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Spenser in France
by Jean-Jacques Chardin

Spenser criticism in France is no recent business although production is fairly limited. It covers three centuries, but did not become a full-blown industry until the 1900s. This presentation is chronological and purports to assess the evolution of the critical outlook from scanty eighteenth-century notes to more comprehensive analyses from the present day. I have selected the most significant books and papers by outstanding French-speaking academics who have approached the Spenser corpus.

The first mention of Spenser is a brief note in Journal étranger, edited by Abbé Prévost in 1755, about a translation into French of one of the poet’s biographies. We also know of an article on Spenser later inserted in Nouveau Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1750-56) by J.G. de Chauffepié. In the eighteenth century, Spenser does not seem to have been much favoured by French readers and critics. Voltaire passed a moderately positive comment on the author of The Faerie Queene when he argued in Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1771) that “he was highly esteemed but nobody could read him, ” and Madame de Staël, whose literary tastes were more to things German, is famous for claiming even more bluntly that “The Faerie Queene is tiring” (De la Littérature, 1800). It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Spenser began to attract the attention of French academics, and readers more generally. Hippolyte Taine had some praiseworthy jugdments on Spenser in his Histoire littéraire anglaise (Paris: Hachette, 1863): he eulogized Spenser’s Platonism and was especially sensitive to the pictorial aspect of The Faerie Queene. However, some thirty odd years later, in Histoire littéraire du peuple anglais (Paris: Fermin Didot, 1893) Jean-Jules Jusserand reverted to the critical opinion of eighteenth-century readers, rejecting the conjunction of eroticism and morality deployed in the poem. Previous to Taine’s and Jusserand’s comments, Carl Mayer had written a Ph.D. dissertation entitled “La Reine des fées, poème allégorique d’Edmond Spenser: Étude littéraire et historique” (1860), which apparently was never published and does not seem to have survived.

The first large-scale study of Spenser’s works dates from the early twentieth century, with Emile Legouis’s Edmund Spenser (Paris: Bloud and Gay, 1923). Legouis’s methodology is mainly biographical, as was common in French Ph.D. dissertations at that time, and his intention is to make French readers familiar with Spenser’s poetic achievements. Legouis also offers translations of some passages of The Faerie Queene, which he endeavours to render in the same poetic form as the original. Although English rhythm can hardly be expected to adapt to the French syllabic pattern, the result is a series of finely-wrought pieces, but the overall narrative structure of Spenser’s poem is almost entirely lost sight of. Yet Legouis should be credited with stimulating interest in, and furthering research on, Spenser.

In 1933 Paul de Reul published another Edmund Spenser (Waterloo: La Renaissance du livre). A Belgian, de Reul writes in French. Like his predecessor, de Reul was mostly interested in the poetic aspect of Spenser’s works, but his judgment is wholly opposed to Legouis’s. De Reul argues that Spenser is certainly a musical poet, but his allegories seem cold and lifeless to him; and like Legouis, he produces translations of only a few stanzas of The Faerie Queene. Another translation project came to rise in the 1950s with Michel Poirier’s La Reine des fées (The Faerie Queene), extraits (Paris: Aubier, 1950, 1957). Poirier’s book is extremely well documented and shows interest in the sources of The Faerie Queene (Sidney, Caxton’s Morte d’Arthur, and others) as well as in allegory and epic. In the introduction Poirier stresses Spenser’s staunch Protestant didacticism and his use of the pageant and masque culture of the late sixteenth century, elements which neither Legouis nor de Reul had taken into account. Poirier’s translations are very often accurate in conveying the meaning (with Spenser’s ten syllable lines melodiously translated into unrhymed alexandrines), but the original intention to produce a complete translation was finally aborted. Stéphane Desjardins, a young French-speaking Canadian critic, has hypothesized that one of the reasons why no complete translation of The Faerie Queene into French has ever been produced is the critics’ baised perspective, with too strong a focus on the poetry and too little attention on the quest and the narration which account for the form and the structure of the poem.[1]

