General Introduction

The Oxford Edition of the Collected Works of Edmund Spenser features the extant poetry and prose, freshly edited from the earliest witnesses, of an author central to English literary history. His work plays a prominent role in the culture of Elizabethan Protestantism, and since the late twentieth century has been situated to good effect within early British imperial history (Hume 1984, King 1990, Mallette 1997 McCabe 2002, Cormack 2007). And yet, in ways we will explore in the pages to follow, Spenser's texts enact a subtle resistance to these contexts and chronologies: they look both forward and backward, cultivating atavism even as they lean into an emergent modernity.

Spenser’s works reach broadly into Renaissance erudite culture: he draws not only on such well-known authors as Ariosto, Tasso, Du Bellay, Marot, and Petrarch, but also on a diverse array of chroniclers, lesser poets, and polemical writers: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Trissino, Guazzo, Bale, Knox, Camden, and many more. He has assimilated medieval writers from Augustine and Boethius to the English poets Chaucer and Lydgate, along with the major romance narratives from Chrétien to Malory, major and minor Greek and Roman authors, the New Testament, and the Hebrew Bible. His influence is as broad as are his debts, extending to Shakespeare, Wroth, Milton, Tighe, Blake, Keats, Melville, and Hawthorne, as well as to such modern authors, many of them resistant to Spenser’s achievements or reputation, as Yeats (who sometimes seems to share some of Marx’s disdain for Spenser), Woolf, Eliot, Lewis, Murdoch, Merrill, Heaney, Pullman, and Ní Chuilleanáin. His work is a resource for popular culture, informing the fiction, for instance, of J. K. Rowling and Robert B. Parker, and the lyrics of Leonard Cohen. Like Drayton, Wordsworth, Ammons, and Oswald, Spenser is a poet of rivers; like Ovid, Lucretius, Alain de L’Isle, Blake, and Joyce, he is an artist of the comprehensive.

Above all, Spenser has been read by later poets for his versecraft: Keats, Shelley, the Anglo-Irish poet Mary Tighe, and many others sent their muses to school with ‘the poet’s poet’—an epithet that acknowledges in a single phrase both Spenser’s technical proficiency—his work comprehends a considerable variety of stanza forms, inherited and invented—and his influence as a formal innovator.1 Together with the range of his experiments in genre-bending and –blending, these qualities have made Spenser a central figure in the contested landscape of professional academic criticism since the mid-twentieth century.2 His achievements precede the flourishing of the poetry of wit, with its flash and syntactic hijinks, as well as the experiments in diction associated with the professional theater, along with the dramatists’ striking discovery of the freedom and power of unrhymed versification. Yet in spite of the critical prestige that has accrued to the metaphysical poets and verse dramatists of the 1590s and beyond—especially under the influence of T. S. Eliot and his disciples—Spenser’s body of work has, by its deliberate anachronisms, philosophical capaciousness, labyrinthine allegories, vivid tableaus, proliferating fictions, and encyclopedic ambitions, continued to engage the varying interests of readers across centuries.

This edition replaces what was the standard Oxford edition, the three-volume Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser (1912), edited by J.C. Smith and Ernest de Sélincourt, which, as the title indicates, does not include the prose. The authority of that edition yielded place to The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition (1932-1957), edited by Edwin Greenlaw and others, in eleven volumes. The Variorum does print Spenser’s prose, although it neglects such manuscript materials as his professional secretarial letters. Since the time of the Variorum, many more specialized editions have appeared: editions of The Faerie Queene, the finest of which is the monumental Longman edition of A.C. Hamilton (1976, substantially re-edited in 2001 with important adjustments to the text based on the work of his new co-editors, Yamashita, et al.); collections of the ‘shorter poetry’, such as the excellent editions from Yale by William A. Oram and others (1989), from Longman by Douglas Brooks-Davies (1995), and from Penguin by Richard A. McCabe (1999); A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland by Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (1997); and the secretarial letters by Christopher Burlinson and Andrew Zurcher (2009, now incorporated in this edition). Our goal has been to edit fully the collected works of Spenser according to rigorous bibliographical standards (see the General Textual Introduction: Print), to enrich the commentary in the light of recent critical and philological advances, and to facilitate both new scholarly developments and the initial probings of those new to an Elizabethan author of unusually delicate and expansive ambitions.

Collecting Spenser

Collecting the works of Edmund Spenser entails collecting the work of others, which is to say there is a paradox at the core of our enterprise. Spenser begins his epic, The Faerie Queene, with powerful self-assertion—‘Lo I the man’ (I.pr.1)—albeit by imitating the self-assertion of another author, Virgil.3 While writing is inevitably social, and never truly individual, Spenser’s writing is remarkably interpersonal. He was long employed as a secretary, with sustained duties as a copyist of others’ words or as a self-effacing assembler of words for others to commend as their own.4Distributed, interpersonal creation is everywhere in his poetic activity and especially in his earliest work: the first poems to see print were translations, published with illustrations and commentary in Jan van der Noot’s Theatre for Worldlings (1569), that is, in a work of another’s conception and design. While his next publication, The Shepheardes Calender (1579), was a work of his own conception, its complex achievement depends, again, on another’s illustrations and yet another’s (or an alleged other’s) commentary; the eclogues and their commentary frequently draw attention to their complex intertextual structure, a tissue of imitation, translation, citation, and ventriloquism. Spenser’s next publication is a collection of letters, his and Gabriel Harvey’s. To edit these works in such a way as to represent them, in some fashion, as Spenser and his audience knew them, we must represent them as the work of many hands.

A biographical critic might describe the Calender and the Letters as the work of recent school-leavers, teasing and propping each other up as they made their way, still relishing a sociability that they sensed might be difficult to sustain. Later in his career, the idealized poet of the Calender recurs to this sort of sociality in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe:

One day (quoth he) I sat, (as was my trade)
Vnder the foote of Mole that Mountaine hore,
Keeping my sheepe amongst the cooly shade,
Of the greene alders by the Mullaes shore:
There a straunge shepheard chaunst to find me out,
Whom when I asked from what place he came,
And how he hight, himselfe he did ycleepe,
The shepheard of the Ocean by name,
And said he came far from the main-sea deepe.
The ‘shepheard of the Ocean’ was Sir Walter Ralegh (nicknamed ‘Water’), the author of ‘The Ocean to Cynthia’, an enigmatic poem on Queen Elizabeth’s power over him. Colin lends his pipe to the ‘straunge shepheard’ in a scene that mingles rivalry with mutual admiration:
He sitting me beside in that same shade,
Prouoked me to plaie some pleasant fit,
And when he heard the musicke which I made,
He found himselfe full greatly pleasd at it:
Yet æmuling my pipe, he tooke in hond
My pipe before that æmuled of many,
And plaid theron; (for well that skill he cond)
Himselfe as skilfull in that art as any.
He pip’d, I sung; and when he sung, I piped.
(CCCHA, 56-60, 64-76)

The pastoral duet described here retains and even exaggerates the distinctively companionate interpersonality of the Calender, evoked in the anagrammatic play of aemule (emulate) and Mulla, Spenser’s poetic name for the river Awbeg that runs through the countryside near his Irish estate at Kilcolman.5

This disposition to collaborate may explain Spenser’s early thriving as a secretary: he advanced politically as an un-self-centered pen-man. Yet his literary career advanced by virtue of his engagement with a differently interpersonal medium: Spenser was a member of that second generation of English poets whose reputation and influence as writers were decisively shaped by print. The products of the press impressed him: Spenser saw how his translations for van der Noot’s Theatre had been glamorized by printed illustration and given topical force by commentary, and the poems for The Shepheardes Calender were similarly glamorized and lent topical resonance. The wisdom of this contrivance would see the Calender through five printed editions during his lifetime. His third collaborative publication—the printed correspondence between Spenser and Gabriel Harvey—energizes itself by flaunting an epistolary intimacy in the medium of public print; the letters reflect ‘privately’ on the social tactics of publishing a work like The Shepheardes Calender.

That Spenser was so warmly collaborative—that he was, in a sense, so unoriginal– unsettles the modern conventions for a ‘Collected Works’. For all the personality and idiosyncrasy Spenser’s readers may relish in his writings, the editors of the Oxford Spenser are regularly tempted to put his name in scare quotes. ‘Spenser’s’ poems for the Theatre are unattributed; the author of The Shepheardes Calender is pseudonymous, and the attendant commentary is attributed to a someone denoted only by initials; the ‘two Vniuersitie men’ whose Letters were published a year later remained playfully pseudonymous or initialized; and so forth. Spenser’s various names—Spenser, Spencer, Immerito, Colin Clout, Segnior Pegaso, E.S., Ed. Sp., England’s Arch-Pöet—dangle loosely from his texts, and his authorship is often tangled with that of other authors and pseudo-authors: Jan van der Noot, Francesco Petrarca, Jean Du Bellay, Master G.H. (Gabriel Harvey), E.K., L.B. (Lodowick Bryskett).6

So with a few exceptions, we have edited the texts of books containing works attributed to Spenser in his lifetime, and our editions retain the work of the collaborators in those texts: we include Harvey’s contributions to the paired collection of correspondence between G.H. and Immerito printed in 1580, and because Harvey includes original poems and translations by John Harvey, Master Doctor Norton, Master Doctor Gouldingam, and Edmund and Peter Wythipole, we edit these, too. We accept Astrophel, a a small, polyvocal book lamenting lamenting the death of Sir Philip Sidney, as another case for inclusion: the volume opens with a long elegy by Spenser and concludes with poems by L.B. (Lodowick Bryskett), along with unattributed poems by Mathew Rowdon, Walter Ralegh, and either Fulke Greville or Edward Dyer. Between Spenser’s ‘Astrophel’ and L.B.’s ‘Muse of Thestylis’ another poem intervenes: Astrophel’s ‘sister that Clorinda hight . . . began this dolefull lay. / Which least I marre the sweetnesse of the vearse, / In sort as she it sung, I will rehearse.’ Whether the ‘I’ rehearses a poem by Philip’s sister Mary or another’s composition in her voice remains disputed, a limit-case for the submerging of individual authorship within a collective enterprise, similar in a way to Spenser’s claim in Book IV of The Faerie Queene to be inspired ‘by infusion sweete / Of thine owne [Chaucer’s] spirit, which doth in me suruiue’ (ii.34.6-7) ( Clarke 2000, Coren 2002, Waller 1979: 91-5). Volumes of elegies as inclusive as Astrophel are common, giving form to the social character of grief; to isolate Spenser’s lament from its communal articulation would be to misrepresent it. Accordingly we edit ‘The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda’ along with the elegies of L.B. and the others. Other volumes in which Spenser’s verse figures prominently are similarly inclusive: A Theatre for Worldlings and The Faerie Queene both contain commendatory verses by several hands, and we duly collect and edit them. While students of the period recognize such inclusions as unremarkable, many Spenserians would urge that Spenser’s literary engagements are distinctively sociable, and for this reason we collect the verse that his verse collects.

Spenser's secretarial letters, along with the small group of other legal and historical papers surviving in his hand, present a different kind of collaborative authorship. Spenser worked for most of his adult life as a secretary: first for John Young, Bishop of Rochester (1578-79); then for Arthur Baron Grey de Wilton, the Lord Deputy of Ireland (1580-82); and finally—while holding the post of Deputy Clerk of the Council of Munster—for the brothers Sir John and Sir Thomas Norris, captains in the 'Irish service' who shared the office of Lord President of Munster between c. 1583 and 1594. Very few of the extant secretarial manuscripts, whether those he merely certified or addressed or those he wrote in full, can in any conventional sense be said to be 'by Spenser'. More often than not, when we encounter Spenser's distinctive secretary or mixed hand in the English State Papers, it appears in documents transcribed for his masters' archives or in fair copies produced for dispatch; the writer is working with a text composed and signed by someone else. At the same time, these papers did more than merely pass through Spenser’s hands. The manual process of transcription almost certainly occasioned interventions, additions, embellishments, mistakes, and improvisations of a kind typical for the preparation of such materials in this period. ‘Writing’ the documents in this complex sense, he incorporated them into the overall collection of papers we associate with his authorship—the more so because these manuscripts often seem to share preoccupations with the sorts of language, political argument, historical and legal interest, and military strategy that we encounter in his other writings. When we include these papers in our edition of Spenser's works, we are not claiming that Spenser is their author so much as recognising their privileged status as threshold materials, a special class of collaboratively produced, paratextual witnesses of Spenser's life, thought, and authorship.

In a few instances we have, reluctantly, curbed this inclusiveness. The first of Spenser’s poems to see print, the visionary poems for the Theatre, occupy a few early pages in a much longer volume; they are followed by what upper-case letters misrepresent as ‘A BRIEFE Declaration of the Authour vpon his visions’. Based on John Bale’s Image of Both Churches (1545), this commentary runs to well over 38,000 words, hardly sustaining a focus on the visions that Spenser had translated. We have not imposed upon the Press to print more than a few pages of the Declaration—just enough to suggest the hot Protestant ends to which the poems were recruited; we also reproduce the eerie woodcut images that illustrated each of Spenser’s translations. Those who seek a full edition of van der Noot’s commentary may find it in our digital archive.7

Another case that goes against our general policy of inclusiveness is occasioned by a different sort of copiousness in the Spenserian archive. Though Spenser died in 1599, his important prose dialogue, A Vewe of the Presente State of Ireland, was first printed only in 1633. In 1598, a manuscript of the Vewe was entered in the Stationers' Register, but a number of manuscripts of this debate on Irish colonial policy circulated widely; at least twenty early versions now survive. We edit a single manuscript, noting important variants from the other witnesses, and post all the images of the manuscripts we can obtain, or links to them, in the digital archive cited above.

We regard the attribution to Spenser of A Vewe as secure, although, like many of his works, it is not ‘signed’.8 None of the manuscripts seem to be in Spenser’s hand, though the text is attributed to him early (never to anyone else), and that attribution is confirmed by intra- as well as intertextual allusions and echoes, social context, stylistics, and reception history. Also plausible is the attribution of an English translation of the Axiochius (1592), a Socratic dialogue attributed during this period to Plato: the title page assigns the translation to ‘Edw. Spenser’, and a few pages later a note solicits the reader’s indulgence for this same Spenser’s sake: ‘This Dialogue . . . was translated out of Greeke, by that worthy Scholler and Poet, Maister Edward Spenser, whose studies haue and doe carry no mean commendation, because their deserts are of so great esteeme. If heerein thou find not the delightfull pleasures his verses yeeldeth, yet shalt thou receiue matter of as high contentment. . . . For his sake then be kind in acceptance heereof.’9 Axiochus is collected here, although we respect the possibility that the attribution to Spenser was a ruse meant to capitalize on the succes d’estime accorded to the publication in 1590 of The Faerie Queene, Part I, which led to Ponsonby’s swift publication of both Spenser’s collected Complaints and a fourth edition of The Shepheardes Calender. We edit the entire short volume of Axiochus that Cuthbert Burby published, not only the pseudo-Platonic dialogue, but also the Sweet Speech at the Tryumphe at White-hall, an oration written for a tournament staged at Whitehall by the Earl of Oxford in 1581. Spenser has no claim on this speech, but its gallant erudition inflects the way that the Axiochus translation might have been received by its earliest readers, and it resonates with Spenser’s accumulating reputation, as well as with his (and Harvey's) very public satirical sparring with the earl, in both the Letters and Mother Hubberds Tale.

