Spenser's Irish Experience: Wilde Fruit and Savage Soyl

Spenser's Irish Experience: Wilde Fruit and Savage Soyl

Spenser's Irish Experience: Wilde Fruit and Savage Soyl

Spenser's Irish Experience: Wilde Fruit and Savage Soyl


Spenser's Irish Experience is the first sustained critical work to argue that Edmund Spenser's perception and fragmented representation of Ireland shadows the whole narrative of his major work, The Faerie Queene, traditionally regarded as one of the finest achievements of the EnglishRenaissance. The poem has often been read in specifically English contexts but, as Hadfield argues, demands to be read in terms of England's expanding colonial hegemony within the British Isles and the ensuing fear that such national ambition would actually lead to the destruction of England'spost-Reformation legacy. Spenser should be seen less as an English writer and more as a new English writer in Ireland, his prose and poetry expressing the hopes and fears of his class. Where A View of the Present State of Ireland attempts to provide a violent political solution to England's Irishproblem, The Faerie Queene exposes the apocalyptic fear that there may be no solution at all. The book contains an analysis of Spenser's life on the Munster plantation, readings of the political rhetoric and antiquarian discourse of A View of the Present State of Ireland, and three chapters which argue the case that the apparently Anglocentric allegory of The Faerie Queene reveals a landgradually--but clearly--transformed into its Irish other. Spenser emerges from this study as a writer whose experience in Ireland rendered him implacably opposed to the vacillations of his English monarch.


At a conference of the English Association held during the First World War (1917), one of the speakers, John Bailey, told the following patriotic anecdote, intended to illustrate the intimate connection between reading English literature and virtuous action: ‘[Bailey] related a story of an officer who read the Faerie Queene to his men when they were in a particularly difficult situation. the men did not understand the words, but the poetry had a soothing influence upon them. Nothing better could be said of poetry than that.’ the officer’s actions recall, perhaps deliberately, Sir Philip Sidney’s argument in An Apology for Poetry that the poet was ‘the right popular philosopher’ whose ‘sugared invention’ moved ‘men to take goodness in hand’. One wonders exactly why The Faerie Queene was chosen by this anonymous officer; was it because of its soothing—some would say soporific—qualities, or because it was considered a particularly suitable work for men undergoing military struggle?

If the former was the case, then there is a certain poetic justice if one continues the comparison with Sidney’s Apology. Sidney rather snobbishly comments that Aesop’s fables prove his point because their ‘pretty allegories, stealing under the formal tales of beasts, make many, more beastly than beasts, begin to hear the sound of virtue from these dumb speakers’ (p. 109), a description which matches not only the

Cited in Brian Doyle, English and Englishness (London: Routledge, 1989), 28. I am grateful to Tim Woods for this reference.

Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965), 109, 103. Subsequent references are given in the text in parentheses. Sidney’s text opens with a military anecdote. I owe this point to Willy Maley.

a frequent criticism of Spenser’s verse; see C. S. Lewis, English Literature of the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954}, 391. A. C. Hamilton has argued that ‘The Faerie Queene is not meant to be understood but to be possessed’: ‘Our New Poet: Spenser, “well of English undefyld” ‘, in Judith M. Kennedy and James A. Reither (eds.), A Theatre for Spenserians (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973), 101–23, at 101.

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