Jane Grogan.  Exemplary Spenser: Visual and Poetic Pedagogy in The Faerie Queene. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. 217pp. ISBN 978 0 7546 6698 1.

Nadya Chishty Mujahid
The American University in Cairo

Nadya Chishty Mujahid. “Review of Jane Grogan, Exemplary Spenser: Visual and Poetic Pedagogy in The Faerie Queene." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 7.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-2/revgroga.htm>


“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

 “I only wish I had such eyes”, the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody!”

                                                            (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)

  1. Although this is not immediately apparent even to more careful readers, Jane Grogan’s text does not put forward a single all-encompassing thesis, so much as a set of related, yet ultimately distinct, sub-theses that collectively contribute towards furthering Spenserian scholarship from the perspective of the critical domain of ekphrasis-related heuristics. Ironically, the most useful way in which one can begin to assess Grogan’s well-organized and carefully documented text involves working one’s way backwards from her conclusions in Chapter 4. Titled “Making a Virtue of Courtesy,” this section of her book posits that, in shaping the virtue of courtesy within the overarching didactic framework of The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser necessarily needs to compromise the didactic and pedagogic strategies that he has developed over the course of his earlier books (specifically the first three, which deal with holiness, temperance, and chastity respectively). The complex, at times almost convoluted, scholarly messages of Grogan’s text derive much support from the final chapter’s confident deliberations as they implicitly underscore how the “romance genre of Book VI itself poses a challenge to Spenser’s didactic poetics” (157). Thus Grogan’s book, taken in its entirety, forcefully contrasts the authoritative (and undeniably reformative) didactic poetics of the 1590 edition with the representations of virtue encapsulated in the sixth book.

  2. Grogan’s introductory agendum—expounded and clarified in both her introduction, provocatively titled “Misreading Spenser,” as well as in Chapter 1—wisely avoids the trap of becoming a series of fashionable, but ultimately meaningless, new-historicist capers. Instead the author gives a strong and solid performance on the “balance-beam” of the “Letter to Ralegh”; underscoring the special role of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia in fulfilling Spenser’s initial didactic aims. This approach is relatively novel from the perspective of Spenser studies, and Grogan’s performance on the aforementioned balance-beam pleasingly combines interpretative exercise with historical accuracy. Her elegant “dismount” draws upon Ricoeurian theory in order to illustrate how both “Spenser and [Paul] Ricoeur accept a commitment to transformed futures in the act of reading” (66). Grogan views the association between Spenserian didacticism and reader reception as inherently dynamic, and repeatedly (but usefully) draws one’s attention to how this dynamism helps to foster the development of both moral character and reader-responsibility.

  3. The author’s intensive engagement with Spenser’s epic reaches its apex in Chapters 2 and 3 of her text, where Grogan pays homage to Spenser’s personal talent at pictorial depiction as well as to his use of established visual paradigms of the Renaissance. Her informative and lengthy discussion of Spenserian enargeia in Chapter 3—where she defines enargeia as “the creation of vivid and lively (or lifelike) images in the mind’s eye of the listener or reader” (109)—provides clarity and focus for the concept that Spenser’s didacticism and his pictorial poetics work symbiotically towards fulfilling the “Letter’s” professed aim of fashioning a gentleman.

  4. Grogan’s bibliography appears to be remarkably sound, both insofar as primary and secondary texts are concerned. However, it draws on such a plethora of recent secondary critical texts that I cannot help but feel that certain sections of Exemplary Spenser, such as her excellent analysis of Britomart’s adventures in the House of Busirane, would have benefited from a reliance on more “classic” work such as the scholarship of Thomas P. Roche, for example. Moreover, her focus on epic heroes in the first chapter would have undoubtedly been enhanced by Kenneth Borris’ Allegory and Epic in English Renaissance Literature. Nevertheless, Grogan’s detailed analyses of topics as varied and diverse as the Cyropaedia, False Florimell, Italian and English courtesy theory of the Renaissance, Anglo-Irish tensions, and the links between ekphrasis and reader-responsibility—to list but a few—make this an invaluable reference guide for undergraduates and graduate students alike. This is not to say that the text will not appeal to advanced scholars of Spenser’s work (indeed, that should go without saying); rather, I wish to assert that not all critical works on Spenser are as suitable for use by students as Grogan’s undoubtedly is. Although her odd neglect of Book IV and insufficient attention to Book V are regrettable, given the depth and success of her engagement with Books I-III as well as with the often elusive “Letter to Ralegh,” perhaps she may be prevailed upon to visit the former books in a future study.

  5. Firmly grounded in The Faerie Queene itself, Grogan’s book draws on critical theory sparingly but pertinently. While her research and style of writing are equally erudite, the text occasionally demonstrates a wry humour and quirky cockiness that make for surprisingly enjoyable reading. In conclusion, one can confidently state that Spenserians who are seeking to develop greater visual and pedagogic clarity insofar as his complex epic is concerned would be well-served were they to grab a pair of Grogan’s “literary bifocals”—beautifully packaged by Ashgate Press.

Works Cited



Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).