The emergence of Formalist critics and the rise of the New Criticism favored a drastic change in emphasis in the latter half of the twentieth century. Robert Ellrodt’s Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser (Genève: Droz, 1960) launched a series of new investigations into the philosophy and the aesthetics of Spenser’s poetry. The book, being written in English, was immediately available to English readers and was soon widely acclaimed as one of the most perceptive accounts of the poet’s works. Ellrodt is eminently well-read and his book brings a lot of scholarship. His intention is not to trace the sources of Spenser’s Platonism, but to offer a chronological approach to Spenser’s texts so as to establish whether Spenser’s interest in Platonism grew or waned with time. The book is tightly bound to this, its central issue. The first chapters are about the way Platonism percolated into Renaissance culture, and Spenser’s writings more particularly. The reader is usefully reminded that the works of Plato and of the Alexandrian Platonists were available in the original Greek versions or Latin translations, although they were read in the light of Renaissance commentaries (Ficino in particular), so that Renaissance Neo-platonism comes out as a fairly confused body of thought. Ellrodt also stresses the difference between philosophical Platonism and aesthetic Platonism, the latter of which is mainly concerned with the metaphysics of love and the theory of poetry. He observes that much though the Amoretti show Spenser’s acquaintance with the Neo-platonic philosophy of love and beauty, Spenser’s writings reveal the gradual transmutation of the Platonic metaphysics of love into a Christian conception of love, whether human or heavenly. He argues that in The Faerie Queene, Platonic ideas are highly adapted: for instance, the two Florimells do not stand for the contrast between phenomenal beauty and ideal beauty, Belphoebe does not embody the Heavenly Venus and Gloriana is characterized mostly as a terrestrial figure. Consequently the allegory in The Faerie Queene is religious, ethical and political, but does not illustrate traditional Neo-platonic metaphysics.

Ellrodt also contends that Spenser drew less upon Renaissance Platonism than upon medieval Platonism, as exemplified in the Mutabilitie Cantos. In a few terse pages, he explains that the Timaeus was known to medieval authors through the Latin translations of Chalcidius and Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, and that the Platonic vision of creation was reconciled with Genesis by the theologians of the School of Chartres, whose ideas Spenser was sensitive to. According to Ellrodt, another Platonic trend which Spenser drew upon was derived from Dionysius and Augustine, the main authority in Christian mysticism which the Reformation so highly valued. Ellrodt’s conclusion is that Spenser’s turn of mind was Christian and retrospective.

Clearly inspired by Ellrodt, Bernard Tannier, a contributor to The Spenser Encyclopedia, is a distinguished Spenser scholar. His “Un bestiaire maniériste: monstres et animaux fantastiques dans La Reine des Fées d’Edmund Spenser” (Monstres et Prodiges au temps de la Renaissance, ed. Marie Thérèse Jones Davies, Paris: J. Touzot, 1980) shows how monsters in the Faerie Queene are signs of a mannerist form of imagination shaped mostly by the Bible. Fabulous animals do not very often appear in the poem, unless in similes and ekphrases and most of them are reworkings from Scriptural animals (cf. the fight between the dragon and the griffin, I.v.8).

One of Tannier’s most interesting contributions is a paper on “La Justice dans The Faerie Queene de Spenser (Paris: Actes du congrès de la Société Française Shakespeare, 1980). Picking up on Ellrodt’s point that Spenser’s conception of Justice owes more to Aristotelian ethics than to Platonic philosophy, Tannier goes on to show that Book V, called a treatise by Spenser himself (V.iii.3), portrays Justice as a disturbingly paradoxical concept. Spenser’s conception of justice is derived from Aristotle’s idea of Equity (cf. The Nicomachean Ethics) and based upon the figurations of Justice in the works of Renaissance mythographers (Natale Conti’s Mythologiae in particular). Spenser, however, revises his sources: whereas in the Golden Age, vice did not exist and Justice was enshrined in the hearts of men, in the world Artegall lives in “the wicked seede of vice / Began to spring,” (V.i.1), and the Justice taught by Astrea “to all people did divide her dred beheasts ” (Proem 9). Tannier’s close reading of Book V, a typically French methodological approach to literary texts, is illuminating. When the narrator reports that Astrea taught Artegall “equitie to measure out along, / According to the line of conscience, / When so it needs with rigour to dispence” (V.i.7), Tannier notes the two meanings of “dispence,” either to provide or to get rid of. He then comes to the conclusion that two contradictory readings of Justice are embedded in stanza 7. He argues from this that Justice can be cruel and deprived of clemency, a clear transgression of the Aristotelian notion of Equity. He also convincingly claims that the steely brand given to Artegall by Astrea is just an instrument of repression to curb rebellion, as it was used by Jove against the Titans (V.i.9). Thus Tannier reads Book V as allegorizing the brutal force implemented by Elizabeth in her attempt to pacify Ireland, a topos Spenser seems to condone and reject simultaneously.

