John M. Breen – Imagining Voices in A View of the Present State of Ireland: A Discussion of Recent Studies Concerning Edmund Spenser’s Dialogue

Imagining Voices in A View of the Present State of Ireland: A Discussion of Recent Studies Concerning Edmund Spenser's Dialogue

John M. Breen

Published in Connotations Vol. 4.1-2 (1994/95)

Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland was entered in the Stationers' Register on 14 April, 1598.1) Permission to publish was not granted and the View was first published in 1633, edited by Sir James Ware. He edited out material that he considered may reflect pejoratively on Spenser, observing in his preface, "although it sufficiently testifieth his learning and deepe judgement, yet we may wish that in some passages it had bin tempered with more moderation."2) Implicit to Ware's comment is an association between the views expressed by the fictive characters, Irenius and Eudoxus, and Edmund Spenser. Ware is an early representative of an interpretative community which disregards the generic complexity of the View and insists upon positioning Spenser as Irenius, the fictive figure that promotes an uncompromising political solution to England's apparently intractable problems in Ireland.3) This critical approach to the View is reductive as it is inattentive to the author's poetic strategies and the text's generic complexity. I am not suggesting that the political contexts for reading the View should be disallowed, but that there is a case for a more complex consideration of the relationships between Renaissance aesthetics and politics.4) Although I consider Spenser as author of this text, Jean R. Brink in a recent and substantial contribution to Spenser Studies questions the authority of attributing the View to Spenser.5) This further undermines the critical practice that automatically assumes that the voices of the View are not fictive, but that they provide a direct access to Spenser's views on Ireland. I will argue that dialogue as text is always fictive (that is polysemous) for it registers and modulates voices other than that of the author: as well as an author's adoption of fictive personas, the text [→page 120] will inevitably correspond with voices in other texts. It is my intention to provide a review of the various generic approaches which the View has engendered and to reappraise the View's aesthetic contexts. I will argue that the imagined voices created by Spenser are not deferred to with the appropriate critical respect.


Spenser's View has been variously read as autobiography and as a "policy paper."6) In the half century spanning these polarised readings the View has largely been neglected as a subject of critical analysis. Stephen Greenblatt and David Norbrook have both provided radical readings of the View that have sought to site the text politically. Greenblatt, situating the text within a colonial context, argues that "the colonial violence inflicted upon the Irish is at the same time the force that fashions the identity of the English"; Norbrook argues that "the 'View …' is almost unique amongst Elizabethan political treatises in advocating, not a mere defence and consolidation of the status quo, but radical innovation, a conscious and ruthless process of social transformation," elevating Spenser's status by focusing on his transformative role.7) However, both Greenblatt and Norbrook pay little regard to Spenser's historiography or his role as poet.8) Even with the caveats concerning methodological approach, which are to the fore in contemporary critical theory, both critics deploy interpretative strategies that are untenable. Greenblatt claims that Spenser advocates violence when this is an argument given to Irenius, and Norbrook's subsequent claim that "Spenser and his allies were increasingly bitter because they believed their views were censored and misrepresented by conservative courtiers" is speculative.9) Norbrook provides no textual evidence to support such categorical claims. These are versions of old historicism: untenable positions are held based on denying Spenser's historical contexts or by invoking, without evidence, a historical context.

Virginia Cox has provided the following salient and sensitive definition that outlines the genre's complexity:

[→page 121] The oral exchange depicted in a dialogue acts as a kind of fictional shadow to the literary transaction between the reader and the text, conveying at least some of the same information, with a similar intent. The relation between the two may be distanced by irony or intimate to the point of symbiosis. But the parallel between them remains: each word, each argument in a written dialogue is simultaneously part of a fictional conversation and an actual literary exchange.10)

