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Jul '20 & Jan '21



Oscillations of Human Agency and Divine Grace in Book VI, Canto X of The Faerie Queene

Jessica Tooker, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA


Colin Clout’s rebuke of Calidore for disrupting the vision on Mount Acidale highlights the question of agency—or lack thereof—in Book VI, Canto X of The Faerie Queene.  As Colin crossly notes of the nymphs’ sudden exit: “For being gone, none can them bring in place, / But whom they of them selues list so to grace” (x. 20.4-5). If someone is in control, it isn’t Calidore.  This canto poses the question of how to establish control in a listing, lusting landscape that seems to privilege divine agency over human.  As this paper will argue, further exploration of the vision on Mount Acidale reveals the limits of human agency, and its engagement with the processes of creation allowing for its imaginative and literal expansion.

The description of Mount Acidale vibrates with intentionality of expression. It’s a “hill plaste in an open plaine, / That round about, was bordered with a wood” where “On the top thereof a spacious plaine / Did spred it self, to serue to all delight” (x.6.1-2, 8.1-2).  Mount Acidale is placed, bordered, and has spread itself out independently.  Irreverently, it sounds like a rolled-out, pre-stamped carpet, created by a divine hand and protected just as diligently from randomness.  Even the “gentle flud” that courses through it is kept pristine: “Ne mote wylde beastes, ne mote the ruder clowne / Thereto approach, ne filth more therein drowne: / But Nymphes and Faeries by the bancks did sit, / Keeping all noisome things away from it” (x.7.4-6, 8).  The mount is “A place, whose pleasaunce did appere / To pass all others, on the earth which were: / For all that euer was by natures skill / Deuized to worke delight, was gathered there” (x. 5.4-7).  We hear echoes of Acrasia’s Bower of Blisse—with an important difference.  The skillful devising of Mount Acidale does not smack of overwrought, rhetorically (and, at times literally) dripping excess (remember Cissie and Flossie’s peep show for Guyon?).  Instead, the image of the mount is one of measured pleasure generated by the artful processes of the natural world itself.  Nature is represented as artistic and paradisal without being artificial.

The opening stanzas of Book VI, Canto X contrast the “divine stability” of the description of Mount Acidale with Calidore’s own, less stable status.  The canto begins with the poet’s query, “Who now does follow the foule Blatant Beast, / Whilest Calidore does follow that faire Mayd, / Unmindfull of his vow and high beheast?” (x. 1.1-3).  The question extends over six of the stanza’s nine lines, relieving the reader with the punctuating question mark only after the poet has finished his lengthy chastisement of Calidore.  The meandering rhetorical structure of the stanza emphasizes that he has strayed from his quest.  The poet’s tone changes markedly, however, in the third and fourth stanzas, as he defends Calidore’s lovesick digression: “Ne certes mote he greatly blamed be, / …For what hath all that goodly glorious gaze / Like to one sight which Calidore did vew?” (x. 3.1, 4.1-2).  The poet forgives Calidore his dalliance based upon the astonishing beauty of Pastorella, with whom, “Saue onely Glorianas heauenly hew / To which what can compare” (x. 4.7-8). Critically, his agency does not disappear so much as he turns it towards a different goal—the endpoint of which is still, as the poet craftily ensures—veneration of Queen Elizabeth.  The constant presence of Elizabeth I (in allegorical guise) suggests that Calidore may not have drifted as far from the initial quest as it seems.

In the middle of the description of the dancing graces, the poet remarks of Pastorella that, “Another Grace she well deserues to be, / In whom so many Graces Gathered are, / … Diuine resemblaunce, beauty soueraine rare, / Firme Chastity, that spight ne blemish dare” (x. 27.1-2, 4-5). Obviously, the poet praises the Queen through his ecstatic worship of Pastorella—Venus’s stand in.  However, Pastorella’s representation seems more complex and unstable than this initial comparison suggests.  Emerging into view (the reader’s as well as Calidore’s) in the middle of a stanza, Pastorella is the surprise figure that the Graces encircle: “But that faire one / That in the midst was placed parauant, / Was she to whome that shepheard pypt alone” (x. 15.6-8).  Pastorella’s rhetorical insertion into the stanza is unexpected because she easily (and uneasily) replaces either of the two figures the preceding stanzas  lead us to expect: Venus, or perhaps Gloriana herself.  If Mount Acidale operates like a moveable set-piece within the liminal world of the pastoral (which vanishes altogether in Canto XI), Pastorella is similarly capable of being inserted and extracted from the vision. 

