Spenser, Edmund

views updated May 11 2018

Edmund Spenser


Born c. 1552, in London, England; died January 16, 1599, in London, England; son of John (a cloth merchant) and Elizabeth Spenser; married Elizabeth Boyle, June 11, 1594; children: Peregrine (son), three other children. Education: Pembroke Hall (now Pembroke College), Cambridge, B.A., 1573, M.A., 1576. Religion: Protestant.


Poet. Secretary to John Young, bishop of Rochester, Kent, England, c. 1576-78; employed by Earl of Leicester, c. 1579-80; secretary to Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton and Lord Deputy of Ireland, Dublin, 1580-81; Court of Chancery, clerk of Faculties, Dublin, clerk, 1581-82; Commissioner of Musters, County Kildare, Ireland, deputy clerk, 1583-84; Council of Munster, Clerk, 1588-89; County Cork, Ireland, queen's justice, 1593-98, sheriff, 1598.


(Translator) Joachim du Bellay, Ruines of Rome, 1558, published with notes by Malcolm C. Smith as Antiquitez de Rome (bilingual English-French edition), Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies (Binghamton, NY), 1994.

(Translator, with others) Jan van der Noot, A Theatre for Worldlings (includes The Visions of Bellay and The Visions of Petrarch; sonnets; also see below), Henry Bynneman (London, England), 1569.

The Shepheardes Calender: Conteyning Twelue Aeglogues Proportionable to the Twelue Monethes, Hugh Singleton (London, England), 1579.

Three Proper and Wittie Familiar Letters: Lately Passed between Two Vniversity Men: Touching the Earthquake in April Last, and Our English Refourmed Versifying and Two Other Very Commendable Letters of the Same Mens Writing, H. Bynneman (London, England), 1580.

The Faerie Qveene. Disposed into Twelue Books, Fashioning XII. Morall vertues, Printed for William Ponsonby (London, England), Books I-III, 1590, Books I-VI, with revised ending to Book III, 1596, published in two volumes, Books I-VI and two cantos from Book VII, Henry Lownes for Mathew Lownes (London, England), 1609-1613, edited by J. C. Smith in two volumes as Spenser's "Faerie Queene," Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1909, edited by Graham Hough as "The Faerie Queene" (1596), Scolar Press (Menston, Yorkshire, England), 1976, edited by A. C. Hamilton as The Faerie Queene, Longmans (New York, NY), 1977, edited by Thomas P. Roche, Jr., Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1978, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1981.

Complaints. Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of theWorlds Vanitie (includes The Visions of Bellay andThe Visions of Petrarch), Printed for William Ponsonby (London, England), 1591.

Daphnaïda. An Elegie vpon the Death of the Noble andVertuous Douglas Howard, Daughter and Heire of Henry Lord Howard, Viscount Byndon, and Wife of Arthure Gorges Esquier, Printed for William Ponsonby (London, England), 1591.

Colin Clovts Come Home Againe (includes "Astrophell"), Printed for William Ponsonby (London, England), 1595.

Amoretti and Epithalamion (also see below), Printed for William Ponsonby (London, England), 1595.

Fowre Hymnes, Printed for William Ponsonby (London, England), 1596.

Prothalamion, or A Spousall Verse (also see below), Printed for William Ponsonby (London, England), 1596.

(With Meredith Hanmer and Edmund Campion) The Historie of Ireland, Collected by Three Learned Authors (contains "A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland," by Spenser), edited by Sir James Ware, Society of Stationers (Dublin, Ireland), 1633, portions published as A View of the State of Ireland: From the First Printed Edition (1633), edited by Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, Blackwell (Malden, MA), 1997.

The Complete Works of Edmund Spenser, edited by A. B. Grosart, Spenser Society (London, England), 1884.

Spenser's Minor Poems, edited by Ernest de Selincourt, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1910.

Poetical Works, edited by J. C. Smith and Ernest de Selincourt, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1912.

The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, 11 volumes, edited by Edwin Greenlaw and others, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1932-57.

Books I and II of the Faerie Queene, The MutabilityCantos, and Selections from The Minor Poetry, edited by Robert Kellogg and Oliver Steele, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1965.

The Mutabilitie Cantos, edited by S. P. Zitner, T. Nelson (London, England), 1968.

The Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, edited by William A. Oram and others, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1989.

Selected Writings, edited by Elizabeth Porges Watson, Routledge (New York, NY), 1992.

Selected Shorter Poems, edited by Douglas Brooks-Davies, Longman (New York, NY), 1995.

Prothalamion; and Epithalamion, illustrated by Simon Brett, Barbarian Press (Mission, British Columbia, Canada), 1998.

The Shorter Poems, edited by Richard A. McCabe, Penguin (New York, NY), 1999.

Spenser's papers are included in collections at the Irish Public Record Office and the British Library, and in the Cecil Papers at Hatfield House.


Edmund Spenser: The Illustrated "Faerie Queene": A Modern Prose Adaptation, was edited by Douglas Hill, Newsweek (New York, NY), 1980. Spenser's poems have been set to music by numerous composers; "Epithalamion" was set to music by Ralph Vaughn Williams, Oxford University Press, 1990.


Best known for his epic poem The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser was one of the foremost poets of his age. Known to his contemporaries as the "prince of poets," Spenser embodied the humanist ideals and strong patriotism reflective of many sixteenth-century English men and women. Loyal to Queen Elizabeth and a devout Anglican, he enriched the literature of his native England through his extensive poetic vocabulary, his engaging poetic manner, and his subtle introduction of political and social issues of the day into his works. In the opinion of most scholars Spenser stands, among such fellow luminaries as Sir Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer, as one of the greatest poets of the English language.

While it is known that Spenser was born about 1552 and raised in a family of modest means, his parentage is unsure. While the Great Fire of London destroyed all records of Spenser's ancestry in 1666, he is believed to be the son of one of several John Spensers, a London cloth manufacturer. While John Spenser is believed to hail from the well-connected Lancashire Spensers, his branch of the family had likely fallen on such hard times that he, as a younger son, was required to engage in trade. The cloth-trade offered the widest opening for such a man, as by 1540 one in five workers living in London was employed in manufacturing clothing for the aristocracy, courtiers, and the landowning class and their households.

As one of several children in a family of limited means, Spenser showed enough intellectual promise to encourage his family to provide him with an academic rather than vocational education. In 1561, when the boy was nine years old, John Spenser entered his son as a "poor boy" on the register of the newly-opened Merchant Taylors' School. At the Merchant Taylor's School, under the tutelage of noted humanist scholar and author Richard Mulcaster, he studied the works of Cicero, Cato, Horace, and Homer, reading in the original Latin and Greek. It is also probable that Mulcaster, a noted grammarian, introduced his students to Hebrew, and gave them a grounding in music and drama. Outside of his studies, Spenser was proficient in French by age seventeen, the proof of this assertion being the fact that he translated and published French author Jan van der Noodt's anti-Catholic A Theatre for Worldlings, along with several sonnets by Petrarch and Joachim du Bellay.

At the time of Spenser's birth, the monarchy of King Edward VI was on the wane and Elizabeth I was
poised to take the throne from her older half-sister, Mary. The Protestant Reformation was playing out in the transition from a Catholic monarchy to a Protestant one, and the political turmoil caused by the back-to-back reigns of these two daughters of Henry VIII would propel England into an age of religious dissent. During Spenser's lifetime, Anglicans battled Catholics for social and political control and sects such as Puritans and Anabaptists battled the Church of England to gain some measure of autonomy. Much of Spenser's work would be influenced by this religious antagonism, and his poetry would reflect his strongly Puritan views.

In May of 1569, the year A Theatre for Wordlings was published in London by printer Henry Bynneman, Spenser began his studies at Pembroke Hall of Cambridge University. Spenser was able to afford his university education through an early form of financial aid: serving as a "sizar," a part-time servant to wealthy students. His earnings helped to defray his own college expenses. A sickly student, perhaps due to his straitened circumstances and overwork, Spenser nonetheless excelled at his classes. He continued his study of language, and also read widely in the classics as well as modern poetry in several languages; in addition, he wrote some original verse in Latin. While at Cambridge Spenser developed a close lifelong friendship with Gabriel Harvey, a fellow student through whose connections Spenser was introduced to such individuals as Puritan politician Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Spenser also established friendships with Lancelot Andrewes, who would eventually become a respected theologian and Anglican bishop of London, as well as fellow poet Edward Kirke, Thomas Kyd, and Thomas Lodge. He also made an impression on John Young, master of Pembroke, who would soon become bishop of Rochester and one of the student's first employers. In the seven years he remained at Cambridge, Spenser earned two degrees: his bachelor of arts in 1572 and his master of arts in 1576. In class rank he was eleventh in a class of one hundred and twenty students upon receiving his B.A., but in the more competitive M.A. placed sixty-sixth in a class of seventy students.

