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Renascence Editions

The Purple Island. 

Phineas Fletcher.

Table of Contents  | Introduction  |  Bibliography

This Renascence Editions text was transcribed by Daniel Gustav Anderson, July 2003, and reproduces the 1633 publication of The Purple Island, with the Piscatory Eclogues and Poeticall Miscellenie. It retains the spelling and punctuation of the original, silently amending obvious typographical errors such as missing periods at stanza ends. The long "s" and the vowel ligatures, also, are silently amended to the letters of the conventional keyboard. Any errors that have crept into the transcription are the fault of the present publisher. The text is in the public domain. Content unique to this presentation is copyright © 2003 the editor and the University of Oregon. For nonprofit and educational uses only.


 Daniel Gustav Anderson

PHineas Fletcher's 1633 poem The Purple Island is unique in literary history and a valuable aesthetic object, praised as "the most elaborate literary expansion of the equation of the little world of man with the big world of nature" (Hunter 311) and as an important (if overlooked) contribution to the longstanding mind/body problem (Cable). It is a specific kind of allegory. According to Gordon Teskey, "an allegory must be ... incoherent on the narrative level, forcing us to unify the work by imposing meaning on it" (5). This kind of "incoherence" makes the poem, according to Frank S. Kastor, "an unmistakable disaster" (148), a poem "almost universally condemned" (140). The Purple Island represents an elaborate and heady set of experiments in style and structure; it is a baggy monster rather than a well-wrought urn. It may be for this reason that James Joyce, conscious of critical response to his work, struck a significant allusion to it from a manuscript of Ulysses1.

The Purple Island is no catastrophe, even as Fletcher2 is willing to flirt with catastrophe in his playful pushing of allegory, psychomachia, and epic high seriousness past their point of breaking, anticipating in the process formal and rhetorical innovations in the work of such writers as John Milton, William Blake, and Joyce.

Fletcher developed in the process a novel genre. The poem's most potent structural development has to do with its absolute identification of the personal, the political, and the phenomenal, imperceptibly moving in a dull repetitive round of discourse toward an inevitable apocalypse. As in any allegory, the narrative's events have simultaneously political and spiritual significance; the teleology of this poem, however, is also prophetic, psychomachic, and ultimately utopic. This proves to be a direct response to (and an idealizing of) discursive conditions of power -- the power to subjectify, and the power of self-control. The isle of man is here the purple of blood and the body, of monarchy and the state, and intentionally purple verse.

Because of The Purple Island's mixed critical reception, it remains largely unexplored by scholars. This introduction includes a section on unanswered questions suggestive of directions explorers can take in Fletcher's unapologetically unique world.

Apocalyptic Space: The Structure of The Purple Island

Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near (Revelation 1.3).
Apocalypse is, in one sense, affective. As a genre, it constitutes a dialectic between reader and text, with the expectation of immediate results3. The time is near, as the story goes, but the literal supernatural event to end all events, the bookend to the Big Bang, has yet to come in spite of anyone's reading4. This deferral of promised revolution is a source of anxiety, and (as will be shown) a means of maintaining power through discourse. Fletcher narrates in The Purple Island an allegoric version of this long-awaited end, creating a narrative that is at once a transformative psychomachia and a realized utopia -- a narrative with a unique quality I call apocalyptic space5.Certain ideas in Plato's Timaeus are suggestive of the structure of this teleology. From an origin in an absolute, epic past, a given narrative arises with which a set of subjects, by accident of circumstance, identifies. The story is told and retold; the power differential in the relationship of the roles of official narrator and listening subject remains constant, even as the specific scene and lines change. Timaeus suggests to Socrates that apparent relationships of duality like this one actually constitute a three-part movement, in which the static binary is maintained by a third force (1176), which does not assume to itself the forms it "receives" (1177); it is the promise of eternity and holiness, and of fundamental change6. In the context of late Christianity and Fletcher's poem, this third force is the promised intercession of God in apparently static human affairs -- a small scale apocalypse, the victory of self-control over sinfulness by God's grace, or the large-scale End of History. Anything that can be thought or observed is absorbed into this narrative.Apocalyptic speculation is in this way a totalizing response to conditions of totalization. Since all imaginable realities are on principle subject to the force of apocalypse, to appeal to this force is to appeal to the most comprehensive of rhetorical strategies available.

