"The Footing of His Feet":
Spenser's Early Error

It is by now a commonplace that even ordinary errors, misstatements or misrememberings of the most uneventful sort, can be usefully construed as metaphors which correct something wrong in the representations we make to ourselves in our inner lives, even as they get something outside us palpably wrong. The mistakes made by a great imagination can enact very powerful tropes. Even though the point of error may be minute, it may be speaking for a matter of great consequence. Such is the case with a fruitful mistake made by Spenser as a very young poet. I shall discuss it shortly, but it will be instructive to approach it through a similar mistake made by Spenser's greatest follower, Milton.

Milton's mistake occurs in a line from Il Penseroso, in the passage celebrating the Imagination's nighttime at the heart of the poem. This section, running roughly from lines 75 through 122, has obsessed English and American poetry from Collins to Yeats and Stevens; from

I hear the far off Curfew sound
Over some wide-water'd shore,
Swinging low with sullen roar

—whose echoes are heard in the "sullen horn" of the may-fly in Collins' "Ode to Evening" and in the repeated "wide water, without sound" of Stevens' "Sunday Morning"—through the place

From On Poetry and Poetics, edited by Richard Waswo.Copyright © 1985 by John Hollander. Gunter Narr Verlag, Tübingen, 1984.


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Edmund Spenser


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