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Spenser, Edmund (c. 1552–1599) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

spenser’s published harvey view

Edmund Spenser’s life is comparatively well documented. He was born, we conjecture from Amoretti 60, in 1552 or shortly thereafter in London. His parents were poor but remotely connected, or so Spenser claimed, with the noble Spencers [ sic ] of Althorp, from whom in due time descended Princess Diana of England. Spenser’s father may have been a free journeyman in the Merchant Taylors’ Company, that is, a cloth maker. From 1561 to 1569, Spenser attended the renowned Merchant Taylors’ School in London as a “poor scholar.” In 1569, he was admitted to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar—a poor scholar given servant’s duties such as kitchen work and waiting on tables. While there, in 1570, he began a friendship with Gabriel Harvey,* then a new fellow, subsequently represented in Spenser’s pastorals as Hobbinol. In 1573 he earned his B.A. and in 1576, his M.A., but he failed to win a fellowship.

Forced to make his own way in the world, he served as secretary to John Young, bishop of Rochester. In 1579, he published under the pseudonym Immerito his first significant literary effort, The Shepheardes Calender . It was an instant success. His patron at the time was the earl of Leicester, a champion of militant international Protestantism, at whose house he sometimes resided. The dedicatee was Sidney,* with whom Spenser claimed to be on friendly terms— a big step up the social ladder; at any rate, Spenser, Harvey, and Sidney all belonged to the Areopagus, apparently a literary group of some sort; and some of Sidney’s theories about literature are reflected in Spenser’s famous “Letter to Ralegh.” In 1580, someone, not Harvey, arranged for the publication of Three Proper… Letters between Spenser and Harvey, thus revealing valuable biographical information: some of The Faerie Queene (henceforth FQ ) was already circulating in manuscript; and Harvey thought it too fanciful and insufficiently classical. Harvey also satirizes the Calvinism at Cambridge and refers to many recent French and Italian belletristic writers, feelings and tastes we may presume Spenser shared. In this same year, after working briefly as a secretary for John Young, bishop of Rochester, Spenser became private secretary to Arthur Lord Grey de Wilton, newly appointed lord deputy of Ireland with orders to quell the Desmond rebellion. This ruthless colonialist is allegorized as Artegall in FQ V.xii and praised in The View of the Present State of Ireland (henceforth The View ). Spenser settled in Dublin. In 1582, he was accorded the rank of a landed gentleman. In 1588 or a little later, he occupied the ruined castle of Kilcolman, County Cork, a property that had been confiscated from the Irish “rebel” Sir John of Desmond. In 1589 Spenser met his third role model: Sir Walter Ralegh,* a neighbor, visited Spenser; they critiqued each other’s poetry; and Spenser accompanied him back to England and read some of the FQ to Queen Elizabeth,* an event later allegorized in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe . Spenser mentions Ralegh in the proem to FQ 3 and allegorizes him as Timias and perhaps Marinell, in books 3 and 4. In 1590 came the most important event of Spenser’s career, the publication of FQ 1–3, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth with an appended explanation of the entire poem’s genesis and allegory addressed to Ralegh (Letter to Ralegh). Elizabeth is mentioned in the proem to every book of the FQ and is typified by at least three female characters—Queen Gloriana of Faeryland, Belphoebe, and Queen Mercilla; if not also Britomort, Florimell, and Amoret. Elizabeth disliked war; she was a moderate in religion, and in the FQ , Spenser’s religious coloration pretty much matches hers. In 1591 Spenser published a miscellany of shorter poems he had lying around, Complaints: Containing Sundrie Small Poems of the Worlds Vanitie —nine poems, including Muiopotmos: or the Fate of the Butterflie (dated 1590) and Prosopopoia: or Mother Hubberds Tale . In the latter, the passage where the fox acts like the Lord Treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, caused the volume to be “called in.” On the brighter side, in this year, Spenser was granted a life pension of fifty pounds a year by the queen, presumably in recognition of the FQ . He returned to Ireland.

