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Radical Spenser

Pastoral, Politics and the New Aestheticism

Richard Chamberlain

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This book provides a radical reading of Edmund Spenser and argues for a re-orientation in Renaissance criticism. It begins by critiquing the new historicist hegemony in Spenser studies, and, through a series of detailed readings, proposes alternative strategies for interpreting the texts of this pivotal Renaissance author which include a politicised 'new aestheticism', eco-criticism, and pastoral theory. Unlike most non-new historicist studies, Radical Spenser argues that Spenser's texts demand a reading at once political and sensitive to aesthetic surprise.

Following a polemical Introduction which establishes Spenser's centrality to key problems in contemporary Renaissance studies, Richard Chamberlain shows that William Empson's ideas about pastoral are vital for an understanding of Spenser and early modern literature. The following chapters discuss Spenser's use, in The Shepheardes Calender, of a distinctively 'pastoral' logic to problematise the relationship between literature and criticism; the ways in which this method informs The Faerie Queene; the approach, in the central books of the epic, to textual and state authority; and the final books' exploration of political experience. Finally, by demonstrating the complexity of the critically neglected prose treatise A View of the State of Ireland, the book offers an eco-critical perspective on Spenser's place in the natural and cultural environments of sixteenth-century Ireland.

Key Features

  • Theoretical intervention encouraging debate and analysis in Renaissance studies.
  • Close analysis of key passages offers a new understanding of how Spenser's writing works.
  • Broad coverage including readings of Spenser's major poems and his prose dialogue on Ireland.


I Reading
1. 'The Essential Trick': Pastoral, New Historicism and the Aesthetic
II. Poetry
2. Spenser's 'Critic Pen' in The Shepheardes Calender
3. Ways In: The Pastoral Paratexts of The Faerie Queene
4. Spenser's mode of Transport: The Faerie Queene, Books II-IV
5. Political Poetry? The Faerie Queene, Books V-VI
III Environment
6. Green Spenser: Mutabilitie and Others
7. Spenser's Irish Environment: A View of the State of Ireland.

About the Author

Richard Chamberlain is Visiting Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Bristol.


What undeniably makes Radical Spenser required reading for Spenserians are its many graceful and original interpretive gems, seemingly obvious but subtly nuanced...
- Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, The Spenser Review
[Radical Spenser] does raise a series of fascinating issues, asks some difficult questions and does not settle for easy answers to them, and dares to be different. For these reasons alone, it deserves to be read and to feature on the radar of Spenserians.
- Andrew Hadfield, Modern Philology
Radical Spenser's fusion of an Adorno-led new aesthetics with earlier work on pastoral by William Empson is innovative and sophisticated…The reader comes away with a nuanced understanding of poems that are, it is true, not nearly as simple as New Historicist critics sometimes make them appear.
Radical Spenser: Pastoral, Politics and the New Aestheticism, is valuable for theorizing the professional confrontation between "political" and "literary" criticism ... thoughtful and provocative.
- SEL - Studies in English Literature 1500-1900