Elizabethan Enigma

Edmund Spenser: A Life by Andrew Hadfield is vivid in parts, but ultimately fails to paint a clear picture of the 16th century poet

David Womersley

Like one of the shape-shifting characters in The Faerie Queene, over the centuries Spenser has displayed a number of different identities. To his early biographers Spenser was, after Chaucer, the great improver of English poetry, who raised it to a level where it might challenge comparison with the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, but who suffered from the resentment and malice of courtiers such as Burghley, and expired from melancholy and discouragement “without the help of any other Disease save a broken Heart”. This was not a reading of Spenser’s verse that would long detain those who really understood what classical poetry was. Addison, as a spokesman for such a point of view, condescended towards Spenser as a man who wrote in and for an age “uncultivate and rude”, and “the mystic tale” of whose poetry therefore can “charm an understanding age no more”.  

However, the vicissitudes of literary taste soon produced a generation who preferred charm to understanding, and who were prepared to justify that preference in argument. It was Richard Hurd who in 1762 decisively re-presented The Faerie Queene as a Gothic rather than a Grecian poem: “Judge of The Faerie Queene by the classic models and you are shocked with its disorder; consider it with an eye to its Gothic original and you find it regular.”

Hurd’s move brutally discounts all the evidence we have that Spenser himself regarded his poetry as in some sense an imitation of Virgil. But it paved the way for the Romantic view of Spenser as the purveyor of dreamy fantasies. Hazlitt’s lecture on Spenser embodies this interpretation:

Spenser’s poetry is all fairy-land . . . In Spenser, we wander in another world, among ideal beings. The poet takes and lays us in the lap of a lovelier nature, by the sound of softer streams, among greener hills and fairer valleys. He paints nature, not as we find it, but as we expected to find it; and fulfils the delightful promise of our youth. He waves his wand of enchantment-and at once embodies airy beings, and throws a delicious veil over all actual objects.

The Victorians were uncomfortable with this romantic Spenser, and created one more suited to their moral earnestness.  Ruskin identified Spenser’s “grotesque idealism” as the medium through which the most appalling and eventful truth has been wisely conveyed since the beginnings of Western literature — “no element of imagination has a wider range, a more magnificent use, or so colossal a grasp of sacred truth”.

In our own day, yet another Spenser has come to the fore. Recent scholars have been freshly excited by the fact that Spenser spent much of his adult life in Ireland as a colonial administrator, and was associated with some harsh episodes of repression. His unflinchingly severe manual on how Ireland might be reduced into subjection, the posthumously published A View of the Present State of Ireland, suddenly became a key text.  Its bitter remedies were read back into The Faerie Queene, and this had the effect of raising dramatically the stock of the previously neglected Book V, which now emerged as an idealised (from an English perspective) allegory of colonial subjugation.

When the biographical tradition surrounding a writer shows such extreme variety, one reason is normally that the documentary record is meagre. Fewness of authentic life-records translates readily into greater scope for biographical interpretation. This is certainly the case with Spenser — we have no personal letters, no major literary manuscripts in his own hand, and even the documentary trail which his official life in Ireland would have produced was destroyed in the troubles of the early 20th century. But it is also the case with Spenser — and Hadfield brings this out very well — that the relationship between the life and work is teasing and oblique. The man slips easily away from the pages of his poems.

Hadfield’s biography assembles everything we know, and perhaps are ever likely to know, about Spenser. It is lavishly footnoted, so those readers who are minded to do so can trace the questions which Hadfield summarises back to their source. There are some nice, vivid touches — for instance, the findings of recent archaeological work on the site of Spenser’s Irish residence, Kilcolman, are well exploited. There are also a few slips — it undermines the reader’s confidence to be told that the Greek writer Lucian is “one of the most humorous and witty of Latin authors”. But the main problem is that Hadfield produces no clear picture of Spenser. He discusses the impediments to the creation of such an image with candour.  But this smacks of trying to pass off the restatement of a problem as its solution. This book is perhaps best regarded as a storehouse or a quarry of materials for the life of Spenser, which will await a future biographer of greater imaginative power.

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