The unexpected emergence of Pastorella highlights the narrative agency of the poet, whose praise of the Queen is weirdly undercut by his rhetorical deification of Pastorella.  A handmaiden of the queen who appears to be a substitute for Venus is not, after all, a standard handmaiden.  His praise is tinged with the hubristic, authoritative ease with which he moves and shapes rhetorical forms.  In the description of the dance of the graces, it’s not the Queen who is in charge, but her “shepheard”, the poet himself.  This canto flirts with the idea that there may be an agency beyond the sovereign’s—and that it’s accessible through the creative powers of penning (and piping).  Also inserted into the center of a stanza (the one following Pastorella’s emergence), the poet’s stand-in represents a surprising twist in the narrative as well.  As if whimsically anticipating the reader’s confusion at the insertion of an entirely new character, as he reveals the identity of his stand-in, the poet asks, “Who knows not Colin Clout?” (x. 16.4) In other words, “Who knows not me (and my agency)?”

The figures of Colin and Pastorella function like pivots within a series of concentric circles.  It’s as if the physical movements on the hill mirror the encircling, protective, and revealing structure of the landscape itself.  Approaching the dancing maidens, Calidore sees “in the midst a Shepherd piping,” and Pastorella and the three Graces are also described by the poet as moving in the center of a larger group: “But in the midst of them / Three other Ladies did both daunce and sing, / The whilest the rest them round did hemme /…And in the middest of those same three, was placed / Another Damzell, as a precious gemme” (x. 12.2-4, 6-7).  Like a pebble dropped in a pond, the proliferating circular waves that form visually reverberate the impact of the central figure: all of the Graces echo the image of Pastorella.  As the poet observes: “She that in the midst of them did stand, / Seem’d all the rest in beauty to excel” (x. 14.3-4).  Her insertion into the dance is seamless; it’s as if Canto IX and the wooing antics of Calidore and Coridon never existed, as the poet seems to say that Pastorella has always been here on Mount Acidale. Both figures are strategically “placed” like Mount Acidale itself; if Colin is the ultimate beholder and Pastorella the ultimate vision to behold, there seems to be no visual elbow-room for Calidore at all.  A representation of perfect cosmic order, the description is wholly balanced without him. 

The canto asks what it would mean to become absorbed in one’s own visual experience to the point of rapture—and suggests that the danger of immersion is the flip side of ecstatic union with the vision.  As Calidore gazes on the Graces, “There he did see, that pleased much his sight, / That euen he him selfe his eyes enuyde” (x. 11.5.6-7).  The syntax of Calidore’s focused gazing is intensely self-reflexive.  The repetition of the series of personal pronouns, “he,” “him” and “his” echo the circularity and concentricity of the dancers, as if his personal experience of visual pleasure turns inward on itself and becomes a source of self-generative joy.  However, at the same time that the lines suggest a kind of greedy, inward pleasure, they also require a reciprocal, objective movement from Calidore.  His eyes are described as envying his body; the pleasure of the visual creates a subtle separation between sight and physical experience.  Calidore stands outside of his body and jealously watches its satisfaction.  Desire and vision interweave as part of the experience of the vision on Mount Acidale—and Calidore’s ability to be affected (and non-objective) about what he sees indicates the strength and frailty of his (all too) human nature. 

Calidore engages in what Jonathan Goldberg would refer to as the process of askesis, or “an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought” (Goldberg 67).  As Goldberg notes, askesis is the process of self-defining (and refining) that occurs through conscious “work on the self”: “the self is made, or better, is continually in the process of being made (and unmade) in the shuttle of self-upon-self that defines the practice” (Goldberg 68).  The description of Calidore’s own self-envying eyes echoes Goldberg’s lyrical description of the “shuttle-upon-self,” and suggests that this ethical shaping of the self—the work of askesis—is not easily performed, and even less easily stabilized.

Perhaps, as Calidore learns, bumbling into a vision is the only way to understand its true significance. Only after the vision vanishes, and Colin peevishly (as well as symbolically) “broke his bag-pipe quight / And made great mone for that vnhappy turne” (x. 18.5-6) is Calidore told what the vision meant.  Practicality replaces poetic vision.  It’s no accident that knowledge follows the vision but never occurs at the same time as its experience.  In Calidore’s apology to Colin, his language suggests the Edenic fall: “Gentle Shepheard pardon thou my shame / Who rashly sought that, which I mote not see” (x. 29.6-7).  Calidore is hardly a blunderer, but even the knight of courtesy cannot avoid “resoluing, what it was, to know,” giving in to his curiosity and moving forward to get a closer look at the dancing nymphs (x. 17.8). When Colin reveals to Calidore that the Graces “on men all gracious gifts bestow, / Which decke the body or adorne the mynde / …Sweet semblaunt, friendly offices that bynde, / And all the complements of curtesie / They teach vs” (x. 23.1-2, 5-7) both Calidore and the reader are reminded of the existence of divine agency that shapes even the most laudable of human acts.  To be sure, Calidore’s “courtesie” is a divine gift of the gods—not simply a natural endowment he can claim.  He is not, despite all of his achievements, operating in isolation, but rather is part of a grander, cosmic project.  Human agency is subject to the whims of a divine cosmic order, as well as the fickle movements of fortune; the vision of unity afforded to him on Mount Acidale may be just that: a vision rather than a reality of perfect unity.

