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The Specter of Dido: Spenser and the Virgilian Epic.

Among Spenser's primary poetic models, Virgil's influence has always been the most difficult to gauge. While the opening lines of The Faerie Queene signal an intention to follow a Virgilian trajectory, Spenser's poem most frequently reads Virgil by the light of Italian romance, particularly Ariosto and Tasso. While other scholars have treated aspects of Virgilian influence, John Watkins is the first since Merritt Y. Hughes's rather limited 1929 book to have given the subject the full-length study it deserves. As his title indicates, Watkins places the Dido narrative of the Aeneid at the center of his reading of the intertextual relations among Virgil, his commentators, and the poets who follow in the epic tradition. His basic interpretive strategy is to understand Spenser as using erotic temptation as a metaphor for literary influence, especially influences that bear on his identity as a poet in the laureate tradition. Because the tragedy of Dido stood at the center of medieval and renaissance interpretation of the Aeneid, the advantage of such a focus is that it enables Watkins to weave a rich tapestry of intertextual interpretation.

Not all readers of Virgil will be persuaded, however, by his initial construction of Virgil as an uncomplicated apologist for Augustus and empire. Watkins reads Virgil's imitation and recasting of Homer as a correction of decadent Greek models in favor of Roman pietas and imperium; feminine allure "becomes the dominant metaphor for Homeric romance conceived as an attractive but ultimately misleading influence" (12). His imitations of Homer represent "a stigmatization of Homeric values," and the Dido narrative a "stigmatization of Hellenic culture" (13, 16). Virgil does, of course, thoroughly revise the epic ethos, but this account of it seems heavier and less nuanced than the reading of the Virgilian tradition that follows in the next five chapters. Virgil's Dido surely alludes to the historical tragedy of Carthage as well, and some readers would gauge his response to imperium as a good deal less univocal.

Watkins presents an interesting review of the topos of female abandonment in writers following from Virgil, from Ovid's oppositional recasting of the Dido story, through Augustine's rejection of the Aeneid, the positive moral allegorizations of Fulgentius and Bernard Silvestris, to Dante and Chaucer, and finally Ariosto and Tasso. In each case the poet's reaction to Dido provides a telling indication of his use of the Aeneid. Chaucer and Ariosto prove the most significant for Spenser. Chaucer, "irrepressibly dialogic" (48), never takes a straightforward position on Aeneas's abandonment of Dido, but characteristically remains open to a variety of viewpoints and positions. Ariosto flouts Virgil's assumptions about human behavior and educability, projecting a thorough-going skepticism about both. Watkins sees the stylistic correlative of Ariosto's sexually distracted heroes in "narrative resistance to allegorical coherence and closure" (55-56). Tasso of course would resist such skepticism, but his accommodation of romance to Virgilian aesthetic and moral rigor would prove unstable, leading him to recast the Gerusamme Liberata into the Gerusalemme Conquistata.

Watkins devotes chapter-length discussions to The Shepheardes Calender and to each of the books of the 1590 Faerie Queene. In the eclogues he sees a "tentativeness and fragmentation" (63-64) that reveal Spenser's uncertainty about the extent to which he could revise Virgil's work without surrendering Virgilian authority. His readings of thematic Petrarchism in the poems, over against their opening toward epic, are useful, if finally inconclusive. With Book One of The Faerie Queene Watkins understands the central issue as the potential Pelagianism of drawing a didactic epic from the Aeneid and the necessity of its transformation to delineate a Protestant theology of grace; to accomplish this Spenser uses Ariosto's imitations of Virgil as a foil for his own specific revisions. A potential pitfall of this kind of intertextual reading may be hypersensitivity to the presence of a predecessor text and a tendency to overstate the significance of deviation from it, and indeed some of the relationships Watkins discovers are more persuasive than others. But on the whole his estimate of Spenser's "reclamation of Virgil's narrative from a Pelagian hermeneutic" (111) is insightful, and his sense of the presence of hitherto undetected Virgilian elements worth pondering.

The final two chapters are the centerpiece of Watkins's construction of Spenser's interweaving of Virgil and his romance/epic successors. He understands book two, where the ethos of classical epic is most pervasive, as revealing an obsessive intertextual concern with Dido's abandonment. Resisting female allure, of course, is the end of the quest itself, but the book also draws on divergent aspects of the medieval and renaissance Dido to create surrogates of Queen Elizabeth. In book three, conversely, the emphasis is on Eros as a force that inspires rather than hinders heroic enterprise, transforming epic "from a monologic into a dialogic form, containing alternative conceptions of even its own generic nature" (145). In the process, Virgil tends to recede into his commentators and romance avatars; Italian romance becomes a positive influence. At the same time, Watkins argues, Chaucer becomes Spenser's dominant guide in balancing various cultural and poetic influences.

There is much that is challenging and interesting in his concluding sense of the 1590 Faerie Queene. If in the end Watkins talks us out of his Virgilian subject, the result is a far richer sense than we've previously had of how Virgil has been transposed, transmuted, and made to play an oppositional role in a poetic structure where medieval and sixteenth-century influences come to predominate. Especially in the 1596 continuation, his afterword concludes, Spenser moves beyond the Virgilian ethos and reconceives the epic in terms of a multiplicity of formal and thematic possibilities.

MICHAEL O'CONNELL University of California, Santa Barbara
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Author:O'Connell, Michael
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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