Contemporary Thought on Edmund Spenser

By Richard C. Frushell; Bernard J. Vondersmith | Go to book overview
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A. KENT HIEATT A Spenser to Structure Our Myths (Medina, Phaedria, Proserpina, Acrasia, Venus, Isis)

DESPITE the fifteen years of heroic exploration that now lie behind us, two items in the standard literary-historical picture of Spenser remain in much the same shape that they received in the third decade of this century. For students of the general tradition of poetic narrative in the Christian West, the possibility does not usually even arise that incident and detail in The Faerie Queene are governed as rigorously by a luminously logical, overarching plan as is the case, for instance, in the Commedia or in Paradise Lost. For students of the general tradition of English poetry in the Elizabethan period and the seventeenth century, the inherited assumption is still a commonplace that the virtues of precision, specificity, economy, and control in the writing of English verse were only slowly developed in that tradition by a kind of trial-and-error method in which the errors were usually committed by Spenser. Both of these positions are in need of modification in a related way.

The Faerie Queene establishes a moral and narrative realm or "country" (in the sense in which one speaks today of the "Faulkner country" or, at another level, of "Tolkien country") made up of the most various topography and populations but organized with an elegant economy. What at the verbal level looks to some readers like imprecision is, very often, a stretching of verbal possibilities in order to accommodate Spenser's larger-scale controlling plan. Once one sees what Spenser is after in any particular instance, one must generally be prepared to applaud the particular verbal configuration which he has chosen. This is not always true, it must be admitted, of the middle-scale phenomena between these two magnitudes. Particularly in the matter of narrative unity and verisimilitude he occasionally seems to be distorting incidents, scanting them, or elaborating

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