Reading the 1590 Faerie Queene with Thomas Nashe

By Wallace, Andrew | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Reading the 1590 Faerie Queene with Thomas Nashe

Wallace, Andrew, Studies in the Literary Imagination


As one aspect of the capacious methodological program David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass christened "The New Boredom" (Kastan 18), (1) materialist case studies provide benchmarks against which literary scholars have learned to measure their investment in speculation and fantasy. Indeed, it could be argued that one of the chief merits of the work produced by scholars who have insisted on the importance of rigorously engaging with the material conditions of print culture has been to produce a body of studies in which cautionary tales abound. It could be argued, too, that no one must be more aware of the potential embarrassments that haunt speculative projects than the scholar who has chosen to explore the received wisdom concerning the explanatory, dedicatory, and commendatory documents that accompanied Spenser's Faerie Queene into print in 1590.

Bound up in this received wisdom is the vexed question of Spenser's self-fashioning as a creature of the print shop. After several decades during which Spenserians assumed that the poet of The Faerie Queene must have been intimately involved in the printing of his poem, (2) Jean Brink has recently insisted that we ought to entertain other possibilities. In her "Materialist History of the Publication of Spenser's Faerie Queene," Brink argues that "From what we know about the Elizabethan printing house, it would be eminently sensible to question Spenser's involvement in the physical presentation of his work" (3). Brink criticizes what she calls "the fictionalization of the printing context" by Spenser's critics (2). Accordingly, her recent work is characterized by a desire to strip the printing context of those seductive fictions. (3) The most tenacious of those fictions have clustered around the back pages of the 1590 Faerie Queene--especially around the Letter to Ralegh and the Dedicatory Sonnets.

Given the complexity of the history laid out by Brink, a brief review of the central problems posed by the different states in which Spenser's Dedicatory Sonnets have survived will not be out of place here. (4) Some copies of the 1590 Faerie Queene print ten dedicatory sonnets on signatures Pp6r-Pp8r (pages 601-06). (5) The majority of copies, however, print twenty-five sonnets. In these copies the original ten sonnets of the first issue (Pp6r-Pp8r) are accompanied by another set of fifteen sonnets (eight of these are repeated from the original ten; the remaining seven are new) on signatures Qq1r-Qq4v (without page numbers). (6) Finally, other copies contain a set of seventeen dedications in which the original issue's ten sonnets have been intermingled with the seven new sonnets included in the second issue. (7)

Francis Johnson regarded this last group of seventeen sonnets as the embodiment of Spenser's and the printer's intentions. (8) Johnson speculated that a belated attempt to avert a public relations disaster (Lord Burghley had not been included among the original ten dedicatees of the first issue) had occasioned the penning of several new sonnets:

   Spenser's friends ... apparently lost no time in convincing him that
   the very obvious omission of Lord Burghley from the list of noblemen
   to whom complimentary sonnets were addressed was a very unwise
   action and would be likely to prove disastrous to his interests at
   Court. Spenser seems to have promptly taken their advice, and to
   have composed a sonnet to the Lord Treasurer and at the same time
   to have added six other dedicatory sonnets to his list. (15)

Johnson here follows and popularizes an earlier argument by Israel Gollancz (4-5), and this piece of speculation has generated a wide range of arguments about the poetics of insult and insinuation in The Faerie Queene. (9) Brink, though, argues persuasively that the omission of Burghley and the countess of Pembroke from the first issue suggests print house "confusion, not political intentionality" ("Materialist" 10). …

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