The Fowlest Place


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Book Review: Edmund Spenser: A LifeEdmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: A Reading Guide and The Faerie Queene in five volumes.

Edmund Spenser: A Life by Andrew Hadfield (Oxford University Press, 2012)


When I thought it was hip to be co-writing the first Lonely Planet travel guide to Ireland, it seemed harmless enough to conjure up a picture for the entry on Youghal of Edmund Spenser reciting lines from A Faerie Queene to Walter Raleigh. Peering over the walls of Myrtle Grove to view the Elizabethan chimneys it seemed fun to imagine Spenser in his breeches and cod-piece, smoking a pipe under a yew tree and reading aloud his poetry. On the same trip, visiting the site near Smerwick Harbour where hundreds of Spanish and Italian papal troops landed in 1580 in support of Irish rebels, it did not jar to record the fact that Spenser, as secretary to the Lord Deputy, was present when the summary execution of  the troops who surrendered was ordered. A local resident retold for me the story of how the beach turned red with the blood of the 600 slaughtered and how their bones continued to resurface on the sand for years afterwards. A visit to Kilcolman, Spenser’s estate in north Cork, was not considered worthwhile; too little remained of his castle to make it of interest to tourists.

Andrew Hadfield has written a masterly, meticulous  and probably definitive biography of  the civil servant and poet who remained in Ireland after Smerwick and spent nearly all of the rest of his life there.  Hadfield, the reader feels sure, has consulted every known document relating to his subject (the book’s endnotes are half the length of the four hundred pages of main text) yet Spenser remains a man of whose private life very little is known. No personal letters survive and outside of Spenser’s own writings nothing is known about his opinions or attitudes to other people and events. The very dearth of information is a blessing in so far as his biographer, unlike many of his peers, cannot bore the reader with precise details of every known experience of his subject’s earthly existence.  What we do know, and what Hadfield fills in with invaluable background material, is that he was appointed in 1580 by the new Lord Deputy of Ireland, Grey de Wilton, as one of his secretaries. His salary was £10 for six months, at a time when a pair of shoes cost six pence and beef was two pence a pound. Unlike Grey’s own appointment, it is not known why Spenser was offered this post or why he took it up. Grey’s arrival in Ireland was a direct response to the second Desmond Rebellion (1579-83): his mission was to suppress hostility to Tudor rule in Munster and remove the threat of an international Catholic campaign that endangered the rule of a heretic English queen. Spenser’s job, which lasted two years, involved administering a special fund of £600 for ad hoc payments – such a huge sum being testimony not just to the trust placed in Spenser but also to Tudor determination to assert government in unruly south-west Ireland. Matters came to a head in the autumn of 1580 when Catholic troops from the Continent arrived on a fortified promontory near Dingle in support of Irish rebels camped there.

Spenser accompanied Grey to Dingle and would have witnessed the bombardment of the fort by land and sea from English cannon. After surrendering, as Grey explained in a letter to the queen that was copied out by his secretary, those surviving the bombardment were quickly dealt with:

I sent straight certain gentlemen in to see their weapons and armures

layed downe & to gard the munition & victuals there lefte for spoile.

Then putt I in to certeyn bandes, who straight fell to execution. There

were 600 slayne.


Spenser later wrote his own account of the massacre —

[those surrendering] craved onley mercye, which it beinge not

thoughte good to shewe them bothe for dauger of themselves if beinge

saved, they shoulde afterwards ioyne with the Irishe…theare was no

other waie but to make that shorte ende of them which was made.

— justifying it on grounds of expediency, an argument that is not dissimilar to the one used by Blair and his gang (before relying on a moral case for the deposing of a murderous dictator) for the invasion of Iraq and one that also finds it useful to employ an euphemism for the conscienceless shedding of blood — not ‘collateral damage’ but a ‘shorte ende’. As Joyce says, ‘the same roturns’.

Spenser became a planter in Ireland, continuing to work for the colonial government long after Grey had left, and took advantage of opportunities to acquire confiscated properties of rebel Irish lords. Though not born an aristocrat – his London origins were middling — he became a landed gentleman. Munster was a particularly rich picking ground and Spenser finally settled for a share of the forfeited land of the earl of Desmond, three thousand acres (one of the smallest divisions of land being leased by the crown) close to Buttevant and Mallow for an annual rent of £17. 7s. 6½d. As part of the agreement, he was obliged – hence the term undertaker for those receiving crown lands — to bring over tenants from England and Hadfield gives detailed information on how colonial policy was administered and implemented.  All did not go well, however, and by 1598 the dispossessed were ready to wreak vengeance on the poorly defended Munster Plantation. The story goes that Kilcolman was attacked and burned (archaeological evidence bears this out) and that the Spensers fled to Cork though one child died during their escape. Spenser returned to England and died there in 1599.

Spenser was writing The Faerie Queene soon after his arrival in Ireland and was working on its second edition when living in Kilcolman castle on his estate. Here too he worked on A View of the Present State of Ireland,  arguing that his queen, instead of spending £20,000 a year subduing the feral Irish, should send over an army of ten thousand footmen and a thousand cavalry and sort out the perfidious rebels once and for all in the interests of civilization. It is easy to be judgemental about such a viewpoint but Hadfield does not succumb to glibness and points out that there is nothing to suggest that Spenser was an especially cruel person.  Today, after all, just consider how the civic-minded,  people who would normally never inflict violence on their own kind, so easily come to countenance brutal wars conducted against the Other.

