Edmund Spenser: A Life, by Andrew Hadfield

Willy Maley hails a monumental biography that sets new standards in Renaissance criticism

June 28, 2012

When I agreed to review this book, I had no idea I was its dedicatee. The reviewer’s role is vexed enough without another layer of anxiety. Then again, Edmund Spenser had fraught relations with his many dedicatees, including the queen (Elizabeth I) to whom he addressed his epic poem but whose approach to Irish colonisation he found too piecemeal, and the future king (James VI of Scotland and I of England), whom he offended by his unflattering depiction of James’ mother (more of which anon).

Hailed as “the first major biography of Spenser in 60 years”, Andrew Hadfield’s monumental undertaking sets new standards in life writing. Not merely a significant contribution to Spenser studies, it changes the way we think about Renaissance literature, Elizabethan history, biographical criticism and issues of authorship (the asides on Shakespeare are compelling). Biography is a kind of bunting, and in this Jubilee year, Karl Marx’s infamous reference in his Ethnographic Notebooks to Spenser as “Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet” assumes peculiar resonance.

Marx was thinking of Spenser not as author of The Faerie Queene but as an English planter advocating annihilation of the native Irish. The figure who emerges from the pages of Hadfield’s biography is not a court sycophant but a kick-ass colonial dissident who offended lords and monarchs, and who was subject to censorship on more than one occasion. To be fair to Marx, there’s a pun in the original German - “Elizabeths Arschkissende Poet” - on Spenser’s status on the title-page of the first folio edition of his works as “England’s Arch-Poet”, umlaut and all. Marx and Spenser had both kissed the Blarney Stone.

Often viewed as two cheeks of the same arse, Marx and Friedrich Engels parted company on Spenser. Engels’ more measured remarks in his unpublished “Notes for the History of Ireland” have gone largely unnoticed. Engels cited the passage from Spenser’s A View of the State of Ireland on the corruption of the clergy, adding his own observation: “All the above, apparently, refers to the Protestant priests of that time.” No forelock-tugger, Spenser was capable of criticising his own kind, and this more complex character is the subject of Hadfield’s study. The challenging poet who emerges here appears closer to later Anglo-Irish writers - Swift, Yeats, MacNeice, C.S. Lewis, even Beckett (perhaps especially Beckett) - than he does to his English contemporaries. There are affinities too with Joyce in terms of exile and language. Hadfield’s is not the postcolonial Spenser targeted by Edward Said, but a semicolonial author closer to Said’s reading of Yeats as a “poet of decolonization”.

The Faerie Queene features quite a lot of kissing - of eyes, face, feet, hands, lips and even stirrups - but not much by way of arses. Since one of the few arses described in any detail is Duessa’s (aka Mary Queen of Scots’), and hers is “a foxes taile, with dong all fowly dight”, that’s perhaps understandable. Calling the dead mother of your future king “shitey-arse” is not politic. What would Freud make of this? His view was that anyone “turning biographer has committed himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding: for biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were, it couldn’t be useful”. Whether warts and all or kiss and tell, there’s always something uncomfortably intimate about biography, and something squint-eyed and self-regarding about biographers. As Michael Holroyd, one of the UK’s foremost literary biographers, says: “They overlook Marlowe’s mighty line, and tell us with immense scholarship and at tedious length what Byron had for breakfast.” For Yeats, one of Spenser’s many biographers, “all knowledge is biography”, and Spenser’s life and work were tightly interwoven, both because his Irish service afforded him the means to write and because a scarcity of source material forces biographers to look to the literary work for signs of the life. Hadfield pushes this line to the limit. That’s why his biography makes it hard to imagine another. And he’s more interested in Spenser’s books than his breakfast. Mind you, Spenser went to a school at which lessons started at 7am, and where the statutes stated that its pupils “bring no meate, nor drinck, nor bottles, nor use in the Schoole no Breakfasts” - so not a place of learning that would get the Jamie Oliver seal of approval.

