Helen Cooper on Edmund Spenser and the English Romance

The very first thing that I wrote for this blog was a synopsis and appreciation of Helen Coopers’ ‘The English Romance in Time’ which demonstrates the various ways that both Shakespeare and Spenser made use of the English romance tradition. I’m currently reading the ‘Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature’ which provides the best overview of all the various handbooks and companions that are on the market. Whilst I am going through these chapters in sequence, I have to admit that I read the epilogue first because it is written by Cooper and entitled ‘Edmund Spenser and the Passing of Tudor Literature’. Regular readers will know that I’ll read anything on Spenser and that most of it makes me cross. In fact I’d almost given up on the possibility of any academic saying anything at all that is in any way helpful about ‘The Faerie Queen’.

There are times when what a critic writes strikes a deep chord of affinity with me. These occasions are rare, the most recent significant instance that springs to mind is where Geoffrey Hill sums up in a single sentence all the fairly complicated thins that I feel about Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Cooper has just provided me with another such moment:

The richness of the Tudor context for The Faerie Queene has for long been overshadowed by scholarship on its classical and Italian connections, and more recently by the New Historicist emphasis on its immediate political context. Situated in its own historical and linguistic moment as the culmination of earlier Tudor literature, however, the work reveals a different set of qualities, variously overlapping with and complementary to what is conventionally thought of as humanist, that underline Spenser’s commitment to the poetics of nationhood.

Coincidentally, I’ve recently had a bit of a rant about this with regard to the problematic Book V of the Faerie Queen and the above passage has made me realise that there is at least one other person on the planet who feels the same way. A more sobering thought is that if you look at the current academic ‘chatter’ on Spenser you come away with the impression that the main ‘thread’ is the dismal Tudor experience in Ireland and that the FQ was largely a re-working of Ariosto and Tasso.

I don’t have any kind of problem with academics that wish to point out the genocidal tendencies in ‘A View’ nor do I wish to deny the profoundly suspect overtones in Book V with regard to Ireland. I do have a problem when this becomes the main ‘point’ of Spenser’s literary output. This together with the notion that, in using some of Tasso and Ariosto, Spenser was adopting European models and humanist ideals whilst rejecting England’s medieval past.

I remain of the view that we ought to read poetry primarily for its use of language rather than for any extrinsic factors or the nature of the subject matter. I don’t think that this is a naive or idealistic position and I think my feelings about Spenser epitomise the reasons why I engage with poetry. I do not read Spenser because of my interest in English colonial adventures in Ireland and elsewhere, nor do I read him for his role in ‘nation building’. Both of these are subjects that I do have an interest in but wouldn’t rely on the poetry as providing anything other than small bits of context. I read Spenser because he is good with language and his confident exuberance shines through almost everything he does. When I read the Faerie Queen I know that I am in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing and that the poetry will carry me forward regardless of the subject matter. I’m much more concerned about how Spenser marks the end of one ‘phase’ of English poetry and marks the start of another by appropriating older forms and using these to point towards what will follow. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in and can see the point of poetry as a means of expression. If I want to know about the politics of the period then I will look at other more relevant primary sources. The same applies to George Herbert and John Milton, I don’t read them to gain a closer understanding of the Arminian strand in Anglicanism, I read them because they are both brilliant poets- what they write about is completely secondary.

Cooper rightly draws attention to the English antecedents of FQ especially Stephen Hawes, Chaucer and Langland as well as two romances- ‘Bevis of Hampton’ and ‘Guy of Warwick’ and she points to Malory’s influence in the role of Arthur in the poem. As a result of this (and the chapter on Hawes in the Handbook) I’ve started to read ‘Bevis’ and Hawes’ ‘The Pastime of Pleasure’ and they are both remarkably full of stuff that reappears in FQ. I’m not sure about the Langland/Lollardry connection but I am teaching myself Middle English in order to get to grips with this argument. My point is that a reader new to the glories of Spenser would soon be wading around in the critical noise around the Irish dimension and be looking at Orlando Furioso (I did this) rather than the English tradition.

A final note about academic trends, I do understand the way that these fads gather pace and become all pervasive but the Ireland ‘problem’ also feeds into a collective guilt that is only now beginning to speak its name- it is unlikely that this kind of perspective would have had such a success when the IRA campaign was at its murderous height. The other thought is- isn’t there something vaguely dubious about English academics (as descendants of the colonisers) choosing to speak for those who had the great misfortune to be colonised. Isn’t this a bit similar to those middle class academics (and thus secondary instruments of class oppression) wittering on about the integrity of the working class?

So, this is more of a plea for a more rounded perspective that starts by looking at poetry as poetry before beginning to take other political and cultural factors into account. I hope I shouldn’t need to point out that this does not in anyway condone or minimise the genocidal nature of Spensers remarks in ‘A View’.

We obviously need more academics like Cooper who are prepared to question the prevailing trends and to look at poetry primarily as poetry. She also writes about complex things in a style that is wonderfully clear and jargon-free. Her contribution on the pastoral form in the Spenser Encyclopaedia is also a model of incisive erudition.

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