Abstract and Keywords
This article focuses on postcolonial criticism of Spenser. Spenser occupies a particular position as an especially wicked writer, because he, more than any of his illustrious contemporaries, actually was a colonist. His canon inspires a peculiar bewilderment which has led to an ambiguous, often confused attitude to his work and legacy. On the one hand, Spenser's work reflects an ideological hegemony that has developed from the need to justify the English presence in Ireland, something that has become ‘ingrained’ as part of the grubby intellectual furniture. On the other, Spenser can be seen as the originator of a discourse, a preeminent English poet whose writings were read and recycled and whose attitudes helped to expedite centuries of colonial rule in Ireland.
Spenser has a lot to answer for. According to Edward Said,
The idea of English racial superiority became ingrained; so humane a poet and gentleman as Edmund Spenser in his View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) was boldly proposing that since the Irish were barbarian Scythians, most of them should be exterminated…Since Spenser's…tract on Ireland, a whole tradition of British and European thought has considered the Irish to be a separate and inferior race, usually unregenerately barbarian, often delinquent and primitive. (Said 1993: 268, 284)
Said's comments represent a widely held perception of Spenser outside the confines of the academy—and often within it too. Spenser occupies a particular position as an especially wicked writer, because he, more than any of his illustrious contemporaries, actually was a colonist. Accordingly, he is a particularly apt subject for postcolonial criticism. Said's two statements also express the peculiar bewilderment that Spenser's canon inspires which has led to an ambiguous, often confused attitude to his work and legacy. On the one hand Said argues that Spenser's work reflects an ideological hegemony that has developed from the need to justify the English presence in Ireland, something that has become ‘ingrained’ as part of the grubby intellectual furniture. On the other, Spenser can be seen as the originator of a discourse, a pre‐eminent English poet whose writings were read and recycled and whose attitudes helped to expedite centuries of colonial rule in Ireland.
Said's comments also express a certain wistful regret and surprise that so cultured and civilized an author could have expressed himself in such vile and disturbing terms. In doing so he is building on the comments of W. B. Yeats, one of the key authors who inform Said's conception of postcolonial literature, and C. S. Lewis, (p. 793) probably the greatest of all Spenser critics. Both were Irish, Yeats an Anglo‐Irish Protestant aristocrat from Dublin, Lewis the son of a well‐off Welsh solicitor who had emigrated to Belfast and a mother from an Anglo‐Norman family which had settled in Ireland in the twelfth century. There is a rather neat irony in Spenser's reputation being salvaged by members of the race he savaged so brutally in A Vewe, in which the Anglo‐Normans who have become Irish ( ‘degenerated’) are seen as the principal cause of Ireland's decay (Maley 2003), especially given the assaults on Spenser's character and writing elsewhere. Other critics concerned with Spenser's relationship with Ireland, have a very different approach to his life and work. For John Arden Spenser was an architect of ‘genocide’; for Tom Paulin he was an advocate of ‘a policy of extermination’ (Arden 1979; Paulin 1984: 22), both casting Spenser as a proto‐Nazi.