Navigating a Fractious World

After graduating from Cambridge in 1576, Spenser visited relatives in Lancashire where, as a student of language, he became fascinated with the northern dialect. He also is thought to have worked briefly as an emissary for the earl of Leicester, traveling to continental Europe as well as to Ireland, an unsettled, largely Catholic area hostile to England where the earl's brother-in-law, Sir Henry Sidney, served as Lord Deputy. When Young was named Anglican bishop of Rochester in 1578, Spenser was hired as Young's secretary and moved to Kent. It was here that he began to compose his first published poem, The Shepheardes Calendar.

Meanwhile, in the early spring of 1579, twenty-seven-year-old Spenser returned to London, visiting with his friends Harvey and Kirke, who shared his literary interests. He had been writing poetry steadily—he had even begun his masterwork, The Faerie Queen, as well as several of the poems that would later be published in his Complaints—and his friends encouraged him toward publication. It is at this juncture that scholars believe Spenser made the acquaintance of noted poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney. It was to Sidney that he dedicated The Shepheardes Calendar.

Printed in 1579, The Shepheardes Calendar is a poem describing Spenser's years at Cambridge; in it he represents his friends: Harvey becomes Hobinol, Young becomes Roffy, and Spenser disguises himself as one Colin Clout. The twelve-part work satirizes the politics and religious discord of the day, as well as revealing the poet's friendships and history, using pastoral images and exhibiting a range of influences, from Virgil to England's own Geoffrey Chaucer. It also shows an extensive knowledge of poetic form: paeans, dirges, and complaints all can be found within its text. Most importantly, The Shepheardes Calendar reflects its author's love of the English language with its many archaisms and its ability to embrace foreign words.

Although Spenser's passion lay in poetry, as an ambitious young man who had worked his way through college, he realized that he also needed a career. Deciding to find a position in the English civil service or as a diplomat, he undertook the independent study of law while also finding regular employment with the Earl of Leicester. Living at Leicester House, on the Strand, he entered the regular company of Sidney and of other regulars at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, such as Sir Edward Dyer, Daniel Rogers, and Thomas Drant. These young intellectuals, the literary lights of their day, were loosely members of a group known as the Areopagus, and frequently gathered to discuss philosophy, literature, politics, and law. It was out of this intellectual group that, with the help of publisher Bynneman, the written exchange between Spenser and friend Harvey was published in 1580 as Three Proper and Wittie Familiar Letters: Lately Passed between Two Vniversity Men: Touching the Earthquake in April Last, and Our English Refourmed Versifying and Two Other Very Commendable Letters of the Same Mens Writing. Spenser was indeed making his mark on London society.

Spenser's ambitions toward a career were equally rewarded that July when, with the help of Dudley, earl of Leicester, he was appointed secretary to Arthur, the fourteenth Lord Grey, who had just taken the place of Sir Henry Sidney as Lord Deputy of Ireland. While Spenser may not have then realized it, accepting this post meant leaving forever the literary camaraderie he knew in London. He accompanied Grey to Dublin, Ireland, and was almost immediately made witness to the hardships of that region. While accompanying Grey and his small army south to Munster, the English force was unsuccessfully attacked by a well-armed Spanish force financed by Rome, with many perishing on the battlefield near Smerwick.

Despite the region's unrest, Spenser remained in Ireland for the rest of his life. While Grey would be recalled two years later, Spenser accepted a succession of political appointments, serving as clerk of Faculties for the Chancery in Dublin in 1581 and as commissioner of Musters in County Kildare from 1583 to 1584. In 1588, then in his mid-thirties, Spenser was appointed Clerk of the Council of Munster, a lucrative position. By 1586 he had been allotted 3,028 acres near Doneral, on which stood Kilcolman Castle, the former home of the Earl of Desmond. Spenser now made his home here, with his sister Sarah, and remained at Kilcolman for the remainder of his life. During his many appointments and relocations, he continued to write, and The Faerie Queene, the ambitious poem he had begun in London, continued to take shape.

Evolution of The Faerie Queene

By all accounts considered Spenser's masterwork and one of the greatest long poems ever published in the English language, The Faerie Queene was written in several stages. By 1589 Spenser had finished the first three books of his projected twelve-book epic, each book focusing on one of Aristotle's twelve moral virtues. Spenser used the motif of a knight to personify each of the virtues, thus combining the popular chivalric romance with the equally popular handbook of manners to create what he hoped would be a national epic that could breach old cultural divisions and unite his beloved England.

A complex work, The Faerie Queene succeeds on several levels, and in different ages scholars have drawn different values and meaning from the work. It is an allegory of the struggle between good and evil, a symbolic history of the ongoing battle between English Protestantism and what Spenser viewed as the corrupting influences of Roman Catholicism, and an expression of conservative ethical views that were widely shared by England's Anglican majority. Characteristic of the goals of Renaissance thought, the epic text attempts to find a synthesis between three major intellectual approaches: Platonism, which stresses a balance between human love of beauty and the spiritual love of the divine; the more grounded Aristotelianism, which values logic, discipline, and moral reflection; and Calvinism, a strict Protestant theology that assumes overarching pride and moral weakness in its advocacy of strict discipline and subjugation under Christ. Making it accessible to a readership less well-educated than its author, The Faerie Queene is also firmly grounded in the political and religious wranglings of its day, and alludes to current events in France and Ireland, the Reformation, the Tudor dynasty, and such eminent personalities as Walter Raleigh, Philip Sidney, and Robert Dudley, earl of Leicaster.

Despite the poem's complexity, it has remained accessible to generations of readers due to Spenser's clear writing style. The work was innovative for its day, however, due to the unique rhyming scheme devised by its author, that gives the work a slow, stately motion. A Spenserian stanza consists of nine lines—eight of these lines composed in traditional iambic pentameter and the final line utilizing an Alexandrine, iambic hexameter organized in an a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c-c rhyme scheme.

Presented at Court by Raleigh

While Spenser had exchanged the cultural milieu of London for the less-cultivated but equally vibrant intellectual circles of Dublin's English-leaning members upon first moving to Ireland, as the years passed he was forced to separate from this culture as well as his duties and ambitions took him to southern Ireland. As a result, he received many visitors after he established himself at Kilcolman Castle, one of which was Sir Walter Raleigh, who arrived in the early fall of 1589. By this time the first three books of The Faerie Queene were complete, and Spenser showed them to his guest. Raleigh was so impressed with the work that he encouraged Spenser to return with him to England, where he would arrange an audience with Queen Elizabeth. In November of 1589 the two men arrived in London, whereupon Spenser set about securing patrons to finance the publication of the first three books of his epic poem. In 1590, with the help of William Ponsonby and including a glowing dedication to the queen, his work was published as The Faerie Qveene. Disposed into Twelue Books, Fashioning XII. Morall vertues.

Although The Faerie Queene was an immediate success and the queen was duly impressed, her promise of a large pension to enable him to concentrate on his verse was undermined by the interference of one Lord Burghley. In a perhaps unwise move, Spenser lampooned Lord Burghley, as well as criticized a prospective but ultimately dismissed engagement between the queen and the French and very Catholic Duke of Alençon, in his next publication, 1591's Complaints. Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie, and although he almost immediately realized his mistake and attempted to recall the volume, the damage was done. Within the Elizabethan court his criticism of Burghley was not viewed well, and he remained an outsider. In addition, his pension from the queen was somewhat reduced. Early in 1591 he returned to Ireland, where acclaim for his published work remained undiminished by his lackluster reception at the English court and he was hailed as a respected poet.

