Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

By Judith H. Anderson; Donald Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

Disenchanted Elves:
Biography in the Text of Faerie Queene V

JAY FARNESS

Let me conjure up a crucial moment in The Faerie Queene for discussions of Spenser's temperament and, by extension, Spenser biography. In this familiar passage, the narrative places us with Sir Calidore watching strange events on Mt. Acidale, a scene shortly to be dispelled when the knight tries to breach privileged circles. Unlike Calidore, however, we readers drop backstage where the narrative poet takes two stanzas to explain the spectacle of dancers, identifying the Graces, alluding to the shepherd's lass, then naming Colin Clout, whose music moves this scene: "That jolly shepheard, which there piped, was / Poore Colin Clout (who knowes not Colin Clout?)" (VI x 16). When I come upon this question -- "Who knowes not Colin Clout?" -- rhetorical in force and phrasing, ensconced within parentheses that denote the exchange of confidences between writer and reader, I must confess that I don't know how to answer it. The question wants to sweep me along, but I find myself resisting.

For one thing, Calidore, whose point of view we have been inhabiting, doesn't know Colin Clout, a fact that already skews the questions's rhetorical transparency. But other obstacles also impede my trying to figure out whether I know Colin Clout or not. There are mediations that obscure for me -- and for others -- the disingenuous immediacy of this question. I would like to move through three responses to the who-knows-not-Colin-Clout question as a way of suggesting an unnerving latitude in what The Faerie Queene tells us about Edmund Spenser. My motive is, at least in part, constructive: I am wondering how these three approaches to fictional character -- approaches that will implicate Artegall, Britomart, and others as well as Colin -- can collaborate, or even communicate, in a biographical enterprise. At several points I would like to refer this survey of responses to the close approach of fiction to actuality in Book V, to the "almost comic doggedness of the poet's fidelity in pursuing the actual" ( O'Connell 1977,

-18-

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