Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Hospitality and Decorum in Spenser’s 'Legend of Courtesy' and 'A View'
by Owen Kane

In the Epistle Dedicatory to the Shepheardes Calender, ‘E.K.’ praises Spenser’s ‘dewe obseruing of Decorum euerye where, in personages, in seasons, in matter, in speach, and generally in al seemely simplycitie of handeling his matter, and framing his words’.[1] Spenser’s poetic decorum corresponds to a universal order-of-things following the ancient Greek notion of arrangedness implied in Plato’s use of the word kosmos in the Gorgias: ‘Wise men, Callicles, say that the heavens and the earth, gods and men, are bound together by a fellowship and friendship, and order, and temperance and justice, and for this reason they call the sum of all things the ‘ordered’ universe’ (kosmos).[2] The ancient Greeks recognized a transcendent orderliness against which things were measured as well or poorly made. My starting point is George Puttenham’s definition of poetic decorum: ‘This lovely conformity, or proportion, or conveniency between the sense and the sensible hath nature herself first most carefully observed in all her own works […] is that which the Latins call decorum.’[3] I believe the concept of poetic decorum helps explain the quest for courtesy in Book Six of  The Faerie Queene and Spenser’s humanist rationale in the colonial project of A View of the State of Ireland.

In the legend, Calidore, top-heavy with the giddy freedom of establishing decorum in social relationships, upsets every host-guest situation he barges into, then must back-step to redress his wrong, readjusting to his benefit the proportions of the situation he has just wrecked. This recursive movement does not indicate a failure to follow established rules of hospitality, but rather what I will call a circumstantial decorum of poetic hospitality. Calidore proceeds ‘withouten guyde’ (Vi.i.6.2). This freedom will allow him to treat situations with the decorum Spenser inherited from the Italian literary debates over Ariosto, where digressions and marvellous episodes, or ‘waies untryde / In perils strange’ (VI.i.6.4-5), could be included in the romance genre for the delight they gave. The result is a poem ‘Whose course is often stayd, yet neuer astray’ (VI.xii.1.9). The precedent for this open decorum is Aristotle’s analogy in the Nichomachean Ethics of the leaden rule or flexible standard for measuring stones used in architecture on the island of Lesbos, which ‘adapts to fit the shape of the stone and does not remain rigid, so the special decree adapts to fit the circumstances’.[4] The equivalent in the Poetics is Aristotle’s understanding that there isn’t the same standard of ‘correctness in the art of civil life as in that of poetry, nor is there in any art as in that of poetry’.[5] The uniqueness of poetry, as explored in his Rhetoric, is that its poetic decorum introduces an element of xenos or ‘strangeness’ that would be unfit for use in the ‘more commonplace concerns’ of rhetoric.[6] Poetic language gives the ‘appearance of dignity’ to its subject by adopting ‘uncommon and ornamented’ diction.[7] In this way, poetic speech grants a gift of moral hospitality. It bestows the potential for good character to ‘every class’ of person’[8] by attributing difference or variety in poetic language to their personal dignity. For example, in poetry a ‘very young man’ might ‘express himself in beautiful language on matters of too little importance’,[9] which Aristotle would see as being unfit for a political speech. His aim is to establish a special vocation for poetry that gives to poetry’s treatment of outlandish subjects a moral function of representing the very best or worst – in a word, the ideal – of a particular character type, such as might be then defined in civic life. As critics, including Wayne Rebhorn, Kathy Eden, and Jenny Mann, have suggested in examining debates justifying a vernacular English literature, decorum becomes a procedure for making ‘strange things seem familiar’ and ‘rendering alien or foreign elements at home’ within Aristotle’s political model based on the household.[10]

This decorum of poetic hospitality extends a provisional welcome to a person, persona, idea, or expression that would transform the historical or poetic conditions for extending that welcome. Calidore, we see, approaches every situation with a set of expectations, consistently finds himself out of his depth, and must then adjust his approach. This recursive movement feels at odds with his aim, which is to re-balance a social situation according to a purported inborn sense of fair and unfair. At the outset, this re-balancing involves matters of distributive justice, exemplified when Briana, once subdued by Calidore, freely offers her castle to Calidore who re-gifts it to the Squire ‘For recompense of all their former wrong’ (VI.i.47.6). This is a relatively smooth reparation. Calidore will later stumble on more uneven social terrain.