Establishes Home in Ireland

In gratitude for the efforts of Raleigh in presenting his work at court, Spenser decided to dedicate his next work, "Colin Clovt's Come Home Againe," to his friend. "Colin Clovt's Come Home Againe" renews the poet with the alter ego he created in The Shepheardes Calender, but also reflects his realization that Ireland, not England, was now his home. A delightful work, the poem uses pastoral conventions to relate his trip to London and his less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the goings-on in Elizabeth's court. "Colin Clovt's Come Home Againe" was published, together with "Astrophel" and several shorter poems dedicated to the memory of Sir Philip Sidney, in London in 1595.

Sensing perhaps a permanence in his life for the first time, at age forty Spenser now began a romantic relationship with Elizabeth Boyle, the daughter of James Boyle and a relative to Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork. The couple were married on June 11, 1594, and Spenser commemorated the happy event with the sonnet sequence "Amoretti" and his poem "Epithalamion," the latter in which he recounts his courtship and marriage. The "Amoretti" appropriately adopt the works of the French poet Philippe Desportes and the Italian Torquato Tasso in their lush imagery, and are considered among his most popular shorter works. The poet's great love for his wife is apparent in "Epithalamion"; considered one of the greatest love poems ever written in English, this work draws on images from ancient myths and medieval lore, and effectively intertwines human sexual passion with religious fervor.

Although he had completed three more books of The Faerie Queene prior to his marriage with Elizabeth, Spenser delayed a second trip to London until late in 1595. As he had five years earlier, he set about locating patronage, and Books I through VI of The Faerie Queene saw print in 1596, the updated work including a revised ending to Book III. In addition, Spenser also worked to publish his Prothalamion, or A Spousall Verse, a poem written to celebrate the double wedding of the daughters of the Earl of Worcester, as well as Fowre Hymnes, in which he ruminates on the concepts of love and beauty. It is also thought that, while in London, Spenser completed work on "A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland," a prose work in which he takes the same hardline position as had his former employer, Lord Grey. He argues that the rebellious Irish should be subjugated, and a new government established for these wayward subjects of the crown based on the English model. Although Spenser's opinions with regard to Ireland were hardly controversial, "A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland" was not published until 1633, when it was included by Sir James Ware in a collection of three essays titled The Historie of Ireland, Collected by Three Learned Authors. In addition to Spenser, the book includes essays by Meredith Hanmer and Edmund Campion and was published in Dublin.

Life Ends in Tragedy

Away from his home for two years, Spenser returned to Kilcolman Castle and his wife and family, as well as to work on the last six books of The Faerie Queene. Casting about for a political appointment, he was named sheriff of Cork in the fall of 1598, having presented a letter of recommendation that described him as "a gentleman dwelling in the county of Cork who is well known unto you all for his good and commendable parts, being a man endowed with good knowledge and learning, and not unskilful or without experience in the wars." Tragically, his fortunes experienced a dramatic downturn only weeks later, when the insurrectionist activities of the traitorous Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, incited rebellion among the Irish in Munster. As would happen with other English-born landholders, mobs set fire to Spenser's castle as the family—which now included four young children—fled for their lives. The fire destroyed more than just Kilcolman Castle, however; it also took into the flames most of Spenser's writing following his return from London in 1597. Only two cantos of Book VII of The Faerie Queene survived, to be published in 1609.

If you enjoy the works of Edmund Spenser

If you enjoy the works of Edmund Spenser, you may also want to check out the following:

The poetry of Michael Drayton, John Keats, John Milton, and William Butler Yeats, who were influenced by Spenser.

Spenser 's ambitious masterwork was destined never to be completed. In December of 1598 President of Munster Sir Thomas Norris sent Spenser as an envoy to Queen Elizabeth and the Privy Council, and he arrived in London weeks later. Impoverished and weakened by the winter journey, as well as by the stress of the last few months, the poet updated the council as to the status of the queen's interests in Ireland, and also made so bold as to set forth his personal, and somewhat embittered, views on the matter of how to deal with that rebellious region. Soon after his audience at court, he took to his bed in his rooms at King's Street, and died there, reportedly of want of food, on January 16, 1599. Spenser was buried in Westminster Abbey, the costs of his funeral paid for by the Earl of Essex. At his funeral, his coffin was borne by poets, who as a token of respect and sorrow threw verses and quills into his grave.

Spenser's name continues to loom large in a pantheon of writers that includes Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and John Milton, the last of whom cited Spenser as a major influence. Bemoaning the poet's dismissal by some more recent scholars, New Republic writer John Hollander noted in a review of a new edition of Spenser's short poems: "If contemporary writers read Spenser, they would be astonished by the manner in which he invents fully rounded, meaningful places, in the way that Shakespeare (and Chaucer and Dickens) create characters. They would marvel at the extent to which reading The Faerie Queene is an almost Proustian experience, in which events occurring at any moment in the poem are always calling up and anticipating past and future ones." "In Spenser," Hollander maintained, "there is fiction that is true to itself, and thereby 'true to life' in some higher sense."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Bernard, John D., Ceremonies of Innocence: Pastoralism in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1989.

Bloom, Harold, editor, Edmund Spenser, Chelsea House Publishers (New York, NY), 1986.

Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 1: Writers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance before 1660, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 167: Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic Writers, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Elliott, John R., Jr., editor, The Prince of Poets: Essays on Edmund Spenser, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1968.

Frushell, Richard C., and Bernard J. Vondersmith, editors, Contemporary Thought on Edmund Spenser, University of Southern Illinois Press (Carbondale, IL), 1975.

Hamilton, A. C., editor, Essential Articles for the Study of Edmund Spenser, Archon (Hamden, CT), 1972.

Heninger, S. K., Jr., Sidney and Spenser: The Poet asMaker, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, PA), 1989.

Hume, Anthea, Edmund Spenser: Protestant Poet, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1984.

Johnson, Lynn Staley, The Shepheardes Calender: AnIntroduction, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, PA), 1990.

Judson, Alexander C., The Life of Edmund Spenser, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1945.

King, John N., Spenser's Poetry and the ReformationTradition, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1990.

Nelson, William, editor, Form and Convention in thePoetry of Edmund Spenser, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1963.

O'Connell, Michael, Mirror and Veil: The HistoricalDimension of Spenser's "Faerie Queene," University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1977.

Poetry Criticism, Volume 8, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Rambuss, Richard, Spenser's Secret Career, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1993.

Sipple, William L., and Bernard J. Vondersmith, Edmund Spenser, 1900-1936: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1984.

Tonkin, Humphrey, The Faerie Queene, Unwin Hyman (London, England), 1989.

Waller, Gary, Edmund Spenser: A Literary Life, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Wells, Robin Headlam, Spenser's "Faerie Queen" and the Cult of Elizabeth, Barnes & Noble (Totowa, NJ), 1983.

Whitaker, Virgil K., The Religious Basis of Spenser'sThought, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1950.

Whitman, Charles Huntington, A Subject Index to thePoems of Edmund Spenser, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1918.

World Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.


Contemporary Review, February, 1994, Donald Bruce, "Edmund Spenser: The Boyhood of a Poet," p. 70; February, 2002, p. 126.

English Literary Renaissance, autumn, 1978, pp. 271-295.

New Republic, September 11, 1989, John Hollander, review of The Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, p. 33.

Renaissance Quarterly, spring, 1999, Christopher Ivic, review of A View of the State of Ireland, p. 259.

Spenser Studies (annual), 1980—.

Studies in Philology, July, 1977, Terry Comito, "A Dialectic of Images in Spenser's Fowre Hymnes," pp. 301-321.


Edmund Spenser Home Page,http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/ (July 6, 2004).*

Spenser, Edmund (1552 or 1553–1599)

views updated May 23 2018

SPENSER, EDMUND (1552 or 15531599)

SPENSER, EDMUND (1552 or 15531599), English poet and author. Born in London, perhaps at East Smithfield, Spenser was educated at the newly founded Merchant Taylors' School and at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. His family may have been related to the Spencers of Althorp. As both politically engaged author and dutiful state servant, he first came to public notice in 1569. In that year, he translated verses by Petrarch (13041374) and Joachim Du Bellay (c. 15221560) for A Theatre for Worldlings, an English version of a work by the Dutch Calvinist Jan van der Noot (c. 1540c. 1595)a key text for the reforming tradition of militant Protestantism to which Spenser belongedand was paid on 16 October for bearing letters from Tours in France for Sir Henry Norris, English ambassador there, to Queen Elizabeththe beginning of a long secretarial career.

