This book examines the satirical poetry of Edmund Spenser and argues for his importance as a model and influence for younger poets writing satires in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The book focuses on reading satirical texts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in relation to one another, with specific attention to the role that Edmund Spenser plays in that literary subsystem. The book connects key Spenserian texts in The Shepheardes Calender and the Complaints volume with poems by a range of authors in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, including Joseph Hall, Thomas Nashe, Tailboys Dymoke, Thomas Middleton, and George Wither to advance the thesis that Spenser was seen by his contemporaries as highly relevant to satire in Elizabethan England. For scholars of satire, the book offers a fuller discussion and theorization of the type of satire that Spenser wrote, “indirect satire,” than has been provided elsewhere. A theory of indirect satire benefits not just Spenser studies, but satire studies as well. For scholars of English Renaissance satire in particular, who have tended to focus on the formal verse satires of the 1590s to the exclusion of attention to more indirect forms such as Spenser’s, this book is a corrective, an invitation to recognize the importance of a style of satire that has received little attention.
The first chapter begins with an analysis of indirect meaning-making in satire, discussing how allusion, symbol, and analogy can work to create allegorical satirical meanings that invite the reader to project insights from the text to the real world. Chapter 1 explores the literary, natural-historical, symbolic, and allegorical meanings that Spenser’s culture attached to foxes in order to give a sense of the complexity of Spenser’s use of animal imagery to create indirect satire in his most famous satirical character, the Fox of Mother Hubberds Tale. The chapter closes with a sketch of Spenser’s career as a satirist, aiming to create a sense of story and to connect the story of Spenser-as-satirist with better-known discussions of Spenser’s career trajectory from such scholars as Richard Helgerson and Patrick Cheney.
Chapter 5 considers two early works of Thomas Middleton with reference to the social and political context of the turn of the seventeenth century, with special attention to how the Bishops’ Ban of 1599, which banned several books and restricted the future publication of satirical works, affected the literary subfield of satire in England. Following the 1591 calling-in of Spenser’s Complaints volume, which included the satirical animal fable Mother Hubberds Tale, authors largely avoided publishing anything like an animal fable. This chapter argues, though, that the young Thomas Middleton wanted to signal his allegiance with the values and ideas espoused by Spenser, and that he does this indirectly in his 1599 Micro-Cynicon through allusions and analogies that render his formal verse satires circuitously Spenserian. Five years later, Middleton published a much more obviously Spenserian work that, with its nostalgia for Queen Elizabeth’s reign and use of talking insects and birds, suggests more fully the ongoing importance of Spenser as an inspiration to the young poet Middleton before he became the dramatist Middleton. The chapter closes by briefly contrasting the pervasive Spenserianism of the young Middleton with John Donne’s perhaps faddish use of animal fable in his Metempsychosis; Poêma Satyricon.
The final chapter looks at two moments in the early seventeenth century: Michael Drayton’s response to the change of monarchs in two poems, To the Maiestie of King James from 1603 and The Owle from 1604, and George Wither’s self-fashioning as a Spenserian satirist in a series of four texts a decade later, from Abuses, Stript and Whipt (1613) to The Shepheards Hunting (1615). In both cases, the authors signal their allegiances to Spenser indirectly, with Drayton creating in The Owle an animal satire that references Spenser by alluding to his poetic forebears and Wither including pervasive animal and beast fable imagery in his formal verse satires in Abuses, Stript and Whipt. Significantly, though, the imprisonment that Wither endured as punishment for publishing Abuses, Stript and Whipt led to such an increase in his reputation as a courageous poet that he felt confident enough, in The Shepheards Hunting, to allegorize his own life and situation in ways that depict him as the new Spenserian satirist.
Chapter 2 begins by discussing previous scholarly work on Spenserian satires with reference to the ideas on indirect satire outlined in chapter 1 before moving to an application of these ideas to two Spenserian contexts. First, the chapter considers Spenser’s self-designation as “the New Poet” in The Shepheardes Calender as an allusion that signals satirical intent. Whereas the “Old Poet” referenced is clearly Chaucer, the phrase “new poet” itself serves as an allusion, setting up a satiric genealogy connecting Spenser to John Skelton and, through him, to Catullus (a poet who, though “new” to Cicero, was an “old” poet when the young Virgil briefly imitated him before rejecting his style to form his own). The second half of the chapter examines Spenser’s use of allegorical satire and allegory as satire in Daphnaïda, analyzing the ways that Spenser signals readers to interpret the poem satirically through playful use of allegory and metaphor.
With Chapter 3, the discussion moves from Spenser to a wider circle of influence, starting with two somewhat reductive views from contemporaries of what Spenser “meant” in the literary system of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Two friends, Joseph Hall and William Bedell, wrote works that suggest an image of Spenser as an uncomplicated, straightforwardly decorous poet. Hall repeatedly alludes to well-known Spenserian images, which he imports into his own satires in Virgidemiarum Sixe Bookes in order to contrast them with his own disgusting imagery, suggesting an impatience with Spenser’s well-known delicacy and decorum. The less truculent Bedell implies a similarly uncomplicated view of Spenser in his poorly executed Spenserian poem, The Shepherds Tale of the Pouder-Plott, which takes as inspiration the Spenserian pastoral satire of The Shepheardes Calender and produces instead pastoral panegyric for King James I. In these two views of what “Spenser” meant to the writers of his time, we see the side of Spenser that Karl Marx later immortalized as “Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet.”
Chapter 4 provides two case studies of writers who found in Spenser, and particularly in his indirect satirical tools of allusion and allegory, inspiration for creating their own puzzlingly indirect works. The chapter explores the intertextual relationships between Thomas Nashe’s Choise of Valentines and Spenser’s “March” and between Tailboys Dymoke’s Caltha Poetarum and Spenser’s Muiopotmos, arguing that these poets use allusions to and intertextuality with Spenser to signal that the reader ought to read for allegorical satire. The chapter argues that Nashe creates his Choise of Valentines in part to take satirical aim at Spenser himself, or rather, the oversimplified version of “the decorous Spenser” discussed in chapter 3, to suggest the foolishness of subscribing to idealizing views of love while also offering some sly insults to Frances Walsingham and Queen Elizabeth. The offense to the queen is clearer, though still indirect, in Caltha Poetarum, and the second half of chapter 4 uses that work to consider the possibility that some contemporary viewers found satire on Queen Elizabeth in Spenser’s Muiopotmos. The chapter closes with a coda that aims to bring together the two halves of the chapter through a brief discussion of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis.