Age of Spenser Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Age of Spenser

The Age of Spenser in English literature refers to the latter half of the sixteenth century, a period that coincided with the reign of the last Tudor monarch Queen Elizabeth I, who brilliantly bound the destiny of England to the cause of her own success. Thus, a primary object of sixteenth-century English Renaissance writers—whose livelihood depended heavily upon literary patronage and the Court's favor—was the creation of a national literature befitting England's emerging status as a formidable world power and the implicit, and often explicit, celebration of the Queen herself. Considered the golden age of English history, Elizabeth's reign was an era of increased religious tolerance and relative peace until the war with Spain and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. During Elizabeth's tenure treasury coffers were replenished, shipping, trade, and commerce proliferated, and new roads were built that helped unify and connect the English population. Parliament also passed many reform laws touching currency, aid to the poor, agriculture, and industry. It was only in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign that England's fortunes soured and the country was again vexed by debt and increased internal strife. Yet her rule was primarily a time of peace, national unity, and affluence. This prosperity, coupled with Elizabeth's fervent patronage of the arts, nurtured the English Renaissance which peaked during her era. Virtually all fields flourished, including music, architecture, and painting, but especially literature, where important works appeared in the genres of drama, poetry, and prose. The latter included ecclesiastical tracts such as Richard Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593-97), literary criticism including Sir Philip Sidney's seminal treatise The Defence of Poesie (1595), and travel narratives by Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Hakluyt, and others. Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, Traffics, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589) both reflected and encouraged the English fascination with geography, exploration, and empire building.

The courts of Europe, with the Tudors being no exception, depended heavily upon the writings of others to serve as apologists and propagandists to shore up popular support. Those who wrote encomia to a ruler were frequently rewarded with land grants, franchises, and positions of influence within the court as rewards for their tributes and service. Elizabeth prudently availed herself of this system. She had ascended the throne in 1558 upon the death of her half-sister, Mary, and ruled until her own death in 1603. Although she, too, was the daughter of Henry VIII, Mary had been raised in the staunch Catholic faith of her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and in her brief five-year reign had sought to undo her father's break from Rome and reestablish Catholicism as the official state religion. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth had been raised a Protestant and, upon her ascension to the throne by an act of Parliament, she sought to reassert the primacy of the Church of England and establish her sovereignty over Rome. Her judicious course of pursuing a moderate form of Protestantism ameliorated religious strife and enabled her to surmount challenges from both dispossessed Catholics who never accepted the Anglican Church and from Puritans who felt her Protestant reforms too tepid. Without the security of a standing army to put down rebellions, Elizabeth relied upon her own formidable yet charming personality as a fortification against dissent. A gifted orator and poet in her own right, she was an active agent in creating a persona that garnered the loyal adulation of her subjects, inspiring cult-like worship even though she governed in a world where an illegitimate female monarch was normally an anathema.

No longer dominated by the vestiges of either Rome or feudal institutions, English writers in the Age of Spenser turned to classical humanism, modeling much of their work upon the poets and dramatists of Greek and Roman antiquity, especially Homer and Virgil. Sir Philip Sidney, a scholar, soldier and poet served as a premier literary patron, having championed Edmund Spenser's career from its beginning. While the English Renaissance yielded many notable poets, Spenser is considered the greatest and his reputation has endured. His contemporaries also regarded Spenser as the leading poet of his day. Spenser completed most of his writing in Ireland, where he held several political appointments in Cork. Spenser's genius was immediately heralded with the publication of A Shepheardes Calender (1579), a work comprised of twelve poems, one for each month of the year. But it is Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-96), a pastoral epic, that is his most famous work. Though Spenser originally intended The Faerie Queene to be composed of twelve eclogues, he published only six books before his death. Each of the six eclogues is an allegorical representation of the quest of an individual knight to achieve specific virtues such as charity, bravery, or chastity. Spenser composed The Faerie Queene in honor of Elizabeth I; Gloriana, Queen of Fairyland, represents Elizabeth Tudor in his poem. The nine-line stanza Spenser invented in the poem has become one of his enduring hallmarks and was soon employed by other poets. Although Elizabeth I did grant him a royal pension of fifty pounds a year after the publication of The Faerie Queene, she remained somewhat cool to Spenser. Some critics have suggested that his work may have been too subtle to have had the clear propaganda value the Queen desired. Other notable English Renaissance poetical achievements include Samuel Daniel's Delia (1592) and Michael Drayton's Idea (1593).

Perhaps even more than by poetry, the last decades of the sixteenth century are characterized by an abundance of superior literature produced by playwrights. Christopher Marlowe, whose works include Tamburlaine the Great (1587), The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (c. 1588), and The Jew of Malta (c. 1589), ranks as a preeminent dramatic genius and is credited with originating the blank verse meter later brilliantly employed by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plays, the centerpiece of this period in England, reflect the Renaissance preoccupation with both the potential and frailties of humankind. Another exemplary dramatist of the age is Ben Jonson, who modeled his work primarily upon Greek drama. Jonson's most important plays, however, were not published until after Elizabeth's death. Other notable English Renaissance plays include Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (produced between 1584 and 1589) and John Lyly's Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1579). During the Age of Spenser the popular interest in drama increased significantly and by 1600 there were at least eight playhouses operating in London alone—the first permanent playhouses in western history.

The Age of Spenser remains an area of vital research and interest for modern literary critics. Recent scholarship of the era continues to examine how the literary patronage system created the abundance of writing that constitutes the English Renaissance. Much new feminist literary criticism focuses on iconography of Elizabeth I and the general treatment of women in Renaissance literary texts. Still other scholars study the contribution of literature during this period to the growth and development of English national identity as well as its role in supporting the notion of colonialism.