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Hassan Melehy, The Poetics of Literary Transfer in Early Modern France and England
by Thomas Herron

Melehy, Hassan. The Poetics of Literary Transfer in Early Modern France and England. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2010. x + 277 pp. ISBN 978-0754664451. $101.40 cloth.

One advantage to reviewing a book four years after its publication is the ability to co-opt, if not copy or plagiarize, previous reviews of the same work (for a fine one by Gerd Bayer, see Early Modern Literary Studies 16.3 (2013), available here). Given that The Poetics of Literary Transfer in Early Modern France and England studies the influence on and copying of one author by another (Du Bellay on Spenser, Spenser from DuBellay; Spenser on Shakespeare, Shakespeare from Spenser; Du Bellay on Montaigne, Montaigne from DuBellay; Montaigne on Shakespeare, Shakespeare from Montaigne), then a review modeled on this approach might be appropriate.

This deeply intelligent book arrived at a fortuitous time, when interest in the inter-relationship of medieval and early modern French and English authors had been piqued.[1] [see The Familiar Enemy (2009) by Ardis Butterfield, for example, Richard Helgerson’s translation (2006) of Du Bellay and Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds (2009) by Carole Levin and John Watkins; see also the review of two recent books by Richard Hillman on French and English drama, published in the preceding issue of SpR, available here]. Interest in early modern perspectives on both the New World and antiquity, including those of Spenser and Shakespeare, is a constant. Melehy’s wide-ranging study ably brings these subjects together, not so much in conversation with one another, but rather to explore how authors writing on these topics revive and respond to each other.

How do we re-assemble the original meaning of an author, among his community, amid changing circumstances? How do we make our voices heard among previous ones? Melehy raises the same essential questions about the major authors we study: why does it matter how Spenser, when assembling his volume of Complaints, copied and adapted extensively from Du Bellay, for example? What Melehy analyzes is a dynamic engine of imitatio translatii and imperii whereby Spenser further fragmented and digested, or cannibalized (90) the French author in order to build his own self-effacing “ruins” of time, or monumental poems, as suited his own artistic and “nation”-shaping purposes. Du Bellay, previously, was inspired by the fragments of Rome and authors such as Petrarch who studied them; Spenser was inspired by Du Bellay’s inspiration. Shakespeare, following Spenser in turn, echoed the manner in which Spenser’s appropriation of Du Bellay emphasized worldly transience: Shakespeare does so with a particularly intense focus on the passage of time as a constant that undermines the monumentality of his poetic art.

Spenser’s “rhetorical energy” (14), like that of Shakespeare, is therefore directly imitative of that of Du Bellay and can be explained in modern terms according to the principles of simulacrum analyzed by Jean Baudrillard and before him Gilles Deleuze: according to Melehy, the simulacrum “is a repetition, a reiteration of another image that itself refers back to an image anterior to it. In the series in which this relation of images takes place, the purported original reveals itself also to be one term in a series” (13-14). This pattern of appropriation has both aesthetic and cultural-political ramifications, as Melehy makes clear in a lucid and elegantly cascading series of sentences:


When Du Bellay looks to ancient Rome as a model of solidity, he seeks a ground of poetic quality, of the meaning of language, and of the stability of the modern state. But the very fact that it is possible to conceive of establishing a new poetry and a new imperial state is predicated on the absence of Rome, its having passed away over the course of time. The stability that Rome attributed to itself, its splendor as the eternal city, turns out to have been an effect of simulation, which is visible in the monuments that no longer stand and the poetry that is a thin trace of former grandeur. The bedrock of Roman stability was a simulacrum in ancient times and it is a simulacrum in modernity; the new poetry produces itself by mobilizing this simulacrum in its own favor, repeating ancient Rome with the difference that its grandeur occurs in another time and place.



What was and is ruined is constantly renewed in a partly and inherently ruined state by the author; the energy and excitement of this paradoxical creation of the self-destructive and ultimately indefinable (like language itself) is reflected in the re-combinative and re-applicative quality of art, which here takes as its subject the ruins of ancient Rome, the noble junkyard of empire. Out of this self-reflexive art comes modernity: Du Bellay’s “break with the past by way of a paradoxical insistence on a continuity with the past” marks him out as supremely “modern” (18-19, 50). The author also destabilizes his own authorial persona while paradoxically creating it and modeling it on the vaunted self-image of past writers.

