Academic journal article Spenser Studies

"Degendered": Spenser's "Yron Man" in a "Stonie" Age

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

"Degendered": Spenser's "Yron Man" in a "Stonie" Age

Article excerpt

The proem to the fifth book of The Faerie Queene ushers the reader into a world "runne quite out of square": gold degrades to iron, "spheares" jostle in the heavens, virtue flees, and "men themselues" are "now transformed into hardest stone" (V.0.1, 5, 2).1 Far from a "golden age," Spenser's "stonie one" introduces the legend of Justice in a "degendered" world, one where humans "backwards bred" to a primal, mineralized state (V.0.2). Spenser's sense of "degendered" humans follows that of John Calvin.2 When Adam fell, humankind, as Thomas Norton translates the Institutes, "degendred from our fyrst estate."3 As the opposite of "to gender" or "to take form," "to come into being," to be "degendered" implies a lapsed form, in this case, from human bone back into nonhuman stone. Book V, writes Jessica Wolfe, imagines "humanity's degradation" to be "a process of petrification."4 The stanza merits full quotation as its powerfully negative rendering reverses Ovidean-and Biblical-etiology:

For from the golden age, that first was named,

It's now at earst become a stonie one;

And men themselues, the which at first were framed

Of earthly mould, and form'd of flesh and bone,

Are now transformed into hardest stone:

Such as behind their backs (so backward bred)

Were throwne by Pyrrha and Deucalione:

And if then those may any worse be red,

They into that ere long will be degendered. (V.0.2)

Line 7 looks back to Ovid's Metamorphoses and recalls how Deucalion and Pyrrha, lone survivors in a post-fluvial world, pray to the goddess to repopulate their earth. As Virgil Solis's period engraving of Ovid shows, the goddess instructs them to throw "the bones of their mother," which they surmise to be stones, over their shoulders.5 When the stones hit the earth, they unfurl to take human shape. Thus "mankinde was restorde by stones" and as Arthur Golding renders Ovid's narration, "Of these are we the crooked ympes, and stonie race in deede, / Bewraying by our toyling life, from whence we doe proceede."6

Instead of stone becoming bone, the fleshly human forms depicted by Solis "from whence we doe proceede," men, in Spenser's frequently metamorphic fifth line, "Are now transformed into hardest stone" (V.0.2). Ovid imagines a human gendering from stone whereas Spenser sees a "degendering," yet both propose that the "human," the "crooked ympes" (as Golding's translations renders us) were or "at earst become" "stonie." The metamorphic teleology differs but each describes a lithic gendering that identifies a mineralized substrate that subtends distinctions between human and nonhuman. My essay begins alongside these "stonie" men, but will expand to consider Book V's engagement with the broader category of mineralia or "minerals" in its fullest sense-inclusive of metals, such as iron, as well as stone-in order to quarry the connection between the mineral and the making and unmaking of humans. Spenser's "degendering" of human kind produces a concomitant degeneration of literary kind, compromising the singular focus of a favoured resource of allegory: prosopopoeia, a trope defined by its distinction between human and nonhuman. Although the early modern scale of nature afforded greater sympathy between and across its categories, a critical Biblical distinction lay between the mineral realm and the human.7 Formed in the "likeness" of the Creator, man became a "living soule" when the Lord God "breathed in his face breath of life."8

Throughout Book V, Spenser places the genesis of the human and the legend of justice via two mineral commonplaces: a "stonie" age and an iron man. Whereas Ovid sees stone to engender bone, Spenser sees bone "degendered" into stone. In between these stony quarries of human gendering lies iron, itself a metal degraded from gold, and implicated, in Biblical and Ovidean terms, with a lapsed civilization. Stone and iron do bear distinct cultural and material traditions, yet it is not uncommon to find blurring between the two mineral realms within early modern discourse. …

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