Printer Friendly

Conscience and the "gentle paines" of reform in A View of the Present State of Ireland.

Literary critics frequently turn to Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) to illuminate the colonial politics that inform the depiction of justice in Book V of The Faerie Queene (1596)--and rightly so. There are conspicuous similarities between A View's plan for violent reform in Ireland and Artegall's forcible imposition of justice in Irena's domain. Yet, as most of those same critics acknowledge, the text of A View itself--a prose dialogue between two Englishmen as they debate the best means to reform the Irish--is shot through with "extreme, confused and often outrageous opinions which ... have been a continuing source of embarrassment to historians and literary scholars alike." (1) On the one hand, the plan Irenius proposes is startlingly brutal: garrison 11,000 troops in Ireland, offer the Irish 20 days to surrender to English authority, then systematically annihilate, by sword or starvation, all who resist--thus establishing total military control over the region. As Ciaran Brady observes, this plan "has always been difficult ... [for critics] to reconcile [with] the image of [Spenser as] 'Colin Clout' and 'the gentle poet.'" (2) On the other hand, the text itself is "shot through with moral, logical and linguistic ambiguity" (3)--not only because Eudoxus candidly acknowledges the emotionally disturbing nature of Irenius's brutal proposal, but also because Irenius's own speeches contain numerous contradictions.

Given the problematic nature of the text, therefore, it is remarkable that critics who comment on A View generally take it for granted that Irenius speaks for Spenser, while Eudoxus serves only as "a straw man ... to convince his readers that serious objections ... [have] been considered and refuted." (4) Indeed, even those who acknowledge the text's problems typically propose interpretations "which, with a few exceptions, argue at least implicitly that the View, though a dialogue, is essentially monovocal." (5) One significant problem with these arguments is their circular reasoning. Because they dismiss the import of Eudoxus's objections and Irenius's occasionally self-subverting arguments, they automatically deny the possibility that either Irenius or Spenser feels genuinely ambivalent toward his own project; of course, the former gesture is possible only if one already accepts the latter conclusion. (6) When A View is subsequently brought to bear on Book V of The Faerie Queene, this problematic assumption gets imported into the latter text: most critics readily detect the justification of violence behind Spenser's description of justice, yet say surprisingly little about how the poem's equivocal language infuses that justice with the same moral ambivalence found in A View's self-subverting arguments. (7) Accordingly, no critic has adequately explained why Spenser appears unwilling or unable to sustain a strong, coherent, unequivocal attitude toward violent reform in both texts.

One reason Spenser's ambivalence continues to embarrass explanation is that, in searching for the answer, critics typically turn to Spenser's (political) activities in Ireland, the (political) attitudes of his contemporaries, and the conventions of the dialogue as a (political) genre. Of course, this choice of sources and the findings they generate are heavily informed by the classic new historicist supposition that Spenser's interests in writing A View must be chiefly political and historical, rather than moral--the same supposition that likely prevents critics from taking the moral ambivalence of the text seriously. Thus to reinforce his view that Irenius speaks for Spenser, Brady observes that "[Spenser's] last presumed writing on Ireland, the mistitled Briefe Note, ... [made] no attempt to soften or disguise the argument [for violent reform].... Only the charade of the preliminary ultimatum was retained deliberately to salve the consciences of those who thought the plan 'too bloody and cruel.'" (8) In short, Spenser is most sincere when most severe. For Brady, any qualification Spenser places upon that severity is simply a "charade ... to salve the [readers'] consciences." (9) A similar premise underlies Nicholas Canny's argument that "Spenser's religious fervour was so intense ... that he suffered no qualms of conscience when he detailed a scheme which ... would have effected the realization of 'a Cromwellian dream a century before Cromwell.'" (10) Remarkably, though Canny here attends to Spenser's moral motives--translating political zeal into "religious fervour"--it makes no substantive difference to his assessment of Spenser's ethics or to his appreciation of the text's moral and logical inconsistencies. Like Brady, Canny discovers a Spenser who is fully prepared to annihilate the Irish people with "no [sincere] qualms of conscience." The moral ambiguities of A View still amount to political charade; neither Eudoxus's objections nor Irenius's contradictions suggest to Canny any genuine moral qualm on Spenser's part.

Notice, however, that Brady's and Canny's readings share another, subtler similarity: both acknowledge, if only by accident, that Spenser is deliberately concerned with matters of conscience--whether it be to press the fervent conviction of his own untroubled conscience, as Canny implies, or to salve the reader's conscience, as Brady remarks. What both men are instinctively, albeit unconsciously, registering is the vital role that early modern discourse of conscience plays in Spenser's language, his ideology of reform, and his persuasive engagement with the reader. Indeed, a close reading of Spenser's vision of violent reform--both in A View and in The Faerie Queene--reveals the conscience as the central justification of violence in both texts: Irenius posits the necessity of violent discipline on the grounds that the Irish "have no touch of conscience" to urge civility from within; (11) likewise, Artegall's God-given right to mete out justice derives from his unique capacity to dispense "the discipline of justice" according to "the line of [his] conscience." (12) These references to conscience are especially significant given that both texts are composed around the same time that casuistry, the theological practice of resolving difficult moral dilemmas called "cases of conscience," nears the height of its popularity. (13) As Camille Wells Slights has ably demonstrated, casuistry's pervasive attention to the conscience and specific moral cases transmitted a distinctly "casuistical habit of mind" to the broader culture, which profoundly shaped how moral agency was understood. (14)

One key feature of this casuistic habit of mind was casuistry's assertion that truth and morality are contingent upon the concrete circumstances of the particular case. Treatises on conscience urged believers to analyze these circumstances carefully, consider the moral repercussions of any possible choice, and then choose that course of action that seemed morally "probable" to one's own conscience. The latter point is especially significant, for casuistry also maintained that the individual conscience enjoyed supreme authority over the believer's actions. (15) Insofar as the conscience's perception of orthodox action depended heavily on reason and understanding of the case, this view granted significant power to the individuals' interpretations of concrete events: which circumstances they chose to weigh, how heavily they weighed them, and which moral principles they deemed applicable to a given case could all radically affect the conscience's perception of moral action. It is in this regard especially that the discourse of conscience promises tantalizing insight into the moral ambivalence and persuasive tactics of Spenser's text.

