Thy Decay Thou Seekst by Thy Desire

Document Sample
Thy Decay Thou Seekst by Thy Desire Powered By Docstoc
					Thy Decay Thou Seek’st by Thy Desire

    The year is 1599. A middle-aged man, perhaps aware that he would soon die, looked
back upon his life’s project, to become his nation’s epic poet, celebrating the culmination
of the pagan and the Christian past in a Protestant empire led by the maiden queen,
Elizabeth. What had become of that project? His masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, lay
incomplete, its final stanza a reproach against slanderous tongues at court, their
“venemous despite,” and, by implication, against the royal ear that believed them. The
queen herself, never the maiden she made herself out to be, was enfeebled with age, and
had not named an heir. The radical Protestant hopes for establishing a single true Church
in the world, as the great enemy of that painted harlot in Rome, had long been shown as
vain; and those Protestants in England who, like the poet, favored an aggressive foreign
policy, or who sympathized most strongly with the Calvinist Dutch, were quickly
dissociating themselves from the English church itself, and would one day come to
dispense with both bishops and kings.
    Then there were troubling signs in the heavens. Not that the poet was superstitious.
The great supernova of 1576 had done far more to alter the European view of the world
than Copernicus’ heliocentrism – with its affinity with Neoplatonic thought – had done.
For now, even with the crude optical devices then available, it had been proved that the
bright object suddenly appearing in the sky lay far beyond the circuit of the moon, in the
region where no change was supposed to occur.
    So the poet, Edmund Spenser, meditated upon the meaning of change, exerting all his
mythopoeic powers to provide a fit end for his masterpiece and his career, writing the so-
called Cantos of Mutability. The title page informs us that these were to be cantos six,
seven, and eight (and I beg the reader to keep those numbers in mind) of a supposedly
unfinished seventh book of The Faerie Queene, a book dedicated apparently to the virtue
of Constancy. At first glance it appears that change will be the enemy of all fidelity and
steadfastness. And indeed Spenser seems to have divined something of our nihilism –
our call for change, change for its own sake, for we are bored with the nothing before us,
and long for innovation, if only to distract us from the pointlessness of what is.
    The premise of the Cantos seems simple enough. A goddess named Mutability, one of
the race of Titans overthrown by Jove, rises up in rebellion against him and all the other
planetary-Olympian gods. Her argument is not only that she deserves to rule by virtue of
her parentage, but that in fact she does rule. Mutability is the meaning, or the unmeaning,
of all the world.
    At the least she is an inevitable datum of our lives, as certain as death. We do not only
see her at work, undoing great empires; we feel her weight within ourselves:

      What man that sees the ever-whirling wheel
       Of Change, the which all mortal things doth sway,
       But that thereby doth find, and plainly feel
       How MUTABILITY in them doth play
       Her cruel sports, to many men’s decay? (The Faerie Queene,

