I have used this small corner of whatever this is to have a generalised moan about the way in which attention on the works of Edmund Spenser is unduly focused on Elizabethan Ireland. In making a plea for more of a focus on the poetry rather than the politics, I have also made the point that the most significant and radical feature of Spenser’s work is how he uses language, it’s also the most enjoyable.
In making this plea I had manage to overlook Andrew Zurcher’s “Spenser’s Legal Language” which was published in 2007. My only excuse is that I was probably put off by the subtitle -‘Law and Poetry in Early Modern England’ and therefore didn’t read any further.
I turns out that this is an exacting and refreshing reading of Spenser in the way that he may have been read at the time and one that gives more consideration to the origins of words because Zurcher claims that the humanist educational practices of the time had a particular focus on etymology.
It is probably reasonable to assume that Spenser is currently known for ‘The Faerie Queen’ and for ‘A Viewe of the Present State of Irelande’ and the relationship between these two. The former is one of the greatest works in any language and should more widely read, the second is in prose and sets out Spenser’s fairly genocidal view of what to do with the Irish. What is often forgotten is that Spenser’s career began with his take on the ‘new’ way to do pastoral- ‘The Shepheardes Calendar’ – which is accompanied by an introduction and gloss by ‘E K’.
The last few decades of the 16th century saw the birth of what is now known as the ‘English Renaissance’ with Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare in the first wave. This was accompanied by a number of manifestos written with a view to create a new kind of English Poetry. Zurcher points out that E K’s introduction can be read as one of those and it does seem to make a number of points that go beyond the ‘Calendar’. I’m a fan of poetry manifestos and this one is especially absorbing for its focus on readerly activity and a disparagement of the ‘drive-by’ reading.
Before getting on to the glorious complexity of E K’s contribution, I also need to point out that both Hill and Prynne have a strong interest in the origins of words and of their other meanings. On some occasions this can be taken to extremes, in ‘Field Notes’ Prynne has a delightful and extremely detailed analysis of the possible meaning of ‘listen’ in ‘The Solitary Reaper’ whilst Hill seems intent on reviving words that slid into obscurity some time ago- ‘maugre’, ‘spavined’ and ‘limbeck’ being recent examples. I’ve often wondered about this seemingly excessive interest but Zurcher may have shed some further light. He points out that 16th century grammar school pupils were taught to acquire a wide range of Latin and Greek words but to also pay close attention to where these words came from and how they have modified over time.
I also want to clarify and restate the bebrowed position on the identity of E K. This is that E K is Edmund Spenser and that this is so glaringly obvious that I can’t imagine why critics continue to argue the point. We then need to stand back and admire the audacity of this conceit (epistle and gloss) when launching a literary career which is also marking a new direction. So, Spenser writes the poem, provides his own gloss to clarify certain sticking points and innovations but also writes an epistle proclaiming the skill of the poet and launching a detailed defence of these devices- in particular the use of ‘old and unwonted words’.
Others have observed that Spenser’s reputation would still stand if he had only published the ‘Calendar’ but it is important to note that wrapping it up in this way does show a lack of confidence as to whether it would be well-received without some kind of detailed explication. It also displays an inordinate amount of ego and ambition for a youthful novice to take big swipes at his older and more established peers.
I’m going to quote the epistle at length because I hope to show that it still has relevance and finds echoes in what Prynne has to say about late modernist verse.
E K starts with some bold claims as to Spenser’s worth:
But I dout not, so soone as his name shall come into the knowledge of men, and his worthines be sounded in the tromp of fame, but that he shall be not onely kiste, but also beloved of all embraced of the most, and wondred at as the best. No lesse I thinke, deserveth his wittiness in devising his pithiness in uttering, his complaints of love so lovely, his discourses of pleasure so pleasantly, his pastorall rudenesse, his morall wisenesse, his dewe observing of Decorum everye where, in personages, in seasons, in matter, in speach, and generally in all seemly simplycitie of handeling this matter and framing his words:
Which is a bold statement and more than likely designed to get some attention, it also fascinating to note how little the identified qualities of the poet have changed over the last 430 years. E K now begins to tackle word choice and language use, this is how the above continues:
the which of many things which in him be straunge, I knowe will seem the straungest, the words them selves being so auncient, the knitting of them so short and intricate, and the whole Periode and compasse of speache so delightsome for the roundnesse, and so grave for the strangenesse. And first of the wordes to speake, I graunt the be something hard, and of most men unused, yet both English, and also used of most excellent Aothours and most famous Poetes. In whom whenas this our Poet hath been much traveiled and thoroughly redd, how could it be, (as that worthy Oratour sayde) but that walking in the sonne although for other cause he walked, yet needes he mought be sunburnt, and having the sounde of those auncient Poetes still ringing in his ears, he mought needes in singing hit out some of theyr tunes. But whether he useth them by such casualtye and custome, or whether of set purpose and choyse, as thinking them fttest for such rusticall rudenesse of shepheards, either for theyr rough sounde would make his rymes more ragged and rustical, or else because such olde and obsolete wordes are most used of country folke, sure I think and think I think not amisse, that they bring great grace and, as one would say, auctouritie to the verse.
What is so significant about this is that it comes first in the epistle because it is recognised that Spenser’s word choice and language use will draw the most attention and criticism and it is this ‘innovation’ that needs to be defended first. The justification for old words used here can also be applied to ‘The Faerie Queen’ and underlines Zurcher’s point about the way in which educated readers had been taught to work with texts- by paying close attention to the nature and origins of words. As well as the Renaissance appeal to classical authority (Cicero) we have the flamboyantly bonkers ‘sure I think and think I think not amisse’ which surely reveals Spenser as E K.
Zurcher also makes the point that the epistle draws attention not only to the words used but also to the relationship between those words and suggests that this is how Spenser intended his work to be read. I’m not altogether sold on this because it may be over-egging an already complex pudding but it is certainly more useful for this reader to think about than the politics of Book V. In making his claim for the relationship between words, Zurcher cites this from the epistle:
But all as in most exquisite pictures they use to blaze and portraict not onely the daintie lineaments of beautye, but also rounde about it to shadow the rude thickets and craggy clifts, that by the basenesse of such parts, more excellency may accrew to the principall; for oftimes we fynde ourselves, I knowe not how, singularly delighted with the shewe of such naturall rudenesse and take great pleasure in that disorderly order. Even so doe those rough and harsh termes enlumine and make more clearly to appeare the brightnesse of brave and glorious wordes.
Prynne has recently written about the need to be aware of the relationship between words and also the way that words sound. I’m not making a case for Spenser as a 16th century Prynne but what I do think is important is the primacy that both place on the words themselves and what those words can do. For me, this is what the doing of poetry is about far more than membership of a particular school or ideological persuasion and I like to think that our best pets share this concern / perspective as preceding cultural and political context.
Zurcher is also correct in suggesting that there is much more work that needs to be done on aspects of Spenser’s language use. Does anybody know of others working on this?