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Spenser’s Middle Voice: The Grammar of Jouissance in Book III of The Faerie Queene
by Marshall Grossman

Spenser sites his developed allegory of generation in the Garden of Adonis, where one finds “Old Genius,” whose “double nature . . . letteth in” and “letteth out to wend, / All that to come into the world desire” ( and 32.1-2), the origin story of Belephoebe and Amoret, and, in the coincident topographical center of the garden and typographical center of the book, the anatomical locus of generation itself:

Right in the middest of that Paradise,
   There stood a stately Mount, on whose round top
   A gloomy groue of mirtle trees did rise,
   Whose shadie boughes sharpe steele did neuer lop,
   Nor wicked beasts their tender buds did crop,
   But like a girlond compassed the hight,
   And from their fruitfull sides sweet gum did drop,
   That all the ground with precious deaw bedight,
Threw forth most dainty odours, & most sweet delight.  (

That Spenser would place these figures of generation in the Book of Chastity is unsurprising, but that he elaborates Chastity as a problem in the equitable distribution of authority and the reciprocal satisfaction of desire among a series of generative pairs provokes thought.  That his generative pairs exchange genders, mixing and matching in various homo and hetero-erotic combinations, is bracing.  That they emerge from a ground of Ovidian tales of incest, and at crucial moments collapse into hermaphroditic nodes, suggests a turn of authorial thought that demands a reader’s reciprocal engagement.  Spenser’s exploration of the vagaries of desire and its reciprocal satisfactions and common frustrations is driven thematically by the complexity of what Milton would later call “collateral love, and deerest amitie,” the necessary conversation of equals, in which the term conversation grafts the Aristotelian model of friendship onto the carnal relations of conjugal pairs to evoke the nascent Protestant ideal of companionate marriage (8.426).  This developing ideal, in which intercourse becomes the horizon of discourse, as in the seventeenth-century usage of the word conversation to denote conjugal cohabitation, had to be worked out in the exigencies of daily life.  Developing alterations in domestic practice would have put considerable pressure—at least for those that chose to feel it—on the ideological conventions that governed the representation of women in cross-sexual discourse, so that a poet as thoughtful as Spenser had to think about ways to negotiate the still strong traditions of patriarchal representation in the course of a non-trivial rethinking of women as desiring subjects.

For example, the image of Verdant in the Bower of Bliss, as an infant in the lap of Acrasia, provides a fairly standard caution against the emasculating power of surrender to the female along with a frightening subtext on maternal (re)absorption, that is shortly answered, when Britomart enters the story, by mastering Guyon with her enchanted spear as a preliminary to making friends with him.  Spenser’s exploration of this theme and his supplementing—in the strong Derridian sense of both adding to and replacing—of the usual cautions against female mastery with a serious concern for how the assumptions of masculine mastery entrap both men and women have been noted before, by Tom Roche and others.  When I say that Spenser imagines a female subject, however, I use the term advisedly, in its grammatical sense; that is to say, he is questioning the nature of female desire through his attempts to work out how to write woman as the subject of a verb.

Book III of The Faerie Queene is about generative couples.  It represents men and women in peculiar congress and conversation, but this representation is materially constructed of words syntactically arranged: its men and women are, literally, noun phrases disported as subjects and objects, mediated and variously joined by verbs and their auxiliaries.  If poets think by writing poetry, and I am confident that they do, the manipulation of language is the substance of their thought.  Because language is both interior and exterior to the poet, a system to which he or she adds by taking innovative liberties with rule-governed constructions and established conventions, and because the liberties they take are at least potentially assimilated by readers, to whom they are mediated by the poem, we might say that not only Spenser and his readers, but also The Faerie Queene, itself, not only, thinks, but converses—up to and across the horizon of conjugal cohabitation too.

Levi Strauss observed that kinship, like grammar, offers rules for selecting elements that may be meaningfully combined.  These rules support the selection of those elements to be joined and the combinations in which they may be placed.  Because kinship depends upon determining who may procreate with whom, Levi Strauss believed the incest taboo to be the originary syntactic mark underlying kinship and grammar alike.  It is, perhaps, for a similar reason that the central canto of Book III of The Faerie Queene makes continuous reference to Ovidian metamorphoses that occur consequent to the expression of incestuous desire.  With incest, understood as the transgressive origin of desire, rather than by the familiar and ideologically limiting content of maternal emasculation and its metonymies, Spenser’s struggle to think through the genders of conversation also becomes a struggle to redress a defect of English grammar: the absence of a middle voice with which to mediate a universal grammar of desire and its fulfillment in which gender could be reciprocal and syntactic, rather than hypostatic and ideological—that is, something forged in the saying, rather than prior to it.

The Book of Chastity extends the theme of Aristotelian temperance from the previous book, placing Britomart on a quest for the mean mapped by Belphoebe’s defect of desire on the one hand, and the varieties of excess manifested by Malecasta, Malbecco, Paridell, Hellenore, Ollyphant, and Argante on the other.  This scheme is complicated by juxtaposing Britomart to Amoret and Florimel, whose desire for generative sexual relationships is complicated by hysterical terror, and by haunting the book with the persistent specter of perverse maternal governance, as exemplified by the witch of cantos vii and viii, by Cymoent’s emasculation of Marinell, and by the uneasy sister act of Venus and Diana in canto vi.  A full reading of Spenser’s grammar of generative desire would need to unpack this intricate framing and doubling.  Fortunately for me, and a relief to the other panelists, this can’t be attempted in the 10 minutes or so I have left.

