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David Harris Sacks review of Hadfield
by David Harris Sacks

Hadfield, Andrew. Edmund Spenser: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xxi + 624 pp. ISBN: 978-0199591022. $45 cloth.




Andrew Hadfield, Professor of English at the University of Sussex, has been a major contributor to the study of English literature since the completion in 1988 of his doctoral dissertation.1 He has been prolific, not only as a student of Edmund Spenser’s writing, but, among other subjects, as a commentator or editor of works on Shakespeare, on Jacobean tragedy, on early modern English poetry and early modern English drama, on Renaissance politics and Renaissance republicanism, on travel and colonial writing, and on censorship. He is currently editing the Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1500-1640 and with Anne Lake Prescott, completing work on the Norton Spenser. Just footnoting the items in his extensive personal bibliography would fill more than a page of small print. Running through this body of material two things especially stand out: first, a recurring interest in topics concerning Ireland and Irish life and culture, and second, closely related, a strong commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship in which the systematic, document-based study of history plays a central role. Both of these features of Hadfield’s authorial persona are evident in his impressive biography of Spenser and give this work its distinctiveness as a major contribution to Spenser studies.

One of the greatest virtues of this superb treatment of Spenser’s career and writings is the deep, historically-grounded knowledge of Spenser’s world on which it draws. Hadfield possesses a command not only of Spenser’s poetry and other writings, and of the surviving primary sources providing evidence of his life and activities, but more generally of the history of England and of Ireland in Spenser’s era and of the contemporary records in modern publications necessary for the serious study of these subjects. The book’s bibliography begins with three pages of manuscript sources listing materials from twenty-four archives and collections. Following this, we are presented with more than eleven pages listing the printed primary sources that have been used, and a further fifty pages naming the secondary sources on which Hadfield has relied. The text is densely annotated; over 2,600 endnotes fill 117 pages of the volume. From this perspective, Hadfield’s biography is a masterwork of archival research and scholarly learning.

Although little that Hadfield says about the English scene in Spenser’s day will surprise historians, his discussions of Elizabethan politics, culture and society are grounded in the most up-to-date historical scholarship and demonstrate an impressively knowledgeable understanding of the era’s key events, institutions, personages, and culture. Hadfield’s treatment of Irish affairs does more. Indeed, I know of only a few scholars, whatever their professional training or disciplinary affiliations, who have as deep knowledge of events and conditions in Ireland in the later sixteenth century. However, Hadfield did not set out to write his own A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland in the Elizabethan era, although he offers illuminating and insightful commentaries on Spenser’s.2 Nevertheless, his book not only presents a fully contextualized understanding of the troubled history of Ireland in the late sixteenth century, but also offers original insights into the outlooks of the so-called “New English” in their colonizing efforts there. Despite their English origins, the experience of these planters—living remotely from their ancestral roots and under constant threat of rebellion—engendered in them, as Hadfield shows, a distinctive viewpoint, provincial and Anglo-Irish rather than purely English, less interested in turning Ireland into a replica of England—“making Ireland British” in Nicholas Canny’s phrase3—than in bringing civility to the Irish according to the universal standards embodied, in Spenser’s case, in his humanist education and in the poetry and other literary works, ancient and modern, in other European languages as well as English, that shaped his thought and style.4

