Tag Archives: chaucer

The Mutabilitie Cantos – a query (or two)

The above cantos are stuck on to the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’ and have attracted much critical debate/angst because they don’t readily ‘fit’ with the rest of this magnificent poet and because they have a distinctly philosophical flavour. It isn’t my intention to enter these debates nor do I wish to argue with Frank Kermode’s view that these constitute the finest philosophical poem in the language. What I do want to do is ask a couple of questions that are much more straightforward and relate to poetic practice.

Since reading Andrew Zurcher on the legal terms that Spenser uses, I’ve been reading the poem with a different kind of attention which is more about word use than ‘theme’. Coincidentally I’m attempting to learn the finer points of Middle English and get to grips late medieval literary culture and this has set off a slightly oblique reading of the Cantos. As these describe a kind of trial with a parade of witnesses and evidence and judgement then Zurcher is correct in drawing out the legal terms (although he does indulge in a bit of over-egging to make his point) and to relate this perspective to Spenser’s remedy for Ireland- violent subjugation followed by legal constraint/control. What he seems to miss is what appears to be a wistful glance towards an apparently simpler past.

The Cantos tell the story of Mutability (a ‘Titanesse’) whose first major transgression is to ‘switch off’ the moon and the stars, causing more than a little consternation:

Mean-while, the Lower world, which nothing knew
Of all that chaunced here, was darkened quite,
And eke the heavens, and all the heavenly crew
Of happy wights, now unpurvaid of light,
Were much afraid, and wondred at that sight;
Fearing least Chaos broken had his chaine,
And brought againe on them eternall night:
But chiefly Mercury, that next doth raigne,
Ran forth in haste, unto the Gods to plaine.

The two words that I’d like to highlight are ‘unpurvaid’ and ‘plaine’ because these both indicate that something else might be going on apart from a kind of judicial process. ‘FQ’ is full of archaisms and more than a few words of Spenser’s invention in order to capture the ‘feel’ and spirit of the medieval romance tradition. In the English Middle Ages, ‘purveyance’ was the term used to describe the process of acquiring provisions for the royal household and/or armies and was a frequent source of resentment amongst the peasantry because, as the excellent Wendy Scase points out- “Payment might never be made, or it might not reflect the true value of the goods supplied. Purveyors might insist on buying at a discount. And where payment was made by credit instrument, such as a tally, it could be hard for the creditor to get what he was owed.”

The other point is that peasant plaint was the common way of attempting to obtain some kind of redress from the king and this was a judicial process that grew in popularity throughout the period. Complaints need not be against the actions of the crown, they were also made against feudal lords. As Skase also points out the ‘compleint’ became a recognized form of poetry that persisted until the sixteenth century.

So, I accept that this might be over-reading and also note that A C Hamilton glosses the first term as ‘unprovided’ and the second as ‘complaint’ and leaves it at that so I might be in a minority of one but ‘unpurvaide’ is a clumsy term to describe being plunged into sudden darkness and it does seem to presage the presentation of Mutabilitie’s ‘case’ to Nature.

The intriguing aspect of this usage is Spenser’s motivation. These Cantos stand at one remove from the rest of his output and he must have known that these would confuse and unsettle the majority of his devoted readers. He may have attempted to allay some of these concerns by using a familiar cultural trope- albeit in inverted form.

The other piece of oddness is Spenser’s refusal to describe Nature in the second Canto:

So hard it is for any living wight,
All her array and vestments to tell,
That old Dan Geoffrey (in whose gentle spright
The pure well head of Poesie did dwell)
In his Foules Parley durst not with it mel
But it transferd to Alane, who he thought
Had in his Plaint of Kindes describ'd it well
Which who will read set forth so as it ought
Go seek he out that Alane where he may be sought.

My question is- does any other poet of the 16th/17th centuries deploy this particular conceit? Spenser is saying that he won’t attempt to describe Nature’s ‘array and vestments’ (her face is hidden) because Chaucer (who was Quite Good) didn’t do it either and referred his readers to Alanus de Insulis. Spenser misnames the original work even though Chaucer doesn’t. In these circumstances, don’t most poets stay silent or remark only on their inability?

There is the possibility that Spenser wants to us to think of him as Chaucer’s heir in all things poetic, a ploy that ‘worked’ in that this judgement was shared by Milton who was (of course) better than both.

Helen Cooper on Edmund Spenser and the English Romance

The very first thing that I wrote for this blog was a synopsis and appreciation of Helen Coopers’ ‘The English Romance in Time’ which demonstrates the various ways that both Shakespeare and Spenser made use of the English romance tradition. I’m currently reading the ‘Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature’ which provides the best overview of all the various handbooks and companions that are on the market. Whilst I am going through these chapters in sequence, I have to admit that I read the epilogue first because it is written by Cooper and entitled ‘Edmund Spenser and the Passing of Tudor Literature’. Regular readers will know that I’ll read anything on Spenser and that most of it makes me cross. In fact I’d almost given up on the possibility of any academic saying anything at all that is in any way helpful about ‘The Faerie Queen’.