We respect the attributions to Spenser of the Theatre translations, the Vewe, and Axiochus, and so include them in the Collected Works, yet we treat Thomas Walkley’s attribution of Brittain’s Ida (1628), ‘written by that Renowned Poët, EDMOND SPENCER’, as facetious. The opening of the poem gestures to Spenser’s own gesture, in the last complete book of The Faerie Queene, by which he asserts the coherence of his career. In Book VI, canto x, Calidore, the hero of the Legend of Courtesy, encounters the central figure of Spenser’s first pastoral volume:

That iolly shepheard, which there piped, was
Poore Colin Clout (who knowes not Colin Clout)?
(FQ, VI.x.16.3-4)
Brittain’s Ida begins in mild parody:
In Ida Vale (who knowes not Ida Vale?)
When harmelesse Troy yet felt not Graecian spite:
A hundred Shepheards woon'd, and in the Dale,
While their faire Flockes the three leau'd Pastures bite:
(Brittain’s Ida, I.i.1-4)

If the diction and fiction of The Faerie Queene affect ancient British language and legend, Brittain’s Ida promises to be even older, pre-Homeric, yet it is neither heroic nor pastoral in the earnest idiom of The Shepheardes Calender, but nicely playful—the quaint attention to the clover is not in Spenser’s palette. The first canto of this pre-Trojan fable is devoted entirely to a description of the allure of the shepherd Anchises; in the second canto, the ‘dainty Boy’ discovers and explores Venus’s bower, while listening to a hidden singer’s celebration of love as life’s end; in canto 3, he spies the sleeping Venus and observes her body in detail; in the next canto, she wakes and asks him about himself, admits him to her service, and invites Cupid to train him, yet, in canto 5, although he is enamoured of Venus, he is too shy to admit his passion. This modesty amuses the goddess, who, in canto 6, encourages him to ask payment for his service: he asks for a kiss which, once bestowed, makes him feel indebted, which debt she encourages him to repay. And so forth. The poem ends in wanton play, a tangle of death and life that whimsically recalls the metaphysical erotics of Spenser’s Garden of Adonis (FQ III.vi). Spenser was remembered as ‘stately’ (Joshua Sylvester, The First Day of the Worldes Creation, 1595, A2r), ‘deep-conceited’ (Richard Barnfield, The Passionate Pilgrime, 1599, B2r), ‘grave’ (W.H., Englands Sorrowe, (1606, C4v), and ‘sownd’ (John Lane, ‘The Poet Lidgates Complaint’, 1617), a reputation that Brittain’s Ida cheerfully flouts.10 The author, now believed to have been Phineas Fletcher,11 had read Spenser with some care, taking inspiration from a range of episodes in The Faerie Queene. Gentle and appreciative, he treats Spenser’s poem with the same admiring insouciance that several late Elizabethan poets brought to the classical texts they mined for the mythography of their own epyllia.12 He regards its eminence and probity as sturdy enough to withstand genial mockery and perhaps to be enhanced by it; in Brittain's Ida, then, Spenser becomes a kind of native muse.

This Edition

The first collection of Spenser's Works established an editorial norm from which the present edition departs. Assembled in 1611, the folio Works, its canon limited to verse, seems disposed hierarchically: 'The Faerie Queen: The Shepheards Calendar: Together With the Other Works of England's Arch-Poët, Edm. Spenser'.13 We depart from this norm not only by our inclusions, but also by arranging most of Spenser's works by date of first publication. This reshaping of the canon reflects the influence of book history in its view of the textual artifact’s production, design, and circulation as integral to its meaning. We recognize that strictly reproducing the sequence of print publication may slightly obscure patterns that would organize Spenser’s works into different literary career-models (the Virgilian, the Ovidian).14 In the Proem to The Faerie Queene, the poet introduces himself as the same person who wrote The Shepheardes Calender, and scholars have recognized epic as a logical next step for the pastoralist, but our own table of contents insists that the printing of the Spenser-Harvey correspondence was the ‘actual’ next step.15 The Amoretti offers an account of the poet’s sometimes frustrating courtship, and its thirty-third and eightieth sonnets suggest that the courtship impedes the completion of The Faerie Queene, but our table of contents suggests that more than the courtship of his second wife—and more books than a sonnet sequence—intervene between the first and second installments of the epic.

Oddly enough, organizing Spenser's work by date of publication may slightly obscure the topical force of certain works. The Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, first published in 1609, are tethered to astronomical events from 1595, if not 1572 (Meyer 1983). The wary student will wish to measure dates of publication against other chronologies: mourning old losses, Complaints attests to the perdurability of grief; Astrophel does the same, for its lamentations trail Sidney’s death by almost a decade.

By respecting publication as a terminus of composition, we feature Spenser as a reviser. Thus we edit the completed translations of the Theatre and the revised and recompleted translations of Complaints; we edit the completed conclusion to The Legend of Chastity (Book III) as printed in 1590 and the revised conclusion as printed in 1596. Our goal is to show these revisions as complex acts of transformation—and, in the case of the ‘Visions of Bellay’ and the ‘Visions of Petrarch’, as acts of appropriation, since these poems are retroactively claimed in the poet’s name but also repurposed for a new (and milder) context.

The Spenser Archive

The Oxford Spenser rests on a broader collational census than earlier editions have mustered, and, through the open-access Spenser Archive, we are able to furnish the interested reader with a richer documentary substrate than a traditional editorial apparatus provides. This Archive, designed to complement the printed Oxford Spenser, collects digital images of most of the witnesses examined for the edition, and features, for the editions we adopt for our copy texts, images of the entire formes known to exhibit variant states. The General Textual Introduction also explains our choice of copy text. With the exception of works edited from manuscript copies–-the secretarial letters and the Vewe—we base our texts on an eclectic ideal copy text comprising scans that represent what we regard as the corrected state of each forme in the first printed edition of Spenser’s work. In each case, then, our copy text is not a particular witness housed in a particular library, but a composite of scanned images housed in the Spenser Archive and publicly accessible there.16

We treat works published in manuscript differently. The witnesses to A Vewe in particular are so various that a composite would have misrepresented all. Unlike his eclogues, complaints, hymns, and other poems–-works positioned within both a temporally extensive literary tradition and a set of printed books that loosely attach the works they contain to an occasion of publication–-the Vewe is a plurality, for each manuscript seems likely to have been prepared for a particular occasion, purpose, or reader. We do not provide an edited text for each of the manuscripts; we have edited a single witness rather than stitching them all together to make an unhistorical chimera. For our text, we have chosen the most important witness, Bodleian LIbrary's manuscript Rawlinson B.478, in part because its title says it was 'wrytten dialoug wise by mr Edmunde Spenser. / A[nn]o 1596', and because its last page was annotated and signed by Thomas Man in his capacity as Warden of the Stationer's Company from 1597-98. Although it is not in Spenser's hand, then, the Rawlinson manuscript is early, ascribed, and prepared for print publication. In the notes to our edition of the Vewe, we record the substantive variants provided by other manuscripts and by the 1633 print edition.

The secretarial letters, of course, are yet more focused and singular in their address and aims. Their exemplars are unique (unlike the Vewe’s nearly two dozen witnesses). Our principles for the edition of manuscript copy are detailed in the General Textual Introduction: Manuscript, in volume 6 of the edition. The Spenser Archive houses as many digital images of manuscript copies as we have secured, to which others may in future be added.

The Spenser Archive also provides an on-line version of the text of the Oxford Edition, while affording the reader access to other representations of Spenser’s works. Spenser’s poetic diction was strange even for his contemporaries, and because many of the idiosyncrasies of his diction had an archaic flavor, a sturdy editorial tradition, to which we adhere, preserves almost all features of his spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. In the online Archive, however, we enable a reader to modernize many features of Spenser’s earliest printed texts that we argue would not have struck his earliest readers as idiosyncratic or archaic. The early modern reader would find nothing strange in such spellings as ‘loue’ or ‘iustice’, yet twenty-first century readers unfamiliar with old-spelling editions of early modern books tend to find them strange, and the Archive affords means of reducing such strangeness. While still preserving many of the features by which Spenser willfully defamiliarized his texts, we aspire to provide a version of the corpus that some non-specialists will find more approachable. Yet for readers whose textual engagements batten on strangeness, the Archive also provides a version of the corpus largely stripped of the editorial interventions instanced in the Oxford text: a diplomatic transcription of our copy text. (Some regularizations intrude on this ‘original’ or transcription view: long-s has been normalized and ligatures removed, with the exceptions of æ and œ). Finally, the Archive will also enable the textual archaeologist easy access to scans of many of the individual surviving witnesses or of our eclectic copy text, ‘screened’ versions of the original printed or manuscript page.

Editing is obviously dependent on scholarly infrastructure, on rare book repositories, prior editions, and scholarly commentary. ‘Variorum’ editions in particular seem to represent themselves as culminations, gathering together everything important to the study of a text or author (and by implication suppressing what has become irrelevant). We hope that one of the distinctive features of the Oxford Spenser, and of the Spenser Archive, is that they are conceived as contributions to scholarly infrastructure, as platforms for future scholarship, with the Archive in particular susceptible to correction and supplement. We have therefore entrusted future curation of the Archive to the International Spenser Society:17 at their discretion, scans of newly discovered copies can be added to the Archive and advances in the analysis of the available copies can be assimilated there.

Commentary and the Editorial Tradition

The infrastructure to which our edition and archive contribute begins with Spenser’s first editors and critics. A distinguished tradition of learned commentary extends from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, and to this resource all modern editors are deeply indebted. We have not tried to gather these materials into a Variorum-style sampler. Adding what we can, we take much of the editorial tradition to be, as it were, a common property, citing individual contributions only where their originality would seem to warrant particular notice. Having undertaken the first comprehensive commentary on the Spenser canon since the Johns Hopkins Variorum (Greenlaw, et al., 1932-57), we have sought to synthesize and enrich what we inherit. We owe Spenser’s previous editors, from Warton and Hughes to Hamilton and McCabe, a debt we gladly acknowledge, although it can scarcely be reckoned or repaid.

To this inheritance, modern Spenser scholarship has made some notable additions. Chief among these is The Spenser Encyclopedia (Hamilton, et al., 1990), a monumental work that recruited hundreds of Spenserians and other specialists as contributors, and remains the starting point for research into almost any aspect of the poet’s life and work. Andrew Hadfield’s exhaustively researched biography (2012) is another invaluable scholarly resource. More recently, a number of handbooks and companions have recruited contemporary specialists to provide up-to-date and ambitiously synoptic overviews of the scholarship on Spenser’s life and work. These include The Cambridge Companion to Spenser (Hadfield, 2001), A Critical Companion to Spenser Studies (van Es, 2006), The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser (McCabe, 2010), created specifically to complement this edition, and Edmund Spenser in Context (Escobedo, 2016). The Oxford Collected Works is meant to join this strong cohort.

Scholarly commentary on Spenser’s works, particularly glossatorial, began with Spenser himself, and with the close-knit community of scholars and intellectuals within which his earliest writings were produced, circulated, and read. Glosses on hard words were not new in sixteenth-century English religious and literary publications: the Geneva edition of the Bible includes distractingly rich and diverting glosses of philological, historical, and exegetical kinds; Stephen Bateman’s edition of Bartholomaeus’ De proprietatibus rerum (1582) includes copious marginal glosses explicating sources, Latin terms, technical points on anatomy and history, and more; and contemporary texts of old works, such as Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of Chaucer, often come packaged with paratexts interpreting aspects of their meaning. But all of this falls well short of the complex apparatus produced in 1579 for The Shepheardes Calender: a pair of literary critical essays up front and a ‘glosse, or scholion’ appended to each of the eclogues— all attributed to ‘E.K.’—supplemented by an ‘argument’, the authorship of which is unattributed, prefixed to each eclogue. Later editions of Spenser’s poetry followed suit, and from the days of John Hughes—whose 1715 collected edition included a ‘Glossary Explaining the Old and Obscure Words’—Spenser’s works have usually been published with glossaries, commentaries, introductory and biographical essays, and more. This enduring editorial (and eventually academic) emphasis in the curation of Spenser’s works reflects the complex historical, intertextual, and collaborative nature of his texts; above all, it attests to the apparent strangeness, both original and enduring, of his diction.

This edition seeks to renew and bolster attention to Spenser’s lexicon. Our apparatus includes short marginal glosses, tailored directly to the primary sense of a word in its local context; these glosses have been designed to let a reader glance, and perhaps ponder, but also quickly return to onward reading. Each volume also reprints a separate ‘core glossary’ of Spenser’s harder, often more archaic or idiosyncratic usages, a careful reading and sifting of which should provide a reader with the necessary basic tools to canter unimpeded through most of Spenser’s texts. Some words in this ‘core’ have been presented in boldface; these are the terms that appear most frequently or in the most salient positions, and that a reader new to Spenser might wish to master first of all. Finally, we offer in volume 6 a collection of glossatorial essays on particular topics in Spenser’s language, short studies that aim to open a window onto the intertextual texture, the word-making daring, and the historical oddity of Spenser’s language practice. These essays turn to such features of his language as his modal verbs (e.g., ‘mote’, ‘mought’), his borrowings from Chaucer and Langland (e.g., his use of auxiliary ‘do’), his archaizing affixes, his favorite regionalisms, and his innovations.

In addition to the marginal glosses (and the core glossary), we offer more discursive notes at the back of each volume. These seek first to provide readers with pertinent philological data, to inform them of likely historical impingements, and to trace the ambitious and intricate network of allusion, imitation, polemic, and evasion that lends Spenser’s work much of its distinctive resonance. In addition to broad thematic patterns, we note such stylistic features as verbal echoes, figures of speech and thought, and local metrical variations, along with such orthographic gestures as may indicate syllable-count and the pressures of punctuation. Despite William Hazlitt’s assurance that if readers ‘do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them’, we suggest ways of meddling.18 When we venture to steer a local construction, our intention is to stimulate and not to preempt the critical work of the reader, which Spenser often solicits and seems to respect. He wrote, after all, in a Protestant culture that was vociferously committed to the interpretive prerogatives of readers, and his texts have a history of provoking interpretive struggle.

