The inscription on Edmund Spenser’s monument hails him as “the Prince of Poets in his time,” but his reputation as “poet’s poet” continued among his Romantic peers three centuries later. What was praised and imitated changed with time, but the changes themselves suggest the extent of Spenser’s achievements. His popularity among his contemporaries was documented not only in commentaries written during his lifetime but also in William Camden’s account of Spenser’s funeral, during which mourning poets threw into his tomb their elegies and the pens with which they had written these tributes. Among his fellow Elizabethans, Spenser first gained renown as a love poet, a pastoral writer, and a restorer of the native language—all three of these roles already enacted in his early work, The Shepheardes Calender, in which he demonstrated the expansiveness of rural dialect and English unadulterated with continental vocabulary. Later, in a more courtly work, The Faerie Queene, Spenser still sought variety in language more through native archaisms than through foreign idiom. Despite its simplicity of diction, The Shepheardes Calender contained an elaborate academic apparatus that demanded recognition for its author as a serious poet. The fact that Spenser took his work seriously was also manifested in various levels of satire and in metrical experimentation that strengthened what Sir Philip Sidney described as his “poetical sinews.”
Seventeenth century imitators echoed Spenser’s allegorical and pastoral elements, his sensuous description, and his archaic phrasing. These early Spenserians, however, did not fully comprehend their model. Their servile imitations of surface themes and complex metrical forms temporarily diminished Spenser’s reputation and probably stimulated later eighteenth century parodies. The serious side of Spenser, however, gradually received more notice. In Areopagitica (1644), for example, John Milton extolled him as “a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas,” and when the neoclassicists praised him, it was primarily for allegorical didacticism. In the nineteenth century, admiration of Spenser’s moral allegory yielded to delight in his metrical virtuosity and the beauties of his word-pictures. When such great Romantics as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and John Keats imitated the Spenserian or “Faerie Queene” stanza form, they demonstrated anew the strength and flexibility of Spenser’s metrical inventiveness. Modern holistic criticism continues to find deeper levels of Spenserian inventiveness in structural intricacy, allegorical ingenuity, and both narrative and descriptive aptness.