SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.1 (2000) 41-62
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The Poetics of Accommodation in Spenser's "Epithalamion"
Judith Owens *
Spenser's "Epithalamion" has been long praised for elegant harmonies, for the celebratory gathering of created and immaterial worlds, and for universalizing tendencies--in short, for astonishing syncretic power. More recently, critics have begun to focus instead on the ways in which issues of gender and vocation disturb the poem's express harmonies. However, little detailed attention has been accorded the immediate political, cultural, and social contexts of the poem. My argument will begin to redress this neglect. 1
We need to trace more assiduously the connections between this poem and Ireland, particularly Spenser's tenure in Munster as official and settler. 2 These connections bring into relief Spenser's colonialist and reformist designs, not only for Ireland but also for his bride, Elizabeth Boyle. While such a context encourages us to find conflict where earlier critics found harmony and to regard as hegemony what earlier critics called unity, we need to observe that Spenser's mediation of tensions accommodates considerable range of response with respect to both Ireland and Elizabeth. Spenser leaves room, I will argue, for the autonomy and agency of these subjects to emerge, by declining to fully sound--in the senses of plumb and proclaim--Elizabeth's sexual nature and by entertaining, without absorbing, cultural voices other than his own. 3 Although this mediation is not to be identified with the harmony praised by so many readers, it does make Spenser's representation of Ireland and of his bride more than a stark document in imperialism.
The refrain in the "Epithalamion"--variations on "The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring"-- provides a useful point of departure for considering what the poem makes of its world and subjects. 4 For those [End Page 41] readers who find in the poem harmony, unity, and jubilation, Spenser's refrain figures a world that answers his celebration with echoing joy. 5 Those who hear in the refrain something other than unmitigated joy and assurance of the world's responsiveness typically identify the figure of echo as the source of disturbance and regard the disturbances as psychological, vocational, or metaphysical. 6
I wish to shift the emphasis from "Eccho" to "woods" and--moving out from the poem to the woods around Spenser's home at Kilcolman and more generally to the Plantation of Munster--to charge the refrain with social and political significance. The first instance of the refrain indeed invites us to reverse the customary orientation: syntactical ambiguity permits us to surmise that the woods do not only echo--ring with--the poet's song but also ring--circumscribe--the speaker's resonance. 7 In the "Epithalamion," the woods sometimes return answers of their own and not ones of the poet's making. We can appreciate more fully the significance of Irish woods in this poem if we turn first to consider the woodlands of Ireland and how Irish woods figure in Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland.
The woodlands of Ireland feature prominently in the English experience of that country, as we can surmise from sources ranging from Giraldus Cambrensis's twelfth-century description of Ireland as a land where forests exceeded open country, to records of the export market for Irish timber in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 8 What is more pertinent to this essay is that the woods of Ireland became prime sites of the grim, often horrific, conflict between the Irish (with the Anglo-Irish) and the English. From the point of view of the English, Irish woods harbored particular and extensive perils for English settlers, officials, and soldiers. 9 The Aherlow Wood, located just south of Tipperary and northeast of what became Spenser's home at Kilcolman, was the most notorious of several forest fastnesses in which Irish forces could muster or from which killing raids could be made on isolated English settlers. Aherlow remained a rebel stronghold in both the...