In sixteenth-century editions of Virgil, we see pages laden with commentary: a few lines of the Aeneid (for example) in the center of a folio page, dwarfed on all sides by an accumulation of Servius and his kind (Fig. X).19 Out of respect for the intimate encounter of reader and text, we offer a much quieter page, reserving our commentary for the back of each volume; yet by attending as fully as possible to the allusive and imitative range of the verse, we seek to approximate the sort of reading experience given visual form in the early modern folio page: a sense of European literature as an immense echo chamber reverberating with the voices of the past.20 Spenser is an artful practitioner of the technique known as contaminatio, wherein allusions to precursors are played off against each other. So, for instance, our commentary on the Mortdant and Amavia episode of Book II, canto i of The Faerie Queene traces a contexture of verbal cues pointing first to key passages both in the text of Romans and in the corresponding Geneva Bible glosses, and then to the scene of Dido’s immolation in Book 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid—a conflict of perspectives glossed with precision by Augustine’s comment in the Confessions on the folly of ‘a pitiable person who does not look with pity on their own
Fig. 1. L'opere di Virgilio Mantoano, cioè la Bucolica, la Georgica, e l'Eneide, commentate in lingua volgare toscana, da Giouanni Fabrini da Fighine, da Carolo Malatesta da Rimene, & da Filippo Venuti da Cortona. Venice: Heirs of Melchiorre Sessa, 1588. Courtesy of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester. pitifulness—and who weeps for the death of Dido, which came about through her love for Aeneas; yet does not weep for their own death, which was coming about because they had no love for you, O God’).21 Our commentary seeks both to reflect and to encourage this way of reading.

As a general rule, we resist the impulse to look ahead from Spenser’s earlier to later publications; with a few local exceptions, our commentary make connections across the canon in retrospect rather than in prospect. We also try to honor the timing of information: in a number of works but especially in The Faerie Queene, character names and genealogies, place names and the histories they encode, are withheld and then revealed according to subtle and distinctively Spenserian rhythms of disclosure. We therefore seldom refer from earlier passages in The Faerie Queene to later ones. Finally, it should be mentioned that the digital edition available in our online archive accommodates an expanded version of the commentary, which appears in the print edition in a compressed form.

As mentioned earlier, editors of Spenser find many of their labors anticipated by those of E.K., the commentator to The Shepheardes Calender. Consider the first sentence of the intricate and sweeping epistle that introduces the Calender:

VNCOVTHE VNKISTE, Sayde the olde famous Poete Chaucer:
whom for his excellencie and wonderfull skil in making, his scholler
Lidgate, a worthy scholler of so excellent a maister, calleth the
Loadestarre of our Language: and whom our Colin clout in his
Æglogue calleth Tityrus the God of shepheards, comparing hym to
the worthines of the Roman Tityrus Virgile.
(Epist 1-6)

Here E.K. describes the author by means of a phrase taken from Chaucer, then stops to praise Chaucer, first in terms taken from Chaucer’s ‘scholler’ (i.e., student), Lydgate, and thereafter in a phrase taken from one of the leading pastoral characters of the Calender itself, Colin Clout. Suddenly and swiftly, the commentator evokes an affiliative web of indebtedness and comparison, extended across a millennium and a half, albeit fictionalized as if it comprised no more than three generations of studiously admiring pastoral practice. We began this introduction similarly, evoking comparable Renaissance, medieval, and classical authors. In the pages that remain, we hope to suggest something of the intentional structure in the affiliative web that Spenser’s literary practice inherits and reshapes.

Spenser’s Chaucerian Gothic

Educated at Merchants Taylors’ School under the supervision of Richard Mulcaster, Spenser makes his way, as a humanist ‘scholler’ does, by imitation. His sustained recourse to eminent motifs and forms—pastoral, epic, sonnet sequence, lamentation—and his participation in major European traditions of philosophy and history—ethics, metaphysics, law, political and ecclesiastical history—bespeak broad ambitions, for himself and for the realm he addresses and describes. This edition should enable readers to recognize those broader ambitions, and more: we aim to assist them in discerning the narrower partisanship, the particular clientage, and the momentary shocks and maneuverings that subtend and shape his ambitions, and in apprehending those peculiarities of manner and imagination that give Spenser’s works, taken as a Collection, their distinctive coherence.

E.K. draws our attention to one such peculiarity of manner, that will, eventually, place us on the track towards discerning a crucial partisanship. He belabors the introduction of Immerito, the ‘uncouth’ (that is, unknown) author of the Calender, insisting that he will emerge into contemporary esteem for invention, expression, wisdom, decorum, and, above all, for striking oddities of lexicon and syntax, the ‘framing [of] his words’:

the which of many thinges which in him be straunge, I know will seeme the straungest, the words them selues being so auncient, the knitting of them so short and intricate, and the whole Periode and compasse of speache so delightsome for the roundnesse, and so graue for the straungenesse. And firste of the wordes to speake, I graunt they be something hard, and of most men vnused, yet both English, and also vsed of most excellent Authors and most famous Poetes.
(SC, Ded Epist 19-26)
E.K. fastens on Spenser’s lexicon and morphology,hard because ‘vnused’, but dignified by ‘auncient . . . straungeness’. His commentary steadily directs our attention to Spenser’s linguistic revivalism. Glossing ‘gryde’ in Februarie, E.K. will offer both a definition (‘perced’) and an historical sketch: ‘an olde word much vsed of Lidgate, but not found (that I know of) in Chaucer’. Not just the lexicon but inflectional morphology receive attention: in Iulye, ‘glitterand’ is glossed as ‘Glittering. A Participle vsed sometime in Chaucer, but altogether in I. Goore’ (i.e., John Gower). E.K. offers a glossary in historical terms in the Calender, but he misses some of the force of Spenser’s archaism, for the fiction is quietly antiquated as well. In Februarie, Thenot recounts ‘a tale of truth, / Which I cond of Tityrus in my youth’ (91-2), inviting us to imagine that he is only a generation younger than Tityrus-Chaucer. The Shepheardes Calender, and The Faerie Queene after it, are not works of merely linguistic archaism; both poems exercise themselves in recruiting the charisma of the past on behalf of an energetically indebted cultural present.

When Spenser wrote The Shepheardes Calender, Elizabethan court culture was in the midst of a Gothic revival that showed itself in festive practice, architecture, decorative arts, and literature (D. Williams 2010). One can detect this development in the diction of a number of mid-century poets: in Nicholas’ Grimald’s contributions to Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), Barnabe Googe’s Eglogs epytaphes, and sonettes (1563), Thomas Nuce’s translation of Seneca’s Octavia (1566), George Turberville’s Epitaphes, epigrams, songs and sonets (1567), Thomas Phaer’s translation of the Aeneid (1573), in George Gascoigne’s Posies (1575), Timothy Kendall’s Flowers of epigrammes (1577), and Thomas Proctor’s Gorgious gallery, of gallant inuentions (1578). Some of these exercises in vernacular medievalism seem to mark the passing of the same culture that they hope to revive—witness Thomas Sackville’s post-Chaucerian gesture in the third edition of the Mirror for Magistrates (1563), where he constructs his winter scene as an aftermath to the April that opens The Canterbury Tales:

The soil, that erst so seemly was to seen,
Was all despoiled of her beauty's hue;
And soote fresh flowers, wherewith the summer's queen
Had clad the earth, now Boreas' blasts down blew;
And small fowls flocking, in their song did rue
The winter's wrath, wherewith each thing defac'd
In woeful wise bewail'd the summer past.

The lugubrium intensifies as Sorrow leads the speaker to the underworld:
An hydeous hole al vaste, withouten shape,
Of endles depth, orewhelmde with ragged stone,
Wyth ougly mouth, and grisly Iawes doth gape,
And to our sight confounds it selfe in one.
Here entred we, and yeding forth, anone
An horrible lothly lake we might discerne
As blacke as pitche, that cleped is Auerne.
(Mirror for Magistrates, Part III, Q2v)
Sackville is mythologizing the overarching necromantic fiction of the Mirror, the fiction that he and several other scholar-poets have assembled to compose the book by summoning heroes and victims of the English past from the dead and enjoining them to bewail their careers. By the time Spenser undertook the composition of the Calender, Gothic revival was a familiar and less harrowing cultural program; the success of that volume seems to have braced him, despite the (perhaps teasing) discouragement of Gabriel Harvey, for the sustained work of composing an Arthurian epic (Letters, 3.354-80). In The Faerie Queene, Spenser proceeds as if an ancient British heroic past were imaginatively present, albeit glamorized by linguistic exoticism and the gestural sheen of chivalry. Yet necromantic medievalism had its own persistent interest for Spenser, making itself felt in Complaints and in the Legend of Friendship, Book IV of The Faerie Queene. By virtue of his eclogues, complaints, and above all his epic, Spenser became, for subsequent generations of writers, the leading practitioner of British medievalism. The Faerie Queene in particular became, and remains, the most widely remembered instance of ‘Elizabethan Gothic’.22

Each book or ‘legend’ of The Faerie Queene features a hero—or, in the case of Book IV, a sociable complex of heroes—who serve as the ‘patrones’ of a particular virtue.: in the first book, the virtue is ‘Holinesse’, the hero is ‘the Knight of the Red Crosse’, and his origin is a mystery to him, since he is a foundling.23 If each of the legends has a patron-hero or so, the epic as a whole has an over-arching hero, Prince Arthur, powerfully associated with a medieval past, a figure of both popular and erudite legend, and, for decades, the object of sustained discredit among serious contemporary historiographers. Spenser offers no continuous biography of his hero, but his Arthur is a prince: Arthur before he became the famous warrior-king of a legendary Britain outside of reliable history. Unformed and wonderfully implausible, Spenser’s Arthur is the hero of a new poem written long ago.

Tudor England had inherited a large body of Arthurian lore, including the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, the twelfth-century histories of the English by William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and, most influentially, Geoffrey of Monmouth, along with a torrent of English, Anglo-Norman, Celtic, and Continental poems and prose romances from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, a romance tradition that had culminated in Sir Thomas Malory’s massive reworking of this material as Le Morte D’Arthur (Schwyzer 2020). Spenser draws heavily on this trove—for knights, ladies, castles, and forests—but on its store of legend specific to the life and exploits of Arthur he draws hardly at all. When Spenser’s Arthur describes the passion that moves him, the Prince reminds us not of Geoffrey’s or Malory’s warrior king, but of Chaucer’s most egregious knight, Sir Thopas:

’O seinte Marie, benedicite!
What eyleth this love at me
To binde me so sore?
Me dremed al this night, pardee,
An elf-queen shal my lemman be,
And slepe under my gore.
An elf-queen wol I love, y-wis,
For in this world no womman is
Worthy to be my make
In toune;
Alle othere wommen I forsake,
And to an elf-queen I me take
By dale and eek by doune!’
(CT, Thopas, 7.784-96)

This is Sir Thopas, the exuberant self-aggrandizing hero of the first tale told by the artless character designated in The Canterbury Tales as ‘Chaucer’. Although there is nothing in Spenser’s works to rival the sweet numbskullery of Sir Thopas the knight, there is yet good reason to believe that Spenser was alert to the achievement of Sir Thopas the poem. He affects something of its comic artlessness at several moments in The Shepheardes Calender, and he declares his particular debt in two comic tales of Cupid–-the March eclogue in the Calender and the first of the Anacreontic poems in Amoretti and Epithalamion -which adopt the tail-rhyme that forms the stanzaic matrix of Sir Thopas. But he stakes his most specific claim to the mock-heroic armor of Sir Thopas when Prince Arthur relates the vision that gives purpose to his chivalry.

Arthur has rescued the hero of The Legend of Holinesse, the Redcrosse Knight, and before he can return to his quest Una, the lady whom this knight serves, asks Arthur to reveal his name and nation so that she might publicize his valor. He responds that he knows his name but not his nation. The lady goes on to ask a series of questions about why he is in Faeryland, and while these questions elicit from Arthur an attractive set of uncertainties, it becomes plain that he regards himself as having been conquered by Love, who has taken advantage of the cheerful dissipations of his pre-erotic youth and has forced him to experience the mature longings associated with Faeryland. The particular instrument of Love’s maturing conquest is a dream, a version of Sir Thopas’s:

Forwearied with my sportes, I did alight
From loftie steed, and downe to sleepe me layd;
The verdant gras my couch did goodly dight,
And pillow was my helmett fayre displayd:
Whiles euery sence the humour sweet embayd,
And slombring soft my hart did steale away
Me seemed, by my side a royall Mayd
Her daintie limbes full softly down did lay:
So fayre a creature yet saw neuer sunny day.
(FQ I.ix.13)

The royal maid is ‘an elf-queen,’ the Faery Queen herself:
Most goodly glee and louely blandishment
She to me made, and badd me loue her deare;
For dearely sure her loue was to me bent,
As when iust time expired should appeare.
(ix.14.1-4)

In its first, bathetic, Chaucerian version, the vision fills its hero with delighted egotistical confidence–-‘An elf-queen shal my lemman be, / And slepe under my gore’–-and Spenser allows his Arthur to reflect some of that confidence in the line, ‘For dearely sure her loue was to me bent’. But a counter-movement towards uncertainty in the lines that follow registers something distinctly Spenserian, an insistence that mature confidence somehow emerges from, and despite, doubt:
But whether dreames delude, or true it were,
Was neuer hart so rauisht with delight,
Ne liuing man like wordes did euer heare,
As she to me deliuered all that night;
And at her parting said, She Queene of Faries hight.
(ix.14.5-9)

If Spenser has little access to the reservoirs of Chaucerian mirth, this moment of vision dramatizes how deeply his epic is enmeshed in the toils of Reformation spirituality—in pious vigilance against delusion and sharp contest over the grounds of truth. Arthur’s vision, an engine of the imaginative momentum of The Faerie Queene, rehearses both Sir Thopas’s dream and the visions and revelations of St. Paul (1 Cor 2:9 and 2 Cor 9).

A few years after the publication of the first installment of The Faerie Queene, an admiring and competitive Shakespeare would restage Arthur’s awakening in a character who is an impossible composite of Sir Thopas and St. Paul, apostle and buffoon:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,—and methought I had,—but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, IV.i.199- 207)
Shakespeare’s is a deeper comic intelligence than Spenser’s; his humor here in Bottom’s awakening from his own dream of a fairy queen feels far closer to Chaucer’s. It thereby throws Spenser’s achievement into relief. Spenser has willed away the mockery of Chaucer’s mock heroic; the darker purpose of his comedy is to take Sir Thopas straight. We can say, as Spenserians have long said, that this vision sustains the Neoplatonic vein of courtly love, whereby enamourment is a first step on the road to human spiritual purification, but Spenser has other purposes as well (Ellrodt 1960, Bieman 1988, Quitslund 2001). He will later get round to mocking the foolish aspirant (in the person of Braggadocchio, in Book II, the Legend of Temperance), and will so join a burgeoning Elizabethan literary tradition of satiric policing of social stratification, a tradition in which Shakespeare’s treatment of Bottom has a celebrated place. Generally, however, Spenser celebrates aspiration, and not just in Arthur, but in Colin Clout, in the Red Crosse Knight, in the murmuring wild man who offers to assist Arthur in The Legend of Courtesy. This was self-serving, since Spenser, whose social background is uncertain, was himself a successful climber, initially gentrified by his humanist early education and his Cambridge degree, and later propertied by his acquisition of lands confiscated by the Crown from rebel Anglo-Irish lords. Even as Spenser flaunts his affiliation to Chaucer in the origin-story of his epic, the willed seriousness of Arthur’s vision of Gloriana refuses the occasional campiness of Elizabethan medievalism; it insists on both the dignity of the vernacular English literary tradition and on Spenser’s own genteel capacity to sustain the dignity of that nativity.

