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Radical Spenser: Pastoral, Politics and the New Aestheticism.

Radical Spenser: Pastoral, Politics and the New Aestheticism. By Richard Chamberlain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2005. vi + 161 pp. 50 [pounds sterling]. isbn: 978-0-7486-2191-0.

As Richard Chamberlain admits, 'Spenser is rarely called "radical"' (p. 1). Modern criticism is usually informed by the conservative characterizations of Milton and Marx: 'a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas' (Milton); 'Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet' (Marx). A radical Spenser challenges such orthodoxies, destabilizing traditional accounts of him as a pre-eminently 'moral' poet, and more recent views that position him as a cheerleader of Elizabethan imperialism, whose writing is complicit in that questionable project.

Chamberlain argues against the hegemonic tendencies of new historicism. Its scepticism about the transcendent claims made for art has led to the creation of a bogus intellectual hierarchy, in which literary texts are reduced to the status of 'culture', while the critic becomes an all-powerful expository authority: 'To the new historicists, texts are straightforwardly part of "culture", however complex and conflictual that culture may be, and the critic is an analyst whose objects [...] are intricate but ultimately enslaved to the interpreter's expert gaze' (p. 16). In Chamberlain's view, such readings seriously underplay the transgressive potential of literary texts. He argues for a 'new aestheticism', drawing on Adorno, which posits a refined relationship between the text and the critic: 'The work [...] though mediated and constructed by the critic, must be credited with "an irreducible objective moment"' (p. 22). His reading of Spenser foregrounds the concept of pastoral--or rather pastoral in its Empsonian guise as a multivalent mode, which upsets conventional hierarchies and gestures towards the interdependence of literary works and criticism. Pastoral is 'the location of a radical principle', the 'decidedly utopian force' of which is central to all of Spenser's writing (p. 30).

This sensitivity to pastoral yields many dividends. Chamberlain's account of The Shepheardes Calender is exemplary of his method, insisting that the poem is inseparable from E.K.'s editorial paratext. The 'preposterousness' of the moralizing commentaries offered by both E.K. and dogmatic shepherds like Piers within the eclogues reveals 'the failure of a certain kind of allegorising commentary and the interpretive relationship which underlies it' (p. 49). Chamberlain demonstrates the complexity of the poem as a multilayered, critically subversive document; this enables him to query conventional assumptions about the shape and meaning of Spenser's career, suggesting that the Calender is a more 'elaborate dissonant structure' than the 'comparatively "lisible" narrative' of The Faerie Queene (57-58). Although I am less persuaded by the contention that pastoral in The Faerie Queene is 'a dynamic, shaping principle' which 'structure[s] the whole work' (p. 95), Chamberlain's reading of the epic usefully problematizes moralizing readings through its attention to (for example) the balletic comedy of movement in Book II; as he notes en passant, the Palmer and Guyon 'make a hapless double act who fall foul of laughter even though they succeed in their mission' (p. 79).

Although the attack on new historicism is timely, Chamberlain inevitably risks being hoisted by his own theoretical petard. As he notes, 'if new historicism tends to limit radical readings of Renaissance literature to the sphere of university academics and students, the new aestheticism is in danger of restricting itself to an even smaller group of conceptually tooled-up enthusiasts' (p. 23). These are perhaps indissoluble difficulties--how do you demonstrate Spenser's radicalism in an idiom that is not 'conceptually tooled-up'? Yet the suspicion persists that one elaborate paradigm is being displaced by another equally recondite language without necessarily offering a more nuanced account of the Spenserian aesthetic. While the rhetoric of the aesthetic is present throughout, detailed readings are more fugitive. If the 'new aestheticism' is to be the next big thing, I cannot help feeling that it should be more aesthetic in its own critical practice. Similarly, although Radical Spenser offers a radical challenge to Spenserians, I am sceptical of its 'utopian', and even green, Spenser. This is not to say that Spenser's texts do not persistently question their own theoretical bases, or that many of his representations of authority are more troubled than either Milton or Marx recognized; rather, it is to query the wisdom of radicalizing Spenser in our own ideological image.

Richard Danson Brown

The Open University
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Author:Brown, Richard Danson
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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