|Craig A Berry, Studies in Philology, Spring 1994, Vol. 91, Iss. 2.|
On the sixth of February, 1569, the London attorney Robert Nowell died, leaving behind a large fortune and orders for an elaborate funeral. Among the funeral arrangements was the direction that new gowns be given to a long list of needy persons, a list which included thirty-one poor scholars from various London schools, which in turn included six boys from the Merchant Taylors' School, which in turn included the adolescent Edmund Spenser. Although the immediate purpose of the gowns would have been to employ their wearers in the pageantry of the funeral, Spenser's biographer tells us that the new clothes were "not mere mourning robes...but a type of garment much worn in that day and made of a good quality of wool, costing five shillings or more a yard, and many of them were not black." Spenser and his fellow gown wearers also received sixpence each from the Nowell estate, and when he left the Merchant Taylors' School to attend Cambridge in the spring of the same year, Spenser received an additional ten shillings from the same source.(1) The money probably did not last long, and while his new woolen gown gave Spenser a tangible boost as he embarked on his university career as a sizar, it also underlined his dependence on such gracious benefactors as Robert Nowell.
There is nothing unusual about the dependence of a poor boy on a generous old man, but in Spenser's case it was balanced somewhat by the appearance that same year of Jan van der Noodt's Theatre for Worldlings, which included a number of competent verse translations by the young Spenser. Unfortunately we don't know what he was paid for his services; perhaps he was simply given, according to a common method of compensating authors, a few copies of the book to sell or barter with as he could, but at any rate seeing his lines in print must have given him an early indication that employing his poetic gift allowed him at least some degree of independent self-assertion and promised to open up better opportunities for distinction and advancement than he could otherwise obtain.
The gift of a woolen gown and the early publication of verse translations take on importance partly because so little else is known about the schoolboy who was to become the great poet, and it must be admitted that if we view them as isolated incidents, unconnected with the later career, these biographical snippets become fairly random anecdotes. Of course I do want to connect them to the later career, but not with the goal of showing that the beginning of the story proves the inevitability of the middle and the end, or that the greatness of the middle and the end reveals the hidden significance of the beginning. These are modes of interpretation which require us to see the poetic career as a completed puzzle which can be dismantled piece by piece and checked at every step for telltale outlines of the whole picture we already know.
What I will attempt to trace in the pages that follow is the reverse process, the process by which Spenser's interpretation of his own circumstances participates in the ongoing creation of a poetic career. I will focus on two places in the first book of The Faerie Queene where Spenser's efforts to define what he is about as an epic poet involve wrestling with his humble origins as the son of a poor London tailor and as a poet who writes in English. Specifically, the opening stanzas of the poem-along with a backward glance at the "October" eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender and a sideways glance at the Letter to Raleigh--reveal an affinity between Spenser's epic ambitions and the pursuit of holiness by the ploughman who is to become St. George. My other focal point will be Arthur's dream encounter with The Faerie Queene herself in Canto 9; Arthur is the quintessential British knight, and the episode is based on The Tale of Sir Thopas by Chaucer, the quintessential English poet, but the story is a farce which laughs broadly at the social pretensions of its central character. The origin of Arthur's quest speaks to the anxieties of a poet who struggles against his own lowly origins and looks to Chaucer for help in facing threats to his poetic success. The Edmund Spenser of 1569, then, a poor boy whose dependence on others for the very clothes on his back is balanced only by his ability to assert himself through poetry, is not only an early version of the struggling poet, but is also an inspiring image for a poet who habitually asserts his own unworthiness as a means of rhetorically putting himself forward.
Telling the story of Spenser's early career by juxtaposing a change of clothes with the promise contained in the publication of verse is appropriate because Spenser himself tells the story of his middle career by making the same association. The Virgilian first stanza of The Faerie Queene shows him superimposing his lofty aspirations on his lowly status with the help of a clothing metaphor:
Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.(2)
There is an ambiguity to the image, for the "lowly Shepheards weeds" would be perfectly appropriate for a poet who claims to be "all too meane," but the shepherd's garb is cast off as a mask whose covering is no longer needed; the meanness is both declared and discarded in one gesture. Using the modesty topos for self-promotion is nothing new, but Spenser pushes the rhetoric of humility to its limits by telling us almost in so many words that the humility is only a mask. Of course the poet says he is "enforst" to trade in his panpipes for the trumpets of epic, but who is this "sacred Muse" of his who dictates the poet's new task to him? The next stanza refers to her as a "weaker Nouice" who needs help from the "holy Virgin chiefe of nine," variously identified as Clio, the muse of history, or Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, but by leaving the chief muse unidentified Spenser suggests that even his dependence is now a fiction of his own making; he vociferously claims inspirational dependence, but leaves a question mark instead of the name of his benefactor. His own muse, on the other hand, the one who formerly disguised herself in rustic clothing, now reveals herself plainly, and to say that she enjoins him to take on the task of epic, Spenser essentially admits that his own sense of poetic vocation provides the impetus for the upward move from pastoral to epic. As John Hollander, in a brilliant discussion of "poetic imperatives," says of this famous opener, "the poet commands his own poetry to produce itself."(3) And the poet does so, I would add, with the image of peeling off the rustic clothing of his pastoral debut.
Spenser was not the first to use pastoral trappings as an ingratiating figure for humble servitude; to note one notable example, Richard McCoy shows that Sidney's pose as a "shepherd knight" in the Arcadia and elsewhere was a way to negotiate "the clash between his own autonomy and ambition and his deference to the Queen."(4) For Sidney, one of the most prominent members of one of the most prominent families in England, pastoral withdrawal was a mask, a rhetorical coping mechanism for soothing frustrated ambitions. For Spenser, on the other hand, figuring his lowly social standing as a pastoral retreat and his epic unveiling as an entry into affairs at court added another turn to what was already a trope; he had never actually participated in court life at the level which Sidney had, so to claim that his rustic debut was only a pose, true enough in itself, was in effect to create a more elaborate mask as a covering for his social and poetic ambitions. The question has been often raised (with good reason) whether pastoral is ever more than a way for gentlefolk to idealize the simple life and romanticize labor without actually doing any,(5) but this resonance could only help Spenser in his attempt to become a gentleman poet; if pastoral is understood to be a diversion for clever aristocrats, Spenser makes himself one of them by putting on the pastoral mask as well as by taking it off.
The masking which takes place in The Shepheardes Calender, however, involves more than simply going in disguise; it also includes the playful trying on of various roles, and one of the roles batted about the most is the role of poet. In the "October" eclogue, Piers advises the poetic aspirations of his fellow shepherd Cuddie, saying,
Abandon then the base and viler clowne, Lyft up thy selfe out of the lowly dust: And sing of bloody Mars, of wars, of giusts. Turne thee to those, that weld the awful crowne. To doubted Knights, whose woundlesse armour rusts, And helmes vnbruzed wexen dayly browne. (37-42)Cuddie has been complaining that piping to his shepherd companions has gotten him nowhere, so Piers suggests plying his verse where it can make a difference--both to the poet, who raises himself "out of the lowly dust," and to the noble but negligent audience, who needs the exhortation. The "base and viler clowne" in the passage quoted is of course a version of Cuddie himself, but by putting the phrase in third person, Spenser emphasizes that the rustic persona is a mask that can be abandoned. Like the "doubted Knights" (doubted because they are feared but also because they are as yet unproven) who can assume their proper function by polishing up their armor and getting to work, the humble poet can take on the epic role by casting off his clownish persona and singing of noble subjects to a noble audience. The poet's move from pastoral to epic is thus seen as a form of upward mobility which parallels and mutually supports the resumption of long-neglected chivalric duty by members of the knightly estate.