Arthur and Gloriana, Leicester and Elizabeth

Arthur’s vision of the Fairy Queen gives us two ideal figures, and on the idea of such a pairing a great deal rests: Spenser’s epic celebrates both the motive queen and the motivated knight, yet it never represents their union as either imminent or inevitable.24 Arthur never seems to be heading towards the court of the Faerie Queene at Troynovant. More like Malory's Lancelot than Malory's Arthur, he hardly seems to be heading anywhere in particular: although he saves one imperiled hero after another, his res gestae seem not to accumulate, nor do his adventures tend towards the kind of transformative frustration to which the Dantesque or Petrarchan lover is recruited. In Book III, Arthur is easily distracted by a passing imperiled beauty, and as he is rendered sleepless by that distraction, his vision of the Faerie Queene is challenged, almost reversed:

thousand fancies bett his ydle brayne
With their light wings, the sights of semblants vaine:
Oft did he wish, that Lady faire mote bee
His faery Queene, for whom he did complaine:
Or that his Faery Queene were such, as shee.
(iv.54-4-8)

This is seriocomic–-Spenser is taking a page from Ariosto–-and what the comedy takes seriously is a vulnerability at the hero’s amatory core.

For her part, the glorious queen is largely absent; the pressed grass of her first appearance to Arthur is one of the very few impressions that the Faery Queen leaves on the narrative as we now have it. At Arthur’s sleepless moment in Book III, she is more confusing than inspiring.25 In the ‘Letter to Ralegh’ that Spenser composed to explain ‘the general intention and meaning’ (LR, 5) of his epic, he promises that in the twelfth book the adventures of the prior books will be shown to derive, retrospectively, from events precipitated on the twelve days of the queen’s annual feast, yet this plan for retrospective coherence manifests itself hardly at all in the six books of the poem that Spenser completed.

Nor are the distractions of the knight and the aloofness of the queen entirely a surprise. In The Shepheardes Calender, published eleven years before the first installment of The Faerie Queene, one of the two shepherd-poets who seem to speak for Spenser is exhorted to rouse himself from mere pastoral:

Abandon then the base and viler clowne,
Lyft vp thy selfe out of the lowly dust:
And sing of bloody Mars, of wars, of giusts,
Turne thee to those, that weld the awful crowne.
To doubted Knights, whose woundlesse armour rusts,
And helmes vnbruzed wexen dayly browne.
(SC Oct.37-42)

The lines manage a good deal in both their doubled turning–-from clownish to chivalric subject matter and from base to exalted audience–-and their doubled exhortation–-to the poet who is urged to step up and to the new, exalted audience that is challenged to polish its rusty armor on behalf of a militant gothic revival. This doubling splits apart, however, in the next stanza, where the senior shepherd, Piers, proposes that his junior, Cuddie, select one of two possible patrons and make of him or her the very subject of his epic:
There may thy Muse display her fluttryng wing,
And stretch her selfe at large from East to West:
Whither thou list in fayre Elisa rest,
Or if thee please in bigger notes to sing,
Aduaunce the worthy whome shee loueth best,
That first the white beare to the stake did bring.
(Oct. 43-8)

Write a poem for and about Elizabeth—or, if you want a martial epic, a poem for and about Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester (who had adopted the muzzled white bear and ragged staff that had been the badge of the earldom of Warwick).

Fig. 2. Golding, Arthur, trans. The .xv. bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis (London [William Seres]), 1567, title page detail: Leicester’s seal. STC 18956 copy 2. Image 5811. Folger Shakespeare Library. Like the adjective ‘bigger’, the contrasting verbs associated with each option, ‘rest’ and ‘Aduaunce’, imply a preference for the militant earl. Piers’s exhortation was an odd one. Despite the alleged love of queen and worthy knight, the two patron-heroes seem to be placed in competition. In 1579, when this poem was published, framing the relation between these figures as mere ‘competition’ was a dodge, for although Leicester and Elizabeth had been friends since childhood, had been confined to the Tower at the same time during the reign of Mary Tudor, and had been improperly intimate (so the rumor went) after Elizabeth’s accession—with Leicester having become the special beneficiary of the queen’s preferments in the years after the death of his first wife—their relations had lately grown brittle. Leicester kept his second marriage a secret until 1579, when Elizabeth got wind of it from the diplomat who was negotiating for her own marriage to the Duc d’Alencon; she was enraged at the news. For his part, Leicester had made his disapproval of a possible Alençon match well known; his nephew, Philip Sidney, had written and circulated a presumptuously disapproving letter ‘touching her marriage with Monsieur’. If The Faerie Queene dreams of some final concord between Elizabeth and Leicester, fanciful or real, the lines from the October eclogue suggest the arrest of concord by choice and also suggest that, at the contentious moment of late 1579, Spenser’s allegiances inclined to Leicester and his kin: he dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to the nephew while living in the uncle’s townhouse in Westminster; he professed plans to write a genealogical poem on the family; and a section of his most brashly satiric poem, Mother Hubberds Tale, appears to mock, among others, the Frenchman who sought to broker the marriage to Alençon.

The long tradition of criticism and sentimentalizing cultural history that casts Spenser as Elizabeth’s great literary celebrant therefore requires correction: at a crucial early moment in his career, he discloses both caution and boldness, both a rift in loyalties and a cautious Leicesterian partisanship. The friction of the late 1570s would eventually subside, although the fantasy of an amorous, courtly relation of queen and knight could never again be so colorable as it had been in earlier years, nor could the queen’s withdrawal from Leicester be assimilated to a Dantesque or Petrarchan model of inspiring refusal. For Spenser as for his poetry, the friction of this moment would persist: Queen and knight, Gloriana and Arthur, abide together uneasily in The Faerie Queene.

Matters of this sort are seldom simple, but the tension between knight and queen exposes dichotomies crucial to Spenser’s thought, central for him because they are central to Elizabethan culture. On Leicester’s side an atavistic feudalism figured by chivalric knighthood; on Elizabeth’s, a centralizing royal administration figured by the monarch enthroned. Leicester’s family were proponents of militant Protestant internationalism; Elizabeth was a cautious diplomat, wary of the hazard and expense of intervention abroad, whether in the Low Countries or in Ireland. He, a protector of the energies of continuous Church reform; she, jealous of her own poised authority over the English Church and of the political stability that settled Church discipline could afford. And finally, he was a man, an easy object (for Spenser and male-identified readers) of idealizing homosocial identification, and she was a woman, an unsettling challenge to masculine imaginations. While Spenser will frequently extend himself to serve both Leicesterian knight and Elizabethan queen, his disposition draws him frequently towards the haven of an Arthurian ideological regime, a regime he especially associates with Leicester. In the Prothalamion that Spenser wrote to celebrate the betrothals, in 1596, of Elizabeth and Katherine Somerset to Henry Guilford and William Petre, the poet wanders beside the Thames, afflicted by ‘discontent of my long fruitlesse stay / In Princes Court’ (6-7). The poem works its way from a discontent originating at the royal court to a welcoming festivity at Leicester House, ‘a stately place, / Where oft I gayned giftes and goodly grace / Of that great Lord, which therein wont to dwell,’ now occupied by the earl of Essex, ‘a noble Peer, / Great Englands glory and the Worlds wide wonder’ (137-9 and 145-6), who hosts the newly-betrothed couples.

>Fig. 3 Shaffron (1570-1580) from the armour of the E. of Leicester; Royal Armouries, Old Tower Collection, VI. 49 (https://collections.royalarmouries.org/object/rac-object-3345, accessed 6/14/2023.)

If the Queen of Faeries is an elusive figure in Spenser’s epic, the figures of female sovereignty who do make their presence felt often reflect Spenser’s own sovereign in unflattering ways. Obvious villains include the ‘mayden Queene’ Lucifera (FQ I.iv.8.5); Night, ‘of darknes Queene’ (FQ I.v.24.1); and the irascible, frustrated sovereign of the Amazons, Radigund (FQ V.iv,v, and vii). But the less easily stigmatized queens are far more troubling, especially as their actions, arguments, and aspects so closely shadow Elizabeth’s: fickle Mutabilitie (TCM), who competes explicitly with Jove’s masculine authority and is finally pronounced a usurper; punitive Mercilla, whose mercy towards Duessa—here shedding allegorical generality and exposed as Mary Stuart—expresses itself in a histrionic flow of tears put on for Arthur and his alter-ego, Artegall (FQ V.ix.50); and finally Gloriana herself, who peremptorily summons Artegall from ‘the saluage Island’ (FQ VI.i.9.1) back ‘to Faerie Court, that of necessity / His course of Iustice he was forst to stay’ (FQ V.xii.27.3-4), exposing him to Enuie and Detraction, much as Elizabeth had summoned Arthur, Lord Grey, back to England from Ireland where (as Spenser, Grey’s former secretary in Ireland, would describe it in the Vewe) Grey was ‘oftentimes maligned, and his doings depraved of some, who . . . seeke to detracte, from the honor of his deeds’ (ll.787-90).26 Gloriana is last addressed in the poem when Colin Clout and the narrator of The Faerie Queene join their voices to apologize for presuming to praise someone other than her:

Pardon thy shepheard, mongst so many layes,
As he hath sung of thee in all his dayes,
To make one minime of thy poore handmayd,
And vnderneath thy feete to place her prayse.
(VI.x.28.4-7)

Such measured praise may witness imperfectly suppressed resentment of the sovereign’s authority, as if Spenser had taken it upon himself to imagine and to express the frustration of two generations of male aristocrats (Dudleys, Sidneys, and others) whose queen steadily inhibited their power as individuals and as a class. At the shore of the savage Island and here at the summit of Mt. Acidale, the sovereign’s servants–-knight, shepherd, handmaid, and praise itself–-are sadly reduced.

The Rhetoric of Vision

Spenser’s selection and transformation of his Chaucerian source for Arthur’s vision of the fairy queen is thus both partisan and personal. It may further be observed that a disposition to organize poetry around vision is itself quite personal, for Spenser is a visionary poet from first to last. His suite of translations for the Theatre, produced before he matriculated at Cambridge, begins ‘Being one day at my window all alone, / So many strange things hapned me to see’, and his last, posthumously-printed poem concludes ‘O that great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight’ (TCM viii.2.9). Visionary poetry and prophecy have a long history, and their production was quickened in the heated spiritual environment of the European Reformation and Counter-reformation, yet Spenser’s allegiance to vision has a distinctive character, one that emerges slowly over the course of his career. Taking the development at its terminus in the line just quoted from the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, we can observe that its vision is unachieved and uncertain, something for which to pray. The poet concludes his unfinished epic in the display of a longing that his poems seem frequently and ingeniously contrived to produce. This longing is provoked by the poet’s perplexed response to the verdict in a trial conducted in the poem’s previous canto, and that trial begins with the gravely confounding appearance of its judge:

Then forth issewed (great goddesse) great dame Nature,
With goodly port and gracious Maiesty;
Being far greater and more tall of stature
Then any of the gods or Powers on hie:
Yet certes by her face and physnomy,
Whether she man or woman inly were,
That could not any creature well descry:
For, with a veile that wimpled euery where,
Her head and face was hid, that mote to none appeare.
(vii.5)

In the next stanza, we are told that the veil is meant to mitigate something, either the terror of her face or its splendor. We are further told that the garment itself is so radiant that it presents a dazzling challenge to the poet’s powers of comparison—a confounding dazzle that resembles the experience of the ‘saints’, Peter, James, and John, who saw the transfigured Christ on Mt. Tabor.27 All this dazzle and failed comparison invites the reader to recognize his or her exclusion from the experience being described: the intractable fact that writing is not showing, nor reading seeing. We too can only long to be granted such sight.

This vision of Nature transfigures the vision on Mt. Acidale for which Colin Clout and the narrator make their apology to the Fairy Queen.28 We have observed that vision through the eyes of Calidore, the hero of the Legend of Courtesie, who ‘sees the Graces daunce / To Colins melody’. If Colin stands in for the poet, then Calidore, a courtly outsider who has stumbled upon a place of secret revelation, might represent the fascinated reader who aspires to be like the saints Peter, James, and John:

Much wondred Calidore at this straunge sight,
Whose like before his eye had neuer seene,
And standing long astonished in spright,
And rapt with pleasaunce, wist not what to weene.
(FQ VI.x.17.1-4)

Calidore sees and is astonished by what we cannot see, but he will soon be as disappointed as we have been:
Therefore resoluing, what it was, to know,
Out of the wood he rose, and toward them did go.
But soone as he appeared to their vew,
They vanisht all away out of his sight,
And cleane were gone, which way he neuer knew.
(17.8-18.3)

Calidore becomes a cautionary projection of our own longing for knowing vision.

Here, then, as often, Spenser is a poet of unfulfilled visionary desire. The frustration on Mt. Acidale is itself transfigured in the scene on Arlo Hill, a real place in the Galty mountains above the river Aherlow’s glen near Kilcolman. The trial marshaled before veiled Nature is an elaborate pageant, its encyclopedic shows increasingly unimaginable, and the judgment, when it comes, leads to a mysterious deliberation on which the creatures expectantly and uncomprehendingly gaze:

silence long ensewed,
Ne Nature to or fro spake for a space,
But with firme eyes affixt, the ground still viewed.
Meane while, all creatures, looking in her face,
Expecting th'end of this so doubtfull case,
Did hang in long suspence what would ensew.
(vii.57.1-6)

If the gazing creatures represented here are obliged to wait expectantly, how much more are we as readers balked, as we read without the consolation of gazing at Nature’s face.

It is unfashionable to see Spenser as a mere moralist, but it would not be unfair to observe that the bulk of his representations of visionary longing are representations not of curtailed encounter with divinity but of temptation. And, interestingly, many of the sites of temptation are ornamented by ekphrases, verbal representations of visual art objects. In a notorious example, Spenser depicts a cycle of tales of Medea in ivory enchased with precious metals, an ekphrasis for one of several gateways to the Bower of Bliss:

Ye might haue seene the frothy billowes fry
Vnder the ship, as thorough them she went,
That seemd the waues were into yuory,
Or yuory into the waues were sent;
And other where the snowy substaunce sprent
With vermell, like the boyes bloud therein shed,
A piteous spectacle did represent,
And otherwhiles with gold besprinkeled;
Yt seemd th'enchaunted flame, which did Creüsa wed.
(II.xii.45)

The partial dissolutions, of depiction into its material substrate and of substrate into depiction, are an obtrusive marvel: ivory sent into waves and waves into ivory. These are not complete dissolutions so much as a skirmish at the shore of representation–-materials and craftsmanship seem to have a slight edge on the depicted scenes—but regardless of the outcome, we are made to long for the sight of marvelous somethings that we cannot see: ‘All this, and more might in that goodly gate / Be red’. Traditionally ekphrasis is proffered as a ‘picture’ that exceeds what actual depiction can achieve, usually by slipping from description into narrative, but Spenser spins out such excess as an interminable temptation for the reader. Thus his description of the tapestry of Venus and Adonis at the palace of unchastity, Castle Ioyeous, spills into a narrative of seduction, post-coital admiration, apprehension and, in conclusion, mourning:
Lo, where beyond he lyeth languishing,
Lo, where beyond he lyeth languishing,
And by his side the Goddesse groueling
Makes for him endlesse mone.
(III.i.38.1-4)

‘Lo’ (Middle English ‘look’) is a Spenserian signature—it is the first word of the epic—for it arouses and focuses an interest to which it does not afford the satisfaction of understanding. The withholding of vision on Arlo Hill transfigures all the visionary provocations that Spenser has previously concentrated in ekphrasis; by thus frustrating our desire for vision the poet keeps it excited, makes us yearn for prophetic vision, stirring in us the desire to see what John saw, what the Redcross knight saw, and what the creatures on Mount Acidale see.

