Tag Archives: Edmund Spenser

Reading Spenser and E K with Andrew Zurcher

I have used this small corner of whatever this is to have a generalised moan about the way in which attention on the works of Edmund Spenser is unduly focused on Elizabethan Ireland. In making a plea for more of a focus on the poetry rather than the politics, I have also made the point that the most significant and radical feature of Spenser’s work is how he uses language, it’s also the most enjoyable.

In making this plea I had manage to overlook Andrew Zurcher’s “Spenser’s Legal Language” which was published in 2007. My only excuse is that I was probably put off by the subtitle -‘Law and Poetry in Early Modern England’ and therefore didn’t read any further.

I turns out that this is an exacting and refreshing reading of Spenser in the way that he may have been read at the time and one that gives more consideration to the origins of words because Zurcher claims that the humanist educational practices of the time had a particular focus on etymology.

It is probably reasonable to assume that Spenser is currently known for ‘The Faerie Queen’ and for ‘A Viewe of the Present State of Irelande’ and the relationship between these two. The former is one of the greatest works in any language and should more widely read, the second is in prose and sets out Spenser’s fairly genocidal view of what to do with the Irish. What is often forgotten is that Spenser’s career began with his take on the ‘new’ way to do pastoral- ‘The Shepheardes Calendar’ – which is accompanied by an introduction and gloss by ‘E K’.

The last few decades of the 16th century saw the birth of what is now known as the ‘English Renaissance’ with Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare in the first wave. This was accompanied by a number of manifestos written with a view to create a new kind of English Poetry. Zurcher points out that E K’s introduction can be read as one of those and it does seem to make a number of points that go beyond the ‘Calendar’. I’m a fan of poetry manifestos and this one is especially absorbing for its focus on readerly activity and a disparagement of the ‘drive-by’ reading.

Before getting on to the glorious complexity of E K’s contribution, I also need to point out that both Hill and Prynne have a strong interest in the origins of words and of their other meanings. On some occasions this can be taken to extremes, in ‘Field Notes’ Prynne has a delightful and extremely detailed analysis of the possible meaning of ‘listen’ in ‘The Solitary Reaper’ whilst Hill seems intent on reviving words that slid into obscurity some time ago- ‘maugre’, ‘spavined’ and ‘limbeck’ being recent examples. I’ve often wondered about this seemingly excessive interest but Zurcher may have shed some further light. He points out that 16th century grammar school pupils were taught to acquire a wide range of Latin and Greek words but to also pay close attention to where these words came from and how they have modified over time.

I also want to clarify and restate the bebrowed position on the identity of E K. This is that E K is Edmund Spenser and that this is so glaringly obvious that I can’t imagine why critics continue to argue the point. We then need to stand back and admire the audacity of this conceit (epistle and gloss) when launching a literary career which is also marking a new direction. So, Spenser writes the poem, provides his own gloss to clarify certain sticking points and innovations but also writes an epistle proclaiming the skill of the poet and launching a detailed defence of these devices- in particular the use of ‘old and unwonted words’.

Others have observed that Spenser’s reputation would still stand if he had only published the ‘Calendar’ but it is important to note that wrapping it up in this way does show a lack of confidence as to whether it would be well-received without some kind of detailed explication. It also displays an inordinate amount of ego and ambition for a youthful novice to take big swipes at his older and more established peers.

I’m going to quote the epistle at length because I hope to show that it still has relevance and finds echoes in what Prynne has to say about late modernist verse.

E K starts with some bold claims as to Spenser’s worth:

But I dout not, so soone as his name shall come into the knowledge of men, and his worthines be sounded in the tromp of fame, but that he shall be not onely kiste, but also beloved of all embraced of the most, and wondred at as the best. No lesse I thinke, deserveth his wittiness in devising his pithiness in uttering, his complaints of love so lovely, his discourses of pleasure so pleasantly, his pastorall rudenesse, his morall wisenesse, his dewe observing of Decorum everye where, in personages, in seasons, in matter, in speach, and generally in all seemly simplycitie of handeling this matter and framing his words:

Which is a bold statement and more than likely designed to get some attention, it also fascinating to note how little the identified qualities of the poet have changed over the last 430 years. E K now begins to tackle word choice and language use, this is how the above continues:

the which of many things which in him be straunge, I knowe will seem the straungest, the words them selves 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 grave for the strangenesse. And first of the wordes to speake, I graunt the be something hard, and of most men unused, yet both English, and also used of most excellent Aothours and most famous Poetes. In whom whenas this our Poet hath been much traveiled and thoroughly redd, how could it be, (as that worthy Oratour sayde) but that walking in the sonne although for other cause he walked, yet needes he mought be sunburnt, and having the sounde of those auncient Poetes still ringing in his ears, he mought needes in singing hit out some of theyr tunes. But whether he useth them by such casualtye and custome, or whether of set purpose and choyse, as thinking them fttest for such rusticall rudenesse of shepheards, either for theyr rough sounde would make his rymes more ragged and rustical, or else because such olde and obsolete wordes are most used of country folke, sure I think and think I think not amisse, that they bring great grace and, as one would say, auctouritie to the verse.

