- Spenserian Moments by Gordon Teskey
In 2007, Harvard University Press’s imprint Belknap Press published Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a landmark work of secularization theory that in turn spawned numerous books attempting to guide readers through Taylor’s tome or to discuss its significance. One of the common criticisms of this particular book by Taylor, despite the obvious brilliance contained in its pages, was its sprawling length—armchair reviewers frequently joked about the book’s dire need for a competent editor. Belknap Press apparently has a penchant for lengthy books that seem to have been published without an editor’s oversight, and Spenserian Moments is no exception. In this book, which focuses almost exclusively on The Faerie Queene, Harvard professor Gordon Teskey argues that it is Spenser, not Milton, who stands out as the modern poet for our times, especially when it comes to “open thinking.”
Teskey elaborates on “open thinking” throughout the book, explaining in the introduction that, especially because of the unfinished nature of The Faerie Queene, he prefers to think of the epic romance not as a poem (which implies a definitive object) but as “an ongoing creative project” (2), playing on the word project and its literal meaning of throwing forward. Because of the openness of The Faerie Queene, and its significant departures from the plan set forth in the famous letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, the poem (or “project”) defies “consistent argument[s]” (2). This alleged condition of The Faerie Queene aids Teskey in his own project, which is less of a sustained [End Page 86] argument than it is a collection of scholarly observations, or moments— making the book align well with other scholarly eschewals of reflections on the Reformation or the Renaissance, preferring rather the plural language of reformations and renaissances. Despite his claim that the book does retain “one thematic consistency” in its appreciation for Spenser’s thinking (2), Teskey is not shy about acknowledging the loosely arrayed quality of his essays, which were written over the course of thirty years, with no single plan in mind over this time (2). The tactic is a clever one, as long as readers are forgiving enough to accept the implicit claim that Teskey’s own moments legitimately preclude a coherent theme and structure.
The essays are divided into four parts (“On Spenser,” “On Allegory,” “On Thinking,” and “On Change”) although not all essays fit neatly into these categories. For example, the first chapter, titled “Other Poets,” falls under part 1 (“On Spenser”) and covers Gabriel Harvey, Ludovico Ariosto, Matteo Maria Boiardo, and Torquato Tasso. There is an ironic uptick in the usage of moments toward the end of the chapter, perhaps unintentionally displaying the inexorable human impulse toward organization. In “Toward Fairy Land,” Teskey first looks at Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (1579), which was a way for Spenser to claim that classical tradition was continuing in England. Invoking Derrida’s “trace” from “la différance,” Teskey argues that the structure of longing in The Shepheardes Calender (i.e., Colin’s longing for Rosalind) is a “rehearsal” for The Faerie Queene in that the absence of the Fairy Queen from The Faerie Queene is Spenser’s teasing readers with a garland, drawing them toward fairy land (56). Of course, the imagery of Hobgoblin running away with a garland from Apollo comes from a 1580 letter written by Harvey to Spenser, in which Harvey tries to persuade Spenser to spend his time on something more worthwhile (more Apollo-ish) than The Faerie Queene (too Hobgoblin-ish). But Teskey puts a positive spin on the image, making Spenser’s drawing via allegorical absence part of the attraction of The Faerie Queene. This is not to say that the allegory of The Faerie Queene is inaccessible; as Teskey notes, Spenser understood that “[b]y arousing the passions through stories, literature could regulate those passions and direct them toward public service and the good of the state,” and The Faerie Queene serves as a classic uniting of morals and political theory, a...