Conference Report: The Place of Spenser/Spenser’s Places

Between the 18th and 20th June over 160 scholars from all over the world flocked to the medieval and early modern heartland of Dublin to attend the fifth International Spenser Society conference, organized by Dr Jane Grogan (UCD), Dr Thomas Herron (East Carolina University), and Dr Andrew King (UCC). The main body of the conference took place in the surroundings of Dublin Castle, while four of the panels took place in beautiful Marsh’s Library. The first two plenaries showcased more of Dublin’s eloquent venues, taking place in the Royal Irish Academy and Smock Alley Theatre respectively. Over the three days, attendees listened to a wide range of round-table focus panels and open-topic paper sessions; these panels were diverse in nature, but were also interconnected in attempting to explore Edmund Spenser’s interest in spaces and places, both imaginative and real. Topics discussed in the open-topic paper sessions covered a wide range of topics, including the reception of Edmund Spenser, Spenser’s Cities, Spenser and Chaucer, Digital Spenser, and Spenser and the Sea. Various panels, at the same time, focused in detail on specific texts, including the Ruins of Rome, The Mutabilitie Cantos, Book VI of the Faerie Queene and The View of the Present State of Ireland.  The focus panels then attempted to question the broader picture in more detail, looking at the issues surrounding how to teach and edit Spenser, his style, and questions surrounding biography.

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Due to the conference’s location, the organisers took the opportunity to artfully weave an Irish strand through the proceedings, focusing on the tricky question: what is Spenser’s place in Ireland? There were open-topic paper sessions that focused on Spenser in seventeenth-century Ireland, the sources and contexts that Spenser drew on for The View, and Spenser’s place in Irish writing, while there was also a focus panel dedicated specifically to Spenser and Ireland. This Irish theme also arose in papers given in other panels, most notably the Digital Spenser Panel, in which Dr Thomas Herron presented his audience with a digital reconstruction of Kilcolman Castle, which anyone can take a tour of on the Centering Spenser website (http://core.ecu.edu/umc/Munster/). The pinnacle of this Irish strand occurred during the Thursday evening session at the Royal Irish Academy, when Dr Marc Caball gave a paper entitled ‘Culture in Early Modern Gaelic Ireland’. In his paper, he looked at Spenser’s Irish language contemporaries, and suggested that Spenser may have been jealous of the bards due to their influence on Irish society. Dr Caball’s paper was given in conjunction with an excellent special exhibition featuring both printed texts and manuscripts from Ireland and Europe, including treasures such as the Book of Fermoy and the first Irish-language printing, the Tiomna Nua. ‘Another View: Gaelic manuscript culture in Edmund Spenser’s Ireland’, is open to the public until 7 August 2015 (https://www.ria.ie/library/exhibitions.aspx).

This session was followed by the first plenary, a paper by Prof Anne Fogarty, which also drew on this underlying Irish theme. In her excellent talk, entitled ‘“The rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of”: Topography and the Rhetoric of Rivers in Spenser and Joyce’, Fogarty highlighted how Joyce drew on, and experimented with Spenser’s language, how Joyce played with language to forge a connection with Spenser, and how Joyce, like Spenser, teaches one how to read his work. The second plenary paper was given by Prof Helen Cooper, and in her paper she amplified and enriched the places and character of Spenser’s pastoral, across a range of Spenser’s work, arguing that there is more to the pastoral than The Shepheardes Calender. In the final plenary paper, Prof Jeff Dolven gave a paper entitled ‘Besides Good and Evil’ in which he illustrated The Faerie Queene’s limits, and ultimately the poem’s failures, as an agent of moral instruction. He demonstrated this by looking at what happens when “good” characters do “evil” things, and more importantly what happens when “evil” characters show compassion when no “good” character is there to influence them.

Overall, from the engaging opening remarks by Minister Jan O’Sullivan, Prof Orla Feely, and Prof Graham Hammill to the thought-provoking disputation by Prof Andrew Hadfield and Dr Julian Lethbridge this conference celebrated the work currently being done on Edmund Spenser, but also suggested several potential possibilities as to where Spenser studies may go in the future. However, whether one agreed with Hadfield’s and Lethbridge’s disputation or not, one thing is for certain; this excellent conference was the beginning of a new wave of material that will be published on Spenser, material I very much look forward to reading.

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While the official proceedings finished on Saturday 20th June, the conclusion of the conference did not take place in Dublin, but somewhere more fitting. On the morning of Sunday June 21st the majority of the attendees boarded two buses bound for Munster, and took in sites such as Cahir Castle, and Tynte’s Castle and the Boyle Monument in Youghal. However, while both of these sites are stunning in their own right, they were only stops on the way to and from what can only be described as a pilgrimage to the ruins of Kilcolman Castle. It was here, at the site of Spenser’s home in Ireland, that one could truly understand the meaning behind the theme of the conference. From people walking through the ruins imagining Spenser writing, to those surveying the surrounding landscape looking for the Ballyhoura mountains, the Bregog and even ‘Arlo Hill’, everyone was captivated and enthralled by being in the place that had such an impact on Spenser’s work. It was here that the conference drew to a close, as it was at this moment that people could truly comprehend the importance of looking at Spenser’s places, especially his place in Ireland.

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-Reported by Evan Bourke, PhD Candidate, NUI Galway.

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