Cox refuses to simplify the role of the speakers: the authentic voice of the author oscillates between absence and presence for the voice of the dramatic character is never wholly conterminous with the voice of the author. Thomas Healy seems to demonstrate an appreciation of the View's generic complexity when he calls it "a piece of writing which does not purport to be a fiction … yet which uses the generic and rhetorical conventions of literary writing."11) However, his subsequent comment that Irenius "is Spenser" undermines Healy's new historicist attitude towards Renaissance literature and places him in company with Raymond Jenkins who is categorical: "Irenaeus is not merely Spenser's mouthpiece but … he is Spenser and the 'Veue' therefore becomes an autobiographical account of several of the poet's Irish experiences.12)" To read the View as autobiography is to marginalise the dynamic relationship between Irenius and Eudoxus and the double−voiced discourse that shifts from authority to subversion: the text promotes Elizabeth's legitimate authority to govern Ireland, but it implicitly questions the political strategies applied by Elizabeth's government.

The new−historicist critics whose readings I have discussed provide a reductive approach that is similarly evident in the work of traditional historians. Ciaran Brady is intent on foregrounding the View's ambivalence between "opposing moral and political imperatives":

Far from being a clear and rational statement of some dominant political theory, or of some prevalent ideological disposition, the View is riddled with ambiguity. It has defeated all attempts to identify it as a contribution to English political thought concerning Ireland because it is itself a symptom of a profound crisis in the English experience of that country.13)

According to Brady there is a dilemma between the moral and the political embedded in the text. Although he locates the View's ambiguity [→page 122] as emerging out of Renaissance culture, he appears to be unaware that he may be projecting his reading of "crisis" on to the text. Brady's provocative reading of the View is itself ambiguous as it shifts between the intellectually insightful ("Its subtly occlusive polemic, moreover, renders it entirely unsuitable for use, as so many historians have used it, as a cache of interesting descriptions and observations concerning the state of Ireland") and the intellectually naive ("Hitherto Spenser had sought merely to inspire his world, but now the point was to change it").14) Hostile to Nicholas Canny's opinion that the View was a kind of consensus report for the dissatisfied New English, Brady claims that it is an "ethical defence of brutality."15) The root of Brady's analysis is that "cultural trauma" was the "necessary precondition to all social and political reform"; he emphasises Spenser's need to promote intellectual and moral argument so that killing would be justified in terms of the "highest humanist discourse"—as if Spenser was anxious about the reception of his ideas and, more pertinently, that Spenser was Irenius.16) Brady concludes that the View is incoherent, unsatisfactory and fails as a "contribution to English political thought concerning Ireland." Spenser, as geographically border−line and symbolically central, deploys both the voices of the poet−historical and historiographer in his characters Irenius and Eudoxus. The paradox of self−promotion and self−effacement that emerges from Spenser's position, and is a typical Spenserian poetic strategy (see especially "The Shepherd's Calendar"), seems to have escaped Brady.

In contrast to Brady's concern with "crisis," Canny promotes a pragmatic reading:

Spenser's View, composed in 1596, has long been accepted as a fundamental contribution to the theory of colonization, but it has not been adequately appreciated as a political text because commentators have at once exaggerated and diminished its originality … . When Spenser's View is analysed in this fashion it immediately becomes evident that it was a tract designed to serve the interests of those engaged upon the conquest and colonization of Ireland at the end of the sixteenth century.17)

There is little "immediately evident" in the View and Canny seems to be positioning himself perilously close to Renwick who saw the View [→page 123] as "a political document of practical and immediate intention."18) In the same way that Eudoxus would like to see the Irish reduced to civility, so too would Canny like to see the View reduced to coherency. This is revealing of Canny's methodology. Commenting on the differences between historians and literary critics, he has argued that "the most striking difference is that literary scholars devote almost exclusive attention to the text itself and seek to ascertain the author's meaning from the drift of argument and, when that fails them, from the form of the texts. Historians also devote attention to the text but they always reach beyond it for other evidence which will assist them in determining the purpose of the author."19) This insistence upon distinguishing between methodologies of historians and literary critics is no longer tenable and is indicative of Canny's insistence upon classification, evident in his certainty in his treatment of the View.

