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Spenserian Moments


Gordon Teskey


Cambridge (Massachusetts): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019

 Hardcover. xv+ 529 pp. ISBN 978-0674988446. $45 / £36.95 / €40.50


Reviewed by Warren Chernaik

University of London



Spenserian Moments, by the distinguished Renaissance scholar Gordon Teskey, author of the prize-winning The Poetry of John Milton, Allegory and Violence, and many other studies of Spenser, Milton, and other Early Modern authors, is a very odd book, surprisingly uneven in quality. Rather than attempting a coherent argument, the book assembles eighteen separate essays written by Teskey over the last thirty years, mostly from the last decade, many of them circling around the same general points. Teskey has valuable things to say about Spenser’s Letter to Raleigh and how it should be distrusted as a guide to the poem it purportedly introduces, but surely it is not necessary to make this point in nearly every chapter, or to tell the reader six times that the name “Artegal” can be glossed as “equal of Arthur”. Comparisons of Spenser and Milton are to be expected, but here we find exactly the same comparison, presented as a bare assertion, and one which might be open to challenge. “Active and exploratory thinking” [4], open and improvisatory, is contrasted again and again to closed systems: in Teskey’s argument, Spenser is on the side of life, where Milton is “rigidly sublime and immobile” [12]:

Spenser surprises himself by thinking new things, which Milton never does… We feel that everything pertaining to the thought, the dianoia, of these poems, has been worked out in advance… Their thought contains nothing the poet has not said before. Milton’s poems are brilliantly didactic achievements. They do not think: they teach what has already been thought. [12, 317]

At one point Teskey presents the design of the poem, as set forth in the Letter to Raleigh, as “implicitly totalitarian” [12], and he even goes so far as to attribute his own discomfort with the authorial claim that the letter can “discover… the general intention & meaning, which in the whole course thereof I have fashioned”(1) to the author himself, when Spenser came to reflect on the poem he was writing: “From these inconsistencies it is hard not to conclude that the … commonplace opinions on epic literature expressed in the Letter to Raleigh offended the poet’s sense of creative independence” [10].

Teskey is particularly interested in the ways the hybrid form of The Faerie Queene, drawing on the traditions of epic, allegory, and romance, creates elements of inner conflict, “inconsistencies,” in the poem. Where in the Aeneid and in the heroic tradition generally, love is a distraction from dynastic and military concerns, in chivalric romance, and in Spenser’s poem, the two uneasily cohabit. “Deferral” is central to Teskey’s argument about the structure of the poem: the Faerie Queene herself, the ideal figure driving Arthur, the poem’s ostensible hero, never appears in the poem, and the projected great battle against the Saracens is withheld, kept at a distance:


Faire Goddesse lay that furious fit aside,

Till I of warres and bloudy Mars do sing;

And Briton fields with Sarazin bloud bedyde,

Twixt that great faery Queene and Paynim king.    

[Faerie Queene, I.xi.7]

C.S. Lewis, one of most influential of earlier Spenser scholars, finds nothing problematical in the poem’s “fusion of two kinds” or in the relationship of parts and whole: “Few poems have a greater harmony of atmosphere. The multiplicity of the stories, far from impairing the unity, supports it” (2).

Paul Alpers in The Poetry of the Faerie Queene [1967] shares Teskey’s suspicion of the totalising structures of allegory, the belief that a complex poem can be reduced to a network of personified abstractions, in which, according to the principles of neo-Aristotelian theory [exemplified by Tasso’s Discorsi del poema eroico], each detail contributes to an overarching pattern. But Alpers’ emphasis is constantly on the “direct experience of language in the activity of reading,” attentive in his commentary to “details of expression” in “the immediate poetic context in which they occur” (3). Teskey, in contrast, is dismissive about close reading, “the capacity for paying minute attention” to details and their implications: “There is no poet for whom the techniques of close reading are more unsuitable” [294]. Instead, as the title of his book, Spenserian Moments, indicates, he sees the poet as working moment by moment, in which each momentary pause in the action is subtly entangled with others, past and present, simultaneously providing “instability and stasis, movement and arrest”: “Each image, each word, each syntactical unit, each rhythm, may seem to be perfectly itself even as it is becoming other than itself” [298].