Yeats's introduction to his edition of Spenser's selected poems confronts this problem directly. For Yeats, there are two Spensers, one good and one bad:
When Spenser wrote of Ireland he wrote as an official, and out of the thoughts and emotions that had been organized by the State. He was the first of many Englishmen to see nothing but what he desired to see. Could he have gone there as a poet merely, he might have found among its poets more wonderful imaginations than even those islands of Phaedra and Acrasia. He would have found among wandering story‐tellers, not indeed his own power of rich, sustained description, for that belongs to lettered ease, but certainly all the kingdom of Faery, still unfaded, of which his own poetry was often but a troubled image. (Yeats 1961: 372)
Yeats creates a fantasy relationship: the experience of the imagined Spenser mirrors what he saw as his own productive encounter with Anglophone culture, transforming Spenser into his counterpart and equal, each staring back at the other from opposite sides of St George's Channel. Instead of dull, lifeless allegory Spenser concentrates on life‐enhancing symbolism, leaving behind the weary, morally and intellectually bankrupt drudgery of colonial administration for the inspiring life of art and poetry. Yeats's manoeuvre is brilliant, and it enables him to fashion the Spenser he wants to read: tolerant, aristocratic, and imaginative, Said's humane poet and gentleman. Lewis performs a similar feat of deliberately selective memory, excising the passages of Spenser's work that he cannot bear to read. Lewis acknowledges what he sees as Spenser's flaws and limitations. Discussing the actions of Talus, the iron man, on the Salvage Island (Ireland), the critic turns away in disgust, arguing that they are ‘something I shall not attempt to excuse…Spenser was the instrument of a detestable policy in Ireland, and in his fifth book the wickedness he had shared begins to corrupt his imagination’ (Lewis 1963: 349). While Yeats is able to reclaim Spenser as a symbolic poet, Lewis reads him as one who helps the reader ‘grow in mental health’, as long as the violent and aggressive sections are conveniently excised (Lewis 1963: 359).
The assumption that Spenser's work can be neatly divided like this is, of course, problematic. As numerous studies have pointed out, the comments on Ireland cannot easily be confined to Book Five, but recur throughout The Faerie Queene and other works, often occurring at important narrative cruces (Herron 2007; (p. 794) McCabe 2002). More significant, perhaps, is the assumption that what appears to be gentle and humane, or wishes to represent itself as such, should be read that way. Taking the Renaissance at face value is a perilous and invariably naïve assumption (Mignolo 1997). There is often a confusion between an early modern conception of humanism and a more recent understanding of the term. Humanism in the sixteenth century meant a commitment to the humanities, the study of the classics as a means of education, not a desire for secularization. Serious debates took place about the extent to which classical knowledge could be used, whether it was always subordinate to Christian revelation, or whether it impeded rather than enhanced sacred thought and writing. But signalling a commitment to the study of the humanities did not mean that the adherent was necessarily a pacifist (Kraye 1996). Even Erasmus, author of the most famous adage against war in this period, ‘Dulce bellum inexpertis’ ( ‘war is sweet to the ignorant’), was not a straightforward pacifist as we understand the term. He counselled princes against belligerence, and was especially critical of bogus reasons for promoting war, but was principally concerned to protect the church, by a defensive war if necessary (Hadfield 1997: 54–9). Advocating civilized human values does not mean that the author is opposed to the violent means of implementing them. Indeed, this can be seen as the central point of A Vewe, which adopts one of the favourite humanist literary forms, the dialogue (Coughlan 1989). The rational, but ignorant Eudoxus (meaning, ‘good doctrine’?) is horrified by the measures that the experienced Irenius ( ‘man of anger’, ‘man of Ireland’, or even ‘man of peace/eirenic’?), who has just returned to England from Ireland, advocates as the only way of transforming Ireland from its lawless state. Irenius points out that English law does not and cannot function in Ireland and that the only way to establish order is to send over a huge army to defeat the rebels using any means possible, including mass killings, a scorched earth policy, and enforced starvation (Brady 1986). Horrific measures can hardly be welcomed, as A Vewe implicitly and explicitly acknowledges. But sometimes they are the logical conclusion of the right way of thinking and the proper direction of policy.
Spenser's apparent frustration in his work is that the necessary policies have been ignored in Ireland, a position that allies him with many other New English voices who were similarly strident in their demands that the English crown take sterner action to protect their legitimate interests, and to preserve English rule in Ireland. In doing so Spenser effectively became a key spokesperson for the colonists throughout the seventeenth century and beyond (Canny 1975; Hadfield 1997). Spenser makes the same point in a number of his writings published in the 1590s after he had acquired his estate at Kilcolman, notably in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, in which the besieged shepherds do not even realize that there is a land over the ocean, a sign of how cut off they have become from the crown's legitimate power. A related point is made in the Amoretti and Epithalamion, in which the happiness of the courting couple and newly weds takes place against the background of their perilous existence as colonists in Ireland, an indictment of the crown's lack of commitment to its English subjects in Ireland (Fleming 2001; Wilson 1995: Chap. 3). A small incident in The Faerie Queene, one that has rarely been noted by critics even though it occurs in a (p. 795) much analysed canto, makes the same case. Immediately after they have defeated and destroyed Malengin, the shape‐shifting Jesuit/Irish rebel, Artegall and Talus come to the court of Mercilla and enter the queen's court:
- they passing in
- Went vp the hall, that was a large wyde roome,
- All full of people making troublous din,
- And wondrous noyse, as if that there were some,
- Which vnto them was dealing righteous doome.
