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Sixteenth Century Society Conference

October 24th through 27th, 2013
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Comic Spenser 
Organizer and Chair: Ayesha Ramachandran, Yale University

“Spenser and Humor: Elusive but Not Unfunny”
Brett Foster 
Wheaton College

This talk will begin our roundtable by establishing some principles or categories of comedy and suggesting their relation to Spenser. However distant it may initially seem, I will repeatedly draw upon novelist John Updike’s useful essay “Humor in Literature” to explore the surprisingly diverse comic effects in Spenser. I will begin, though, with a concession—by acknowledging that many would more naturally identify Spenser as an anti-comic poet. Certain aspects of Spenser’s achievements, along with his early reputation and subsequent reception, lend themselves to this impression of the “Spenserian unfunny,” including his epic ambitions, sententiousness, moralizing objectives and moral scrupulousness. Today readers also must reckon with a Spenser tainted by his colonialist background. As Updike says, “We laugh hardest at jokes by those we trust and like,” and for many Spenser’s likeability remains a complex matter. Even our familiar phrases of praise—“sage and serious Spenser” or “the Virgil of England” (Nashe) inadvertently argue against Spenser as comic poet. Can we sufficiently find in the poetry of Spenser comedy’s hopes, or at least its consolations? And if he is elusive and problematic as a humorist, it is worth remembering that humor itself often is as much so. Updike offers further support for this reticence about comic Spenser. Comedy is so delicate, really: it can go wrong if mistimed, and is hard to summarize after the fact. And the language of comedy is the least international. Native effects do not easily carry over, and temporal distance sometimes mutes comedy. Spenser’s archaisms and lyrical facility can work against distinctly intimate, congenial aspects of comedy. Critics have praised the “secret wit” of Spenser’s clusters of thematically associative puns, but make no mistake, that is a comic effect of a demanding sort, and, as joke-tellers well know, having to explain comic mechanisms is usually death to humor’s prospects.

And yet—: any serious reader of Spenser can locate various (and variously) comic moments. Nashe, too, realized this, calling Spenser the “miracle of wit” who can “bring out English wits to the touchstone of Art.” Spenser is not humorless, then, but possesses a complicating, mixed sense of humor. The humor, according to Updike, “does not hasten to our laughter,” and once prompted, it involves wonder rather than judgment. Spenser’s is a nobler, subtler comic imagination. I will offer a few concluding examples from The Shepheardes Calendar. By working at emotional extremes, from village song at the root of comedy to melancholy farewell, the Calendar thereby exhibits that quality of comedy that, in Updike’s words again, “draws strength from the gravity of actual life.” Updike, however, does not fully encompass Spenser’s imaginative world when he says the comic hero always bounces back and suffers no scars. In Spenser’s world, as his readers will recognize, there are always scars.

“The Humor of Una”
Kimberly Reigle
Mars Hill College

The character of Una is often overlooked when considering The Faerie Queene.  Perhaps it is because when compared to other female characters, such as Britomart or even Duessa, she seems quite conventional, or perhaps it is because the story of Una and the Red Crosse Knight is such a well-known trope.  Given that Una, when she has been analyzed, is generally read as an allegory for the one true church, to equate Una with humor might at first glance seem odd.  However, this paper will argue that there is a comedic bent to Una’s portrayal in  TheFaerie Queene.  Una’s characteristics are often exaggerated and hyperbolized in the text—sometimes to the point of arousing laughter in the reader.  Although the religious allegory of Book I is heavy and quite serious, the amplification of Una’s purity is extended into the realm of nonsensicality, at times, to convey a somber message; even Una’s austere caricatural devotion alone cannot save the Red Cross Knight.  It is only with the aid of others that her beloved is able to become St. George.  In this way, readers are reminded that everyone, including the true church and St. George, relies upon others at certain points in their lives for his or her spiritual assistance. 

“Comedy as Discourse in The Faerie Queene
David L. Miller
University of South Carolina

The comic strain in Spenser is pervasive but hard to isolate.  Spenser mingles comedy with pathos and mock-seriousness, often playing them against one another in the same passage or episode.  The resulting complexity of tone makes a critical focus on comic elements tricky to sustain:  the comic is always poised against, and qualifying, the monstrous, the lamentable, the pathetic, or the fearful. 