At Cambridge he began a long-lasting friendship with fellow scholar Gabriel Harvey. He received his B.A. in 1573 and his M.A. in 1576. After a few years in which little is known of his activities or whereabouts, Spenser exploded onto the literary scene in 1579 with The Shepheardes Calender, a pastoral poem in the form of a collection of "eclogues," or conversations among shepherds. Much more than a publication, it was a literary event. The Shepheardes Calender founded the myth of Gloriana, contributing to the cult of Elizabeth at the very moment when Spenser, frustrated in his efforts to secure preference at court, was seeking his fortune abroad. Despite its panegyric to the queen in the April Eclogue, it contains a covert critique of church and state. Like his later work, it contests the very authority to which it apparently commends itself.

Published anonymously, but carefully timed to coincide with correspondence with Harvey containing clues to its authorship, The Shepheardes Calender came complete with the kind of editorial apparatus associated with classical texts by canonical authors, yet was illustrated with woodcuts, and contained dialogue written in the language of ordinary country folk. This mix of playfulness and purposefulness, with its inventive and often subversive borrowing from high and low culture, is characteristically Spenserian. The Shepheardes Calender was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, earning Spenser a mention in Sidney's Apology for Poetry (1595).

In 1580 Spenser became secretary to the new lord deputy of Ireland, Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton. Ireland remained Spenser's home until his death. Having presented himself as the most promising poet of his generation with The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser failed to publish for a decade, busy both with the writing of his epic poem, The Faerie Queene, and with his role as secretary. From 1588, he occupied an estate of three thousand acres at Kilcolman, County Cork, one of many parcels of land seized from the late earl of Desmond as part of a government plan to settle lands in Munster with English tenants. This earned him the title of gentleman and provided a base from which to pursue his literary projects. He associated with Sir Walter Raleigh (15541618), who was a neighbor.

In September 1598 Spenser was appointed sheriff of Cork. Weeks later, Kilcolman was razed as part of a popular uprising. Spenser fled to Cork City, and from there to London, carrying a letter from the provincial president, Sir Thomas Norris, to the Privy Council, outlining the plight of the settlers. This last commission came thirty years after the performance of a similar duty for Norris's father. Spenser died in London on 13 January 1599.


The first three books of The Faerie Queene appeared in 1590. A heady brew of Italianate romance, classical epic, and indigenous idioms inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, William Langland, John Lydgate, and John Skelton, its verbal density and formal difficulty marked a radical break with English poetic form, impacting later developments in poetry. Its sheer ambition coupled with an intimate attachment to landscape inspired poets from John Milton, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Seamus Heaney. Its greatest innovation was the Spenserian stanza, a nine-line fusion of French "rhyme royal" and Italian "ottava rima," eight pentameters ending on an alexandrine, with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc. The second part of The Faerie Queene, books 46, appeared in 1596. Critics detect a darkening of purpose in the later books, as the allegory becomes more historical and political, especially in book 5, "The Legend of Justice." The "darke conceit" of The Faerie Queene shadowsand shares inthe dark doings of the English in Ireland, from martial law to massacres. Cowardice was not part of Spenser's makeup. Those who condemn his role in the government's violent suppression of resistance to colonization in Ireland respect a writer who had the courage of his convictions.

Spenser's work retained its critical edge right to the end, whether published in his own lifetime or in posthumous parting shots, from the anticourtly sentiments of The Shepheardes Calender and Colin Clout's Come Home Againe (1595) to the sharp criticisms of government that litter the prose dialogue A View of the State of Ireland (1596; published 1633), and, in The Faerie Queene itself, from the provocative account of the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (15421587), in canto 9 of book 5which so enraged her son, James VI (ruled 15671625), that he asked for the poem to be destroyed and the poet punishedto the sniping from the margins in the "Mutabilitie Cantoes" that form a fragment of book 7 (unpublished until 1609).

Spenser lacked the meansperhaps even the museto write in England the national epic he was able to forge freely in Ireland. Born and buried in England, his career and corpus were made in Ireland. Spenser's colonial status both empowered and impaled him. His Irish experiences continue to engage and enrage critics in equal measure. For some, Spenser's astonishingly varied and vibrant literary output remains unbound by any context, historical or political. For others, the poetry, like the prose, is tainted by the world of violence from which it sprang. But where Ireland was once associated with the burden of history in Spenser studies, it has recently opened up his work to new readerships and new readings. Given his location between two cultures, as an imperial servant who became increasingly attached to his adopted country, it is no surprise that Spenser has received attention from postcolonial critics. His fusion of forms has attracted others who see him as an early postmodernist. One thing is clear: studying Spenser is, like his writing itself, an endless work.

See also Elizabeth I (England) ; English Literature and Language ; Ireland ; Patronage ; Sidney, Philip .


Primary Sources

Spenser, Edmund. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser. Edited by J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt. London, 1912. Reprinted 1985.

. A View of the State of Ireland (1633): From the First Printed Edition. Edited by Andrew Hatfield and Willy Maley. Oxford, 1997.

. The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition. Edited by E. A. Greenlaw, et al. 11 vols. Baltimore, 19321949.

Secondary Sources

Burrow, Colin. Edmund Spenser. Plymouth, U.K., 1996.

Hadfield, Andrew. Spenser's Irish Experience: Wilde Fruit and Savage Soyl. Oxford, 1997.

Hamilton, A. C., ed. The Spenser Encyclopedia. Toronto, 1990.

Maley, Willy. A Spenser Chronology. New York, 1994.

Shire, Helena. A Preface to Spenser. London, 1978.

Willy Maley

Spenser, Edmund

views updated May 14 2018

Edmund Spenser

BORN: c.1552, London

DIED: 1599, London


GENRE: Poetry

The Shepheardes Calender (1579)
The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596)
“Amoretti” and “Epithalamion” (1595)
Prothalamion (1596)
A View of the Present State of Ireland (1633)


English poet Edmund Spenser was a man of his times, and his work reflects the religious, humanistic, and nationalistic ideals of Elizabethan England. His contributions to English literature—in the form of an enlarged poetic vocabulary, a flexible verse style, and a rich fusing of the philosophic and literary currents of the English Renaissance—make him one

of the most influential poets of the English language, and perhaps the single most important poet of the of the sixteenth century.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Educated at Cambridge Spenser, born in London in or about 1552, was the son of a poor tailor. His early schooling took place at the Merchant Tailors' Free School, where he received an education considered quite progressive by the standards of the day. He studied a humanist curriculum that included the study of English language and literature—an unusual innovation at the time. Spenser excelled in the study of languages in school and in 1569 went to Cambridge University. He studied Italian, French, Latin, and Greek; he read widely in classical and modern literature, and he wrote some Latin verse.

Position of Influence After completing his studies, Spenser went to the district of Lancashire where he increased his familiarity with local dialects. Shortly after leaving the university, Spenser also spent time in the service of the highly influential Earl of Leicester (Robert Dudley), who was regarded as the head of the Puritan faction of the government. By this time, Elizabeth I was England's ruler, and the earl was her favorite for many years. With the power he wielded at court, the Leicesterled Puritan party desired war with Spain. Puritans wanted to remain with the dominant Church of England—formed by Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, after breaking with the Roman Catholic Church—but wanted it to be further reformed and distanced from its Catholic roots.

Spenser may have traveled as an envoy for Leicester to Ireland, Spain, France, and Italy. By 1579, he was back in London, and he was much involved in discussions about English language and literature. Probably at this time Spenser made the acquaintance of Sir Philip Sidney, the poet and courtier.

Published First Work Spenser's first published work was The Shepheardes Calender (1579), which he dedicated to Sidney. This poem, consisting of twelve pastoral eclogues (or conversations between highly idealized shepherds), is full of references to the various political and religious problems of this complex period in British history as various Protestant factions as well as remaining Catholics fought for power and influence. Spenser's time in London was also full of other literary projects, and he was already at work on what would become his greatest achievement, The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596).

Meanwhile, he was also studying law and hoping to secure a position in the civil or diplomatic 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. Spenser accompanied Grey to Dublin, and Ireland was to remain Spenser's home for the rest of his life. At this time, the whole of Ireland was controlled by Great Britain. Under the rule of Queen Mary I, Elizabeth's elder sister, the British began wholesale confiscations of Irish land and large plantations of English colonists were formed. This practice continued under Elizabeth and several of her successors.

Completed Part of The Faerie Queen By 1589, three of the seven cantos of The Faerie Queene were complete. When Sir Walter Raleigh visited the poet that year, he was so impressed with the poet's work that he took Spenser with him back to England, where the cantos were published with an elaborate dedication to Queen Elizabeth (the “Faerie Queene” of the title). Spenser's ambition was to write the great English epic. His plan was to compose twelve cantos, each concerned with one of the twelve moral virtues as classified by Greek philosopher Aristotle. Each of these virtues was to be embodied by a knight. Thus, the poem would combine elements of a chivalric romance, a handbook of manners and morals, and an epic poem about the history and character of a nation. The poem can also be read in its historical context as an allegory about the struggle between the Protestant traditions of England and the many threats posed by England's Roman Catholic neighbors.

The publication of the first three cantos of The Faerie Queene met with much acclaim, but in courtly circles Spenser was a still an insignificant figure without an official profession. In 1591, he returned to Ireland, famous but disappointed. His mood at the time may have been expressed by the title of a collection of minor poems he prepared at the time, Complaints: Sundry Small Poems of the World's Vanity (1591).

Poems Inspired by Marriage Back in Ireland, Spenser wrote the greater part of Colin Clouts come home againe (1595), an idealized poetic autobiography dedicated to Raleigh. It is another allegorical pastoral that recounts Spenser's reception in London and his impressions (mostly negative) of courtly life. 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” (both 1595) 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. The “Epithalamion” is generally acknowledged to rank among the greatest love poems in English. The poem is ingeniously constructed with twenty-four stanzas to represent the twenty-four hours of the wedding day, with many other more subtle parallels.

Named Sheriff of Cork In 1595, Spenser returned to London and stayed for more than a year. He published three more cantos of The Faerie Queene and several other works, including his View of the Present State of Ireland (1633), a prose tract in which he defended the policies of his earlier patron, Lord Grey, in dealing with rebellious Irish subjects and reforming their government. Spenser eventually did receive his long-awaited government position when he was named sheriff of the Irish county of Cork in 1598. He had hardly taken control of that office when a local political revolt broke out. Spenser's home was burned, and he was forced to flee Cork with his family, which now included four young children.

In December, the provincial governor of Ireland sent Spenser as a messenger to Queen Elizabeth. He arrived in the capital at the end of 1598, weakened by the hardships of the preceding months. Spenser presented his messages to the queen, together with a personal statement of his position on the Irish situation. Soon after his arrival he became ill and died on January 16, 1599.

Works in Literary Context

Spenser was a product of the Renaissance (a word that means “rebirth”), an outburst of artistic and intellectual activity that began around the late fifteenth century, and greatly influenced by its ideas and ideals. One of the results of a confluence of money, reform, exploration, and a revived spirit to carpe diem (“seize the day”) at this time was a cultural movement known as humanism. Humanism shifted the emphasis from the afterlife to thislife. The focus was on man in the world, engaged in his civic duty and doing many things well, from poetry to warfare (the “Renaissance Man” ideal).

Humanism Spenser was one of the earliest English Renaissance poets to explore humanist ideas for everything they could contribute to English language and poetry. He was close with the greatest humanists of Elizabeth's court, including the courtier/poet Philip Sidney and the explorer Walter Raleigh. But Spenser was the first to attempt to pull various strands of humanist thought together into a single poem that would combine the best of the past with the controversies and challenges of the present, capturing it all in an epic structure that would assure its permanence for the future.

The Faerie Queene borrows from classical philosophy a vision of love and beauty that operates in parallel harmony on both the human and divine levels. It also shares the classical values of a disciplined analysis of morals and personal responsibility. What Spenser brings to The Faerie Queene from his own time is a strong Protestant sensibility, making all of his heroes embody good Calvinist or Anglican traits and his villains represent the lies of Roman Catholicism. The Faerie Queene is therefore a perfect example of the fusion of classical and Christian ideals that is central to Renaissance humanism.

Poetic Language The Faerie Queene and The Shepheardes Calender are interesting humanist texts because of their distinctive use of poetic language. Spenser was a student of classical and European languages, and his study was unusual for also including the history of the English language. It had long been assumed that literature written for the ages must be written in Latin, and that if English were to be used, it should certainly avoid unrefined regional dialects that only a limited number of people would understand.

Spenser believed that the English language and the structures of folksongs were capable of poetry on the highest level, and he took a nationalistic pride in the achievement of such medieval poets as Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. He felt that English (including its regional dialects) had the ability to dignify great poetry, just as great poetry can in turn dignify the evolving language. The unusual and archaic spellings of Spenser's works may seem awkward to modern readers, but in Spenser's day, they were a bold, scholarly, and even patriotic assertion of the poetic capabilities of English speech—especially when used for the most dignified classical form of them all, the epic.

Influence In his own time, Spenser exerted an influence on English culture that rivaled that of any poet in the language. Such contemporaries as Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, and Thomas Lodge were beginning to imitate The Faerie Queene and The Shepheardes Calender, and Spenser's influence continued to grow among writers of the seventeenth century such as Ben Jonson and John Milton. Even more striking, however, is the response of writers in the eighteenth century, during which time scores of poets produced literally hundreds of imitations, adaptations, and continuations of Spenser's works. No other English poet except Milton can claim a greater following among the writers of that period.


Spenser's famous contemporaries include:

John Webster (c. 1580–1625): An English dramatist, Webster was popular for his tragedies about bloody revenge stories. While plays such as The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613) are not nearly as sophisticated as Shakespeare's tragedies, they are often seen as comparable in their energy and poetic lyricism.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548–1611): A Spanish composer who was quite important in his time in Spain. He was also a priest, and his religious music captures much of the evocative mysticism of the Spanish Catholic church.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616): An English playwright who is widely recognized as one of the greatest poets and dramatists in English literature. Shakespeare was enormously innovative, fusing existing stories and historical materials into plays that remain unsurpassed in the originality of their construction and their emotional impact. His plays include Romeo and Juliet (1595) and Julius Caesar (1599).

James I (1566–1625): James was the king of England from 1603 to 1625. He was the king of Scotland when Elizabeth I, the queen of England, died without an heir in 1603. His insistence on the “divine right of kings,” or the right of the king to base his personal authority on the will of God, helped to bring about the English Civil War.

Tintoretto (1518–1594), pseudonym of Jacopo Robusti. Tintoretto was one of the most prolific and influential portrait artists in Renaissance Venice. He is famous for his innovations in perspective that give a new dynamism to his paintings of New Testament scenes, including Crucifixion (1565) shown from a side angle and Last Supper (1592–1594) seen from an upper-diagonal angle.

By the nineteenth century the flood of imitations in England had narrowed, but it had also grown deeper. Along with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, Spenser stood as one of the great English sources of inspiration for the Romantic age, providing in The Faerie Queene the quasi-medieval setting, the romance form, the structural patterns, the archaic language, and the mingling of the natural with the supernatural that became the very stuff of Romanticism. Every one of the major Romantic poets was a serious reader of Spenser's works. In England, prose writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, and George MacDonald were deeply touched by Spenser's work, and in America, where religious sympathies were perhaps closer to Spenser's own devout brand of Protestantism, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville turned to The Faerie Queene for its moral allegory.

Works in Critical Context

From the sixteenth century to the present day, Spenser's work has maintained a place of distinction in English literature. His masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, was very favorably received upon its publication and has remained popular ever since. While The Shepheardes Calender was also enthusiastically praised by early critics, its popularity waned by the twentieth century, and it is now considered a minor work. Nonetheless, Spenser's importance and his impact on the development of English poetry has been judged incalculable. While twenty-first-century critics generally agree with this judgment, much of the more recent criticism of his work has concentrated on its allegorical aspects and on Spenser's role as a stylistic innovator.

The Faerie Queene The Faerie Queene is a work that elicits strong reactions, both positive and negative. Its length and complexity have daunted many readers. Ben Jonson, who once remarked about The Faerie Queene that “Spencers stanzas pleased him not, nor the matter,” nevertheless listed him among the great writers in the language. Francis Thompson has stated flatly that The Faerie Queene “is in truth a poem no man can read through save as duty, and in a series of arduous campaigns (so to speak).”