- By whom they passing, through the thickest preasse,
- The marshall of the hall to them did come;
- His name hight Order, who commaunding peace,
- Them guyded through the throng, that did their clamors ceasse.
- They ceast their clamors vpon them to gaze;
- Whom seeing all in armour bright as day,
- Straunge there to see, it did them much amaze,
- And with vnwonted terror halfe affray.
- For neuer saw they there the like array,
- Ne euer was the name of warre there spoken,
- But ioyous peace and quietnesse alway,
- Dealing iust iudgements, that mote not be broken
- For any brybes, or threates of any to be wroken. (V.ix.23–4)
The pointed sarcasm of the verses is clear, even before we consider that they occur immediately before the knights witness the disturbing figure of the poet Bonfont with his tongue nailed to a post and his name changed to Malfont (25–6). All is not well at the court of Mercilla and it should come as no surprise to us when she gives way to pity and has to be forced by her subjects, notably Zele, on one level an allegorical representation of Spenser's patron, Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton, to execute the dangerous Duessa (Mary Queen of Scots) (McCabe 1987; 1989: 39–47). Here, the focus is Ireland; or, rather, the lack of interest in and understanding of Ireland in England. The fine courtiers cannot comprehend what knights are or what they do and are horrified at what they see as a rude intrusion, the armour of Artegall and Talus disturbing them. Instead, they deal justice—the verb may well be appropriate, given the subsequent description of bribes—but without ever having to confront the problem of military conflict, something they never discuss. Spenser shows that the court thinks it can govern the queen's dominions, but that it has absolutely no idea what happens within them. A dangerous war was taking place in Ireland which threatened the security of the whole realm, as the previous episode with Malengin demonstrates, yet the courtiers are entirely ignorant of such matters and imagine that they can exist without even thinking about military conflict and security. Like Eudoxus, they do not realize how serious the situation in Ireland has become, the unwelcome presence of the knights reminding the reader at least that the current place for the Knight of Justice should be the battlefield not the court. As a result, the allegorical figures that we do witness at court, Awe and Order, stand as empty ciphers, deprived of their proper significance.
(p. 796) Spenser establishes an opposition between the desires and needs of the colonists in Ireland and the metropolitan authorities who fail to comprehend the reality of life in the ‘contact zone’ (Pratt 1992). The problem is one that any reader of postcolonial literature and fiction will understand: the colonists, cut off from the motherland will start to change their identity and, as a result, become caught between their masters and the natives (Hall 1996; Young 1990: 119–26). Spenser's hostility towards the English court, shows that he knows that he has changed identity, as the poem Colin Clouts Come Home Againe acknowledges, questioning where the poet's home really is (the dedication to Raleigh accepts this as Ireland) and recognizing that the process of trading places transforms the self. The shepherds of The Shepheardes Calender have been transplanted and now think and act like the New English, defending their hard won pastoral spaces from the hostile, indigenous Irish. A useful comparison might be made between Spenser's anger and the situation represented in The Day of the Jackal, although that is not a postcolonial novel as such, having been written by an Englishman, Frederick Forsythe, about France (Forsythe 1971). In Forsythe's novel it is the French colonists and ex‐soldiers from Algeria, the pieds‐noirs, who wish to assassinate President De Gaulle, feeling that he has sold them out by not pursuing the war in Algeria to its proper conclusion and granting the former colony independence instead of crushing resistance. Spenser does not, of course, go this far, but, like the pieds‐noirs, it could be claimed that his true loyalty is to his fellow colonists rather than the capital.