Melehy’s critical approach acknowledges but doesn’t fully account for the permanence of this vision: an author like Spenser might yoke those ruins to a future image of eternity, that “eternal city” of the New Jerusalem which finds its type in the city of fame that is Rome. The clearly deconstructive strain of Melehy’s criticism [“Among the great teachers whose marks on my thinking I am continually aware of are… Harry Berger… [and] Jacques Derrida” (vi)] is certainly suitable to emphasizing the same strain in Du Bellay’s, Montaigne’s, and Shakespeare’s art. It hits a snag with Spenser, however: Spenser’s images of ruins are clearly self-referential and meta-poetic (referring to his own art), and clearly point backwards as they do forwards; but given his more zealous Christian and nation-building fervor, which Melehy accounts for (cf. 81, 111, 113), to what extent does Spenser privilege the heavenly over the worldly? “Du Bellay directs [his] hope towards an earthly rebirth of poetry; for Spenser, at least in the ‘Envoy’ to Ruines of Rome, earthly and heavenly rebirth converge” (96).  We find a similar convergence and transcendence in other poems in Complaints:


Where Du Bellay looks towards a pagan-influenced time (which he also derives from the Book of Ecclesiastes…) in order to question the linear, apocalyptic time of dominant Christianity, what concerns Spenser is precisely the question of whether there can be any immortality but that conferred by God… . Spenser advances beyond Du Bellay’s pagan-tinged Christianity to project a durability on earth, even in the midst of corrosion and decay; The Ruines of Time puts forth this durability. The constant destruction of the movement of time may change into a creation with lasting effects.

(123-4; see also 131)


Despite blurring the distinction between pagan and Christian, worldly and eternal, Melehy pulls back from quantifying the essence of that eternalizing poetic spirit in Spenser. To what extent is this spirit defined by apocalyptic reveries or from neo-platonic philosophy or from a strange mixture of the two? Melehy lets other critics define those terms. Melehy refers to Anne Lake Prescott’s illuminative discussion of the number “15” in Spenser’s A Theatre for Worldlings (1569) as having an apocalyptic resonance (79), and he rightly notes the Christian significance of the number “33” (the number of sonnets in Ruines of Rome) (91), but he does not push the numerological analysis further. Had he done so, might he better have illuminated the overall purpose and structure of Complaints? Melehy revels in and excels at the close analysis of variations in adaptations, and carefully extricates the sources of influence as they trickle through one poem and then another; but what was the volume trying to achieve in its entirety, in its particular moment of publication in time, and for eternity?

Melehy writes clearly and succinctly, but the reader is sometimes left asking for more philosophical clarity or consistency in the treatment of how the French authors Du Bellay and Montaigne themselves understood the relation of the temporal to the eternal. Melehy describes Du Bellay’s “notion of the eternal city” that is Rome, “the embodiment of an ideal” that reality famously did not confirm for the disappointed poet once he got there (172, 31). But the dream was there, or was it? In the Songe, “This dream vision of Rome is the poet’s New Jerusalem, where the wish for the perfection of poetry in French, as expressed in the Deffence, may be fulfilled.” Nonetheless, Du Bellay


suggests that works in French may also move, over the course of time, into the past, as have the works of Rome. Of course, this poetic new Jerusalem is only “quasi semblable” to the city of Revelation—it is a likeness or image of it, and Du Bellay’s poems in turn present a likeness or image.



Of course? Is the dream of eternity only a dream, or is it a glimpse of eternity? Subsequently, Montaigne in his essay “De la vanité,” although not invoking the notion of the eternal city, “does speak of Rome as an ideal city in that it is an exemplum for all states, containing all that could exist and occur (and this includes nonexistence) in any state.”  “Any state” includes France first and foremost (172). And yet for both authors, Rome is but a “simulacrum,” ergo an infinitely regressive and repeatedly self-referential fragmentary icon. So is the skeptical Montaigne’s dream of a better France ultimately a futile one?

Melehy’s “Introduction” contains a lengthy and useful discussion on how to balance historical (including New Historicist) approaches with formalist studies of literary sources and influence. The main body of the book is divided into quadrants of three chapters each, with sections on Du Bellay, Spenser, Montaigne and Shakespeare, respectively. Versions of two of the three chapters on Spenser were previously published, although the third, on Ruines of Time, is original to this book. Melehy’s discussions of Complaints range between “Ruines of Time,” “Ruines of Rome,” “Vision of the Worlds Vanitie,” “Visions of Bellay,” and “Visions of Petrarch.” In a tour de force of comparative literary criticism between languages (French, Italian, Dutch, English) and editions, Melehy provides a detailed discussion of van der Noot’s variations and influence prior to and including Spenser’s self-revisions (96-112). We understand how truly international Spenser was from a young age: “It is such a polyglot, internationalist, syncretic set of texts that came into the young Spenser’s hands in 1568. And Spenser’s efforts show signs of van der Noot’s procedure, which combines the work of all his predecessors in the production of the new text” (103).

