Entred in a Spacious Court
by Andrew Hadfield
Oxford University Press, 2012
“Alas poor Spenser,” Willy Maley writes in Oxford University Press’ 2010 edition of The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, “we do not know him well. Two weddings and a funeral can be confirmed. Much else is speculation.”
Such speculation necessarily dogs any endeavor to write Spenser’s life, and yet as Andrew Hadfield points out in his argument-settling, probably-definitive new biography of Spenser, fear of speculation hasn’t stopped writers from churning out piles of books on virtually all of Spenser’s contemporaries. “What has inspired boldness in Shakespeare biographers,” he points out, “has led to timidity in would-be biographers of Spenser.” There haven’t been many such biographies (this one is by a wide margin the best), and all have had to retail in the kind of guesswork that started right after the poet’s death, was taken up by the indefatigable John Aubrey, and has continued right up to the present. Biographers have freely – and often fancifully – extrapolated to fill in the blanks, and as Hadfield points out, “a biographer will inevitably be caught between the Scylla of speculation and the Charybdis of the limited archive.”
There are plenty of blanks. In fact, the great majority of things we know about Spenser are things he himself tells us in his poetry – but this is a poet exceedingly fond of ambiguity, so even a good deal of that apparent self-revelation could be just so much game-playing. Hadfield starts his book with a long list of the things we don’t know about Edmund Spenser:
We cannot be sure of his ancestry and immediate family … We know very little about Spenser’s relationships with most of his patrons, friends, or the social superiors to whom he was connected … We do not really know how close Spenser and Sir Walter Ralegh, with whom he is invariably depicted, really were in the 1580s and 1590s, especially if we bear in mind that their relationship survives principally in the form of literary works. We do not know whether he was a close friend and confidant of Lord Grey, the Irish patron with whom Spenser has most frequently been associated … We do not know how Spenser died. There is nothing of Spenser’s opinions, comments, or even many details of his life outside his writings.
And yet, Hadfield’s biography of this phantom is 620 pages long, and although he’s as sharply aware of the pitfalls attending the ‘must have’ and ‘might have’ method of historical guesswork, his Edmund Spenser: A Life uses such crutches almost on every other page – it couldn’t help but do so: the things we indisputably know about Spenser would take a slow speaker about twenty minutes to recite. That virtually necessitates that a Spenser-chronicler be a dab hand at ‘life-and-times’-style broad strokes and scene-setting.
Hadfield is. He takes the very broadest bracketed categories of what we know about Spenser and then spends hundreds of pages writing the biography of those brackets, with hopeful nods in Spenser’s specific direction as often as circumstances warrant. We know for certain that Spenser went to the celebrated Merchant Taylor’s School and then to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, taking a BA there in 1573 and an MA in 1576 – so Hadfield is happy to tell us what such experiences would have been like for most people and so probably were for Spenser. We know Spenser rose quickly and must therefore have had ambitions. In 1578 we find him acting as secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester (and former Master of Pembroke College). In 1579, possibly through the good graces of his school friend and future collaborator Gabriel Harvey, Spenser was attached to the household of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Leceister – and since Leicester was the uncle of Philip Sidney, and since Spenser’s first great work of poetry, A Shepheardes Calendar in 1579, was dedicated to Sidney, it’s nice to speculate that the two poets (near or exact contemporaries and bait-and-switch doppelgangers for generations of despairing schoolchildren) met in Devereux’s house and became friends (there’s absolutely no grounds for such speculation, but both their names start with ‘S’).
1579 was a big year for the young poet. Not only was A Shepeardes Calendar, with its self-consciously anachronistic, faux-Chaucerian verbal stylings and its sometimes scathing topical allusions (including, quasi-treasonably, to Queen Elizabeth’s matrimonial prospects) an unmissable shot across the bow of the London literary establishment, but in that year the poet (possibly in his mid-twenties at this point, possibly a bit older) married Machabyas Chylde – and began work on his life’s great work, his verse epic The Faerie Queene.
It’s hard for the 21st Century to know what to make of that masterpiece. It’s seldom read for pleasure anymore, and it’s impossibly vast (the old Penguin Paperback sits like a brick on the nightstand). It’s impenetrably written (more of that faux-Chaucerian verbal styling – ye gods, so much more of it), and most damning of all, the whole thing is from front to back allegorical, which is almost bitterly uninteresting to our blandly demotic age. Broadly speaking, it’s the story of King Arthur and the fairy lands of English folklore (with the eponymous Faerie Queene doing idealized stand-in duty for Queen Elizabeth) – and as such, it’s both a brazen attempt by a stripling to write Virgil-style epic of national origins and also a commentary by that stripling on the “carnal, self-seeking, slanderous, mutable, crude, uncouth world” (to use that dear old book-commentator Charles Grosvenor Osgood’s phrasing) in which he found himself. “He discovered early the things he valued,” C.S. Lewis gloomily tells us, “and there is no sign his allegiance ever wavered. He was of course often, perhaps usually, disappointed.”