The great achievement of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism was to complicate a facile understanding of the colonial and the postcolonial. Said demonstrated that there was more continuity between writing that was classified as colonial and therefore assumed to be monolithic, with a straightforward dichotomy between civilized colonizers and savage natives, and the postcolonial, with its attendant concepts of hybridity and mimicry, than most commentators had realized, showing that concepts of postcolonial criticism had an application to work produced during the period of European colonialism. Said demonstrates how Rudyard Kipling, the most vociferous apologist for the British Empire, had a more comprehensive and developed sense of Indian life than many liberal writers who had more obvious sympathies for Indian independence, such as E. M. Forster (Said 1993: 159–96, 241–8). Kipling was actually the more hybrid writer.
Said did not push his analysis back to the origins of modern empire. If he had done so he would not only have had more doubts about Spenser's sense of identity and allegiance, but would have recognized that from the start there was opposition to and nervousness about the imperial project. One of the key imperial texts, Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588, 1590), produced in a splendid edition with John White's drawings of the natives as part of Theodor De Bry's attempt to tell the story of the first sustained contact with the Americas to Europeans, is addressed ‘To the Adventurers, Favorers and Welwillers of the Enterprise for the Inhabiting and planting in Virginia.’ Harriot acknowledges on the opening page that ‘There haue bin diuers and variable reportes with some slanderous and shamefull speeches bruited abroade by many that returned from (p. 797) thence…Which reports have not done a little wrong to many that otherwise would have also favoured & adventured in the action, to the honour and benefite of our nation’ (Hariot 1972: 5; Sloan 2007). Colonial discourse never was a straightforward, coherent discourse that distinguished between the colonizer and the colonized. Jeffrey Knapp has made a powerful case that Spenser, like many of his countrymen, was particularly nervous about the prospect of colonial expansion and felt that the establishment of an empire could well be a means of dissipating and undermining a coherent conception of Englishness (Knapp 1992: Chap. 3). The problem was that, whatever the disadvantages and the undesirable nature of expansion, staying the same was probably not an option. As Richard Hakluyt argued, a little, insular Protestant England would be swamped by the ever expanding Catholic Empire of the Spanish who had already colonized vast areas of the New World and made themselves the most powerful nation in Europe in the process (Hadfield 1998: Chap. 2). In the proem to Faerie Queene II Spenser refers directly to the Americas:
- Many great Regions are discouered,
- Which to late age were neuer mentioned.
- Who euer heard of th'Indian Peru?
- Or who in ventrous vessel measured
- The Amazons huge riuer now found trew?
- Or fruitfullest Virginia who did euer vew?
- Yet all these were, when no man did them know;
- Yet haue from wisest ages hidden beene:
- And later times things more vnknowne shall show.
- Why then should witlesse man so much misweene
- That nothing is, but that which he hath seene?
- What if within the Moones faire shining spheare?
- What if in euery other starre vnseene
- Of other worldes he happily should heare?
- He wonder would much more: yet such to some appeare.
- Of Faerie lond yet if he more inquire,
- By certaine signes here set in sundry place
- He may it find[.] (II Proem, 2–4)
Spenser makes a comparison between the recently discovered lands in the New World and his own fictional landscape, Faerieland. The movement of the verse is particularly interesting because it is so uncertain. Reading the first two stanzas cited here would lead the reader to imagine that Spenser is about to acknowledge that what was once thought to be fictional is actually real, that this is a normal process, and we shall find that heaven and earth are full of stranger things than we have ever imagined. But, in fact, the next stanza moves us in the opposite direction. What we do get is a characteristically cheeky argument that Faerieland is actually real; or, at least, as real as Peru, Virginia, the Amazon, and the Moon. After all, we know that it refers to real events and has a purchase on the world outside the poem, not least because the ‘Letter to Raleigh’ tells us so. The effect is to make us think about the power of fiction, and in doing so, to see the essence of the poem and the truths it tells us as more (p. 798) important than an external reality which is tied to facts rather than imaginative truths, precisely what Sir Philip Sidney had argued in his Defence of Poesy (Sidney 2002: 111). Having raised the issue, the poem actually moves us away from any interest in overseas colonization. The reference to the Americas, which we might have expected would turn the subject to the question of imperial ambition, ‘leads to an appeal not to colonize the New World but to believe in the existence of Fairyland’ (Knapp 1992: 106).
