THE SPENSER SPIN
We, (Jennifer Redmond and Jessica Daly) met at the Irish Museum of Modern Art Summer School 2021 and we both had an interest in the poetry of Edmund Spenser.
For Jessica, it was an intuitive interest that started with The Faerie Queene and extended to the author. While Jennifer had come across the personae of the various characters in the poem in her reading, and had stumbled repeatedly upon accounts of the author that fascinated her in disturbing ways.
We knew that there was something to discover but were repeatedly put off by the sententious tone, the tight brick-like structure, and the unusual dialect of the poem.
Spenser’s personal rhyming device; a stanza of eight iambic pentameter lines followed by a ninth line of six iambic feet.(an Alexandrine)(the final line resolved the eight preceding lines.) indicated Spenser’s intention of being remembered alongside - Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. is evident from this canto’s parallels with Dante’s Inferno.
The epic is constructed around layers of allegory. The archaic dialect reveals the influence of a classical education and that the author intended a very specific aesthetic; a work that would comment on and appeal to the reading public of the Elizabethan era.
It was also one that would also try to shape the social narrative – try to influence the reigning monarch and thereby gain sponsorship.
We were amazed to find themes of non-normative gender and of the performance of gender roles skilfully drawn throughout. The format of the epic is tight, almost too tight for modern digestion, modern digestion by two women.
We decided to introduce some space into the structure...
to get at the substance of work; to fragment Spenser’s perspective and to initiate a conversation between the poet and ourselves.(although he is dead for hundreds of years)We thought, as two women, to subvert his authorial intention, and to assert our agancy as readers – embedded parasites perhaps,in the poem.
Although The Faerie Queene depicts women in a variety of personae; the exalted or ideal woman was expected to be frail gentle, chaste and vulnerable in order to be desirable. Under every cameo is an allegory and an insistence on the supremacy of male power.
We wanted to scrutinise the legacy of the work – the persisting tension and antagonism between the masculine performance and all‘others’.’Others’ and othered.
The characterisation of gender fluid male and female roles was intriguing to find in a renaissance text, perhaps even revolutionary for its time. Many writers throughout the canon of English literature were clearly influenced by this this work. the Romantic poets: Byron's Childe Harold and Shelley's Revolt of Islam imitate Spenser in subject (allegory) and form (the Spenserian stanza). Wordsworth's Guilt and Sorrow and Keats The Eve of St. Agnes imitate the form.
Coleridge’s unfinished poem Cristabel illustrated psychic despair that came with rationalist obscession and sexual repression.
This influence may have even extended to Percy Shelley’s wife, Mary Shelley. Her most popular novel Frankenstein references the story of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Zeus, but a link could just as easily be made to Asclepius with his ability to reanimate the dead. The spine of Canto V alludes to Frankenstein (or at least its cinematic production) in the line; “...the dead revive...With flashing thunderbolt”.
By examining Spenser's influences, and the writers that were influenced by him, Jessica calls attention to the appropriative nature of erasure poetry.
Space, created by the erased text, reflected how we think as women. Women who draw together fragments to heal shattered relationships.
We claimed this space. Re-shaped it. These negative gaps, for us, added a new dimension to understanding the poem.
The idea was to disrupt the narrative and the chronology of the epic...
gaps suggest new truths. They change the movement and shatter the authorial intention into a myriad of new threads.
In the maelstrom of caring that is often the lot of women, we made space. A silent place in which to think.
To think without guiltily considering how much space we are taking up on the page. Or in public.
A gap in that tightly constrained metre which suggests that women need to be controlled. Unheard or dismissed as less than.
Armour made all the difference. Behind the armour a woman could engage with masculine traits and a humdrum male could be a hero. There is noticeable anxiety in the male characters as they struggle to perform their genders within a culture dominated by a female monarch(Elizabeth1 (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603)
Can this discourse be read critically in a contemporary context? How could we break through the constraints of this text. Break through sedimented layers of culture and historical myth? How could we use the fragments of such a transgression to re-configure or to re-map our reality.
Treat the words as soverign beings. Conduits to a dialog between the past and present a transgression of space and time.
From among the many themes in The Faerie Queene we decided to use Canto V and Canto IV as a vehicle to talk about our reality. To think about the loneliness anxiety and precarity that we experience around us.
As two women of different age profiles, we could identify with roles and narratives in the text that are still live, concerning issues for women.
We could map traces of chivalrous behaviour and idealised versions of masculinity and femineity that are still current.
Fetishization of virginity as an idealized narrative? 🤷🏻♀️ 🤷🏼♀️
woman understood as other or as less than her male counterpart 🤦🏻♀️ 🤦🏼♀️ 🤦🏿♀️ ?
We wondered if Spenser may have felt threatened by having a woman as monarch and head of the dominant religion and state.
We imagined the poem as a blueprint for a world of unequal payment and of the expectation of
free labour from women. A part of of the fiction that has become sedimented through the years.
Everyone, except the very wealthy suffers in this model of a patriarchal free market economy. A society focusing on lack and on material desire, to justify being is a condition that drives that a ‘being’ to despair.
We were thinking about the stress of trying to establish a career constrained by caring duties or of trying to perform paid work on top of unpaid labour. we have witnessed how this can be exhausting and a source of tremendous anxiety. Everything is a Gig, and permanence in housing employment or career is elusive.
