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Anne Lake Prescott, William A. Oram, and Andrew Escobedo, eds. Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual XXVIII
by Mark David Rasmussen

Prescott, Anne Lake, William A. Oram, and Andrew Escobedo, eds. Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual XXVIII (2013). New York, NY: AMS P. 237 pp. ISBN: 978-0-404-19228-0. $178.50 hardback.


I don’t know about you, but here is how I typically consume a brand new volume of Spenser Studies. When I spot the volume on the “New Books” shelf of my college library, I snatch it up right away; the journal is far too expensive for me to buy. (You’ll recall that Chaucer’s Clerk dreamed of having at the head of his bed “Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed, / Of Aristotle and his philosophie.” My equivalent fantasy is to own a full run of Spenser Studies, twenty-eight volumes and counting, clad in green and gold—though not perhaps housed in the bedroom, but in my study, close at hand.)

So, I bring the new volume home from the library, and that evening I scan the title page and read the essays on topics that I’m currently working on or that are long-standing preoccupations of mine. If there is an article by a star Spenser critic—say a Harry Berger or a Judith Anderson or a Jeff Dolven or a Gordon Teskey—I will read that, too, no matter what the topic. And then, before I take the book back to the library, I’ll browse about in it some more, nibbling on a few tender shoots and making mental or (sometimes) written note of titles that I may want to return to later on.

What I never do, in short, is read the volume from cover to cover, as a reviewer must. And yet the chance to do so this time around has proved exceptionally illuminating, even mildly intoxicating, offering as it does a vivid sense of the diverse range of approaches and interests that critics currently bring to bear to Spenser’s work. Surely this diversity is a sign of health. At 243 pages, with nine articles, Volume XXVIII is a little slimmer than recent ones. (Volume XXVII, for instance, ran 342 pages, with fourteen essays). It arrives bearing a dedication to the two great Spenserians whose passing in 2013 brought such sorrow, Paul Alpers and John Hollander.

I’ll start my summary where the volume begins, with a cluster of three essays on “Spenser and the Twentieth Century.” This section-title is actually a slight misnomer, as the first essay in the group, Jane Grogan’s “Spenser’s Lost Children,” makes repeated forays into the very recent past, considering responses to Spenser’s work found in an impressively wide range of Irish writers from Yeats to Seán Lysaght, whose versified biography of the poet appeared in 2011. Grogan’s own title, though, is spot on, artfully referring not just to literary paternity, however dubious or disavowed, but also to the oft-repeated tale of Spenser’s own child, lost in the fires at Kilcolman, a story that for Grogan becomes emblematic of an Irish perspective on Spenser as at once perpetrator and victim of the colonialist régime.

This is a substantial essay, occupying fifty-four pages, or over a fifth of the volume, and it is by far the fullest and most nuanced treatment of its topic to date. (Its only rival, David Gardiner’s monograph “Befitting emblems of adversity”: A Modern Irish View of Edmund Spenser from W. B. Yeats to the Present [Creighton, 2001], concentrates primarily on Yeats and John Montague.) Grogan identifies three main periods of response by twentieth and twenty-first century Irish writers: first, Yeats’s influential view of Spenser as torn between his instincts as a poet and his grim duties as a colonial administrator; then, beginning in the late 1960s, an angry disavowal of Spenser on the part of poets like Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney, a disavowal that is in part a working out of these poets’ own relation to Yeats; and most recently, beginning in the 1990s, something of a rapprochement with the poet, as evidenced especially by Frank McGuinness’s 1997 play Mutabilitie, together with other works in a surprising variety of genres and styles.

The richness of detail in Grogan’s account, encompassing many authors and works (some yet unpublished), defies easy summary. Suffice it to say that from now on her essay will be an indispensable starting point for scholarship on Spenser’s reception by Irish writers in the periods she treats. “Magisterial” is the only word for Grogan’s achievement here, and if I offer two brief demurrals, it is very much with the scope of that achievement in mind. For me, Grogan’s intertextual readings of the dialogue of Irish writers with Spenser were almost entirely convincing, but there were moments when I wondered whether Spenser was really as prominent in an author’s mental landscape as she proposed. For Eavan Boland, in particular, at least as Grogan presents her, Spenser seems more synecdochic for “the English literary tradition” than an author agonistically engaged. And Grogan’s essay itself struck me as one stylistic scrub away from being fully polished. Particularly in its early pages, there were a few awkwardly repeated phrases and ill-shaped sentences, as well as some incomplete bibliographical references, which gave an unfortunate (and surely inaccurate) appearance of haste.[1] The more’s the pity, as scholars both of Spenser and of contemporary Irish literature will be returning to this essay for many years to come.

