This book is a modest monument to my ten year long enthusiasm for the poetry of Edmund Spenser. Though strictly a work of literary history, it necessarily embodies my sense of Spenser's aesthetic excellence; I hope that at the very least, these ‘vaine labours of terrestriall wit’ may encourage others to explore the diversity of Spenser's artistic achievements.
This study argues that Spenser's relationship to literary tradition is more complex than is usually thought. Through a detailed reading of the Complaints, I suggest that Spenser was a self-conscious innovator, whose gradual move away from traditional poetics is exhibited by these different texts. I suggest that the Complaints are a ‘poetics in practice’, which progress from traditional ideas of poetry to a new poetry which emerges through Spenser's transformation of traditional complaint.
The Introduction reviews scholarly reconstructions of the first publication of the Complaints volume in 1591, and investigates the traditional poetics and forms of complaint poetry available to Spenser. The study is then divided into two parts. Part One considers the translations included in Complaints as traditional texts which demonstrate Spenser's ability to replicate conventional complaint and his understanding of received notions of poetic meaning. In the Chapter 1 I read Virgils Gnat as at once a faithful translation of the pseudo-Virgilian Culex, and an autobiographical appropriation of its primary allegory, retaining a basic confidence in traditional theories of allegory. In Chapter 2, I argue that Ruines of Rome exhibits both Spenser's desire to emulate the achievements of Du Bellay in English, and his concern to differentiate his own poetry doctrinally from Du Bellay's troubling precedent.
Part Two explores the major, or Spenserian, Complaints as a development from these traditional positions to the innovative practice of Mother Hubberds Tale and Muiopotmos. In Chapter 3 I argue that The Ruines of Time is a self-consciously transitional text, which voices the tension between the humanist notion of literary immortality and Christian world-contempt, and transforms complaint into an interrogation of poetry itself. In Chapter 4 I see The Teares of the Muses as continuing The Ruines of Time's debate between humanism and Christianity, but in a context of cultural change which puts both humanist and Christian ideas under pressure and envisages that the poetry represented by the complaining Muses may not recover its diminished prestige.