When not focused on the issues of Rome, time and worldly simulacra in Du Bellay, Spenser and Montaigne, Melehy includes analysis of Montaigne’s “De l’institution des enfants” and so delves into instructional literature and the role of reading in the period: “I will argue that Montaigne is offering an expanded notion of reading according to which other aspects of the world should be read as thoroughly and circumspectly as books, at their best” (141). Melehy then discusses how Montaigne and after him Shakespeare, in The Tempest, grappled with the difference between “civilized” and “other” in their meditations on the New World. While the topic feels shopworn, English literary critics do need to look beyond selections from Montaigne’s “Des cannibales” when discussing the colonial-theoretical roots of the play, including the figure of Caliban and Gonzalo’s well-known “Had I plantation of the isle” speech. Melehy’s analyses of “Des cannibales” and another essay, “Des coches,” are in and of themselves skillfully nuanced.

Of particular interest to Spenserians will be Chapter Ten’s revisiting and promotion of A. Kent Hieatt’s work on Spenser’s Antiquities of Rome as a primary source of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (especially #55), although the search for an echo of “Rome” in both the “roomes” of Shakespeare and the “rime” of Spenser can feel strained (212, 217). I would, furthermore, disagree with Melehy as to the “futility” and  “sever[ity]” of a “continual questioning of the notion of inherently durable poetry” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (219, 220): Shakespeare seems sincere to me when he claims “My love shall in my verse ever live young” (sonnet 19). Shakespeare’s literary monument still stands, resurrected constantly in our classrooms; the printing press made infinitely new his yellowing, bare ruined/renewed quires.

A terrific turn occurs in Melehy’s eleventh chapter, which makes original connections between Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Justus Lipsius’ De Constantia (1584; English trans. 1594). Shakespeare’s play frequently invokes the virtues of “constancy,” sometimes, ironically, in theatrical situations (which are inherently ephemeral, especially so to the characters in the play). For Lipsius, constancy is “a fundamental quality of the effective ruler, on which the stability of the state rests” (230). Given the date of the play, ca. 1599, one wonders what sorts of triangulation might be made between it and Book VII of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, i.e., the Legend of Constancie, including the “Mutabilitie Cantos”; Christopher Burlinson, in Jane Grogan (ed.), Celebrating Mutabilitie (2010), recently studied the Cantos in light of Lipsius.

On the book’s opening page, the four main authors studied by Melehy provide four epigrams that are stacked vertically on top of a fifth quotation, by Nietzche (on “Ewigkeit”) (ix). This bears affinities with a passage in Montaigne’s “De la vanité,” quoted by Melehy, on the stability of Rome despite its precarious state in ruins:


Tout ce qui branle ne tombe pas. La contexturte d’un si grand corps tient à plus d’un clou. It tient mesme par son antiquité: comme les vieux bastiments, ausquels l’aage a desrobé le pied, sans crouste et sans cyment, qui portant vivent et se soustiennent en leur proper poix… .


[All that totters does not collapse. More than one nail holds up the framework of so mighty a structure. Its very antiquity can hold it up, like old buildings which, without cement or cladding, are propped by their own mass …]

(172; trans. M.A. Screech)


Four such massive authors as Du Bellay, Spenser, Montaigne, and Shakespeare are piled upon a shaky if intellectually stimulating foundation in modern philosophy that rightfully stresses paradox and uncertainty in language, religion and thought. Like the stones of Cuzco, the authors studied here fit neatly together thematically thanks to Melehy’s careful engineering and their own ponderous weight. The authors share a profound interest in Rome and the destruction of time as a central, driving creative concern in their work.

Tempus fugit: wise readers will ignore this review and, with the help of Melehy, head straight to Du Bellay, Spenser, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, so as to spend their short remaining time on earth with the originals, not copies.


Thomas Herron
East Carolina University


[1] See, for example, Ardis Butterfield, The Familiar EnemyChaucer, Language, and Nation in the Hundred Years War (New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), Richard Helgerson’s translation (2006) of Du Bellay, and Carole Levin and John Watkins, Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2009). 




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Cite as:

Thomas Herron, "Hassan Melehy, The Poetics of Literary Transfer in Early Modern France and England," Spenser Review 44.1.19 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed September 24th, 2018.
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