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  • Spenser's Irish Work: Poetry, Plantation and Colonial Reformation
  • Richard F. Hardin
Thomas Herron . Spenser's Irish Work: Poetry, Plantation and Colonial Reformation. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007. x + 268 pp. index. illus. map. bibl. $99.95. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5602-9.

Spenser's Ireland was a cruel world in an iron century, revealing a darker side of the earthiness and spontaneity that many find attractive in Elizabethan culture. When I first studied Spenser, in 1964, no one would have said that every book of The Faerie Queene was focused "in some regard" on Ireland (2); today that's at least arguable. Back then a job-searching friend, a Belfast Catholic, was told that his dissertation on Spenser and Ireland could not reveal anything new. Thomas Herron's Spenser's Irish Work, seething with footnotes on Canny, Hadfield, McCabe, Maley, and others, now enters a crowded field on the subject, arguing for the omnipresence of the colonial within the literary project. Herron can read even [End Page 1377] so seemingly disengaged an episode as the Garden of Adonis through his Irish lens. A related effort (especially chapters 5-7, focusing on book 1) argues the importance of the Virgilian georgic tradition in Spenser's Irish plantation ethos. Enlarging understanding of the ethos and the poet's contemporaries in Ireland, Herron considers Irish elements especially in books 1 and 5 through 7. He reminds his readers of the costs of Irish colonizing. In the messy, massive reshaping of Irish real estate after the 1579-83 "rebellion" (punctuation in honor of an Irish grandmother), which killed a tenth of the country's population, Spenser occupied, as did many of the "New English," a large stretch of forfeited land. Chapter 3 situates Spenser in relation to other writers on Ireland: Edward Walshe, Sir Thomas Smith, the Munster propagandists, Richard Robinson, and Lodowick Bryskett, whose Discourse actually includes Spenser in the dialogue. They share the poet's concerns, especially the interrelation of the colonial and the Protestantizing endeavors. Chapter 4 discusses the poetry of Irish settlers Ralph Birkenshaw and Parr Lane as Spenserian successors through whose work we can read the master's political agenda.

The book is informing, certainly, but it can be vexatious to encounter passing references to the "obscure nature of much of Spenser's writing" (2), "slippery allegories" (7), "murky allegories" (20), and "pseudo-antiquated poetry" (34), especially if we thought we had explained all that. Parr Lane's praise of a Munster official's "zeal" need not "recall the . . . 'zeal' attributed to Artegall" (74) since zeal was a proverbial reformer's attribute going back to More and Tyndale (cf. Jonson's Zeal-of-the-land Busy). When Lane says that "Mammon rules" in Ireland, why need he be thinking of Spenser's Mammon (77)? Spenser's book 3 says "Be Bold," so "Spenser and his planter clique boldly transformed Irish land and society for their own material and spiritual benefit" (117); but of course that episode also says, "Be not too bold." The opening lines of book 1 "stress georgic colonial endeavor" (118) chiefly because of the words plaine and fielde, terms that are worried for several paragraphs in what passes for close, but is really forced, reading. A few stanzas later the tree catalogue in the Wood of Error is compared with Hariot's list of trees in his report on Virginia: "These trees, as I have shown elsewhere, have Irish industrial uses" (123: or English or French, for that matter), but surely the point is to link up their uses (sailing, viniculture, conquering, loving, milling, etc.) with the human, error-ridden activities that conceal heaven's light from us. Spenser writes, "And were it not ill fitting for this file, / To sing of hilles and woods, mongst warres and Knights" (, emphasis added). This is said to mean that Spenser sees himself as a filí , "one of the distinguished classes" (158) of Irish poets who performed in a historical, genealogical, and prophetic role. Hamilton and others gloss file in conformity with the latest OED, as "thread, course, or tenor (of a story, argument, etc.)." The OED provides five instances of...


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