What is so significant about this is that it comes first in the epistle because it is recognised that Spenser’s word choice and language use will draw the most attention and criticism and it is this ‘innovation’ that needs to be defended first. The justification for old words used here can also be applied to ‘The Faerie Queen’ and underlines Zurcher’s point about the way in which educated readers had been taught to work with texts- by paying close attention to the nature and origins of words. As well as the Renaissance appeal to classical authority (Cicero) we have the flamboyantly bonkers ‘sure I think and think I think not amisse’ which surely reveals Spenser as E K.

Zurcher also makes the point that the epistle draws attention not only to the words used but also to the relationship between those words and suggests that this is how Spenser intended his work to be read. I’m not altogether sold on this because it may be over-egging an already complex pudding but it is certainly more useful for this reader to think about than the politics of Book V. In making his claim for the relationship between words, Zurcher cites this from the epistle:

But all as in most exquisite pictures they use to blaze and portraict not onely the daintie lineaments of beautye, but also rounde about it to shadow the rude thickets and craggy clifts, that by the basenesse of such parts, more excellency may accrew to the principall; for oftimes we fynde ourselves, I knowe not how, singularly delighted with the shewe of such naturall rudenesse and take great pleasure in that disorderly order. Even so doe those rough and harsh termes enlumine and make more clearly to appeare the brightnesse of brave and glorious wordes.

Prynne has recently written about the need to be aware of the relationship between words and also the way that words sound. I’m not making a case for Spenser as a 16th century Prynne but what I do think is important is the primacy that both place on the words themselves and what those words can do. For me, this is what the doing of poetry is about far more than membership of a particular school or ideological persuasion and I like to think that our best pets share this concern / perspective as preceding cultural and political context.

Zurcher is also correct in suggesting that there is much more work that needs to be done on aspects of Spenser’s language use. Does anybody know of others working on this?

Back in the Garden with Andrew Marvell’s soul and the colour green

This is going to appear more than a little disjointed but there is (trust me) some method in the confusion that follows. I’ve been re-reading Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and trying to follow Nigel Smith’s logic with regard to a Neoplatonic reading of the sequence and giving further consideration to Bruce R Smith’s gloriously ambitious ‘The Key of Green, Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture’ in order to try and get this particular poem a bit clearer in my head.

There are a number of things that I think need to be established before getting into the specifics:

  1. the middle of the 17th century is very far removed from and foreign to the early part of the twentieth century, the religious groups of the Interegnum and beyond were not the Taliban, John Evelyn was not our first ecologist regardless of what Simon Schama might say;
  2. the appearance of the word ‘soul’ in a poem does not automatically imply the presence of all things Plotinus hovering benignly (or otherwise) over the text;
  3. poetic influence, especially from one poet to another, is hugely complicated and should not be treated as a simple ‘given’;
  4. Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ may not be a single poem but a sequence of nine self-contained and coherent poems grouped around a single theme just as Hill’s Oraclau has Wales and the Welsh as its unifying link;
  5. work on the development of gardens and the place of the garden in the 17th century mindset / cultural landscape is only now beginning to produce results and these currently cover a very broad range of perspectives;
  6. as with ‘soul’, the use of the word ‘green’ should not be automatically be taken to refer to all things natural and wholesome.

I feel that I can now turn to the poem and start with what Nigel Smith has to say about the Neoplatonic basis for the poem/sequence- “In effect, M. transfers the metaphors of Neoplatonism from the cosmic to the human scale, almost parodying Neoplatonic language: Should not abide unchanged when it produces: it is moved and so brings forth an image. It looks to its source and is filled, and going forth to another opposed movement generates its own image, which is sensation and the principle growth in plants…. The part before this, which is immediately dependent upon Intellect, leaves Intellect alone, abiding in itself.'” The quote is from Book III of the Enneads and Smith refers us to the first 6 line of stanza / poem VI:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

To back up his claim, Smith quotes at some length from Nathaniel Culverwel’s ‘An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature’ and concludes with “Again, the broad patterns of thought M.’s thought are evident.” It so happens that I know a little of Plotinus and the Neoplatonic thread in English verse and it is this sort of opportunistic reading that really doesn’t do attentive readers any favours. Before proceeding with this I think I need to say that Nigel Smith’s work on Marvell (especially in the Longman Collected) is a model of what scholarship should be about- it’s just that here he does overreach himself. If we treat ‘The Garden’ as a single poem then it is clear that it is saying a number of quite different things and that these things are not easily compressed into one particular school of thought. We might also want to suggest that the poem deliberately resists a single, unified reading. This is not a radical insight about Marvell, people have been complaining about the unresolvable ambiguity in his work since 1681. The quest for a single coherent meaning or viewpoint is very attractive, some time ago I posted something on this blog which proposed to make complete sense of ‘An Horation Ode’ purely on the strength of its closing lines.

Before going on to the next stanza / poem, I’d like to draw attention to Smith’s “In effect” and “almost” in the above quote which might just indicate that he knows that he’s on a slippery slope.

