Jon A. Quitslund. Spenser's Supreme Fiction: Platonic Natural Philosophy and The Faerie Queene. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001. xiv+373 pp. ISBN 0 8020 3505 1.
Mary R. Bowman
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

Bowman, Mary. "Review of Jon A. Quitslund, Spenser's Supreme Fiction: Platonic Natural Philosophy and The Faerie Queene." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 8.1-7 <URL:

  1. At first glance, Jon Quitslund's project, while ambitious in scope, appears to be nothing new, and its thesis unlikely to encounter any disagreement: "I will argue," Quitslund declares in his introduction, "that the prominence of cosmogonic myths in The Faerie Queene is indicative of [Spenser's] interest in the Platonic philosophical tradition, and that the content of his myths [. . .] can be elucidated with reference to that tradition" (8). Surely, one might think, this is well-established and unobjectionable. Indeed, Quitslund's work is (refreshingly, some might say) non-polemical, adding complexity and depth to the work of his predecessors rather than overthrowing it or breaking entirely new ground. He quotes other critics approvingly far more often than otherwise, and even his disagreements are couched in the politest and most respectful of terms.

  2. Where Quitslund does disagree with earlier studies of Spenser's Platonism is in his emphasis on the relevance of the work of Marsilio Ficino, especially his commentary on the Symposium, the De Amore or On Love. The importance of Ficino was downplayed in the important early work of Robert Ellrodt, which, according to Quitslund, suffered from too simplistic a view of the gap between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and was "skewed by a partiality for the older tradition" (120). Quitslund, influenced in part by the work of New Historicist scholars, observes that "[i]t now seems valid to stress not the persistence of medieval attitudes but their revitalization during the last quarter of the sixteenth century" (121), and in this view, Ficino emerges as central: "I will argue that where Spenser alludes to an idea available from several strands in the skein of literary and philosophical traditions [. . .] the most significant connotations can be thoroughly understood with reference to Ficino" (246).

  3. Quitslund further shows the influence of New Historicism and other contemporary critical movements in discussing texts and topics that older scholarship might not have considered relevant to Spenser's Platonism: Examples include the Spenser/Harvey letters, which provide a view into both writers' philosophical interests and concerns, and gender as a category of analysis. These work side by side with more traditional materials, such as Cristoforo Landino's platonizing commentary on the Aeneid.

  4. Beyond identifying the important pretexts for Spenser's Platonism, Quitslund's conclusions resist tidy summarizing. In part this reflects the complexity of the material and the subtlety and nuance of his careful analysis. In part, however, it reflects the lack of a clear structure to help readers form a coherent whole out of a large amount of material. Each of the eight chapters addresses a well-defined part of the subject, but they fit together not like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or photos of a scene taken from different directions, but rather like cross-sections made at different angles. The result is an impressively multi-layered and perhaps appropriately complex study, but also a book that will resist excerpting by those readers who want illumination of one episode, for example, or a quick overview of the whole.

  5. Unsurprisingly, the lion's share of Quitslund's analysis of The Faerie Queene is given to the Gardens of Adonis, but he ranges widely throughout the poem, from the wandering wood to the Mutabilitie Cantos. Some of the analysis is locally focused, working out a detailed reading of a passage; other parts of the book are topical in nature, moving quickly from bit to bit to tease out such issues as, e.g., "fate and fortune" (150).

  6. In defining the strands of Platonism that are most relevant to The Faerie Queene, Quitslund distinguishes between two forms of humanism, both influenced by Plato, differing in their "two ways of thinking about the paths individuals should follow toward self-knowledge and knowledge of God" (82). One of these, the more "central humanist tradition" (82) exemplified by Petrarch, Quitslund dubs "Socratic" humanism; the other, seen in Pico della Mirandola, is "esoteric" (84) One of the important differences between their two paths is place of nature (human and cosmic) in the scheme of salvation: in Socratic humanism, "[a]dmiration of the world may figure in th[e] process of self-cultivation, but it is represented as a curiosity from which the mind may be recalled" (84); in esoteric humanism, "[s]tudy of the cosmos, rather than the rejection of the world and direct consideration of the solitary self that Petrarch had recommended, prepares the mind for the perfection of human nature which is to be found through theology" (85). Quitslund sees this latter view at work in The Faerie Queene, whose allegory posits and exploits an analogical relationship between the human psyche, the world, and the macrocosm.

  7. While Spenser's Supreme Fiction, as its title indicates, is primarily a book about Spenser, it should prove of interest to anyone concerned with Renaissance Platonism. Very much a book written for scholars, it would not serve well as an introduction to the topic, but Quitslund's thorough knowledge of both primary and secondary materials, his facility with both Renaissance and postmodern ideas, and his careful readings of Spenser's texts make it a valuable contribution to an ongoing conversation.

Work 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).