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The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton and the English Protestant Epic.

The Reformation inspired a new wave of iconoclasm. A renewed fear of the insidious tendency of even Christian images to lose their referential status and become themselves the object of worship led Reformers to denounce and even destroy them - with the same seductive force being ascribed to verbal images as well as to visual ones. So what was a Reformation poet, with the goal of fashioning virtuous readers, to do with the dangerous medium of language? Linda Gregerson argues that the epic poets of Protestant England sought to avoid the specter of idolatry not by banishing verbal images, but by manipulating the reader's idolatrous impulse in order to reform it. They called attention to the seductive potential of their poetic icons in an effort to fashion Reformed subjectivities capable of reading signs rightly. Each did so in part by calling attention to his poem's created nature; for example, Gregerson sees the deliberately mixed genre of Spenser's poem as serving this purpose. They did so also by providing a positive example of an image at first misread, and then rightly read, then a counterexample of idolatrous misreading.

Gregerson's analysis of this second strategy begins with Britomart's gaze into Merlin's mirror, where she first sees likeness (her own reflection), then likeness in difference, Arthegall. Prompted by Glauce and Merlin, Britomart learns to be drawn away from the mirror by desire for the image she finds there, impelled into the world, into action, and ultimately into epic (and British) dynastic history. The potentially Narcissistic image (static and sterile), rightly read as an image pointing beyond itself, becomes a generative motivating force. By contrast, Malbecco mistakes both Hellenore and his wealth as ends in themselves rather than as paths to God, generation, or public commerce, sequestering both along with himself, and in this idolatrous misreading becomes himself an icon, both a sign of jealousy and the thing itself. Milton also begins with a scene of potential (idolatrous) Narcissism, Eve at the smooth lake. She, too, is taught to see her reflection in the lake as an image of something beyond herself, namely Adam, who is in turn the image of God. The cautionary antitype of this mirroring triad is the incestuous family of Satan, Sin, and Death.

As her choice of paradigmatic moments suggests, Gregerson's analysis draws liberally on Lacan, which she interweaves with other theorists and a range of Renaissance discourses to extend this analysis into complex and sophisticated exploration: of the construction of the poetic subject, the reading subject, and the political subject; of the function of gender and erotic subjectivity in these constructions; and of the use and reformation Spenser and Milton undertake of the epic genre. Her range of both theoretical and historical resources is broad, and her deployment of them is impressively apt at every turn. At times her excursions into terrain such as Essex's self-fashioning and ultimate self-destruction end with their resonances in the poems implied rather than explicitly summarized. This perhaps befits her topic (the impulse for quick and easy encapsulation being a form of the impulse to idolize), but it does render a summation of the full range of her study difficult. Along the way she revisits a number of recurrent strains in Spenser and Milton criticism, such as the status of Petrarchan discourse in both poems, Milton's much-debated misogyny, and the problematic relation of the imperialist Spenser to the regicide Milton. Not every student of Spenser or Milton will agree with every point, but the scope and intelligence of Gregerson's book will make it interesting to scholars of all persuasions and, more importantly, will stimulate their own re-reading of the poems - a process both Spenser and Milton would approve of.

MARY R. BOWMAN Pikeville College
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bowman, Mary R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Words:620
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