Abstract and Keywords
This introductory article discusses the poetry of Edmund Spenser. It argues that a poet's utility inheres in his craft. It is not just that he conveys an improving or ‘useful’ message, but that the medium through which he does so lends any such message a peculiar efficacy. What Spenser cultivated was not the crudely simplistic moral didacticism that does indeed tend to reduce the useful to the utilitarian, but the broader didacticism that recognizes in the literary arts the potential for a deep disquieting of all that is complacent and received. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Spenserian poetics is the extraordinary fusion of allegory and parody that is so perfectly calculated to capture both the glory and futility of empire, the element of Sir Thopas in Prince Arthur, the savage in the chivalrous, the disquieting similarity between grand vision and grand folly.
Poetry is a useful art.
A poet's ability to generate commentary was commonly regarded in the Renaissance as a hallmark of genius (Kennedy 1995). The verse of Homer and Virgil descended to the Italian Humanists with a wealth of expository scholia and annotation which they duly augmented and transmitted. The advent of printing saw the widespread dissemination of Classical texts ‘cum commentariis variorum’, the first ‘Variorum’ editions recording centuries of scholarship, speculation, and critical dispute. By the end of the fifteenth century the texts of Dante and Petrarch competed with the ancients as sites of linguistic and philological concern and as key texts in the wider debate about the nature of literature's role in society. Only when seen in this context can the radical import of Spenser's Shepheards Calender be appreciated. No English poet had received the level of critical attention accorded to the ancients or Italians. The ‘new poet’ was determined to change all that. The first edition of his pastorals came equipped with the sort of paratexts and commentary one might expect from a scholarly edition of Virgil's Eclogues, yet the studied incompletion of the gloss, adumbrating areas of covert intent to which the glossator is not ‘privy’, is clearly designed as an invitation to future editors. The gloss, in other words, is not intended to be definitive—definitive is where critical invention goes to die—but seminal. Not content to be the creator of a new poetic, Spenser launched a new exegetic: his own.
This Handbook responds to a call for commentary issued by Spenser himself. By prefacing Virgils Gnat with the injunction ‘ne further seeke to glose upon the text’, he inspired generations of commentators to do just that ( ‘Dedication’, 10). Similarly the ‘Letter to Ralegh’ which accompanied the first instalment of The Faerie Queene is better understood as an attempt to generate than to provide exegesis. Its initial (p. 2) assertion of allegorical intent, ‘knowing how doubtfully all Allegories may be construed’, constitutes an open invitation to a certain kind of hermeneutic. The letter's inconsistencies are consequently as productive as its assertions. Only the poem's ‘general intention’ is stated ‘without expressing of any particular purposes or by‐accidents therein occasioned’—they are left to the reader. The verb ‘read’ is used in a dazzling variety of senses throughout The Faerie Queene but its basic meaning, as the OED indicates (v. 1), is to consider, interpret, or discern. It is not only books that can be ‘read’ but emblems, signs, buildings, pictures, and even people, actions, and intentions. All of the poem's protagonists are in this sense also readers, attempting to interpret the world in which they move and involving us in that activity as they do so. Extensive meta‐readings are conducted by Arthur and Guyon in the House of Alma (II.x). Britomart repeatedly ‘over‐reads’ the cryptic injunctions of the House of Busirane ‘yet could not find what sence it figured’ (III.xi.50) and, in what constitutes an allegory of allegory itself, the name ‘Bon Font’ that ‘few could rightly read’ is barely distinguished in the ‘cyphers strange’ of a palimpsest through the partially over‐written letters of ‘Malfont’ which ‘was plainely to be red’ (V.ix.26). Everything depends on how we take ‘rightly’: read one way it endorses political censorship, read another it condemns it. It is an issue that goes straight to the heart of Spenser's conflicted mentality. ‘I have Redd that in all ages’, he has Eudoxus say in A View of the Present State of Ireland, ‘Poets have bene in speciall reputacion and that me seemes not without great Cause’ (Prose, 124). But Eudoxus has not ‘redd’ enough—at least of Spenser. Irenius is arguing for censorship precisely because the Gaelic poets are held in ‘speciall reputacion’. The advocate of poetic liberty in England is the proponent of literary censorship in Ireland. The duality that complicates so much of The Faerie Queene, shadowing ‘virtue’ with barely distinguishable vice, is deeply rooted in the author's mindset. Polar opposites have a disturbing habit of converging in his life and work. His texts demand vigilance: over‐reading, under‐reading, meta‐reading.
