"Above that idol of his feigning thought": Ekphrasis and Occultatio in Edmund Spenser's An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie

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Written by Efterpi Mitsi

In the last of the Fowre Hymnes, An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie, Edmund Spenser draws upon Plato, Neo-Platonism and mystical tradition to ascend "farre above" (64),[1] to the highest heaven, progressing from the love of earthly to the love of heavenly beauty. Although Spenser adheres to the Neoplatonic project, as exemplified by Marsilio Ficino, whose commentary upon Plato's Symposium (1469) disseminated the Platonic ideas across Europe, this hymn surpasses the opposition between the physical and the spiritual world and between human and divine creations, meditating on the power of poetry to transfigure the experience of earthy beauty into a heavenly vision. Yet, while aspiring to that vision, to "[...] look at last up to that sovereign light, / From whose pure beams all perfect beauty springs (295-96), the speaker reaches the point where "tongues. . . cease" (Cor. 13.8),[2] the state beyond language and art.

In his investigation of Spenser's reference to Anacreon in the hymn, Miklós Péti connects the early modern reception of the ancient poet with the Renaissance poet's reflections on his own literary career, suggesting that the figure of Anacreon "communicates Spenser's awareness of the limitations of his late lyric turn."[3] The allusion to Anacreon is directly related to the main concern of the poem, the inadequacy of human expression, already introduced in the first stanza of the poem:

Rapt with the rage of mine own ravish'd thought,
Through contemplation of those goodly sights,
And glorious images in heaven wrought,
Whose wondrous beauty, breathing sweet delights
Do kindle love in high-conceited sprights;
I fain to tell the things that I behold,
But feel my wits to fail, and tongue to fold. (1-7)

The alliterations in the first and final lines of the stanza stress the contrast between sense of rapture and fear of failure, insight and expression. Disappointed by rational understanding ("wits"), the poet seeks in the next stanza the illumination of the Holy Spirit, "To shed into my breast some sparkling light / Of thine eternal truth, that I may show / Some little beams to mortal eyes below / Of that immortal beauty" (10-13). Yet, by the end of the poem, the mystical vision of immortal beauty has not been fully conveyed to the reader. As Feisal G. Mohamed argues, the heterodoxy of An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie calls into question the human capacity to engage in the vision it describes.[4]

The paradox of describing what cannot be described centres on the representation of Sapience (183ff.), a divine being that is nonetheless perceived as "God's own beloved" through analogies to human sexuality.[5] The ekphrasis[6]of Sapience encompasses the Spenserian ambiguity towards pictorialism, which was manifested in his epic poem, The Faerie Queene. In fact, Sapience echoes passages in Spenser's epic that reveal his ambivalent iconoclasm as well as his rhetoric of modesty and self-effacement. In the description of Sapience, Spenser displays what James P. Bednarz calls the "decorum of supplication," representing his persona in ways similar to "trapped in an endless dialectic of aspiration and humility, confidence and doubt, success and failure."[7] Such echoes are not surprising, considering that the Fowre Hymnes were issued in 1596, during Spenser's return to London for the publication of the second half of The Faerie Queene and his stay for almost a year, living in Essex House in the Strand as a guest of the Earl of Essex. In , descriptions of works of art represent the ambiguity of the relations between word and image, foregrounding Spenser's concern with the way poetry resembles, challenges and exceeds the visual arts. of Sapience can therefore be read in an additional context to the Neoplatonic one: as a reflection upon description, especially enargeia, the emotionally powerful pictorial description, the device by which poets since antiquity understood the ability of language to recreate visual experience.[8]