Another paper worth mentioning is Jean Fuzier’s “Spenser, traducteur de du Bellay: regards sur la problématique de la traduction poétique au XVIe siècle” (Paris: Persée 15, 1982). Fuzier maintains that Spenser is the only English Renaissance poet to embark on the complete translation of French sonnet sequences. He translated the thirty-two sonnets of du Bellay’s Les Antiquités de Rome and the fifteenth sonnets of Le Songe. As the French texts deploy a pessimistic vision of the world, preyed upon by mutability and decay, it is likely, Fuzier notes, that du Bellay fashioned Spenser’s sense of pessimism. Le Songe was first translated in blank verse (1569), and in rhymed pentameters a few years later (1590-1), using the pattern of the Shakespearian sonnet, the latter version being a proof of Spenser’s greater mastery of the poetic form. Fuzier shows that Spenser’s translations are remarkably accurate in terms of sense, which highlights that in the Renaissance, a theory of translation existed which was not exclusively thought of in terms of adaptation of the original document, as is too often assumed.

Special mention should here be made of Simone Dorangeon’s L’Eglogue anglaise de Spenser à Milton (Paris: Didier Erudition, 1974), an impressive scholarly study of the pastoral from Spenser, through Michael Drayton, Phineas Fletcher, William Browne, George Wither, William Basse, Richard Braithwaite, Barnabe Googe, Richard Barnfield, and a plethora of lesser known poets, right up to Milton. Dorangeon argues that The Shepheardes Calender belongs to the political and religious context of sixteenth-century England and that consequently Spenser is the source of a specifically English pastoral, revamped by most of his successors. The book is full of illuminating close readings of exerpts from the various pieces quoted, but its key interest is that Dorangeon traces the classical and French sources of The Shepheardes Calender. Her point is that Spenser had access to Theocritus in Latin or French translations, as no edition of the Greek poet was available in the sixteenth century. She convincingly argues that the lament on the passing of youth in the second eclogue shows clear traces of Marot’s inspiration. Similarly, some lines of the December eclogue are almost word for word translations of Marot’s Eglogue au Roy, just as the November piece draws heavily on the French poet’s Eglogue sur Madame Loyse de Savoie. Dorangeon’s is certainly one of the most ambitious and comprehensive studies of Spenser’s pastoralism and one can only regret that the book has never been translated into English.

In recent decades, several young academics have produced impressive studies of Spenser’s poetry, either in Parisian Universities or in the provinces, with a slightly different critical perspective.

A comprehensive Ph.D. dissertation was submitted at the Sorbonne by Emilien Moshen in 2002. The title is Time and the Calendar in Edmund Spenser’s Poetical Works and the book is available at Publibook, Paris. It is the first-ever attempt to read the whole of the poet’s production in terms of Spenser’s engaging with the issue of time. Moshen presents the various facets of time, apocalyptic time, regenerative time, and cyclical time. He then examines the organization of The Faerie Queene in episodic narrative, the calendric structures of the Amoretti and Epithalamion, and finally broaches the topic of time as a literary motif in The Shepheardes Calender. The study emphasizes the co-existence of the irrevesibility of the processes of time leading to death and a pattern of time identified as eternal. The book has many strengths, authoritative scholarship, clarity of exposition, close attention to the details of the poetry, as in the analysis of Colin’s frustrated perception of linear time in the December eclogue. The English might need a little brushing up but this is only a minor flaw of a book which is certainly worth reading. It is to be hoped that a new edition will soon be published.

A young graduate from the University of Toulouse le Mirail, Nathalie Fauré, defended a Ph.D. dissertation in 2004 on “La Représentation chez Spenser: le motif de l’arbre dans le livre III de The Faerie Queene.” Unfortunately, the book was never published and I could not get a copy of the original manuscript. Fauré published a series of papers partly or integrally devoted to Spenser. In “La Représentation des émotions: le motif floral de Chaucer à Shakespeare,” Shakespeare et le Moyen Âge (Paris: Publication de la Société Française Shakespeare, 2002), Fauré analyses the synesthesia as the privileged mode of expression of the passions and the senses. She also shows that Spenser’s lyrical vein is tinged with echoes of medieval courtly love poetry.

