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A View Reviewed
by David J. Baker

This special issue of Explorations in Renaissance Culture, edited by Thomas Herron, makes a welcome addition to the commentary on Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland. The collection is framed as a departure from critical business as usual, and as a return to first principles. The framing doesn’t quite line up, however, with what we get, and it’s worth thinking about why this is. Readers should not expect much engagement with Spenser’s Irish environs, we’re told, nor any exalting of his poetry over his prose. But who these days goes out of her way to denigrate the View as mere prose? Not many.  The real swerve, it appears, is away from Ireland; the collection will take us ‘beyond Ireland alone’ (4). This is indeed a departure from recent trends, and I’ll return to it and to the itinerary it implies. Similarly, one stated aim of the collection is to bring together ‘prose policy tract and published verse…into dialogue with each other for the sake of better understanding both’ (1).  In the event, this best describes only one essay out of eight, Denna Iammarino’s ‘Dressed in Sheep’s Clothing: Pastoral and Reform in Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland’. She touches on Colin Clouts Come Home Againe and Book VI of The Faerie Queene (1596). Another aim is to ‘figure out what the View is, generically speaking, why it was written, and for whom’, that is, to ‘reconceiv[e] what it is’ (1-2).  This formulation is not very clear, but it appears to have been more compelling. The ‘being’ of the View is conflated with authorial intent and with reader reception, but perhaps that conflation is the point. What the editor and contributors, or some of them, would like to do is to de-centre the View as a ‘specialized ‘key’ to … historical facts and colonial contexts’ (4) and to re-centre it as ‘one of the most intellectually sophisticated prose tracts of its time’ (3), one that could legitimately speak to readers ‘beyond’ such contexts; this is how to ‘re-view…the View’ (2).

If that was the goal, it is incompletely realised. Brian C. Lockey’s ‘Edmund Spenser’s View of Christendom: New Legal and Theological Contexts for A View of the Present State of Ireland’, fits the bill, as does Nicholas Popper’s ‘Spenser’s View and the Production of Political Knowledge in Elizabethan England’.  But, despite what we’re told in the introduction, other essays – Katarzyna Lecky’s ‘Wetnurse Politics in Spenser’s View and Jones’ Arte and Science’, Andrew Zurcher’s ‘Plantation, Contagion and Containment in Spenser and Bryskett’, as well as Iammarino’s piece – do not take their eyes off Ireland, not at all. Theirs are deep dives into the site-specific discourses that shaped the View’s tropes, and they remain as Hiberno-centric as one might expect. And two of the essays, Jean R. Brink’s ‘Constructing the Text of The View of the Present State of Ireland before the New Bibliography’ and Craig A. Berry’s ‘Prosaic Diction: Finding Patterns in the Words of Spenser’s View’, are another thing again. Brink offers us an exercise in radical bibliography, and Berry applies the ‘tools of corpus linguistics’ (27) to the treatise. As in most such collections, the approaches taken in this special issue are various, and only some of them synch up with the declared agenda. But the disparities are particularly noticeable here, which suggests, I think, that there is something about the agenda itself that needs to be ‘reconceived’.