Narratives of Origin

The Purple Island narrates a Utopian vision of the English nation. This is significant because, under most conditions, nations are fundamentally of a narrative nature7. In "Epic and Novel," Mikhail Bakhtin identifies epic as the genre not only of narratives of national origin, but also of absolutism. The events represented in epic have taken place in an absolute, inaccessible past, insulated without fail from the prosaic lives of any narratee. In the case of Fletcher's faux-epic, the content of the poem moves or stands still in a space wholly exotic relative to the position of any reader because it is allegoric space -- conspicuously non-representational, explicitly make-believe, and (following Teskey) necessarily incoherent. The discourse of authorization, then, is always inaccessible to the immediate apprehension of its audience, and therefore is absolute in its position. According to Bakhtin, a listener encounters this discourse "with its authority already fused to it" because "its authority was already acknowledged in the past" ("Discourse" 342), in the exotic narrative with which the subject identifies. The shepherds listening to Thirsil (the poem's narrator) are only moving conventions of the exotic rather than breathing subjects with work to do. They represent a past acknowledgment of authority, and their presence encourages a contemporary audience to identify with their narrative, just as imitation laughter is designed to stimulate real laughter among those voyeuristically observing such carefully prepared imitation social settings as sit-coms.

Clearly, one telling such a narrative claims for himself its authority, toward his own ends (keeping static roles intact); where authority is political, the claim of authority is a claim of power, which is relational insofar as narration demands a relationship between a narrator and a set of narratees. Since that claim to power is discursive, the claimant must again and again retell the story in order to maintain the currency of his means to power, to maintain its authority8. Because the story risks losing currency due to repetition -- becoming what Nietzsche refers to as "coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins" (47) -- I argue that the narrative of origins promises implicitly an end to that repetition, an end to the story-in-progress, a change of roles or a curtain call. Walter Benjamin refers to this in his assertion that "our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption" (254). The conditions under which we live, Benjamin suggests, are inevitably dissatisfactory, but our history has made the notion of permanent change an option for speculation, even as it would take a Messianic moment, a miracle, to do the actual work. According to Benjamin, "we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim" (254)9. This endlessly deferred promise of apocalypse is the apocolyptic element of apocalyptic space; the pre-apocalyptic absolute experience of the same dull round again, where nothing happens but the retelling, I call dead time10. Time cannot remain dead, so to speak, without the promise of rising up again. Christianity offers a teleology, a grand narrative with both beginning and inevitable end. This is the chronotope at work in apocalyptic texts such as The Purple Island -- the end of the fallen world is at hand, and in this case, it is literally written in the absolute hand of James I (12.55-89)11, offering his own apocalypse. The teleological promise of utopia (after a frightful series of battle scenes) is implicit in such narratives of origin. This is apocalyptic space. That Fletcher fulfills this promise, ending dead time, is wholly unique.

It is not accidental that the Timaeus, which offers a partial model of The Purple Island's structure and imagery, opens with a Utopian discussion of national origins, and that the scene is set in Athens on Athena's festival day (1156). Timaeus gives the conservative advice that "we must conform to custom and believe" tales of national origin (1170). This Utopia is tied to credulity or at best idealism rather than reason. Like the Christian teleology it is predicated on a leap of faith. And interestingly, as Thomas More coined the term, Utopia proves to be literally no place at all. Like the absolute past of epic, the future any immediately relevant Utopia offers is irretrievably exotic. This is one reason why More gives the tale of his Utopia in the frame of second-hand news, like any other fantastic travel narrative in parts unseen or imaginary. The characteristics of the Utopia, however, can offer some insight into the rhetorical and political conditions of the Utopia's arising.

As the primary narrator Thirsil (himself a pastoral convention) gives them, politics on the Purple Island are initially absolute and hopelessly tedious. The body/landscape, the body politic of virtues and vices, are seen as static prior to Canto 11. Nothing happens. The situation is absolutely. As Kantor notes, the "only plot and action in the book" is the "struggle between God and Satan"(107), which occurred in the absolute past of the Island's narrative of origins, and which doubles the conflict between the soul and flesh. The psychomachic figures in the dead time cantos identify with that exotic narrative's movements. Thirsil later introduces an apocalypse into this manifestation of dead time that also doubles the God-Satan conflict. Features of the rhetorical or imagined past determine the end of the story.

Thomas Healy has shown the ways in which this allegory of power and narration has genuine significance to Fletcher's historical milieu, both culturally and politically. Fletcher distances himself from the syncretic Spenserian narrative of origin, and constructs a more rigorously absolute one in its place: 