Genre, Genre Patterning, and Career

Spenser is a visionary poet, but he is also deeply self-conscious about the frame for poetic vision: genre. In fact, one of his distinctions may be in his recurrent harnessing of genre as the engine for poetic vision—genre being a formal practice and vision being an ecstatic or sublime one.29 Throughout his career, Spenser takes up a wide array of genres: pastoral, epic, complaint, funeral elegy, sonnet, anacreontic, epithalamium, hymn, prothalamion. He also places genres in competition with one another. For example, in Book I of The Faerie Queene he presents Una retreating from the world of epic to dwell in the precincts of pastoral, presided over by ‘old Sylvanus’ (vi.7.9)—‘the son of Faunus, the Roman Pan’ (Hamilton 2001). When the satyrs native to this genre prove unable to recognize revealed truth, Una elects to decamp with her devoted student, Sir Satyrane, ‘That they the woods are past, and now come to the plaine’ (33.9). This return from pastoral woodlands to the epic landscape of the poem’s opening (‘A gentle knight was pricking on the plaine’) marks a limit to the value of the pre-Christian genre; the satyrs are benevolent but uncomprehending, able to sponsor a pause in which the heroine can catch her breath, but not proper to her epic and proto-apocalyptic destiny. A darker and more complex instance appears in the final canto of Book III, where Britomart encounters the Masque of Cupid, associated with Petrarchan sonnets and Trionfi and with theatrical tragedy (‘fit for tragicke Stage’, xii.3.5-9). The result is a grisly generic hybrid that parades forth obstacles to the epic romance heroine’s attempt to rescue Amoret.

The competition between and among genres can entail mutual critique, as it does when the patron of Courtesy in Book VI embarks upon a pastoral retreat more serious and extended than Una’s stay among the satyrs. He does so for the love of a maid —Pastorella—named after the genre, and he woos her dressed as a shepherd. This idyl turns back toward heroic action when the pastoral landscape is ravaged by brigands. The limitations of pastoral are rendered with more ambivalence here than in Book I, for the heart of the episode features a retreat-within-a-retreat in which, as we mentioned earlier, Calidore stumbles upon Spenser’s poetic persona Colin Clout piping to a visionary dance. His intrusion dispels the vision, suggesting that this hero is too clumsy, perhaps too uncourteous, to pass into other generic environments. In a tacit but somber irony, the argument to the canto juxtaposes this misadventure with the brigands’ invasion of the pastoral domain:

Calidore sees the Graces daunce,
To Colins melody:
The whiles his Pastorell is led,
Into captiuity.
(VI.x.pr.)

In the narrative, these episodes are separated by Calidore’s successful wooing (or seduction) of Pastorella, but here the knight’s unwitting intrusion coincides with the spoil of the pastoral landscape and its inhabitants.

Genre appears central to the design, or what Sidney would call the fore-conceit, in terms of which Spenser composes a given poem. His Calender, for example, is shaped by the form of the almanac, as with striking differences is his Epithalamion. Genre in this sense is by no means a restrictive template but rather (to echo Sidney again) an idea, digested from classical, medieval, and Renaissance authors and then reinvented in the process of composition.30 As such, it can afford a framework for interpretation: since from antiquity forward, poems embody distinct generic conventions, however fluctuating and elastic, we can profitably seek the underlying conception of a Spenserian poem by attending to the way it combines and reinvents literary genres.

Spenser follows such classical models as Ovid and Virgil by dilating on genre-patterns, often pairing one lower in the Renaissance hierarchy of genres with one more elevated.31 The Faerie Queene (to take an important example) opens by locating its own composition within a distinct cursus, a sequence of genres that structures a literary career:

Lo I the man, whose Muse whylome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shephards weeds,
Am now enforst a farre vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds:
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds,
Whose praises hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broade emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.
(I.pr.1, emphasis added)

Lines 5 and 9, highlighted here, announce the central idea of the poem: the ‘Fierce warres and faithful loues’ of ‘Knights and ladies’ signal the author’s fusion of classical epic and medieval romance in a hybrid genre scholars have named ‘epic romance’.32 The ands link knights and ladies, loves and wars sorted within a gendered grid, although Spenser will complicate the sorting when he reveals in the Letter to Ralegh that his Legend of Chastity features a lady cross-dressed as a male knight. In the course of her adventures, Britomart will engage in both ‘Fierce warres and faithfull loues’.

The opening phrase ‘Lo I the man’, together with the verb ‘sing’, imitates the opening line of Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘Arms and the man I sing’ (Arma virumque cano). The extension of this formula to include ladies and faithful loves imitates a text from the Italian Renaissance, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso: ‘I sing of knights and ladies, of love and arms, of courtly chivalry, of courageous deeds’ (I.1-2: Le donne, i cavalier, l’arme, gli amori, / Le cortesie, l’audaci imprese io canto; see the note in Hamilton 2001). Spenser’s imitation is thus double, echoing not only Virgil but also Ariosto echoing Virgil, linking the English to the Continental Renaissance by way of a shared inheritance of medieval romance and classical epic. In a self-conscious presentation of his authorship, Spenser locates his role within the literary tradition and defines it by the coordinates of generic innovation. In doing so, moreover, he invokes not just Virgil’s epic but his celebrated cursus, which proceeds from pastoral to epic. The Spenserian transition from the ‘Oaten reeds’ of pastoral to the ‘trumpets sterne’of epic has no equivalent in Ariosto or Tasso; among Renaissance authors of epic romance, only Spenser goes beyond the invocation of genre to represent genre-patterning–that is, a poetic depiction of genres forming a pattern, here pastoral to epic.

In thus overgoing his Italian precursors, Spenser turns back to a version of the Aeneid that, according to a scholarly and editorial tradition both asserted and contested since the late fourth century, began not with ‘Arms and the man’ but with the following lines:

I am he who once tuned my song on a slender reed, then, leaving the woodland, constrained the neighbouring fields to serve the husbandmen, however grasping— a work welcome to farmers: but now of Mars’ bristling.
(Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena
carmen, et egressus silvis vicina coegi
ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono,
gratum opus agricolis; at nunc horrentia Martis).
(Virgil 1935: 1: 240-1).
Whether the lines are authentic, we do not know; they may be an interpolation by some later reader who recognized the shape of Virgil’s published works as a sequence, a progression from pastoral through georgic to epic (Conte 1986: 84-7). Notably, Spenser does not simply follow his model but introduces a swerve, ‘ousting georgic’ from the sequence.33 In this way, he both assumes and alters the Virgilian mantle of imperial authorship. He also adds something we do not find in his classical or continental models—the humility topos: ‘all too meane’, he is ‘enforst a farre vnfitter taske’. This deflection of criticism for the presumptuousness of claiming to overgo such canonical authors is accentuated by the conventional subordination of masculine voice of the speaker to the divine feminine authority of the Muse who ‘areeds’ (directs) that he blazon forth his protagonists’ praises.

Finally, Spenser in these opening lines sheds the anonymity of ‘Immerito’, the author of The Shepheardes Calender: the dedicatory page of 1590 identifies him as ‘Ed. Spenser’; that of 1596, as ‘EDMVND SPENSER’. Many English Renaissance authors published their books anonymously, and many others name themselves, but few anticipate the gesture of announcing a change from unnamed to named authorship. Spenser is apparently the first to superimpose the Virgilian turn from pastoral to epic onto that from anonymity to self-identification.34 In this gesture, Spenser also attaches his name to a specific relation between genres. As John S. Coolidge says of Virgil, ‘the idle shepherd carries the implicit promise of . . . the strenuous hero, to come; and the lowly pastoral kind looks forward towards epic’.35 In opening The Faerie Queene as he does, Spenser makes good on the explicit promise of his Calender, where the commentator E.K. had announced that the ‘New Poete’ may be seen to ‘follow . . . the example of the best and most auncient Poetes: . . . as young birdes, that be newly crept out of the nest, by little first to proue theyr tender wyngs, before they make a greater flyght’ (Epistle 124-8).

Spenser’s colleagues register the importance of his generic engagements in their commendatory verses for the edition of 1590. Harvey leads the way: ‘Collyn I see . . . thy new taken taske, / . . . lifts thy notes from Shepheardes vnto kinges’ (3.1-5).36 According to W.L.—probably William Lisle (Hamilton 2001)—Spenser had hesitated to present himself as an epic celebrant of Queen Elizabeth, preferring to ‘seeme a shepeheard’ (CV 6.11), ‘but Sydney heard him sing, and knew his voice’ (12):

So Spencer was by Sidney’s speaches wonne,
To blaze her fame not fearing future harmes;
For well he knew, his Muse would soone be tyred**attired
In her high praise, that all the world admired.
(CV.6.15-18)37

As Hamilton notes, the collaboration between Spenser and Sidney is modeled on Ovid’s account of Achilles, disguised as a woman to avoid the Trojan War but discovered by Ulysses and haled into military service.

Spenser's contemporaries understood Spenser's turn from The Shepheardes Calender to The Faerie Queene as itself significant; they regarded the passage from poem to poem as having inscribed an important trajectory in kind, and this generic inscription may well constitute a major contribution to the forms of literary authorship.38 As has already been noted in this introduction, such inscriptions do not securely map the range and sequence of Spenser’s publications, yet they do tell us something important about the shapes of Spenserian authorship. When, in the October eclogue of the Calender, the shepherd Piers advises the aspiring poet Cuddie to seek patronage by turning from pastoral to epic (37-40), he introduces a generic swerve into the Virgilian cursus:

And when the stubborne stroke of stronger stounds,
Has somewhat slackt the tenor of thy string:
Of loue and lustihead tho mayst thou sing.
(49-51)

Piers suggests that if writing epic should prove too strenuous, love poetry may offer a respite.39 Piers’s wise suggestion is prophetic in that it anticipates Spenser’s composition and publication of a significant book of amatory verse, the Amoretti and Epithalamion, during a hiatus in the publication of The Faerie Queene.

This prophecy is inspired by the generic career of that classical author who most seriously grappled with the relation of erotic verse to graver literary kinds. In one of the elegies of the Amores, Ovid describes a sojourn by a sacred fountain in the woods, during which he is visited by Lady Elegy and then accosted by Dame Tragedy.40 He works out a compromise: if Tragedy will permit him to serve Elegy for a time, he will eventually return to her more exalted service. Here Ovid mounts a fiction not only about the relation between lower and higher literary forms, but also—as other elegies confirm41—about the sequence of genres that structures his literary career. Attempting first to write in the lofty genres of epic and tragedy, the poet is distracted by his desire for the humbler genre of love elegy; he solves the resulting dilemma by planning his career as a sequence from the lesser to the greater. Piers advises Cuddie to just such an Ovidian compromise, but Cuddie’s response is stubbornly and meticulously Virgilian. He insists on the model career of ‘the Romish Tityrus’ who ‘left his Oaten reede . . . / And laboured lands to yield the timely eare, / And eft did sing of warres and deadly drede’ (55-9)—although he also insists that he is incapable of such a career largely because England is not hospitable to such effort. It is worth noting, as E.K. does in his gloss, that Cuddie’s account of the Virgilian career is strict in its recollection that Virgil’s passage from pastoral to epic is assisted by the intervening composition of the Georgics. In retrospect, however, we can observe that a good deal of Spenser’s generic activity entails a dense engagement with Piers’s Ovidian compromise, with repeated recourse to the erotic as a kind of replacement for the poetry of ‘labored lands.’ Like Ovid, Spenser would take up amatory poetry as an alternative to epic, and would also infuse epic itself with amatory themes.42

Spenser returned to assess the relation between epic and erotic verse in his Amoretti, published some seventeen years after the first edition of the Calender. There he echoes Cuddie’s pessimism, although he blames himself and his beloved, and not the English cultural environment, lamenting that his progress on The Faerie Queene suffers because he is ‘tost with troublous fit, / of a proud loue’ (33.11). In Sonnet 80, he takes up Piers’s notion of the turn to erotic verse as a respite promising renewed energy and inspiration:

After so long a race as I haue run
Through Faery land, which those six books compile
giue leaue to rest me being halfe fordonne,
and gather to my selfe new breath awhile.
Then as a steed refreshed after toyle,
out of my prison I will breake anew:
and stoutly will that second worke assoyle,**discharge, as an obligation
with strong endeuour and attention dew.
Till then giue leaue to me in pleasant mew,
to sport my muse and sing my loues sweet praise.
(Am 80.1-9)

The ‘pleasant mew’ of line 8 is an enclosure in which young hawks are placed to moult, implying that the poet will fly higher on renewed wings. The next lines build on this picture of the sonnet sequence as a breathing-space integral to the trajectory of the poet’s career; echoing Piers’s celebration of love as a force of inspiration that teaches Colin to ‘climbe so hie, / And lyftes him vp out of the loathsome myre’ (Oct 91-2), Spenser adds that ‘the contemplation of [the beloved’s] heauenly hew, / my spirit to an higher pitch will rayse’ (10-11). He has defined her beauty in the preceding sonnet as ‘diuine and borne of heauenly seed’ (79.10), and this assertion of her divinity—echoed elsewhere in the sequence and dilated at some length in Fowre Hymnes (1596)—elevates the Petrarchan precedent whereby Laura is repeatedly described as ‘angelic’. Spenser’s beloved is quite literally ‘deriu’d from that fayre Spirit’ (79.11), whose other name is the Holy Ghost.43

These are the most prominent of the career-fictions Spenser creates; there are others.44 Colin Burrow explains that ‘Early modern poets thought that Virgil’s career (and probably Homer’s too) began with what appear to us to be strange spin-offs from epic’. He goes on to observe that Spenser ‘begins his official printed oeuvre with eclogues, but with the publication of the Complaints volume his readers would learn that he—like Virgil . . . —also experimented as a young man with mock- or sub-heroic satirical narrative’. Burrow concludes that ‘Spenser’s . . . generic career begins with pastoral. Or hymn. Or Virgilian juvenilia. Or all three’.45 This flourishing of career-fictions is something new in English poetry, and Spenser’s contemporaries slowly took it up.46 Milton opens his Paradise Regained with a Spenserian retrospect on the practice of career-fiction:

I who erewhile the happy garden sung,
By one man’s disobedience lost, now sing
Recovered Paradise to all mankind.
(PR 1.1-3)

Imitating Spenser’s imitation of the verses prefacing older editions of Virgil, Milton introduces his brief epic as the successor Paradise Lost, but he also, implicitly, presents himself as the heir to Spenser’s legacy of succession.47

Form as Thinking

As a poet Spenser is deeply invested in the expansive formal resources of his medium, not only genre but also diction and syntax, sound and rhythm, ambiguity and indirection, line and stanza, image and narrative, allusion and imitation, and mythopoesis on a grand scale. Gordon Teskey contrasts Spenser with Milton as a poet whose work is presented not as finished thought but as process, a thinking that unfolds as we read, revising its course with unexpected turns and apparent digressions.48 Spenser has in common with the greatest of modern poets a willingness to let the logic of forms lead to unexpected ends, like errant knights taking adventures as they come.