Critics have emphasized the self-reflexive role of ekphrasis in sixteenth-century literature, suggesting that poets like Spenser "allow the works of art they describe to stand for art generally, but more particularly for works of literary art."[9] Sapience, though linked to the most beautiful works of ancient art, transcends the limits of artistic representation, being the "sovereign light, /From whose pure beams all perfect beauty springs" (295-96). In a poem about beauty and vision, the lengthy representation of Sapience assumes an emblematic role in Spenser's relation with the visual. When the poem ascends from the earth to the heavens, reaching God's throne, Sapience appears as the source of all beauty, sitting in God's bosom: "There in his bosome Sapience doth sit, / The soueraine dearling of the Deity" (183-96). Since in the Neoplatonic scheme, all earthly beauty is a pale reflection of this divine source of Beauty, art, like any human creation, can only aspire toward her. At this moment, the poet gives examples of that aspiration, first of "that Painter [...] / Which pictured Venus with so curious quill" (211-12), then of "that sweet Teian Poet which did spend / His plenteous vaine in setting forth her praise" (219-20), and finally, of Spenser himself, "the nouice of his [the Teian poet, Anacreon's] Art" (225).

Although the associations of Sapience's beauty with that of Venus recall the earthly hymns, the scepticism regarding human capacity to represent the unrepresentable reiterate the moments of doubt palpable in The Faerie Queene. Lines such as "The fairness of her face no tongue can tell (204)" emphasize on the impossibility of the poet's task and question his ability to create images suitable to such an elevated subject.

How then dare I, the novice of his art,
Presume to picture so divine a wight,
Or hope t' express her least perfection's part,
Whose beauty fills the heavens with her light,
And darks the earth with shadow of her sight?
Ah, gentle Muse, thou art too weak and faint
The portrait of so heavenly hue to paint. (225-231)

Despite the poet's initial rapture and "heavenly contemplation," his Muse appears "too weak" to enable him to paint Sapience's portrait with words. By using the metaphor of painting in line 231, Spenser not only contrasts his Muse to the ancient painter, emphasizing the impossibility of his task, but also hints at the Horatian doctrine of ut pictura poesis that reappeared in Sir Philip Sidney's definition of poetry as "a speaking picture-with this end, to teach and delight."[10] Unlike the pagan painter and poet who had the "maistring skill" but lacked the divine contemplation, the Christian poet has the vision but complains that he lacks the skill. Spenser desires to create enargeia, to find the right words to yield so vivid a description that the represented object emerges before the reader's inner eye. As Adam McKeown argues, "for Spenser, enargeia shares qualities with painting and rhetoric but seeks to transcend the limitations imposed on both by the faculties to which each is addressed-sensation and reason, respectively."[11] Only by reconciling the sensual images wrought by the ancient painter and poet with the grand epideictic intention of the hymn, Spenser may achieve Sidney's definition of the goal of poetry: through an appeal to the senses, the readers' mind would rise toward the contemplation of the ineffable, to the immortal beauty of Sapience which lies beyond the scope of language and reason.

Spenser's comparison with Anacreon presents, as Péti has persuasively argued, another instance of the English poet's complex literary self-presentation, constructed since the beginning of his career through numerous allusions to Chaucer, Virgil, Ovid and Orpheus. With this single reference to the "Teian poet," Spenser, according to Péti, "marks the paradox of ending his career with leaving his epic unfinished and turning or returning to lyric poetry." In conjunction with the allusion to the "Painter" of Venus, "an emblematic figure of all ancient and modern essentially misdirected attempts to represent heavenly beauty,"[12] Spenser's self-presentation in the hymn is not only a device to evoke the impossibility of "painting" Sapience's "portrait" but also a comment on the conflict between paganism and Christianity, the secular and the sacred. The "novice" of Anacreon's art indicates Spenser's "persistent mode of self-deprecation,"[13] expressed in the introduction of, when he states that he is "unfit" but "enforced" to change his "oaten reed" for "trumpet stern" (1.Proem.1). In this way, the Hymne of Heavenly Beautie recalls the ambiguous self-portrait that emerges in the proems of Faerie Queene, where the poet claims on the one hand the inspiration of his epic predecessors while, on the other, calls himself the Muse's "weaker Novice" (1.Proem.2), the same word the older Spenser uses to represent himself in the hymn.

