Lauren Silberman. Forming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U of California P, 1995. x + 188 pp.
Review by,
David Lindley
University of Leeds

Lindley, David. "Review of Forming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 7.1-4 <URL:

  1. If most students of the Early Modern period recognise the centrality of Spenser's epic to the understanding of the mental, poetic and political worlds of the 1580s and 1590s, it is, I suspect, yet true that The Faerie Queene turns up on fewer and fewer reading lists for undergraduate students. Or at least, if it does appear, then Book I alone is likely to be prescribed. The reasons are not hard to seek: the poem seems difficult and alien, and, if only one Book can be set then it would seem to make sense to put before students the opening of the work, and its most self-contained narrative, so that they may read untroubled by doubt about what came before and what comes after. Yet if there is one Book which might seem to speak most obviously to the current concerns of students, then Book III, with its female heroine, and its analysis of sexuality, desire and love, must be a strong contender.

  2. Lauren Silberman certainly sees the relevance of Book III to contemporary concerns--the dust-jacket claims that she "proceeds from the assumption that Spenser's poem has something to say to us in the late twentieth century"--and she wants to argue that its narrative manner, its preoccupation with uncertainty and the effort to interpret "anticipates postmodernist concerns." But it is central to her argument that the poem cannot be fully understood by considering a single Book in isolation. She contends that the exploratory nature of the poem comes most fully into view when Books III and IV are taken together, since "each book is in significant ways an essay, a discrete and coherent examination of an intellectual problem. The shift from one book to another involves not just what Spenser says but how he says it, not just themes but allegorical strategies deployed to explore those themes." Thus Book III represents a significant shift from the paradigm established in Book I; from an allegory that "grounds the word of the text in the Word of God to one that reflects critically on its own bases." She then sees the cancellation of the hermaphroditic embrace of Scudamour and Amoret at the end of the 1590 Book III as indicating a further shift. For though both books together "address under the rubrics of Love and Friendship respectively the worldly concerns transcended by Holiness and explore how versions of conventional erotic discourse function to shape and express those concerns," she sees the ideals established in Book III as under threat in Book IV, where they are "shown to be untenable in the face of conventions and institutions of Spenser's own place and time."

  3. Her fundamental case is that "Book III focuses on problems of making sense of experience"; and that the reader, alongside Britomart, engages in a provisional, improvisatory, forward-looking journey of "creative growth and risk," whereas Book IV "focuses on problems of representing experience"; and is characteristically retrospective and closural. The analytic method in approaching both books is to examine some of the big "set-pieces" in detail, attempting to draw together their mythic substructure, the gendered nature of their perspectives and their characteristic narrative modes seen through the lenses of current gender criticism, narratology and deconstruction. The analysis, then, takes on each book as an individual structure, while arguing that it is in and through their relationship one to the other that their full significance is revealed. It is an entirely plausible argument, and valuably rescues Book IV from its comparative critical neglect, in that its diffuse and entangled story-telling comes to seem precisely its point, rather than its problem. It has to be said, however, that there are aspects of each Book which are relegated to the background--most notably the story of Paridell/Hellenore/Malbecco in Book III.

  4. In compiling this review I have attempted repeatedly to arrive at a summary which would convey the multilayered, elliptical, dense nature of the book--and have repeatedly failed. In part this is, no doubt, just the usual problem of the review genre--but it seems to me that Silberman's comment on Spenser's allegory of the marriage of Thames and Medway might translate into an account of her own work. She writes that "although Spenser provides an abundance of visual detail, it is often impossible to put the details together to form a coherent picture." The vertiginous slippages of perspective in Silberman's account of the poem are both exciting and baffling; and the result, for me at least, is that it remains a book more suggestive in particular detail than compelling as a whole. Like the poem which is its subject, the clear outline of its argument offered in its Introduction (as in the letter to Raleigh) becomes much more elusive in the text which follows. Nonetheless, it is a book which any scholar interested in Spenser will want, and need to read.
[http://asgard.humn.arts.ualberta.ca/emls/EMLS footer.html]

(RGS, rev. 2 March 1998)