Andrew Hadfield, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spenser. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. xx+278pp. ISBN 0 521 64199 3 Cloth; ISBN 0 521 64570 0 Paper.
Barker, William. "Review of Andrew Hadfield, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Spenser." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 12.1-13 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-3/barkrev.htm>.
Few people read Spenser these days, but those who do have a fierce intensity and devotion to this author's writings. There is a continuous stream of learned publication from the academy. It doesn't seem to matter that The Faerie Queene no longer has a central spot in the undergraduate curriculum or is on any top one hundred list of world literature, however much the name Spenser still remains important to an older conception of the English canon. The articles and books pour forth, and there is a thriving community around the texts. It is fascinating to see what happens when this community of specialists gathers together, in conferences, journals, or collective works, such as the one under review. These events tell us something about the current ways of speaking, and they also tell us something about the community, about its assumptions and motivations. And the events prompt questions: What makes the Spenser texts interesting to these scholars? What do they think we should find interesting? And who, do they think, should be reading the texts?
Andrew Hadfield, the editor of this Companion, begins with an introduction bravely subtitled "The Relevance of Edmund Spenser." What the ornery critical genius William Empson once called the "dreamwork" of Spenser's "fairyland" (Seven Types of Ambiguity 34) no longer attracts the specialists. Hadfield insists that "readers must face up to the reality that even the most innocent and dream-like sections of the poem may be reflections on contemporary political problems" (5). Spenser is a political artist first and foremost for most of the authors of this collection. Hence the relevance: for surely politics is always "relevant."
Yet are the politics of Edmund Spenser relevant for us? The social issues, the refinements of Elizabethan court life, the politics of the religion, not to mention the refinements of the doctrinal issues, are completely lost to the modern non-specialist reader. Most students or lay readers who turn to the poetry, and who therefore need a companion to read it, come not for the pleasure of the politics, but for the force of the "dreamworld" of The Faerie Queene, the energy of the narrative, the complexity of the allegory (which is both "instructive" and difficult and unsettling all at the same time), the constant and abundant interpretive problems in the text - these are what create an immediate relevance. The politics and the religion are there, no question about that, but what makes these come alive for us? It is the "surface" of the poem - the "innocent and dream-like sections." So I found Hadfield's introduction and a number of the other essays, while based on great learning and considerable interpretative skill, to miss a central experience of the text.
Immediately following Hadfield's introduction, we have Richard Rambuss' "Spenser's Life and Career, " David J. Baker's "Historical Contexts: Britain and Europe," and Richard McCabe's "Ireland: Policy, Poetics and Parody." Each of these situates "Spenser" (sometimes it's not clear if it's the biographical person or the authorial persona) in the extratextual world - the "real" world of history and lived experience, but not in the unreal world which is the reader's vivid experience. Rambuss' article is an excellent summary of all that is known about the life, and it fits neatly into the few pages he is allowed. The articles by Baker and McCabe are tougher reads, largely because so much complex historical material must be compressed into so few pages. The Irish material is especially central to contemporary post-colonial readings of the Spenser texts. But we are now more than a quarter of the way through the book, and we have yet to start reading a poem.
Patrick Cheney writes on "Spenser's Pastorals: The Shepheardes Calender and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe." His argument is encapsulated thus: "Spenser's pastoral of progression unfolds the pastoral of power and the pastoral of pleasure into political, social and erotic dimensions, which together serve a religious dimension in a pastoral of contemplation" (85). In other words, one agenda elides into the next. Cheney presents the Calender as a career move by the biographical Spenser, as part of a Virgilian cursus, but never grapples with what has always amazed new readers of the work -- there is hardly a line of memorable verse in this important work. The verse-writing shows a mature control, but many readers find the relation of the verse to E.K.'s commentary more interesting than the verse itself. Cheney shows how hard it is to get into the project from its centre, because even for Cheney, E.K.'s notes provide the bridge into the experience of the work and sustain an interesting and ironic reading more easily than a direct encounter with the twelve poems on their own. He sees the pastoral as a continuing project for Spenser, hence the inclusion of Colin Clout in this essay (and, as he implies, he could have gone on to look at The Faerie Queene as well).