The Faerie Queene just keeps rolling along in incident after incident. “The poet has placed you in a dream,” Coleridge wrote, not quite complaining, “a charmed sleep, and you neither wish, nor have the power, to inquire where you are, or how you got there.” The sequential-yet-nonsensical nature of a dreamscape definitely applies to the work, which is static in all the good – and all the bad – senses of the word. As the great critic Roger Sale put it:
For what holds The Faerie Queene together, and here the enemies of the poem seem more correct than its friends, is not so much a conceptual idea as a state of mind. No matter how long one has been away from the poem, no matter where one picks it up, no matter how long one reads, it is always the same.
And what of our greatest critic? The Great Sphinx is as inscrutable as her charge:
The first essential is, of course, not to read The Faery Queen. Put it off as long as possible. Grind out politics; absorb science; wallow in fiction; walk about London; observe the crowds; calculate the loss of life and limb; rub shoulders with the poor in markets; buy and sell; fix the mind firmly on the financial columns of the newspapers, weather; on the crops; on the fashions. At the mere mention of chivalry shiver and snigger; detest allegory; revel in direct speech; adore all the virtues of the robust, the plain spoken; and then, when the whole being is red and brittle as sandstone in the sun, make a dash for The Fairy Queen and give yourself up to it.
So wrote Virginia Woolf a century ago, when the very least assumption that could underpin her essay was the currency of Spenser’s greatest work. She – and all other critics – routinely grouped Spenser with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton as one of the greatest of all English poets, as assured of immortality as anybody who ever wrote.
The poet himself would certainly have hoped so, though in the meantime he had to labor for earthly rewards: in 1580 he was appointed secretary to Lord Grey de Wilton when that fat, ferocious gentleman was sent to Ireland as Lord Deputy. The English rule in Ireland was as tense and tenuous in the 1580s as it had always been and always would be (the bloody Desmond Rebellion had broken out in 1579, and it had been only the latest conflagration), and through his connection with Arthur Grey, Spenser came to Ireland and became part of that tension. The Irish hated their land-grabbing English overlords, and it quickly became Spenser’s aim to grab some land: he in fact became a prosperous landowner, given the grant of ramshackle Kilcolman Castle and a little over three thousand acres of somebody else’s land in the so-called Munster Plantation in County Cork. The Queen granted him a pension of 50 pounds a year, and one of his neighbors at Kilcolman was the Queen’s dashing favorite, Sir Walter Ralegh, who may have taken an interest in his literary endeavors, who may even have introduced him to the Queen he’d come so close to libeling so many times.
Although Spenser was probably in London in 1590 to see the first part of The Faerie Queene through the presses, he returned to Ireland in 1591 – a melancholy act that spawned his mouthy-bucolic mini-epic Colin clouts come home again, which was printed in 1595 but very likely written in 1591. In June of 1594, with poor Machabyas out of the picture, Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle, who was the niece by marriage of John Dryden (the great-grandfather of the poet), kin to John’s son Erasmus, and daughter of a prosperous Northamptonshire family. So far as we know, it was to Elizabeth that Spenser gave the mightiest wedding present of an age, his great wedding-poem Epithalamion and his Amoretti love-sonnets. The Epithalamion was printed in London in 1595, and Spenser was there (staying at the house of the ill-fated Earl of Essex, the story goes) to see it through the presses, as well as to oversee the printing of the second three books of The Faerie Queene. By this point he was England’s most famous poet; perhaps this is when the idea of the in-from-exile frustrated court poet, the man who is “of course often, perhaps usually, disappointed,” begins to take hold of the popular imagination.
We can’t know that it was ever true. Queen Elizabeth’s court had undeniable allure, but the allure wasn’t all-commanding – there were plenty of smart-mouthed courtiers who steered as clear of it as money and tact could let them. Ireland was a seething, dangerous place, but fortunes could be made there, and Spenser had made one. Hadfield does an excellent job fleshing out all the quotidian elements that would have accompanied such avarice. He takes us inside Kilcolman as a working household, and he gives as complete a picture as possible of Spenser’s various activities in Ireland. He was a sizeable landholder – not vast on the scale of some of his neighbors (Ralegh’s estates dwarfed his own, for instance), but certainly big enough to involve him in local law disputes and local sheriffing duties. The occupiers of the Munster Plantation were forbidden to fraternize with the local Irish, but such fraternization happened on a wide scale anyway – as Hadfield points out, it could scarcely be avoided for practical reasons (although hardly any English bothered – or risked – learning the language), and there were impractical reasons as well: there are echoes of native Irish literature all throughout Spenser’s verses.