Most biographies of Spenser are thin on documentation (not helped by the destruction of the papers in the Public Record Office in Dublin during the Irish Civil War), and thick with speculation (what critic W.H. Welply calls “the dross heaped up around the career of this great poet”). Between the two lies contextual elaboration, and it is in this aspect of the biographer’s art that Hadfield comes into his own. One of the leading specialists in the field, he undertakes a scrupulous mapping of education, landholding, patronage and religion in the period that allows him to build up a milieu so convincing that we see beyond the few strands of documentary evidence to the figure in the carpet constituted by a whole culture. Hadfield rightly observes that lack of evidence for other Renaissance writers has not deterred scholars, yet “what has inspired boldness in Shakespeare biographers has led to timidity in would-be biographers of Spenser”. Hadfield shows no such timidity. A third of this book’s 600-plus pages is taken up with appendices, notes and bibliography. The acknowledgements are an essay in collaborative research. His assertion that the absence of a recent biography of Spenser “means that our understanding of the early modern period is distorted” rings true, and he draws on scholarly advances in our understanding of the Renaissance in order to reconstruct the poet’s life out of an astonishing array of records and readings, from maps and manuscripts to portraits and property deeds, and from carefully crafted correspondence with Spenser’s mentor Gabriel Harvey aimed at attracting the attention of the London literary scene to letters transcribed in haste from scenes of desolation in Ireland.

According to Hadfield: “We are presented with a fundamental dilemma: either take what appears in the literary works as evidence of the poet’s life or abandon any quest for that life and declare that it is unwritable.” Hadfield takes the literature as evidence and between Spenser’s writings - poetry, letters, documents detailing marriages, children, land acquisitions and legal wrangles - and a painstakingly drawn historical milieu, we get a sense of the texture, the stuff of the life. Hadfield engages in some curious “counterfactual” speculation in his afterword, imagining Spenser’s legacy had he not gone to Ireland in 1580 and fled for his life in 1598. This for me is the oddest moment in the biography, as the Spenser described is actually the one laid out before us in the preceding chapters. Even the point made here about religion - that Spenser “was wary of narrow doctrinal belief” in his early work and showed a “lack of interest in religion” in his later writings - suggests a joined-up figure, resisting dogma before and after Ireland. Hadfield alludes to the trauma of Spenser’s Irish experiences informing his work, but also acknowledges that the poet was deeply affected by the reported atrocities in the religious wars of the 1570s in France and the Low Countries prior to his Irish service, so it could be argued that the later “experience” merely reinforced that earlier knowledge. The dreadful had already happened. The Faerie Queene is replete with violence, but so too is the tradition to which it belongs. Hadfield’s afterword is a world removed from his introduction, and is for me the only lapse in an otherwise rigorously sustained exploration of all the facts, figures and fictions.

Edmund Spenser: A Life

By Andrew Hadfield
Oxford University Press, 656pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780199591020
Published 28 June 2012

The author

Born in Kendal, Cumbria, Andrew Hadfield took his undergraduate degree and doctorate at the universities of Leeds and Ulster respectively.

“I nearly did history, but an obsession with reading drew me to English literature. I like its amorphous nature as an academic subject that enables practitioners to range widely and stray into other subjects; but the corresponding arrogance and lack of rigour can be dispiriting at times,” he says.

Hadfield, who is professor of English at the University of Sussex, says his wife Alison’s job as a primary school teacher “makes me realise how easy academia is and how lucky one is to have such a nice job, even in these straitened times (I hope she doesn’t read this)”.

He adds: “She makes fantastic costumes, although it can be disconcerting when the love of your life suddenly appears in the lounge dressed as a wildebeest and asks if she looks OK.”

“I enjoy travelling,” he observes, “but I think of myself as a tourist, not a traveller (tourists are much nicer and less self-regarding, as my research in that area taught me). I hate flying and do not understand why planes stay in the air. But I’d love to visit India, especially as Alison really wants to go.”

Hadfield’s favourite places include New York City and Portrush, Northern Ireland: “The first because it was an adventure in hyper-reality and it is like it is in films; the second because it was an adventure, it was where we lived when we were first married, and because Ireland endlessly fascinates me.”

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