The point can be taken too far. Spenser was either a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh's at this moment, or eager for the patronage of his powerful neighbour on the Munster Plantation. Accordingly, he carefully placed references in The Faerie Queene to Raleigh's plans to establish colonies in, and bring back substantial wealth from, the Americas, as well as to Raleigh's devotion to the queen and sorrow at his exile from court (Kelsey 2003; McCabe 2007). Spenser's work has indeed been linked to a larger imperial project and Nicholas Canny has suggested, controversially, that A Vewe was later used as a colonial handbook (Canny 2001: Chap. 1; McLeod 1999: Chap. 2; Scanlan 1999: Chap. 3). However, it would be hard to argue that Spenser's real focus was not on Ireland and the need to secure English rule in Ireland in the face of what he saw as the lack of concerted effort on the part of the crown and court. Even at his most shocking and brutal, Spenser has been seen by some commentators to acknowledge a bond between colonizer and colonized, most significantly in the famous passage describing the effects of the Munster famine in A Vewe:
Out of euerie Corner of the woods and glinnes they Came Crepinge forthe vppon theire handes for theire Legges Coulde not beare them, they loked like Anotomies of deathe, they spake like ghostes Cryinge out of theire graues, they did eate the dead Carrions, happie wheare they Coulde finde them, Yea, and one another sone after, in so muche as the verye carkasses they spared not to scrape out of theire graves. And, if they founde a plotte of water Cresses or Shamarocks, theare they flocked as to a feaste for the time, yeat not able longe to Continve thearewithall, that in shorte space theare were non allmoste lefte and a most populous and plentifull Countrey sodenlye lefte voide of man or beaste, yeat sure in all that warr theare perished not manie by the sworde but all by the extreamitye of famine which they themselves had wroughte. (Prose, 158)
The passage has excited much comment, hardly surprisingly as it draws attention to itself as a rhetorical tour de force justifying what seems to be beyond explanation and defence. For Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield the description shows Spenser expressing ‘compunction at the effects of English policy’, and the comments demonstrate that the ‘human cost of imperial ambition protruded through even its ideological justifications’ (Dollimore and Sinfield 1985: 226; Coughlan 1989: 55). This might seem an obvious reading of so terrifying a passage which dwells on each painful detail and draws attention to the destructive impact of English policy in Ireland. Spenser also justified the behaviour of Lord Grey when he massacred the prisoners who had surrendered at Smerwick on the grounds that they were rebels, not a lawful army, and so could not expect the treatment that would have been afforded legitimate prisoners of war, a decision that, as A Vewe recognizes, was (p. 799) controversial at the time (Spenser 1997: 159–62; McCabe 1989: 85–7). Clearly, criticism of excessive brutality in Ireland did take place.
Nevertheless, there is a danger that we might be reading Spenser with a post‐potato famine perspective, given the terrible guilt which that event inspired and continues to generate, as well as its crucial role in defining Ireland as a postcolonial nation.1 A contrary argument can be made. Spenser's dialogue is designed to lead the reader away from assumptions that seem to make sense and to show them that the reality of experience in Ireland will make them question everything they imagine to be true. Here, the reader is forced to confront the unpalatable truth that, as the last phrase indicates, it is the Irish who are to blame for their fate, not the English. Ireland has degenerated so far that only unimaginable horrors can save it from itself. The Irish have transformed themselves into the most savage of all creatures, the cannibals, who were recently being rediscovered in the New World, eating each other and so becoming ‘anatomies of death’ (Hulme 1986). Spenser makes great play on the pun savage/salvage throughout his works, a trope that comes into play here even though it is not actually articulated (Hadfield 1997). The passage demonstrates that Irish rebels against English law are savages who cannot be salvaged and only those who learn from this terrible spectacle can be saved.