The final third of the canto culminates in a series of madcap events that emphasize the distance between the idyllic vision on the mount and the trials of real life: Calidore’s slaying of the tiger that attacks Pastorella, and Coridon and Pastorella’s capture by the brigands.  Never has Calidore seemed so divinely not inspired as when, in returning to the wooing of Pastorella, he is described as one “that with louely dart / Dinting his brest, had bred his restlesse paine, / Like as the wounded Whale to shore flies from the maine” (x. 31.7-9).  This somewhat embarrassing comparison of Calidore to a heaving, beached whale subtly suggests the limits of human agency; after the Graces literally leave him, he must duke it out on his own.  The weighty, floundering image of the whale draws attention to Calidore’s own physicality (and fleshly mortality). In the end, he is not divinely inspired—and yet his subordination may lead the way to elevation.

At first, the narrative seems to have regressed to the antics of Coridon and Calidore in the ninth canto; it is as if the vision on Mount Acidale never happened, or at least, didn’t impact Calidore’s behavior.  The poet observes that Calidore interacts with Pastorella “as he at first begonne, / He daily did apply him selfe to donne / All dewfull seruice voide of thoughts impure / …By which he might her to his loue allure,” and that Coridon, predictably, seeks to better what Calidore does (x. 32.4-6, 9).  However, when fortune (and unfortunate chance) enters the picture [“There chaunst to them a dangerous accident; / A Tigre forth out of the wood did rise”, x.34.3-4)], the tension and potential for union between human agency and divine force is made manifestly clear.  Calidore’s brutal killing of the tiger (he hews off its head) is juxtaposed with the gentle, Biblically allusive instrument he uses (the shepherd’s hook).  It does not seem like over-reading to hear a hint of astonishment in the poet’s tone as he observes of Calidore’s fight that, “He had no weapon, but his shepheards hooke, / To serue the vengeaunce of his wrathfull will; / With which so sternely he the monster strooke, / That to the ground astonished he fell” (x. 36.1-4).  Perhaps Calidore has not changed his behavior as much as the reader is urged to interpret his actions as not solely his own.  Human actions take on divine significance after the vision on the mount (who doesn’t think, if only fleetingly, of the Sermon on the Mount?)—for human agency seems always already mediated by higher forces.

If the mount is represented most clearly as a “dream space,” an ideal, idyllic site of potentiality, then the real world of Calidore’s life takes on increasing poignancy.  While, as the poet observes, “So well he wood [Pastorella], and so well he wrought her, / With humble seruice, and with daily sute, / That at the last unto his will he brought her;” his exercise of will does not negate the hazards of fortune.  Like Calidore’s stumbling “one day” on the vision on Mount Acidale, the arrival of the brigands also comes as a total surprise: one day, it simply fortuned for them to appear.  Significantly, Pastorella, who just stanzas before, was described as the lovely “spoile” of Calidore’s attentions, is characterized as “Most sorrowfull, most sad, that euer sigh't / Now made the spoile of theeues and Brigants bad” (x. 40.6-7). Shifting between an object of divine grace on the mount, of Calidore’s loving conquest, and finally, of the brigands’ abduction, Pastorella represents the instabilities of representation inherent in the canto.  Her mutability and proliferation of forms highlights how human attempts to bend anyone (or anything) to one’s will may prove futile in the long run.

The extreme contrast between the sheltered, sacred space of Mount Acidale and the dark hellhole of the brigands’ island dramatically highlights the peaks and valleys of human fortune.  If Calidore is raised to emotional rapture through his vision of the Graces, Pastorella is thrown into what narratively seems like the depths of hell. As the poet grimly observes of the island, “For vnderneath the ground their way was made, / Through hollow caues, that no man mote discouer / For the thicke shrubs, which did them alwaies shade / From view of liuing wight, and couered ouer” (x. 42.1-4).  The canto seems to suggest that there is no middle ground to be found when Fortune intervenes.  And yet, I pause on a “clue” that suggests an alternative, more hopeful interpretation of the exercise of human will.  In the description of the brigands’ cave, the poet observes that, “Through all the inner parts, wherein they dwelt, / Ne lightned was with window, nor with louer, / But with continuall candlelight, which delt / A doubtfull sense of things, not so well seene, as felt” (x. 42.6-9).  The darkness of the cave relies on sensate rather than visual perception; it’s the inverse of the vision of the Graces.  What can be trusted is what is felt, instinctively and humanly.  No longer giving us a circular vision of cosmic unity, but a realistic, individualized one from the frightened Pastorella’s point-of-view, the poet himself seems to have come down from the mount and its idealistic descriptions to a new type of rhetoric that valorizes the human experience.  What is real is what is felt, not what is seen.

