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EDMUND SPENSER (c. 1552-1599)

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Originally appearing in Volume V25, Page 641 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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EDMUND SPENSER (c. 1552-1599), English poet, author of the Faery Queen, was born in London about the year 1552. The received date of his birth rests on a passage in sonnet lx. of the Amoretti. He speaks there of having lived forty-one years; the Amoretti was published in 1595, and described on the title-page as " written not long since "; this would make the year of his birth 1552 or 1553. We know from the Prothalamion that London was his birthplace. This at least seems the most natural interpretation of the words " Merry London, my most kindly nurse, That to me gave this life's first native source." In the same poem he speaks of himself as taking his name from " an house of ancient fame." Several of his pieces are addressed to the daughters of Sir John Spencer, head of the Althorp family; and in Colin Clout's Come Home Again he describes three of the ladies as " The honour of the noble family Of which I meanest boast myself to be." Mr R. B. Knowles, however, is of the opinion (see the Spending of the Money of Robert Nowell, privately printed, 1877) that the poet's kinsmen must be sought among the humbler Spencers of north-east Lancashire. Robert Nowell, a London citizen, left a sum of money to be distributed in various charities, and in the account-books of his executors among the names of other beneficiaries has been discovered that of " Edmund Spensore, scholar of the Merchant Taylor School, at his going to Pembroke Hall in Cambridge." The date of this benefaction is the 28th of April 1569. As the poet is known to have been a sizar of Pembroke, the identification is beyond dispute. Till this discovery it was not known where Spenser received his school education. The speculations as to the poet's parentage, started by the Nowell MS., are naturally more uncertain. Mr Knowles found three Spensers in the books of the Merchant Taylors, and concluded that the poorest of them, John Spenser, a " free journeyman " in the "art or mystery of clothmaking," might have been the poet's father, but he afterwards abandoned this theory. Dr Grosart, however, adhered to it, and it is now pretty generally accepted. The connexion of Spenser with Lancashire is also supported by the Nowell MS.—several Spensers of that county appear among the " poor kinsfolk " who profited by Nowell's bounty. The name of the poet's mother was Elisabeth, and he notes as a happy coincidence that it was borne by the three women of most consequence to him—wife, queen and mother (Amoretti, lxxiv.). It is natural that a poet so steeped in poetry as Spenser should show his faculty at a very early age; and there is strong reason to believe that verses from his pen were published just as he left school at the age of sixteen or seventeen. Certain pieces, translations from Du Bellay and Petrarch, afterwards included in a volume of poems by Spenser published in 1591, are found in a miscellany, Theatre for Worldings, issued by a Flemish Protestant refugee, John van der Noodt, on the 25th of May 1569. The translations from Du Bellay appear in blank verse in the miscellany, and are rhymed in sonnet form in the later publication, but the diction is substantially the same; the translations from Petrarch are republished with slight variations. Poets were so careless of their rights in those days and publishers took such liberties that we cannot draw for certain the conclusion that would be inevitable if the facts were of more modern date; but the probabilities are that these passages in Van der Noodt's Theatre, although the editor makes no acknowledgment, were contributed by the schoolboy Spenser.' As the exercises of a schoolboy writing before our poetic diction was enriched by the great Elizabethans, they are remarkable for a sustained command of expression which many schoolboys might exhibit in translation now, but which was a rarer and more significant accomplishment when Surrey and Sackville were the highest models in post-Chaucerian English. Little is known of Spenser's Cambridge career, except that he was a sizar of Pembroke Hall, took his bachelor's degree in 1572, his master's in 1576, and left Cambridge without having obtained a fellowship. Dr Grosart's inquiries have elicited the fact that his health was not good—college allowances while he was in residence being often paid " Spenser aegrotanti." One of the fellows of Pembroke strongly influenced his destiny. This was Gabriel Harvey, a prominent figure in the university life of the time, an enthusiastic educationist, vigorous, versatile, not a little vain of his own culture and literary powers, which had gained him a certain standing in London society. The revival and advancement of English literature was a passion of the time, and Harvey was fully possessed by it. His fancy for reforming English verse by discarding rhyme and substituting unrhymed classical metres, and the tone of his controversy with Thomas Nash, have caused him to be regarded as merely an obstreperous and pragmatic pedant; but it is clear that Spenser, who had sense enough not to be led astray by his eccentricities, received active and generous help from him and probably not a little literary stimulus. Harvey's letters to Spenser' throw a very kindly light on his character. During his residence at the university the poet acquired a knowledge of Greek, and at a later period offered to impart that language to a friend in Ireland (see Ludowick Bryskett, Discourse of Civil Life, London, 16o6—written twenty years previously). Spenser's affinity with Plato is' most marked, and he probably read him in the original. Three years after leaving Cambridge, in 1579, Spenser issued his first volume of poetry, the Shepherd's Calendar. Where and how he spent the interval have formed subjects for elaborate speculation. That most of it was spent in the study of his art we may take for granted. That he lived for a time in the " north parts " of England; that there or elsewhere he fell in love with a lady whom he celebrates under the anagram of " Rosalind," and who was most likely Rose, a daughter of a yeoman named Dyneley, near Clitheroe; that his friend Harvey urged him to return south, and introduced him to Sir Philip Sidney; that Sidney took to him, discussed poetry with him, introduced him at court, 'put him in the way of preferment—are ascertained facts in his personal history. Dr Grosart conjectures with considerable plausibility that he was in Ireland in 1577. The words " for long time far estranged " in E.K.'s preface to the Shepherd's Calendar point that way. Spenser undoubtedly entered the service of the earl of Leicester either in 1578 or a year earlier (Carew Papers). The interest of the Shepherd's Calendar is mainly personal to Spenser. Its twelve poems continue to be read chiefly because they were the first published essays of the author of the Faery Queen, the poems in which he tried and disciplined his powers. They mark no stage in the history of pastoral poetry. The title, borrowed from a French almanack of the year 1496, which was translated into English in 1go3.and frequently reprinted, is at-tractive but hardly tallies with the subject. It may have been an afterthought. Spenser had too strong a genius not to make his own individuality felt in any form that he attempted, and his buoyant dexterity in handling various schemes of verse must always afford delight to the connoisseur in such things. But a reader not already interested in Spenser, or not already familiar with the artificial eclogue, would find little to attract him in the Shepherd's Calendar. The poems need a special education; given this, they ' The first versions of the Visions of Petrarch and Du Bella}, are reproduced by Dr Grosart in his Complete Works of Spenser, vol. iv. (London, 1882). The translations of Petrarch are imitated from Marot. Koeppel (Englische Studien, vol. xv.), questions whether they are by Spenser (see also J. B. Fletcher, Modern Language Notes, vol. xxii.). 2 Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey (Camden Society).;EDM End of Article: EDMUND SPENSER (c. 1552-1599)
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