Courtesy, the proem announces, was originally ‘Planted in earth’ (VI.Proem.3.6), but everywhere appears to be a ‘forgerie, / Fashion’d to please the eies of them, that pas’ (VI.Proem.5.3-4). The issue is that after the first two cantos, courtesy becomes increasingly difficult for Calidore to ground. In its place is a circumstantial courtesy, which is a method for proceeding into a social situation where one does not know the correct decorum for the occasion. It relies on a shared premise of hospitality: that you might extend to me a degree of leeway if I overstep or say the wrong thing, and that you will continue to extend welcome because you recognize that my intentions conform with your sense of the good. In return, I will apologize and try to adjust my speech and actions so that I might be a better guest and follow the house rules. The aim of this type of courtesy is to assert statements or perform actions, such as making promises, that grant temporary constancy to an otherwise inconsistent world. The best example in Book Six is Calidore’s lie to Priscilla’s parents in canto three, attesting to Priscilla being ‘Most perfect pure, and guiltlesse innocent / of blame’ (VI.iii.18.3-4), which I read as Calidore choosing a reparative courtesy over obeying court hospitality.

Except that as the Legend progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that Calidore has not fully cultivated the above skill, because he demands comprehension and control of a situation based on his fluent ability to ‘steale mens hearts away’ (VI.i.2.6). Spenser provides a theoretical explanation for Calidore’s intrusiveness. Though courtesy should be by ‘inward thoughts defynd’ (VI.Proem. 5.9), it is knowable only by ‘outward shows’ (VI.Proem.5.9) which are often manipulated for strategic ends. There is a partiality built into the application of courtesy that Calidore is determined to master through the decorous management of appearances. Yet the general goal of decorum is to fabricate a common-sense relationship between inward thought and outward show, or part and whole, or res and verba: ‘What is done fittingly’, Cicero writes, and what accords with duty and nature, should be perceived from a ‘glance of the eyes, from the relaxation or contraction of an eyebrow, from sadness, cheerfulness or laughter, from speech or from silence, from a raising or lowering of the voice.’[11]

Ideally, courtesy would indicate a direct relationship between human expression and cosmic harmony. This correspondence is enacted in the Dance of the Graces where the arts of courtesy become gifts that ‘decke the body or adorne the mynde’ (VI.x.23.2). Two complementary frames of decorum are visible here: the skill of civility which transforms hierarchical situations into ‘friendly offices that bynde’ (VI.x.23.5), and an analogical relationship involving the reciprocity and proportion between an external appearance, inner virtue, and the cosmos. Altogether, what I’ve just described is an allegorical frame of mind that approaches the variable quality of appearances by seeking to make sense of them and calculates their use-value in the grand scheme of things. Such is Calidore’s disposition, discontent with viewing from afar and ‘Therefore resoluing, what it was, to know’ (VI.x.17.8).

Calidore’s intrusion demonstrates two ways in which Spenser reckons with how appearances affect us. We might describe these two modes in poetic terms as two different ways of handling the same material. Firstly, when witnessed from afar, the Dance of the Graces elicits a sensory response and emotional conviction. The Vision makes an impression upon Calidore that he cannot deny, rationalize, or as yet judge. Secondly, Calidore’s attempt to intrude upon the Vision results in the need for a great deal of explication, narrative, allegorizing, and apologizing on the part of Colin. The whole scene displays an attempt to establish a constancy that fallen humanity cannot possess, so that human processes of sense-making, of making promises, of offering a space of hospitality and safety, are revealed as efforts to stitch fragile relationships that have become unstitched as the effect of the discontinuity of life.

I want to explore next Spenser’s attempt to use decorum to manage and control relationships in A View of the Present State of Ireland and how it informs scenes in the final cantos of Book Six. In A View, Spenser’s persona, Irenius, tries to answer this question: how might the English go about ‘reducing’ the Irish to ‘better government and civility?’[12] Civility, the skill of knowing how to ‘our selues demeane, to low, to hie’ (VI.x.23.8) according to decorum ­– in short, knowing one’s place – reduces dignified citizenship to docile good behaviour, in much the way appearing grown-up commonly connotes acting well-mannered. Hence Irenius saying ‘reduced to perpetuall civilitie’ and ‘contayned in continuall duty’ (15). Spenser is reckoning with the humanist constitutional challenge that ‘lawes ought to be fashioned unto the manners and conditions of the people, to whom they are meant’ (20). Except he projects this factor of due measure against a class of Irish rebels who resist being brought into English civil conversation. Irenius argues: since ‘wee cannot now apply lawes fit to the people […] we will apply the people, and fit them unto the lawes, as it most conveniently may bee’ (135). Rather than segregating the Irish, he advocates ‘translating’ them and ‘scattering them amongst the English, not onely to bring them by dayly conversation unto better liking of each other, but also to make both of them lesse able to hurt’ (145). With these words, the terminology of humanist education is co-opted to support Spenser’s imperial politics. ‘Translating’ here has much the same value that Derrida ascribed to hospitality to show that it violently demands translating an other’s spoken language into a language that can be shared in order to offer welcome.[13] Spenser’s humanist aim is to provide the grounds for mutually beneficial conversation (in service of English plantation) and a reduction in violence by establishing and policing property. He effectively translates the discourse of schoolroom discipline onto the re-settled Irish whom he hopes will ‘grow up’ to ‘civill conversation’ (151).