This paper considers examples from the second half of the Legend of Chastity, where Spenser uses comedy first as a technique for modulating the tone and affect of his narrative as it moves from one episode to another (Florimell in the witch’s cottage) and then as a strategy for doubling the narrative back upon itself, in a meta-discursive allegory that extends from Satyrane’s combat with the Hyena-like creature through the Squire of Dames’ rendition of the Inkeeper’s tale from Ariosto to the adventures of Malbecco. This persistent feature of Book III and especially its final cantos reflects the legend’s central concern with the ethics of masculine address to women, whether as readers or as prospective lovers. 

“He … beat his blubbred face”: Reading Spenser’s Daphnaida as a Satire
Rachel E. Hile
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Scholarly work on Edmund Spenser’s Daphnaida has often focused on what we can learn about Spenser’s opinions about his friend Arthur Gorges from the treatment of Alcyon, the character based on Gorges.  Instead of speculating about Spenser’s feelings for the historical Gorges, my argument focuses on evidence from the text to argue that in Daphnaida, Spenser creates another example of his characteristic style of indirect satire, using allusion and allegory to suggest criticisms without stating them openly.  In line with his satirical methodology in Shepheardes Calender and the poems of the Complaints volume, Spenser catches the reader’s attention with unusual allusive words as well as descriptions and situations that suggest allegorical interpretations in order to invite the reader to read satirically.  Daphnaida, the reference to Alcyon’s “Jaakob-staffe” suggests the fruitfulness of reading Alcyon’s lack of faith and hope with reference to the legend of the Wandering Jew.  Descriptions of Alcyon reminiscent of the allegorical personifications in The Faerie Queene suggest an extension of the mourner’s lines in Spenser’s source-text for the poem, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, where the Man in Black tells the narrator, “For who so seeth me first on morwe / May seyn, he hath y-met with sorwe; / For I am sorwe and sorwe is I” (Book of the Duchess, lines 595-597).  By developing these lines into the creation of something like an allegorical personification in Alcyon and, further, one who resists reality in his own words, preferring instead allegories and extended metaphors to describe his lost love Daphne, Spenser creates not so much a reasoned critique of excessive mourning as a vision of mourning or sorrow so extreme that it crosses from elegy into satire.


The Female Body in Renaissance English Literature
Organizer: Scott C. Lucas, The Citadel
Chair: Rachel E. Hile, Indiana University, Purdue University 

“Fairer Parts, Nether Parts: Behind the Veil in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene
Rachel Eisendrath
Barnard College

The veil is a long-standing metaphor for allegorical practice:  It refers to a surface of physical imagery (the body) beneath which lies a depth of spiritual truth (the soul).  In The Faerie Queene, Spenser repeatedly employs this image of the allegorical veil to describe his literary strategies.  For example, in a dedicatory sonnet to Lord Burghley, he alludes to the “dim vele” that hides his poem’s “fairer parts.”  And, as every reader notices, veils also appear throughout the poem:  Una, who represents truth, opens the romance wearing one (I.i.4).  But as we look more closely, an oddity starts to emerge.  Sometimes the female body behind the veil might be considered spiritual—but more often this female body appears emphatically corporeal.  For example, Guyon gawks at the sexy bodies of “Cissie and Flossie” through the fountain water “as through a vele” (II.xii.64), and Arthur strips Duessa of her covering to expose her odious “nether parts” (I.viii.48).  This recurrent corporeality, whether erotic or repulsive, runs counter to the overriding idea of a spiritual truth concealed behind allegory’s veil.  Readers find that what often lies behind allegory’s veil is not spirit, as they might expect, but more body—highly bodily body.  In this paper, I trace the threat of materiality that emerges from within the very image of allegorical representation by looking at the conflation of two strangely related tropes in literary and visual art:  one, the exposure of the shamed woman’s body and, two, the lifting of the veil of truth.