One form beloved of Elizabethans is the proverb. If ever a verbal formula seemed apt for presenting self-contained nuggets of finished thought, it is the proverb as generally received in Tudor verse and humanist culture, so permeated by the ethos of Erasmus’ Adagia.49 Wyatt, in what his modern editor R. A. Rebholz calls his 'Epistolary Satires', regularly draws on the resources of this form, and in the opening lines of CLI he explains why:

‘A spending hand that alway poureth out
Hath need to have a bringer-in as fast’;
And ‘On the stone that still doth turn about
There groweth no moss’---these proverbs yet do last.
Reason hath set them in so sure a place
That length of years their force can never waste.
(Rebholz 1978: 192, lines 1-6)

Spenser, by contrast, frequently offers his sententiae with a twist of lemon.50 Una’s first words in the poem, warning Redcrosse to pause before Errour’s den, turn one of the most familiar proverbs in the language inside out:
Be well aware, quoth then that Ladie milde,
Least suddaine mischiefe ye too rash prouoke:
The danger hid, the place vnknowne and wilde,
Breedes dreadfull doubts: Oft fire is without smoke,
And perill without show.
(FQ I.i.12.1-5)

n Tilly’s dictionary of proverbs, fire is never without smoke.51 Redcrosse dismisses Una’s counsel with what sounds like a proverb—‘Vertue giues her selfe light, through darkenesse for to wade’ (12.9)—but his complacency is not authorized by anything in Tilly, though it may be undercut by a resemblance to C39, ‘A Candle (torch) lights others and consumes itself’. In canto ii Redcrosse will attempt to make small talk with his new acquaintance ‘Fidessa’:
Henceforth in safe assuraunce may ye rest,
Hauing both found a new friend you to aid,
And lost an old foe, that did you molest:
Better new friend then an old foe is said.
(27.1-4)

The knight’s proverb rounds off his pledge of service with flat-footed inanity, nicely captured in the anticlimax of ‘is said’; the narrator then ends the stanza with an equally bland maxim, ‘so dainty they say maketh derth’, where the witty turn on the lament of Ovid’s Narcissus—Inopem me copia fecit, ‘Plenty made me poor’ (Met 3.466 )—lends the line a deadpan irony, once again cued by the tag ‘they say’.52

Spenser can turn the form to serious purpose, of course, evoking with poignancy the tenderness that Arthur carries with him into the filth and stench of the proud giant Orgoglio's dungeon, from which he rescues the fallen Redcrosse knight: ‘Entire affection hateth nicer hands’ (FQ I.viii.40.3), offered parenthetically, seems to be another of Spenser’s coinages, proverbial in style but appealing in its evocation of an ethos of care rather than caution. A trickier instance appears a canto earlier, as Arthur tries to draw out a reluctant Una on the subject of her grief:

O but (quoth he) great griefe will not be tould,
And can more easily be thought, then said.
Right so (quoth he) but he, that neuer would,
Could neuer: will to might giues greatest aid.
But griefe (quoth she) does greater grow displaid,
If then it find not helpe, and breeds despaire.
Despaire breeds not (quoth he) where faith is staid.
No faith so fast (quoth she) but flesh does paire.
Flesh may empaire (quoth he) but reason can repaire.
(vii.41)

The adages, flagged to our attention by the repetition of ‘quoth he’/‘quoth she’, pile up so rapidly that the exchange verges on comic one-upmanship.The densely signifying wordplay of ‘despaire’, ‘paire’, ‘empaire’, and ‘repaire’ meanwhile calls attention to problems of interpretation that the proverbial form normally offers to bypass.

Spenser has always been celebrated for the craftsmanship of his verse.53 The Faerie Queene stanza is the most widely imitated of his innovations, but the facility with which he adapts and invents stanza forms is apparent from The Shepheardes Calender to the Amoretti and the marriage songs. If Richard Danson Brown’s ‘literary archaeology’ of the Spenserian stanza is correct, it ‘not only attempts to “ouergo” Ariostan ottava rima, but rebuilds Chaucerian rhyme royal to produce a hybrid English form’, and so should be recognized as ‘a reclamation of the syntax and rhyme scheme of rhyme royal’.54 A distinctive feature of the stanza is its use of interlocking rhyme; Spenser builds this feature into The Faerie Queene stanza and then carries it forward into the Spenserian sonnet. The rhyme-royal stanza overlaps two patterns, an interwoven quatrain and two rhyming pairs, so that the b rhyme that ends the cross-rhymed quatrain (abab…) serves also to begin the first paired rhyme (ababbcc). In Spenser’s hands, the distinctive result of this overlapping—eight lines’ worth of rhyming patterns telescoped into seven lines—is a sense of suspended closure. We see this in the invocation that opens the first of the Fowre Hymnes. The quatrain seems momentarily self-contained:

Loue, that long since hast to thy mighty powre,
Perforce subdude my poore captiued hart,
And raging now therein with restlesse stowre,
Doest tyrranize in euerie weaker part.
(HL 1-4)

But the pause invited by the completion of the subordinate clause (and reinforced by the close of the quatrain) turns into a rolling stop as the verse movement yields a paired rhyme:
Doest tyrranize in euerie weaker part;
Faine would I seeke to ease my bitter smart.
(HL 4-5)

This deferral of closure extends through the final lines of the stanza:
Faine would I seeke to ease my bitter smart,
By any seruice I might do to thee,
Or ought that else might to thee pleasing be.
(HL 5-7)

This formal glide enacts on a very small scale the resistance to narrative closure for which Spenser is so well known. It offers a variety of ways to slow the movement of the verse or even evoke a turning back, modulating the predications of the verse with what Wallace Stevens in ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ calls ‘the beauty of inflections’.

Spenser might have caught this trick from Chaucer, the first English poet to import rhyme royal from the Continent. The second stanza of Troilus and Creseyde, for instance, as Spenser would have encountered it in Thynne’s 1561 edition, plays syntax against rhyme in a recognizable way:

To the I clepe, thou goddesse of tourment
Thou cruel furie, sorowing euer in paine
Helpe me that am the sorowfull instrument
That helpeth louers, as I can complaine
for wel sit it, the soth for to saine
A woful wight to haue a drery fere
And to a sorowfull tale a sory chere.55

As in the opening stanza of Spenser’s Hymne to Love, line 4 completes the syntactic period begun with the invocation (here, of the Fury Tisiphone); the fifth begins a new syntactic unit even as its b-rhyme links it back to the quatrain. This interplay of rhyme and syntax is a standard feature of the stanza.

In ‘The Induction’ to The Mirrour for Magistrates Spenser would have observed the handling of rhyme royal by Chaucer’s mid-Tudor ‘scholler’ Sackville. The Induction opens by setting the scene:

The wrathful winter ‘proaching on a pace,
With blustering blasts had al ybar'd the treen,
And olde Saturnus with his frosty face
With chilling colde had pearst the tender green:
The mantles rent, wherein enwrapped been
The gladsom groves that nowe laye overthrowen,
The tapets torn, and every bloom downe blowen.56

The first paired rhyme (lines 4-5) spans the breach in the syntax, just as in Chaucer. But Sackville’s description doesn’t build on the counterpoint: the verse is adroitly patterned, but static. The four lines of the quatrain are syntactically parallel and break into two-line pairs. Lines 5-7 invert the sequence subject-verb-object, giving us first the natural object acted upon, then supplying the action as a predicate adjective (‘The mantles rent’) with the main verb (‘were’) elided. This formal elegance does not affect the underlying structure of the catalogue: as John Thompson observes in The Founding of English Metre, ‘Sackville’s variations in phrasing and pauses lend a purely sonorous variety to his lines. They have no relation to the structure of this thought’ (1961: 55).

The opening stanza of Fowre Hymnes, by contrast, develops a complex temporal sequence. Sackville stays in the simple past perfect; Spenser starts with a present perfect tense (‘hast subdued’) and then shifts from ‘long since’ to ‘now’ with a present participle (‘raging’) and a finite verb phrase in the present tense (‘Doest tyrranize’). After the close of the quatrain rounds off the opening address to Love, the tense shifts to a modal ‘would’ as the focus moves from Love to the speaker: the present perfect described in lines 1-4 sets up an optative that looks to a possible future in which the speaker’s pain will be eased. The emphatic turn between lines 4 and 5 contrasts with the steady pace of Sackville's catalogue, in which syntactic variation overlays continuity of predication. Spenser's fifth line marks a new beginning, a hopeful movement away from the damage love has wrought upon the speaker. Yet the repeated rhyme evokes a sort of prolonging, echoing what came before just as the line starts its new movement. In Sackville the rhyme underlines continuity within variation, whereas in Spenser it modulates a strong turn with an ambivalent persistence of what is rejected.

Spenser's handling of rhyme royal in this stanza nicely illustrates the qualities that lead Danson Brown to propose the form as a model for the stanza of The Faerie Queene: the ‘fourth line’, he observes, ‘works as a hinge between the two “halves” of the stanza’, whereas both the sixain and ottava rima ‘tend to resolve the sense into the form of four connected units of two lines each’.47 As William Empson’s description emphasizes, the fifth line of the Spenserian works in a similar way—it ‘must give a soft bump to the dying fall of the first quatrain, keep it in the air’ (1947: 33)—and it does so, as Brown remarks, because like rhyme royal, and unlike ottava rima or the sixain, it contains an odd number of lines. Spenser capitalizes on the interlocking rhymes of his stanza to create a range of effects, many of which, like the stanza from the Hymne to Love, are subtleties of verse movement that the more balanced ottava rima tends not to elicit.

The Faerie Queene’s stanza opens, like rhyme royal, with a quatrain (abab…) that leads into a rhyming pair (ababb… ) that in turn leads to a second quatrain (. . . bcbc) before closing with a second pair that repeats the c-rhyme of the second quatrain, just as the middle pair repeats the b-rhyme of the first. These overlapping patterns create complex possibilities of structure, tone, and mood; they lend themselves especially to a gliding movement, as quatrain (twice) modulates into a rhyme pair, an effect redoubled by the dilatory alexandrine in the close—no doubt this is what led Horace Walpole to speak of Spenser’s ‘drawling stanzas’.58 This tendency to array patterns as overlapping rather than discrete affords nuances that arise not from the abstract patterns alone but from the way rhythm, phrasing, and syntax move through the stanzaic pattern. The delicate varying of this movement across several lines of verse, together with the frequently light handling of pauses, conveys the provisional quality of statements always about to be revised, and in this way it sustains the impression of what Teskey describes as ‘poetic thinking’ rather than ‘poetic thought’. This, as Teskey has said, is nothing like the movement of Miltonic blank verse, with its frequent strong enjambments and their often propulsive force: as Christopher Ricks observes of one sweeping period from Book II of Paradise Lost (170-86), ‘When a sentence surges forward like that, the end of it seems less a destination than a destiny’ (1963: 30). It is unfortunate, then, that discussions of the Spenserian stanza have not done more to build on Empson’s insights into the way ‘Spenser concentrates the reader’s attention on to the movement of his stanza’ (emphasis added). The failure to build on Empson is striking in Paul Alpers’ seminal chapter on the stanza, which quotes Empson admiringly and at length only to insist on ‘the line as an independent unit’, to the exclusion of larger patterns (1967: 46). Critical discussion has sometimes tended to describe the stanza as a static shape, a footprint, neglecting that it also unfolds in time as a subtly varied movement through formal patterns.59

The delicate varying of movement that results from Spenser’s use of interlocking rhyme in counterpoint with syntax is notable also in the canzone he adapts from Petrarch for his marriage poems. The opening quatrain of Prothalamion establishes an enclosed rather than alternating rhyme scheme (abba), but the second and third lines are gently enjambed, creating hesitancies that resonate with the verbs ‘play’ and ‘delay’ (meaning temper but also linger, or defer). When the verse moves into a rhyme pair after the end-stopped fourth line, the effect is striking:

Calme was the day, and through the trembling ayre,
Sweete breathing Zephyrus did softly play
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
Hot Titans beames, which then did glister fayre:
When I whom sullein care,
Through discontent of my long fruitlesse stay . . . .

Even as the verse starts forward again after the colon, the rhyme looks back, as if lingering for a moment with the glistering sunbeams before yielding to the season of the speaker's discontent; the adverb ‘When’, carrying the gentle play of warmth, light, and air over into the restless mood of his excursion, contributes to a sense of continuous movement that surrounds and qualifies the full stop. The quatrain-plus retroactively yields two rhyming pairs (abbaa), while the surprise of the trimeter line makes the following pentameter about the poet’s ‘long fruitlesse stay’ (drawn out by the metrical promotion of ‘long’ to form a spondee) seem that much longer.60 Across the stanza as a whole, the expectation of repetitive form is beguiled as patterns surface and subside in this way without achieving dominance; the balance the stanza evokes between hesitation and tentative forward movement will turn out to be at the heart of the poem’s subject matter.

Sounding the Verse

This is to say that Spenser’s verse is most fully appreciated not only when seen but especially when heard. Such hearing is an acquired skill. For readers who have not yet perfected it, we offer here a few notes of practical advice. To register the subtleties of Spenser’s craftsmanship, it is helpful to recognise when syllables are either sounded or elided; elision is a common practice in the verse tradition stemming from Chaucer, as we see in a line quoted earlier from Troilus and Cressida: ‘Thou cruel furie, sorowing euer in paine,’ where both ‘sorowing’ and ‘euer’ elide a syllable to produce the smooth pentameter. How well sixteenth-century writers were able to recognize Chaucer’s metrical fluency is debatable. But like most poets of the time when they seek to smooth their verse—rather than imitate the rough meters we encounter in Skelton, Wyatt, or parts of The Shepheardes Calender—Spenser regularly depends upon such elision. Yet typographic conventions used to signal the elision of a syllable were not settled when Spenser’s works were first published. Consider the use of the apostrophe. In the line ‘To see th’vnkindly impes of heauen accurst’ (FQ I.i.26.2), the apostrophe marks an elision of the vowel ‘e’ (‘heauen’ is normally heard as monosyllabic). By contrast, the apostrophe in the line ‘Suspect her truth: yet since no’vntruth he knew’ (FQ I.I.53.6) marks an elision left for the reader to complete, collapsing the vowels ‘o’ and ‘v’. Still another variation appears in the line ‘The cruell markes of many’ a bloody fielde’ (FQ I.i.1.4), where elision that the reader must complete not only collapses the vowels but also, in the process, converts ‘y’ from vowel to consonant.

