Academic journal article Spenser Studies

The Kathleen Williams Lecture, 2014: The Chastity of Allegory for Esther

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

The Kathleen Williams Lecture, 2014: The Chastity of Allegory for Esther

Article excerpt

In Miltons Spenser, Maureen Quilligan stresses the importance of i female perspective to the Legend of Chastity, noting that "direct addresses to female readers are far more numerous in Book III than elsewhere in the poem."1 Today Id like to build on Quilligan's influential description of "the politics of reading" in Book III by combining it with Harry Berger's emphasis on the reflexivity of Spenser's poems, which he describes as second-order "discourses about the discourses they represent." Book III in particular, Berger says, features "conspicuous allusion: presenting stock literary motifs, characters, and genres, so as to display their conventionality."2 Taken together, these views suggest that Spenser will be highly self-conscious about the ethical and political risks a male poet takes in speaking publicly to women about their sexuality.

In combining these views I'd like to situate them within the framework suggested by Teresa de Lauretis in Technologies of Gender. Lauretis extends Foucault's notion of the "technology of sex" to encompass the whole range of media that work to construct gendered subjects.3 Such an approach has obvious relevance to a poem that aims to "fashion" its readers, and especially to that part of the poem which addresses readers specifically as sexual subjects. This broadening from "discourses" to "technologies" answers to the attention Spenser gives in Book III not just to verbal media but to all sorts of representational apparatuses: tapestries, bas-relief, statues, masques, magical illusions-mirrors more than one, indeed. These are presented along with a range of literary genres and motifs that are not just woven together in the narrative but are foregrounded "conspicuously" in Berger's sense as rhetorical transactions. In this way the pervasive reflexivity of The Faerie Queene takes a special turn in Book III, as ekphrasis and mythopoesis gain prominence, lesser forms like the idyll, the complaint, and the blazon are produced with a flourish, and the conventions of the fabliau burlesque the matter of Homeric epic.

Book III puts its array of genres and media on display as what we might call technologies of desire: representational apparatuses that evoke erotic feeling and shape it both as experience and as expression. Spenser gathers an encyclopedic range of such technologies into an allegorical hall of mirrors where he can juxtapose them to reveal their limitations. This special emphasis on cultural and poetic techné finds an apt symbol in Merlin's enchanted glass, as Kathleen Williams recognized in the title of her extraordinary book on The Faerie Queene.4 Exhibiting the properties sometimes of a mirror and sometimes of a crystal ball, Merlin's glass wounds Britomart to lead her beyond herself.5 By the end of Book V, however, this "beyond" will turn out to mean nothing but her subordination and her disappearance from the narrative. I have written elsewhere about the end of Britomart's career in Book V; here I want to suggest that it deepens a critique of the heterosexual contract (in its early modern form) that Spenser initiates in Book III with its special focus on technologies of desire.

As a meditation not just on the perils and delights of sexuality, but on the perils and delights of writing as a man, for a public audience, about female sexuality, the Legend of Chastity is haunted by an anxiety about the act of address. This concern develops from Spenser's engagement with what Susanne Wofford calls the "fundamental Petrarchan insight," namely that "the problems of love and the difficulty of expressing love are one and the same."6 This anxiety of address appears in the opening words of the proem: the poet's subject is "far aboue the rest" (i.2), but to write of it, he says, "falls me" (i.l)7-a dative construction (it falls to me, it befalls me) that converts the act of address from deliberate choice into a misfortune overtaking the hapless poet, who must either rise to the occasion or sink beneath it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.