Technologies of Eloquence in Early Modern Literature
Organizer: Colleen R. Rosenfeld, Pomona College
Chair: Ayesha Ramachandran, Yale University

“‘At Liberty Againe’: Vile Tongues and Mutable Emblems in Spenser’s Faerie Queene
J. K. Barret
University of Texas at Austin
Abstract Unavailable.


Philosophy, Religion, and Literature in the English Renaissance
Organizer: Scott C. Lucas, The Citadel
Chair: Denna Iammarino, Case Western Reserve University

“Spenser’s Leviathan:  The Tripartite Platonic Soul as Structural Organizing Principle in The Faerie Queene I-III”
Thomas Herron

East Carolina University

Spenser’s 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene is divided into three parts, each of them illustrative of the ethical-moral virtues of Holiness (Book I), Temperance (Book II), and Chastity (Book III), respectively.  Why are they ordered in this way?

This paper suggests a structural model:  the hierarchized three-part soul as defined in Plato’s Timaeus and elaborated on by medieval commentators, a soul that inhabits three parts of the human body.  Spenser transforms this scheme into a metaphorical bodily framework for the first three books of his epic.  Spenser’s book of Holiness corresponds with Plato’s reasonable soul, inhabiting the head, which bolsters faith and governs and provides a pattern of virtue to the rest (thanks, in part, to Contemplation).  Spenser’s Temperance is associated with the passionate part of the soul, which seeks to temper the passions with courage and the help of reason; in Plato this occupies the human heart and chest.  Book Two focuses on various images of the heart (including Amavia’s wounded one).  Spenser’s book of Chastity is fixated on control of fertility and has the womb-like Garden of Adonis at its structural center.  It corresponds with the “appetitive” or “concupiscent” soul found lower in the torso in Plato, i.e., the area of the belly and womb.

The overall plan of Books I-III therefore follows a metaphorical and rhetorical conceit of the body, an idea found structuring Dante’s Inferno as well, as explored by Robert Durling and James Nohrnberg.  Reading FQ as platonic bodily metaphor also finds support in Spenser’s allegorical House of Temperance in Book II and other locations, as eloquently argued by Robert Reid.  There we find an architectural/architectonic allegory of the temperate soul and—it is argued here—the poem itself shaped by its man-creator, Spenser, inspired by God.  When Queen Elizabeth reads the poem she sees a mirror of her own body-soul.  The paper concludes with discussion of the three-part structures of Spenser’s View as well as the epic body-poem, The Purple Island, by Spenser’s imitator Phineas Fletcher. 

Edmund Spenser’s Poetry 
Organizer: Scott C. Lucas, The Citadel
Chair: Ernest P. Rufleth, Louisiana Tech University

“Spenser, Artegall, and Anglo-Irish History”
Jean Brink
Henry E. Huntington Library
Abstract unavailable. 

“The Author as Brand: Literary Authority and the Print Marketplace in Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender
Andie Silva
Wayne State University

The early modern print marketplace depended on collaborations between authors, printers, and publishers to make books attractive to new and returning readers. A reader browsing at St. Paul’s Churchyard would eventually learn which stalls and booksellers best catered to his tastes, looking for title-page advertisements to tell him about “new and improved” works, or trendy and emerging genres. Influential printers could thus play a significant role in an author’s choices for publication. This essay analyzes the printing history of TheShephearders Calender (1579) and Three Proper and Wittie, Familiar Letters (1580) to determine how Spenser, in collaboration with his publishers, used paratextual materials like title-pages and prefaces to frame his work as a marketable commodity.

I analyze the careers of The Shepheardes Calender’s first printer, Hugh Singleton, and the printer of Spenser’s and Harvey’s Familiar Letters, Henry Bynneman, to demonstrate that Spenser relied on their broader markets to shape his reception as an up-and-coming literary author. Taking advantage of pre-established protocols for familiar genres such as almanacs and familiar letters and popular print agents like Singleton and Bynnerman, Spenser carefully manufactured his literary history. In effect, Spenser created a symbolic myth for the rising author not simply through Immerito but especially through his choices of printers, markets, and his creation of an authorial brand that was at once exclusive and popular. An analysis of the paratextual materials in his first printed works illuminates how marketing strategies helped shape notions of authorship, popular taste, and English literary identity. 

