Whatever David did or didn't say, there is a very useful article on
Spenser's language by S. K. Heninger, Jr, discussing the memorability (or
not) of Spenser's language, and our tendency to read _through_ it to the
visual forms: 'Words and Meter in Spenser and Scaliger', Huntington
Library Quarterly, 50 (1987), 309-22. See particularly pp. 309-10 (which I
quote here at length because I have often thought of them over the past
few days' worth of conversation): 

A great deal has been said about Spenser's diction--the archaisms and
inkhorn terms and neologisms, its sweetness and artificiality and
decorousness, its debt to Vergil and Chaucer and the Pléiade. Being a
product of the humanist curriculum, Spenser could hardly have been other
than seriously self-conscious about his choice of words, so all of this
linguistic analysis is valuable. It reveals an attitude toward language
(and behind that, a poetics) which is relevant to interpreting the
Spenserian texts. Yet no one, to my knowledge, has commented upon what
seems to me the overriding quality of Spenser's language: its remarkable
evanescence. The actual words Spenser uses are eminently forgettable.

As we read the Spenserian page, the actual words pass rapidly through our
consciousness. We don't remember the work as a verbal system. We can keep
in mind Spenser's conceptual constructs--for instance, the Palace of
Lucifera or the Garden of Adonis, and even the more kinetic instance of
Calidore's interruption of Colin Clout's piping on Mt. Acidale. But we
don't recall the language that Spenser uses to express these concepts.
I've tested this observation over the years by asking numerous colleagues
what they can quote from the Spenserian canon; and even those who work
extensively with Spenser can do no more than repeat the first line of _The
Faerie Queene_, and perhaps "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song",
since Eliot picked up this refrain. Never do I hear anything from _The
Shepheardes Calender_ or _Muiopotmos_ or _Amoretti_ or the much-admired
_Epithalamion_. Why are Spenser's words so self-effacing? All of us can
quote great gobbets from Shakespeare, for example, and Milton: but also, I
suspect, from Donne, and perhaps even Wyatt--not to mention Pope and
Wordsworth and Keats. Their language sticks in the mind. And when we come
to our own century, we recall how a modernist like Eliot foregrounded the
surface of poetry, its verbal system, and decreed that all a poem consists
of is its language. A poet such as e. e. cummings carried this stricture
even farther and dealt with words as though they were physical objects to
be handled [like Skelton, and Spenser in _SC_, but never mind.
--a.z.]--dissecting them, adding them together, inserting syllables in the
midst of a word, arranging them spatially on the page.

But Spenser seems to have subscribed to just the opposite belief about
language in poetry: it should be as transparent a medium as possible,
calling no unnecessary attention to itself, offering the minimal
interference between the poet's meaning and his reader. Spenser hoped to
make language a neutral medium of expression, the palpable integument in
which his artifact is presented to the public, but neither its form nor
its content. The verbal system is a disposable husk of no value in itself,
to be thrown away as soon as possible in the construal of a poem. And
that's what we do, forgetting the language _per se_ and moving on to some
other intellective process. Although we recognize his achievement and
grant him an important place in our literary history, no one goes around
quoting Spenser, as we quote the other major figures in our repertoire.



Andrew Zurcher
Gonville & Caius College
Cambridge CB2 1TA
United Kingdom
tel: +44 1223 335 427

hast hast post hast for lyfe