We now turn to the next stanza which brings us to Edmund Spenser and the soul:

Here at the fountain's sliding foot
Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root,
Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There it like a bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs it sliver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Smith states that Spenser’s ‘Hymne to Heavenly Beautie’ is the source for the third and fourth lines and cites most of stanza 4 of that poem. However, the Yale edition of Spenser’s shorter poems is of the view that this sense of ascent is a reflection of Plato rather than Plotinus. Smith also quotes Alistair Fowler’s view that Boethius, Jeremy Taylor and George Herbert are also sources. I don’t have access to the 2003 Times Literary Supplement article that this is taken from but, as a general rule of thumb, anything that Fowler says must be correct because he is better than anyone else and writes with superb elan and authority.

Coincidentally, I know nothing of Boethius but I am now in possession of Prynne’s ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ which includes Boethius in its ‘Reference Cues’ list so I may have to read this before I get to the rest. I don’t wish to minimise the various threads that Marvell may be making use of here but I think my point is that influence isn’t just about mimesis or imitation, the strongest type of influence is that which gives the influenced permission to act or create in a certain way. For example, Pound gave Charles Olson permission to write a very long poem about many apparently disparate things just as James Joyce gave David Jones permission to write about the thought patterns of troops in WWI.

In this way Spenser gives permission to Herbert and they both give permission in turn to Marvell to write about the soul in a way that may contain elements of the Neoplatonic whilst not embracing the whole philosophy. It is eminently possible, for example, to draw a parallel between Ficino on the One and the structure of Book I of the Faerie Queen but that doesn’t mean that Spenser is putting forward a specifically Neoplatonic position.

With regard to green, this occurs twice in the poem / sequence, in addition to the above, stanza / poem 3 begins with this-

Nor red nor white was ever seen
So am'rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees, their mistress' name
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! Wher'se'er your barks I wound,
No name but your own shall be found.

When I last wrote about this, I observed that green could be read in a number of different ways. Bruce R Smith has these-

  • leaves, especially bay leaves, especially bay leaves wound around a
    poet’s brow,
  • greenwood, greensward, greenhouse,
  • the village green,
  • verdigris, litharge of lead (PbO), and quicksilver “ground with the pisse of a yong childe” to make an emerald-green dye,
  • the suit of “flaming greene like an Emerald” that St. George is supposed to have worn when, en route to England, he stopped off in Egypt and was crowned king there,
  • a table covering for conducting legal business (the Board of Greencloth,
  • the green baize of the House of Commons), playing card games, and shooting pool,
  • green phantasms in “Perspective-Houses,” where, according to Francis Bacon, the inhabitants of New Atlantis produce “all Colourations of Light. All Delusions and Deceits of the Sight, in Figures, Magnitudes,
    Motions, Colours: All Demonstrations of Shadows,”
  • greenhead and greenhorn,
  • “the greene-ey’d Monster,” and
  • “Good is as visible as greene.”

Smith contiues with- “The last of these greens is John Donne’s in “Communitie,” a poem printed with Donne’s amorous verse in 1633. Donne’s speaker begins with the commonly held proposition that we must love good and hate ill. But what about “things indifferent”? These we have to “prove” or try out, “As wee shall fi nde our fancy bent.” Take women. Nature made them neither good nor bad, so we must use them all: “If they were good it would be seene, / Good is as visible as greene, / And to all eyes it selfe betrayes.” Green is so visible, it turns out, not just because it is everywhere to be seen in greenwood and greensward or because the speaker is a greenhead full of youthful desire but because women are green goods, pieces of ripening fruit that the speaker can devour one after another.”

I’ve quoted the above at length because I want to make a more general point about the occasional need to accept that we don’t actually know and will never know what certain things mean or refer to and that this is especially the case with Marvell. Perhaps it might be more appropriate to celebrate this multiplicity than contributing to sterile and unresolvable debates over precise intention and meaning….

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.

