Carol V. Kaske. Spenser and Biblical Poetics. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1999. xiv+210 pp. ISBN 0 8014 3679 6.
Hannibal Hamlin
The Ohio State University, Mansfield

Hamlin, Hannibal. "Review of
Carol V. Kaske. Spenser and Biblical Poetics." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 7.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-2/caskrev.htm>.

  1. Carol V. Kaske's Spenser and Biblical Poetics is a major contribution to Spenser criticism, exploring the way in which Spenser fashions a complex secular poetics on the basis of sixteenth-century (and earlier) notions of biblical style, but also in effect offering a theory of reading for this difficult English Renaissance poet. Much of Kaske's book is concerned with problems faced by the reader--interpretive obstacles, ambiguities, contradictions, apparent self-corrections. She formulates an argument that Spenser constructs his works this way in imitation of the Bible and in order to "make his audience read, mark, and inwardly digest it as if it were the Bible" (17). Kaske's argument works particularly well for The Faerie Queene, but she shows that it also applies to Spenser's shorter poems and A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland. The topic of religion in Spenser has been addressed by other critics (Gless, Hume, and especially King), but this is the most detailed and thorough treatment so far of Spenser's debt to the formal literary techniques of the Bible, extending and updating the approach of Barbara K. Lewalski's seminal Protestant Poetics.

  2. Kaske begins with a thorough and useful discussion of "Spenser's Bible": what versions he knew and used most frequently (a very wide range, in Latin and English but also Greek and, possibly, Hebrew), what the sixteenth-century Bible looked like (it included, for instance, the Apocrypha, though these books had different status for Catholics and Protestants), the crucial importance of the commentary tradition for the biblical knowledge of Spenser and his contemporaries, and the prevalent allegorical and typological methods of reading scripture.

  3. Chapter two is devoted to images "repeated in bono et in malo" (18). Kaske tracks a number of repeated images through The Faerie Queene and other works, showing how they often radically shift their meaning. Dragons, for instance, are generally malevolent in FQ1 (Errour or the Dragon imprisoning Una's parents) and in the Bible (in Revelation especially). Yet Arthur (the Pendragon) has a dragon on his helmet that must presumably be good (FQ 1.7.31). As Kaske points out, there is biblical precedent for this apparent contradiction in the dragons that praise the Lord in Ps. 148.7 and Isa. 43.20 and in the brazen serpent that heals the Israelites in the wilderness (Num. 21.8-9) and with which Christ typologically associates himself (John 3.14). In this chapter and throughout her book, Kaske explicates many notoriously confusing passages in The Faerie Queene and other works. She also demonstrates that Spenser's strategy of presenting chains of images that on the one hand demand to be associated with each other, and on the other hand insist on being kept distinct, represents something closer to a "habit of thought" (in Debora Shuger's terms) than an isolated literary technique. Part of this habit involves what might be called "concordantial thinking." Kaske asserts that Spenser "wrote with a concordance of his own poem [FQ] in mind and expected readers to compile one too" (27).

  4. The contemporary term for this technique of comparing similar yet contrasting images was distinctio (plural, distinctiones). By showing the importance of distinctiones in biblical exegesis, in the teaching of sermon writing, and in sixteenth-century academic study generally, Kaske not only demonstrates the sources of Spenser's poetic practice, but makes a good case for her claim that "distinctiones may have been as compelling a model for Elizabethan and Jacobean imagistic structure as was the Memory Theater extolled by Frances Yates" (56). Kaske formulates a theory of reading involving three interpretive stages applicable to both the Bible and Spenser: first, the reader notes the repetition of an image (Kaske's "reading concordantially"); second, the reader recognizes the difference in meaning and struggles to comprehend it; third, the reader accepts the difference as a distinctio involving repetition in bono et in malo (63). Kaske labels the results of this final stage, a kind of mental table of images distinguished according to good and evil applications, a distributio.

  5. Chapter three explores "images that correct their predecessors," places where Spenser is purposefully, she argues, unsettling and challenging his reader. The Faerie Queene, Kaske asserts, must be read and interpreted as a dynamic sequence, not just as a static whole. For example, Spenser's reader encounters images of fasting and altars, and episodes involving a knight's abandonment of his shield that contradict each other. In each case, the reader must reinterpret the image in its changed circumstances, and, in these cases, such reinterpretation necessitates recognizing that these images and the theological and ecclesiastical ideas they represent are adiaphora, or, as in the gloss of the Geneva Bible "things that are indifferent" (86). In effect, and this may be one of Kaske's most significant claims, Spenser's conflicting images "have the social purpose of promoting religious toleration" (97). The reader notes, for instance, that the hypocritical fasting of Corceca (FQ 1.3.14) is misguided and wrong, but that the fasting practiced by the Hermit Contemplation (FQ 1.10.48) is psychologically and spiritually beneficial and therefore good. Fasting is thus shown to be neither good nor bad in itself, and the reader is encouraged to examine other adiaphoristic religious practices (both Protestant and Catholic) on their own merits.

  6. Kaske's final two chapters continue to explore Spenser's use of contradictions. Chapter four shows that sixteenth-century exegetes like Sebastian Franck and William Streat found the precedent for such self-contradictions in the Bible, and understood that their purpose was to force the reader to find an interpretive solution. Some contradictions were reconcilable as tropes: equivocation, correction, supplementation, and what Kaske calls "contrasting halves" (modeled on the contrast between the Old and New Testaments). Kaske pays particular attention to contradictory propositions in The Faerie Queene concerning the relationship between free will and justification, which again, she argues, promote an attitude of toleration. Kaske's final chapter is an extended and wonderfully complex reading of the episode of the nymph's well (FQ 2.1-2). She focuses on the contradictory interpretations of the indelible bloodstains on the infant Ruddymane. (Guyon is unsure but thinks the blood signifies sinful "bloodguiltiness," whereas the Palmer's explanation is simply that the water of the fountain is ineffectual for washing, rejecting impurities because it was originally a love-shy nymph, metamorphosed to preserve her chastity.) Kaske makes a strong case for interpreting the nymph's well not as baptism, as previous critics have argued, but as Mosaic Law, which is superseded but not entirely supplanted by the New Testament Gospel of Christ. More remarkably, she also links Spenser's bloodstains to a tradition of commentary on Genesis 49.10 that figures Christ as an afterbirth (from the Hebrew, Shiloh). In both Spenser and the Bible the sublime is signified by means of the repulsive (using the rhetorical figure of tapinosis), and the shocking contrast serves a variety of interpretive purposes, including emphasizing God's extreme condescension in the Incarnation.

  7. Despite its modest size, Kaske's book is replete with insightful readings of Spenser, the Bible, and the commentators who mediate between the two. One of the particular strengths of the book is its meticulous argumentative structure. The ultimate proof of Kaske's claims for Spenser's biblical poetics lies in her careful close readings, but she also takes care to show that these "poetics" were explicated in biblical commentaries and that these commentaries were available to Spenser in the holdings of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Spenser and Biblical Poetics is a valuable addition to the canon of Spenser criticism, but, in its claim for distinctiones as a pervasive Renaissance "habit of thought," it also paves the way for an enriched understanding of other writers such as Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).