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Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 40, 2000

Poetic Parthenogenesis and Spenser's
Idea of Creation in The Faerie Queene

Elizabeth A. Spiller

Recent scholarship has been interested in the early modern period as an age of self-actualization for the writer. Even in a moment in which criticism has distanced itself from old humanism, Renaissance man reappears in the works of such critics as Stephen Greenblatt, who describes how writers demonstrate new forms of subjectivity and employ sophisticated models of self-representation in which they seem to think themselves into being. While such accounts question humanist belief in individual autonomy, they also risk reenacting old stories in new critical histories. [1] However, this story of self-actualization is not limited to literary studies. Descriptions of what authors such as Spenser do to "make themselves" men have a curious affiliation with accounts of how a different kind of creation was thought to function--biological reproduction. In work that has been almost as influential as Greenblatt's, Thomas Laqueur argues that natural philosophers likewise understood man's thoughts to be a powerful means of self-production. As the rational part of physical creation, male "conception" was essentially an "idea" that was realized in material form through the female. Both literally and physically, men thought progeny into being. [2]

While nuanced and heuristically powerful, these accounts may tell us more about our understanding of creation than they do about the Renaissance's. [3] Recognizing that feminist readers have called attention to the physical aspects of Laqueur's account, this essay focuses on the corollary issue of the cognitive--and in this context aesthetic--implications of the one-sex model. [4] Saying that men could think ideas into being involves accepting not just Galenic humoral theory but also an Aristotelian model of creation that was increasingly contested during this period. This essay revises this critical perspective by examining how Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, draws on contemporary recognition that men's thoughts were not sufficient to bring forth new creation. In doing so, I focus on moments of initiation in The Faerie Queene that are described using the language of biological reproduction: the Letter to Ralegh (pp. 15-8); Redcrosse's first battle with Errour (1.2); Arthur's dream of Gloriana (1.9); and Britomart's experiences after seeing Artegall in Merlin's mirror (3.2). [5] These moments of initiation are represented in biological terms because they exemplify Spenser's understanding of poetry as the expression of an idea. In engaging Aristotelian natural philosophy, these initiatory moments self-consciously demonstrate Spenser's belief that poetry must be not just entertainment or edification, but the material expression of an idea. Having said that, however, I also argue that Spenser's creations do not remain Aristotelian, but instead depict perversions of that model current in the early modern period. Ultimately, Spenser's portrayal of what constitutes creation encompasses biological, ethical, and poetic acts in ways at odds with critical understandings of early modern interiority and poetic s elf-actualization. Spenser's evocation of the language of biological reproduction responds not so much to a breakdown in Aristotelian reproductive theory itself, but to a breakdown in the poetics implied by that theory. Following Judith Butler's suggestion that, in bodies, we experience a "process of materialization," this essay expands on recent feminist analysis of physical sexuality in The Faerie Queene by looking at Spenser's initiation scenes as moments of intellectual sexuality through which corporeality is realized. [6]

More than Petrarch's Canzoniere, Shakespeare's sonnets, or Paradise Lost, The Faerie Queene has been read as the exemplary Renaissance self-creation narrative. For Greenblatt, Spenser is a primary instance of "self-fashioning" because he is a son who re-fathers himself: through The Faerie Queene and the patronage it generates, a man who began as "the son of a modest free journeyman of the Merchant Taylor's Company" becomes "a substantial colonial landowner... 'a gentleman dwelling in the county of Cork.'" [7] Richard Helgerson shows us how Spenser transforms his status by redefining authorship as a category: as early as The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Spenser anticipates his national laureate role when he uses Colin Clout to define poetry not as private desire but as public duty. [8] For Louis Montrose, the self-formation in The Faerie Queene is primarily political as the queen and her political power become "subject" both of and to this text that seeks to redefine Spenser's position in the Elizabethan cour t. [9] In discussing the problems that protestant writers faced in trying to avoid poetic idolatry, Linda Gregerson argues that The Faerie Queene is a device "for the formation, and reformation, of subjects." [10]

As these and other critics suggest, The Faerie Queene is an epic production in which knights, readers, and the author participate in forms of self-actualization. Throughout the poem, Spenser uses the language of biological reproduction to characterize this process. Adapting Plotinus and Sir Philip Sidney, he uses this language to define authorial creation as a form of spiritual and ethical rebirth. Just as the reader "makes" himself a gentleman by participating vicariously in the experiences of the knight quester, Spenser presents himself as a "self-made" man who articulates himself in and through this parthenogenesis, the production of The Faerie Queene. In his twinned creation accounts, however, Spenser represents an intellectual tradition that found its definitions of man as a creator--both poetic and scientific--increasingly in conflict with one another. Where recent scholarly accounts emphasize the power in self-creation, the forms of creation depicted by Spenser also reflect concern that man's thoughts were no longer sufficient to bring forth new creation.