Jane Tylus has argued that Piers's uplifting advice results only in "the marginalization of the shepherd-poet" due to "Piers's complete miscomprehension of Cuddie's desires that his labor be acknowledged as labor."(6) But Cuddie's response indicates not so much that Piers misunderstands as that he is too optimistic; Cuddie concedes that the "Romish Tityrus...left his Oaten reede" to sing of nobler subjects, but despairs of reviving the springs of poetry since all the great patrons are dead (55-78). For Spenser, writing a poem in which the figure of the poet proclaims the impossibility of noble poetry in the absence of suitable patronage is a way of applying rhetorical leverage on potential patrons to take up the challenge. This becomes especially clear in light of the direct allusions to Elizabeth and Leicester as a potential audience for Cuddie's poetry (45-53). The eclogue is concerned, then, with the rewarding of poetic endeavors, but there is no simple dichotomy between poetry as labor and poetry as divine inspiration; it is because the poet is already marginalized that even the ability to perform his labor is portrayed as a gracious gift from above. Cuddie himself mixes inspiration and reward for labor by proceeding from his lament that "all the worthies liggen wrapt in leade" (63), and are thus no longer available to reward poets, into a reverie on Bacchic inspiration, but brings himself up short with the comment, "my corage cooles ere it be warme" (115). Cuddie's "corage" is his desire to be inspired or even the fit of inspiration itself, but also perhaps his courage, the raw nerve required to address a noble audience without a noble sponsor.(7) Poetry, as E. K. says in the argument to the eclogue, is an enthousiasmos, but the god lavishes his gifts more freely when the pump has been primed by a noble benefactor.
E. K. also expresses uncertainty in the Glosse as to whether Cuddie represents "the authour selfe," but E. K. had probably not read, as we have, the proem to Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, where the poet seems to have taken to heart the advice of Piers in his promise to sing of "Fierce warres and faithfull loues."(8) With the notable exception that he invokes not only Mars but also Cupid and Venus as presiding spirits over his poem, the erstwhile rustic poet is a more mature Cuddie, ready to abandon the base and viler clown and raise his voice to the high concerns of his aristocratic superiors. Despite the reminder in the "October" eclogue that the sponsorship of Augustus was what made Virgil's work on the Aeneid possible, Spenser had to begin his own epic without such influential encouragement, but by now his "corage" was up to the task. Perhaps the absence of direct endorsement from the Queen explains why the initial stanzas of The Faerie Queene soft-pedal the notion of lapsed duty, saying only that the "prayses" of the nobility have slept, but we know from the Letter to Raleigh if nowhere else that singing the praises of heroes is a way the poet urges his readers to be more heroic. That Spenser sought to lift his own fortunes out of the dust in the process of reviving the long-neglected "gentle deeds" of knights and ladies perhaps seems self-evident (that's what epic poets do), but the allegorical links between the exaltation of the humble poet and the exhortation of the noble readers need further examination.
The Letter to Raleigh also tells the story of a "clownishe younge man" who is enabled to take on the task of epic through a combination of gracious opportunity, eager self-promotion, and a new outfit. This time that task is seen through the eyes of the would-be epic hero rather than the would-be epic poet, but the trajectory is the same in either case, and in fact Spenser figures his own quest in that of his hero.(9) When Una appears at the court of Gloriana to request help against the dragon, the rustic who will become Redcrosse is waiting his turn for an adventure "on the floore, vnfitte through his rusticity for a better place." After Una has made her request to Gloriana for a champion, Spenser continues the story as follows:
Presently that clownish person vpstarting, desired that aduenture: whereat the Queene much wondering, and the Lady much gainesaying, yet he earnestly importuned his desire. In the end the Lady told him that vnlesse that armour which she brought, would serue him (that is the armour of a Christian man specified by Saint Paul v. Ephes.) that he could not succeed in that enterprise, which being forthwith put vpon him with dewe furnitures thereunto, he seemed the goodliest man in al that company, and was well liked of the Lady. And eftesoones taking on him knighthood, and mounting on that straunge Courser, he went forth with her on that aduenture.(10)As with Piers's advice to Cuddie in the "October" eclogue of the Calender or Spenser's lowly muse in the proem to Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, Redcrosse's clownish exterior is abandoned and replaced with the more venerable trappings of a loftier role. Among the many codes present here is the chivalric one whereby a commoner could be made noble by a gift of armor. As Maurice Keen notes, "English grants of arms were in effect ennoblements, the insular equivalent of the grants of nobility by letters patent which are common on the continent." These ennoblements, however, were generally granted in recognition of some great deed of valor on the battlefield,(11) and Redcrosse has as yet performed no such feat. Like Cuddie's paradoxical view of poetry as a labor-intensive craft which must nevertheless be divinely inspired and nurtured by patronage, Redcrosse's position here is an interesting mix of dependence and independence: he cannot be lifted up by his own efforts, and yet he must put himself forward vigorously to obtain the grace of Gloriana and Una.(12) Redcrosse's situation parallels that of the poet; the move from the humble to the heroic is paradoxically something each achieves by earnestly seeking it and yet something that must be granted to him by some superior source of authority.
The opening lines of the narrative continue the mixed image of self-sufficiency and dependence:
A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,Redcrosse is "Gentle," a member of the knightly estate, and he is very well-equipped, but we are reminded that he has never performed the duties which are part and parcel of his noble role. There is an important difference between the well-used equipment he wears here and the "woundlesse armour" and "helmes vnbruzed" of the "October" eclogue, which are rusting from disuse; there the neglect of the symbols of chivalry suggests that chivalry itself has fallen into degeneration, but here the battered armor represents a high and well-established calling which the new knight must attempt to follow. So Redcrosse carries signs which would ordinarily refer to him, but he is not the referent to which they refer, at least not yet. He is a "Gentle Knight," but is not, as Chaucer's Knight was, "a verray, parfit gentil knyght" with an impressive chivalric resume (GP, 72);(13) Redcrosse's perfection is yet to be accomplished. Theologically speaking, he has put on the armor of Christ according to St. Paul's exhortation in the Epistle to the Ephesians, and, to borrow another phrase from St. Paul, has yet to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. As Harry Berger says, "the armor is his by election..., a token of that second nature which God offers him but which will not be truly his until he has earned it. He is still a nameless bumpkin in oversized armor and he has a long way to go before becoming England's patron saint."(14) Redcrosse has the protection of armor he did not earn, but possessing it empowers him to achieve the glory which validates its possession. His failures and temporary setbacks along the road to holiness are the lot of any sinner in a fallen world, but if he presses on and keeps the faith, he will become worthy of the armor he wears; the borrowed armor will become his own.
This theological trajectory which dominates Book 1--and in varying forms reappears throughout the poem--is consistent with Spenser's stated purpose in the Letter to Raleigh: "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline"; the paradigm of sanctification is a way of implementing the poem's didactic purpose. However, an intention which Spenser states in a different letter is to "overgo" his poetic predecessors, and the paradoxes of the theological allegory can enrich our understanding of his efforts to build a poetic career. The disparity between Redcrosse and his armor in the opening stanza is not merely an allegory about an inexperienced Christian knight who is just embarking on a quest, but is also an allegory about an ambitious poet who is beginning the great work that will realize his dreams or dash them. Spenser's Protestant faith taught him that the armor of righteousness was free for the taking and could not be earned, but at the same time it had to be worn vigilantly to bring about the salvation which was already accomplished, and this paradigm offered him great rhetorical power in negotiating the conflicting demands of deference to authority and self-promotion; with the doctrine of salvation by grace as the operating principle, he could represent his poetic ambitions as both successfully achieved and arduously worked out.