Spenser’s poetry has gone out of fashion although its language is no more archaic than Shakespeare’s and requires no more detailed a glossary to understand. Nor can the reason be attributed to moral disapproval of his attitude to the Irish and colonialism. T. S. Eliot was a right-wing, anti-Semitic, monarchist and a Catholic to boot but acknowledging these traits does not impinge on the worth and pleasure of  reading The Waste Land. Ezra Pound was even more anti-Semitic and his radio broadcasts for Fascism during World War II would seem to place him beyond the pale but while The Cantos is seldom read this has more to do with difficulties of style and diction than his politics. Spenser, one suspects, is off the literary radar screen partly because tales of knights, damsels and dragons are seen by adult readers as plain naff (even if some such readers enjoy fantasy fiction). Nuanced reflections on emotional states of mind and tangled relationships are the current currency.  Literature that matters, we are led to believe, champions plurality and all the complexity that accompanies such diversity. When values are seen to clash by day and night, when dogs bark and the caravans move on, all is irresolvable and provisional. This is delicious stuff for the liberal postmodernist, it is the bread and butter of most popular contemporary literature and as a consequence scant space is allowed for The Faerie Queene, an apparently absolutist, allegorical epic characterized by artifice of language and moral didacticism.

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: A Reading Guide by Andrew Zurcher (Edinburgh University Press, 2011)

Hadfield’s superb biography is not a guide to The Faerie Queene, although a chapter is devoted to it and he is good at relating it to Spenser’s experiences in Ireland, and he does not try to show why reading it can be a rewarding and pleasurable experience.

Andrew Zurcher’s guide is a good place to start because picking up a single-volume edition of Spenser’s very long poem can be intimidating and for anyone coming to the poem for the first time it is questionable whether this is the best way to begin. With this in mind,  Zurcher provides a useful summary of each of the poem’s six books and presents a selection of substantial passages, each of which has its own glossary and commentary. This is a safe way to get started and the guide also offers an introduction to ways of reading the poem. Spenser described his epic as a ‘darke conceit’, hinting strongly at meanings below the textual surface, and the reader has to become an adventurer on a literary expedition – rather like the poem’s knights who sets off on a quest only to become diverted and challenged by experiences along the way. The reader’s mission is to interpret the allegories and the enigmas that are built into the tales of knightly adventures and if Zurcher’s guide does its job it will be time to embark on the quest proper.

The Faerie Queene in five volumes (Hackett Publishing, 2006)

It helps to think of a Botticelli painting when setting about reading The Faerie Queene. Cerebral and sensuous in equal measure, the meanings of the poem’s allegories are never crystal clear even though the verses’ pictorial clarity suggests otherwise. And what is startling is the way the allegories become more and more difficult to decipher; far from enshrining some simple morality, as the poem proceeds there is a growing sense of disorder and lack of coherence. It is tempting to interpret this in the light of Spenser’s experiences in Ireland – the lord of a three-thousand-acre manor reduced to a refugee driven out of his sacked castle, fleeing for his life – viewing it as a tale of colonial hubris. But even if true this remains at the level of a generalization unless one engages with The Faerie Queene as a narrative poem and actually reads it.

In Book One, the Redcrosse Knight succeeds in his quest to overcome the dragon that endangers the parents of his beloved Una; Book Two sees the Knight of Temperance, Guyon, surviving his encounter with the money-god Mammon only to destroy the alluring but fatal Bower of Bliss; Book Three gives us a female knight, Britomart, seeking her husband-to-be, Artegall; and Book Four continues with her adventures. In Book Five Artegall fails to achieve his quest and this sense of incompleteness is severely compounded in Book Six which ends with the Blatant Beast, temporarily muzzled, breaking free once again. Such a bald summary as this cannot begin to do justice to the imaginative power and sweeping range of the poet’s undertaking; nor does it hint at the codes and mysteries in The Faerie Queene that undermine any reduction of the poem to a simple morality. In Book Two, for example, Guyon is the Knight of Temperance but it is not his display of this virtue that catches the reader’s attention; Guyon, it seems, is never seriously tempted by what he sees in the cave of Mammon, though the reader may be enraptured by the depictions of vice and excess, but on departing he falls into a coma; and the suggestion that he is not immune to earthly seductions is reinforced when he later responds to the sensual beauty of the Bower of Bliss —  a place of ‘Angelicall’ harmony, a very ‘Paradise’ — by systematically destroying its beauty:

But all those pleasant bowres and Pallace brave,

Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse:

Ne ought their goodly workmanship might save

Them from the tempest of his wrathfulness,

But that their blisse he turn’d to balefulnesse;

Their groves he feld, their gardins did deface,

Their arbers spoyle, their Cabinets suppresse,

Their banket houses burne, their buildings race,

And of the fairest late, now made the fowlest place.

Anne Fogarty points out (in The Cambridge History of Irish Literature) that ‘His act of regenerative violence akin to the military campaigns pursued by successive Elizabethan viceroys is designed to restore order and to obliterate the evil of this savage other world’ but it is also the unanchored  behaviour of someone whose unconscious desire to possess what he consciously rejects finally detaches itself from his self-control.

Each of the five volumes published by Hackett (the last of which is co-edited and introduced by Andrew Hadfield) has an introduction that sets the scene and orients the reader towards the particular book of the poem being dealt with, followed by the complete text with a glossary at the bottom of each page. By breaking down the epic into five individual volumes, readers can set their own pace and choose which book to read, and the clear print and spacing on the page makes the enterprise of embarking on The Faerie Queene a most manageable and ultimately enjoyable experience.

Sean Sheehan is the author of many books including the Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland. His most recent book is Zizek: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum 2012)

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2 Responses

  1. William Wall

    September 11, 2012 7:32 am

    Thanks Sean. I was down in Smerwick recently and thinking about that massacre, and wondering about that long beach running red with blood. As it happens, the Wikipedia article on the massacre is pretty good, though it does not mention an argument that a local man made to me years ago to the effect that correct name of the fort of Dun an Óir is Dún an Áir, the fort of the massacre.