This essay focuses on one aspect of Aristotle's biology that became widely influential not only as a scientific explanation, but also as the basis for aesthetic theory. Aristotle's claim that creation begins with an idea that originates in the male is, initially, a biological theory that revises the tradition he inherits from Plato. Plato uses biological metaphors--ejaculation, pregnancy--to describe poetic creation in order to argue that intellectual creations like poetry are higher forms of physical reproduction. For Plato, men who think differ from those who merely procreate. [11] Where Plato uses the term eidoV to refer to metaphysical substances that exceed human intellect and creation, Aristotle redefines eidoV to refer to the form within man which is expressed through his creative acts. [12] Aristotle thus collapses Plato's distinction between poetic and physical creation when he describes physical procreation as the imposition of the male's idea onto and into the female body. By arguing that the male contributes the rational part of procreation, Aristotle's model ensures that the male is always involved in what Plato called the "procreancy of the spirit," even while procreating in the flesh. [13]

Even as Aristotle's biology was modified by Galen's more moderate understanding of the female contribution to procreation, his cultural narrative remained central. [14] Thus Gabriel Harvey's theory of poetic imitation is, at heart, identical to Hieronymus Fabricus's definition of biological procreation. For Harvey, poetry involves conception: like a mother who will focus her mind on beautiful statues to get beautiful children, the poet imitates beautiful poetry. [15] Fabricus similarly describes the procreative process as occurring just as "a bed comes into being from the carpenter and the wood." [16] This statement implies more than a simple Renaissance analogy; the two writers both recognize that man's creations are the physical consequence of an intellectual act. Having the ability to impose ideas on an otherwise chaotic material world elevates the human male above women, other lower animals, and nature as a whole. Although evidence refuting Aristotle's biology did not exist until after the development of the compound microscope, this gendered model of creation becomes increasingly problematic during the early modern period. While it is not possible to discuss here the larger counter-Aristotelian movement, reactions against theories of man as an intellectual progenitor appear in anatomy texts, gynecological tracts, and theological satire. Writers such as Ambrose Pare describe women giving birth to monstrous offspring: babies are marked with red spots because their mothers coveted strawberries; white women produce black babies after looking at pictures of Moors; harelips occur when mothers are frightened by animals. These stories pervert Aristotle's paradigm in describing women's ideas, not men's, as a formative force. [17] Other sources depict an equally monstrous alternative: males taking the physical part in reproduction by giving birth. Religious satires reveal "Pope John" to be "Pope Joan," giving birth in the streets of Rome; roosters stand trial for "the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg"; me n report sexual transformations in which they become pregnant. [18] Instead of giving the female control over the rational aspect of creation, these stories show the male grotesquely entangled in the physical part of creation.

Spenser responds to the possibilities inherent in such perverse, "unnatural" generations when he defines the romance quest as a search that creates new life. As consequences of the knights' quests, spiritual rebirth, military induction, and sexual maturation are described using the language of biological reproduction. Like pregnancy, quests involve a nine-month gestation: Redcrosse is held captive for thrice three months (18.38, lines 6-7), Britomart's lovesickness "First rooting tooke" nine months before she begins her quest for Artegall (3.3.16, line 6), while Amavia's search for her husband is coextensive with her own pregnancy (2.153). Just as Aristotelian biology depicts children as the result of male ideas "informing" female matter, Spenser defines the quest as a birth that is the expression of an idea. This claim about the importance of Aristotelian "ideas" is intended to augment current understandings of how Platonic "ideas" work in The Faerie Queene. As the knights develop toward ideal qualities, th ey participate in the movement from becoming to being, from physical reality to abstract idea, that Plato describes in the Timaeus. In this sense, the quests are Platonic. Yet, for most Renaissance thinkers, ideas were not immanent or even innate. Rather, in keeping with Aristotle's definition of eidoV, ideas are the product of human cognition, "made" through man's apprehension and intellection. [19] Understood in the context provided by this intellectual tradition, The Faerie Queene retains a basic material quality that cannot be translated into abstraction. By using the language of biological reproduction to describe the way that characters, in some sense, come into being in his text, Spenser suggests that ideas are not just the end of the quest--or text--but also its beginning.

Spenser's Aristotelian biology and his Neo-Platonic metaphysics share common ground in the "seminarie" of the Garden of Adonis (3.6.30, line 4). Ordinarily, Platonic ideas are separate from matter to the extent that they represent the end of a process of transcending material reality, while Aristotelian "substantial forms" are immaterial only as the beginning of a process of physically informing matter. Because the Garden of Adonis is cyclical, however, Aristotelian and Platonic understandings of the relationship between ideal and material coexist together. Seminal reasons inform matter as the naked babies are given the "fleshly weedes" of physical existence outside the Garden (3.6.32, line 5); in the end, those same ideas return to the Garden to be replanted. It becomes impossible as a result to separate the beginning of an idea from its ending, the Aristotelian generation from its ultimate Platonic realization. Thus, following Thomas Roche's suggestion that this episode is syncretic in typically Spenserian ways, the Garden of Adonis may be helpful here in showing us what makes the initiatory moments of The Faerie Queene initiatory rather than what makes the Garden itself Lucretian, Platonic, Ovidian, or Aristotelian. [20] The initiatory moments that I discuss represent the initial stage in the Garden's cycle of "succession made perpetuall" (3.6.47, line 6). In contrast to the Garden, these moments of initiation in The Faerie Queene depict a linear progress that reveals how characters, as the material realization of ideas, enter Spenser's allegory.

