Classical Poetry and Modern Political Philosophy: Spenser and Machiavelli in A View of the State of Ireland


  • Dennis Wise


The sixteenth-century English poet Edmund Spenser has long seemed full of contradictions. On one hand, Spenser is a poet of “twelue priuate morall vertues,” falling into the civic-humanist tradition advocated by his predecessor Sir Philip Sidney. On the other hand, Spenser’s A View of the State of Ireland advocates a brutal and bloody colonial policy in relation
to the Irish, views that seem incompatible with a master of moral poetry. I suggest that we understand the apparent contradiction as a conflict between Spenser’s classicism and his apparent acceptance of modern political philosophy, initiated by Niccolò Machiavelli. According to Leo
Strauss, Machiavelli was an “esoteric” writer, someone who did not openly proclaim his doctrines of realpolitik. Machiavelli’s method broke with classical political philosophy, which—like the classical literature championed by Sidney—often taught moral or imaginary ideals as a guide to action. I
argue that Spenser read Machiavelli well, understanding those chapters of The Prince most closely pertaining to Spenser’s own colonial situation in Ireland, and wrote A View according to those views. Spenser’s personal experience as a colonial administrator led him (following Machiavelli)
to break decisively with classical political philosophy, even while Spenser’s literary theory refused to diverge from Sidney. In other words, Spenser is ancient in his art and modern in his politics. Rather than being simply a poet of the “State” or of nascent English nationalism, Spenser actually
understands and encompasses the contradictions and changes of his own historical moment.