"In sort as she it sung": Spenser's "Doleful Lay" and the Construction of Female Authorship - Edmund Spenser, 'The Doleful Lay of Clorinda' - Critical Essay

Criticism, Fall, 2000 by Danielle Clarke

"THE "DOLEFUL LAY OF CLORINDA" was printed in 1595 as one of the elegies Sir Philip Sidney appended Colin Clouts Come Home Againe.(1) The volume consists of Spenser's poem "Astrophel," "The Doleful Lay of Clorinda"--attributed to a persona identified as Sidney's "sister that Clorinda hight"--but narrated by the male speaker of "Astrophel," and elegies written by Lodowick Bryskett, Sir Walter Raleigh, Matthew Royden, and either Sir Fulke Greville or Edward Dyer. None of these poets is clearly identified within the text itself. Of these elegies only Bryskett's is introduced to the reader in a comparable way to Clorinda's: using a pastoral persona (Thestylis, also a speaker in Colin Clout, which Clorinda is not) and interpellated into the end of the preceding narrative (Clorinda's) where the narrator reappears as the speaker of the ensuing elegies: "The which I here in order will rehearse, / As fittest flowres to deck his mournfull hearse" (107-8). All of the elegies circulate under another's signature, including Spenser's own text, where the first person pronoun is not attached to any proper name save, by extrapolation, that of Colin Clout. Bryskett's "Mourning Muse of Thestylis" refers to the "Lay," or at: least to the Countess of Pembroke's elegiaic function: "His noble sisters plaints, her sighes and teams emong, / Would sure have made thee milde, and inly rue her pain" (130-31). It is not clear how his poem connected to the "Lay," or whether what Bryskett writes here is merely part of the usual gesture of acknowledgment to Sidney's sister, but it does reveal an insistent preoccupation in the volume as a whole with the Countess of Pembroke's position as chief mourner to Sidney Bryskett's poem has been lightly edited in the movement from manuscript to print; some lines have been deleted, and Bryskett's original "& lovely rue her pain" is altered to "inly rue her paine," bringing it into thematic conformity with the model of authorship in the "Lay," where the female narrator ("rehearsed" by the male narrator) presents the text as one based upon inner grief; "inward paine" (3); "to my selfe will I my sorrow mourne" (19); "to my selfe my plaints shall back retourne" (21). It is hard to determine whether Bryskett's echoing of the "Lay" has been created in relation to Spenser's imagined version of the Countess' fictional voice, or in relation to a text that somehow originated with her. If one tries to dispense with the notion of the author as an ontological category, arguably the authorial ownership of the text appropriated makes little difference: the fact is that a female-voiced narrative is seen as ripe for appropriation and for positioning in relation to cultural assumptions about the nature and status of female authorship. Given the editorial intervention in the case of Bryskett it appears that Spenser, in the role of anthologist/editor, has created a pattern of resonance and echoing, binding disparate texts into a thematic and structural whole. However, it is not only the narrative of Clorinda that is appropriated by the unnamed narrator, but those elegies marked by a male signature also, and I shall argue in this article that the terms of the textual appropriations differ according to the posited gender of the texts' "originator."

All of the elegies included with "Astrophel" have a textual existence independent of the volume: Bryskett's is preserved in manuscript in Lambeth Palace Library, and appeared in print only in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe; the rest were printed in The Phoenix Nest in 1593. All of them, apart that is, from the "Lay" This is one of the factors which has led to speculation regarding the status of the poem, and has added to the widely held belief that Spenser somehow wrote it in the name of the Countess of Pembroke. Except, as is already clear, he (if he wrote it) did not do so in her proper name, but in the name of a persona which he probably produced for her. I wish to concentrate here on the "Doleful Lay," not so much in order to "resolve" the attribution problem that has hitherto dominated readings of the poem, but in order to raise a series of questions relating to the gendering of voice, and why it is that Spenser would choose to adopt a feminine literary persona in this particular mood, mode, and genre. The bulk of the existing commentary is confined to one specific issue: attribution.(2) Namely, whether Spenser wrote the text using a pastoral persona representing Sidney's sister, the Countess of Pembroke, or whether the poem was written by the Countess of Pembroke and included by Spenser in his belated gesture of memorialization for Sidney The circulation of a text under an authorial signature involves a series of conditions, displacements, and identifications, which are rarely straightforward. As Foucault points out, "the links between the proper name and the individual named and between the author's name and what it names are not isomorphic.... The author's name is not ... just a proper name like the rest."(3) In the case of the "Doleful Lay" we have not one, but several signatures for the text, a fact which contradicts the attempt to assign it to a singular point of authorial origin, especially given that the signatures are fictive proper names, which both invite and resist assignation to their historical counterparts. Hence, at the most literal level, the Colin Clout volume suggests that the author figure is indeed a manipulable fiction, or that the manipulation of these fictions of authorship works by indirection to instate the figure of Spenser as author--at least if we accept Foucault's hypothesis that two of the main elements of the author-function are origin and ownership. Here, though, the "author" is multiple, not singular, and cannot be located singularly within the confines of the text itself. The placing of Spenser as the author of this text is done primarily through his poetic persona Colin Clout: he is not identified on the title page, and only by his initials at the end of the dedication. The relationship between author and text is retrospectively displaced to The Shepheardes Calender, and Spenser can only be instituted as author by reference to a wider network of texts, a process which may, paradoxically, serve to fulfil another of Foucault's author-functions: the "classificatory" function.


 

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