Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Letters for the Dogs: Chasing Spenserian Alliteration

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Letters for the Dogs: Chasing Spenserian Alliteration

Article excerpt

MY INTEREST IN ALLITERATION in Spenser began in bemusement and mild repulsion, while working on various aspects of The Shepheardes Calender. I could not understand how to read the alliteration I found there and take pleasure in it, and I could not help thinking that it was a weakness in Spenser's style, something primitive and unsophisticated.1 Was this why there was no article about alliteration in The Spenser Encyclopedia, even though it seemed as prominent an aspect of Spenser's style as the stanza of The Faerie Queene? Was the silence an embarrassed silence of Spenser scholars on behalf of their poet? A subject better left alone, because it would not show Spenser in a good light? Or was this silence an extension of the more general silence or near-silence about style and anything associated with the theoretical minefield of "the aesthetic"?

This essay is the result of a good deal of thought about those questions, especially with respect to Spenser's Shepheardes Calender, the most stylistically innovative and experimental of his works, and the one in which alliteration seems most prominent. I begin by looking carefully at moments when two brilliant critics of Spenser find cause to write about alliteration, and then consider the opposed understandings of alliterative function that their readings imply. Next I review what Elizabethans wrote about alliteration, particularly the dangers of excessive alliteration. Together, the modern critics and the Elizabethans raise two main questions: how alliteration works with respect to semantic content, and what constitutes "good" alliteration. My answer to the first question is fairly straightforward: alliteration in Spenser has a continuously variable relationship to meaning. One can catalog a variety of functions, but Spenser avoids permanent ties to any. About "good" alliteration, one can concede that taste and fashion must play a role in such determinations, but after a survey of The Shepheardes Calender, and probes into other poems, I argue that alliteration can, at least, be recognized to be as intricate and complex as other sound patterns in Spenser's poetry; if we can praise the virtuosity of rhyme or rhythm, then we can find similar grounds to praise alliteration. Furthermore, I argue that looking closely at alliteration tends to reveal its association with other sound patterns, that it is a category with fluid borders, and that its relationship with other components of poetic sound and rhythm are as continuously variable as its relationship with meaning.2


Both of the examples from modern critics that I want to examine here strike me as, at some level, defensive, responses to stylistic and aesthetic charges lodged against Spenser that do not frequently find their way into scholarly discourse, but are nonetheless periodically in the air. The example by A. C. Hamilton seems in particular to answer the charge that Spenser's style is overly "decorative," that it is not sufficiently engaged "in dramatic representation of narrative realities," something that Paul Alpers notes has been a frequent complaint about Spenser over the years.3 Hamilton does not devote a great deal of space to stylistic commentary in his recent revision of the Longman Faerie Queene, but at this moment in Book I, during the fight between Redcrosse and the dragon, and after Redcrosse has wounded the dragon with his spear, Hamilton sees fit to comment on alliteration at some length:

The steely head stucke first still in his flesh,

Till with his cruell clawes he snatcht the wood,

And quite a sunder broke. Forth flowed fresh

A gushing river of blacke goarie blood,

That drowned all the land, whereon he stood;

The streame thereof would drive a water-mill.

Trebly augmented was his furious mood

With bitter sence of his deepe rooted ill,

That flames of fire he threw forth from his large nosethril. …

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