The other two essays in this cluster are slighter, though each has its rewards. William Blissett, “‘Who Knows Not Colin Clout?’: Spenser and the Poets of the Mid-Twentieth Century,” reports some of the results of a survey that the author, a distinguished Spenserian, circulated in 1954 to a hundred living poets, asking “if they still read and admire Spenser and if they regard the Spenserian tradition as a living one” (58). In this essay, reprinted from a 2008 volume of conference proceedings, Blissett offers some general observations about the survey’s results—Spenser loomed rather higher on the horizon for mid-twentieth century poets than might have been expected, given the state of his reputation then, and he mattered most, again surprisingly, to non-academic poets—as well as a few telling examples. The ten-page essay is worth consulting for its amusing account of Robert Penn Warren’s rather Bloomian (Harold rather than Leopold or Allan) response to Spenser, as well as for the evocative comment about Spenser that Blissett’s survey elicited from Walter de la Mare: “And what a strangely solid creature there is on the other side of his incessant honeyed verse” (60). In his essay, Blissett offers a lovely sentence of his own teasing out the implications of this one, and I encourage you to seek it out.

Like Blissett, Joseph F. Loewenstein is an important presence within Spenser studies, though of a more recent generation; to mention just one example, Loewenstein’s 1986 essay in English Literary Renaissance, “Echo’s Ring: Orpheus and Spenser’s Career,” has long been for many of us an indispensable point of entry into Spenser’s verse, early and late. Loewenstein has published several other landmark essays on Spenser, and of course the field is in his debt for his ongoing labors on the Oxford edition. All that said, I must confess that his contribution to this volume, “The Poets’ Poet’s Poet: James Merrill’s Spenser Lecture,” left me as much bemused as edified; perhaps it will speak more helpfully to others. The essay takes the form of an extended meditation on likenesses between Spenser’s poetry and that of Merrill, but what is at issue here is not so much source study as a free-ranging comparison between habits of mind. Loewenstein organizes his reflections by means of a witty revision of the section-headings of Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” where Stevens’s “It Must Be Abstract” becomes for Spenser and Merrill “It Must Be Total,” followed by sections titled “You Must Count,” “Mind Your Spelling,” “You Must Be Friendly,” “You Must Be Cosmographical,” and “You Must Face Terror.” Merrill is “The Poets’ Poet” because of all the poetic shades who flicker within The Changing Light at Sandover, the work that preoccupies Loewenstein here, and perhaps the most stimulating section of this essay is “You Must Be Friendly,” where Loewenstein muses brilliantly on the importance of friendship to these two coterie poets, as well as on the elegiac poetics of lost friendship and of “protracted winding-down” (77). It just may be that Merrill’s epic is a poem that has not yet come to matter for me as it should, but as I read through Loewenstein’s essay I found myself alternately intrigued and frustrated by the puckishly aphoristic quality of Loewenstein’s style, where points are raised but developing them is up to you. (The essay’s origin in an MLA Roundtable may be partly responsible for this.) Again, though, if I were more versed in Merrill’s epic, I might have been better equipped to connect the dots.

In the next essay, “After Rome; or, Why Spenser Was Not a Republican,” Andrew Sisson intervenes in a high-profile debate sparked by Andrew Hadfield’s 1998 essay in the interrogative mood, “Was Spenser a Republican?” (English 47 [1998]: 169-82). In 2003 Spenser Studies XVII featured a “Forum” exchange between Hadfield and David Scott Wilson-Okamura on the topic, and as Sisson remarks, more re­cent work by Graham Hammill and James Kuzner seems to take Spenser’s republicanism almost as a given, however variously understood. But Sisson argues that the best context for understanding Spenser’s politics, as articulated both in his poetry and in A View of the Present State of Ireland, is not republicanism at all, but Augustine’s theory of the two cities of man and God. For Augustine, there is no necessary relation between virtuous action in the city of man and a particular political structure, and Spenser shares this belief, one that for Sisson rules out republicanism in any meaningful sense of that term. Sisson claims that the Augustinian framework fits what we find in The Ruines of Time better than the republicanism that Hammill sees as animating that poem, but the real tour de force in Sisson’s article comes in his fascinating close reading of Spenser’s commendatory sonnet appended to Lewkenor’s translation of Contarini’s The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, a foundational text for Renaissance republicanism. For Hadfield, the very fact that Spenser penned such commendatory verses “strongly suggests an interest in republican ideas” (Hadfield, 172), but Sisson, scrutinizing the fourteen lines, comes to a very different conclusion. He regards the sonnet as ambiguously torn between viewing Venice as representing a new stage of political virtue or as providing yet one more instance of the Babylonian/Roman pattern of decline and fall. Precisely by means of this ambiguity, the sonnet’s three-part structure undermines the republican claim of a link between political institutions and virtue, with Venice presented both “as a repetition of its predecessors and as a transcendence of them” (102). Formal parataxis undermines the claim of a saving novelty in the political realm, so that the tripartite structure of the Venetian constitution (Doge, Senate, and Council; one, few, and many) becomes a repetitive sequence within time, “a history of endless rises and falls” (106).

Once again, as with Loewenstein’s essay, I come to Sisson’s piece as something of an outsider. I cannot predict what scholars who are more invested in the republicanism debate will make of Sisson’s argument, but I must acknowledge my own bias in favor of an essay that weaves so much of its argument out of the texture of Spenser’s verse. Sisson’s essay is also exceptionally well-written, presenting an intricate argument clearly and with style. It strikes me as a major accomplishment.

The next two essays, “Silvan Matters: Error and Instrumentality in Book I of The Faerie Queene,” by Peter Remien, and “Cetaceous Sin and Dragon Death: The Faerie Queene, Natural Philosophy, and the Limits of Allegory,” by Chris Barrett, may profitably be considered in tandem, since both address episodes in Book I and find intriguingly parallel processes working there. Remien’s essay considers in sequence the tree catalogue at I.i.8-9 and the subsequent battle with Errour as providing readers with “two competing versions of matter” (119), one instrumental, presenting the trees as a resource to meet human needs, and the other depicting the monster as a figure of the chaotic materiality that resists such uses. I find Remien’s ecocritical argument quite persuasive, and I predict that it will have a lasting effect on how I think about, and teach, that first canto; my primary response, when presented with Remien’s contrast between the two passages, was “why didn’t I think of that myself?”—the normal reaction to a fresh interpretation that makes intuitive sense. Remien’s commentary on the tree catalogue, in particular, seems likely to become canonical, though his reading of Errour is less fully developed. My chief regret is that Remien did not relate his essay’s argument to that of Joseph Campana in The Pain of Reformation (Fordham, 2012), a paradigm-setting work that addresses some overlapping concerns—but Campana’s book may not have been available to Remien at the time of writing, so readers will have the pleasant challenge of making this comparison (and contrast) on their own.

Campana’s work is relevant to Barrett’s essay as well, for both critics propose that for Spenser the literal presents a challenge to the allegorical. For Campana, this challenge takes the form of the representation of pain and affect, while Barrett finds it in the incursion of natural philosophy within Spenser’s fiction. Barrett asks why, in the early stanzas of canto twelve, we are given such a lengthy description of the dragon’s carcass, and his answer is that the carcass represents the resistance of the literal to allegorical interpretation. In presenting that resistance, Spenser draws on published accounts of dead whales, with the lively comments of the “raskall many” on the corpse a comic version of the protocols of observation represented in those accounts. In the process, natural philosophy presses up against, even displaces, theology. So, just as in Remien’s essay chaotic matter is understood to resist human use, here we recognize the insistence of the literal within the allegorical system. As with Remien’s essay, so with Barrett’s I find myself largely persuaded, and freshly equipped with a new framework for understanding the episode. I did think that Barrett’s essay might have been usefully supplemented by some attention to the ways that whales themselves are allegorized within the bestiary tradition, among other sources, so that the resistance to allegory may be seen as already hardwired in to the naturalist accounts.

In “‘Wonne with Custome’: Conquest and Etymology in the Spenser-Harvey Letters and A View of the Present State of Ireland,” Stephanie Elsky scrutinizes the paradoxical functioning of custom within the arguments of these two works. As she observes, for all their differences both works “are concerned with the implementation of foreign rule, the Letters with the imposition of Latin meter onto English verse, A View with England’s reconquest of Ireland” (166). While the understanding of custom derived from common law identifies it with the native as distinct from, even opposed to, the foreign, in the Letters Spenser and Harvey present custom as enabling the accommodation of the English language to the foreign intrusion of quantitative meter. This view of custom, derived from classical and early modern authors rather than from common law, reappears in A View as an element of colonizing strategy. Yet within both the Letters and A View the attention given to etymology calls the efficacy of all such strategies, and indeed the very distinction between native and foreign, into question. While previous writers on A View regard Spenser’s references to custom as contradictory and incoherent, for Elsky this is precisely the point, as “Spenser self-consciously contemplates the incommensurability of language and politics” (168).

Elsky’s argument will turn some heads, scrutinizing paradoxes that have long been thought to undermine Spenser’s colonialist discourse and making the case for regarding them as strategic. By drawing connections between two works so widely separated in time and subject matter, she emphasizes continuities in Spenser’s thought that subsequent scholarship will need to engage. As with Sisson’s article, complicated issues are lucidly addressed, with full command of the relevant scholarship, and this article, too, strikes me as a major statement that will be sparking conversations for years.

The volume closes with a pair of topical studies, “Poets in the House of Pride: Of ‘Noble Personage[s],’ the Sonnet to Ormond, and The Faerie Queene’s ‘many Bardes’,” by Mark Stephenson, and Thomas Herron’s “Outfoxed? Mother Hubberds Tale, Adam Loftus, and Lord Burleigh in Irish Context.” (The latter essay appears as the single item in the journal’s regular section of “Gleanings.”) Like so many topical readings in recent decades, these pursue the Irish connection. Stephenson argues that the dedicatory sonnet to the Earl of Ormond appended to The Faerie Queene is more critical of its subject than previous readers have thought, and that Ormond’s grand household at Kilkenny is mocked in the House of Pride, while Herron reasserts his claim (contra Bruce Danner) that the Fox in Mother Hubberds Tale primarily refers to the Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Adam Loftus, though Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, may be targeted, too. I am afraid that I am just not the right audience for these topical studies, which don’t get at the things that I most value in the poems; others will find them more rewarding than I do, and will better judge whether the scorecard has been properly filled out. Certainly both essays enriched my sense of the complexity of Spenser’s Irish involvements, and for that I am grateful. In my role as reviewer, though, I must observe that Herron’s sentences are often extraordinarily unwieldy and reader-unfriendly, cramming too much information between the initial capital and the period, with little attention to shape or style. (A particularly egregious example begins three lines from the top of page 222, with five parenthetical statements clogging its fifteen lines.) Even if aesthetic concerns are not germane to the substance of Herron’s argument, as a reader I would have appreciated a touch more care in its presentation.

As I try in conclusion to hold all of volume twenty-eight in view, I spot three self-evidently major essays—those of Grogan, Sisson, and Elsky—together with several others offering enormously helpful insights or lines of thought. As I said at the outset of this review, what is especially striking here is the diversity of approaches and methods. Rich historical contextualizing incorporates superb close reading, as in the essays of Sisson and Remien, and topical essays rub shoulders with careful studies of literary reception. Clearly there is no one way of doing Spenser studies, and no one essay will be everyone’s cup of tea. This is as it should be, and indeed with Spenser it has been ever thus; his syncretism makes straitjacketing hard to do. But I also take the range of approaches represented in this volume to signal greater openness to a variety of methods within Renaissance studies, and indeed within literary studies more generally. Like me, I’m sure that many of you recall a time in the nineties when it seemed that the only work that could gain a hearing was in a historicizing mode; I well remember an RSA conference when the program listed not a single paper that seemed to adopt a non-historicist approach. As evidenced by the current volume of Spenser Studies and by the conferences I attend and the articles and books I read, the range of methods is much more inclusive now, and I think that is a very good thing.


Mark David Rasmussen

Centre College

[1] For example, an ungainly repetition of “then” in successive sentences on page four, and of “instead” within a single sentence on page six. In note one, an essay is not given its full page range, and essays cited in note eight are not identified other than by author and title. Errors missed in proofreading also occur on pages eight (“Yeat’s”) and twenty-nine (“Spenser lost child”).


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Cite as:

Mark David Rasmussen, "Anne Lake Prescott, William A. Oram, and Andrew Escobedo, eds. Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual XXVIII ," Spenser Review 44.1.21 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed April 19th, 2024.
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