Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Edmund Spenser and Continental Humanism: The St. George Legend in the Faerie Queene, Book I, and Mantuan's

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Edmund Spenser and Continental Humanism: The St. George Legend in the Faerie Queene, Book I, and Mantuan's

Article excerpt

IN HIS POETRY OF EDMUND SPENSER William Nelson wondered at Spenser's choice of the St. George legend as material with which to begin his Faerie Queene. In the sixteenth century, Nelson opined in an influential pronouncement, "No Renaissance humanist could have thought [George's] legendary life a respectable literary model."1 Quite the contrary, I want to stress that good, respectable Renaissance humanists did in fact take the material seriously and lavished a great deal of effort in shaping it in accordance with contemporary literary and cultural standards. Specifically I want to connect Spenser's handling of the St. George legend, especially the dragon fight in the first book of his poem, within a Latinate, continental European literary context, showing how he found in Mantuan's Georgius and used a heightened sense of historical perspective that had been developing among humanists in fifteenth-century Italy.

When Erasmus famously pronounced Mantuan the "Christian Virgil" he had in mind not his widely reprinted eclogues but works like his Parthenice Mariana, hagiographie epics by which the Quattrocento Italian poet popularized a humanist synthesis of Graeco-Roman style and literary conventions with Judeo-Christian subject matter and themes in a series of poems that laid the foundations for Christian epics such as Vida's Christi ad and Milton's Paradise Lost.- Mantu- an's Georgius is one of these hagiographie epics, composed late in his literary career. First published at Milan in 1507, it immediately drew a familiar commentary by the Flemish humanist and printer, Jodicus Badius (Josse Bade), that was eventually incorporated into his magisterial 1513 edition of Mantuan's collected works.3 And in England it inspired the English/Scot- tish humanist writer Alexander Barclay, alert as always to Continental literary trends, to have printed in 1515 his adaptation of Mantuan's poem.4

Did Spenser know either of these works? In light of his respect for Mantuan's eclogues in his Shepheardes Calender it seems probable that he was at least aware of the Georgius7 Nor is it unlikely that he was mindful of Barclay's poem, given that in following Mantuan in both this work and his eclogues the earlier English (or Scots) poet provided an often neglected model for a British poet. But my concern is less with direct, line-for-line imitation than the precedent that Mantuan's poem set for treating the St. George material. For a comparison of his handling of the story with the version set down in his chief source, Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda aurea, reveals how Mantuan opened up to Spenser radically new ways of shaping, indeed of seeing it as a literary text.

In their seminal article on sources for the St. George legend, F. M. Padelford and Matthew O'Connor echoed the conventional view that Mantuan's version essentially adapts the material of de Voragine's Legenda to the meter and heroic style of classical Greek and Latin verse/' After the manner of ancient epic, extended similes embellish his poem, which (in William Nelson's words) is written, in contrast to the simple, graceless style of the Legenda, "in a smooth, correct Latin . . . [and] en- dowed with a proper mythological apparatus." True enough. Behind these embellishments, however, lies not a lack of originality (what Nelson took them to indicate) but what Ann Moss has described as the Latin language turn, a turn that profoundly affected the discovery and presentation of truth in Renaissance Europe. In the hands of humanist writers, Moss argues, Latin became a fundamental instrument in reconfiguring horizons of thought. In Mantuan's hagiographie epics, she argues, he transposed his religious subject matter into a new poetic mode of discourse. Plotting this mode on a multiplicity of cultural horizons-biblical, classical, historical, liturgical, linguistic, rhetorical-he created a distinctive universe of discourse "that is incommensurable with a discourse where facts and logically formulated propositions alone are true, and fiction is empty. …

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