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Paul Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene
by James C. Nohrnberg

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


Easily one of the greatest and most absorbing books about Spenser’s magnum opus ever written, Alpers’s treatise The Poetry of  The Faerie Queene offered to change Spenser studies for good and all, and presented every would-be Spenserian with new notions of the object of his or her supposed attention.  “[S]till indispensible” pronounces Julian Lethbridge in his review of Spenser criticism forty years after the original publication.[1] Alpers’s sage volume remains perhaps the one study the serious student of Spenser cannot afford to ignore, cannot afford not to be instructed by.  It reconstructs Spenser—and more especially the description of the experience of reading Spenser—from the ground up, and provides an ideal initiation into the discourse of modern Spenserian studies in general, partly because Alpers took on—and took seriously—so many of his contemporary Spenserians, both established and emergent.

“The poetic coherence of The Faerie Queene is usually described in terms of fictional consistency; but it is rather to be found in the coherence of the reader’s feelings and attitudes” (8).  And thus the poem’s fable, so critical in Italian discussions of comparable literary projects—whether epic or dramatic—is itself merely a fable (or figment: of faerie).   Little work done after Alpers’s could be responsibly undertaken in ignorance of this major interpretation and position.  The following review will nonetheless try to revisit and highlight what in this heroic Spenserian remains conspicuous and conspicuously relevant and admirable, or at least provocative: in the present (re-)reader’s opinion. 

Alpers’s Spenser is not grounded in Renaissance enigmas and mysteries à la Edgar Wind and Pico della Mirandola, but in Renaissance homilies and educators, à la Erasmus and Horace.  And for reasons that will emerge nearer the conclusion of this essay, Alpers’s book is more about the first installment of The Faerie Queene than the second, and thus more about an internal morality than a social or political praxis (unlike The Courtier).  Alpers is acute on the role of homiletically-delivered tried-and-truisms in managing and formulating the reader’s response to Spenserian characters’ own responses (which are usually themselves typified), and in all of his interpretations a sobering and generous collective wisdom takes precedence over recondite arcana, since his version of allegory allows us to think about what we already know (330, 334, citing Rosamund Tuve), not what we can never properly fathom.  Common sense is Alpers’s faithful and prudent Palmer, and in the Cave of Mammon serves for the Palmer in absentia.  But it is a tenacious common sense, backed up by deep learning and enviable scholarship.   

In Alpers’s fifth chapter—the first of four chapters on “historical materials”—on “Interpretation and the Sixteenth-Reader,” this extremely well-informed twentieth century reader takes on the various moralizations of the succumbing of Redcrosse first to Duessa and then to Orgoglio in The Faerie Queene I.vii.  He instructively shows the agreement of modern and Renaissance moralizing interpretations of comparable source-texts in Ovid and Ariosto.  But he also proposes to right an appreciative and judgmental imbalance, when he invokes early readers’ and admirers’ own susceptibility—like that of their romantic heirs—to the surface beauties of the tempting landscapes where Redcrosse and other knights yield to self-pleasing if debilitating impulses and enjoyable laxities and passivities.  Guyon is much too bent on chivalric enterprise to be anything but a “nuisance” to the frolicsome Phaedria, one of those girls who just want to have fun—so she’s glad to have an excuse to rid herself of such a “solemne sad” party-pooper—he’s a downer and a drag, like most thrifty prigs.  She and Alpers both effectively cite the Bible’s “lilies of the field” as a plausible prooftext against him.  As Sidney’s Pyrochles is quoted as asking, “Doth not the pleasuantnes of this place carry in it selfe sufficient reward for any time lost in it?” (290): “These poetic extravagances,” the sympathetically susceptible Alpers asserts, “are in the fullest sense true to human nature” (291).[2]  Alpers the pastoral apologist seems to have been called to the pleasures of various versions of pastoral from of old.  But his point is to hear both sides, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.

But perhaps the greatest contribution from his Spenser book comes in his articulating of the poet’s purpose in conjunction with his prosodic mode, which project and mode are emphatically non-dramatic: a problem when it comes to his enditing real heroic action (as discussed in Alpers’s last three chapters).  Alpers’s Spenser does not enchant us with an intriguing story, but with an often spell-binding or spell-bound rhetoric for describing reactions to an imaginary situation in which we are nearly as complicitous and involved as the characters themselves.  The specific means for engaging us in this way are found in Spenser’s intricately self-doubling verbalism, for which the narrated action is understood as only a kind of pretext. Thus much of Alpers’s theory of The Faerie Queene’s mode turns on our accepting that

[t]here is a temporal dimension in our reading of any poem, and in a narrative poem it is conventionally identified with a sequence of fictional events. But in The Faerie Queene … time is the dimension of verbal events—the lines and stanzas that evoke and modify the reader’s response. An episode in The Faerie Queene, then, is best described as a developing psychological experience within the reader, rather than as an action to be observed by him …                                                                                            



This is a “view of The Faerie Queene as a continual address to the reader” (21), not merely an occasional one.  The reader, in sum, observes and experiences less the unfolding of an action, than the unfolding of a reaction, and not merely a given character’s reaction, but also one entailing the reader’s own. The complexities and self-reflections of the verse and its multiple voices and self-echoing are not a distraction from the narrative action; rather, they are themselves that action—the “verbal action”—for which the exterior narrative “matter” serves as a kind of excuse or scaffolding or occasion or ostensible reason.  The one time that Alpers quotes Northrop Frye, at the head of Chapter Two (36), it is to the effect that a poem’s pattern of words, on the most literal level, is its narrative.  In few poets is this more true than in Spenser.

Alpers begins his book with a reception history (Addison, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Ruskin, Lewis)—or mis-reception history—setting up the main problem: how to read Spenser’s poetry in The Faerie Queene fairly and perceptively—and/or how not to.  Thereafter he manages to write a lengthy treatise on Spenser’s whole poem while explaining his theory of what continually and typically goes on within its elemental microstructures.  He accomplishes this by treating searchingly a preponderance of the poem’s most celebrated episodes at length and in depth, but usually making his point of departure a vexing inconsistency or contradiction or omission or notable turn in a particular stanza or pair of stanzas.  In his emphasis on the reader’s participation in the verbal action he shows how the poem promotes, activates, manages, and sustains reader response:  the modern description of which, along with “affective stylistics,” Alpers practically invents—though there were clues for him in I. A. Richards’s Science and Poetry[3], a book Richards asked his last classes, in 1961-62, to rewrite. (See also Donald Davie, Articulate Energy[4], for Richards’s theory redivivus.) For example, we find this regarding the exhibition of the bathing beauties at the Bower:  “The nature of our interest in the loveliest part of the description of the bathing girls—‘their snowy limbes, as through a vele, / So through the Christall waues appeared plain’—emerges in the next two lines:  ‘Then suddeinly both would themseluse vnhele, / And th’amarous sweet spoiles to greedy eyes reuele’ (2.xii.64)” (316).  As much as Guyon is indited by the puritanical Palmer for an intemperate lapse into voyeurism, the Alpers-style reader is surprised by the revelation of his/her own raptorial and potentially guilty gaze—or else by Stanley Fish. Alpers’s study offers a neo-New Critical morality of reading:  one that catechizes the reader, but that individuates before it socializes. 

The epic poet in Spenser does not seek to promote in the reader Tasso’s impression of historical verisimiltude and factual reference found in the Aristotelian “imitation of an action”; but only to affirm the somewhat temporary reality of conjectural worlds to an imagination sympathetically attuned to the very virtual.  The devotions and heavenward gaze of Tasso’s converted and transfigured Rinaldo take place on a Mount Olivet that is historical and geographic (Gerusalemme liberata 18.14), like an actual post-Tridentine cathedral, while Redcrosse’s path to Zion, Pisgah-viewed with Contemplation, is virtual and visionary, like Jacob’s ladder (I.x.55-57).[5]  Spenser’s epic and chivalric fiction is, so to speak, itself a fiction:  largely a fictional pretense for apprehending the activity of the human mind dealing with its own passions, occasions, issues, apprehensions, etc.  The fictitious “world” or heterocosm of Spenser’s poem exhibits only a dubious analogy to the real one, because its milieu is so provisional, speculative, and, for want of a better description, psychologically produced by emotion and ideation upon its interior scenes and within its private scenarios.

Alpers’s conception of reading Spenser can surely be heard in the protean (or Hereclitian) poetics of unmaking proposed in Jonathan Goldberg’s Endless Worke:  “Spenser’s poem is not a world, complete, closed, and referential, but a process demanding endless doing and ‘endlesse work,’ because it relentlessly undoes itself, denying closure.”[6]  But one could also assign this blatant self-undoing to the mutable nature of romance narrative itself: Spenser’s chosen medium, with its “tendency … toward reiterative cyclic dilation,” as opposed to the Iliad’s self-enclosing shield of Achilles.[7]  Alpers, however, did not begin with genre, much less with generic self-deconstruction, but rather with the apparently opposite:  the line-by-line generation of Spenser’s stanzas, where formal lingual regularity and closure are found in spades: semantic, discursive, schematic, rhetorical, grammatical, and phonological.  In these stanzas, the arrangement of words and the production of verbal formulae and aphoristic or symmetrical expressions are recognizably and insistently Spenserian ends in themselves.

The action Spenser imitates is that of the organized mind.  He is not mainly concerned to justify the ways of God to man, but rather to examine the ways or paths of the mind leading to typical and possibly extraordinary experiences:  as one can see (Alpers proposes), in the matter of providential intervention, the invocation of which is a ploy—even an Ariostan topos that Ariosto disowns (“I wonder that the shores did not open when [Angelica] was put on the cold rock” [Orlando Furioso 8.6])—or a strategy that allows a character’s adversity or predicament or plight to be enhanced and subjected to scrutiny and to create pathos, whether or not it is temporarily and graciously relieved or delayed or problematized.  Thus Alpers’s first chapter, “The Rhetorical Mode of Spenser’s Narrative,” studies just this topos.  A given character’s extremity is emphasized and dramatized (by means of the pathetic fallacy, by demands for succour, etc.), as it were melodramatically, to draw out our own reactions.  The case—or the urgent demand—for intervention in a given scrape allows the reader to be gratified or toyed with, but above all to be himself or herself sympathetically engaged, by the endangerment threatened, manifested, and— providentially—deferred or disarmed or alleviated in any particular episode, e.g., in the case of “the maiden in distress”: “providential intervention enters [a given] passage as an intensified reaction to a stock situation” (27).  Thus the poet on Una about to be ravished at “What witt of mortall wight / Can now deuise to quitt a thrall from such a plight?”; the question is less rhetorical than genuinely wondrous.  It may seem addressed to the “witt” of the poet himself, but it is really directed away from a storyteller’s role as ingenious contriver of happy resolutions, and towards the reader’s own deeper expectations and beliefs—does he/she believe in the operation of providence, or just in fickle fortune?  Alpers’s careful and strenuous discussion of the various but limited invocations of providence in The Faerie Queene supports his discovery of this invitation to choose.  (The gracious or lucky interventions of Arthur might also have been a parallel case in point, insofar as they are the actions of the ideal personage who shares some of his quest not only with “th’Authour selfe” (II.x.68), but also with the faithful reader—the “-our selfe” who is on Arthur’s track, and whose trace surfaces within “th’Auth-our selfe.”  (Compare, at II.xii.47, “That is our Selfe, whom though we doe not see… .”)

