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A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene
by Joseph Campana

Brown, Richard Danson, and J. B. Lethbridge. A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene. With Two Studies of Spenser’s Rhymes. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013. xx + 547. ISBN: 978-0719088889. $105.00 cloth.


What rhyme was to Spenser, and his age, is no simple question. This seems easy to forget under the influence of even just a few stanzas of The Faerie Queene, which, like Guyon casting a net over Acrasia, begins almost immediately to weave a mesh of sound around the reader. In spite of the frequency of its deployment, rhyme was, in the age of Spenser, a device as hotly contested as any of the many other causes for literary alarm of the era, including the nature of metrics, which has seemed to enjoy far greater treatment than rhyme within and beyond Spenser studies.[1] Before Milton rejected rhyme and before Thomas Campion and Samuel Daniel sparred in prose over rhyme, Spenser worried about rhyme, amongst many other things, in the letters he exchanged with Gabriel Harvey.

How easy it is to take rhyme for granted, to assume it to be part of the deep fabric of poetry in some relatively uncomplicated way. Yet rhyme is now relatively rare in so much English-language poetry, though a steady diet of song lyrics, jingles, and greeting cards leaves our ears awash in the sometimes chiming, sometimes grating particularity of rhyme. Rhyme is everywhere, such experiences seem to indicate, and thus even if it is not the deep fabric of poetry, rhyme provides a form of poetic experience to which our very bodies often respond.

To ask what is that experience seems foolish. Don’t we know it when we hear it? But the easy assumption that rhyme is an obvious surface pleasure forecloses other questions. Is it an experience of deep similitude hovering beneath apparently inconsequential differences? Is it the dissonance that happens when difference collapses into the same sound? Is it mere ornament or deep homology? Does rhyme incite or anesthetize the body and the mind? Does it mean anything at all and how does it mean? The jury is still decidedly out on all these questions, and yet if anything seems clear it is that there is too little thinking and writing about the texture and significance of rhyme. Perhaps we’ve been too caught up a drama of attraction and repulsion, too quickly capitulating to its lures or rejecting them wholesale, to take rhyme more seriously.

Things unattempted yet in prose on rhyme would, in the critical landscape of Edmund Spenser, necessarily include A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene: With Two Studies of Spenser’s Rhymes, the complex assemblage created by Richard Danson Brown and The Spenser Review’s book editor, J.B. Lethbridge. It is thanks to Manchester University Press that this nearly 600-page tome was published, a feat that seems well-nigh miraculous, even considering Manchester’s commitment to its series The Manchester Spenser, precisely because the current state of humanities publishing would suggest a more than gloomy outlook on reference volumes of this variety (especially those unrelated to William Shakespeare). Brown and Lethbridge’s Concordance consists of the concordance itself (followed by a series of elaborations and appendices) and two critical (and in some respects critically opposed) studies penned individually by Brown and Lethbridge. Rhyme is, I’ve suggested, under-thought perhaps because it seems so obvious. We experience rhyme immediately but to understand patterns of significance, like information built into the code of a poem, it takes time and accumulation to understand rhyme. As a result, what I write here is perhaps less a review than the beginnings of a meditation on a volume that will take time to unpack, as scholars and students make use of the considerable data amassed between its covers.

When I teach Renaissance verse, I always want my students to think about the sonic and cognitive pleasures and pains of rhyme while also considering the kind of significance rhyming patterns accrue. This is partly a consequence of my own fascination with Spenser’s particular use of a rhyming group—boy, toy, joy, coy—and how such patterns might indicate an argument about the ethics of pleasure that runs alongside, and perhaps counter to, arguments lodged in the narrative and action of the poem.[2] Whether in The Faerie Queene or Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, I am interested in the many ways poems make meaning, and since every feature of a poem has the potential to carry information, to communicate architectural or conceptual significance, tracking patterns is critical. How to use this beast of a book with such patterns in mind?