Viewed from the perspective of historical scholarship, Hadfield also has drawn significantly and effectively on the history of the book—the history, that is, of publishing and printing and of print culture, including print censorship—in commenting on Spenser’s works. Hadfield offers a superb discussion, for example, of the publishing history of Spenser’s Complaints, which was called in by the authorities and summarily removed from circulation because the allegory in Mother Hubberds Tale, one of the Complaints, was deemed seditious. As a beast fable, it savagely satirized Elizabeth I’s court, singling out Lord Burghley, its most powerful figure, for ridicule, thereby associating itself, in appearance at least, with the violent attacks against Burghley by English Catholic writers of the period, such as Richard Verstegan. Another illuminating discussion is Hadfield’s extended commentary on the publication history of Spenser’s Vewe, which was widely circulated in manuscript among leading English decision makers soon after it was written in 1596, and first entered into the Stationers’ Register for print publication in 1598, although not finally published until 1633. In discussions of these topics, and in similar ones regarding Spenser’s other works, we learn as much about the ways of the publishing industry and the careers of some of its leading figures, such as William Ponsonby, who published most of Spenser’s literary output, and Mathew Lownes, who had endeavored to put Spenser’s Vewe into print, as we do about Spenser’s own activities in the literary marketplace. Readers, especially those attuned to the recent turn in cultural studies to a focus on the “material book,”5 will find this aspect of Hadfield’s biography welcome.

Students of early modern publishing history and print culture have the benefit not only of such sources as the Stationers’ Registers, the State Papers, the Acts of the Privy Council, and similar public records concerned with the regulation of the book trade, but also of the material evidence of production and reception contained in surviving copies of the books themselves. If biographers are to present thorough and inclusive accounts of their subjects’ lives, however, they need a wider range of sources—personal and family papers, last wills and testaments, diaries or memoirs, and most especially private letters, as well as the information about their subjects found in secular and ecclesiastical records. If these classes of document exist at all, too often they survive only as single items or in small groups on unrelated topics, making it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to describe the events that shaped their subjects’ lives or to reveal their thoughts about them. As Hadfield acknowledges this is especially the case when trying “to reconstruct the lives of men and women in the early modern period,” particularly for writers like Spenser “born outside the aristocracy, who were not employed by the church, who did not live in a notably saintly or evil manner, and who were not engaged in politics or diplomacy” (2-3). In Spenser’s case, by no means uncommon among sixteenth-century authors, “no personal letters survive, and there are no significant literary manuscripts in [his] hand, only legal documents and secretarial works . . . There is nothing of Spenser’s opinions, comments, or even many details of his life outside his writings” (1).

This paucity of evidence has meant piecing together Spenser’s life from whatever facts have survived, in the process rejecting “false leads,” then, working out, as Hadfield says, “how the life relates to the work and what each tells us about the other” (12). This latter task depends in turn on establishing the contexts in which the life was lived and the work was produced. The result is a book that moves deliberately not just year by year, but work by work, systematically analyzing, often from multiple perspectives, each piece of available evidence, frequently relying on rational reconstructions or speculations to suggest what is and is not likely. In consequence, it is deliberate and exhaustive as well as rich and comprehensive not just in its commentaries about the relevant contexts but also in laying out its arguments and interpretations. It is especially revealing that the word “perhaps” is frequently employed in discussing the explanations of events and that two of Hadfield’s chapters are devoted to what are explicitly called “lost years” in Spenser’s life.6




What do we actually know? Edmund Spenser was a Londoner by birth. Like so much else about his life, however, we are uncertain of the precise place or exact date. Although Hadfield tells us that “Spenser probably grew up on the east side of London,” whether it actually was in East Smithfield, as the earliest surviving commentary says, cannot be certainly confirmed (22-23). As for Spenser’s birth date, it is often given as 1552, but Hadfield provides a plausible argument, based on his reading of one of Spenser’s sonnets in the Amoretti, that he had “reached the age of 40 or 41” on 23 March 1594 and that therefore it had probably taken place in 1553 or 1554 (17-19). He died on 13 January 1599—we have no definite knowledge of the cause—and was laid to rest in the south transept of Westminster Abbey near the site of Geoffrey Chaucer’s burial. As Hadfield says, the decision to inter him there represented “a first step towards defining the collection of graves of writers” in this part of the Abbey as the “Poets’ Corner” (396). Although it was only in the eighteenth century that the Abbey’s south transept and its environs was officially “designated as the resting place for the nation’s most celebrated writers,” Spenser’s burial there, as Hadfield argues, “started a trend” (396). By 1723 a number of poets and other writers—such as Francis Beaumont, William Camden, Abraham Cowley, Michael Drayton, and John Dryden—had graves there. Others, like Aphra Behn, Ben Jonson, and William Congreve, lay nearby. According to the Abbey’s own tally, over seventy poets, writers, and dramatists are now buried in this honored place and more than eighty others have memorials in or near the same location. Among this group of more than 150 illustrious men and women of letters—men predominate—the overwhelming majority had been born and died in England.7 Spenser’s presence there, alongside that of Chaucer, singles him out as not just an English poet, writing distinctively in the English language, but as a poet of England and of Englishness “writing the nation,” as Cathy Shrank has put it (1-2).8 In Richard Helgerson’s terms, he was the first of England’s “self-crowned laureates”—“England’s first professed . . . poet”—who in his works portrayed or created for England and its people one of its distinctive “forms of nationhood.”9

