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On The Poetry of the Faerie Queene
by Paul J. Hecht

Alpers, Paul. The Poetry of  The Faerie Queene. Princeton UP, 1967; rpt. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1982. 432pp. ISBN: 978-0826203830. $95 cloth. 


A. C. Hamilton’s 14-page review-response to Alpers in ELH in 1968 still seems to me to capture a good deal of what is great and frustrating about this book.[1]  Alpers’s thesis comes off as both a bit too stiff, and sometimes too broadly applied—that is, The Faerie Queene’s refusal of fidelity to imitation or verisimilitude or a fictional world, and its commitment to “the reader’s mind and feelings” (5).  And Alpers is so engaged with contemporary criticism as sometimes to seem embattled or distracted.  Despite the fact that many of his interlocutors remain forces in Spenser criticism today, these engagements age less well than other parts of the book.  On the other hand, one often gets the sense that taking on such a wide range of prominent scholars must have had knock-on effects for other writers, clearing room, and suggesting that we were a long way from the last word on Spenser.  But Hamilton, having come in for some heavy criticism himself, was also ready to praise Alpers in the highest terms:  “No critic since Hazlitt rivals Alpers in his attention to the text” (622).  He goes on to praise Alpers’s championing of attention to the “surface,” and his expertise in reading individual stanzas.  And this remains right: there is much more to this book than its thesis, and for me it is the side-lines and auxiliary questions Alpers takes up that make the most compelling reading today.

I will focus here on questions about style, since these most interest me, and since we seem to be living in a lively moment for the topic, considering the recent publication of David Scott Wilson-Okamura’s book, and the impending arrival of a concordance and extensive meditation on Spenserian rhyme by Richard Danson Brown and J. B. Lethbridge.[2]  Questions about style in Alpers’s book come to the foremost prominently in the second and third chapters, entitled “Narrative Materials and Stanzas of Poetry,” and “Spenser’s Poetic Language.”  As someone who has spent a lot of time listening to and thinking about alliteration in Spenser, I find a claim Alpers makes early in chapter 2 striking.  About stanza I.x.28, in which we hear of the Red Cross Knight’s groans during his treatment by Dr. Patience, and Una’s sympathetic cries, Alpers says this:

Despite the enjambment, ‘tore’ is kept quite separate from its objects in the next line, both because it is a rhyme-word and because alliteration and formulaic balance assert the independence of ‘Her guiltlesse garments, and her golden heare.’ (37)

And here are the relevant lines:


His owne deare Vna hearing euermore

His ruefull shriekes and gronings, often tore

Her guiltlesse garments, and her golden heare,

For pitty of his payne and anguish sore;


This is part of an argument that, first, Una cannot both be patient and make ritual demonstrations of her grief—which in turn is part of Alpers’s ongoing argument that The Faerie Queene does not describe a coherent fictive world.  That makes Alpers want to see Spenser’s use of formulas—guiltless garments, golden hair—simultaneously strengthen the line’s character as a line of poetry, and dampen its imaginative impact.  But what is striking to me is that Alpers can hear rhyme, enjambment, alliteration, “formulaic balance,” and the relative independence of lines as forces not necessarily in alignment, vying for different effects and senses. This is impressive, even though his contention that those qualities of the sixth line somehow nullify the sense of tearing carried over from the fifth does not finally seem convincing.

In chapter 3, Alpers’s sensitivity to this wide spectrum of poetic forces has the greatest payoff with respect to characterizing Spenser’s style.  It comes as Alpers approaches a set of stylistic accusations that have dogged Spenser for centuries.  These include monotony, passivity, and, perhaps slightly less commonly, decadence, decadence in the sense of the poet giving himself up to “a flow of harmonious sound.”[3]  Alpers begins with a very sharp discussion of how Spenser has fared ill with critics who celebrate the quality that emerges in late sixteenth-century poetry, a sense that it is “the product of a speaking voice” (73), that writers like Philip Sidney and Donne can make the requirements of form, of rhythm and rhyme, disappear into “inevitable naturalness,”[4] or “the effect of voices speaking, of drama.”[5]  Alpers doesn’t dispute this praise, but he does dispute what happens to Spenser when poetry is praised in these terms, what happens when such critics turn giddily from Sidney or Donne over to old Spenser and find themselves reaching for the opposites of their words of praise.  Drama becomes monotony.  When the sense that poetry is the “product” (and primacy is key in the conception: first the potent voice, then the verse that embodies it) of a dramatic speaking voice is gone, we have passivity, and without the voice we just hear unenlivened poetic sounds—decadence at best, at worst, noise.

With all that Alpers brings into focus here, I should note that this is one point where I feel the absence of the feminist and queer criticism that has flourished later decades.  That is, not just when Alpers addresses the erotic content of The Faerie Queene, but also with respect to style, and the sexualized and gendered tropes that are often used to characterize it.  This applies to passivity vs. activity, but in general stylistic arguments now seem to me to appear much closer to moral ones, and those tied up with visions of vir-tue that are gendered and sexed.[6]  But while Alpers doesn’t dig into the sexual suggestiveness of passivity and decadence, he does find an innovative way to address the stylistic accusations leveled against the poem.  Alpers suggests that some of Spenser’s defenders, like Hazlitt, aren’t effective because they simply turn the vices into virtues:  yes, it’s monotonous, but it’s a pleasing reverie-like monotony.  Rather than making such a flat reversal, Alpers attempts to chart a way between the binaries, and he begins by quoting the William Empson of Seven Types of Ambiguity, typically gnomic Empson, to be sure, about which Alpers says this:  “Empson is trying to characterize the way in which a passive acceptance of line and stanza form is compatible, in reading Spenser’s verse, with a great deal of alertness and attention” (76).  That is, we will have a mix of passivity and activity:  passivity in the relationship of sentence, line, and stanza, and activity in the reader’s constant, necessary attention to the ambiguities and disjunctions.[7]