‘Caveat lector’. But this was an attitude that Spenser consciously cultivated. From the outset of his career he courts the active, critical reader and his canonicity rests upon the way in which successive generations of such readers have risen to the challenge. E. K. implies that the way in which readers respond to Spenser reflects on themselves as much as the poet: the construction of his verse is ‘learned wythout hardnes, suche indeede as may be perceived of the leaste, understoode of the moste, but iudged onely of the learned’ (Spenser 1999: 28). This was an audacious claim to make for a new work, but the depth and variety of subsequent critical engagement with Spenser's texts, examined in Part V of this Handbook, is a fair measure of his accomplishment. It is my personal view that the commentary attributed to E. K. is very likely to be the outcome of collaboration between Spenser and Harvey (McCabe 2000), but even if that is not the case the Calender labours to create an impression of collaboration between poet and critic. In E. K., the Elizabethan reader is given to understand, the new poet has found a qualified editor. And the message upon which that editor insists is one central to the whole Humanist project, the message that Boccaccio hammered home in the Genealogia Deorum when he insisted that poetry is a ‘useful’ art and therefore worthy of such attention (1930: 36–9).
(p. 3) But how exactly was poetry ‘useful’? Boccaccio was drawing upon the Horatian ideal of the ‘utile dulce’, commonly interpreted in the Middle Ages, particularly through such texts as the Ovide Moralisé, as the provision of moral benefit through aesthetic delight. But he also recognized the inherent problem in such an approach, the potential collapse of the useful into the utilitarian. His argument was more broadly based. Poetry was nothing less than a ‘science’ (rather than a mere ‘faculty’) requiring a set of remarkable technical skills, including a profound linguistic competence encompassing ‘the precepts of grammar and rhetoric’ and ‘a strong and abundant vocabulary’ (40). It required a knowledge of ancient texts, national histories, and topography. It had sufficient power to corrupt or elevate. It might ‘arm kings…launch whole fleets from their docks…stimulate the dull, restrain the rash, subdue the criminal and distinguish excellent men with their proper meed of praise’ (39–40). It was, in other words, an active instrument in the life of the mind, a refiner of language, and a peculiarly potent medium for anatomizing desire in all of its many forms.
These arguments serve as the basis for E. K.'s presentation of the Calender and his justification for providing it with a ‘gloss’. The new poet is to England's ‘mother tongue’ what Theocritus was to Greek, Virgil to Latin, and Petrarch to Italian. Like them he is engaged in a national project, the refinement of the vernacular and enrichment of its literature. By developing English he develops Englishness, ensuring that his countrymen will not be accounted ‘alienes’ in their own tongue or country. Linguistic, and consequently literary, nationalism was central to his vision. Deploring the linguistic ‘degeneracy’ of the Old English in Ireland, Irenius asserts that ‘wordes are the Image of the minde So as they procedinge from the minde the minde must be nedes affected with the wordes So that the speache beinge Irishe the harte muste nedes be Irishe for out of the abundance of the harte the tonge speakethe’ (Prose, 119). By contrast, the new poet has ‘laboured to restore, as to theyr rightfull heritage such good and naturall English words, as have been long time out of use and almost cleare disherited’ (Spenser 1999: 27). This emphasis on reclaiming one's ‘heritage’ proffers poetry as an agent of personal and national identity, thereby implying that the new poet fulfils the Horatian ideal of becoming ‘utilis urbi’ ( ‘useful to the state’ [Epistles II.i.124]). But the essential point, laboured alike by Horace, Boccaccio, and E. K., is that a poet's utility inheres in his craft. It is not just that he conveys an improving or ‘useful’ message—others may also do that—but that the medium through which he does so lends any such message a peculiar efficacy. If the poet ‘never lies’ it is not because he ‘never affirms’, as Sir Philip Sidney suggests (Alexander 2004: 34), but because he crafts a fiction more compelling than fact, a fiction with the potential to become an affirmative ‘vision’. What Spenser cultivated was not the crudely simplistic moral didacticism that does indeed tend to reduce the useful to the utilitarian, but the broader didacticism that recognizes in the literary arts the potential for a deep disquieting of all that is complacent and received. That perception of poetry led commentators such as Servius to recognize in Virgil a critique of the power structures he was supposed to praise, and led E. K. to imply that the burden of even the ‘moral’ eclogues is a good deal more intricate than the (p. 4) categorization might have suggested. The remarkably enigmatic quality of the ‘emblems’ appended to the various eclogues perfectly captures the most salient feature of their artistry, and the tendency towards dialogue and debate that pervades so much of the Spenser canon, both poetry and prose, points in the same direction. Later schools of criticism might advance the notion of the equality of ‘discourses’ but the Renaissance mindset saw things quite differently. At their best the poetic arts were seen to promote an exceptional level of subtlety and sophistication, a heightened quality of communication distinguished by acute verbal discipline and metrical economy that could not be achieved otherwise. Poetry was not just a useful art but a vital one. It offered unique opportunities and the effect was an extraordinary power to ‘move’, what Sidney termed ‘praxis’ (Alexander 2004: 22). This is primarily what lies behind the proem to Faerie Queene IV. What Spenser is defending is the assertion that the worth of the poem inheres in the very elements to which his antagonist has taken exception.
