Spenser, Homer, and the Mythography of Strife*

By Wolfe, Jessica | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Spenser, Homer, and the Mythography of Strife*


Wolfe, Jessica, Renaissance Quarterly


Preparing to narrate his "chronicle of Briton kings" at the beginning of book 2, canto 10 of The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser (1552?-99) asks his muse to assist him in launching an "[a]rgument worthy of Maeonian quill." Strange as it is that Spenser invokes Homer (ca. 800 BCE), and not Virgil (70-19 BCE), since the latter poet is the more logical patron of the dynastic epic Spenser is about to unfold, it is also a revealing moment for a poet praised by contemporaries as "the only Homer living," a writer "whose hart inharbours Homers soule." (1) What makes the chronicle a Maeonian, and not a Maronian, argument is that it presents an etiology of discord, a narrative whose aim, much like the one deliberately and pervasively cultivated by Spenser's own epic, is to explain the origins and nature of strife.

The Faerie Queene's complex mythography of strife reveals Spenser's efforts to construct an epic according to his understanding of what constitutes a Maeonian argument, namely, a "heavenly lay" that analyzes and justifies discord (2.10.3.6). This is not to say that Spenser's most important influence was Homer; indeed, so much of his knowledge of Homeric epic is mediated by Virgil and Statius (45-95 CE), Torquato Tasso (1544-95) and Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1553), and works of philosophy from Plato (ca. 429-347 BCE) to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) that it is often difficult to pry apart Spenser's debts to Homer from the influence of virtually every other writer at his disposal. Spenser almost certainly could and did read Homer in the original, first at the Merchant Taylors' School, which required Greek training in the upper forms from the school's inception in 1561, and then at Cambridge. Judging from fellow students at Mulcaster's school such as Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Spenser would have arrived at Cambridge already proficient in Greek. (2) Henry Hutchinson, who attended the Merchant Taylors' school several years ahead of Spenser, left a probate inventory of his books in 1573 which includes two editions of Homer (one a Greek-only edition) as well as a "greake lexicon in two volumes" and several other dual-language Greek-Latin texts including works by Diogenes Laertius (fl. ca. 225 CE) and Lucian (b. ca. 120 CE). While Cambridge was no longer the center of Greek studies it had been during the late 1530s and 1540s under the influence of John Cheke and Roger Ascham, its curriculum nonetheless included the study of Greek poetry and drama. Described by one of his contemporaries as "perfect in the Greek tongue," Spenser would presumably have been able to avail himself of the 1488 editio princeps of Homer and of Lascaris's 1517 edition of the Homeric Scholia given earlier in the sixteenth century to Cambridge University Library by Cuthbert Tunstal (1474-1559), as well as manuscripts of Eustathius's and Tzetzes' Homeric commentaries also donated by Tunstal. (3) Both at Cambridge and afterwards, Spenser would also have had easy access to various Latin translations of Homer, including the 1573 abridged Latin Iliad translated by Eobanus Hessus and owned by Gabriel Harvey (1552-1631), Spenser's friend and fellow member of Pembroke Hall. (4)

None of this means that Spenser was, or even wished to be, an expert scholar of Greek after the manner of a Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85) or a Dorat, though he does share with these two members of the Pleaide the tendency to imitate not Homeric epic per se but rather those motifs and commonplaces which dominate the allegorical frameworks through which Homer was read. In the absence of an extant book collection or library catalogue such as we possess for Harvey, we cannot be certain that Spenser read any or all of the central texts of the Homeric commentary tradition, but his contemporaries certainly did. As early as 1531, a decade before the editio princeps of the Byzantine commentary was printed at Rome, Thomas Elyot is already quoting Eustathius, "the expositour of Homere," in his Boke of the Governour. …

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