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Art, nature, and Spenser's pictorialism Forster, Catherine Anne


This thesis began with the desire to understand the gold ivy painted green that entwines the crystal fountain in Spenser's Bower of Bliss. Although this artificial vegetation struck me as an example of what twentieth-century critics would call "kitsch", I somehow felt that the poet himself was viewing his creation as an object of beauty. In order to test this feeling I began my research by examining the use of the terms "art" and "nature" in Elizabethan writing, for it seemed to me that in the definition of and the relationship between these two terms lay a key to Spenser's esthetic. The artist here has tried to make an artificial substance appear to be natural; reading the Elizabethan critics I found that such attempts at artistic deception were almost unanimously applauded. Spenser's age could not have formulated its esthetic intuitively, however, and in order to understand its historical perspective I have examined the relationship between "art" and "nature" in important historical periods before the Renaissance. Here it was found that at times when painting is dominant, as in the Renaissance, art's imitation of nature is understood naturalistlcally, and a convention of literary pictorialism arises. In the writings of the critics of the Italian Renaissance, art is praised for its approximation to nature, and the poet, like the painter, is admired for his accurate pictures. Turning to the Elizabethan critics I found an esthetic similar to that expressed by the Italian writers. A common philosophy lies behind this esthetic. It is believed that to imitate nature with accuracy is to reproduce in art the harmony of God's creation. In performing this imitation man the artist is demonstrating his relationship to God the Artist. It was found further that the Elizabethan environment also demonstrated the delight in art's ability to deceive that is expressed by the writers of the period. And we find in their surroundings, in visual support of the critical theories, that the Elizabethans are not only delighted when art appears to be nature, but that they are also delighted when nature appears to be art. Looking finally at Spenser's scenes, we find his period's esthetic exemplified. He bases his idea of the beautiful on the conception of a world made up of order and variety. He praises verisimilitude in art, delighting to see art appear to be nature. He also delights when he sees a natural scene that resembles art. In addition he describes with pleasure situations in which art and nature are in friendly competition, or, perhaps the most delightful relationship of all, situations in which art and nature play complementary roles. One of Spenser's characteristically Renaissance traits is his ability to separate ethics and esthetics. This point has often been overlooked for the gold ivy painted green has been dismissed in some previous criticism not as esthetically poor, but ethically, as evil. Rather, in Elizabethan eyes, It is basically an esthetic good and can be used by the poet to create a number of effects.

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