The context is that I've been asked by my old PhD supervisor to write a short article on Spenser's Colin Clouts Come Home Againe for the Literary Encyclopedia. Although I wrote my thesis on The Faerie Queene I've never actually published anything on him, and this is rather thrilling for me. The poem tells (under the cover of a pastoral dialogue) how Spenser and Sir Walter Ralegh left County Cork in 1590 to launch the first three books of The Faerie Queene at court - and with them, perhaps, Spenser's career as a court poet. It didn't quite work out like that, as the poem explains, but long before Colin Clout and the Shepherd of the Ocean arrive at the court of Cynthia there's an interesting description of their sea journey.
We Lunday passe; by that same name is ment
An island, which the first to west was showne.
From thence another world of land we kend,
Floting amid the sea in jeopardie,
And round about with mightie white rocks hemd,
Against the seas encroching crueltie.
Those same, the shepheard told me, were the fields
In which dame Cynthia her landheards fed;
Faire goodly fields, then which Armulla yields
None fairer, nor more fruitfull to be red:
The first, to which we nigh approched, was
An high headland thrust far into the sea,
Like to an horne, whereof the name it has,
Yet seemed to be a goodly pleasant lea:
There did a loftie mount at first us greet,
Which did a stately heape of stones upreare,
That seemd amid the surges for to fleet,
Much greater then that frame, which us did beare;
There did our ship her fruitfull wombe unlade,
And put us all ashore on Cynthias land.
Lundy is well into the Bristol Channel - presumably they sailed east rather than heading straight for Land's End because the seas would be calmer. Then there's the headland shaped like (and named after) "an horne", which I guessed was Cornwall - though I wasn't sure whether that etymology was just Spenser's fanciful invention. Hence my recourse to Camden, a scholar I knew Spenser respected - who does indeed give "corn/horn" as one of Cornwall's etymologies. Next up there's the lofty mount with a stately heap of stones that seems to float amid the surges. This must surely be St Michael's Mount, right? It's only accessible by a causeway at low tide, and the visual description is perfect...
Why did Spenser and Ralegh disembark in western Cornwall, though, leaving themselves 250 miles of muddy Elizabethan road to ride, rather than scud on the prevailing westerlies along the south coast and up to London? I assume Ralegh (Lord of the Stanneries at the time, and altogether a West Country man) had business to attend to, but it must have made the journey much longer.
Anyway, pondering all this is a lot of fun, and I'm almost finished - at least, if I can stop myself from getting tangled in serendipity by Master Camden. That's the other reason I have to keep his book on top of the bookcase: once you dip in, you are like to be drownded. For example, here's Camden relating the discovery of a cache of bronze ("brass") weapons at the foot of St Michael's Mount, "within the memory of our Grandfathers". One reason these weapons aren't as effective as iron is that brass is medicinal in its effect, apparently, inconveniently healing as it strikes!
Oh, and choughs like to commit arson. What's not to love?