In romances—Renaissance England’s version of the fantasy novel—characters often discover books that turn out to be magical or prophetic, and to offer insights into their readers’ selves. The Immaterial Book examines scenes of reading in important romance texts across genres: Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and The Tempest, Wroth’s Urania, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It offers a response to “material book studies” by calling for a new focus on imaginary or “immaterial” books and argues that early modern romance authors, rather than replicating contemporary reading practices within their texts, are reviving ancient and medieval ideas of the book as a conceptual framework, which they use to investigate urgent, new ideas about the self and the self-conscious mind.
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About the Author
Sarah Wall-Randell is Assistant Professor of English, Wellesley College.
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The Immaterial Book
Reading and Romance in Early Modern England
By Sarah Wall-Randell
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2013 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
"Antiquities, Which No Body Can Know"
Spenser's Books and the Romance of the Past
Magic Books and Material Books
Amid the most basic premises of The Faerie Queene as a literary project, among the necessary preconditions of its creation, lies an idea about books: the assumption that books are a powerful medium for transmitting knowledge. "The generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline," Spenser says, in the most remembered line of his "Letter to Ralegh," testifying to a belief that a book, taken in "generall" — that is, both with respect to the class or genre to which it belongs and also as a whole — could make a self.
As I will argue in this chapter, despite this confident account of the nature of books in the letter, the world portrayed within The Faerie Queene will turn out to portray a much more complicated relationship between books and knowledge, between reading and understanding. Books, in a "print culture" worthy of the name, ought to be "legible," that is, intelligible: they should be stable, rational, transparent conduits for information. The book is the sign, the index, of information in early modern thought and iconography. Within The Faerie Queene as it appeared in 1590, and especially in Books II and III, books are set up as touchstones of transcendent knowledge, whether historical or prophetic. But they then fail to produce straightforward understanding. They turn out to be incomplete, confusing, and unsystematic, and they demand to be experienced not through reason, as one might expect, but through wonder. The poem illustrates the way in which no book, not even a supernatural book, can adequately contain or perfectly convey knowledge. In the place of knowledge, however, books in the poem offer to their readers spectacles of wonder and propose a different kind of "knowing" of the past, the future, or the reader's self. As we will see, the mysterious turns out to offer a pleasure all its own. Through spectacles of reading in which understanding fails but wonder overwhelms and delights, Books II and III celebrate not the satisfaction of finding information but the pleasure of seeking, the fascination of being in the presence of the unknowable.
In The Faerie Queene as a whole poem, of course, books appear in diverse situations, figuring as locations of power both benevolent and malign. The first canto of Book I offers the memorable image of the monster Errour's "vomit full of bookes and papers" (I.i.20), a comment on the proliferation of contentious polemical books and pamphlets in Reformation culture, and also features a concise and emblematic demonstration of the ambivalent nature of books. As a supposed religious hermit, Archimago carries a pocket-sized Bible or devotional work: "And by his belt his book he hanging had" (I.i.29). We are asked to note, as the poem insists on that book's materiality, its solidity and weight, in the relentless iambic alliteration that suggests the heavy little book, presumably a psalter or breviary, swinging against the hermit's side with every step. The same book, of course, mutates and multiplies into "Magick bookes and artes of sundry kindes" (I.i.36), once Archimago reverts to his true form of Popish conjurer; Spenser illustrates how the book as a category of object can slip between iconic and multifarious, between the sacred and the idolatrous.
Later, when Arthur and Redcrosse exchange tokens to mark the sealing of their friendship, the knight's New Testament is figured as a tool of holy magic: "A booke, wherein his Saueour's testament / Was writ with golden letters rich and braue; / A worke of wondrous grace, and hable soules to saue" (I.ix.19). Interestingly, the gift from Arthur for which Redcrosse exchanges this book is a typically marvelous and precious romance object, a secular magic cure, "a box of Diamond sure / Embowd with gold and gorgeous ornament," containing a universal medicine "of wondrous worth." In this moment of reciprocal honor, Redcrosse's book and Arthur's romance accessory or emblem are set equivalent to each other, their interchangeability noted in the parallel use of the intensely romance-coded descriptor "wondrous." Inevitably, books are historically embedded objects for a sixteenth-century writer, working in the aftermath of the advent of print in Europe in the mid-1400s (in England in 1476; significantly, the first book printed in England, by Caxton, was a romance, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye) and the subsequent, slow but continual diffusion of books and other printed matter across a broader literate spectrum. Yet books as they appear in The Faerie Queene occupy the roles of magic, totemic objects, rather than the places, accustomed or newfangled, of books in the studies, pews, and stationers' shops of Elizabethan England. The argument that immediately suggests itself is that the mimetic mode of the poem, epic romance, almost requires the objects that serve as props within its narrative to take on a supernatural significance. But Spenser's mystical, occult mode of representing books does not necessarily go with his self-staked generic territory. Comparison with one of Spenser's most important and most acknowledged models, the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto, demonstrates how a Renaissance romance poet might choose to comment explicitly, in this case comically, on the historical circumstances of print culture. In Orlando Furioso, first published in 1516, the wise woman Logestilla gives Astolfo, an English knight, a magic book. In the 1591 translation of Sir John Harington, we find the book described thus:
But chiefly to this English Duke she gave
Of secret skill a little written book
Containing many a precept wise and grave
The which of her most thankfully he took;
These teach a man from charms himself to save
That in the same advisedly doth look,
And that to find them out he may be able,
The book had in the end a perfite table.
