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After the Mutabilitie Cantos: Yeats and Heaney Reading Spenser

2010-07, Grogan, Jane

When Yeats first turned to Spenser in a professional way, it was a chance opportunity to generate some income. ‘It is good pay,’ he wrote to his friend, Lady Augusta Gregory, and ‘I may do it if I have not to do it at once. I have a good deal to say about Spenser but tremble at the thought of reading his six books.’ He was writing of the invitation he had just received from an Edinburgh publisher to select and introduce Spenser’s poetry for their ‘Golden Poets’ series. That close encounter, when in due course it ensued, was to provide Yeats with several crucial things that he didn’t yet know he was looking for. What he ultimately found in Spenser was a potent model of Irish poetry in English in Ireland, a Protestant poetic progenitor and with it, an originary tradition for his own poetry.

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Introduction

2010-07, Grogan, Jane

However uncertain their literary status, however belated their appearance, the Mutabilitie Cantos comprise probably the most challenging, complex and surprising part of Spenser’s poem, England’s first national epic. Yet Spenser had been dead ten years by 1609, and the first readers of the Cantos lived in a radically changed political landscape, with a Stuart king, peace with Spain, calmer days in Ireland and, for the first time, a relatively unified and peaceable ‘Great Britain’.