It is no surprise perhaps that Spenser has been regarded traditionally as writing “from the point of view of the Elizabethan Englishman,” as J. W. Hales and Sidney Lee put it in their account of Spenser’s life in the original Dictionary of National Biography. These eminent scholars identified their subject simply as “poet,” calling him the “most learned of English poets,” and a figure whose “influence on English poetic literature cannot be . . . overestimated.”10 Hadfield is the author of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Spenser, where he is identified as “poet and administrator in Ireland.” This reference to Ireland also significantly shapes Hadfield’s new book—a major re-evaluation of Spenser’s life.11 It gives Hadfield not just a way of reading Spenser’s greatest literary achievement, his Faerie Queene in its final form, as in large measure the product of his Irish experiences, but of understanding how those experiences—his presence at the massacre at Smerwick in 1580, his life as a landowner in the Munster Plantation, the effects on him and his family produced by Hugh O’Neill’s rebellion in the 1590s—transformed him into the person and poet he became. His biography, moreover, is shown not just to be dependent on history, especially the history of Ireland, but to be constitutive of it as well, with his literary works each seen as significant interventions into the political and cultural world of his day.

As Spenser himself almost certainly was aware, many of his contemporaries saw two forms of writing about the past as competing with each other:

One, which setteth down men’s doings and adventures at length is called . . . history; the other, which declareth their natures, sayings, and manners is properly named their lives . . . [T]he one respect[s] more the things and the other the persons: the one is more common, the other more private: the one concerns more the things that are without the man, and the other the things that proceed from within: the one the events, the other the consultations. (iiii[c]r)12

Hadfield’s book, in its outward form, is about lives—i.e. about “the marks and indications of the souls of men,” as Plutarch had put it—mainly about Spenser’s life from his birth and early education to his death at age 45, or 46, or 47.13 Events, Plutarch had held, cannot “always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men.” Sometimes the manner in which they conduct their private affairs or express themselves “informs us better of their characters and inclinations.”14 But the distinction is artificial. Lives are lived in time, and times present those who lived through them with the life questions they needed to answer, with paradigms of thought with which to address them, and with conditions that shaped or restrict their actions. There can be no biography, at least no modern biography, without history.

As a biographer with interdisciplinary interests in history, however, Hadfield was faced with a serious methodological dilemma. Apart from the works—mainly poetry—that were published in Spenser’s lifetime or that exist, like his A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland, in contemporary manuscripts, the surviving manuscript records providing evidence for Spenser’s life are too sparse for the composition of a conventional biography on a “life and letters” model. What has not disappeared allows for little more than establishing the bare outlines of his career. We can be sure, for example, of his presence at the massacre at the Golden Fort at Smerwick in November 1580, since as Lord Grey’s secretary he copied out Grey’s lengthy letter to Queen Elizabeth describing the bloodbath, written while Grey and his secretary were still “in campe at Smerwick”; it is dated just two days after the event.15 But to know what Spenser thought of about the event requires knowledge not only of his Vewe, where he expressly discusses and justifies the Smerwick massacre, but also of Book V of The Faerie Queene, where, Hadfield argues, Spenser “alludes to Lord Grey’s alleged treachery . . . in deluding the besieged Italian and Spanish soldiers,” and “provides a forceful defence of Grey’s actions” (331). This interpretation is almost certainly correct. It depends, however, not only on the close reading of the poem itself but also on detailed knowledge of the relevant historical events and their context. In numerous other cases where direct evidence of Spenser’s actions also is lacking, similar procedures had to be followed, often accompanied by likely, or at least plausible, but inherently not provable, speculations. As Hadfield recognizes, this method is intrinsically “circular because . . . one has to be able to reconstruct the contexts from the scraps of information that one has, and these then explain the information on which they depend” (10). The more fragmentary the information to hand, the more uncertain the reconstructions and the greater the need to evaluate alternatives. The effect is to require that even the most elementary factual claims require lengthy analyses before deciding, often very tentatively, what most likely was the case.




