Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Spenser and Jokes the 2008 Kathleen Williams Lecture

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Spenser and Jokes the 2008 Kathleen Williams Lecture

Article excerpt

WE ARE AWARE THAT Spenser was associated with many books and made use of a wide range of reading materials throughout his life.* 1 Yet, as is often the case, scholars have been extremely keen to explore his reading of European, especially Italian, literature; classical culture; history; medicine and science; the law, and so on, but not his use of more popular forms of writing and culture, even though it has long been established that popular culture was consumed by every social rank in the sixteenth century, a situation that disappeared within two hundred years. It is impossible to analyze early modern print culture without thinking about popular culture, the central point of Peter Burke's seminal book on popular culture in early modern Europe, which established a whole field of enquiry. Popular culture, argued Burke, was everyone's culture, shared by high and low life, rich and poor, literate and illiterate. Yet, the way that The Faerie Queene is usually read, one would struggle to realize this.2

Spenser has indeed been radically severed from any traces of popular culture and his reputation outside the academic world is not inspiring, a fact that determines the ways in which the poem is read and often, I suspect, makes his admirers all the more bloody-minded in hauling him back into the ivory tower and keeping him there as the poet's poet, caviar before the general. Even other poets sometimes think he is a lost cause: the Irish poet, Tom Paulin, for example, referred to The Faerie Queene, with one eye on Spenser's reputation as yet another English butcher in Ireland, as Spenser's "mercifully unfinished epic."3

A recent brave but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to cross this division served to highlight the problems of Spenser's uncomfortable cultural location. A fledgling theater group, Cilgwyn Theater Company, staged a version of sections of The Faerie Queene at Sadler's Wells Lillian Bayless Theatre, 11-29 December 2007. The performance, dogged it has to be said by a great deal of bad luck, was not a critical or commercial success. Reviewers were, as anticipated, rather savage. The performance was billed as an eco-friendly performance and attracted some early publicity, which, sadly backfired. Lyn Gardner, writing in The Guardian opened her review by describing the play as "One of the more bonkers Christmas offerings, and not in a good way."4 Complaining that the play was largely characterized by actors leaping about and mumbling, the reviewer in The Times concluded his review with the acid comment: "Nor was the much-hyped use of recycled materials for the design anything special, though hopes briefly rise at the arrival from above of a vengeful goddess in the form of a gigantic potato masher." The serious point I want to make stems from the opening comment made by the same reviewer, one which was echoed elsewhere in the-mercifully-limited press coverage the poor play received: "Edmund Spenser's interminable romantic epic is the famously unread tome of English literature, and the Cilgwyn Theater Company's production of a small chunk of it doesn't whet the appetite for more."3 Spenser's work is seen as, at best, worthy and humorless, esoteric and at odds with enjoyment, however good it might be for those hapless few who read it. If there was one assumption that was shared by the reviewer and the theater company it was an excessive reverence for the substance of Spenser's poem, which remained, I think, largely un-reread. It continued to be part of the strata of intellectual (unfunny) culture, and was cut off from the lively, vulgar (funny) arena of popular culture.

What this episode reveals is that there is a huge gap in our understanding of the intellectual culture in which Spenser developed his work, because, in fact, Spenser's poetry developed out of a culture that bridged the divide between the high and the low. Moreover, the poet often tells us that he is making use of works of popular culture.6 A specific case in point is that of early modern jest books, of which several survive dating from the early sixteenth century that were reprinted and developed throughout that period. …

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