I contend that in A View, Spenser cleverly exploits the structural and rhetorical features of the dialogue to portray the Irish problem as "a case of conscience": a pressing moral dilemma in which both he and his readers are caught. By encouraging his readers to consider his program of reform through the pragmatic, almost clinically detached lens of casuistic analysis, Spenser hopes to solicit support for the efficacy of violent reform, to contain the volatile pathos of his plan, and to shield himself from accusations of uncompromising cruelty. Conscious that his forcible methods will prick the consciences of his readers and his merciful queen, he adopts the equivocal tone of a moral dilemma not only to acknowledge the disturbingly brutal face of his plan, but also to fashion the unwavering commitment to such brutality as a fundamental condition of justice in the Irish case. Accordingly, even as A View acknowledges the unpalatable violence of Irenius's reforming methods, the text posits the competing impulse for mercy as a dire threat to justice as well as a serious failure of the reader's moral responsibility to rescue Ireland from damnable savagery. By setting the terms of the debate in this manner, Spenser strives to preserve his claim to compassion even as he pressures the reader to agree that quick, violent force will reform the savagery which mercy bids continue. (16)

Recalling my earlier claim that critics appear passively aware of the conscience's importance to Spenser's project, this awareness is not confined to those coincidental references to "conscience" that I noted in Brady's and Canny's arguments. Consider Bruce Avery's shrewd observation that Eudoxus's relationship to Irenius shifts from skepticism to docility the moment the two unfold the physical map of Ireland:
   The map affect[s] Eudoxus's perceptions in several ways.... While
   Irenius has the evidence of personal experience, Eudoxus has the
   tool of empire: a representation of the entire territory. With it
   his eyes can become schooled in the broad picture which encompasses
   and situates Irenius's anecdotal reportage. From that perspective,
   the Godly perspective ... he can judge Irenius's notions, though he
   has none of his experience. These two figures can then orient
   themselves in a more stable, secure relation with each other and
   with Ireland because of the single perspective enforced upon them
   by the map. (17)


For Avery, this observation leads naturally to a discussion of maps and empire, but more striking to my eye is the way Avery's language illuminates--again, apparently by accident--the text's profound concern with the relationship between abstract and concrete: that is, how "the Godly perspective" of the map both depends on and yet judges Irenius's firsthand "personal experience." (18) This same pattern lies at the heart of the casuist's art, which seeks to reconcile abstract moral principles with their application under particular, nuancing circumstances. This casuistic habit of mind becomes more apparent when we consider the explicit occasion of the text's dialogue: A View begins when Eudoxus voices his amazement that better care has not been taken for "reducing that nation [of Ireland] to better government and civility"; whereupon Irenius promises to explain the source of Ireland's troubles, the chief abuses that presently occur, and the surest way to bring the realm under effective control. Setting the agenda for the rest of their discussion, this tripartite structure recalls the conventions of casuistic treatises, which, though flexible, also generally include three similar parts: anatomizing the nature of the conscience, describing the dangers to which it is subject, and explaining the proper means by which to bring it to a state of health and comfort. Those same conventions also inform Irenius's manner of analysis: his insistence on local and practical knowledge, his concern to define and contextualize particular terms, his belief that laws must be fitted to the people and their conditions, and his premise that the merit of disciplinary methods is contingent upon intention and circumstance--all of which reinforce a precise, casuistic appreciation of the moral stakes of reform.

Still more compelling is the way casuistry's understanding of the conscience's disciplinary efficiency appears to inform Spenser's vision of effective control in Ireland. Certainly, in both A View and Book V of The Faerie Queene that vision is shaped by Spenser's profound awareness that surveillance is vital to discipline and the maintenance of law. (19) Early in A View, Irenius complains: "Dwelling as they doe, whole nations and septs of the Irish together, without any Englishman amongst them, they may doe what they list, and compound or altogether conceale amongst themselves their owne crimes, of which no notice can be had, by them which would and might amend the same, by the rule of the lawes of England" (15). This problem of criminal invisibility--or rather, the lack of any official, organized system of surveillance--is fashioned as one of the chief obstacles to the efficacy of English law and its disciplinary power over the Irish. Before Irish crimes can be punished or reformed, they must be detected. A similar anxiety about invisibility prompts Irenius to condemn the Irish mantle (a cloak-like garment). Even as he praises the mantle's astounding practicality, (20) he insists that its benefits are far outweighed by its potential harms, all of which stem from its ability to conceal: to hide not only the identities of rebels and thieves, but weapons, stolen goods, illegitimate pregnancies, and other means or fruits of depravity (57-58). (21) The underlying notion that effective discipline depends thoroughly upon detection is reiterated in Spenser's description of justice in The Faerie Queene:
   Most sacred vertue she [Justice] of all the rest,
      Resembling God in his imperiall might;
      Whose soveraine powre is herein most exprest,
      That both to good and bad he dealeth right,
      And all his workes with Justice hath bedight.
      That powre he also doth to Princes lend,
      And makes them like himself in glorious sight,
      To sit in his owne seate, his cause to end,
   And rule his people right, as he doth recommend.
      (V.Proem.10)


If we construe "glorious sight" to mean not merely an impressive appearance, but the panoptic vision traditionally associated with God's omniscience--and mirrored by Talus's bloodhound-like ability to "reveale / All hidden crimes" (V.xii.26)--then Spenser here identifies surveillance as the fundamental condition of power that renders the magistrate's authority God-like. In the process of advancing this theory of power--that disciplinary authority is both enabled and circumscribed by its ability to see and detect hidden transgression--Spenser fittingly adopts the discourse of conscience.

