Commercial Settings of the 1590 Faerie Queene

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The Commendatory Verses included in the 1590 edition of Spenser's The Faerie Queene merit more sustained attention. (1) These often-overlooked poems provide both valuable indices to contemporary assumptions about the poem and the author, and, I would contend, points of entry into Spenser's epic vision. Indeed, the Commendatory Verses can cue us to aspects of Spenser's poem that might otherwise remain neglected or obscured. This is certainly the case with the poems by R.S., H. B., and Ignoto. These poems are quite unlike the other four in the sequence in several respects, but especially in sketching a London context for The Faerie Queene. Those by R. S. and Ignoto situate Spenser's poem firmly within London's commercial culture. The poem by R. S., which I will examine in detail, draws particularly on London's mercantile character and seaborne aspirations. Equipped with the perspectives afforded by this context, we can return to Spenser's poem to consider how Spenser's imperial epic vision accommodates commercial values. This is a question that does not customarily figure in critical discussions of Spenser's aims, despite recent and increasing interest in cities, London, and mercantile culture. (2) My aims in this essay will be primarily heuristic, fittingly, I think, since Spenser's own views of mercantilism eschew easy classification; what I hope to do is promote discussions that contextualize The Faerie Queene in new, or at least newly re-tooled, ways.

The poem by R. S., the fourth in the sequence, introduces several new notes into the chorus of praise accompanying The Faerie Queene. Its opening apostrophe--which is not to Spenser, or the poem, or the queen, but to "FAyre Thamis streame" (1)--announces a significant departure from the literary milieux and the close hermeneutical quarters outlined in the preceding poems, two by Ralegh and one by Harvey. Harvey's poem in particular, as I have suggested elsewhere (Owens 75-77), beggars Spenser's achievement, not only by carping about Spenser's abandonment of the pastoral mode, but also by imagining that Spenser's aim is primarily to "feast the humour of the courtly trayne" (32) and by urging Spenser to subject himself--and his imperial vision--entirely to Elizabeth's "Empyring spright" (35). While Ralegh's is an altogether more ample and thrilling conception of The Faerie Queene as a momentous achievement, a vision that installs Spenser in the pantheon of great poets that includes Homer and Petrarch, Ralegh, too, narrows Spenser's audience (and so closes the hermeneutic circle) to include just Ralegh himself, long-dead poets, and the queen. With its opening reference to the Thames, R. S.'s poem takes us from the rarefied air of Ralegh's poems and the unctuousness of Harvey's praise right into the heart of London. In doing so, R. S.'s poem prompts us to consider contexts, constituencies, audiences, and aims that are substantially different from those assumed by Ralegh and Harvey.

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Far from simply setting a new scene, R. S.'s invoking of the Thames draws, in subtle and sustained ways, upon certain features of the river, and the activities it supports, to create a milieu for Spenser and his epic that capitalizes on London's growth in shipping and mercantile ventures. Like the actual ebbing and flowing Thames, R. S.'s river flows in two directions, first running in "tribute to the Ocean seas" and then reversing its course to "Present ... prayes" of "this Bryttane Orpheus" to the "sacred crowne" living near the river's bank, that is, at Westminster (2, 8, 4, 5). In accounting for London's expanding commercial and seaborne mercantile life, contemporary commentators identify the Thames's tidal nature as a prominent contributing factor in this growth. John Stow, for example, notes the usefulness of a tide that "twice in twenty-four hours' space doth ebb and flow more than sixty miles in length," remarking that it serves "to the great commodity of travellers, by which all kind of merchandise be easily conveyed to London" (13). …