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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.1 (2001) 91-108
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Hellish Work in The Faerie Queene
Anthony Low, in a chapter of The Georgic Revolution entitled "Poet of Work: Spenser and the Courtly Ideal," has elegantly argued that arduous physical labor constitutes a virtue rather than a vice for the knight practitioner of The Faerie Queene, most notably in book 6. 1 Virgil's Aeneid, and especially his Georgics, almost certainly provided Edmund Spenser with memorable models of hard physical labor that could not only refine and dignify the rural or epic laborer but, through the uncoordinated but nevertheless cumulative labor of many persons, create a national destiny as well. 2 Once situated at Kilcolman, Spenser regarded himself as a colonizer like his neighbor Sir Walter Ralegh, as a gentleman planter who was once Lord Grey's secretary, a man with upper-class aspirations. Low judges remarkable for the times the poet's vivid representation of the salutary effects of prolonged labor on both the characters and quests of the principal knights who course through faeryland. 3 Social historians of early modern England have compiled a large record of the shared belief of aristocrats, courtiers, and even gentry that hard physical labor, especially wage labor, belonged to the poorest classes, that it demeaned even tradesmen, and that it would always remain an Adamic curse (Gen. 3:19). 4 Recently, Andrew McRae, in God Speed the Plough: The Representation of Agrarian England, 1500-1660, has asserted that Low's claim about the near singularity of Spenser's praise of the benefits of prolonged physical labor on courtiers and knights requires significant revision. Through quotation, McRae illustrates the various degrees to which Tudor writers such as Hugh Latimer, Robert Crowley, Barnabe Googe, [End Page 91] Thomas Tusser, and Sir John Harington extolled the virtues of daily agrarian labor for the bodies and minds of gentlemen, for the most part long before Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene. 5
Moreover, one could say that William Shakespeare, throughout his career, but especially in his late plays, complemented Spenser in this respect by depicting the redemptive value of physical labor for the upper classes; 6 log bearing, for example, proves Prince Ferdinand's love for Miranda in The Tempest. Nevertheless, McRae asserts that, "like many gentlemen of his time, Spenser endorsed the moral significance attached to labour by the previous generation, yet saw no purpose in identifying with downtrodden labourers and reviving attacks on the covetousness of landlords." 7 It is doubtful that the time-demanding process of composing the monumental Faerie Queene allowed the poet either the leisure or inclination regularly to rub shoulders with wage laborers turning Kilcolman's earth. "One remembers that [Spenser] could still rejoice in the trees," William Butler Yeats declares, referring to the catalog of trees and their commercial uses in book 1 of The Faerie Queene, "not because they were images of loneliness or meditation, but because of their serviceableness . . . He was of a time before undelighted labour had made the business of men a desecration." 8 Yeats's phrase "undelighted labour" contributes to the modern Irish poet's stereotyping of Spenser as an instinctive poet of the pastoral, of the "delighted senses," of an England predating the final godly Protestant transvaluation of daily work into an earnest, highly regular activity that its role in a program of religious salvation would dictate. 9 While representations of this gradual transvaluation also often suffer from the distortion of stereotyping, Ben Jonson's portrait of Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Bartholomew Fair (1614) suggests that a bit of truth may lie behind caricatures of godly Protestant work. 10 "I got up from reading the Faerie Queene the other day and wandered into another room," Yeats writes; "it was in a friend's house, and I came of a sudden to . . . an engraving of Claude's [Lorrain] Mill hung under an engraving of [J. M. W.] Turner's Temple of Jupiter. Those dancing countrypeople, those cowherds, resting after the day's work, and that quiet millrace made...