Susanne L. Wofford's "The Faerie Queene, Books I-III" is a brief presentation of the abundant and open and incomplete text. Though Wofford begins with Elizabeth as the poem's "absent centre" she gathers politics together with narrative and allegory. This essay needed to be a lot longer, yet it is to my mind one of the most useful in the collection for a beginning reader who needs help in sorting out some of the key problematics in The Faerie Queene and in reading the Spenser texts generally. Andrew Hadfield's "The Faerie Queene, Books IV-VII," which follows immediately after, is more of a play by play reading that marches us briskly through the second half of the great poem. Because the essay is so compressed, it's hard to get a feel for the excitement. "Spenser's Shorter Poems" are analysed with clarity by Anne Lake Prescott, using "the dialectic of desire and melancholy" as a uniting theme. But again, there is always the sense of being rushed - so much to do, so little space. One feels some sympathy for the authors. As one reads, it becomes increasingly clear that the format of the book is working against them.
Willy Maley's "Spenser's Languages: Writing in the Ruins of English" takes a strangely dark view of the abundant, optimistic, and enthusiastic experiment that was English of the late sixteenth century. Maley calls the period the "Ruinassance" in which he fancifully sees Spenser "raking in the ashes of English in order to remember the cinders of his heritage." Maley takes us through punning, naming, etymological wordplay, versification and other features of the poetic language. But he can't resist the political edge at the end: "As well as running away with the garland from Apollo, Spenser stole the land and language of his Irish and Old English neighbours and made it his own." Though the essay shows an excellent sense of the range of the issues, I felt Maley was pushing his readings for effect. Again, this may have something to do with the format. Not only do you have to cover the material, but if you want to be known as a good critic you need to come up with something interesting or even arresting to say. And sometimes what is arresting turns out to be a verbal misdemeanour! A tough trap to escape. Will "Ruinassance" stick in my mind? Or will I discard it as a dumb pun? It's hard to say - these things take a long time to work themselves out.
One of the most richly argued essays of the collection is Linda Gregerson's "Sexual Politics." Here the "politics" seem not only unavoidable, but absolutely necessary. This essay offers a number of focussed readings and interpretations and shows how feminist readings have given us a renewed interest in the Spenserian imagination. Issues of narrative and image are basic to Gregerson's argument that the poetry both promotes and critiques the myth of Elizabeth, which however feminine is patriarchal at its core. What I liked about the essay was the way it avoided turning everything back to the agency of the author. Instead, there was a concentration on the way the themes played out in the poetry.
"Spenser's Religion" is presented by John N. King. The background is drawn deftly, the issues neatly laid out. Again, as with the earlier historical essays, I sensed the lack of space, especially at the end of this essay which ends so abruptly, with a sentence or two on the Mutabilitie Cantos. Yet this essay gives the readers some sense of the variety of religious positions at the time, and also of the difficulty of placing any historical individual (Spenser included) into an exact position on the spectrum of religious debate.
I enjoyed a moment in Colin Burrow's "Spenser and the Classical Traditions" where he criticizes those who see Spenser following a Virgilian career pattern (219) - he sent me back to look at that very claim which had been made so emphatically in Cheney's essay (80). Burrow shows how the Virgilian and Ovidian strains are not necessarily at odds in the Spenserian text, and how Ovid is such a key figure.
Roland Greene's "Spenser and Contemporary Vernacular Poetry" is not about English contemporaries, but about continental writers whom Spenser may or may not have read. More space is spent on the Theatre for Worldlings than on The Faerie Queene, on van der Noot than on Ariosto. The most interesting moment comes when Greene presents a short version of his argument of "narrative subduction" in The Faerie Queene, "where a unitary world is continually coming into sight, multiplying into alternatives and being recovered again as unitary" (240).
Considering the kind of topics we've seen so far, it seems inevitable that "Spenser's Influence" should wrap the collection up. The essay, by Paul Alpers, takes us up to and through the Romantics. It's too bad he doesn't go further, because I wonder what he would make of a twentieth-century influence - this is where I would expect to find an argument for Spenser's "relevance" that was presented at the start by Andrew Hadfield.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)