What is Edmund Spenser's poetic writing style, and what distinguishes him from other poets of his time?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Spenser's poetic aesthetic (or simply "poetics" or "writing style") is so complex and unified that critics, like Harry Berger, Jr., have suggested that his poetic aesthetic forms a paradigm rather than preferences for particular style traits. Support of this is often given by citing his incorporation of astronomical and calendrical events into Epithalamion and the complex tri-layered allegories comprising The Faerie Queen. We can, in this confined space, mention only three parts of this paradigmatic aesthetic that seem of particular importance and that distinguish him from other poets of his time, either in particular usage or in degree or quality of usage.

Aside from the aforementioned techniques that distinguish Spenser from his contemporaries, the first point is rhetorical devices. Spencer especially employs amplificato, digressio and descritio to develop the effects of characterization and dramatic plot dynamics. Amplifcatio is amplification of an idea that enlarges upon seemingly incidental points that seem unimportant to the narrative but that add to characterization or dramatic impact. Digressio is digression that moves the focus to a tangential point (goes off track) that juxtaposes another story with the main one in order to emphasize some quality or aspect of the first.

Descriptio is description that follows one of the three dominant modes of description. Spenser often favors the descriptio method attributed to Cicero in which the physical attributes are described before the moral qualities. These three rhetorical devices were used by others and earlier favored by Chaucer, as these were part of their basic educational background, so it is Spenser's degree or quality of usage that distinguishes him from others.

The second point in his poetics is his faithful adherence to Sir Philip Sydney's definition of the mimetic originated by Aristotle. Poetry, they three agree, is inspired by Divinity (for Sidney and Spenser, the Christian God) and a representation of Truths not visible to humans on Earth, though humans nonetheless thirst for these Truths. The poet must transform these Divine and inspired Truths to Ideas that may be grasped by and may nourish humans' hearts.

The Truth, accordingly, must be transposed to a single Idea. The Idea must be represented by a Noun, such as Justice, Love or Knowledge. The Noun must be represented by a corresponding Verb of action: to be just, to love, to know. Then the selected character must enact all possible situations in which the Noun is explored and all aspects of the Verb undertaken in order that the character (and reader) may learn what is and is not the True Divine Idea behind the Noun. Spenser agreed with and followed Sydney's definition of a poet's task in such a way that distinguished him from his peers, who were awed by Spenser's inspired gift.

The third point in his poetic aesthetic is his thematic emphasis on second beginnings. This is seen very well in Muiopotmos. Clarion fails on his first beginning, it being premature and he being immature or having wrong expectations. Yet opportunity comes for a second beginning at a later time when all conditions and circumstances are right for a successful beginning.

These, along with Spenser's divergence from Petrarchan sonnet form, which allows him to discuss one continuing thought rather than two contrasting, paradoxical thoughts, are some important points in Spenser's writing style and some that distinguish him from other contemporaneous poets.