Fletcher makes it quite clear that the body is Britain (or England). The creation of humanity in an unfallen world is, in a specific English context, represented by a period of native occupancy in which a wholly native integrity is maintained ... Britain is not originally settled by the foreigner Brute sailing from Italy. Rather, it is when the island seeks beyond its allotted bounds, and contacts the continent that the Fall takes place and diabolical (Roman Catholic) influences gain control (1.45-47) ... An ideal of self-sufficiency and internal integrity for Britain is asserted in Fletcher's construction (347).
Britain is as it always has been after the conflict (imagined to be continuing) between God and Satan (or Protestant and Catholic) began, once upon a time. The status quo is as it is; as it moves, it modulates, but it does not fundamentally change as it promises a revolution.According to Healy, Fletcher awaited the fulfillment of that promise with hope "that the new king (James I) would more firmly establish an uncompromising Protestant identity in England" (349). This is the promised apocalypse of both the Purple Island and Phineas Fletcher: "Since it adopts the commonplace of the world as decayed and applies this apocalyptically, the poem, in the context of 1633, may be indicating a departure from lost values found in a previous greater Protestant age, combined with a sense of urgency for their restoration" (Healy 345). Fletcher thus imagines an "individual body, England, and the whole world are rescued by external, divine and unquestionably male forces" (Healy 350). This apocalypse is clearly backward-looking, and absolute in its promised manifestation.It is also not without complications. The narrative of origins is slippery, given that Fletcher can so readily construct one that radically differs from Spenser's myth of Troynovaunt for his own ends. This implies that Fletcher (and perhaps Spenser with him) lacks the authority to tell such a tale, even as it is much more conservative than others current in his milieu12. Fletcher's opposition to English imperialism is significant in this regard. According to Healy, "the poem decries exploration and colonial expansion as fruitless and dangerous activities" (348). Spenser's celebration of London as a third Troy, second Rome, and New Jerusalem in The Faerie Queene (2.10, 3.3), authorizing imperial expansion by narrative of origin, seems ridiculous in this context, in its advocacy for fundamentally changing that which pretends to absolute permanence -- in other words, for bringing the wrong apocalypse, a materialistic one:
Yet this fair Isle, sited so nearely neare,That from our sides nor place nor time may sever;Though to your selves your selves are not more deare,Yet with strange carelesnesse you travell never:    Thus while your selves and native home forgetting,    You search farre distant worlds with needlesse sweating,You never finde your selves; so lose ye more by getting (1.38).
That this advice, from the mouth of Thirsil the shepherd, by its sound seems directed as much to an individual as a nation is significant; Fletcher binds the two by means of the metaphysical conceit.

Psychomachia in Dead Time

On the Purple Island, the personal is literally political. Fletcher draws to their rational conclusion many conventions of psychomachia available to him, including the parade of virtues and vices, found in Prudentius' Psychomachia and The Faerie Queene, the Biblical conflict between the spirit and the flesh, and scale invariance between the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (the world). 

The genre of psychomachia is predicated on an absolute wedding of like with unlike, very much in the spirit of the metaphysical conceit. Donne's declaration that "No man's an Island"; in the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (Meditation 17) is obviously literally true and quite ironic in that its opposite is also true in apocalyptic space: every man (or Everyman) is an island to scale with the Island of islands. The Psychomachia established this logic, which manifests in complex narrative psychological modeling in The Faerie Queene; castles and dungeons become minds and bowels, and knights on parade become emblems of different sins and psychological states. Fletcher's debt to The Faerie Queene, especially the House of Alma passage in Book II, has been repeatedly emphasized, often by Fletcher himself. The echoes and allusions are too numerous to count. The most pertinent feature of this passage in this instance is the overtly political nature of the psychomachia in The Faerie Queene. Spenser gives a tour of the geography of Alma's body, including its ruling court, immediately before his geneology of British monarchic history, "from Brute to Vther's raigne"; (argument to 2.10). This is an explicitly English body and body politic. 

Donne13 transforms the different kinds of virtues and vices as roles any given individual can play in the Satyres; the body becomes a costume one wears and perhaps rebels against. In the first Satyre, the reader is introduced to sinful characters such as the humorist, the puritan, and the philosopher, and he is warned: "And till our Soules be unapparelled/Of bodies, they from blisse are banished"; (43-44). This injunction is at once a social and personal apocalypse. As costume, the body serves a social function predicated on personal motives. Social-spiritual bodies become costumes in precisely this sense in Satyre III: "As women do in divers countries goe/In divers habits, yet are still one kinde;/So doth, so is Religion"; (66-68). Flesh is equated to sin, and sin to costume, on the personal and the social scales. 

Fletcher embraces both Donne's and Spenser's version of the psychomachia14. Cantos II-VI give a detailed vision of the literal body as a psychomachia in the spirit of the House of Alma, while Cantos VII-X give emblematic portraits or costumes of sinfulness or saintliness. Further, Fletcher follows the Psychomachia of Prudentius and the Timaeus by investing heavily in militaristic imagery for the body. Timaeus assigns military duty to anatomical parts that stand "in place of guard, that, when the might of passion was roused by reason making proclamation" could "allow the principle of the best to have the command in all of them" (1193). For Prudentius, the conflict of light and dark, soul and matter, remains unrelieved until the intervention of Christ: :Light and darkness with their opposing spirits are at war, and our two-fold being inspires powers at variance with each other, until Christ our God comes to our aid"; (343). The imagery of war is unrelieved; "we must watch in the armour of faithful hearts, and that every part of our body which is in captivity and enslaved to foul desire must be set free by gathering our forces at home" (277-79). The three-force structure is again at work in this instance; the conflict between two forces, spirit and flesh, continues without resolution in dead time until the promised third appears, bringing peace by means of the sword. 