The source of his anxiety, which seems to go beyond the rhetorical topos of modesty and Spenser's Christian humility, lies in the similarities between the description of Sapience, presented as a beautiful heavenly queen, and that of the earthly queen to whom his epic poem is dedicated. Despite differences between the epic (whose first half was published in 1589) and the hymn (published in 1596), the anxiety about the impossibility of describing the queen in the proem of the third book of resembles the self-deprecation expressed in the hymn:

How then shall I Apprentice of the skill,
That whylome in divinest wits did raine,
Presume so high to stretch mine humble quill?
Yet now my luckless lot doth me constraine
Hereto perforce. (3.Proem.3)

Spenser's fear of inadequacy, repeated in the proems through phrases such as my "weake wit," "dull tongue," "feeble eyes" and "thoughts too humble and too vile" (1.Proem.2 and 4), functions as his defence against the dazzling light of his queen. The poet's feeble eyes can only behold her glory through a veil, "in shadowes light," or else be "dazzled with exceeding light" (2.Proem.4). Through the metaphor of the veil, and the opposition between light and shadow, Spenser draws his ambiguous self-portrait; he is the artist mirroring the image of his queen but also the hierophant veiling the sacred image.[14] The veil protects him from transgression; it embodies his humility, acting as a compliment to Elizabeth but also a defence against the dangers of the court and the perils of representation.

The hymn echoes the Proems, suggesting that Spenser continues even after the publication of the second half of the Faerie Queene to portray himself, according to Bednarz, "as being called to a vocation for which he is unworthy,"[15] never entirely abandoning his early persona, while reflecting on the power and limits of artistic representation. In his examination of Spenser's reference to the painter in the hymn, Péti mentions that sixteenth-century references to Aphrodite Anadyomene frequently appear in adynata, a figure of speech declaring impossibility, usually in terms of an exaggerated comparison. Yet, the hymn does not end with the declaration of impossibility, with the failure of the weak and faint Muse, but continues for 70 more lines, ending with a vision of light, "And look at last up to that sovereign light" (295). Rather than an exploration of adynaton, the representation of Sapience in the Hymne of Heavenly Beautie suggests an occultatio, the figure of diction that according to Rhetorica ad Herennium occurs when we say that we are passing by, or do not know, or refuse to say precisely what we are now saying" ("Occultatio est cum dicimus nos praeterire aut non scire aut nolle dicere id quod nun maxime dicimus").[16] Although Harry Caplan translates occultatio as paralipsis, a Greek term for the general practice of saying something by claiming we are not going to say it, in the Ad Herennium there is a subtle distinction between saying something by obscuring it (occultatio) and saying something by passing it by (praeteritio). In his description of Sapience, Spenser refuses to say what he is saying, portraying Sapience by obscuring her image from the eyes of those unfit to see her.

The occultatio of Sapience is reminiscent of the portraying / concealing of Spenser's patroness in the Proem of Book 3 of his epic. There, a similar reference to the famous painters of antiquity, Zeuxis and Praxiteles and the ensuing paragone, the rivalry between painting and poetry, emphasize the adynaton, the impossibility of portraying the perfection of the queen:

But liuing art may not least part express,
Nor life-resembling pencil it can paint,
All were it Zeuxis or Praxiteles:
His daedele hand would faile, and greatly faint,
And her perfections with his error taint:
Ne Poets wit that passeth Pinter farre
In picturing the parts of beautie daint,
So hard a workmanship aduenture darre. (3.Proem.2)

Although the poet's art surpasses that of the painter, Spenser cannot describe the queen "for fear through words her excellence to marre" (3.Proem.2). The "daedele" hand of the artist implies the poet's ambiguity about artworks and artefacts in general, since Daedalus was the creator of the labyrinth and the waxen wings for his son, Icarus, both ingenuous yet deadly inventions. Spenser dismisses the "life-resembling pencil" of the ancient painters, rejecting the illusion of reality they were known to create. Instead, he confesses that he cannot "figure plaine" the portrait of the queen but has to "shadow" it in "liuing colours, and right hew" (3.Proem.4), denoting that his "shadowing" both resembles and outshines the painters' skill. Combining colouring and obscuring, the poetic portrait of the queen exemplifies the trope of occultatio: just as the portrait of Sapience, Spenser describes the object of his praise by not describing her.

