Philip Edwards. Sea-Mark: The Metaphorical Voyage, Spenser to Milton. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1997. viii + 227 pp. ISBN 0 85323 522 8 Paper.
Jim Daems
Simon Fraser University

Daems, Jim. "Review of Sea-Mark: The Metaphorical Voyage, Spenser to Milton." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 13.1-6 <URL:

  1. The purpose of this book "is explication; to explain how the metaphor of the voyage is built into different works by different writers and why it is essential to the elucidation of the works in question" (3). Chapters are devoted to major canonical authors: Spenser, Marlowe, Donne, Bacon, and Milton, with the central part of the book comprising three chapters on Shakespeare. Edwards argues that the voyage metaphor took on a new vitality and energy during the Renaissance: "I came to see the tension or friction between enthusiasm and disapproval as the main source of the new energy in voyage metaphors" (6). While the wider issue of actual voyages does, occasionally, come through in the book, Edwards states that this is not his primary aim. He wishes to focus on the figurative aspects of the voyage metaphor. This approach does produce some insightful readings, but Edwards generally avoids discussing the actual place names that often occur in voyage metaphors. This is problematic, for, in doing so, Edwards fails to take into account some of the historically specific socio-political implications of figurative language.

  2. The discussion of the importance of the voyage metaphor in The Faerie Queene produces no real surprises. Edwards takes issue with Greenblatt's argument in Renaissance Self-Fashioning by asking "how far the navigation issue is political" (43) and arguing that "the level of correspondence between actual and metaphorical voyaging is very distant" (47). Edwards' focus on Book II, however, avoids mentioning the actual place names referred to in the Proem. But what is particularly insightful is the assertion that the equivocal nature of these metaphors reveals Spenser's own relationship to Elizabeth I.

  3. The problem of looking at voyage metaphors in a strictly figurative sense continues in the discussion of Marlowe's work and Shakespeare's Macbeth. In what is a quickly paced Marlowe chapter, the reader may, while agreeing that the voyage metaphors in Dido and Edward II relate to the more traditional archetypal readings, feel that the occurrences of actual place names politicize the metaphors beyond the broader issues that Edwards nicely relates to life direction and the body politic left pilot-less in Macbeth.

  4. With these reservations in mind, the claim that "Unlike Spenser's, Donne's references to voyaging, which are everywhere in his writing and constitute some of its best-known moments, directly invoke the contemporary world" (70), oddly touches again on the issue of the earlier chapters' separation of figurative and literal references. But Edwards' analysis of Donne, particularly of "Hymne to God, my God, in my sicknesse", wonderfully demonstrates the importance of the equivocal voyage metaphor in terms of both sexual conquest and spiritual struggle, of the metaphor's "usefulness in talking about a purposeful moral life" (78). This issue is also developed in the reading of Othello that Edwards performs through Othello's "sea-marke" metaphor. Though an insightful reading of the play results, the assertion that this reading is "opposed to the prevailing evaluation of the last half-century" (3) falls into an old problem. By stating that Othello is too hard on himself in his final self-condemnation (114), Edwards does what feminist critics of the play have astutely pointed out--moralizing on the tragic hero's journey effaces the female character who becomes little more than a means to this end. Nevertheless, the Shakespeare chapters are Edwards' most sustained and focused, as he demonstrates Shakespeare's eagerness "to provide shipwrecks as a prelude to salvation and restoration in so many of his plays" (134).

  5. The final two chapters contrast nicely. While arguing that Bacon imported the metaphor of discovery from voyaging and applied it to science, as well as noting Bacon's view that human liberation could be achieved "through the medium of his writings...as a voyage" (152), Edwards leads into his analysis of the negative valence of voyaging in Milton. He sees Milton using the voyage as a condition of post-lapsarian humanity of which Satan is emblematic. While for Bacon voyaging is the positive quest for knowledge, Milton implies that "imperfect vision, imperfect knowledge, and imperfect navigation will constantly drive the mariner to a false recognition of what he sees" (182). But, while tying this reading to Armitage's argument that Milton is a poet against empire, Edwards fails to deal with the issue of Milton's earlier support for the subjugation of Ireland.

  6. Though we may be left wondering about the innocence of the voyage metaphor and the distance between actual and metaphorical voyaging, particularly if Edwards sees Ralegh's final voyage as emblematic of the uncertainty of metaphorical voyaging (215), Sea-Mark is an interesting and worthwhile read for both scholars and students.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 16 January 1998)