The fortification topos is applied with vehemence, and in several directions at once. As Healy observes, "The body's order, the poem makes abundantly clear, is constructed around one overriding principle: it must be defended" (345). For this reason, "Images of battlements, moats, strategically placed mountains and so forth abound in Fletcher's descriptions" (345). The excess of militarism gives a feel of political forcefulness, of absolutism. As such it is an interesting gap between Fletcher's cross-pollenating genres. In addition to the conventions of psychomachia, the defensive topos here may also be a function of Fletcher's pastoral frame. Gary M. Bouchard observes that Fletcher conflates the "green world" of the pastoral with the "blue world" of the piscatory, meaning that the dangers of the sea, "the source of invasion, and a place for battle," and the shore, "a landing place for invading brigands," are introduced into the inland bucolic (234). Because the body is allegorically an island-state, fortification certainly becomes necessary -- and a kind of dead time assurance of safety, of the distance at which the End stands. According to Cable, Fletcher's "language is full of the same reassurances that give us comfort ... the enemy is somewhere else, out there"(143).

Grundy observes that ";Thirsil's story ... takes seven days to tell. It does so because it is the story of the microcosm, the 'little world' of man" (189). The microcosm is structured as a scaled-down macrocosm; The Purple Island is structured so that gestures with apparent significance for the body -- the order of organs, for example -- not only have some social or political significance, but the same significance. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari exhaust the potential of this equation of the body and its literal organs with the stratified body politic. Dismantling the structures of stratification in one's person (the organization of one's psyche), which mimic those of the social world, in a specific way, allows one to enjoy the body on its own terms as a Body without Organs, a classless state15. In different ways and to different idealistic ends, Fletcher and Deleuze and Guattari are appealing to a very old idea; Thucidides compares the symptoms of plague breaking out allegorically to social disease in the plague-affected community. Similarly, Plato shows Timaeus comparing an individual's illness to political strife: Bile is "driven out of the body like an exile from a state in which there has been a civil war" (1206). According to Timaeus, the phenomenal world is a double of the divine world. It is always already an allegory for an order of another scale, and necessarily an imperfect one (1162). As such the material world is "a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God" (1163), and therefore is a scaled-up version of the human subject. Psychomachia in the sense of battle of and for the soul is explicit here: After souls were first implanted in bodies, Timaeus explains, they experienced opposites such as love and hatred; "If they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously" (1171). The logic here is nearly indistinguishable from the Christian teleology; Donne, like Spenser and Fletcher, recognizes it in Satyre V: "Each thing, each thing implies or represents./Then man is a world ... /in which officers/Are the devouring stomacke, and Suiters/the excrements" (12-19). Fletcher embraces both the psycho-social order and the appeal to scatology with enthusiasm.

The Kingdom is at Hand

Canto XI introduces the Beginning of the End. Once the moral and saintly emblems have all been enumerated and described, they spontaneously gather against the sinful ones (11.5) and proceed to attack with the blessing of the Intellect. After initial success, the Virtue-knights end the first day of battle (and the Canto) fleeing, sorely wounded (11.49-50). These circumstances, after a measure of mixed success, become much more dire, leading Eclecta -- daughter of Volition and Intellect, and arguably an allegorical image for the Church -- to pray for divine intercession (12.44-53). An "Angel full of heav'nly might," James I according to Fletcher's note (12.55), arrives and ends the war -- and after a brief celebration, Thirsil's tale of the Island. The end is absolute; James' reading of his apocalypse to the island's populace brings it about, vindicating the faithful. All forms of evil are destroyed, and all virtues revive; Prince Intellect enjoys a new freedom (12.68), apparently becoming a genuine dictator, free to make and enforce any law that pleases him. 

