The Big Book

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Edmund Spenser: a life

Andrew Hadfield
(Oxford University Press, £25)
ISBN 9780199591022

1Londoner Edmund Spenser (1552–99) was already writing poetry by the time he went up to Cambridge as a poor scholar. His first major work, the Shepheardes Calender, was published in 1579 and quickly became famous for its wordplay, being full of archaic usages, new word constructs and topical allusions. This way with words brought him first to Rochester, as secretary to its bishop, and then to Ireland, as secretary to the lord deputy. He stayed here, eventually obtaining Plantation lands in County Cork. He was part of the provincial administration of Munster for a time but he continued his writing career. The Faerie Queene (1590/6), his epic poetic masterwork about gallant knights serving a virgin queen, intended to inculcate civic virtue and patriotic endeavour, was eventually abandoned in favour of a direct prose appeal to the state to complete the conquest of Ireland before it was too late. It was this infamous tract, A view of the present state of Ireland (1596), which Nicholas Canny made central to our understanding of English colonialism in Ireland in Making Ireland British (2001).

Unlike his contemporary Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser’s reputation has been blighted by his career in Ireland. Karl Marx referred to him as ‘Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet’ whose justification of her conquest of Ireland amounted to ‘cannibalism’. Yeats pontificated that

‘When Spenser wrote of Ireland he wrote as an official and out of thoughts and emotions which had been organised by the state. He was the first of many Englishmen to see nothing but what he was desired to see.’

This statement—W.B.’s attempt to separate the poet from his politics—ended up being the best-remembered bit of his critique! By the end of the twentieth century many scholars, dogged by Spenser’s difficult verse as undergraduates, had come to condemn the laureate as a colonialist, and a genocidal one at that, by the time of their postgraduate researches. To anyone who cared to ponder his career, Spenser’s imperialist activities in Ireland had come to predominate over his advances in literary aesthetics and creative contributions to language and allegory. In spite of the significant work done before the First World War, the particular modern political turn of Spenser criticism was sparked by a ground-breaking article by Nicholas Canny in the Yearbook of English Studies (1983). It engendered a wide-ranging debate about the importance of Spenser’s Irish experience. Nicholas Canny and Ciaran Brady pummelled each other in the pages of Past and Present. Their argument might be neatly summarised by the question: ‘Was Spenser a bastard or were they all (New English colonists, that is) bastards?’ This sudden interest in Spenser from Irish historians coincided with the rise of new historicism and post-colonialism more generally in literary studies. English Renaissance scholars suddenly became interested in Ireland in a way they had never been before. Much of the Canny–Brady set-to found its way into a notable collection by UCC’s Patricia Coughlan, Spenser and Ireland: an interdisciplinary perspective (1989). Since then the subject has grown like Topsy. There have been new editions of Spenser’s works, conference volumes and special journal issues on him, as well as a chronology, a handbook and a companion. Andrew Hadfield, Willy Maley and Richard McCabe have published notable monographs. Chris Highley’s Shakespeare, Spenser and the crisis in Ireland (1997) brought the Bard himself into the fray. Spenser has even been the subject of a novel by the late Bob Welsh and a play by Frank McGuinness.

What was plainly wanting in all of this was a full modern biography of Spenser. Andrew Hadfield, having written an admirably concise piece on Spenser for the Oxford DNB and having written widely about the literature of this period as well as the history of books, seemed the obvious scholar to provide it. This large tome, however, whilst the product of extensive research and awesome scholarship, is in many respects disappointing and frustrating. In places it is almost unreadable, quite as impenetrable as some of Spenser’s English Renaissance poetry. Who is it for? The general public? Other academics? Is it a monument to posterity? Or a votive offering to Spenser himself?

The first problem is the portrait on the cover. Is it Spenser? Probably not. In an appendix to the book, Hadfield discusses Spenser’s portrait and dismisses on good grounds the generally used one held by Pembroke College, Cambridge (reproduced on p. 21 of this issue). Yet he makes no better case for this one; he even says that this individual may appear a little too wealthy, a little too much of a courtier to be Spenser. The other thing, which he surely must know, is that this portrait is a dead ringer for Sir John Harrington, another contemporary writer. The moment I saw it on display, I thought ‘Why is Harrington on the cover of a biography of Spenser?’ Surely, if this portrait is to be used, the assumption that it might possibly be Harrington must be discredited first.

