Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser: Selected Papers from the English Institute

Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser: Selected Papers from the English Institute

Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser: Selected Papers from the English Institute

Form and Convention in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser: Selected Papers from the English Institute

Excerpt

Although the Essays in this collection differ widely in subject and in approach there lies behind them a common assumption which an editorial preface should make explicit. Whether or not the contributors represent the current trend of opinion about Spenser, they appear to be agreed that his poems are complex and subtly constructed units and that the chief task of the scholar or critic is to lay bare the principles of their structure. This direction of effort contrasts sharply with the tendency of those writers who emphasize the structural defects and inconsistencies of thought, mood, and style in his poetry. The division I have drawn is no doubt too sharp, for few of Spenser's commentators would identify themselves without reservation as of one or the other camp, but its general validity is documented by the history of Spenser criticism from its very beginnings.

In his Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire John Dryden, generally an enthusiastic admirer of The Faerie Queene, reserved his severest censure for the inadequacy of its plan: "For there is no uniformity in the design of Spenser: he aims at the accomplishment of no one action. . . . Had he lived to finish his poem, in the six remaining legends, it had certainly been more of a piece; but could not have been perfect, because the model was not true." Thomas Warton quite agreed: " Spenser, and the same may be said of Ariosto, did not live in an age of planning. His poetry is the careless exuberance of a warm imagination and a strong sensibility. It was his business to engage the fancy, and to interest the attention by bold and striking images, in the formation, and the disposition of which, little labour or art was applied." But Warton's contemporary John Upton took a position directly contrary: "In every poem there ought to be simplicity and unity; and in the epic poem the unity of the action should never be violated by introducing any ill-joined or heterogeneous parts. This essential rule Spenser seems to me strictly to have followed." The dispute is by no means confined to The Faerie Queene. The first editor of The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser's friend "E.K.," described its principal merit as the tightness of its construction: "For what in most English wryters useth to be loose, and as it were ungyrt, in this Authour is well grounded, finely framed, and strongly trussed up together." Yet in his edition of the same poem Professor W. L. Renwick finds it necessary to suppose that the scheme of the Calender is a superficial afterthought: "We may imagine that some time in 1579 Spenser at last decided to publish some of his accumulated poems; he had some pastorals by him, and it was in accordance with critical theory that he should begin with them; the idea of the Calendar came to him because they contained definite seasonal references after the manner of Man . . .

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