Friday, June 16, 2017

Spenser's Ireland



Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599)


My friend and colleague Simon Sigley has requested a follow-up to my Malory post (below) on the subject of Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene - possibly the most famous unfinished poem in English (after The Canterbury Tales and "Kubla Khan", that is).

As luck would have it, I do possess some rather interesting bits of Spenser-iana - nothing old or valuable, you understand, but a good selection of the best contemporary editions of his works. Here they are, in any case:


    Edmund Spenser: Poetical Works (1965)


  1. Spenser, Edmund. Poetical Works. Ed. J. C. Smith & E. de Selincourt. 1912. Oxford Standard Authors. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
  2. The standard edition, still. Cramped, and rather hard to read, but very compendious and useful, nevertheless.


    Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene (2007)


  3. Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. 1977. Longman Annotated English Poets. London: Longman Group Limited, 1980.

  4. Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. 1977. Revised Second Edition. 2001. Text edited by Hiroshi Yamashita & Toshiyuki Suzuki. Longman Annotated English Poets. Edinburgh Gate, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007.
  5. A wonderful annotated edition, now available in a second, revised edition. (I still remember announcing with an air of triumph having found it in a second-hand shop the day before to an audience at breakfast in my Edinburgh Hall of Residence - only to be punched viciously on the arm by one of them, an Australian girl, who was working on Spenser and Blake and considered such tomes her own lawful prize! I was a little disconcerted at the time, but at least it confirmed the desirability of the find.)


    Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene (2003)


  6. Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. & C. Patrick O’Donnell, Jr. Penguin English Poets. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
  7. A good practical Penguin edition of the epic, with much more readable print, and some annotations also.


    C. S. Lewis: Spenser's Images of Life (1967)


  8. Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition. 1936. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

  9. Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama. 1954. Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

  10. Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Ed. Alistair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
  11. You'll note the exclusivity of C. S. Lewis in the section of secondary texts. This is not so much because I think he's said the last word - or even the best - on the subject, but mainly because I have such an extension collection of his works, both imaginative and critical. Nevertheless, it is true to say that the discussion of Spenser in his classic Allegory of Love is what got me interested in The Faerie Queene in the first place.

My first (and, to date, only) reading of the full text of the Faerie Queene, all the way through, was in or around 1983, when I was starting out on my M.A. (the coursework for which mostly focussed on medieval and other early English writers).

Our lecturer in the course, Ken Larsen, was a most ingenious reader of such renaissance texts, and could twist all sorts of meanings out of them. Since I'd been trying - mostly in vain - to make some sense of the Faerie Queene ever since I was a teenager, I gulped down his lessons like mother's milk.

Since then, I've reread parts of it (particularly the brilliant fragments of the seventh canto, on Mutability), but never re-started on the whole thing. To be honest, it was Spenser himself who repelled me. Or rather, the ghastly nature of his opinions on Ireland, where he held a small official role, and took over some property in the English 'plantation' (so-called).

Unfortunately he committed himself to print on the subject, publishing, in 1596, a book called A Veue of the Present State of Irelande, in which he explained the need to wipe out the hat-trick of local laws, customs and religion before the natives could be truly regarded as subjugated. His recommendation was for famine as a good way of accomplishing this, pointing out that after the 1579 rebellion:
Out of everye corner of the woode and glenns they came creepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spake like ghostes, crying out of theire graves; they did eate of the carrions, happye wheare they could find them, yea, and one another soone after, in soe much as the verye carcasses they spared not to scrape out of theire graves; … in a shorte space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentyfull countrye suddenly lefte voyde of man or beast: yett sure in all that warr, there perished not manye by the sworde, but all by the extreamytie of famine ... they themselves had wrought
Funnily enough, he wasn't terribly popular with the local Irish, who burned down his castle in another rebellion two years later. Ben Jonson later claimed that one of Spenser's own infant children was killed in the blaze.

Do a writer's politics matter? I know that the contrary has often been argued. Wordsworth's shameless electioneering for a local Tory big-wig in exchange for a sinecure as collector of stamps of Westmorland - after all those radical attitudes he'd struck in his early work - has been said to have no influence at all on his later reams of unreadable verse (not to mention his refusal to acknowledge his illegitimate child with Annette Vallon). I'm sure that much can be said on both side, and to claim that radical poets write better than conservative ones is clearly nonsense. Betraying your own principles is generally a dangerous thing to do for an imaginative writer, however.

