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...
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