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Edmund Spenser: A Life by Andrew Hadfield
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Edmund Spenser: A Life

by Andrew Hadfield

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The first word that comes to mind after reading through this monumental new biography of the 16th-century poet is definitely thoroughness. Hadfield does an excellent job of filling in the lacunas surrounding Spenser who, as with his contemporary William Shakespeare, left little in the form of hard evidence concerning his life. Of course, there is always the poetry, which is obviously the main reason for being interested in Spenser. But Hadfield goes much further than this in giving an overview of the milieu in which Spenser existed. This biography gives one great insight into the late 16th century, contextualising Spenser and his contemporaries while still focussing on the tangible aspects of Spenser’s life.

Hadfield mentions in the introduction that some literary critics actively dislike “speculative” biographies (of course, all biography is, to a degree, speculative). But he points out that, given the dearth of evidence concerning Spenser’s life, it is often necessary to offer some conjectures about Spenser and his work that are not cast in stone. For the most part, Hadfield walks a careful line, avoiding overly trite speculations while not being afraid of relating Spenser’s life to what is genuinely known about other 16th-century writers. Admittedly, I sometimes found myself strongly disagreeing with some of his suppositions, especially regarding his readings of some parts of The Faerie Queene. But Hadfield is thoroughly aware that everyone will not agree with his arguments, and he gives ample notes on differing interpretations. The notes are on the whole incredibly thorough, and Hadfield also provides a detailed bibliography at the back of the book for anyone interested in Spenseriana. He also has appendices on Spenser’s progeny, portraits of Spenser, and other biographical writing on Spenser.

The book has interesting things to say about Spenser’s upbringing and his religion which, although Protestant, seems to have been more ecumenical than previously thought (both his sons seem to have become Catholic, although one later recanted). Hadfield’s account of the growth of “The Prince of Poets’” sensibilities is enthralling, showing how the imposition of Protestantism in England affected the common people and the aristocracy, as well as artists and writers. Spenser’s career is clearly delineated, showing that he was never really an insider at court, but neither was he banished to Ireland (well, probably not). Hadfield does an excellent job of tying together the different strings of Spenser’s life, sifting fact from fiction, and presenting Spenser as the pre-eminent poet of his generation, who was much more highly regarded than Shakespeare at the time.

Hadfield also writes sensitively about Spenser’s time in Ireland and his writings concerning the Irish, which have often been vociferously criticised. Hadfield makes clear the historical situation and the pressures that Spenser experienced as a new inhabitant/colonialist, without making excuses for Spenser’s sometimes shocking responses to the situation in Ireland and his defence of English policy in the country. I am somewhat wary of writing too much about this, as it is hard to give a swift overview of this aspect of Spenser’s writings without distorting the truth or hurting the feelings of those whose ancestors suffered because of English policy. Perhaps I should just say that I admire Spenser’s poetry, dislike his writing about Ireland, but understand the context in which he wrote. I would rather focus on his accomplishment as a poet, while not condoning his other views.

This is Hadfield’s first full biography (he has written short entries for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), and he claims that it might be the last one he writes. This would be a shame, as he writes superlatively well, and obviously has an extensive knowledge of the period. Although I did not always agree with him, I genuinely enjoyed reading the book. It might, however, be heavy going for people who have not read anything by Spenser. I finished reading The Faerie Queene in conjunction with Hadfield’s book, which enriched my reading of Spenser. Now I only have to get to his shorter poems. ( )
3 vote dmsteyn | Dec 24, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199591024, Hardcover)

Edmund Spenser (1554-99) was a strikingly innovative and experimental writer and, until the eighteenth century, was far more influential than Shakespeare in defining the course of English literature. His magisterial work, The Faerie Queene, is one of the most widely read English poems, but it should not overshadow the range and brilliance of his work in The Shepheardes Calender, The Complaints, and The Amoretti and Epithalamion.

In Edmund Spenser: A Life, Andrew Hadfield offers the first biography in sixty years of the most important non-dramatic poet of the English Renaissance. As Hadfield reminds us, Spenser is often painted as a morally flawed, self-interested sycophant; complicit in England's ruthless colonization of Ireland; in Karl Marx's words, "Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet"--a man on the make who aspired to be at court and who was prepared to exploit the Irish to get what he wanted. But Hadfield presents a more complex and subtle portrait of Spenser. How did a man who seemed destined to become a priest or a don become embroiled in politics? If he was intent on social climbing, why was he so astonishingly rude to the good and the great--Lord Burghley, the earl of Leicester, Sir Walter Raleigh, Elizabeth, and James VI? Why was he more at home with "the middling sort"--writers, publishers and printers, bureaucrats, soldiers, academics, secretaries, and clergymen--than with the mighty and the powerful? How did the appalling slaughter he witnessed in Ireland shape his imaginative powers? How did his marriage and family life influence his work? And what personal strains preceded his death at age 44?

In this impressive new biography, Andrew Hadfield sets Spenser in complicated and fractious times to present this key literary figure in a more balanced and positive light.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:01 -0400)

Edmund Spenser's innovative poetic works have a central place in the canon of English literature. Yet he is remembered as a morally flawed, self-interested sycophant; complicit in England's ruthless colonisation of Ireland; in Karl Marx's words, 'Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet'-- a man on the make who aspired to be at court and who was prepared to exploit the Irish to get what he wanted. In his vibrant and vivid book, the first biography of the poet for 60 years, Andrew Hadfield finds a more complex and subtle Spenser. How did a man who seemed destined to become a priest or a don become embroiled in politics? If he was intent on social climbing, why was he so astonishingly rude to the good and the great - Lord Burghley, the earl of Leicester, Sir Walter Ralegh, Elizabeth I and James VI? Why was he more at home with 'the middling sort' -- writers, publishers and printers, bureaucrats, soldiers, academics, secretaries, and clergymen -- than with the mighty and the powerful? How did the appalling slaughter he witnessed in Ireland impact on his imaginative powers? How did his marriage and family life shape his work? Spenser's brilliant writing has always challenged our preconceptions. So too, Hadfield shows, does the contradictory relationship between his between life and his art.… (more)

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