A probably more original and better-structured paper is “Sir Calidore, Melibée et Colin Clout: mélancolie et émergence de la voix du poète dans The Faerie Queene d’Edmund Spenser, Livre VI, chants 9 et 10,” (Paris: Epistémè 3, 2003). Fauré’s contention is that the descriptive and narrative pauses in cantos 9 and 10 of Book VI are moments of introspective drive. Her paper elaborates on Barbara L. Estrin’s view that “the Pastoral is personal and has a human center,”[2] and Paul Alpers’ well-known definition of Spenserian Pastoral as “a mode of courtly and humanist self-representation.”[3] Fauré argues that Colin Clout is a substitute for the poet who, as an expert Saturnian voice, reflects on the colonial situation of Ireland and on the status of the courtly knight. Consequently the narrative is reflexive and the tone of the two cantos is melancholy and dramatic.

Nathalie Fauré and Raphaelle Costa de Beauregard co-authored a paper on “Intertextualité du langage courtois chez Shakespeare et ses contemporains: d’une tradition parodique à l’émergence d’une nouvelle écriture,” Shakespeare et ses contemporains (Paris: Publication de la Société Française Shakespeare, 2002). The text engages with the issue of parody, central to Book III, cantos 9 and 10. When Hellenore cavorts with the Satyrs, and gives herself to carnal pleasures, and Malbecco looks on in a jealous rage, Spenser revisits the conventional motif of the jealous husband running in pursuit of his wife, which Boccaccio and Chaucer had treated before him. But Malbecco cuts a silly, farcical figure, and the wife is turned into a quasi-feminist figure, breaking the codes of courtly love and of the epic. Similarly, Spenser derides the weaknesses of Britomart, unable to make sense of the inscriptions “Be bold … Be not too bold” she sees above the doors of the palace. The epic and the burlesque coalesce in a patchwork of different styles.

Laetitia Sansonetti, a very promising young scholar fresh from the École Normale Supérieure, is probably one of the new French stars in Spenser criticism. She has published several well-documented papers including “Temps et espace dans The Faerie Queene (1590) de Spenser,” in Mondes en mouvement: mutations et innovations en Europe à la fin du Moyen Âge et au début de la Renaissance, eds. Muriel Cunin et Martine Yvernault (Limoges: Presses Universitaires de Limoges, 2013); “Syphilis or melancholy? Desire as disease in Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590),” in Medieval and Early Modern Science and Medicine, SPELL 28, (eds. Denis Renevey et Rachel Falconer, 2013). In one of her first contributions, “Tentation et tentative dans The Faerie Queene (I–III),” La Renaissance anglaise: horizons passés, horizons futurs, ed. Michèle Vignaux (Lyon: La Clé des Langues, 2011), she argues that temptation is a necessary stage for each knight to finally come to virtue, as virtue needs to be refined. Sansonetti’s perspective is clearly Christian here. She reads the issue of temptation in the Book III of The Faerie Queene in the light of John’s 1st Letter (2-16) on “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye and the pride of life.” According to Sansonetti, the three levels of temptation are equalled by Spenser: pride and lust are clearly connected in Book I.vii.6, in the Redcrosse/Duessa episode; in Book II, Guyon is tempted by Mammon in his Cave (pride being embodied by Philotime) and then by Acrasia (lust) in the Bower of Bliss; and in Book III, it is Britomart who is subject to various temptations. Both Britomart and Guyon triumph over the snares of desire. It is easy, and by no means original, to assimilate Guyon to Christ tempted in the wilderness, just as it is fairly common to consider Arthur, saving Guyon, as the embodiment of divine grace. Yet, as observed by Sansonetti, although the Bower of Bliss is destroyed by Guyon, Acrasia is not killed, and so the victory of Temperance is far from definitive and absolute. Time gets the better of man’s resolution and temptation is still looming ahead.

“Syphilis or melancholy? Desire as disease in Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590),” a reworking of one of the chapters of her Ph.D. dissertation, treats the first three Books of The Faerie Queene from an altogether different perspective. Sansonetti focuses on the syphilitic body of Duessa (Books I and II), an allegory of the false (Catholic) religion, and the love wounds of Britomart (Book III). The poem is posed alongside nonfictional writing in order to compare the body to the medical examination of the causes of both syphilis and melancholy in two medical treatises, Fracastoro’s Syphilis (1530) and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. (The argument might be undermined by Sansonetti’s lack of concern for chronology as Burton’s text dates from 1621). Sansonetti contends that Britomart’s melancholy is described in terms which recall the symptoms of syphilis in Fracastoro’s text, and the remedies prepared by Glauce are those which physicians recommended to cure it. She also argues that because Britomart’s love wound is located in her bleeding bowels and poisoned entrails, Spenser parodies the Petrarchan convention (derived in fact from Virgil, although Sansonetti does not say it) of the heart pierced by the arrows of love. Because the entrails were valued by Christian theologians (Paul and Augustine) as the siege of conscience, Spenser shows his grasp of the medical material and its connection with both literary writing and religious discourse, a combination clearly serving the overall allegorical project of The Faerie Queene.

