Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2137
Article abstract: Reflecting both Renaissance and Reformation ideals in his Christian humanism, Spenser incorporated classical, Continental, and native English poetic traditions to create in his epic The Faerie Queene, the quintessential statement of Elizabethan national and moral consciousness.
Little is known about Edmund Spenser’s life. He was born about 1552, one of the three children of Elizabeth and John Spenser (a Lancashire gentleman by birth who had settled in London and become a free journeyman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company). The family’s income must have been limited, because a wealthy Lancashire family assisted with Edmund’s education. At the Merchant Taylors’ School from 1561-1569, he was influenced by the famous humanist educator Richard Mulcaster, who imparted to Spenser the notion that a man must use his learning in the service of the public good (usually as a courtier advising his prince). During this period, Spenser demonstrated his Reformation sympathies by contributing several verse translations to A Theater for Worldlings (1569), a strongly anti-Catholic work.
Spenser matriculated at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge University, in 1569 as a “sizar,” or poor scholar; there he continued his study of the Greek and Latin classics and contemporary French and Italian literature. Spenser was also fascinated by the mystical elements in Plato and the writings of the Italian Neoplatonists Pietro Bembo and Marsilio Ficino. Spenser’s Neoplatonism was always blended with staunch Protestantism, which was strengthened by Cambridge’s Puritan environment. While at Cambridge, Spenser formed a friendship with Gabriel Harvey, a university don; the two shared a concern with poetic theory and hoped for a revival of English verse.
After receiving his B.A. in 1573 and his M.A. in 1576, Spenser, in true Renaissance fashion, became a man of action as well as of letters. He served as secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester, and was later employed by Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, whose nephew Sir Philip Sidney was well known for his promotion of English poetry (his famous Defence of Poesie was published posthumously in 1595).
It is to Sidney that Spenser’s first major work, The Shepheardes Calender (1579), is dedicated. Heralding a new movement in English verse, The Shepheardes Calender consists of twelve pastoral eclogues, one for each month. The classical eclogue records shepherds’ songs and conversations about their simple lives. Vergil had established the form as a preparation for the greater genre of epic, dealing with war instead of love and with the founding of a great civilization. Spenser thus identified himself as England’s epic poet, who would sing the praises of the nation and its sovereign: In the April Eclogue, Colin Clout (Spenser’s shepherd persona) sings the beauties of the shepherdess Elisa (Elizabeth I).
Moreover, Colin Clout is a shepherd (pastor in Latin) in the spiritual sense; the eclogues can be read as a satiric critique of contemporary ecclesiastical practices, and the poet-shepherd, like Moses and Christ, is also a prophet. Spenser thus established himself within both classical and Christian contexts. He also proclaimed himself truly English by deliberately using archaic language, which provides a rustic “native English” tone and, more important, identifies Spenser as the heir of Geoffrey Chaucer. Spenser was eminently qualified for this role: The Shepheardes Calender displays both his humanist learning and his technical skill (he experimented with thirteen different meters in the work). In an age that encouraged self-fashioning, Spenser firmly established himself as Elizabeth’s “poet laureate.”
In 1580, Spenser was appointed secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton, the Lord Deputy of Ireland; with the exception of a few visits to England, Spenser lived the rest of his life in Ireland, and his love of the Irish countryside is evident in his poetry. In 1588, Spenser was granted a three-thousand-acre estate, Kilcolman, between Limerick and Cork in Munster. There, while serving in various official capacities, he practiced his poetic craft.
Most Elizabethan poets engaged in the fashionable practice of sonnet writing, and Spenser was no exception: His sonnet sequence Amoretti was published in 1595. Always the innovator who transformed his models, Spenser combined the Italian and English sonnet forms to create the Spenserian sonnet: three linked quatrains and a couplet, rhyming ababbcbccdcdee. Spenser also imbued the Petrarchan sonnet with his own Christian, Neoplatonic sensibility. Sonnet 79, for example, celebrates the “true beautie” of his mistress, which is not physical but spiritual and proceeds from God, the source of beauty. It is thus “free from frayle corruption.” The sequence’s structure is loosely based on the Christian liturgical cycle (reflecting the concern with time’s movement introduced in The Shepheardes Calender).