I do not mean to imply that the paradigm of grace invariably suggested to Elizabethans an ability to move upward on the social scale--quite the contrary. William Perkins, in A Treatise of the Vocations, offers what must have been a more common view.(15) In his introduction Perkins cites 1 Corinthians 7.20 (Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called") to support his claim that "whatsoeuer any man enterprizeth or doth, either in word or deede, he must doe it by vertue of his calling, and he must keepe himselfe within the compasse, limits or precincts thereof."(16) Clearly there is no room here for experimentation with new roles, but as Perkins develops his argument he links his notion of vocation to the sanctification of the individual:
Now the works of euery calling, whe[n] they are performed in an holy manner, are done in faith and obedience, and serve notably for Gods glory, bee the calling neuer so base. As for example, a man is by profession a sheepheard, the calling is but base and mean, and the duties thereof are sutable: yet if there be grace to vse that calling aright, the duties thereof are good workes before God, being done with conscience of obedience vnto God, for his glorie, and the good of the master. The meanenesse of the calling, doth not abase the goodnesse of the worke.(17)In addition to revealing that the professional herding of sheep could be used as a stock figure for vocational baseness in non-literary as well as literary contexts, Perkins's remarks illustrate the way Protestant thinking about calling and election could raise even the lowliest of professions to a kind of nobility. While he seems to have in mind only the storing up of treasures in heaven through patient toil in a fixed calling--in fact his argument may well have been prompted by establishment concern that social mobility was becoming too easy(18)--Perkins, by articulating the transforming and exalting power of grace, shows how Reformation soteriology allows even the humblest tasks to become "good workes before God."
Spenserian humility no doubt owes something to this theological framework as well as to the poetic modesty tradition, and the biblical sources for exalting the humble are more pervasive than my brief examination of Perkins has implied; Christ himself washed the disciples' feet and identified himself as the good shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep, and the doubling of great with small is at least as prominent in the gospels as in the Pauline epistles. Spenser, however, not unlike some of the original hearers of the gospel, attempts to guarantee that he is the last who will become first. He takes advantage of the fact that the care of sheep is only a trope--and thus can be abandoned--to imply that the heroic (also only a trope, at least to begin with) can be taken up as easily as the rustic is cast off; Redcrosse does not set off on his quest with a sanctified attitude toward his motley, but abandons the motley to assume an entirely new role. So while elevating the social status of the low-born poet with a new calling is not quite the same as elevating the spiritual status of the lowly calling itself, salvation by grace--paradoxically resulting from but not conditional upon the performance of good works--does function as a paradigm for Spenser's poetic labors.
Spenser found more in the doctrine of free grace, though, than a model for the upward mobility of the poet; the rhetoric of vigilantly working out what has already been freely given by God allowed him to settle an age-old dispute about poetic roles: is poetry a direct transmission from the Muse, or is it a labor-intensive craft? By making poetic vocation analogous to election and the poetic career analogous to sanctification, Spenser could answer yes to both questions. As an aspiring epic poet without an epic commission, Spenser represents his own determination to write as a directive from the Muse, a directive which he has no choice but to accept and fulfill with painstaking humble service. In the process he not only links inspiration with production, but blurs the distinction between muse and patron; whereas Virgil had sought help with his subject matter from only one muse in his famous opener, Spenser, lacking the authorization of an Augustus, plays one muse off another in the proem to Book 1 by seeking help from one but also claiming to be commanded by another, a muse which we have identified as his own sense of poetic vocation.
The final stanza of the proem appeals to Elizabeth, but the "Goddesse heauenly bright" whose "faire beames" will illuminate the darkness of the poet's imagination sounds more like a muse than a patron. In Spenser's poetic economy, however, muses as well as patrons can give the order to write. The complex blurring and collapsing together of various roles--poet, patron, muse--creates space for the poet to fill all of the roles himself, but also suggests to the sovereign as Muse that she may cross over to become patron as well. This shifting of roles for rhetorical purposes confirms David Lee Miller's remark, "A poet is a maker, but his role as poet is one of the things he makes," and elaborates on the interaction between Spenser's vocation, "an ideal of the poet's cultural role," and his career, "the rhetorical strategies by which the ideal is advocated."(19) In linking inspiration, artistic labor, and patronage, Spenser manipulates the ideal in such a way that it becomes part and parcel of his rhetorical strategy, and the doctrine of salvation by grace provides the paradigm for claiming that the static ideal has been achieved even in the midst of its existential working out.
That process gets under way just a few stanzas into the poem, where Redcrosse and Una become lost in the woods in a passage which echoes a long list of predecessors, including Ovid's version of the Orpheus myth, a scene from Chaucer's Parlement of Foules, and the dark woods found in Dante and Ariosto.(20) The Ovidian subtext has little to say about heroes, but much to say about the ability of the poet to create fictional worlds, for Orpheus's list of trees is more of a pageant than a catalogue: the grove literally marches up the hill to provide shade for him in response to the music of his lyre (Met. 10.86 ff.). For Spenser, on the other hand, the fictional world is a place where heroic and poetic ambition are united; in his catalogue of the trees in the forest he lists "The Laurell, meed of mightie Conquerours/And Poets sage" (184.108.40.206-2) in place of Chaucer's "The victor palm, the laurer to devyne" (182). Whereas Chaucer simply notes what the laurel may be used for without specifying who it is who needs or possesses the gift of divination, Spenser's revision puts might and wisdom on an equal footing by dropping the "victor palm" and making both hero and poet receive the laurel as the reward for their labors.
That Chaucer passes up the opportunity to link poetry with prophecy fits the immediate context in the Parlement, where Scipio Africanus ushers the witless, dreaming poet into Venus's temple, informing him that as a non-participant in matters of love he need not fear what goes on there, but should just write down what he sees. The appeal to journalistic realism is a rhetorical red herring, though, for a poet who depicts a long-dead classical authority literally leading him by the hand into a fantastic world of frolicking deities and bickering fowl can only expect the reader to laugh with him when he claims to be a mere reporter. The characteristic disclaimer in the opening lines of The House of Fame notwithstanding, then, Chaucer's dream visions do present themselves as visions of a sort, visions which beckon their readers into a strange world that only the poet can show them. Spenser too has a strange world to show us, but he wants to emphasize that the poet and the hero, as mutual strivers after the laurel, have a parallel role in Faeryland and the worlds it represents.
The forest through which Redcrosse and Una wander is of course the Wandering Wood, and they soon come across the den of Errour. Redcrosse, "full of fire and greedy hardiment" (220.127.116.11), ignores Una's warnings and peers into the cave. The descent into error is like Aeneas's descent into the underworld in Aeneid 6 insofar as getting out once in is the difficult part, but Redcrosse's impetuousness suggests that the initial confrontation with Errour is more of an Ariostan madness than a Virgilian catabasis. Whereas Aeneas never compromises his singleness of purpose and is led by divine provision through the gloomy forest to the golden bough which will ensure his return from the underworld, Ariosto's knights, as Eugenio Donato argues, lose all sense of their original quests when they enter the labyrinthine woods. Concluding that Ariosto's forests are a figure for narratological open-endedness, Donato notes that "Ariosto's narrative discounts any outside consciousness--be it that of an author or that of a reader--which might behold its 'Truth,' inasmuch as the narrative stages them both in the same domain as that of its imaginary characters...."(21)
Redcrosse too loses sight of his ultimate goal in his random lust for adventure, but in a radical departure from Ariosto's erring heroes, Spenser places Truth by the side of his knight in the person of Una. Una is not merely in the same domain as Spenser's fictional characters; she is one of them, but her presence works something like the reverse of Donato's formulation for Ariosto. As a divine mouthpiece of sorts, reminding Redcrosse to add faith unto his force in his struggle with Errour, she provides the impetus for getting the hero--and the narrative--back on track. Like the rest of fallen humanity which he represents, Redcrosse, without divine words of direction, would wander indefinitely and at random. Indeed, the middle cantos of Book 1 frequently suggest that he will do just that; the quickly redeemed misadventure with Errour occupies only the first half of the first canto, and Redcrosse and Una will both have many more wanderings with and without each other's company. However, the impetuousness which tends toward spiritual and narratological error is always--at least in Book 1--redirected to its proper ends. Una functions for the hero in the same way that the Muse functions for the poet: as an external director who awakens a dormant gift and propels him into a noble action which would otherwise exceed his ability. She is not, however, a Sibyl who speaks the decrees of Apollo to an Aeneas who must blindly work out his destiny, but a voice of grace who enables the inexperienced hero to complete even a misguided adventure successfully.
