Nicola Shulman

Poet of the middling sort

Poet of the middling sort
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Edmund Spenser: A Life

Andrew Hadfield

OUP, pp. 576, £

‘If you cn rd ths msg, you cn bcm a sec & gt a gd jb’. So ran the advertisement for the Brook Street Bureau employment agency. It was the ubiquitous ornament of tube trains, buses and escalators in the 1970s, now seen no more and forgotten, at least by me, until Andrew Hadfield’s biography of Edmund Spenser whistled it back from the void. Here is Spenser’s career in a nutshell, according to the emphases of Hadfield’s study, a phenomenal work of scholarship and insight, if not itself a nutshell at almost 600 closely- printed pages.

Hadfield is at pains to show Spenser, the pre-eminent poet of the 16th century, as a writer ‘of the middling sort’, most unlike his patron Sir Philip Sidney, the courtier and adventurer-poet who now sits next to him in the anthologies. Spenser emerged from the clerical world. His friends and mentors were not courtiers but professionals: printers, university fellows, civil servants, secretaries, translators, soldiers and the like. His first promoter was his headmaster at Merchant Taylors’ school, his next Gabriel Harvey, a charismatic Cambridge don with humanist leanings and elevated connections.

With Harvey’s help, he put forth The Shepheardes Calendar, an astonishingly accomplished piece of work which, Hadfield points out, amounted to a comprehensive advertisement for Spenser’s writing skills. In these series of pastoral ‘Aeclogues’ with topical edge, he showed a perfect command of everything that the medium of print required, including manipulation of typefaces and woodcuts. He twined modern with ancient diction, displayed colossal erudition, championed the English language and put on a bravura display of what is now called paratextuality: the mischief you can make with footnotes, prefaces, titles, emblems and the like. There are also intertextual jokes, false authorial personae, allegories, annotations and deliberately misleading editorial interventions designed to make the reader’s head spin. He could certainly read messages, and transmit them too.  One thinks of Nabokov’s admirers thrilling to this 400 years later, and so did Spenser’s at the time: in fact, one cannot be certain if his subsequent move to Ireland was a promotion or exile for causing offence in high places.  

Whichever way, it was a good job.

As Secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Lord Grey de Wilton, Spenser received an income of £20 a year and the opportunity to change his life. He was to be one of

Elizabeth’s Irish colonists and become notorious as an apologist for the harshness of the ‘new English’ in Ireland.   

Ireland also gave him the chance to acquire lands and independence on a scale ‘beyond his imagination in England’. It was these gentlemanly circumstances that enabled him to write for himself, and he responded liberally. In 1590 The Faerie Queene, that troll of undergraduate English courses, often described as the longest poem in the English language, poked above the horizon of the Irish Channel. If there are Spectator readers hesitating to approach it, and thinking that Hadfield is a good place to start, I would deflect them from that view. He is not here to hold our hand. His aim is to correct the representation of Spenser as an anti-Catholic bigot and his poetry as an extensive exercise in royal sycophancy. He succeeds, brilliantly on the whole, by showing us enough of Spenser’s mind to re-cast the poetry as much more critical of Elizabeth, especially when it came to her parsimonious Irish policies.

Spenser saw horrors in Ireland and wrote about them in his tract A View of the State of Ireland, a piece of prose which still has the power to shock. He came to the conclusion that the Irish would never co-operate with the English, and Elizabeth’s only options were brutally to subdue them or get out of Ireland altogether, leaving England unprotected from the west. Hadfield deals admirably with the Irish situation. Without partiality or indignation, he shows us how the position of the ‘planters’ was indeed impossible. The mere outlines of just one or two of the court cases between settlers and natives are enough to bring on an administrative headache in the reader.

The trouble with trying to produce an authentic life of a writer of ‘the middle sort’ in 16th-century England is lack of biographical detail. As with Shakespeare, so with Spenser: it is more possible to describe how a man in Spenser’s position would act or think than to say how he himself thought and acted. Hadfield’s solution is to be realistic about limitations and thorough where throughness can be achieved: for example, by chasing threads of contemporary influence through linked translations, or connecting webs of prefatory and dedicatory sonnets amongst Spenser’s peers. While every scholar of the period must feel indebted to him for these labours, the general reader may feel it less.