We feel the whirling of that wheel, and we feel the “sway” of change, which seems not so
much to govern us as to topple us over. Yet Spenser does not lapse into easy elegy, not
here. Because his vision is Christian – or rather I should say because the Word, through
whom all the changing things in the world were made, was made flesh and dwelt among
us, in his own steadfast person subject to change – Mutability herself, a beautiful goddess
and no monster, finds her proper place only within a providential design. The point is
both metaphysical and existential. Change can only exist when there are things to
change, or people who change; but such things and such people can only exist by virtue
of constancy, which is something wholly other than immobility. It is the hidden meaning
behind Spenser’s ambiguous statement of purpose: he will, he says, rehearse a story he
heard from long ago, in the permanent records of Faery Land, “the better” to make
Mutability’s ravages appear to us. That is, we will see more clearly how potent
Mutability is, and yet we will see her in a better light, the comic light wherein Mutability
is most herself and most beautiful, because she is subordinate to, and helps bring about
the designs of, the One whose beauty is past change. She is, in both senses of the word, a
locus of “sway.”
    But before I continue with Mutability, I should like to engage in my own orbital
errancy and recall the great pagan alternatives to the Christian vision. It seems crucial to
do so, because as the cultural memory of western man grows more feeble and distracted
by creaturely pleasures, he is apt to lapse not into those alternatives, profoundly human as
they are, but into a debased version of them. What are they?
    I believe they are two, and that each of them captures a portion of the truth – a portion
which, as we will see, Spenser readily acknowledges. The first is that change is only
apparent or superficial. Things revolve in cycles; empires rise and fall; summer fades
and winter comes, then winter fades and summer comes again; people are born and die,
and others are born in their place; the sun rises and sets, and rises again, and, to quote the
half-pagan Preacher, nothing is new under the sun. The second is that change is
essentially decay. Things fall apart, and that is all.
    The playwright Sophocles had seen his share of changes. As a lad, he led the youth of
Athens in parade to celebrate their naval victory over the Persians at Salamis. As a
young man he saw the revolution that replaced aristocratic rule with radical democracy.
He was a close friend of Pericles. He watched as sophist and philosopher both turned
education away from the traditional warrior-virtues espoused by Homer. He suspected
the philosopher of pretending to know more about the moral law than he really knew, and
the sophist, of pretending to know less. He saw Athens rise to empire, and watched her
grow dangerously proud. Already an old man, he saw the Athenians declare war against
Sparta and her allies, a war they could win only by exercising the patience that the
statesman Pericles enjoined upon them. But the plague soon struck the city, and Pericles
died. More than twenty years later, Athens would be defeated at last, and Sophocles
would die at the age of ninety-three, longing for a return to the Athens he once knew.
For, if change is no more than the cycle of rising and falling, then there is always the
hope for a return; the fulfillment of nostalgia, that bittersweet longing for home, that most
human form of despair. So in his final play, Oedipus at Colonus, produced in Athens
after his death, Sophocles imagines not the glorious Acropolis, with its cash reserves
extorted from Athenian allies, nor Athenian might at sea, but his simple native village of
Colonus, outside the walls of the city. So the Colonian chorus sings of that beauty, which
all those in Sophocles’ audience would understand had been ravaged by the Spartan
      Here, chosen crown of goddesses the fair
      Narcissus blooms, bathing his lustrous hair
      In dews of morning; golden crocus gleams
      Along Cephisus’ slow meandering streams,
      Whose fountains never fail; day after day
      His limpid waters wander on their way
      To fill with ripeness of abundant birth
      The swelling bosom of our buxom earth. (92)

    To bring him as close to the Christian Spenser as it is possible for the pagan to be,
Sophocles sees that one can return to that idyllic Colonus only by returning to the
unchanging virtues of justice and mercy that once characterized Athens. In the play,
Theseus, the exemplar of Athens’ mythic past, grants protection to the old and blind
Oedipus, against the Thebans who once cast him out as unclean, and who now wish,
opportunistically, to drag him back to their city, as they have heard an oracle foretell that
the land where Oedipus dies will be blessed. It is a battle of the Athens of old,
symbolized by Theseus and the Colonian villagers, who are devoted to what we would
call the natural law, and to the old customs of their homeland, against the new,
democratic Athens, symbolized by Thebes, wherein virtue is only a word, for what the
city calls right, is right, and all bow before the idol of utility.
    At its best, then, this pagan vision of cyclical change is anchored in what does not
change. If it does not provide hope for the kingdom of God, or hope that the pilgrimage
of time is going anywhere, it does at least hold out the possibility that what was good and
noble in the past is not forever lost. That hope flickers throughout Greek poetry. Pindar
cannot sing of the victory of a boy in the footraces of Olympia without commemorating
the virtue of his father and his uncles, and the ancient strength of his homeland.
Odysseus, that liar extraordinaire, wins our sympathy only insofar as we can feel his alge,
his pain, for the noston or turning back, impossible for his fellow sailors who lack his
self-control and succumb to the present needs of their bellies. When we first meet the
man, he is sitting on the beach of Calypso’s island, looking out to sea, and longing for
home. It is a deeply human and pious longing, that the past should not simply be past,
and that the people we once knew and loved be not simply dissolved in the mists of
    But the second vision of change, that of random alteration and decay, would declare
such a longing doomed to frustration. It too denies the pilgrimage of time, except
perhaps insofar as time brings forth technological novelty. Here we might turn to the
Epicurean poet Lucretius and his vision of social change. It is disturbingly modern. A
long time ago, says Lucretius, men lived like the beasts of the field. They slept in caves,
huddling from the cold. They foraged and hunted, they lapped at the mountain springs.
They won their women by brute strength, or by giving them fine gifts, like really choice
pears. Gradually they learned how to use fire to cook food and to forge tools, including
instruments of war. They developed the social contract: tribes would agree not to hurt
one another, and to spare the women and children. They invented writing, and attained,
without divine inspiration, to the pinnacle of art. At the same time, they lost their ancient
strength of limb. They also lost their simple delights and their natural piety. Lucretius
imagines what it was like when, having been “taught” by the wind whistling through
hollow reeds, men invented music:

