Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Historical and Political Writings > Spenser’s Veue of the Present State of Ireland
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

IX. Historical and Political Writings.

§ 11. Spenser’s Veue of the Present State of Ireland.

In 1598 broke out the rebellion which, by October in that year, had placed all Munster in the hands of the insurgents, and which put an end to Spenser’s sojourn in Ireland. It had amounted altogether to fourteen years, more or less, and had for ever associated the land of his adoption with his epical masterpiece as well as with one of the noblest of English lyrics (Epithalamion). That the rebellion, which cruelly blighted Spenser’s personal prospects, left him, in dean Church’s words, “a ruined and broken-hearted man,” is, in all probability, an exaggerated statement;  13  but there can be no question that A Veue of the Present State of Ireland was composed under the influence of profoundly moved personal feeling. It was certainly composed in 1596, during the visit of Spenser (Irenaeus) to England, which lasted from 1595 till (probably) 1597.   17
  Spenser’s historico-political essay opens with a lengthy review of the evils existing in the state of Ireland, which are described as being of three kinds—“the first in the Lawes, the second in Customes and the third in Religion.” Parts of this demonstration, hackneyed though it may have seemed even to the public to which it was addressed, were very forcibly put—especially the clear illustrations as to the evil effect of laws bad in themselves, and the bold assertion that “the most of the Irish are soe farre from understanding of the popish religion as they are of the protestants profession.” There are, too, some pregnant passages, such as the opening sentences of Irenaeus, suggesting, as a possible explanation of the apparent hopelessness of the condition of Ireland, that, peradventure, God “reserveth her in this unquiett state still for some secrett scourdge, which shall by her come to England;” and the proposal, which strikes at the root of the barbarism overshadowing “Ierne,” that a schoolmaster shall be maintained in every parish of the land. Though some of the historical and philological information may be questionable, the essay furnishes constant proof, not only of a careful study of the people itself, but, also, of a genuine interest in the associations which have always meant so much for its life—conveyed in ballads and legends and folklore of all sorts. The description of the influence of the bards, or Irish chroniclers, as radically tainted by inveracity, is curious; and there is a double edge in the denunciation of the folly of the Irish in deriving their origin from the Spaniards—“of all nations under heaven (I suppose) the most mingled, most uncertayne, and most bastardly.” The Anglo-Irish—ipsis Hibernis Hiberniores—the dialogue declares to be “more malicious to the English than the very Irish themselves.”   18
  As to the moral of the whole treatise—the supposed necessity of a firm and vigorous policy of repression, and of doing away with native customs of all sorts and the establishment of a strong rule, represented by numerous garrisons throughout the country—nothing further need be said here. Lord Grey de Wilton, as whose private secretary Spenser came to Ireland in 1580, tried this system for two years, and was recalled; and it has been tried since, for longer periods, with no more success. It has been, rather cynically, said  14  that the readers of Spenser’s Veue and other writings of his expressing similar sentiments should “forget that he was a poet and remember that he was trying to improve forfeited lands.” But there is nothing more unsatisfactory to the highest conception of a great writer than this sort of analytical separation of functions. The style of the essay is businesslike, and the dialogue form is used with ease; though there is far too much talk about the method of conducting the discussion—always a tedious ingredient in any kind of discourse.  15    19

Note 13Spenser, English Men of Letters (1879), p. 177. [ back ]
Note 14. Bagwell, R., Ireland under the Tudors, vol. III (1890), p. 458. [ back ]
Note 15. Spenser also wrote in dialogue form a Discourse of Civill Life, containing the Ethike Part of Morall Philosophie (not published till 1606). [ back ]

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