Chapters 10 and 11, “From Moment to Moment” and “Thinking Moments in The Faerie Queene", are central to Teskey’s argument, and it would have been helpful to the reader if these had been among the first chapters, rather than inserted after nearly 300 pages. One of the problems of the book is that the weakest chapters are placed near the beginning and the strongest toward the end. Chapter Three, “In Ireland”, is almost comically digressive, and scarcely mentions its ostensible subject, bearing out Teskey’s assertion in the introduction that he has little interest in how Spenser “reflects the society and politics of his own time and therefore anticipates ours, according to the new historicist paradigm still predominating in … Renaissance literary studies” [2]. Hegel, Derrida, and Heidegger are prominent presences in the later chapters: the idea of “moments” is presented as Hegelian in inspiration, and Heidegger lies behind Teskey’s claim that The Faerie Queene can be approached as a philosophical poem, which “comes closer to thinking—to speculative reasoning about the human—than any other work of literature known to me” [314]. Chapter 11 begins with a virtuoso instance of close reading of five stanzas at the outset of Book III, which momentarily bring together Arthur, Guyon, Britomart (the principal figure in Book III), and the fleeing Florimell, who suddenly appears like “a blazing starre”—carried on a horse ‘Which fled so fast, that nothing mote him hold, / And scarce them leasure gave, her passing to behold” [III.i.15-16]—before the characters disperse, intent on different adventures. The incident, a key transitional passage indicative of how Book III will be “radically different” from the first two books, is deployed by Teskey to illustrate “stillness in motion”, “this strange linkage of stasis and kinesis, each remaining separate from but also entangled with the other” [268-270].

Like many Spenser scholars, Teskey shows a distinct preference for Books III and IV and the Mutability Cantos, and views the brutalities of Book V, with its specific references to Ireland, with some distaste. Though at one point he characterises Book V as “the brutal, beating heart of the poem” [108], in a later chapter, “Courtesy and Thinking,” he presents Spenser as recoiling from the treatment of Justice in Book V and advancing an ideal of community in Book VI to replace the “blind administration of abstract justice” which in Ireland has become “ceaseless, mechanical bloodletting”: “The poet arrives at the thought of courtesy by thinking about the failure of his Legend of Justice” [323]. Here and elsewhere, there is a tendency to credit Spenser with the thoughts sparked in one particular reader, and to imagine the poet changing his mind about the poem in the process of writing it.

The most effective chapters in Spenserian Moments are those which are basically self-contained, conscious of addressing an audience. Chapter 4, “A Survey of The Faerie Queene”, initially a chapter in A Companion to Renaissance Poetry, is a model of lucidity and compression. Two chapters on the Mutability Cantos are consistently illuminating, bringing out ways in which the fragmentary Book VII differs from the rest of the poem, while commenting perceptively on details. Chapter 15, “Colonial Allegories in Paris”, which mentions Spenser only in passing, is full of acute insights in its treatment of allegory and colonialism, as illustrated in an exhibition held in 1931. The general chapters on allegory and the treatment of Spenser’s debts to Ariosto and Tasso make many useful points, but tend to be repetitive: one discussion of “Allegory and Renaissance Critical Theory” would have been more convincing than dispersal into five chapters. Judicious cutting would have made this a much better book, consisting of at most ten to twelve essays, rather than eighteen.


(1)  A Letter of the Authors Expounding his Whole Intention in the Course of this Work, in Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. London: Penguin, 1987 : 15.

(2) C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954 : 380.

(3) Paul Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (rpt. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982) : 18-21, 128. To Alpers, The Faerie Queene can best be approached as “a continual address to the reader rather than as a fictional world” [21].



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