Canny's argument is grounded in colonisation and politics; conversely, Brendan Bradshaw's argument is grounded in making Spenser coherent by reference to "Protestant moral theology."20) Bradshaw emphasises that the text belongs to the genre of religious reform literature, that Spenser's View finds its "intellectual source in his Protestant world−view."21) This ignores the broader influences and concerns of the Renaissance poet, which become apparent when one considers the aesthetic form of the View.

Greenblatt, Norbrook, Healy and Canny focus on the political, Brady and Bradshaw on the moral and the ethical. This lack of sensitivity to the contexts of the moment of cultural production, which is a failure to investigate aesthetic form, produces political readings that separate art from politics. According to Louis Montrose this is a dubious practice:

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the separation of "Literature" and "Art" from explicitly didactic and political discourses or from such disciplines as history or moral and natural philosophy was as yet incipient.22)

The generic category of the View incorporates both art and politics: it can be read as both cultural icon and colonialist text, pronounced in the way it, in part, imitates the representational mode of Tudor Cartography.23) It is a reformist text and thus dynamic, and it is a [→page 124] staging of the self by Spenser, made coherent by keeping the political and the artistic simultaneously in focus. Having indicated that the View is generically diffuse and fashioned for aesthetic as well as material ends, I now intend to reorientate Spenser's View, by placing it in the context of Renaissance dialogue and historiography.


The dialogue between Spenser's Irenius and Eudoxus is designed to complicate the authorial responsibility for what is spoken. Similarly, More in Utopia (1516) and Erasmus in The Praise of Folly (1511) deploy speech in the guise of another figure, the rhetorical trope prosopopeia. Dialogue is a standard humanist formal device deployed to disguise the speaking voice, what George Puttenham names as the "Aporia, or the Doubtfull," and this allows a speaker to articulate a number of different perspectives without aligning himself to any of them; thus, authorial responsibility is ambiguous.24) The author's voice is always refracted through that of a fictive polyvalent speaker. The difficulty encountered in reading the genre of the View is itself a response to the generic complexity of dialogue.

In Utopia, the shifting presence of the author (who is vicariously present as narrator, Hythloday and Morus), provokes Erasmus, I would argue, to suggest that the Utopia exhibits "some inequality in the style."25) Erasmus in The Praise of Folly similarly revels in the generic complexity of dialogue. When Erasmus claims that it is "Folly who speaks," the responsibility for the seditious voice becomes ambiguous.26) The indeterminacy of the speaking voice is exploited by Erasmus who delights in the opportunity to deploy a free voice (liber−vox) during Folly's critique. Spenser similarly demonstrates a playful delight in the perception that readers outside the dialogue, beyond the boundaries of the text, are being addressed:

Eudoxus: Is it possible, take heed what yow say, Irenius:
Irenius: To yow onelye Eudoxus: I doe tell yt. (117)
[→page 125] Irenius: I will vnto yow Eudoxus: In privitie discover the drifte of my purpose I meane (as I tould yow) and doe well hope hereby both to settle an eternall peace in that Countrie. (181)

For Spenser, as for More and Erasmus, the author oscillates between engagement and disassociation. There is no opportunity for the critic to categorically define Irenius as Spenser.

Patricia Coughlan claims that Spenser chose a genre with such "strong classical and humanist associations of civility and urbane philosophical reflection" so as to promote the sense of learning and to demonstrate the efficacy of argument."27) This could be substantiated by Irenius' claim that "learninge hath that wonderfull power of yt self that yt can soften and temper the most stearne and salvage nature" (205).28) Coughlan is sensitive to the aesthetic tradition in which Spenser wrote, arguing

for a fuller awareness of the fictive mode of existence of the View, and against the treatment of it as an expository document, viewing Spenser's, and by implication all writing, as simultaneously textual and political, fictive and discursive, and of refusing any disjunction between the realms of symbolic representation and social practice.29)

