There is extreme critical ambivalence towards the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599). Karl Marx describes Spenser as ‘Elizabeths Arschkissende [arse-kissing] Poet’ to infer that Spenser’s poetry simply praises the queen (Marx 305). However, Spenser spent most of his literary career in Ireland away from the queen’s court that was the centre of Elizabethan power. He had more to fear from Irish rebels than a distant queen.
In 1580, Spenser became private secretary to Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton who was the new Lord Deputy of Ireland. Lord Grey was recalled by the queen because of his brutal policies towards the native Irish, especially his scorched earth policy that used famine to flush out Irish soldiers hiding in the woods. The results of Grey’s starvation tactics are illustrated in an infamous passage from Spenser’s prose dialogue A View of a Present State of Ireland (1596, publ.1633) through Irenius’ description of the Munster famine during the Desmond rebellion (1579-83):
although there should none of them [the Irish] fall by the sword, nor bee slaine by the souldiour, yet thus being kept from manurance, and their cattle from running abroad, by this hard restraint they would quickly consume themselves, and devoure one another. The proofe whereof, I saw sufficiently exampled in these late warres of Mounster; for not withstanding that the same was a most rich and plentifull countrey, full of corne and cattle, that you would have thought they should have beene able to stand long, yet ere one yeare and a halfe they were brought to such wretchednesse, as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glynnes they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legges could not beare them; they looked like anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eate the dead carrions, happy where they could finde them, yea, and one another soone after, insomuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and, if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentifull countrey suddainely left voyde of man and beast; yet sure in all that warre, there perished not many by the sword, but all by the extremitie of famine, which they themselves had wrought. (Spenser View 101-2)
Irenius’ surprise that the Irish only lasted one and half years despite living in ‘a most rich and plentifull countrey’ portrays the Irish, like the Scythians, as uncultivated barbarians. However, the repulsiveness of the starving Irish who ‘would quickly consume themselves, and devoure one another’ undermines the English’s conquest of Ireland in that the Irish should ‘fall by the sword’ or ‘bee slaine by the souldiour’. By being subjected to famine, the Irish render the Elizabethan colonisation of Ireland a futile task, as the English derive no satisfaction from the conquest.
In fact, the Irish are so diminished, their identities can only be represented by the signifier ‘they’. ‘They’ are literally dissolving into the landscape as ‘they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legges could not beare them’ indicates. The grisly unification of the Irish with their landscape is similar to the Irish rebel’s association with the woods and bogs that symbolises the impossibility of English dominance over Ireland. My interpretation of Irenius’ description of the Munster famine contrasts with Joan Fitzpatrick’s observation that:
Degeneration, something usually abhorred in Spenser’s writings, is here considered necessary to starve the Irish into submission. In an effort to lay the country bare and gain control of it Irenius enthusiastically recommends displacement of the successfully subdued Irish. (Fitzpatrick 31)
Fitzpatrick’s assertion that ‘Irenius enthusiastically recommends displacement of the successfully subdued Irish’ is perhaps overemphasising the point. The starvation of the Irish is an horrific consequence of colonisation that the New English cannot escape. In an attempt to make the brutality more bearable, Irenius blames the Irish for bringing the famine on themselves. While blaming the Irish for the famine instead of Lord Grey’s brutal starvation tactics appears callous, Irenius does appear sympathetic to how the Irish suffered.The degeneration of Irish identity into the non-human ‘they’ and the admission that the famine is a catastrophe by attributing a scapegoat to it (albeit an Irish one) reveals an uncomfortable realisation – the colonisation of Ireland has gone too far.
Spenser’s close association with Lord Grey has tainted the Elizabethan poet’s image.C.S. Lewis, for instance, claims that ‘Spenser was the instrument of a detestable policy in Ireland, and in his fifth book [of The Faerie Queene] the wickedness he had shared begins to corrupt his imagination’ (Lewis 349). Lewis implies that Spenser, as Grey’s secretary, should have somehow dissuaded the Lord Deputy from carrying out his horrific military strategies. However, as Thomas Herron notes:
Queen Elizabeth’s Irish deputies and administrators found themselves far from moral and legal accountability as they regularly took advantage of martial-law legislation more draconian and self-profiting than that allowed in any other European country, or even in theNew World. (Herron 90)
Grey evidently had his own ideas about how to colonise Ireland. If Spenser had protested he would have probably have met a similar fate to the Irish Grey persecuted.
Spenser’s predicament in Ireland received little sympathy from the postcolonial critic Edward Said. He claimed that Spenser is a ‘humane… poet and gentleman’ who wrote in the prose dialogue View of a Present State of Ireland ‘that since the Irish were barbarian Scythians, most of them should be exterminated’ (Said 268). Said implies that when Spenser lived in Ireland from 1580-1598, his identity as a ‘civilised’ New English settler corrupted the ‘humane poet’ into advocating mass murder of the barbaric Irish. However, if Said is being ironic then Spenser as the inhumane poet further emphasises his congruity with Elizabethan colonial practice in Ireland. Whether the View of a Present State of Ireland is New English propaganda, a fictional exploration testing extreme opinions or an ironic critique of Elizabethan colonial practice, it contributes to the interpretative controversy surrounding Spenser’s poetry.
From the critical remarks I have highlighted, it appears Spenser represents the ideal New English settler and Elizabethan courtier. However, Spenser had to disguise critical dissent in his work by using political allegories, which may stem from his dissatisfaction with his monarch Queen Elizabeth I or from fears of losing his Kilcolman estate, confiscated from the Earl of Desmond in 1588, to Irish rebels.
The dangers of Elizabethan censorship are vividly evoked by Spenser in Book V of The Faerie Queene (1596):
There as they entred at the Scriene, they saw
Some one, whose tongue was for his trespasse vyle
Nayld to a post, adiudged so by law:
For that therewith he falsely did reuyle,
And foule blaspheme that Queene for forged guyle,
Both with bold speeches, which he blazed had,
And with lewd poems, which he did compile. (V.ix.25, lines 1-7)
The stanza indicates that the poet, Bonfont, deserves to lose his tongue for slander. The alliteration of ‘foule’ and ‘forged’ that links ‘blaspheme’ and ‘guyle’ indicates Bonfont’s lack of skill with political allegory. His ‘forged guyle’ does not adequately veil the ‘foule blaspheme’ as it leads to ‘bold speeches’ and ‘lewd poems’. The fact that Bonfont is not a skilled poet – his name is changed to Malfont – implies that a political allegory can be effective if used correctly.
Yet, as I have shown, the temptation to ignore the complexity of Spenser’s work in favour of making him the scapegoat for the awful events occurring in Elizabethan Ireland is often too great.
Fitzpatrick, Joan. Shakespeare, Spenser and the Contours of Britain: Reshaping the Atlantic Archipelago. Hatfield: University of HertfordshirePress, 2004.
Herron, Thomas. Spenser’s Irish Work: Poetry, Plantation and Colonial Reformation. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.
Krader, Lawrence, Ed. The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx: Studies of Morgan, Phear, Maine, Lubbock, by Karl Marx.Assen: Van Gorcum & Comp., 1972.
Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. London: OxfordUniversity Press, 1959.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.
Spenser, Edmund. A View of the State of Ireland. 1633.Eds. Andrew Hadfield & Willy Maley. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
—. The Faerie Queene. 1590 & 1596. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. Harlow & London: Pearson Education, 2001.