Edmund Spenser

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Edmund Spenser World Literature Analysis

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In 1600, Camden described Spenser as the leading poet of the age, indicating that Spenser had immediately established himself as a major poet. The body of his work differs from that of many nineteenth and twentieth century poets because each of his works is written consciously within certain literary conventions. Instead of attempting to find thematic connections among his works, each work of art needs to be assessed in relation to the earlier classical, Continental, and English works that Spenser adopted as models.

Many of Spenser’s minor poems are also linked to identifiable occasions or with specific patrons: Daphnaïda (1591), an elegy on the death of Douglas Howard, wife of Sir Arthur Gorges, was dedicated to Helena, marchioness of Northampton, Gorges’s aunt by marriage. Prothalamion (1596) celebrates the double wedding of two daughters of Edward Somerset, earl of Worcester, on November 8, 1596. Fowre Hymnes (1596) is internally dated September 1, 1596, and is dedicated to the sisters, Margaret, countess of Cumberland, and Anne, countess of Warwick.

Spenser’s first major work, The Shepheardes Calender, a sequence of pastoral eclogues, appeared in 1579. The Shepheardes Calender was licensed in the Stationers’ Register to Hugh Singleton on December 5, 1579, and the rights of publication were reassigned to John Harrison on October 29, 1580. Spenser is described merely as the “new poet,” and his authorship seems not to have been immediately known. The authorship of the preface and glossary is attributed to an unidentified E. K., but scholars have conjectured that Spenser and his friend Gabriel Harvey were involved in preparing these commentaries on the text. The model for the typographical layout of the woodcuts, arguments, eclogues, and mottoes was the edition of Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1504; Arcadia and Piscutorial Eclogues, 1966) printed by Francesco Sansovino in Venice in 1571.

The structure of The Shepheardes Calender is remarkably complex. The twelve eclogues are linked to the twelve months of the calendar; they are accompanied by woodcuts, brief prose arguments, commentaries, and notes. The poem makes use of a number of genres, including love complaint, debate poem, pastoral singing match, panegyric, pastoral elegy, parable, and religious satire. Its metrical virtuosity is formidable; only January and December are in the same verse form. Judging from the number of editions printed during Spenser’s life, The Shepheardes Calender was extremely popular with Spenser’s contemporaries. New editions were printed in 1581, 1586, 1591, and 1597. The two later editions may have been printed in response to the interest generated by the publication of The Faerie Queene in 1590 and 1596.

The Shepheardes Calender illustrates the way in which Spenser wrote within certain conventions. He uses the framework of his classical predecessors, Theocritus and Vergil, to explore a variety of pastoral forms. Instead of expressing his personal feelings in the way that a modern poet might, Spenser consciously plays with forms and themes derived from literary tradition. He expects his readers not only to respond to his poem as a work of art in its own right but also to know how his predecessors handled the conventions of the pastoral elegy and to evaluate his work in relation to literary tradition.

Colin Clout, the central figure of Shepheardes Calender, is a shepherd, lover, and poet. Throughout his later works, Spenser used the name Colin Clout for his persona. Colin Clout is the central figure in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), and later in book 6 of The Faerie Queene (1596) Colin Clout again functions as a symbol of the poet-author. Even so, one cannot assume an absolute identification between Spenser and Colin Clout but should approach Colin Clout’s love for Rosalind as an artful convention and pay attention to the language and images used to portray his unhappy lover.

The name Colin Clout was inspired by John Skelton’s Collyn Clout (1522) and carries with it connotations of lower class and rustic. In The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser establishes Colin as the disciple of Tityrus, who was understood to be the persona of Vergil, author of the great Roman epic, and of Chaucer. Like Tityrus, Colin (Spenser) wants to write a national epic. Technically speaking, Vergil and Chaucer are not Spenser’s sources, nor is he paying tribute to their influence on his work. Using the forms and conventions that they used, he wants to write verse that will challenge comparison with that of two of his greatest predecessors.