The apocalyptic space of The Purple Island departs sharply from the allegory of The Faerie Queene, which never introduces an absolute apocalypse. The dragon is slain but Archimago is never caught in Book I; Mammon's underground fortress remains intact after the Bower of Bliss is razed in Book II. Evil is never without exception eradicated from Faerie Lond. According to Patricia Parker, any corresponding apocalypse remains far on the horizon: "the vision from which The Faerie Queene concludes is from the perspective of this world. If the end of history and of mutability is both envisaged and earnestly prayed for, it is remarkable chiefly for its distance" (56). Parker finds Book I, "the very Book most remarkable for its sense of an ending," to function "less like the Apocalypse than the romance Odyssey, where Ulysses, after twenty years of wandering, returns to tell Penelope that he must set out again" (75). Because The Faerie Queene never passes outside dead time, but only continues to promise the End, The Purple Island represents a genuine departure from Spenserian allegory in its narration of a multivalent apocalypse.

This is not without some precedent. The apocalypse Dante experiences in The Divine Comedy, unlike that narrated in The Purple Island, is strictly unique and personal, antisocial and ahistorical. He is, according to his testimony, the first and only mortal soul to see Paradise after graduating from the allegoric Armageddon of Hell and Purgatory. The political implications of Virgil's crowning and mitering of Dante over his own self at the end of the Purgatorio are explicit, but Dante's political sovereignty does not represent allegorically his real-time dominion over any place. The Florentine exile's illumination differs radically from that triggered by James I. Fletcher's anonymous (English) island experiences the everyman's enlightenment, which means by the logic of apocalyptic space that the island nation and its landscape pass through the same.

William Blake is, by contrast, the most direct heir to Fletcher's innovation. In The Four Zoas Blake imagines Albion the Ancient Man to contain multitudes -- at once psychomachia and eventual utopia. This is apocalyptic space par excellance; according to Donald Ault, every moment of The Four Zoas is transformative, not only for the figures of the allegory (used loosely and with caution in the Blakean context), but also for the reader and the text in interaction with the reader. Clearly, Blake's reworking of the logic of apocalyptic space tends toward desubjectification, away from identifying absolutely with narratives of origin, by beginning a process that brings those narratives to an end. Teskey's proposed reception of The Purple Island in Blake's milieu seems ironic in this context: the poem "must have seemed toward the end of the eighteenth century to represent the only hope for poetry in the future" (110) because it represents what Blake most detested: the poeticizing of (absolute) empirical science, heroizing its "achievements" (110).

Teskey is correct in that The Purple Island does propose a new order. But is it as new as it appears to be? Prudentius offers a standard by which Fletcher's apocalyptic utopia can be evaluated -- that of peace, the end of politics, history, and dead time: "Peace is the fulfilment of a Virtue's work, peace the sum and substance of her toils, peace the reward for war now ended and for peril faced" (333). The reader never finds out if war has ended, because the narrative ends, implying that history (if anything recognizable as such exists in a space without time) has ended. Utopia remains no place, at least no place knowable. If this is peace, the text leaves the reader with another question from the perspective of the organs, the subjects of the Prince: Is this peace another kind of absolutism, a perfect totalitarianism -- more absolute in the absence of dissent, or more free to choose in the absence of limitation (since all unacceptable choices for all organs or subjects are eliminated)? Deleuze and Guattari make a suggestive distinction between "those emptied dreary bodies" of anorexics, masochists, and addicts who "had emptied themselves of their organs" and those who seek "the point at which they could patiently and momentarily dismantle the organization of the organs we call the organism" (160-161). After the apocalypse the Purple Island appears to be emptied of all but the absolutism of its monarch; whether the aftermath of Fletcher's imagined apocalypse is desirable or not remains an open question. Structurally, The Purple Island opens more fundamental gaps and lines of questioning than it forecloses by means of its appeal to apocalypse.

Verse Uncomb'd: The Style of The Purple Island

Fletcher's pastoral frame provides a clue to The Purple Island's seemingly unironic and overearnest tone by comparing its composition to the shepherd's wool. This is "verse uncomb'd" (3.3.4). The useful fibers are interwoven or knotted with other (presumably biological) matter, forming in the text-as-textile an alloy of filth and utility. The human body, of course, can also be seen in this way. Grundy asserts that Fletcher's (more properly Thirsil's) "uniformly over-emphatic, over-sensualized style makes it difficult to recognize and respond to the moments of genuine rapture or near-rapture that do occur" (184). Fletcher, like Joyce, conflates the immanent and transcendent divine with the immediately sensual, scatological, and humorous, "shewing that sweetnesse oft both low and hidden lies" (4.7.7). This is in keeping with Fletcher's repeated use of paradox, chiasmus, and allegory (other-meaning) generally. The role of parody and playfulness, values not typically associated with absolutist and totalizing tendencies, in a text obsessively absolute, is a bit ambiguous. It is not clear if Fletcher parodies absolutism, or preemptively embraces the rhetoric of dissent by identifying with it, thereby turning it to absolutist ends, or if he uses style as a temporary carnivalistic reprieve from the tedium of dead time. It is clear, though, that Fletcher is no stylistic fellow-traveler.