Doing history has always called for the use of imagination, since it involves calling absent things and past occurrences into presence. No matter how much we have of material remains and hard evidence, their interpretation necessarily requires the mixing together of empirical description and reasoned argument with at least a modicum of conjecture. For Hadfield, many of the latter concern the everyday activities in which Spenser engaged, but about which we have no confirmable knowledge. Take for example Hadfield’s account of the Spensers' lives at Kilcolman, the estate in Munster he acquired as a planter in May, 1589. We read that “[s]heep were undoubtedly the most common animal,” although we have no inventory of the property’s actual holdings (218). Using archaeological evidence, Hadfield suggests that both English and Irish sheep were bred, and that given their average ages at death were probably reared mainly for their wool or hides, and to a lesser degree for meat and for their milk for cheese. What was not used on the estate, we are told, “would have been exported via Cork city to England, France, Spain, and the Low Countries” (218). Hadfield also says that “[t]he farm would . . . have devoted some land to growing wheat . . . and beans” and that “[t]he tenant farmers would have had their own plots and would have grown vegetables for their own consumption, as would the Spenser household” (218). Kilcolman, it appears from archaeological evidence, also had a walled garden, which if the Spensers had been following the advice of contemporary English gardening handbooks, would, Hadfield argues, have been tended by Spenser’s wife (221).16 Finally, he conjectures that Spenser “would also have taken part in the timber trade,” supplying fuel for Irish ironworks “as well as supplying English demand for ship timber, charcoal, and barrel-staves” (218-219). The evidence for this is generic; it derives mainly from secondary accounts of the sixteenth-century Irish economy, some of which is drawn from works like Robert Payne’s A Brief Description of Ireland, dating from 1589.17

As Hadfield readily acknowledges, conjectures also proved necessary in the treatment of Spenser’s family life in Ireland. He suggests the possibility, for example, that Spenser’s wives “may have been forced” to breastfeed their children themselves, contrary to what women of their status would have done in England. He reasons that families in Ireland “were much closer knit units than they would have been had they remained in England, because of their relative isolation” (221). The claim is certainly plausible, but it is supported once again primarily by reflecting on modern commentaries, such as Ralph Houlbrooke’s The English Family, characterizing the conditions of family life commonly experienced in the period.18 The account again is generic. Rather than describing Spenser’s family life based on particulars personal to the Spensers themselves, it depends on assumptions about what likely would be the case given general conditions and Spenser’s social standing and circumstances. In other words, Hadfield derives his picture of Spenser’s family life by applying an ideal type, itself derived from a wide variety of evidence involving other families, mainly living in England. He then asks how social conditions in sixteenth-century Ireland might have affected the so-called “New English” living there. Since one can hardly write a biography in the present day without considering its subject’s family relations, Hadfield has done his best here given the available evidence. But in some sense, his argument assumes what it needed to prove.