Spenser depicts the quest as a biological "implanting" of ideas to show how creation involves giving physical form to the highest rational potential of man. Hence, the quest begins with an idea in the same way that a child does. Before Redcrosse's battle with Sansjoy, Spenser defines the ideal knight and his quest in Aristotelian terms:

The noble hart, that harbours vertuous thought,

And is with child of glorious great intent,

Can neuer rest, vntill it forth haue brought

Th'eternall brood of glorie excellent.

(1.5.1, lines 1-4)

The knight is pregnant with an idea ("vertuous thought," "great intent"), which is expressed in the quest and produces progeny ("eternall brood") such as glory. The "eternall" Platonic ideal of the quest is attained through the material insistence of the allegory--in a birth of "ideas" that is Aristotelian.

Spenser likewise follows Aristotelian birth narratives, rather than Galenic ones, when he insists that the ideas that inform quests originate in the male alone. This emphasis on the father as intellectual progenitor can be seen in Mordant's false quest and the ensuing birth of the Bloody Babe. Mordant's quest begins:

One day when him high courage did emmoue,

As wont ye knights to seeke aduentures wilde,

He pricked forth, his puissant force to proue,

Me then he left enwombed of this child.

(2.1.50, lines 5-8)

The suggestive phrasing of "He pricked forth, his puissant force to proue" refers sylleptically to both Mordant's decision and his impregnation of his wife. The verb "emmoue" reminds us that creation (whether of quest or child) is produced through the "puissant force" of man's thought. As the product of this intercourse, the Bloody Babe bears the marks of Mordant's false ideas. Where most theologians identified woman as the propagator of original sin, Spenser bases his depiction of the Babe's baptismal washing on a medieval theory of original sin that, following Aristotle, defines sin (a flaw to the soul, not the body) as being transmitted through the father because he is the source of man's (spiritual) form. [21] Amavia's hands wash clean in the fountain because she is innocent; inheriting the blood of his father's actions, her child's do not (2.1.40, 2.2.3-4). When sin is understood as thought, the Bloody Babe becomes the physical manifestation of Mordant's sinful ideas.

Spenser uses these initiatory moments to demonstrate that The Faerie Queene is the material realization of an idea. The expression of an idea, understood as an Aristotelian creation, is a birth. Or, looking at this problem in the context of recent critical studies, these self-creation narratives use Aristotelian reproductive theory in ways that complicate characterizations of Spenser as a protean poet, able to create himself through the force of his ideas. In depicting Errour giving birth to monstrous "text-children," Spenser draws on medical belief that women's ideas, when uncontrolled, produce monstrous offspring. Britomart, whose sickness after seeing Artegall is figured as a perverse pregnancy, is likewise associated with this anti-Aristotelian birth narrative when she makes "such Monster of [her] mind" (3.2.40, line 2). Arthur's dream of the Faerie Queene, by contrast, impregnates him with an "idea" that leads to a nine-month travail that invokes contemporary fantasies of male pregnancy. By alluding to literary conventions that typically serve as occasions for reflection on the nature of poetry itself, Spenser reminds his readers in these liminal moments that The Faerie Queene is a literary construct. Read in the context of the Letter to Ralegh, these initiatory episodes define the act of creation in which Spenser engages in The Faerie Queene.

According to writers of midwives' manuals and gynecological tracts, women who gave birth to monstrous offspring upset the Aristotelian order by letting their unchecked minds "mark" their children. Spenser begins the tests of The Faerie Queene with Errour, a grotesque mother whose thousand "yong ones" are monsters of such an uncontrolled imagination (1115, line 5). As the narrative's "first blood," Redcrosse's battle with Errour initiates the reader into the terms of the narrative. Like a participant in a tribal rite of passage, Redcrosse does battle not with an unknown monster, but with a powerful mother. As Margaret Mead describes them, initiation rites displace the original physical birth with a regendered symbolic one: in this way, men "can get the male children away from the women, brand them as incomplete, and themselves turn boys into men." [22] Spenser's description of Errour thus focuses on those anatomical parts that physically define a child's early relationship with the mother: eating, swallowing, vomiting, and giving birth become interchangeable. Errour spews forth her offspring from a "hellish sinke" which is, indistinguishably, "womb, or organs of excretion." [23] Errour's offspring likewise nourish themselves by cannibalizing their dead mother because, for them, one hole is as good as another:

Weening their wonted entrance to haue found

At her wide mouth: but being there withstood

They flocked all about her bleeding wound.

