Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Elf-Fashioning Revisited: A Response to Maik Goth*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Elf-Fashioning Revisited: A Response to Maik Goth*

Article excerpt

Taking a cue from Sir Philip Sidney's famous formulation of the poet as a "maker" possessed of the ability to bring forth "forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like" (Sidney, Major Works 216), Maik Goth has explored the important role that the monstrous has in early modern literary theory in exemplifying a poet7 s creative powers. Goth argues that the poet's capacity to fashion an "other nature" through his writing, and to take on a god-like role in creating a "second nature" that is superior to that of the real world, is epitomised by Sidney as the distinct ability to represent fantastic monstrous creatures. For Sidney, the one-eyed Cyclops and theriomorphic Chimera offer a taste of what a poet can offer when he is limited only by the bounds and constraints of his imagination, and freed from any form of external strictures imposed by a need to accurately present the world as it really is, rather than as it could be. The god-like ability of the poet to make monsters is compared by Goth to that of Prometheus, the figure found widely in classical mythology and its medieval and early modern reworkings who created mankind from clay, which is then animated (depending on which source we read) either by divine spirit or stolen heavenly fire. Goth characterises poetic creation as an essentially Promethean act, though exactly how we are conceiving the different facets of what constitutes a Promethean act is an issue to which we will return below. Indeed, one of the things that will be called for in this response essay is a more nuanced conception of how we define and understand Promethean poetic creation in relation to Sidney and Spenser.

The Promethean connotations of Sidney's description of poetic creation are of great significance to Spenser in book two of The Faerie Queene during the extended building-as-body conceit used throughout the House of Alma episode. In II.ix-x, he presents the three mental faculties of imagination, reason, and memory as three linked chambers in the castle's turret or "head/71 Spenser certainly appears to have had Sidney's Defence of Poesy in mind when describing the occupants of the chambers. The depiction of Eumnestes (memory) at work surrounded by "worm-eaten" books and scrolls (II.ix.57) echoes the similarly corrupt "mouse-eaten records" mentioned in Sidney's description of the hypothetical historian in the Defence (Major Works 220). It is in Eumnestes' s chamber that Guyon first learns of the creation of the fairy race from the " Antiquitee of Faery lond," and reads 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)

The fairies of Spenser's fairyland are thus brought forth through the seminal act of elf-fashioning by Prometheus, the transgressive artificer. Goth has outlined some of the classical and early modern sources that Spenser may have drawn on here, though we might also look to the studies by Olga Raggio and Ernst Cassirer for an even wider appreciation of the rich mythological and intellectual traditions with which Spenser could have been working with in this passage.2 For Cassirer, during the early modern period Prometheus fuses with the figure of Adam:

The first man becomes an expression of the spiritual man, the homo spiritualis, and thus, all the spiritual tendencies of the epoch that are directed towards a renewal, rebirth, and regeneration of man come to be concentrated in his form. (Cassirer 93)

Although medieval thinkers seized primarily upon the negative aspects of the Prometheus figure, early modern writers came to celebrate him as a man-making artist, a "human hero of culture, the bringer of wisdom and of political and moral culture" (Cassirer 95). Prometheus, in such a view, thus embodies the spirit of the "renaissance" itself. …

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