Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Irish Nonhumanness and English Inhumanity in A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Irish Nonhumanness and English Inhumanity in A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland

Article excerpt

Edmund Spenser's A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland is an abscess on the body of the author's canon. Willy Maley and Richard McCabe explain that the Vewe's contemporary audiences were disturbed by this inflammatory treatise, while Andrew Hadfield notes that much current criticism of the Vewe divides itself into "those who want to emphasize [Spenser's] involvement in Ireland as a means of nailing his colonial guilt and those who want to minimize his presence there so that we can all return to a more traditional agenda."1 Unlike Swift's Modest Proposal, which cultivates intimacy with a knowing reader in on the joke, this text alienates its audience through its aggressive championing of the virtues of Irish genocide by the New English settler Irenius. Although many scholars assume that Irenius is Spenser's mouthpiece, the Vewe defies such a simple reading.2 Anne Fogarty points out that the treatise is a problematic hodgepodge of conflicting discourses, while Judith Anderson suggests, "we could profitably pay a good deal more attention to the rhetorical and historical details of the Vewe before deciding who is saying what in it."3 I argue that these inconsistencies are crucial to the Vewe's aesthetic, which pits the creaturely pity that one feels for another's pain against the socially-sanctioned English antipathy toward Ireland.4 As Spenser forces his readers to view anguished Irish bodies in blood sacrifice to the spirit of English colonial humanism, he rends apart fictions of humanity dividing national selves from their dehumanized others to stare at the raw life buried under ideals of population. The aesthetic force of A Vewe thus challenges the ideological mechanisms of Elizabethan biopolitics in ways that complicate current readings of both the author and his work.

At the beginning of the text, the impetus of the dialogue is staged as the need to correct past colonial abuses. Presumably taking place in England between an individual recently returned from Ireland and one who has not been there, the dialogue makes clear that at least some among the English blame their colonial compatriots for Ireland's troubles. For instance, in response to Irenius's initial speculations as to the many possible causes underlying "the fatall destenye of that Land," Eudoxus responds firmly,

I would rather thinke the cause of this evill which hangeth vppon that Cuntrye to proceed rather of the vnsoundnesse of the Counsells & plottes which yowe saie haue ben oftentymes Laid for her reformacion; or of fayntnesse in followinge an[d] effecting the same, then of anie soche fatall course or appoint- of god (as you misdeme) but it is the manner of men, that whe[n] they are fallen into anie absurditie or there accions succede not as they would, they are redie allwaies to impute the blame therof vnto the heavens, soe to excuse there owne follies and imperfeccions.5

Eudoxus originally asserts that the problem with Ireland is not the Irish but the English: an anti-colonial stance that echoes a mounting sentiment among Queen Elizabeth I's policy-makers in the waning years of the sixteenth century, and which threatened to undermine the renewed efforts of the English replantation there. In Eudoxus's view, England's colonization of Ireland is an "absurditie," a consequence of failed action. In the political arena-one in which Spenser's manuscript found a ready audience, judging by its brisk circulation among members of the ruling gentry-this articulates the growing desire for isolationism that reacted against England's renewed efforts.6 For Eudoxus, Ireland is a strange place, and England has no business being there.

In the same passage, Eudoxus also excises the logic of divinely-appointed right that often attended colonial discourse. He dismisses "god" as the source of England's ambitions in Ireland to posit the replantation as an act of an aggression that is purely human, firmly patterned on "the manner of men." Irenius then follows Eudoxus's lead by concentrating his rationalizations about England's right to replant Ireland on the degraded state of its people. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.