Searches of course may be quite targeted. Let me test out my favorite Faerie Queene rhyming group (boy, toy, joy, coy) with another I’ve worked with in class with undergraduates and that is drawn from Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (shame, name, fame, blame). Let’s begin with the boys, or, more properly, “boy” and then “boyes.” I learn, scanning down the entries, that although it isn’t until III.xii.7 that “boy” appears as the first “a” rhyme, the very first use of “boy” as a rhyming term seems to be I.i.47, where it appears as a “c” rhyme. Scanning those entries, I find not only the companions I expected (joy, toy, coy) but also “annoy,” “employ” and “Sans-loy,” “destroy,” and “Troy,” the last of which seems the most interesting that had escaped my notice. After checking the concordance itself, I could flip to the “Alphabetical List of Rhymes with Frequency and Distribution” and learn that “boy” appears 17 times and “boyes” 6 times, while the other terms are less common (annoy, 8; employ, 2; Sans-loy, 1; destroy, 7; Troy, 3).

Would that then make “boy” the master term of this cluster? And if rhyming clusters create a conceptual harmonics, drawing words into symmetries of association through sound, are there ways of negating a particular cluster of rhymes either sonically or conceptually? After the “Alphabetical List of Rhymes” comes a list of “All Words in The Faerie Queene arranged alphabetically” from which I learn that boy appears 30 times in all and then check the list of “All Words Arranged in Order of Frequency of Occurrence” to find “boy” as common as “Blandamour” and “tongue” but not nearly as common as “love,” ringing in at 555 instances, or “and,” the most common word of all with a whopping 10,684 instances. Much more common that “boy” and its chiming partners would be shame, which rings in at 176 uses in the poem, 62 of those as rhymes. Shame partners with blame, same, defame, fame, frame, came, inflame, Dame, name, reclame, game and others. Not surprisingly, the significant auditory pattern that highlights Lucrece’s violation also animates significant moments of female vulnerability in The Faerie Queene.

The volume is very detailed in its appendices and lists, including “Rhymes of Two Separate Words,” a “List of Variant Forms Included in the Concordance,” a list of “Names in Rhyme Position (Omitting Arguments),” and a list of “Hyphenated Rhymes,” amongst others. Since the volume’s power to collate information is at stake, it is worth considering the accessibility of that information. I wrote earlier that I could “flip” from section to section, seeking “shame” or “boy” wherever I went. It’s true I “could” do that with the text in front of me. In fact, given the upcoming publication date, I, quite understandably, have a PDF copy to access, which is relevant in one particular way. I did not actually flip from section to section in my perusal of this concordance. In fact, I used a word search to direct me swiftly from instance to instance, an imperfect and yet incredibly convenient technology not available to anyone who possesses the book itself.

I mention this not only to expose my own cheating ways but to raise a question about accessibility. I have of late, though wherefore I know not, lost my faith in certain forms of print publication. I love physical books as much as any, and, as a poet, perhaps more than many. I am as skeptical as is possible of the steady drum beat of electronica in the humanities; every useful application of technology or wonderful platform for accessing archives seems counter-balanced by myriad instances of gadget-love and utopian fantasy about electronic formats that promise to relieve readers of the work of reading. Nonetheless, now that archives are more available now than ever, it is critical to make ever-more bountiful the availability of information about important texts. So as I consider this concordance, I find myself wishing for electronic access and greater searchability. Sad victim of this in-between-media-forms age, I want to point and click, glide a cursor over a text of The Faerie Queene and have all manner of information appear to me.  

Such concerns will be no surprise to the authors who have lavished extraordinary time on this volume and who have considered very carefully the question, about which, in a section of the preface called “The codex in the computer age,” they counter responses such as mine, which seem to presuppose “the inflexibility of the print medium” when considered next to “the many advantages of the computer concordance” (xv). “Imaginative use of a printed concordance can make it reveal information beyond what is actually printed in its long columns, in particular if there are ancillary materials such as those provided here” (xvi). Moreover, in spite of the astonishing computing power of any given individual’s laptop or desktop or smartphone, “few who require the resources of a computerized concordance have the expertise required to manipulate the text accurately.” It’s also true, as the editors point out, that software and platforms are fickle. Who knows what will be the HTML of the future? “Digital media,” they point out, “even fifteen years old are no longer accessible without sophisticated (or antiquated) hard- and software.” It isn’t that I disagree, by any means, with such measured and thoughtful positions or that I have been seduced by “Big Data.” But the advantages of technologically aided searches and online access, for teaching and research, seem hard to ignore in spite of the excellent cautions these authors make about the seductions of the digital age. At £65 or roughly $100 and weighing in with a corresponding physical heft, it seems worth wondering if there’s a middle ground to be found or a companion website to be founded.

