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Spenser's Supreme Fiction

Spenser's Supreme Fiction: Platonic Natural History and The Faerie Queene

Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 432
  • Book Info
    Spenser's Supreme Fiction
    Book Description:

    InSpenser's Supreme Fiction, Jon A. Quitslund offers a rich analysis ofThe Faerie Queeneand of several texts contributing to the revival of Platonism stimulated by Marsilio Ficino's labours as a translator and interpreter of Plato and the ancient Neoplatonists. To the old issue of the scope and character of Spenser's Platonism, Quitslund brings fresh insights from contemporary views on gender and identity, intertextuality, and the centrality of fiction within all aspects of Renaissance culture. He argues that Spenser sought authority for his poem by grounding its narrative in a divinely ordained natural order, intelligible in terms derived from the ancient sources of poetry and philosophy. Passages central to the poet's world-making project are shown to be intertextually linked to Book VI of theAeneidand to Plato'sSymposium, regarded in the commentaries of Landino and Ficino as explanations of the gentileprisca theologia, a cosmology parallel to the tenets of Christianity.

    The first half of the book examines Spenser's representation of the macrocosm and its replication in human nature's lesser world in the light of divergent tendencies within humanism. The legacy of Plato is shown to be especially important in the esoteric tradition, which made the province of natural philosophy part of the soul's itinerary back to its otherworldly origins. In the second half,The Faerie Queeneis interpreted as an unfolding pattern: the dynamic order of nature is flawed but not fallen, and seen against that background, human culture contains in its myths and images both corruptions of natural impulses and aspirations to transcend the limits imposed by mortality.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8011-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Texts and Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    After years of experience withThe Faerie Queene, a reader may be so enveloped in the poem and so confirmed in the self-awareness it encourages that Spenser’s lines about his ‘weary steps’ and ‘rare thoughts delight’ speak across the centuries, describing his own condition:

    The waies, through which my weary steps I guyde,

    In this delightfull land of Faery,

    Are so exceeding spacious and wyde,

    And sprinckled with such sweet variety,

    Of all that pleasant is to eare or eye,

    That I nigh rauisht with rare thoughts delight,

    My tedious trauell doe forget thereby;

    And when I gin to feele...


    • chapter one The Author in 1580 and 1590
      (pp. 19-51)

      The interpretation ofThe Faerie Queeneto be advanced in this book is author-centred, rather than reader- or character- or genre-centred. My author is imaginary, accessible only through his writings and other texts around and about him: as I construe him, in keeping with Foucault’s view of the ‘author-function,’¹ Spenser is inseparable from the genres and the allegorical mode of discourse in which he worked, in which generations of readers have worked in turn. I have learned from interpreters ofThe Faerie Queenewho have attended primarily to the internal dynamics of allegorical discourse and the principles and problems inscribed...

    • chapter two The World and the Book
      (pp. 52-77)

      I began by considering such indications as we have of Spenser’s frame of mind circa 1580, and applying what we can gather from theLettersto an illustrative episode in the 1590Faerie Queene. This chapter and the next will present some coordinated ideas about poetry, individual consciousness, and the natural order that constitute a foundation for the kind of poem thatThe Faerie Queenecame to be, substantially by 1590, more fully in the 1596 edition of six Books, and definitively with the addition ofTwo Cantos of Mutabilitiein the 1609 folio.

      If the conflicts that we witness...

    • chapter three The Poet as Magus and Viator
      (pp. 78-102)

      ‘The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.’ In this familiar statement and throughout ‘A Letter of the Authors,’ the poet emphasizes that his subject matter embraces the ‘priuate morall vertues,’ considered as objects of knowledge and as motives shaping the examined lives of individuals in society. To tell an inward-looking story of instructive encounters with virtues and vices, Spenser departed somewhat from the characteristics of the Renaissance heroic poem, both harking back to older discursive forms and moving boldly into unexplored territory. Modern criticism has shown...

    • chapter four Platonic Natural Philosophy in the Aeneid
      (pp. 103-130)

      This chapter will broaden the base of the argument offered in the previous chapter, adding weight to my claims thatThe Faerie Queenedeals extensively with the subject matter of natural philosophy, in a discursive mode that closely resembles the way of thinking found in expositions of Plato’s legacy, especially in what I have termed ‘esoteric’ humanism. The content of nature as a category varies with the context in which the term is used and the purposes to be served by an account of the natural order. Usually human nature is included in the category, but only that part of...


    • chapter five Nature in The Faerie Queene: Concepts and Phenomena
      (pp. 133-183)

      Part One has established an elaborate frame of reference for Spenser as an author and for his poem’s representation of the natural order; now I can proceed to fill in the frame. This chapter will not, as a rule, develop its readings in the light of sources or backgrounds;¹ I am interested, rather, in the texture and plain sense of the poem, bearing in mind Paul Alpers’s observation that the depths ofThe Faerie Queeneare on its surface. The intellectual tradition that I have termed esoteric humanism, and within that tradition the example set by Landino’s interpretation of the...

    • chapter six Reading the Garden of Adonis Canto
      (pp. 184-226)

      The sheer volume of criticism devoted to Spenser’s description of the Garden of Adonis, and the complexity of the issues addressed in it, may induce a numbed humility in anyone who ventures beyond thejouissanceoffered by that ‘ioyous Paradize’ toward an educated understanding of its themes. How can that mass of information and disparate opinions be assimilated? It is clear already that interpretation of canto vi in Book III is inescapably central to this book. I must therefore hope to proceed, carrying patient readers along, beyondtristesseto a recuperated pleasure in Spenser’s description of the Garden. This will...

    • chapter seven The Platonic Program of the Garden Canto
      (pp. 227-266)

      Having given cursory attention in the previous chapter to contexts and sources for the distinctive features of the Garden of Adonis canto, I will now shift my focus to include a few texts that will illuminate obscurities and clarify some basic elements in the poem’s design. In such passages as the canto under discussion, Platonic motifs are so coherent as to constitute an intentional program. We cannot, with any confidence, trace all the elements of that complex design to specific sources, but I will argue that in its main outlines we can discern intertextual echoes ofThe Symposiumand the...

    • chapter eight The Faerie Queene in 1596 and 1609
      (pp. 267-298)

      For Spenser ‘All things,’ as we noted at the end of chapter 5, ‘decay in time, and to their end do draw.’ This line from the Garden of Adonis comments specifically on the law governing ‘all that Hues’ (40.8–9); it issues from a place in which spring and harvest happily coincide, where Time is ‘wicked’ but losses are made good. Art, typified by magic and by poetry, can be understood as an attempt to contradict, by nuturing sempiternalseminaandrationes, the natural decay in which phenomena are swallowed. Spenser does not, however, set art over nature inThe...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 299-306)

    The assumptions governing this book have been those of the main stream in contemporary historicist scholarship: first, that the value of recoverable experience, literature, and thought from past ages is best established with a detachment that separates what we think about any text and historically defined contexts for its interpretation from what we know about ourselves; second, that what we know about ourselves is partial and historically conditioned, subject to correction and amplification in the light of all that we can learn from the past. I take it to be self-evident to my readers thatThe Faerie Queeneconstitutes, in...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 307-338)
  10. Works Cited
    (pp. 339-358)
  11. General Index
    (pp. 359-370)
  12. Index of Names and Places in The Faerie Queene
    (pp. 371-373)