Whereas in Donato's account Ariosto's narrative "discounts any outside consciousness," putting author and reader in the same aimless labyrinth as the fictional characters, Spenser, by making the progress of his own narrative depend on the same gracious provision which enables the progress of the hero, once again represents his own poetic labor in Redcrosse's purposeful quest for holiness.
When Redcrosse has followed Una's injunction to strangle Errour, the monster responds, in what must be the poem's most nauseating passage, by spewing forth the vile contents of her "hellish sinke," including her "fruitfull cursed spawne of serpents small" (18.104.22.168-6). Redcrosse is nearly overcome with the stench and is hampered by Errour's brood swarming about his legs, but an epic simile prepares the reader for the revival of the hero's courage:
As gentle Shepheard in sweete euen-tide,The ordinary terms of epic simile are reversed, at least if we remember that Redcrosse was a "clownishe younge man" before he put on his armor. It is not because the hero is so powerful that brushing off his enemies may be compared to swatting insects, but because he applies the only experience he knows--that with tiny pastoral adversaries--to the epic situation in which he now finds himself. What is remarkable here is that Spenser figures the lowly origin as a source of strength rather than as a handicap, a maneuver as necessary for his own career as for Redcrosse's.
Anthea Hume, in an admirable application of the works of contemporary Protestant theologians to the machinery of grace in Book 1, reads this stanza as "a glimpse of a world of unassuming service to which the knight will eventually return."(22) As I have suggested, however, the doctrine of free grace functions more as an elevation of the poet/hero from an unassuming origin to a position of noble service, and in any case, if St. George were to return to his former life, he would be a ploughman rather than a shepherd. It was Spenser who cast off his shepherd's attire to take on the epic task, and if he puts it on again for a moment as one of the shifting forms of his allegory, it is only to draw on his own poetic roots as he stretches to hit stride as an epic poet; without a track record of meeting epic challenges, the best one can do is trope those challenges as pastoral ones.
To sum up where we have come thus far, allow me to note that the early beneficence of Robert Nowell along with the successful publication of verse translations, the chivalric practice of ennoblement through the gift of arms, the gentlemanly habit of assuming and discarding pastoral personae, and the Protestant emphasis on free grace all served as inspiration for Spenser in representing his own struggles to become worthy of a high poetic calling. St. Paul had already mixed the martial and theological metaphors, Sidney had used the return from pastoral withdrawal as a figure for renewed efforts to gain influence with the Queen, and the role of the poet as trumpeter of heroic deeds was well-established, but Spenser wove all of these materials together in representing his own search for poetic recognition. I do not mean to suggest that Redcrosse is a mere double for Spenser, or that every aspect of the hero's quest is a cipher for some aspect of the poet's. In fact, the general situation of Redcrosse applies more readily to the situation of the poet than most of the particular adventures do, but this is what we would expect to happen as the poet moved from an overall plan which required a nervy act of epic self-creation to an implementation whose details would focus more directly on instilling a series of specific virtues in the reader. The allegory of holiness, then, has a wider application than as an index for the poetic career, but the rise of one rustic lad to become patron saint of England nevertheless has deep resonances with the rise of another, self-described rustic to become England's arch-poet.
So far my discussion has centered on Redcrosse as the pattern of the imperfect poet who struggles to attain an ideal which he can only achieve with the gracious help of a guiding providence; the ennobling, inspiring and saving graces which Una provides for Redcrosse parallel the functions of Muse and patron for the poet. I now turn to another form of external help; Redcrosse, like every other hero in the poem except Britomart, at some point needs the help of Arthur, who nominally represents the ideal composite of virtues toward which all the other knights strive. Arthur's search for Gloriana lends what unity there is to the divergent strands of the narrative, and Arthur's projected union with the Faery Queene herself at Faery Court serves as the narrative goal of the whole poem. James Nohrnberg points out that Arthur's love-longing for a queen whose name means glory parallels the hoped-for effect of the poem on the reader. "In designating Arthur's animus as desire for praise or for glory," Nohrnberg writes, "Spenser embodies in a character an 'intention' of the hero that cannot be sharply distinguished from the intention of the poet toward the ideally responsive reader."(23) The hero and the poet both seek glory even as they attempt to inspire it in others, so whether or not Spenser ever could have brought Arthur's quest to a close according to the plan laid out in the Letter to Raleigh, the close links between the labors of the hero and the labors of the poet make it reasonable to look at the origin of that quest for clues about Spenser's sense of his own origin as an epic poet.
After rescuing Redcrosse from Orgoglio's dungeon in Canto 8 (his usual canto throughout the poem), Arthur goes on in Canto 9 to tell the story of his birth and the origin of his quest. He is searching for the elf-queen who came to him in a dream. Or was it a vision? Or was it in person? Even the explanatory Letter to Raleigh leaves unsettled whether it was "a dream or vision." What actually happened on the grass that night is as mysterious for the reader as the result is clear for Arthur: he must search for the "Queene of Faeries" until he finds her. Arthur's response to his vision of the fairy queen serves as a hint to readers of the poem about how they should respond to Spenser's vision; the image may be shadowy and susceptible to varying interpretations, but the truly noble beholder readily perceives its truth and is impelled to virtuous action. In Sidnean terms, a glimpse of the golden world of the poet plants an ideal motivating force in the heart of the reader that is more edifying than the philosopher's and the historian's analytical and descriptive attempts to explain the world.
Perhaps it would be best, then, to call the mysterious originating point of Arthur's quest a dream vision, for his moonlit encounter with the queen of the fairies owes two related debts to Chaucer. Most obviously it is an adaptation of a similar vision in Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas, but it is also a narrative in which something fantastic perceived in a dream is taken as an ideal to be soberly pursued as a real object in the waking world. Strictly speaking Chaucer's tale is of course a romance rather than a dream vision, but in being captivated by what he apprehends in a dream, Sir Thopas shares a mode of perception with the dream-vision narrators from Chaucer's earlier career, a mode which probes the origins and the authority of fictions. Reporting dream experiences as actual events reminds the reader that stories are ephemeral and the accounts of witnesses not always verifiable, but it also encourages a faith in those same narratives as bearers of truth, a truth which mere facts cannot sustain and which is available only to those open enough to perceive it. This simultaneous appeal to faith and to the senses, as John Hill notes in his fine study of "Chaucerian belief," makes the truth accessible even as it establishes a diverse authority for it:
Chaucer extends this business [of "knowing feelingly"] to all topics of human importance, to questions of order, justice, accord, good fortune and bad, righteous and profane values, predestination and free will. Essentially, this brings the possibilities of knowing to everyone, removing knowing from the high ground of philosophers and theologians and transferring it to the product of Rumor's output--those expansively elaborated tidings we call fictions.(24)Chaucer's theory of fiction, then, diffuses the sources of authority so that each tale-teller or narrator brings his or her affective authority to the tale being told. Sidney might not have been comfortable with such rambunctious diversity in the golden world of the poet, but Spenser would have appreciated--at least as it concerned himself--the empowerment of the lowly through the use of fictions; if the fictional domain offered a wider aperture on authority than the narrow gate of rank and privilege, what better way could there be for a poor but well-educated lad to make a name for himself than as a poet.