The male finally "swallows up" the female and her reproductive functions to supplant her with a new birth. [24]

(1.1.25, lines 5-7)

If the Errour episode involves an initiation, what does the reader swallow with this story? This challenge to religious faith is specifically textual: Errour produces bad texts as she spews vomit "full of bookes and papers" and spawns offspring "blacke as inke" (1.1.20, line 6; 1.1.22, line 7). In characterizing Errour's maternity as a bad textual reproduction, Spenser reminds his readers of the breeding of false doctrine that occurs in texts such as the "monstrous" Martin Marprelate tracts. Yet this initiatory battle also offers instruction for reading The Faerie Queene. The Errour episode is framed by two references that describe "reading" as a form of knowledge: at the beginning, Una recognizes Errour's den and counsels "Therefore I read beware" (1.1.13, line 8); at the end, the narrator describes Errour's offspring as things that "elsewhere may no man reed" (1.1.21, line 9). In the doubleness of the term "reed" (read, know), Spenser makes clear that through reading comes knowing. As Patricia Parker suggests, "in a landscape of only potential significances and disjunctive signs... the problem from the beginning, is learning how to read." [25] The Errour episode comes first because its subject is text production: Errour exemplifies bad literary procreation. Just as male initiation rites stage a rebirth to supplant physical female childbirth, Spenser uses bad textual "issue" to characterize his narrative as a good literary production. When Redcrosse destroys this female procreation, he makes possible a male procreation which supplants erroneous ideas of bad reading with new forms of moral knowledge.

While the Errour episode engages contemporary fantasies about women usurping the intellectual part of procreation, Arthur's introduction into Faerieland evokes contemporary male pregnancy fantasies. As readers have recognized, Arthur is a curious knight. While Arthur exemplifies a perfection of virtues and his quest for Gloriana frames the work, he becomes a surprisingly liminal figure to the extent that his quest is achieved indirectly through the acts of the other knights. For James Nohrnberg, Arthur often seems to stand outside the fiction: "both the Arthur of the poem's fore-conceit and the Arthur that would have been fully fashioned upon the completion of the poet's greater design are posterior to the poem we now have. Arthur is merely 'the idea of the perfect knight'--and likely to remain so." As Nohrnberg suggests, Arthur is an "idea" in a Platonic sense: Arthur is largely unrealized as a character because the other knights are the (limited) physical manifestations of Arthur's complete (but comparativ ely abstract) perfection. Yet, at the same time, far from truly absent, Arthur seems to be everywhere in Faerieland. A character who "signalize[s] their power of moral and physical recovery," Arthur most often appears when all hope and chance seem gone. [26]

It becomes clear, however, why Arthur is at once outside the story and yet also everywhere in it when his status as "the idea of the perfect knight" is understood not just in Platonic terms but in Aristotelian ones as well. As the figure of an idea, Arthur is the creative--indeed, the generative--force of the poem. That is, just as in the Aristotelian system ideas animate and give form to material substance, so is Arthur responsible for not just the redemptive protection but also the immanent production of the body. As such, Arthur represents the physical embodiment of immaterial ideas. Arthur's status as a generative force can be seen most clearly in his account of how his search for Gloriana began. As he tells Una, he had disdained love until he was visited by a dream from Gloriana which "rauisht" his heart "with delight" (1.9.14, line 6). Readers have sometimes been embarrassed by Arthur's transformation from a young, if arrogant, knight into a lovesick adolescent who trails off after a figment of his diu rnal dreams. Discussions of Arthur's dream thus tend to focus on the strongly Freudian aspects to this initiation: first "rauisht," Arthur is finally emasculated by Gloriana's charms. David Miller points here to the ways in which the dream diminishes Arthur in sexual terms: as an "adolescent dream of sex," Arthur's vision results in his "symbolic castration" by Gloriana. [27]

More than suggesting just loss of male power, Spenser also depicts Arthur's dream as a male pregnancy to express uncertainties about the maturation of his poetic creation. Understood in this way, the dream does not detract from Arthur's stature; rather, it defines his role in the poem. Arthur's dream functions as the primary creation account for the book because it symbolically initiates the other quests in The Faerie Queene. Arthur's initiation must be presented in sexual terms because he is a figure of poetic creation. If Arthur is understood simply as the embodiment of the perfect knight, this initiation is incomprehensible. First, the eroticization of Arthur's initiation seems redundant: as the knight of chastity, does Britomart not properly represent the awakening into sexual consciousness? Second, and more important, initiation becomes gratuitous, given that Arthur represents the ideal of knighthood: is it not only the other knights, partial as they are, who need to undergo self-transformation and deve lopment? The answer is that Arthur himself is not transformed. In making Arthur the idea of self-transformation, Spenser shows us not the introduction into sexual desire but the transformation of the idea of virtue into the physical form of The Faerie Queene.

