Tag Archives: mutabilitie cantos

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.


Simon Jarvis, the vanishingly trivial and philosophical verse.

There’s a competition that goes on in my head as to who can write the most effective demolition of a book. The all-time leader at the moment is Gillian Rose for her gleeful destruction of Derrida’s ‘Of Spirit’. This holds first place because the destruction is effective and complete (this is helped by the fact that ‘Of Spirit’ isn’t very good) and because Rose cannot disguise the glee with which she goes about her task.
The competition has gained some impetus over recent weeks, first there was Alastair Fowler’s review of Don Paterson’s book on Shakespeare’s sonnets in the TLS where Fowler is witheringly dismissive of the enterprise. Of course, truly destructive reviews are much more enjoyable when the author under scrutiny is one that I already dislike. I loathe Paterson on the strength of the single poem by him that I’ve ever read but this was enough to elevate him immediately to the company of Larkin, Motion etc.
This may seem like stating the obvious but if you’ve been destroyed in print by someone who might know what they’re talking about then the only feasible response is one of dignified silence. This is especially the case when the critic’s erudition is legendary. There are very few who fit this category but Fowler is certainly one of them. This is not a lesson that Paterson has absorbed for the following week there is printed what can only be described as an extended whine which succeeds in making him appear even more stupid than he probably is. He also plays the auto-didact card which I find particularly distasteful because he’s using it to elicit pity. Needless to say, Fowler hasn’t responded.
Hot on the heels of this comes Simon Jarvis with a demolition of a book about the ‘copy’ written by an American academic in post structuralist mode. This isn’t as effective as Fowler, primarily because Jarvis displays his ideological distaste alongside his attack on the content. He ends by describing the book as ‘vanishingly trivial’ and gets points in this particular pantheon for that put down but loses them again with “Teleporting a book, on the other hand can now be enjoyed by anyone in their own home, as I discovered for myself when I threw this one across the room” which isn’t funny. I have to report that the author of said tome has this week responded with an incredibly bad-tempered whinge in this week’s TLS which more or less makes Jarvis’ point for him.
Last week I fell across (whilst looking for something else) a recording of a lecture given by Jarvis at the end of last year in which the interest in prosody gets more of an airing. It’s forty minutes well spent for those of us who are still trying to tackle ‘The Unconditional’ and work out why we don’t like ‘Dinner’.
Jarvis appears to be talking to a group of philosophers and presents the case for verse being an appropriate medium for doing philosophy and using Pope to illustrate why some find the constraints of rhyme and metre as being ideally suited to the expression of ideas. This seems reasonable and I listened in the expectation that there would be some explanation of the mechanics involved. This doesn’t occur but we do get a few more quotes from Pope’s Essay on Man.
Always keen to try and follow Jarvis’ thinking and having an interest in philosophical poetry, I’ve given this some consideration. I’ve looked at the more abstract bits of Jarvis’ own verse and at Spenser’s ‘Cantos of Mutabilitie’ and there are a couple of conclusions-

  1. The heroic couplet with it’s very regular rhyme and metre is not ideally suited to the expression of complex ideas- I find this to be distracting rather than helpful when reading because I’m looking for the rhyme rather than paying attention to the sense.
  2. The Spenserian stanza, on the other hand, is more suited to the expression of the abstract because it is a much more complex structure and because Spenser has the skill to use it to carry the reader along whilst expressing his own philosophical concerns.
  3. Jarvis’ use of rhyme in ‘Erlkonig’ is more complex than Pope’s and the more abstract sections are probably clearer than they would be without the rhyme.

I’ll try and give some examples of what I mean. This is from Pope;

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

I don’t want to get into the content/meaning of this but this does have a sing-song feel which seems more than a little facile to my 21st century ears. There’s also the rest/beast ending which is a further distraction from the sense.

This is Spenser;

I well consider all that ye have said
And find that all things stedfastness doe hate
And changed be: yet being rightly wayd
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate;
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Doe work their own perfection so by fate:
Then over them Change doth not rule and reigne;
But they reign over change, and doe their states maintaine.

Of course I’m biased but I would argue that this is the finest example in the language of expressing complex stuff in structured verse and am more than a little puzzled as to why Jarvis should continue to rely on Pope to make his point.

‘Erlkonig’ uses a more complex rhyme scheme than Pope but one that still seems a bit more ‘forced’ than Spenser;

Their broken bodies feed us, while their bones
diminish utterly beneath these stones.

of whose long burials the complex map
is written out in neurones or on thoughts
quick and self-centred in the soundless gap
I live in, opening the doors and ports
to fold in multiples the folding pap
steeped in their fluids for the is and oughts
which disappear into their secret fanned
like Kafka’s dog’s impenetrable tunnel.

Whilst this is satisfyingly complex and clever, I have to point out that either ‘neurones’ or ‘thoughts’ are superfluous and would not both be included except for the need to maintain the prosodic ‘flow’.

So, there is further method in Jarvis’ prosodic idiosnycracy and I’m beginning to delve into the finer points of his argument without actually reading either Wordsworth or Adorno. I’m told that there is a new poem about to be published and that it doesn’t rhyme… In the meantime I’m going to have another go at ‘The Unconditional’ and attempt to introduce ‘vanishingly’ into at least one conversation per day.

One further thought, there are two more effective models of philosophy in verse in the shape of Paul Celan (‘Erblind’ and Aschenglorie’ spring to mind) and Olson’s working through of Whitehead in ‘Maximus’. Neither of these constrain themselves in the above manner and are more effective or precise because of this.