Spelling, like punctuation, is an inconsistent guide. Forms of the preterite or past participle that end in ‘ed’ may be sounded or not as the meter requires. The line ‘Forwasted all their land, and them expeld’ (I.i.5.8) seems clear enough, with ‘ed’ sounded in contrast to the ‘d’ of ‘expeld’, but when the monster Errour coils to strike—‘Yet kindling rage her selfe she gathered round’ (I.i.18.2)—the verb ‘gathered’ is probably disyllabic, with the final two syllables sounded as one, either ‘gatherd’ or ‘gathred’. By contrast, in a line quoted earlier in this introduction—‘Whom when I asked from what place he came’ (CCCHA 64)—the meter asks that we voice the unaccented ‘ed’ in ‘asked’. The unreliability of such typographic signals may be authorial, or may reflect inconsistent practice by copyists or compositors: as a general rule we cannot safely assume that punctuation, capitalization, or even italicization accurately transmit authorial intention.61 Along with the variability of ‘ed’, we find instances of unmarked elision that normally would be signaled with an apostrophe. In the line ‘With timely pride aboue the Aegyptian vale’ (FQ I.i.22.4), only an ear for pentameter rhythm will tell a reader that ‘the Aegypt-’ is elided into two syllables, as if it had been printed ‘th’Aegypt-’.

There is a class of words that in Elizabethan verse may contract or expand their pronunciation to serve the meter, the most common of these being ‘heauen’, which is typically monosyllabic, as in the example cited above, but may at need expand to two syllables, as at FQ I.x.21.3: ‘Or backward turne his course from heuen's hight’. This class of words includes many which can resolve two-syllable vowel pairs into a single syllable to serve the meter: examples include ‘obedient’, ‘Cynthia’, ‘spirituall’, ‘puissaunce’, ‘lineally’, ‘genealogie’, and ‘haberieons’ (pronounced ‘hàberjons’). Others elide r-plus-vowel syllables: ‘towre’, ‘murmuring’, ‘rigorous’, even ‘corrosiues’ (heard as ‘cor’siues’). Another cluster resembles ‘heauen’ in eliding syllables that combine a vowel with labial ‘u’: ‘rauenous’, ‘seuenfold’, ‘Soueraines’, and ‘deuilish’. The possibilities for metrical elision extend even to syllables that show traces of resistance, as is the case with ‘innocent’ in the line ‘Whereon thy innocent feet doe euer tread’ (FQ I.x.10.2). The word is normally trisyllabic in sixteenth-century verse, but on occasion must be voiced as ‘in’cent’, or perhaps as ‘in-[ə]-cent’, with a persisting barely breathed sub-syllabic half-vowel. There is, always, play in the system: Spenser’s verse does contain hypermetric lines, often because they employ feminine rhymes. Metrical variations like these—and our examples merely gesture toward a much larger set—were matters of keen interest to Elizabethan poets such as Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas Drant, Edward Dyer, Gabriel Harvey, and Daniel Rogers.

The Queen’s Eclipse

The movements of Spenser’s verse replay in miniature not only the poet’s resistance to narrative closure but also his lifelong tendency, described earlier, to move forward by looking back, treating his own earlier work as a source to recover and transform.62 This disposition emerges once again in the poem’s visionary crescendo on Mt. Acidale, near the end of the 1596 installment of The Faerie Queene. That scene, as we noted earlier, is taken up and recast in Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, where the assault of the Titanesse on the moon-goddess Cynthia alludes to Elizabeth herself as eclipsed by mortality.63 In Book VI the queen is relinquished with more delicacy. The Dance of the Graces looks back to the Aprill eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender, where the three goddesses first appear in Colin’s ‘lay of Elisa’, sung in his absence by Hobbinol. The later scene resumes the lay’s celebratory motive, elevating Colin’s unnamed beloved to the status of Fourth Grace and thereby reappropriating a distinction the eclogue had reserved to the queen. In the same breath, Spenser's narrator transforms the marked absence of the disconsolate singer into a joyous, if strange, affirmation of presence: ‘Thy loue is present there with thee in place’ (VI.x.16.8).

Earlier in this introduction we described Calidore on Mt. Acidale as a projection of the reader’s frustrated longing for vision, but there is another way to read the episode. Not only does the poet here replace the queen as Fourth Grace with an avatar of his own bride, so recently celebrated in Amoretti and Epithalamion (1595); he also intimates a refashioning of Arthur’s dream of the Fairy Queen as the poem’s origin-story (even addressing Elizabeth as Gloriana at 28.3). In the Graces, surrounded by naked maidens and dancing to Colin’s pipe, Spenser projects a vision of his own creative process.64 Shelley in his Defense of Poetry (1821) will compare ‘The mind in creation’ to ‘a fading coal’, but Spenser here presents the coals in full glow before they are doused by the affably intrusive Calidore. There is no balking of the visionary impulse in the celebrated stanza that offers a celestial simile for the dance:

Looke how the Crowne, which Ariadne wore
Vpon her yuory forehead that same day
That Theseus her vnto his bridale bore
When the bold Centaures made that bloudy fray
With the fierce Lapithes, which did them dismay;
Being now placed in the firmament,
Through the bright heauen doth her beams display,
And is vnto the starres an ornament,
Which round about her moue in order excellent.
(VI.x.13)

Not until the next stanza is the similitude in fact posited: ‘Such’—that is, like the crown that ornaments the stars—‘was the beauty of this goodly band’ (14.1). Meanwhile the abrupt opening command, ‘Looke’, bypasses Calidore in a direct address to the reader, and conveys an excitement verging on ecstasy; it urges the presence of vision.65 It also echoes the exclamatory ‘Loe’ that closes the Calender and opens The Faerie Queene—‘Loe I haue made,’ ‘Lo I the man’—a signature rhetorical gesture for Spenser, as we have noted.66 Here, though, the exclamation points not to the text in its imaginary presence nor to the poet-narrator in his, but to a vision in the stars. This vision enshrines a narrative in which marriage rites disrupted by violence are recuperated in the constellation that crowns the stanza. The lines recall the fears that shadow Spenser’s hymn to his own marriage, the Epithalamion, and they witness the triumphant resolution of these threats in the same cosmic harmony that sponsors the marriage poem’s structure: the ‘order excellent’ in which the stars proceed.

Of course we do not literally see these things, but the hints of suspicion and frustration that so often hedge Spenser’s approaches to vision seem, for the moment, if only for the moment, stayed. Readers of this ecstatic scene are not meant to visualize it: the nudity of the maidens is treated at once with candor and with tact, a lovely recovery of the ‘lilly white’ belonging to Petrarch’s fugitive candida cerva, intimating now not unapproachable chastity but a kind of deep interior innocence of fulfilled desire. We are called not to see but to bear witness, beyond the visible, to the beauty and vitality of the human creative impulse achieving spontaneous harmony with the universe.

This originary spark of creative inspiration is the mystery that all powerful poetry makes its readers avid to behold. Mt. Acidale, then, is not just another moment of visionary skepticism or frustration. There is frustration, to be sure—Colin breaks his pipes, reenacting the decisive gesture that opened his literary career in the Januarye eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender (where he breaks them because they fail to win Rosalinde). Reenacting but also revising, for there is no indication that the Graces have fled once and for all, like Astraea in Book V (i.11). Their presence is a gift as unpredictable as the ‘iolly Shepehards lasse’ (16.1) is mysterious, yet during the ‘minime’ in which they are present, another temporality seems to emerge, and the poet is inspired to affirm the presence of both his beloved and his vision as they merge into a rapturous singularity.

The scene of Colin’s piping revives the epistemological uncertainty of Arthur's dream, and its dissolution evokes the melancholy yet still enchanted aftermath in which the knight pursues that fading coal of glory. Somehow, though, the evanescence of Colin’s vision does not make its figures less real: Calidore is drawn to the scene not only by the ‘merry sound’ of Colin’s pipe (10.2) but also by that of ‘many feete fast thumping th’hollow ground’, and although he shows a deplorable want of Negative Capability, the dance is visible to him.67 In lines heightened once again by a shift to direct address, the poet-narrator joins in the celebration:

Pype iolly shepheard, pype thou now apace
Unto thy loue, that made thee low to lout;
Thy loue is present there with thee in place,
Thy loue is there aduaunst to be another Grace.
(16.6-9)

In response to Calidore’s questioning, Colin deepens the enigma of this figure, humble yet exalted, familiar yet scarcely knowable:
But that fourth Mayd, which there amidst them traced,
Who can aread, what creature mote she bee . . .
But what so sure she was, she worthy was,
To be the fourth with those three other placed:
Yet certes was she but a country lasse,
Yet she all other countrey lasses farre did passe.
(25.2-3, 6-9)

The minor inversion of normal word order in ‘mote she be’ (rather than ‘she mote be’) is not metrically motivated; rather, it promotes the uncertainty inherent in the modal verb. The adversatives that crowd the lines—but, but, yet, yet—are a distinct stylistic signature, the ‘Spenser two-step’, a dance his verse performs whenever it approaches the threshold between the known and visible world and whatever lies beyond or beneath it.68 Here it signals the presence—there, with thee, in place—of something intensely real (‘sure she was’, ‘certes was she’) if not quite nameable.

This emphasis on an unfathomable presence dwelling within the mundane might seem to evoke, perhaps remotely, theological debates about the Eucharist. The moment arrives in the midst of an elaborate masculine fantasy in which an idealized female figure serves to heal a breach both in reality and in the desiring masculine subject. The country lass is not simply Elizabeth Boyle, but she does figure the author’s bride insofar as she embodies the sacred function of gathering experience into cosmic harmony, a function whose loss Donne will lament in the death of Elizabeth Drury—almost as if the Anniversaries were set in the despondent aftermath of Calidore’s intrusion. This totalizing and harmonizing fantasy is marked by its fragility as something intensely private (for all that the Dance of the Graces is a crowd scene), but it is also marked, by the image of Ariadne’s crown and the presence of the Graces, as something cosmic and transcendent. What it is pointedly not, the poet tells us, is what the poem has heretofore claimed as its governing foreconceit, praise of Queen Elizabeth as the Tudor embodiment of glory.

When Spenser puts Colin’s country lass in place of the queen as his Fourth Grace, he sets in motion a number of transformations. He marks the visionary dance on Mt. Acidale not only as a revision of the Aprill lay, but also, implicitly, as a revision of Arthur’s dream of Gloriana, one that redeems the terminal elusiveness of the Fairy Queen in the ineffable presence, affirmed if not fully known, of the beloved to her lover. Moreover, in place of the sublime elevation of Sir Thopas and his visionary bathos, Spenser now looks back to the Wife of Bath’s feminist fairytale, straight from ‘the olde dayes of King Artour’ when ‘All was this londe fulfilled of faierie’.69 In this tale, a ‘lusty bacheler’ of Arthur’s court rapes a young woman and is brought before the king: ‘dampned was this knyght for to be deed, / By cours of lawe, and sholde han lost his heed’. The queen and her ladies intercede, whereupon the king ‘yaf him to the queene, al at hire wille’. She grants the knight a twelve-month reprieve to search out the answer to a question: ‘What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren’. At the end of his quest the knight, returning full of sorrow and with no definitive answer, comes upon a dance ‘Of ladyes foure and twenty, and yet mo’, who vanish when he approaches—the detail that most clearly links the tale to the scene on Spenser’s Mt. Acidale.70

In place of the vanished dancers he finds ‘a wyf-- / A fouler wight ther may no man devyse’. She might have been a hag or simply an old woman, but in a nice turn of Chaucerian wit, The Wife’s Tale features a wife. Upon learning the knight’s predicament she offers to divulge the true answer—provided that he then grant whatever she asks of him—and of course he agrees. She accompanies him to the queen’s court, where he pronounces that ‘Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee / As well over hir housbond as hir love’. The answer serves, the knight is saved, and the old wife claims her prize: to his intense dismay, she demands that he marry her. Their wedding day and night are joyless indeed: the knight ‘hidde him as an owle, / So wo was hym, his wyf looked so foule’, and once in bed with her he cannot conceal his disgust. After a lengthy defense of her low birth and poverty, the wife points out that her old age and loathliness guarantee her chasity—and she gives the knight a choice: would you rather have me as I am and faithful, or take your chances with me as a young and beautiful wife who may attract too much attention? The knight’s reply shows that he has learned his lesson: he puts himself in his wife’s ‘wise governance’ and tells her to choose for him. At that the wife tells him she will be both ‘fair and good’, and turns into a beautiful young maid, whereupon the marriage is consummated and the couple live blissfully ever after.

In this tale we find ‘souerainte’ transposed from the the king’s court to the queen’s and then from husband to wife in the marital bed. There the husband-knight finds Sir Thopas’s jaunty, self-congratulatory dream ‘fulfilled of faierie’: the loathly lady left behind when the dance of the fairies vanishes turns out to be the fairy queen after all, and she brings her elvish magic to the consummation of an ideal marriage. As an alternative prompt for the poem’s culminating vision, then, the Wife of Bath’s Tale offers a decisive reversal of the frustrated masculine longing that drives the quest of Spenser’s Arthur in The Faerie Queene.

This recourse to Chaucer helps us see that what takes the place of endlessly deferred glory, in the person of Colin's country lass, may be a nascent though still unnamed thought of conjugal intimacy. Marriage is not the explicit subject of Colin’s vision, but it hovers on the scene’s periphery in echoes of the Epithalamion, and lingers in the background through allusions to the Wife of Bath’s Tale; it is marked as well in the historical allusion to the poet’s new bride, Elizabeth Boyle. Spenser’s transformation of the quest-motif in Book VI is marked, as critics have often observed, by a trail of loving couples whose privacy is breached—by Calidore, by the ‘saluage nation’, by the Brigands, and by the Blatant Beast. Clearly, then, one of the issues Spenserian courtesy seeks to negotiate is the tenuous boundary that marks off amorous privacy, a privacy that royal favorites like Leicester (figured as Arthur in The Faerie Queene) and Sir Walter Ralegh (figured as Timias) found to be politically all too vulnerable when they incurred the queen’s wrath for having contracted private marriages. For Spenser in Book VI, these embraces and their repeated violation mark off the fragility of what would be designated, a generation or two later, by the word ‘intimacy’.71

Spenser’s double recourse in the Mt. Acidale episode to Chaucer and to autobiography reverberates against his lifelong engagement with the system of patronage and its inherent tensions, seen in our earlier discussion of the poet’s conflicted allegiances to Leicester and Elizabeth. Joseph Loewenstein’s description of the dedicatory sonnets to the 1590 Faerie Queene as occasioning a sort of visionary nostalgia—‘for the dislocation of the poet from the structures of clientage that these poems signal was only just impending’ (1996, 129)—may suggest that, in evoking erotic intimacy as an alternative source of creative inspiration and guarantor of poetic authenticity, Spenser is once again turning his backward glance toward anticipation of a history yet to come.

Notes

1 For more on these topics, see SpEnc: Blissett, s.v. ‘stanza, Spenserian’; Woods, s.v. ‘versification’; on SC, Thompson 1961: 88-127, and Dolven 2010. Renwick 1925:189-91 gives a brief overview of the formal range of Spenser’s poems.
2 Nicholson 2020 offers a richly nuanced account of Spenser’s reception history and, by extension, of the often contradictory roles his work and reputation have played in the literary cultures of England and the United States.
3 Spenser likely knew that there were scholars, ancient and early modern, who contested the authenticity of the four-line opening to the Aeneid to which he alludes, ‘ille ego, etc.’; whether he knew that the greatest Virgilian scholar of his day, Julius Caesar Scaliger, accepted the lines as Virgil’s is less certain; see Wilson-Okamura 2010: 85-91. For further discussion see below, “Genre, Genre Patterning, and Career.”
4 See Rambuss 1993.
5 For Spenser’s other references to Mulla, see CCCHA 92-155, TCM vi.40.3-6, Epith 46, and FQ IV.xi.41.9: ‘Mulla mine, whose waues I whilom taught to weep’.
6On the tactics of pseudonymy, see North 2003, chapters 2 and 3 and Waldman 1991.
7INSTERT URL HERE
8For a more detailed case for retaining the attribution of A Vewe to Spenser, see E. Fowler in McCabe 2010: 325-326.
9 On the attribution to ‘Edward’ Spenser, see Axiochus, Introduction.
10 Lane cited from BL MS. Harl. 5243, fol. 7, in Woudhuysen 1982, 412.
11A. B. Grosart includes Brittain’s Ida in his Fuller Worthies Library edition of Giles and Phineas Fletcher (1869); Grosart’s attribution was endorsed by Seaton and Boas (Seaton 1926, vi, xvi-xxi).
12 Brittain’s Ida alludes to a range of scenes of temptation, especially those from ‘The Legend of Temperance,’ but the opening gesture takes in not only the reappearance of Colin Clout on Mt Acidale but the recollection of that scene in the posthumously published Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, the culminating scene of which is set ‘vpon the highest hights / Of Arlo-hill (Who knowes not Arlo-hill?)’ (TCM vi.36.5-6)--a place of serious gathering that Fletcher’s dissipating Ida’s Vale inverts.
13 However hierarchical, its organization was loose. Galbraith 2006 refers to it as a 'Build-it-yourself' edition: 'the folios usually begin with the title page and the two parts of The Faerie Queene, and tend to end with Colin Clouts Come Home Again. Often, The Shepheardes Calender immediately follows The Faerie Queene. On the whole, however, the placement order varies' (27).
14 See the discussion of genre-patterning below, pp. 00-00.
15 Cheney 1993, Cheney and De Armas 2002, Burrow 2008 and Handbook 2010 s.v.‘Spenser’s Genres’. The Virgilian cursus involves georgic as an intermediate step; on the problematic status of georgic in Spenser and other Elizabethan writers, see Sessions 1980 and SpE 1990 s.v. ‘Georgic’.
16We outline the text-critical procedures for the bulk of our edition in the General Textual Introduction: Print (pp. XX-XX below). By arrangement with the Press, content from each printed volume will become freely accessible in digital form on a rolling basis, eighteen months after publication, at URL
17https://www.english.cam.ac.uk/spenseronline/iss/
18 William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets (1818: 74), ‘Lecture II: On Chaucer and Spenser.’
19 Maurus Servius Honoratus (b. 363) composed learned commentaries on Virgil’s Aeneid and Eclogues.
20 Cf. Anderson 2019: “The Faerie Queene is rightly described as a vast echo chamber; this is one of its outstanding and defining characteristics, which its highly, even endlessly figurative surface enables” (23).
21 Conf I.xii.21; see D. Miller 2014b, 2016.
22 We take this term from Miskimin’s 1977 discussion of Tudor neomedievalism.
23 On the knight as patron, see I.i.arg.1 and cf. ‘Letter’ 61.
24D. Miller 1988 treats this deferral as the essential “bargain” of the poem.
25Although Gloriana is largely absent from the narrative poem, the narrator frequently addresses the queen she represents (or who is said, in the proem to FQ II, to descend from her), soliciting her attention, cajoling her compliance, and occasionally praising her in such terms as to confound the difference between Elizabeth and Gloriana: see especially the proems to FQ I and III as well as the address to the censorious queen as Gloriana at VI.x.28.
26 Just as Arthur and Artegall cannot be collapsed (despite the fact that Artegall’s name, and its occasional spelling, ‘Arthegall’, invite us to judge him Arthur’s equal), neither may we simply equate Leicester and Grey. Yet Grey’s policy in Ireland closely aligns with that of his immediate predecessors, and especially with that of Leicester’s brother-in law, Henry Sidney, who was Lord Deputy from 1565 to 1571 and again from 1575-78, and whom Arthur Grey succeeded in the post.
27Even this vision is reported only at second hand (by Matthew, Mark, and Luke) although Peter does obliquely report that ‘with our eyes we saw his majesty’ (2 Pet 1.16).
28To be sure, the vision of Nature is a complex of transfigurations: within the Spenser corpus, it remakes the vision on Mt. Acidale, but it also transfigures Chaucer's PF (as Calidore's vision on Mt. Acidale transfigures the aggressive knight's vision of the dancing maidens in Chaucer's CT Wife), and Alain’s De Planctu Naturae.
29On the Spenserian sublime, including as a visionary mode (phantasia: visualization), see Fletcher 1964: 220-78; Lehtonen 2016 and 2023; Borris 2017: 3-6, 15-22, 39-40, 65-70, 181-3; Cheney 2018: 58-128; and Teskey 2019: 12, 43, 51, 117, 121, 127, 197.
30 Cf. Burrow Handbook 2010: ‘Each of Spenser’s contributions to a genre is driven not by the rigid taxonomy of classical theory, but by the dynamic, flexible, and transformative practice of classical poets’ (405). Genre of course is about more than literary career. For instance, it is also about the intellectual content of poetry’s self-placements; it has religious, philosophical, and political content; and it can be imperialist (Virgil), anti-imperialist (Ovid), anti-misogynist (Chaucer), against rape and force (Ovid), and strongly promoting virtue and getting people in line (Langland).
31On this hierarchy, see Fowler 1982: 213-34.
32See, e.g., Burrow 1993 book title.
33 Fowler 1982: 240, who sees the ousting as characteristic of the sixteenth century. Spenser folds georgic into epic in Book I of The Faerie Queene by naming his protagonist ‘George’ and by having the infant discovered in a plowed furrow (I.x.61.8-9); see Sessions SpE 1990 s.v. ‘georgics’.
34Spenser’s early readers noticed the move. John Taylor opens his Eighth Wonder of the World (1613),‘LO I the man whose Muse did lately forage / Through wind and sea with dreadlesse dantlesse corage / And to the life in hodg podge rime exprest’; Pasquil opens Pasquil’s Palinoia (1619), ‘LOe I the man whose Muse whilome did play / A horne-pipe both to Country and the Citty / Am now againe enioyn'd to sing or say / And tune my crowde vnto another ditty’. (​​Thanks to Stephen Pentecost and Marcy North for help in locating these imitations.)
35Coolidge 1965: 11.
36 As in October, it is unclear whether the line describes a shift in subject matter or in imagined audience.
37Lisle could be reading Sidney into Piers of October, who communicates to Cuddie the poet’s need to secure patronage by proceeding through the Virgilian genres.
38On the classical program, see Cheney 1993, 1999; Farrell 2001; Hardie and Moore 2012; Pugh 2016. On the medieval authorship of genre ‘practice’ rather than ‘program’, see Edwards 2002. Edwards 2015 revises this model, identifying one medieval author, Gower, as composing a counter-Virgilian pattern.
39 See Cheney 1993: 27-38. Spenser is likely thinking about the Italians—Petrarch, and the epic poets—who sought a place for the erotic in literary careers still engaged with epic. Although Ovid and Dante stand behind this elevation of love, they are not concerned with imperial epic. Spenser’s later sense that love poetry competes with epic suggests an uneasy relation to those models, evident here in the debate over whether love is enabling or debilitating to Colin.
40Spenser’s recourse, in FQ, to female characters named for literary forms (Amoret, Pastorella) rehearses Ovid’s device.
41 Elegies 1.1, 2.1, 2.18, and 3.15—the ‘programmatic’ poems.
42 October goes on to introduce yet another career model, the Ovidian, connecting epic and tragedy: ‘For Bacchus fruite is frend to Phœbus wise’ (106; see Cheney 1997: 61-5).
43Noted by Osgood 1917: 176; see Cheney 2011: 180.
44Noted by Osgood 1917: 176; see Cheney 2011: 180.
45Burrow Handbook 2010: 409. See also Burrow 2008: 8-12 for a discussion of Virgil’s Culex and especially Spenser’s translation, Virgils Gnat.
46 See, e.g., Joseph Hall, Virgidemiae (1597) 6.268-80; Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis (1593), dedicatory epistle, in Burrow 2002: 173; Anne Bradstreet, Tenth Muse (1650), 1-6.
47Knoppers 2008: 121; Cheney 2015.
48 Tesky 2019: 12. Emphasis on what the author calls ‘improvisatory’ or ‘open thinking’ (1) is a central motif in Spenserian Moments, most fully developed in ‘Part Three: On Thinking’.
49 On the importance of proverbs and related forms in Tudor culture, see Crane 1993.
50See the richly informative discussion by R. Kinsman SpE 1990, s.v. ‘proverbs’.
51 Tilley 1950: F246-93, S568-76. Augustine uses smoke and fire in Book II, ch. 1 of De Doctrina Christiana to illustrate the concept of a ‘natural sign’.
52 Spenser had used the Ovidian tag as ‘Diggons Embleme’ in The Shepheardes Calender (Sept 261).
53A useful introduction to Spenser’s handling of iambic pentameter may be found in Attridge 2013: 127-46. Woods 1984 discusses most of Spenser’s metrical and stanzaic innovations and places them in the historical context indicated by her subtitle, From Chaucer to Dryden (139-44, 147-62).
54Brown 2019b: 115-6, 135; see also 2019a: 161-7. Earlier claims on behalf of Chaucer’s rhyme royal as the inspiration for the Spenserian stanza were put forward by Hamer 1958 and Maynard 1934. Others have argued, less persuasively, for terza or ottava rima as templates.
55The woorkes of Geoffrey Chaucer, STC (2nd ed.) 5076, sig. Ggiv.
56Baldwin 1563, STC 1248: sig. P.iiir.
47 2019a: 163-4, 168. See also Hamer: ‘The outstanding characteristic of the Rime Royal is . . . kept for the Spenserian, the turn of the stanza at the central couplet’ (1958: 159). Woods describes some of the effects this medial couplet makes possible (1985: 148-51).
58 Walpole 1842, 3:380. Cf. Hamer: ‘the later movement [of the stanza] is extended, and the trenchancy of the final couplet is softened, and the whole sinuous progress of the rhymes is brought to a leisurely conclusion by the Alexandrine’ (1958: 159).
59 Welcome exceptions to this tendency include Gross 1983 and 2004, Dolven 2004, Krier 2006, and Gregerson 2012, who refers to Spenser’s ‘understanding of verse as a living passage through temporal stays or frameworks’ (35). The general point is not new: see Saintsbury 1906 for a defense of the Spenserian stanza which praises ‘the langorous (not languid) grace of the movement, the extraordinary fluidity’ achieved by Spenser’s prosody (I: 367). In a brilliant analysis of Wyatt’s metrical craft, Wright 1985 observes a contrasting tendency ‘to be absorbed much more deeply in the problems of assembling phrases into lines than in the problems of arranging those lines into groups that flow melodiously and please the ear with the larger patterns of quatrain or stanza’. The delicacy of movement we attribute to Spenser belongs to the more general historical development Wright describes: ‘This preoccupation with the line, to the injury of the line-flow, would be more than compensated for by perhaps two generations of sixteenth-century poets, who, abandoning Wyatt's complex decasyllabic system . . . would interest themselves in the problems of composing harmonious stanzas or sonnets that course more fluently from quatrain to quatrain than these difficult poems of Wyatt ever do’ (149). Addison 2006 and Macdonald 2015 are nicely attentive to Spenser’s strategies for preserving what Addison calls ‘the perceptibility of the line’ (351) within, and without ‘injury’ to, what Wright calls ‘the line-flow’.
60For a useful discussion of the Prothalamion stanza and the uses of its trimeter lines, see Woods 1984: 157-9.
61These features likely do transmit someone’s intention, and it can be useful to consider that they convey the guidance of a well-meaning contemporary. Spenser’s own investment in questions of syllable count, and of orthography as a guide to syllable count and stress, are central topics in his contributions to Letters
62 For a detailed analysis of the way this tendency manifests itself as ‘retrography’ in Spenser’s writing from 1567 to 1591, and in his relationsip to print, see Loewenstein 1996.
63 Cf. ‘The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured’ (Shakespeare, Sonnet 107.5), which Kerrigan argues is a reference to the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 (2001: 313-20). Spenser’s episode mourns Elizabeth by anticipation while also alluding to one or more recent lunar eclipses.
64 Teskey 2019 describes the scene as ‘a vision of the artist in the midst of his art, creating his work from within rather than from without’, but then objects that ‘a reading of the … dance as the poet’s signature and vision of his art … is too romantic in its elevation of art for art’s sake’ (394).
65Cheney 2018 locates this ecstasy within the literary history of the sublime, reading the episode as the decisive manifestation of sublime authorship, which Spenser bequeaths to Milton and the Romantics (2018: 84-7).
66For discussion of the link between Spenser’s ‘Lo’ and the vision on Mt. Acidale, see D. Miller in Maclean and Prescott 1993: 756-64.
67 The phrase ‘Negative Capability’ was coined by John Keats in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas, dated 22 December 1818: ‘several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (Scott 2002: 60). Calidore is no poet.
68 For a discussion of this signature equivocation, see D. Miller in Bellamy et al 2003: 185-199.
69Thynne 1561, sig. G6v.
70 Cf. Nohrnberg, SpEnc s.v ‘Acidale’: ‘With antecedents like the disappearing dance of the fairy-like ladies in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale … Calidore’s vision reinvents Arthur’s dream’ (1990: 5).
71Krier 1990 offers a perceptive discussion of this exploration as a theme in The Faerie Queene. Sanchez 2012 and Nicholson 2016 have more recently questioned the celebration of marital intimacy in Spenser’s later verse.