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  • The Collaborator as Thief: Ralegh’s (Re)Vision of The Faerie Queene
  • James P. Bednarz

We ordinarily use the word “collaboration” in a very narrow sense to speak of two or more individuals contributing to the production of a single work of art. But unlike most collaborators whose labors are fused in the process of creation, Sir Walter Ralegh and Edmund Spenser wrote poetry that is both interlocked and autonomous. Nowhere is this symbiotic relationship more evident than in the first edition of The Faerie Queene (1590), in which they engage in an open evaluation of their status as collaborators in the serious game of shaping an Elizabethan court mythology.

It is well known that Ralegh provided Spenser with access to Queen Elizabeth between 1589 and 1590, and that shortly after Spenser read selections of The Faerie Queene to her, he was granted a pension and secured title to his Irish estate. Spenser’s gratitude to Ralegh, whom he calls the “Shepherd of the Ocean” in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, is apparent in the biographical fiction he shaped in the third book of The Faerie Queene to further Ralegh’s and, by implication, his own interests. There, in the poem’s historical allegory, Spenser refers to Ralegh under the pseudonym “Timias” in a stylized double portrait depicting him as both a victorious soldier, who had helped crush the Desmond revolt in Ireland (S, 3.5.12–26), and as a wounded Petrarchan lover, wholly dependent on the royal patronage of Elizabeth/Belphoebe (S, 3.5.27–55). 1 Because of its relevance to the immediate conditions of the poem’s presentation, it is likely that Spenser recited sections of this court fiction to the queen, when he read excerpts to her “at timely houres.” 2

Publication of the first edition of The Faerie Queene provided Ralegh with an opportunity not only to assess Spenser’s new poem but to view it in terms of his own life and poetry. And he used this occasion to write a commendatory sonnet—“A Vision upon this conceipt of the Faery Queene”—that is often cited as one of the finest examples of sixteenth-century English verse, even though its meaning and place in the Ralegh-Spenser canon have never been adequately examined. [End Page 279]

Methought I saw the grave, where Laura lay, Within that Temple, where the vestall flame Was wont to burne, and passing by that way, To see that buried dust of living fame, Whose tumbe faire love, and fairer vertue kept, All suddeinly I saw the Faery Queene: At whose approch the soule of Petrarke wept, And from thenceforth those graces were not seene. For they this Queene attended, in whose steed Oblivion laid him down on Lauras herse: Hereat the hardest stones were seene to bleed, And grones of buried ghostes the heavens did perse.   Where Homers spright did tremble all for griefe,   And curst th’accesse of that celestiall theife. 3

A century ago, Edmund Gosse claimed that this verse “alone would justify Ralegh in taking a place among the English poets,” and modern readers generally concur with Peter Ure that it is not only “one of the best of Ralegh’s poems” but also “one of the greatest Elizabethan sonnets.” Only one other commendatory poem from the period has received similar praise—Ben Jonson’s “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare.” In the Renaissance, John Milton was so impressed with its apocalyptic tone that he paraphrased its opening line in a sonnet recalling his own remarkable vision of his dead wife’s return: “Me thought I saw my late espoused Saint / Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave.” Modern critics, however, have done little to advance our understanding of Ralegh’s sonnet, since, until recently, they have been merely appreciative in their interpretations. Philip Edwards, for instance, notes that “it is a tribute to Ralegh’s success that he has, like an Elizabethan miniaturist, presented in a mere fourteen lines, each detail in small compass, the dream-world the medieval allegorists loved to invent.” For all this attention, few scholars have ventured beyond the obvious paraphrase that Ralegh views...

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