This book is partly a reception history of The Faerie Queene and partly a reading of the poem. Catherine Nicholson defamiliarizes Spenser’s work by describing what readers have done with it: how they have glossed it, excerpted it, edited it, discussed it, quarreled over it, reviewed it, deplored it, retold it for children, used it for polemic, reduced it to moral lessons. She calls the book a “history of Spenser’s readers” (6), who differ greatly in their motives for reading and their attitudes toward the poem, but she argues that even its most wayward critics respond to impulses in the text. While describing the part it has played in the literary imaginary of the past four centuries, Nicholson’s book uses that history to read the work.

Spenser’s own concern with interpretation is important to Nicholson’s analysis. One of his favorite verbs is read, with its range of meanings: interpret,...

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