There are times when what a critic writes strikes a deep chord of affinity with me. These occasions are rare, the most recent significant instance that springs to mind is where Geoffrey Hill sums up in a single sentence all the fairly complicated thins that I feel about Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Cooper has just provided me with another such moment:

The richness of the Tudor context for The Faerie Queene has for long been overshadowed by scholarship on its classical and Italian connections, and more recently by the New Historicist emphasis on its immediate political context. Situated in its own historical and linguistic moment as the culmination of earlier Tudor literature, however, the work reveals a different set of qualities, variously overlapping with and complementary to what is conventionally thought of as humanist, that underline Spenser’s commitment to the poetics of nationhood.

Coincidentally, I’ve recently had a bit of a rant about this with regard to the problematic Book V of the Faerie Queen and the above passage has made me realise that there is at least one other person on the planet who feels the same way. A more sobering thought is that if you look at the current academic ‘chatter’ on Spenser you come away with the impression that the main ‘thread’ is the dismal Tudor experience in Ireland and that the FQ was largely a re-working of Ariosto and Tasso.

I don’t have any kind of problem with academics that wish to point out the genocidal tendencies in ‘A View’ nor do I wish to deny the profoundly suspect overtones in Book V with regard to Ireland. I do have a problem when this becomes the main ‘point’ of Spenser’s literary output. This together with the notion that, in using some of Tasso and Ariosto, Spenser was adopting European models and humanist ideals whilst rejecting England’s medieval past.

I remain of the view that we ought to read poetry primarily for its use of language rather than for any extrinsic factors or the nature of the subject matter. I don’t think that this is a naive or idealistic position and I think my feelings about Spenser epitomise the reasons why I engage with poetry. I do not read Spenser because of my interest in English colonial adventures in Ireland and elsewhere, nor do I read him for his role in ‘nation building’. Both of these are subjects that I do have an interest in but wouldn’t rely on the poetry as providing anything other than small bits of context. I read Spenser because he is good with language and his confident exuberance shines through almost everything he does. When I read the Faerie Queen I know that I am in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing and that the poetry will carry me forward regardless of the subject matter. I’m much more concerned about how Spenser marks the end of one ‘phase’ of English poetry and marks the start of another by appropriating older forms and using these to point towards what will follow. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in and can see the point of poetry as a means of expression. If I want to know about the politics of the period then I will look at other more relevant primary sources. The same applies to George Herbert and John Milton, I don’t read them to gain a closer understanding of the Arminian strand in Anglicanism, I read them because they are both brilliant poets- what they write about is completely secondary.

Cooper rightly draws attention to the English antecedents of FQ especially Stephen Hawes, Chaucer and Langland as well as two romances- ‘Bevis of Hampton’ and ‘Guy of Warwick’ and she points to Malory’s influence in the role of Arthur in the poem. As a result of this (and the chapter on Hawes in the Handbook) I’ve started to read ‘Bevis’ and Hawes’ ‘The Pastime of Pleasure’ and they are both remarkably full of stuff that reappears in FQ. I’m not sure about the Langland/Lollardry connection but I am teaching myself Middle English in order to get to grips with this argument. My point is that a reader new to the glories of Spenser would soon be wading around in the critical noise around the Irish dimension and be looking at Orlando Furioso (I did this) rather than the English tradition.

A final note about academic trends, I do understand the way that these fads gather pace and become all pervasive but the Ireland ‘problem’ also feeds into a collective guilt that is only now beginning to speak its name- it is unlikely that this kind of perspective would have had such a success when the IRA campaign was at its murderous height. The other thought is- isn’t there something vaguely dubious about English academics (as descendants of the colonisers) choosing to speak for those who had the great misfortune to be colonised. Isn’t this a bit similar to those middle class academics (and thus secondary instruments of class oppression) wittering on about the integrity of the working class?

So, this is more of a plea for a more rounded perspective that starts by looking at poetry as poetry before beginning to take other political and cultural factors into account. I hope I shouldn’t need to point out that this does not in anyway condone or minimise the genocidal nature of Spensers remarks in ‘A View’.

We obviously need more academics like Cooper who are prepared to question the prevailing trends and to look at poetry primarily as poetry. She also writes about complex things in a style that is wonderfully clear and jargon-free. Her contribution on the pastoral form in the Spenser Encyclopaedia is also a model of incisive erudition.