Pierre Bourdieu and the sonnet explosion of 1592/3

The title is a bit of a misnomer, it should read “How not to apply Bourdieu’s work on taste to any element of 16th century creative expression but especially not to the very many sonnet sequences that were churned out after the publication of Astrophel and Stella”.
My interest in said explosion stems from Spenser’s ‘Amoretti’ which is one of the better known sequences and recounts his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle who became his second wife. I also have more than a passing interest in Michael Drayton who was also one of the sonneteers.
My interest in Bourdieu may require a degree of qualification. I really, really want Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’ to be wrong because I’d like to hang on to the notion of culture as having a degree of autonomy. My problem is that I don’t think that he is wrong- he’s done the work, he’s got the figures and the stats and the charts and he was the most technically gifted sociologist of the last century and I can’t argue with him (except on the auto-didact). The Bourdieu thesis is that all cultural activity is determined the economic and class structure of society and it is both naive and foolish to pretend otherwise.
So, when I came across something called “Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England” by Christopher Warley I became interested enough to read most of it. My expectations were reasonably high, the last two decades of the 16th century saw a number of rising trends particularly with regard to overseas trade and new forms of raising finance. Standards of education had also improved since about 1550 and I was hopeful that Warley might have something useful about how these changes influenced the literary culture of the 1590s. This was a mistake. The introduction makes reference to most of the usual suspects together with a lengthy quotation from Zizek but the clincher was “Bourdieu’s work, with its emphasis on structures of difference, seems to me in many respects quite close to Derrida (though it is a comparison that both, to the best of my knowledge, tend to resist). This should have caused me to walk away but instead I bought a hard copy, a proper book, from Amazon. To make matters worse he goes on with “Bourdieu’s conception of distinction is thus for me a sort of differance, “the difference written into the very structure of the social space,” that has real, objective, social effects.” This is either a fundamental failure to understand or a deliberate attempt disguise the weakness of the work beneath a cloak of what might pass for continental pretension. It never ceases to amaze me how many English speaking academics fail to grasp what the French have been on about since 1960 and I continue to watch in awe as this huge edifice of nonsense continues to grow. Anybody who has actually bothered to read Derrida and Bourdieu would know that they could never hold similar views because they don’t actually agree on baseline terms of engagement and to foist ‘differance’ on to Bourdieu is simply stupid.
I am grateful to Warley for introducing me to Anne Locke who was a close friend of John Knox and wrote the first sonnet sequence in English. Even here, Warley doesn’t give sufficient space to Locke’s background and fails to mention that her father managed Henry VII’s financial dealings on the Antwerp exchange. If we’re going to do this kind of analysis properly then surely we need to start with some idea of what exactly the economic order was about and why precisely so many of the rich merchants of the time were ardent Calvinists other than some bland platitudes about the end of feudalism and the growth of property for rent.
I’d also like to know more about why so many authorities do not attribute ‘A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner’ to Locke at all. The sequence is a fascinating verse commentary on Psalm 51 and there are many avenues that could have been explored in greater detail, in particular the issue of the nature of the ‘market’ for this kind of material in England.
There’s also the fairly obvious point that Derrida and Bourdieu don’t mix together, primarily because their interests are different but also because they are trying to do quite different things. In trying to mix ‘distinction’ with ‘difference’ Warley succeeds only in producing a confused and incoherent analysis. I have this lingering suspicion in the field of lit crit that the more convoluted the sentences become so they indicate an increasing attempt to hide the fact that not very much is being said.
There is the inevitable chapter on Philip Sidney before we move on to the Amoretti sequence. I need to say at this point that I’m not that keen on this sequence and consider it one of Spenser’s least successful efforts. At about Sonnet 20 it begins to feel like an exercise in sonnet writing, a rather mundane demonstration of technique rather than anything keenly felt. The warning beels began to sound as Warley’s chapter is called “Ireland and capitalism in Amoretti and Epithalamion”. I’ll skip gently over the fact that Epthalamion isn’t actually written in sonnet form and concentrate instead on the Irish element. There are many many interesting things to consider about the Amoretti but the Irish connection isn’t one of them, the section entitled ‘Lyric and narrative in the Amoretti’ begins with “Spenser’s ability to control his own Irish domain becomes thematized as content in Amoretti and Epithalamion in the speaker’s attempts to control his lady like a piece of Irish land.” The only sensible respose to this is the inward groan, I’ve complained in the past about the recent trend to see everything that Spenser wrote through an Irish lens and this is one of the most flagrant examples of selective history and criticism combined to make a factually incorrect thesis for the sake of current fashion.
I have to come back to the fact that there is an interesting book to be written on this subject but it needs to start from the nature and structure of the intended audience and not on some desperate ‘close’ reading of the material. The chapter on Drayton is better only because insufficient attention is paid to him and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read the ‘Afterword’ on Drayton, Wroth and Milton.
What we call the Tudor period as a whole is fascinating in the development of English verse and this does need to be seen in the light of religious and economic trends. Unfortunately Warley’s tome is another example of a wasted opportunity for the sake of critical trendiness.