Arthur's sexual initiation goes beyond Oedipal fantasies. When Arthur's claim to have been "rauisht" is understood more literally, it becomes clear that Arthur is not simply emasculated by Gloriana. As is the case with Britomart later, Arthur's initiation into The Faerie Queene is represented as an impregnation. Having just "traueild" across Faerieland for the "deliuerance" of Redcrosse from his nine-month imprisonment (1.8.2, line 1; 1.81, line 9), Arthur describes the last nine months of his life in terms that evoke the full range of contemporary meanings for the term "trauail": for him, travail has involved not just aspects of journey, but also "mental and bodily labor," "labour and pain of childbirth," and, in the narrative he tells, the "literary work" that results from such toil. [28]

Arthur thus presents himself as having originally believed himself to be the ideal knight--that "noble hart...of glorious great intent" (15.1, line 1). He is certain of himself and his ideas: "The fields, the floods, the heauens with one consent / Did seeme to laugh on me, and fauour mine intent" (19.12, lines 8-9), until

For-wearied with my sports, I did alight

From loftie steed, and downe to sleepe me layd;

The verdant gras my couch did goodly dight,

And pillow was my helmet faire displayd:

Whiles euery sence the humour sweet embayd

And slombring soft my hart did steale away.

(1.9.13, lines 1-6)

The way that Arthur's first "intent" has been transformed into a generative act can be seen when we realize how his dream anticipates what happens when Chrysogone, too, lies down on the grass, is impregnated by the sun, and gives birth to Amoret and Belphoebe. Arthur's dream implants a new idea, a new intent, in him just as the sun implants new life in Chrysogone:

Till faint through irkesome wearinesse, adowne

Vpon the grassie ground her selfe she layd

To sleepe, the whiles a gentle slombring swowne

Vpon her fell all naked bare displayd;

The sunne-beames bright vpon her body playd,

Being through former bathing mollifide,

And pierst into her wombe, where they embayd

With so sweet sence and secret power vnspide,

That in her pregnant flesh they shortly fructifide.

(3.6.7, lines 1-9)

What happens to Chrysogone repeats what happens to Arthur: the narrative situation, language, and choice of rhymes are closely parallel. Chrysogone's birth is the most flamboyant creation narrative in The Faerie Queene. As a context for Arthur's dream, the central aspect of Chrysogone's conception is its physicality: where Aristotle's reproduction of higher animals involves an intellectual act, Spenser adapts the category of spontaneous (imperfect) generation to show how Chrysogone's purity results in a perfect "imperfect" reproduction. [29] With such strong parallels between Arthur and Chrysogone's slumbers, Spenser suggests that both result in reproduction. Chrysogone produces twins; Arthur produces an idea--manifest in the quest that has taken nine months of "labour, and long tyne" (1.9.15, line 7) and in the story he tells Una. Where Chrysogone represents the material part of procreation, Arthur represents the rational part--the quest that is the source for his book.

If Arthur's quest is in some crucial sense The Faerie Queene itself, we will see that Britomart's quest is the writing of The Faerie Queene. Recent feminist criticism has identified a central connection between Britomart's quest and reproduction: Britomart is the most powerful figure of maternity in The Faerie Queene. As Lauren Silberman argues, book 3 shifts from "an epistemology of authoritarian certitude which emphasizes origins" to one which "de-emphasizes origins and focuses on the growth of knowledge." [30] Britomart thus becomes a figure of prolepsis: while the origin of her quest remains in important ways unknown, the book moves forward to a contrastingly certain future. As she grows in knowledge, Britomart becomes a site of origin. As Merlin foretells, Britomart will become the mother of a race when she gives birth to a son whose descendants will lead the Britons. It is Spenser's understanding of what constitutes a perfect union that critically makes this future pregnancy, rather than love for Arteg all, the event that ends Britomart's questing (3.3.28). Where love provides only a temporary union, Britomart's progeny become the way to the "eternall vnion" (3.3.49, line 1) that Elizabeth will achieve between Britons and Saxons.

What attention to the culmination of Britomart's narrative obscures, however, is that her quest does not just end with a pregnancy but also begins with one. Like Arthur, Britomart starts on her quest after being transformed sexually: looking in the magic mirror which, like Ptolemy's tower, was meant to keep her father's kingdom "impregnable" (3.2.20, line 8), Britomart sees a vision of a fair knight. She sickens and soon loses all "guidance of her selfe" (3.2.49, line 3). To readers who have looked at this episode from the perspective of Britomart's future as a "dynastic mother," Britomart's sickness is important as a "woman's illness" that indicates both physical maturity (menses) and emotional unreadiness (greensickness). What she experiences is thus only a very limited, first stage, physical transformation: she can only become a mother when she has transcended both her initial desire and the armor she wears to protect herself from it. [31] Yet, it is also important to recognize that Britomart experiences her illness as an initiation that follows from and complements Arthur's. In this context, what ails Britomart is not just the repression of a new physical sexuality but the expression of an intellectual sexuality that occurs as she takes on the male part in reproduction.

