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Prince of Poets dmund Spenser: A Life By Andrew Hadfield (Oxford University Press 640pp £25)
Edmund Spenser was the greatest Eliza- bethan 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
Spenser: courting favour 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 j u n e 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 11