At the heart of this Handbook is the section entitled ‘Poetic Craft’ and to my mind it provides the justification for having a Handbook at all. Without his literary skills Spenser would be indistinguishable from the scores of secretaries, civil servants, and colonists who sought personal advancement on the fringes of empire, living their lives, as one contemporary observer put it, ‘among the savage Kernes in sad exile’ (Hall 1969: 66). Without his literary skills he could never have produced the works examined in Part II upon which his reputation rests. Spenser's subjects are often drawn from the public sphere, but when he speaks of art it is invariably its transformative power (for good or ill) that he emphasizes: the notion of metamorphosis which recurs so obsessively throughout his poetry constitutes a metaphor for the plasticity of the poetic art. Spenser was Elizabeth's subject, but she was his. She might create a poet laureate, but only he could create Gloriana. She is invited to see herself in the many mirrors of his art (III Proem, 5), reflected, refracted, flattered, and distorted. ‘This is, and is not, Cressid’, says a bewildered Troilus is Shakespeare's play (5.2.145), and the reader's response to Gloriana partakes of the same dilemma: this is, and is not, Elizabeth. The inevitable gap between the ideal and real entails an element of critique in the highest panegyric—in fact the higher the panegyric, the deeper the dichotomy.
Spenser distinguishes between the ‘methode’ of a poet and an ‘historiographer’ and not least because of the former's immersion in literary history. In devising his work he has ‘followed all the antique Poets historicall’ and their Renaissance imitators, Arisoto and Tasso. The reader is therefore invited to approach the events of history through the conventions of genre, to watch as the Poet ‘thrusteth into the middest, even where it most concerneth him, and there recoursing to the thinges forepaste, and divining of thinges to come, maketh a pleasing Analysis of all’ (Spenser 2001: 716–17). Oddly enough the term ‘analysis’ is seldom if ever glossed, yet it is crucial. It entails, as the OED demonstrates (n. 1), a breaking down of complex phenomena into their component parts for better understanding. The epithet ‘pleasing’ has often led it to be taken in an anodyne sense, but the ‘pleasure’ of Spenserian verse is of a tougher nature: ‘therfore do you my rimes keep better (p. 5) measure’, says the poet sarcastically, ‘and seeke to please, that now is counted wisemen's threasure’ (VI.xii.41). The emphasis on ‘analysis’ denotes the cutting edge of Spenserian poetics: just as he writes what has been termed ‘hard’ pastoral, he also writes ‘hard’ romance. Fredric Jameson held that historical romance tends ‘to resolve the real contradictions of history in imaginative form’ (1983: 118), but Spenser more characteristically affords irresolution or at best deferral. His poetry is analytical in the most disturbing sense. We are not reassured by the Legend of Justice because the transformation of Elizabethan military might into the inhuman automaton that is Talus was never calculated to have that effect. Although it was once common to seek a key to Spenserian poetics in Spenserian prose the relationship is far more complex. It may well be the poetry that opens the locks of the prose. The image of Talus captures something of the Irish enterprise, and imperial violence in general, that eludes Irenius even at his most graphic. The polyvocality of the verse manages to articulate what is left unspoken in the prose dialogue.
