Comparative Literature Studies 42.1 (2005) 24-49
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Petrarch's Mourning, Spenser's Scudamour, and Britomart's Gift of Death1
As is well known, Petrarchan poetry plays a prominent role in the allegorical design of Book III's final two cantos in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.2 Petrarchan discourses of love race through much of Book III, but Cantos xi and xii (especially the House of Busirane) are for many readers a culmination to Spenser's critique of those discourses. Though Lauren Silberman goes so far as to define Busirane as a "Petrarchan poet," Petrarchan love is certainly not Spenser's sole critical focus in these cantos.3 Yet to the extent that Spenser does arraign this kind of literary loving, these two cantos fully expose the inadequacies and flaws of Petrarchan love in Spenser's allegory of chastity, specifically its inability to provide Spenser with the materials to build a place to which lovers could go for fulfillment and fidelity. In fact, the most pressing danger that Petrarchan love poses in Spenser's treatment of Busirane's world-which we already see in Scudamour as he lies immobilized before Busirane's gates-is not precisely the threat of injury or hostile confinement imposed on lovers who would be chaste. Rather, Busirane reigns over a corner of Faeryland in which chaste, confused lovers (and poets), buffeted by the conflicted, self-reflexive energies of desire, imprison themselves in solitary, anxious self-consciousness.4
This essay explores Spenser's treatment of the risks to his allegory of chastity in its political as well as its sexual and spiritual dimensions as offered not just by Petrarchan poetic conventions, but specifically by Francesco Petrarch's own philosophical strugglings in his love poetry. But where Laura's poet in particular touches Elizabeth's poet is in the way that Petrarch imagines desire as a force that produces immobility, an all-consuming stasis that entrenches the self in the act of perpetually contemplating itself whether it [End Page 24] gazes at the Other or wanders in solitude alternately to find and lose itself. Spenser embodies this phenomenon most fully in Scudamour, the allegory's very emblem of the aggressive, but debilitating energies of Petrarchan pursuit turned inward (and Amoret's captivity is the alternate version to Florimell's in being perpetually pursued).5 Lying next to a fountain, pouring out his grief, Scudamour seems to flow into Petrarch's fiery, icy mold of immobilized restlessness. Nevertheless, his imprisonment in the Petrarchan persona allows Spenser to ask some of the same questions about the nature and constitution of the desiring, erotic soul that Petrarch asks in his poetry, questions which are for Spenser and Petrarch ambivalent responses to Augustine.6 This essay, therefore, examines Petrarch's exploration of this conflicted self that emerges in his Canzoniere (or Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, Petrarch's own preferred title) and discusses the ways in which Petrarch's poetry illuminates the problems that Scudamour poses for Spenser's allegory and for the poet himself as he, like Petrarch, stands immobilized at the door that leads to whatever fulfillment awaits his poetry's conflicted commitments.7
Finally, this essay treats briefly the resolution to these problems that Spenser will proffer in Britomart's allegorization, for ultimately, Britomart's experience with Scudamour before entering Busirane's abode on his behalf is ultimately more germane to Spenser's allegory than Scudamour's predicament by itself. Spenser attempts to envision through Britomart a different model of love and lovers—one centered in not simply the loss of one's self, but rather the gift of oneself for another. Yet Scudamour, the "human hero," remains part of the allegorical landscape that she must negotiate, rather than simply negate, in her own journey towards her destiny.8 Britomart, like Scudamour, must experience the psychological, sexual, and spiritual conflicts that afflict monogamous lovers who, at the moment of promised fulfillment, must also contemplate the even surer promise of their union: the separation and, thus, the loss of themselves...