But Sansonetti’s main achievement is her Ph.D. dissertation, a volume of over 650 pages, defended at the Sorbonne in 2011. Sansonetti charts the multiple figurations of desire in the first three Books of The Faerie Queene and two epyllia, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. Desire is analysed according to a three-fold perspective, Neo-platonism, Christianity and pagan mythology, three types of material she treats with equal confidence. An impressive task indeed, all the more so as, so Sansonetti observes, desire is difficult to circumscribe because of its Protean nature. In the first three Books of The Faerie Queene, the word “desire” comes along with other items like “love,” “lust ” and even “lusts. ” One of the very clever points made is that desire is defined, not intrinsically, not per se, but by the very nature of its object. This is why desire is negative in the Bower of Bliss or in the Cave of Mammon, but obviously far more positive in the case of Britomart’s feelings. According to Sansonetti, the central issue of Books II and III is to make the distinction between good desire and lustful desire. Desires as manifestations of temptation are an impediment to actions or incentives to temperance: Guyon’s trip at sea between the Gulf of Greediness and the Rock of Reproach are trials on the road to the middle way.

Sansonetti is also interested in the eroticism of Spenser’s poem. She has fascinating analyses of the body desiring and the body desired, the former being open, as opposed to the body closed, for lacking the experience of desire. She also contends that Spenser is past master in the art of enticing and frustrating his characters’ and readers’ expectations by incomplete descriptions of the naked female body, like the truncated blazon of Belphoebe (II.iii.22-31) which she interprets, after Louis Montrose, as a strategy of self-censorship on the part of the poet. Sansonetti’s study wrestles with the question of whether desire in The Faerie Queene is reversible. The answer is “yes,” it is indeed reversible, not in the sense that desire ever reverses into hatred, but “yes” in the sense that the body desiring transcends conventional generic oppositions as male and female bodies respond to desire in similar terms.

The qualities of this book are sterling: impressive learning, vast scholarship, care in the exposition of ideas. Sansonetti clearly shows how Spenser sustains a dialogue with non- literary discourses, mainly medicine and religion. She always strives to relate particular to general, and to be attentive to the most minute details of Spenser’s writings while giving them an explanatory context. Sansonetti is well aware that an academic piece of writing requires clarity of expression and the use of a well-defined conceptual apparatus. She offers efficient syntheses that cover complex ideas comprehensively. But at times the piling up of references tends to deaden the effect of distinctive utterance. It is to be hoped though that an English version of this book will soon be available.

As a conclusion, the evolution of Spenser scholarship runs parallel to that of literary criticism. The survey of Spenser criticism in France offers a means of entering the various conventions of reading observed by critics down three centuries. The methodology of the eighteenth century was mostly impressionistic. Then came the idea that foreign texts should be made readable by translation. Such a notion might sound puzzling or old-fashioned to us, yet translation as a mode of literary criticism implies commitment to the “literariness” of the text, and Legouis, de Reul, and Poirier were all concerned with finding equivalents for lexis, syntax, figures of speech and form.

In the mid-twentieth century the tide of criticism turned and critical attention was more focused on the issue of context. Ellrodt, Tannier, and Dorangeon position Spenser historically and treat him in a network of philosophical, political, religious and literary affiliations. More recent criticism borrows from the methodologies of its predecessors, but from a more new-historicist perspective, while attending closely to the verbal particulars and formal properties of the Spenser canon.

Jean-Jacques Chardin
University of Strasbourg

[1] See Stéphane Desjardins, “La quête spensérienne: le traducteur et l’allégorie de l’erreur et du désespoir à l’intérieur du livre 1 de La Reine des fées,” Diss. Université McGill, 2011, 160-63.

[2] Barbara L. Estrin, “Death as the Mother of Beauty in Book VI of The Faerie Queene,” Cahiers Elisabéthains 16 (1979): 12.

[3] Paul J. Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1982), 387.


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Jean-Jacques Chardin, "Spenser in France," Spenser Review 44.2.47 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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