Those who resist this decorum are excluded from taking part in its social vision, Irenius argues, remarking that rebels who will not be obedient should ‘be cut off’ (77) – a point he makes immediately after a discussion of ordering the ‘goodly ornaments of poetry’ serving to ‘adorne and beautifie vertue’ (77). Spenser is applying poetic principles of organization to the social geography of Ireland. Making a literary allusion, Eudoxus recalls a historical scene when ‘warlike musicke’ was replaced by ‘lascivious layes, and loose jigges’ with the result that those subjected to it forgot ‘their former fiercenesse, and became most tender and effeminate’ (73). The problem Irenius has with the Irish bards is their fashioning of indecorous imitatios so that poetic expression does not match virtuous English character. He criticizes them for applying ‘pretty flowers of their naturall device’ to adorn Irish rebellion heroes (77). Horatian-Aristotlian decorum, as Spenser inherited it from the Italian literary theorists, depends on the consensual judgment of an imagined audience as to why a poem is pleasing, together with the poet’s stated purpose for creating the invention.[14] Irenius judges the Irish poets from the perspective of an imagined English audience who would regard the celebrating of Irish rebels as indecorous. In response, he hopes for the translation of Irish poetic devices and ornaments to serve an English subject matter, in a decorum of cultural colonial hospitality that welcomes the strange or foreign into a master language and masters poetic diversity by means of abstract forms of virtuous order.

Spenser tests the efficacy of applying the humanist principle of civil conversation as an informal agent of control in Ireland. I argue that he wants to form the ground for a ius polliticum:  that is, the pre-emptive use of state control to protect sovereignty and foster its growth. Irenius advocates transferring Irish lands to the property of the Crown to cultivate Ireland’s flourishing in an English fashion. Jus politicum, as Irenius outlines it, bends Justice in order to protect sovereignty from perceived threats, thereby allowing Elizabeth’s property in Ireland to merit this pre-emptive policing (30). By an act of finesse, Spenser connects Elizabethan foreign policy in Ireland, the activity of policing (that is self-policing while policing others), and virtuous conduct or civil conversation.[15] Altogether what he achieves is the use of civil conversation as a self-policing disposition that protects property and assists the easy circulation of courteous reciprocity. In this light, we can identify the Knight of Courtesy with an ideology of policing property, as demonstrated from the start of the Legend by the Briana episode.

I want to focus on one stanza that underlines the inclusionary/exclusionary effect invoked by a decorum of hospitality. Viewing Mount Acidale, Spenser’s narrator describes a stream at the bottom of a hill:

And at the foote thereof, a gentle flud

His siluer waues did softly tumble downe,

Vnmard with ragged mosse or filthy mud,

Ne mote wylde beastes, ne mote the ruder clowne

Thereto approch, ne filth mote therein drowne:

But Nymphes and Faeries by the banckes did sit,

In the woods shade, which did the waters crowne,

Keeping all noysome things away from it,

And to the waters fall turning their accents fit. (VI.x.7.1-9)


Faeries and stream perform an ecological hospitality that anticipates Colin Clout’s description of reciprocal relationships sustained by courtesy. Decorum is depicted in the successful way nature and art interact to form a natural community in concord. Their relationship honours the doctrine of a poetic decorum overseeing a perfect suitedness of ornaments to the formal dispositio that they express. In return, the Nymphs harmonize their voices to shut out any intruding indecorousness. The larger dynamics of this natural reciprocity are more apparent when compared to one of Spenser’s Visions of Petrarch:

Within this wood, out of a rocke did rise

A spring of water, mildly rumbling down,

Whereto approched not in anie wise

The homely shepherd, nor the ruder clowne;

But manie Muses, and the Nymphes withall,

That sweetly in accord did tune their voyce

To the soft sounding of the waters fall,

That my glad hart therat did much reioice.

But while herein I tooke my chiefe delight,

I saw (alas) the gaping earth deuour

The spring, the place, and all cleane out of sight.