The Tale of Sir Thopas has seldom rated a place in discussions of Chaucer's theory of fiction,(25) and Spenser's imitation of it has usually been considered as at best a fond borrowing of details which owes no debt of any real consequence to its humble original. It is indeed puzzling that Spenser would choose a burlesque tale whose meter has the subtlety of a sledge-hammer as the source for the originating vision of such a serious and sonorous poem as The Faerie Queene. J. W. Bennett summed up the difficulty long ago when she noted, "It does not seem probable, or even possible, that Spenser selected a well-known comic figure as the equivalent for Aeneas in a poem which was expected to make of its author the English Vergil." Bennett copes with this dilemma by positing that Spenser began with a scheme which was more Ariostan than Virgilian, and in her view the echoes of Sir Thopas in the poem as we have it are the traces of this largely abandoned comic plan.(26) The other prevalent method for reconciling the tone of Sir Thopas with the tone of The Faerie Queene is to assume that Spenser--in contrast to most of his contemporaries--took the tale seriously, concurring with the judgment of his friend Gabriel Harvey, who marked the tale as "morall" in the margin of his copy of Chaucer.(27)
Either theory--that Spenser simply didn't see the humor, or that he did see it but failed to edit out the most ludicrous aspect of it from an epic which had outgrown it--assumes a certain denseness on the part of Spenser and a rather simplistic model of poetic imitation. Imitation is seldom borne of a straightforward identification or a desire to achieve exactly the same effect as the precursor, and we would do well to consider what motivations Spenser may have had in basing Arthur's vision on that of Sir Thopas. Perhaps borrowing an elf-queen from a parodic tail-rhyme romance and making her the ideal quest-object of his Renaissance epic was a way to reconcile what he thought of as his earthy English poetic origins with the goals of a more neoplatonic Renaissance poetics. It may also have had something to do with an anxiety that pursuing the ideal always involved the risk of appearing farcical, particularly to readers who were skeptical about the virtue-producing claims of the new poetics. Like the self-conscious, bumbling narrator of a Chaucerian dream vision, Spenser had to insist that he was reporting the truth in the midst of leading the reader through a fantastic and implausible world. Spenser's greatest cause for concern, though, was not simply that he might be laughed at by unsympathetic readers, but that his own quest for Gloriana, that most important of readers, Elizabeth Tudor, was as ludicrous and hopeless as Sir Thopas's infatuation with the elf-queen. Spenser also must have sensed that Chaucer's humor had its own poetic purposes,(28) and if we see this least of The Canterbury Tales in line with the suggestion I have already made that it explores the power of fiction to move an audience, it merits a closer look both for its own sake and as an inspiration for Spenser.
The Tale of Sir Thopas is a tale told by the Canterbury pilgrim named Geoffrey Chaucer, and perhaps it represents an attempt on Chaucer's part to drain off ridicule by priming the pump with a send-up of his own art; he laughs both at the outlandishness of his own devices and at the naivet of those who are taken in by them. At any rate, by making himself the least of the pilgrims Chaucer erases the distance between himself and his audience, and by undermining his own authority as a tale-teller he increases the authority of the Tales as a whole, because the poet becomes a mere reporter of what he has seen and heard; the words and actions he relates belong to others and he is not responsible for their aesthetic quality or moral valence. Even The Tale of Sir Thopas itself he presents as "a rym I lerned longe agoon" rather than as an original composition (7.709). Throughout his works Chaucer represents himself as a nonparticipant or amateur in the matter at hand, whether that matter be falling in love or interpreting dreams, and here he extends the same paradigm to his own fiction-making by representing himself as a mere reciter of second-rate pop literature. Elsewhere I have connected Chaucer's literary modesty gestures in Troilus and Criseyde with his subordinate position as a royal servant, where his power to negotiate depended in part on his facility at self-effacement and allowing others to speak through him;(29) by the time the plan of The Canterbury Tales began to take shape, Chaucer must have seen even more fully that he could say more by letting others do the talking.
The hero of Chaucer's burlesque tale is the exact opposite of his creator, for he is an eager and unreflecting participant in any activity which can draw attention to himself; dressing sharply, hunting, hawking, archery, and wrestling are all mentioned in the first few stanzas of the poem. One day the young knight rides out lightly armed--perhaps a full suit of armor would hide his good looks--and encounters two dangers to which he is equally vulnerable in his unprotected condition: falling in love and meeting a giant. As he rides through the forest the singing of the birds so affects his heretofore celibate heart that, we are told, he "fil in love-longynge,/Al when he herde the thrustel synge,/And pryked as he were wood" (7.772-74). His desire makes him spur his horse furiously, but of course his heart is the real object of the pricking, and both man and horse are soon worn out:
Sir Thopas eek so wery wasThe syntax in the first of these stanzas leaves ambiguous the reason for lying down on the grass; it is both because the fierceness of his desire has overwhelmed him and because he must provide "som solas" for his lathered steed, which "So swatte that men myghte him wrynge" (7.776), but the two reasons are really one. At least since Plato's myth of the charioteer, the foaming horse has stood as a figure for unruly passion, and it seems clear that Thopas seeks solace for his desire as much as rest for his horse.
It is little wonder, then, that his dream that night is an erotic one, but there is more to his desire than sheer libido. Curiously, the attributes which make the elf-queen so appealing are not described, a conspicuous absence in a poem which describes in such detail the appearance, dress, character, and habits of its hero; the elf-queen's primary attraction seems to be that she is more "worthy" than the women back in town. We already know that Thopas has scorned a number of these women, and to the narrator's explanation that he is "chaast and no lechour" (7.745), we may add the suspicion that he is socially pretentious and hopes for an advantageous marriage. Larry D. Benson notes that "the satire in Sir Thopas may be social as well as literary, since Thopas is something of a would-be gentleman, who works just a bit too hard at observing the proper forms of romance knighthood, apparently in contemporary Flanders."(30) J. A. Burrow points out that the use of "Sir" as a knightly title occurs nowhere in Chaucer's works except for its frequent use in Sir Thopas, and concludes that "according to current French usage, such a title would mark the hero as precisely the kind of man that his birth in Poperinge would lead one to expect: a 'sire bourgeois.'"(31) The fact that Thopas's father is lord of his country (7.722) does not necessarily contradict this, for it may mean no more than that he is a landowner, perhaps a recently ennobled country gentleman.
Thopas, then, is an upwardly mobile petty aristocrat who is hoping to become less petty, and he takes to a ludicrous extreme the common solution of seeking a mate above his station. Donald Howard has pointed out that the closest associates of Chaucer's wife Philippa were of far greater social standing than her husband, who may have been considered the social inferior of his wife as well.(32) Perhaps the pretension of Chaucer's hero, then, is an inside joke about the poet's own situation. It is difficult to say whether this joke is--as so many of Chaucer's are--self-directed, but no evidence points to any dependence on Philippa's connections for Geoffrey's success in government service, so the poet most likely aims the satire at those who seek to climb the social ladder by marrying well rather than at those who marry well as a result of climbing the ladder through their own efforts. At any rate, Sir Thopas's fantasy combines the lofty feelings of love with the lofty aspirations of an aspiring nobleman.
After declaring his resolve to marry an elf-queen, Sir Thopas is as good as his word and immediately climbs back into the saddle to search for his other-worldly mate. That he so easily transforms the shadowy outlines of a dream into a sharply defined quest makes him by one measure Chaucer's ideal reader, albeit a ridiculous one. His willingness to believe the fantastic and radically alter the course of his life as a result is simultaneously Chaucer's sly laugh at those who succumb to the persuasive power of his fictions and an appeal to the audience to lend a sympathetic ear to what is after all only a dream. Thopas's rapid turnabout, then, also explores the predicament of the poet, who labors to transform his extravagant visions into tangible works of art without seeming absurd. As Theseus reminds us in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "The best in this kind are but shadows," but the shadows, dependent as they are on the good will of the audience, sincerely regret any offense they have committed and excuse themselves by virtue of their insubstantiality.(33)
For Thopas, the shadowy world of his dream is also accessible in the waking portion of his quest; as he rides he comes to the "contree of Fairye" (7.802) and encounters the giant Sir Olifaunt, who blocks his path. The giant does not threaten Sir Thopas directly, but instead warns,
"Child, by Termagaunt,Thopas is in one respect very fortunate for a romance hero: he locates the object of his quest only two stanzas after he sets out to look for her. But the giant, who calls him "Child," indicating that he regards him as an aspirant to nobility rather than a full-fledged knight, threatens to stop him by killing his steed, and we have already seen that the steed is a figure for his desire, the "corage" which is the driving force behind his quest. After making suitably chivalric threats to return and fight Olifaunt the next day, when he will be better armed, Sir Thopas "faire escapeth" (7.830), which is to say he runs away fast enough to avoid harm. He does so presumably by following the giant's advice and pricking his steed to achieve the required get-away velocity; the horse still figures his desire, but this time his greatest desire is for self-preservation. The search for the "queene of Fayerye" is a dangerous one, and the drive to pursue her--be it social or libidinal--is countered by a sense of vulnerability and a desire to acquire greater protection against the hazards of the quest.
The mixture of the social and the libidinal is a subset of the hero's--and the narrator's--more general inability to keep the categories straight. Thopas excels at such noble pastimes as hunting and hawking, but by pursuing archery and wrestling with equal zeal he demonstrates a blindness to the very social distinctions which are so important to him. The narrator shares his hero's difficulty with social nuances; the tale is a self-conscious composite romance which slavishly follows the well-worn characteristics of a genre which is already a hand-me-down version of a courtly form, but in the same way that Sir Thopas's bourgeois socks peek out from under his fancy imported clothes, the lower-class physical humor of fabliaux lurks just under the surface of the romance narrative. It is conventional for the quest of a romance hero to be driven by his desire, but the representation of Sir Thopas's desire as a frothing steed which he pricks into such a frenzy that it must be given solace by lying down on the grass reduces desire to its lowest common denominator, and Olifaunt, who guards the "queene of Fayerye" by threatening to smash the "steede" of anyone who gets near her, has as much in common with the jealous husbands of fabliaux as with the giants of romance. Even as a romance giant, though, Olifaunt is a parody of his own kind: one common way of speaking about a giant in a romance is to say that it is the romance hero's worst nightmare--literally; the warped features, large size, and destructive capability of the giant represent the hero's fear that raw impulses--either his own or someone else's--may become distorted and dangerously powerful to the point where they threaten to destroy him. Here too, Chaucer reduces the convention to a literalist absurdity; Sir Olifaunt's name suggests that he is elephantine in size, but if he also possesses the drooping ears and long, prehensile snout of an elephant, he becomes an image of monstrous male sexual equipment. That Spenser read Olifaunt this way is evidenced by the fact that he makes the giant Ollyphaunt one of the lecherous villains in the Legend of Chastity (3.7.48, 3.11.3-6), and describes the figure of Lust in Book 4 as having ears like an elephant's (4.7.6). The vivid gruesomeness of Spenser's figures restores the terror value to his monsters, but Chaucer's Olifaunt shows more of the fabliaux tendency for sexual fantasies to come true with a literalizing vengeance. Sir Thopas's efforts to become a true knight become even more ridiculous in this context; the raw impulse behind his romantic quest thwarted by what may be called a fabliaux trick, he realizes his social blunder and quickly shifts phallic metaphors by vowing to pierce the giant's "mawe" with the more chivalrously appropriate lance (7.823). But it is actually a "launce-gay," a light lance (7.821); like everything else about the hero--and the tale--it is an underweight example of its kind, and along with the lowly pilgrim Chaucer, who pleads that The Tale of Sir Thopas is "the beste rym I kan" (7.928), the hero must do his poor best with what he has.
The contamination of one genre by another implies that the desire which drives a fabliau and the desire which drives a romance are at bottom the same thing; it is the differing conventions of language which make distinctions possible, and the poet who manipulates that language for his own ends gets the upper hand. To miss the fabliaux reading and take the tale as a straight romance makes the reader a victim of the tale's humor, as blind as Thopas is to literary and social subtleties. But to bring the fabliaux reading to the foreground violates the disingenuous rhetoric of the narrator, who claims simply to be repeating the best tale he knows, and has gone out of his way to make his hero delicate and chaste. Either way the poet wins: he has so blurred the distinctions that we must depend on him to make them for us. Such a role is not unlike the one Chaucer played in his life as a government servant, for many of his posts--Controller of the Wool Customs, Clerk of the Works, M. P. for Kent--involved mediation between low and high and thus required him to defer to the conflicting expectations of all concerned and yet maintain enough control to get his job done.
After his escape from the giant, Sir Thopas returns home to acquire the protection he is missing, and the narrator lavishes intricate description on the arming ritual; but just as the poet is emphasizing the superlative chivalric virtues of his hero, the Host breaks in with a famous interruption which has probably received more attention than the tale itself. "Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!" (7.930), Harry Bailly tells the pilgrim Chaucer, concluding his argument for cutting the tale off in mid-sentence and dealing a blow to the poet's "corage" not unlike the clubbing with which Olifaut threatens Sir Thopas's steed. The tale-teller and the knight are both brought up short by large, loud, obstreperous obstacles just as they are about to get to what interests them; Harry Bailly, as a viciously unsympathetic hearer, is the coarse incarnation of a poet's worst nightmare in the same sense that Olifaunt is for Thopas, and both do their damage by uttering deflating words. The hero and the poet both retreat before all is lost, but the poet also follows the example of his hero in the way he regroups, donning the more substantial armor of The Tale of Melibee and returning to engage the enemy/audience in a less vulnerable condition.(34)
That Spenser would lend a sympathetic ear to the representation of poetic vulnerability in the adventures of a socially ambitious, unproven knight should be apparent from our earlier discussion of Redcrosse. Spenser exhibits throughout his poem a deep ambivalence about nobility as on the one hand a fixed place in a hierarchy determined by birth, and on the other hand as a quality that can be fashioned. Nearly all of the figures in the poem who appear to have an innate nobility which belies their lowly station turn out to be the lost offspring of noble parentage, a parentage which must be sought through many arduous adventures. Redcrosse turns out to be one of these changelings, for to his surprise Contemplation tells him, "thou springst from ancient race/Of Saxon kings" (22.214.171.124-2). This stock romance paradigm parallels the notion of salvation by grace for the elect, an achieved goal which must nevertheless be worked out--as Arthur's quest is--"with labour and long tyne" (126.96.36.199); both notions proclaim a fixed and noble identity toward which the sojourner can strive in the midst of alienation from his true self, but whereas Protestant soteriology was useful for Spenser as a way of projecting a hoped-for destination independent of the humble starting point, the romance motif of a lost but noble parentage has more to say about origins, in particular an anxiety about humble origins.
