Grogan, Jane, ed. Celebrating Mutabilitie: Essays on Edmund Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 384 pp. ISBN: 978-0719082245. $74.95 cloth.
Mirabile dictu: This collection of eleven essays, compiled to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Mutabilitie Cantos, demonstrates the mutability of Mutabilitie Canto criticism by illuminating new ideas about the poetry. In this respect, and in many others, the collection is a great success. The essays are generally clearly written and, whether one agrees with them or not, make their arguments in pointed fashions. This book is not, nor does it pretend to be, for newcomers to the Cantos. It presumes a thorough knowledge of the poetry and of the criticism on that poetry. Rather than trying to treat a dozen complex essays (including Jane Grogan’s introduction) in a brief review, I will consider some issues that the collection raises.
Although James Nohrnberg is the only contributor who calls his essay a meditation, the essays are all, in fact, deeply felt meditations on Spenser’s own monumental meditation on poetry, on politics, and on his life’s work in those and other domains. As these essays demonstrate, very little is certain about the Cantos, but we can be pretty certain that Spenser wrote them toward the end of his rather short life, and that perception, of course, inevitably shapes the way we read the poetry. Just as Mozart’s death as he was composing his Requiem leads us to think of it as requiem for himself, so Spenser’s death in 1599 and the publication of the Cantos in 1609, along with the “I” who narrates them, leads us to read them autobiographically, though surely Spenser did not know when he wrote them that death was imminent. But how little we actually know about this poetry.
On the other hand, it is precisely that lack of certitude that allows sensitive readers like these essayists to examine in imaginative ways what the poetry is doing. On the third hand, occasionally the critics are perhaps too imaginative in offering speculation, as when Robert Lanier Reid, in his engaging essay, announces that the two stanzas of canto viii would have disappeared when Book VII was finally completed.
In addition to offering a series of fine individual essays, this volume offers a collection of essays that should be read in relation to each other because of their agreements and especially because of their differences, differences in focus, in interpretation, in attitudes toward poetry, in virtually everything having to do with the Cantos. Some essays work better than others—for me—but other readers will surely have their own favorites. Among my favorites is Judith Anderson’s, which uses the Cantos to discuss the larger question of how to read Spenser’s poetry. In her essay, Anderson is particularly concerned with countering the kinds of readings that “supplant poetry with doctrine” (247), and she explains: “Theology strives for logical clarity; poetry engages the complexities and perplexities of lived experience” (254). In short, to fall back on a cliché, poetry tells us not what to think but what to think about and perhaps how to think about it.
And yet, from a different perspective, it behooves us to pay attention to the “non-poetic,” or doctrinal aspects, as well, just as we may focus on the spiritual side of human beings without ignoring fingers, toes, and kidneys. Andrew Zurcher’s examination of the printing history of the Cantos is valuable, as is Ayesha Ramachandran’s exploration of Spenser’s use of Lucretius. Thomas Herron’s essay on the Irish background of the Cantos practically ignores the “poetry” that Anderson describes and mentions Mutabilitie in passing, but it helps to illuminate another corner of the poem, while Richard Danson Brown focuses closely on Spenser’s poetic language. Also on the level of words, Christopher Burlinson helps to clarify Spenser’s use of “constancy,” and Supriya Chaudhuri discusses “power” and “glory.”
Two other essays remain, and it is no accident that they are the first and the last in the collection. The first is Gordon Teskey’s “Night thoughts on Mutability,” his third in a series of essays on “thinking in The Faerie Queene” (38). In subject, tone, and technique, Teskey’s essay is a fitting beginning for this collection, just as Jane Grogan’s final essay offers a brilliant conclusion. To explain why, I must make a wide detour though Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, whose eighth chapter contains a discussion of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111—specifically, why it consists of only two movements rather than the traditional three or four. The answer is that the second movement says all that can be said. We might say that like Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus and Dante’s Paradiso, Opus 111 goes beyond human understanding by presenting a transcendent, all-encompassing vision. So, too, the Mutabilitie Cantos. There is no more to say.
And yet, of course, plays have been written since Sophocles, poems since Dante, and sonatas since Beethoven, because the world continues to dilate and, in another sense of the term, artists continue to dilate. Jane Grogan’s study of Yeats and Heaney as Irish poets who write in Spenser’s wake points both to the past and to the future. This was not an essay that I would have expected in such a collection, but I am glad it is there, for it moves the Cantos beyond scholarly concerns, important as those may be, and shows that they, and the rest of Spenser’s poetry, have a role to play in the modern world.
Grogan must have had a good editor. More precisely, she was the editor, and she made some very fine choices in compiling this collection (though the two longest essays would have benefited from judicious editing and the inclusion of thesis statements). Let me repeat, however, that as good as individual essays are, the collection gains a great deal by being read in its entirety so that readers can get a sense of the Spenserian interlacement that pervades these texts.
Theodore L. Steinberg is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at SUNY Fredonia. He has published on medieval, Renaissance, and modern literatures in a number of languages and on the teaching of literature. His essay on teaching medieval Hebrew poetry is due to appear in Pedagogy in the spring.