Spenser's Irish Rivers [1]

Patrick Weston Joyce

IN the year 1580, when Edmund Spenser was in the twenty-seventh year of his age, he came to Ireland as secretary to Baron Grey of Wilton, the newly-appointed Lord Deputy. On the recall of the Lord Deputy in 1582, Spenser returned with him to England, and soon afterwards he received a grant of three thousand acres of land in the County of Cork, a portion of the confiscated estates of the Earl of Desmond. He proceeded again to Ireland in 1586 to live on his estate, and selected for his residence the Castle of Kilcolman, one of Desmond's strongholds, whose ruins are still to be seen two miles from Buttevant and the same distance from Doneraile.

It was about the time of his first visit to Ireland that Spenser began his Faerie Queene; and several books of the poem were composed during his residence at Kilcolman. That he studied the topography and social history of his adopted country, is sufficiently proved by his essay, A View of the State of Ireland: while his poetry equally shows that his imagination had become deeply impressed with the quiet beauty of its scenery, and with its quaint and graceful local legends. Its sparkling rivers seem to have been his special delight; he recurs to them again and again with a pleasure as fresh and bright as the streams themselves, and they form the bases of some of his most beautiful similes and allegories.

There are in his poems three passages of special interest, in which Irish rivers are prominently mentioned. The first is ‘The Marriage of the Thames and Medway,’ in the eleventh canto of the fourth book of the Faerie Queene; the second occurs in the first of Two Cantos of Mutabilitie; and the third in Colin Clouts come home againe.

The spousals of the Thames and Medway took place in the house of Proteus; and the poet relates that all the sea and river gods were invited to the bridal feast. First came the continental rivers of the whole world, famous either for size or for historical associations; next the English rivers; and lastly those of Ireland. The following is the passage in which the Irish rivers are recounted:—

Ne thence the Irishe Rivers absent were;

Sith no lesse famous then the lest they bee,

And ioyne in neighbourhood of kingdome nere,

Why should they not likewise in love agree,

And ioy likewise this solemne day to see?

They saw it all, and present were in place;

Though I them all, according their degree,

Cannot recount, nor tell their hidden race,

Nor read the salvage countries thorough which they pace.

There was the Liffy Lolling downe the lea;

The sandy Slane; the stony Aubrian;

The spacious Shenan spreading like a sea;

The pleasant Boyne; the fishy fruitfull Ban;

Swift Awniduff which of the English man

Is cal'de Blacke-water; and the Liffar deep;

Sad Trowis that once his people over-ran;

Strong Allo tombling from Slewlogher steep:

And Mulla mine whose waves I whilom taught to weep.

And there the three renowmed Brethren were

Which that great gyant Blomius begot

Of the faire nimph Rheüsa wandring there:

One day, as she to shunne the season whot

Under Slewbloome in shady grove was got,

This gyant found her . . .: she in time forth brought

These three faire sons which being thenceforth powrd,

In three great rivers ran, and many countries scowrd.

The first the gentle Shure that, making way

By sweet Clonmell, adornes rich Waterford;

The next the stubborne Newre whose waters gray

By faire Kilkenny and Rosseponte boord;

The third the goodly Barow which doth hoord

Great heaps of salmons in his deepe bosóme;

All which, long sundred, doe at last accord

To ioyne in one ere to the sea they come;

So flowing all from one, all one at last become.

There also was the wide embayed Mayre;

The pleasant Bandon crownd with many a wood;

The spreading Lee that like an island fayre

Encloseth Corke with his divided flood;

And balefull Oure late staind with English blood;

With many more whose names no tongue can tell.

All which that day in order seemly good

Did on the Thames attend and waited well

To doe their dueful service, as to them befell.[2]

Of several of the rivers in this enumeration it is unnecessary to speak at any length, for there could be no mistake about their identification, and they are too well known to need description. Only it ought to be remarked how agreeably the poet relieves the dryness of a mere catalogue by his happy selection of short descriptive epithets, which exhibit such a variety that no two of them are alike, and which describe the several streams with great force and truthfulness.

[1] Reprinted from "Fraser's Magazine" of many years ago, by permission of Messrs. Longmans, Green, & Co., London.

[2] Faerie Queene, b. iv. c. xi.