Moreover, although I am by no means a textual scholar of any variety and while Spenserian textual variants and oddities pale in comparison to Shakespearean ones, it would be more ideal if this concordance were synced up with a particular standard edition, be it the Longman or the forthcoming Oxford as opposed to J.C. Smith’s Oxford edition of The Faerie Queene. For the purposes of this concordance, the text has been “independently prepared (by JBL) as a composite text of the 1590 and 1596 editions of The Faerie Queene with the Mutabilitie Cantos added from the 1609 edition. It is closely based on the Smith edition which served much in the role of a copy text … By no means should the text for this concordance be considered a full critical edition. The aim was to produce a reliable digital text—based on modern editions, with the main, substantial, variants included where they affect rhyme—to serve as a reliable basis for a concordance as complete and as accurate as possible” (xiii). The authors, yet again, display great thoughtfulness in their treatment of textual questions, but the result is an odd assemblage.

What seems simultaneously most provocative and problematic about this Concordance is this combination of disparate parts. The concordance appears next to a series of lists and ancillary materials on which the authors stake a claim for the greatest durability of a print concordance over an electronic one:

Another advantage of a printed concordance arises from one of its limitations in comparison to digital versions: despite efforts to overcome the fact, the printed media is already interpreted or chosen by the editors of the volume. A digital search, relying equally only on information keyed in, will print out a mass of information at once presenting the problem of contextualisation or sorting. That we find this to be an advantage of the printed medium is shown by the interpretative para-concordance texts included in this volume. A database could produce more and more raw information and produce surprises the more fixed medium cannot do; this printed version, however, serves the user in being static, becoming eventually familiar, highly contextualised, and where some of the task of choosing, sorting and presentation have already been performed by the editors.

In the same way that our responses to rhyme are frequently impressionistic, so too might our response to the results of any given search based on the text of The Faerie Queene. In an age of both Big Data and too much information, the authors propose a solution: their own interpretations of the material at hand.

To be sure all reference volumes make interpretative choices. The appendices included in the Concordance are partly, then, the result of interpretative choices, which requires we consider them next to the two critical studies. The studies are, to my mind, quite opposed to one another as the titles—Brown’s “‘Charmed with inchaunted rimes’: An Introduction” and Lethbridge’s “The Bondage of Rhyme in The Faerie Queene”—suggest. That Brown refers to his critical study as an introduction—the more balanced of the two—gives a little pause. Is it an introduction to the Concordance or to the subject of Spenser and rhyme? Both, it seems as it opens: “A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene offers unique insights into Spenser’s creative processes and the tools of his trade. It enables readers to review the variety by focusing on a selection of key devices which are characteristic of the poem as a whole, and which stress the radical and hybrid aesthetic which underpins The Faerie Queene” (1). The Concordance is the result of a “selection of key devices which are characteristic of the poem as a whole” while the critical study argues for “the radical and hybrid aesthetic” that characterizes Spenserian rhyme with Spenser’s magnum opus as the crown jewel of that rhyming aesthetic: “The Faerie Queene established the Renaissance credentials of English rhyming verse—the capacity of English to produce an epic comparable in scale and achievement of poems like the Aeneid and the Orlando Furioso. Spenser’s work as a rhymer is thus a crucial facet of that wider cultural process” (1).