Britomart's illness is consequently figured and treated as a kind of monstrous pregnancy. Where critics such as Silberman show that Britomart's later self-production occurs through a "subjective engagement," I would extend that claim by arguing that what Spenser begins with is a pregnancy precisely because it represents a radical alterity, literally internal, between self and other. [32] Britomart's condition begins as a pain that has "engraffed" itself within her (3.217, line 5). It grows fat off her blood and flesh: the growth, she says, "on my life doth feed,/ And suckes the bloud, which from my hart doth bleed" (3.2.37, lines 4-5). As the "love creature" grows inside Britomart, Glauce's cures" attempt to "vndoe her daughters loue"; that is, Glauce initially, if mistakenly, responds by trying to abort the creature which has taken root in Britomart's mind and body (3.2.51, line 6). Echoing Jacques Guillemeau and other writers of midwives' manuals, Glauce warns Britomart against the dangers of failing to co ntrol her imagination when she asks "why make ye such Monster of your mind?" (3.2.40, line 2).

When her efforts fail, Glauce tries a medicinal potion of rue, savine, camphora, calamint, and dill (3.2.49). Of the herbs prescribed by Glauce, only camphora was specific for greensickness. The remaining ingredients were typically used as contraceptives and abortifacients. In The Herball Enlarged (1633), for example, John Gerard notes that mint was "an enemy to generation" because it thickened the blood and hindered conception; savine will "draw away the after-birth, expell the dead childe, and kill the quicke"; rue will purge a woman, "driuing forth the secondine, the dead childe, or the vnnaturall birth." [33] That is, Glauce gives Britomart treatment to prevent or stop a pregnancy. Britomart is "pregnant" here in the sense that she has illegitimately engendered an idea. Her "frail fancies" are thus false female versions of the true male ideas that lead to reproduction: "engraffed" within Britomart's body, these ideas produce only monsters. When her remedies fail, Glauce takes Britomart to Merlin because she is afraid "least blame / Of her miscarriage should in her be fond" (3.2.52, lines 7-8). The canto ends as the miscarriage has miscarried, Britomart's fondness is likely to be found out, and she is still pregnant with the idea inside her.

Britomart is ready to give birth when she arrives at Merlin's cave: it has been nine months since her illness "First rooting tooke" (3.3.16, line 6). Refiguring contemporary debate that condemned mining as a form of abortion, Spenser depicts Merlin's cave as a place of birth. There, the demon miners suffer "huge toile and labour" (3.3.9, line 7) in the unending production of his magic wall. [34] In Merlin's cave, what was a physical issue becomes a textual one. With the miners, Merlin's writing transforms stubborn disobedience into a work of creation. He writes "strange characters in the ground" (3.3.14, line 8); they build the wall. Entering the cave, Britomart joins the miners in laboring for Merlin's prophecies. He foretells her future: after hearing this story, Britomart transforms her abortive amorous desire into a higher quest that leads to the creation of an empire.

Displacing female reproduction with male, Merlin takes Britomart's "pregnancy" and transforms it into a prophecy of her progeny. If, like the other knights' quests, Britomart's quest begins with an idea--with an "intent"--she does not know what to do with it. She wants, in some sense, to abort. Spenser thus suggests that her quest is not guided by a properly controlling idea as it should be. When Britomart hears Redcrosse praise Artegall, she responds as

The louing mother, that nine monethes did beare,

In the deare closet of her painefull side,

Her tender babe, it seeing safe appeare,

Doth not so much reioyce, as she reioyced theare.

(3.2.11, lines 6-9)

It is not Artegall himself who elicits a maternal response from Britomart; what Britomart embraces as "her tender babe" is the idea she has of him. Britomart is anxious to compare the ideal she imagined through the mirror to the reality described by Redcrosse. In Aristotelian biology, however, the mother cannot create a true idea: being weaker, a woman's mind produces only fancies. [35] Spenser points strongly to this conclusion when Redcrosse's description of Artegall diverts Britomart from her quest: "A thousand thoughts she fashioned in her mind, / And in her feigning fancie did pourtray" (3.4.5, lines 6-7). Britomart's daydreams are not so much well-"fashioned" thoughts as they are products of weak "fancie" because Britomart exemplifies the limitations of the female in reproduction.

If Britomart does not know what to do with her idea, Merlin is able to take that monstrous idea, diagnose it, and transform it into his own narrative. As an act of creation, Merlin's prophecy displaces not just Britomart's initial emotional pregnancy but also her later physical birth. Although understood as an important maternal figure, Britomart never gives birth within the narrative of The Faerie Queene: as readers, all we have is Merlin's story. In the same way that Merlin takes over the narrative by taking over Britomart's procreative idea, he also becomes a surrogate father when he imposes his ideas on Arthur's quest. As a child, Arthur is literally "deliuered" by Merlin: Merlin is responsible for physically removing Arthur from Lady Ingrayne, supplanting his "mothers pap" with Merlin's own "nouriture" (19.3, line 7; 19.5, line 4). For both Britomart and Arthur, Merlin thus becomes like Prospero--not just the figure of the poet as magus, but also of the poet as surrogate father.

