This book offers a new approach to engaging with the representation and aesthetics of provisional knowledge in Edmund Spenser’s writing via a focus on his use of spatial images. The study takes advantage of recent interdisciplinary interests in the spatial qualities of early modern thought and culture, and considers literature concerning the art of cosmography and navigation alongside imaginative literature in order to identify shared modes and preoccupations. The book looks to the work of cultural and historical geographers in order to gauge the roles that aesthetic subjectivity and the imagination play in the development of geographical knowledge – contexts ultimately employed by the study to achieve a better understanding of the place of Ireland in Spenser’s writing. The study also engages with recent ecocritical approaches to literary environments, such as coastlines, wetlands, and islands, in order to frame fresh readings of Spenser’s handling of mixed genres.
This section foregrounds the idea that the fictions of the late sixteenth century are shaped by a slippery epistemological moment, in which the wanderings of romance, and its relationship to epic and allegory, were called into question by new ways of making knowledge. In order to frame the readings of the curious spaces and geographies of Edmund Spenser’s generically hybrid writings, the opening of this book draws attention to how spatial images are used to perform, describe, and interrogate knowledge-making processes. The imaginative travail Spenser asks of his readers finds parallels in the perceptual travail demanded by early modern authors of non-fiction. These voices are more than contextual aids: reading Spenser’s poetry and prose also helps us to appreciate their strategies more fully. The literary ‘making’ that happens at Spenser’s hands is no less present in the work of his practically-minded contemporaries. The introduction also situates the book’s arguments within existing critical discussions.
This chapter analyses how early modern works of cosmography and navigation employ literary techniques for didactic purposes and examines the ways in which reading their strategic rhetoric offers a parallel project to reading Spenser’s own fashioning of space and myth. The chapter focuses on self-consciously literary moments found in two works that deal with spaces which are particularly difficult to imagine, namely the cosmos in William Cuningham’s The Cosmographical Glasse (1559) and the sea and shore in Lucas Janzoon Waghenaer’s The Mariners Mirrour (1584; trans. 1588). The chapter establishes the role that spatial motifs and metaphors, including the figure of the labyrinth and the perspective glass, play in questions of interpretative difficulty, and this informs the chapter’s approach to Spenser’s use of allegory, and his interest in error in particular. The contrasting approaches of Cuningham and Waghenaer to their subjects also opens up a debate concerning the relative values of abstraction and experience, and hints at the participation of technical writing in a spatial imaginary shaped by the epic mode. The chapter as a whole uses the presentation of the navigational and cosmographical contextual material to address the generative quality of error in the first book of The Faerie Queene.
This chapter expands on Spenser’s interests in the rhetoric of error and considers the ways in which The Faerie Queene constantly questions the nature of directive authority: in Spenser’s poem, a succession of figures representing false and true guidance results in the creation of an epistemological geography concerned with measurement, orientation, and memory. The chapter focuses on the relationship between the body and the determination of whereabouts in order to think about how Spenser uses ‘moving metaphor’ to model states of virtue and knowing; it tests the premise that Spenser’s allegories engage in debates concerning not only the mode’s efficacy but also the extent to which man, to borrow the formulation of Protagoras, can truly be considered as ‘the measure of all things’. The chapter reads across the first and second book of The Faerie Queene and finds cognate moments of compromised movement in works including Geoffrey Chaucer’s The House of Fame and Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxica Epidemica, thus enriching the chapter’s reading of the key role that questions of motion and authority play in Spenser’s fictions.
This chapter moves the discussion away from allegory into new generic terrain and attends to the spatial paradoxes and utopian drives of romance, paying particular attention to the relationship between the natural environment and the landscape of chivalry. Romance is traditionally associated with marvellous settings and the traversal of impossible distance; yet, in the late sixteenth century, the mode was also associated with inertia, passivity, and the petrifaction of knowledge. It is famed for its dilatory qualities and its tendency to postpone endings for the delight and entertainment of an audience; however, as critics such as Andrew King have observed, Spenser’s Faerie Queene offers a radical reassessment of the mode. In Spenser’s hands, the epistemological strategies of romance allow for both deliberate plotting and regressive drift, and the chapter places particular emphasis on the capacity of imaginative literature to confront conditions of uncertainty and ignorance.
