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Spenser's Secret Career.

In Spenser's Secret Career Richard Rambuss puts forward a proposition that many of us may find uncongenial, namely that Spenser is to be considered as much a secretary as a poet; indeed we are told that a poetic career alone `could hardly have had much appeal for him, (p. 7). Thus The Shepheardes Calender is an advertisement of Spenser's qualifications for secretaryship' (p. 30) and a `bid for preferment . . . as a secretary' (p. 57). It is not easy to decide upon the inner motivating forces of any man, but Rambuss's qualification of the specifically poetic impulse in Spenser does not seem to be justified by his book as a whole. This is not to say that Spenser's career as a secretary is unimportant, and the details of it are usefully summarized here (pp. 7-9) His appointment as chief secretary to Lord Grey in Ireland can be seen as a career advancement, not as a banishment to an Elizabethan Siberia (p. 63), so that we can observe the upward mobility of the `son of a clothworker' who acquired a castle and an estate' (p. 112) in Ireland. No doubt that is all very worthy, but hardly inspiring, and, given the Irish love of poetry, surely very ironic.

Central to the argument of Rambuss's book is the proposition that the keeping of secrets is the function of a secretary, and indeed there is an etymological link between secret and secretary (pp. 2 and 30). Thus corresponding to the poet's `darke conceit' (p. 2) is the secretary's well-kept secret. But the trouble with secrets is that they presuppose ignorance on someone's part, and Rambuss is at times more interested in the nature of secrecy than in the truth about secrets. He attempts to disarm criticism by referring to the claim that Spenser revealed Leicester's marriage to Lettice Knollys to the queen as an `admittedly extravagant proposition' (p. 19) and an `exorbitant scenario' (p. 22). The Shepheardes Calender is full of empty secrets, and the parade of secrecy is ornamental and designed to provoke interest (pp. 53-4). Eventually we are told that the secret of knowing secrets is not kept in Spenser's texts (p. 114), but it is hard to see how such a claim can be substantiated or what the purpose of a private code might be.

Alongside this pronounced interest in Spenser as a secretary is a response to Spenser as a poet that is sometimes unsympathetic. A reference to the `narrative sprawl of Book 3' (p. 73) does not do justice to the intricacy and precision of the Legend of Chastity. The description of `the (crocodile) tears' (p. 148 n. 19) shed by Mercilla over Duessa's capital sentence suggests that poetry lacks credibility in comparison with historical and political circumstance, for a character called Mercilla is precluded from shedding crocodile tears in an allegorical fiction. Finally, Calidore's courtesy is reduced to almost a willed obliviousness or blank idiocy' (p. 119) and to theatricality (p. 120). On all these occasions there is a lack of engagement with the moral concerns of Spenser's poem.

Spenser Studies X is as ever a substantial, varied, and wide-ranging volume, containing seven essays and a note or `gleanin', on Spenser, an essay on Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, and three contributions on Skelton, the final one by Elizabeth Fowler including lengthy comparisons with Chaucer and Langland.

Kent Hieatt challenges the view that the sense of individuality and of the otherness of the past (pp. 3-4) is the peculiar possession of Renaissance humanists, and comes to the sensible conclusion that the Renaissance strengthens a tendency rather than initiates a revolution (pp. 21-2). But I find it difficult to credit that the erotic quality of the Bower of Bliss is due to Tasso and not Spenser himself (p. 29) or that Greenblatt is unaware of the deadliness of Acrasia (p. 28). Anthony Di Matteo provides a useful review of the commentaries on Virgil's Venus (Aeneid, i. 314-15) from Servius onwards, and the multiplicity of interpretations (pp. 40-50). The reader is invited to look for hidden undermeanings, (p. 37), and to develop a `tolerance of unresolvable ambiguities' (p. 38), but there is a danger in such an approach of reducing allegory to a code and of failing to tolerate the density of the fiction itself, as in the treatment of the `forrest greene' into which Braggadocchio and Trompart flee (pp. 56-7). Paula Blank persuasively presents the case for Spenser's innovatory use of northern dialectal forms so as to give The Shepheardes Calender a provincial rather than a courtly identity (p. 72) and by its strangeness to attract a patron (p. 86). Lisa Klein in a lucid and coherent article argues that Petrarchan mastery in love is abandoned by Spenser in the Amoretti in favour of a Christian ethic of love as mutual submission within marriage (p. 110), so that the voice of a lover's despair gives way to the voice of gentle authority (pp. 122 and 132). Such an interpretation of virtuous married love challenges the new-historicist paradigm of the masculine assertion of power over the feminine (p. 129). Wayne Erickson observes that Spenser's preference for the philosopher Plato to the poet Xenophon in the Letter to Ralegh is often misconstrued or unnoticed by modern critics (p. 149), and that Spenser, unlike Sidney, elevates the ethical concept above the image (pp. 151-2). It is surely right to take Spenser's philosophical seriousness as a poet seriously, but not to the extent of conceding that the voice of the Letter to Ralegh is the reactionary voice of ideological authority, (p. 153). James Schiavone in a thoughtful article sets out to show that ideas of predestination and free will are not mutually exclusive (p. 176), but whether we are justified in speaking of `Spenser's Augustinianism' (p. 185) is doubtful when Aquinas also explains that free will is a part of God's predestined plan for creation. Further, it is hard to accept that St George `becomes an allegory of Christ' (p. 191) in defeating the dragon, for saints are human not divine, and holiness remains a moral virtue. In a short but thought-provoking note Nathaniel Wallace points up the tension between justice as social equilibrium and as the infliction of punishment (p. 279) in Spenser's presentation of Talus.

Christopher Martin dismisses the `biographical fallacy' involved in relating the poet's representation of the misery of losing a precious opportunity in Astrophil and Stella to Sidney's failure to woo Penelope Devereux before her marriage to Lord Rich (pp. 198-9). This seems right, although it would be surprising if a poet did not reflect on his own missed opportunities, as almost everyone is bound to do. Greg Walker claims that the disorder in the text of Speke, Parott is not merely a satiric device, but an indictment of Wolsey's governance (p. 224), and that the poem is `a tacit encomium to Tudor sovereignty rather than a satire upon it' (p. 226). Roland Greene argues that Colin Clout `personifies lack of influence, marginality, or even irrelevance' (p. 230), and that Spenser himself takes up Skelton's `scheme of the poet's marginality' (p. 240) in order to define his own distance from society. In a lively and provocative piece Fowler argues that `The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummynge' is parodic rather than realistic, and that its concerns are economic (p. 250). Misogyny is `ideological discourse' which works to legitimize a critique of the money economy, (p. 246). But I am reluctant to accept Langland's `reluctant conclusion' that women cannot be redeemed' (p. 251), since Mede is by no means the only female character in
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Author:Morgan, Gerald
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1996
Words:1262
Previous Article:The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory.
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