Art & Cognition: False Images in the Poetry of Spenser and Sidney

UnknownSidney and Spenser both suggest the purpose of poetry is to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’ using ‘speaking pictures’ in line with the Horatian tradition of ut pictura poesis – ‘as is painting so is poetry’. According to Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy, (ll. 219-22) this is to be achieved through mimesis which entails the process of imitating – with a view to perfecting – nature.

Neuropsychologist Merlin Donald suggests that mimesis works because it has played a crucial role in human cognitive evolution, serving as the primary means of representing reality prior to the emergence of language and symbolic thought. According to Donald, mimesisrefers to intentional means of representing reality utilising vocal tone, facial expression, bodily movement, manual gestures, and other non-linguistic means. This is fundamentally different from both mimicry and imitation because mimesis adds a new dimension: it ‘re-enact[s] and re-present[s] an event or relationship’ in a nonliteral yet clearly intelligible way (Kamhi).

So why do we delight in mimetic representations? Kamhi suggests because they are not real; they are carefully crafted representations of reality which require our contemplation. Out of countless possible attributes, actions, and entities, an artist or poet isolates those which he or she deems essential to his or her purpose and integrates them through mimesis into a new, embodied image (Rand, 45). It is in this new image that we take such pleasure in understanding.

During the English reformation ‘images’ were especially suspect. They were seen as impersonators, their deceptiveness offering nothing more than a temptation to idolatry and damnation (Tassi, 24). Both Spenser and Sidney were well aware of this and perhaps they conjured up the ‘false images’ in their own poetry with a view to teaching readers about this very danger. For sure much of Sidney’s Defense of Poesy is given over to justification of why ‘feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else’ (ll. 281-82) is such a noble cause. Likewise, in his letter of intention to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser defensively notes that he was also aware of the dangers of allegory although he had just created (a long) one.

My essay compares and contrasts the representation of what I consider to be several key ‘false images’ in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (‘FQ’) and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (‘AS’). My goal is to pinpoint patterns in regards to non-linguistic representations in order to better understand how Early Modern poetry attempted to delight and teach through mimesis (as framed by Merlin Donald). In this regard, it matters not what they say but how they say it.

Arguably the most important false image in FQ is Archimago who specialises in conjuring up his own false images to confuse and manipulate (Tonkin, 63). Given Spenser’s concern about false imagery, it is not surprising that Archimago (also representing the original False Poet (id)) is responsible for pretty much all that goes wrong. Along with Redcross and Una, we first meet Archimago on the road (I i 29). It seems a safe enough place – a well-beaten path (which without narratorial comment we could not realise leads precariously one-way) situated on an open ‘plaine’ (having just experienced the dangers of the dark, forest we can appreciate the ability to see for miles around). He is ‘aged’, barefooted, and his eyes are ‘lowly bent’ to the ground. He often ‘knockt’ his breast and ‘saluted’ bowing ‘low’. Archimago appears humble, harmless enough.

Little wonder that the tired travellers accept his offer to stay overnight in his ‘litle lowly Hermitage’. The humble, harmless man seems so much that which we would like him be that along with the tired travellers, we may be forgiven for ignoring that his home lays ‘hard by a forests side’. Is it not with a prick of concern – if not fear – that we encounter the cold, dark, damp forest? Did we not fail to heed Una’s earlier warning that ‘danger hid, the place vnknowne and wilde’ (I i 12.3)? Yet we are tired. The ‘lowly Hermitage’ lays next to a ‘holy chappell edifyde’. Even though ‘oft fire is without smoke’ (I i 12..4), this is reassuring enough – perhaps so much so that we also fail to question the ‘pleasing wordes’ that humble, harmless ‘olde man’ had in ‘store’ with a voice ‘as smooth’ as glas’? Surely everyone with any experience of glass knows how dangerous, slippery it can be (I i 35.10-11)?

