Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

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

Afterword

DONALD CHENEY

Writing -- and reading -- at a time when "we know less than earlier generations thought they did," in Jon Quitslund's words, we should not be surprised if the essays in this volume lack the shapeliness of earlier biographies and instead dwell insistently on what Judith Anderson calls the "ambiguous subject of biography" itself. It seems axiomatic today that all evidence is questionable, that nobody's life can be written truly or "factually": it is not the novelty of these axioms that accounts for their prominence here but the fact that Spenser insists on them. Whether or not the epigram on the earl of Cork's lute that was attributed to Spenser in 1633 is really his, it sounds like the postmodern Spenser we know, acutely aware of the Death of the Author; it would almost be more interesting if it were not authentic, since it would seem to show (as do many items already listed in Spenser Allusions, ed. Wells, 1972) how close our sense of the poet is to that of his earliest readers.

The evidence for Spenser's life is questionable, then -- not merely doubtful but calling its own authority into question and demanding that we question it. This is immediately obvious in those early texts associated with Gabriel Harvey -- the gossipy, coy, perhaps deliberately misleading notes to the Calender and the equally mystifying Letters pamphlet of 1580. The strategies of authorial self-presentation, of Spenserian "autobiography," are certainly complex here, but they are not completely unintelligible or indecipherable. The new poet is allowing himself to be seen trying to make a name for himself; he and his singular friend Harvey document the anxieties of emergence both from personal obscurity and from manuscript to print culture. Immerito as Homo Prototypographicus: publication offers a heady opportunity for social advancement, but it is fraught with risks that necessitate framing fictions of well-wishers who urge on the timid author and remind us and him of the multifaceted cultural work being advanced by his published words.

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