Academic journal article Spenser Studies

The Lost Cause of Platonism in the Faerie Queene

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

The Lost Cause of Platonism in the Faerie Queene

Article excerpt

AS WE ARE REMINDED in Jon Quitslund's recent book Spenser's Supreme Fiction, the notion that Spenser is in some sense a "disciple of Platoes School" is as old as Digby's Observations of 1628, which is to say, pretty much as old as Spenser criticism itself.1 But of course to say that The Faerie Queene is "Platonic" might mean, and has meant, very different things, some more plausible than others. For Quitslund, while Spenser is not "doctrinaire"-is not a Platonist as opposed, say, to an Aristotelian, and certainly not as opposed to a Christian-he does partake deeply both of what C. S. Lewis calls "The diffused and Christianized Platonism which descends to the Middle Ages through St Augustine, Boethius, Macrobius, Chalcidius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and many others," and of the programmatic Neoplatonism revived by the Florentine academy, which itself reached the Elizabethans to a large degree by indirect routes.2 In this, Quitslund is close to the late writings of Lewis himself, those that have one eye on the weighty polemics of Robert Ellrodt's Neoplatonism in the Poetry of SpenserIn The Faerie Queene, says Quitslund, "It is useful to distinguish between the programmatic Platonic design evident in certain places and the diffuse Platonism that is present in the broad and deep discursive structures of Spenser's poetry. While the deep structures are sourceless, transmitted through Western culture like inherited traits from the gene pool, programmatic Platonism can sometimes be traced to specific sources"-above all, he argues, directly or indirectly to certain of Ficino's works.4

My question here is whether even such a cautious return to a broadly Platonic Spenser, who integrates features of Renaissance Neoplatonism into an essentially conservative (or revivalist) medieval-Platonic worldview, is sustainable, or whether, as my title suggests, there are reasons for regarding that vision of The Faerie Queene as something of a lost cause. Not that I doubt that the Platonic tradition, taken at its broadest, is a great influence on Spenser's poetry; but that there is a difference between drawing deeply on a tradition, and writing a work whose worldview is essentially of that tradition.

To take first the Platonism said to be "present in the broad and deep discursive structures of Spenser's poetry": two of the broadest ways in which we are used to thinking of The Faerie Queene as Platonic in structure consist firstly in its regular indications that truth, while certain and unchanging, is veiled, and accessible only by way of derivative copies, secondly in the broad narrative shape proposed by the Letter to Ralegh, and partly realized in the poem, whereby the various knights' quests seem to emanate from and return to the still point of glory that is the Fairy Queen's court.1 The two meet in Arthur's search for Gloriana, which as the returning vector of that cyclical narrative shape, and a quest that strives by ethical means to rise from images towards their originals, has seemed to many critics to represent the eminently Platonic "quest of eros for the heavenly beauty."6 Notoriously, a true ladder of love is hard to find in Spenser, even in the apparently Platonic Hymnes to love and beauty; and if we are to find its like anywhere, I think it is in Arthur, who on seeing the Queen's image on Guyon's shield aspires to its original, thence from the beauty of her face to that of her mind (II.ix.2-3), and potentially, as Guyon suggests elsewhere, even from her beauty to that of the God of which she herself is but an image (II.ii.41). Arthur's love, even if an isolated case, may be an extremely important one, firstly because his is the frame narrative and the principal ethical example of the whole poem, and secondly because the poem (predominantly through its proems) recurrently places its reader in a position similar to Arthur's, with a rhetorically sublimated Elizabeth in Gloriana's place, and the poem itself, with its "colourd showes" (III. …

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