Fletcher's lyrics reveal a contrarian attitude toward tradition and convention. In "To my beloved Thenot in answer of his verse," Fletcher praises Virgil for Turnus' bravery rather than Aeneas', and Spenser for his love poems rather than the self-consciously Virgillian Faerie Queene. Fletcher takes such issue with the conventions of poetry -- "to feigne, and make fine lies" -- that, in "A reply upon the fair M.S.," he declares himself "no poet." Fletcher is not interested in beauty for its own sake, and would rather write unconventional (if ugly) truths, or truth unconventionally. He compares conventional style to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge:

But give me leave to write as I have found:Like ruddy apples are their outsides bright,Whose skin is fair, the core or heart unsound;Whose cherry-cheek the eye doth much delight,But inward rottennesse the taste doth wound:Ah! were the taste so good as is the sight,    To pluck such apples (lost with self-same price)    Would back restore us part of paradise (33-41).
Fletcher seems to draw attention to the rough skin of his produce, as if to verify the value of the fruit toward the end of restoring Paradise. It may be here that Fletcher's influence on Milton may be most explicit. Very little happens in The Purple Island; Milton, also turning against tradition, praises the virtue of doing nothing in Comus; Paradise Lost is an epic so suspicious of heroism and the attendant rhetoric that conventional heroism is only indulged in by Satan and his host, while acts of loyalty (Abdiel) and humility are praised as genuine heroism16.It seems safe to assume generally that there can be no unintentional toilet humor in a poem obsessing over the way matter moves through the body, as The Purple Island does. Given the context of Fletcher's self-conscious program of nonbeauty and nonconventionality, it becomes a given that the explicit elements of the poem are not oversights on the poet's part. Fletcher's bawdy aesthetic is best realized in Canto II, although it continues to resurface throughout the poem. Fletcher emphasizes with heavy alliteration a fart joke in what may be the poem's most infamous moment: "That heat, which in his furnace ever fumeth...hot rising fire...And oft the rising fume, which again down descendeth" (2.34.1-7). Bizarrely, organs of digestion carefully examine with detached interest their own contents (2.42). What at first appears to be a narration of childbirth also becomes a deadpan double entendre for repeated male orgasm: "It breaks all lets its ready way denying;/And shakes the trembling Isle with often painfull dying" (3.27.6-7). A gentle reading reveals many more instances of playful ribaldry.Another characteristic of Fletcher's style, tied to the ribald, represents a novel innovation. Fletcher narrates the best parts of the anatomy lesson early in the poem twice, once in verse and again in prose glosses, quoting and parodying himself, often to comic effect. Fletcher describes the human head as a metropolis: "Of other stuffe the Suburbs have their framing" (4.22.1-3). Of itself, this is uninteresting. Fletcher's annotation of the obvious is not: "The first part of the face is the forehead, at whose base are the eyes." This mockingly invokes the glosses found repeatedly in the Geneva Bible and the "E. K." glosses in Spenser's The Shepherds Calendar, constructing a narrator who, the reader assumes, gives the frame narrative in order to prepare the reader to understand Thirsil's song. We are made to understand that Thirsil is only a nominally competent storyteller, a beginner (1.4.4); our presumptive narrator overcompensates (hilariously) by offering far too much information, reminding readers to their presumed surprise that their eyes can indeed be found below the forehead17. Joyce uses this self-deprecating technique in the Ithaca passage of Ulysses, where we learn, for example, the precise path drinking water takes from source to tap as Bloom makes tea for himself and Stephen in ridiculously pompous, close, and copious detail (671). The glosses continue throughout the poem, but with much less frequency, as if the point has conclusively been made early on, and the reader only needs to be reminded of the joke. Thirsil's own incompetence is highlighted by the fact that, according to Kastor, "Without such gloss, most of the content is meaningless" (115). Even though Kastor exaggerates this point, Fletcher's style suggests that The Purple Island must be understood through a double layer of irony. The first layer gives Thirsil room to make fart jokes in a Serious Poem about the True Nature of God Relative to the Human Condition; the second lets Fletcher poke fun at the attempt to keep an utterly earnest tone in the face of too-much-information. Fletcher, then, is keenly aware of the complications of writing a serious allegory; he is in on all jokes of this kind, especially those seemingly at his own expense. 

Fletcher uses pastiche, both in the form of self-quotation and of explicit intertextuality, throughout his body of work. Grundy finds quotations from Joseph Hall's Characters of the Vertues and Vices (189), the "images of the 'weeping Maries' of the counter-reformation," and the Pia Desideria by Herman Hugo (201). Langdale has produced multi-page charts showing Fletcher's instances of reproducing the work of writers such as Ovid, Spenser, Virgil, and Du Bartas, as well as of self-quotation, in his (now dated) biographical study Phineas Fletcher. Not all of Fletcher's quotation is, strictly speaking, textual; according to Grundy, one of the closing stanzas of The Purple Island (12.85) "exactly reproduces the colour-effects achieved in some Bernini interiours" (202). Outright pastiche further contributes to The Purple Island's performative playfulness, its sense of Spenserian epic seriousness, and its apparent syncretism. 

Polyvocal pastiche, playfulness and self-deprecation make The Purple Island exceptionally coy and sophisticated in terms of style.

Unanswered Questions

Many aspects of The Purple Island remain largely untouched by critics. Since the poem offers real generic and stylistic innovation and represents a relatively open field in which to work, it will be useful to flesh out some lines of questioning scholars may pursue in response to it.

Fletcher's narration of various psychological faculties, represented as an aristocratic state beaurocracy, is gendered in precise and peculiar ways. It is not yet clear what kinds of subjects constitute the Subject (the state, or the man), and how and why those sub-subjects would be gendered as they are.

That the pastoral and landscape imagery in The Purple Island become elaborate metaphors for human subjectivity, coupled with the poem's elaborate and rigorous system of correspondences, implies not mental apprehension of the material world but literal identification of the subject with landscape; thus, the world of the poem has much in common with the phenomenal world as deep ecologists imagine it.

Most especially, there is much room for historical study, particularly with attention to The Purple Island as a document deeply invested in Early Modern medical doctrine and practice, early psychology, hermeticism, politics, and theological disputes.

Works Cited

1 Robert M. Adams traces at least one significant allusion to The Purple Island in a manuscript of Ulysses that was later revised out.
2 For biographical information on Fletcher (1582-1650), see A.B. Langdale's study Phineas Fletcher.
3 In Revolution in Poetic Language, Julia Kristeva makes similar claims for the process of reading avant-garde literature, citing Joyce and Mallarme repeatedly. For Kristeva, changing ones mind by reading ideas hostile (or simply foreign) to the prevailing social order unsprings the subject from identification with that order, thus freeing the subject and fundamentally altering the social order by that means. The notion of apocalypse Fletcher invokes, however, is not strictly materialistic, and the contexts in which it arises historically are surprising. Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), a Cambridge-educated Hindu nationalist turned spiritual leader (and magnificent poet), wrote that reading the poetry of the future would be a means for the force of God to descend upon men and women, bringing about a new age and race of evolved beings (see The Future Poetry, also a history of English literature); Aurobindo implies that his own poetry will play a significant role in this regard. That history has not yet provided an apocalypse or a genuine revolution by avant-garde aesthesis has not prevented earnest (if idealistic) speculation on the topic. 
4 The apocalypse as a strictly psychological phenomenon, per the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, is outside the frame of this argument. Any divorce of the personal from the political is foreign to Fletcher's project.
5 One contemporary manifestation of the apocalyptic space topos is Gaia Theory, according to which all of animated nature on earth (as earth) is imagined as an organic, latently conscious being.
6 G.I. Gurdjieff's novel Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson -- a wild performance -- embraces this three-part structure but turns it upside down, by allowing a very subversive voice, Beelzebub himself, to do the speaking.
7 Among the best elaborations of this idea are Nation and Narration, edited by Homi Bhabha, and Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities.
8 This line of thinking is developed with infinitely greater depth and complexity throughout the writings of Michel Foucault.
9 Benjamin imagines a "Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past" (263). The End has a slightly different connotation for a Christian writer such as Fletcher, however, because the coming of the Messiah did not end history but offered instead a promised return.
10 My definition of dead time differs radically from that of Immanuel Levinas in Totality and Infinity (56), a text which otherwise constitutes an argument largely complimentary to this one. Benjamin's poetic interpretation of the Klee painting "Angelus Novus" provides an alternate perspective on the structure of dead time: "This is how one views the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet" (257). For Benjamin, "what we call progress" is actually a single moment, a phenomenon (258). 
11 Healy observes that James I appears "in a guise resembling the bridegroom of the Song of Songs. The English monarch represents the divine bridegroom in this chosen earthly realm" (345).
12 If Phineas Fletcher can tell an authorized Story of England, anyone can, and where there are multiple voices of competing viability, absolutism is impossible.
13 Grundy shows Fletcher to be familiar enough with Donne's writings to imitate them, particularly Donne's Ignatious His Conclave in Fletcher's Appolyonists (190).
14 These are by no means the only texts Fletcher may invoke in developing his psychomachia. According to Grundy, Fletcher's vision "has many medieval counterparts, notably in Sawles Ward, the Cursor Mundi, and Lydgate's Assembly of the Gods" -- and much of Fletcher's imagery is culled from Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas' Divine Weeks and Works (188).
15 Deleuze and Guattari attack religious orthodoxy as an enemy of this apocalyptic process (158-159), in a spirit congenial to the ideals of Fletcher's radical heir William Blake but antithetical to Fletcher's project of a uniform and absolutely Protestant England. The ambiguity of the poem's ending rests here: if only good remains after the apocalypse, and therefore only good deeds are possible, what is the purpose of hierarchy and command?
16 It is worth observing that a passage in The Purple Island may have provided Milton with a model for his invocation to the Muse as Light at the beginning of the third Book of Paradise Lost:
Then thou high Light, whom shepherds low adore,
Teach me, oh do thou teach thy humble swain
To raise my creeping song from earthly floor:
Fill thou my empty breast with loftie strain;
    That singing of thy warres and dreadfull fight,
    My notes may thunder out thy conqu'ring might,
And 'twixt the golden starres cut out her towring flight. (Purple Island 12.8)
17 Vladimir Nabokov exploits a similar strategy in his exploration of hermeneutics, Pale Fire, making explicit the incompetence of both the poet (Shade) and the editor (Kinbote).


