Arab Today, arab today the paradoxical poet
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The paradoxical poet

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Arab Today, arab today The paradoxical poet

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A scholarly account pieces together the many fragments that made up the life of Edmund Spencer There is a rather deadly kind of literary fame which T.S. Eliot neatly defined as a “conspiracy of approval”. It condemns a writer “to be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries”. Eliot was writing nearly a century ago, and the author he had in mind was Ben Jonson. His diagnosis is no longer accurate for Jonson, whose reputation is in rude health, but it describes to a T the present literary status of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser. Long revered as the author of “The Faerie Queene”, an immense allegorical epic published in six books (out of a projected 12) in the early 1590s, Spenser is still routinely listed as one of the greatest poets of the period, his name appearing alongside Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne and indeed Jonson. But it is a dutiful inclusion, a matter of protocol. Those others are as much read, enjoyed and accounted relevant to our lives today as ever. But who nowadays, outside of academe, actually reads Spenser? This is not so much a problem of literary style — a few minutes’ riffling though his works at random will confirm that Spenser has style in spades as one of literary form. Much of his considerable output falls under the general heading of pastoral poetry, and there can be few genres to which the 21st century feels less attuned than Elizabethan pastorale, with its faux-medieval vocabulary, its fairy-tale landscapes, its repetitive cast-list of shepherds, maids and monster-battling knights errant, and its poets “piping” at great length under the guise of russet-mantled pseudonyms such as “Colin Clout” and “Hobbinol” (respectively the sobriquets of Spenser and his friend Gabriel Harvey). Of course there is a lot else going on behind the stylised surface a whole hinterland of meanings and messages but you have to press through this decorous mob of nymphs and shepherds to get there. Another problem in the modern estimation of Spenser is a jarring biographical note, for the author of these wholesome-seeming confections was for many years a settler and civil servant in Ireland, and is thus perceived as complicit in a grim episode of English colonial history. There are the usual extenuations of context, though the oppressively hardline proposals found in Spenser’s “View of the Present State of Ireland”, written c 1596, do not offer much room for manoeuvre. To be at once a pastoral poet and a colonial apparatchik in favour of ethnic cleansing does not strike one as an attractive combination. All this, and the usual problems of fragmentary data, makes Spenser a difficult subject for a modern biographer — a challenge to which Andrew Hadfield’s magnificent new “Life” has risen with gusto. It is the first full-length biography since Alexander Judson’s in 1945, though there have been numerous studies of aspects of Spenser’s life, many by Hadfield himself, who lists more than 40 of his books, articles, lectures and editions on the subject. This is, in all senses, a substantial book, packed with scholarly detail its 400 pages of fairly close-printed text are followed by a further 200 of appendices, notes and bibliography. Spenser’s birthdate is undocumented, but a pair of autobiographical sonnets in the “Amoretti” sequence suggest the year was 1554. His family was originally from Burnley, Lancashire, but he was born in London, probably the son of a journeyman clothmaker. He claimed kinship with “an house of auncient fame”, undoubtedly a reference to the forbears of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. By the age of 25 or so, he had passed through various stages on the route to upmarket Elizabethan authorship — a brilliant student at Merchant Taylors’ School, then Pembroke College, Cambridge; some polished early poems and promising secretarial posts; and membership in a loose Westminster-based literary group, the Areopagus, which also included Sir Philip Sidney, Gabriel Harvey and that unjustly neglected poet, diplomat and alchemist, Sir Edward Dyer. In 1579, he published his first book, “The Shepheardes Calender”, which was a popular success, and married his first wife, Maccabaeus Chylde, who would bear him two children. ?The following year, however, Spenser’s life changed dramatically. He unexpectedly left for Ireland, and for ten years he published nothing. There is a theory that he ruffled feathers with a satirical poem, “Mother Hubberd’s Tale”, which was certainly written around this time, though not printed until 1591. Its principal targets — falsehoods of the court, abuses of church power — were conventional enough, but it contained trenchant comments about the Queen’s proposed marriage to the Duke of Alenon, known dismissively in England as “Monsieur”, and some passages of fable which sound like disparagements of Lord Burghley. After Spenser’s death the brash young Jacobean, Thomas Middleton, referred approvingly to Mother Hubberd “spurting froth upon courtiers’ noses”. Whether or not it was the cause of Spenser’s career-change, “Mother Hubberd” is an important work, not because it has the orchestral complexity and melody of “The Faerie Queene”, but because it shows Spenser’s riskier, more dissident side. ?Spenser is often a poet of bitterness and disappointment, a connoisseur of the frustrations of courtly life and long debilitating lawsuits: “To lose good days that might be better spent, / To waste long nights in pensive discontent / To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run, / To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.” He travelled to Ireland as a secretary of Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton, the newly created Lord Deputy. Spenser may have witnessed the massacre at Smerwick in November 1580, when Grey ordered the slaughter of Spanish and Italian troops who had surrendered on assurances of good treatment. By the end of the decade he was an “undertaker”, or settler, in the English colony in Munster, and received huge estates at Kilcolman Castle near Cork. For most of the rest of his life, though often briefly in England, he was essentially an expatriate in Ireland. One of the achievements of this biography is a deep and detailed engagement with Spenser’s Irish career. He brings out the roughness and danger of the settlers’ lives. In a complaint lodged against Spenser it is claimed that “by menacing Lord Roche’s tenants, seizing their cattle, and beating Lord Roche’s servants and bailiffs, he has wasted six ploughlands of his lordship’s lands”, and whether or not this is true, we get a macho frontiersman sort of image not usually associated with the “Fairy Singer”. Hadfield also shows how Spenser’s immersion in the Irish countryside, with its “wilde fruit and salvage soyle”, seeps generously into the imagined landscape of his poetry, transmuting the realities of this Elizabethan Wild West into the airy fantasies of an Elizabethan Narnia. Hadfield’s black-and-white photos of Irish sites associated with Spenser churches, ruins, rivers, views are highly atmospheric, even when they don’t seem to show very much. A nearly contemporary description of Spenser says: “He was a little man, wore short hair, little band [ie, collar] and little cuffs.” There is no authentic portrait of him, though the 17th-century Chesterfield portrait has been copied so often it has become a kind of consensus. The lesser-known Kinnoull portrait, reproduced on this book’s cover, is full of presence, but its connection with Spenser is unproven, and bears a facial similarity to a portrait of Sir John Harington, another late Elizabethan poet with Irish connections. ?Spenser died in 1599, in his mid-forties, in a house on King Street, Westminster; the placing of his grave in the Abbey next to Chaucer’s formed the nucleus of Poets’ Corner. Hadfield briskly scotches the idea that he died “for lack of bread” (as reported by Ben Jonson), but the other part of the story — that he returned £20 sent by the Earl of Essex, saying “he was sorrie he had no time to spend them” — sounds characteristic of him. ?–Guardian News and Media Limited?Charles Nicholl’s “The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street” is published by Penguin ?

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