With Spenser, the case is quite different. He was a man of his time: subservient to authority, pitiless in his advocacy of force, and quite unable to regard his Irish neighbours as truly human (witness the gloating tone of that description of the efficacy of famine, above). The editor of his wikipedia page tries to argue that his 66,000-word anti-Irish book was more of a pamphlet, really, and should be treated merely as 'war propaganda.' It is, however, hard to think of a parallel in English literary history for such a vile encomium of genocide by a major poet or writer. Even Rudyard Kipling's proto-fascist ravings pale beside it.

But does all this affect our enjoyment of his poem? Well, yes, of course it does. There's a lot of prating about virtue therein, and some very beguiling characters (mostly, alas, demonic: as in Acrasia's Bower of Bliss in book 2). Book 5, published in the same year as his anti-Irish 'pamphlet', is where he really goes to town, however. In it he imagines an iron man called Talus, whose job it is to mete out 'justice': which he does with all the subtlety of a machine-gun or a Tiger Tank. Even fans of the earlier books of the poem find this one rather a bitter pill to swallow. Nor is it really feasible to separate the glee with which he describes this destructive power-fantasy with the dispassionate advocacy of violence in A Brief View of the Present State of Ireland.

All in all, if you're a poet, it's generally best to keep your more reactionary views on contemporary politics to yourself. Wordsworth, too, would probably have been wiser not to publish his rather silly views on the 1808 Convention of Cintra, though there's nothing in his pamphlet on the subject as damaging as in Spenser's book.

Lest you think that all of this is just my problem, and that everyone else is content just to admire the swelling flood of Spenser's mighty verse, consider the following poem - considerably less gnomic than usual - by the wonderful Marianne Moore:

Spenser's Ireland

has not altered;-
   a place as kind as it is green,
   the greenest place I’ve never seen.
Every name is a tune.
Denunciations do not affect
 the culprit; nor blows, but it
is torture to him to not be spoken to.
They’re natural,-
    the coat, like Venus’
mantle lined with stars,
buttoned close at the neck,- the sleeves new from disuse.

If in Ireland
   they play the harp backward at need,
   and gather at midday the seed
of the fern, eluding
their “giants all covered with iron," might
 there be fern seed for unlearn-
ing obduracy and for reinstating
the enchantment?
   Hindered characters
seldom have mothers
in Irish stories, but they all have grandmothers.

It was Irish;
   a match not a marriage was made
   when my great great grandmother’d said
with native genius for
disunion, “Although your suitor be
 perfection, one objection
is enough; he is not
Irish.”  Outwitting
    the fairies, befriending the furies,
whoever again
and again says, “I’ll never give in," never sees

that you’re not free
   until you’ve been made captive by
   supreme belief,- credulity
you say?  When large dainty
fingers tremblingly divide the wings
 of the fly for mid-July
with a needle and wrap it with peacock-tail,
or tie wool and
    buzzard’s wing, their pride,
like the enchanter’s
is in care, not madness.  Concurring hands divide

flax for damask
   that when bleached by Irish weather
   has the silvered chamois-leather
water-tightness of a
skin.  Twisted torcs and gold new-moon-shaped
 lunulae aren’t jewelry
like the purple-coral fuchsia-tree’s.  Eire-
the guillemot
   so neat and the hen
of the heath and the
linnet spinet-sweet-bespeak relentlessness?  Then

they are to me
   like enchanted Earl Gerald who
   changed himself into a stag, to
a great green-eyed cat of
the mountain.  Discommodity makes
 them invisible; they’ve dis-
appeared.  The Irish say your trouble is their
trouble and your
    joy their joy?  I wish
I could believe it;
I am troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish.



"I am troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish" - whether you're of Irish descent or not (in my case my paternal grandmother was one of their fellow Celts across the sea, from the Western Highlands of Scotland), it's hard not to feel something of that when you read Edmund Spenser, whether his early pastorals or his later epic. It is, to be sure, beautiful, dazzling, beguiling, but so much of it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.



Irish Famine (1849)


No comments: