Edmund Spenser was the poet who settled me once and for all on Renaissance literature, and in that way at least you could say he changed my life. While I was still living in my intercity commune imagining that higher education was the Isaac I had sacrificed on the alter of service to the poor, I found myself sneaking cantos here and there of the half-finished masterpiece The Faerie Queene, finding the beauty of the poetry, richness of the allegory, and depth of the ideas just the medicine I needed to keep my spirit alive.
After coming to graduate school, I could only fall further in love with his poetry. I wrote a paper on the Amoretti, in which Spenser is instrumental in directing the Petrarchan love tradition toward marriage. I wrote a paper on the Epithalamion, which C. S. Lewis cites as being one of the few successful portrayals of pure joy in English poetry. And of course, I wrote a paper on the breathtaking, masterful Faerie Queene itself.
I decided that if I were to ever have a son, I would name him Edmund.
“I love Spenser!” I said to Seamus last summer in response to a mention of where he had stayed in Cork. As the words spat recklessly out of my mouth, I anticipated my error, and was tempted to look over my shoulder for fear that members of the IRA or their 16th-century equivalent would emerge from the shadows in response to my flippant utterance.
The Irishman looked uncharacteristically soberly at me, his constant smile dropping momentarily as he gained his composure. “Edmund Spenser essentially lobbied for the genocide of the Irish people,” he stated mater-of-factly.
What does one say to that? I remembered that Spenser had written something called A View of the Present State of Ireland when he was secretary to England’s lord deputy of Ireland, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. “Oh,” I managed.
“He was a terrible man,” Seamus maintained, adding graciously to lighten the mood, “but he did write some beautiful poetry.”
Maybe so... but after all, isn’t that the way with most evil in the world? Weren’t lynch mobs composed of salt-of-the-earth Southerners who rallied after church on Sunday? Weren’t Nazi death camps run by fathers and mothers who were probably otherwise pleasant Germans? Weren’t Rwandan massacres carried out by joyful, hospitable Africans? Weren’t terrible atrocities committed by people like... me? Weren’t their hearts shaped a lot like mine?
It seems an undeniable fact of history that mostly-lovely people can have shocking blinders that somehow allow them to confuse genocide with morning coffee (oops!). Spenser was not the first to make this kind of error; “the man after God’s own heart” found himself committing murder to cover up his adultery (rape, by most modern definitions), and needed a prophet to come spell it out to him before he realized it had been a bad thing. I know a lot of people who are perturbed at God for thinking so highly of such a scoundrel. I sometimes figure that that very egregiously overlooking nature of his is the only hope most of us have.
Maybe the primary reason we are called to forgive is that we don’t know what genocides we may be casually supporting with our mundane morning coffee. Maybe most of us are likewise terrible people who write some beautiful poetry (or, more gently, beautiful people with some terrible blind spots). Thank God he likes the poetry!