- Strange Thinking
'The love of beauty … and not of truth, is the moving principle of [Spenser's] mind', William Hazlitt once wrote.1 Lauding this 'most poetical' of 'all the poets' for his 'exuberance of fancy, and … endless [End Page 402] voluptuousness of sentiment', Hazlitt recommended that readers put off by the unwieldy conceptual apparatus of Spenser's allegory simply ignore it: 'If they do not meddle with the allegory', he averred, comparing The Faerie Queene to a sleeping dragon, 'the allegory will not meddle with them'.2 Spenser critics have long since dismissed Hazlitt's attack on the allegory of The Faerie Queene, but his Romantic assumption that poetic brilliance and philosophical acuity are mutually exclusive remains, embedded as deeply in Spenser studies as the institutional frameworks that constitute English and philosophy as separate academic disciplines. In his witty, elegant, and invariably surprising new book Spenserian Moments, Gordon Teskey seeks to restore Spenser's reputation as a poet, as Milton called him, both 'sage and serious',3 whose poetry tackles social, political, and metaphysical questions still relevant to philosophical thought today. The brilliance of Spenser's thought, however, Teskey argues, lies as much in its form as in its content, and becomes apparent only when we no longer consider poetry and thinking irreconcilable opposites. In The Faerie Queene, thinking is inseparable from the imaginative and sensuous qualities of the verse; 'The Faerie Queene', Teskey argues, 'is thinking enacted as a creative, poetic event' (p. 315). The short review that follows attempts to outline the scope of this claim as it is worked out in various places in Teskey's volume. It cannot, however, do justice to the breadth of Teskey's concerns in the twenty essays of which Spenserian Moments is composed, concerns that range from the avantgardism of The Shepheardes Calender to the colonial and postcolonial legacy of the allegorical form in twentieth-century Paris. For these, the reader will have to turn to Teskey's rich and rewarding book itself.
What would it mean for a poem to think–for thinking to emerge from the process of poetic creation itself, propelled by rather than excluding its sensuous particularity and imaginative energies? We tend to consider thinking a process that aims to achieve a complete representation in the mind of a subject of an objective world out there, beyond the mind. Such assumptions model thinking on a kind of appropriation, a seizing of the object world for human purposes: even the word 'concept' derives, as Teskey points out, from the Latin concipio, from capio, 'to seize, grasp'. Poetry, in this view, may offer one discursive form among others in which the products of thought may be recorded, but the subjective and experiential aspects of poetry and poetic making are fundamentally alien to truth-seeking. If a poem thinks, its thinking is external to it, grafted onto a form whose proper domain is imagination, affect. [End Page 403]
Thinking, however, also loses something in its isolation from sensation–namely, for Teskey, a sensitivity to the richness and diversity of particular things in the world, and, along with it, a less exploitative relation between thought and its object–and Spenserian Moments, like other recent studies of poetic thinking, turns to philosophic song as an important alternative to instrumental thought, one which, Teskey argues, is deeply material, subjective, non-mimetic, and non-instrumental. At first sight, Spenser's proliferating, neo-medieval allegorical romance might seem an odd candidate for the job of helping us rethink thinking–the poem is a far cry, chronologically but also artistically speaking, from the short Romantic and modernist lyric poems that have preoccupied other studies. Teskey insists, however, that precisely the elements of Spenser's verse that seem so strange to post-Romantic readers–its allegorical form, its inexhaustible digressiveness, its folkloric appeal–offer it epistemological resources unparalleled by any other poem in the English language. Extended over an astonishing 4,000-plus stanzas, and unstably fusing an allegorical conceptual framework to an irrepressibly digressive narrative structure, Spenserian thinking takes the form not...