Edmund Spenser (1554-99) decided while still a student to make himself into the great English poet on the model of Vergil.  So he began his publishing career with a set of 12 pastorals, and planned an enormous 24-book allegorical romance-epic, The Faerie Queene, to glorify Elizabeth I and her Britain as Vergil had glorified Rome and Augustus.  He managed to finish six books of this monster, and left a fragment of a seventh.

The standard histories of English literature give him top-drawer ranking with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, and there is no denying the power of his idiosyncratic style at its best or his appeal to other poets with epic ambitions.  Nonetheless, he has never been popular.  His stories and characters have made no impression on the popular imagination, and readers—to put it mildly—have not warmed to him as a man.  Karl Marx went so far as to call him “Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet,” and even C.S. Lewis, who tried harder than anyone to make Spenser popular, describes some features of his politics as “abominable” and “detestable.”  So there is a Spenser problem.  Why is he the only “great” English poet whom few people read, and even fewer people like?

Enter Andrew Hadfield and this 650-page biography, the first since 1945.  There is enough known about Spenser’s life to rough out its main events, but there is so little detailed information available that, as Hadfield confesses, “Writing a biography is as much about establishing the contexts in which that life was lived as it is about startling archival discoveries.”  To give an example: It is known that Spen­ser was born in London, that his mother’s name was Elizabeth, and that he went to the Merchant Taylor’s School.  That’s it.  Everything else about his origins is speculation, including his parents’ identity.  That being so, the only way Hadfield can write 33 pages on “Origins and Childhood” is by speculating (on Spenser’s dubious claim to be related to the Spencers of Althorp, for instance) and by “establishing contexts,” a procedure which leads to detailed accounts of 16th-century London and the Merchant Taylor’s School.  Applied to 11 chapters of a long book, the method provides a great deal of background information but leaves a sketchy impression of the central figure.  Hadfield’s Spenser, in fact, occupies this book much as the human figures that art historians call “staffage” occupy landscape paintings.

What is not at all sketchy is Hadfield’s determination to revise long-standing impressions of Spenser’s character.  Instead of Spenser the Vergilian courtier-poet and adulator of Elizabeth I, Hadfield’s Spenser is a lower-middle-class man on the make, at home with men of his own kind, keen to acquire property, rise in the world, put on social airs, and establish a family, even if this means living in Ireland.  He hardly knows the court, and what he knows he dislikes.  As for his militant Protestantism, he was far more easygoing and tolerant than people have thought.  True, like any sensible Englishman, he drew the line at the Pope, Mary Stuart, and the king of Spain, but could otherwise find something to say for every shade of religious opinion.  Admittedly, his activities as an English colonist in Ireland are problematic, but we should all be able to sympathize with his difficulties as an administrator, keen to bring the blessings of English law, civility, industry, and culture to the backward natives.  In fact, in light of the destruction of his house at Kilcolman in the Munster rebellion, we can even understand his approval of Lord Grey de Wilton’s extermination of the garrison at Smerwick in 1579.

This new version of Spenser presents a character somewhat more acceptable than the old one to the classrooms of the 21st century, but it does not solve the Spenser problem.  In fact, this new Spenser is even less likeable because, as Hadfield describes him, he bit just about every hand that fed him, beginning with Andrew Young, former master of his college and bishop of Rochester, who gave him his first job.  He published sly attacks on his next employer, the earl of Leicester, and on Sir Walter Raleigh, who helped him acquire his royal pension of £50 per year.  He even attacked the queen who gave him the pension, and whom he praised to the skies in order to get it.

Is Hadfield right?  We don’t have enough information about Spenser to know, but it seems rather improbable, and depends upon peculiar ways of reading the poetry.  An academic like Hadfield isn’t allowed to believe that Spenser actually meant what he wrote about certain things, and so he continually reads ironically or obliquely, a process that begins with the very first line of The Faerie Queene, “A gentle knight was pricking on the plain.”  Hitherto, everyone, including the Oxford Dictionary, has thought that this striking line meant that a knight was urging his horse across the plain.  Not Professor Hadfield.  He thinks the knight is doing something else entirely.  The line, he writes, “is a stark, even coarse reminder of sexual desires and needs, something that undermines the pretensions and stance of the queen.”

That sentence is a stark, even coarse reminder of what passes for reading in contemporary academic circles, but it’s a good example of the free association that enables Hadfield to produce his version of Spen­ser.  In Book 5, Artegal, the knight of Justice, allows Talus, his iron man, to destroy the egalitarian giant by throwing him off a cliff.  When the mob of common people start a revolution because they’ve lost their champion, Artegal turns Talus loose on them, too.  In Hadfield’s mind the violence of these scenes tells us that in his heart Spenser knew that the giant was right because there is no good argument for unequal, aristocratically governed societies.  They can only be maintained by violence.  So Spenser—nudge-nudge, wink-wink—is an up-to-date progressive in the making, even if the rules of his poetic game require him to kill the giant off.  A little later, Artegal and Arthur arrive at Mercilla’s court, and there they see a poet with his tongue nailed to the wall for abusing Mercilla.  Once again, Hadfield adjusts the scene to fit his own preoccupations.  Since he can’t allow Spenser to endorse that kind of punishment, the nailed-up poet must be a wry self-portrait of what could happen to Spenser himself if he criticizes the queen and her court too freely.

Really?  Spenser gives no sign that he disapproves of either the poet’s punishment or Artegal’s killing the giant and slaughtering the common people.  Why would he?  After all, that’s how the government Spen­ser is praising maintained order.  Artegal and Talus represent, among other things, judicial violence and torture, Elizabethan-style.  As for the nailed-up poet, that is what mercy meant at Mercilla/Elizabeth’s court.  Writing scurrilously about the queen was a dangerous activity.  You could lose your hand, even your life; but if she and her council were in a milder mood, they might just crop your ears, or, as in this fictitious case, nail your tongue to the wall instead.  A similar principle of mercy applied to people sentenced to hanging, drawing, and quartering for treason.  Every now and again the authorities would let them hang until they were dead before they cut them down and started chopping them up.

Why does Professor Hadfield not just tell the truth, that the regime that Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene to glorify was in many respects revolutionary and often appalling?  To begin with, Elizabeth I’s government, imitating her father Henry VIII, invented a new polity of Church and state, turning the Church into a department of state, with the monarch as supreme governor of it.  In self-justification, they rewrote English history, inventing a whole, new, fabulous account of the origins of the English Church, and discarding a thousand years of real history in the process.  Then, to make the new system workable, and compel the people’s obedience, they brought in a series of progressively harsher penal laws, which they enforced by violence and torture.

That is the polity The Faerie Queene glorifies.  It’s all there, the state church, the virgin queen, the bogus history, the prince-worship, the propagandizing, even the torture.  The real problem with Spen­ser, the reason his poem has never caught on, is a built-in, all-encompassing bogosity.  Everyone who cared knew that, whatever else Elizabeth I was head of, it wasn’t the Church, just as everyone knew that her famous virginity was more an article of faith than a fact.  Is it any surprise that Spen­ser’s Saint George has no resemblance to the traditional patron saint of England?  That his Prince Arthur is not in the least like the King Arthur everyone knows?  That Spen­ser has even redefined the virtues, so that by traditional standards his holiness is not very holy, his chastity not exactly chaste, his temperance not all that temperate, and his justice certainly not just?  How could it be when, according to The Faerie Queene, the knight of Justice is slaughtering people in Ireland because the lady personifying that country has petitioned the Faerie Queene—i.e., Elizabeth I—for protection against her own people?  Even Spenser’s pseudo-Chaucerian English was an invented language.  Then, as if that were not bogosity enough for one lifetime, off he goes to Ireland and sets himself up, Tudor-style, as an Irish gentleman of the ruling class by occupying other people’s property.

The Irish made short work of that, and burned his house down.  As for the English, their way of handling Spenser’s literary output on their behalf has been—more or less—to ignore it.  The only people to take Spenser seriously have been the keepers, in every generation, of the English national and Protestant flame, a sect or class that today encompasses academic Spenserians like Professor Hadfield, who spend long, well-funded professional hours hunting for reasons to continue taking Spenser seriously.  The British Academy has even held a conference in honor of this very biography, devoted to the perennial problem of why, as they put it, Spenser’s “significance has been obscured,” or, in plain English, why no one reads him.  If this biography is the chief witness, I don’t think they’ll reach a verdict.


[Edmund Spenser: A Life, by Andrew Hadfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 656 pp., $45.00]