Boas, Frederick S. Poetical Works of Giles and Phineas Fletcher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908-1909. The most comprehensive edition of Fletcher's poems. 

Cable, Lana. "Such Nothing is Terrestriall: Philosophy of Mind on Phineas Fletcher's Purple Island." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 19 (1983), 136-152. Informative review of Fletcher's approach to materialism and self-knowledge.

Fletcher, Phineas. The Purple Island, or the Isle of Man. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971. Facsimile of Fletcher's 1633 publication. 

Healy, Thomas. "Sound Physic: Phineas Fletcher's The Purple Island and the poetry of purgation." Renaissance Studies 5:3 (1991), 341-352. Offers much insight on Fletcher's use of anatomy, and early science.

Kastor, Frank S. Giles and Phineas Fletcher. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978. Useful biographical information and synopses of Fletcher's texts; includes helpful bibliography of extant Fletcher editions.

Langdale, A. B. Phineas Fletcher: Man of Letters, Science, and Divinity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1937. Reprinted in 1968. Still the standard Fletcher biography. Includes very helpful tables of Fletcher's self-repetition, quantifying the pastiche technique Fletcher uses, and of allusions Fletcher makes to canonical literary material (except the Bible).


Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.

Adams, Robert M. Surface and Symbol: The Consistency of James Joyce's Ulysses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso Books, 1991.

Ault, Donald. Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake's The Four Zoas. New York: Station Hill Press, 1987.

Aurobindo Ghose (Sri Aurobindo). The Future Poetry. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1953.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed Michael Holquist. Trans Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed Hannah Arendt, Trans Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Bhabha, Homi, ed and introduction. Nation and Narration. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed David V. Erdman. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.

Bouchard, Gary M. "Phineas Fletcher: The Piscatory Link Between Spenserian and Miltonic Pastoral." Studies in Philology 89, no. 2 (1992 Spring): p. 232-43 

Cable, Lana. "Such Nothing is Terrestriall: Philosophy of Mind on Phineas Fletcher's Purple Island." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 19 (1983), 136-152. 

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Donne, John. Complete English Poems. Ed. C. A. Patrides. London: Everyman, 1994.

Grundy, Joan. The Spenserian Poets: A Study in Elizabethan and Jacobean Poetry. London: Edward Arnold, 1969.

Gurdjieff, G. I. Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson: An objectively impartial criticism of the life of man. Penguin Books: 1999.

Healy, Thomas. "Sound Physic: Phineas Fletcher's The Purple Island and the poetry of purgation." Renaissance Studies 5:3 (1991), 341-352. 

Hunter, William B. Jr. The English Spenserians. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1977.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

Kastor, Frank S. Giles and Phineas Fletcher. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978. 

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Langdale, A.B. Phineas Fletcher: Man of Letters, Science, and Divinity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1937.

Levinas, Immanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969. 

Nietzsche. "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense." In The Portable Nietzsche, ed and trans by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking Press, 1968, 42-47.

Peipho, Lee. "The Latin and English Eclogues of Phineas Fletcher: Sannazaro's Piscatoria among the Britons." Studies in Philology 81:4 (1984), 461-472.

Plato. Timaeus. In Plato: The Collected Dialogues. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961, 1151-1211.

Prudentius. Prudentius, With an English Translation By H. J. Thomson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. New York: Longman, 1977.

---The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Ed. William A. Oram, et al. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Teskey, Gordon. Allegory and Violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Books, 1972. 

The Purple Island: Contents


    The Purple Island

    The Piscatory Eclogues

    The Poetic Miscellany 


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Renascence Editions