The Faerie Queen Book V

Book V of Spenser’s great poem is gloriously complex and currently in severe danger of being over simplified by a whole range of critics. The main reason for this is that most of Book V is ‘about’ Ireland and in parts can be read as a thinly veiled argument for a much more brutal attack on the Irish people. This has been the cause (post Said) of much liberal hand wringing in the past two decades none of which seems to have taken too much notice of what Said actually wrote.
The problem is further compounded by Spenser’s ‘View’ which proposes a genocidal strategy as a means of dealing with the Irish “problem”.
For those who don’t know, The Faerie Queen is an exploration of six virtues achieved by means of allegory (described by Spenser as a “dark conceit”) and it is very, very long. Book V uses the figure of Artegall to explore the nature of justice. There are some critics who see Artegall as ‘standing for’ Arthur Grey as Spenser acted as his secretary when he was lord deputy of Ireland.
Grey was one of the most thuggish of Tudor thugs and his brief period (1580-82) in Ireland was marked by quite extraordinary violence including the creation of a famine in Munster in a failed attempt to starve out the leader of the current rebellion.
Before we go any further, I probably need to make it clear that I am not in any way sympathetic to the English presence in Ireland, in fact I am of the view that English efforts to deal with Ireland have been marked by ignorance, greed and indifference in equal measure. One of the saddest facts is that the sentiments expressed in ‘A View’ are shared by most of my compatriots. We do not understand the Irish obsession with religion and with the past and we view the annual disturbances around the Orangemen parades as utterly bizarre- both the protests and the need to parade. We also wish that the people of Ulster could be more like us- indifferent to religion and largely ignorant of the past. The English presence in Ireland has been characterised throughout by the doomed attempt to make the Irish more like us and Spenser is just one of many commentators to propound this view.
What isn’t of ten remarked upon is Spenser’s acute observation of the strength of the bardic tradition in Irish culture and his solution- that it needs to be destroyed by sending the children of the Irish elite to be educated in England. This I think indicates that Spenser was primarily a poet rather than a colonial civil servant.
Spenser introduces the Faerie Queen by means of a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh in which he explains his use of allegory in that the use of ‘delightful’ images is a more effective way of propounding moral worth. This method has attracted a wide range of critical attention and produced many different ways of reading the poem. I’m of the view that we should focus on where the allegories break down because I think these give us a fuller understanding of what might be going on.
Each of the six books is divided into 12 cantos and the ‘Grey’ analogy works to some extent for the first two cantos and then quite abruptly breaks down in canto III which describes a wedding feast and is further disrupted by the appearance of Radigund in Canto IIII.
Before we get to Radigund, it’s probably as well to say a few words about Britomart who is destined to marry Artegall. Britomart represents or stands for chastity which is the theme of Book III, she undertakes various quests and ordeals disguised as a man, she is also deeply troubled by her obsessive love for Artegall whom she has never met. In Book IV Artegall fights with Britomart and is victorious but falls in love with her when he removes his helmet.
It is also worth noting that Spenser is more successful in portraying female characters- both Britomart and Una are more realistic than their male counterparts who fall into a variety of contrived traps.
Radigund leads a bunch of violent Amazons, she defeats knights and then allows them to choose between death and a life spent dressed as a woman doing women’s work (spinning, carding etc). After an initial affray Radigund and Artegall have a more formal fight which Artegall wins but cannot finish his foe off when he lifts her helmet and sees her face. He therefore submits to the life of servitude outlined above.
I also ought to mention that Artegall is assisted by an iron man called Talus who tends to do all the really brutal stuff on behalf of his master. It is Talus who (instead of simply killing Radigund) alerts Britomart of Artegall’s dilemma. Things become a little more complex when both Radigund and her assistant fall in love with Artegall.
The Radigund episode takes up a lot of Book V and there isn’t a clear link in any of it to Ireland although there is much on emasculation, cross dressing and the general blurring of gender roles. It is also incredibly well written so that even now the reader is swept along by the story and is compelled to engage with the various layers of meaning. All of which is a very long winded way of saying that it would be good if critics could concentrate a bit more on the poetry and much less on the politics because it would then be obvious that the Artegall / Grey analogy doesn’t actually work and that Book V has much more interesting and challenging things to say other than the rather tired ‘might is always right’ quip.
Re-reading this in the Longman edition has also reminded me about the weakness of Bert Hamilton’s gloss- he seems to take delight in explaining things that should be left alone and ignoring the stuff that we (I) actually need help with. Or am I just being perverse and failing to recognise that North American readers might need this level of simplification? It is my view that the current notes actually detract from the brilliance of the original.
I’m also aware that this problem is much more acute with 17th century poets like Marvell who seems to have been almost completely hijacked by the political perspective.