Whichever way we read this section of A Vewe indicates that English colonial discourse that represented Ireland was not unified. If we assume that Spenser feels pity for the Irish then he is implicitly criticizing the excesses of military policy and acknowledging the terrible cost of occupation. If, on the contrary, we assume that Spenser is supporting the action taken, he is working against the reader and assuming that he or she probably feels that such actions cannot be justified. The power of the description of the Munster famine then rests on its counter‐intuitive brilliance and desire to confront the reader with the horrible things that must be done to maintain stability and order. Spenser is laying bare what actually goes on as a means of justifying the extremity and severity of English rule in Ireland. As Mr. ‘Whisky’ Sisoda points out in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, ‘The trouble with the Engenlish is that their hiss history happened overseas, so they dodo don't know what it means’ (Rushdie 1988: 343). Spenser gives his English readers a sharp lesson in history, showing them the arts required to maintain the kingdom and daring them to dissent. The words of Albert Memmi are equally relevant here:
One should not be too surprised by the fact that institutions depending, after all, on a liberal central government can be so different from those in the mother country. This totalitarian aspect which even democratic regimes take on in their colonies is contradictory in appearance only. Being represented among the colonized by colonialists, they can have no other. (Memmi 1965: 63)
Government, law, legal status and rights simply cannot be the same in England and Ireland, as Irenius argues when he claims that laws must be made to fit the people and that they cannot stand as universal codes and benchmarks (Spenser 1997: 29–30).
(p. 800) The description has played an important role in the contemporary Anglo‐Irish literary landscape, having been read and refigured in a variety of ways by contemporary writers. Surveying the Irish countryside in ‘Bog Oak’ Seamus Heaney ends his poem
- Perhaps I just make out
- Edmund Spenser,
- dreaming sunlight,
- encroached upon by
- geniuses who creep
- ‘out of every corner
- of the woodes and glennes’
- towards watercress and carrion. (Heaney 1990: 19–20)
Heaney seems to be rethinking and refiguring Yeats's response to Spenser, pursuing similar lines but casting the Englishman in a harsher light. Yeats argued that if Spenser had looked at Ireland more carefully he would have seen the symbolic beauty that defined the country and could have cast away his colonial spectacles. Heaney, who appears to be thinking not simply of the Munster famine description but another one later when Irenius explains the military singularity of Ireland, is less convinced:
[I]t is not with Ireland as it is with other countries, where the warres flame most in summer, and the helmets glister brightest in the fairest sunshine: But in Ireland the winter yeeldeth best services, for then the trees are bare and naked, which use both to cloath and house the kerne; the ground is cold and wet, which useth to be his bedding; the aire is sharp and bitter, to blowe through his naked sides and legges. (Spenser 1997: 98)
Heaney's poem suggests that he has read Spenser very carefully and has responded to the lyrical nature of the descriptions. For Spenser, as Patricia Coughlan has shown, wars that flame brightly in summer happen elsewhere, ‘the shining moment of chivalric clarity is quickly past, and the inhuman plan of hunting down the kerns like their cattle takes place’ (Coughlan 1989: 54). Heaney imagines Spenser ‘dreaming sunlight’ and missing the reality of the Irish countryside, with its cold and dearth, around him, locked in his own imaginative world. For Yeats there was a purpose to the symbolic world he saw in Spenser, one he could share with the English poet. For Heaney, Spenser seems oblivious and myopic, his very English imaginative world having no place in Ireland. Spenser sees dying Irish rebels creeping out of the woods when, in reality, they are geniuses, talented and individual in their own right, and, symbolically, figures who keep the Irish tradition alive. Spenser's words are turned against their author, a familiar postcolonial ruse (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1989).
