The "Mutabilitie Cantos":
Archaism and Evolution
in Retrospect

The view of experience expressed in and as Spenser's poetry is shaped by a radically historical consciousness. It is historical in two reciprocal aspects: the objective character of Spenser's vision is evolutionary; its subjective mode is retrospective. The present essay will explore these terms in the specific context of the Mutabilitie Cantos, but I shall preface my interpretation with some remarks of a more general nature in order to clarify my use of these terms. By evolutionary I mean that we may find in Spenser's poetry an overall developmental pattern in which three vectors coalesce: from lower to higher, from simpler to more complex and, of course, from earlier to later. These vectors run parallel courses in the history of the individual psyche and in that of culture or civilization. The relation between these two courses is reciprocal. Haeckel's discredited biogenetic formula, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," covers one side of it: the individual organism (the microcosm, the human or physic discordia concors) manifests in compressed form the development of culture from its earlier childhood phases to its later more sophisticated phases. The normal and normative growth of human consciousness and conscience is from a relatively narrow, simplistic or elementally "pure" perspective to a broader, more complex and comprehensive perspective. In early or in regressive stages, for example, distinguishable areas tend to

From Spenser: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Harry Berger, Jr.Copyright © 1968 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.


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Edmund Spenser


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