Dido to Daphne: Early modern death in Spenser's shorter poems

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Abstract

Recent scholarship on early modern death provides a compelling context for viewing Spenser, especially his shorter poems. Such scholarship emphasizes a new philosophy of death emergent in late-sixteenth-century England: death is annihilation, desire is death, and so humans triumph only through willing the performance of death. Spenser's poetry can be situated along the historic divide between these secular notions and more Christian ones. In November, Spenser presents Dido's death within a Christian poetics: when Colin is consoled though his transcendent vision, Spenser advertises his ability to help the nation mourn. His Complaints and such elegies as Astrophel fulfill this advertisement. Yet one poem lies beyond the poetics of Christian redemption: in Daphnaida, the process of death does not lead to transcendence or consolation. In this poem, which shatters the intertextual line of mourning from Theocritus to Chaucer, Spenser enters the dark terrain of early modern fatality. Anticipating Renaissance tragedy, he tells how the "ghost" of Daphne haunts the early modern imagination, including his own. This haunting may animate Fowre Hymnes and The Mutabilitie Cantos to produce their final affirmation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)143-163
Number of pages21
JournalSpenser Studies
Volume18
StatePublished - Dec 1 2003

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All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Literature and Literary Theory

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