Edmund Spenser and English Policy in Ireland: Howard Amos Interrogates a Key Text on Colonialism and Assesses Its Influence

By Amos, Howard | History Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Edmund Spenser and English Policy in Ireland: Howard Amos Interrogates a Key Text on Colonialism and Assesses Its Influence


Amos, Howard, History Review


This year there were 99 entries. The judges had an even more difficult time than usual selecting the winner. They eventually settled on an essay by Howard Amos of City of London School, a version of which is published below. A Lower Sixth award was made to Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, of the Abbey School, Reading, for an outstanding essay on whether England was still a Catholic country in 1547.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) served as secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton during his suppression of the Desmond rebellion and then lived at Kilcolman Castle following the plantation of Munster (1580) in which he received land. His A View of the Present State of Ireland was written in 1596 as a direct result of his familiarity with Ireland. The View examines the condition of Ireland during the 1590s and proffers a series of steps for the resolution of the problems it identifies. It is some 65,000 words long and consists of a dialogue between two fictional characters, Eudoxus, a rational Englishman largely ignorant of Irish affairs, and Irenius, someone who speaks from experience of Ireland, much like Spenser himself.

William Blake wrote that 'Empire follows art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose'. It is in this light that the significance of Spenser's View should be considered. Debate centres on whether the solutions it offered can be dismissed as the opinions of a Protestant extremist, or are representative ideas not incompatible with ideas proclaiming the efficacy of moral re-education. The former interpretation was prevalent until the 20th century and only recently has scholarship attempted to rationalise Spencer's work as flowing from the traditions of 16th-century humanism. Even so, it is often claimed the View is too confused to be persuasive and that Spenser's posthumous literary reputation has given it undue prominence. There is also, especially among Irish historians, intense hostility to the viability of Spenser's propositions. More recent analysis has been influenced by postmodernist thought and, consequently, emphasises the role of language and rhetoric in sustaining the colonial structure of the text.

Although the influence Spenser's work had on subsequent English policy is difficult to gauge, at least 20 manuscript copies have survived and Nicholas Canny cites the Queen and her court as, ultimately, the intended audience. Undeniably therefore, the View, at least to a degree, articulated and elaborated on prevalent ideas and prejudices making options previously dismissed appear feasible. This new awareness of possibility, in conjunction with the urgent desire to halt the decline of English influence in Ireland during the late 1590s, made extreme solutions, like those of Spenser, increasingly attractive for the Tudor government. Indeed, as the culmination of Spenser's political life in Ireland, the View outlines a highly ambitious plan for social reform. Nevertheless, these proposals proved unrealistically artificial and, in conjunction with failures in strategy, ensured the emergence of a huge dichotomy between Spenser's ultimate aim, to 'settle an eternall peace in that country', and the actual course of events.

Spencer on Ireland

Edmund Spenser's View is clearly an example of colonial writing, with its sense of two separate and patently unequal 'sides'. This idea of a distinct Irish 'otherness' almost imperceptibly increases the political and moral acceptability of his proposals. There are two clear examples of such writing: Spenser discounts campaigning in Continental Europe for army officers as preparation for service in Ireland, thus implying it is a different, colonial, situation; and he fails to recognise the striking parallels between the Irish bards he so denigrates and himself (as Richard McCabe notes, the View is not, at any point, disturbed by a 'ripple of conscious irony'). For Eudoxus and Irenius even language serves to demonstrate Irish inferiority--the latter defines the meaning of 'county palatinate' so as to imply 'Irish corruption of a prior established meaning'. …

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