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The Haunting of Naso’s Ghost in Spenser’s Ovidian Intertexts

Ben Philippi

University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Exploring the reception of Ovid’s exilic elegies in the late poetry of Edmund Spenser, who “knew Ovid so intimately that to write poetry was to use him,” this paper employs recent scholarship on Ovid’s self-reception in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto to reread Spenser’s intertextual engagement with Ovid’s Metamorphoses through the retroactive light of Ovid’s transformative relegation (Holahan 1990). Spenserians have become increasingly attuned to the ways in which the frustration of Spenser’s ambitions mirror Ovid’s enforced relegation to the distant colony of Tomis for a mysterious carmen et error (Tristia 2.207-8). Richard McCabe, one of the first critics to offer a sustained reading of Spenser as a poet of exile, describes Spenser’s Ireland as “a site imaginatively conducive to the poetics of exile as Ovid’s Tomis” while M.L. Stapleton underscores Spenser’s aesthetic indebtedness to the exiled Ovid’s poetic strategies of oblique satire, first-person complaint, and self-parody (McCabe 2016; Stapleton 2010). Several Ovidian scholars have shown how his encouragement of readers to perceive himself as the subject of his pre-exilic poetry reconfigures the auto-biographical implications of the exclusus amator of the amatory elegies, the dismembered victims of the Metamorphoses, and the unanswered epistles of the Heroides (McGowan 2009, Williams 2002, Claassen 1999). Critical to my argument is the notion that, according to K. Sara Meyers and Colin Burrow, Ovid deploys these strategies and themes to ensure that his place in the literary tradition depends on the subsequent acknowledgement by future poets that a proper reading of the Ovidian corpus cannot ignore its intertextual entanglement with the exile elegies: in other words, that the distinction between the “pre-exilic” and “post-exilic” poetry is not entirely secure (Meyers 2014; Burrow 2002).

My paper attends to a crucial moment in Spenser’s poetry when he becomes increasingly conscious of the fact he is writing on the margins of empire and of the effect this must have had on his poetic career. Here, Spenser wavers between his aging self, as unsympathetic witness of colonial atrocities beyond the Irish Pale, and his younger persona Colin Clout, who exploited Ovid’s exilic pose to “make symbolic capital out of social loss” (McCabe 2016). In contrast to the popular assertion that Spenser “urgently and pervasively” evokes “Ovid’s exile and the ideological distance from the center of power,” I demonstrate how Spenser’s colonial disdain for the Gaelic kern and his fears of metamorphosing into a hybrid Anglo-Irish identity cause him to avoid references to the exiled Ovid, who appeared to come too close for comfort to becoming a Getic poet among “barbarians” (Pugh 2005). Spenser often looks away from the exile poetry at moments when he returns to the Roman Ovid of the Metamorphoses, but this is precisely where he tacitly conjures, I claim, the haunting phantom of the Tomitan Ovid.

In Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, Colin is asked to narrate his recent voyage from Ireland to England “were it not too painful to speak” (32). Instead of revealing that Ireland is “barrein soyle,” Colin chooses silence, retreating to the familiar terrain of the more famous Ovid of the Metamorphoses to sing of an aetiological myth about a local Irish river (656). Spenser’s river myth consciously echoes the narrative of the river God Alpheus’ pursuit of Arethusa, transformed into a stream by Diana in Book V of the Metamorphoses. As the poem progresses, the unspoken realities Colin earlier avoided peep through the cracks in ways that defy pastoral convention and that invite fruitful comparisons to Ovid’s exile poetry. Colin’s momentary attempt to construct an alternative green world on the margins of empire are shown, by Spenser, to ultimately fail. Readers can perceive what Colin’s interlocutors in the poem cannot: that the realities of Ireland threaten to undermine Colin’s carefully constructed parallel universe, his Mediterranean world “amongst the cooly shade, / of the alders by the Mullaes shore” (58-59).

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