Spenser Studies Vol. XXVIII (2013) is out. We are pleased to provide the abstracts for this year’s articles:
Spenser’s Lost Children
For Irish writers, Spenser has become a nettle to be grasped, a stinging symbol of a fractured Irish history and a fractured literary tradition. But there is opportunity in the grasping. Thus Spenser’s life, as much as his poetry, exerts a significant influence
on Irish writers, and not just poets. In Frank McGuinness’s play Mutabilitie (1997), John Montague’s The Rough Field (1972), or in poems by Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, and Brendan Kennelly, certain conspicuously Spenserian topoi dominate: the shocking description of the Munster famine from the View; his poetic professions of loyalty to Elizabeth, the “faerie queene”; the burning of Kilcolman castle. But less conspicuous Spenserian motifs and concerns resurface in unexpected ways in modern Irish writing, often at moments of literary or political crisis, enacting different kinds of concerns. Spenser’s rivers—“Mulla,” “Molanna” and even the “Sweet Thames” of “Prothalamion”—course through Irish writing, sometimes only half-consciously. The apocryphal story of a child of Spenser’s lost while Kilcolman castle burned is another powerful figure to which Irish writers have been drawn, not only as a figure of loss but also of an entente that may already have happened, a hidden history of Anglo-Irish relations that remains to be told. This essay maps Spenser’s influence on modern Irish poetry, novels, and drama through these figures. It uncovers the literary and political work that direct engagements with Spenser seek to perform, and re-orients Spenser’s place in Irish literary tradition as, paradoxically, a touchstone, even perhaps the “created conscience” of Irish literature.
“Who Knows Not Colin Clout?”: Spenser and the Poets of the Mid-Twentieth Century
In 1954 Professor William Blissett sent out letters to a hundred living poets, mostly those represented in the Faber Book of Modern Verse and its sequel, the Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse, asking if they still read Spenser and regarded the Spenserian tradition as a living one. He received forty replies, which suggested the following: (1) Spenser was well above the horizon for many poets, modern as well as traditional, at a time when he seemed to be at the nadir. (2) He was more read and admired by poets unconnected with universities than by academic poets. (3) The Spenser that was read was “sweet Spenser” not “our sage and serious Spenser.” (4) Most were not influenced to the point of imitation by the most characteristic qualities of Spenser—his allegory or his extended regular verse form. His article discusses more fully the responses of Walter de la Mare, Robert Penn Warren and Marianne Moore.
This article originally appeared in English Now: Selected Papers from the 20th IAUPE Conference in Lund, 2007, Lund Studies in English 112, ed. Marianne Thormählen, (Lund: Lund University Press, 2008). Spenser Studies thanks Professor Blissett and Professor Thormählen, the editor of this volume of Lund Studies in English, for their permission to reprint the article.
Joseph F. Loewenstein
The Poets’ Poet’s Poet: James Merrill’s Spenser Lectures
To the challenging question, “What did X learn from Spenser?,” this essay responds, “let X equal James Merrill,” and continues, in part, in a mathematical vein, investigating how Spenser’s interest in number informs Merrill’s conspicuous engagements with prosodic measure, how Spenser’s encyclopedism manifests itself in Merrill as explicitly summative, and, generally, how insistently Merrill works to make imagined cosmogony count across The Changing Light at Sandover, the epic to which Merrill devoted his attention for more than half his career. The essay takes up other, non-mathematical Spenserianisms in Merrill as well: the relation between Merrill’s color-sense and Spenser’s, their shared commitment to making a larger social sense of the intimacies of friendship, Merrill’s special interest in the somewhat lubricious myth of renewal in the Garden of Adonis, and the urbane Spenserian-Stevensian hybrid of his reimagining of the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie at the conclusion of The Book of Ephraim, the first installment of Sandover.
After Rome; or, Why Spenser Was Not a Republican
This essay raises some objections to the emerging critical consensus that Spenser’s political values were, at least in certain significant ways, aligned with Renaissance republicanism. Noting Spenser’s tendency to downplay the Roman state’s own institutional history in favor of its relations to predecessors and successors, I argue that he belongs, rather, to an Augustinian metahistorical tradition for which “the republic” features as a dubious, problematic category. Spenser responds to republican discourse primarily as raising a set of moral arguments about time, action, and the politically structured society. But whereas the Venetian theorist Gasparo Contarini exemplifies the republican tendency to maximize the definitional relations among virtue, permanence, and constitutional design, Spenser in both The Ruines of Time and his commendatory sonnet for Contarini’s English translation pointedly disassociates himself from that republican nexus. The time-bound society, I show in concluding, looks most like something fitted to Spenser’s ethical imagination the less it resembles the kind of balanced, stable ordering of parts that is the object of republican political analysis.
