Songs of Experience: Confessions, Penitence, and the Value of Error in Tasso and Spenser

Publications of the Modern Language Association

Sarah Van der Laan
Publication Date
Cambridge University Press

As the Reformation and Counter-Reformation swept Europe in the sixteenth century, penance (or its rejection) became a cornerstone of individual and confessional identities. Extending a post-Tridentine view of sacramental penance as consolation, Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata suggests that penance offers a means to recover and even to benefit from the experience of error—and to incorporate romance error into epic action and ethics. Through extensive intertextual dialogue, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene engages this view to explore the fears produced in some lay people by the English Reformers' rejection of penance. Book 2 interrogates the possibilities for epic heroism in a fictional environment lacking any visible means to recover from error and therefore profoundly skeptical of experience and the errors to which it might lead. Spenser's virtuoso act of cultural translation reforms Tasso's penance-based ethics, exposes the shortcomings of one approach to reformation, and affirms the educational value of human error.