Coughlan's refusal to reductively classify Spenser's View invites a broader consideration of the text's aesthetic as well as political contexts. Similar to Coughlan, Renwick in his edition of the View also points towards the classical tradition of dialogue:

It was convenient for his purpose, and well understood among men trained on Cicero. Spenser was a man of letters, and would adopt it as naturally as he adopted pastoral and epic. (239)

This is a promising beginning; unfortunately, Renwick fails to provide any analysis and is, if anything, opaque in his interpretation. Coughlan directs us towards Spenser's sustained references to Lucian, a classical writer who used dialogue to humorous effect, a writer who "merges the dialogue form with more frankly fictive genres, such as the imaginary or otherworld journey, and the description of the ideal state."30) The Lucian text that Coughlan claims is structural to Spenser's View is the [→page 126] Toxaris and she adds that "Erasmus and Thomas More both practised their Greek and their literary skills in making Latin versions of it" (64). Although Lucian is an influential figure, Renaissance commentators on poetics also shaped Spenser's View.

The poet's capacity to invent commonwealths, as depicted in More's Utopia, is a characteristic of the age. Thomas Lodge argued in his Defense of Poetry (1579) that "the framing of common welthes, and defence therof, proceedeth from poets."31) In the View we find that Eudoxus praises Irenius for "that perfect establishment and newe common wealth which ye haue Conceyved" (156). Both Irenius and Eudoxus bear traces of Spenser's voice as they map out a geographical and intellectual landscape; Spenser is the authority removed from the text as Erasmus was in The Praise of Folly and More in Utopia. Sidney, who stressed the poet's inventive capacity, provides us with penetrating insight into Spenser's methodology. Sidney claims that Plato was a poet because of his deployment of "Dialogues":

And truly even Plato whosoever well considereth shall find that in the body of his work, though the inside and strength were Philosophy, the skin as it were and beauty depended most of Poetry: for all standeth upon dialogues wherein he feigneth many honest burgesses of Athens to speak of such matters, that, if they had been set on the rack, they would never have confessed them.32)

Sidney suggests that dialogue is an indeterminate genre as to feign a speaker is a poetic strategy that belongs to discourses other than the poetical. The play of voice styles and tones, and thus the significance of the content, is misread if Spenser is categorically determined as Irenius. Cox's observation that "dialogue is simultaneously part of a fictional conversation and an actual literary exchange" should always be kept in focus.

The relationship between content and aesthetic form is, in part, historically determined. Eudoxus functions as a representative of Spenser's intended audience, primarily the Elizabethan government whom Irenius is intent on persuading that English policy towards Ireland needs changing. Thomas Wilson in the "Epistle" to his Arte of Rhetorique (1560) comments on the ability of rhetoric to negotiate political advantage and declares that the pleasures of language can even outdo in impact [→page 127] the effect achieved by violence: "For if the worthinesse of Eloquence maie mooue vs, what worthier thing can there bee, then with a word to winne Cities and whole Countries? If profite maie perswade, what greater gaine can we haue, then without bloudshed achiue to a Conquest?"33) This debate about the aesthetic (humanist persuasion) and the material (martial strength), which in part foregrounds the tension between the rhetorical and the empirical, has implications for Spenser's historiography.


Frank Covington surveyed Spenser's use of Irish history in the View and concluded that Spenser's sources were eclectic. Further,

We find that he employs Irish history in the Veue in three ways, more exactly, in connection with three divisions of his discussion: as explanation of existing conditions in Ireland, as justification for English policies in Ireland, and as support for his own theories.34)

To explain, to justify and to persuade—these considerations inform Spenser's use of Irish history and his deployment of dialogue. What emerges from Covington's survey is insight into Spenser methodology. Covington claims that Spenser used more than one authority in a single passage by conflating stories; he also argues that Spenser was "careless," "misread," "relied on memory" and was "uncritical." This criticism may be valid for a contemporary historian but it ignores Spenser's role as a poet−historical who is inventive as he "faineth" a commonwealth. Michael O'Connell calls the View a "fusion of legend and history, fact and fiction."35) Wyman Herendeen argues that

