Where the Faerie Queene Was Written
ENGLAND and Ireland should be friends, as it were behind the backs of politicians, by reason of their kindred landscapes. The characters of the lesser country do but gently outdo those of the greater. Are hedgerows and small fields distinctively English, the Continent knowing little of them ? Fields are smaller in Ireland, and hedgerows more conspicuous, climbing little banks and carrying their flowers and blackberries aloft. Are our skies low, the soft cloud stooping as though it would walk the world ? Lower are the Irish skies; they fly like swallows before rain. Is England green? A little greener yet is pastoral Ireland. And English deciduous trees would be the chief giants of Europe if the trees of Ireland did not overtop them. Thus there is an understanding, a league of landscape against the rest of the world, the greater part of Scotland being as manifestly excluded as France, America, or the East.
The hedgerow alone should be enough for a very covenant of friendship between the two pastoral islands. One has but to travel the vague and strange lands of northern France in order to value this incident of the fields. Italy needs no hedges, for she has not, in the sense familiar to us, fields. But French fields lack hedges, so do the dismal lands above Düsseldorf or thereabouts. Who was it who first made the hedgerows of these happier lands? The business of history has been so much occupied (to use the Scriptural phrase) with the dynasties and families, weddings and begettings, of kings, that she has had no leisure to tell us who he was, and in what age he lived, who opened the doors of the sweet country to us by making gates to close. A country without boundaries might as well be shut once for all; and doors are invitations. The wood has a hundred doors, the field maybe but two, that make us guests of its charming house of entertainment.
Who, even in full summer, would ask for hospitality from the unfenced fields of France? To sit down in them would be a grotesque action. What, no background for our solitude, no leaves near our heads, no curtain, no chair, no state, nothing ensconced ? and if we would make a throne, happier than Constance’s, of the earth, no canopy thereto ? all houseless, and no inclosure of the sky ? not so much as a cloud that we can call our own ? That is very well for mountains and the libertine mood of a climber, but not for the order of docile work-a-day rambling. Even the long walls of Cumberland pastures are better than no fences at all and the uncertain lands. Whosoever planted the English and Irish hedges made a thousand thousand sequestered intimacies between man and his fields, closing, comforting, secluding, cherishing, confiding to him all wild flowers and berries.
And as to the low skies, how friendly together should not those countries of the earth be which are both so much of the earth as to have low skies — which are, that is, so little like the moon! In the March weather of California the acute prosaic lights and the sharp shadows, with little perceptible atmosphere to carry the light and dark and mingle them entangled with atoms, may remind us of the yet harder and even less dreamy, less gentle landscape of the dessicated moon. But our two islands breathe, respire, and exhale the humid, lighted air, and the Atlantic brings them clouds of the same shape, and the names of the winds have in English and Irish ears the same significance. Scotland, in this, shares with the two, but then how different are low clouds caught and torn upon the pointed Highland hills, and low clouds volleying across the tender Irish fields! Besides, there is no need, in regard to England and Scotland, of our peacemaker of climate.
It was with this thought of an alliance and sympathy of rain-cloud and pasture that we drove over rough and smooth to a gentle hill looking round the horizon to five ranges of mountains; and there stood the ruin that was Spenser’s castle of Kilconan. It seemed to stand up in opposition to that inarticulate treaty. Twelve years of rule in this tower of tyranny have left memories more perdurable than any committed to books.
It was the small keep of a shattered fortress; a castle that had belonged to the Desmonds, and had been given over, by a brief method of conveyance, to Edmund Spenser. It was by means of fortresses, plenty of fortresses, that Ireland, by his counsels, was to be subdued.
The road gradually disappeared in grass; there was but one cottage in sight (a cottage with a few goats and as many children moving about its door); and as we climbed the hill we met the cottager. If he could read, it is probable that his father, and certain that his grandfather, could not; but he inherited history from them, and memories of Spenser. Courteously, however, seeing us to be strangers and compatriots of the tyrant, he felt his footing in conversation, and would say no more than that Spenser there abouts was not well liked; neither he, added the cottager, nor Sir Walter Raleigh, who visited him in yonder tower when it was a stronghold.
If the fields and the colors of England and Ireland are alike, the complexion of the landscape and the division of the fields alike, different are the ruins. In England ruins are given over to gardeners; we have all passed their little iron turn-stiles; we have spared their grass and footed their gravel, dry-shod. But ruins in Ireland are steeped in nettles and dew. Nowhere is
The darnelled garden of unheedful death
deeper in the desolation of our humid latitudes; not the desolation of drought nor that of slender random vegetation, but that of great trees, weeds breasthigh, and unsunny greenery. In the eyes of the Irish people the ruin of the priory carries unlapsed the ancient consecration, and they bury the recent dead where no bell sounds, in narrow clearings of the melancholy flowers.
But the memories of Kilconan are unconsecrated. There indeed the Faerie Queene was in chief part written; a window in the sha ttered keep looks as though it might have lighted, high above the noise of the hall, those numerous pages. Here were the Amoretti turned; and the stanzas of the Epithalamion take their burden —
from this prospect, then tall with forest trees and bright with a lake. It is the country Spenser soothed in his verse, and wasted by famine in his polities. The still windowed fragment of a tower saw other literature than the Faerie Queene. Here he and Raleigh made ready their recommendation of the means whereby the country should be brought low. A shepherd he calls himself, shepherd keeping his flocks “ amongst the cooly shade ” of the Mulla’s banks, and thither the sound of his pipe drew to him a guest whom he splendidly names “ the shepherd of the Ocean.” Fresh from his flocks of waters, this visitant, Raleigh, found him there, piped to his singing, and anon sang to his piping. Poet to poet handed the sweet instrument by turns, and tuned his own throat. And the two men — men they were, though it is hard to find the men between the nobility of poetry and the pitilessness of politics, between the pastoral trick and the ferocity of government, between the shepherds and the men of office — these two men “ charmed the oaten pipe,” and by and by consulted together to another purpose, thus: —
“ Those four garrisons [counsels Spenser] issuing forth, at such convenient times as they shall have intelligence or espiall upon the enemy, will so drive him from one side to another, and tennis him amongst them, that he shall finde nowhere safe to keep his creete in, nor hide himselfe, but flying from the fire shall fall into the water, that in short time his creete, which is his chiefe sustenance, shall be wasted with preying, or killed with driving, or starved for want of pasture in the woods, and he himself brought so low that he shall have no heart nor ability to endure his wretchednesse . . . for one winter well followed upon him will so plucke him on his knees, that he will never be able to stand up againe . . . For it is not with Ireland as with other countryes, where the warres flame most in summer, and the helmets glister brightest in the fairest sunshine [hear the poet!], but in Ireland the winter yieldeth best services, for then the trees are bare and naked which use both to cloath and house the kerne; the ground is cold and wet which useth to be his bedding; the air is sharp and bitter to blowe through his naked sides and legges; the kyne are without milke which useth to be his only food, neither if he kill them will they yeeld him flesh; besides, being all with calfe, they will, through much chasing and driving, cast all their calves, and lose their milke, which should relieve him the next summer. . . . He shall want milke and shortly want life. Therefore if they he well followed but one winter, you shall have little worke with them the next summer. . . . The proof whereof I saw sufficiently exampled in the late warres of Mounster. . . . Out of every corner of the woods and glynnes they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legges could not beare them; they looked like anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eate the dead carrions, yea and one another soone after, in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves . . . that in short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddainely left void of man and beast; yet surely in that warre there perished not many by the sword, but all by extremitie of famine.”
Through that wide and lovely country with its cloudy but clear horizon, its sombre but not gloomy climate —the purest skyline left by industrialism in Europe, albeit the sky is so low that it hardly climbs the hills; toward the Waterford mountains to the east, toward the Ballyhowra heights to the north, or, as Spenser calls them, Mountains of Mole; southward away to the Nagle hills, and westward to those of Kerry; following the River Mulla with his careful eye, commanding the farthest distance and the lightsome outline of Killarney mountains, the poet measured the way, and, as it were, lay in wait for the men that were to die, and for the cattle that were to drop.
I often taught to weep.
Spenser is here ambiguous; the sorrow he “ taught ” these wild waters was evidently something other than the “ pathetic fallacy ” of his verse. Nevertheless let me add that he possesses pity, and so too does his counselor “ Eudoxius,” who is Raleigh the Shepherd of the Ocean. For the south country of Ireland, before havoc and famine befell, had shown them examples of its beauty, “ beside the soyle it selfe most fertile, fit to yealde all kinde of fruit that shall be committed therunto. And lastly the heavens most mild and temperate.” “ A sweet country,” he calls it, “ being stored throughout with many goodly rivers, sprinkled with many very sweet islands and goodly lakes.” If any prince were absolute lord of that land, with its woods, commodious for shipbuilding, writes the poet, bent on utility to, and favor from, his sovereign, that prince would soon hope to master all the seas, and ere long the world.
The woods now are fewer, whether or not they were sent, as Spenser hoped, down to the sea in ships; the lake has so sunken as to leave no more than a trace under the castled hill. From Spenser’s report we receive the impression of a multitude tragically great, here as in “ Mounster.” Famine is the great effectual weapon against numbers; numbers are the food of hunger; it brings each man to equal anguish with his neighbor, so as to forestall human pity and to prevent reciprocal succor; and the numbers were there, naked mankind in the naked woods. There is no multitude now; there are no more cries, if there are no songs. The beautiful soft country seems in need of hard men. For little tillage and much pasture show a people not only few but idle, and nature much at work in the fostering and fattening of their herds. The south of Ireland altogether looks like a vast free farm with feeding flocks of geese and goats. As for the delight of the eye, the Irish homestead is not lacked and desired as is the English in the vacant English country, and as the Italian or the French would be if their lands too were vacant. For no country, surely, shows us duller villages or less sweet cottages or less charming country towns than these of southern Ireland. Bleak is the hamlet, the dwelling-houses modern and yet not trim, and the cottage has no paved garden-path, no little close for flowers, no little croft for fruit. Gray are the streets, the public houses many, the churches of the Gothic as Horace Walpole understood it.
It is not by the village or the farm that England and Ireland are to be allied, but only by the fields. This solitary landscape, then, is cheerfully excused by the tourist eye, sensitive to the picturesque. But the solitude is none the less a human misfortune, and all too significant of evil past and actual. “ No part of all that realme shal be able to dare to quinch,” says Spenser. Something must depend upon the meaning we may choose to attribute to the act of quinching. The view from Kilconan Castle suggests that what quinching may have been attempted did not prosper. But he who recommended the defeat of Southern Ireland by famine fled from some partial quinching after twelve years of his government, leaving this castle in flames; and the baby of a poet, the child of the bride of the Epithalamion, was burned to ashes in its cradle in this tower of memories.