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Paul Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene
by Andrew Escobedo

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


This is a book written by someone who loved to read poetry, especially Renaissance poetry, and most especially The Faerie Queene.  Alpers can scarcely wait to start reading as the book opens, and by the fifth paragraph he is already doing a close analysis of the verse.  The book is a commentary on the poem as much as anything else, a Variorum edition of sorts for close readers. It includes separate indices for passages discussed and characters and places examined—indices whose length matches that of the general index of topics and critics.  This book was premised on the notion that if we want to know what The Faerie Queene means and how it works, we should read it.  “Trust Spenser’s verse,” says Alpers again and again.  He recommended a hermeneutics of credulity over against a hermeneutics of suspicion, and in the process produced one of the most important works of Spenser criticism ever written.

The title—The Poetry of  The Faerie Queene—aptly announced the book’s ambition, a definitive account of many aspects of the poem as it was conceived in 1967.  Alpers unfolded his argument with an even and serious tone.  (Robert Adams quipped good-naturedly, in a highly positive review of the book, that “this young man has everything except youth!”)  It includes chapters on rhetorical address, prosody, structure, sixteenth-century reading practices, iconography, allegory, and genre, as well as sustained readings of individual episodes and themes within the poem.  Alpers’s conviction that the poem works in a uniform way—at least, that we can describe it in terms of a common set of protocols—means that the discussion of separate topics in the chapters sometimes reverts to the book’s central thesis.  The chapter titled “The Nature of Spenser’s Allegory” really does not have much to do with allegory, and the chapter on “Interpretation and the Sixteenth-Century Reader” does not define premodern readers so much as demonstrate that such readers might understand the poem as modern ones do.  This is certainly not a thesis-driven book, but it balances the variety of discussion with a frequent invocation of recurring critical touchstones.

The book was responding to a set of what we might call structuralist interpretations of  The Faerie Queene, by critics as diverse as Northrop Frye, A.C. Hamilton, Harry Berger, Jr., Alastair Fowler, and S.K. Heninger, Jr., who sought in a variety of ways to identify the deep principles of organization informing Spenser’s poem.  Alpers’s contention was that no such deep principles existed in The Faerie Queene.  The basic unit of the poem, according to him, is not a theme or legend or book, but instead the canto (107).  Spenser does not really expect us to recall, as we read, more than a canto or so of the verse that came before (125).  If we force a more far-reaching memory upon our reading experience, then we are likely to burden Redcrosse Knight’s experience of “swimming in that sea of blisful joy” (I.xii.41) during his betrothal to Una with his earlier sinful dream of his beloved in which he was “Bathed in wanton blis and wicked joy” (I.i.47).  Shakespearean theater uses dramatic metaphors in a consistent and progressive way, expecting its audience to understand each instance in terms of prior usage.  Not so in The Faerie Queene, where “the details of expression are to be referred solely to the immediate poetic context in which they occur” (128).

This is, in its way, a strict protocol of poetic reading, and it speaks to the degree to which  The Poetry of  The Faerie Queene reflected and anticipated contemporary critical debates about reader response.  The two books that keep it company in this respect are Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin, published in the same year, and Stephen Booth’s An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published two years later.  Alpers’s observation about the “jolt” that Spenser’s syntax sometimes imposes on us (87) matches numerous examples of syntactic surprise uncovered by Fish and Booth in Milton and Shakespeare. Yet Alpers differs from both of these critics.  For Fish, the surprise of syntax has a normative effect, revealing our distance from prelapsarian understanding; for Booth, by contrast, syntactic effects teach us nothing in particular, but instead enlarge our aesthetic experience of the verse.  Alpers is somewhere between these views.  The Faerie Queene has no overall lesson to convey, no consistent formula of readerly success or failure, but its verbal and syntactic ambiguities do work to augment the complexity of the reader’s moral and psychological understanding of the issues presented in the poem. When Spenser tells us in the final canto of Book II that “Now gins this goodly frame of Temperance / Fairely to rise” (II.xii.1), it is hard to identify in narrative terms exactly what plot has begun climaxing.  But for Alpers we assent to the statement because in the course of the disjointed story “we have experienced and considered heroic temperance from, apparently, every possible perspective” (116).  More perspectives mean more complexity, which means more readerly understanding.

The emphasis on the poem as a rhetorical address to readers that increases the complexity of their understanding entails two twin theses that weave their way through the entire book:  (1) the poem does not depict a sustained fictional world of dramatic action, and (2) the poem eschews moral judgments in favor of “moral understanding.”  The first thesis yields some spectacular insights about how the stanzas and episodes work.  For example, if we read Una’s response to her knight’s suffering in the House of Holiness as a physical action, it seems rather confused, since Spenser tells us that she simultaneously “tore” her clothes and hair in pity and that she bore the whole ordeal “with patience wisely” (I.x.28).  Alpers argues that Spenser uses the contradiction to modulate our understanding of Una’s stance here, one that mixes temperate restraint with sympathetic concern:  “The wise patience with which the stanza ends is felt to be not heroic resistance, but an expression of loving understanding and solicitude” (38).  Repeatedly in The Faerie Queene, for Alpers, visual scenes of dramatic action blur into rhetorical addresses to readers.

This view of dramatic action applies equally well to longer episodes as to individual stanzas.  The book features a virtuoso reading of the Phedon episode (II.iv), which Alpers compares to its source in Orlando Furioso (4.51-6.16).  Whereas Ariosto depicts the conflicting desires and motives of Dalinda, Ginevra, and Ariodante with painful dramatic clarity, Spenser emphasizes the confused, overlapping subjectivities of Phedon, Philemon, Claribella, and Pryene, where distinct action is replaced by “a series of formulas, each of which suggests a disturbing quality of feeling” (62).  Alpers also uses his view of dramatic action in the poem to take issue with Harry Berger’s reading of the Cave of Mammon (II.vii), in The Allegorical Temper (1957), which treats Sir Guyon as a morally limited character motivated by the sin of curiositas. Alpers argues, to the contrary, that there is no hope of constructing a dramatically distinct character out of Guyon’s contradictory utterances. Instead, Guyon’s speeches offer us a set of responses that Renaissance readers might have toward wealth.  The conflicting nature of these responses illustrates that there is no single, reliable stance that fallen humans can take toward riches; we inevitably overestimate or underestimate the value of earthly goods (256-60). The episode makes us feel the difficulty of rejecting in a secure way the things that Mammon offers, “perhaps the most extraordinary rendering in world literature of the experience of saying No to an evil” (269), as Alpers puts it.

No one gets out of  The Faerie Queene unscathed, not characters and not readers.  This aspect of the poem speaks to the second persistent thesis of Alpers’s book, that Spenser prevents us from making clear moral judgments about characters and their actions.  In rare moments, the poem explicitly invites and stymies our efforts to make such judgments, as in the case of Calidore after he decides to go into pastoral retirement (VI.x.1-3; Alpers 285). But more typically this effect is subtler.  For example, the Despaire episode (I.ix) features a villain who personifies what all Tudor divines considered a mortal sin, yet Alpers reads the episode as implying a painful double-bind for Christian heroism.  The exemplary heroism by which Arthur has earlier rescued Redcross Knight—“with constant zeale, and courage bold” (I.viii.40)—is the same heroism that the knight of holiness brings to bear on the villain Despaire:  “with firie zeale he burnt in courage bold” (I.ix.37).  But it doesn’t work: Redcross’s voice ends up merging with that of Despaire, and our readerly certainty that Despaire is the bad guy must uncomfortably make room for our impression that the villain simply channels the discourse of heroism that the poem has thus far championed (354-56).  Compounding this difficulty, Una rescues her knight from suicide by re-invoking Despaire’s formula of heroic action, in the same format of rhetorical question:  “Is this the battle, which thou vauntst to fight, / With that fire-mouthed Dragon…?” (I.ix.52).  Alpers offers a rich sense of the emotional impact of Una’s intervention:  “She invokes the firmest stays of our belief, and yet her heroic rhetoric shakes our souls, because it lays hold of and reverses the spiritual energies that were engaged by Despair’s appeal” (359).  As readers, we comprehend more richly what it means to despair—our moral understanding is more complex—but we cannot stand outside this understanding and judge it.  The Despaire episode has attracted many excellent scholarly readings in the decades since The Poetry of The Faerie Queene, but none of them, in my view, can match Alpers’s sensitivity to the episode’s verbal and moral texture 

Interestingly, Alpers suggests that the keynotes of Spenserian poetry—a de-emphasis on dramatic action and moral judgment—are also the source of its aesthetic limitations.  Especially in chapter 9, on allegory (the longest chapter in the book), Alpers reiterates Spenser’s “radical inability to render dramatic action” (299).  Likewise, “the condition of his poetry is the abeyance of will… .  He seems not to have imaginatively grasped that the potentialities of human nature could actually transform individuals, could show themselves in dramatic actions whose consequences, in both the personality and the external world, could not be undone” (332).  There is a passivity of action in the poem, and the characters tend to drift according to the currents of rhetorical need.  Alpers even implicitly extends this quality of the poem to his wonderful account of Spenser’s sentences, where the rule of ambiguous syntax becomes “follow the path of least resistance” (84).  There is great pleasure in this passivity, according to Alpers, but also a narrowing of artistic options. Spenser can show us the effects of religious despair in an everyman, “but he cannot show us despair as a tragic state, in … a single man, because of what he is, what his past acts and choices have made him” (333).  Because of the kind of poet Spenser is, there are simply some artistic avenues that remain closed to him.  Spenser “knew a great deal of what Shakespeare knew, but he could never have written King Lear” (333).  One wants to object that most human beings could not have written King Lear, but these observations nonetheless identify something crucial about the nondramatic and morally discontinuous nature of the poem.

In his later work, Alpers ingeniously linked his poetic interests to questions of social life and political power, as in his concept of a “domain” and his notion of pastoral convention as a “convening.”  These questions do not arise in The Poetry of The Faerie Queene, and Alpers was writing this book in perhaps the last decade in which a critic could afford to ignore such issues.  To complain that the book should have included these questions rings rather hollow, since it amounts to saying that Alpers should not have written the book he wrote. But there are absences and understatements that might be registered even in the terms of the study he produced.  The book has little to say about the overt historical allegories of book V, and gives no attention to the passages on national history in II.x and III.iii.  Many critics would dissent from Alpers’s confident assertion that attentive readers “will feel the gravity and justice of Arthegall’s reply” to the egalitarian giant (299).  Discussing the stanza in which Britomart rules the amazon city as a princess but also repeals the liberty of women (V.vii.42), Alpers observes that the contradictions “are annoying because they are presented in a dramatic mode: no one can fill, in so simply a reported action, the many roles given Britomart here” (304). But the explicit gender politics of book V suggest that there are more urgent things to find annoying in these contradictions.

We might also query the distinction between moral judgments and moral understanding.  Judgments, it is true, can be made in a self-righteous and smug way, and certainly The Faerie Queene rarely permits this to happen.  But moral sentiments, if they are moral, are normative and therefore involve judgments.  When Alpers writes that Spenser would say that Redcross Knight is “guilty of mistaken and sinful action” and that Spenser has no interest “in determining judgments about actions” (148), it is hard to adjudicate these two statements.  To say that he is both guilty and not subject to judgment sounds a bit like special pleading. Alpers has a tendency to resolve such questions with an appeal to “human nature” and “human reality.”  Human love involves the flesh, and therefore must involve pain (18); Phedon can regain his humanity only when he has been purged of his passions (69); human heroism inherently risks ignoring its dependence on godly providence (118); Spenser alters the traditional iconography of Prays-desire in order to express the human complexity of the emotion she personifies (208); typically, Spenser “assumes that the hero’s behavior is good, and devotes his poetry to making us see and understand general themes, issues, and problem of man’s life” (287).  One wants both to endorse this humanistic notion of moral understanding and to insist that it requires specification at a more precise thematic, ethical, political, or philosophical level.



So in four decades’ hindsight we naturally find some things missing from the book. But what did the book give us?  It gave us a poem of dazzling surfaces rather than one of deep mysteries.  It gave us a poem of complexity and provisionality, in which the speaker makes confident assertions that he soon qualifies, revises, or contradicts—a view of poetry that anticipated the insights of deconstructive criticism in the 1970s and 80s.  Alpers’s Faerie Queene engages us in a moral life without reducing that life to simplistic moral formula.  There is no easy distinction between in malo and in bono:  his poem allows no one to stand apart and impassively arbitrate.  This book of criticism reminds us, I hope, of how much we still care about poetry as poetry, and how we have tended to ignore it as critics. We know a great deal of what Alpers knew, but probably none of us could have written The Poetry of The Faerie Queene.


Andrew Escobedo

Ohio University



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Cite as:

Andrew Escobedo, "Paul Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 43.2.21 (Fall 2013). Accessed June 5th, 2023.
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