Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

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

Fac+t+̑ions and Fic+t+̑ions:
Spenser's Reflec+t+̑ions of and on
Elizabethan Politics

VINCENT P. CAREY AND
CLARE L. CARROLL

In the last fifteen years critics have questioned the reliability of Spenser's biography and the applicability of his biography to his poetry. Most narrowly, scholars have been cautioned against making assumptions about Spenser's life based on the scant documentary evidence that remains. We have been urged to make a distinction between the "historical Edmund Spenser" and his "biographical fictions," between "particular facts" and the "golden world of Spenser's fiction" ( Cheney 1983, 3; Oram 1983, 45). In other words, our interpretations should not make a one-to-one correspondence between fact and fiction. In response to these interpretive caveats and in an attempt to rethink the relation between the historical and the poetic Spenser, we would do well to remember with Vico that the "true is precisely what is made" (Verum esse ipsum factum), meaning that "human truth is what man puts together and makes in the act of knowing it" (ed. 1988, 46). Both history and poetry are made. History fashions its truth as factual fiction; poetry fictionalizes facts as true history, or myth. As Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur have pointed out, while the world does not "present itself to perception in the form of well made stories with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles and ends," it is only through such craft that a historical account "seems to both reader and writer as real, meaningful and/or explanatory" ( White 1987, 24; Davis 1987, 3). Conversely, not only does history call for narrative in order to make sense out of documentary and contextual evidence, but when fiction represents the historical world it, too, becomes part of the historical record, a story that shapes history in such a memorable form that it influences the perception of history by future generations. It is through narrative that we establish and

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