Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's Faerie Queene

Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's Faerie Queene

Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's Faerie Queene

Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's Faerie Queene

Synopsis

Spenser not only dedicated The FAerie Queene to Queen Elizabeth but asserted that his romantic epic was in some sense about her rule and her realm. The informed attention that O'Connell gives to the relationship between Spenser's reflections on contemporary history and his moral design makes this volume a convincing reading of the great poem. The author shows how Spenser used Vergil as his model in celebrating and judging his own age.

Originally published in 1977.

Excerpt

Throughout his poetic career a significant portion of Spenser's attention was directed toward establishing a relationship between his poetry and political power. As a poet of moral vision, he recognized the importance of touching the mind of the ruler, for the ruler not only establishes national policy but also serves in some sense as the moral leader of a people. The poet whose voice is heard by those in power thus extends significantly his vatic power. It is, of course, an understatement to say that only rarely and with difficulty do poetic imagination and political power come into such a conjunction. From Old Testament times until the present, the more common relationship has been one of bitter opposition between prophet and king, poet and president. The modern sensibility supposes that opposition is inevitable, that being unacknowledged remains the occupational hazard of the poet as legislator. Only an age of buoyant optimism, we assume, would expect otherwise.

But Renaissance poets found the great archetype of the conjunction of poetic vision and political power in an age noted for political upheaval and pessimism: the relationship of Vergil and Augustus. The significant moment of that conjunction came in an incident that the Renaissance knew from the life of Vergil attributed to Donatus, a short biography deriving from Suetonius that was standard introductory fare in sixteenth-century editions of Vergil. It was related that Vergil joined Octavian at Atella, where the latter, returning victorious from Actium, was delayed by a minor illness. For four days Vergil and Maecenas read to Octavian the recently completed Georgics. The leader who had emerged victorious from what was to prove the last battle of the civil wars was thus confronted with the poet's fervent and hopeful celebration of the arts of peace, a celebration punctuated with literal and symbolic reminders of the terrible costs of those wars. For once, then, and at a climactic moment in history, the man of power listened to the man of imagination. In the Aeneid Vergil would press his advantage and assume Augustus as a constant auditor of his poem.

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