Throughout his whole compendious treatise, Alpers remains sensitive to verse “that does exactly what it describes” (44) and so creates the taste by which it is to be enjoyed (as Coleridge would say); if the verse recounts myriad variety, for example, then the lines themselves will be unusually diverse.  If it reports a pleasing artifice, then the lines and their arrangement will be pleasingly artificial.  If it implies a loss or exchange or interpenetration of psychic boundaries, then the pronouns’ references will become correspondingly ambiguous.  And so forth.  Alpers’s phenomenological mode has filtered into all commentary since.  But like Berger, Roche, Tuve, and even Alastair Fowler, all writing near the same time, Alpers was also developing the practical basis for a more theoretical or general Spenserian poetics, which in the next two generations of publication (starting with Angus Fletcher) was to emerge across a wide range of Spenser studies.  A ballooning mythopoeia characterized a second front of this critical development among Spenserians—in mythographic readings by Frye, Roche, Hamilton, and William Blissett—but here Alpers mainly cautioned Frye’s readers against counterfactual stretchers:  manufactured mythical connections.  (Alpers tended to load every logical rift with either/or, as Harry Berger remarked, even while elsewhere showing Spenser’s rhetoric regularly eating its cake and having it too—his mind, inclusive  and capacious, conceding a point while also managing to maintain it.)   

Unlike the myth critics, Alpers begins as a close reader of small units that stay small.  So might emblem critics, but with less attention to linguistic texture in favor of select imagery.  Nobody before Alpers (who quotes Empson’s description of the Spenserian stanza at length and with obvious admiration [39-40]) had paid such close, line-by-line, stanza-by-stanza attention to the shifting contents of the verse inside the stanzaic cell.  Alpers successfully generalizes about the stanza:  proposing—for one example—that often the first quatrain contains or retails more conventional and received material, and the second more arresting and exceptional material, or adversative qualifications: in order to renew midway, from the crucial fifth line, the reader’s interest and the stanza’s momentum (see also Empson quoted on choice, at 285-86).  There are repeated exceptions to this argumentative and discursive protocol of a second wind, but on the whole the force of the observation seems undeniable.  Even more importantly, the force of Alpers’s acute observations about the line-centered prosody determining the passivity or limpness of Spenser’s syntax and sentence structure, rather than its being the other way ‘round (as in interlinear enjambment), seem likewise undeniable.

Alpers had done the poem the honor of taking its verbal events, its verse idiom— and the poet’s instructive purposes—at least as seriously as any critic before or since, and studying them with a formidable and highly informed attention.  Thus Alpers’s second chapter outlines the salient and ineluctable properties of Spenserian versification up close:  stanzas as self-enclosed units, and lines as lucid, self-standing, and—“by virtue of end-stopping, rhyme, and formulaic character” (47)—well-nigh independent of any combination into which they are cast or grouped. Seeing the versification’s uniform forest, other critics had often proved unable to scrutinize its individual trees.  We note, for example, Alpers’s many contrasting comparisons to specific instances from Sidney’s equally rhetorical Arcadia; several of Alpers’s chapters are studded with telling examples of the Spenserian idiom’s difference, whether taken from Sidney or others.

But here Alpers turns his main attention to an actual instance of a whole story that seems designed to land upon the words and peripetia of single well-wrought, madrigalesque stanza of summation, at FQ II.iv.35, which emerges from Spenser’s story of Phedon, the confessed “sad spectatour of [his own] Tragedie” (II.iv.27). Even though it’s taken out of Ariosto, Phedon’s story does not reach for the social resolution of a tragedy or comedy; the recital exists mainly in order to produce a singularly deductive stanza summarizing his grievously alienated state of mind.  In incident-centered Ariosto it is typically the other way around:  characters’ minds change and adapt at the devious whim of their stories and situations, and stories do not come to rest on a stanza’s perfect tree, so to speak, with the forest falling away from it.  (Stuck in a rut, which they rarely are, Ariosto’s characters would turn into something allegorical, like Sospetto in his Cinque Canti, or they would quit having things happen to them, and be summarily dismissed from the story.)

Phedon’s original, Ariosto’s Ariodante, was the victim of a trusted friend, who wanted to marry the princess Ginevra, the faithful Ariodante’s true love.  The friend abused his own, lower-born mistress Dalinda, to spite her lady Ginevra.  He makes a perfect fool of Dalinda (she is confessedly “divorced from her true self”), even while he fantastically and maliciously reports to Ariodante that he has enjoyed the favors of Ginevra, whom Dalinda impersonates in an alleged tryst.  Although Spenser’s Phedon, the lover of Claribella, is comparably abused by one Philemon, Spenser’s villain has no possessive or jealous motive for rivalry or spite; he abuses Phedon’s credulity merely to destroy his friend’s happiness and peace of mind with jealousy of a nameless and entirely fictitious (and low-born) squire.  He thus divorces Phedon from himself and turns him into the guilty murderer of the slandered Claribella and the false Philemon—and also the would-be murderer of the other guilty parties, the false maid Pyrene, and of himself, the enraged and duped geloso.  Phedon is so much the distracted thrall of his passions that the last two homicidal deeds escape their actual execution—and the narrative—altogether.  But in Phedon’s mind they generate the heat that gives the personification Furor his fire, and Furor’s mother Occasion her and her son’s cruel advantage over his person.  Spenser’s and Alpers’s point is Phedon’s dangerously susceptible mental state:  as with Redcrosse victimized by Archimago.            