A similar problem arises regarding what we can know about Spenser’s literary learning and book ownership. Since he received a grammar school education under Richard Mulcaster at the Merchant Taylor’s School in London before matriculating as a sizar in Pembroke College, Cambridge, studying for the B. A.,19 we can form a solid view of the subjects he studied and the books to which he was exposed, since the curriculums of both institutions are known.20 While Spenser was at Cambridge and for some time afterward, his principal mentor was Gabriel Harvey, whose library holdings and reading habits are well documented.21 There can be little doubt that Spenser’s education was shaped by Harvey, just as it had earlier been by Mulcaster. We know, in particular, that he regularly exchanged books with Harvey. But when Spenser was away from these important formative influences, what did he read? Hadfield says “[i]t is inconceivable” that once in Ireland, “Spenser did not have a substantial library on his estate, given his isolated situation” (226). It is certainly true, as Hadfield argues, that many gentlemen intellectuals, Harvey among them, were assembling their own personal libraries in Spenser’s era. Hadfield, citing Raymond Gillespie’s research, also argues that “access to large numbers of books was possible for individuals in southern Ireland” (226).22 But just what books Spenser actually had is not known, since no inventory was made of his collection and no books bearing his name or marginalia seem to have survived. Once again, Hadfield makes “educated guesses” (227)—his own phrase—in this case basing his account on the known library inventories of figures of similar rank and wealth to Spenser. He then goes on to suggest that if Spenser had a substantial collection of books, he would have organized then in his library into one of several possible sets of categories. This certainly seems likely, but what the exact categories might have been would have depended on how Spenser wished to use his collection, if indeed he had one, and on this point we can only speculate. Relying on what is known directly from Spenser’s writings about Spenser’s reading, and also drawing on knowledge of the “works that most educated gentlemen would have possessed” (228), such as “editions of old and recent works of European and English literature” (229), Hadfield puts together a speculative list of books which might have filled Spenser’s personal library. Once again, the paucity of concrete evidence has left Hadfield with no alternative. But the procedure again depends on employing an ideal type, in this case of the gentleman poet; it gives us insight into what might have been true in general for such figures. We certainly learn a great deal about late sixteenth-century literary culture from this exercise, but we cannot know for certain how much of it applies in particular to Spenser. It is generic knowledge reflecting Hadfield's impressive grasp of the cultural history of Spenser’s era, rather than specific knowledge about Spenser’s own life history.

Spenser’s affinities and his connections with other important personages of his era also have been subject to similar speculations. Although Hadfield was able to work out a solid picture of his subject’s family ties—identifying his father as probably being John Spenser, a “free journeyman,” who was connected with the Merchant Taylors’ Company of London, and plausibly associating him with the Spencers of Althorp, a distinguished Northamptonshire gentry family—even these elementary genealogical facts can be presented only as likely, not certain. The same goes for claims about many of Spenser’s affiliations with fellow authors, possible friends, likely patrons, and nearby neighbors. For some we have direct evidence, such as Spenser’s ties with his teachers Richard Mulcaster and Gabriel Harvey; or his service with the Bishop of Rochester, the Earl of Leicester, Lord Grey and Lodowick Bryskett; or his friendship with Edward Kirke; or his connections with Sir John and Sir Thomas Norris in Ireland; or his associations with Philip Sidney, Edward Dyer, and Walter Ralegh. For others, however, Hadfield has had to rely on arguments dependent on long chains of possible or plausible links, which begin with a known connection to a particular person and then move from this individual through a series of affiliations tying Spenser into the same circle.