However, as the merest prologue to thinking about how The Faerie Queene thinks, I am going to spend the remainder of my time looking at just a few of the border lines between the generative couples represented in the Book of Chastity and the generative sentences that represent them, so as to offer a tentative walk through the grammatical depiction of landscape in the Garden of Adonis, culminating in and emanating from the innovation of an English middle voice used to describe the activity of the wounded phallus enclosed within the mount of Venus, where Adonis “liueth in eternall blis, / Ioying his goddesse, and of her enioyd” (, and the parallel scene of the wounded Britomart watching the hermaphroditic embrace of Amoret and Scudamour and “halfe enuying their blesse” at the end of the 1590 Faerie Queene (III.xii.46a.6).1

At the start of Book III, after Guyon and Arthur go impetuously chasing after Florimel, Britomart finds the Red Cross Knight fighting Gardante, Parlante, Iocante, Basciante, Bacchante, and Noctante before the Castle Joyous. Learning the reason for the fight—Malecasta’s rule that knights defend or renounce their loves—she offers a reasoned judgment, before knocking them off their horses:

Certes (said she) then bene ye sixe to blame,
   To weene your wrong by force to iustifie:
   For knight to leaue his Ladie were great shame,
   That faithfull is, and better were to die.
   All losse is lesse, and lesse the infamie,
   Then losse of loue to him, that loues but one;
   Ne may loue be compeld by maisterie;
   For soone as maisterie comes, sweet loue anone
Taketh his nimble wings, and soone away is gone.  (III.i.25)

The double chiasmus preceding Britomart’s statement of the vexed relation between love and mastery gives the problem a peculiar linguistic materiality.  Death is preferable to breaking faith with a faithful lover because: “All losse is lesse, and lesse the infamie / Then losse of loue to him, that loues but one . . . For soone as maisterie comes, sweet loue anone” (III.i.25.5-6, 8).  I think this unpacks roughly as loss of one’s love is the greatest of all possible losses, greater even than loss of life.  But the figure—pivoting as it does around the exchange of short e for short o sounds—also lends itself to a more generalized, one might say, a more structural or formal, reading: to lose anything is to be diminished, and to break faith with one’s lover is to lose love itself.  The rhyme and the interior repetition of maisterie further couple infamie and maisterie. We might also notice that when maisterie causes “sweet love anone” to take wing, Spenser’s spelling of anon as an one visually enacts the loss of self that makes one who loves and breaks faith, less than one.  To lose one’s life is to lose one. But to lose one’s love is to lose one plus one’s self.

The division of an-one in Britomart’s chiasmus recalls the etiology of her desire, which in turn drives the narrative and recalls the specter of incest haunting the book of chastity: “One day it fortuned, faire Britomart / Into her fathers closet to repayre; / For nothing he from her reseru’d apart” (III.ii.22.1-3).  The incestuous connotations of this scene are both familiar and obvious enough to require no elaboration, except to note that the suggestion of father-daughter desire, looking back toward the infantilizing Acrasia and forward to the infantilizing Cymoent, completes on the level of narrative a chiasmic scheme similar to the one we just examined on the level of the sentence.  Britomart discovers her phallic self by finding her lover in her father’s magic mirror; Marinell and Verdant lose their virility by gazing into or seeing through maternal eyes.  Gender here is a matter not of anatomy, or even nature, but of the options offered by a range of grammatical interpolations.

What stops the 1590 Faerie Queene and starts it up again in 1596 is that the grammar of the middle voice does not produce continuous narration.  The narrative of desire, from which the subject of desire emerges, requires defect:

Nor man it is, nor other liuing wight:
   For then some hope I might vnto me draw,
   But th’only shade and semblant of a knight,
   Whose shape or person yet I neuer saw,
   Hath me subiected to loues cruell law:
   The same one day, as me misfortune led,
   I in my fathers wondrous mirrhour saw,
   And pleased with that seeming goodly-hed,
Vnwares the hidden hooke with baite I swallowed.  (III.ii.38)

Quests are driven by the pursuit of a cipher, Lacan calls it l’objet petit a, that only promises jouissance.  Jouissance enjoyed does not narrate, for the subject’s agency inheres in its subjection to desire.  This is why Britomart must accept the blessed bliss of seeing an image in the mirror and the blissful blesse of witnessing the climactic embrace of Amoret and Scudumor, haunted, as it is, by an Ovidian statue awash in the waters of lassitude.


1. The degree to which “Ioying his goddesse, and of her enioyd” ( approaches the middle voice can be disputed, if “of her enioyed” is read as a subjective genitive; the sentence says simply that Adonis gave joy and Venus enjoyed it.  But in this reading the second part of the sentence is just a passive iteration of the first.  In my view, the context is better served by reading the second phrase as the reciprocal of the first: “He gives joy to his goddess and experiences the enjoyment of her.”  In this reading the distinction between joy given and joy received is intelligently muddled.  Does not a lover enjoy the joy of his beloved? 

Works Cited 

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Gordon Teskey. New York: Norton, 2004. 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, "Spenser’s Middle Voice: The Grammar of Jouissance in Book III of The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 42.2.10 (Winter 2013). Accessed October 19th, 2018.
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