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'And That Misformed Shape, Misshaped More': The Stranger Mathematics of 'The Faerie Queene'

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Dubow, Bethany 


This thesis reframes the normative poetic terminology which (today, as in Elizabethan England) allies poetic structures with humanist cosmic and mathematical ideals: ‘number’; ‘proportion’; ‘measure’; ‘unity’; ‘harmony’; ‘symmetry’ (etc.). Arguing for ‘the stranger mathematics’ of The Faerie Queene, it proposes that this terminology, in prioritising the rational architecture of verse, has long occluded those structures (lexical, prosodic, imagistic) that manifest the more irrational and unpredictable geometries of material reality. Drawing on the tenets and tensions of sixteenth-century mathematics, as well as on those of modern mathematics and chaos theory, I show how Spenser translated the non-Pythagorean physics of space into a physics of syntax and syllables. This research revises the traditional reading of Spenserian form as obediently upholding Neoplatonist mathematics and cosmology. It also offers a new way of understanding the syntactic and prosodic foundations of poetic worldmaking.

PART I, ‘Sixteenth-Century Poetics and Mathematics’, revisits the evolution of the idea of the poem as ‘world’, arguing that Elizabethan poets, emboldened by the claims of Aristotle’s Poetics, reshaped the Neoplatonist idea of poetry-as-cosmography into one of poetry-as-worldmaking. Emphasising how Plato’s Timaeus inspired the notion of a geometrically derived cosmos, it shows how humanist poets advanced an analogy between literary microcosm and mathematical cosmos: verse was ‘numbers’, metre was ‘measure’, and syllables were quantities to ‘weigh’. Freighted with religious and epistemological significance, this terminology became crucial to how humanist poets defended their poetic worldmaking. PART II, ‘Spenser’s Poetics and the Limits of “Number”’, points to the limits of this conceptual framing, revealing how Spenser and his peers struggled to organise words into quantitative schemes. It sets The Faerie Queene’s Book V word-weighing scene in the context of contemporary disagreements over how to ‘weigh’ a syllable, and in relation to Spenser’s attestations to the frustration of pinning down poetic ‘numbers’ (which, he observes, don’t so much aggregate as ‘flow’). Finally, it suggests that sixteenth-century poetic discourse, like that of music, tracked parallel developments in mathematics where a classical definition of ‘number’ as an aggregate of indivisible units was being replaced by a modern sense of ‘number’ as a continuum. PART III, on ‘Errour and Irrationality in The Faerie Queene’, posits a connection between Spenser’s half-monster, half-woman ‘Errour’ and Plato’s ‘Errant Cause’ – that recalcitrant aspect of matter which, in the Timaeus, interferes in the realisation of a perfectly Euclidean universe. I explore how halves in The Faerie Queene (‘halfe’ lines, ‘halfe’ things) seed unresolved fractions – contemporarily called ‘broken numbers’ – into the Faerie cosmos. I then show how Spenser’s use of alliteration and rhyme engenders a poetics that is errant, opportunistic, and subject to accident. If the poem’s metrical and syntactical symmetries belong to a Euclidean order that works to build a rational poetic cosmos, its proliferating networks of alliteration and rhyme enact an ‘Errant’ order which (cognate with the Errour-monster and her creatures) manifests an unruly materiality. The thesis ends with an exploration of the ‘fractal’ mathematics of Spenser’s epic. Fractal systems are dynamical and nonlinear; deterministic, yet unpredictable. While clearly Spenser could never have studied fractal geometry, fractal forms (root systems, cloud patterns, jagged coastlines) were nonetheless constitutive of the world he knew.





Alexander, Gavin


fractals, mathematics, Neoplatonism, poetics, Renaissance, sixteenth century, The Faerie Queene, worldmaking


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Arts and Humanities Research Council (1985897)
AHRC-DTP; Isaac Newton Trust; Fondation Wiener-Anspach