Blog Post

Remembering Paul Alpers

Photo courtesy of Stephen Orgel

For those interested in slow reading: The Spenser Review has run an issue remembering Paul Alpers, who sadly passed away last May, and I am one of the six contributors.  I have a great fear (I hope I’m wrong) that Alpers is not so well known to those new to the profession of criticism.  He was a giant, and is very much missed.  I'm pasting in the first three paragraphs of my essay, "Perdita's Flowers," below: 

Why should you read Paul Alpers’ What Is Pastoral?  For many readers of The Spenser Review, that probably seems like a stupid question: Spenserians all know Alpers is the critics’ critic of the poets’ poet.  Yet to the broader world, to undergraduates or graduate students or the mildly curious, it might not seem so obvious why they should read a nearly 20-year-old book that was conspicuously untrendy when it arrived.  Those are, however, the readers to whom Alpers’ book is finally directed, because those are the readers, he will insist, that pastoral tries to imagine.  Finding future readers: that will be the moral of What Is Pastoral?

Insisting upon a future through reading pastoral, though, is not an easy case to make.  Undergraduates immediately notice that pastoral may be the silliest form of poetry ever invented: how can you take seriously poems in which shepherds, and upper-class people dressed up as shepherds, stand around complaining?  Worse: how can you take seriously literary criticism written about such absurd poems?  Future readers, Professor Alpers hears your gripes.  Here is his reaction to Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1559), the work that set the terms for Renaissance pastoral: “One can hardly believe that such nonsense carries conviction, and there is no way to become a believer short of reading [it].”[i]  Nonsense: that is pastoral in a nutshell.  Nonsense about nonsense: that is literary criticism of pastoral.  But look carefully again at the second part of that sentence: “there is no way to become a believer short of reading [it].”  Where does the conviction of pastoral come from?  It comes from you, from reading in the future. “Short of reading” means “only after reading.”  What Is Pastoral? is a book that shows you how to read—not only how to read pastoral, but how to read literature.  And it tries to make you a believer in the claim on life that pastoral literature can make.  But it is a book whose arguments—for pastoral, for literature, for literary criticism—always depend upon reading in the future.  To become a believer in pastoral, to become a believer in literary criticism, is to become a believer in the future.  That is why you should read Alpers—now maybe more than ever.

What sort of belief is a belief in the future?  The claim of literature on future lives is not exactly a new argument.  Alpers gets his version mostly from Reuben Brower’s now-famous course “Hum 6” at Harvard, where Alpers had been a teaching assistant (he later called Brower his “most important influence”[ii]).  What Brower terms “reading in slow motion”[iii] emphasizes that you read not knowing exactly what is going to happen.  And since you don’t know what is going to happen, slow reading requires a lot of trust on your part.  Alpers’ debt to Brower is clear in the very first sentence of his 1967 book The Poetry of the Faerie Queene: “The purpose of this book is to bring The Faerie Queene into focus—to enable the ordinary reader and student to trust Spenser’s verse.”[iv]  You have to trust the poem to say something, to come into focus, to make its claim.  Alpers writes to help you trust literature.  By believing in the future he does not mean adhering to a metaphysical certainty or treating literature as religion.  He means trust.  Trust happens when there are no certainties...

You can read the rest of the article here.

[i] Paul Alpers, What Is Pastoral? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 123, henceforth referred to parenthetically as WIP.

[ii] See “A conversation with Paul Alpers,” The Sophian, October 24, 2002.

[iii] See Reuben Brower, “Reading in Slow Motion,” in In Defense of Reading: A Reader’s Approach to Literary Criticism, ed. Rueben Brower and Richard Poirier (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962), 3-21.

[iv] Paul J. Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), vii.


Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.