Prince of Poets
Edmund Spenser: A Life
By Andrew Hadfield (Oxford University Press 640pp £25)
Edmund Spenser was the greatest Elizabethan poet - and here 'greatest' means not just 'best' but also 'biggest'. From 1579 he published poems which were designed to show that he was the heir of both Chaucer and Virgil, fusing English and classical traditions. These culminated in the publication in 1590 of the first three books of The Faerie Queene. This vast allegorical romance epic gave a Protestant and English form to a genre popularised by Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata.
In 1591 Spenser was granted a pension of £50 a year by Queen Elizabeth. This was around three times the annual income of many schoolmasters. After his death in 1599 he was regularly described as England's 'arch-poet' or 'the prince of poets'. His body was interred next to Chaucer's tomb in Westminster Abbey. The Faerie Queene had a formative influence on Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats, and was read throughout the eighteenth century, when it played a central part in the Gothic revival.
Nonetheless Spenser is now high on the list of great poets that nobody reads. Just about the only thing that Karl Marx had in common with Philip Larkin was a loathing for Spenser. Marx described him as 'Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet'. Larkin as an undergraduate wrote: 'Now I know that the Faerie Queene is the dullest thing out. Blast it.' The history of Spenser scholarship suggests that Larkin and Marx are not alone. Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson are treated to biographies every few years - or every few minutes, it seems, in the case of Shakespeare - but the last major biography of Spenser appeared in 1945. Earlier biographies of the poet did him no favours: they suggested that he was a servile panegyrist of Elizabeth, while also accepting the myth that sprang up shortly after Spenser's death, which presented him as unfairly neglected by his contemporaries and by the Crown. Was Spenser really that most unappealing of creatures, a neglected toady?
Andrew Hadfield's Spenser is very much not a toady. Indeed Hadfield presents him as a spiky and tactless poet, capable of 'calculated rudeness' towards his patrons, and 'cheeky tilts' at his contemporaries. Hadfield's Spenser is not a poet who was denied the political and courtly favour that was his due, but one who was his 'own man', and who sought to celebrate the middling sort of people. For Hadfield, Spenser could deliberately provoke the queen and her courtiers in order to present himself as a 'middle-class poet, eager to show off his skills in opposition to the courtly centre'.
There is a lot in Spenser's biography that could support this view of him. His social origins lay (at best) with the 'middling sort': his father was probably a cloth-maker in London. Spenser went to Merchant Taylors' School as a relatively poor scholar, where he absorbed a rich diet of Latin literature. Unlike Shakespeare - who came from a similar social background, albeit in the provinces - Spenser went on to Cambridge as a 'sizar', a poor scholar who performed chores to pay his way. Here he met Gabriel Harvey, who was a couple of years his senior, the son of a rope-maker from Saffron Walden. Harvey was well versed in the fashionable logical methods of Ramism, and was also a vocal self-promoter. Spenser's early writing career was entwined with Harvey's self-publicity machine, which was louder than it was subtle. They both could be seen as men on the make who sought to make their names through print.
Like most university graduates from a relatively poor background in the 1570s, Spenser found it hard to get a job. He eventually found a position as secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester. He moved from that to a period in the household of the Earl of Leicester, with whom he seems to have fallen out, probably because he made a rash allusion to Leicester's covert marriage in his first published work, The Shepheardes Calender of 1579.
Spenser then followed the path that was taken by a number of aspiring young men in Elizabethan England: he looked westward to Ireland. He became secretary to Lord Grey de Wilton, who was Lord Deputy of Ireland. In his service Spenser witnessed at least one ruthless massacre of Spanish and Italian troops, at Smerwick in November 1580. Over the next few years he adopted Ireland as his home. By the later 1580s he was granted around 3,000 acres of land and the castle of Kilcolman. From this period onwards he led the life of an English 'planter' and colonial administrator. This meant legal and physical battles with both Irish and 'old English' neighbours over land-ownership. Spenser increasingly adopted and voiced the attitudes of the 'new English', whose aims were to subdue, civilise, and 'cultivate' Ireland in both literal and metaphorical senses, and who felt increasing frustration at the Crown for failing to fund the enterprise effectively.
