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Reviewed by:
  • Spenser and Ovid
  • Donald Cheney
Syrithe Pugh . Spenser and Ovid. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. viii + 302 pp. index. bibl. $94.95. ISBN: 0–7546–3905–3.

Although Spenser's debt to Ovid has long been recognized and the bulk of its minutiae diligently noted, it has remained for Syrithe Pugh to make the case for a consistently Ovidian, counter-Virgilian programme in Spenser. Her project has been facilitated by an increasing boldness in Ovid studies over the past decade, where evidence from the poems of exile, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, has been read back into the Metamorphoses, much as Spenserians have been doing in order to determine their poet's personal agenda. Pugh argues that the received view of [End Page 297] Spenser as an apologist for Elizabethan imperialism on the Virgilian model, congenial as it has seemed to a New-Historicist view of art as inevitably subordinated to political power, needs to be replaced by a sense that Spenser was in fact an Elizabethan Ovid, affirming the absolute centrality of that "individualism, eroticism, playful irony and exilic discontent" (1) that readers have hitherto tended to see as momentary and furtive, occasional "minimes" of pastoral truancy. She notes that "Both Ovid and Spenser do present themselves as 'failing to be Virgil', but in both it is a rhetorical gesture intended at once to convey and to excuse what is actually a refusal to devote themselves to Virgilian praise" (5).

Pugh may exaggerate somewhat the extent to which Spenser's Ovidianism has been underestimated by earlier critics, or the absence of similar "anti-Virgilian," counterimperial elements in Virgil himself, expressed as the poet's famous melancholy; but her study admirably elaborates the case for seeing Ovid whole and for seeing his attitudes reflected in the later poet. The intertextual method which informs her work focuses on those discourses of power which have interested New Historicism and related interpretive projects over the past quarter century. Pugh is not primarily concerned with elucidating the texture of Spenser's poetry, his fascination with metamorphosis, and his conflicting senses of the sweetness and cruelty of change: for this, Angus Fletcher's remarks on the "Ovidian matrix" (The Prophetic Moment [1971], 90-106) remain especially helpful, and provide a useful complement to the present volume. An instance of Pugh's ability to elucidate the thematics of a vexed passage in Spenser is seen in her remarks (83-89) on Ruddymane and the nymph whose waters refuse to cleanse his bloody hands, where her interest is in Ovid's critique of Roman attitudes toward rape and pollution. Especially pertinent here is the Clitorian fount, of which the poet tells us that whoever drinks of its waters avoids wine "and soberly takes joy in water" ("gaudetque meris abstemius undis," Met. XV.323). Perhaps, Ovid suggests, Melampus threw those herbs into it with which he had cured the Proteides of Bacchus's curse, so that a "hatred of wine remains in the waters" ("odiumque meri permansit in undis," 328). This does seem an apt source for Spenser's abstemious nymph — the more so since Melampus was the first to temper wine with water, and since Ovid contrasts merum, untempered wine, with merae undae, pure water. It seems thoroughly Spenserian that the patron of Temperance should encounter a riddling instance of its most common emblem. Similar wordplay appears in the next story Pugh cites, that of Callisto, who is banished by Diana after she is raped by Jove and found pregnant. After she gives birth to a son, Arcas, the jealous Juno turns her into a bear and years later she is almost killed by that son before Jove prevented (arcuit) the deed by turning both figures into constellations, which Juno in turn forbids ever to set in the sea, a continuation of Diana's earlier curse. Again, the language plays on the bear-like name of Arcas, his literally bear-like mother, and the preventive act of his father, while the eternal moment of confrontation is imbued with the figural sense of the bear as triumphing (through hibernation) over temporal death, never going beneath the waves. Pugh's study, magisterial in its...


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