The passage is also reproduced almost verbatim in Frank McGuinness's play about the Nine Years War, Mutabilitie, based on Spenser's life in Ireland. Spenser is cast as a straightforward colonial servant and apologist, committed to civilizing the barbarous Irish. In dialogue with his wife in the first act, Spenser expresses a brittle confidence in the success of his mission and defends its necessity. When Elizabeth argues that the starving Irish must hate the English, Edmund replies:
They are civilized. I have succeeded in that. Perhaps in that alone, but I have succeeded. From that I draw strength. Say you are right, say the castle is surrounded and we must flee. These you would be rid of may be the saving of us in London. They are proof we may succeed in this accursed island… Our duties in this country are manifold. We are here at the behest of our sovereign. We must win this people to England's law, to England's custom, to her religion. If we fail, then we abandon this lost people to the devil. This conquest does not depend on the sword or the scabbard but on our souls, and if we keep faith with the almighty God whose destiny we praise and follow, then we shall win the Irish to our cause. (McGuinness 1997: 10; see Mikami 2002: 108–26)
Here, McGuinness equates Spenser and his character Irenius; or, rather, a particular version of Irenius. In describing Ireland as ‘this accursed island’ a pun is made monolithic, so that the explanation in the dialogue (excised from the published edition) that Ireland used to be called ‘Banno or sacra Insula takinge sacra for accursed’ (Prose, 145) is taken at face value as if the word did not have the potential for change. Spenser is also cast as a Protestant proselytizer, which, given that McGuinness stated in an interview that ‘the play is a metaphor for 1998’ (Mikami 2002: 113) suggests that Mutabilitie stands as an allegory of postcolonial Ireland.
McGuinness, like Heaney, reads Spenser in terms of the Yeatsian paradigm. And, like Heaney, adds his own particular twist. If Spenser is the myopic English colonial servant, he is balanced on the Irish side by the File, the chief bardic poet, who, as Queen Maeve points out, is his mirror image:
Your English master, Edmund, he is no different to you. He serves his queen as you served your king. He writes exalted verses to her as she sits in glory upon her throne. That is his dignity. You have no such dignity any more. You worship a king grown old before his time, foraging for sustenance in a forest, in danger of forgetting his own name. You are no longer his poet. You are his spy, as is Edmund the queen's spy. (McGuinness 1997: 31)
Spenser is Karl Marx's ‘arse‐kissing poet’, for all his sophistication, a hired court lackey in the service of the crown, like his Irish counterpart (Hadfield 1997: 69). McGuinness has turned Yeats's attack on English culture to a dying Irish culture, attempting to exorcise the sentimental myth of the ‘hidden Ireland’ in order to move forward. If Spenser had been able to visit Ireland as a poet and not as a colonial official, he would have seen a mirror image of himself, not much different from the ideological version he accepted and recycled.
Mutabilitie shows two similar worlds locked in conflict, a Manichean vision that needs to be overcome. The answer lies in drama rather than poetry, an imaginative response to the world, rather than a vision imposed upon it that obliterates its difference. McGuinness imports Shakespeare into the play and he stages a pastiche version of A Vewe in Act Three, taking the role of Eudoxus who is by no stretch of the imagination an interlocutor that Edmund can intimidate into submission. William explains the power of drama to Spenser: ‘I have paraded before the people those thoughts, those images, those words, those hearts, those minds, that until the time of the reformation lay concealed in the corrupt cloisters and confined courts of kings—let those see who would see, hear who would hear. I let the lives I create burn in (p. 802) brilliant, everlasting fire’ (McGuinness 1997: 52). Spenser and the File represent the old, colonial world with its irreconcilable differences and aggressive power relations; Shakespeare speaks for the new spirit of postcolonial reconciliation and exploration of the identity of the ‘other.’ Drama is a more amenable and democratic form than poetry for this world, which is why we should look back to Shakespeare not Spenser. But all is not lost. The play ends with Spenser's castle burned down and a child left wandering, clearly a version of the ‘little child new born’ who Ben Jonson thought had perished in the fire (Prose, 198–9). The child is adopted by the Irish, including the File, who agree to foster him/her as one of their own, the curtain coming down as the characters share a joke and a meal: ‘Child: I am hungry. I could eat a horse, Hugh. Annas: Our bill of fare does not stretch to horse, but there are berries and meat and sweet herbs and water to drink’ (McGuinness 1997: 101). The creative lies that the playwright tells point the audience towards a more hopeful future.
