Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Spenser's Monsters: A Response to Maik Goth*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Spenser's Monsters: A Response to Maik Goth*

Article excerpt

Maik Goth's essay " Spenser as Prometheus: The Monstrous and the Idea of Poetic Creation" argues that Spenser associated poetic creation in general, and his own craftsmanship in particular, with monstrosity and an open defiance of the principles of nature so revered by neoclassical critics. As Goth reminds us, Spenser filled The Faerie Queene with accounts of monstrous creation that shadow the poet's own creative enterprise. Archimago - whose name reveals him etymologically to be a great crafter of images - fashions a false Una to deceive the Redcrosse Knight. An unnamed witch creates a simulacrum of the beautiful Fiorimeli to appease her son's desires from the same natural elements that Petrarchan poets transformed into metaphors: snow, vermillion, golden wires, and burning lamps. Goth compares these moments in Spenser to Philip Sidney's evocations of the poet's capacity to make "things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like" (Sidney 64).

For Goth, the primary Spenserian focus of that Sidneyan confidence in human creativity is Prometheus's fashioning of the first Elf in Book II, Canto X of The Faerie Queene. There the faerie Guyon discovers the history of his own Elfin race inscribed in a chronicle:

It told, how first Prometheus did create

A man, of many parts from beasts deryu'd,

And then stole fire from heuen, to animate

His worke, for which he was by loue depryu'd

Of life him self, and hart-strings of an Aegle ryu'd. (II.x.70.5-9)

Goth correctly locates sources for this passage in Horace and Natale Conti (cf. 188). There may be yet another important humanist source, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola' s Oratio de hominis dignitate. In the opening paragraphs, Pico relates how God made Man after he had already created everything else in the universe and assigned it its proper place. Having nothing distinctive left with which to endow him, God gave him the power to choose his destiny:

We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine. (8-9)

As in Spenser, the human creature exhibits both bestial and divine aspects. Neither wholly one nor the other, he alone enjoys the ability to "fashion yourself in the form you may prefer/7 In a sense, God creates humanity to create itself. Man's creative capacity is the surest sign of his divine origin. But depending on how he uses that capacity, he may either ascend to the angels or descend to the animal creation.

Pico's retelling of the creation story, with its several points of analogy to the Prometheus myth, would have intrigued Spenser because of its emphasis on humanity's moral self-fashioning. After all, Spenser tells us in the "Letter to Raleigh/' appended to the 1590 Faerie Queene, that "[t]he generali end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline" (714). …

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