He returned to Ireland in 1596 as tensions throughout the country were growing unbearably taut. With a poet’s emotional vehemence and an illegal occupier’s anger, he composed a scabrous work called A View of the present State of Ireland, the considered position of which was that the best thing for Ireland, from an English point of view, would be the extirpation of the native populace and the eradication of their memory and customs – the only good Irishman, that is, was a dead Irishman. Liking the company of his subject as he does, Hadfield is at pains to ameliorate this genocide brief, although he’s less than convincing. “The truth is,” he tells us at one point, “that Spenser was undoubtedly not an especially savage or violent man, at least, according to the standards of Elizabethan England, and a careful study of his work reveals a profound understanding of the effects of violence.”
The poet would get unforgettable first-hand exposure to the effects of violence very shortly; in 1598 the Nine Year’s War broke out in Ireland as the populace, organized by several Irish chieftains including the Earl of Desmond, rose up against their English overlords. Those overlords – especially in the Munster Plantation – were dispossessed and their holdings were torched amid scenes of barbarous violence. Spenser and his wife and family fled to Cork, and their own Kilcolman Castle was attacked and burned in 1598; Ben Jonson, that old tale-teller, claimed that the Spensers were actually at home when the screaming mob came calling, and that they barely escaped (through an abandoned quarry-tunnel which can still be gawked at today) – and that, according to Jonson, one of Spenser’s young babies perished in the fire before they got out. There’s no reason to believe the story, although it’s a good one.
Where he settled his family for safekeeping, we don’t know. He himself probably arrived in London in the third week of December, 1598, and thanks to Jonson, the speculation has always been that by this point he was a broken man. Hadfield lays out the possibilities:
Perhaps he was ill, facing a winter in London that would have been far more bitter than that in the shelter of Kilcolman (London is on average 10 C colder in winter than south-west Ireland); perhaps he was exposed to the diseases of the city after a long time in a relatively healthy country environment; perhaps he was traumatized by his sudden departure from his estate, enforced sojourn in Cork, and a bad sea-crossing; or he may have been simply getting on a bit.
Whatever the reason, he died in King Street on 13 January 1599 and was mourned by all the writers of his day, all of whom agree with the verdict given by John Hughes in 1715 that “tho he is not always equal to himself, it may be affirm’d that he is superior to all his Contemporaries.” Those contemporaries bore him to Westminster Abbey (near to his beloved Chaucer), threw their testimonials and pens into his grave, and erected a monument calling him “The Prince of Poets.” The colorful rumor – Jonson again – was that he died “for want of bread,” but Hadfield has no trouble dismissing this bit of purple stagecraft. This was a poet with a royal pension, after all (one of only two the tight-fisted Elizabeth ever so honored), and one who’d received a council payment of 8 pounds only as late as 24 December, at a time when, for example, an assistant kennel-keeper at Windsor Castle would have been lucky to see 17 pounds as his annual salary.
It seems clear that the reason for such rumors – from Ben Jonson and others, codifying into a tradition that persists today – is this stubborn image of Spenser as a man who wanted more than anything to be at court rather than in the Ovid-style exile of Ireland. Hadfield’s greatest achievement is to diffuse that image, discomfiting us from the easy Spenserian stereotypes we may have:
Spenser was not a court poet. He clearly attended the court on occasions, probably three times, and may have aspired to a place there at certain points in his life. But he was not really a courtier in any meaningful sense and cannot have been the man with a ruff represented in the Kinnoull portrait [reproduced on the cover of this book] and adapted on frequent occasions in the last two hundred years.
Or perhaps Hadfield has one greater accomplishment: having torn down that tired old cliché of the exiled courtier yearning to be back in London exchanging witticisms in the parlor, he then refuses to put anything in its place. The evidence – and he’s amassed more of it than anybody – is still maddeningly fragmentary. He ends his long account much the way he began it, with notes and appendices on things we don’t know – including what our poet looked like. Readers are left with the impression of a brusque, fortune-conscious man of the world who wrote complicated, gorgeous, immortal poetry in his spare time; the usual Elizabethan riddle, that is.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.