Before moving further into his argument, I would suggest that, while Alpers is more usually concerned in this book with charting how the poem “holds in focus a variety of moral truths” (148), this discussion remains one of the most clear-headed, focus-holding views ever written about problems with Spenser’s style.  And the argument that follows is also compelling, working as it does with Milton, Marlowe, and Drayton to attempt to corral what separates Spenser’s approach to line, sentence, and stanza.  Alpers develops a specific sense of passivity in the writing that often means syntactic ambivalence—not being able to tell what a given clause modifies—as well as frequent linear ambivalence—lines that sound end-stopped, but turn out not to be, and therefore retain a slight duality of sense.  I will quote an example at length to illustrate this point.  It concerns the following lines from I.i.46, and Archimago’s creation of an alternative Una:


And that new creature borne without her dew,

Full of the makers guyle, with vsage sly

He taught to imitate that Lady trew,

Whose semblance she did carrie vnder feigned hew.


Here is Alpers’s analysis:


We cannot, and again we need not, decide whether ‘with vsage sly’ modifies ‘taught’ or ‘imitate.’  The double grammar makes the allegorical point that the false Una is the creature of Archimago:  what characterizes the one characterizes the other.  There is a further point of interest here.  In line 2, we entertain for a moment the possibility that ‘with vsage sly’ is syntactically parallel to the preceding two phrases (it seems a close echo of ‘without her dew’) and thus modifies ‘creature.’  In Marlowe’s verse [i.e., Hero and Leander] this possibility would be rejected, and our perception of the sentence structure would produce a vigorous enjambment from line 2 to line 3.  But the enjambment does not occur here.  We continue to entertain the apparent syntax of ‘with vsage sly,’ because it makes little difference to the meaning of the passage:  it simply makes line 2, rather than line 3, bring out the identity of the false Una and her creator.  Note that we do not choose the wrong syntax.  Rather this is a case of extreme permissiveness; we seem not to have to make the decisions about sentence structure that we ordinarily make.


This is brilliant, an illumination of a sense of stylistic passivity that rings true, even as it is a truth about Spenser’s style that is hard to hold onto.

Becoming conscious of such ambivalence of course requires activity in the reader, but this is not exactly Alpers’s response to the charge of passivity.  His response rather relies on a sense of enargeia, where even the most formulaic phrases can still ignite powerful sensory and cognitive responses in a reader.  It’s a tantalizing and not completely satisfying conclusion, but the analysis that precedes it is characteristic of what seems to me the best of this book, namely its ability to zero in on questions in Spenser, many of which remain before us unresolved, or benefitting from such a careful approach to exposition, and to offer solutions that build on numerous readings and comparisons, reflecting what was already an extraordinary breadth of reading and learning. This would only continue to expand during a long, productive, generous career. It makes this a book that rewards our attention now and will continue to reward it.


Paul J. Hecht

Purdue University – North Central



[1] “Spenser and the Common Reader,” ELH 35.4 (1968): 618–633. Subsequent references to this article will be given parenthetically in the text.

[2] Spenser’s International Style (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Richard Danson Brown and J. B. Lethbridge, A Concordance to the Rhymes of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Together with Two Studies: `Charmed with enchanted rhyme’: Spenser and Rhyme by Richard Danson Brown and ‘The Bondage of Rhyme’ in The Faerie Queene (Manchester University Press, forthcoming).

[3] 76, quoting Derek Traversi. “Spenser’s Faerie Queene,” in The Age of Chaucer, Ed. Boris Ford (London: Penguin, 1954), 221. I might add that such criticisms are anticipated in The Shepheardes Calender, most vividly in October, line 75.

[4] 72, quoting F. R. Leavis, Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (London: Chatto and Windus, 1936), 11–12.

[5] 73, quoting John Thompson, The Founding of English Metre (London: Routledge, 1961), 140.

[6] As it happens some of the oddest moments in the book are sexual. I can’t help quoting Hamilton’s response to Alpers’s reading of the “hundred naked maidens” of VI.x.12, about which Alpers asserts that we aren’t meant as readers actually to see naked women (13).  Hamilton avows that he does, and defends this vision morally by linking it, with C. S. Lewis and Northrup Frye, to other visions of naked women in the book, e.g., naked maidens in malo in the Bower of Bliss.  If I follow correctly, he suggests that Alpers’s apparent prudery results from what would be a crassly pornographic vision necessitated by Alpers’s commitment to local readings of stanzas and cantos:  because Alpers refuses to connect similar visions across all of The Faerie Queene, seeing naked women in this line would be like opening “an issue of Playboy magazine,” and Alpers can’t allow that (632).  The situation seems more confused than crass, but all of this demonstrates the need for a lot more thinking about Eros, thinking that ensuing decades would deliver.

[7] I am struck by the parallels of Alpers’s reading of critics here to his argument in What Is Pastoral?, which analogously takes to task much pastoral-positive criticism for implicitly validating the charges of nostalgia and escapism associated with “the golden world.” And also analogously, Empson stands out, for Alpers, as a critic who does not accept the usual terms or simply take a position among established binaries.  Again here, Alpers uses him for traction, and singles him out for avoiding pitfalls that most others could not. 




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Cite as:

Paul J. Hecht, "On The Poetry of the Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 43.2.22 (Fall 2013). Accessed June 5th, 2023.
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