- Visionary Spenser and the Poetics of Early Modern Platonis by Kenneth Borris
This book goes right to the heart of a debate that has long raged in Spenser circles over the extent to which the poet was influenced by Platonic currents of thought. The roots of the controversy lie in the fact that it is difficult to identify specific borrowings in a poet of Edmund Spenser's imagination and creativity. As in that image beloved of Ancient and Renaissance writers, the bee sucks at many flowers, but its honey presents a unified sweetness in which different strains of nectar can no longer be distinguished.
However, Kenneth Borris has cut through all previous discussion and argument by taking a new approach. By his close reading of two texts, the early Shepheardes Calendar (1579) and the much later Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596), set within his encyclopaedic knowledge of Spenser's work as a whole, he has been able to reveal a deep and pervasive underlying Platonism, a Christian Platonism for which the commentaries of Marsilio Ficino had paved the way. It is demonstrated not so much in the visioning of particular episodes but, rather, in the visionary nature of Spenser's approach to writing in general. Contrary views, such as those of Robert Ellrodt and Sears Jayne, are despatched with ease – the former in some detail, the latter in a couple of footnotes.
Starting from a broad review of early modern poetics and of the sources available to Spenser, Borris sets out in chapter one the main areas in which a Platonic orientation can be discerned. These include poetic furor or inspiration, beauty and its ability to elevate the soul, cosmopoesis, defined as "the textual encoding of a harmonized cosmic image" manifesting divine splendour, and the presentation of ideals that inspire imitation and the pursuit of the sublime. Poetry earns its high place by means of its ability to instruct and inspire; allegory, word play, and allusion all contribute to these effects.
Among the most persuasive individual arguments that support his case is the painstaking analysis in chapter two of the illustrations that accompany the Shepheardes Calendar. Deploying evidence to support the notion that the illustrations were designed or at least closely supervised by Spenser himself, he shows the importance of imagery drawn from Plato's Phaedrus in the image for the month of May. In the Phaedrus, the soul is portrayed as a charioteer [End Page 125] steering winged horses – one docile, one unruly – and the ultimate aim of the journey is to travel to the rim of the world in order to contemplate the eternal verities that lie beyond. Borris shows how Spenser indicates horses' wings in the illustration more clearly than had been the case in contemporary emblem books; he also shows the apparent disregard of the chariot's occupants – the May king and queen – who are taking little interest in the journey that Plato had envisaged, relaxing instead into enjoyment of the sensual delights May brings. So the Platonism here is veiled, appearing and disappearing as the Shepheardes Calendar proceeds, in a way that is both deliberate and somehow appropriate.
Borris refers early on to Spenser's tendency "to depict the world as if it were fraught with scintillae of reflected heavenliness." Delineating the different levels of earthly life, heavenly life, and the realm in-between – that daemonic and dynamic realm of "faerie" – becomes a major theme in his discussion of the Faerie Queene in chapters four and five. Here, Spenser's concerns with transcendence come to the fore as the dramatic narratives of virtue and vice lead to glimpses of a new heaven and a new earth, in what Borris convincingly argues is an "inspirationally sublime heroic poem." This section is perhaps the most interesting of all, examining heroic idealism as bound up with aspirations to experience contact with the divine, whose presence is nevertheless in a state of concealment.
The entire book is filled with interesting and erudite observations, offering a fresh and compelling way to interpret Spenser's work. This...