How should we understand Spenser's role and identity? Was he simply a colonial servant, something that infects his verse more than those Irishmen, Yeats and Lewis, were prepared to accept? Or can he be seen as part of a hybrid Irish tradition, suggesting that the colonial and the postcolonial are not as far apart as many might think? Did Spenser take Irish culture seriously? Assessments of how much he actually knew and responded to Irish culture differ. Richard McCabe argues that when Spenser claimed he had the Irish bards translated for him, he was disguising his knowledge of Irish, and his interaction with Irish culture so that he would not attract unwelcome attention as a ‘degenerate’ English settler (McCabe 2002: Chap. 2). Patricia Palmer, on the other hand, argues that the words and phrases of Irish found in the writings of English colonists show no real interaction with native language and culture, something that would have been possible, given the experts available in Ireland at the time. Linguistic colonialism was too strong a force to counteract as colonists tried to force the Irish to become English. Spenser shows a bit more understanding than many but not much: ‘though a wordsmith's curiosity may have drawn him to pick over Irish words more closely than did others…his interest was forensic and superficial…his handling of Irish words indicates no more than a shallow acquaintance’ (Palmer 2001: 79). Without being able to reconstruct the culture of south‐west Munster in the 1590s it is hard to judge with any certainty, especially if we bear in mind McCabe's point that Spenser would have had good reason to disguise the extent of his knowledge of Irish. We might also wonder how easy it was for English settlers to live in Ireland without considerable interaction with the natives, given the need for servants and the corroborating evidence that colonial enterprises in sixteenth‐century Ireland were always under suspicion because, however draconian government warnings that colonists and natives were not to mix, the practical realities of life invariably made such injunctions redundant (Hadfield: 2005). Conversely, one might ask just how much Irish such interaction actually demanded.
Specialists who debate such matters often see Spenser as an ambivalent and complex figure with an uncertain identity and problematic relationship to Irish culture. More widely he is read in terms of the Yeats/Lewis paradigm, paradoxically (p. 803) enough, especially in a context sensitive to the nuances of postcolonial thinking. In his survey of Irish literature Declan Kiberd perceives Spenser within these familiar paradigms: ‘The sheer ferocity of Spenser's writings on the Irish resistance—a ferocity quite at odds with the gentle charm of his poetry—can only be explained as arising from a radical ambivalence. He wished to convert the Irish to civil ways, but in order to do that found that it might be necessary to exterminate many of them’ (Kiberd 1996: 11). This is an ambivalence that is not really an ambivalence, certainly not compared to the unstable and challenging modes of identity and thought that are discovered in the postcolonial ‘contact zone’ (Bhabha 1994; Bart Moore‐Gilbert 1997). Spenser is cast in terms of the same dichotomy and his poetry given routine praise as if it were harmless and anodyne.
A selection of Spenser's work is included in the definitive Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, where exactly the same descriptions are given and judgements are made. Spenser, it is stated, ‘set some of the most important passages in his poetry in Ireland and, although he had the typical humanist's condescending attitude to native culture, he was genuinely interested in the country and its people. However, Spenser was also a colonial administrator with the attitude of mind necessary for the task’ (Deane 1991: I, 171). We have the good and bad Spenser, the poet and the colonial official. The selections from Spenser again make reference to him as a nature poet: ‘he chose to set important episodes of his major poetic work, The Faerie Queene, in Ireland. In doing so, he became the first English poet to make use of the Irish landscape and of Irish mythology’ (Deane 1991: I, 225). The latter statement is true, but it masks and distorts a far more complex relationship between the writer and his sense of place, one that in its ambiguity, dislocation, and problematic understanding of identity, is actually far closer to the postcolonial culture against which Spenser is invariably defined.
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