Orderly Disorder: Rhetoric and Imitation in Spenser's Three Beast Poems from the Complaints Volume


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Virginia Tech


Spenser's Complaints volume is a Menippean satire, a form characterized by mixture. Within this mixture of forms and voices, the three beast poems, Virgils Gnat, Prosopopoia or Mother Hubberds Tale, and Muiopotmos are unified by shared traditions in Classical Aesopic beast fable and medieval beast poetry. Reading these three poems as a set reveals Spenser's interpretation of the literary history of beast poetry as one of several competing forms of order. The beast poems show ordering schemes of hierarchy, proportion, imitative practice, and dialectic, yet none of these is dominant. Thus, in the overall Menippean mixture that makes up the volume, the beast poems present an additional and less obvious mixture: the kinds of order available to a literary artist.

Spenser's Complaints volume was the object of some censorship, and scholars still debate whether he or his printer, William Ponsonby, designed the book. The many kinds of organization demonstrated by the beast poems coalesce to form a theory of contestatory imitation in which the dominant order is disorder itself, represented by the ruin brought about by time's passage. Spenser appropriates both satiric and serious voices in the beast poems. He reflects on his political ambition to achieve the status of poet laureate in a noble, courtly manner, but he snarls like a fox, too, when he considers the ruin of his ambition.



Rhetoric, Beast Fables, Spenser, Complaints, Menippean Satire