Owens, Judith. "Commerce and Cadiz in Spenser's Prothalamion." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 2007. HighBeam Research. (April 19, 2014). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-160715799.html
Owens, Judith. "Commerce and Cadiz in Spenser's Prothalamion." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Rice University. 2007. Retrieved April 19, 2014 from HighBeam Research: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-160715799.html
Spenser's Prothalamion (1596) is occasioned by betrothals. It also mediates, as critics have noted, metaphysical, vocational, aesthetic, and political matters. Among these we should continue to include Spenser's assessment of the Earl of Essex's role--widely, albeit not uniformly, acclaimed as heroic--in the Cadiz expedition of 1596. We should also think carefully about issues that emerge when we take fuller account of the London setting, specifically its commercial aspects. Prothalamion is deeply interested, I contend, in the relationship between heroic and commercial ethoi. Evidence from The Faerie Queene (Mammon's rejoinders to Guyon come immediately to mind) and from Spenser's patronage connections indicate that Spenser understood perfectly well that heroic enterprises must be financed, whether those enterprises are directed toward developing trade routes, conquering or defending territory, planting colonies or religion, acquiring commodities or precious metals. But through its refrain, imagery, epideictic purposes, and evocation of the Templar Knights, Prothalamion furnishes evidence to suggest that for Spenser, at levels of understanding unconditioned by pragmatism, commercial and heroic values remain fundamentally incompatible.
A corollary aim of this paper is to demonstrate that Prothalamion is a poem that expands in meanings the more thoroughly we remember its local material contexts. Accordingly, I will keep always in view, and within earshot, certain features of the London setting--especially those that the poem itself does not always overtly acknowledge but that help form the bedrock over which Spenser's meanings run.
I. "SWEET THEMMES RUNNE SOFTLY, TILL I END MY SONG"
The refrain of Spenser's Prothalamion--variations on "Against the Brydale day which is not long: / Sweet Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song"--has been regarded for centuries as evocative and as integral to the poem's meanings and tone. (1) Such poets as Michael Drayton, Alexander Pope, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and T. S. Eliot have borrowed, imitated, or alluded to the refrain, giving it a long and distinguished literary life and justifying Sidney Lee's epithet of "far-famed." (2) Its musical appeal, as M. L. Wine noted forty years ago, is strong and has been praised even by those who fault the refrain, and the poem, on other grounds. (3) The cadences of these two lines have been considered graceful, beautiful, delicate, and sufficiently haunting to support the argument that Prothalamion in some ways marks Spenser's farewell to poetry. Wine himself set a standard for critical, as distinct from descriptive, examination by identifying the refrain's effects, in nearly every instance, as "ambivalent." (4) John Hollander, who--as poet and critic--is among the most eloquent of those who follow the particular resonances of this refrain, demonstrates that Spenser makes his refrain resonate by tuning it to both classical and native English strains of mythopoesis and by exploiting the happy aural and conceptual coincidences of "Themmes," "theme," and "time." (5) Lawrence Manley sees the refrain as participating in the poem's (and the poet's) "progress ... toward the city," and reads the second line especially, and so the flowing Thames, as an index to the consolation and "cultural mastery" figured in the city. (6) Mary Joan Cook has ascribed to "bridal day" an "alternate," "veiled," (p. 183) meaning--the "final joyous bridal to be experienced in eternity" (p. 181)--in order to justify the elegiac tone and to explain certain "contradictory passages" (p. 183). (7)
As varied and provocative as the attention to the refrain has been, criticism has remained largely formal or thematic or, if more broadly contextual, restricted to vocational context and Spenser's oeuvre. My reading of the refrain, and accordingly my argument, proceed on grounds that emerge in considering material aspects of the poem's immediate and extended setting in mid-1590s London.
I begin my analysis at the second line of the refrain--"Sweet Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song." In addition to expressing the wishes that time be slowed or that "the river of life ... flow 'gently, carefully, tenderly,'" as Cook, citing the OED, has recently phrased it, the line also, I propose, invokes relative silence as a condition for Spenser's poetic making. (8) The poem begins with a musical reference, in describing Zephyrus's playing softly a "gentle spirit," that is, playing quietly a melodious piece of music. (9) This opening note prepares us to understand "softly" in the refrain "Sweet Themmes runne softly" to mean, along with its other senses, "with a soft or subdued voice or utterance." (10) That it is Spenser's wish to mute the sounds of the Thames becomes still more evident when we contextualize Prothalamion in the soundscapes of Spenser's London.
The London of Spenser's day was notoriously noisy, as recent catalogings of London's sounds by Bruce Smith and Peter Ackroyd remind us. (11) Visitors and citizens alike remarked on the level and variety of sound. Paul Hentzner of Brandenburg observes, around 1598, that the English are "vastly fond of great noises that fill the ear, such as the firing of cannon, drums, and the ringing of bells" and notes that in London in particular "it is common for a number of them that have got a glass in their heads (qui se inebriaverint) to go up into some belfry, and ring the bells for hours together." (12) Thomas Dekker writes that in "every street, carts and Coaches make such a thundring as if the world ranne upon wheels," while "hammers are beating in one place, Tubs hoping in another, pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth." (13)
The Thames and its banks generated an especially noteworthy concentration of sounds. In the east, where Spenser's poem's procession begins, the industrial noise from forges and barrel-making factories hammered incessantly from daybreak to dark. The river Thames itself--up and down upon which, according to John Stow, plied about 2000 wherries, or small boats, in addition to tide boats, tilt boats, and barges--must have been awash from dawn to dusk with the shouts and cries of watermen, who grew infamous over the centuries for their foul, and sometimes seditious, language. (14) The lightermen, too, generated bustle and noise loading and unloading cargo. Hawkers and vendors on nearby streets added their distinctive calls to the sound mix (cries formalized into musical notation by composers such as Orlando Gibbons). Riverside mills and pumps magnified the sound of the Thames's waters, as did London Bridge, whose twenty closely spaced arches turned the sluicing water into a thunderously loud and treacherous stretch. (15) The famous Thames swans--whose numbers were great because they were protected from hunters in order to ensure, as Swiss visitor Thomas Platter notes, a ready supply of down for the royal household--furnished not only a spectacle but also a "noise" that was, at least according to Hentzner, "vastly agreeable to the fleets that meet them in their course." (16) As Smith's study of the acoustic world of early modern London suggests, moreover, the "acoustic horizon" of pre-industrial London was sufficiently expansive to permit sounds to travel distinctly over great distances. (17)
Spenser's poem registers none of this noise, a fact that should prompt us to wonder why he makes his Thames so quiet. His doing so seems the more remarkable when we compare Prothalamion to his earlier wedding poem, Epithalamion, a poem that emphatically draws in surrounding sounds and voices. The equally evocative refrain in Epithalamion, variations on "The woods shall to me answer and my Echo ring," in fact amplifies ambient sound. (18) And Epithalamion accommodates a range of voices that are not always consonant with Spenser's express purposes in that poem. This contrast between the refrains of Epithalamion and Prothalamion is particularly worth noting since the two poems are so closely related. They are so, not only in dates of writing (1594 and 1596, respectively) and in the common subject matter of a wedding, but also, and more importantly for my purposes, in the promotion of English, Protestant interests, as those interests are served, respectively, by the plantation of Ireland and by military action against Spain. The markedly different uses of ambient sound in poems otherwise closely connected return us to the different settings--Ireland in the former, London in the latter--with the somewhat surprising supposition that London cannot be accommodated as readily in Spenser's poetic designs as can Ireland, even though Ireland frequently figures resistance and contest in Spenser's poetry. (19) The related conclusion is that commerce poses an even greater challenge to Spenser's articulation of English, Protestant expansionist aims than do the armed conflicts and religious, political, and administrative differences shaping Anglo-Irish relations.
As Barry Truax, Eric Wilson, and others have demonstrated, noise signifies, and attention to "soundscapes" directs us usefully to consider how a place, or space, such as a city is experienced and produced by those who inhabit it. (20) Soundscapes reflect sociocultural norms, practices, histories, and inventions. Urban soundscapes thus provide a valuable, if underused, index to economic and social orders. (21) Although several distinct "acoustic communities," to use Smith's term, lined the Thames of Spenser's day, the noisiness of the Thames and its banks was, above all, the noise of trade and commerce, of the economic engine driving London's rapid growth and eventual rise to European preeminence, as well as, ultimately, England's imperial aims. As Kenneth Andrews observes, "[t]he main context and content of Elizabethan-Jacobean expansion were ... commercial, " just as generally in this period "European overseas expansion ... was fundamentally a commercial movement." (22) The extent to which the Thames and London were distinguished by their commercial character is evident from, among other sources, John Norden's 1593 map of London with its imposing border depicting the crests of the city's chief guilds. (23)
Prominent among the acoustic communities on the Thames was that formed by the "navy," divided by William Harrison in his Description of England, into "three sorts, of which the one serveth for the wars, the other for burden, and the third for fishermen which get their living by fishing on the sea." (24) In the ensuing description, which is replete with patriotic zeal and fashioned with rhetorical sleight of hand, Harrison proceeds to magnify Elizabethan shipping interests and capacities, maneuvers that--whatever they might not tell us about the actual shipping industry anchored on the Thames--convey the hold of the shipping business upon the imaginations of contemporary observers. Platter observes the importance of commerce to London's prosperity, and, implicitly, to England's vying for preeminence and power in the wider world. …
Great Works of Literature; January 1, 1992
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