Saturated with metaphors of disciplinary scrutiny--"watcher," "witness," "accuser," "recorder," and "spy," to name just a few--casuistic accounts of the conscience would have readily afforded Spenser a highly developed model for conceptualizing the role of surveillance in relation to state power and civil discipline--and, more specifically, for theorizing the subject's psychological experience of visibility and accountability. Certainly an awareness of the conscience's disciplinary power lies at the core of Irenius's assertion that the whole of Ireland's troubles stem from the utter lack of conscience in the Irish subject. "For when a people ... have no touch of conscience," he explains, "it is bootlesse to think to restraine them by any penalties or feare of punishment, but either the occasion is to be taken away, or a more understanding of the right, and shame of the fault to be imprinted" (View, 32). Notably, conscience is here associated with a fear of punishment and a sense of shame, both of which are construed in social rather than spiritual terms. Irenius's point is not that the Irish do not realize God will punish them or that their souls are sullied, but rather that the Irish neither fear the arm of the magistrate nor feel their own depravity amidst the disapproving gaze of their civilized peers. Thus Spenser translates the theological account of the "conscience" into both the justification and the model for imposing effective civil authority upon the Irish.

Perhaps to reinforce this shift from the spiritual matter of a conscionably ordered interior to the political matter of externally regulated discipline, Irenius deliberately excludes religion from his discussion of policy in Ireland. (22) Instead, he construes conscience as the internalized voice of authority--a disciplinary impulse created and sustained by external disciplinary mechanisms of civil society. (23) To explain the decivilizing effect Ireland has had upon previous English settlers, for example, he blames "the bad mindes of the men, who having beene brought up at home under a straight rule of duty and obedience, being alwayes restrayned by sharpe penalties from lewde behaviour, so soone as they come thither, where they see lawes more slackely tended, and the hard restraint which they were used unto now slacked, they grow more loose and carelesse of their duty" (View, 144). For Spenser, conscience and discipline exist in mutual dependence--a view that calls the value of mercy severely into question by suggesting that lenient governance is lax governance. If relaxed discipline encourages "lewde behaveiour," then the magistrate's diligent detection and punishment of crimes is vital not only to the maintenance of social order, but also to the general well-being of the consciences of his subjects. To Irenius, the reports of English settlers turning savage amid Ireland's undisciplined landscape provide hard evidence for his underlying assumption that conscience cannot function without dreadful force to help enforce its dictates and discourage the naturally bad minds of men--a sentiment The Faerie Queene echoes. (24)

To this extent, the idea of conscience presented in A View noticeably differs from William Perkins's concise description of the conscience as "a little God sitting in the middle of men's hearts." (25) So too, it is almost entirely divorced from the deeply personal, explicitly religious form of conscience that troubles Redcrosse in Book I. Stripped down to its basic operations of surveillance, judgment, and disciplinary punishment--the chief components of Spenserian justice--conscience comes to mean, for the subject, an awareness of one's own visibility and susceptibility to worldly authority or, more specifically, one's utter subjection to the conscience of the magistrate. As Lowell Gallagher explains: "In the sixteenth century, the word 'conscience' ... meant both to be conscious of one's own acts and thoughts and also to be conscious of what transpired in the outside world." (26) In Spenser's secularized, politicized view of the conscience as a model for expanding state power, the discipline of civil subjects depends upon cultivating a particularly acute consciousness of the state's disciplinary mechanisms and one's own constant subjection to its scrutiny. Toward this end, Irenius recommends that every shire be patrolled by a Provost Marshall: someone equipped not merely to watch, but to terrify, judge, and condemn the people amongst whom he dwells--"to have power of life and death" over them (View, 152). Similarly, but more perfectly, this Spenserian fantasy of an all-seeing, all-powerful disciplinary presence reappears in the iron figure of Talus: detector, accuser, judge, and executioner, all conveniently embodied in a single, strikingly efficient enforcer. (27) Only the casuistic description of conscience--heavily laden with metaphors of surveillance, detection, judgment, and condemnation--matches the absolute efficiency of Spenser's fantastical enforcer. (28) But since, as Irenius insists, the Irish "have no touch of conscience," Spenser imagines its replacement by an authority figure invested with the same efficient powers.

In the dedicatory letter to Sir John Fylbert that prefaces Of the Conscience (1576), John Woolton explicates the power of conscience by quoting Seneca: "Let us so lyve ... as if the eyes of all men were bent toward us: let us so studie and devise with our selves when we are alone, as if strangers did viewe our secret cogitations. Many faultes and mischiefes shalt thou avoyd if thou imagine that thou hast a witnes of thy doings always at thy elbowe." (29) For Woolton, this exercise of imagining one's own acute visibility--a sentiment remarkably similar to Foucault's theory of panopticism (30)--is rendered unnecessary by the Christian realization that within every believer there is already a very effective, very real surveying mechanism called conscience: "The truth is in deede," he argues, "that we have with us alwayes present, waking & watching us, a sage and grave Censor of lyfe & manners (our conscience I say) which according to the coind proverbe, is in steede of a thousand witnesses." (31) Yet Woolton's Christian revision fails to efface the implications of Seneca's words: that the disciplinary force of conscience can be bolstered, perhaps even replaced, by an imagined social panopticism which draws its force from a strikingly similar psychological exercise; that is, by imagining society as a community of watchers where even strangers can easily "viewe our secret cogitations." While other casuists seconded Woolton's effort to privilege the panoptic power of conscience over that of society, Spenser seems to have understood the accidental implication of such comparisons: that a watchful community might serve almost as well in its place.

