Examine the relationship between literary innovation and classical imitation inElizabethan literature, with reference to Spenser's The Faerie Queene
“Although the Renaissance was an age of impressive experiment in literary practice,
it was also an age that yearned to coordinate its activities
with classical tenets and procedures”
Examine the relationship between literary innovation and classical imitation in Elizabethan literature, with reference to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene
During the Renaissance period there was a flourish of classical imitation in new texts, whereby authors would use characters or allusions from classical literature to give their work more depth and meaning. The Italian Renaissance led to a revival of classical texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Edmund Spenser uses in The Faerie Queene. The humanist movement viewed the ancient Roman and Greek empires as the peak of human achievement, specifically intellectual achievement. As a result, Latin and Greek texts were almost ‘rediscovered’ and translated into the vernacular so that they could be more widely read. The translations were also a result of English patriotism and pride in the English language at this time. Initially, humanism had concentrated on learning Greek and Latin, the languages of diplomacy, but the translations allowed texts to be studied in universities and added to the curriculum of schools throughout England (Greenblatt : 505). This was a time of great curriculum reform, or ‘self fashioning’ (505) , which saw a move from training students for the church, to teaching the ‘acquisition of literature’(505), so that pupils had a literary and cultural knowledge of Greek and Latin. The classics were also studied for their moral, political and philosophical worth, which often coincided with traditional Christian values. It is for this reason that in The Faerie Queene we see a mixture of Pagan Gods and Christian images.
Spenser attended the Merchant Taylor’s school in London under Richard Mulcaster, who established a rigorous programme of study, including Latin, Greek and also Hebrew. At this school Spenser would have been exposed to classical texts and learnt to remember their stories and morals. It is not surprising, therefore, that these images were transposed into his, and other writer’s works. Classical imitation was respected in the Renaissance period for it’s reminiscence of great empires and traditional values. ‘Imitation’ is perhaps the wrong word to use, for it was not necessarily a copying, or reworking, of classical texts, but rather a following of examples. Instead of copying their styles, Renaissance writers were copying classical standards. It was hoped that through this, readers would take into account these standards and improve their own lives by them. As Spenser wrote in a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, attached to a manuscript of The Faerie Queene, ‘The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline’ (Greenblatt : 716). Sarah Hutton describes that ‘The ultimate aim was not slavish copying, but emulation’ (Hutton : 47) but Sir Philip Sidney held an opposing view. He claimed that ‘Poetry in an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word mimesis’ and that poetry was ‘a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth to speak metaphorically’ (Sidney : 78, 79-80). In The Defense of Poesy, written in 1583, Sidney argued that combining philosophy with history within poetry is more effective that either by themselves, in that it will rouse the readers to lead virtuous lives.
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(Poets) do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach; and delight, to move men to take that goodness in hang, without which delight they would fly as from a stranger, and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved. (Sidney : 81)
The emphasis is again on the importance of improving one’s self, bettering yourself through the means of poetry. Sidney took this one step further and along with other academics, attempted to adapt the classics exactly into the English language. He tried to gain the exact metre of the classical poems in English, but the classically trained scholars found that matching the exact syllables as well as rhymes was ‘barbarous’. Spenser himself noted that Sidney had developed a set of rules to do this by, but did not like trying to copy the classical authors to this degree as it meant that the poem was entirely governed by the verse forms; quantitative verse, which is difficult to use in English because of the variety of accents (Waller : 170).
Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is typical of the classical imitation of the Renaissance, in that it aims to ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline’ (Greenblatt : 716). The six books represent different virtues, which Spenser claims are from Aristotle, namely; Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice and Courtesy. The letter to Raleigh states that Spenser originally intended to write twelve books in total, though considering the length of the six that he managed to complete; it is doubtful whether twelve could ever have been written. Spenser also writes that King Arthur will be the central figure throughout The Faerie Queene although he appears very little, usually towards the end of each book. The inclusion of Pagan Gods and classical values, in addition to the underlying Christian message, often makes the text very confusing for the reader. There are many characters which appear and disappear just as quickly, some whom we are lead to believe are core figures, but turn out to be passing individuals. However, this ‘copiousness, the ability to enrich a topic with a variety of vocabulary, was seen as a virtue’ (Heale : 1). Very often the reader is confused as to whom the poet is referring to, the passages of dialogue can be disrupting and the digressions within the text, especially lengthy descriptions can make The Faerie Queene hard to follow. As Heale summarises,
‘complexity and, on occasion, mystery are deliberately sought effects in The Faerie Queene. The poem presents the reader with an experience in some respects analogous to that of the knights, who must achieve their ends in a confusing world of sudden appearances and disappearances, in which the correct interpretation of events is often unsure.’ (Heale : 12)
Spenser was also trying to recreate the form of an ‘epic’ poem when writing The Faerie Queene. This was in common use in the classical texts, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid. Traditionally, the epic contained long narratives detailing heroic acts and battles, especially events significant to a culture or nation. Although Spenser includes heroic acts; the national pride is not seen so clearly. Instead he attempts to portray more Christian values about how to live a virtuous life, so to this extent we can consider this Spenser’s attempt at literary innovation. Spenser also tries to write in the ‘pastoral’ style, which was typical of classic epics. Pastoral was considered the opposite style, almost, to heroic literature, in which only events of national importance were dealt with. The pastoral focused on smaller matters, originating from a world inhabited by shepherds who were not just looking after their flocks, but ‘celebrated leisure, humanity and contentment, exalting the country life over the city and its business’ (Greenblatt : 506). By combining the pastoral and the heroic acts of the knights in each book, Spenser creates an amalgamation of literary styles, within a classic format, the epic poem. In this manner, Spenser also gives his poem a wider readership, by lowering the complexity a little on the inclusion of pastoral style writing. The more people that could understand his poem, the more people’s lives Spenser could try and make virtuous.
Cicero was one of the most important sources for ancient philosophy and also a master of eloquence. He was praised for recording the relationship between different philosophers’ works as well as his own. In addition, he was not a professional philosopher and so his theories were considered ‘philosophy for an active life’. His works also took a more approachable style, like Spenser’s, and Erasmus, Dutch theologian and humanist, congratulated Cicero on his work that ‘even an uneducated audience could applaud’ (Hutton : 45). Eloquence and rhetoric were very important in classical literature, and great emphasis was placed upon speaking and writing correctly. This again is linked with living a virtuous life, as Marrou explained; ‘Learning to speak properly meanting learning to think properly, and even to live properly; in the eyes of the Ancients eloquence had a truly human value transcending any practical applications’ (Marrou : 196). Homer, often referred to as the ‘father of rhetoric’ is most well known for allowing his characters to speak expressively.
Humanists in the Renaissance period studied texts such as Homer’s, analysing the rhetorical figures of speech, and trying to recreate them in their works. Spenser uses these throughout The Faerie Queene; for example, anadiplosis is the “doubling back” of a word or phrase from the end of a clause, to the beginning of the next clause. This is widely used; ‘Enough that thy fire doth vanquisht stand / Now at thy mercy : Mercie not withstand’ (The Faerie Queen : 1.3.37). Anadiplosis was popular as its repetition for emphasis allowed a text to flow more poetically and made parts more memorable for readers, which was essential in an epic. Another example is Asyndeton, where conjunctions are deliberately omitted from the sentence structure. This was used very widely to enforce a feeling or message, but also to speed up the rhythm of a passage, so the reader feels a sense of urgency or desperation. It also serves to again make a passage more memorable; ‘Faint, wearie, sore, emboyled, grieved, brent / with heat, toyle, wounds, armes, smart and inward / fire’ (The Faerie Queene : 1.11.28).
Although The Faerie Queene is full of classical imitation, there is an argument that Spenser did include a certain amount of literary innovation in his poem. Spenser could not just translate one of the epic classics and call it his own; he needed to include a ‘personal touch’ almost – to make it truly his. At this time, Petrarchan love sonnets were widely popular, and the form of Petrarch’s poems was being used by poets like Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard. However, Spenser did not take this on, and instead formed what would later be named the Spenserian sonnet, where the rhyme scheme interlocked and did not have a question-and-answer form as Petrarch did. As Waller notes, ‘Spenser, in fact, seemed relatively indifferent to the Petrarchan fashions of his more courtly contemporaries’ (Waller : 170). Perhaps it was Spenser’s dislike of the court that forced him to create a new style.
Spenser has often been called eclectic by many critics, for his multi-levelled allegory that seems to resist interpretation. In several episodes, the reader is almost given a choice of readings, and left to decide for themselves the one that the poet intended. The Garden of Adonis, for example, is a Spenser’s own fabrication and does not come from any specific classical text. It is ‘philosophically inconsistent’, in that Adonis is not a flower in this garden and Spenser seems to draw images and ideas from many different sources (Heale : 88). It is possible, of course, that Spenser was purposely trying to create something very different with The Garden of Adonis, which perhaps he thought would get him noticed by the court. Spenser was not from a wealthy background and relied on charity payments to fund him through his schooling. Perhaps, then, Spenser was trying to create a combination of classical imitation and literary innovation in order to earn himself some money?
‘The success of The Faerie Queene owes much to the fact that the poem is a generic hybrid, in which the conventions of the classical epic mingle with those of romance, medieval allegory, pastoral, satire, mythological narrative, comedy, philosophical meditation, in a strange wonderful blend’ (Greenblatt : 505-6)
In conclusion, therefore, Spenser combines classical imitation and literary innovation to create The Faerie Queene. Whether the classical influences were conscious, such as the use of Pagan Gods and their associations, or subconscious, such as images from texts he may have studied, these serve to illustrate the purpose for which Spenser wrote his epic poem. Despite conspiracy theories that Spenser copied passages from Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, it is clear that he spent a long time composing and perfecting The Faerie Queene for his audience, to suit both the expectation of classical imitation, and the need for innovative material.
Spenser, E., (1590) 1978. The Faerie Queene. Harmondsworth : Penguin
Baldwin, T.W., 1942. ‘The Genesis of some passages which Spenser Borrowed from Marlowe’ in A Journal of English Literary History (9,3) pp. 157-187
Faust, G.P., 1934. ‘A Spenser Parallel’ in Modern Language Notes (49, 6) p. 393
Greenblatt, S., 2006. Norton Anthology of English Literature – Volume B – The Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Century. London : W.W Norton & Co.
Hattaway, M., ed. 2003. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. Padstow : Blackwell
Heale, E., 1987. The Faerie Queene – A Reader’s Guide. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press
Hutton, S., 2003. ‘Platonism, Stoicism, Scepticism & Classical Imitation’ in Hattaway, M., ed. 2003. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. Padstow : Blackwell
Marrou, H.I., 1956. Tr. Lamb, G. A History of Education in Antiquity. London : Sheed and Ward
Rivers, I., 1996. Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry. London : Routledge
Sidney, P., (1595) 1968. The Defense of Poesie. Menston : Scholar Press
Vickers, B., 1970. Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry. London : Macmillan
Waller, G., 1993. English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century. London : Longman
Watkins, W.B.C., 1944. ‘The Plagarist : Spenser or Marlowe?’ in A Journal of English Literary History (11,4) pp. 249-265
Ovid’s story of Adonis tells how he is transformed into a red flower upon his death.
Sir Degaré for example, the Breton Lai, draws many parallels with The Faerie Queene, in both characters and some specific repetition of phrases