Take, for example, the manner in which Hadfield explains the likelihood that Spenser must have met Jan van der Noot, who is identified as “one of the most important poets in the history of the Netherlands” (39). The starting place is Mulcaster and his relations with Janus Dousa and his circle, in which Daniel Rogers was a prominent figure. In 1585, Dousa in his “Ode on the Queen’s Birthday,” dedicated to Alexander Nowell, mentioned ten scholars linked to Sidney and Rogers, including William Camden, with whose Britannia Spenser is likely to have been familiar and who later provides us the best evidence we have of Spenser’s interment in Westminster Abbey. Nowell’s brother Robert, we read, was one of the principal patrons of the Merchant Taylors’ School, while Alexander himself was “closely connected” to Archbishop Edmund Grindal (34), whom Spenser openly defended in his Shepheardes Calendar. John Young, the Bishop of Rochester, for whom Spenser served as secretary, was one of Grindal’s allies, while Thomas Drant, Grindal’s chaplain, was among Gabriel Harvey’s correspondents. Finally, it turns out that van der Noot not only was a client of Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, the son of the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who, Hadfield says, “had a significant influence on Spenser’s development as a poet” (40), but also wrote a poem in praise of one of the members of the Gorges family, for whom Spenser himself had composed Daphnaïda, his elegy about Douglas Howard, written for Arthur Gorges and dedicated to Northampton’s widow, who later became the wife of Thomas Gorges, Arthur’s uncle. These numerous associations suggested to Hadfield that Spenser and van der Noot had “connections . . . in common beyond the obvious link through Mulcaster,” and “must surely have met” (40).23

Hadfield has been very scrupulous in making suggestions of this kind, here and elsewhere, never insisting on certainty where evidence is lacking. The ties he traces all seem probable, most of them quite likely, but they lead to an important interpretative question. In terms of its population, England was a small place in the later sixteenth century. Although it was growing, it had moved, as Hadfield says, from less than 3 million in 1550 to around 4 million in 1600 (25). In the same period, London roughly doubled in size from 70,000-80,000 to 150,000-200,000 (25). Since London’s mortality rates were very high, exceeding the capacity of its population to reproduce itself, let alone grow, its expansion depended on migration into the city from elsewhere, mainly from rural England. This fact implies that many Londoners, like Spenser himself, had family ties in communities distant from the city. A related point holds for the population of England as a whole, since most of the individuals living in the kingdom in 1600 either were the same people as were living there in 1550 or were descended from them. These facts necessarily entail the existence of numerous linkages across the population. This is especially true among England’s upper ranks, including the members of the propertied middling sort and educated individuals active in the professions, since over the generations such figures tended to intermarry. The members of these groups, therefore, almost certainly would have displayed fewer than six degrees of separation. In Ireland, moreover, social linkages among the small number of New English settled there in Spenser’s day, must, if anything, have been even more numerous.

These facts are structural, rather than behavioral. They demonstrate the existence of potential linkages within a population, but do not tell us—indeed cannot tell us—whether those ties ever were activated and, if so, how they might have been used and under what conditions, let alone what the connections might have meant to the parties involved. To undertake analyses of this type, we normally need historical evidence of exactly the kind lacking in Spenser’s case, especially private letters and papers. Hadfield is all too aware of the difficulty. To overcome it, he not only has carefully sorted through all the permutation and possibilities, but has called upon his deep knowledge of Spenser’s writings, read in light of what is known about the intersection of his life experiences with contemporary English and Irish institutions, developments, and events. This procedure yields numerous insights into Spenser’s place in the history of his era, in the process illuminating many of the period’s most important episodes in England and Ireland and the changes to social, cultural, and political life that they brought, especially to the latter. Indeed, the attention given to Spenser in Ireland makes Hadfield’s book essential reading for anyone seriously studying the troubled and sometimes brutal history of Anglo-Irish relations in the latter sixteenth century.

