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  • The Cultural Logic of Late Feudalism: Placing Spenser in the Eighteenth Century
  • Jonathan Brody Kramnick

“Our English poets,” wrote Joseph Warton in 1756, “may I think be disposed in four different classes and degrees. In the first class, I would place our only sublime and pathetic poets, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton.” 1 For us, reading from the vantage the late twentieth century’s “culture wars,” Warton’s Trinitarian disposing may seem rather conventional. It is interesting to consider, however, that Warton was perhaps the first critic to represent the canon in this manner. Indeed, the mid-eighteenth century witnessed what we might call the making of the English literary canon in its modern form. Shakespeare’s complicated status in the eighteenth century has been richly documented. And Milton’s connection to the emergent cult of the “sublime” is well-known. Much less has been written, however, about what was once called the “Spenser revival” of the 1750s and 60s. The revival is certainly notable: relatively ignored during the early years of the eighteenth century, Spenser’s poetry enjoyed increasing prominence in mid-century literary culture. 2 From 1715 to its reprinting in 1751, John Hughes’s Works of Spenser remained the sole modern edition. In the next ten years, three new editions appeared, accompanied by two critical commentaries, Thomas Warton’s Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser (1754, 1762) and Richard Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762).

Mid-eighteenth-century Spenseriana was once considered an example of “preromantic” weariness. 3 Cut off from their culture, lonely, and on a “flight from history,” Spenser’s readers, according to this argument, looked to the poet’s enchanted fairyland for the last redoubt of the imagination prior to the tyranny of reason. 4 I would like, in this essay, to historicize this flight from history. The revival of interest in Spenser’s poetry and the elevation of his name to the Trinity of high cultural authors has much to tell us about the cultural politics of the eighteenth century. When Joseph Warton separated out “Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton” from the rest of English literary history, he meant to demonstrate how older works sustained a kind of untranscendable value by virtue not just of their distance from the present, but also their difficulty for modern readers. His Trinitarian reading [End Page 871] was, in fact, part of a lengthy reconsideration of modern as well as older writing, one which championed “Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton” specifically at the expense of Pope. Pope’s poetry, according to Warton, was too satirical and “moral,” too close to the rhythms of polite society. In writing a species of what Warton called “didactic poetry and essays on moral subjects,” Pope failed to maintain a suitable distance from the public; he failed, that is, to achieve what we would now call aesthetic autonomy. 5 Spenser’s canonical value inhered not just in his “imaginative” splendor, in other words, but in his difference from modern writing and commodity culture; or rather, Spenser’s poem was seen to be particularly imaginative because of a certain moving away from the styles and norms of “the public” on the part of mid-century literary critics.

As Joseph Warton’s case exemplifies, the canonization of Spenser was part of a significant rethinking and reshuffling of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the cultural field.” 6 I mention Bourdieu here because it seems to me that his cultural sociology provides a way out of the preromantic bind, a way to see the Spenser revival as entirely of a piece with the dominant culture of the mid-century. For Bourdieu, aesthetic judgment turns on a double axis: the field of artistic positions (the arrangement of literary genres, authors, publishers and the like) and the field of social relations that structure and set limits to “art” itself. At this level of analysis, Bourdieu might seem just to be trading in the commonplace that the aesthetic is “socially constructed.” Yet the idea of aesthetic value emerges in a given historical situation less from the mere expression of interest and identity, or what Bourdieu calls “position taking,” than from the complex interplay and tension between the “cultural field” and...

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