The Faerie Queene as Site Specific Performance”
Jim Ellis
University of Calgary

This paper takes up some of the oldest critical questions about The Faerie Queene, regarding the origin of Spenser’s allegory and the nature of the space in the poem. It begins by looking at a puzzling moment: the rapturous responses of Arthur and Guyon to the Chronicles of England and Faerie Land in Book II, Canto 10, chronicles which constitute the least dramatic cantos of the entire epic. The paper read their reactions to history in the context of Book II’s interest in visual spectacle (which Giamatti and Bergeron have addressed), and in particular Guyon and the Palmer’s habit of reading everything according to the logic of the pageant. This brings up a very old observation about the poem: Wharton’s claim that the structure of Spenser’s allegory draws more on various kinds of contemporary performances (pageants, masques, progresses) than on earlier literary allegories. In addressing this again, the paper employs some new insights from recent studies of site-specific performance, as well as from the New Mobilities Paradigm. For these modes of inquiry, as for The Faerie Queene itself, consciousness is always premised on consciousness of place. What this suggests is that if there is a site to which the poem is specific, it is not exactly England, or the reader (as Spenser suggests), but rather the English reader.  Understanding how the reader (understood as always “in-place”) is the place to which the poem addresses itself helps us to understand Arthur’s rapturous reaction to the Briton monuments.


“‘No Nation Voide of Myxture’: Representations of Generic and National Mixtures in the Irish Histories of Spenser, Campion, and Hanmer”
Sarah Connell
Northeastern University
Abstract unavailable.


Humor and the Renaissance
Organizer: Ayesha Ramachandran, Yale University
Chair: Brett Foster, Wheaton College  

“Two Freudian Slips, Some Absent Knights and an Unfortunate Giggle”
William A. Oram
Smith College

Spenser’s comedy often concerns itself with human limitation; its other side is melancholy. The limitations of Timeas and Florimell appear in Freudian slips, the first when he castigates himself for loving Belphoebe and urges himself to “die” (FQ III.v.46-8), and the second when, confronted with a lecherous fisherman, she refers to the craft in which they sit as a “cock-boat” (III.viii.24). The first of these moments stresses Timeas’s inability to accept his human desires, and Spenser’s comedy recalls that of Shakespeare’s romantic idealists who, in C.L. Barber’s formulation, are mocked with “a benevolent ridicule which sees [their efforts] as a not unnatural attempt to be more than natural.” The complex comedy of the second slip focuses on Florimell’s inability to govern her tongue as it suggests her inability to manage the world around her. In this latter episode Spenser contrasts Florimell’s helplessness with the comic mastery of the poem’s narrator, who breaks off his account of Florimell’s perils to scold the knights aren’t coming to her rescue. He thus foregrounds his own godlike control of his fiction. Yet in the second half of the epic the narrator shows himself also subject to human limits, both internal and external. The Mutabilitie Cantos present a final gesture of humility when the poet gestures toward his human fallibility by staging himself as the hapless satyr Faunus, trying to spy into divine secrets and reacting to his vision with a foolish giggle.

Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene
Organizer: Scott C. Lucas, The Citadel
Chair: Sarah Van der Laan, Indiana University

“‘One confused mas’: Augustine’s allegory of Genesis and the journey to the Bower of Bliss”
Gillian Hubbard
Victoria University of Wellington
Abstract unavailable.


“Building a Visual Lexicon for The Faerie Queene
Karen Nelson
University of Maryland, College Park

Edmund Spenser invites readers of The Faerie Queene to participate in a pre-electronic-age multimedia experience. His descriptions activate all of the senses. Sights and sounds predominate, and tastes, smells, and bodily sensations appear throughout the text. One challenge for readers, especially those new to the study of sixteenth century literature and culture, is imagining within the registers in which Spenser writes. In this paper, I suggest the value of working together to construct a visual vocabulary to provide multiple entry points to some of Spenser’s encyclopedic worlds, and I begin the process on line here: 

“Children’s Versions of The Faerie Queene
Ernest P. Rufleth
Louisiana Tech University

