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  • "Such is the face of falshood":Spenserian Theodicy in Ireland
  • Benjamin Myers

Spenser was deeply involved in a uniquely colonial way of reimagining and reading the Irish landscape. C. S. Lewis muses that "Between him [Spenser] and the Irish (though he rather likes some of their poetry in translation) no relations save those of the lex talionis were possible; but we note with some surprise that he was charmed by the countryside. He would have been more typical of his age if he had regarded it as a howling wilderness only endurable in the hope of release and promotion."1 Lewis is at once correct and incorrect. Spenser was charmed by the Irish landscape, but it was exactly that wilderness that charmed him. It mesmerized him with its message of perdition and redemption. One thinks of Redcrosse and Una mesmerized by what they read in the trees in the woods of Errour, the messages of

The Laurell, meed of mightie ConqueroursAnd Poets sage, the Firre that weepeth still,The Willow worne of forlorne Paramours,The Eugh obediant to the benders will,The Birch for shaftes, the Sallow for the mill,The Mirrhe sweete bleeding in the bitter wound,The warlike Beech, the Ash for nothing ill,The fruitfull Olive, and the Platane round,The carver Holme, the Maple seeldom inward sound.2 [End Page 383]

This passage is perhaps even more telling than Spenser intended, for these lines read the very things in the wild fairy landscape that Spenser himself reads in that of Ireland: the proximity of conquest and poetry, obedience to "the benders will," the "shaftes" of war, the "mill" of progress, blood and bitter wounds, the fruit of the land, and that which is "seeldom inward sound." I would like to address how this last quality, the lack of inward soundness, is to be related to the shafts of war and the mill of progress in a reading of the epic's moral scheme.

In The Order of Things, Foucault famously describes the Renaissance episteme as an understanding that the "universe was folded in upon itself."3 If this description perhaps fails to describe the Renaissance worldview as a whole, it is still the best account that I have seen of what we might call Spenser's world within a text. A survey of the overlapping functions and identities of seemingly disparate characters quickly reveals that the universe of the Faerie Queene is indeed "folded in upon itself"; Gloriana, Belphoebe, Britamart, Florimel, and Mercilla, though all distinct, all share in a similitude with the Queen. The Faerie Queene is not allegorical in the same way that, say, A Game At Chess is allegorical, for Spenser's poem operates less under the principle that "allegory says one thing and means another"4 than under the assumption that allegory can be used to interpret the world. It is resemblance that makes possible the moral navigation, or reading, of Faerie, a point that the Red-crosse Knight, and the reader along with him, learn through painful experience. The adventure of this particular "Faery Story" is the adventure of the interpretation of similitudes, an adventure shared by questing knight and reader alike, and among the most striking of Spenserian similitudes is that of evil and wilderness, emblematized in the infirmity of the maple. Evil and wilderness, while by no means simple equivalents in the text, are both unveiled as lacunae, a similitude that reveals the concentric fit between Spenser's colonial involvement and his larger moral vision.

I should make it clear here that the resemblance I am tracing is not so much a function of Spenserian allegory as it is an accessory to it; [End Page 384] it is not produced by the allegory, but rather enables it. This is merely to say that the relationship between evil and wilderness in the text is essentially the same as that between Timias and Ralegh, even though the latter would be considered traditionally allegorical and the former would not. Perhapswe can amplify the definition of allegory in the case of Spenser to mean not only a technique of composition on the one hand and a method of reading on the other...


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