Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

By Judith H. Anderson; Donald Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

The Earl of Cork's Lute

DAVID LEE MILLER

Nay, but his jesting spirit, which is now crept into a lute-string. . . Much Ado about Nothing

The earl of Cork had a lute. We know this because it speaks to us in an epigram attributed to Spenser:

Whilst vitall sapp did make me spring, And leafe and bough did flourish brave, I then was dumbe and could not sing, Ne had the voice which now I have: But when the axe my life did end, The Muses nine this voice did send E. S. ( Spenser ed. 1989, 779)

We don't know whether this epigram is really Spenser's, or whether it was really written (as the headnote reports) "upon the said Earles Lute." We don't even know whether Richard Boyle, created first earl of Cork in 1620, owned a lute -- only that he had the fiction of one. 1 This signifying lute is a perfect metonymy for the author: it tells us why his life cannot be written.

Inscriptions do figure prominently among the kinds of epigram and sometimes appeared on Renaissance musical instruments. The epigram attributed to Spenser is a version of what one historian calls the "Brescian legend" because of its early use by violin makers in the Italian city of Brescia, though it also appears in Germany in the mid-sixteenth century ( Henley 1959, 1:165; Borthwick 1970). At the same time, mock inscriptions are common to the epigram form, and it can be hard to tell the difference. Even an inscription read in situ could have been composed as a riddle or epigram and then carved by some jesting spirit into an appropriate setting.

This is just what happened with the so-called Brescian legend: it derives

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