Edmund Spenser

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Like most Renaissance writers, Edmund Spenser usually prefaced his poems with dedicatory letters that complimented the recipients and also provided helpful interpretations for other readers. Further indications of Spenser’s theories about “English versifying” appear in his correspondence with Gabriel Harvey: Three Proper, and Wittie, Familiar Letters (1580) and Foure Letters and Certaine Sonnets (1586). Although A View of the Present State of Ireland was written in 1596, it was not published until 1633, thirty-four years after the author’s death. In this treatise, Spenser presented a clear picture of Elizabethan Ireland and its political, economic, and social evils. The serious tone of this work deepens the significance of the Irish allusions and imagery throughout Spenser’s poetry.


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The inscription on Edmund Spenser’s monument hails him as “the Prince of Poets in his time,” but his reputation as “poet’s poet” continued among his Romantic peers three centuries later. What was praised and imitated changed with time, but the changes themselves suggest the extent of Spenser’s achievements. His popularity among his contemporaries was documented not only in commentaries written during his lifetime but also in William Camden’s account of Spenser’s funeral, during which mourning poets threw into his tomb their elegies and the pens with which they had written these tributes. Among his fellow Elizabethans, Spenser first gained renown as a love poet, a pastoral writer, and a restorer of the native language—all three of these roles already enacted in his early work, The Shepheardes Calender, in which he demonstrated the expansiveness of rural dialect and English unadulterated with continental vocabulary. Later, in a more courtly work, The Faerie Queene, Spenser still sought variety in language more through native archaisms than through foreign idiom. Despite its simplicity of diction, The Shepheardes Calender contained an elaborate academic apparatus that demanded recognition for its author as a serious poet. The fact that Spenser took his work seriously was also manifested in various levels of satire and in metrical experimentation that strengthened what Sir Philip Sidney described as his “poetical sinews.”

Seventeenth century imitators echoed Spenser’s allegorical and pastoral elements, his sensuous description, and his archaic phrasing. These early Spenserians, however, did not fully comprehend their model. Their servile imitations of surface themes and complex metrical forms temporarily diminished Spenser’s reputation and probably stimulated later eighteenth century parodies. The serious side of Spenser, however, gradually received more notice. In Areopagitica (1644), for example, John Milton extolled him as “a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas,” and when the neoclassicists praised him, it was primarily for allegorical didacticism. In the nineteenth century, admiration of Spenser’s moral allegory yielded to delight in his metrical virtuosity and the beauties of his word-pictures. When such great Romantics as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and John Keats imitated the Spenserian or “Faerie Queene” stanza form, they demonstrated anew the strength and flexibility of Spenser’s metrical inventiveness. Modern holistic criticism continues to find deeper levels of Spenserian inventiveness in structural intricacy, allegorical ingenuity, and both narrative and descriptive aptness.

Discussion Topics

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How does the sequence of Edmund Spenser’s publications reflect his determination to be a major poet?

Compare Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney’s conceptions of the moral purposes of literature as expressed in the former’s dedicatory letter to Sir Walter Ralegh regarding The Faerie Queene and the latter’s Defense of Poesie.

How does Spenser demonstrate his versatility in The Shepheardes Calender?

What epic features are there in The Faerie Queene?

What are the characteristics of Spenser’s lady knight, Britomart?

What original features mark Spenser’s Epithalamion?

How do the themes in Spenser’s Amoretti differ...

(This entire section contains 109 words.)

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from the themes in most sonnet sequences of his time?


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Burlinson, Christopher. Allegory, Space, and the Material World in the Writings of Edmund Spenser. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2006. An analysis of the poetry of Spenser that concentrates on the symbolism and allegory in his work.

Grogan, Jane. Exemplary Spenser: Visual and Poetic Pedagogy in “The Faerie Queene.” Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2009. Grogan examines Spenser’s poetry through an analysis of The Faerie Queene.

Hamilton, A. C., et al., eds. The Spenser Encyclopedia. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1990. This 858-page volume represents the cooperative efforts of Spenserian scholars to compile a series of articles on every aspect of Spenser’s life and work. Also offers many articles on the history of England and on literary theory and practice. With index.

Heale, Elizabeth. “The Faerie Queene”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Offers an updated guide to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the first great epic poem in English. Emphasizes the religious and political context for each episode. One chapter is devoted to each book of The Faerie Queene. Contains an index for characters and episodes.

Heninger, S. K., Jr. Sidney and Spenser: The Poet as Maker. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. In this study of mimesis, or imitation, S. K. Heninger considers the transmutation of allegory to fiction. Examines the aesthetic elements in art, music, and literature, analyzes the forms of Spenser’s major works and considers the relationship between form and content. This 646-page study of Renaissance aesthetics offers an essential background for understanding Spenser’s art.

Lethbridge, J. B., ed. Edmund Spenser: New and Renewed Directions. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006. This collection of essays covers most of Spenser’s works, including those written in later life. It also examines Spenser’s friendships with Sir Walter Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth through The Faerie Queene.

Morrison, Jennifer Klein, and Matthew Greenfield Aldershot, eds. Edmund Spenser: Essays on Culture and Allegory. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. A collection of critical essays dealing with the works of Spenser. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Oram, William A. Edmund Spenser. New York: Twayne, 1997. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Spencer. Includes bibliographic references and an index.

Van Es, Bart, ed. A Critical Companion to Spenser Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Comprising thirteen chapters, this useful resource surveys issues of gender, religion, texts, and critical analyses.

Zurcher, Andrew. Spenser’s Legal Language: Law and Poetry in Early Modern England. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2007. Zurcher provides a look at Spenser’s works in terms of what they reveal about law in early modern England.


Critical Essays