At the heart of this chapter is a reading of Merlin’s glass – a perspectival object that crystallises new perspectives on the speculative poetics of the early modern geographical imagination. The chapter thinks about how to gauge the changing scales of Britomart’s journey by reading her quest alongside the spatial arts of cosmography and chorography, and looks back to the earlier readings of Cuningham’s Cosmographical Glasse and Waghenaer’s Mariners Mirrour. In seeking out the maker of her vision, Spenser’s lady-knight makes the transition from speculative armchair traveller to practical wayfarer, thus drawing together multiple modes of spatial representation in Spenser’s poem. In its discussion of spatial rhetoric, this chapter acts as a bridge between the initial focus of the book on archetypes, expectations, and genres, and the emerging focus of the second half of the study in shifting, but specific, types of environments. In particular, the movement towards Merlin’s cave at Maridunum introduces a coastal setting that both anchors and destabilises Spenser’s fiction-making and offers a vital example of Spenser’s increasingly fraught handling of the relationship between spatial forms and desire.
This chapter considers the work done by a tidal, hydrographical imagination in Spenser’s writing. The coastal imaginaries of The Faerie Queene’s middle books are read alongside works by John Dee, namely General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577), and Sir Walter Ralegh, namely the ‘21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia’. In the readings made by the chapter, which seek to identify the spatial dimensions implicit in what Louis Montrose has described as the ‘Elizabethan political imaginary’, the tideline is considered as an emblematic space, characterised by recurrent images of gain and loss, in which personal desire is put under pressure by nationalistic dreams of empire. The chapter builds on earlier discussions of movement and travail and argues that the middle books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene inhabit a spatial imaginary that is shared with other writers attempting to mythologise Elizabeth I and the realm over which she governs. The chapter takes a renewed interest in questions of poetic and hydrographical form, which looks forward to the subsequent discussions of Ireland as wetland, and islands as privileged locations for the making of competing fictions.
This chapter borrows the term ‘personal curvature’, used by the historical geographer J.H. Andrews to describe ‘the subjective element in a cartographer’s linework’, in order to suggest that analogous distortions can be seen in writings by Spenser and other Englishmen to cross the Irish Sea. Focusing on the fifth and sixth books of The Faerie Queene and moments from a variety of contemporary prose texts, this chapter considers the textures of the Irish environment, its wandering coastlines and unstable wetlands, in order to display how the westward gaze of Spenser and his fellow literary strategists struggled to find a rhetoric of discovery that could also acknowledge the frustrations of partial and provisional knowledge. The chapter engages with the work of cultural and historical geographers as well as the important work done by Spenserians concerning the role that Ireland plays in Spenser’s literary work. Through its readings of moments in which terraqueous spaces are placed under particular pressure, the chapter offers an approach that blends postcolonial readings of Spenser’s work with recent directions in ecocriticism and the work of the environmental humanities.
By moving between and across coastlines, wetlands, and islands this final chapter offers ways of navigating the shifting, ecotonal spaces of Spenser’s fictions. The chapter connects the threads of previous readings and explores Spenser’s intertextual blend of genres through the perspective of insularity. In order to think about the manipulation of ‘mental space’ as a tool of propaganda, this chapter considers the role of insularity in the early modern colonial imaginary and offers readings of the irreconcilable perspectives found in ‘Colin Clouts Come Home Againe’, A View of the Present State of Ireland, and the last books of The Faerie Queene. The chapter engages with previous studies of the privileged role played by island spaces in fiction and mapmaking, and draws particular attention to questions of spatial scale. In so doing, it connects insularity to the discussions of totalising cosmographical vision inaugurated in the first chapter, and seeks to foreground the tensions that The Faerie Queene’s ‘Cantos of Mutabilitie’ fail to resolve.
This section draws attention to the place of persuasion and rhetoric in cosmographical writings. It also offers a synoptic overview of the book’s arguments, drawing out the concerns with vision and perspective in particular, and closes with a final look at Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos.