A History of Ireland in Ten Englishmen (1): Edmund Spenser

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So, here we go. Ten Englishmen and Irish history, chosen especially (which means at a whim) to stand for something.

First up, born and died in London.

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Edmund Spenser is primarily known as the author of The Faerie Queene. Less well known is his tract, A View of the Present State of Ireland.

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Spenser had just married and published his first work when he became secretary of Lord Grey, who had just become Lord Deputy of Ireland. The government policy of the time, was known as surrender and re-grant: the Irish government wanted the Gaelic Irish chieftains to surrender their lands, to have them re-granted by the crown as Irish nobles and subjects of the crown. Most did, but some resisted and others rebelled after; of those, the crown did deals with some, others lost their lands. Behind both lay the vigorous use of force, or the threat of it. Spenser was very much part of that.

It was that land that gave men like Spenser their chance to make the move from mere official to substantial gentleman. When Grey was recalled Spenser stayed, acquiring land and, eventually, two significant estates in County Cork. Thus Spenser was part of the process of plantation, something commonly associated with Jacobean Ulster. In fact, the process of plantation began before then, occurring patchily across the whole of Ireland. Some planters were adventurers like Spenser. Others were bigger fish, such as Spenser’s neighbour, Sir Walter Raleigh. Others were native, but loyal.

It was this experience that gave Spenser the ammunition to write his tract on the native ‘mere Irish’; Book Six of the second edition of The Faerie Queen is hardly flattering in its view of Ireland, or the ‘mere Irish’. A View of the Present State of Ireland can be read as a manifesto for Elizabethan colonisation. The Irish were fundamentally backwards in their customs, laws and language. The answer was a robust dose of Anglicisation and, perhaps, Protestantism too. As such, Spenser can be viewed as both actor and symbol of an English attitude and impulse that would return again and again. Ireland was mired in superstition, backwardness, insularity and held back by an irrelevant and dying language. And Spenser was hardly one of the nice guys: the Elizabethan response to rebellion was brutal, and that brutality was primarily exacted against the common people

Victorian commentators routinely bemoaned the very same ‘facts’ as Spenser. English historians (Froude, Lecky), writers (Carlyle), politicians and even cartoonists (including the great Tenniel for Punch) depicted that same Ireland, and Irish.

But it is hardly so simple. In the first place, great poetry lives on. Having fallen from grace, Spenser’s star rose again in the nineteenth century. Later, the Pre-Raphaelites and CS Lewis fell under his spell. Earlier, so did the greatest of all the English romantic poets, John Keats.

To begin with, much of The Faerie Queene was written in Ireland. The greatest Irish poet of them all, Yeats, a Keatsian to his core, edited Spenser and saw him as both coloniser and lover of Ireland. That Ireland had no little sway over Spenser seems incontestable, at least to this ear. Heaney loved Spenser too.

And great Irish writers inherited Spenser’s disdain for some things Irish: it is one of the great notes in Irish literature: Swift, Yeats (September 1913), Joyce.

And what of those English Victorians, who so revived interest in Spenser’s greatest work, and who so feared the ‘mere Irish’? In its original sense, mere meant pure. Nineteenth century England saw something else other than the evils of Ireland. Tenniel himself might have depicted ape-like Fenian rebels, he also depicted beautiful, romantic Hibernia. For Matthew Arnold, the Celtic soul leavened the Anglo-Saxon.

For sure, in the balance of things, Spenser was part of a process of colonisation. He also believed the ancient Irish culture held Ireland back, as did its its language. So did Daniel O’Connell, ‘The Liberator’, the first democratic politician in Irish history (arguably the first in Europe). The greatest Irish writers of the past two centuries all wrote in English, or (in Beckett’s case) French.

Spenser was colonisation. Even in this case it was not a one-way hedgerow. He was also where England was meeting Ireland; more would come, some bad, some beautiful.

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