The first image of Sapience shows that the sacred can only be perceived in secular terms, a realization that leads to the subsequent failure of the "tongue"(204) and to the confession that the poet's Muse is "too weak and faint / The pourtraict of so heavenly hew to paint" (230-31). In lines 183-89, not only is Sapience "the sovereign darling" of God, suggesting an analogy to human sexuality, to the earthly love and beauty of the first two hymns,[17] but she is also "clad like a queen," an image of dazzling glory, similar to the images of Spenser's earthly queen:

There in his bosom Sapience doth sit,
The sovereign darling of the Deity,
Clad like a queen in royal robes, most fit
For so great power and peerless majesty,
And all with gems and jewels gorgeously
Adorn'd, that brighter than the stars appear,
And make her native brightness seem more clear. (183-89)

Adorned with resplendent jewels, which amplify her innate brightness, Sapience wears "on her head a crown of purest gold" and holds a sceptre, signs of the "highest sovereignty" (191-92). The image of immortal, immaterial beauty perceived in material terms ("royal robes," "gems and jewels"), is followed by the reference to the ancient painter and his attempt to represent the beauty of Venus. The allusion to the goddess of beauty evokes Spenser's own complex figure of Venus in The Faerie Queene, where she appears in various forms and contexts, from the tapestries depicting her love with Adonis in Castle Joyous (3.1.34-39) to the Garden of Adonis (3.6) and the Temple of Venus (4.10.29-58). In The Faerie Queene, Spenser's manifold depiction of Venus encompasses mutually antagonistic qualities, combining sensual with virtuous love. It is Spenser's language in An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie that transfigures the secular images of Venus and Elizabeth to a sacred concept of beauty.

In the depiction of Sapience, the pictorial effect competes with the epideictic rhetoric that characterizes both epic and hymn. As Robin Headlam Wells points out, the purpose of The Faerie Queene is "to praise Elizabeth by presenting her with a portrait of the ideal ruler-a portrait which she would recognize as her own."[18] The shadowing of her portrait results in the allegorical characters that portray her qualities or "perfections," such as Britomart in Book 3, who is, as Spenser says in "A Letter of the Authors," a device by which Elizabeth is "shadow[ed]," a "picture" of chastity devised "for the more variety of the history." The reference to shadowing in the prefatory Letter ("And yet, in some places else, I doe otherwise shadow her"), the act of simultaneously revealing and concealing Elizabeth through her diverse allegorical pictures, relates to occultatio. Moreover, in The Faerie Queene, Britomart encounters more artefacts (tapestries and statues) than any other character, allowing the poet not only to describe visual art but also to comment on the relation between verbal and visual representation. The works of art described stand for art generally, but more particularly for works of literary art, initiating a self-reflexive pause in the narrative flow. These self-conscious moments also foreground a competition with the literary past by alluding to ancient poets and painters and in this way interrogating the role of antiquity in late sixteenth-century culture.