Jessica’s disillusionment in the months following her graduation from art college – working as a kitchen porter – her hands, which had been trained for many years in drawing, seemed to have no better use in society than to scrub trays of rasher fat.
Many of the words she picked out in the erasure of Canto V recall a kitchen environment - “darksome place”, “smoke”, “fry” etc.
During these months Daly gave up her main practice of painting and was contemplating alternative career paths. There is a maternal bond between an artist and their creation - such as there is, albeit perversely, between Victor Frankentein and his monster - and it is with this in mind that the line “death of her son” should be read in the spine of Canto V. The artist was perhaps drawn to this particular canto, laden with descriptions of punishment, as she herself felt punished for choosing a field that goes against the values of capitalism. If there is a moral, it is: “appease… And suffer quietly”.
The general belief that the government should not waste money on the visual arts, is no doubt perpetuated by the constant depiction in popular culture of the starving, brilliant artist. It is also often repeated that artists make their best work in trying circumstances, but this is not the case, as writer Dylan Thomas knew too well - “I can’t keep a steady head and wag a wild tongue if worry like a bumbailiff sits silently nagging by my side”.
We drew parallels between the precarity of anyone struggling to make a career in the creative
arts now and the career path that Spenser had to forge in the late 1500 and early 1600’s.
What happens to the subjectivity of the author and to the authorial intention when the author is dead? Can the work continue to influence the culture? Can our reading of the work be uncoupled from hist
Spenser certainly witnessed despair as secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton during the suppression of the Desmond rebellion in Ireland (1579–83). He struggled personally; he Lost a child when his home at Kilcolman was set alight by local insurgents. The Spensers were revieled as planters.
He surrounded himself with adventurers and colonists and was dissatisfied with the patronage that he did secure from the crown. He died in penury in Westminster on 17 January 1599, three weeks after he had fled from Ireland.
His standing in Irish history is tainted, despite his reputation as a poet; He held staunch colonist views, to him the native population were worthless and he would have been an advocate of genocide.
In his presence at Dun An Óir on the Dingle peninsula. Six hundred men women and children were beheaded. It marked the end of the Desmond rebellion.
As Irish women it is very difficult to read The Faerie Queene and not be affected by this knowledge.To not be affected by the poets voice and views that are buried in the language of the poem.
We needed to disrupt this thinking, to disrupt the constraints and map a new way of relating to this verse – a clinamen so to speak, where we are collaborating with the constraints in the poem and using our own voices.
The glitched film is of the battle site in Dún an Óir and imagines the chaos and despair of families betrayed by their commander, with no way to escape their grisly fate.
We glitched the film to insist that there is always a way to change the politics.
Later, Spenser wrote in A view of The State Of Ireland, a chilling passage supporting the actions of Lord Grey. The heads were buried in a mass grave in a field while the bodies were thrown into the sea.
Seamus Heaney from; Ocean’s Love To Ireland 1974
The subjectivity of the author is tainted irreparably by this knowledge and his words carry new meaning. We as his readers, are influenced by our understanding of the massacre and by his colonialist views as he expounds on despair in Canto 9 of the Faerie Queene.
History has recorded Spenser as a poet, as a scribe and a scholar. His views on colonialism and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Irish population have been smudged by his recorders. This field, this grizzly grave site is testament to a more rounded view of Spenser. It cannot help but colour our view of his poetry.
Travelling to the site at Dún an Óir on the Dingle peninsula
(Switch now, and look at the piece of film. It relates to the google map. A field on the Dingle peninsula)
Nearest Town: Ballyferriter
Townland: Smerwick (Ard na Caithne)
Latitude: 52° 11′ 27.0 N
Longitude: 10° 24′ 52.6″ W
the artists made a small glitched film to try to articulate the horror that is still palpable on that small stretch of the Irish coastline and try to match it to the huge reputation as a poet that is due to Spenser.
It could be argued that Spenser was a literary ‘star’ of his day, to say that he was successful as a writer, and to infer that, he achieved this at considerable personal cost. It prompts the notion that although a society admires and wants to be entertained by creative works of art; such a society will not create an environment where artistic endeavour may thrive.
For instance, to support the creative process by creating a basic minimum wage for an artist to live so that they might spend their time in thinking, researching and making projects that enrich (albeit not in a Capitalist monetary sense) and allow that society to know themselves and the world that they are making around them.
We decided to pull threads from the work to unravel this contradiction of why, if we appreciate art so much, are we miserly when it comes to facilitating its creation?
We followed a 341 year trail. Took passages from the poem that spoke to us of precarity, despair and of othering and erased some the narrative that was more appropriate for the 1600’s.
Erasure as a tool of creation was a way of conjuring from many layered impressions of an original idea. A Palimpsest that allows gaps into the body of the text, the poem is re-shaped into a new object.
gaps for the reader to auto complete and wonder at the efficacy of the words to confer veracity.
Erasure allowed us to disrupt and to glitch Spenserian rules of rhyming metre, to jolt the heartbeat of the poem, of the society, and to call out specific language as unevolved and unhelpful to the creation of meaningful modern life.
Then we then animated the spine as a way of introducing further movement, of playing with the text and of emphasising words to prompt the viewer/reader to suggest a new worldmaking,to visualise a more equitable way to be in the world.
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