The imbroglio in Spenser lies within Phedon, as opposed to the complicated entanglement of the deceived but untransformed individual players of Ariosto’s history.  Where Ariosto’s love-sick Dalinda retires to a nunnery for her disgraceful part in the evil plot, Spenser’s Phedon is surprisingly never charged with or held accountable for murder at all, only criticized for an intemperate mind, or losing his temper and giving free reign to his passions.  The cautionary moral of Spenser’s “furioso” story is not, “Don’t get mad, you could end up committing murder,” but, however absurdly, more like the reverse:  “Don’t commit murder just because you’re angry, you could end up going mad.” Alpers’s thoroughgoing comparison shows us, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the better we read Ariosto as Ariosto, the better we will re-read Spenser as Spenser.  Alpers’s Ariosto-grounded re-reading of Phedon’s story has not been surpassed.

How so? Ariosto’s story climaxes in the defense and vindication of Ginevra’s faithfulness in a tournament:  it’s all about bearing witness to personal honor. The point about the characters is their desires and resources, and their looking good or looking bad, vindicated or disgraced, self-sacrificing or self-seeking.  But Spenser’s Claribella and Phedon are wronged by Phedon’s best friend for no cause whatsoever; the villain’s malignity is motiveless.  Thus Spenser’s story is all about the uproar its events have wrought in an understandably disturbed psyche.  Honor has little to do with it, but violent humors and lethal promptings do.  Ariosto’s complicated story moves towards a dramatic denouement, the vindication of Ginevra’s virtue and Ariodante’s stedfast love (via his restoration from suicidal despair)—each party defended by opposed and ignorant chivalric contestants in a public trial.  Spenser’s story moves towards a virtual impasse: the verbal recognition and allegorical revelation of the “wrath, gealosie, griefe, loue” of the Palmer’s summary stanza (II.iv.35), the emotions contending for mastery over the anguished self-tormentor Phedon’s own traumatized psyche.  In Ariosto it is Ariodante’s brother who is “consumed with rage and anguish,” because he thinks Ginevra has caused the despairing Ariodante’s reported suicide.  Ginevra’s guilty maid suffers shame and self-loathing because of her false lover, the abuser of Ginevra and Ariodante.  The trauma is distributed.  But in Spenser all these emotions, especially the “criminal passion” (65) of the revenger, land on the single person of Phedon.  Alpers thus shows what is meant by two radically different approaches to “narrative materials” (37, 54).  Ariosto’s story leads up to a public judgment by ordeal, i. e., a tragicomic recognition and reversal scene.  Spenser’s leads up to a deductive moralization of mental states that are all transmitted from and back onto a subject traumatized by occasion, or by his own sad tale of misplaced trust in his alter ego, “my friend” —his very name: “Philemon” (60).  That name begins Alpers’s story, as only Phedon’s own, finally announced name can properly conclude it (69). My hostile friend, my alienated self:  “the friend’s role is produced by the energies of the hero’s own mind, and the false friend becomes inextricably part of him” (61); “Spenser has turned the external events that victimize Phedon into the active projections of his own mind” (63, my italics).  With that word “projections” Alpers’s reading has opened the door on those quasi-psychoanaltytic interpretations of Spenser’s protagonists found in myriad succeeding exegetes as different as Berger, myself, and David Lee Miller. 

In his third chapter, “Spenser’s Poetic Language,” Alpers looks at the resources of Spenser’s “specialized idiom” and/or his “idiosyncratic attitude towards language” (76): re-starting from the observation that in Spenser’s fluent discourse the lines (“each … a self-contained component” [78]) carry the sentences, rather than (as in Donne) the reverse.  Alpers’s attention to “the way fictional materials are transmuted into verbal formulas”—e. g., “God helpe the man so wrapped in Errours endlesse traine” (I.i.18)—is apparent from the previous analysis of Phedon.  But here he takes up meaningful things like rhyme, etonyms or etymons, heterosemy,[8] formulae, archaisms, euphuistic alliteration, syntactical ambiguity, etc.  As in the Cratylus (he is following and championing the work of Martha Craig [9]), “etymologies are true philosophical propositions, similarities in sound indicate similarities of meaning, and old words or old forms of words are often truer because they have been less corrupted in the course of time” (98).  Spenser is euphonious or quaint not merely for the sake of musical or philological delight, but for expressive efficiency—and conceptual consonance.  The “strange fulness and roundness in all he sayth” (106, quoting Sir Kenelm Digby)—Spenser’s version of enargia, habitually serving the ends of sound and sense together—repeatedly turns one’s attention to the ingenuity of the words themselves, and the homogenizing play of meaning and reference among them.  The density and regularity of Spenser’s self-ensuing texture, as of a spell, leads us away from any individualized voice of a strong narrator, or “dramatically conceived speaker” (98), and back to the virtuosity of his verbal formulations—again, that’s where the action is.

But texture is not structure, not any more in The Faerie Queene than in Finnegans Wake. In Chapter Four, Alpers, addressing “The Problem of Structure” in the epic-romance, wishes to draw conclusions from the notion “that we observe and remember the canto we are reading in much more detail than we retain other cantos and books.”  Reader and author are basically and absorbingly periegetic.  The units are open-ended, and any supposed “architectonic” is merely scaffolding and hypothetical blueprint, not a structural, foundational, and supportive groundplot like the acts of a play (protasis, etc.).  Stories as stories can be dropped or revised once their symbols and psychological import are in place; projections and predictions are often neglected when their enunciation has already had its rhetorical effect.  The reader is trusted to fill out the picture, the story, the argument or fable coherently and for him- or herself.  Spenser’s “ideal reader” (124), unlike Dante’s, is not required to command the whole in order to understand the part.  “Spenser demands and rewards alert and detailed reading.  But he does not expect our span of attention and retention to last for more than about a canto, or at most two” (125).  Other schools may respectfully disagree; the Joyceans might similarly divide. 

