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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.1 (2000) 63-79
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Poetic Parthenogenesis and Spenser's Idea of Creation in The Faerie Queene
Elizabeth A. Spiller *
Recent scholarship has been interested in the early modern period as an age of self-actualization for the writer. Even in a moment in which criticism has distanced itself from old humanism, Renaissance man reappears in the works of such critics as Stephen Greenblatt, who describes how writers demonstrate new forms of subjectivity and employ sophisticated models of self-representation in which they seem to think themselves into being. While such accounts question humanist belief in individual autonomy, they also risk reenacting old stories in new critical histories. 1 However, this story of self-actualization is not limited to literary studies. Descriptions of what authors such as Spenser do to "make themselves" men have a curious affiliation with accounts of how a different kind of creation was thought to function--biological reproduction. In work that has been almost as influential as Greenblatt's, Thomas Laqueur argues that natural philosophers likewise understood man's thoughts to be a powerful means of self-production. As the rational part of physical creation, male "conception" was essentially an "idea" that was realized in material form through the female. Both literally and physically, men thought progeny into being. 2
While nuanced and heuristically powerful, these accounts may tell us more about our understanding of creation than they do about the Renaissance's. 3 Recognizing that feminist readers have called attention to the physical aspects of Laqueur's account, this essay focuses on the corollary issue of the cognitive--and in this context aesthetic--implications of the one-sex model. 4 Saying that men could think ideas into being involves accepting not just Galenic humoral theory but also an Aristotelian model [End Page 63] of creation that was increasingly contested during this period. This essay revises this critical perspective by examining how Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, draws on contemporary recognition that men's thoughts were not sufficient to bring forth new creation. In doing so, I focus on moments of initiation in The Faerie Queene that are described using the language of biological reproduction: the Letter to Ralegh (pp. 15-8); Redcrosse's first battle with Errour (1.2); Arthur's dream of Gloriana (1.9); and Britomart's experiences after seeing Artegall in Merlin's mirror (3.2). 5 These moments of initiation are represented in biological terms because they exemplify Spenser's understanding of poetry as the expression of an idea. In engaging Aristotelian natural philosophy, these initiatory moments self-consciously demonstrate Spenser's belief that poetry must be not just entertainment or edification, but the material expression of an idea. Having said that, however, I also argue that Spenser's creations do not remain Aristotelian, but instead depict perversions of that model current in the early modern period. Ultimately, Spenser's portrayal of what constitutes creation encompasses biological, ethical, and poetic acts in ways at odds with critical understandings of early modern interiority and poetic self-actualization. Spenser's evocation of the language of biological reproduction responds not so much to a breakdown in Aristotelian reproductive theory itself, but to a breakdown in the poetics implied by that theory. Following Judith Butler's suggestion that, in bodies, we experience a "process of materialization," this essay expands on recent feminist analysis of physical sexuality in The Faerie Queene by looking at Spenser's initiation scenes as moments of intellectual sexuality through which corporeality is realized. 6
More than Petrarch's Canzoniere, Shakespeare's sonnets, or Paradise Lost, The Faerie Queene has been read as the exemplary Renaissance self-creation narrative. For Greenblatt, Spenser is a primary instance of "self-fashioning" because he is a son who re-fathers himself: through The Faerie Queene and the patronage it generates, a man who began as "the son of a modest free journeyman of the Merchant Taylor's Company" becomes "a substantial colonial landowner . . . 'a gentleman dwelling in the county...