicholson often uses), the most sublime in the English language, along with Poly-Olbion and Paradise Lost, says Fletcher in Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. At the same time, we might wonder: what are the implications of Nicholson’s study for the Spenser canon at large – for individual works inside his canon? What would a corresponding history about his canon look like – or about one of his other poems, such as The Shepheardes Calender? While likely un-trackable, for the reader of these pages nonetheless it might be a question useful to pose so we can carry on the work of Catherine Nicholson. Altogether, we are lucky that some of the most brilliant critics in the wider profession are writing sublimely on Spenser – Gordon Teskey, for instance, whose 2019 Spenserian Moments bursts time indeed. Catherine Nicholson bursts time by entering steadfastly into it, like Britomart with her shield and spear ‘resolv[ing]’ to ‘assayl[e]’ the fiery wall of Busirane’s enchanted house (

In sum, Nicholson’s Reading and Not Reading The Faerie Queene: Spenser and the Making of Literary Criticism calls for a revolution in Spenser and literary studies. More accurately, perhaps, Nicholson’s book sanctions a revolution that has been going on since 1590 and 1596, as Jonson and Digby were among the first to testify – those early readers who give evidence of ‘not reading’ The Faerie Queene: they listen to the verse; they veer from the ‘allegorical device’; they luxuriate, undauntedly, in the mathematical joy of Spenserian poetry. There are, then, two poems – two readerly experiences of a single poem: reading and not reading. We can read allegorically according to the dictates of the poet’s posted signage; we can not read allegorically according to the dictates of the signage left unposted. By not reading The Faerie Queene, we discover a ‘Spenser’ not always recognized in ‘literary criticism’. In our recognition, we enter freely into the spirit rather than the letter of the verse: or rather, the letter directs us to the spirit, not a phantasm. In this Spenserian process, pleasure supplants, or supplements, understanding. This is what Nicholson communicates in each of her chapters: what eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers read into Una; what Keats reads into Mammon’s gold rifts; what Queen Elizabeth could have read in the marriage plots of the Legends of Chastity and Friendship; what Fletcher grants us to read in the figure of Talus; and what Nicholson herself reads in the Legend of Courtesy. By both reading and not reading The Faerie Queene, we discover a ‘pedagogy’ that militates against a limited teaching that interprets the matter of The Faerie Queene one for one: Una is Truth. Una is Truth; she is not truth. In her book, Nicholson liberates a reader bound upon the wheel of allegory. In our state of liberation, we enter poetry, to discover the verse: it beckons. Above all, Nicholson helps us read in accord with the mystery of art. The freedom of the mystery allows us to step beyond the rigor of ‘discipline’, or perhaps to reconceive discipline from the inside rather than the outside. In this verse-process, Britomart reigns supreme: the heroine of Chastity guides us out of allegory into character: hers, and Spenser’s.

Nowhere is Nicholson’s method more at issue than in the episode narrating the birth of The Faerie Queene itself: Arthur’s Dream of Gloriana. Of what is this an ‘allegory’? I do not know, nor do I care to know, and that is all I need to know. Instead, I find one of the West’s most sublime fictions. Although it may have origins in Chaucer and other visionary poets like Ovid and Virgil, it is not always remembered that it lacks precedent, anywhere. It is a supreme imitatio. Once upon a sunny day, a young knight rides his horse, with spirit, through the beauty of nature; he grows tired, rests; he dreams. What he dreams is not a dream; it is a vision; it is not a vision (the vision of Sir Thopas). When Arthur awakes, he finds the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The dreamer finds himself beyond dream, on earth: the grass is pressed. It bears the imprint, the feminine form, of dream-truth. What does it mean? What does it mean to Arthur? Are we in allegory, or beyond it? Arthur’s Dream of Gloriana anticipates Britomart’s vision of Artegall in Merlin’s magic mirror, where, in these two exemplars of national epic romance poesis, Spenser constructs a fictional crucible rather than an ‘allegorical’ template, and he does so not to transmit an idea or post-conceit but a life-experience, a life-pattern: not a one-for-one representation of divine truth but an unfathomable directive for human life. The energy is unmappable, the ‘face divine’: Spenser’s Faerie Queene motivates the quest of a lifetime. Accordingly, it has a sublime afterlife: in Marston’s Jack Drum’s Entertainment; in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline; in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Readers of The Spenser Review / Readers of The Faerie Queene, those like Woolf, and those like Southey: it is all right not to read The Faerie Queene from its outset, where we encounter a gentle knight pricking on the plain, to its midpoint, where a lady dressed as a knight-errant discerns that life is wretchedness, to its close, where a gentle poet, facing a glowering political pressure, vows mournfully to keep wiseman’s treasure: by not reading The Faerie Queene, we discover the poet’s verse communicating its deepest with us.

In her Coda, Nicholson summarizes what she values in ‘the world of The Faerie Queene’: ‘the point at which expectation yields to satisfaction can always be postponed’ (243). She finds the test case in The Mutabilitie Cantos. Featuring Sebastian Evans’ 1880 attempt to see the Cantos as evidence of Spenser’s modern scientific prescience, she concludes that they ‘are not a fulfillment of Spenser’s plan for The Faerie Queene so much as a benediction on the labor of his readers’: ‘As a story about endurance amid loss and change, it is also a consoling fiction of Spenser’s career, reconciling poetic intention to human error and historical accident and sublime inspiration to the undignified hazards of embodiment. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, it is a consoling fiction of what it is like to read The Faerie Queene’. As she acknowledges, ‘The inexhaustible quality that makes reading The Faerie Queene so daunting – the sense that there are always more questions to answer and further challenges to surmount – can also make it an obsessive, even addictive, pleasure’ (256). In the ‘Sabbath’s sight’ at the end of Mutabilitie, she finds ‘the vision of a poem that never does end, so long as there is someone, somewhere, who wishes it to continue’ (260).

That someone is Catherine Nicholson but also, hopefully, us: a community of Spenserians, across the profession: readers – and now not readers – of The Faerie Queene, and of the Spenser canon, or not.

                                                                                                            Patrick Cheney

                                                                                                Pennsylvania State University


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Cite as:

Patrick Cheney, "Catherine Nicholson, Reading and Not Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’: Spenser and the Making of Literary Criticism," Spenser Review 51.2.4 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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