Academic journal article
By Freeman, Louise Gilbert
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Vol. 45, No. 1
Theologians there are, who, nourished in certain sects, seek the truth of nature in all her specific natural forms in which they see the eternal essence, the specific substantial perpetuator of the eternal generation and mutation of things, which are called after their founders and builders, and above them all presides the form of forms, the fountain of light, very truth of very truth, the God of gods, through whom all is full of divinity, truth, entity, goodness. --Giordano Bruno (1) I well consider all that ye haue sayd. And find that all things stedfastnes doe hate And changed be: yet being rightly wayd They are not changed from their first estate; But by their change their being doe dilate: And turning to themselues at length againe, Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate: Then ouer them Change doth not rule and raigne; But they raigne ouer change, and doe their states maintaine. --Edmund Spenser (2)
The "doubtfull case" of the Mutabilitie Cantos (188.8.131.52)--Spenser's meditation on the relation of the natural world, multiple and mutable, to the higher world of forms--concludes when Dame Nature delivers a verdict on the evidence displayed by Mutabilitie in her pageant. Nature's "doome" (184.108.40.206), her dictum that by change all things "their being doe dilate," so perfecting themselves, invites a heady optimism about the proximity of the divine to the things of this earth. Here Nature's outlook seems fully to accord with the ecstatic Renaissance pantheism of Spenser's contemporary, Bruno. Yet her upbeat, "chearefull view" ruling perplexes as much as it gratifies (220.127.116.11), for a keen strain of anxiety has pervaded these two cantos, an anxiety that is difficult to shake, even when Nature's verdict has been uttered and recorded. If Spenser appears to echo Bruno's De Gli Eroici Furori in this penultimate stanza, at many other moments he appears deliberately to reject such a positive version of the truth-seeking enterprise. I will argue, in fact, that the Mutabilitie Cantos is the work in Spenser's oeuvre in which his own anxieties about the accessibility of the divine (or even the ideal) through the instrument of poetic allegory come closest to the surface. Here the poet reflects, self-critically, on his own program of allegory in a more explicit way than he has elsewhere in The Faerie Queene. In doing so, Spenser associates poetic invention with metamorphosis. First, in book 7, canto 6, Spenser directly alludes to narratives from Ovid's Metamorphoses in order to critique the "metamorphic" potential of his own program of allegory. This critique so wholly destabilizes the relation of divinity to its image that, in the next canto, the poet questions the validity and efficacy of allegorical representation itself. Since I read the Mutabilitie Cantos as Spenser's culminating analysis of The Faerie Queene, the larger poetic project is made vulnerable by these cantos, which cast doubt on the poem's potential to mediate between man and transcendent values.
Published posthumously in 1609, the Mutabilitie Cantos is a truncated work comprised of one pair of cantos, labeled 6 and 7, and a fragment of canto 8, termed "vnperfite." This tag obviously refers primarily to the canto's unfinished state, but, coming as it does at the end of this work, it also seems a striking admission of imperfection at once poetic and personal, aesthetic and spiritual. If, as Nature claims, all things "Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate," the moment of consummation for the poem is not yet at hand. One could even argue that Spenser is attempting to place this work (which is unfinished in ways both formal and ideological) within the Renaissance tradition of the non finito, a stylistic convention that, although most often associated with Quattrocento visual arts (especially the rough, unpolished sculptural forms of Michelangelo), assimilates many other works from this period, both verbal and visual. …