Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

English and American Literature


English (en)

Date of Award

January 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Joseph Loewenstein


Edmund Spenser's concepts of language have been seen as "anti-linguistic" to the extent that his idealism extols the power of thought while depicting speech as a corrupting monster--most notably the Blatant Beast of The Legend of Courtesy, Book 6 of The Faerie Queene. My thesis re-examines Spenser's antipathies for language, telling the story of his definition of the poet both in terms of his understandings of language and his part in the struggle to legitimize English vernacular. I first focus on Spenser's imagery of naming, tongues, writing, and identity in his later work, particularly the Platonic ideas in The Fowre Hymnes and The Faerie Queene, and then I show how this late pattern sprang from a resistance to humanist lexicography evident in his early Shepheardes Calender. Spenser wanted poets to shape the language anew and felt pressure from scholars who were re-conceiving languages in the sixteenth century. His characterization of Calepine and Mirabella in Book 6, both named after influential Latin language lexicons, articulates among other things a response to his one-time headmaster, the education-reformer Richard Mulcaster, who advocated lexicography as a model activity for shaping official English. This late attention to lexicons stems from an earlier effort to control the reception of his distinctive diction in The Shepheardes Calender. There Spenser's use of the didactic role of the glossator complements and authorizes the aesthetics of the poetry by engaging the reader in the process of finding word meanings. Thus for Spenser the poet's role in shaping language fits amid the interests of educators like Mulcaster, poetic patrons like Sir Philip Sidney, political authorities like Lord Burghley, and humanist lexicographers like Henri Estienne. Telling such a story helps to explain his attitudes toward literary models, whether classical like Vergil or vernacular like Pierre de Ronsard. It also allows me in my final chapter to show how Spenser's depiction of the relation of poetry to power in The Faerie Queene is more critical of humanist ideals than what we find in his A View of the Present State of Ireland, where his rhetoric narrows the vision of language's relation to identity and power in service of appeals to humanist educators.


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