Spenser writes the poetry of engagement not escape. The Shepheardes Calender treats dangerous matter and was published anonymously, the Complaints were censored in England for attacking Lord Burghley, and the second part of The Faerie Queene was banned in Scotland for attacking the memory of Mary Queen of Scots. Ironically the more ‘power’ that poetry is deemed to have, and the more ‘praxis’ it is seen to exercise, the more likely are the authorities to regard it as a competing power. Censorship acknowledges the importance of literature by suppressing it. To such disapproving readers as Burghley Spenser states that he does ‘not sing at all’ (IV Proem, 4). But could he afford to be so exclusive? Burghley was at the centre of government, Spenser at its margins. Boccaccio's theory of poetry, like Philip Sidney's, is cast as a defence. Though powerful in one sense, poetry was feared to be impotent in another. In Virgil's ninth eclogue a defenceless community of pastoral poets attempts to continue singing despite the encroachments of their hostile countrymen and the knowledge that ‘amid the weapons of war…our songs avail as much as, they say, the doves of Chaonia when the eagle comes’ (11–13). It had been rumoured that Menalcas's songs had won them the sort of protection accorded to Tityrus in Eclogue I, but in reality they are all fated to be dispossessed like Tityrus's unfortunate neighbour Meliboeus. Taken together these two eclogues provide much of the subtext for Spenser's various accounts of the literary career from the complaints of the ‘October’ eclogue, through those of The Teares of the Muses, to the dramatic shattering of Colin's vision of the Graces on Mt. Acidale and the final unleashing of the Blattant Beast. But it is precisely this engagement with the social context of literary creativity that ensures that the relentless self‐reflexivity of the canon never issues in solipsism. Spenser's determination to cultivate an active readership is symptomatic of this aspect of his work. Calidore errs in reading pastoral as escapist only to learn that it is, quite literally, inscribed in epic conflict, and the sour conclusion to Book VI illustrates the vulnerability of poetic vision to contemporary politics. The essays in the first section of this Handbook attempt to elucidate the more urgent issues and circumstances with which Spenser's works engage—social, political, religious, and professional. They are not intended to be exhaustive or to (p. 6) constitute a biography. Rather, they attempt to sketch the major axes of contextual concern against which Spenser's creative development may be plotted.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Spenserian poetics is the extraordinary fusion of allegory and parody that is so perfectly calculated to capture both the glory and futility of empire, the element of Sir Thopas in Prince Arthur, the savage in the chivalrous, the disquieting similarity between grand vision and grand folly. The great foundational metaphor, the concept of ‘faerie’, condemned as ignorant superstition in the Calender (gloss to ‘June’, 25) but proffered as sublime invention in the epic (I Proem, 2–4), hovers uncertainly between the two. There are, of course, precedents in ancient literature—Aeneas carries his vision of Roman destiny from the underworld to the overworld through the gate of false dreams (Aeneid VI, 893–8)—but the phenomenon is peculiarly disquieting in Spenser's case because it has its roots not just in the perception of the world's ‘vanities’, but in the possible ‘vanity’, or delusiveness, of poetic invention itself. It is, so to speak, the nightmare that haunts the vision, the self‐doubt against which the ‘defence’ of poetry—though overtly directed against the Burghleys of the world—must ultimately be made. In theory, as the argument to the ‘October’ eclogue claims, poetry is ‘a divine gift and heavenly instinct not to be gotten by laboure and learning, but adorned with both: and poured into the witte by a certaine enthusiasmos and celestial inspiration’. The notion is Platonic, as the gloss indicates, yet Plato was commonly regarded as an enemy to poetry and had identified enthusiasmos as a species of insanity. In his dedicatory letter to Gabriel Harvey, E. K. illustrates this ambivalence when he dismisses ‘the rakehellye route of our ragged rymers (for so themselves use to hunt the letter) which without learning boste, without iudgement iangle, without reason rage and fome, as if some instinct of Poeticall spirite had newly ravished them above the meanenesse of commen capacitie’ (Spenser 1999: 28). The ‘instinct’ is simultaneously identical and contrary to Spenser's own, just as Colin's vision of the Graces is simultaneously sublime and illusory. The very terms ‘art’ and ‘craft’ which denote the poet's ‘cunning’ ( ‘December’, 42) have a range of pejorative connotations that undermine it: the episode of the Bowre of Blisse is, amongst other things, an extended meditation on this problem.
