The Pain of Reformation argues that Edmund Spenser's 1590 Faerie Queene represents an extended meditation on emerging notions of physical, social, and affective vulnerability in Renaissance England. Histories of violence, trauma, and injury have dominated literary studies, often obscuring vulnerability, or an openness to sensation, affect, and aesthetics that includes a wide range of pleasures and pains. This book approaches early modern sensations through the rubric of the vulnerable body, explores the emergence of notions of shared vulnerability, and illuminates a larger constellation of masculinity and ethics in post-Reformation England.
Spenser's era grappled with England's precarious political position in a world tense with religious strife and fundamentally transformed by the doctrinal and cultural sea changes of the Reformation, which had serious implications for how masculinity, affect, and corporeality would be experienced and represented. Intimations of vulnerability often collided with the tropes of heroic poetry, producing a combination of defensiveness, anxiety, and shame. It has been easy to identify predictably violent formations of early modern masculinity but more difficult to see Renaissance literature as an exploration of vulnerability.
The underside of representations of violence in Spenser's poetry was a contemplation of the precarious lives of subjects in post-Reformation England. Spenser's adoption of the allegory of Venus disarming Mars, understood in Renaissance Europe as an allegory of peace, indicates that The Faerie Queene is a heroic poem that militates against forms of violence and war that threatened to engulf Europe and devastate an England eager to militarize in response to perceived threats from within and without. In pursuing an analysis, disarmament, and redefinition of masculinity in response to a sense of shared vulnerability, Spenser's poem reveals itself to be a vital archive of the way gender, violence, pleasure, and pain were understood.
Joseph Campana —
Joseph Campana is Assistant Professor of English at Rice University. He is a well-published poet as well as a scholar; his poems have been collected in The Book of Faces.
Campana, Joseph. The pain of Reformation: Spenser, vulnerability, and the ethics of masculinity. Fordham, 2012. 286p index; ISBN 9780823239108. Reviewed in 2012nov CHOICE.
Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser is commonly seen as a militant Protestant whose Faerie Queene teaches a rigorous morality through the allegorical exploits of the knights of Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, and so on. By contrast, Campana (Rice Univ.) portrays Spenser's epic as a thorough critique of the violence of moral clarity and an outright exposé of heroic masculinity. Far from positing "aggressive moralistic heroism" as an example to be imitated, Campana's Spenser "disarms and reforms masculinity as a project of ethics," celebrating the virtue of vulnerability in the name of poetry and "what is most real about lived experience--pain, affect, and carnality." Campana's introduction establishes his problematic and then sketches the arguments of the six chapters, a pair for each book of the original 1590 Faerie Queene. Each chapter is a gem. His intriguing conclusion traces "the transit from vulnerability to shame" in Spenser's 1596 continuation. An award-winning poet and critic, Campana is a meditative, responsive reader, well versed in current scholarship (not least sexuality studies), so even those who balk at the radical thesis of this book will find new interpretations that illuminate Spenser's masterpiece.
Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. -- D. M. Moore, emeritus, University of Iowa