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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.1 (2001) 71-89
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Spenser's Dialogic Voice in Book 1 of The Faerie Queene
Jennifer C. Vaught
Book 1 of The Faerie Queene marks the beginning of Spenser's distinctly Protestant epic in English. Key episodes such as Redcrosse Knight's adventures in the Wandering Wood, his dialogue with Fradubio, the bleeding, speaking tree, and his temptation by Despair allude to literary works by a wide range of Spenser's classical, medieval, and Renaissance predecessors. Yet he distinguishes his poem from theirs by emphasizing the Protestant idea that only grace provides his Everyman figure Redcrosse with escape from entrapment within his own sinful nature. Although critics have certainly discussed the poet's intertextual allusions in these episodes of book 1, few have done so in terms of Mikhail Bakhtin's term "dialogism," or fully discussed the extent to which these episodes are polyvocal. 1 Spenser's polyvocality would seem to diminish his originality, but his dialogic voice actually satisfies his laureate ambitions by situating him in relation to literary authorities and by making him an authority in his own right. 2
Mirroring Redcrosse Knight, who becomes "wrapt in Errours endlesse traine" in the Wandering Wood, Spenser, at the outset of The Faerie Queene, is himself caught in a maze of literary allusions. 3 The sheer number of these allusions threatens him with anonymity and the loss of voice. Yet he avoids these perils by [End Page 71] engaging in dialogue with the voices of his literary predecessors and adding innovative nuances to the motifs he borrows from them. In this way, he creates a distinctive voice and maintains his own agency to a significant extent. Instead of suffering erasure, he leaves his personalized signature on the allusive landscape of the Wandering Wood, which contains traces of other poets.
Building upon Bakhtin's assertion that "the word does not forget where it has been and can never wholly free itself from the dominion of the contexts of which it has been a part," Thomas Greene describes dialectical imitation in the Renaissance as "creative interplay" between a poet like Spenser and the ghost-like voices that inhabit the text. 4 Although the poet's words allude to a wide range of intertextual and cultural contexts beyond his awareness, they also embody some of his most vivid memories of former poets, indicating that he shapes his text with such figures in mind. Spenser pays tribute to those predecessors whose influence upon him is constructive, and earns recognition himself by respecting the integrity of his classical, medieval, and Renaissance sources and fashioning an individuating utterance in dialogue with them.
In contrast to Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, which emphasizes the author's Oedipal desire for the death of the "Poetic father," 5 the Legend of Holiness offers a more cooperative, dialogic model of poetic influence, though similarly involving a degree of violence to prior texts. As the monster Errour's vomiting of "bookes and papers" in the Wandering Wood illustrates, the ingestion and creative regurgitation of the words of others are often aggressive (1.20.6). By digesting both the letter and spirit, or sententiae of works by other authors, Spenser emerges as an exception to Mary Thomas Crane's notion about early modern ways of reading and citation whereby poets construct texts from "undigested bits of other texts," a phrase she uses to describe Ben Jonson's borrowing from other sources. 6 Spenser not only recalls isolated words and phrases from prior works but also brings to mind the larger contexts of borrowed passages. He thereby preserves the distinctiveness of other texts instead of simply alluding to them for his own ends. Unlike Spenser, the poet figure Despair tempts Redcrosse to commit suicide by using fragments from classical and biblical sources in a manner that perverts their original, contextual meaning. In this way, his devilish words parody Spenser's method of alluding to his literary predecessors. Despite significant differences in Spenser's and...