At the end of the sixteenth century, poets (historical or otherwise) had to reconcile Tudor myth to the generic requirements of history, and in the process had to make specific decisions about genre, and larger ones about the nature of poetry and writing.36)

[→page 128] Spenser's attitude towards Tudor myth may be revealing. David Lee Miller observes that in the View Spenser demonstrated a sceptical attitude towards Tudor myth, specifically that concerning the tale of Brutus, that "Spenser practised a historiography that was modern for its time."37) In the View Irenius appears to cast doubt upon the authenticity of the story concerning Britain's mythic origins:

our vayne Englyshemen doe in the tale of Brutus, whome they devise to haue firste conquered and inhabited this lande, it beeinge as impossible to prove that ther euer was anie suche Brutus of Albanye, as it is, that ther anie suche Gathelus of Spaine. (261)38)

However, it would be rash to suggest that, based on Irenius' comment, Spenser did not believe in the Brutus myth's romantic and nationalistic import. Spenser belonged to a historiographical school governed by poetry, not empiricism, and described his meaning in The Faerie Queene as "clowdily enwrapped in Allegorical deuises."39)

Spenser's strategy of arbitrarily sliding between the roles of historiographer and poet historical, his methodological double−voice, is grounded in Renaissance poetics. This I intend to demonstrate by, principally, reference to Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry (1595) and George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie (1589). When Spenser in his letter to Raleigh concerning The Faerie Queene writes of the "Poet historical," he is assigning a role of historian, of chronicler, to the poet.40) This is not to be confused with the historiographer who is not a poet:

For the Methode of a Poet historical is not such, as of an Historiographer. For an Historiographer discourseth of affayres orderly as they were donne, accounting as well the times as the actions, but a Poet thrusteth into the middest, euen where it most concerneth him, and there recoursing to the thinges forepaste, and diuining of thinges to come, maketh a pleasing Analysis of all.

This distinction between "Historiographer" and "Poet historical" is a commonplace in Elizabethan poetics. The "Poet historical" is perceived as possessing a superior status; he is according to Sidney, "monarch" and according to Spenser aspires to a "kingdome of oure owne [→page 129] Language"; thus, the "historiographer" is portrayed as an empiricist and the "Poet historical" as a rhetorician.41)

Puttenham claims that for the "Poesie historicall" (39) there are histories of "three sortes: wholly true and wholly false, and a third holding part of either" (41). Puttenham eschews the truth category of feigned examples, as does Sidney who argues that "for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth" (123). For Sidney the poet is the bearer of the "fore−conceit," the "Idea" (101). A consequence of this is that the poet has the responsibility to give form to the abstract—to imagine and to invent so that narrative becomes the "imaginative ground−plot of a profitable invention" (124). History is remembered by a process of "Mimesis":

a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth—to speake metaphorically, a speaking picture—with this end, to teach and delight. (101)

The role of the poet as "representing" and "counterfeiting" arising from the poet's role as "imitator" is similarly endorsed by Puttenham—"both a maker and a counterfaitor" (3). Spenser adopts voices that are different in tone and character to that of the (empirical) historiographer.


It is naive and methodologically flawed to treat the opinions expressed by Irenius and Eudoxus as simply belonging to Edmund Spenser. I have argued for placing Spenser's View in the context of Renaissance dialogue and historiography so as to demonstrate the generic complexity of the View. My critique of the various writers on the View, with notable exceptions, demonstrates a failure to read the View within its generic as well as political contexts. I accept that the choice of genre is a political event, but this choice can only be adequately appreciated by situating the View among the multiple forms of writing which circulated within the Renaissance. The imaginary voices which Edmund Spenser created are overlooked by critics who imagine that they hear Spenser's voice, [→page 130] loud and clear, whilst Spenser's "I" elides (is never fully present) as he scans his intellectual landscape and projects his symbolically central aesthetic vision.

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