Merlin's surrogacy of the text thus points us back to Spenser himself in ways that allow us to reconceptualize our understanding of Spenser's ability to "create" himself in and through The Faerie Queene. In the Letter to Ralegh, Spenser adapts--and literalizes--the biological metaphors implicit in Sidney's theory of "the idea or fore-conceit" of poetry. In the Defense, Sidney had defined the poet as a maker in a way that implicitly compared what the poet did in having ideas to what the male did in having children: the poet "doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew ... delivering them forth in such excellency as he had imagined them." [36] As Michael Murrin argues, writers such as Sidney, who identify the poet as a "maker," go beyond Neo-Platonism when they attribute to the poet not just the matter, but also the form of their work.[37] As Murrin further suggests, Spenser generally differs from Sidney in adhering to an older model of divine i nspiration as the source for poetic ideas. In The Faerie Queene, however, Spenser demonstrates awareness of this newer tradition when he uses Sidney's language of biological reproduction to naturalize his act of creation.

Spenser becomes the progenitor through which his creation is physically realized. In the Letter to Ralegh, he thus describes Arthur and, by implication, The Faerie Queene as a whole, being "brought forth" through an engendering: "So haue I laboured to doe in the person of Arthure: whome I conceiue after his long education by Timon, to whom he was by Merlin deliuered to be brought vp, so soone as he was borne of the Lady Ingrayne, to haue seene in a dream or a vision the Faery Queen" (p. 16). Where Sidney's Arcadia compares books to children to disavow the "labour" of creation, Spenser writes out of a different poetic sensibility and uses the language of procreation to emphasize the "travails" of his work. In Spenser's description of this foundational quest in The Faerie Queene, the terms "labour," "conceiue," "borne," and "deliuer" stand at the intersection of male thought and female biology. In the end, Spenser depicts his quests as "travails" that encompass journey, labor, and birth as a way of evoking yet another meaning of this term. Finally, if ideas are physically realized in the text as births, the product is the "travail" in the sense of the poetic creation produced by such work. In these initiation narratives involving Errour, Arthur, and Britomart, Spenser separates child from mother to transform simple physical reproduction into poetic creation. Drawing on images of women creating monsters through their minds or of males giving birth, Spenser registers anxiety about flaws in the Aristotelian paradigm. He does so because he is interested not in the scientific ramifications of Aristotelian natural philosophy, but in the poetic ones. Spenser portrays how the idea of parthenogenesis may be based on the anxiety that not only might one not be self-sufficient, but that, indeed, one man might not be necessary to create this ideal at all.

Elizabeth A. Spiller teaches at the University of North Texas and has published articles on romance, most recently in MLQ and Clio. She is completing a book, Experiments in Fiction: Science, Imagination, and Writing 1580-1700, on scientific practice and imaginative fiction in early modern England.


I would like to thank Douglas Bruster, Heather Dubrow, Barbara Lewalski, Jeff Masten, and Kathryn Schwarz for generous comments on earlier versions of this essay.

(1.) Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980). On claims to demystify "myths" of autonomous subjectivity that reinscribe those myths, see Anne D. Hall, "The Political Wisdom of Cultural Poetics," MP93, 4 (May 1996): 423-44.

(2.) Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990). The affiliation between Greenblatt's account of poetic practice and Laqueur's model of biological theory can be seen in Greenblatt's "Fiction and Friction," in chap. 3 of Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp.66-93.

(3.) Critical studies have both augmented and destabilized notions of a distinctive Renaissance "self." See David Aers, "A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists; or, Reflections on Literary Critics Writing the 'History of the Subject,'" in Culture and History, 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities, and Writing, ed. David Aers (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 177-202, and the introduction to Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, eds., Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 1-15.

(4.) See Katharine Park and Robert A. Nye, "Anatomy is Destiny," New Republic (18 February 1991), pp. 53-7; Heather Dubrow, "Navel Battles: Interpreting Renaissance Gynecological Manuals," ANQ, n.s., 5,2-3 (April-July 1992): 67-71,68; Gail Kern Paster, "The Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Women's Imperfection and the Humoral Economy," ELR 28, 3 (Autumn 1998): 416-40, 416-8; and Janet Adelman, "Making Defect Perfection: Shakespeare and the One-Sex Model," in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, ed. Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1999), pp. 23-52.

(5.) Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche Jr. (1978; rprt. New York: Penguin, 1979); subsequent references cited parenthetically in the text by book, canto, stanza, and line number.

(6.) Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993), p.9.

(7.) Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p.7.

(8.) Richard Helgerson, "The New Poet Presents Himself: Spenser and the Idea of a literary Career," PMLA 93,5 (October 1978): 893-911.

(9.) Louis Adrian Montrose, "The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text," in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 303-40.

(10.) Linda Gregerson, The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), p.6.

(11.) Plato, The Symposium, trans. Michael Joyce, pp. 526-74, 208e-12e and Theaetetus, trans. Francis Macdonald Cornford, pp. 845-919, 148e-51e in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters, Bollingen Series, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (1961; rprt. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987). See also E. E. Pender, "Spiritual Pregnancy in Plato's Symposium," Classical Quarterly, n.s. 42, 1(1992): 72-86.