J H Prynne on Love III by George Herbert

This tome containing an extensive commentary on the above is now available from Barque Press and costs 10 quid plus 2 quid for delivery. it needs to be read by everyone who cares about poetry and what poetry can do. I’ve now completed my first reading and there are a few things that I need to get off my chest.
The first of these is that the early part of the 17th century was a very odd place to be. I have a view that the past is always quite odd but from 1590 until about 1640 has always struck me as being especially different and (because of this) very difficult for us to make sense of this.
The second point is that George Herbert deserves much more attention. This isn’t to say that he should be elevated to the status of Donne in the canon but that we should spend a bit more time thinking about his place and role in the wider cultural scheme of things.
The third point is that Prynne writes with a great deal of perception about ‘Love III’ and has clearly immersed himself in some of the theological debates of the time. For those of us who are keen on religious poetry and the place where verse and faith meet, this is delightful because we have somebody new to argue with.
The fourth point is that ‘Love III’ is a seriously good poem with a couple of lines that achieve greatness for reasons that I will set out below.
The fifth point is only of interest to Spenserians and relates to Prynne’s use of Canto X in Book One of the Faerie Queen to provide some context to ‘Love III’ which actually raises a number of puzzles.
Finally, as with ‘Field Notes’, this commentary provides further insights into the way that Prynne thinks about poetry and language. This is not to say that they provide the ‘key’ to his poetic project but they do put some more flesh on the bone.
With regard to the oddness of the past, this isn’t the extremist position that we can’t say anything about the past but it is to point out that 400 years is a very long time and things might appear similar or recognisable but closer inspection reveals that they weren’t. The 17th century often descends into caricature with tired old debates about the ideological positions taken by various groups occupying much futile effort over the last thirty five years. This kind of thinking leads to generalised conclusions about certain periods that isn’t (in the Rortian sense) at all helpful. The historical past is always lumpy and consistently refuses to place itself in the boxes that we prepare for it. Prynne spends a lot of time discussing the Arminian elements of ‘Love III’ and the reader is left to assume that by the end of the 1620s there was an established Arminian faction within the Church of England whereas there were probably many variations around both the issues of free will and predestination and that this mixed oddly with bits of Catholic theology and hardline Calvinism (which wasn’t particularly coherent either). I think I would have liked more detail on the wider social and political context, some indication of what it ‘meant’ for Herbert to become a country priest may have been helpful as a way of marking him out from others of a similar status. Or simply some acknowledgement that this particular part of our history is fairly complex and consequently difficult to write about.
With regard to Herbert’s status as a kind of lesser Metaphysical, this does need to change. He has attracted detailed criticism from Stanley Fish for catechising but Prynne makes a very strong case for the strength of this kind of religious verse, whether it catechises or not. There’s also a reasonably direct line that goes from Spenser to Herbert and then on to Henry Vaughan and this needs to be given more prominence because it can be argued that this ‘thread’ produced some of the century’s strongest work.
Unlike ‘The Solitary Reaper’, I do actually care about this stuff and have thoroughly enjoyed arguing with what Prynne has to say. It isn’t that there’s anything inherently wrong with his reading but there are a number of omissions that detract from getting more from the poem. When discussing the Arminian tendency, Prynne goes into great detail about free will and about the mutual nature of ‘service’ but doesn’t give any attention to the Arminian view that although we are all free to choose, God knows what those choices will be. If Prynne is correct and the poem is fundamentally Arminian then this adds a more nuanced aspect to the encounter described in the poem.
He does mention the Cambridge School on one occasion but doesn’t draw attention to what some of us would see as a neo-platonic tinge occurring in the first line “yet my soul drew back,” even though other critics have commented on a neo-platonic theme in Herbert’s work. It would seem that 92 pages of densely packed prose is enough for an eighteen line poem but this is not the case, there is a lot more that could have been said.
Needless to say, most of the margins are now filled with exclamation marks and approving comments and there are only one or two places where I think Prynne is trying too hard. There’s also a final point about contradiction that doesn’t need to be made but on the whole this is a remarkably sensitive reading that should do a lot to promote Herbert’s reputation.
I now have to draw attention to the really great line of this poem. Many great poems have some very, very good lines but, in my view, truly great lines are comparatively rare. The line is question is the poet’s initial response to Christ/God and it is “A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:” which I find to be utterly and staggeringly brilliant in that it manages to convey a whole range of complicated responses to a direct question from God.
We now come to Canto X of Book 1 of The Faerie Queen which Prynne uses to show that views about free will pre-dated what Arminius had to say by at least a couple of decades. This would be valid were it not for the fact that Canto X is theological car crash mangling together threads from both sides of the Reformation and shouldn’t really be trusted to depict any kind of belief system in the ‘real’ world.
For those of us who read Prynne in the hope that this may help with a more informed reading of his poetry there is this: “The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front- loaded selfhood.” So, the task for attentive readers would appear to be to identify the ways in which the post-Brass poetry sets out to disrupt the subject/predicate sequence…

Ariosto in translation

I have been intending to do this for months. The purpose of this post is to state the fact that David R Slavitt’s translation of Orlando Furioso which was published by the Bellknap Press in 2009 is very bad indeed. I do not normally draw attention to bad poetry or to poetry that I don’t like but I’m happy to make an exception on this occasion mainly because I spent 30 of the very finest English pounds (30) on acquiring it after a glowing review in the TLS.
My motivation for wanting to read this poem is straightforward, it seems reasonable that anyone with an interest in the Faerie Queen (me) should want to know a bit more about Spenser’s main sources and to ascertain whether he did “overgo” Ariosto.
Prior to Slavitt’s offering, the only readily available translation was the prose version by Guido Waldman although Rose’s 19th century prose rendition is available in a few obscure corners of the web. Slavitt acknowledges that Sir John Harington’s translation is the best but asserts that his version is aimed at making poetry more fun. It was at this point that I should have realised that there was a problem but I persevered and read the first ten cantos before giving up.
I don’t have a problem with translators taking risks with their task and I readily appreciate that each new translation creates a new poem and I am reasonably understanding of how difficult the task of translating poetry actually is.
I do have a problem however if that new poem turns out to be either inept in itself or to construct something that is far removed from the intention of the original. Slavitt, in his pursuit of fun and his quest to make Ariosto accessible to contemporary students, manages to attain new depths of ineptitude and to almost completely miss the ‘point’ of the poem.
Needless to say, my Italian is completely inadequate to glean any understanding of the original but I do have both the Waldman and Harington versions to hand and offer the final stanza of the second canto for comparison.
This is Slavitt:

And then? Is this the end? But Surely not.
The smaller twigs of the elm branch break her fall,
as you might have guessed, with all those pages you’ve got
in your right hand. So this cannot be all
there is, She doesn’t die here, but just what
happens to her after this close call
that leaves her on the bottom, stunned and hurt so,
we’ll get to soon, perhaps in Canto Terzo.

This is Waldmann:

The innocent damsel’s fate, however, was not as Pinabello wished, for as she tumbled from rock to rock, not she but the good stout branch was first to hit the bottom. There it snapped, but after affording her enough support to save her from death. She lay stunned awhile, as I shall go on to tell you in the next canto.

And this is Harington:

Yet great good hap the gentle damsell found,
As well deserv’d a mind so innocent:
For why the pole strake first upon the ground,
And though by force it shiver’d all and rent,
Yet were her limbes and life kept safe and sound,
For all his vile and traiterous intent,
Sore was the damsell mazed with the fall,
As in another booke declare I shall.

I don’t think that you need to be overly familiar with 16th century verse to recognise that Harington is much more faithful to the original and that Slavitt strays perilously close to doggerel. As well as personal disappointment I do have to ask why on earth Bellknap thought that this was a good idea. Slavitt’s efforts do not convey anything of the original and will only succeed in repelling those who are new to poetry.

Simon Jarvis, the vanishingly trivial and philosophical verse.

There’s a competition that goes on in my head as to who can write the most effective demolition of a book. The all-time leader at the moment is Gillian Rose for her gleeful destruction of Derrida’s ‘Of Spirit’. This holds first place because the destruction is effective and complete (this is helped by the fact that ‘Of Spirit’ isn’t very good) and because Rose cannot disguise the glee with which she goes about her task.
The competition has gained some impetus over recent weeks, first there was Alastair Fowler’s review of Don Paterson’s book on Shakespeare’s sonnets in the TLS where Fowler is witheringly dismissive of the enterprise. Of course, truly destructive reviews are much more enjoyable when the author under scrutiny is one that I already dislike. I loathe Paterson on the strength of the single poem by him that I’ve ever read but this was enough to elevate him immediately to the company of Larkin, Motion etc.
This may seem like stating the obvious but if you’ve been destroyed in print by someone who might know what they’re talking about then the only feasible response is one of dignified silence. This is especially the case when the critic’s erudition is legendary. There are very few who fit this category but Fowler is certainly one of them. This is not a lesson that Paterson has absorbed for the following week there is printed what can only be described as an extended whine which succeeds in making him appear even more stupid than he probably is. He also plays the auto-didact card which I find particularly distasteful because he’s using it to elicit pity. Needless to say, Fowler hasn’t responded.
Hot on the heels of this comes Simon Jarvis with a demolition of a book about the ‘copy’ written by an American academic in post structuralist mode. This isn’t as effective as Fowler, primarily because Jarvis displays his ideological distaste alongside his attack on the content. He ends by describing the book as ‘vanishingly trivial’ and gets points in this particular pantheon for that put down but loses them again with “Teleporting a book, on the other hand can now be enjoyed by anyone in their own home, as I discovered for myself when I threw this one across the room” which isn’t funny. I have to report that the author of said tome has this week responded with an incredibly bad-tempered whinge in this week’s TLS which more or less makes Jarvis’ point for him.
Last week I fell across (whilst looking for something else) a recording of a lecture given by Jarvis at the end of last year in which the interest in prosody gets more of an airing. It’s forty minutes well spent for those of us who are still trying to tackle ‘The Unconditional’ and work out why we don’t like ‘Dinner’.
Jarvis appears to be talking to a group of philosophers and presents the case for verse being an appropriate medium for doing philosophy and using Pope to illustrate why some find the constraints of rhyme and metre as being ideally suited to the expression of ideas. This seems reasonable and I listened in the expectation that there would be some explanation of the mechanics involved. This doesn’t occur but we do get a few more quotes from Pope’s Essay on Man.
Always keen to try and follow Jarvis’ thinking and having an interest in philosophical poetry, I’ve given this some consideration. I’ve looked at the more abstract bits of Jarvis’ own verse and at Spenser’s ‘Cantos of Mutabilitie’ and there are a couple of conclusions-

  1. The heroic couplet with it’s very regular rhyme and metre is not ideally suited to the expression of complex ideas- I find this to be distracting rather than helpful when reading because I’m looking for the rhyme rather than paying attention to the sense.
  2. The Spenserian stanza, on the other hand, is more suited to the expression of the abstract because it is a much more complex structure and because Spenser has the skill to use it to carry the reader along whilst expressing his own philosophical concerns.
  3. Jarvis’ use of rhyme in ‘Erlkonig’ is more complex than Pope’s and the more abstract sections are probably clearer than they would be without the rhyme.

I’ll try and give some examples of what I mean. This is from Pope;

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

I don’t want to get into the content/meaning of this but this does have a sing-song feel which seems more than a little facile to my 21st century ears. There’s also the rest/beast ending which is a further distraction from the sense.

This is Spenser;

I well consider all that ye have said
And find that all things stedfastness doe hate
And changed be: yet being rightly wayd
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate;
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Doe work their own perfection so by fate:
Then over them Change doth not rule and reigne;
But they reign over change, and doe their states maintaine.

Of course I’m biased but I would argue that this is the finest example in the language of expressing complex stuff in structured verse and am more than a little puzzled as to why Jarvis should continue to rely on Pope to make his point.

‘Erlkonig’ uses a more complex rhyme scheme than Pope but one that still seems a bit more ‘forced’ than Spenser;

Their broken bodies feed us, while their bones
diminish utterly beneath these stones.

of whose long burials the complex map
is written out in neurones or on thoughts
quick and self-centred in the soundless gap
I live in, opening the doors and ports
to fold in multiples the folding pap
steeped in their fluids for the is and oughts
which disappear into their secret fanned
like Kafka’s dog’s impenetrable tunnel.

Whilst this is satisfyingly complex and clever, I have to point out that either ‘neurones’ or ‘thoughts’ are superfluous and would not both be included except for the need to maintain the prosodic ‘flow’.

So, there is further method in Jarvis’ prosodic idiosnycracy and I’m beginning to delve into the finer points of his argument without actually reading either Wordsworth or Adorno. I’m told that there is a new poem about to be published and that it doesn’t rhyme… In the meantime I’m going to have another go at ‘The Unconditional’ and attempt to introduce ‘vanishingly’ into at least one conversation per day.

One further thought, there are two more effective models of philosophy in verse in the shape of Paul Celan (‘Erblind’ and Aschenglorie’ spring to mind) and Olson’s working through of Whitehead in ‘Maximus’. Neither of these constrain themselves in the above manner and are more effective or precise because of this.

10 things right with poetry

In the interests of balance, here’s a number of facets that might help us out of the poetry mire:
1. strength and depth. Good poetry endures and embeds itself in our culture and our sense of ourselves. Great poetry endures because of its depth, because it reflects the complexity and nuances of our existence;
2. Paul Celan, J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill, John Milton and (probably) Edmund Spenser- all for very different reasons;
3. flexibility. Poems can be read aloud to an audience or to oneself. We can read poems to ourselves. Poems can be learned by heart;
4. lack of definition, the prose-poetry-song boundary is never clearly drawn. This is a good thing;
5. variety of form;
6. variety of style, even when two or three styles gain an ascendancy there is still room for the rest to breathe;
7. most poems are short enough to be learned by heart;
8. passion, great poems express passion better than any other art form;
9. brevity, poems can express complex thoughts and feelings in a very short space;
10. Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson, Keston Sutherland, John Matthias and David Jones purely on the grounds of technical merit.
The question that must be asked is whether the above can be utilised to get poetry out of its current malaise?
Any amendments, solutions would be warmly welcomed….

Poetry as cartography

A couple of days ago I downloaded from the AAAAARG site a book pointing out that a movie is a kind of map and that film directors can be seen as cartographers. I probably won’t read the book because the first few pages were a bit glib for my taste but the analogy stuck with me. I’ve also been having discussions with a number of people about the arduity project which is essentially an attempt to liberate ‘difficult’ poetry from the academy. During these conversations it has been pointed out to me that we may read poetry in order to understand ourselves. As an ex-social worker, this view seems a bit too therapeutic for me but it is one that is fairly commonly held.

Let’s start with the basics, we use maps to plan routes, to get from point A to point B. We also use maps to give us some context, whether this is the recent floods or (as the FT did this morning) the proposed route of the new train line from London to Birmingham. My son is planning to work in Tiblisi next year and I’ve looked at a few maps to try and work out what this might be like for him.

We need to be taught how to read a map, we need to be aware that there are different kinds of maps for different functions and that different cultures have had different ways of putting maps together. Maps have also been drawn up as an expression of power over the territory that they depict. A further thought, maps can be incredibly beautiful objects.

Cartographers make maps and poets make poems. Do poems tell us where we are are do they enable us to see ourselves more clearly? Or are poems simply mimetic? I’ll readily accept that the poems that mean the most to me have a geographic aspect, from the Faerie Queen and Paradise Lost through to Maximus, The Moose and Stress Position all have a special resonance for me because the poets concerned have taken the time to provide a spatial context for what they are trying to say.

I’ve also started to read Donald Davidson this week and he talks about how literature ‘works’. He uses the term ‘triangulation’ which (if I’ve got this right) consists of an object (whether this is a concept or a thing or a group of things) being viewed and/or experienced by both the writer and the reader and the writer has prepared a text and the reader is looking at the object and comparing it with the text.

Is this how it is? Keston Sutherland may not give me a map of downtown Baghdad but he certainly gives me an impression of the murderous effects of Western imperialism, I may not agree with him but there’s no doubting the brilliance of  his ‘map’.

I don’t share Geoffrey Hill’s faith but he does give me a clear idea of what it is to be a Christian and the struggle that this involves.

Poetry isn’t prose, a poem can and should do more than a story. To extend the analogy, perhaps a poem is a special kind of map using ‘radical economy and truthfulness’ (Prynne) to allow us to measure ourselves against both the thing described and the poet. The Moose can be read  as a straightforward description of a bus ride but Bishop writes with such clarity that most of human existence is on that bus and she gives us the map.