      Then little by little they learned the sweet complaints
      That the pipe pours forth at the fingering-pulse of the players,
      Heard in the trackless forests, the shepherds’ dells,
      Places of sunlit solitude and peace. (5.1381-84)

Such people enjoyed true pleasure, he says, despite the rusticity of their songs. But
technological change sweeps everything aside, by the vain pleasure of novelty,
compounded with the violence necessary to procure the novelties:

      So acorns came to be hated; so the strewn beds
      Of mounded grass and foliage were abandoned;
      And clothing made from pelts fell into contempt,
      Whose discovery, I’ll bet, aroused such envy
      That the first wearer was assassinated,
      And, worse, the killers in their rivalry ripped
      The blood-soaked hide to bits – so no one got it!
      In those days it was pelts, now gold and purple
      March men to war, to weary human life. (1411-19)

Technological improvement did not coincide with moral improvement. If anything,
Lucretius seems to have believed that moral degeneracy had set in. Says he, comparing
the men of old to the men of his day:

      Poison they often took unwittingly;
      We are more skillful now – we give it to others. (1006-1007)

    The world we know is falling apart. The best one can do is to set one’s mind on the
modest yet temporary pleasures of friendship. And that friendship itself is not defined as
the union of virtuous souls in seeking the good that transcends our lives. It is not the
fellowship of one man the pilgrim with another, their eyes set upon the distant City of
Peace. It is rather a complacent amiability; we are friends, simply, because we enjoy one
another’s company, as we eat and drink by the riverside, and talk a little philosophy. The
yawning nihilism that underlies this vision becomes clear when Lucretius lashes out
against people who mourn that they must die. “Get your sobs out of here, scoundrel,”
cries his personified Nature of Things, “and quit your whining!” (3.952). For the same
nature that causes the fields to bloom with grain and cities to bloom with children brings
decay and death. As the time before we were born is nothing to us, so will be the time
after we die. If there is any return, it is to meaninglessness:

      Survive this generation and the next –
      Nevertheless eternal death awaits,
      Nor will the man who died with the sun today
      Be nonexistent for less time than he
      Who fell last month – or centuries ago. (3.1087-91)

    I wish to argue that the confusion of our post-Christian world is evident in a residual
trust, based not in faith but in superstition, that we are proceeding towards a kingdom of
peace and plenty, without the humble awareness, which even Lucretius possessed, that
we cannot provide that world of ourselves. So we flail about from a debased Sophocles
to a debased Lucretius. Sometimes we lapse into a superficial primitivism, trusting that
we will be saved by the magic color green, without however actually desiring to return to
a vine-clad Colonus, to tend the grape and the fig, and live in honest and steadfast
poverty. More typically, and with less real sense of the needs of human beings who
dwell in time, we hope in change for change’s sake, with technology as the instrument for
providing us with sufficient comforts to stay us against the awareness that for all our
motion we are not going anywhere, that we are driven along in the ceaseless bustle of
sloth, and that death is approaching anyway, the “eternal death” that Lucretius at least
had the courage to confront.
    But perhaps our confusion is not so new, either. Spenser has, I believe, dramatized it
in the ambiguous figure of Mutability. When we are first made aware of her existence,
she is merely a rebel, a destroyer, a universal Adam who hopes to rise by his own power
and who thereby destroys the dynamic yet steadfast happiness that should have been his