Nevertheless, reliance on literary works to establish historical or biological facts is inherently problematical. Although Spenser self-consciously represented himself as a character in some of his works, notably in The Shepheardes Calendar and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, where he can be identified with Colin and where other named figures portray individuals, such as Gabriel Harvey and Walter Ralegh, with whom he was connected, the poems fictionalize these relationships and the events surrounding them. In doing so, they demand close attention to the ways in which the unfolding of the stories and the nuances of the language employed affect their use for historical purposes. What facts can be extracted from them must be carefully teased out, recognizing that Spenser may have been misrepresenting events, and even his own opinions, to convey his point. Hadfield makes clear, for example, that reading The Shepheardes Calender in light of what is in the Spenser-Harvey Letters, published a year later, depends on understanding that in some of their letters, the two men were participating in “an elaborate joke” (129). Since the Calender was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, Hadfield suggests that what is said in the Letters seemingly to account for why Spenser had declined to dedicate the poem to the earl of Leicester, was “intended to mislead the reader,” and that Spenser had always planned “to dedicate the Calender to Sidney” (129). Spenser’s fictionalized treatment of Ralegh in Colin Clout also poses an interpretative knot, since, as Hadfield puts it, “while apparently praising Ralegh,” identified in the poem as “the Shepherd of the Ocean,” Spenser seems always to have meant this work to be “critical of Ralegh’s life and values as a courtier” (242). There can be truth telling in this literary deception as well as a form of plausible deniability. It not only required readers at the time to grasp the inward meanings of passages that might outwardly appear to be saying something quite different, but also implicated them in the criticisms by inviting them to use their imaginations to fill in the details. Historians using this kind of evidence in their work must do the same, always with the risk of misapprehending the true picture.

Reliance on literary works, however carefully analyzed, in constructing narratives of past events, necessarily entails dangers, as does dependence on conjecture, however carefully hedged, to fill in gaps left by the lack of direct evidence. Hadfield has faced these perils with courage as well as skill. In his “Afterword,” he asks whether “Spenser’s Irish experience” is “the key” to understanding the man and his work (404). He suggests the possibility “that had Spenser not gone to Ireland his poetry would have remained largely recognizable as what we have today” (404). His answer is somewhat ambiguous. He says that “[t]he relationship between the life and the poetry would have changed . . . show[ing] that Spenser’s Irish experience is crucial to an understanding of the man and his work,” but insisting as well that this “is not the only thing we need to know about him” (404). Other aspects of his biography need to be considered too: “his class; his education; his wives and children; his friends and patrons; his reading; and the host of forces that shaped the possibilities, prospects, achievements, and course of his life, some of which he would have understood, much of which he would have been unable to control as he might have wished” (404). In the end, Hadfield concludes, Spenser’s personal experience worked “to determine the course that his work took . . . It is not only Spenser’s work that makes us think—so does its relations to his life” (405). Put another way, for Hadfield, Spenser and his writings can best be understood as subject to the power of history, its structures and contingencies, and as agents participating in them. From this perspective, Hadfield’s Edmund Spenser transcends the boundary between studies of history and studies of lives. It brilliantly brings readers into Spenser’s world and, using its subject’s life story and the choices he made, helps them comprehend its distinctive qualities, its problems, and its possibilities. One cannot ask more from a biography or a work of history.


Works Cited

Hadfield, Andrew. “Spenser, Edmund (1552?–1599).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn. Jan. 2008. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Hales, J.W. and Sidney Lee, “Spenser, Edmund (1552?–1599), poet,” in Dictionary of National Biography, eds. L. Stephen and Lee S. L. Lee, 63 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1885-1900. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Plutarch. “Alexander.” The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Trans. John Dryden and Rev. Arthur Hugh Clough. New York: Modern Library, 1932. Print.

--. “Amiot to the Readers.” The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Compared. Trans. James [Jacques] Amyot and Thomas North. London, 1579. EEBO. Web. 20 January 2013.

i See Hadfield, Andrew. “The English Conception of Ireland, c. 1540-c. 1600, with Special Reference to the Works of Edmund Spenser.” Diss. New University of Ulster, 1988.

ii Hadfield has also published an edition of Spenser’s Vewe. See Spenser, Edmund. A View of the State of Ireland: From the First Printed Edition (1633). Ed. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

iii See Canny, Nicholas. Making Ireland British, 1580-1650. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Canny deals extensively with Spenser’s Irish experience, ibid., 1-58

iv On this point, see the discussion of Spenser’s views on language and poetic form in Sacks, David Harris. “States, Nations, and Publics: The Politics of Language Reform in Renaissance England.” Forms of Association: Making Publics in Early Modern Europe in Conversation with Richard Helgerson. Ed. Paul Yachnin and Marlene Eberhart (forthcoming).