C.S. Lewis once claimed that “Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one’s first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large—and, preferably, illustrated—edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen.” Lewis implies that young readers appreciate Spenser’s medievalism and focus on the surface narrative, and he further implies that childhood familiarity with Spenser’s poem prepares one for a greater appreciation and understanding of The Faerie Queene later in life. Such suggestions echo the introductions and intentions of the writers and editors responsible for revising Spenser’s work. This analysis seeks to answer a series of questions regarding the many children’s versions of The Faerie Queene: What happens to the allegory when the surface is simplified by prose and a homogenization of romance episodes? As children’s verse revisions are rare, how do prose structures of the many editions treat the allusive and figurative poetry of the original? And how truly Spenserian might such reconfigurations be? The numerous children’s versions of The Faerie Queene helped generations of children become familiar with Spenser, yet they remain underrepresented in the criticism. This presentation aims to bring them back under critical examination and, perhaps, show the continuing veracity of C. S. Lewis’s claim.

Spenser and Humor
Organizer: Ayesha Ramachandran, Yale University
Chair: Sarah Van der Laan, Indiana University 

“Spenser’s Smiles”
Mark Rasmussen
Centre College

Smiling appears to be a human universal, and yet the smile is a notoriously enigmatic gesture, with the pre-modern smile especially hard to contextualize and de-code. If the signature Dantean smile is beatific, and if the Chaucerian smile is ironically self-possessed, the distinctive Spenserian smile may be characterized as voluptuous, as both expressing and giving sensual pleasure, a pleasure that is not necessarily to be scorned. After mapping some contours of the Spenserian smile, this paper concluded by examining two Chaucerian smiles found in The Faerie Queene, Merlin’s smile at 3.3.17 and Neptune’s smile at 4.12.30, arguing not only that Spenser wants us to recognize these two smiles as Chaucerian, but also that both serve as important narrative and thematic markers, or bookends, within the poem as a whole. 

“Not Dead Yet? Spenser’s Death Games”
Jonathan L. Sircy
Charleston Southern University
Spenser frequently gives us characters who look like they’re dead when they’re not. More generally, he gives us things that look finished when they’re not. While these juxtapositions are hardly the stuff of humor, they are amenable to parodox which can prove a breeding ground for folly. This happens at least twice in The Faerie Queene’s first three books: in Book I Canto XII when the “rude” townsfolk muse over the condition of the Red-Cross-Knight-slain dragon and in Book III Canto IV when Cymoent laments the what-she-thinks-is-death of her son Marinell. In this paper, I try to show the movements of Spenser’s laughter in these episodes and how his poem encourages us not to be too hasty with dead corpses.

“Glauce’s ‘Foolhardy Wit’ and the Revision of Chivalry in The Faerie Queene”
Sue Starke
Monmouth University 

Both tragedy and chivalric romance present the world from the point of view of the aristocrat and the warrior; comedy, on the other hand, offers the perspective of the base or low through representations of ordinary human behavior. Despite Milton’s characterization of Spenser as the “sage and serious” poet, the genera mista of The Faerie Queene displays Bakhtin’s dialogic imagination in its inclusion of multiple generic perspectives. Book 3 offers a key example; its heroine Britomart is motivated to pursue her chivalric career through the necessary intervention of her nurse Glauce. Through a comparison of the Rabelaisian materialist Glauce to Britomart’s other primary mentor, the idealist Merlin, we may see how Spenser’s comic impulse informs his revisionist treatment of the chivalric romance itself.  As an aged female servant, Glauce is a low comic figure by definition, in all respects without learned or textual authority. Her literal adoption of the chivalric identity of the squire or shield bearer as she steals Angela’s armor for Britomart exemplifies her violations of decorum with respect to class, gender, and even genre. Investing the humble Glauce with the powers of a Sidneyan poet to teach and inspire her charge, Spenser accords her the honor of reanimating the suppressed record of “women valorous” that authorizes Britomart to put Merlin’s providential plan into present action.  


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Cite as:

"Sixteenth Century Society Conference," Spenser Review 43.3.77 (Winter 2014). Accessed December 9th, 2023.
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