To be clear, the disciplinary power of conscience is not the same as the "automatic functioning of power" Foucault attributes to Bentham's Panopticon. While Foucault suggests that a cultivated sense of "conscious and permanent visibility" is alone sufficient to ensure obedience, casuists attribute the power of conscience to a divine system of rewards and punishments as much as to mere scrutiny. (32) What enables the functioning of conscience's power, in other words, is not merely the individual's conscious visibility to God but also, as the casuist William Ames indicates, a cultivated sense of God's authority, dreadful power, and overwhelming benevolence. (33) Thus the believer ought to obey divine will because it is right, because the consequences of disobedience are dire, and because obedience has been profoundly obligated by the limitless gifts God has bestowed. Importantly, the latter mode of power--God's infinitely indebting benevolence--suggests that obedience and discipline do not depend solely on surveillance and the dread of punishment. They also stem from self-interest, or what might be called the rewards of submission and obedience: the gifts and benefits that simultaneously render subjects beholden to the giver and supply them with a motive to persist in obedience. God should be obeyed not merely because he is the divine authority, nor because disobedience carries severe penalties, but because he confers so many gifts and favors that the believer is utterly obliged by the dictates of gratitude and the interest of continued prosperity to repay him with faithful service. Ames is actually addressing spiritual obedience to God when he insists that "every benefit doth bind him that receives it to the benefactor, and the greater the benefit is the greater the bond," (34) but Spenser recognizes a similar benefit-based binding potential in the relationship between individual and state.

Like the relationship between God and believer, the establishment and secure maintenance of English authority in Ireland depends partly upon its ability to foster, in the subject, a vested interest in obeying and protecting the state's claim to authority because of the perceived benefits and protection it affords. To this end, Irenius insists upon the importance of establishing secure property rights between Irish tenants and their landlords. As Swen Voekel notes, the abolishment of neo-feudal magnates at the peripheries of the British State and the guarantee to rights of private property are, for Spenser, necessary prerequisites to quelling the dangers of rebellion and constructing a disciplined subject. (35) Without such assurances, Irenius argues,
   the [Irish] tenant being left at his liberty is fit for every
   occasion of change that shall be offered by time: and so much also
   the more ready and willing is he to runne into the same, for that
   hee hath no such state in any his houlding, no such building upon
   any farme, no such coste imployed in fensing or husbanding the
   same, as might withhold him from any such wilfull course, as his
   lords cause, or his owne lewde disposition may carry him unto.
   (View, 83)


Irish tenants would be far less likely to rebel, the logic suggests, if they felt securely tied to their places by a fixed assurance of land that they could work, enjoy, invest in, and want to protect. Moreover, it would provide them with a compelling reason to embrace the English system of law that validates and protects their rights to such claims. In this context, Gallagher's "ethos of misrecognition" seems appropriate: by cultivating self-interest through property rights, and intertwining those interests with a need to obey and sustain the state's authority, the state indeed furnishes a compelling motive for subjects to suppress their dangerous willingness to question the legitimacy of its claim to authority--that is, to "misrecognize" the subjective bases of that authority, so long as they benefit by it. (36) But this convenient cooperation of interests between subject and state, however beneficial, is really only the superficial focus of Irenius's policy. Recalling that the chief problem in Ireland has been fashioned as a lack of conscience, Spenser's real project is to cultivate self-conscious visibility--and by extension, accountability--in every Irish subject.

Comparing the ongoing turmoil in Ireland to the relative stability in England at the time, Irenius explains: "This is the reason that in England you have such few bad occasions, by reason that the noble men, however they should happen to be evill disposed, have no commaund at all over the communalty, though dwelling under them, because that every man standeth upon himselfe, and buildeth his fortunes upon his owne faith and firme assurance" (View, 140). Here, Spenser calls attention to the real benefit of Irenius's policies: their participation in cultivating a vital, inward feeling of self-assurance, of individual autonomy, which comes from having something of one's own with which to identify, in which to invest, and to appreciate. While certain guarantees like property rights may indeed give individuals an interest in supporting the state's claim to authority, it is the collective effect of those guarantees upon the individual's subjectivity that does the real "civilizing" work. The resulting sense of self-assurance encourages subjects to see themselves as individuals first, before any communal loyalties--individuals who can be called strictly to account for their particular actions, who have something to lose by getting swept up in someone else's cause, and who feel able to exert at least some control over their own future. They cease to be mere dependents, supplicants, or fugitives before the law, and instead feel subject to its power, identify with its principles, even internalize its dictates. So constituted, the subject may feel intimidated by the accompanying sense of personal accountability, perhaps, but also empowered to "build his fortunes upon his owne faith and firme assurance." Discipline follows naturally: the subject's sense of dependency on others diminishes, a willingness to throw support behind any noble who might foment rebellion is quashed, and a desire for individual regulation and protection increases.

While stabilizing property rights is an important part of this process, it is ultimately a forward-looking plan that speaks more to the future maintenance of order in Ireland than the current achievement of it. In the meantime, Irenius recommends a far more expedient means to cultivate an individualized subjectivity in the Irish: a system of "tything" which, by forcing the community to offer up its criminals or suffer collectively for them, supplants the tradition of Irish communal protection so problematically depicted in the first half of A View. Describing how the similar savagery of England under the Saxons was brought into subjection and civility, he explains:
   If any one of them [the English] did start into any undutiful
   action, the Borsolder was bound to bring him forth, when, joyning
   eft-soones with all his tything, would follow that loose person
   through all places ... [and] would not rest till they had found out
   and delivered in that undutifull fellow, which was not amesnable to
   law.... The which institution (if it were observed in Ireland)
   would ... keep all men within the compasse of dutie and obedience.
   (137)


For Spenser, this system of "tything" supplies the perfect solution to the fundamental problem that the Irish "have no touch of conscience" by effectively transforming the community itself into the individual's conscience--a social network that records every transgression and is prepared to bear witness against the guilty at any moment if called to account by authority. (37) The community, like the conscience, becomes an inexhaustible, scrutinizing force that actively seeks and roots out depravity, offering its criminals up to the sovereign as sinners offered up to God's judgment. With nowhere left to hide or seek support, the criminal may no longer depend upon the invisibility--upon the community's willingness to hide and protect its own--that earlier raised so much anxiety in Irenius's discussions.

But while transforming the Irish community into an extension of official surveillance may help to resolve the fundamental problem of detecting unlawful behavior, the real disciplinary power of Spenser's plan depends upon the accompanying exercise of severe, punitive force--without which even the most meticulous system of surveillance would serve no better than a "sleepy secure conscience [that] sees many a sin to enter the soule that should not, and yet lyes still, and sayes nothing, is loath to breake its sleepe." (38) Yet it is on this most pivotal issue--the violent use of force--that A View blatantly subverts its own persuasiveness. Clearly, Spenser believes violence is necessary to generate the conscious dread--the social conscience--that the Irish lack; yet his description of the initial reforming process conspicuously lingers on the appallingly inhumane face of such work. Describing "the late warres of Mounster" as evidence of the awesome effectiveness of starvation tactics, for example, Irenius says:
   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, happy where they
   could finde them, yea, and one another soone after, insomuch as the
   very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and,
   if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they
   flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue
   therewithall; that in short space there were none almost left, and
   a most populous and plentifull countrey suddainely left voyde of
   man and beast; yet sure in all that warre, there perished not many
   by the sword, but all by the extremitie of famine, which they
   themselves had wrought. (102)


Except for the feeble attempt in the final phrase to blame this spectacle of misery upon the victims, there is nothing to allay the reader's inevitable pity for those afflicted. Instead, this vision of "justice" solicits the same skepticism that surrounds Spenser's account of Talus in The Faerie Queene. And as with Talus--whose relentless brutality is described as "piteous slaughter" that leaves "no worke ... for the leach" (V.vii.35)--it seems appallingly clear that this tactic of "reform" is far more destructive than rehabilitative. (39) To crystallize the point, Eudoxus not only registers the likely shock of Spenser's readers--"even I that doe but heare it from you, and do picture it in my minde, doe greatly pittie and commisserate it"--but, far more ominously, notes its probable effect on Elizabeth: "she perhappes, for very compassion of such calamities, will not only stoppe the stream of such violences, and returne to her wonted mildnesse, but also conne them little thankes which have beene the authours and counsellours of such bloodie platformes" (102-103). (40)

If Spenser endorses Irenius's plan, why permit this vivid acknowledgment of the reader's and Elizabeth's pity to overshadow the whole project? Again, I think the answer can be found in the discourse of conscience, which provides Spenser with a convenient language for presenting his controversial project through the protective, insulating lens of a "case of conscience"; that is, to voice his views through the safer pose of an intellectual, political, and spiritual quandary. This would seem to explain why Spenser chose to write A View in the form of a dialogue; not so that, as critics like Walter Lim suggest, Spenser could merely pretend to engage in serious philosophical discussion, but so that Spenser could simultaneously voice his convictions and his reservations: to represent himself as an interested moral agent caught between his natural disposition toward compassion and the pressing moral obligation of reforming Ireland--a pose that bears a striking resemblance to that adopted by Elizabeth during the trial and execution of Mary of Scots. (41) By fashioning his inward struggle over the Irish issue as an equivocal dialogue between the pragmatic Irenius and the compassionate Eudoxus, Spenser appears especially concerned to preserve his moral integrity intact: that is, to present his avowedly brutal plan as the orthodox product of diligent moral reasoning, and subsequently, to foreground his faithful adherence to conscience despite the pressures of naive compassion and the real danger of provoking Elizabeth. As if to confirm the dire necessity for such practical moral reasoning, A View begins with Eudoxus blaming England's failed attempts to reform Ireland on "the unsoundnes of the councels, and plots, which ... have bin often-times laid for the reformation, or of faintnes in following and effecting the same" (11). His subsequent assessment that it would be "the part of a desperate phisitian to wish his diseased patient dead, rather then to apply the best indeavour of his skill for his recovery" (12) undermines any merciful inclination to maintain a relaxed approach in Ireland and encourages Irenius's brutal-but-effective plan to be treated as serious, reasoned, needful advice for a morally responsible course of action.

Read as a reflection of Spenser's own inward moral struggle, the dialogue of A View suggests that violent reform is not something he is eager to recommend, nor something he easily embraces; nonetheless, since he perceives it to be the only effective means to reform Ireland, it is the plan he feels obliged in conscience to advocate. To render the issue directly pertinent to the consciences of his readers and to avoid the troubling attitude of resignation toward Ireland which Eudoxus criticizes early on, Spenser intersperses A View with repeated suggestions of English culpability for Ireland's condition. Early in the text, for example, Irenius blames England's lax governance: "so were these people [the Irish] at first well handled, and wisely brought to acknowledge allegiance to the Kings of England: but, being straight left unto themselves and their own inordinate life and manners, they eftsoones forgot what before they were taught, and so soone as they were out of sight, by themselves shook off their bridles, and beganne to colte anew, more licentiously than before" (16). Later, he adds that "the chiefest abuses which are now in that realme, are growne from the English, and some of them are now much more lawlesse and licentious then the very wilde Irish" (67). By blaming England's laxity of governance, and by attributing the worst savagery in Ireland to those once-civilized English settlers of old who turned barbaric and wild among the undisciplined landscape of Ireland, Spenser appeals not only to his readers' sense of responsibility to fix the problems their own nation helped to cause, but also to their underlying fear that the present state of Ireland poses a direct threat to the civility of every English subject. (42)

