Edmund Spenser 1552?–1599
English poet and essayist.
The following entry contains critical essays on Sidney's role in his own time. See also The Faerie Queene Criticism.
Spenser is known as "the poet's poet" for his delight in the pure artistry of his craft: his pictorial imagery, sensuous description, and linguistic richness combine to establish him as one of the greatest of English poets. His work has earned the approbation and respect of some of the most illustrious names in poetry: John Milton spoke of "our sage and serious poet, Spencer"; John Dryden acknowledged him as his "master" in poetry; James Thomson referred to him as "fancy's pleasing son"; John Keats characterized him as "Elfin Poet"; and William Wordsworth envisioned "Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven / With the moon's beauty and the moon's soft pace…." Such praise refers primarily to Spenser's epic allegorical poem The Faerie Queene (1590-96), which, though unfinished, is indisputably a masterwork of English literature. In this poem of chivalric romance and adventure, Spenser created a poetic world which has captured the imaginations of centuries of readers and a complex allegory which continues to fascinate critics.
Spenser was born into a tailor's household in London. His early schooling took place at the Merchant Taylors' Free School, where he received an education considered quite progressive by the standards of the day. He studied a humanist curriculum that included the study of English language and literature—an unusual innovation at the time. In 1569 Spenser entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1573 and his master's in 1576. Upon finishing his education, Spenser was determined to be a poet, but, as a "gentleman by education only" he needed to work to support himself. In 1578 he served as Secretary to the Bishop of Rochester and in 1579 went to work for the Earl of Leicester. The latter position brought him into proximity of the court of Queen Elizabeth I, where he met Philip Sidney and others. In Renaissance England, the court was the center of social life and power and poetry was one means by which courtiers gained recognition and promotion. While
Spenser was friends with some established courtiers, he was never part of the court himself. His social distance from the court elite was exacerbated by geographical distance when he was sent to Ireland in 1580; some biographers have regarded this as a benign transfer, but others have interpreted it as punishment for critical ideas expressed in the poem "Mother Hubberd's Tale," which was privately circulated in 1579, but was not published until 1591 in Complaints: Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie. In any case, Spenser became secretary to Lord Grey de Wilton, and took up residence in Ireland, where a series of increasingly important positions and the acquisition of land kept him for nearly twenty years. A turning point in his career came in 1589, when he spent one more year at court under the patronage of his friend Walter Raleigh, who helped him publish the first books of The Faerie Queene in 1590. In 1594 Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle; their courtship and marriage are immortalized in Spenser's sonnet sequence, the Amoretti, and his wedding ode, the "Epithalamion" (1595). In 1598 political unrest in Ireland forced Spenser and his family to flee the country; his Irish estate, Kilcomen Castle, was destroyed in Tyrone's Rebellion. They went to London, where Spenser died soon after. He is buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. At his burial the leading poets of the day gathered in a ceremony to toss commendatory verses into his tomb.
By all accounts, Spenser's most important work is The Faerie Queene, a narrative epic of legends and romance, purportedly medieval in conception but actually more closely related to the sixteenth-century Italian romantic epic, particularly Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1532) and Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (1581). Like these works, The Faerie Queene is a series of chivalrous adventures, replete with tales of knightly honor, damsels in distress, and evil forces to be conquered. Spenser conceived of The Faerie Queene on an ambitious scale, outlining his design in a letter to Raleigh which appeared as a prefix to the first three published books of the poem. His intent was to write twelve books, each featuring a central hero or heroine representing one of twelve virtues. Spenser died before he could complete his task; as it stands, The Faerie Queene consists of six books and a fragment of a seventh, commonly referred to as the "Cantos of Mutabilitie." Spenser planned his poem as a "continued Allegory, or darke conceit," and critics agree that the pervasive allegory of The Faerie Queene is one of its most remarkable aspects. The allegory works principally on two levels—moral and political—although subsidiary spiritual, historical, and personal allegories have also been studied. The moral allegory is the most consistent as well as the most clear and accessible. The political allegory is the more obscure for the modern reader given the political complexities of the Elizabethan court. There is no doubt that the poem was written both to represent a model of gentlemanly virtu and to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth. While Spenser was never more than a marginal figure in the world of the court, he certainly sought favor and notice there, and The Faerie Queene was a major project to that end. At the same time, his distance from the inner circles of the court allowed him to be more critical and ambivalent, especially in the later books of the epic. After 1590 most of his close associates in the court were dead or out of favor and so his connection to the court was especially weak by the time the later books of The Faerie Queen were published in 1596. The value of the allegory has been a contested issue for critics. While many have noted that a reader's lack of knowledge of the allegorical aspects does not prevent enjoyment of the poem, others insist that an understanding of the allegory is essential to a true appreciation of the work. Some maintain that, in either case, the allegory is cumbersome and unappealing; moreover, it is inconsistent and the narrative in places disjointed and careless as well. With regard to the poetry, critics are virtually unanimous in praising the originality and freshness of Spenser's technical style. Perhaps most striking in The Faerie Queene is Spenser's metrical innovation, which has come to be called the Spenserian stanza. Composed of eight iambic pentameters and a final alexandrine, the stanza has the rhyme scheme ABABBCBCC. Spenser's choice of meter is appropriate and the sonorous, stately rhythm helps to establish the dreamlike ambiance of the poem. Other aspects of Spenser's style complement the overall impression the poem creates: repeated alliteration and assonance contribute to the fluidity and grace that characterize The Faerie Queene's romantic milieu. To heighten the sense of old-fashioned quaintness and to emphasize the poem's claim to legendary stature, Spenser adopted a quasi-medieval diction. To a liberal application of archaic words and phrases he added English adaptations of foreign words as well as a few ancient-sounding neologisms. Crowning all is Spenser's unique orthography, whereby he was able to make even the simplest words appear interestingly archaic. Compared with the magnitude of his achievement in The Faerie Queene, all of Spenser's other work is minor, though it shows a considerable range and diversity. The Shepheardes Calender: Conteyning Twelve Æglogues Proportionable to the Twelve Monethes (1579) is a series of twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year, written in the pastoral tradition. In The Shepheardes Calender and in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), a later poem in which Spenser resurrected many of the themes and characters of the Calender, Spenser revealed his attitudes toward art, pastoral idealism, and the sociopolitical world of the Elizabethan court. Spenser's sequence of love sonnets, the Amoretti, is fairly conventional in conception, based on the Petrarchan tradition. Yet where the Petrarchan sonnet ends in death or unfulfilled longing, Spenser's Amoretti quite remarkably ends with union. The "Epithalamion," an ode celebrating his marriage, is generally thought by modern critics to be Spenser's best work, with the sole exception of The Faerie Queene. Spenser's most notable prose piece is his A View of the State of Ireland, Written Dialogue-wise, betweene Eudoxus and Irenœus (1633), an essay describing and approving the harsh English policies of subjection in sixteenth-century Ireland.
From the sixteenth century to the twentieth, Spenser's work has maintained a place of distinction in English literature. His masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, was very favorably received upon its publication and has remained popular ever since. However, since it is a work that elicits strong reactions, the poem has also had its detractors. Its length and complexity have daunted many readers; Francis Thompson has stated flatly that The Faerie Queene "is in truth a poem no man can read through save as a duty, and in a series of arduous campaigns (so to speak)." But most critics have focused on the lushness of The Faerie Queene as its most admirable aspect; Edward Dowden in 1910 described the poem as "a labyrinth of beauty, a forest of old romance in which it is possible to lose oneself more irrecoverably amid the tangled luxury of loveliness than elsewhere in English poetry." Spenser's series of twelve eclogues, The Shepheardes Calender, was also praised by early critics, among them Sidney, to whom it was dedicated. In his The Defence of Poesie (1595) Sidney remarked that Spenser "hath much Poetrie in his Eglogues; indede worthy the reading, if I be not deceived." He disapproved, however, of Spenser's "framing …. his stile to an old rustick language." The enthusiastic praise accorded The Shepheardes Calender has waned in recent times and the poem is now accorded minor status. Nonetheless, Spenser's importance and his impact on the development of English poetry have been judged incalculable. He was not only a notable figure in his own time, but proved a profound influence on subsequent generations of English poets, earning a firm and permanent place in the tradition of English letters. He is still considered by many scholars the greatest nondramatic English poet of the Renaissance. Much of the criticism of his work has concentrated on its allegorical aspects and on Spenser's role as a stylistic innovator. Still, each generation of critics finds new aspects of his work to examine. In recent years attention has turned to analyses of the handling of gender (especially as it comments on Queen Elizabeth) in his works and to the historical and cultural context that makes his alllegory so rich.