Which yet aggreieves my hart euen this houre,

And wounds my soule with rufull memorie,

To see such pleasures gon so suddenly[16]


 In the poem, a freshwater spring is not approachable by ‘The homely shepherd, nor the ruder clowne. / But manie Muses, and the Nymphes withall / That sweetly in accord did tune their voyce / to the soft sounding of the waters fall’. The poet appreciates but is excluded from vision of the poem’s inner harmony. In his use of this source for Book Six, Spenser omits barring the ‘homely shepherd’ in favour of articulating the cutting out of ‘all noysome things’ (Vi.x.7) specifically wild beasts, ruder clowns, moss and mud. Noisome is a peculiarly archaic Ango-Norman word that names things that are disagreeable or foul-smelling. Often used as a metaphor for noxious weeds in a garden, the word in Spenser’s hands is made to recall the antithesis of courtesy, in particular the Blatant Beast. On another level, with the poet personified within the borders of Mount Acidale, the metaphor polices the hospitality inherent in a poetic decorum that permits the marvellous, providing it fits a harmony within, and violently omits persons or, to use Spenser’s word, ‘noysome things’ that won’t fit.

Spenser, by shifting the perspective of his speaker, makes the poet the host who handles or curates how poetic subjects or ornaments appear within the Vision. In Visions of Petrarch, the speaker views the vision from outside and witnesses first-hand and in first-person the gaping earth devour the entire place out of sight, after the poem captures the evanescent beauty of the place’s disappearance. The speaker is left pondering the ‘rufull memorie’ of the vision in his poetic memorialization of grief and loss. In Book Six, Spenser places the poet as a character inside the Vision as its host and makes Calidore the intruding guest.[17] This substitution succeeds, according to Spenser’s narrator, in having Colin’s love ‘aduanst to be another Grace’ (VI.x.16.9). In this setting, Calidore, the policing agent of courtesy, intrudes upon the poet’s private decorum or personal hospitality. Colin has to answer for his role in the vision to Calidore, and has to ask forgiveness for advancing Eliza above the Faerie Queene, a gesture of deference that he does with considerable poetic courtesy and courtly flattery. Calidore, delighting overmuch in Colin’s flustered description and explanatory supplication, interprets the exchange as an opportunity for fraternity and delight in civil conversation.

The scene plays with the idea of decorum as Spenser inherited it from the Italian debates over Ariosto. Documented in Giraldi Cintio and others, the marvellous, as Bernard Weinberg explains, ‘may be rendered beautiful’ if it is ‘treated with the proper decorum’, meaning if it produces pleasure in the reader.[18] Cintio makes the further distinction that the marvellous is decorous, even if it is untrue and incredible, provided it is treated in digressions rather than in the main subject matter.[19] In these instances, poets only need to follow their poetic predecessors. Placing the ‘homely shepherd’ poet within the Vision as it fades into posterity, elevates Colin to the company of Spenser’s lyric predecessors, who affect but don’t possess the mysteries of the marvellous. Thus the poet plays host by revealing another decorum of poetic hospitality to his readers, caught up themselves in the desire to interpret the poem. In terms of that decorum, poetic writing welcomes a trace of the marvellous that can only be beheld, not grasped.

If policing ownership is the first concern of courtesy, love might be the subsequent concern. Love in Book Six is episodic and destabilizing. Spenser’s implementation of decorum in this canto works to heal over the inclusionary/exclusionary discourse of power with the poetic one of hospitable welcome.[20] However, the poetic decorum of welcome is vulnerable to, if not predicated on, its territorializing function, resulting in an interpretive un-decidability exemplified in Calidore’s questioning behaviour. Colin chooses to commemorate a loved one on the grounds of the legitimate appeal to a personal poetic decorum. This decorum may correspond to St Augustine’s sense of style as the ‘promptings of a passionate heart’.[21] It is a decorum that exceeds the balancing of a mean, as shown when Calidore spies Pastorella surrounded by dancing lasses and shepherds who ‘oft for wonder shout / As if some miracle of heavenly hew / Were downe to them descended in that earthly view’ (VI.ix.87-9). Spenser’s use of ‘As if’ in describing Pastorella invites the appearance of the marvellous without inscribing it in a settled form. This appearance, her ‘heavenly hew’, might be described by the word ‘aspect’, meaning an indication of the partial appearance to a viewer of an object whose fullness is kept in reserve.[22] The luminescent hue or aspect projects a heavenly love onto Pastorella which eludes forms of proportional measurement. ‘Though meane her lot’, Spenser says, ‘higher did her mind ascend’, (VI.ix.10.9) and in appearance her ‘demeanure’ seemed ‘So farre above the meane of shepheards to excel’ (VI.ix.11.2-3). Experience of the Pastorella scene requires a unique poetic decorum that I don’t have the space to describe. The authority for this decorum is Plotinus, who writes that ‘one must go along with the words, if one in speaking of the Good, [in order] to indicate it, [uses] expressions which we do not, strictly speaking, allow to be used, but one should understand ‘as if’ with each of them’.[23] For Plotinus, as for Colin Clout, poetry places an object outside one’s control. The invited may choose not to inhabit it, but if they do, they will bring their ‘own universe within them’.[24] Given the constraints Spenser puts on decorum in A View, questions remain concerning to whom Colin extends or does not extend this welcome, and what right he has to extend it.[25] But the openness of this notion might anticipate another of Derrida’s provocations: that hospitality might consist in ‘suspending language’, or at least a ‘particular determinate language’.[26] The hospitality of poetry as a gift rather than a measured model of proper speech.