      For, she the face of earthly things so changed,
       That all which Nature had established first
        In good estate, and in meet order ranged,
        She did pervert, and all their statutes burst:
        And all this world’s fine frame (which none yet durst
        Of Gods or men to alter or misguide)
        She altered quite, and made them all accurst
        That God had blessed, and did at first provide
      In that still happy state for ever to abide. (6.5.1-9)

So Mutability begins her campaign straightforwardly enough, rising up against the
Olympian gods who have their seats in the heavens, wishing to take their thrones by sheer
might – to enforce upon them the change she represents. Thus she attempts to thrust the
moon goddess Cynthia from her throne, regardless of the chaste goddess’s indignant

       Yet nathemore the Giantess forbare
        But boldly pressing on, raught forth her hand
        To pluck her down perforce from off her chair. (13.1-3)

This upstart, apparently an embodiment of wilful violence, sends the comical old
Olympians scurrying – what shall they do now? They meet in assembly before their
ruler, Jove; and it should be noted that if Mutability stands for undirected change, mere
innovation, forgetfulness of the claims of the past, then it is almost a jest that she should
want to sit upon any throne at all, since in her own being she would destroy the
possibility of assembly and the reliability of law.
   Yet we are in for a surprise – one whose nuances critics of Spenser have yet to
understand, as they reject the cosmological comedy in which the poet believed. They
have taken insufficient note of man’s existential state, as the one who is on the way, as
Josef Pieper puts it – man whose hope is not in alteration, but in that final moment of all-
changing arrival. For Mutability’s guilt is attenuated by the plain fact that she does not
really understand what she is about. She is neither a metaphysician nor a deep meditator
upon things human, but rather an ambitious woman seeking recognition of her rights,
whatever those may be. If she paused to think of what man is, she might divine the hope
that walks by change, to what lies beyond change. If she had been a metaphysician, she
might have asked herself by what unchanging principle change has a right to rule; or by
what unchanging standard of excellence change is beautiful. For beautiful she is; as she
stands before the throne of Jove, pleading her descent from the old Titans, we are granted
our first vision of the person of the goddess whom we had supposed to be no more than

      Whilst thus she spake, the Gods that gave good ear
       To her bold words, and marked well her grace,
       Being of stature tall as any there
       Of all the Gods, and beautiful of face
       As any of the Goddesses in place,
       Stood all astonied. (28.1-6)