Of all the essays in the collection, the one that does the most to disrupt our sense of the View is Brink’s: she demolishes our belief that we have a stable text of the tract to begin with.  Brink has a knack for calling received assumptions into question. Previously, she made the case that Spenser may not have been the View’s author, though she has since been persuaded otherwise (9). Here, she goes hard in the other direction. ‘The New Bibliography,’ she says, ‘has taught us to select a copytext that is closest to the author’s intentions and follow it’ (21). Spenser goes from the View’s absentee author to its authorising presence. Today, there are ‘twenty-one complete manuscripts’ (11) available to us, and five of these ‘still have never been collated with either of the two modern editions’ (Brink’s emphasis): the one that Rudolf Gottfried contributed to the Spenser Variorum (1932-49), and W. L. Renwick’s ‘1934 Scholartis Press edition’ (19). But neither of these gentlemen, she argues, had any good reason to choose the source manuscript that he did, Gottfried the Huntington, Ellesmere MS 7041 and Renwick the Bodleian, Rawlinson B 478.  In fact, the choice probably came down to the ‘codes of scholarly conduct that once governed British and North American scholarly interactions’ (14). Gottfried did not want to ‘poach … on Renwick’s territory’ (15). Brink assumes that Gottfried and other editors shared her commitment to the manuscript that ‘Spenser intended’ (13), but that they couldn’t find such a manuscript: it couldn’t be plausibly identified (and still can’t). Instead, they generated a text conflated from several manuscripts and called it ‘the’ View. This is all after-the-fact lumping, though. Unless we can account for the omissions and inclusions of Sir James Ware’s first edition of 1633, for instance, no text of the View can be said to have ‘more authorial authority than any other’ (14, Brink’s emphasis). We have no ‘satisfactory modern edition’ (24). This biblio-scepticism is bracing, but Brink may have course-corrected too far. The New Bibliography aside, why should authorial intention be regarded as more authoritative than some other editorial criterion? Perhaps the ‘textual scholarship on the View’ is a ‘quagmire’ (20) because, well, the textual history of this tract is muddy and is likely to remain so. Quagmires – like the bogs of early modern Ireland – are notoriously hard to escape.

Craig C. Berry’s contribution is more modest in its aims, but no less innovative. If there’s an essay other than Iammarino’s that delivers on the promise to relate Spenser’s prose to his poetry, this is it. Pointing out that Spenser’s View makes up the bulk of his prose, Berry describes two ‘projects’ – WordHoard and MorphAdorner – that enable ‘the researcher to measure difference and similarity between different word collections,’ as well as to ‘highlight the characteristic features of a single word collection’ (29). (The word collections in question are ‘Spenser: Poetry’ and ‘View’ [31]). He shows that the word ‘Ireland’ figures little in the poetry but concludes this doesn’t tell us much: this entity may well be ‘hidden behind an allegorical veil’ (32). Pronouns tell us more: they tend to be singular and third person in the verse, collective in the prose. The View, then, has more to say about groups. It also includes more forms of ‘to be’. Perhaps this, too, has to do with allegory, which is ‘in the business of converting being into doing’ (35). Spenser’s poetry is the more active space, his prose the more descriptive. Within the tract itself, Eudoxus and Irenius can be differentiated: the first asks, the second answers. These results, while intuitive, are not overwhelming, or, as Berry puts it, they ‘highlight the limitations as well as the potential of literary analysis based on linguistic analysis’ (37). Berry is right to say that word frequency counts are a place to start, not to end, Spenserian readings. We need to mobilize our understanding of allegory to explain why Ireland is not in fact absent from The Faerie Queene, he says, or our knowledge of the history of ‘early modern nationhood’ (37) to tell us why the word ‘country’ shows up so often in the View. But if corpus linguistics needs to be supplemented in this way, at what point does it begin to tell us more than we already know? To serve as something other than confirmation for our pre-set beliefs about Spenser’s canon? I don’t know. My sense is that we’re not there yet.

