Edmund Spenser Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)
ph_0111201586-Spenser.jpg Edmund Spenser Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.”

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2137 words.)

Edmund Spenser Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

If allusions in his own poetry can be read autobiographically, Edmund Spenser was born in London around 1552, apparently into a mercantile family of moderate income. In 1561, the Merchant Taylors’ School opened with Richard Mulcaster as its first headmaster, and in that same year or shortly afterward, Spenser was enrolled, probably as a scholarship student. From Mulcaster, Spenser learned traditional Latin and Greek and also an awareness of the intricacies and beauties of the English language unusual among both schoolboys and schoolmasters of that time. Later, Spenser as “Colin Clout” paid tribute to Mulcaser as the “olde Shephearde” who had made him “by art more cunning” in the “song and musicks mirth” that fascinated him in his “looser yeares.” Even before Spenser went to Cambridge, fourteen of his schoolboy verse translations had been incorporated into the English version of Jan van der Noot’s Theatre for Worldlings (1569).

At Pembroke College, Cambridge, Spenser took his B.A. degree in 1573 and his M.A. in 1576; little else is known about his activities during that period except that he made several lifelong friends, among them Gabriel Harvey and Edward Kirke. Both Harvey and Kirke were later among Spenser’s prepublication readers and critics, and Kirke today remains the most likely candidate for the role of “E. K.,” the commentator whose glosses and arguments interpret enigmatic passages in The Shepheardes Calender. The Spenser-Harvey letters reveal young Spenser’s theories on poetry and also his hopes for the patronage of Philip Sidney and Sidney’s uncle, the earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth’s favored...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Edmund Spenser Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Edmund Spenser achieved recognition during his lifetime as a major English poet; nevertheless, he spent twenty years of his life in Ireland, occupying a variety of positions in the colonial government. His contemporaries described him variously as the English Vergil and as a second Geoffrey Chaucer. Even so, much of what has been written about his life and accepted as biographical fact is elaborated out of Spenser’s fictional works or is based on conjecture rather than evidence. Modern scholarship cannot ascertain where and when his works were written, nor can it provide any detailed knowledge of Spenser’s patronage connections.

Spenser was born in London, England, around 1552, the son of John and Elizabeth Spenser. He attended the Merchant Taylor’s School in London, where the headmaster was Richard Mulcaster, later well known as a humanist educator. On May 20, 1569, Spenser entered Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. He was entered as a sizar, a poor student who acted as a servant to earn his room and board.

Spenser received a B.A. in 1573 and an M.A. in 1576. His university degrees qualified him for a position in the church, a profession that many of his classmates probably chose. He could also have become a schoolmaster, continued at the university while working toward a degree in divinity, or tried to establish himself in the household of a prominent nobleman or in the government. Those who intended to pursue a career in government usually came from families with strong connections to the court or Privy Council, and they frequently followed their university degrees with legal training from one of the Inns of Court, the four law schools in England. Spenser lacked the advantage of family connections, and there is no record of his having attended one of the Inns of Court.

By 1578, Spenser had become the secretary of the former headmaster of Pembroke College, Dr. John Young, archbishop of Rochester. Spenser later served Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, but anecdotes concerning his close relationship to Leicester and his friendship with Sir Philip Sidney, Leicester’s nephew, are unlikely to be true because of the social barriers that would have existed between a mere secretary and powerful courtiers such as Leicester and Sidney. On October 27, 1579, a marriage was recorded at Westminster between Machabyas Chylde and an Edmounde Spenser, possibly the poet. References in later documents to two children, Sylvanus and Katherine, are assumed to refer to offspring from this marriage.

Some scholars have speculated that either a manuscript satire or his first published poem, The Shepheardes Calender (1579), got Spenser into trouble and that he was punished by being sent to Ireland, but the lack of any corroborating evidence makes this hypothesis improbable. It is more likely that Spenser’s...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)

Edmund Spenser Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

On his tombstone, Edmund Spenser is described as the “prince of poets,” high praise indeed for a poet who was born only about ten years before Shakespeare. His The Faerie Queene ranks as one of the most important national epics, and it is one of the best Renaissance efforts to preserve medieval romance while emulating the classical epics.

(The entire section is 58 words.)

Edmund Spenser Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Edmund Spenser was one of three children born to John and Elizabeth Spenser. He wrote in Prothalamion that London was his birthplace. With his brother he attended the Merchant Taylors’ School under the famous progressive educator Richard Mulcaster. Under Mulcaster the principal studies were Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, English, and music; the students also practiced acting, which the master believed to be of considerable educational value.

When Spenser was still in his teens, his first published poetry appeared in A Theatre wherein be represented . . . the miseries & calamities that follow voluptuous Worldlings (1569). In the same year he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge. At college he was...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

Edmund Spenser Biography

(Epics for Students)

Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552 or 1553. The Spenser household was working class, his father a tailor. Little is known about...

(The entire section is 541 words.)