Other critics had more favorable reactions to The Faerie Queene. Most critics have focused on the lushness of the poem as its most admirable aspect. In 1910, Edward Dowden described the poem as “a labyrinth of beauty, a forest of old romance in which it is possible to lose oneself more irrecoverably amid the tangled luxury of loveliness than elsewhere in English poetry.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Write an essay in which you address these questions: What are the values of heroism seen in the knights of The Faerie Queene? How have they been modified from the medieval sources for a Renaissance audience?
  2. Does The Shepheards Calender reflect humanist values, or is the pastoral too idealized and nostalgic a form to contain such progressive ideas? Answer in the form of a an essay.
  3. How does structure reinforce meaning in the “Epithalamion”? How are the years, months, days, and hours represented in the form of the stanzas and in the form of the poem overall? Create a presentation with your conclusions.
  4. Spenser used archaic and unusual spellings of words in his works to good effect. Can you think of a contemporary writer that plays with spelling, grammar, or form to the same effect? Research a writer that does this and find out why. Could they, like Spenser, be making a statement about language and speech? How so? Be specific in your analysis in your paper.


Spenser made extensive use of allegory, the technique of using abstract ideas and values as named characters. Allegory is an ancient technique that is just as suitable for religious instruction as for biting satire. Here are some other works that use allegory:

A Tale of a Tub (1704), a prose parody by Jonathan Swift. This allegory satirizes the splits in the Christian Church by representing the main divisions as three brothers: Peter (Catholicism), Jack (Puritans), and Martin (the Anglicans/Lutherans). They fight over a coat that their father left them—symbolic of the Bible that God gives mankind—until it is left in tatters that none of them can use.

Everyman (c. late fifteenth century), a play by an unknown author. This is a “morality play,” a form of allegorical drama authorized by the Catholic Church to teach Bible stories and moral lessons to common people. In this perfect example of the genre, the title character, Every-man, receives a summons from Death, but Good Deeds is the only one of his friends—the others include Fellowship, Kindred, Worldly Goods, Beauty—who can go along with him to the final meeting.

“Young Goodman Brown” (1835), a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this allegory, set in Puritan New England, a young man has his faith tested during a late-night walk in the woods.



Berger, Harry, Jr., ed. Spenser: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1968.

Bernard, John D. Ceremonies of Innocence: Pastoralism in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Bloom, Harold, Ed. Modern Critical Views: Edmund Spenser. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Bradshaw, Brendan, Andrew Hadfield, and Willy Maley, eds. Representing Ireland: Literature and the Origins of Conflict, 1534–1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Cavanagh, Sheila T. Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in “The Faerie Queene”. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Frushell, Richard C., and Bernard J. Vondersmith, eds. Contemporary Thought on Edmund Spenser. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975.

Hamilton, A. C., ed. Essential Articles for the Study of Edmund Spenser. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1972.

Hamilton, Donald Cheney, W. F. Blissett, David A. Richardson, and William W. Barker, eds. The Spenser Encyclopedia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Hieatt, A. Kent. Short Time's Endless Monument: The Symbolism of the Numbers in Edmund Spenser's “Epithalamion.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Hume, Anthea. Edmund Spenser: Protestant Poet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Johnson, Lynn Staley. “The Shepheardes Calender”: An Introduction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.

Judson, Alexander C. The Life of Edmund Spenser. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Clarendon, 1936.

Web Sites

Luminarium. “Edmund Spenser (1552–1599).” Retrieved March 26, 2008, from http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/spenser.htm

Edmund Spenser

views updated May 18 2018

Edmund Spenser

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.

Diplomatic Activities

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.

The Complaints

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.

Other Works

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.

Final Period

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

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 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. □

Spenser, Edmund

views updated Jun 11 2018

Edmund Spenser

BORN: 1552 • London, England

DIED: January 16, 1599 • London, England

English poet

Known to his contemporaries as the "prince of poets," Edmund Spenser was widely admired for both his writing and his actions. Courteous, devout, and loyal to the Protestant cause and to Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry), he served the English government in several administrative jobs. He read extensively and wrote some of the most important poems in the English language. He is best known for his epic, The Faerie Queene. (An epic is a long poem telling the story of a hero's deeds.) This rich and complex work is an allegory, or symbolic representation, of both the eternal struggle between good and evil and the more specific struggle between Protestantism in England and the threats it endured from rival Catholic nations.

"So much more profitable and gratious is doctrine by ensample [example], then by rule."

Humble beginnings

Edmund Spenser was born into a London family of modest means. Few facts about his early life are available, but historians believe it is likely that his father worked as a cloth maker. There were several children in the family and money was scarce, but because Spenser showed exceptional intelligence his parents arranged for him to receive a good education. At age nine he began attending the Merchant Taylor's School in London on scholarship. He studied Latin, Greek, and possibly Hebrew, as well as music and drama.

In 1569 Spenser enrolled at Pembroke College, Cambridge University. He paid his tuition by working as a sizar—a student who was paid to wait on wealthier students. Though he was often ill, Spenser was known as an excellent student. He mastered Italian, French, Latin, and Greek; studied classical literature, or the literature of ancient Greece and Rome; and extensively read the poetry of modern languages. He even wrote his own poems in Latin. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1572 and his master of arts degree in 1576.

After leaving Cambridge Spenser visited relatives who lived in Lancashire, in northern England. He became particularly interested in the region's unique dialect of English. (Dialect is the language used by people of a particular region.) His dialect studies influenced his use of language in his later poem, The Shepheard's Calendar. Around this time Spenser also served Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester; 1532–1588; see entry), one of the England's most powerful leaders and the queen's closest friend. There is some evidence to suggest that Dudley sent Spenser on diplomatic errands to Ireland, Spain, France, and Italy. In 1578 Spenser became secretary to the bishop of Rochester, John Young, who had been master (headmaster; presiding officer) at Pembroke College. Historians believe that Spenser composed most of The Shepheard's Calendar while at Rochester.

Begins publishing his poetry

In early 1579 Spenser returned to London, where he spent much time with literary friends including Gabriel Harvey, Edward Kirke, and Philip Sidney (1554–1586; see entry). These friends encouraged Spenser to begin publishing his poetry. That year he published The Shepheard's Calendar, a work containing twelve poems in the pastoral tradition. Pastoral poetry idealized country life, especially the lives of shepherds and shepherdesses. The Shepheard's Calendar, which Spenser dedicated to Sidney, became the most important example of the pastoral poem in English. Spenser published The Shepheard's Calendar under the pseudonym Immerito, which means "unworthy." The work was extremely popular and influential; it went into four new editions from 1581 to 1597.

The twelve poems in The Shepheard's Calendar corresponded to the twelve months of the year, and expressed the typical themes of pastoral works: regret for a lost golden age of pure love, art, and morality, and sadness that the poet's own time fell short of these ideals. The Shepheard's Calendar employed a wide variety of poetic forms, including songs of praise, laments (which express grief), and complaints (which express the poet's sadness, often about unreturned love). It also showed Spenser's love of the English language, with its fascinating dialects and its ability to absorb foreign terms. As James E. Ruoff noted in Major Elizabethan Poetry & Prose, The Shepheard's Calendar "heralded a new era of poetry, a genuine new voice of sure rhythmic … that made the courtly verses of [previous poets] seem old-fashioned, stilted, and drab."

The Faerie Queene

Despite his success with publication of The Shepheard's Calendar, Spenser realized he could not support himself solely by writing. In London he lived in Dudley's house and studied law. With Dudley's help, Spenser received a diplomatic job in 1580 as secretary to Lord Grey, the lord deputy of Ireland. He moved to Dublin that year, and Ireland remained his home for the rest of his life.

After Lord Grey was called back to England in 1582, Spenser held various government jobs in Ireland. In 1586 he rented Kilcolman Castle in County Cork, on Ireland's southern coast, where he lived from 1588 on. During the 1580s Spenser worked on what would become his most famous piece of poetry, The Faerie Queene. He intended this work to consist of twelve books, and he had finished the first three by 1589. When Walter Raleigh (1552–1618; see entry) visited Spenser that fall, he was so impressed by this portion of The Faerie Queene that he brought Spenser with him when he returned to London. There the work was published in early 1590, with an elaborate dedication to Queen Elizabeth.

