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Spenser in Life: Students and Teachers From Keats to Alpers

book rev1Minor miracles are literature’s stock in trade. Thus an English poet who died at 47 in 1599 can change the lives of a stableman’s son in London in 1813, a graduate student at Indiana University in 1944, and a sophomore at the University of California-Berkeley in 1963. The poet whose work enforced the change is Edmund Spenser. The intermediaries include John Keats’s friend and tutor Charles Cowden Clarke, followed some 130 years later by Rudolph Gottfried, editor of the Prose Works for the Variorium Edition of Spenser overseen by A.H. Judson, who wrote the Variorium biography (1945). The last and personally most significant intermediary, and the inspiration for this column, is Renaissance scholar Paul J. Alpers, who died at 80 on Sunday, May 19.

If there were a Mount Rushmore of pre-1700 English literature, Edmund Spenser would have a place up there along with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. The sculptor would be working in the dark, however, since the elegant Elizabethan face on the cover of Andrew Hadfield’s Edmund Spenser: A Life (2012) is a portrait of “A gentleman said to be Edmund Spenser.” As the biographer himself admits, there is “no reliable image” of the poet, although he clearly has a soft spot in his heart for the “charming print” from English Literature for Boys and Girls that shows Spenser reading something of his to a suavely attentive Sir Walter Raleigh.

Clarke and Keats

According to Robert Gittings’s biography John Keats (1968), it was the 26-year-old C.C. Clarke’s reading of Spenser’s “Epithalamion” to the 18-year-old Keats that struck the “spark” which, in Clarke’s words, “fired the train of Keats’s poetic tendencies.” Keats was “so enchanted” that he took away the first volume of The Faerie Queen that night, and, as Clarke says, “ramped through” it “like a young horse turned into a Spring meadow.” Merely reading “Spring-headed Hydras and sea-shouldering Whales” wasn’t enough for him; according to Clarke, Keats “hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant as he repeated the last words.”

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1819 lecture on The Faerie Queen, the element outside “all particular space or time” that moves short, pugnacious, impressionable young men to mimic horses and whales is viewed in “the domains neither of history or geography” but “truly in land of Faery, that is, of mental space. The poet has placed you in a dream, a charmed sleep, and you neither wish, nor have the power, to inquire where you are, or how you got there.”

Although Keats’s first recorded poem, no surprise, was “Imitation of Spenser,” the Spenserian fancy flows most freely in his early letters along with citings from Shakespeare and other literary forebearers. Keats is still exulting in Spenser’s “Spring meadow,” as when a borrowing of “sun-shine in a shady place” from the first book of the Faerie Queen inspires his “Close to the source, bright, pure, and undefil’d/Whence gush the streams of song.”

The author of The Faerie Queen is all over a verse letter from 1816 to Clarke, with references to “Mulla’s stream” which flows near Spenser’s home in Kilcolman, and allusions to the Faerie Queen’s Belphoebe, Una, Archimago, and, in case you doubt where he’s coming from, “Spenserian vowels that elope with ease,/And float along like birds o’er summer seas.”

By the time he writes to Benjamin Bailey on 13 March 1818, Keats has abandoned “faery land” for an earthier element as he imagines ways to discourage his ailing brother Tom from coming to join him in Devonshire’s “splashy, rainy, misty snowy, foggy, haily floody, muddy slipshod County.” When he does fall back on Spenser, referring to the flowers that “have an Acrasian spell about them,” it’s only to launch another flight of fancy wherein he’s “able to beat off the devonshire waves like soap froth,” which, after references to Julius Caesar, England’s strong Men, and Edmond Ironside’s descendants,” brings him to one of those details his art and character are grounded on: “Scenery is fine — but human nature is finer — The Sward is richer for the tread of a real, nervous english foot.”

book rev2Spenser in Indiana

The Indiana University graduate student whose life was changed by Spenser enjoys reading to his six-year-old son from handsomely decorated and illustrated little books like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Stories from the Faerie Queen Told to the Children by Jeanie Lang, whose preface claims Edmund Spenser could see Fairyland “more clearly” than other men. In fact, the Indiana campus. made a perfect Fairyland for children living near the lofty limestone castle of the Union Building with its terraces and battlements and balconies for sentries and bowmen, and down below a moat we called the Jordan River, with a “draw bridge” across all two yards of it. A spacious greensward called Dunn Meadow fronted the castle, enriched by the tread of sneaker-footed female students firing arrows at red-blue-yellow bull’s eye targets on sunny afternoons while we staged our own Robin Hood-style tournaments with sticks for swords, riding the same imaginary horses on which we galloped downtown for cowboy-movie Saturday matinees. The campus woods on the other side of the castle were dark and deep with sunny Spenserian glades and “gloomy glens” like the one where Sir Guyon meets Mammon on his way to Merlin’s cave.

In the midst of these woods was the humble single-story building housing the offices and classrooms of the English Department where resident Spenserians Judson and Gottfried taught the courses that helped make a scholar of my father. What specifically lured him into the enchanted forests of academia, however, was Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender and its mysterious presenter, a personage known only by the initials “E.K.” My father’s mission to determine the identity of E.K., something no one had been able to do in just under 400 years (and to this day, it seems), led to an article for Studies in Philology taking issue with the theory that Spenser himself was E.K. The larger result was the plunge into Medieval studies that made Bloomington our home for the next 30 years. A decade and a half later I was reading The Faerie Queen in Rudolph Gottfried’s senior survey

Spenser at Berkeley

Of the UC Berkeley campus, which was once upon a time even more deeply wooded than Indiana’s, all I remember is the little bridge where my future wife and I sat talking for hours the night we met. Next year her life would be changed, not so much by Spenser as by the teaching of Paul Alpers. Berkeley in the mid-sixties was an exciting place to be. You could cut your political teeth at demonstrations led by Mario Savio; dance to the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore in San Francisco; hang out with filmmakers like Ben Van Meter who did the light shows at the Avalon Ballroom; have your math homework done by Phil Lesh of the Dead; and take classes from poets like Thom Gunn, critics like Stanley Fish, Stephen Orgel, Fred Crews of the Pooh Perplex, and celebrity teachers like Edward Teller.

Above and beyond all the political, cultural, and musical excitement was the experience of reading The Faerie Queen for a teacher who made the poem matter so much that you were up all night writing papers (often handed in late) meant to more than meet his expectations. The other teachers went about their business with varying degrees of professionalism. Although Alpers was a tall, imposing presence “from another world,” a graduate of Reuben Brower’s famous Hum 6 course at Harvard, he read and taught and lived Spenser earnestly, wholeheartedly, and unaffectedly. His essay on King Lear had just appeared in Brower and Poirier’s landmark anthology, In Defense of Reading (1963). Four years later Princeton University Press brought out Alpers’s magnum opus, The Poetry of the Faerie Queene. 

That undergraduate course in Spenser was the beginning of a 50 year friendship sharing books and films and MLA conventions. Jeanie Lang’s note at the beginning of Stories from the Faerie Queen says of Edmund Spenser the simple essence of what could be said of Paul Alpers: “He was brave and true and gentle, and loved so dearly all things that are beautiful and all things that are good, that his eyes could see Fairyland more clearly than the eyes of other men ever could.”

Andrew Hadfield’s biography is available at the Princeton Public Library.

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