It was not until 1590, more than a decade after the appearance of The Shepheardes Calender, that the first part of Spenser’s greatest work, The Faerie Queene, appeared in print. The first three books of The Faerie Queene owe much to epic and romance conventions, and each one celebrates a virtue derived from Christian and classical tradition. In book 1, the Redcrosse Knight, representing the virtue of holiness, assists a fair lady, named Una (the one true faith) in freeing her parents (Adam and Eve) from the dragon (sin). Redcrosse’s quest will be successful when he has conquered the dragon and restored the lost Eden.

In achieving his quest, he encounters highly complex figures such as Duessa (double or false religion, Roman Catholicism, and Mary, Queen of Scots) and personifications of abstract states of mind such as Despaire. The battle between Redcrosse and the dragon in canto 11 of the first book should be read allegorically and typologically. Images of ships, seas, and sea monsters associate the dragon with the Spanish Armada, but the dragon is also sin and Satan. Typologically, Redcrosse parallels Saint George, the English fleet, and Christ.

Book 2 turns to the classical virtue of temperance, which is portrayed in the adventures of the knight Guyon. He attempts to achieve the golden mean of “nothing too much.” While it is virtuous to be chaste and rational, it is a mistake to repudiate the sensual and emotional. He visits the cave of Mammon, where he is tempted not only by material wealth but also by honor. In order to prepare for his final battle against sensual intemperance, he visits the House of Alma (soul), where he learns about his own psyche and where his inner fortitude is restored. His principal opponent is Acrasia, who presides over the Bower of Bliss, a beautiful garden in which sensual beauty has become excessive and overshadows spiritual and heroic values. Guyon does not destroy Acrasia; he binds or restrains her, indicating that sensuality has its place in human nature but that it must not be allowed to control the individual.

In book 3, the narrative structure is more loosely organized, but Spenser focuses on Britomart, a female knight who embodies chastity. He interlaces the adventures of Florimell (flowers and vegetation) and Marinell (sea), Amoret (beloved) and Scudamour (shield of love), Belphoebe (beautiful Diana, Elizabeth I) and Timias (loyalty, honor, Sir Walter Ralegh), and numerous other figures with those of Britomart. Nevertheless, it is Britomart who completes the quest of freeing Amoret from the house of Busirane. No consensus has been reached concerning the precise meaning of this episode. Some critics think that Amoret needs to be freed from her own fear of sexuality or that Scudamour, her husband to be, has been too bold in his wooing of her. Yet others think that Spenser is elevating chaste married love over the adulterous conventions of medieval courtly love. Britomart’s own connection with Queen Elizabeth seems clear because Britomart’s marriage will create a dynasty culminating in the birth and reign of the Virgin Queen.

Spenser’s Complaints (1591), a collection of satires, meditations, and laments on the world’s vanity and satirize social ills, were published in 1591, but some of the poems may have been written much earlier. Complaints was entered in the Stationers’ Register on December 29, 1590, and was printed by William Ponsonby early in 1591. The collection consists of nine separate works: “The Ruines of Time,” “The Teares of the Muses,” “Virgils Gnat,” “Prosopopoia: Or, Mother Hubberds Tale,” “Ruines of Rome, by Bellay,” “Muiopotmos: Or, The Fate of the Butterflie,” “Visions of the Worlds Vanitie,” “The Visions of Bellay,” and “The Visions of Petrarch.”

Ponsonby’s statement that he collected the poems without assistance from Spenser was rejected by an earlier generation of scholars, who assumed that sixteenth century authors “saw their works through the press” and proofread each sheet shortly after it was printed. Since copyright belonged to the publisher or bookseller, authors had far less control over the publication of their work in the sixteenth century than they do presently. None of the corrections made in the text of the Complaints during printing would require Spenser’s presence in the printing house.

One of the most intriguing poems in this collection is “Prosopopoia.” Spenser uses the beast fable to describe the adventures of a fox and an ape as they travel through England exposing—and participating in—social abuses. Spenser describes “Prosopopoia” as having been written in his youth, but since no manuscript copies seem to have existed prior to the 1591 printed text, there are no substantive grounds for postulating an earlier version. The poem describes social ills, showing that a simple landowner may be fooled by greedy servants, demonstrating that an ignorant and venial priest may abuse his office and take advantage of his parishioners, and confirming that self-seeking opportunists may rise to prominence in a corrupt court. Except for interest in the topical satire in “Prosopopoia,” the Complaints have received little attention from critics, but these meditations and satires offer readers insight into the kind of poetry that Spenser’s contemporaries appreciated.

In Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, Spenser returned to the pastoral as a genre, but, as with “Prosopopoia,” he remains engaged by the impact of court patronage on courtiers and poets. This long eclogue describes Spenser’s trip to court under the auspices of Sir Walter Ralegh, offers complementary negative and positive views of the court, and pays tribute to contemporary poets and patrons.

The dedication of Colin Clouts Come Home Againe is addressed to Ralegh and is dated December 27, 1591, from Kilcolman. Spenser revised the poem before its publication in 1595, because in it he alludes to the death of Ferdinando Stanley, earl of Derby, on April 16, 1594. Still, the reference to Kilcolman in the title suggests that “home” for Spenser has become Ireland rather than England. In this eclogue, Spenser describes his meeting with the Shepherd of the Ocean (Ralegh) and the pleasure that they take in reading their verses to each other. He also narrates the story of his trip to the court of Cynthia (Elizabeth I). Colin Clouts Come Home Againe not only explores love as the subject of poetry but also examines the capacity of the court to support and sustain the needs of poets. Although Cynthia herself remains an untarnished ideal, the court is far from being a congenial place for the poet.

The second part of The Faerie Queene was published in 1596 and, like the first part, uses the conventions of epic and romance but is more somber in tone. Book 4, which continues the action of book 3 and begins the second part, is devoted to the virtue of friendship, but included in friendship is concord, a social virtue. Book 5, the Legend of Justice, is divided into three sections concerning English common law, the relationships among law, justice, and equity, and, finally, the application of justice to contemporary events. In this book, Spenser makes use of his own experiences as a civil servant in Ireland. He, however, seems skeptical about the degree to which justice can be understood as governing human experience.

Book 6, the Legend of Courtesy, examines chivalric values in a pastoral context. Sir Calidore falls in love with Pastorella, the fair daughter of the shepherd Meliboe, but his sojourn among the peaceful shepherds is disrupted when brigands attack the community and kidnap Pastorella. Sir Calidore rescues Pastorella as Sir Calepine saves Serena from the cannibals. The principal villain of book 6 is the Blatant Beast, who stands for slander and the misuse of language; conversely, Calidore’s vision of the Graces dancing on Mount Acidale (canto 10) exemplifies poetry and the harmony of language.

Spenser died before The Faerie Queene was finished, but ten years after his death, an addition was made to his epic. The “Mutabilitie Cantos” include canto 6, containing 55 stanzas, canto 7, containing 59 stanzas, and canto 8, containing 2 stanzas. “The Mutabilitie Cantos” juxtapose a solemn inquiry into whether mutability or order controls the universe, and a comic story of the adventures of Faunus, who attempts to spy on Diana when she is bathing. These cantos were not published until they mysteriously appeared in the 1609 folio printed by Matthew Lownes, approximately a decade after Spenser’s death. Since Spenser was not involved in their publication, one cannot be sure how much credence to give the printer’s headnote stating that “both for Forme and Matter, [they] appeare to be parcell of some following Booke of the Faerie Queene, under the legend of Constancie.” They might also be a remnant of an unfinished mythological poem, but most critics have preferred to think of “The Mutabilitie Cantos” as the conclusion of The Faerie Queene.

The Faerie Queene

First published: Part 1, 1590; part 2, 1596

Type of work: Poem

Books 1 to 3 celebrate the virtues of holiness, temperance, and chastity, while books 4 to 6 praise friendship, justice, and courtesy.

Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was published in two parts: the first part (books 1 to 3) appeared in 1590; the second part (books 4 to 6), with which the first part was reprinted, appeared in 1596. The dedication to the 1596 edition is addressed to Elizabeth I, whom Spenser describes as the empress of England, France, Ireland, and Virginia. He adds that he is consecrating “these his labours to live with the eternitie of her fame.” Although The Faerie Queene makes use of romance, as well as epic conventions, Spenser intended the poem to function as an English epic, a celebration of the emerging British empire. In his letter to Sir Walter Ralegh dated January 13, 1589, he states that the “generall end therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” Spenser also states that he will use the Aristotelian virtues as a means of organizing the themes of his epic, indicating that he will write a twelve-book epic, portraying in Arthur the twelve private moral virtues that he exercised before he was king. If this work is well received, he adds, he may continue by describing how Arthur came to embody the twelve “politick” virtues after he became king. When the second part appeared in 1596, the title page described the poem as “disposed into twelve bookes, fashioning XII morall vertues,” but no suggestion is given regarding whether the moral virtues are private or public.

One of the most distinctive stylistic features of The Faerie Queene involves Spenser’s use of allegory and typology, both of which are unfamiliar to a modern audience and have therefore often been misinterpreted. Renaissance authors inherited a tradition of reading texts allegorically from medieval writers. The method of reading Homer’s works and the Bible in terms of a fourfold allegory derived from Alexandrian exegesis of these texts. According to this method of reading, anything that was not educational or useful in a text should be interpreted figuratively. No level of meaning would be taken literally. A reference to the Temple of Jerusalem, for example, would be interpreted historically as the Temple of Jerusalem, allegorically as the Church on earth, morally as the individual believer, and anagogically or mystically as the final communion of the saints in heaven.

Renaissance readers and writers think of allegory somewhat in the way that modern readers think of symbolism; meanings are concealed in the imagery and narrative. In Spenser’s case, the allegory is not continuous, nor is it consistent. Elizabeth, for example, is represented by the maiden hunter Belphoebe and by Britomart, the female knight, who will marry Artegall (equal to Arthur), the knight of justice. The offspring of Britomart and Artegall will produce the Tudor dynasty culminating in Elizabeth, but in book 5 Elizabeth is also represented in Mercilla, a queenly figure who dispenses both justice and mercy.

A character or event frequently is to be interpreted on multiple levels of significance: In book 1, Redcrosse knight is the champion of the virtue holiness, but he is also the embodiment of Saint George, the patron saint of England and the defender of the one true Protestant church. Instead of trying to arrive at a specific interpretation of The Faerie Queene, one needs to be aware of the potential multiplicity of meanings that may be suggested in any one episode.

Interpretation of Spenser’s allegory is rendered more difficult because, during the eighteenth century, the significance of the term “allegory” changed, creating confusion about what a Renaissance author intended when he wrote allegory. Instead of being used to refer to the structure of images and narrative incidents, allegory came to be used as a synonym for personification. Spenser does use personification, for example, in the monsters Error in book 1 and Lust in book 4, but under the rubric of allegory he also includes other genres such as fable, prophecy, and parable and devices such as irony (saying one thing but meaning another), hyperbole, and historical and contemporary allusions.

George Puttenham, in his The Arte of English Poesie (1589), makes an interesting distinction between mixed allegory, in which the poet tells the readers what the metaphor means, and full allegory, in which the poet allows the readers to determine the meaning. According to Puttenham’s definition, the play Everyman (1508) would be considered a mixed allegory because the author reveals that Good Deeds means a Christian who follows Christ’s teaching; on the other hand, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) would be considered a full allegory because the character Hamlet is a specific Danish prince but can also represent Everyman. Most modern handbooks of literature reverse these classifications and would consider Everyman “more allegorical” than Hamlet.

The Faerie Queene fits Puttenham’s definition of full allegory. When Spenser refers to his poem as a “dark conceit,” he is alluding to the structure of images and to the narrative and rhetorical techniques in the poem, not to a structure of ideas outside it. In the letter to Ralegh, he comments: “To some, I know, this Methode will seeme displeasaunt, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, then thus dowdily enwrapped in Allegoricall devices.” The allegory, for Spenser, consists of “cloudy devices,” not of precepts or sermons.