The Faerie Queene was like nothing else in English literature. Spenser intended it to be a great English epic poem, with each of its books centered on one of Greek philosopher Aristode's (384–322 bce) moral virtues, which include courage, self-discipline, modesty, generosity, friendliness, humility, truthfulness, and justice. In each book Spenser used the figure of a knight to personify each virtue. This approach combined elements of two popular literary forms, the chivalric romance (a form that originated in twelfth-century France and described the adventures of a single ideal knight) and the handbook of manners, which advised readers on correct attitudes and behavior. At the same time Spenser incorporated a wide range of other influences, including the epic poetry of Greek writer Homer (eighth-century bce) and Roman author Virgil (70–19 bce), as well as the writings of Italian poets Ariosto (1474–1533) and Tasso (1544–1595).

Literary critics have admired The Faerie Queene on many levels. It succeeds as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil. It also serves as an allegory of the struggle in England between what Spenser saw as the pure goodness of Protestantism and the corrupt influence of Roman Catholicism. It refers as well to the particular issues of its day, including England's war with Spain and support of Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. The Faerie Queene also introduced a new type of poetic stanza, or a group of lines that form a section of a poem. This Spenserian stanza consisted of nine lines, with the first eight in traditional iambic pentameter (ten syllables in each line, with the second syllable receiving the stress) and the ninth using iambic hexameter (six stresses). The rhymes followed an a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c-c rhyme scheme, or pattern.

Other works

Publication of The Faerie Queene brought Spenser considerable fame. He remained in London for over a year, renewing his literary contacts and hoping to obtain a new government job in England. Failing in this effort, he returned to Ireland in 1591. Before leaving London he arranged for Complaints, a collection of minor poems, to be published. One of these, "Mother Hubberd's Tale," satirized Elizabeth's consideration of a marriage to the French Catholic Françis (Duke of Alençon; 1555–1584). The poem was notable not only for its political content but also because of Spenser's creative use of medieval English sources, particularly from Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1346–1400).

After returning to Ireland Spenser resumed work on The Faerie Queene. He also wrote "Colin Clout's Come Home Again," a pastoral poem dedicated to Raleigh. He compiled a collection of poems honoring the memory of Sidney, who had died of wounds he received in battle in the Netherlands; Spenser's "Astrophel" was the first elegy (lyric meditation on death) in the book.

In 1594 Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle, daughter of a prominent Anglo-Irish family. His sonnet sequence "Amoretti" represented the development of his love for his wife. "Epithalamion," which also dated from this period, combined themes of romantic love and religious devotion. It is considered one of the greatest love poems in English.

Final years

Spenser returned to London in 1595, staying for more than a year. During this time he published three more books of The Faerie Queene. He also worked on View of the Present State of Ireland, a prose piece that defended the policies in Ireland of Lord Arthur Grey. Spenser argued that England should use military force to conquer the Irish, who staged repeated rebellions against English control. Though Elizabeth's government basically agreed with such a policy, Spenser was not allowed to publish this pamphlet. It was not published until 1633, several decades after the poet's death.

In 1597 Spenser returned to Ireland, once more resuming work on The Faerie Queene. Two portions of Book VII of The Faerie Queene were published in 1609, but most of Spenser's writings from this period were

Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland

Edmund Spenser recommended a harsh policy toward the Irish, who by the late 1570s had obtained support from Catholic Spain to plan an uprising against English rule in Ireland. In 1579 James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald took control of southern Ireland, with the help of another Irish chieftain, John of Desmond, and seven hundred Spanish and Italian troops. Queen Elizabeth had much to fear from these events. Spain, the largest and wealthiest state in Europe, was fiercely anti-Protestant, and its king, Philip II (1527–1598; see entry), ha already pledged support to other Catholic conspiracies against Elizabeth. His alliance with the Irish chieftains, therefore, was a significant threat to England's national security. The queen sent Lord Grey to stop this rebellion, and Spenser accompanied him there in 1580.

Grey's first battle against the Irish at Glenmalure was a disaster; more than eight hundred English soldiers died. But Grey was able to regain control of the south coast, and then launched a relentless offensive campaign. The English captured lands, burned crops, and slaughtered the local people. When six hundred of the pope's troops arrived to support the Irish, Grey's men massacred them. By 1581 most of the rebels had surrendered. But Grey refused to offer terms of surrender to John of Desmond, who fled with his men to the mountains in the west of Ireland. Fighting continued until November 1583, when Desmond was finally killed by the local O'Moriarty clan, who received a reward from the English government.

Though Grey's strategy had been effective in weakening the rebels, it caused immense suffering for civilians. With crops and fields destroyed, the region experienced extensive famine. By April 1582, approximately thirty thousand people had starved to death. Desperate to avoid the fighting in the countryside, peasant families fled to the city of Cork, where disease broke out. The devastation from hunger and disease continued for years after the fighting had ended. By 1589 as much as one-third of Munster's population had died.

Furious at the excessive brutality of his campaign, Queen Elizabeth called Grey back to England in 1582. Spenser remained in Ireland, becoming a government administrator. He defended Grey's conduct, and argued that Grey should have been allowed to remain in Ireland to carry out his initial plans to subdue the country. Spenser believed that English policy had been dangerously indecisive; for years, troops had been sent to Ireland but had failed to defeat the rebels. In Spenser's view, nothing short of an all-out campaign could succeed. He supported Grey's policy, admitting that it would cause famine and suffering but insisting that these conditions were necessary in order to bring a swift end to the fighting.

When Spenser put these opinions into writing in his View of the Present State of Ireland, he created significant controversy. The English government agreed that the Irish rebel chieftains must be defeated, but could not approve of such brutal methods and refused to allow Spenser to publish his pamphlet.

destroyed when his castle was burned down by Irish rebels in 1598. Spenser escaped with his wife and four young children, but almost all of his manuscripts were lost.

Spenser died before completing his masterpiece, The Faerie Queene. In December 1598 he was sent to London on a diplomatic mission for Sir Thomas Norris. After briefing Queen Elizabeth and her advisors on the state of affairs in Ireland, Spenser, exhausted by the stress of the previous few months, fell ill. He died in London on January 16, 1599, reportedly from lack of food. He was buried at Westminster Abbey in London, with the leading poets in the city carrying his coffin. To demonstrate their esteem for Spenser and their sorrow at his death, they threw verses and quill pens into his grave.

Gready respected in his time, Spenser also influenced later generations of poets. Though writers in the later 1600s considered his work obscure and difficult, the Romantic poets from the mid-1700s admired his passion, his starding imagery, and his inspired imagination. More recent critics have appreciated Spenser's work for its sophisticated poetic technique and its understanding of the complexities of human experience.

For More Information


Bernard, John D. Ceremonies of Innocence: Pastoralism in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

King, John. Spenser's Poetry and the Reformation Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Maclean, Hugh and Anne Lake Prescott, eds. Edmund Spenser's Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Ousby, Ian, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Ruoff, James E., ed. Major Elizabethan Poetry & Prose. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972.


Dolven, Jeff. "Spenser's Sense of Poetic Justice." Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Summer 2001, pp. 127-141.

Hunt, Maurice. "Hellish Work in The Faerie Queene." Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Winter 2001, p. 91.


The Edmund Spenser Home Page. http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/spenser/main.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Edmund Spenser." Renaissance English Literature. http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/spenser.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Spenser, Edmund (1552–1599)

views updated May 21 2018

Spenser, Edmund (15521599)

English poet and essayist who was an important figure in the founding of a new English poetic tradition during the Renaissance. The son of a tailor, Spenser was born in London, where he attended the Merchant Taylors' School. He enrolled at Cambridge, where he studied classical Latin and Greek writing, worked as a servant to wealthier students, and translated poetry of the medieval Italian poet Petrarch. After earning a master's degree in 1576, he became secretary to John Young, the bishop of Rochester, in 1578, and joined a literary circle led by Sir Philip Sidney. In Rochester he began work on his first major poem, The Shepherd's Calendar, which was published in 1579. A series of twelve poems that imitated the allegorical Latin poetry of Virgil, The Shepherd's Calendar disguised praise of Queen Elizabeth and the Tudor dynasty, and biting commentaries on current events in England, with the form of pastoral poetry and imagined conversations among shepherds. The success of this volume encouraged Spenser in the laborious endeavor of writing a much larger and more difficult epic poem, The Faerie Queene, which would be his major work of poetry.

