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Spenser's Forms of History.

Bart van Es. Spenser's Forms of History.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xii + 236 pp. index. bibl. $65. ISBN: 0-19-923970-9.

In his graceful and important book, Bart van Es sets out to read Spenser historically. He explores how Spenser's writing both reflects and reflects upon history. Van Es draws impressively on historically-oriented Renaissance studies of the last twenty years or so while bringing to bear sensitive reading of Spenser's own work as the poet grapples with the various modes of understanding history available in Elizabethan England.

The book is divided into six chapters, each of which treats a significant mode of Elizabethan historical thinking and those portions of Spenser's oeuvre most clearly illustrative of and engaged by that mode. As he moves from one mode to another, van Es remains wonderfully alive to the interplay of multiple ways of registering the past. His first chapter considers the chronicle tradition as it manifests tension between the status of chronicle as written historical evidence and as providential narrative, whose shape gives evidence of moral exemplarity often at odds with what Sidney has termed "the truth of a foolish world." The contradictory meanings of the word "monument" in Elizabethan usage--both moral example and physical object--reflect this tension. The Ruins of Time accommodates both meanings as it presents the vanished city of Verulamium as a monument to mortality. Van Es uses this context of fruitful ambiguity to illuminates the contrast between "Briton moniments" and the "chronicle of Briton kings" in book 2 of The Faerie Queene.

Chapter 2 turns to chorography: geographical survey illustrated by historical description. By grounding its account of history in the physical landscape, rather than in providential narrative structures, chorography offers Elizabethan writers an alternative to the increasingly discredited traditional stories of British history. Accordingly, particular sites in the geography of Faerieland can open up the text to multiple ways of construing history. The marriage of Thames and Medway provides one such site. Deheubarth, Britomart's childhood home in what the Elizabethans understood as South Wales, provides another site, one that allows the Briton past and the Elizabethan present to be brought into complex alignment. In both Colin Clouts Come Home Again and Prothalamion, the poetic description of landscape occasions fruitful meditation on time and history. Van Es then turns to antiquarianism, which eschews grand historical narratives for focused inquiry into "linguistic, cultural, textual, and physical" traces. He demonstrates how the antiquarian impulse gives texture to Spenser's treatment of Ireland in the Vewe and in the Mutabilitie Cantos by providing a context for the English conquest of Ireland that potentially subjects English claims to Ireland to examination.

Chapter 4 brings to bear the perspective of Renaissance euhemerism on book 5 of The Faerie Queene. Euhemerism demystifies pagan mythology in a search for universal truth logically prior to all of the mythological stories written down in inherited texts. Book 5 of The Faerie Queene subjects the process whereby one element of allegorical representation is given priority over another by playing mythological figuration--of Osiris, of Herculean heroism, of fantastical giants--against representations of sixteenth-century history. Chapter 5 focuses astutely on the Elizabethan mirror tradition as it shapes the rhetoric of encomium to a theory of history that regards past and present as mutually reflecting. Van Es analyzes mirror allusions in the proems to each of the first three books of The Faerie Queene and the representation in book 5 of near-contemporary European politics in light of tensions between the essentially static view of history posited by the mirror tradition and evidence of a historical decline increasingly difficult to reconcile with a vision of a Tudor Golden Age. In chapter 6, van Es revisits moments of prophecy in The Faerie Queene and The Shepheardes Calender in the context of the danger attendant on political prognostication in Elizabethan England.

A quarter of a century ago, when New Historicism was new, one listened to conference papers that were largely exhortations that history was important. Van Es is one of a new generation of scholars to make good on that claim. He has taken that next step in historicist analysis of literature: to subject modes of historical thinking to examination and to accord equal respect and attention to literary and historical texts. Van Es finds in Spenser "a profound, playful, and above all multi-form sense of the past." Spenser's Forms of History provides an extremely useful overview of modes of Elizabethan historical thinking and provocative guide to thinking about Spenser in relation to multiform Elizabethan historicism.


Baruch College, City University of New York
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Silberman, Lauren
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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