Typology, another device used throughout The Faerie Queene, is even less familiar than allegory to modern readers. The term comes from typos (Greek, “to strike”). In biblical typology, a type is defined as a detail in the Old Testament that foreshadows its antitype in the New Testament. The detail may be a person (Adam, Moses, and David are all types of Christ); it may be an event (the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea foreshadow the Redemption); or it may be an institution (the Levitical priesthood and the ritual of the old Temple are figures of the blessings of the spiritual priesthood of Christ).

In Nowell’s Catechism, which every sixteenth century reader would have known, the master asks, “Why should not the Decalogue refer to the Israelites alone, because God’s introduction declares: ’Hear, O Israel, I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of bondage.’” The student is supposed to answer that the pharaoh of Egypt is the figure of the devil ready to oppress the Christian and that Moses’ rescue of the Israelites from bodily bondage is a type of Christ’s delivery of all of His faithful followers from the bondage of sin (antitype). Spenser’s readers would have interpreted the battle between Redcrosse knight and the dragon in canto 11 of book 1 typologically. The imagery used to describe the three-day battle makes it clear that Redcrosse is triumphing over Satan, but the imagery also summons images of the Passion and of the harrowing of hell.

In most of Spenser’s verse, including his justly acclaimed short masterpiece, Epithalamion, one finds him using the techniques of allegory and typology.


First published: 1595

Type of work: Poem

This work is a hymn in celebration of marriage.

Amoretti (1595), a sonnet sequence printed with the Epithalamion, differs from most Petrarchan sequences because instead of depicting the suffering of an unfulfilled lover, Amoretti moves from courtship to the lovers’ fulfillment in marriage. The Amoretti, a sequence of eighty-nine sonnets, and Epithalamion, a verse celebration of a wedding day, were printed together by William Ponsonby in 1595, but they were entered in the Stationers’ Register on November 19, 1594. Ponsonby’s title page describes them as “written not long since,” and they have been interpreted as documents in Spenser’s biography.

Since the Amoretti contains references to wooing, it has been assumed that the woman addressed is Elizabeth Boyle, Spenser’s second wife. If Edmund Spenser is the Spenser who married Machabyas Chylde in 1579, Machabyas had presumably died by 1591. According to numerological and astronomical analyses deriving from the sonnet sequence and wedding poem, Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle sometime between 1591 and 1594. Internal references indicate that his Epthalamion was probably written for his own wedding, which according to astronomical and numerological images seems to have taken place on June 11, St. Barnabas Day, possibly in 1594. The dedication to the published texts, however, does not specify a biographical link between Spenser’s life and these poems. Ponsonby dedicates the poems to Sir Robart Needham, whom he thanks for having brought the poems from Ireland to England.

The term “epithalamium” derives from Greek and means literally “before the bridal chamber,” but it has come to stand for many different kinds of works, including lyrics praising marriage and actual descriptions of marriage. Conventionally, the spokesman of the wedding poem is a social figure in charge of the festivities or a guest at the wedding, but Spenser varies these conventions because in his poem the bridegroom himself is the poet. His poem intermixes the conventions of the sonnet sequence and the wedding poem.

The poem has a mythological frame; both human beings and gods are wedding guests, but in stanza 10, the bride is given a blazon, a head-to-toe description of her beauty borrowed from the conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet. Spenser’s bride is first a “mayden Queene,” then her neck is like a “marble towre” and her body a “pallace fayre,” but Spenser never lets the reader forget the sensuousness of the occasion. The lips of his bride are “lyke cherryes charming men to byte,” her breast like a “bowle of creame uncrudded.” This magnificent celebration of wedded love concludes with Spenser’s prayer that his poem, “in lieu of many ornaments,” will be to his wife a “goodly ornament,” and that his consecration of their marriage in song will be “for short time an endlesse moniment.”

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Edmund Spenser Poetry: British Analysis


Spenser, Edmund