In search of Paradise

Dr. Claire Eager (College of Wooster, Ohio) is one of the two fellows who has visited the Heritage Library Hendrik Conscience with a ‘Thierry and Frédéric Nottebohm Grant’ earlier in the summer of 2019. Her research concentrates on the works of the English poet Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599), who wrote The Faerie Queene, and the similarities with the work of the Flemish poet Jan van der Noot (c.1539-c.1595). While she was here in July we interviewed her about her research in the Heritage Library.
  • How did you get fascinated by early modern English literature?

I have always loved Shakespeare. Although I started to study astronomy, I soon realised I was not going to be a scientist. Eventually I moved on to study literature, which had always been my favourite subject. I was also incredibly fortunate to do my doctoral work at the Rare Books School in Virginia. I actually moved backwards in time from looking at poetry on war in the 20th century to reflect about some of the origins of present day problems with war, (post-)colonialism and climate change. I realised that the early modern period is one of the beginnings of many of these processes, when Europe was casting its power out over the world. In many cases this coincides with the idealistic belief to find paradise out there or to transform the world into a better place. And then, the poetry is beautiful, the people are interesting, and it is just so much fun to study the poetry.

  • Hence your interest in visions of paradise in early modern English poetry? Is the research you are doing now part of a bigger project?

My book project is looking at visions of paradise in early modern English poetry. When a poem describes a landscape and calls it paradise, it is usually not Eden as such, but it has certain features that are very pleasant. In addition to studying printed books and poetry, I also study landscape, the material culture of books and the material culture of gardens. I specifically look at how these three things were in conversation in the major poets of early modern England and at the connections across cultures all over Europe. Of course, garden design was coming over from France and Italy...

  • Can you tell you tell us more about Edmund Spenser?

Spenser is a great poet almost exactly contemporary with Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare he came from a middle class background and grew up in London, where he went to one of the best grammar schools. His professor Richard Mulcaster was associated with the Flemish immigrant community. As a teenager Spenser was invited to participate in Van der Noot’s publishing project and to translate his poems.

Spenser’s first independent publishing project, the Shepherd's calendar, launched him as the new Chaucer, the next great poet in the English language. And, in his career, unlike Shakespeare who wrote for the public stage and made his money selling tickets, Spenser was constantly seeking noble patronage. Since he never got enough to support him, he also sought career in the government. He was sent to the English ‘planters’ colony in Ireland as secretary. Spenser is a great poet, but one should not forget he was tainted. He was politically involved.

While living in exile in Ireland, he wrote The Faerie Queene. It is an epic poem, a reboot of an Arthurian romance, starring a young prince Arthur who is adventuring in fairy land. It is also an allegory for Queen Elisabeth, Spenser ends up honouring her and critiquing her at the same time.

Spenser’s career ended abruptly. After a rebellion in Ireland he and his family had to escape to London. The legend is that he died of starvation on the streets of London as the greatest poet in England of the time. We don't know exactly what happened, but it is a tragic ending to such an important career.

  • Within English language studies Edmund Spenser is almost as important as Shakespeare, but internationally he is much less known. Can you tell us why?

As he is less accessible and more difficult to teach than Shakespeare, even if you are studying  English literature at university, you might not encounter Spenser until graduate school. His greatest work The Faerie Queene is an epic of six books of twelve canto’s (songs), and he actually did not finish it.

  • Why did you become interested in Van der Noot’s Theatre oft toon-neel?

I noticed that Edmund Spenser is rewriting the same scene about a tree over and over and the origin of this scene is in the Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings. The Theatre is a translation of Clément Marot, which is a translation of Petrarch. He is initially translating it and then he is transforming it in his own poetry. This book was very influential for Spenser throughout his career. Understanding not just the literature but how the illustrations influenced the poetry, and how the publishing project influenced the poetry, are very significant for me. As a teenager Spenser was somehow involved in Van der Noot’s printing project. I see similar techniques of printing and of patronage and of poetry coming up later in his career. I suspect he learned a lot from watching Van der Noot, the printers and the whole production.

  • So, you assume that there were connections between London and Antwerp in how books were printed?

Antwerp was much further ahead than London in the 16th century. Printers on the Continent in general, and in the Low Countries in particular, were experts in printing techniques, whereas London and England were still in the process of becoming more professional. Having escaped the Revolt against the Spanish a large community of refugees from Antwerp (and Flanders) arrived in London in 1567. Van der Noot was one of them. One of the first things he did was publishing a book with illustrated poetry with the London printer John Day. He was one of the best printers in London at the time and had close connections with the immigrant community. Day clearly learned to refine his printing craft from people who had been printing in Antwerp and who knew much more about what they were doing. And so, for me, coming to Antwerp and learning more about how those productions happened in a press like the Plantin press is very useful to understand how it worked better.

  • So, that is why you are studying in our collection?

The first time I came to Antwerp I looked at Jan van der Noot’s Theatre as a scholar of the poems of Edmund Spenser. But, in studying the book, I became interested in how it was printed, because it is a unique book for England. It is innovative in various ways and it is the first book printed with etchings in England. I am trying to figure out how the etchings were done and how the woodcuts were printed. The more I looked at it, the more I became interested in Van der Noot and in the Dutch printing culture of the time period because of the close connections between the communities in London and in Antwerp. And to really understand where the book is coming from I needed to familiarize myself better with the Dutch printing culture of the time period. So, that is why I am here!

  • Another reason why you are here is because you really need to study on the book itself. Why can’t you use scans and do it in the United States?

I am looking in particular at the order of printing of the illustrations and the type. Normally a printer would print the copperplate second because it was more expensive and he would not want to mess it up with regular printing. But it seems some times printers were printing the wrong way around, printing the intaglio first and the text second. This suggests that the printers in London were less expert in printing and that their printing was rushed.

I use scans sometimes when they are what is available, but they can be misleading. It is essential to look at the book and the piece of paper as three-dimensional objects to see whether the type left an impression, whether the plate smoothed that out or not. Only then can one sort out what was the order of printing. You can sometimes get a sense of that when you look at the physical piece of paper. But usually not when you see the scans.

  • That is why you use the microscope...

Yes, I use a microscope and a raking light. You shine the light sideways across the paper in order to create shadows and to see if it is flat or if there is an impression. I think some of the people supervising me were a little bit anxious. This happens to people who study books all the time. You are not reading the book, you are doing strange things with the paper. Book historians are reading other things than the text!