Edmund Spenser (ca. 1552-1599) ranks as the fore most English poet of the 16th century. Famous as the author of the unfinished epic poem The Faerie Queene, he is the poet of an ordered yet passionate Elizabethan world.
Edmund Spenser was a man of his times, and his work reflects the religious and humanistic ideals as well as the intense but critical patriotism of Elizabethan England. His contributions to English literature—in the form of a heightened and enlarged poetic vocabulary, a charming and flexible verse style, and a rich fusing of the philosophic and literary currents of the English Renaissance—entitle him to a rank not far removed from that of William Shakespeare and John Milton.
Spenser was the son of a London tailor, but his family seems to have had its origins in Lancashire. The poet was admitted to the newly founded Merchant Taylors' School about 1561 as a "poor scholar." There his headmaster was the patriotic and scholarly Richard Mulcaster, author of several books on the improvement of the English language. The curriculum at Mulcaster's school included Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; music and drama were stressed; and the English language was also a subject of study—then a novelty.
In 1569 Spenser went to Cambridge, where he entered Pembroke College as a sizar (a student who earns his tuition by acting as a servant to wealthy students). He spent 7 years at the university, gaining his bachelor of arts degree in 1572 and his master of arts degree in 1576. Records of the period reveal that Spenser's health was poor but that he had an excellent reputation as a student. He studied Italian, French, Latin, and Greek; read widely in classical literature and in the poetry of the modern languages; and authored some Latin verse. At Cambridge, Spenser came to know Gabriel Harvey, lecturer in rhetoric and man of letters, who proved to be a faithful and long-term friend and adviser. Among his fellow students were Lancelot Andrewes, later a learned theologian and bishop, and Edward Kirke, a future member of Spenser's poetic circle.
After completing his studies, Spenser seems to have spent some time in Lancashire, possibly with his relatives. This sojourn in the north increased his familiarity with the northern dialect, which later exerted a considerable influence on the language of The Shepherd's Calendar. Shortly after leaving the university, Spenser also spent time in the service of the powerful Earl of Leicester, regarded as the head of the Puritan faction in the government. Some hints in Spenser's correspondence and in his published works suggest that he may have traveled as an envoy for Leicester to Ireland, Spain, France, and Italy. In any case, in 1578 Spenser was named secretary to the former master of his college, John Young, now bishop of Rochester. Spenser probably composed the major part of The Shepherd's Calendar at Rochester.
By Easter 1579, Spenser was back in London, in daily contact with Gabriel Harvey and Edward Kirke, and much involved in literary discussions, especially those about Harvey's project of introducing classical Latin and Greek nonrhyming meters into English verse. Probably at this time Spenser made the acquaintance of Sir Philip Sidney, the poet and courtier.
The Shepherd's Calendar
By now Spenser had written a considerable quantity of poetry, but he had published nothing. Upon the advice of his friends he decided to make his literary debut with The Shepherd's Calendar (1579), which he dedicated to Sidney. This work, consisting of 12 pastoral eclogues, uses the pastoral conventions as vehicles of allegorical and satirical allusions to contemporary political and religious problems, as well as to the poet's own life and loves. Spenser in this work shows the influence of such classical and foreign models as Virgil, Jacopo Sannazaro, and Clément Marot, but he also acknowledges a considerable debt to Geoffrey Chaucer and to other English sources. The work is especially important for its naturalization in English of a variety of poetic forms—dirges, complaints, paeans—and for its attempt to enrich the English poetic vocabulary through foreign borrowings and through the use of archaic and dialect words.
Allusions and letters from this period of Spenser's life show that he was busy with a variety of literary projects. Spenser was already at work on The Faerie Queene and on a number of the poems eventually collected in his Complaints. Meanwhile, he was also studying law and hoping for a place in diplomacy or civil service. His efforts were rewarded in 1580, when, through the influence of the Earl of Leicester, he was named secretary to Lord Grey, the new lord deputy of Ireland. That same year Spenser accompanied Grey to Dublin.
Ireland was to remain Spenser's home for the rest of his life. Grey was recalled in 1582, but Spenser remained, holding a variety of government posts and participating at first in the cultivated life of Dublin Anglo-Irish society. Increasingly, however, the poet's financial interests and administrative duties took him to Munster (southern Ireland). In 1586 he leased Kilcolman Castle in County Cork, and he lived there after 1588.
