Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Mr Secretary Spenser

With lord Grey De Wilton, in his camp at Smerwick, was a young English Secretary named Edmund Spenser. For services to the country, Spenser received a grant of 3000 acres of land in the county of Cork. He was one of the men known as "undertakers," because they undertook to displace the natives of Ireland and to look after their forfeited estates.

An "undertaker" paid no rent and was allowed many privileges, but his position was not a very happy one with the old possessor living in the same district and often making raids to get back his property. It must have been hard, too, to behold the pitiable distress of Munster, once the most fertile part of Ireland, now a desert.

Spenser had certain duties to perform for his queen, but he had still time for writing poetry in his castle of Kilcolman. He was already a famous poet, and had written the Shepherds' Calendar and some beautiful verses to a lady he admired before he met Elizabeth Boyle, who was married to him at Cork. Spenser did not find in Ireland many literary men, such as he had been accustomed to meet at the splendid court of Elizabeth, but an official named Ludovic Bryskett, who was also a translator of Italian writings, invited him to a gathering at Dublin, where the company consisted principally of lawyers and soldiers. It was there that Spenser promised to write the wonderful poem of the "Faerie Queene." It is now one of the most famous poems in the English language, and the story can interest even children too young to understand the full beauty of the verse. Spenser wrote it in honour of Elizabeth, whom he dubs Gloriana; he praises other noted people of the time, and describes Lord Grey under the character of Arthegall.

The "Faerie Queene" has traces of its origin in lines which picture the scenery of Ireland. Spenser speaks of the glen of Aherlow, in Munster, as though it had once been singularly blessed by prosperity but then laboured under a dreadful curse. Robbers, indeed, lived in the beautiful woods near Aherlow, and later on, two chiefs—Owen Macrory and Tyrell—lurked in these woods until they found an opportunity to attack the castle where the English poet lived.

Spenser's life was saddened by dread of such neighbours—perhaps that is why he admires Lord Grey, the man most capable of protecting English settlers through his stern rule over the natives. Yet the lonely and neglected poet had more time for dreaming than when he lived at the court in London, where there was always much bickering and jealousy among the courtiers, and a man had to be ever looking how he might best gain some advantage over his fellows. The glorious beauty of the land also gave the poet the power to write of woods and glens as few have written. He always had a view of surpassing loveliness before him though it was bare enough of men and women.

The first three books of the "Faerie Queene" were composed under difficulties. A friend of the poet's, one Gabriel Hervey, might have discouraged Spenser from completing it by his belief that it was not of high merit, had not another friend expressed the warmest admiration. This was Walter Raleigh, who had come to live at Youghal, which was not too far from Kilcolman for willing neighbours to ride backwards and forwards to pay visits. Walter Raleigh had met the poet at Smerwick while both were working under the Lord-Deputy, one with sword and one with pen. Raleigh had fallen into disgrace with the queen in 1589, and gone to take up estates in Ireland like many another Englishman of adventurous spirit. He lived at an old house, not unlike the farm where he was born in Devon, and learned to love it on that account. It was a romantic dwelling with an under-ground passage connecting one room with the tower of St Mary's Church; it had rich carvings and low ceilings, and a splendid library where the exiled courtier studied. Raleigh was a poet and a dreamer, and many of his later exploits were probably planned in the peaceful time he spent at Youghal. He had a fine garden where he planted great yellow wallflower and cedars and cherry trees, and he also introduced the potato and the tobacco plant. He amazed his world when he returned from a voyage to America with smoke issuing from his mouth, but other men soon followed his example, and the Irish learnt to smoke, if they could afford to buy tobacco. It was a luxury of the rich in those days, and even enthusiastic devotees were troubled by the expense of their new habit. A certain Captain Bodley writes eloquently in defence of the practice. "Almost all have but one argument, that would make a dog laugh or a horse burst his halter, saying that neither our sires or grandsires took tobacco, yet lived I know not how long. Indeed they lived till they died without tobacco, but who knows whether they would not have lived longer had they used it."

Spenser describes his first meeting with Raleigh in exile in a poem, "Colin Clout's Come Home Again"—

"One day, quoth he, I sat (as was my trade)

Under the foote of Mole, that mountain bore

Keeping my chief amongst the cooly shade

Of the green alders by the Mullae's shore,

There a straunge shepheard chaunst to find me out,

Whether allured with my pipe's delight,

Whose pleasing sound y shrilled far about

Or thither led by chaunce, I know not right:

Whom when I asked from what place he came,

And how he Night, himself he did yclepe

The Shepheard of the Ocean by name,

And said he came far from the main sea deepe."

Through the influence of Raleigh, the "Faerie Queene" was completed, and Spenser went to the English Court with the first three volumes as soon as they were written. After he had presented them to Elizabeth, the poet returned to Kilcolman, thankful to be away from the bustle of town life.

In 1596, Spenser wrote a prose account of the condition of Ireland in that time. His duties as an English official caused him to see much that was painful, and his sympathies were not with the Irish people. He disapproved of many customs that were naturally astonishing to a foreigner, and had scant admiration for the appearance of the natives. He denounced the loose mantles worn by both men and women as "a fit home for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief." Another Englishman, Sir Peter Carew, appears to have thought the same mantles very useful, for he asked that all his soldiers might be provided with them, seeing that the cost was only five shillings and the garments "were of great comfort both in sickness and health."

Spenser very much disliked the "glibb," a kind of mat into which the hair was twisted. The "glibbs" came down low over the eyes, and Spenser said they were as useful as mantles to conceal a thief. "For whensoever he hath run himself into that peril of the law that he will not be known, he either cutteth off his glibb quite, by which he becometh nothing like himself, or putteth it so low down that if is very hard to discern his thievish countenance." In a treaty between the rebel Tyrone and the English, it was specially stipulated that none of his people should wear the "glibb," so the dislike of that fashion was not confined to Spenser.

The bards were blamed in "The View of the Present State of Ireland" for stirring up rebellion and keeping barbarous customs. They were often rewarded lavishly, and could" be very mocking about hosts whose entertainments did not please them. Spenser was bitter on their choice of evil subjects, and on their loose way of writing. They seem to have chosen evil-doers for particular praise, and to have gloried in actions best left without comment. "As of a most notorious thief, a wicked outlaw, which had lived all his time of spoils and robberies, one of their bardes in his praise will say, that he was none of the idle milkesops that was brought up by the fire-side, but that most of his days he spent in arms and valiant enterprise, that he did never eat his meat before he had won it with his sword, that he lay not all night slugging in a cabin under his mantle, but used commonly to keep others waking to defend their lives and did light his candles at the flames of their houses to lead him in the darkness."

Spenser felt contempt for such writers because he himself would never stoop to pervert his gifts, but used them to glorify the right and true. All through his great allegory runs the belief that evil will be conquered by good, and might by purity. He dreaded, we imagine, the power of these bards, and no doubt he blamed them when the disaster he had foreseen at last came upon him, and he was driven, a homeless fugitive, from the Castle of Kilcolman, leaving all that was precious to him in the hands of rebels, now taking vengeance on an English "undertaker."