Overview Purpose and Subject

Centering Spenser is a website focusing on the colonial settlement in Munster (in southwestern Ireland) and the associated writing of Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599), one of the great poets of the English renaissance.

Spenser’s writing on Ireland is as controversial as it is compelling. Much of his poetry was written in Ireland and was directly influenced by his Irish experience, albeit (quite often) in oblique ways. A constant challenge for the reader and critic is therefore to ascertain the extent of this influence. To do so is to better understand the purpose and meaning of Spenser’s life and work.

This website offers information on Spenser’s Irish world when living in his castle complex at Kilcolman, County Cork.  It simultaneously draws connections between that place and some of his writing, including his poetry, so as to enrich our understanding of both.

One way Spenser profited from his colonial situation was by finding time and occasion to write. While at Kilcolman, presumably, he composed large parts of his famous romance-epic, The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596, 1609), as well as shorter poetry written in the 1580s and 90s. The Munster Plantation, and particularly Kilcolman, was arguably central to his life and creative imagination in this period. Spenser’s famous wooing and wedding poems, Amoretti and Epithalamion (1595), are concerned directly with making a home at Kilcolman with his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle. That poetry collection is therefore featured frequently here, in piecemeal fashion, as it relates to aspects of life in the castle.  References to Ireland in other poems, such as Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595) and The Faerie Queene (including the “Mutabilitie Cantos,“ published posthumously in 1609) are also numerous. His works that appear on the website are referenced here (Index of Citations of Spenser’s Prose and Poetry).

Spenser was not only a poet during his career as a planter and colonial administrator. He also wrote, c. 1596, an influential policy tract in prose, A View of the Present State of Ireland, published posthumously (1633) but circulated widely before then. In it, Spenser describes native Irish culture in order to sharply denigrate it, so as to justify further reform, conquest and control of the Irish. This website does not shed light on all aspects of A View —a monumental task—but rather mines it for information on the castle complex, the objects in it, English and Irish culture, and for further connections with the poetry. 

Centering Spenser gives insights into the Munster Plantation by demonstrating aspects of Spenser’s experience there. The website does not apologize for, nor try to romanticize, Spenser’s role as colonial administrator and settler in Ireland. Instead, it attempts objectively, pragmatically and imaginatively to study his place in Munster near the center of the province and to better appreciate his works in relation to that situation. Many studies of Spenser have ignored or minimized his Irish connections and environments, and/or have characterized him as an exile in a wilderness far from the English court in London. We instead highlight his connections with other important figures in Munster and at the English court, particularly Sir Walter Raleigh, and so deepen our understanding of the community and conflicted world around him. This world greatly appealed to Spenser and enriched him, both in body and mind, as well as terrifying him and making him anxious for his safety and that of his home country, England, in the 1580s and ’90s.

Many of the connections drawn here between Spenser’s life and writing, like the castle recreation itself, are hypothetical. These connections are sometimes loosely defined and others are debatable.  Some are provocative. Nonetheless, most of these connections are drawn from past and current scholarship, as listed in the short bibliographies appended to many of these pages. Longer bibliographies are included separately. These bibliographies as well as weblinks and other materials are meant to be representative (but not exhaustively so) of current research on the subject of “Spenser and Ireland.“

Much scholarly work has been done in the last generation on Spenser’s life and material circumstances, including the first-ever archaeological surveys and excavations at Kilcolman. Edmund Spenser: A Life (2012), by Andrew Hadfield, is the first comprehensive biography of the poet published in sixty-eight years. It is relied on heavily here, as are the archaeological studies of Kilcolman Castle by Eric Klingelhofer and David Newman Johnson. The latter study appears in the invaluable Spenser Encyclopedia (1990), another regular source for information given here on a wide range of Spenser-related topics.

Sample teaching assignments focusing on two of the Amoretti are supplied, including an audio file. Longer essays are included that focus on the Desmond rebellion, the Munster plantation and its destruction, Kilcolman’s settlement history, building functions, roads, rivers, and “Spenser and Raleigh.“ Maps include archaeological data and modern renderings of Spenser’s immediate area, as well as an interactive plantation map from Spenser’s period. We provide historic views of the castle as well as a photo gallery of the Kilcolman ruins as they currently stand.

The heart of the website is the 3-D castle recreation, a labor of many hands and years in the University Multimedia Center at ECU. Visitors can pick it apart, explore it, and discover its many individual objects. Most of the objects are linked to Spenser’s literary works. A gallery of stills of the recreated castle is provided, as are interactive diagrams, animated fly-throughs and a sample tour in Virtual Reality. Visitors are also encouraged to explore the “Resources“ section of this website. It includes indices to the website (including references to Spenser's works) and links to other digital sites, including Spenser Online, the home of the International Spenser Society and The Spenser Review.

Our hope is to encourage further discussion and research into Spenser’s life and work in Ireland, as well as to highlight Spenser’s situation in the center of the Munster Plantation: hence our title, Centering Spenser. Last but not least, we hope to raise awareness of medieval and early modern Irish culture outside of Spenser, beginning with the tower house that he moved into and added onto but did not build himself.

Thomas Herron
1/9/2014 (revised 12/1/2021)