(12.) Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, trans. Joseph J. S. Peake, 2nd edn. (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), pp. 16-8.

(13.) Aristotle, Generation of Animals, trans. A. Platt, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, Bollingen Series, 2 vols., ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), 1:1111-1218, 716a 5-16, 723b 20-32, 724a 14-34, 727b 14-7, 729b 1-8. Subsequent references will be cited as Gen. An., by page number, column letter, and line number. See Maryanne Cline Horowitz, "Aristotle and Woman," Journal of the History of Biology 9,2 (Fall 1976): 183-213.

(14.) On the medical acceptance of Galen's theory of female, as well as male, seed, see Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman. A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), pp.30-2,35-8.

(15.) Spenser, Works: A Variorum Edition, ed. E. A. Greenlaw et al., 10 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1932-49), 9:467-8.

(16.) Aristotle, Gen. An. 729b 17; Hieronymus Fabricus ad Aquapendente, De formatione ovi et pulli (Padua, 1621).

(17.) See, for example, Ambrose Pare, Workes, trans. T. Johnson (London, 1634), pp. 978-81; and Jacques Guillemeau, Child-birth, or the happy deliverie of women (London, 1612), pp. 20-1. Other explanations for monstrous births are also current and authors give conflicting accounts. From a Galenic perspective monsters result from humoral "excess," while theologically deformities are marks of sin. See Eucharius Roesslin, The byrth of mankynde (London, 1540), sig. Diiir; and Jacob Rueff, The Expert-midwife (London, 1637), pp. 154-5. For further background, see Maclean, p. 41; and Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, "Monsters: A Case Study," chap. 5 of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998), pp. 173-214.

(18.) L. J. Cole, "The Lay of the 'Rooster,'" Journal of Heredity 18, 3 (March 1927): 97-106,97; see also C. A. Patrides, Premises and Motifs in Renaissance Thought and Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 152-81; Roberto Zapperi, The Pregnant Man, trans. Brian Williams (1979; rev. 4th edn. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991); and Caspar Bauhin, De hermaphroditorum monstrosorumque (Frankfurt, 1629), sig. Y4r-5r. On anxiety associated with female reproductive power, see Valerie Traub, "Prince Hal's Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body," SQ 40, 4 (Winter 1989): 456-74.

(19.) Panofsky, pp. 56-68.

(20.) Thomas P. Roche Jr., The Kindly Flame: A Study of the Third and Fourth Books of Spenser's "Faerie Queen" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), p. 120.

(21.) Henri Rondet, Original Sin: The Patristic and Theological Background, trans. Cajetan Finegan (1967; rprt. Shannon, Ireland: Ecclesia Press, 1972), pp. 148-51. I would like to thank Carol Kaske for helpful suggestions on this point.

(22.) Margaret Mead, Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World(New York: William Morrow; 1949), p. 103. See also Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (Glencoe IL: Free Press, 1954), pp. 62, 109-12, 207-11,214-23.

(23.) Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (New York: Longman, 1977), p. 36, 1.1.22, line 5, nn. 5-6.

(24.) Bettelheim, p.199; and Edith Jacobson, "Development of the Wish for a Child in Boys," The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 5(1950): 139-52.

(25.) Patricia A. Parker, Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), p. 65.

(26.) James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of "The Faerie Queene" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 42,55.

(27.) David Lee Miller, The Poem's Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 "Faerie Queene" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988), p. 96.

(28.) OED, s.v. "travail," definitions 2.5, 1.1, 1.4, and 1.3.

(29.) For Aristotle's synopsis of "perfect" and "imperfect" forms of reproduction, see Aristotle, Gen. An. 733a 32-733b 16; see also History of Animals, in Complete Works, trans. A. W. Thompson, 1:774-993, 522a 22-552b 16, 557b 1-32. Subsequent references will be cited as HA.

(30.) Lauren Silberman, Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of "The Faerie Queene" (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995), p. 21.

(31.) Silberman, pp. 19-20; Sheila T. Cavanagh, Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in "The Faerie Queene"(Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1994), p.150; Julia M. Walker, "Spenser's Elizabeth Portrait and the Fiction of the Dynastic Epic," MP 90, 2 (November 1992), pp. 172-99, 181-2; and James W. Broaddus, Spenser's Allegory of Love (Madison NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 26-9.

(32.) Silberman, p. 33.

(33.) John Gerard, The Herball Enlarged (London, 1633), pp. 681-2, 1378, 1257.

(34.) Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), pp. 29-41.

(35.) Aristotle, HA 608a 19-608b 13; see also Politics, in Complete Works, trans. B. Jowett, 2:1986-2129, 1335b 17-19v and Gen. An. 716a 5-9.

(36.) Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Forrest G. Robinson (1970; rprt. New York: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 14-6.

(37.) Michael Murrin, The Veil of Allegory: Some Notes toward a Theory of Allegorical Rhetoric in the English Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 168.