As I mentioned earlier, Brian C. Lockey’s essay can be usefully paired with Nicholas Popper’s. Both seek to broaden the context in which we read the View. Lockey wants to move beyond ‘paradigms’ that locate Ireland geographically, either in relation to the ‘British’ countries in its vicinity or to the ‘Atlanticist’ New World.  Instead, he proposes, the View reflects a commitment to a more encompassing entity: ‘a novel Protestant re-conception of transnational Christendom as well as a conception of England as a Protestant nation within’ it (40). His road map to this expanse is found in Christopher St. German’s legal treatise, Doctor and Student (1528), although not only there. He first shows that ‘Christendom’ was an operative concept for both Protestant Catholic political thinkers, and that Spenser has his own version of the trope. In the View, he conceives of a Christendom ‘based around exchange and migration’ and not the ‘traditional political entity presided over by the Church of Rome’ (42, Lockey’s emphasis). This notion is tinged by an awareness of threats to ‘Western Christendom’ from the east and a sense that migration – as, for instance, that of the English into Ireland – can accomplish the spread of ‘right religion’ (44). St. German then enters as a theological analogue to Spenser. Like him, St. German is a proponent of a Protestant transnationalism, is alert to threats from the east, and is invested in ecclesiastical reforms, aided by ‘temporal legal institutions’ (48). As Lockey notes, the influence of St. German on Spenser’s View has been suggested before by Elizabeth Fowler; his essay is a more ‘comprehensive’ (5) inquiry into what links them. Both Fowler and Lockey may well be right that Spenser and St. German inhabit a similar religious habitus, although possibly not more than that. Textual analogies don’t necessarily amount to influence, even though, it’s true, both tracts are dialogues (51). For me, Lockey’s most notable suggestion is that Spenser, in his complicated musings in the View on the movements of peoples, elaborates a ‘kindred-or-blood-based’ concept of a (Protestant) church universal. Prompted by Lockey, I took another look at the passage in which Spenser talks of the Irish as a ‘mingled … nacion’ – and viewed it anew. This ‘important transformation’ (42) in Protestant institutional theory, orchestrated by Spenser (and others?), is well worth a line of inquiry in itself.

Nicholas Popper wants to expand the purview of the View even further, or to deepen it, drilling down into its epistemic foundations. Like Lockey, he means to move ‘beyond’ readings that prioritize either Spenser’s poetry or his views on Irish reform to ‘reveal the social, intellectual, and material techniques by which the type of knowledge conveyed in the View was transmitted in Elizabethan England’ (74). Specifically, these methods can be seen at work in early modern ars apodemica (travel advice literature), which encouraged close observation of foreign locales; this would serve as a ‘foundation of policy discussion’ (79). In addition, Spenser knew of ‘contemporary secretarial practice’ (81), which generated a ‘host of discursive sources, lists, and notes’ (83) meant for the same purpose. Like Lockey, Popper relies on formal similarities to make his case. The View is structured like – or by, as he would argue – the conventions of these discourses; ergo it can be categorized with them and is probably influenced by them. Popper leans a good deal on the word ‘conference,’ which implies a policy-driven ‘form of structured oral discussion prevalent in early modern England’ (83). (In particular, he shows, this mode of dialogue was prevalent in the circle around Spenser’s patron, the Earl of Essex.) From this we can conclude, says Popper, that Spenser ‘abjured his experience in Ireland in favor of practices, policies, and ambitions focused on and dictated by colonial interests’ (88). I found this sentence, the last in the essay, hard to get a grip on. I think it means that Spenser disregarded his Irish ‘experience’ as a colonial administrator and instead took his cue from ‘colonial interests’ (English higher-ups, New English planters) and the mindset and methods they shared and promoted. But how would you (or Spenser) make this distinction? Wasn’t this Irish ‘experience’ informed by that English praxis, just as Popper argues? And vice versa, surely? The sentence seems designed to evacuate Spenser from his ‘colonial context’ (4) in Ireland and to identify him instead with ‘colonial interests,’ primarily those in ‘early modern England.’ Spenser was in but not of Ireland.