Similarly, in the portrayal of Sapience in An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie, the allusions to the ancient painter of Venus and to Anacreon, as well as the associations of Sapience with Venus, which summon up the "Ovidian Amor" of the earthly hymns sitting "on the throne of the Christian God,"[19] evoke the relation between text and image, the rivalry that exists between the "sister arts" and the opposition between paganism and Christianity, between past and present. As Bednarz argues, despite the fact that Spenser assumes here a status based on ancient authority, his "version of the Renaissance implies [...] the diminished capacity of the present."[20] Through the reference to Anacreon and the juxtaposition between Venus and Sapience, Spenser fashions a poetic persona that stands in shadow of the past and reforms it at the same time. Although in the description of Sapience, according to Janet Levarie Smarr, Spenser "contrasts his high subject and lowly skill with the lowly subject and high skill of Anacreon,"[21] the English poet's concern is not just the questionable moral status of Anacreontic poetry. Ultimately, even the most skilful lyric poet of antiquity could not transcend the "Anacreontic poetry created idols, Spenser is aware of the dangers of idolatry. The description of Sapience exposes the conflict between the iconographer and the iconoclast. The poet's journey from earth to heaven, "Mount[ing] up aloft through heavenly contemplation" (136) but also "Throw[ing] thy selfe down with trembling innocence" (143), leads to the recognition that all earthly forms of beauty sought by his "hungry soul" were but "idle fancies" and "vain deceitful shadows" (288-91). His "late repentance" turns the gaze to the final vision of light. Dazzled by the sovereign light, the poet finds himself in a state of suspended reason, possessed by the "sweet pleasures" of perfect beauty, which finally put his "straying thoughts' to rest (300-301).



[1] All references to the Fowre Hymnes are to The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).

[2] In King James Bible the passage reads: "Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away."

[4] Feisal G. Mohamed," Renaissance Thought on the Celestial Hierarchy: The Decline of a Tradition?" Journal of the History of Ideas 65.4 (2004): 574.

[5] Elizabeth Bieman, "Fowre Hymnes," The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. Albert Charles Hamilton (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) 317.

[6] In modern terminologies means the description of art in literature. In Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice (Farnham, England-Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009) 1-2, Ruth Webb argues that the ancient sense of ekphrasis does not refer solely or primarily to the rhetorical description of a work of art and that modern definitions ignore or dismiss the original sense of the term. Although Renaissance writers would not have understood the term in its modern sense, description of art was conventional to epic poetry both classical and medieval, and the practice, as Kelly Quinn points out, was familiar to English poets like Spenser, Marlowe and Shakespeare. See "Ecphrasis and Reading Practices in Elizabethan Narrative Verse," SEL 1500-1900 40.1 (2004): 19-35.

[7] James P. Bednarz, "The Collaborator as Thief: Ralegh's (Re)Vision of The Faerie Queene," ELH 63. 2 (1996): 299-300.

[8] While in the political and forensic assembly ancient orators used enargeia, persuading their listeners through powerful descriptive figures, in epideictic oratory they used extended description, ekphrasis. Enargeia, which predated ekphrasis, was frequent in diverse contexts for a range of effects of vivid presence. See G. Zanker, "Enargeia in the Ancient Criticism of Poetry," Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie 124 (1981): 297-311.

[9] Quinn 20.

[10] Philip Sidney, A Defence of Poetry, ed. J. A. Van Dorsten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966) 25.

[11] Adam McKeown, "Looking at Britomart Looking at Pictures," SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 45.1 (2005): 44.

[12] Péti

[13] Bednarz 299.

[14] Michael O'Connell, Mirror and Veil: The Historical Dimension of Spenser's Faerie Queene (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977) 19.

[15] Bednartz 300.

[16] Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.27, trans. Harry Caplan (Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, 1954). Quintilian in Institutio Oratoria 9.3.98 assigns occultatio to the figures of thought rather than diction. See also Cicero's reticentia (De Oratore, and

[17] Bieman 317.

[18] Robin Headlam Wells, Spenser's "Faerie Queene" and the Cult of Elizabeth (London-Canberra, Australia: Croom Helm, 1983) 5.

[19] Enid Welsford, Spenser: Fowre Hymnes and Epithalamion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967) 42.

[20] Bednarz 300.

[21] Janet Levarie Smarr, "Anacreontics," The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. Albert Charles Hamilton (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) 39.

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
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