Silvan Matters: Error and Instrumentality in Book I of The Faerie Queene
This article considers the significance of two competing versions of matter represented in the opening canto of The Faerie Queene. The first, given shape in the tree catalogue (I.i.8–9), introduces the perspective of instrumental materialism (associated with the Greek hyle): the idea that matter comprises a vast storehouse of resources for human use. The second, dramatized by the Redcrosse Knight’s ensuing battle with the monster Errour (I.i.14–26), embodies chaotic matter (associated with the Latin materia), which subverts the instrumental by highlighting matter’s resistance to fixed form, along with the human subject’s entanglement in the material world. Taken together, these episodes demonstrate how the failure of instrumentality reconfigures humankind’s relationship with the material world; the economic tenor of the tree catalogue gives way to the grotesque ecology of Errour. I argue that Spenser utilizes these two versions of matter to embody the problem of literary production at this opening juncture of his epic. While one version offers
a link to the literary past (even as it threatens sterile imitation), the other embodies the promise of creating something new, while highlighting the danger of chaotic formlessness.
Cetaceous Sin and Dragon Death: The Faerie Queene, Natural Philosophy, and the Limits of Allegory
In this essay, I investigate the curious persistence of the carcass of the final dragon in Book I of The Faerie Queene. Well after the dragon has been vanquished by Red Cross, the corpse continues to dominate the poem, drawing spectators who examine and measure the creature’s hulking but lifeless expanse. I suggest that the poem describes the corpse of Book I’s final dragon using the techniques of natural philosophy, deploying representational conventions common to contemporary visual and textual accounts of whale strandings. This interpolation of natural philosophical discourse temporarily suspends the allegorical program of the poem, drawing attention to the interpretive protocols of Renaissance allegory and to the challenge posed by the dead body to modern theories of allegorization. This article adds to a small but growing body of critical work suggesting that Spenser’s preoccupation with contemporary scientific inquiry is visible in The Faerie Queene, and suggests that the poem’s allegorical program incorporates multiple discursive practices—including natural philosophy—in order to supplement the representation of events and states resistant to a “dark conceit.”
“Wonne with Custome”: Conquest and Etymology in the Spenser-Harvey Letters andA View of the Present State of Ireland
This essay argues for a connection between two texts that are usually considered unrelated, Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland and his correspondence with Gabriel Harvey that preceded it by nearly twenty years. Both texts negotiate the problem of implementing foreign rule, whether poetic or political, by appealing to a major intellectual and political reference point of the period: the concept of custom. In the Letters both Spenser and Harvey treat custom as the mechanism that makes the foreign familiar, drawing upon a widespread classical and early modern understanding of custom. At the same time, however, they appeal to and subvert the sixteenth-century English legal discourse of custom as it was developed in the realm of common law, wherein custom is figured as a form of resistance to foreign imposition, especially in the context of the Norman Conquest. This self-conscious probing of the complex and at times contradictory logic of legal custom provides a heuristic framework for Spenser’s approach to custom’s thorny role in the conquest of Ireland in A View. As a result of his exchange with Harvey, Spenser foregrounds the difficulty, even futility, of deploying language, with its vexed and layered etymologies, in the service of a political project.
Poets in the House of Pride: Of “Noble Personage[s],” the Sonnet to Ormond, and The Faerie Queene’s “many Bardes”
Spenser’s dedicatory sonnet addressed to the Earl of Ormond has become an important touchstone in studies of The Faerie Queene’s relationship with its Irish context. In his A View of the Present State of Ireland, Spenser indicates that Ormond and Spenser’s patron, Lord Grey, were political enemies, but he also seems to indicate that a reconciliation occurred between the two. Speculating on a working relationship between Ormond and Spenser, Christopher Highley has argued that the sonnet to Ormond was intended by Spenser to “exploit” Ormond’s “reputation as a patron of bards.” However, I offer evidence that Spenser’s attitude toward Ormond in the View is more antagonistic than is usually thought. I also argue that this antagonism complicates the immediately positive elements of the dedicatory sonnet—they can be read as a cover for an attack upon Ormond’s Gaelicized households at Kilkenny and Carrick in The Faerie Queene’s House of Pride episode. The attack is signaled in the episode chiefly by Spenser’s reference to the House of Pride’s “many Bardes” (I.iv.3.6).
Outfoxed? Mother Hubberds Tale, Adam Loftus, and Lord Burleigh in Irish Context
Against recent criticism by Bruce Danner, this article defends a previous identification of the Fox in MHT as figuring (primarily) Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and not only (secondarily) Lord Burleigh. It does so by emphasizing Burleigh’s ties to Ireland, including those mysteriously figured in the Bregog digression of Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. It provides further context for beast fables involving English-Irish ecclesiastical politics, including a new (possible) identification of Loftus in Nicholas Baxter’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Ourania that directly echoes Spenser’s MHT.