The opening of Lethbridge’s study also stresses a blend of the impulses of a reference work and a critical study: “An index of rhymes open in front of one naturally focuses attention on rhyme in certain ways directly addressed by the index—numbers, cross-references, suggestive repetitions, conspicuous non-repetition, common words and the hapax legomena (7,638 lemmata in all, some 7,000-odd words; unique rhyme words, which may or may not be hapax legomena are some 3,000-odd); but it also funnels attention to aspects of rhyme addressed only indirectly by the index. This study is relatively modest: it seeks only to present some information, some few catches from an overflowing ocean though in a net cast out of the other side of the boat” (76). The invocation of information here sits less easily next to the assertions of the very next paragraph, which claims the “two fundamental facts” animating the study are “that Spenser’s stanza is almost suffocatingly restrictive and that his rhymes are massively repetitive, despite the great number of unique rhymes” (76). Lethbridge invokes fact and information but his polemic rests on an impression of or response to the stanza of The Faerie Queene. He continues to argue that “Spenser drastically suppresses rhyme” (77), that “Spenser weakens rhyme, and does so because of the problems it poses for narrative, and because he wishes to direct attention away from the manner of his writing to the subject of that writing, to what he is writing about: Spenser’s verse aspires to the condition of blank verse, Spenser’s language aspires to the condition of transparency” (78). Lethbridge’s emphasis on transparency and narrative produce a series of sharp correlative claims, including that “Spenser rarely seems to feel the need for poetic intensity as we normally understand it” (79) and that “Milton saw past the rhyme to the aspiration to blank verse in The Faerie Queene, which he duly fulfilled: he eschewing the formulaic mentality and taking out the rhyme” (84). Strong claims, indeed!

Reading such strong claims, I wonder how much time and space there is to establish convincingly such claims in a critical introduction that has many other tasks to perform. Perhaps such statements are best thought of as provocations for future conversation. No doubt my own impression of The Faerie Queene shares more with Brown, who prefers terms like hybrid, slippery, promiscuous, and enchanted to characterize Spenserian rhyme. The point of mentioning this is not that I take it to be the case that Brown and I are somehow right about the poem and Lethbridge is wrong. I find myself unlikely to agree with Lethbridge in spite of a critical study clearly deeply immersed in Spenser’s rhymes. Transparency of language and narrative always have seemed fundamentally compromised in The Faerie Queene and in ways I find fascinating and revelatory. Moreover, the relationship between Spenser and Milton often seems painfully complex and thus likely to inhibit the clarity of sharp assertions.

Nonetheless I find much appeal in the testing out of bold claims about The Faerie Queene. What gives me pause, I suppose, is an uncomfortable proximity between a series of gestures having to do with data, information, and fact, on the one hand, and a series of gestures having to do with critical impressions and polemics, on the other. That is to say, in some respects the quantitative and the qualitative assertions seem discordant. The former do not, for me, guarantee the latter, and that proximity makes me wonder about the Concordance, as does the idea that a concordance claiming to provide an interpretive account of rhymes is built out of two points of view on rhyme in The Faerie Queene that seem opposed to one another. I am not, myself, a believer in the idea that a fair and balanced account results from the collision of opposing points of view, but other readers may find these disparate accounts of rhyme strengthen the volume by revealing the perspectives that went into it. Also, others may find less contradiction than I do. It is less that these authors have offered opposing accounts than that a polemic and a general account of rhyme do not add up to more than the sum of these parts.

The great gift of this Concordance, I hope, is renewed conversation in Spenser studies (and beyond) about rhyme. There is, in these nearly 600 pages, so much to unpack. At a particular moment in the humanities when quantitative and qualitative approaches to literary works can be at war with one another, when slow or close reading wars with distant reading (or surface models with depth models), rhyme might be an ideal test case for the way poetry does or does not yield data.[3] Perhaps more attention to rhyme forces us to reconsider not only how a poem works but what “information” is. What is rhyme’s relationship to similitude, to sameness and difference? What are the gendered qualities of rhyme when rhymes are habitually referred to in the language of masculinity and femininity (a subject treated in depth by Brown in his introduction)? Questions, happily, abound. From just my exposure thus far, I’m already convinced that I must reconsider how I understand rhyme and, and in, The Faerie Queene. I am grateful to be provoked in this way and in spite of a strange and often unproductive hybridity evident in the volume. Of course my pain here may be another reader’s gain.


Joseph Campana
Rice University

[1] Multiple entries on versification in The Spenser Encyclopedia stack up against one entry on rhyme. The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser features Jeff Dolven’s fine essay on “Spenser’s Metrics” but little extended coverage of rhyme.

[2] Joseph Campana, “Boy Toys and Liquid Joys: Pleasure and Power in the Bower of Bliss,” Modern Philology 106.3 (2009): 465-496.

[3] I’m thinking here of the special issue “The Way we Read Now,” Representations 108.1 (2009) along with many other recent conversations about styles of reading.


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Cite as:

Joseph Campana, "A Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 44.2.31 (Fall 2014). Accessed October 23rd, 2021.
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