Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Human, All Too Human: Spenser and the Dangers of Irish Civilization

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Human, All Too Human: Spenser and the Dangers of Irish Civilization

Article excerpt

I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.

-The Departed

In A View of the State of Ireland, Edmund Spenser imagines how Queen Elizabeth's troublesome other island might be transformed into a stable, civilized commonwealth. In plotting how the problems of latesixteenth century Ireland might best be reformed, the dialogue's speakers, Irenius and Eudoxus, examine the country's history, the customs of its people, and its legal, political, and religious institutions in painstaking detail. They also spend a considerable amount of time discussing cows. Cattle are a serious matter in A View because they come to represent the capacity of the natural environment to shape culture. The dialogue is haunted by the twin possibilities that nature holds immense powers to alter culture, and that human beings cannot fully resist nature's influence. These dangers threaten to foil colonial ventures like the one the speakers propose, and their inability to devise any solution to problems like those represented by the Irish cattle confronts readers with the likely futility of any project to civilize Ireland on English terms.

Stephen Greenblatt contends that "Spenser is one of the first English writers to have what we may call a field theory of culture, that is, the conception of a nation not simply as an institutional structure or a common race, but as a complex network of beliefs, folk customs, forms of dress, kinship relations, religious mythology, aesthetic norms, and specialized modes of production."1 As Greenblatt's examples indicate, the cultural field can be assumed to feature human behavior as its most important element. The speakers of A View make the same assumption, and so the reform plans they set forth focus on reshaping (or simply destroying) the existing practices of the Irish people. Yet many of the activities Greenblatt lists, and that the speakers discuss, would be crucially impacted by nonhuman factors like climate or soil fertility. Recently, Thomas Herron has considered the roles of such factors in Spenser's life and work by incorporating insights gained from archaeological studies of Spenser's residence at Kilcolman and surrounding sites in Munster. Herron finds Spenser sensitive to the importance of natural surroundings in shaping human lifestyles, but also confident of the human intellect's capacity to master its environment. He claims that Spenser's poetry in particular includes "specifically georgic strains that highlight in militaristic and often optimistic terms the heroic struggle of the poet-plowman figure."2 In A View, however, the natural factors that shape human lifestyles in Ireland constantly elude human control, undermining the speakers' confident assertions of human intellectual power and threatening to unravel the colonial strategies they set forth.

The speakers fail to argue convincingly that humans can master the natural factors which mold culture, despite their efforts to neutralize them rhetorically by asserting the sovereignty of human intellect over nature. Throughout the dialogue, the speakers take recourse to anthropocentric ideologies similar to those Bruce Boehrer describes. Boehrer identifies three key anthropocentric beliefs: "that human beings are radically . . . different from all other life on earth; . . . that this difference renders humankind superior to the rest of earthly creation; . . . that this superiority . . . designates the natural world as an exploitable resource, with the spheres of nature and culture replicating the traditional relationship between servant and master."3 Boehrer explains that these principles can take two forms, "absolute" (dividing human from animal) or "relative" (dividing "full" humans from alleged inferiors); Spenser's speakers make use of both.4 The speakers of A View furthermore illustrate that anthropocentric ideologies can take additional reinforcement from the belief, drawn from classical sources such as Herodotus's writings on the Scythians, that a settled and agricultural lifestyle represents a superior form of human civilization. …

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.