Views of Spenser's Style


"A poetical language rich and varied and magnificent beyond all former, and almost all later example. His versification is, at once, the most smooth and the most sounding in the language. It is a labyrinth of sweet sounds, 'in many a winding bout of linked sweetness long drawn out' -- that would cloy by their very sweetness, but that the ear is constantly relieved and enchanted by their continued variety of modulation -- dwelling on the pauses of the action, or flowing on in a fuller tide of harmony with the movement of the sentiment. [. . .] Spenser was the poet of our waking dreams; and he has invented not only a language, but a music of his own for them. The undulations are infinite, like those of the waves of the sea; but the effect is still the same, lulling the senses into a deep oblivion of the jarring noises of the world, from which we have no wish to be ever recalled."

-- William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets

"Spenser's style [. . .] still has in view an audience who have settled down to hear a long story and do not want to savor each line as a separate work of art. Much of The Faerie Queene will therefore seem thin or overobvious if judged by modern standards. The 'thickness' or 'density' which I have claimed for it do not come from its language. They come from its polyphonic narrative, from its different layers of meaning, and from the high degree in which Spenser's symbols embody not simply his own experience, nor that of his characters at a given moment, but the experience of ages."

-- C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

  • How would you characterize Spenser's style? Is it a music of modulation and lulling harmonies, as Hazlitt suggests, or is it thin and functional as Lewis says?
  • What is the overall effect of Spenser' poetry on the reader?

enargeia: mimetic effectiveness. a clarity of description that makes the scene and action seem vividly real.

"Since style is an instrument with which the poet imitates those things that he has set himself to imitate, it must have energia, which with words so place a thing before the eyes of another that he seems not to hear of it, but to see it. And this power is more necessary in epic than in tragedy, because epic does not have the help of actors and the stage. This power rises from a scrupulous diligence to describe a thing in detail."

-- Torquato Tasso, Discorsi dell' Arte Poetica

"That, Enargia, or clearness of representation, required in absolute Poems is not the perspicuous delivery of a low invention; but high, and hearty invention expressed in most significant and unaffected phrase; it serves not a skillful Painter's turn, to draw the figure of a face only to make known who it represents; but he must line, give luster, shadow, and heightening; [. . .] Obscurity in affection of words, and undigested conceits, is pedantic and childish; but where it shrouds itself in the heart of his subject, uttered with fitness of figure, and expressive Epithets; with that darkness will I still labor to be shadowed."

-- George Chapman, Preface of Ovid's Epistles [The language and spelling has been modernized somewhat.]

  • How much detail does Spenser give in his descriptions? What do those details accomplish?
  • Where does Spenser's mimetic power lay? In his clarity or obscurity?
  • Is the allegorical and romantic imagery of the poem in any way opposed to Spenser's language?