Spenser had married Elizabeth Boyle in 1594; by publishing his Epithalamion (a poem celebrating the wedding day) at the conclusion of the Amoretti in 1595, he reverses the Petrarchan tradition: His courtship, unlike the never-ending frustrated yearning of Petrarchan lovers, would be consummated in a fruitful marriage. The Epithalamion is one of Spenser’s most beautiful and intricate works. Typically eclectic, it combines the Italian canzone form with numerous allusions to classical mythology and descriptive details drawn from the Irish countryside. The poem is numerologically significant in that it contains twenty-four stanzas and 365 long lines, symbolizing not only the wedding day and night but also the year and ultimately man’s entire life in its movement from birth through death to heaven. Highly formal and intensely personal, the poem creates an “endlesse moniment” to love and the power of poetry.
Spenser’s syncretism culminated in his greatest work, The Faerie Queene. The first three books were published in 1590, with an introductory letter to Sir Walter Ralegh; books I-VI were published in 1596, and books I-VI, combined with the Cantos of Mutabilitie, presumably fragments from an unfinished seventh book, were published in 1609. Fortunately, Spenser’s letter to Ralegh provides readers with clues to interpret his “continued Allegory, or dark conceit.” The work’s purpose, according to Spenser, is “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” The Faerie Queene thus functions as a courtesy or conduct book used to train a perfect courtier. Each of the six books is devoted to the exploits of a knight who represents a particular virtue: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy.
In writing this courtesy book, Spenser drew on several literary sources: the classical epics of Homer and Vergil (the poem began in medias res with the well-known line, “A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine. . . .”); the medieval tradition of allegory; the “matter of Britain,” or Arthurian legend; sixteenth century Italian epic romance (such as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, 1532, and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, 1581); and the Bible. The use of allegory was typical of Elizabethan thought, given the fourfold method of biblical exegesis inherited from the medieval period and the common habit of allegorizing classical authors such as Homer, Vergil, and Ovid. The Faerie Queene operates on several allegorical levels, though not always simultaneously. Narrative events can be interpreted literally, historically (the character Sir Calidore, for example, was modeled on Sir Philip Sidney), morally, or theologically.
The work’s verse form, the Spenserian stanza (eight lines of iambic pentameter followed by an Alexandrine, rhyming ababbcbcc), is both unique and challenging. The demanding rhyme scheme gives Spenser an opportunity to show off the poetic suppleness of vernacular English, as well as establish a stanzaic unity of thought. Simultaneously active and static, the stanza continues the narrative flow of events (and Spenser uses inversion to create rhythmical effects that imitate the canter of a horse or the seductive charm of an enchantress) while also standing as a discrete unit. In this sense, the stanza operates as a stationary picture or emblem, which the Alexandrine at its end explains or summarizes. The reader is thus forced to be active and contemplative, involved and detached, simultaneously.
Read as the great English epic of the Elizabethan age, The Faerie Queene is an intensely nationalistic poem, celebrating the person of Gloriana, the fairy queen (Elizabeth I). The poem is not, however, merely an effusive compliment which Spenser wrote to gain patronage; it was intended to reflect Elizabethan England in its idealized form, so that in reading or gazing into the textual mirror and imitating the vision, the sovereign, her courtiers, and ultimately the country would be transformed. Spenser re-created England’s past, present, and future in an intricate overlapping of plot and life; he unites the fairy-tale world—replete with knights, ladies, magicians, castles, giants, and dragons—with the temptations and emotions of everyday experience.