The Faerie Queene
For some years Spenser had been working on The Faerie Queene. By 1589 three books were complete. When Sir Walter Raleigh visited the poet in the early autumn of that year, Raleigh was so impressed with this work that he took Spenser with him back to England. In November 1589 they arrived in London; and early in the following year the first three books of Spenser's most famous work were published, with an elaborate dedication to Queen Elizabeth I. Spenser's ambition was to write the great English epic. His plan was to compose 12 books, each concerned with one of the 12 moral virtues as classified by Aristotle. Each of these virtues was to be embodied in a knight. Thus the poem would combine elements of the romance of chivalry, the handbook of manners and morals, and the national epic.
The Faerie Queene can be read on various levels: as an allegory of the eternal struggle between good and evil in every form; as a poetic statement of an ethical system; and as a historical allegory portraying the struggle between the pure Protestant traditions of England and the manifold threats of England's Roman Catholic neighbors. Allusions to contemporary political and religious controversies are numerous. The philosophy underlying Spenser's epic combines three strands. Platonism, which (as seen through the eyes of Renaissance commentators) stressed the harmony between love and beauty on the human and divine levels, is blended with the less imaginative and more concrete Aristotelianism of the scholastic tradition, with its disciplined analysis and careful reflection on the moral life, which Spenser had probably learned in school. These two elements are penetrated by a strong Calvinistic Christianity, stressing man's weakness, his need for a strict moral life, and the total dependence of humanity on the atonement of Christ. Thus the work itself is a fine example of an attempted synthesis between the traditions of Christianity and those of classical antiquity that characterizes all the best productions of the Renaissance.
Spenser's style is distinctively his own: he attempted to create a remote, old-fashioned atmosphere through the use of archaic diction, strange neologisms, and forgotten terms of chivalry. Yet, because of his clear and straightforward syntax, few of his passages are obscure, even to a modern reader. For his verse form, Spenser created a new stanza which has since been often imitated in English literature. It consists of nine lines, eight lines of iambic pentameter concluding with an Alexandrine (iambic hexameter), arranged in the rhyme scheme ababbcbcc. The harmonious and orderly movement of this Spenserian stanza fits the slow, ample, and cumulative pace of the whole work.
The publication of the first three books of The Faerie Queene met with much acclaim. Spenser remained in London for more than a year, enjoying fame and making many friends; but he did not succeed in attaining a sufficiently lucrative post in the home government. Spenser was now by no means a poor man, and his wealth was increased by the substantial annual pension that was the reward for his poem. But in courtly circles he was a decidedly minor figure. In 1591, probably in the spring, Spenser returned to Ireland, famous but disappointed.
Before leaving London, Spenser prepared for publication a collection of minor poems under the title of Complaints. A hint of Spenser's mood at this time might have been expressed in this volume's subtitle: Sundry Small Poems of the World's Vanity. However, most of its contents had been composed years before. The most important of the poems in this volume is "Mother Hubberd's Tale," a satire that had gained notoriety a decade earlier. This poem satirizes Queen Elizabeth's projected marriage to the French Catholic Duke of Alençon—a prospect that had greatly alarmed the Puritan faction at court. The work is important not only because of its political implications but also because of its express and able use of medieval English sources and conventions. Its plot is drawn from William Caxton's translation of the French beast allegory Renard the Fox, and its verse and narrative style betray clear Chaucerian influences.
Also included in the Complaints were revised and enlarged versions of Spenser's youthful translations from Joachim du Bellay and Petrarch; a poem entitled "The Ruins of Time" celebrating the family of the Earl of Leicester and Sir Philip Sidney; and another called "Tears of the Muses," which lamented the poverty and neglect suffered by poets. Somewhat lighter in tone is "Virgil's Gnat," a free translation of the Culex, a humorous ancient poem attributed to Virgil. In this work Spenser tells allegorically of his discomfiture resulting from the adverse political reactions to "Mother Hubberd's Tale." "Muiopotmus; or, The Fate of the Butterfly" was probably an entirely new work written during Spenser's stay in London.
Late in 1591, after returning to Ireland, Spenser wrote the greater part of "Colin Clout's Come Home Again," an idealized poetic autobiography dedicated to Raleigh. It ranks as one of Spenser's most charming poems, narrating in the allegorical terms of the then popular pastoral convention the story of his reception in London and his impressions (mostly negative) of court life. Shortly afterward Spenser compiled a collection of poems dedicated to the memory of Sir Philip Sidney. To this collection he contributed the first elegy, "Astrophel." This collection was published together with "Colin Clout's Come Home Again" in 1595.
Meanwhile, Spenser was courting Elizabeth Boyle, an Anglo-Irish woman of a well-connected family. They were married on June 11, 1594. His sonnet sequence "Amoretti" and his "Epithalamion" together form an imaginatively enhanced poetic chronicle of his courtship and marriage. Some of the "Amoretti" sonnets were probably written earlier, but Spenser intended this collection to represent the fluctuations and the emotions of his love for his wife. Written in frequent imitation of such French and Italian sonneteers as Philippe Desportes and Torquato Tasso, Spenser's sonnets, representing one of the most popular poetic forms of his period, are graceful if not great. However, his "Epithalamion" is generally acknowledged to rank among the greatest love poems in English. In this poem a lover's passion blends with a deeply religious sensibility, calling upon both classical myth and medieval legend to create an intricate pattern of allusions and evocations.
Late in 1595 Spenser returned to London, again staying for more than a year. He published during this visit to the capital three more books of The Faerie Queene; the "Prothalamion," written to celebrate the double wedding of two daughters of the Earl of Worcester; and the "Four Hymns," poems that concern his Platonic conceptions of love and beauty. During this stay he seems also to have composed or at least to have revised his View of the Present State of Ireland, a prose tract in which he defended the policies of his earlier patron, Lord Grey, in dealing with rebellious Irish subjects and in which he proposed a program for first subjugating the Irish people and then reforming their government on the model of the English administrative system. Surprisingly, this pamphlet, so in tune with much of governmental opinion, did not receive permission for publication during Spenser's lifetime and was first published in 1633.
Spenser seems to have returned to Ireland sometime in 1597 and to have resumed his work on The Faerie Queene. Two more cantos of a succeeding book were published posthumously in 1609, but most of what he wrote in these years has been lost. Spenser was temporarily without political office, but in September 1598 he was named sheriff of Cork. He had hardly taken control of that office before, in October of the same year, the Earl of Tyrone's rebellion, a generalized revolt of the Irish people, broke out in Munster. Spenser's castle was burned, and the poet was forced to flee with his family, which now included four young children.
In December the provincial governor sent Spenser as a messenger to Queen Elizabeth. He arrived in the capital at the end of 1598, much weakened by the hardships of the preceding months. Spenser presented his messages to the Queen, together with a personal statement reiterating his position on the Irish question. Soon after his arrival he became seriously ill, and he died in London on Jan. 16, 1599. Spenser was buried near other poets in Westminster Abbey.
Further Reading on Edmund Spenser
The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition was edited by Edwin Greenlaw and others (9 vols., 1932-1949). A smaller edition of the Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser was edited by J. C. Smith and Ernest de Sélincourt (3 vols., 1909-1910). H. S. V. Jones, A Spenser Handbook (1930), is still useful as a general introduction to the works. A thorough biographical study by Alexander C. Judson, The Life of Edmund Spenser (1945), was published as volume 3 of the Variorum Edition.
Important critical studies include Leicester Bradner, Edmund Spenser and the Faerie Queene (1948); William Nelson, The Poetry of Edmund Spenser (1963); and C. S. Lewis, Spenser's Images of Life, edited by Alastair Fowler (1967). Helpful studies of particular aspects of Spenser's work are Edwin Greenlaw, Studies in Spenser's Historical Allegory (1932); C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936); Ruth Mohl, Studies in Spenser, Milton, and the Theory of Monarchy (1949); and E. M. W. Tillyard, The English Epic and Its Background (1954). A work on Spenser's reputation through the centuries is William R. Mueller, ed., Spenser's Critics (1959). Waldo F. McNeir and Foster Provost compiled an Annotated Bibliography of Edmund Spenser, 1937-1960 (1962).
For general background see S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1951);Hallet Smith, Elizabethan Poetry (1952); and C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama (1954).
Additional Biography Sources
Rambuss, Richard, Spenser's secret career, Cambridge England;New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Shire, Helena Mennie, A preface to Spenser, London; New York:Longman, 1978.
Spenser and Ireland: an interdisciplinary perspective, Cork: Cork University Press, 1989.
Spenser's life and the subject of biography, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
Tuckwell, William, Spenser, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1975.
Waller, Gary F. (Gary Fredric), Edmund Spenser: a literary life, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.