The defence of poetry seeks to create, or ‘fashion’, a community that will endorse the practice of poetry by granting it a public ‘place’—this is, after all, what lies at the heart of the ‘October’ eclogue: ‘O pierlesse Poesye, where is then thy place? (79). Unless the activity is recognized as ‘worthy and comendable’, the skill, however great or potentially transformative, is doomed to frustration. If only William Alabaster were ‘knowne to Cynthia as he ought’, Colin tells us, ‘His Eliseïs would be redde anew’ (CCH, 402–3). It is a very telling, and self‐reflexive, phrase: if the queen were to recognize her would‐be laureate, people would read his work differently and in so doing they would ‘read’ of a different, ‘new’ Eliza. Because Spenser was aware that self‐crowned laureates are actually uncrowned laureates, Colin's vision of the Elizabethan court is one of wasted opportunities and squandered talents. It is an unpromising backdrop against which to endeavour epic but it ensured that the poem would respond to the more recalcitrant aspects of Tudor life rather than merely to the dictates of its political dogma. It made the poetry more interesting at the policy's (p. 7) expense. It ensured that Belphoebe would develop as a satire on Gloriana, that Mercilla would show little if any mercy, and that Cynthia would finally be seen in eclipse.
To attempt to project the future course of Spenser studies is to place oneself in the position of Merlin as he tries to predict the course of English history after Elizabeth (III.iii.50). ‘Yet the end is not’ I can easily agree, but the wizard's ‘halfe extatick stoure’ is harder to negotiate. But there is good reason to share his optimism. This Handbook is merely another stage in a process that will continue with the publication of the forthcoming OUP edition of the Complete Works to which it serves as companion and herald. The intention is to replace the Johns Hopkins Variorum of the 1930s and 1940s with an edition that is at once more responsive to the textual history of Spenser's career—to the history and ecology of the Spenserian book—and to the collaborative circumstances in which so many of his works, such as the translations of A Theatre for Worldlings, the Spenser–Harvey Letters (1580), and Astrophel (1595), were produced or brought to press (see Chapters 8, 13, 16, and 35 below). By also including such previously unpublished materials as the secretarial letters written on behalf of Lord Grey, documents inscribed but not composed by Spenser, the edition will afford a new insight into the ways in which the poet's personal modes of epistolary authority and political polemic were honed in the services of the state (see Burlinson and Zurcher 2009).
Though often insufficiently valued, editorial work is crucial to literary study. Generation after generation it is the new editor who revives the new poet. The process of collaborative creativity and critique that Spenser suggests in E. K. is central to literary study generally. New editions necessarily generate new readings because they constitute new readings in themselves. The history of Spenserian reception changed forever when Matthew Lownes added the Two Cantos of Mutabilitie to The Faerie Queene in 1609, and again when Sir James Ware complemented the first edition of A View of the Present of Ireland with a selection of the poems, and profoundly when the editors of the 1679 Folio prefaced the poetic works with extracts from the Spenser–Harvey Letters (including Spenser's Latin verse) and appended at the end a full text of A View (see Chapter 35 below). But these editors were continuing a tradition begun by Spenser himself. He was the first editor of The Faerie Queene and the ‘text’ was in transition from the outset. Readers of the 1596 Faerie Queene must have been astonished to find the original conclusion to Book Three not merely altered but revised so substantially that the outcome of the storyline shifts from lovers joined to lovers parted. Spenser was fully aware of the critical implications of textual variance: ‘difference of texts’ is credited in Mother Hubberds Tale with occasioning religious schism (387). Yet he consciously sets his readers the challenge of ‘difference’, not only of competing versions and editions but even of identical versions repeated in differing contexts, such as sonnets 35 and 83 of the Amoretti (see Chapter 14 below).
The new OUP edition is heavily informed by the material history of the Book in its respect for contexts and paratexts. If one attempts to read the Spenser–Harvey Letters in the Johns Hopkins Variorum one finds Spenser's contributions in the main text (p. 8) (albeit in reverse order to that of their original publication) but Harvey's replies (also in reverse order) in an appendix at the back of the volume set in the same point size as the annotations. It is as though Spenser's co‐author and collaborator is be regarded as no more than an extended footnote to the poet's work—an impression strengthened by the total absence of annotation for Harvey's writings. Nothing could be further removed from the reading experience of the Elizabethans. The artistic conception of the work as a correspondence is wholly lost and Spenser's letters become almost unintelligible (see Chapter 10 below). The work is the victim of a radically interventionist editorial process that, in seeking to extract a purely ‘Spenserian’ voice from the text, distorts what it attempts to identify by ignoring the collaborative ethos at the heart of the volume's aesthetic. As the title indicates, the whole point of the publication is to offer two voices in dialogue and promote the writers as ‘university wits’: Three proper, and wittie, familiar Letters: lately passed betvvene two Vniversitie men. ‘Between’ is here a key term and the new edition will restore the original design.
An even more crucial difference between the old Variorum and its replacement will consist in the manner in which the latter reflects the course of Spenser's publishing career. By segregating the shorter poems into separate volumes, and consigning them to the status of ‘minor’ works, the John Hopkins Variorum supplies a very disjointed account of Spenser's artistic development. Six years elapsed between the first and second editions of The Faerie Queene but in the meantime there appeared the Complaints, Daphnaïda, Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, Astrophel, and the Amoretti & Epithalamion. Elizabethan readers came to the second edition of the epic through those other works and the effect must have been quite unsettling—particularly in view of what Thomas Warton first identified as Spenser's habit of self‐imitation (Warton 1807: II, 1–46). In the Legend of Temperance Sir Guyon, a virgin knight, destroys the Bowre of Blisse in the service of Gloriana, but in the Amoretti the lady's ‘fayre bosom’ is identified as the speaker's ‘bowre of blisse’ (76) and his ‘hungry eyes’ (83) strongly suggest Acrasian lust (II.xii.78). It is not that these details are wholly irreconcilable but that they function to provoke intergeneric readings that problematize both works even as they unify the canon that contains them. By elucidating the chronological evolution of that canon in all of its variety, the new edition will inevitably demonstrate the inadequacy of Classical templates—such as the Virgilian rota—to Spenser's career and suggest more immediate comparisons with Early Modern authors.
By respecting the integrity of the Spenserian texts and making available for the first time a comprehensive survey of variant readings, the new edition will inevitably prompt new interpretations. The question is what form will they take? The history of the Spenserian book is likely to take centre stage for a while and the availability of the new texts in electronic form, combined with materials already available in WordHoard and on EEBO, is likely to facilitate much needed reconsiderations of Spenser's language, particularly in comparative contexts. These in turn will undoubtedly feed into new generic and formalist studies leading to reassessments of the development of Spenser's technical skills over the course of his writing life. A major benefit, I would hope, would be a reappraisal of Spenser as a translator and adaptor. The (p. 9) essays gathered in Part IV of this Handbook attempt to delineate something of the range and richness of Spenser's sources, subtexts, and intertexts but, as their authors indicate, much remains to be done. What emerges very strongly, however, is just how much of Spenser's canon is inscribed within invisible quotation marks—like the song of the rose in the Bowre of Bliss, or the description of the Goddess of Love in the Temple of Venus. Spenser is in dialogue with a dazzling range of ancient, medieval, and contemporary texts and a wider comparatist approach would certainly prove fruitful.
The contributors to the fifth section of the Handbook make it clear that a great deal of work also remains to be done on the reception of Spenser in both literature and the visual arts. Relatively little, for example, is known of the poet's influence outside the English‐speaking world, and too little of the various ways in which he has inspired paintings, book illustrations, and music. On a wider canvass, Spenser's peculiar form of ‘allegory’, of speaking otherness in all its forms— ‘of forreine lands, of people different’ (MHT, 765)—continues to provide one of the most significant sites in Early Modern literature for studying the interface between aesthetic and political theory. Taken in conjunction, moments such as Prince Arthur's reading of the ‘Briton Moniments’ in Faerie Queene II (x.1–69), the narrator's personal address to contemporary ‘Britons’ on the subject of empire in Faerie Queene IV (xi.22), and Irenius's assertion that some of the most savage of the Irish descend from the Britons (Prose, 170–1), open avenues of approach not just to Spenser's politics but to his poetics that we have yet to explore. It is scarcely surprising that he had such an impact on his contemporaries and upon subsequent generations of readers and writers: he changed the course of literary history, reforming English metrics and initiating a debate about the nature of ‘poetic’ language; he raised major issues about the relationship of art to commerce and patronage, and about the conflict between artistic liberty and state censorship; he contributed to a still ongoing debate on the aims and ethics of colonialism and the consequences of racial difference; and he examined the role of myth, legend, and literature in the construction of national identities. For decades now his work has been at the centre of interest in the fields of narratology, allegory, historicism, and formalism. If the purpose of education is to inspire independent, critical thought, his canon is ‘didactic’ in the best possible way. Four centuries after his death he continues to be the subject not only of academic study but of poems, novels, and plays. But most important of all, he continues to be read and enjoyed. A useful art indeed!
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