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Second Life: The Ruines of Time and the Virtual Collectivities of Early Modern Complaint


This essay reads Edmund Spenser’s The Ruines of Time (1591)—an elegy for the Earls of Leicester and Warwick, Sir Philip Sidney, and Sir Francis Walsingham—as a “complaint against the times,” a form of writing known for its critique of contemporary social and political conditions. By representing the poem’s narrator as a solitary figure of mourning situated in a landscape of ruin, the poem articulates its central problem: that the contemporary moment, which is hostile toward the political commitments of the dead (particularly their interventionist Protestantism), renders difficult the poem’s main objective—to provide its subjects with a “second life.” In response to its historical situation, The Ruines of Time imagines a trans-temporal collectivity as the form in which that political project might live again within historical time—a “virtual” second life and collectivity for which the poem, as a complaint, acts as both placeholder and invocation.