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Mimetic Verisimilitude and Poetic Truth in Book II of The Faerie Queene
by Marshall Grossman

The identification of art and imitation is ubiquitous in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. But the obligation to “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature” comes under considerable pressure when writers presume to represent what the senses cannot apprehend (Hamlet 3.2.22).  Writers who assert a kind of truth particular to poetry recur to Aristotle’s melioristic theory in the Poetics and to Plato’s distinction in The Sophist between the icastic and phantastic imagination, which depends on a platonic notion of memory in which ideas are mediated through sensory images; thus Spenser’s intellectual apprehension of temperance can be made visible in the movement of Sir Guyon through the allegorical landscape of Faeryland, and Milton can render the fiat of creation under the figure of a spirit-bird brooding over and impregnating the vast abyss.  One also finds in the Renaissance an increased interest in the imitation of passions.  This sort of pathetic imitation figures strongly in some innovative new scholarship.  For example, to show how contract theory gave rise to discourse that accommodates and foregrounds passion as well as reason, Victoria Kahn in Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640-1674 sees mimesis “not simply as imitation but also as the productive capacity of the human imagination to create new artifacts” (15), and Joseph Campana, in a PMLA article, looks carefully at the mimesis of “suffering and the energy of affect” in Book II of The Faerie Queene, framing Spenser’s mimetic exchanges of enargeia, vivid visualization, and energeia, pathos or energy, in ways that further develop Gordon Teskey’s study of allegory’s uneasy and intermittent containment of violence.1

A sixteenth-century dubiety about such fictive truth is registered when Shakespeare’s Theseus says that the poet “gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name,” and explains of imagination “[t]hat if it would but apprehend some joy / It comprehends some bringer of that joy” (Midsummer 5.1.16-17, 19-20).  Theseus’s hermeneutic of suspicion joins the perception of affect to the general question of how one might tell whether or not a particular mimesis names correctly.  Can the conjunction of the right, but not necessarily existing, place and name truthfully trace a perceived affect to an extant, but not immediately perceptible, thing?

The desire to depict the intelligible through the sensible elicits extended metaphor, the underlying process of allegory.  The epistemological validity of metaphor, and, therefore, of allegory, is hard to locate.  The description of metaphor’s material vehicle can be more or less verisimilar. But what can we say about the truth of its intelligible tenor?  If the tenor is conceived only through the evocation of the vehicle, of what, if anything, is the vehicle a true likeness?  Linking metaphors together to form an allegorical narrative provides a further test of verisimilitude because we can assess not only the accuracy of the enargeia, but also whether the narration is causally consistent.  If I say “the rose wilts,” the sentence is consistent with what we observe of flowers over time.  If, supported by appropriate context, I read the sentence metaphorically as “the beloved becomes less attractive as she ages,” I can, depending on experience, decide if the metaphor is more or less consistent with the observed behavior of lovers in relation to the visible effects of aging.  If, however, I go on to say, without careful and plausible mediation, that the wilting rose acquires a flying horse and visits St. John on the moon, the narrative stumbles into the bathos of mixed metaphor.

But when the ambition of the poet is to go beyond what can be known, to describe what may be felt as the effect of something that may be understood but not sensed, how do we know whether the evoked concepts correspond to anything other than their imaginary selves?  To the extent that The Faerie Queene, for example, is mimetic and nominal, how would we establish that it is also true?  How does one tell whether an imitation is verisimilar, when what one imitates purports to elude sensory apprehension and exist in comprehension only?  How does such imitation become truth, not only in itself, but in the reader?

Aristotle shrewdly observed that mythos is prior to ethos, which is to say that we vest a subject with thoughts and emotions on the basis of the visible action he, she, or it performs.2  When such subjective experience is the object of imitation, the signs or actions that render it perceptible may be well and truly imitated without the presence of the thing itself.  The question of verisimilitude is then shifted back to a question of ontology.  For Theseus poetic fiction is, like lovers’ tales, “[m]ore strange than true” (5.1.2), but for Hippolyta “the story of the night told over, / And all their minds transfigur’d so together … grows to something of great constancy” (Midsummer 5.1.23-4, 26).  Hippolyta’s conviction of poetic truth hinges not simply on whether the nothing becomes, or always was, something and the causal consistency of the lovers’ narrations, but also on the transfiguring of the minds that tell and hear the story.  She very cannily recasts the elements of Theseus’s debunking—affect, causation, and naming—as the components of fictive truth by recognizing affect as effect.  What the Athenian youth felt and what they imagined about what they felt has changed them.  The effective change metaleptically validates the story that explains it.  A story may be a true imitation of something authentically experienced.  Alternatively, an experience may be truly felt but remain inexpressible. Authenticity, then, begins to emerge as a supplement to mimetic verisimilitude as a criterion of literary or fictive truth.