This portrait issue with Spenser will remind readers of the recent controversies over paintings of Shakespeare. Indeed, a biography of Spenser’s life presents similar problems to that of the dramatist. Writers were only just beginning to be the public figures that they are now; universities certainly weren’t seeking out their papers before they died. Actually, we are luckier with Spenser than with Shakespeare. The poet played or sought to play a political role; besides, his writings have far more personal references, although they are more often inferences couched in highly allegorical form.

That is another problem—just how much can be inferred from his poetical conceits? For instance, Hadfield prefers to see Rosalind in Shepheardes Calender as Spenser’s wife rather than the queen, from which inference several other things follow. There are other places where plausibility is stretched to its limits. The biographer uses mentions of various individuals in letters, court cases and poem and book dedications to confer opinion on Spenser. The idea presumably here is ‘by his friends we shall know him’. The problem is that we often don’t know whether these people were friends, acquaintances or associates, people Spenser wanted to associate with or people who wanted to associate themselves with Spenser. How often do many of us have the same views as an old schoolteacher or somebody who contributed to the same book? In this way, Hadfield’s attempts to associate Spenser with the underground Protestant radicals—the Family of Love—seem forced. Conversely, back-projection is similarly a problem. Several of Spenser’s descendants in Ireland may have become Catholics; none of that should matter one iota for the interpretation of Spenser himself. Likewise, Hadfield makes a linkage between Spenser and Richard Boyle as a result of his second marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. That’s fair enough, but surely, rather than seeing the younger Boyle as helping Spenser’s schemes, wouldn’t it be more logical to see the older Spenser with his land deals as a trailblazer for the future earl of Cork?

A huge amount of superfluous material is provided, most of it largely tangential if not entirely irrelevant. We don’t need to know the excruciating detail of various law cases in which Spenser himself was not directly involved. Just because the author has spent his time doing this research, surely we don’t have to waste our time reading it? Or maybe readers who want to know about Spenser need to be punished. And in presenting all this stuff, Hadfield’s annotation and footnoting could have been considerably less abstruse. We want to be illuminated, not mystified.

All of this hides a lot of great contextualisation and insight. Hadfield’s reconstruction of Spenser’s student days at Cambridge, being inculcated with Ramist logic and connecting with the critic Gabriel Harvey and through him with the scholar-politician Sir Thomas Smith, is noteworthy. So, too, is his examination of Spenser’s career and estate-building in Ireland. In writing this book Hadfield has been to many dusty libraries and archives in England and Ireland, but also to many outside locations as well in search of Spenser’s possible whereabouts. This is admirable; not enough scholars perambulate their chosen fields of study and so thoroughly. This comes out well in locating much of Spenser’s verse production in the places and rivers not only of the Home Counties of London but also of North Cork around his Plantation castle at Kilcolman. The croaking of frogs that he notes in the Epithalamion poem can still be heard in the springtime today—Kilcolman bog being one of the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s Special Protection Areas.

Although he is a bit too easy on Lord Deputy Grey and Smerwick, Hadfield’s addressing of Spenser’s Irish writings is generally fair-minded. He is right when he says that Spenser deliberately misrepresented Irish economy and society in Munster to make it more primitive than it actually was. Furthermore, he is right to say that Spenser’s proposed solution to the developing Irish crisis was not as genocidal as some commentators at the time and since have chosen to represent it. Interestingly, Hadfield seems to have changed his opinion on why Spenser’s notorious tract was not published contemporaneously after having been registered with the Stationers’ Company. In his article ‘Another case of censorship? The riddle of Edmund Spenser’s A view of the present state of Ireland (c. 1596)’ in this magazine (HI 4.2, Summer 1996, pp 26–30), he posited a publishers’ dispute over copyright as the cause, but that suggestion is here conveniently elided in favour of the more conventional political reasoning. Actually, rather than resorting to inference, Hadfield could have had a lot of Spenser’s opinions straight from the neglected ‘Supplication of the blood of the English’ tract which Spenser wrote in the throes of the 1598 rebellion. It is the key to Spenser’s last days in Ireland.

This book could have done with being edited. The author has a superabundance of knowledge but needed stronger guidance. Instead of arcane speculation, we should have had proper chapters on Spenser’s major works and a larger conclusion placing him in the history of literature as well as in his own time. Nevertheless, this book is a fitting monument to a generation of research by the author and his peers; and the mountains of information contained within it will doubtless be the bedrock of many a future debate. HI

Hiram Morgan lectures in history at University College Cork.


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