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spenser spenser’s irish genre

We start with the most utilitarian and autobiographical works. Spenser’s life, like that of many other English poets, was bound up with Ireland; while exact dates are sometimes in doubt, it is there that Spenser wrote most of his work and achieved his social goals. In all his works, while Spenser celebrates the Irish landscape and some aspects of the Irish language, literature, and folkways, he praises native Irish individuals rarely. Current interest in The View runs high but must be tempered by awareness of the unrevised state of the work and the paucity of external evidence for its authorship. The Anglo-Norman conquest under “Strongbow” (Richard de Clare), reaffirmed by a pope’s gift of Ireland to King Henry II, supposedly gave the English the right to exploit Ireland as a colony. The major theme of The View is that the native Irish must be brought under control. This political tract is in the form of a dialogue: Spenser’s spokesman is the knowledgeable but repressive Irenius; his interlocutor Eudoxus, while equally colonialist, is both argumentative toward Irenius and pacific toward the Irish. While impressed by some elements of Irish culture such as the status of poets, Irenius wants to eliminate three central elements: the native Irish or “Brehon” law, most Irish social and political customs, and Catholicism. All the native Irish and some of the Anglo-Irish were either Catholics or crypto-Catholics. Religion merged with national security in that (1) the pope had excommunicated the queen and absolved in advance anyone who would assassinate her and (2) the Catholic nations had already sent not only missionaries but mercenaries to Ireland, making it a potential staging area for attacks on England. Spenser’s program, while unethical by present standards, is not quite genocide because it offers an alternative—total submission. The harshness toward Ireland that we sense both here and implicitly in Book 5 of the FQ must be motivated in part by Spenser’s Protestantism and by his desire to “make something of himself.”

It is a relief to turn to Spenser’s poetry, which is multivocal and variously related to life. Amoretti, Epithalamion , and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe purport to be autobiographical. The last has captured the attention of social and materialistic critics. In this pastoral dialogue, Spenser, under the mask of Colin, weighs with insightful ambivalence the drawbacks and virtues of court life, equated with England, and of country life under the name of Ireland. He decides to remain in Ireland.

Amoretti and Epithalamion intrigue the learned by their generic experimentation and by their numerological dimension: Epithalamion has twenty-four stanzas and 365 long lines; Amoretti contains, among several sonnets on particular days, an Ash-Wednesday Sonnet (22) and an Easter Sonnet (68); the number of sonnets between them equals the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It appeals to laymen by its occasional air of biographical authenticity, by its relatively conspicuous story line, and by its unified yet comprehensive ethos, reconciling eros with agape . Although the sonnets are graceful rather than colloquial, some are vapid and overexpanded, and others, such as 54, 58, 59, 65, and 68, are as fresh and as seemingly authentic as are the best of Shake-speare’s* and are without his contorted metaphors. Spenser was the first poet in English to cap a sonnet sequence with an epithalamion to the same lady, thus giving it, instead of the usual sad ending, one that is both happy and Christian. In a mood of affirmation, the poet describes an entire universe that is almost completely harmonious with itself and with his wishes. Although it has always been recognized as one of the greatest lyrics in the language, in isolation, the Epithalamion may seem saccharine to modern tastes because it lacks tension; nevertheless, in its volume it stands as a resolution to those sharp conflicts between mercy and cruelty in the mistress, between flesh and spirit in the lover, between male and female dominance, and between the lovers and spiteful outsiders that made the Amoretti a typical sonnet sequence.

The Epithalamion, Muiopotmos, Mother Hubberds Tale , and The Mutability Cantoes (which can be considered as a minor poem for this purpose) are Spenser’s best minor poems and should be chosen over FQ or The Shepheardes Calendar (a tour de force, often stylistically gauche) to represent Spenser in anthologies and survey courses. Mother Hubberds Tale is a versified picaresque novella in the form of a beast fable satirizing all levels of Elizabethan society from the point of view of two upstarts, a Fox and an Ape. Mock-epic and mock-tragic in genre, Muiopotmos is Spenser’s most accessible poem—Keatsian in its sensuousness and in some of its sentiments, like the vulnerability of youth and beauty before the envious.

The Mutability Cantoes , while allusive, are not only appealing to students but philosophical in scope, a worthy coda to the FQ . As lively, richly varied in its materials, and masterly in its verse as is the Epithalamion , it takes a harder look at things. It concludes, first, that change is cyclical and therefore not so bad, but finally that only a static eternity with God can satisfy the individual.

The Fowre Hymnes , little read today, are interesting for their Platonism, syncretism, seemingly straightforward confession of what Spenser at that moment believed, and palinodic structure embodying a dialogue between earthly and heavenly love. The Prothalamion , celebrating English scenery and a double betrothal, contains the quintessentially Spenserian refrain that T. S. Eliot quoted in The Wasteland , “Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song.”

The Faerie Queene

Space allows a summary of only one central plot, that of Britomart. Book 3, the Book of Chastity, has for its hero a female knight; her quest is for her ideal man, whom she has seen in a magic mirror. This curious love story stitches together Books 3 to 5. In 4, she wins her man by jousting with him and eventually losing, and they become engaged. In 3 and 5 she has two visions of her future as wife, queen, mother, widow, and progenetrix of a dynasty climaxing in Elizabeth. In 5, she rescues her man when he is imprisoned by an embittered, man-hating version of herself. They do not marry in the poem as we have it.