Except for an annual pension of fifty pounds granted in 1591, Spenser was not rewarded by his queen for singing England’s praises. When Kilcolman was sacked in 1598 by Irish forces rebelling against English domination, Spenser and his wife fled to London. Spenser died in 1599 in forlorn and diminished, if not penurious, circumstances and was buried, appropriately, near Geoffrey Chaucer in what is now known as the poets’ corner of Westminster Abbey. Always fascinated by time’s cyclical ability to move forward and yet stay the same, Spenser ended his life very much as he began it.
Edmund Spenser was perhaps the most articulate spoksman for the values and attitudes of the Elizabethan age. His life reflects the dual Renaissance commitment to action and thought, and his works reflect the exuberant eclecticism of humanist learning. Manifesting the period’s eagerness to discover new worlds, Spenser’s imagination simply created them and, in so doing, forged a national identity and revitalized English prosody. His technical innovations attested the powers of the English language in an age which celebrated the vernacular. The Spenserian stanza was used by Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Spenser also profoundly influenced John Milton, who considered himself a descendant of Spenser as a Christian humanist poet-prophet to the English nation.
As the father of English pastoral, Spenser united classical and native traditions to celebrate a past, present, and future golden age. Concerned with the transience of life’s beauty and the devastating effects of time, Spenser reflected the Elizabethan vogue for pleasurable, cultivated melancholy yet affirmed the permanence of Christian glory. His poetry exemplifies Elizabethan literary theory in its endeavor to teach and delight, but at the same time it possesses an unfading psychological relevance. The Faerie Queene’s episodic structure and its vast narrative scope, its portrayal of determined questing interrupted by moments of vision, directly reflect human experience. Though rooted unmistakably in the Elizabethan age, Spenser’s poetry is, paradoxically, “eterne in mutabilitie.”
Alpers, Paul J. The Poetry of “The Faerie Queene.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Alpers’ goal is to “bring The Faerie Queene into focus.” He analyzes verse and narrative, emphasizing Spenser’s manipulation of reader response; he also considers historical and iconographical sources and provides a detailed reading of books I and III.
Frye, Northrop. “The Structure of Imagery in The Faerie Queene.” University of Toronto Quarterly 30 (1961): 109-127. Frye focuses on imagery rather than allegory to demonstrate the work’s unity and sees the six books as a unified structure. Private and public education are discussed as central themes.
Hamilton, A. C. The Structure of Allegory in “The Faerie Queene.” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961. One of the foremost Spenser critics, Hamilton argues for reading the poem simultaneously on the literal and allegorical levels and shows how book I prefigures the remaining books. Hamilton has also edited an excellent annotated edition of The Faerie Queene, published by Longmans.
Hankins, John Erskine. Source and Meaning in Spenser’s Allegory: A Study of “The Faerie Queene.” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. As the title suggests, Hankins focuses on a possible source in a work by Francesco Piccolomini. Emphasizes internal allegory as psychomachia. An informative discussion of all six books follows his analysis of the poem’s allegorical basis, method, quest, and landscape.
Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Edited by Alastair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967. A brief 144 pages, the work expands Lewis’ Cambridge lecture notes. Views The Faerie Queene as a series of masques, pageants, and emblems, which results in simple fairy-tale pleasure made sophisticated by polyphonic technique. Somewhat disjointed (Lewis died before completing the book) but delightfully written, it conveys a genuine love of Spenser.
MacCaffrey, Isabel G. “Allegory and Pastoral in The Shepheardes Calender.” English Literary History 36 (1969): 88-109. Shows how The Shepheardes Calender prefigures the technique and theme of The Faerie Queene in its encyclopedic nature, concern with the nature of human life, and simultaneously linear and cyclical structures.
Nohrnberg, James. The Analogy of “The Faerie Queene.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. An incredibly detailed commentary (791 pages) on Spenser’s allegory, mythography, and sources. Citations not always accurate.
Woodhouse, A. S. P. “Nature and Grace in The Faerie Queene.” English Literary History 16 (1949): 194-228. Analyzes major characters and key incidents in the light of grace’s superiority to nature. Good comparison of books I and II.