Does Popper’s essay seek to shield Spenser from a certain Irish contagion? If so, others do not. Andrew Zurcher’s, in fact, is about contagion. This impressive piece unpacks the ‘language of disease’ in ‘Tudor and early Stuart colonial policy’ (117).  As Zurcher shows, this was a language in transition. The miasma theory, which held that the causes of sickness were airborne – ‘stench and filthy savours’ (121) – was giving way to a newer theory of proximal contagion, which led in turn, it was thought, to infection. Localized in this way, sickness was both more containable and more curable. The emergent theory had wider implications too, especially for conceptions of space, movement across it and control of it. Zurcher argues that Spenser is the first to apply this medical approach to the governance of Ireland, followed by his friend Lodowick Bryskett in his A Discourse of Ciuill Life (1606) and then, after them, by administrators such as Arthur Chichester and John Davies. In the View, Spenser takes up these terms to insert himself into an ongoing debate over the feasibility of Irish reformation. When Irenius says in its opening pages that ‘they saie’ that Ireland’s woes proceed from ‘the very Genius of the soile’ (116), he registers a diagnosis: ‘sicknesses peculiar to or predominant in particular places were associated with the[ir] soil’ (116). But he disagrees with them about possible causes and cures. Like the ‘good humanist’ (141) that he was, Spenser held that ‘Ireland’s reputed disorder,’ although ‘deeply threatening … to English imperialists, might be contained by policy’. This optimism stood as his ‘distinctive contribution to New English colonial theory’. Zurcher has a contribution of his own to make: in place of Spenser the hardcore pessimist and determinist, he offers us a more upbeat character altogether.  I found myself liking this Spenser but wasn’t sure I always recognized him. While it may be true that Spenser saw the administrative uses of the ‘evolving language of infection and contagion’ (141), he isn’t always or only the “soft colonist” that Zurcher makes him out to be. In places in the View, Spenser decisively aligns himself with those who say that ‘reformation of customs, manners, and laws must very often be effected by force’ (117) – ’Even by the sword,’ as he says. The patient must be saved, but sometimes you take a surgical approach. Zurcher has located a tendency toward ‘humanist optimism’ (123) in this dialogue, but not its sole vector of argument.  

Katarzyna Lecky’s essay resembles Zurcher’s somewhat. She too identifies an early modern discourse – ‘wetnurse politics’ – and unfolds it in two related texts, the View and John Jones’ Arte and Science (1596). She, however, puts these texts in explicit contradistinction. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, ‘the wetnurse became an early testing ground for a biopolitics of territorial expansion’ (57). In Ireland, genealogy didn’t always follow strict blood lines. Among Irish clans, a foster mother could ensure political alliances through the ‘physical act of nursing, ‘literally ‘nourish[ing] Irishness’ (60). Likewise, it was thought that Irish wetnurses had disrupted ‘Englishness’. They were responsible for the degeneration of the Old English families, and so were distrusted by the New. What Lecky shows, with engaging verve, is that when Spenser denigrates wetnurses in the View, he takes stance that is ‘diametrically opposed’ (57) to another, equally plausible point of view. For Jones, Irish breast milk is the ‘cause of … greate health and length of life’. He recommends its ‘power to fashion the minde and bodie’ (63) in wholesome ways. The Irish wetnurse should be part of the English family. Together, they adumbrate a pan-British collectivity tolerant of ethnic diversity. Working out from the same assumptions, that is, Spenser and Jones come to markedly different conclusions. Lecky suggests that this is probably due to timing. Jones wrote before the Nine Years War, Spenser after. That revolt had been spearheaded by Hugh O’Neill, who had been placed in fosterage with a New English family. His volte-face was a ‘most spectacular failure’ (61). Lecky’s essay also usefully points up what it meant for Spenser to be situated within an early modern ‘discourse’, as we often say. While such a construct might supply the tropes that gave shape to thought, it did not, in the end, determine the direction that thought would take. Lecky restores a certain dialectical liveliness to the debate Spenser takes up in the View. ‘If Spenser did read [Jones’ book]’, she says, ‘he didn’t agree with it’ (64). She also, as it happens, doesn’t agree with Zurcher. While he argues that Spenser’s sense of bodily cause and effect leads him to imagine greater regimes of control over Irish people and land, she thinks it rather prompts him to reject ‘proposed cures’ and to ‘embrace a perfunctory diagnostic’: ‘bona terra, mala gens’ (65). For Zurcher’s Spenser, Irish terra and gens are linked in contagion. For Lecky’s, they are severed. Inadvertently, I’m sure, these critical personae seem to be recapitulating the roles of Eudoxus and Irenius, with the first as the ‘interventionist, pragmatic humanist’ and the second as ‘disillusioned pessimist’ (123).

