Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

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

Spenser's Retrography: Two Episodes
in Post-Petrarchan Bibliography

JOSEPH LOEWENSTEIN

An eye of looking back, were well. Jonson, Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue

How does the reproduction of texts figure in the biography of poets? As a contribution to the intersecting historiographies of authorial subjectivity and of the institutions of print, this essay concerns itself with Spenser's experience of publication. This is a biographical essay in that it specifies Spenser's engagement in the early 1590s with the printed texts of his own work as an event, the sort of quantum of experience that puts the poet's intellectual and social being, characteristically and determinatively, in play. But since it treats of Spenser's printed sonnets, this is also an essay in literary history. The sonnet is traditionally a locus of biographical significance because sonneteering is traditionally an autobiographical event; my purpose is to suggest how the autobiographical valence of Spenser's sonnets is shaped by print. What follows, then, is an account of two episodes in the material history of autobiography, these taken from the era of typography.

I shall be giving an account of minutiae: word choice in translation, the arrangement of poems on a page. I shall be accounting for traces: the failure to print a publicized volume, evidence of assiduous proofreading, the signs of saved compositorial labor in a printed book. I am attempting a bibliographical cultural poetics that accepts the traditional associations of the term "poetics" -- its orientation to nuance and drift, to choices that are not, in and of themselves, epochal, but that may refer and conduce to the epochal, to both mindful craft and inadvertent habit. I take it that this is

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