Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Spenser, Plato, and the Poetics of State

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Spenser, Plato, and the Poetics of State

Article excerpt

THE CENTRAL ARGUMENT of this essay is that the publication of Spenser's Fowre Hymnes, in 1596 in such close conjunction with that of the second installment of The Faerie Queene, constitutes a deliberate act of authorial self-representation, not to say self-defense, conducted via and versus Plato in terms of the conflicting but simultaneous demands of artistic liberty and colonial censorship. Despite obvious differences of style and genre, The Faerie Queene and Fowre Hymnes are, in fact, intimately connected-as the marked correspondences between the controversial proem to Book IV and the dedicatory epistle to the countesses of Cumberland and Warwick seem to be designed to indicate. When approached in the context of the two other works that Spenser published or prepared for publication in 1596, the Prothalamion and A View of the Present State of Ireland, they may be seen to contribute to an ongoing debate on the ethics of "authority," both political and literary, that Spenser conducted with himself and his readership at this crucial juncture in his career.1

The charge against which Spenser undertakes to defend himself in the proem to The Legend of Friendship is grave indeed:

The rugged forhead that with grave foresight

Welds kingdomes causes, and affaires of state,

My looser rimes (I wote) doth sharply wite,

For praising love, as I have done of late,

And magnifying lovers deare debate;

By which fraile youth is oft to follie led,

Through false allurement of that pleasing baite,

That better were in vertues discipled,

Then with vaine poemes weeds to have their fancies fed.

(IV Proem I)2

Spenser's very public history of opposition to Lord Burghley, and the censorship that followed it, would leave few readers in any doubt as to the identity of his critic. Their relationship was already a matter of much public comment, and the renewed attack on Burghley (who had been one of the original dedicatees of The Faerie Queene) might well be regarded as a response to the notorious calling in of the Complaints in 1591. ' But the language of the proem indicates that although the politics of faction undoubtedly played its part, the issue with which Spenser engages is as ancient and general as it is topical and particular. The statesman accuses the poet of no less than the corruption of the young, perhaps the single most damning accusation that Socrates hurls at the poet in Plato's Republic in a particularly trenchant contribution to what he describes as the "old quarrel" between "philosophy and poetry" (607b).4

The context of Socrates' onslaught on poetry in the second and third books of the Republic is the education of the young and, in particular, those who are destined (as future Guardians) for public life. Allowance is made in these early books for a heavily censored species of poetics designed to inculcate moral and civic virtue but book 10 seems far less open to compromise in its denigration of poetry per se as a trivial act of imitation at two removes from truth or reality ("a form of play, not to be taken seriously," 602b), and in its call for the banishment of poets from the ideal state which is envisioned in books 8 and 9.* Unlike the earlier books it challenges the poet's claim to contribute to civic development at the most basic level: Socrates inquires of Homer, "tell us what city was better governed owing to you," and "What city credits you with having been a good legislator and having benefited them?" (599d-e). As it was commonly agreed in the Early Modern period that Socrates functioned as Plato's spokesman, the philosopher's attitude posed a major problem for those involved in the "defence" of poetry against its many perceived enemies.6

In the same year in which Spenser dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to Philip Sidney, Stephen Gosson similarly dedicated his Schoole of Abuse arguing that Plato had "banished" amorous poets from his "common wealth" as "effeminate writers, unprofitable members, and utter enemies to virtue" (sig 2v). …

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