Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Fielding's Comic Prose Epithalamium in Joseph Andrews: A Spensarian Imitation

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Fielding's Comic Prose Epithalamium in Joseph Andrews: A Spensarian Imitation

Article excerpt

Henry Knight Miller claims that Fielding's works show 'no interest [...] in Miltonic or Spenserian imitations'. (1) There might be cause to question this statement after contemplating the publication of a comic prose epithalamium at the conclusion of Joseph Andrews, where Fielding appears to have imitated the spirit and structure, though not the verse construct, of Spenser's marriage hymn. In four paragraphs describing the wedding day of Joseph Andrews (nee Wilson) and Fanny Goodwill (nee Andrews) and a single paragraph announcing Fanny's pregnancy, Fielding imitates the epithalamium genre and conveys its dual spirit, the literary and the religious. Fielding introduces into his narrative the benevolent humour of Spenser's Epithalamion and informs his work with the religious timbre of the poem.

What makes these parallels more significant than simple points of comparison is the epithalamic diction that has the prose work echo the verse passages. More so, the echoing characteristic is not merely a repetition but an imaginative reconstruction of the verses by which Fielding absorbs pastoral iconography and reconstitutes it in the novel. Thus, Spenser's bride averts 'her modest eyes' (l. 159) and Fielding's Fanny shows 'extraordinary and unaffected Modesty' (p. 342). Spenser, for example, equates food and love: his bride has 'cheeks lyke apples', 'lips like cherryes charming men to byte', and a 'brest like to a bowl of cream vncrudded' (ll. 173-75), whereas Joseph and Fanny 'pampered their Imaginations with the much more exquisite Repast which the Approach of Night promised them' (p. 343). (2) Spenser concludes all the stanzas of Epithalamion except the last with the humble assertion that his voice is but an echo of the Muses: 'sing | That all the woods may answere and your eccho ring' (ll. 276-77). My argument suggests that even the most tenuous comparison reveals Fielding's echo of Spenser's voice. An apt analogy might be the nature of a symphony. The epithalamium convention offers the panoramic thesis of the symphony, but the articulation of the melody is carried out in moments of infinite variety recalling, repeating, and echoing the basic tones. Both Spenser and Fielding write under the epithalamic convention, but Fielding's indebtedness to Spenser is far more extensive than Henry Knight Miller suggests.

Fielding's prose narrative announces 'the happy Day [...] which was to put Joseph in the possession of all his Wishes' (p. 342). Following the diurnal cycle, events proceed through the wedding day and into the night. Fanny dresses modestly in a shift with 'an Edging of Lace round the Bosom', which Pamela prevailed upon her to wear, that Pamela, Joseph's sister, a simulacrum of herself from the Richardson novel that instigated Fielding's parody. She departs her 'Chamber, blushing, and breathing Sweets', is led to church by her Joseph 'whose Eyes sparkled Fire', and attends nuptials conducted by the 'true Christian Piety of Adams' (p. 342). At the meal, Parson Adams eats voraciously; in contrast, Fanny and Joseph eat sparingly as they anticipate 'the much more exquisite Repast which the Approach of Night promised them' (p. 343). Fanny undresses in her bedroom with the assistance of her mother Gammar Andrews, Joseph's mother Mrs Wilson, and sister Pamela. Joseph shortly thereafter flees to her 'with the utmost Eagerness'. The episode concludes with authorial commentary equating the betrothed couple with the ranks of the nobility whose marriages are celebrated in the classical epithalamia: 'I apprehend Joseph neither envied the noblest Duke, nor Fanny the finest Duchess that Night' (p. 343). The diurnal cycle is completed, the marriage consummated, and the birth of their child imminent (p. 344).

Fielding's respect for the works of Spenser is noted in various of his writings. Tim Vinegar, writing a letter to Capt. Vinegar from Lincoln's Inn on 20 November, published in the Champion, No. 4 (Saturday, 24 November 1739), conjoins 'the great Names of Chaucer, Spencer, Donne, Milton, and Cowley, with those of Mr. …

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