Willy Maley. Salvaging Spenser: Colonialism, Culture and Identity. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's P, 1997. viii+251pp. ISBN 0 333 62942 6 Paper; 0 312 17234 6 Cloth.
Christopher Ivic
University of Western Ontario

Ivic, Christopher. "Review of Salvaging Spenser: Colonialism, Culture and Identity." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 6.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_ivic.html>.

  1. The 1989 publication of Spenser and Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (ed. Patricia Coughlan) marked a significant contribution to Spenser scholarship. Bringing together the work of both historians and literary historians, this collection of essays renewed critical interest in the colonial milieu in which Spenser fashioned himself a gentleman. Salvaging Spenser engages in the revisionary project of situating Spenser's texts in the ideologically charged colonial context that informed, indeed enabled, their production. Addressing a wide range of historical, theoretical, and cultural issues, Maley provides stimulating, original analyses of topics such as the politics of Protestant plantation in Munster, the discursive struggle for English identity in Ireland, and the influence of "Irish English" on Spenser's language. By no means, however, is Salvaging Spenser merely another addition to a burgeoning field of study. As the absence of "Ireland" from the title suggests, this book's focus on colonialism, culture and identity serves to stretch and thereby redefine the boundaries of "Spenser and Ireland," both chronologically and geographically.

  2. In fact, much of Maley's attention is directed toward the ideological legacy of Spenser's texts, especially as they (in particular the prose dialogue, A View of the State of Ireland) impacted on the culture of Caroline and Cromwellian Ireland. In a slightly revised version of a previously published essay, "How Milton and Some Contemporaries Read Spenser's View," Maley highlights the crucial role that the View -- first published by Sir James Ware in 1633, with a dedication to Sir Thomas Wentworth, earl of Stafford and Lord Deputy of Ireland -- played in the development of Anglo-Irish politics in the 1640s and beyond. For example, he considers the ideological effect of Spenser's dialogue on Milton's own officially commissioned tract on Ireland: Observations upon the Articles of peace with the Irish Rebels (1649). While Maley's reading of the conveniently overlooked Observations complicates conventional narratives that valorize Milton's heroic republicanism, his study of the complex and often contradictory post-1633 responses to the View challenges reductive representations of Spenser as "a mere mouthpiece for the presumed policies of the presiding regime" (129). For Maley, then, the example of how Milton read Spenser serves to remind scholars of the need to re-examine not only Milton's but also Spenser's politics.

  3. Maley's concern with seventeenth-century Anglo-Irish, or Anglo-Celtic, conflict leads him to a consideration of a hitherto unexamined topic: namely, "Spenser and Scotland." "Spenser and Scotland" may appear to be an odd coupling; however, it is important to recall that the View articulates a deep anxiety about the "Celtic Fringe": that is, both Elizabeth's Irish kingdom/colony and England's northern Gaelic neighbours, especially those "Irish Scots" who drifted in and out of Ulster. By foregrounding "Spenser and Scotland," Maley does well to situate Spenser's work within the larger framework of state formation within the British Isles. Rather than reinscribing a stable, monolithic English/Irish binarism, he attends to the tenuous emergence of Britishness and British identity in the early modern period. His remarkably succinct account of the British context in which Spenser's "national epic" was composed, disseminated, and suppressed speaks volumes: "Written in Ireland, banned in Scotland, The Faerie Queene tells the story of the English nation from the perspective of an expatriate" (155). The posthumously published 1611 first Folio of Spenser's collected works heralds him as "England's Arch-Pot." Committed to a non-anglocentric historiography, Maley carefully explores Spenser's contribution to the discursive production of the heterogeneous, intersecting, and warring cultures of the British Isles.

  4. Certainly the majority of this book's close readings focus on, or around, the View -- including a valuable chapter that provides a "judicial review" (I would add convincing critique) of Jean Brink's discussion of the censorship and authorship of the View. Attention to Spenser's shorter poems and his epic-romance is less pronounced, at times elliptical. The opening chapter on "The Shepheardes Calender as Colonial Text," for instance, does not "get to" the pastoral poem until the chapter's concluding section; in other words, roughly six of the chapter's twenty-three pages are given over to Spenser's pastoral poem. Perhaps more energy could have been devoted to sustained readings of The Faerie Queene. Given Maley's recent work on "The British Problem" in Shakespeare, Bacon, and Milton, it is surprising that he says little about "Briton moniments." This is not to suggest, however, that this book suffers because it attends more to context than text. To put it in these simplistic, oppositional terms is to overlook the fact that this book's value lies precisely in its re-examination of "context" and "text." What, I find, this books lacks in terms of close readings it more than makes up for in its examination of not only what Spenser read but also how early modern readers interpreted, appropriated Spenser. Maley's informative discussion of Ware's edition of the View -- its excisions, its annotations, its dedicatory material -- is a prime example of Fredric Jameson's reminder that "texts come to us as the always-already-read; we apprehend them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations." This book invites us to reflect on the ways in which we "get to" Spenser's texts.

  5. "Salvaging Spenser," Maley writes in his Introduction, "does not mean going back to some original source, but rather entails sifting laboriously through the items of wreckage washed ashore" (7). Maley, to be sure, does a lot of sifting, as his richly documented work attests. Included in the wreckage are a number of early modern texts that have attracted little notice from literary historians: for instance, "Holinshed's" Irish Chronicles (1577, 1587), Richard Beacon's Solon His Follie (1594), Lodowick Bryskett's Discourse of Civill Life (1606), and Francis Bacon's "Certain Considerations Touching the Plantations in Ireland" (1606). Along with drawing our attention to these relatively unknown primary texts, he also retrieves a wealth of neglected secondary works. Indeed, one of the rewards of Maley's salvaging of Spenser is his recovery of the valuable historical scholarship on Spenser's Irish experience that was written in early decades of the twentieth century. Because of its historical scope and engagement with the recent work on early modern British history, this book will no doubt redirect studies of "Spenser and Ireland."

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, CI, RGS, 9 March 1998)