Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Introduction: Spenser and Platonism

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Introduction: Spenser and Platonism

Article excerpt

THE SEEDS FOR this project were planted in 2000, at the conference of the Renaissance Society of America in Florence, where the three coeditors had organized a session on Spenser and Florentine Platonism. A year later, Andrew Hadfield stimulated us further by anecdotally reporting an apparent decline of interest in the poet's Platonic affinities in his Cambridge Companion To Spenser.' As our volume seeks to show, this dimension of Spenser's mind and art continues to offer opportunities for inquiries that are as significant and revealing as any other. Surveying a wide range ofSpenser's engagements with Platonic thought, the collection presents diverse interpretive positions. Our subject's current vitality and openness to new research will, we think, be apparent to readers. In early modernity (absent latter-day efforts to distinguish sharply between Plato's authentic doctrines and later Neoplatonic adaptations), Platonic philosophy appeared as a "broad stream," and we use "Platonism" inclusively here in that sense.2 While the kinds of Platonism pertinent to Spenser at various points in his life are disputable, as well as the extent to which he accepted, modified, or countered Plato's legacy, that philosophy's fundamental relevance to assessment and appreciation of his poetry is beyond dispute.

From the late 1950s through the 1980s, study of the Platonic aspects of Spenser's texts yielded two specialized books' and countless notes, journal articles, and chapters in books, besides informing more general Spenser monographs such as those ofWilliam Nelson, Alastair Fowler, Thomas P. Roche, Jr., John Erskine Hankins, A. Kent Hieatt, Humphrey Tonkin, and James Nohrnberg. During this period, most leading Spenserians significantly addressed aspects of the poet's relations with Platonism in one or more publications. A substantial range of related articles appeared in The Spenser Encyclopedia of 1990, reflecting interests that had emerged in previous decades.4 Scholarly engagement with this topic was declining by that time, however, and relatively few pertinent studies were published from 1991 to 2008.3 The major exception, Jon Quitslund's Spenser's Supreme Fiction of 2001, was the late harvest of researches that had begun in the 1960s, complicated by the author's keen interest in the reformation of early modern studies during the 1980s and 1990s.

Relaunching study of Spenser and Platonism may now be timely. The decline of interest in this historicizing topic coincided with the ascendancy of new historicism and cultural materialism, which transformed Anglo-American study of early modern English literature by emphasizing its implication in social practices, political institutions, colonial circumstances, and material culture, and by privileging much that prior literary historicism had underprivileged. As culture in general became conceptualized as text, so the potential interpretive scope of literary scholars burgeoned, and the centrality of "major works of art" was to be "jostled now by an array of other texts and images."6 That was not an altogether new development, for the scholars associated with the Warburg Institute in London, who strongly influenced Spenser studies in the 1960s and 1970s, had long anticipated new historicist multidisciplinarities and "thick descriptions" of "cultural performances," though in a different way that stressed intellectual and iconographical contexts rather than sociopolitical ones. In the subsequent poststructuralist historicisms, intellectual history remained topical mainly where it was relevant to their new emphases, and to studies of the body, gender, and sexuality. Insofar as early modern philosophies received notice, skepticism rose in appeal, in accord with ideological trends within the literary academy,8 while other philosophical schools of at least equal sixteenth-century importance depreciated. The new hermeneutics of suspicion, whereby cultural artifacts, their creators, and their milieus are to be warily demystified, gained currency in both Spenser and Shakespeare studies. …

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