Jove, that everlasting roue, himself looks upon her with something like the beginnings of
infatuation. He is about to cast his thunderbolt at her, but beauty stays his hand, for, as
Spenser says, “such sway doth beauty even in Heaven bear” (31.4). We begin to suspect
that Mutability may not simply be, for Spenser, an emblem of random or meaningless
change; for beauty, especially a beauty that governs or bears “sway,” presupposes order,
and order presupposes an end for which the order is ordained.
    Jove does not destroy her – and Spenser leaves it unclear whether he could destroy her
if he wanted to. Instead he pleads the feeble conservatism of the fait accompli: we rule,
he says, because we conquered, and also “by eternal doom of Fate’s decree” (33.6), a
claim which flickers unsteadily between the fatalism of Hesiod and the providentialism of
Augustine. What that planetary chieftain means by it, we are not told, for Mutability
parries the argument by making a fatal move. She impeaches Jove’s capacity to judge a
case wherein he is a party. She appeals above the head of Jove (we had not been entirely
aware that there was any being above Jove) to the “Father of Gods and men by equal
might,” transferring that typically Jovian epithet to a mysterious “God of Nature” (33.6).
Jove “did inly grudge” (8) to hear that name, but, preserving the order of a court of law,
has his scribe Phoebus Apollo enter her appeal.
   Who is that God of Nature? Spenser leaves us in some suspense, revealing the
identity, if he reveals it at all, only in the next canto. In the meantime he takes up an odd
suggestion that Jove has made, to wit, that Mutability has been moved by intellectual
presumption, “to see that mortal eyes have never seen” (32.3) And again Spenser
attempts to teach us by means of subtly comic ambiguity. We are in fact the sorts of
beings who are created precisely to see what mortal eyes have never seen, and to hear
what mortal ears have never heard, and to know what it has not entered the mind of
mortal man to conceive: namely, what God has provided, as Saint Paul says, for those
who love him. We are made for that time-and-dust-transcending gift. But instead we
wish to see it by means of mortal eyes; we want our eyes to be opened by the fruit within
our reach, so that we might be as gods. We want to attain, by our own power, that secret
knowledge that will set us above rule. The evil change we seek is not the change from
the human to the divine, simply, but that same change by means of disloyalty and error.
The virtue of constancy is not opposed to change as such, but to fickleness, which is
change as its own wilful principle of action. In a sense, to try to attain the divine on our
terms, to try to build up our own City of Peace, is to be too fainthearted and fickle to
undertake the pilgrimage. We end up fixed in the mire of pointless change.
   It is the old sin, indeed the primal sin, and yet Spenser has anticipated its modern
form. There is an uncanny connection, in our day, between desiring change for change’s
sake, and trusting that we will be saved by the next scientific discovery or by the next
massive social rearrangement, or by the latter in the service of the former. We are
“progressing,” while acknowledging no transcendent Being or transcendent Good
towards which we progress, nor even a decent pagan loyalty to the places and the people
we once loved; yet we hope that eventually this undirected change will bring us the
knowledge which will satisfy all our desires. How foolish this is – how it is bound to fail,
and yet how God in his mercy confers signs of redemption even in his punishment of the
sin – Spenser shows by suspending the narrative of Mutability and telling us a quaint tale
about how the wood god Faunus one day tried to see Diana naked.
   It is a rule of Renaissance poetry: there are no digressions. Something about Faunus is
meant to reflect upon Mutability. He too wants to see what he has no business seeing.
That is not because he should remain ignorant, but because his seeing it on his terms
would profane it. He can see Diana’s body, but only by wilful blindness to the holy. The
plot is simple. Once upon a time in Ireland, back when that land was not yet ravaged by
wolves and robbers and Catholics and people who hated English imperialists, the wood
god Faunus bribed a river goddess, Molanna, to let him see Diana bathing after the hunt.
The bribe was that he would unite her with her beloved river god, the Fanchin. (As the
reader may know, rivers are always getting married; in Pittsburgh, for instance.) So
Molanna placed Faunus in a fit spot for viewing, and, sure enough, he saw Diana:

      There Faunus saw that pleased much his eye,
       And made his heart to tickle in his breast,
       That for great joy of somewhat he did spy,
       He could him not contain in silent rest,
       But breaking forth in laughter, loud professed
       His foolish thought. (46.1-6)

That’s an interesting reaction, that giggle: the nervous reaction of a fool, who suspects
that he knows nothing about that mysterious “somewhat” he gazes upon. Diana and her
nymphs look round, and see the satyr god. At which point he is in grave danger. If this
were classical mythology, Diana would splash him with water from the stream and turn
him into a deer, whereupon like Actaeon before him he would be torn apart by his own
hounds. They do consider killing him; then they consider administering the fate worse
than death (the fate that to this day makes rape a rare crime in Italy), but that would put
an end to one kind of ordered change: the race of wood gods would die out. So they
enact a kind of change that involves both justice and mercy, both a fall from grace, and
the hope for redemption. They dress Faunus up as a deer and pursue him with loud
hallooing through the woods; while they overwhelm the Molanna with stones. That,
however, does not kill Molanna; it merely changes her course, and Faunus does arrange
that desired marriage of hers with the Fanchin.
   So we should not be surprised by the tragicomic court scene which is to follow. All
the creatures of Ireland, along with the nymphs and the satyrs and the goodly river gods
and goddesses, and all the planetary gods, including even Pluto and Proserpina from the
world below, show up at a place called Arlo Hill (“Who knows not Arlo Hill?” asks
Spenser, tongue in cheek, 36.6), which could be anywhere, or everywhere – all the
physical universe contained in microcosm upon an Irish hilltop. They can only be seated
there, however, because Nature’s sergeant, Order, assigns to them their fit places.
Already we sense that if Mutability makes a case for nihilism, she will lose. Indeed, her
appeal to the god of Nature is itself a concession to law and to hierarchical order, and
when we meet Nature we see why it must be so. For Nature is a mysterious figure,
embracing both unity and plurality, both the multifarious world of things that can be seen,
and the transcendent One that cannot be seen:

