The Mutabilitie Cantos – a query (or two)

The above cantos are stuck on to the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’ and have attracted much critical debate/angst because they don’t readily ‘fit’ with the rest of this magnificent poet and because they have a distinctly philosophical flavour. It isn’t my intention to enter these debates nor do I wish to argue with Frank Kermode’s view that these constitute the finest philosophical poem in the language. What I do want to do is ask a couple of questions that are much more straightforward and relate to poetic practice.

Since reading Andrew Zurcher on the legal terms that Spenser uses, I’ve been reading the poem with a different kind of attention which is more about word use than ‘theme’. Coincidentally I’m attempting to learn the finer points of Middle English and get to grips late medieval literary culture and this has set off a slightly oblique reading of the Cantos. As these describe a kind of trial with a parade of witnesses and evidence and judgement then Zurcher is correct in drawing out the legal terms (although he does indulge in a bit of over-egging to make his point) and to relate this perspective to Spenser’s remedy for Ireland- violent subjugation followed by legal constraint/control. What he seems to miss is what appears to be a wistful glance towards an apparently simpler past.

The Cantos tell the story of Mutability (a ‘Titanesse’) whose first major transgression is to ‘switch off’ the moon and the stars, causing more than a little consternation:

Mean-while, the Lower world, which nothing knew
Of all that chaunced here, was darkened quite,
And eke the heavens, and all the heavenly crew
Of happy wights, now unpurvaid of light,
Were much afraid, and wondred at that sight;
Fearing least Chaos broken had his chaine,
And brought againe on them eternall night:
But chiefly Mercury, that next doth raigne,
Ran forth in haste, unto the Gods to plaine.

The two words that I’d like to highlight are ‘unpurvaid’ and ‘plaine’ because these both indicate that something else might be going on apart from a kind of judicial process. ‘FQ’ is full of archaisms and more than a few words of Spenser’s invention in order to capture the ‘feel’ and spirit of the medieval romance tradition. In the English Middle Ages, ‘purveyance’ was the term used to describe the process of acquiring provisions for the royal household and/or armies and was a frequent source of resentment amongst the peasantry because, as the excellent Wendy Scase points out- “Payment might never be made, or it might not reflect the true value of the goods supplied. Purveyors might insist on buying at a discount. And where payment was made by credit instrument, such as a tally, it could be hard for the creditor to get what he was owed.”

The other point is that peasant plaint was the common way of attempting to obtain some kind of redress from the king and this was a judicial process that grew in popularity throughout the period. Complaints need not be against the actions of the crown, they were also made against feudal lords. As Skase also points out the ‘compleint’ became a recognized form of poetry that persisted until the sixteenth century.

So, I accept that this might be over-reading and also note that A C Hamilton glosses the first term as ‘unprovided’ and the second as ‘complaint’ and leaves it at that so I might be in a minority of one but ‘unpurvaide’ is a clumsy term to describe being plunged into sudden darkness and it does seem to presage the presentation of Mutabilitie’s ‘case’ to Nature.

The intriguing aspect of this usage is Spenser’s motivation. These Cantos stand at one remove from the rest of his output and he must have known that these would confuse and unsettle the majority of his devoted readers. He may have attempted to allay some of these concerns by using a familiar cultural trope- albeit in inverted form.

The other piece of oddness is Spenser’s refusal to describe Nature in the second Canto:

So hard it is for any living wight,
All her array and vestments to tell,
That old Dan Geoffrey (in whose gentle spright
The pure well head of Poesie did dwell)
In his Foules Parley durst not with it mel
But it transferd to Alane, who he thought
Had in his Plaint of Kindes describ'd it well
Which who will read set forth so as it ought
Go seek he out that Alane where he may be sought.

My question is- does any other poet of the 16th/17th centuries deploy this particular conceit? Spenser is saying that he won’t attempt to describe Nature’s ‘array and vestments’ (her face is hidden) because Chaucer (who was Quite Good) didn’t do it either and referred his readers to Alanus de Insulis. Spenser misnames the original work even though Chaucer doesn’t. In these circumstances, don’t most poets stay silent or remark only on their inability?

There is the possibility that Spenser wants to us to think of him as Chaucer’s heir in all things poetic, a ploy that ‘worked’ in that this judgement was shared by Milton who was (of course) better than both.


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