Blog Post

The Heroic Age of Spenser Studies: Roche after Fifty Years

Photo courtesy of Julia Walker.

Thomas P. Roche, Jr.'s book The Kindly Flame is fifty years old.  Subtitled A Study of the Third and Fourth Books of Spenser's Faerie Queene, Roche's book belongs to the heroic age of Spenser criticism, with Harry Berger's The Allegorical Temper: Vision and Reality in Book II of Spenser's Faerie Queene (1957), A. C. Hamilton's The Structure of Allegory in The Faerie Queene (1961), Paul Alpers' The Poetry of the Faerie Queene (1967), the essays of John Hollander (for whom Kenneth Gross organized this beautiful set of tributes), and a handful of other landmarks. Some weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, with Roche in the room, a panel of speakers gathered to address the significance of The Kindly Flame.

It's difficult to imagine a corpus of criticism with a durability comparable to the work of these inimitable scholars of the heroic age. Even the classic works of 1964 in other periods and fields—such as Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden or Robert Brustein's The Theatre of Revolt—have a less secure purchase in their respective fields today than Roche's work does among scholars of Spenser. At the RSA event, Patrick Cheney mentioned another classic book of that year, Angus Fletcher's Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, which remains relevant for Spenser and Renaissance literature generally, though its reach goes further.

Does the longevity of Spenser criticism of the heroic age speak to the intrinsic virtues of this corpus to a field that became modern all at once? As I have written elsewhere, Berger's book brought the New Criticism to Spenser, even though by 1957 that method had been current for other periods and authors for twenty years or so. Does it mean that paradigms in this field change very slowly? Or that we are near the end of a phase in the history of the field? However one thinks about these questions, it's a rare honor to be able to discuss them when many of the heroic generation, with the sad exceptions of Alpers and Hollander, are still with us.

This is not to say that The Kindly Flame does not show its age, for it does. But it shows its world-view more than its age. That world-view puts in the foreground of interpretation an allegorical method largely derived from the work of Rosemond Tuve, emphasizing a so-called horizontal rather than a vertical reading of poems like The Faerie Queene. In a horizontal reading, the narrative's forward momentum counts for nearly everything, and readers notice allegorical correspondences as they rush along, often without resolving meanings into anything but general correspondences. Contradictions are tolerated, even enjoyed. Roche grounds this approach in what Elizabethans called "continued metaphor," and observes that "in reading a metaphorical statement one does not jump from the vehicle to the tenor at every stage; such reading calls to mind the old adage about changing horses (or vehicles) in midstream" (10).

Where the allegory is concerned, horizontal reading is heuristic rather than definitive, and accommodates the open questions thrown off by such a method. We might say further that such a reading is diegetic, emphasizing the continuing telling of the story as story, whereas a vertical reading would be not mimetic (the usual opposite term of diegetic) but exegetic, emphasizing solid equivalences at every turn. In any case, Roche's style of horizontal reading remains an influential model. Only a couple of years after The Kindly Flame, Alpers would take up many of these open questions of interpretation in his influential, reader-oriented account of Spenser's poem. I should acknowledge that I speak as an initiate in, though not quite a convert to, this variety of allegorical method. Tom Roche was my teacher during my graduate education at Princeton, and while neither of us would say we were of the same views in those years, his influence on my work has been considerable. 

As I see it, the limitation of the book's world-view today is that it doesn't go far enough in exploring the gaps in interpretation occasioned by the rhythms of Spenserian diegesis. At places in the book, Roche seems reticent before the fact that—as he rightly puts it—"we cannot restrict ourselves to a sterile hunt for one-to-one relationships. There is no single meaning, at least no single meaning to be stated apart from the experience of the poem" (31). Forgoing a "sterile hunt," then, we should enjoy a messy survey of multiple possibilities whenever the poem brings us to its innumerable crossroads of allegorical interpretation. In instances like these, however, Roche tends to look away somewhat fastidiously. While he insists often that "no explication can be conclusive" (31), "we will not be able to write out a precise definition" of any key concept (56), and so on, he lets the sifting of possibilities—not to mention what it entails to sift through possibilities—take place more or less offstage from his argument, in the reader's thoughts.

I have sometimes thought about Roche's accommodation of multiple interpretations and the gaps among them in light of Tuve's dictum, which Roche quotes with approval: "allegory is a method of reading in which we are made to think about things we already know" (30). A related statement is the one quoted above, putting "the experience of the poem" above all. In 1964, locutions such as experience and "things we already know" were on their last legs as expressions of a universalist criticism—the conviction that literature speaks in the same way to all readers—that had been losing authority since after World War II. What do "we" already know about, say, chastity, the virtue at the center of Book Three of the Faerie Queene, or about friendship in Book Four? And how, by the end of Book Three, is "our conception of chastity . . . refined and deepened" (95)? The answer in Roche's method is an unexpected one, and different from Tuve's: that we all know not the same thing, but many different things.

For while he adopts the language of a universalist criticism, the implications of his style of reading point in the opposite direction. In The Kindly Flame the onrushing story teaches us, not only to see an abstract virtue in concrete action, but to distrust exegesis as unfaithful to how we "experience" the world. Each of us constructs our own version of the allegory around a few key correspondences, and the substance of the poem may differ considerably from one reader to the next. We might say that the language in which Roche dresses his method has not kept pace with his premises; universalist code-words soften the brunt of a kind of reading that tolerates a great deal of equivocality and irresolution. The book's crucial revisions to an allegorical approach, honoring Tuve but departing from her model, are hidden in these dicta rather than confronted outright.  Or to put it a different way: Roche may reproduce Tuve's exact words but mean something else, because the critical era around the statement has changed.  For her "we" may be one; for him it is many.

There may be another disagreement under the surface of the book. I remind myself of the publication, two years before The Kindly Flame, of D.W. Robertson's A Preface to Chaucer. Robertson was a highly visible member of the Princeton faculty and a momentous (though a polarizing) figure in medieval studies; others, such as Steve Justice, have told his story better than I can do here. (Justice's essay "Who Stole Robertson?" in PMLA 124 [2009]: 609-15 is the one indispensable account of Robertsonianism.) If anyone was ever a vertical, definitive, and exegetical reader, it was Robertson. I remember being shocked in a graduate seminar at his incompetent attempt at a diegetic reading of a passage of Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess, in which he could not make the narrative of the poem cohere under all the allegorical freight he made it carry. Knowing he is a more adept reader qua reader than Robertson, I suspect, Roche allows The Kindly Flame to demonstrate a kind of interpretation that implicitly exposes the shortcomings in the exegetic approach of A Preface to Chaucer—and does so for a poet, Spenser, who is allegorically inclined at a consistent setting, unlike the Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales. There are many ways of allegorical reading, Roche tacitly shows, and those that incorporate equivocality may well be more true to these poets' works.

What keeps us reading The Kindly Flame fifty years after its publication is that the book obliges us to think on our own—whether we call it our "experience" or something else—about how to make meaning in Spenser's poem.  

 

 

Greene is a scholar of early modern culture, especially the literatures of England, Latin Europe, and the transatlantic world, and of poetry and poetics from the sixteenth century to the present. He is the author or editor of five books and many articles. His current projects include books on the poetry of the hemispheric Americas and on the Baroque. Since 2001 he has taught at Stanford University, where he is the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.