“In The Faerie Queene, the details of expression are to be referred solely to the immediate poetic context in which they occur,” Alpers polemically asserts.  “[Spenser’s] poetic motive in any given stanza is to elicit a response—to evoke, modify, or complicate feelings and attitudes.  His stanzas, then, are mode of address by the poet to the reader” (5).  Nobody should have to reconstruct the Busirane episode in Book III with the excuse given for it six years later in Book IV: “the Ladie ill of friends bestedded” (IV.i.3) in the Legend of Friendship (109-111).  Alpers’s common reader, like true love, “hath no power / To looken back; his eyes be fixt before” (I.iii.30).  But of course Scudamour does look back, when he retails the canto about “Great Venus Temple,” which surely doubles Amoret’s abduction with her courtship.[10] The danger of coherence- and structure-mongering like this is in its distracting us from the close-knit texture of what is presently at hand.  For example, the likeness of Britomart’s exposure to Artegall in and of Radigund’s to the same embattled knight in V.v.12 may misleadingly suggest that the reader disregard or elide or gloss over the difference between Artegall’s admiring love for the lady warrior Britomart—she is beautiful—and his pitiable enslavement by the Amazon Radigund—she’s beautiful too; but infatuation is not properly love.  Here we may balk again, and think that our remembering and retrieving the parallel and observing the continuity a book away is authorized by an appreciation for the irony of Artegall’s “pathetic” susceptibility.  Similarly, even if we cannot ever wholly explain the anguished Amoret’s wound near the end of Book III, e. g., by invoking “earlier images of the eyes shooting darts into the heart” (123, Alpers quoting Joseph B. Dallett), expositors are almost compelled to seek out analogues somewhere or other, e. g., like those supplied by Ovid (Elegies I.ii), Petrarch (Rime Sparse 23.72-4), and Caxton’s Malory (XVII.xi), if not by Peter Martyr’s account of Aztec sacrifices (far out).  But surely Gardante’s errant/inerrant arrow (not so far out, and internal to the poem) will be our starting point, since it draws the very blood that Busirane’s blade will draw again.  

Alpers approves Tuve’s view that “the unity of romances comes from the continuities of meaning seen in interwoven stories” (134), where the same thing happens again and again.  One might wish to assert something similar about Spenser’s recurrent imagery, e.g., images of vulnerability in the case just cited—and images, in the case of the second half of Book III, of the peril of a damsel mistreated or martyred (Florimell, Hellenore, Amoret) while in the ungrateful possession of a darkly oppressive older male.  In the first part of the legend a counterpart for this vulnerability appears in the hapless youthful males (Adonis, Marinell, and Timias) juxtaposed with dominant females (Venus, Britomart and Cymodoce, Belphoebe).  This may not be a structure, but, as Alpers would readily concede, it is an organization.  But to a close reader far sightings can seem far-fetched; attention to migrating phrases and formulae (as in studies of Homer after the Parry-Lord hypothesis [11]), however, has suggested that their use and reuse is not altogether automatic, but can be subtle, cunning, deliberate, telling, even wry or parodic.[12]

Having at least twice produced striking readings of episodes and scenes in Ariosto before his sixth and central chapter, Alpers now devotes his discourse entirely to “Spenser’s Use of Ariosto.”  In this essay (perhaps the reviewer’s own favorite) Alpers first shows Spenser’s independence (regarding Arthur’s shield and Busirane’s house) in readings of the Furioso’s allegorizing exegetes, and in Spenser’s recombining and energetic reviving of various devices of Ariostan romance.  Alpers then establishes that “Spenser’s use of [the unfulfilled love-longing of Arisoto’s] Fiordispina for the portrayal of both Britomart and Malecasta has a real point to it” (183), namely the reader’s chance to assess “the oscillations of hope and despair that occur in any of love’s victims” (185, italics mine), and not just in love’s perverse and promiscuous ones; “no one would claim that Spenser was writing in the spirit of Ariosto’s [licentious] episode, but he certainly could not have written as he did without a just appreciation of Ariosto’s spirit” (185). “Myrrhae more than one,” the reader might conclude (cf. with III.ii.41). 

Alpers’s examination of the Timias-Belphoebe episode of III.v as a refashioning of Ariosto’s Angelica-Medoro episode (and as a case of “adapting Ariosto’s pastoralism” [189]) is a revelation of the cross-classing of regal and rustic in both poets.  Briefer treatments of Spenser’s widely spread and very variously deployed Ariostan motifs of “the damsel in distress” and “the custom of the castle” lead to the ready conclusion that Spenser’s familiarity with Ariosto (and pervasive use of him) is a source of his originality (like Jonson’s use of Horace); but Alpers also says that Ariosto presents us with an analogue of Spenser’s “moral generosity, the poise and lucidity of his intelligence, his geniality … and humanity” (199).  If we read Ariosto at some length, we will see how much Spenser found to learn and adapt from him, and not how capriciously or mindlessly or shamelessly he borrowed: on the contrary.

The “moral” of Spenser’s moralized tales dominates in the next three chapters.  The seventh, following Ariosto’s, on “Iconography in The Faerie Queene,” makes it impossible to read the figure of Occasion as anything except one of Spenser’s most original, given the strength of the iconographic tradition the poet overhauls.  Reading Alpers, no one will doubt that “Spenser does not describe ‘objects’ in his poem as if they were objects in an external world, and physical and moral formulas have equivalent status in the verbal reality of his poem” (203), in this case that of taking fickle Fortune by the forelock opportunely.  But superb readings of the symbolic appanage of Prays-desire, the behavior and features of the hag Occasion (who now has the famous forelock), and the breakdown of the geloso Malbecco on the way to his becoming envious Gelousie, both physiologically and iconographically, all make the main point:  “Spenser’s interest in personification, emblems, and the like did not at all entail adherence or obligation to conventional meanings and modes of representation” (209).  Indeed, Spenser varies or departs from received iconographic traditions almost without fail.  And he often turns them on their head.

Chapter Eight, “Interpreting the Cave of Mammon,” is ready to take much of the episode’s main colloquy at its discursive word, if not Mammon’s gold at face value.  Guyon is a noble moral hero, and here he is tried for his obligations to a noble moral heroism.  The cave episode may have something of the character of an initiation rite cum templar chamber, but if so it is chiefly an initiation into traditional cautionary moral wisdom about the perils or steep price of riches.  Tantalus is there for the same reason he is in the cited passage from Horace, as a terrible example of a miser so miserly that he cannot usefully avail himself of his own wealth—to which we are prompted to add, because he can only hoard it as idle capital:  Tantalus starves because he won’t waste his money on vain expenditure, even for sustenance itself.  The function of Guyon’s exposure to the temptation of great riches is to “create [a] new understanding of temperance as a heroic virtue” (114).  Alpers often drives home his own understandings with incredibly apt and perfectly congruent biblical citations, such as the one here, from Matthew 4:11, on the ministry of the angels to Jesus in the wilderness, which ends both the Mammon chapter and Part II of the book. Many years ago in Berkeley, sitting on a campus plaza with Alpers, I thought to commiserate over a prolonged drought’s disagreeable effects on residents in the East Bay Area.  On the contrary, Alpers said, it taught him useful lessons in conservation. Sir Guyon, I believe.  Man should not be living by California hot tubs alone.

In Chapter Nine, introducing Part III, the subject is “The Nature of Spenser’s Allegory,” which Alpers perceives to be involved in a perception of “how difficult it is to close the gap between the morally valuable experience of reading poets and its results in moral action.” By “allegory” Alpers does not intend the technical trope, but rather Spenser’s true subject: the tout ensemble of moral experience. Once when Alpers’s book was being discussed at table with Douglas Bush—this was forty-six years ago—a young man essaying to write on Spenser brashly asserted that he did not read the poet for his morality; the older and wiser head said he had little doubt that the younger and more foolish one did (whether he knew it or not). Spenser’s poem might prepare the mind to emulate the moral worthies it celebrates—as in Sidney’s Apologie, where the mind’s readiness for action is all. But just as “[Spenser’s] poetry does not attempt to depict dramatic action,” so the “noncausuistical quality of Spenser’s mind” makes “didactic theories of poetry” somewhat irrelevant to him: contra Spenser’s inculcation of virtues as “modes of choice” (286). Guyon and Arthur express their desire to become the disciples of the grave and rational sage housed in the second chamber of Alma’s castle turret, yet that’s also left in abeyance. Maybe later, or all in good time. We’ll certainly think about it ….

“Spenser’s moral intelligence lies in his ability to see all around a complex issue” (288): this gives various thoughtful debates in Spenser, culminating in the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, their peculiar and inevitable force, but also their irresolution.  When “moral awareness manifests itself as action,” it often “loses its clarity and poise” (306); the agents may well become disturbingly crude and repressive towards the opposed side. Guyon trashes the Bower of Bliss; Artegall orders his goon to muscle the communist giant off a cliff.  The poem’s judiciously open mind closes judgmentally.  Una’s compassionating lion in Book I, and the lesser example of Serena’s analogous Salvage Man in Book VI, are much more engaging.  But in the Salvage episode in Book VI the limitation of the “narrative action” to matters of conduct also limits the poetic access to “realities of feeling and attitude rather than behavior” (310).  This chapter treats a diminution of Spenser’s kind of allegory which Alpers senses in Book VI as a whole, which is so much about mores, and correspondingly less about “poetic truth” (328) and about representing “man’s traditional wisdom about himself and the truths inherent in the traditions and conventions of poetry” (330).  One misses here an appreciation for the role of saving graciousness in Book VI, where Alpers mainly sees hypocrisy and false consciousness.  The tales told of and by the enamoured Scudamour in Book IV are simply disregarded, and likewise the brunt (as it were) of Artegall’s reformist labors in Book V.  Although stanzas devoted to Care, Concord, Isis, Bon/Malfont, etc. might not count as a rhetorician’s addresses to the reader comparable to those humanizing ones concerning Una in distress in Book I, they nonetheless must speak to something in our moral education by the poem.        

In his last two chapters, Alpers’s favorite two characters come back into their own:  Redcrosse and Britomart.  Chapter Ten, “Heroism and Human Strength in Book I,” shows us an Alpers who is undoubtedly in tune with his sense of Spenser’s subject.  He takes up the hero/human and strength/frailty problematic for the legend’s everyman figure, and thus our confidence in God versus our confidence in ourselves.  “Our” is a key word:  “a claim on us … our rescue … our sense of strength … a condition similar to ours … our escape from this hell is a narrow one” (346-47).  The dialogue with Despair on how to die is the moral center of this chapter, and of Alpers’s warmly humanistic version of Book I.  The legendary virtue that looms large in Alpers’s reading is not Holiness, but fortitude—or “the complex nature of human strength” (349)—and its radical and plausible critique by Despair, an encounter characterized as “a fatal necessity of man’s sense of his own dignity and strength” (352), which sense the story everywhere offers to undermine and qualify. 

In Chapter Eleven, “Heroic and Pastoral in Book III,” Alpers takes up Spenserian love on its own ground.  According to Alpers, the main difference between the love of Venus in Malecasta’s tapestry and in Spenser’s Garden of Adonis is Malecasta’s desire to be a Venus herself (while turning Britomart into her paramour), versus Spenser’s own desire merely to envision the goddess as a kind of natural principle.  Britomart need not, for her education, visit the Garden of Adonis (where Amoret will be nurtured), since she’s already seen the tapestry illustrating the same erotic material (without the philosophical overlay).  Venus innocently throws decorative flowers into Adonis’s bath (like Boiardo’s Angelica pelting the sleeping Rinaldo with flowers), her gesture vaguely contrasting with the pillage Time makes of the Garden, but leading to the conservation of the goddess’s fragile love-object as himself a pastoral flower.  But this diverting pastoralization of the love-object falls short of the poet’s governing concept of a legendary heroism.

Thus the point of the Malecasta episode is to construct the somewhat comic contrast of the publicly heroic Britomart—armed with her indignant and zealous sword—with the secluded erotics, or “pastoral,” of Malecasta, cozily and secretly in bed with her knightly guest.  As Alpers goes on to say, the contrast of heroic, overwrought Britomart with cloistered and sacrificed Marinell obeys a similar dynamic (and likewise that of the active Belphoebe with the smitten, bed-ridden Timias).  The ceremonial “deare bands” of the mortally stricken ox, to which Marinell is so genially compared (III.iv.17), may well be the first signs announcing the end of his singularity as a proud bachelor.  But Alpers’s account makes one acknowledge that the categories keep illuminating each other, insofar as Britomart herself is to be defined as a lover and fiancée, a Venus questing to engage with her Mars or Mart (“Spenser endorses Britomart’s martial wrath as an image of value for human love” [385], even while the poet uses “pastoral nature to define what is normative for human love” [388, italics mine]).  But in the Busirane episode the pastoral definition of love is obviously left behind:  i. e., left behind with Hellenore and the pastoral satyrs, as Britomart turns into the Siegfried who can miraculously walk through magic fire and brave any ordeal for the sake of Amoret.  Human love can hardly avoid being painful—indeed, one of Alpers’s finest points is the observation that “Spenser”—or rather Amoret—“describes Busyrane with a formula that ordinarily describes the object of desire”:  “none but hee, / Which wrought it [Amoret’s wound], could the same recure againe [III.xii.34]” (403).  “Ah who can loue the worker of her smart? [III.xii.31]” (18).  Because of Spenser’s wide range of implication, we hope and pray this is not the abused woman’s mistaken tendency to remain in the too-often lethal company of an abuser, and to regard their bond as an Achilles’s spear that can heal the wound it causes.  As so often, Alpers has seized upon the crucial, psychologizing sentences, even as they are turning into received sententiae, or truistic tropes, while at the same time exploring a real and perennial issue. 

Spenserian or allegorical heroism in Alpers’s view means the individual’s moral bravery and his or her acting—or rather being disposed to act—virtuously; as a result Spenser’s first three books inevitably benefit from his commentary more than the second three—even though Alpers was one of the founders of the journal Representations.  Partly because of the critic’s emphasis on appreciating the operations of the mind of the reader in concert with those of the psyches of the characters and voice of the narrator, Alpers proposes that the private or interiorized disciplines of holiness, temperance, and chastity can be relatively innocent of the social interaction that translates friendship, justice, and courtesy into action in the world, rather than being events mainly transacted in the individual mind or soul. The activities of the heroes of the second installment, by contrast, are compromised by the antagonism, injustice, and hypocrisy that reign in the unreformed world in which they are necessarily abroad, and where they act in ways that may prove unfriendly (Belphoebe to Timias), ungoverned or brutal (Talus to the rebellious multitude or the adversary’s soldiery), and less than wholly gracious (Calidore’s intrusion on Acidale and his hypocritical treatment of Coridon).  Nor can they undo or reform the costly results and consequences:  once actions take place on the stage of the world, virtue’s agents make nearly as many messes as they clean up. The suspension of judgment and of “dramatic action,” which is the condition of Spenser’s ethos, is precisely what is denied them (299).  If “Spenser’s moral intelligence” does not lie “in making moral decisions” (288), then it lies in “understanding, as opposed to judging” (289).  Duessa’s crocodile tears in Book I may well share something sinister with the tear her judge Mercilla eventually sheds over the doomed Duessa in Book V—but perhaps not in the same way the false Philemon is interpolated into the self-hating Phedon within the momentum of a single tale.  In the case of Mercilla’s rueful expediency in the Legend of Justice the critic apprehends the fatal rift between ethics and politics.  Queen Mercilla can feel pity for Duessa as a quasi-historical peer (Mary Queen of Scots), but the royal pity is divorced from what actually is to happen to the rivalrous and condemned royal malefactor.  It is surely no accident that in a study so dedicated to a heroism he can appreciate, Alpers concludes with the brave, mindful, and moved figure of Britomart at the ending of Book III—and not the rudely interrupted Colin on Mt. Acidale near the end of Book VI, or the pastoral-forsaking Cynthia and the cosmic rebel Mutabilitie, “put downe and whist [silenced]” on Arlo Hill at the endings of the Two Cantos.  Encountered in episodes touching on the localized poet’s own private hopes and public disappointments, these latter-day pastoral and cosmic outliers are not properly the protagonists of Spenser’s epic romance; therefore they cannot provide the reader’s complicitous key to Alpers’s pioneering psychologizing of its poetry.  That key is mainly found in the heroically thoughtful and thoughtfully heroic poem of the first installment, which this great critic’s own adventurous endeavor must needs lead us to re-discover and re-embrace—stanza by patiently-examined stanza. 



In colloquy Paul Alpers always spoke engagingly, but also with an appreciable majesty, as if implanted in his mind were Virgil’s “If we sing of the woodland, let the woodland be worthy of a consul.”  Conversely, the fairyland of which Spenser sang would one day prove worthy of an Alpers. In his own exemplary and sovereign right, Paul was fashioned in the knightly mould of Spenser’s hero Arthur:  magnanimous, incorruptible, dedicated, steadfast, warm, full of bountihead, kindly, courtly, gracious, loyal, strongly principled, wise, judicious, and eloquent.  Within the academy “Prince Alpers” did sundry wonderful interventionist things for others, especially his juniors, who may have guessed they themselves had done little enough to deserve them: he trusted we could get better.  Those who knew him as a counselor, comrade-in-arms and benefactor must feel that with his death a large hole has opened in the texture of their relations, their general sense of relatedness and communal selfhood.  Some of us have lost a friendship and professional model that perhaps nobody else could quite so handsomely provide.  But may his generous spirit and grateful memory serve us yet:  that is, for the remainder of our own passage through the oft-benighted yet starlit world, which for fourscore years was also Paul’s.


James Nohrnberg

University of Virginia


[1][1] Edmund Spenser:  New and Renewed Directions, ed. Julian Lethbridge (Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2006), 18.

[2] One thinks of David Hill Radcliffe’s canny quotation of J. J. Jusserand’s A Literary History of the English People (1895):  “Guyon, doubtless, will reduce to naught the more dangerous of these beauties; but who knows whether the fragile reader will not preserve a more lively remembrance of them than of him?” (Edmund Spenser: A Reception History [Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1996], 145).

[3] New York: Norton, 1926.

[4]Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (London: Routledge, 1955).

[5] The Tasso-Spenser analogy I owe to Ty Buckman, “Multiplying the Faithful:  Conversion and Metamorphosis in Renaissance Epic,” a paper given at the “Spenser’s Civilizations” conference at Victoria College, University of Toronto in May, 2006.  Cf. Hymne of Heauenly Beavtie 134-40 with FQ I.x.47 (and Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad IV.5-15, 54-58, VI.615-18) for this contemplative ascent as made by a Johannine, sun-gazing eagle.

[6] Endlesse Worke:  Spenser and the Structures of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 26.

[7] Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 11:  “the romance differs from the epic in the multiplicity of the actions it treats … .  the art of the Odyssey resembles the overelaborated, repeatedly woven shroud of Laertes.”

[8] E.g., doom/kingdom in FQ V.ix.42-43: “false Duessa now vntitled Queene, / Was brought to her sad doome … Zele … many other crimes … against her brought … [there] came / Many graue persons, that against her pled; / First was … that had to name, / The Kingdomes care.”  We notice the emphasis on names and titles.  Duessa has lost her title as Queen, being doomed or judged by King-doom’s Care.  See Old English cyningdōm [kingship], from king and dom, the latter originally meaning decree or judgment, the kingdom being the place or territory or jurisdiction where the king’s judgments and decrees and “dooms” are in force and must needs prevail.  (The death or doom of Mary Stuart made her son James undoubted king in the kingdom of Scotland, and eventually of England.)

[9] “The Secret Wit of Spenser’s Language,” in Elizabethan Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Paul J. Alpers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 447-72.

[10] For indirect evidence that cantos xi-xii of the 1590 Legend of Chastity do know about Amoret’s marriage, see Cristelle Baskins, et al., The Triumph of Marriage:  Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, with Gutenberg Periscope Publishing, 2008), 104-120: the marriage chests here feature Petrarch’s triumphant Chastity. 

[11] For discussion by Homerists, see Margalit Finkleberg, “Oral-Formulaic Theory and the Individual Poet,” in F. Montinari, A. Rengakos, and Ch. Tsagalis, eds., Homerica Contexts:  Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012), 73-82, and “Homer, a Poet of Individual Style,” Scripta Classica Israelica 16 (1997), 1-8; Michael N. Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition:  A Study in the Oral Art of Homer (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London:  University of California Press, 1974), and, for the beginning of this discussion, A. Hoekstra, Homeric Modification of Formulaic Prototypes (Amsterdam: N. V. Noord-Hollandsche Maatschappij,1965).  See Carol Kaske, Spenser and Biblical Poetics (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell UP, 1999), 19-23, for the historical argument for “concordantial” reading. 

[12] A quasi-formulaic usage would be the citation of Genesis 28:12 at I.x.56, “The blessed Angels to and fro descend,” as Redcrosse contemplates them, and II.viii.1, “That blessed Angels, he sends to and fro,” but invisibly to Guyon.  The tag for the angels’ passage “to and fro” migrates intertextually as well: see Paradise Lost III.511 (cf. III.229-32).  A much more quizzical instance would be FQ III.i.28, “Loue haue I sure, (quoth she) but Lady none,” and III.iii.13, “begotten … / By false illusion of a guilefull Spright, / On a faire Ladie Nonne” (both fall under suspicion in the Legend of Chastity).




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James C. Nohrnberg, "Paul Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 43.2.23 (Fall 2013). Accessed May 28th, 2023.
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