Book review: Edmund Spenser: A Life

Edmund Spenser reads The Faerie Queene to Sir Walter Raleigh.  Picture: Getty
Edmund Spenser reads The Faerie Queene to Sir Walter Raleigh. Picture: Getty
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COUNTLESS Eng Lit undergraduates have blanched before the prospect of tackling the Elizabethan Edmund Spenser’s poetry.

A generation ago, what deterred them was the sheer length: his masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, is a daunting 3,844 stanzas long (and represents only a quarter of what he perhaps planned), and then there are his sonnets, satires, eclogues, his intricate Epithalmium and hymns. Spenser’s verse still languished under the Romantic idea that his was a dreamy, gorgeous kind of poetry, although (just to make him more forbidding), Alastair Fowler, in Spenser and the Numbers of Time had found elaborate numerological patterns within it. More recent students come to him fearful of his prose work A View of the Present State of Ireland. Spenser went to Ireland in the service of Lord Grey, and acquired substantial quantities of land, including his home at Kilcolman in Cork. Spenser witnessed the Desmond Rebellions against English settlers first hand, and the View articulates his preferred policy towards the native Irish. Genocide is not too strong a word for this, or, if one is squeamish, a drastic programme of colonial social engineering with necessary civilian casualties.

Andrew Hadfield’s life of Spenser is the first biography of the Prince of Poets, as his epitaph had it, in 60 years, and I cannot imagine anyone doing a better job for another 60. He strikes a judicious balance between sceptical precision and imaginative extrapolation: every “must have” is qualified. As with Shakespeare, there is a paucity of records, or rather, a paucity of interesting records. There are plenty legal documents and official papers, but no diary and only limited correspondence; there is nothing like the wealth of material and public self-description that a biographer of Ben Jonson or Francis Bacon can deploy. There is, of course, the work; and Hadfield is careful to avoid simplistic links between what was written and what we can infer happened. He brings to the biography a nuanced critical intelligence, and above all, a capacity to remind the reader how surprising Spenser was.

Marx famously referred to Spenser as “Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet”, but the picture that emerges so clearly in Hadfield’s biography is of a man almost compulsively given to insulting his superiors. In his Shepheardes Calender (1579) he tweaked Lord Leicester; in the “March” eclogue one shepherd says he will “lerne with Letice to wax light” – when Leicester had clandestinely married Lettice Knolles, the widow of the Earl of Essex, much to Elizabeth’s displeasure. The enigmatic “E. K.” adds further insult by glossing the line in the footnotes that Letice is “the name of some country lass”. Even more surprisingly, Leicester was Spenser’s employer at the time. Mother Hubberds Tale rashly and scandalously attacked William Cecil, Baron Burghley, Elizabeth’s spymaster. Even the Queen was not entirely immune.

The Faerie Queene is an allegorical poem, but, as Hadfield shows, an allegory is not the same as a roman à clef. The witch Duessa does represent Mary Queen of Scots – Spenser earned the wrath of James VI with this – as well as Duplicity more generally. But the allegory is pliant, not fixed. Part of Elizabeth is Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, who defeats the wicked Paynim King, but she is also Britomart, the female knight of chastity, and Spenser’s poem slyly exhorts Britomart to learn the virtue of married, not virginal, chastity. Elizabeth was 57 when the first three cantos were published in 1590. Although it seems likely that much of it was composed earlier, perhaps even when the idea of a match between Elizabeth and the Duc d’Alençon was mooted, in 1590 it stands as a rebuke to Elizabeth’s failure to produce an heir.

Spenser, just as much as the Metaphysical poets such as Donne and Herbert a generation later, was an innovator. The Shepheares Calender was presented with footnotes – whether E.K. was a friend of Spenser’s or a pseudonym is uncertain. But to produce a contemporary poem that looked like a Humanist edition of the classics is supremely brazen, and self-confident. The archaism of The Faerie Queene was experimental, not traditional. Spenser adopted the “Colin Clout” persona used by John Skelton and put echoes of Chaucer and Langland into his poetry; he was fashioning his role as the heir apparent of English verse. The works, in Hadfield’s elegant phrase, are self-referential without being self-revealing. As significantly, Hadfield situates Spenser at the intersection between manuscript culture and print culture.

Spenser died in 1599, having been burnt out of his Irish estates during the Munster Rebellion; another enigma about him is Ben Jonson’s claim that he expired in penury in London.

The shape of The Faerie Queene shifted during the writing of it – the young man fresh out of Cambridge could hardly have planned to use Arlo Hill in the Mutabilitie Cantos, given he had never seen it.

But was there more? John Aubrey records that “playing cards” with stanzas were found in the wainscoting of the house of Sir Erasmus Dryden, and Sir John Ware, in 1633, claimed he had finished the poem, but a servant left it behind during the flight from Kilcolman. There are hints in the poem of future developments. Book II, Canto 11, stanza 6 introduces Artegall, the Knight of Justice, whose exploits would be narrated in Book V, and his equal “Sir Sophy” – presumably the Knight of Wisdom – who is never mentioned again.

Hadfield doesn’t shirk from dealing with Spenser’s ideas about how to bring Ireland under English control, and by putting it into the context of Renaissance ideas about reason and the limits of the reason, he at least makes it intelligible if not excusable. There is some fascinating material on the reforming “Family of Love”, a sect whose influence can be seen in Spenser’s earliest commission – sonnets which appeared in A Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings, “devised” by Jan Van der Noot, an associate of the Family.

Spenser retains his princely station among poets with this book. His oeuvre was one of dazzling originality, and readers who wince at approaching The Faerie Queene – with its descriptions of Sir Guyon destroying the Bower of Bliss, the weird visions in the Temple of Isis, the Blatant Beast, Amoret captured by the sorcerer Busirane – are missing one of the glories of Elizabethan poetry. For those still unsure, the Amoretti, if not quite the equal to Sidney and Shakespeare’s sonnets, are jewel-like: “One day I wrote her name vpon the strand / but came the waues and washed it away” is as precise as a Hilliard miniature.

Edmund Spenser: A Life

By Andrew Hadfield

Oxford University Press, 624pp, £25