The "table," or index, was a technological innovation in the early sixteenth-century printed book, and the way it makes this magic book modern and practical goes comically against the romance mystique, its deliberate archaism. Later, Astolfo has occasion to use the book, when he wants to cause a castle to vanish.
He took his book and searcheth in the table
How to dissolve the place he might be able,
And straight in th'index for it he doth look
Of palaces framd by such strange illusion.
Not only does Astolfo's encyclopedia of spells have a handy index, but the index seems, conveniently, to have an entry for "palaces: framed by illusion." Unlike the fairy-tale and nightmare magic books of The Faerie Queene, Orlando Furioso's conjuring book could have come from the study of a humanist scholar or from a London bookseller's stall. In contrast to Ariosto, for whom aspects of print culture inspire a moment of meta-awareness of the conventions of romance (moments of meta-awareness being also one of the conventions of romance, especially in the case of the dryly ironic Ariosto), Spenser is more interested in the ways in which books can evoke, rather than deflate, wonder. Staging two spectacular texts, Books II and III of The Faerie Queene dramatize that totalizing tendency, that encyclopedic dream, of the book as a capacious and capable form, while simultaneously exploring the possibility that the fascination of the book might lie not in potent totality, but in incompleteness.
Arthur and the "Wonder of Antiquity"
The Faerie Queene occupies a unique and self-conscious position at the generic confluence of chivalric romance, on the one hand, and national epic history, on the other. It purports to give the noble reader a complete education in Christian virtue, and yet its idiom is secular, comprised of the adventures of knights and ladies, the stuff of romance, that culturally devalued discourse marked as old-fashioned, condemned by moralists, and derided as low-class, fit only for (but dangerous to the morals of) servants and women. In 1524, Vives was already dismissing "those ungracious bokes ... : Amadise, Florisande, ... Arthur Guye Bevis and many other" as "bokes but ydle men wrote unlearned, and set al upon fylth and viciousnes ..." In The Scholemaster (1545), Ascham describes romance as old-fashioned, an insidious waste of time, and now Romish as well.
In our forefathers tyme, whan Papistrie, as a standing poole, covered and overflowed all England, fewe bookes were read in our tong, savying certaine bookes [of] Chevalrie, as they sayd, for pastime and pleasure, which, as some say, were made in Monasteries, by idle Monkes, or wanton Chanons. ... Suffer these bookes to be read, and they shall soone displace all bookes of godly learnyng.
In a way, for Ascham, romance reading does not count as reading at all: it was the characteristic activity of what he sees as a particularly illiterate time in history, when "fewe bookes were read." Now, in a brighter age, these books (what Jonson would later call "mouldy tales"; here, the source of that "mold" is claimed to be Catholic algae) serve to displace real, "godly" reading. Even defenders of the Arthurian tradition, such as John Leland, acknowledged the texts' state of corruption and urged that it was necessary to purge the romance elements, leaving only true, verifiable history. "It appeareth most evidently, that both obscure and absurde reportes have crept into the historie of Arthure," he admits, and he urges "casting awaye trifles, cutting off olde wives tales, and superfluous fables ... to reade, scanne upon, and preserve in memorie [only] those thinges which are consonant by Authoritie."
The Faerie Queene's negotiation of romance and history becomes paramount in the episode, at the heart of Book II, of the chronicles of Britain and Faerieland. It is fitting and perhaps inevitable that the question of genre should emerge here, since Spenser's key source for the British genealogy that Arthur reads in Canto x, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (ca. 1136), itself contains a very visible interplay between the linear demands of history and the dilatory attraction of romance. Geoffrey takes as much space to tell the story of Arthur's life and the adventures of Arthur's court as he does to cover the previous 1,300 years of history, from the time Brutus came to England to Merlin's prophecy of the birth of Arthur. After recounting Arthur's removal, mortally wounded, to the Isle of Avalon, Geoffrey gets back on track, but only another dozen pages are necessary for the remaining 150 years he chronicles. This text marks the first account of "King Arthur" as anything but a minor historical figure: Geoffrey's account is the initial point of departure for the ensuing, vastly fertile legend; his history is the first instantiation of Arthurian romance. Arthur is the impetus for Geoffrey's veer from historical chronicle into the romance mode; it is as if Arthur were a dam that turned the swift river of Geoffrey's narrative into what Ascham would have called a "standing pool." When Spenser acknowledges Geoffrey as his source, he is thus taking on board the epistemological questions of how romance is different from history and of the genesis of romance itself.
Further evidence that the problem of generic identification is central to the poem may be seen in Spenser's elaborate explanation to Ralegh that he imagines himself as a "Poet historical" rather than a "Historiographer." While a historian recounts events as they happened, he famously says, a poet "thrusteth into the middest." In the chronicles passage, The Faerie Queene gives narrative life to the reader's disorientation at being thus "thrust[ed]," and it proposes that the pleasure of disorientation, not the uncovering of historical truth, is the reader's reward. In this episode, which conjures a tactile, sensual experience of "history" and locates it in the monumental yet permeable space of a book, Spenser suggests a romance mode of reading history.
After proceeding through the lower rooms of the House of Alma, which serve as an allegory of the human body, Prince Arthur and Sir Guyon arrive at the last of the three attic chambers of the brain, the library of Eumnestes, or memory. Arthur finds an encyclopedic history of Britain, "An auncient booke, hight Briton moniments" (II.ix.59). Moniments could mean "records," "chronicles," or even "evidence," as in Foxe's Actes and Monuments (1563), his history of the Protestant church; at the same time, a monument is a sepulchre or memorial structure (a signification that is perhaps also contained in Foxe's use of the term for the title of his enormous folio volumes). Guyon, meanwhile, picks up "Antiquitee of Faery lond." The two knights then settle down separately to study: "Whereat they burning both with fervent fire / Their countreys auncestry to vnderstond, / Crau'd leaue of Alma, and that aged sire / To read those bookes" (stanza 60). Arthur pores over the genealogy of the kings of Britain, starting with the Trojan hero Brutus and continuing through many stanzas and centuries of some glorious deeds and many tragic falls. Indeed, the history of British kings presented here is striking, as Harry Berger observes, for its misfortune: "One inordinate example follows another: carnage, anarchy, sedition; murders not only of kings but of fathers, husbands, brothers, children. ... seven hundred years of almost uninterrupted mayhem." Finally, the reader begins to come up toward the present (or what counts as the present in this moment of the poem, which is the time of Arthur, although we also know that, in The Faerie Queene's romance time scheme, if Gloriana is on the throne, Arthur must already be sleeping in his tomb). Then, abruptly, the thread of the narrative breaks off in midsentence.
After him Vther, which Pendragon hight,
Succeeding There abruptly it did end,
Without full point, or other Cesure right,
As if the rest some wicked hand did rend,
Or th'Authour selfe could not at least attend
To finish it: that so vntimely breach
The Prince him selfe halfe seemeth to offend,
Yet secret pleasure did offence empeach,
And wonder of antiquity long stopt his speach.
The chronicle ends in a sudden gesture of violence, enacted by a physically vivid "wicked hand," made even more corporeally present because the motion of the hand happens in the same grammatical structure as the action of the passage, giving the impression that the air still reverberates with the sound of tearing paper. The text "did end," and with the two verbs in the same tense, it seems that at the same moment, in the line's answering rhyme, the "hand did rend." The kinetic activity of the lines, stark and immediate, is balanced against the grammatical construction "As if," which keeps the whole action contrary to fact. Meanwhile, the startling break in the second line of the stanza makes the strangeness of this moment palpable. Bart van Es observes, "Nowhere else in The Faerie Queene do we find a capitalized verb not preceded by a full stop"; indeed, it is, I believe, Spenser's only deployment of such a typographical trompe l'oeil, representing the enjambment, so to speak, of two texts, the edge of Briton Moniments abutting the edge of the Book of Temperance. We, the readers of The Faerie Queene, suddenly disoriented, realize only in retrospect that we have been reading Briton Moniments all this time, have been holding it in our hands, looking through Arthur's eyes.
Line 5 introduces another character, as yet unannounced in the chronicle, "th'Author selfe" — an absentminded (or perhaps time-pressed) creator, unable to "attend" to the task at hand, whose capitalized name looks strikingly similar to the name of the royal reader, Arthur self. Like Spenser's "poet historicall," the author here thrusts into the middest. The focus then changes to "the Prince him selfe" and his initial reaction of half offense at being halted in his reading, at this interruption of service. The stanza, then, moves in increments through a series of subjectivities, assigning agency in the text first to the characters (Uther Pendragon), then to the story itself, then to the author, then ultimately to the reader. Then another emotion, this one untrammeled with "as if" or "half," bubbles up through the cautious syntax: "secret pleasure" forces out "offense." Within a few lines, the harshly kinetic "rend" and "breach" and the sharp consonants of "wicked" evolve into the sibilant, almost luxurious s's of "secret pleasure." Finally, the stanza resolves itself into a suspended, crystalline moment of silence, stillness, and "wonder."
Excerpted from The Immaterial Book by Sarah Wall-Randell. Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "Antiquities, Which No Body Can Know": Spenser's Books and the Romance of the Past 19
Chapter 2 Dreaming of the Book in Cymbeline 47
Chapter 3 "Volumes That I Prize": The Spaces of the Book and the Mind in The Tempest 76
Chapter 4 "A Booke Layd By, New Lookt On": The Romance of Reading in Urania and Don Quixote 105