Academic journal article Studies in Philology

A Song of Silence: Plaintive Dissonance and Neoteric Method in Spenser's Daphnaida

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

A Song of Silence: Plaintive Dissonance and Neoteric Method in Spenser's Daphnaida

Article excerpt

This study offers a new paradigm for reading Edmund Spenser's unusual elegy Daphnaida, a poem often considered aesthetically displeasing in its unsympathetic characterization, deferred consolation, and highly rhetorical style. This essay describes Daphnaida's eccentricities as a product of a neoteric aesthetic unique to Spenser's late pastorals and inspired by the poetic experiments of the Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. The plaintive mode, a key element of Spenser's neoteric method, acts as a disruptive, revisionary mechanism that prefigures formal revision, highlighting the poet's role as master craftsman and the artistry of poetry itself. In Daphnaida, plaintive dissonance demonstrates how the poetic expression of loss is reflexive and self-negating, engendering a silence that mimics the absence of the beloved. The force of Spenser's psychological depiction of grief as dissonant effectively externalize Alcyon's internal state. The poem's lack of resolution, then, is not a failure of representation but an apt portrayal of the destructive nature of grief.

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   Cease foolish man (said he halfe wrothfully)
   To seeke to heare that which cannot be tolde.
   For the huge anguish, which dooth multiplie
   My dying paines, no tongue can well unfold. (1)

   non ingrata tarnen frustra munuscula diuis
   promittens tacito suscepit uota labello.
   [Yet the giftlets she offered the gods, the vows she pledged
   With silent lips--these were not in vain, not unpleasing.] (2)

IN January of 1591, four and a half months after the death of nineteen-year-old Douglas Howard, Edmund Spenser published a remarkably strange tribute: Daphnaida. An Elegie upon the Death of the noble and vertuous Douglas Howard, daughter and heire of Henry Lord Howard, Viscount Byndon, and Wife of Arthure Gorges Esquier. The poem is perhaps Spenser's most unusual composition and arguably his least successful. The obsessive and seemingly disingenuous grief of Alcyon (an odd caricature of the widowed Arthur Gorges) evokes little sympathy in the reader, and the poem is marked by its formal resistance. Daphnaida is more anti-elegy than elegy, and Spenser fails to deliver the promise of his title. A pastoral elegy is a song of grief that traditionally provides, for the speaker, an aesthetic consolation. The vocalization of such grief--its linguistic manifestation--offers comfort and closure. The successful work of mourning (3) (in a successful elegy) displaces the mourner's desire for the lost beloved, filling that void with the music of poetry, the beauteous simplicity of pastoral, and the promise of community or faith. In Greek elegy, the shepherds of Theocritus's Idyll 1 extol such consolation: "There is sweet music in that pine tree's whisper, goatherd, / There by the spring. Sweet too is the music of your pipe." (4) The speaker of Virgil's Eclogue 10 concurs: "You are supreme in song, / Arcadians. O how softly then my bones would rest, / If only your reed pipe hereafter told my love." (5) But sweet music and aesthetic comfort are glaringly absent in Daphndida. Alcyon refuses to be consoled: "But he no waie recomforted would be, / Nor suffer solace to approach him nie" (547-48), choosing instead to wander in despair, "With staggring pace and dismall lookes dismay, / As if that death he in the face had seene" (564-65).

Scholars have long grappled with the problem of Daphnaida's deferred consolation and the strange performative nature of Alcyon's grief. Despite valiant attempts at aesthetic reclamation, notably by William A. Oram, critics persist in their dislike of the poem's inharmonious lament and imposing rhetoric. Both Oram and G. W. Pigman III have speculated as to the moral lessons of Alcyon's intemperance, suggesting that Spenser intended Daphnaida as "an exemplum of excessive grief" (6) and a warning against intemperance. Nevertheless, the poem remains, as Oram describes it, "one of [Spenser's] most experimental and least-loved works. …

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