Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

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

Spenser (Re) Reading du Bellay:
Chronology and Literary Response

ANNE LAKE PRESCOTT

Although in recent years it has become fashionable to see in Spenser's work a narrative proliferation that refuses closure, many of us still like stories of his career that have narrative thrust (toward a final discouragement or a turn inward, for instance) or generic tidiness (from pastoral to epic to pastoral, say). To the extent that we can know it, the chronology of Spenser's reading might help clarify the outlines of such tales. After all, there must have been some point in time at which Spenser first opened a volume of Ariosto or Virgil.

In this essay I would like, as a case study in how thinking about Spenser's reading might illuminate his intellectual biography, to look at some hints as to when and whether he read certain texts by du Bellay. Such hints, however, render more problematic the merely forward motion of any intellectual biography. It is not just that much of Spenser's poetry escapes a Virgilian career path or that much of his thought must have been engaged by administrative and familial practicalities. The problem lies with storytime linearity as such. Even mentally organized people can move more like preCopernican planets than Pilgrim on his progress, can think and feel in epicycles -- in intelligently disorganized scribble.

It is wise to concede how much we cannot know about the directions of Spenser's thinking and to resist an impulse to make our narratives about him, whatever they might be, too neat. Not only do we lack records of Spenser's library, letterbooks, marginalia, and drafts; the very nature and dynamics of reading and reception have in recent decades come to be treated more historically and to seem more problematic. It seems likely, for example, that Spenser would often have read even lyrics more instrumentally than would many later readers; that he would have thought texts legitimately divisible into decontextualized fragments ready for reuse; and that he would have understood the provenance of what he read in ways

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