Hadfield - who began his own career working on Spenser in Ireland - is utterly at home with the Irish part of Spenser's career. It is a subject about which it is not easy to be balanced, since the 'new English' had the combination of ultra-patriotism and resentfulness, as well as the glint of eugenic fanaticism, which can often develop in expat communities. The account of them here is learned, sympathetic, and critical to the right degree.
Spenser's life story was entangled with his Irish estate. In September 1598 Hugh O'Neill advanced on the English plantations in Munster. Spenser escaped from Kilcolman Castle through a tunnel and fled to Cork, from which he carried reports on the rebellion to London in December 1598. Ben Jonson claimed that he died 'for lack of bread' in King Street in London. He was certainly dead by 13 January 1599, but it's unlikely that the cause was starvation, since he had been granted £8 by the Crown weeks before. The more likely causes are despair at the state of Ireland, the loss of his estate, and exhaustion.
It's easy to see from the outline of this life why Spenser might have been spiky with those in authority. Socially and, for much of his life, geographically, Spenser was far removed from the courtly world. There is no doubt that he wrote from a perspective that was distinct from that of Elizabethan courtier poets. But was this, as Hadfield suggests, a perspective that was consciously oppositional or middle-class?
Probably not. To make his case Hadfield pushes several points too far. It's traditionally said that Spenser was close to Sir Walter Ralegh. Ralegh owned vast estates in Ireland, was the addressee of Spenser's 'Letter' explaining the outlines of The Faerie Queene, and wrote a dedicatory poem for Spenser's epic. Spenser even represented Ralegh, after his fall from favour with the queen, as the heartbroken squire of low degree, Timias, in The Faerie Queene. But because Ralegh was a courtly poet, and pretty much the epitome of a courtly favourite, and because Hadfield wants to see Spenser as effectively an anti-courtly poet, he has to argue that they had little in common. This is unconvincing. Spenser knew about Ralegh's poem 'The Ocean to Cynthia', which survives in only one manuscript and was hidden for centuries among the papers of the Cecil family. He was also on close terms with Arthur Gorges, Ralegh's cousin and an impeccably Petrarchan courtly poet. Spenser was not a working-class hero, or even a hero of the Elizabethan middling sort. He was a poet who very much wanted to be listened to, approved of, and rewarded by the wealthy and the courtly.
He just sometimes got it wrong. One of his minor poems, a beast fable called 'Mother Hubberds Tale' (1591), appeared to satirise Lord Burghley and was censored, or 'called in', as a result. What makes Spenser's poetry interesting is not so much its acerbic edge, but the way that it tries to translate the views and attitudes of a new English planter in Ireland into the language of courtly panegyric. The result is often beautiful, but sometimes this process of translation makes the message come through in distorted or awkward forms. There is no doubt that as material conditions for English planters in Ireland deteriorated and the queen (always parsimonious in her foreign policy) failed to assist, the spiritual distance between Spenser and the court became far wider than the Irish Sea. But when Hadfield turns Spenser's poems into outright critiques of royal policy the results can sometimes be crude. In Spenser's 'Epithalamion', a celebration of his marriage to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594, he describes 'Cynthia', the goddess of the moon, peeping in through the windows of his marriage chamber. Hadfield sees this as a direct representation of the Virgin Queen as a Peeping Tom. Spenser was certainly not an arse-kissing poet, but he was not quite Hadfield's relentless critic of royal policy either.
This biography is nonetheless a massive achievement. It persuasively qualifies the received opinion of Spenser as a tub-thumping, Catholophobic Protestant. It adeptly untangles the legal procedures in which Spenser was repeatedly embroiled, and explains the geography and society of early modern England and Ireland with great skill. At over 600 pages of very detailed scholarship it is not for the faint-hearted, however. It may take more than this massy volume to bring Spenser back into favour with English readers.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Colin Burrow is a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. His edition of Shakespeare's Complete Sonnets and Poems is available in paperback.