Maybe this is why Calidore’s desire to know, and his disruption of the vision has positive consequences too. Looking and seeing “correctly” is an issue throughout the canto; feeling rarely is.  In his description of Pastorella’s dancing, the poet draws a comparison between the maiden and the bridal crown of Ariadne: “Looke how the Crowne, which Ariadne wore / …Is vnto the starres an ornament, / Which round about her moue in order excellent” (x. 13.1, 8-9).  At the same time that the poet becomes caught up in the performance, so does the reader.   Like Calidore, the reader is invited into the dance—encouraged to feel its movements and actively engage in the scene.  At the same time that the static nature of the dance gives it an eternal, ancient quality, there is also a swiftness of movement, a beckoning and inviting quality to the language that vexes (or perhaps perfects) the poet’s project of representing perfect cosmic order.  What would it mean, the canto seems to ask us, to engage—as Calidore does—so intensely that one cannot help but surrender to impulse?  And would this impulse be wrong?  Remember that we are also urged to “look” on the vision.  The incorporation of movement (not the least of which is Calidore’s interruption) complicates its allegorical representation.  Not only does the “real world” of humanity intrude on the vision, but the vision itself oscillates between the stillness and the dance. 

The entire canto has a curiously oscillating, “carpe diem” quality to it; Calidore’s “fall” from the vision and into reality seems to be a necessary bi-product of the limitations of human will.  He isn’t supposed to fully understand what he has seen until it is interpreted, translated, re-presented by Colin Clout.  As Colin “dilates” the vision (including both an explanation of genealogical roots as well as an attribution of all men’s virtues to the gods), he performs a valuable service for the reader as well as for Calidore.  Colin’s recitation serves an interpretive purpose in the canto: he performs the analytical work needed to understand the divide between what we can control and what we cannot.  If we consider Colin’s narration as a demonstration of “how-to” read the episode—that is, necessarily in a belated form—then the project of reading allegorical representation becomes explicitly tied to Calidore’s literal fall from grace (or, the Graces, perhaps)—and to his subsequent recuperation of his humanity.  Knowledge always involves falling as well, and yet, as Canto X suggests, the fall is what reveals our glorious humanity.

In his observations on Correggio’s fresco of the Graces, Edgar Wind notes the structural format of their embrace: “The giving Grace appears as the most majestic (‘there is a higher dignity in the one that gives’), the receiving Grace as more humble and dependent, and the returning Grace as deliberate.  Turning her face frontward, she balances the receptive Grace on the left by fully exhibiting the benefit obtained; and thus she restores the symmetry of the classical triad” (Wind 33).  Wind’s observation on the third Grace—the one who “returns”—is reminiscent of Calidore’s project in Canto X.  Denied full understanding of the vision while actually witnessing it, and then confronted with the utter disappearance of the pastoral world, Calidore must return to the quest, and through his own actions, must “fully exhibit the benefit obtained” from his experience on Mount Acidale.  He encompasses the movements of the vision itself; he has been given a vision, received its interpretation through the poet, and now must return to the world to make use of his gift.  Metaphorically, he must complete the circle, acting as the third dancer who brings grace through his actions. 

As the poet observes of the dancing Graces, “And eeke them selues so in their daunce they bore, / That two of them still forward seem’d to bee, / But one still towards  shew’d her selfe afore; /  That good should from vs goe, then come in greater store” (x. 24.6-9).  As Canto X suggests, Calidore’s ability to take control must come from his literal interweaving in a project of divine determinism; he is just one man operating against (and at times in unison with) a grander cosmic project.  Moving between subordination and active agency, engaging in the stillness of the static vision and the (all too human) rupture of it, Calidore emerges from Canto X as a figure whose “courtesie” reflects the dance of the Graces.  At once elevated by his vision and poignantly distanced from it, he embodies the knight who understands, “That good should from vs goe, then come in greater store.”


Works Cited

Jonathan Goldberg, The Seeds of Things: Theorizing Sexuality and Materiality in Renaissance Representations. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene. Second Edition. Edited by Albert Charles Hamilton. Text edited by Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki. New York: Longman, 2001.

Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.