Spenser spenser


Richard Berleth in his book The Twilight Lords describes the end of Gaelic culture in Ireland in the 1580s, characterizing pre- Elizabethan Irish as bucolic primitives, tribalists who lived with their cattle, reciting snatches of Latin and Hippocrates in their wattle and straw classrooms, fighting amongst each other in their ancient ways:

If they had not even approached the threshold of modern civilization by 1580, they were still secure inthe changeless patterns of tribal life. They took more than sustenance from their herds; they drew solace and meaning from the perennial wanderings of their cattle. Their language was rich in images of earth and sky, and their songs celebrated nature with an immediacy seldom met in Elizabethan verse. No matter how degenerate they might appear to English travellers, a noble vision of man impelled these people. Through their legends of kings and cattle raids pass the warriors of an heroic age: Cuchulain, Conchobar, Fergus, Ferdiad. Their pride was all in individual prowess and valor, in the exploits of wandering heroes..."

Ireland had once been heavily forested but by the late 1500s Irish oak had been entirely cleared to reduce cover for rebel guerillas and to provide timber for English ships. At that time the poet William Spenser arrived in Ireland as a settler, part of an Elizabethan program to rescue the country from wasteful wilds and populate the land with English "planters." Spenser had witnessed the mopping up phase of English colonization of the of the western part of the country.

One day shortly after his arrival the poet was visiting a market town when he encountered a remarkable sight. A certain rebel, O'Brien, had been captured by the English and had only moments before been executed by drawing and quartering; that is to say, the man's intestines had been pulled out of him while he was still alive, and then horses had been hitched to his limbs and he had thus been pulled apart into four pieces in the middle of the town square. The rebel's foster mother had witnessed the execution; she had broken from the crowd and run up to the grisly remains. Spenser noted the scene in his diary:

"I saw an old woman who was his foster mother take up his head whilst he was quartered and suck up all the blood running out thereout, saying that the earth was not worthy to drink it and therewith also steeping her face, and breast, and torn hair, crying and shrieking out most terribly."

rlm / dak