These appeals to fear and moral responsibility offer Spenser an effective means to engage the consciences of his English readers, but that very act of engagement also places substantial pressure on the way any indelicate-seeming project of reform must be presented. Although Spenser believes in the utter necessity of force to reform Ireland and to construct the disciplined Irish subject, his zeal for his project is held in constant check by his awareness that some consciences--the queen's included--will recoil at the prospect of any brutal civilizing program. While he tackles the difficult project of bestowing a disciplined, civil conscience on the "wilde" Irish, he therefore simultaneously struggles to pacify the consciences of his English readers and to satisfy his own moral conscience, which, at times, seems genuinely divided between political and personal sentiments. In reality, he is trying to have it both ways:

he is recommending a policy of violent reform and acknowledging the inhumane acts implicit in such a policy; the latter gesture is meant to illumine his conscionable motives, but not to rebut the former plan of action.

Ultimately, Spenser does not intend for his readers to feel paralyzed by an irresolvable moral dilemma, but obliged by conscience to will against their compassionate inclinations, which would otherwise exacerbate the problem. If his equivocal tone invites any doubt about his own conviction, his defense of Lord Grey and his subtle critiques of Elizabeth's mercy make it clear which choice he believes must be preferred. Predictably, the irresponsibility of compassion becomes the central theme of Irenius's most unequivocal endorsement of force in A View. He insists that "after once entering into this course of reformation, there [must] bee afterwards no remorse nor drawing backe for the sight of any such ruefull objects, as must thereupon follow, nor for compassion of their calamities, seeing that by no other meanes it is possible to cure them" (106, emphasis mine). This is precisely what Spenser--by modeling the conflicted moral reasoning process of his own conscience--encourages his readers to recognize: that compassion is irresponsible and force unavoidable in the Irish case. The aura of probabiliorism evoked by his casuistic approach encourages readers to resolve this moral dilemma by approving the "most probable" response (morally speaking), but since Spenser has framed the matter as a choice between misplaced compassion that results in negligent inaction, or unfortunate violence that cultivates superior morality and civility, the reader is pressured to agree with Irenius. (43)

Admittedly, if I am correct that Spenser's equivocation in A View is not an afterthought but part of a careful strategy to defuse the volatile pathos of his position and to court real support for the efficacy of violent reform, the posthumous publication of A View with James Ware's censorship and apologetic preface suggests that this strategy proved generally ineffective with his readers. (44) Ultimately, A View fails to persuade not because of what Lim refers to as Spenser's "simple incapacity to conceptualize a systematic program of annihilation," but because of his sheer inability to prevent the easy assumption that early modern readers like Ware and modern critics like Lim tend to make: that Spenser has all the reforming zeal of Irenius, but none of the compassion of Eudoxus. (45) This constitutes a thorough misreading of Spenser's text. Eudoxus is not a hollow, approving puppet to Irenius's views; rather, he identifies serious drawbacks to those views in vivid, moving speeches that seem to evince Spenser's genuine, active struggle to justify the ethics of his own project. (46) In the process, the dialogue raises legitimate dilemmas for traditional notions of mercy and justice--especially by calling attention to the way mercy itself appears inimical to justice when, as Spenser insists of Ireland, uncompromising force is the only promising avenue for positive change. In such cases, Spenser argues, forcible justice becomes the only truly merciful course of action because it alone does the saving, civilizing work. (47) It is no coincidence that A View concludes with Eudoxus thanking Irenius for his "gentle paines"; indeed, this is precisely how the inwardly conflicted Spenser conceives of his whole project: as merciful violence. But these "gentle paines" connote more than the bloodshed in Ireland, which pricks in order to heal; they also suggest those purportedly noble pangs that Spenser requires of his own and the reader's conscience to approve and sustain such a project.

Augusta State University

Augusta, Georgia

(1.) Ciaran Brady, "Spenser's Irish Crisis: Humanism and Experience in the 1590s," Past and Present 111 (May 1986): 17.

(2.) Brady, "Spenser's Irish Crisis," 17.

(3.) Brady, "Spenser's Irish Crisis: Humanism and Experience in the 1590s: Reply," Past and Present 120 (August 1988): 210.

(4.) Brady, "Irish Crisis," 41. The perception of Eudoxus as "straw man" recurs in most criticism of A View. Walter Lim observes: "The dialogue set up between Irenius and Eudoxius creates the effect of a fruitful discussion taking place, even though the reader is fully aware that Irenius's voice is Spenser's." "Figuring Justice: Imperial Ideology and the Discourse of Colonialism in Book V of The Faerie Queene and A View of the Present State of Ireland," Renaissance and Reformation 19.1 (1995): 60. Such comments confirm the continuing validity of Patricia Coughlan's observation in 1989 that "it has until recently been usual among commentators on Spenser to treat fairly cursorily the fact that the View is a dialogue, as if the work were simply an expository one, fairly plain and transparent as to language and form." "Some secret scourge which shall by her come unto England': Ireland and Incivility in Spenser," in Spenser and Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Patricia Coughlan (Cork: Cork UP, 1989), 59.

(5.) Bruce Avery, "Mapping the Irish Other: Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland," ELH 57.2 (1990): 264. Avery rightly notes that these readings "miss [the text's] most intriguing aspect: its polyvocality, its own contradictory mix of interpretations of, and speculations on, what might be the best view of Ireland" (264).

(6.) Many critics note contradictions in A View. Anne Fogarty claims the structure of Irenius's discussion "breaks down under the impact of his straying arguments," until the narrative "threatens to be engulfed by its own copiousness." "The Colonization of Language: Narrative Strategy in A View of the Present State of Ireland and The Faerie Queene, Book VI," in Coughlan, Spenser and Ireland, 79, 104. Richard McCabe claims that "Spenser's attitudes were self-contradictory. Irenius never quite decides whether Ireland was conquered or not, nor whether 'lawes' should be 'fashioned' to the nature of the people or the people to the nature of the laws." Spenser's Monstrous Regiment: Elizabethan Ireland and the Poetics of Difference (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 230. Andrew Hadfield claims that these observations often "ignore that the text is formally a dialogue." "Spenser, Ireland, and Sixteenth-Century Political Theory," Modern Language Review 89.1 (1994): 6. Beyond rhetorical or structural incongruities, however, Irenius also oscillates between condemnation and praise for certain features of Irish culture.

(7.) According to Avery, "When [Irenius] has justified his plan for Ireland, Spenser's speaker begins subverting his own enterprise." "Mapping the Irish Other," 275. Lowell Gallagher notes that the depiction of justice in Book V of The Faerie Queene also assumes "an equivocal perspective on its ethical and literary perspectives." Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991), 142.

(8.) Brady, "Spenser's Irish Crisis," 48-49.

(9.) Brady, "Spenser's Irish Crisis," 49.

(10.) Nicholas Canny, "Introduction: Spenser and the Reform of Ireland," in Coughlan, Spenser and Ireland, 12.

(11.) Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 32. Hereafter cited parenthetically as View.

(12.) Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977), V.i.7. Hereafter cited parenthetically as FQ.

(13.) Meg Iota Brewn notes that "from 1560 to 1660, over 600 collected cases of conscience were published in England and Europe" "The Politics of Conscience in Reformation England," Renaissance and Reformation 26.2 (199D: 101. Casuistry neared the height of its appeal in the 1590s, as Protestants sought to eliminate their dependence on Catholic works of moral theology. Protestant casuists called their art by a different name ("case divinity" or "cases of conscience"), but remained heavily indebted to the Catholic casuists.

(14.) Camille Wells Slights, The Casuistical Tradition in Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Milton (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981).

(15.) Following the opinion of Thomas Aquinas, Catholic and Protestant casuists agreed that even an erring conscience was morally binding. Jeremy Taylor set it down as a rule: "It is greater sin to doe a good action against our Conscience, then to doe an evil action in obedience to it." Doctor Dubitantium, or The Rule of Conscience in All Her Generall Measures (London: James Flesher, 1660).

(16.) My aim is not to excuse Spenser's troubling ethics, but to recuperate the significance of those moral vacillations which both A View and The Faerie Queene register. The shocking nature of Irenius's plan has led most critics to deny Spenser's moral ambivalence, but the textual evidence suggests that Spenser does feel qualms of conscience and that acknowledging these qualms is a central concern of both texts.

(17.) Avery, "Mapping the Irish Other," 265, emphasis in original.

(18.) Avery claims the map both enables and subverts Spenser's vision of Irish reform because as Irenius theorizes control over Ireland, he also implicitly demystifies England's own domestic strategies of control. When the latter becomes uncomfortably overt, Irenius shifts to "a broad, vague, unified perspective on a nation whole and harmonious ... much like a nation drawn on a map." "Mapping the Irish Other," 276. Thus the ambivalent tone stems from Spenser's sensitive explication of power, not from any moral qualm.

(19.) Avery notes that "[Irenius] argues for a strict, authoritarian system of surveillance to restrain and dominate the Irish." "Mapping the Irish Other," 275.

(20.) Irenius admires the mantle's versatility: "In Sommer he can wear it loose, in winter he can wrap it close; at all times he can use it; never heavy, never cumbersome" (57).

(21.) Judith Owens concurs: "It is the invisibility of the foe ... that seems particularly worrisome to Spenser." "The Poetics of Accommodation in Spenser's 'Epithalamion," Studies in English Literature 40.1 (2000): 43.

(22.) Irenius says that "for religion little have I to say, my selfe being ... not professed therein" (View, 153).

(23.) Avery notes that "such a demystified view of the relationship between national identification, land, and population in England could not have pleased the censors." "Mapping the Irish Other," 275.

(24.) Spenser casts the law's "rigour" as a fundamental condition of Artegall's authority: "Powre is the right hand of Justice" (FQ, V.iv.1). Like the mutual dependence of conscience and discipline in A View, The Faerie Queene posits a similar reciprocal relationship between conscience and power: the magistrate's conscience is authorized by "overruling might," and might is authorized by "the line of [his] conscience" (V.i.7-8).

(25.) William Perkins, A Discourse of Conscience (Cambridge: John Legat, 1596). Although it post-dates the composition of Spenser's texts, Perkin's definition concisely summarizes the traditional casuistic view of the conscience as an extension of God in man.

(26.) Gallagher, Medusa's Gaze, 59.

(27.) Lim echoes this sentiment: "the legalistic, martial, and technological Talus ... significantly forms ... the whole police power of surveillance, investigation, detection, apprehension, arrest, arraignment, and punishment." "Figuring Justice," 55.

(28.) Casuists employed a host of metaphors to emphasize the conscience's efficient blend of panoptic and punitive control: "witness," "watcher," "recorder," "spy," "accuser," "Judge," "marshal," "hangman," and so forth. John Woelton observes: "[God] hath ... conjoyned the dolor and anguishe of the Conscience ... that [it] might (as it were an hangman) punishe and execute offenders." Of the Conscience ([London]: Humfery Toye, 1576), C3r.