On considering the meager prospects for poets, Spenser sought to win a secure position in government service, and took up the study of law. In 1580 he gained an appointment as the secretary to Lord Grey, England's lord deputy of Ireland. He spent much of the rest of his life in Ireland where, after helping to put down a rebellion by the Irish natives, he was rewarded with a three thousandacre country estate in Kilcolman, County Cork, which he intended as a center of English settlement and colonization. In early 1590, the first three books of The Faerie Queene appeared in London. Dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, the poem was a celebration of the rise of the English nation and England's identity as a Protestant land that stood in proud independence from the Catholic Church and its medieval institutions. Spenser took as his model the twelve books of Virgil's Aeneid, the national epic of ancient Rome. Each of the twelve books of The Faerie Queene was to consider one of the twelve moral virtues of Aristotle, as seen through the life and acts of a chivalric knight modeled on the heroes of Arthurian legend. The poem would become a national epic of England, but also a grand allegory that combined Christian morality with ancient philosophies of Aristotle and Plato. For this work Spenser developed a new poetic form, the nine-line Spenserian stanza, which was taken up by major English poets in the following centuries. Although written in archaic language and relying on the medieval traditions of chivalry, Spenser's inspiration by classical pagan philosophies made his poem a truly Renaissance work.

The Faerie Queene was considered a great work when it was published, but Spenser failed in his efforts to win a lucrative position at court. Having received fame and a substantial income from sales of the work, he returned to Ireland from London in 1591. He published a collection of shorter poems under the title Complaints. He also wrote an autobiographical poem entitled Colin Clout's Come Home Again, describing his life and fame in London and his attempts to fit in to the life of the royal court. Readers and critics praised his Amoretti, love sonnets in the style of the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, and his Epithalamion, an ode to love and marriage that he wrote on the occasion of his wedding to Elizabeth Boyle. His bestknown essay, View of the Present State of Ireland, supported the policies of Lord Grey and suggested a new program for English administration of Ireland, in which the Irish language and culture would be suppressed and replaced with what was in his view the superior moral and cultural life of the English. As the work was critical of England's policy, it was not published until well after the author's death.

Spenser published three more books of The Faerie Queene in 1595, but his ambition to create an epic in twelve books was not accomplished. In 1598 he became the sheriff of Cork. Soon after this a rebellion broke out and he was forced to flee his home, which was destroyed by the rebels. After returning to London and giving a report to the queen on his experience in Ireland, he became ill and died. By this time regarded as one of the finest poets in England, he was buried with honors in Westminster Abbey. The Faerie Queene became one of the most influential poetic works in English, and inspired later poets from John Milton to William Wordsworth.

See Also: Elizabeth I; England; Milton, John; Shakespeare, William

Spenser, Edmund

views updated May 14 2018

Spenser, Edmund

The poet Edmund Spenser (1552/3–1599) was a planter and provincial official in Ireland. Like much else concerning his experience in Ireland, the date of Spenser's first arrival remains uncertain and contentious. The claim that he visited there in the late 1570s has allowed for some speculation about the influence of the island on his work, but it rests on the questionable identification of Spenser with Irenius, the fictional interlocutor in his dialogue A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596), who claimed to have been present at an execution at Limerick datable to 1577. No other evidence for Spenser's presence exists before August 1580, when he arrived as the private secretary of Lord Deputy Grey de Wilton. The political influence he exercised in this position is indeterminate, depending upon one's assessment of his role in the composition of the state correspondence, of which he made fair copies. But independent evidence confirms his presence with Grey during the latter's bloody Munster campaigns (1580–1581) and at the massacre of the surrendered garrison at Smerwick, reported on approvingly by Irenius. Grey rewarded Spenser's service with a gift of 162 pounds and a free appointment to the lucrative post of clerk of faculties in the Irish chancery in 1581.

Spenser began early to speculate in Irish lands, acquiring and selling leases of monastic properties in County Wexford, purchasing the Dublin townhouse of the attainted Viscount Baltinglass, and leasing as his residence the substantial property of New Abbey, Co. Kildare. In the later 1580s Spenser began to invest in attainted lands in Munster, acquiring some small leases and a major estate of 3,000 (grossly underestimated) acres at Kilcolman, Co. Cork. He then resigned his chancery post, and on his appointment as clerk of the council in Munster (1588) he took up residence at Kilcolman. Spenser's investment was afflicted by organizational and tenurial troubles from the outset. An increasingly troublesome lawsuit with his Anglo-Irish neighbor David Roche caused him to visit London in 1589 to 1591 in the hope of securing a favorable outcome. But though he was granted a royal pension of fifty pounds per year, he made no progress with his suit, which was determined against him to his considerable cost in 1594. Spenser then resigned from the Munster council, and his writings during this period suggest that he had become severely embittered by his Munster experience.

Still, the depth and duration of his disillusion should not be overstated. His marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, niece of the rising Munster planter Richard Boyle, is an indication of his determination to stay in Ireland and a sign that he was acquiring powerful friends in the region. By 1597 he was again investing in leases, and in 1598 he accepted appointment as sheriff of Cork. Within a month of his taking office, however, the entire plantation was overthrown in a massive rebellion fueled by the successes of the Ulster lords against the English government. Kilcolman was burned and Spenser was forced to take refuge in Cork city. Ben Jonson's claim that Spenser had lost a son in the fire, though possible, lacks corroboration. In December he was despatched to London by Lord President Norris with reports on the state of the rebellion on the understanding that he would return with instructions. But within weeks of his arrival in London he died, on 16 January 1599.

The importance of his Irish experience to Spenser's literary work is certain but difficult to evaluate. The greater part of Books II through VI of The Faerie Queene was composed in Ireland, and references to the country abound throughout the poem. The severe political and social attitudes struck in Book V have frequently been accounted for in relation to events in Ireland. But the complexities of his multilayered poem continue to defy reductionist interpretation. More readily explicable is Spenser's View. The radicalism of his analysis of the Irish problem (that no ordinary English policy could resolve it) and the ruthlessness of his proposed solution (cultural trauma through mass starvation) is undisputed (except by those who maintain that he never wrote it at all). But the internal coherence, representative character, and influence over contemporaries of a text that, though circulating in manuscript, remained unprinted until 1633 continues to stimulate scholarly debate.

SEE ALSO Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690; Desmond Rebellions; English Writing on Ireland before 1800; Primary Documents: From A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)


Coughlan, Patricia, ed. Spenser in Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. 1989.

Hadfield, Andrew. Spenser's Irish Experience: Wilde Fruit and Salvage Soyle. 1997.

Judson, A. C. The Life of Edmund Spenser. 1945.

Spenser, Edmund. A View of the Present State of Ireland: From the First Printed Edition (1633). Edited by Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley. 1997.

Ciaran Brady

Spenser, Edmund

views updated May 17 2018

Spenser, Edmund (1552–99). Elizabethan poet, mythographer, and colonial administrator. Educated at Merchant Taylors' School and Cambridge, Spenser briefly belonged to the household of the earl of Leicester, and his political affiliations remained those of the Sidney/Leicester circle. His pastoral, The Shepheardes Calender, effectively marks the beginning of the Elizabethan ‘golden age’ of poetry; his masterpiece, The Faerie Queene (Books 1–3, 1590)—a vast, consciously archaic chivalric allegory—is the finest example both of the ‘cult of Elizabeth’ and of the project for a ‘reformation’ in English poetics. He published the sonnet sequence Amoretti (culminating in ‘Epithalamion’) and Colin Clouts Come Home Agayne in 1595, and a year later Fowre Hymnes and Prothalamion. His last published work, A View of the Present State of Ireland, advocated harsh colonial measures. His estate at Kilcolman was, perhaps fittingly, destroyed during the Tyrone uprising, and he fled to England in 1598 where he died a year later.

Gordon Macmullan

Spenser, Edmund

views updated May 18 2018

Spenser, Edmund (1552–99) English poet. Spenser's debut volume was the pastoral The Shepheardes Calender (1579), dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney. His sonnet sequence Amoretti was published with Epithalamion in 1595. Spenser's masterpiece is The Faerie Queene (1589–96), a heroic romance and moral allegory.

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