- 'Essentially Circe':Spenser, Homer, and the Homeric Tradition
In the first published version of Les Amours 74, of 1552, Ronsard imagines himself transformed and imprisoned by a 'Circe' with a difference:
Du tout changé ma Circe enchanteresse Dedens ses fers m'enferre emprisonné, Non par le goust d'un vin empoisonné, Ny par le just d'une herbe pecheresse.Du fin Gregeoys l'espée vangeresse, Et le Moly par Mercure ordonné, En peu de temps du breuvage donné, Forcerent bien la force charmeresse,Si qu'à la fin le Dulyche troupeau Reprint l'honneur de sa premiere peau, Et sa prudence auparavant peu caute:Mais pour la mienne en son lieu reloger, Ne me vaudroyt la bague de Roger, Tant ma raison s'aveugle dans ma faulte.1
(All changed, my enchantress Circe holds me imprisoned in her chains, neither by the taste of a charmed wine, nor by the juice of a corrupting herb. The avenging sword of the fine Greek and the moly commanded by Mercury broke in a short time the spell of the drink given, so that finally the Dulichian herd regained the dignity of their first skin and their wisdom, little careful before then. But to bring mine back to its place, Ruggiero's ring would hardly be enough - so much is my reason blind in my error.) [End Page 151]
Here is the common identification of Circe with sexual temptation, or 'corrupt and irrational pleasure which charms and transforms'.2 But this 'Circe' needs no concoctions to imprison Ronsard, and so Odysseus' fortification against Circe - his sword and the moly - cannot help. What might help is the tool given to Ruggiero, Odysseus' epic successor in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso: the ring which reveals to the 'blinded' victim 'that Alcina is a withered hag whose charms are feigned'.3 Since this enchantress' magical powers are illusory like Alcina's, real weapons and antidotes are of no use. By comparing Odysseus' and Ruggiero's equipment, Ronsard thus finds a literary way of locating his transformation by love in his own head. There is a mannered textuality here: the poem makes its point through a layered allusion, which asks the reader to focus on an episode of literary history. This episode concerns the imitation of a Homeric incident.
One important contemporary reader missed the exactness of Ronsard's comparison between the two epic moments and thus the point about illusion. In 1553 the learned Muret glossed the rhetorical efficacy of 'la bague de Roger' as its ability to 'counter all enchantment', rather than specifically its method of disabusal.4 And when Ronsard revised the poem for 1560, his most significant change was in the reference to Ariosto, which became: 'Mais pour mon sens remettre en mon cerveau, / Il me faudroit un Astolphe nouveau' ('But to put sense back into my head, I would need a new Astolfo'). The 'textuality' is removed, as the reference to literary history becomes a looser gesture: the new allusion involves not Odysseus' successor in Ariosto's poem, but the mad Orlando, who is cured by Astolfo. This is simply an elaborate paraphrase for madness, and no longer a comparison through literary history between 'real' and 'illusory' charms. Ronsard's earlier idea may have seemed too recherché for clarity.
To the extent that Ronsard's first choice reveals a habit of thought, it is an awareness of histories of imitation or transformation of classical sources and a tendency to import those histories in one's response to the sources in the form of layered allusions. It may also be a particular awareness of the history of Homeric imitations and of Homer as an important original. Spenser, in his treatment of Circe and elsewhere, shares both kinds of awareness, and is if anything less hesitant about [End Page 152] turning them into poetry. Noticing this changes how we understand his use of Homer and the Homeric tradition.
Ronsard studied Homer with Jean Dorat and wrote a sonnet about reading the Iliad. If Spenser's Homeric credentials are murkier and different, they are equally important. The composition of The Faerie Queene in the 1580s and 1590s is framed by the publication of the...