Finally, Denna Iammarino tackles the question: how might we read the View as ‘another iteration of Spenserian pastoral themes, one especially focused on those pertaining to social structure and harmony[?]’ (93), to ask, as the editor puts it, why we don’t use Spenser’s ‘poetry as an insight into understanding’ (4) his prose tract? For Iammarino, these themes include ‘[g]enerational conflict’ (97), as we see in The Shepheardes Calender (1579). This seems especially pertinent in early modern Ireland, with its many threats to ‘social order’ (99). Among other parallels, Spenser’s critique of corruption at court is SC is echoed in his friend Bryskett’s A Discourse of Ciuill Life. In Ireland, conflict between generations plays out between the Old and the New English; the former resemble ‘animals who have broken out of their restraints,’ a ‘pastoral motif’ (106). Other indices? Irenius’ name may recall that of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon (107), who was a ‘pastor’ himself, and the word ‘plot’ reminds us of ‘grass-plots’ (108). Like any good husbandman, Spenser hopes for the ‘reform’ of his field before it can be regenerated; this is the ‘moral and practical’ (111) project of colonialist pastoral. Iammarino’s essay establishes broad continuities across Spenser’s poetry and prose, but I’m not sure how far it goes towards explaining the View itself and the ‘conference’ in which it partakes. Might ‘pastoral’ be too capacious a category? Another way to put this is to ask (taking a tip from Zurcher and Lecky): who was Spenser disagreeing with – if anyone – in advocating a pastoral approach to Ireland? How would this have been ‘controversial’ (96)?

A last note: in his introduction, the editor tells us that we should not expect articles ‘highlight[ing] Spenser’s deep biographical and literary involvement with Irish history, language, and culture’ (2), as I mentioned. But we get them anyway. Ireland ghosts the collection (as how could it not?), and not just as the View’s local habitation, but as the proving ground for argument.  If we aim to find our way to critically ‘less-travelled paths’ (2), though, we should not be too quick to leave Ireland behind. We have yet to ask, in any serious way, what it meant for Spenser to be an Irish writer – in the sense that he is the product of a distinctly Irish literary milieu with its own languages, cultures, and writers. The problems with this approach are many, and Herron lists some of them. The first and ‘greatest’ of these, as he says, is ‘not knowing Irish,’ as most of us do not. ‘If only,’ he laments, ‘another Irish-language scholar could trace the trail … from the blazes first cut by P.W. Joyce’, citing an essay on Irish rivers published in 1878. ‘Likewise, it would be good to have an updated historical-geographical analysis of the places mentioned in the View.’ Besides that, ‘we could do with a fuller analysis of Spenser’s use of and relation to contemporary historiography, including Irish sources’ (7). As it happens, there are several digital projects in the works that bid fair to provide us with much of what Herron wants.[1] We don’t need to go back to 1878 to find the wherewithal for an Irish Spenser! Scholarship on the View finds itself at a boundary: the digital divide. On one side of this border, critics are working in fields from bibliography to intellectual history. Such work is impressively showcased in this special issue. On the other side of the border, lie some hard – or, at any rate, harder – questions, the ones we don’t yet fully know how to ask or how to answer. For these, the source materials and the reading methods remain under construction. ‘[W]ho was the View written for, actually?’ (3), asks the editor. Ask again in five years, I’d say, or ten, or twenty. The answer may be different.



[1] Besides Herron’s own Centering Spenser (, see Léamh (https://xn—, helmed by Brendan Kane. It offers scholars a chance to learn early modern Irish. MACMORRIS (, headed up by Patricia Palmer, is currently in development and will feature a ‘deep map’ locating many of the places Spenser mentions in the View. MACMORRIS will also link to the Bardic Poetry Database ( RECIRC (, overseen by Mary-Louise Coolahan, charts the reception and circulation of early modern women’s writing, making the move ‘beyond’ Ireland without abnegating it. Its ‘focus includes writers who were read in Ireland and Britain as well as women born and resident in Anglophone countries.’


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Cite as:

David J. Baker, "A View Reviewed," Spenser Review 52.1.2 (Winter 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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