Owen Kane


I am grateful to Namratha Rao and Susanne Wofford for organizing the ‘Spenser and Hospitality’ panel, and to my fellow panellists Archie Cornish and Katherine Blankenau.


[1] Edmund Spenser, Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, edited by William A. Oram et al. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 13-14.

[2] Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (New York: Pantheon 1963), 507e.

[3] George Puttenham, The Arte of Poesie, in Sidney’s Defence of Poesy and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, edited by Gavin Alexander (London: Penguin, 2004), 197.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, edited by Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 5.10.1138. 100-101.

[5] Aristotle, Poetics, translated by Richard Janko (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1987), 60b7 15. 37

[6] Aristotle, On Poetry and Style, translated by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), 1404b. 69.

[7] Aristotle, On Poetry and Style, 1404b. 69.

[8] Aristotle, Poetics, 54a2 20.19.

[9] Aristotle, On Poetry and Style, 1404b. 69.

[10] See Wayne Rebhorn, ‘Outlandish Fears: Defining Decorum in Renaissance Rhetoric’,  Intertexts 4.1 (2000): 3-24; Kathy Eden, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Jenny Mann, Outlaw Rhetoric: Figuring Vernacular Eloquence in Shakespeare’s England (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

[11] Cicero, On Duties, edited by M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1.145. 56.

[12] Edmund Spenser, A View of the State of Ireland, ed. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 11.

[13] Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality, translated by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000),15.

[14] Ronald A. Horton, ‘Aristotle and his commentators’, The Spenser Encyclopedia, edited by A. C. Hamilton (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 59-60; Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 81, 436.

[15] Patricia Palmer’s RSA 2022 presentation ‘“Faerie Lond” and the Land of the Síth’ also spoke to the prehistory of property and property-ownership in Spenser’s writings on Ireland.

[16] Spenser, Yale Edition of Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, 454-455.

[17] ‘The intruder enters by force, through surprise or ruse, in any case without the right and without having first been admitted. There must be something of the intrus in the stranger; otherwise, the stranger would lose its strangeness: if he already has the right to enter and remain, if he is awaited and received without any part of him being unexpected or unwelcome, he is no longer the intrus, nor is he any longer the stranger. It is thus neither logically acceptable, nor ethically admissible, to exclude all intrusion in the coming of the stranger, the foreign.’ Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘L’intrus’, translated by Susan Hanson, The New Centennial Review 2.3 (2002), 1-14. 1.

[18] Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance, 141.

[19] Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance, 434-438.

[20] Lisa Jennings brilliantly described the larger implications of the Spenserian writer-poet as controlling the healing and inflicting of allegorical wounds in her presentation ‘Allegory, Writing Wounds, and Books I and 3 of The Faerie Queene’ for the ‘Spenser and Healing’ panel also at RSA 2022.

[21] St. Augustine, de doctrina Christiana, ed. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4, 118. 253.

[22] For a phenomenological definition of ‘aspect’, see Davide Panaga, Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics (Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press, 2016), 17-22.

[23] Plotinus, Plotinus, translated by Hans-Rudolph Schwyzer, A.H. Armstrong, and Paul Henry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), vol. 7, 6.8.13, 271.

[24] Plotinus, Plotinus, vol. 5, 5.9.8, 267.

[25] See especially: Kat Addis, ‘Slavery, Allegory and Romance in Book VI of The Faerie Queene,’ The Spenser Review, 51.3.5 (Fall 2021).

[26] Derrida, Of Hospitality, 135.


  • Comment deleted 4 months, 3 weeks ago

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Owen Kane, "Hospitality and Decorum in Spenser’s 'Legend of Courtesy' and 'A View'," Spenser Review 52.2.7 (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed December 6th, 2022.
Not logged in or