In regards to AS, we must search harder for non-linguistic clues for our narrator, Astrophil, appears more preoccupied with words than mimetics (al la Merlin Donald). He opens with an internal debate on how to make words ‘show’ his ‘love’ for Stella. Shall he study ‘inventions fine, her wits to entertain’ or should he just ‘look in (his) heart and write’? Yet if visual ‘images’ are suspect then what about words? Are they not ‘false’, deceiving ‘images’ as well? In Sonnet 35, Astrophil addresses this directly asking ‘what may words say, or what may words not say,/Where truth itself must speak like flattery?’ What is the relationship between images and truth and flattery? If visual and verbal ‘images’ are equally dangerous, is there nothing that can accurately represent truth? Because during this period sonnets were a popular form to strongly emote (perhaps overemote) over some desired and/or detested object (Spiller, 124), we have reason to suspect Astrophil is going to find out the hard way.

In the first stanza of AS, Astrophil declares his love in ‘truth’ but is ‘fain’ (gladly willing (OED adv B) and also perhaps a pun on ‘feign’ suggesting deceit, (OED n)) in ‘verse to show’.His ‘words’ come ‘halting forth, wanting invention’s stay’. In this sense ‘invention suggests a contrivance or device crafted through ingenuity (OED n, 9). Is Astrophil suggesting that his words are as contrived and deceiving as – perhaps – Archimago’s ‘pleasing wordes’? If so, then as readers might this realisation make our brains as ‘sunburnt’ as Astrophil’s? Reaching for our aspirin, at least we may take solace that we now have seized upon a good non-linguistic clue.

The (unnamed) narrator in FQ seems equally aware of problems with expressing truth. In the opening line of his prologue to the entire poem, he advises that whilst his ‘Muse’ did previously ‘maske’ his abilities (i.e. hide his true form and character behind an outward show, OED v 4), he is now ready for a ‘farre vnfitter taske’ which is nothing less than to write an epic poem (he must imitate the opening lines of Renaissance editions of Virgil’s Aeneid for a reason) which is also a Romance (‘sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds’(I.5)). Might we as readers be forgiven for wondering just how he might achieve such a complex objective in a single go? What if his ‘Muse’ is as deceitful as Duessa (after all, his muse is also a woman)? According to Dees (537), throughout the entire poem the words of our narrator are frequently oversimplified, contradictory, and misleading. While Dees suggests this might be because they were written in a less sophisticated age than our own, I suggest that it is more likely to have occurred by design. As our narrator moralises and explains his way through the poem, might we be well reminded of Archimago – who could also ‘well file his tongue as smooth as glas’ (I i 35.7)? It matters not what they say but how they say it.

Meanwhile while Archimago is in hot pursuit of Una, whom Redcross has abandoned thanks to Archimago’s ‘false images’, Redcross meets Duessa (I ii 13). She is well-dressed (perhaps too well-dressed) and her manner is one of ‘faire disport’ suggesting the making of merriment and fun (OED n 3). Yet if Redcross had been able or willing to see more clearly, he must surely have wondered how Duessa could have been so merry with her champion one moment and then run away from him ‘with all her powre’ the next moment when he should ‘fall’ (I ii 20.1-4). But her ‘melting in teares’ (I ii 22.1) and ‘ruefull countenaunce’ (I ii 21.1) manages to convince Redcross to accept her tale of ‘fortune false’ (I ii 22.4).

In stanza five of AS, Astrophil reminds us that ‘it is most true, that eyes are formed to serve/The inward light;’ and that if we swerve from seeing thus, we are ‘Rebels to Nature’. Perhaps he is suggesting that only in nature is truth to be found and that – by analogy – mimesis (represented nature) causes us to miss the truth? Or perhaps he is suggesting that we should elevate the ‘light of reason above our more primative senses? If so, then is mimesis not dangerous for no other reason than because it does not operate in the ‘light’ of reason? In any event, although Astrophil uses the word ‘true’ seven times in this stanza, all he can see is the (irrational) ‘truth’ that ‘I must Stella love.’

We hope that Astrophil will do better with Stella than we suspect will Redcross with Duessa. But when in stanza seven we learn that Stella’s eyes are ‘black’ (highly unusual for English women of the period), we have renewed reason to be concerned. Astrophil’s reference to a painter here is also suggestive of the dangers of representation and we are given further cause for concern when we learn that Stella’s eyes (if ‘no veil those brave gleams did disguise’), ‘sun-like, should more dazzle than delight’. In dazzling sunlight, most would instinctively turn away. Perhaps it is due to his ‘sunburnt’ brain (or the false flattery of anticipate ‘delight’) that Astrophil fails to do the same?

Redcross also has an encounter with dazzling sunlight when ‘golden Phoebus now ymounted hie’ made the road he travels with Duessa ‘so scorching cruell hot’ (I ii 29.3-5). His ‘new Lady’ cannot endure the heat and so they find shady spot whence they are ‘entertained’ by Fradubio’s story of how his association with Duessa ended with his being turned into a tree. Perhaps the brain of Redcross is also ‘sunburnt’ for although Duessa, fearing discovery, faints, he ‘oft her kist’ until she made a full recovery.

Despite being yet again dazzled by Una (unveiled, the ‘blazing brightnesse’ and ‘glorious light’ of her ‘sunshyny face’), Redcross finally manages to see something for it is and marries Una, his heroine. Not surprisingly, after this momentous occasion all goes well for him. Perhaps his aspirin finally took hold? Sadly, Astrophil’s does not. Although his narrative also ends with allusions to sunlight – ‘Phoebus gold’ – it is only to curse it because ‘O absent presence, Stella is not here’ (although he still cannot see that in reality she never really was and that what ‘told’st mine eyes’ was only his own ‘false flattering hope’).

In conclusion, by comparing and contrasting the representations of key false images I suggest we can pinpoint a pattern of carefully crafted non-linguistic images depicting inconsistencies and overreactions that act as signals or clues. Although each inconsistency and overreaction is small, isolated, seemingly harmless enough – taken together they add up to big trouble (‘oft fire is without smoke’): (1) Duessa’s behaviour in regards to her fallen champion, (2) the ‘pleasing wordes’ of a humble, harmless man whose ‘voice was ‘as smooth’ as glas’, (3) the unusual ‘black eyes’ of a woman in conjunction with reference to a painter, (4) for no apparent reason, Duessa faints after Fradubio’s story, and (5) Astrophil’s ‘sunburnt’ brain resulting from mental masturbations over a women we suspect he does not even know (Spiller, 125). I suggest these ‘false images’ serve to demonstrate to readers how difficult will be their task to not be taken in by ‘false images’ – all the more dangerous because such images can be so easily ‘explained away’ with equally dangerous false, flattering, and deceptive ‘words’.





Sidney, Sir Philip. The Major Works including Astrophil and Stella. ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. ed. AC Hamilton and Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007.


Bae, Kyung Jin. ‘What May Words Not Say’: Language and Silence in Astrophil and Stella. Journal of English and American Studies (vol. 2, December 2003) (14 May 2014).


Dees, Jerome S. “The Narrator of The Faerie Queene: Patterns of Response”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter 1971), pp. 537-568.


Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Halliwell, Stephen. Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.


Kamhi, Michelle Marder. ‘Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Gard.’ Aristos: an Online Review of the Arts. (14 May 2014).


Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto: a Philosophy of Literature. New York: New American Library, 1975.


Spiller, Michael. Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. Florence: Routledge (1992). May 2014).


Tassi, Marguerite A. The Scandal of Images: Iconoclasm, Eroticism, and Painting in Early Modern English Drama. Selingsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005.


Tonkin, Humphrey. The Faeire Queene. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

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