Neither history nor biography has been kind to the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (1554-1599). Following his sudden death, he was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Chaucer, but the inscription on his funerary monument, subsequently destroyed, got the dates of his birth and death wrong, and damned him with faint praise as "the prince of poets in his time".
John Aubrey's brief life described him unhelpfully as "a little man", with "short hair", while Karl Marx's notoriously blunt assessment of Spenser as "Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet" defined the opinion of generations of glum students, faced with reading his vast, archaic masterpiece, The Faerie Queene. Those who finish it usually conclude that Spenser was an intemperate Protestant versifier, glorifying an ageing monarch while making a fortune on his ill-gotten estates in Munster, from where he launched a reprehensible defence of Elizabeth's bloody and violent Irish policy.
This, as Andrew Hadfield points out in this wonderful, definitive life of Spenser, is the story that has been told for centuries. It is little wonder that his is the first biography since the Second World War. Poor Spenser has none of the sexual, political or aristocratic charisma of Sidney, Jonson or Donne. To our modern sensibilities his poetry is long, the metre difficult, the allusions obscure and his role as a spokesman for a savage colonial order hard to stomach. Yet, as Hadfield shows, he needs to be acknowledged as a major colonial thinker who almost single-handedly changed the course of English poetry. The irony is that, despite the lack of biographical interest, he "writes more extensively than most about his life in his work", and Hadfield's great achievement is to have written a truly literary biography, which discerns an otherwise obscure early modern life from his subject's rich poetry, legal documents and secretarial works.
Hadfield notes that references to Spenser's second wife Elizabeth as eclipsing her regal Tudor namesake are part of the poet's enduring "contempt for the authority of the mighty". His "calculated rudeness – or simply tactlessness" led him to offend just about everyone from the queen downwards. In 1579, as he prepared his first major poetic work, The Shepheardes Calender – "one of the most innovative works in English literary history" – Spenser publicly debated the pros and cons of dedicating it to Elizabeth's favourite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. In 1596 King James VI of Scotland was so enraged by the Faerie Queene's "dishonourable" depiction of him and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, that he banned the book. If this is all a long way from Marx's "arse-kissing poet", then so is the myth of Spenser as the bellicose Protestant, celebrating the fairy queen Elizabeth vanquishing the idolatry of Catholicism. Hadfield unearths evidence of his relations in London with the Dutch Family of Love, an underground sect that preached universal brotherhood.
But it was Ireland that defined Spenser. As secretary to the Lord Deputy, Lord Grey, he became a substantial landowner in Munster, where he settled with his first wife and family. It was here that he met his second wife, drew on its landscape in the Faerie Queene, and completed his notorious View of the Present State of Ireland in the 1590s, in which he defended Lord Grey's appalling massacres and enforced famines. Hadfield is remarkably even-handed about Spenser's Irish career. Spenser's views are often "shocking" and "disturbing", but not those of "an especially savage or violent man". If his conclusion may court controversy, there is no doubt that he has a profound understanding of his subject. He has produced a model biography of the possibilities – and limitations – of writing about an early modern life that, like so many others, "will probably always be shrouded in a certain mystery".
Jerry Brotton's 'A History of the World in Twelve Maps' is published in September by Allen Lane
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