      Then forth issued (great goddess) great dame Nature,
       With goodly port and gracious majesty,
       Being far greater and more tall of stature
       Than any of the gods or powers on high:
       Yet certes by her face and physnomy
       Whether she man or woman inly were,
       That could not any creature well descry,
       For with a veil that wimpled everywhere
      Her head and face was hid, that mote to none appear. (7.5.1-9)

In her sexual polyvalence, Nature is the Neoplatonic Venus hermaphroditus, representing
that union of contrarieties, whereby mind embraces the variegated fecundity of the
material world. But that is not all. Her face is veiled, says Spenser; perhaps because it
was like a lion’s face, too terrible to view; but perhaps also because it was too beautiful,
too dazzling. Of course it is meant to be both; and we sense a curious affinity here
between the terrible and beautiful Mutability, and the terrible and beautiful Nature.
More: we are meant to recall the words of Isaiah, who cried out that he must now die,
because he had seen the face of God. Spenser has just such a theophany in mind. For
some say that this deity could only be seen “like an image in a glass” (6.9), and that may
well be true, says the poet, for

          this same day, when she on Arlo sat,
       Her garment was so bright and wondrous sheen,
       That my frail wit cannot devise to what
       It to compare, nor find like stuff to that,
       As those three sacred Saints, though else most wise,
       Yet on mount Thabor quite their wits forgat
       When they their glorious Lord in strange disguise
      Transfigured saw, his garments did so daze their eyes. (7.2-9)

    The countenance of Christ was changed on Mount Tabor, and the apostles, somewhat
like the foolish god Faunus, quite their wits forgot – and Peter, ever impetuous, cried out
that it was good for them to be there, and wished to prolong the moment of ecstasy,
suggesting that they erect three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to dwell in. It is
natural in us to desire a happiness that does not fade, that is not subject to change and
decay. But the attainment of that happiness, as the moment of Transfiguration itself is
meant to show, cannot come of our own. It is a gift, and, more than that, a gift that
transforms the one who receives it. In a sense, it was not Christ who was changed, but
rather the minds of the apostles, who would learn to see in this moment an intimation of
the change transforming change, the resurrection of Jesus.
    The reference to Mount Tabor is most fitting, because we are like those poor apostles,
living in change, yet hoping for that final change that leads us to the end for which we
were made. What that means is that both pagan visions must be rejected, even as their
partial truth is acknowledged: there is a cyclical rhythm to the things of this world, and
things do fall apart; the rhythm itself is not perfect. But, as Sophocles and Lucretius
could not see, and as modern man sees but confusedly, mistaking technological
development for progress, and progress for salvation, the world is going somewhere.
    So Mutability, deferent to Nature (and unwittingly undermining her case) presents her
evidence. First come the months in pageant, each one with its appropriate zodiacal sign,
and its fit work for the season. In December we see that this temporal order is embraced
by a greater liturgical and eschatological order:

      And after him came next the chill December,
       Yet he through merry feasting which he made
       And great bonfires, did not the cold remember,
      His Savior’s birth his mind so much did glad;
      Upon a shaggy-bearded Goat he rode,
      The same wherewith Dan Jove in tender years,
      They say, was nourished by th’Idaean maid:
      And in his hand a broad deep bowl he bears,
      Of which he freely drinks an health to all his peers. (41.1-9)

