The four-hundred-year story of readers’ struggles with a famously unreadable poem—and what they reveal about the history of reading and the future of literary studies
“I am now in the country, and reading in Spencer’s fairy-queen. Pray what is the matter with me?” The plaint of an anonymous reader in 1712 sounds with endearing frankness a note of consternation that resonates throughout The Faerie Queene’s reception history, from its first known reader, Spenser’s friend Gabriel Harvey, who urged him to write anything else instead, to Virginia Woolf, who insisted that if one wants to like the poem, “the first essential is, of course, not to read” it. For more than four centuries critics have sought to counter this strain of readerly resistance, but rather than trying to remedy the frustrations and failures of Spenser’s readers, Catherine Nicholson cherishes them as a sensitive barometer of shifts in the culture of reading itself.
Indeed, tracking the poem’s mixed fortunes in the hands of its bored, baffled, outraged, intoxicated, obsessive, and exhausted readers turns out to be an excellent way of rethinking the past and future prospects of literary study. By examining the responses of readers from Queen Elizabeth and the keepers of Renaissance commonplace books to nineteenth-century undergraduates, Victorian children, and modern scholars, this book offers a compelling new interpretation of the poem and an important new perspective on what it means to read, or not to read, a work of literature.