The genre to which the FQ as a whole belongs—ignoring the inset or intermittent genres such as personification-allegory, pastoral (6.10), and lyric—is the then-popular hybrid known as romance-epic, like those produced by the Italians Ariosto* and Tasso.* Harvey* teased Spenser about trying “to overgo Ariosto.” Despite epic trappings like invoking the Muses, glorifying a ruler, and beginning in medias res, the poem has less of the epic about it and more of the romance. The romance is a very loose genre, requiring only two story elements, love of a woman and combat with a man. The heroes and heroines are highly gendered role models; the villains are double-dyed. Combat is never massed, usually single, and often for no other purpose than to weigh the worth of the combatants, like an athletic contest. The loosely connected adventures are vividly described and often fantastic. The FQ exemplifies these characteristics with a few significant exceptions, such as the androgynous Britomart.

While epic entails high-mindedness, the genre romance, aiming at entertainment, had been charged with a laxity not only aesthetic but moral. Roger Ascham had criticized Malory* and certain unidentified “books written in Italy” (including Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso ?) and by implication the whole genre, saying that “the whole pleasure of [Malory’s] book standeth in two special points, in open manslaughter and bold bawdry.” As if in acknowledgment of Ascham’s charges, Spenser has his spokesman Contemplation assert that “bloud can nought but sin and wars but sorrowes yield” (1.10.60); in heaven, “battailes none are to be fought”; and “as for loose loues, [they] are vaine, and vanish into nought” (62). Spenser strove in Book 1 to escape these limitations. The quest is to kill a dragon, not a man; the heroine is pure and religiously symbolic; and bawdry is painted in the blackest of terms. Spenser initially announced about his poem as a whole, “Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song,” meaning presumably, “My song shall moralize fierce warres and faithfull loues.” At least in Book 1, he agrees with his external and internal critics that his materials are frivolous in themselves, but not if they are “moralized.”

Spenser thus indicates that writers of romance can and should convey a moral by allegory. In the Letter to Ralegh, too, his generic classification of the FQ is not only “historical poem” but “allegory.” Strictly speaking, however, only Books 1 and 7, and perhaps also 2 and 5, are allegory. In Book 1, the Despair episode is so allegorical that the literal level constitutes the meaning, thus representing the extreme of abstraction, personification-allegory, the mark of allegory as a genre. Speaking as a compelling and insightful voice within the hero, Despair almost persuades him to commit suicide. Books 3, 4, and 6 have too few personifications to gain admittance to the genre allegory; they are, in the main, romance-epic. Spenser claims allegory pervades the poem because he includes in the term any story that has a moral.

Summarizing Spenser’s plots makes him sound banal and repetitious. These tales of knights and ladies are interspersed with allegorical tableaux or “loci of recognition.” Summarizing the five tableaux dealing with sexual love and art— two gardens, two temples, and a mountaintop—conveys the flavor of the poem. The beautiful seductress Acrasia traps young men in her carefully constructed pleasure-garden, the Bower of Bliss (2.12). Venus, Adonis, Cupid, Psyche, and Pleasure preside over the Garden of Adonis, where sex is natural—uninhibited yet spontaneously monogamous (3.6). As everyone now knows, the Garden of Adonis stands as a correction to the Bower of Bliss. But it is not Spenser’s last word, as C. S. Lewis believed, for while it rehabilitates sexuality, it does so only at the expense of art. The evil Bower slathers art over nature (gold ivy and jeweled grapevines), and the good Garden banishes it. The conciliatory Temple of Venus (4.10) sets art up as a supplement or complement to Nature (4.10.21). The fourth locus of recognition, the House of Busyrane, is really a Temple of Cupid. Free of plant and animal life, it is a palace of art, having objets d’art on the walls, mounting an interactive masque every night, owned by a master of the “black arts,” and allegorizing a sadistic style of lovemaking that is nothing if not artful. In contrast to the artful lust in the Bower of Bliss, which errs by producing pleasure “more than natural” (Genius), this artful love is bad because it produces and accepts only pain (3.11–12). Amoret also turns up in the Temple of Venus; her abduction from there by the masterful Scudamour is also more cruel than is necessary; her resulting fear of male dominance leads to her imprisonment at Busyrane’s, so that at one stage of her life or another, she inhabits three of these places. Aside from the abduction, however, the Temple of Venus represents an attainable ideal love; like an Aristotelian mean, it shows how much pain is simply natural and inevitable. A fifth locus of recognition, Mount Acidale (6.10), provides a resolution on the subject of art: Calidore’s vision of Colin and the Graces there announces like Polyxenes that “the art itself is nature”; like the highest courtesy (6.2.2), art must be spontaneous, and it must spring from inspiration (the Graces and their understudies), a quality that Calidore’s own poetry lacks (6.9.35).

The variety of Spenser’s work as a whole illustrates what can also be inferred from his life: whatever his source of income, he considered himself a professional poet. He spans medieval and Renaissance period styles: Mother Hubberds Tale is self-consciously medieval, an imitation of Chaucer; the FQ is largely medieval in its many personifications and in its romance genre; the sonnet sequence is a Renaissance form; and the Shepheardes Calendar, Epithalamion, Prothalamion, Muiopotmos , and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe are all in good Renaissance fashion conspicuously classical; even the occasional Christianity of the first two is of the syncretic, Christian-humanist variety.

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over 6 years ago

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