It is not only a cycle of ordered change, as the farmer-poet Hesiod might have noted. It is
a cycle of ordered change directed toward a consummation. There is a Savior whose
birth gladdens the heart. December, then, is not the final month; not at all, for the year
Mutability presents begins in March, the month of the Annunciation, when the history of
salvation changes utterly, and the Word is made flesh, to dwell among us.
    Even Jove has the sense to argue that such change does not make Mutability’s case,
for, as he says, the planetary gods govern the days and months and seasons by their
regular influence. Then Mutability plays her final card. She claims that over this cycle is
a kind of change that knows no purpose, but is mere decay. The old myths concerning
these gods assert that they were all born at some time, when they assert anything certain
at all. As for the planets the gods pretend to rule, they too are subject to alteration and
decay, having wandered far from their old paths in the days when Ptolemy looked to the
heavens. These facts are not in dispute. What is in dispute is their meaning. For
Mutability, the meaning is clear: “Then are ye mortal born, and thrall to me” (54.1). But,
true to the beauty of her nature, she submits herself to the verdict of the one who by right
is higher than she is. She and all the creatures of the world turn to Nature to decide the
issue. What hangs in the balance? Only whether the final word in the world is
nothingness, pointlessness, decay and death, or whether change itself is the beautiful and
variegated means by which God brings all changing things to their perfection.
    Nature suddenly looks up with a cheerful countenance, and speaks. She does not deny
the reality of change. She denies the interpretation placed upon it by all would-be
idolators of change, or by those whom change might cause to despair:

      I well consider all that ye have said,
        And find that all things steadfastness do hate
        And changed be: yet being rightly weighed,
        They are not changed from their first estate,
        But by their change their beings do dilate,
        And turning to themselves at length again
        Do work their own perfection so by fate:
        Then over them change doth not rule and reign
      But they reign over change, and do their states maintain. (58.1-9)

Things change, but they do not change. The cycle returns, but it is not a cycle, for when
things turn to themselves at length again they work their own perfection, and the fate by
which they do so is the fatum or spoken word of a God infinitely beyond Jove and all the
natural world. Things hate steadfastness, if that is to mean a death-like remaining fixed
in place, but by their very moving in the world they maintain and perfect their states, and
claim an ontological priority above change.
   The philosophical and theological point which Spenser is making is simple, and
ancient, and brilliant: without things, there cannot be change; change presupposes
something that perdures across the change. If Mutability were to rule, there would be no
more Mutability. So Nature turns to that aspiring Titaness with words meant to soothe,
addressing her with genuine affection:

      Cease therefore, daughter, further to aspire,
       And thee content thus to be ruled by me,
       For thy decay thou seekst by thy desire. (59.1-3)

Yet even that is not sufficient, for there will be both a change and a steadfast constancy
the like of which none of the creatures on Arlo Hill, nor all the gods and goddesses, nor
even the Titaness of change, can imagine. Says Nature:

       But time shall come that all shall changed be,
       And from thenceforth none no more change shall see. (59.4-5)
Then Nature vanishes, no one knew where.
    What do we make of it, then? A whimsical myth in the service of an old metaphysics?
I think rather that we are encountering here the deepest heart of a fellow traveler to the
grave, and beyond. As his life draws near its end, he thinks not of some program of
political change, but of those transcendent goods that direct change towards its own good.
He seeks neither more nor less change upon earth, but the final change, whereupon that
city not named London or Dublin but New Jerusalem will descend from heaven adorned
like a bride. He seeks to see what mortal eyes have never seen: the God of the Sabbath,
who is also the God of Sabaoth, God of hosts, ever at rest, ever in mighty act. Here then,
in the perfectly finished and perfectly unfinished canto eight, the number of the
resurrection, are the last words Spenser ever wrote:

      When I bethink me of that speech whilere
       Of Mutability, and well it weigh,
       Me seems that though she all unworthy were
       Of the Heavens’ rule, yet very sooth to say
       In all things else she bears the greatest sway,
       Which makes me loathe this state of life so tickle,
       And love of things so vain to cast away,
       Whose flowering pride, so fading and so fickle,
      Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle.

      Then gin I think on that which Nature said,
       Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
       But steadfast rest of all things firmly stayed
       Upon the pillars of Eternity,
       That is contraire to Mutability,
       For all that moveth doth in Change delight:
       But thenceforth all shall rest eternally
       With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
      O that great Sabbaoth God, grant me that Sabbath’s sight. (8.1-2)

Shared By: