Spenser's "Prothalamion" and Eliot's "Fire Sermon"
Spenser's "Amoretti" and the "Epithalamion" often impress readers as earnest, honest poetry despite their obvious use of formulaic expressions and themes borrowed from nearly two thousand years of poetic tradition. Critics who are skeptical of this approach to Spenser like to point out that the beauties of the "Epithalamion," written for his own wife and his own wedding, also may be found in the "Prothalamion," a poem written for hire at the bidding of the Earl of Worcester. The poet's artful use of pastoral conventions (the landscape "embroidered" with flowers, the nymphs and swans and classical myth) thus can be found in poems ostensibly written for love and in poems written for money. How do we come to terms with this?
This potential problem is all the more interesting in that T.S. Eliot used the "Prothalamion"'s "Sweet Themmes, run softly" as a nostalgic refrain in the "Fire Sermon" portion of "The Wasteland," a meditation on the tawdry, shattered remains of English culture in the early 20th century. Eliot thereby implies that the Elizabethan poem Spenser wrote on commission was somehow a finer, fairer, purer vision of English poetics than that which is possible for a poet like himself, apparently writting with no hope of financial gain in 1922, amid the cynicism and commercialism of the post-World-War-I era. Is Eliot, and are we, taken in by an Elizabethan courtier's careful adoption of the mask of honesty in Spenser's poetry, or is it possible that a poet writing for money could still mean what he said with the same intensity as one writing with no expectation of reward? Could poetic quality even have nothing whatsoever to do with the poet's immediate motive for writing? That is, some might say, a great artist produces art when she sneezes, as well as when she dreams, and cash in the bank is just a matter between the landlord and a tenant.
The quick answers usually will not satisfy us in the long run. Writers must live, just like farmers and warriors, and to live they must have money. If they are not to be forever amateurs, an insurance executive by day and a poet by night (Wallace Stevens) or a doctor who also composes epics about Paterson, N.J. (William Carlos Williams), poets must take money for their work. Virginia Woolf wrote eloquently on this subject in A Room of One's Own, based in no small part on her experience writing endless book reviews and struggling to run the Hogarth Press to augment her aunt's small inheritance so she'd be free to write. This is not without hazard for the poets' art, but what, exactly, is the danger? And once you've articulated for yourself what the danger might be, ask yourself how you could tell whether Spenser had fallen victim to it. The great corrective comparison we must make is not the one suggested by chronology, between Spenser and Sidney, because Sidney's wealth takes him entirely out of the socio-economic situation Spenser found himself in. If we were to insist that only the wealthy could be free from the contaminating forces of commercial motives, no non-aristocrats would be in the Norton. Compare Spenser with Shakespeare, however, and more interesting possibilities emerge. Does the fact that Shakespeare wrote for the stage, making money based on the size of his audience, cause him to pander to popular tastes of the period, or does he take those tastes and ennoble them by giving them the benefits of art previously reserved for aristocrats? If Spenser writes for the Earl's daughters, might he not also be expressing a heartfelt emotion when he turns to the task of celebrating two young women's marriage after the "long fruitlesse stay / In Princes Court" (ll. 6-7)?
To be fair to Spenser's critics, he has been caught gilding tyrants' swords and defending tyrannical policies in stanzaic verse (A View of the Present State of Ireland and Book V of The Faerie Queene). To the best of my knowledge, Shakespeare never so ardently courted the aristocracy's patronage beyond his writing for and playing in theatrical companies operating under the financial and political protection of the Lord Admiral and (later) the King, himself. Nevertheless, poets' struggles with Mammon and with political expediency will remain a factor in everything else we read after we have left the Middle Ages, arguably the era in which "literature" is created for the consumption of the nobility and clergy, with little attention to the needs of people who have to make a living. The corrupting influences of racism (Behn?), sexism (Pope and Johnson), and anti-semitism, for instance, may affect poets whose reputations remain great (e.g., Eliot's "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" and Pound's rants against "usury" in the Cantos). This remains a serious issue for any reader of literature, our modern version of the "Francesca da Rimini problem." Can we read and revere great works of literature by poets who may not have lived exemplary lives, and can we call literature great if it betrays beliefs which we know to have been common when it was written but which now are considered unsuitable, unkind, ill-informed, incorrect, or immoral?
This is a long way to come from wondering whether the Earl's daughters really were, or even seemed to daydreaming Spenser, like "two Swannes of goodly hewe" (l. 37). I hope you can see how it connects to your decision to read a modern novel, to write about a movie, or to recommend a poem which later times may read with new critical standards that don't fit yours. It's all part of canon formation, and the deeper problem of reading like a responsible scholar. For the English majors in the Writing Option, I hope you see its significance for what you write (but don't let it lead to writer's block!). Those in the literature option are not free, either, since they may one day have to decide which of these works to teach and how to teach them.