(29.) Of the Conscience, Alr-Alv.

(30.) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995).

(31.) Of the Conscience, Alv. The panoptic activity of conscience is persistently described by casuists. Compare Jeremiah Dyke's Good Conscience, or a Treatise Showing the Nature, Meanes, Markes, Benefit, and Necessitie Thereof (London: John Dawson, 1624): "conscience is placed in the soule as Gods spy and mans superiour and overseer, an inseparable companion that is with a man at all times, in all places; so that there is not a thought, word, or worke that it knowes not, and takes not notice of ... not a motion in the minde, not a syllable in the mouth, to which it is not privy" (13).

(32.) Foucault's argument is concisely explained in Discipline and Punish (200-01). Alexandra Walsham notes that in early modern England: "Conscience was widely conceived as the Lord's lieutenant, viceroy, or 'sergeant' implanted within the soul, as an invisible witness to give sentence against sin, as well as an instrument of divine vengeance and wrath." "Ordeals of Conscience: Casuistry, Conformity, and Confessional Identity in Post-Reformation England," in Contexts of Conscience in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700, ed. Harold E. Braun and Edward Vallance (New York: Palgrave, 2004), 33.

(33.) William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (Leyden: W. Christiaens, 1639).

(34.) Ames, Conscience, Hlr.

(35.) Swen Voekel, "Fashioning a Tudor Body: Civi1ity and State-Formation in The Faery Queen and A View of the Present State of Ireland," in The Anatomy of Tudor Literature: Proceedings of the First International Conference of the Tudor Symposium 1998, ed. Mike Pincombe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 144-47.

(36.) Gallagher posits an "ethos of misrecognition" by which subjects ignore their participation in the subjective construction of orthodoxy in order to protect or advance their own interests. Medusa's Gaze, 168.

(37.) Tything differs from the Irish custom of Kin-cogish (which Irenius rejects) by requiring the entire community to turn in its criminals, rather than a single head of family. Kin-cogish troubles Irenius because it consolidates authority and accountability in a single person, such that "the principall and heads of septs are made stronger, whome it should bee a most speciall care in policie to weaken" (42-43).

(38.) Dyke, Good Conscience, 34.

(39.) Elsewhere, Talus's justice is referred to as "cruell havocke" and "cruell deed" (V.xi.59, 65). He performs these violent feats "without remorse" (V.xii.7).

(40.) Several critics have tried, unconvincingly, to downplay the volatile pathos which attends Irenius's description of the Munster famine. Richard McCabe claims that "the line of Spenser's argument necessitates the gruesome imagery. In political terms the image of horror is the image of success." "The Fate of Irena: Spenser and Political Violence," in Coughlan, Spenser and Ireland, 117. Hadfield concurs, reading the scene as Spenser's untroubled depiction of Irish savagery justly cannibalizing itself for threatening "the power of the prince." "Spenser, Ireland, and Political Theory," 8-9. Fogarty posits a similar reading in "The Colonization of Language" (90). These arguments consistently fail to explain why Spenser permits Eudoxus to register the jarring emotional effect of the scene's cruelty.

(41.) Gallagher discusses the importance of the discourse of conscience to the Mary of Scots case. Medusa's Gaze, 29-33. Coughlan is one of few critics who treat A View's dialogue as serious debate, rather than persuasive ploy. "Secret Scourge," 46-47.

(42.) The fear of "going savage" appears in The Faerie Queene as well. McCabe remarks that "throughout the poem the landscape functions not just as a scenic backdrop but as a formidable agent which may, at any moment, assimilate person to place through some bizarre stroke of Ovidian metamorphosis ... thereby realizing the colonists' deepest fears." Spenser's Monstrous Regiment, 56.

(43.) Probabiliorism is the casuistic doctrine that, given several plausible solutions to a moral dilemma, the individual must choose the "most probable" course, supported by the best reasons and the men of highest authority. This view differs from the more permissive doctrine of "probabilism" that Coughlan detects in Spenser's text. For Coughlan, the dialogue "reveal[s] a marked uncertainty of perspective ... [that] disposes of the too ready conclusion that Irenius wins the argument." "Secret Scourge," 70-71. While I share her appreciation of the text's complexity, I believe Spenser ultimately assigns greater moral probability to Irenius's arguments.

(44.) Ware explains that "although [A View] sufficiently testifieth [Spenser's] learning and deepe judgement, yet we may wish that in some passages it had bin tempered with more moderation" (6). In his 1997 edition of A View, Andrew Hadfield cites Ware's nervous preface as "the sole basis for the belief that Spenser's work was as difficult to stomach in its day as it has been ever after" (xxiii). Elsewhere, he notes that a manuscript of A View "found its way into the State Papers, which would seem to imply that Spenser was taken seriously even if his suggestions were not implemented." "Spenser, Ireland, and Political Theory," 2.

(45.) Lim, "Figuring Justice," 60.

(46.) Coughlan agrees that Eudoxus's reactions reflect "the subtlety and complexity of Spenser's ... thought about, and difficulties with, Ireland." "Secret Scourge," 71.

(47.) McCabe identifies the same theme in The Faerie Queene: "in times of moral necessity compassion can be a vice.... 'Foolish pity' is specifically designated as one of the obstacles virtue must learn to overcome." "The Fate of Irena," 118.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Indiana University, Purdue University of Fort Wayne
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kisting, Wesley
Publication:CLIO
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Words:8521
Previous Article:The fictional afterlife of Anne Boleyn: how to do things with the Queen, 1901-2006.
Next Article:The politics of ambivalence: romance, history, and gender in Mary W. Shelley's Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters