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Spenser's Famous Flight: A Renaissance Idea of a Literary Career.

Patrick Cheney. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. 12 pls. + xviii + 360 pp. $60.

The frontispiece of Patrick Cheney's book reproduces Raphael's personification of "Poetry" for the Stanza della Segnatura: the drawing shows a winged female figure who wears a laurel wreath and holds a book and lyre. This representation of the transcendent -- hence, winged -- potential of poetry initiates Cheney's study of the avian myth of the poet as it is repeatedly invoked throughout Spenser's corpus. Assimilating what he perceives as three distinct discourses in Spenser criticism (that of "career," "fame" and "flight"), Cheney argues that "Spenser relies on images of flight to represent a Christianized Virgilian career that aims to demonstrate to English culture ... the utility of poetic fame to Christian glory" (xi). Thus, Cheney insists, the Elizabethan poet achieved what Petrarch could not: a synthesis of Virgilian, Ovidian and Augustinian genres into a "coherent career idea" (6).

By examining the prefatory materials to Spenser's works, the poet's publication record, and his literary self-fashioning, Cheney interprets Spenser's deployment of specific poetic genres at particular junctures in his career as a consistent vocational strategy. The October eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender becomes a privileged text for Cheney, since it is here that Spenser prophesies and inaugurates his four-genre career. In succeeding chapters, Cheney traces the poet's fictionalizing of his career in The Faerie Queene, Amoretti and Epithalamion, Fowre Hymnes and Prothalamion. To the Virgilian progression from pastoral to epic, Spenser adds the Petrarchan love lyric and Augustinian hymn, supplementing the secular, political telos of Virgil's writing with a salvific telos capable of incorporating Christian marriage and the attainment of spiritual glory. Cheney's central claim -- that Spenser "reinvents the Virgilian Wheel" (7) -- asserts Spenser's status as a poetic innovator who challenges classical and sixteenth-century notions of generic value and poetic authority in order to accommodate his Protestant ideology. This re-configuring of Spenser's career allows for a reinterpretation of its latter part; rejecting the critical commonplace of the poet's disillusionment and withdrawal during the mid-1590s, Cheney reconstructs Spenser's career as a predominantly coherent and successful one.

Spenser's Famous Flight is a scholarly work which contributes a useful thesis to the study of Spenser's laureate self-presentation. Its argument, however, becomes at times repetitive and over-structured, as the author counts avian images, enumerates classical sources (sometimes without substantial commentary), and itemizes phases and sub-phases of the poet's career. At odds with this apparent effort to be exhaustive is Cheney's failure on other occasions to adequately substantiate his claims. For instance, when he focuses his "careeric lens" (188) on The Faerie Queene, he fails to demonstrate a prevalence of flight imagery in the poem. In fact, he restricts his analysis to a single canto: the Dove episode (4.8). The first installment of the Faerie Queene (1590) goes unexamined. Moreover, Cheney's discussion of the single episode from the second installment (1596) disrupts the chronological basis of the book's argument; it precedes his chapter on the Amoretti and Epithalamion (1595) which, Cheney argues, enable the poet's return to epic.

Equally troubling is Cheney's refusal to engage the gender issue inherent within his project. Beginning with the frontispiece, there emerges a consistent identification of poetry and its avian representations as feminine. Cheney, however, continually defers attention to this figuring of the male poet as female. He briefly remarks, "Spenser's representation of the famous flight reveals ... a personal admission of the shared source, vehicle, and end of the male poet's prophetic art: the female's great creating nature" (76). The precise nature of this "shar[ing]" and its implications for Spenser's art remain unexplored.

Despite these limitations, Spenser's Famous Flight makes an important contribution to our understanding of Renaissance genre. In particular, Cheney suggestively interrogates the problematic situating of the love lyric within contemporary generic hierarchies. While Cheney urges a modified perspective on Spenser's career, his work cogently identifies the need to reevaluate the role of the love lyric within the careers of other Renaissance poets.
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Article Details
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Author:Metcalfe, Jean LeDrew
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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