Spenser's interest in Chaucer's tale, then, may have been prompted by an anxiety that he was--or might be perceived as--an overeager Sir Thopas who could never overcome his humble origins rather than as a changeling worthy of more noble company than he had been brought up to expect. In a letter to Gabriel Harvey in which he discusses strategies for ingratiating oneself with patrons, Spenser remarks, "I was minded for a while to haue intermitted the vttering of my writings: leaste by ouer-much cloying their noble eares, I should gather a contempt of my self, or else seeme rather for gaine and commoditie to doe it." In short, the worst danger to Spenser's efforts at climbing the social ladder by means of his poetry was that he might be perceived as doing exactly that. Spenser goes on in the letter to discuss the attempt of another poet, the author of The School of Abuse, to gain the ears of Philip Sidney, and notes that the poet "was for hys labor scorned."(35) The resilient ability of Sir Thopas--and more importantly of Chaucer the tale-teller--to come back from a similar slight must have seemed a valuable asset to Spenser as he strategized the advancement of his poetic career; even a ridiculous and socially inept bourgeois knight could hope to return another day and slay the giant in proper romance fashion.
Spenser's imitation of Sir Thopas's dream occurs in Canto 9 of Book 1, but it is worth stepping back for a moment to Cantos 7 and 8 to note that the dealings of Redcrosse and Arthur with the giant Orgoglio also owe a debt to Chaucer's tale. Spenser, in fact, responds to the truncated quest of Sir Thopas by reworking the story into two strands with quite different outcomes: total failure (Redcrosse), and brilliant, redemptive victory (Arthur). The unarmed Redcrosse, "Pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy ground" with Duessa (188.8.131.52) is like the unarmed Thopas in that each is confronted by a giant whom he could not hope to defeat in his vulnerable condition. Orgoglio wields an oak tree as "His mortall mace" (184.108.40.206), and like Olifaunt's mace, it does more damage to the hero's ego than to his person: Redcrosse, already "Disarmd, disgrast, and inwardly dismayde" (220.127.116.11), swoons when the giant's first stroke misses him, and he is carried off to Orgoglio's dungeon. "And were not heauenly grace, that him did blesse," the narrator tells us, "He had beene pouldred all, as thin as flowre" (7.12.7-4). Whereas the Chaucerian hero is saved by his nimbleness in escaping to fight another day, the Spenserian one is once again saved by grace.
It is Arthur, not Redcrosse, who completes the narrative by appearing on another day in richly described armor to confront the giant, and his victory is as glorious as Redcrosse's defeat was ignominious. Like Chaucer, then, Spenser avoids a simple completion of the hero's quest; Chaucer subsumes the interrupted Tale of Sir Thopas within the larger and more varied Canterbury Tales framework, and Spenser supplies the defeated Redcrosse with an ideal stand-in who is able to bail him out of the moral and literal dungeon in which he languishes; and that stand-in, moreover, reappears at crucial moments throughout the poem just when the virtuous quests of the various heroes have hit roadblocks. Both strategies are ways of inoculating the poem against failure by introducing a controlled amount of it within its own borders and then also representing a redemption of that failure; Chaucer the pilgrim, none the worse for the Host's withering criticism, goes on to tell the thickset Tale of Melibee, a tale whose heftier moral substance cannot be so easily pushed around as the lighter romance which precedes it, and Redcrosse, once again providentially rescued, is enabled to continue his interrupted quest.
One distinct change in Spenser's version is that a different hero finishes the battle with the giant than the one who began it, but on reflection the same pattern holds in Chaucer's version, for it is the tale-teller, himself a fictional projection of the author, who redeems the interrupted quest of the hero by constructing the framing narrative, a context without which The Tale of Sir Thopas would be rather lost. The poet works in a more plastic medium than his hero does, and unlike the exuberantly bourgeois Thopas, whose attempts to be socially correct never hide his kitsch values, the tale-teller can modulate his voice to accommodate the varying tastes and expectations of his audience. Similarly Arthur, already possessing the virtues which the other knights struggle to attain, figures the poet's ability to model virtue for his readers in a fictional world which he controls.
Spenser too, then, has rescuers to look after his interrupted hero; although it is Arthur who does the actual rescuing this time, it is Una who characteristically gets the erring hero and the erring narrative back on track, for she is the one who asks for help from Arthur, and once he defeats the giant, she gives his story a rhetorical reason for being by inquiring of his "name and nation" and the nature of his quest (18.104.22.168). The dream which Arthur relates in response to her request bears a close resemblance to Sir Thopas's dream:
For-wearied with my sports, I did alightWhereas for Thopas the world of the dream is still present when he awakes, Arthur is acutely aware that his nocturnal visitor does not belong to the waking world of rational thought; in fact his mentioning that "So faire a creature yet saw neuer sunny day" implies that her fairness depends on a dreamy appeal to the senses and imagination, and would not retain its form under the sharply defining rays of daylight.
Significantly, although Arthur is unsure about the ontological status of his encounter with the "Queene of Faeries" ("whether dreames delude or true it were"), he is quite certain that her words are spoken with a supra-mortal authority, and those fabulous words motivate his actions from that time forward:
From that day forth I lou'd that face diuine;Here, in the power of the vision to inspire action, is where The Tale of Sir Thopas differs from Chaucer's dream visions and serves Spenser's interests most directly. In Spenser's version, though, it is not simply the vision which inspires action, but the words remembered from the vision, and Arthur seems more certain about the words "deliuered all that night" than about the visual and tactile aspects of the dream. Another difference from Chaucer's version is that Arthur's quest-object proves far more elusive than Sir Thopas's "queene of Fayerye"; although Arthur has been assured of the Faery Queene's love for him and that "when iust time expired should appeare" they will be united, he does not seem particularly hopeful that his quest will be accomplished anytime soon, and of course he is right to think so.
A weary student troubled by the sheer length of The Faerie Queene once complained to me, "Half the people Arthur meets have just come from Faery Court; can't he ask directions?" The question was easier to laugh at than it was to answer. To claim that romances always prolong the quest or that the barriers are allegorical rather than geographic begs the question. In a sense, what the student feared is true: Spenser defers the completion of Arthur's quest in order to keep us reading. By making words the enduring medium and the Faery Queene a remote and inaccessible presence, Spenser locates his poem as the mediator between the remembered vision and the goal of the quest, a paradigm which describes the relationship between the text and its author, the text and its heroes and heroines, and the text and its readers, particularly the one addressed on the title page as "The Most Mightie and Magnificent Empresse Elizabeth."
Whatever authority the poet gains by such a positioning of his text, he must continue producing that text to maintain its position. A text that is never finished may fail various tests of its aesthetic health, but it does have one thing to recommend it: the interactions between the author and the readers are not severed. We have seen that The Tale of Sir Thopas speaks to the fear of being cut off by giving us a hero and an author who both come back better armed to face the hazards of their respective quests. A. C. Spearing suggests that Chaucer's unfinished works were the ones most commonly imitated because they offered an invitation to later poets to complete them,(36) but in Spenser's case at least, the power of the poet himself to continue in the face of interruption, to redeem failure, inspires the imitation of Sir Thopas as much as any invitation to complete a fragmentary work. At a later stage in his career, specifically the continuation of The Squire's Tale in Book 4, Spenser would use reviving the "labours lost" of Chaucer as a figure for the necessity of poetic tradition to protect the individual poet from the vagaries of time; no matter how resilient or resourceful the poet is, the passage of time threatens his or her ability to reach an audience, and the Adam Scrivens of the world cannot be trusted to provide a faithful transmission of the poet's work to succeeding generations. A poet can hope for a successor who is a kindred spirit, but in the meantime the poems themselves must be given the best rhetorical protection possible, and Spenser's interest in the burlesque Sir Thopas has far more to do with the goal of protection than with the specific affect used in providing it. Spenser does not borrow Chaucer's tone or style, but rather his armor, the protective strategy which allows the poet to continue writing.
1. Alexander C. Judson, The Life of Edmund Spenser, vol. 8 of The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1945) 18-19, cites A. B. Grosart, The Spending of the Money of Robert Nowell (privately printed, 1877) 10-30, 49, 160, for these details.