v See, e.g. Eliot, Simon, Andrew Nash, and Ian Willison, ed. Literary Cultures and the Material Book. The British Library Studies in the History of the Book. London: British Library, 2007.

vi Chapter 3, entitled “Lost Years,” covers the period from ca. 1573 to ca. 1578, and chapter 9 is entitled “More Lost Years and Second Marriage, 1592-95.” See pp. 83-118, 289-322.

vii See “Visiting the Abbey: Poet’s Corner.” Westminster Abbey. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <>.

viii See Shrank, Cathy. Writing the Nation in Reformation England, 1530-1580. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 220-40.

ix Helgerson, Richard. Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson. Milton and the Literary System. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1983. 82; Helgerson, Richard. Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 1-5, 25-62.

x Hales, J.W. and Sidney Lee, “Spenser, Edmund (1552?–1599), poet,” in Dictionary of National Biography, eds. L. Stephen and Lee S. L. Lee, 63 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1885-1900. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. This entry dates from 1897. Hales was a specialist in Elizabethan literary studies and the editor of the 1910 Everyman Library edition of The Faerie Queene; Lee, the second editor of the DNB and a wide-ranging literary scholar, also specialized in works from the Elizabethan era, particularly those by Shakespeare.

11 Hadfield first introduced this line of interpretation in his doctoral dissertation and developed it further in Hadfield, Andrew. Spenser’s Irish experience: Wilde Fruit and Salvage Soyl. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

12 Spelling and punctuation have been modernized.

13 Spenser’s death in his mid-40s is in keeping with average life expectancy at birth for men in sixteenth-century England, but is somewhat early for someone of Spenser’s class who had survived into adulthood.

14 Plutarch. “Alexander.” The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Trans. John Dryden and Rev. Arthur Hugh Clough. New York: Modern Library, 1932. 801.

15 Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton to Queen Elizabeth I, 12 November 1580, TNA, PRO SP 63/78/29; the first page of this four-page letter, in Spenser’s distinctive italic hand, appears as an illustration in Hadfield, Edmund Spenser, 166 (Fig. 7).

16 Here Hadfield cites a modern edition of Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife as his source, despite the fact that its first edition appeared in print only in 1625, long after Spenser’s death; see STC 17395.5, STC 17395.7.

17 Robert Payne, A briefe description of Ireland: made in this yeare, 1589 (London, 1589; STC 19490).

18 To support the argument of this passage, Hadfield cross references his own discussion on pp. 325-26 where all the cited sources, including early modern ones, refer, like Houlbrooke’s book, to England.

19 Spenser received his B. A. in Pembroke College in 1572/3 and his M. A. in 1576. A sizar is student who earned his keep by performing a servant’s duties.

20 Hadfield treats these subjects cogently in the early sections of his book, see pp. 24, 28-38, 52-63. On Mulcaster’s career as an educational reformer see De Molen, Richard L. Richard Mulcaster (c. 1531-1611) and Educational Reform in the Renaissance. Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1991.

21 See Stern, Virginia F. Gabriel Harvey: His Life, Marginalia, and Library. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; Jardine, Lisa and Anthony Grafton. “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read his Livy.” Past & Present 129 (Nov. 1990): 30-78.

22 On distribution of books in Ireland, see Gillespie, Raymond. “The Book Trade in Southern Ireland, 1590-1640.” Books Beyond the Pale: Aspects of the Provincial Book Trade in Ireland Before 1850. Ed. Gerard Long. Dublin: Rare Books Group of the Library Association of Ireland, 1996:1-17.

23 For Hadfield’s discussion of these possible lines of association, see pp. 37-40.


Cite as:

David Harris Sacks, "David Harris Sacks review of Hadfield," Spenser Review 42.2.14 (Winter 2013). Accessed June 30th, 2022.
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