The tension between the verisimilar and the authentic to which I refer is exemplified schematically in Hamlet.  Briefing the actors before their performance of “The Murder of Gonzago,” Hamlet offers the standard theory of mimetic ethics: “the purpose of playing … was and is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.20-4).  Yet in his first extended speech in the play, Hamlet complains that “actions that a man might play” cannot “denote [him] truly” (1.2.84, 83).  On the contrary, for Hamlet the very fact that an emotion like grief can be imitated renders it strictly inexpressible.  It is, in fact, this impasse of representation that motivates Hamlet’s much-discussed resort to the metaphor of inwardness, distinguishing apparently denotative outward appearance from “that within which passes show” (1.2.85).  It is not trivial that Hamlet’s assertion of an inexpressible interiority occurs as the despair of a mimetic aporia.

In the “Letter to Ralegh,” Spenser offers a notion of mimetic truth that is more strictly and explicitly Aristotelian than Hamlet’s: “The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” so as to teach the reader virtue by example rather than by rule (15).  Hamlet characterizes imitation as external. The actors are to assume the observed mannerisms and actions that go with the actions they represent, and he marks the internal state of the subject as what escapes true denotation.  Because the actor simulating grief is not grieving, theatrical performance cannot distinguish grief from its external accidents, all of which are “actions that a man might play” (1.2.84).  This problem of representation, however, extends from the stage into the original whom the actors might be presumed to imitate; life, itself, threatens to (and does) become “a poor player” whose “sound and fury, signif[ies] nothing” (Macbeth 5.5.24, 27-8).  But to fashion a gentleman or noble person—in the person of Arthur—is at once to imitate—Spenser reassures his readers that he has “followed all the antique Poets historicall, first Homere … then Virgil … after him Ariosto … and lately Tasso” (15)—and to offer up an object for his imitation: “to show virtue her feature” (Hamlet 3.2.22-3).  Virtue is, for Aristotle, a function of customary action, so it might work for him that if a gentleman were to assume the habitual actions of Arthur, he would be noble indeed, noble mythos metaleptically taken to represent noble ethos.3  For Spenser, however, this would be further complicated by the necessity of grace, whose presence or absence cannot be certified by outward action.  Insofar as he is the original of nobility offered for imitation by gentle readers Arthur and his metonymic offshoots are either acting by nature—without a model—or following a model whose divine origin is immemorial.

Having it both ways, in the proem to Book II of The Faerie Queene Spenser makes some mischievously complicated assertions about the source and object of his imitation:

Right well I wote most mighty Soueraine,
   That all this famous antique history,
   Of some th’aboundance of an idle braine
   Will iudged be, and painted forgery,
   Rather then matter of iust memory,
   Sith none, that breatheth liuing aire, does know,
   Where is that happy land of Faery,
   Which I so much do vaunt, yet no where show,
But vouch antiquities, which nobody can know. (II.proem.1)

His preemptive admission that some will say the ancient history presented in the poem is painted not from “iust memory” but from the imaginative excess of an idle brain is hardly mitigated by the weirdly negative assertion that no one breathing living air knows where Faeryland is or can verify the antiquities the text is about to discover.  What exactly is it that the narrator “remembers,” and on what basis can readers decide whether or not Spenser’s poem denotes it truly?  The poem is painted from memory—whether truly or falsely.  The choice of memory over observation as the faculty underlying the poem’s production anticipates the appearance of Phantastes, Eumnestes, and Amnesties in canto ix, mediating the interior and exterior models of imitation that Hamlet both utilized and resisted.  But as an allegory of “that within which passes show” (Hamlet 1.2.85), the House of Alma reaches—and represents—an impasse; no matter how many and how quaint the homunculi representing its internal faculties may be, or how cleverly the labor is distributed among them, ultimately they can only re-inscribe the opacity of the boundary between pathos and observable action.  Thus when the collective and antique memories to which Arthur and Guyon gain access, at the climax of their journey through the inner workings of the body, are rendered to them in the form of old books, both knights and reader are right back where they began, with volumes of antique—that is, immemorial—memory, or, perhaps, painted forgery.4  Having penetrated to the innermost sanctum of the body of its memories, Guyon and Arthur discover another outside, most likely bound in skin-covered boards. Arthur’s book breaks off “As if the rest some wicked hand did rend, / Or th’Authour selfe could not at least attend/ To finish it” (II.x.68.4-6)—much as the grandiose, twenty-four book Faerie Queene of the Letter to Ralegh will break off after six books and a bit.  And, still better, Guyon’s book leaves him in the land that “now America men call” (II.x.72.6), effectively returning us to the second stanza of the proem:

But let that man with better sence aduize,
   That of the world least part to vs is red:
   And dayly how through hardy enterprize,
   Many great Regions are discouered,
   Which to late age were neuer mentioned.
   Who euer heard of th’Indian Peru?
   Or who in venturous vessell measured
   The Amazons huge riuer now found trew?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did euer vew? (II.proem.2)

Guyon was brought to this hermeneutic lesson in the House of Alma to recover from a near fatal confrontation with representation in the cave of Mammon, in which the fetishized appearance of wealth so fed the eyes that the metabolism of actually ingested nutrient was neglected, and he goes from the House of Alma to the mimetic anti-nomianism of the climatic destruction of the Bower of Bliss, which paradoxically culminates the plot of Temperance.5 The Bower of Bliss shifts attention from nutritional to sexual representations—from fetishes of accumulated but non-consumable wealth to fetishes of narcissistic gratification—but an alternative to laying waste to the landscape is only reached when the plot of chastity penetrates to the wounded male nestled within the mount of Venus, and speaks the middle voice of consummated union:

There now he liueth in eternall blis,
   Ioying his goddesse, and of her enioyd:
   Ne feareth he henceforth that foe of his,
   Which with his cruell tuske him deadly cloyd:
   For that wilde Bore, the which him once annoyd,
   She firmely hath emprisoned for ay,
   That her sweet loue his malice mote auoyd,
   In a strong rocky Caue, which is they say,
Hewen vunderneath that Mount, that none him losen may. (

Linguistically adept as Spenser is in framing this allusion, such moments out of time do not yield narrative.  Faeryland remains exterior to its intersubjective naming; actually existing but as yet unseen, it transpires in the future anterior tense, suspended like, Phadria’s bark, adrift in its amniotic lake.

Yet Spenser’s movement inward produces an allegorical inner self in which outward appearances are reinscribed.  He thereby represents the exteriority of the inner self to itself as a moving boundary in which each of us must read himself or herself as it were in a book.  Accordingly the narrative imitation of The Faerie Queene is paratactic and dilatory—there are few temporal tags beyond the continuous opening of contiguous space, as reiterated by the reader’s turning of the pages.

Spenser’s memory is thus anticipatory.  His inward vision inscribes the homeostatic self as a collective of individuals engaged in well-regulated and cooperative activities—ultimately containing the violence of its passions in the generative extension of infinite mimesis from the hidden mount of Venus.



1. Campana, Joseph. “On Not Defending Poetry: Spenser, Suffering, and the Energy of Affect.” PMLA 120 (2005): 33-48. Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. 

2. Aristotle, Poetics 1451a.

3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.5.

4. Andrew Escobedo argues that the “Briton moniments” (II.ix.59.6) Arthur reads in the house of Alma are indeed “Geoffrey [of Monmouth’s] ancient Welsh source … provided that we understand the Welsh book as not merely a literal identification but also as an example of the antiquarian optimism and pessimism about the nation’s Arthurian past, entailing the problematics of monumental history” (72).

5. Campana remarks: “Of the many strange experiences of Mammon’s underworld, the most important for Guyon present the temptation of intense affect … While Guyon, preferring emotional abstinence and militant temperance, may refuse to participate in the active, physical energy of affect, his much noted collapse outside the cave (after three days without food, drink, or rest) conveys negatively, as deprivation and exhaustion, the fundamental physicality of his body, which he studiously ignores” (43-44).


Works Cited

Campana, Joseph.  “On Not Defending Poetry: Spenser, Suffering, and the Energy of Affect.” PMLA 120 (2005): 33-48. JSTOR. Web. 4 Sept. 2012.

Escobedo, Andrew. Nationalism and Historical Loss in Renaissance England: Foxe, Dee, Spenser, Milton. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. Print.

Kahn, Victoria. Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation, 1640-1674. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2002. Print.

—. Macbeth. Ed. Kenneth Muir. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

—. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Harold F. Brooks. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2003. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr., with the assistance of C. Patrick O’Donnell, Jr. London: Penguin, 1978. Print.


Cite as:

Marshall Grossman, "Mimetic Verisimilitude and Poetic Truth in Book II of The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 42.2.9 (Winter 2013). Accessed October 22nd, 2018.
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