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Edmund Spenser, Lucretian Neoplatonist: Cosmology in the Fowre Hymnes


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This essay reconsiders the relationship between Spenser's earthly and divine hymns in terms of the dialogic possibilities of the palinode, suggesting that the apparent "recantation" of the first two hymns is a poetic device used for philosophic effect. I argue that Spenser uses the poetic movement of action and retraction, turn and counterturn, to embody a philosophical oscillation and synthesis between a newly rediscovered Lucretian materialism and the Christian Neoplatonism, traditionally ascribed to the sequence. The stimulus for this seemingly unusual juxtaposition of two fundamentally different philosophies is the subject of the Fowre Hymnes: the poems are not only an expression of personal emotion and faith, but seek to make a significant intervention in the late sixteenth-century revival of cosmology and natural philosophy. Therefore, the essay takes seriously the hymns' generic claim towards the grand style of philosophic abstraction, showing how Spenser explores the dialectic between matter and form, chaos and creation, mutability and eternity, through his repeated emphasis on the creation. Each hymn contains a distinct creation account; together they contrast a vision of a dynamic, de-centered, material cosmos (identified textually with the cosmos of Lucretius's De rerum natura) with the formal symmetry and stable order of the Christian-Platonic universe. In this syncretic relationship between Lucretius and Plato, Spenser may have seen a powerful model for harmonizing the traditionally opposed motivations of poetry and philosophy, and for reconciling, albeit very uneasily, a concern with the flux of worldly experience and a desire to comprehend cosmic stability and formal order.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2009

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