2. Spenser: Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt, (1912; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970). All subsequent quotations of Spenser's poetry are from this edition and appear in the text.
3. John Hollander, Melodious Guile: Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 71.
4. Richard C. McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood: The Literature and Politics of Elizabethan Chivalry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 76. The theatrical linkage of shepherd and knight was over a century old when Elizabeth came to the throne; for an account of a French tournament in 1449 involving a pastoral setting and "shepherd knights" see Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984) 203-4.
5. On the social dimensions of pastoral, see Louis Adrian Montrose, "Of Gentlemen and Shepherds: The Politics of Elizabethan Pastoral Form," ELH 50 (1983): 415-59 and Jane Tylus, "Spenser, Virgil, and the Politics of Poetic Labor," ELH 55 (1988): 53-77. Both articles contain extensive citations to earlier work on the subject.
6. Tylus, 65
7. For "corage" as a synonym for the drive to write, see Brian Tuke's preface to William Thynne's 1532 edition of Chaucer's works. After the invention of writing by the Phoenicians, Tuke says, "Herupon ensewed a great occasion and corage unto them that shulde write/to compone and adorne the rudeness and barbariete of speche/and to forme it to an eloquent and ordinate perfection/wherunto many and many great poets and oratours haue highly employed their studies and corages/leauyng therby notable renoume of themselues/and example perpetuell to their posterite."
8. I say "E. K. had probably not read..." because there is some chance the proem to Book 1 existed at the time the Calender was published, i. e., it could have been part of The Faerie Queene manuscript Gabriel Harvey referred to in Three proper, and wittie, familiar Letters as "Hobgoblin runne away with the Garland from Apollo" (Works, 628). While Spenser was clearly beginning the ascent to epic even as he was immersed in pastoral, I find it likely that the crucial opening stanzas of The Faerie Queene were written--or at least thoroughly revised--nearer to the time of their publication a decade later.
9. Richard Helgerson, in Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton and the Literary System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 98-99, suggests that "the laureate is both contemplative shepherd and questing knight. In this he resembles Redcross, the 'clownishe young man,' raised as a ploughman, who takes on the armor of heroic endeavor but who will, as Contemplation tells him, one day 'wash thy hands from guilt of bloudy field.'" I am indebted to Helgerson on this point, but whereas he sees the relation between shepherd and knight as "an unstable but necessary union of two ideas," I see it as a powerful rhetorical moment which draws its force from the Reformation development of Pauline soteriology.
10. Works, 408.
11. Keen, 164-65.
12. See Jean Wilson, Entertainments for Elizabeth I (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980), 29-31, for the connection between Redcrosse's position in the Letter and the attempts of Elizabeth's courtiers to seek her favor at the Accession Day Tilts.
13. For other Chaucerian resonances in these opening lines, see Judith H. Anderson, "'A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine': The Chaucerian Connection," ELR 15 (1985): 166-74.
14. Harry Berger, Jr., Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 54. The essay I quote from originally appeared as "Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book I," Southern Review (Australia) 2.1 (1966): 18-50.
15. Although A Treatise of the Vocations did not appear until about a decade after the first installment of The Faerie Queene (the dedicatory letter to Robert Taillor is dated Feb. 16, 1602), its treatment of the relationship between election and vocation offers a roughly contemporary measuring rod for Spenser's innovation. The quotations which follow are from The Workes of Mr. William Perkins (London, 1626), STC 19652.
16. Perkins, 751.
17. Perkins, 758.
18. Montrose, 456 n30 cites Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) who notes that efforts to "freeze the social structure and emphasize the cleavages between one class and another were introduced or reinforced at a time when in fact families were moving up and down in the social and economic scale at a faster rate than at any time before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed it was just this mobility which stimulated such intensive propaganda efforts" (36).
19. David Lee Miller, "Spenser's Vocation, Spenser's Career," ELH 50 (1983): 197-231. The quotations are from pp. 197-99.
20. See E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series 36 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953) 194-95 for a discussion of "The Grove" as a literary topos. See also the note to 1.1.8 in A. C. Hamilton, ed., Spenser: The Faerie Queene (London: Longman, 1977) on Spenser's handling of the literary heritage. For a compact bibliography of poetic and critical treatments of the subject see Charles Muscatine's notes to PF 176-82 in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987). All quotations of Chaucer's works are from this edition and appear in the text.
21. Eugenio Donato, "'Per Selve e Boscherecci Labirinti'": Desire and Narrative Structure in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso," in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 33-62. The quotation is from p. 58.
22. Anthea Hume, Edmund Spenser: Protestant Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 79.
23. James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 47. See the section entitled "Arthurian Torso," 35-58, for an excellent treatment of Arthur's function in the poem.
24. John M. Hill, Chaucerian Belief: The Poetics of Reverence and Delight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 11.
25. For a noteworthy exception, see Lee Patterson, "'What Man Artow?': Authorial Self-Definition in The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee," SAC 11 (1989): 117-75. Patterson understands childhood to be a foundational paradigm of Chaucerian authority: "The child possesses an original condition now lost," but the child also "is always a figure of futurity, a wager on the possibilities of history" (175).
26. J. W. Bennett, The Evolution of The Faerie Queene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941) 11-23. The quotation is from p. 15.
27. See J. A. Burrow, "Sir Thopas in the Sixteenth Century," in Middle English Studies Presented to Norman Davis in Honour of his Seventieth Birthday (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) 69-91 for a recent treatment of this view. Harvey's marginal note is mentioned by both Bennett and Burrow, and was first recorded by G. C. Moore Smith, Gabriel Harvey's Marginalia (Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1913) 228.
28. Anthony M. Esolen, "The Disingenuous Poet Laureate: Spenser's Adoption of Chaucer," SP 87 (1990): 285-311, also relates the two poets' artistic and vocational purposes: "Spenser discovered in Chaucer a way to modulate his tone of voice using various degrees and sorts of self-advertisement and self-deprecation in order to establish himself as a not too bold (but bold!) national poet" (287). Esolen's essay, which I belatedly discovered after the present study was drafted, elegantly shows how Chaucer's modesty pose and its motivations inspired Spenser, but his conclusion, "Spenser burlesques his [own] imperial epic" (306), is less plausible than that Spenser strove to rhetorically manage an anxiety that a low-born poet aggressively putting himself forward could appear farcical to his noble audience.
29. Craig A. Berry, "The King's Business: Negotiating Chivalry in Troilus and Criseyde," ChauR 26 (1992): 236-65.
30. Larry D. Benson, introductory note to Thopas, Riverside Chaucer, 17.
31. J. A. Burrow, "Four Notes on Chaucer's Sir Thopas," in Essays on Medieval Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) 60-78; the quotation is from p. 74.
32. Donald R. Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987), 342-43.
33. See E. Talbot Donaldson, "The Embarrassments of Art: The Tale of Sir Thopas, 'Pyramus and Thisbe,' and A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is chapter 1 of The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) for a brilliant study of Shakespeare's debt to Chaucer. My own debt to Donaldson consists of an enhanced appreciation for the artistic purposes behind Chaucer's humor.
34. In the context of Thopas's return to encounter the giant a second time, Patterson notes, "Chaucer is a habitual broacher of grand schemes (The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, The Canterbury Tales) which are then immediately subject to self-reflective amendment and revision. Circling back and rebeginning is virtually Chaucer's modus operandi, and it is a pattern of action that is here epitomized in the inconclusive adventures of his protagonist" (127). Surprisingly, the relevance of this model to the immediate movement from Thopas to Melibee escapes Patterson's erudite gaze.
35. Letter dated 16 October 1579 and printed in Two Other Very Commendable Letters, Works, 635.
36. A. C. Spearing, Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 66.