RUDOLPH B. GOTTFRIED Spenser Recovered: The Poet and Historical Scholarship
THE LONG ESSAY on Spenser which James Russell Lowell produced nearly a century ago occupies a somewhat ambiguous position today. That parts of it are frequently anthologized would seem to demonstrate its continued popularity. In fact, written as it is with a kind of jocular, metaphorical grace, it is still readable enough; and at least to begin with, in its late Victorian context, Lowell's view of Spenser as an idealistic dreamer with a genius for putting pictures into words rested on a conception of poetry which was widely held. But the essay has obviously declined in critical esteem since 1875; neither its manner nor its matter can entirely satisfy the more specialized reader of the 1970's. Lowell's graceful bonhomie descends at times to an unprofessional archness which, in spite of our flair for informality, surprises us in one who was soon to become president of the Modern Language Association; we are disconcerted to find him twisting Chaucer in order to characterize the English people during their Elizabethan springtime--"The yongë sonne / Had in the Bull half of his course yronne."3 But far more damaging than an occasional lapse in taste is the fact that Lowell faces backward rather than forward in the history of Spenserian studies and that crucial elements in his evaluation of the poet are derived or even, as Alpers has pointed out, whittled down from the insights of earlier Romantic critics.3 One is tempted to dismiss his essay as a period piece at second hand.
For all its defects, however, Lowell's essay raises questions which are not only provocative in themselves but also relevant to the course of literary scholarship today: What is the central weakness in his point of view? What in our experience as students of Spenser allows us to understand that limitation as Lowell's contemporaries did not? And to what use, in the vastly expanded flow of recent Spenserian studies,