In 1594 Spenser married his second wife (nothing certain is known about his first wife except that she bore him a son and heir, Sylvanus); she outranked him, being a kinswoman to Sir Richard Boyle, afterward first earl of Cork. In 1595, Spenser published a little volume, Amoretti and Epithalamion , which purported to record Spenser’s own recent courtship and marriage. He also published Colin Clouts Come Home Againe , on which see earlier, bound in with his elegy on the death of Sidney (died 1586) and those of six others. In 1596, he published the second edition of FQ Books 1–3 (with the old happy ending of Book 3 canceled and replaced by an open-ended one) together with the first edition of Books 4–6. In the same year, he published Fowre Hymnes and Prothalamion . King James of Scotland complained that his mother, Mary, is slandered as Duessa in FQ 5.9, but nothing was done about it. In 1598, The View was entered in the Stationer’s Register anonymously by Matthew Lownes; it circulated in many manuscripts and was eventually attributed to Spenser but was not published until 1633, long after his death. Certainly the worst event of Spenser’s life occurred in the autumn of 1598, when Kilcolman was sacked and burned in the course of Tyrone’s rebellion. With his wife he fled to Cork; then he alone went to England on political business. In 1599, while still in England, he fell sick, died, and was buried in Westminster Abbey; at his funeral, poets filed past his grave, throwing into it poems and their pens. In 1609, Lownes brought out the first folio edition of FQ Books 1–6, together with the first edition of the newly discovered “Cantos of Mutabilitie” (henceforth The Mutability Cantoes ), apparently part of an uncompleted Book 7. These facts reveal something both of Spenser’s enemies and of his intellectual community of friends and patrons. Spenser’s indebtedness, friendship, admiration, ambition, and desire to please raised his patrons almost to the status of coauthors.


As noted earlier, two of Spenser’s poems, Mother Hubberds Tale and FQ 5, got him into political trouble. While The Shepheardes Calender was understood and appreciated right away, the FQ was seldom interpreted analytically, just respected as a “classic” and a model for imitation (starting with Barnfield, Drayton, and the Fletchers) until the mid-eighteenth century, when Spenser scholarship got going in earnest with Upton, Warton, Hurd, and Hughes. Spenser has always been part of the canon, receiving at times more attention than Shakespeare. The Romantics—even Burns—all apprenticed themselves to him at one point or another in their development, most memorably Keats in the “Eve of St. Agnes”; they valued him for his music, passion, and sensuousness; as for the allegory, Hazlitt warned not to meddle with it. The Victorian debt is epitomized in Tennyson’s “Lotos Eaters.” Spenser earned Lamb’s sobriquet “the poet’s poet,” implying that poets learn from him; and they do so, I believe, not only because his opulent stanza combines interwovenness (the unexpected return of the b rhyme in line 5) with closure (the final couplet with alexandrine), but because his entire style is more workmanlike, his effects more analyzable, than those of other poets. To the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, he epitomized Christian humanism and the hierarchical unity of the Renaissance world-view of Lovejoy and Tillyard. The new critics, themselves disdainful of his gushiness, led some of us to see that the FQ is formally stitched together by repeated images. Genre criticism has always been a lively topic; in the FQ , current interest centers on modulations between romance and epic. One of the enduring achievements of the more recent Spenser scholarship is discovery and reinterpretation of sociopolitical matrices, meanings, and inflections in Spenser, bringing The View into prominence for the first time. Previous biographical critics swept his social goals under the rug, partly to protect their bard, partly because they privileged the poetry, which is mostly of an idealistic bent, over The View and the life-records, which are predictably utilitarian. Now that material conditions of cultural production claim the spotlight, now that genius is demystified, and any document merits literary analysis, critics have started to reason the other way round. In the FQ , another achievement is the recognition of the diversity of Spenser’s meanings and attitudes not only between one passage and another but even within a given passage. Women feel a particular fondness for the FQ and the Amoretti and Epithalamion , especially now in the days of feminism, though some feminists find him mired in patriarchy. The vogue for fantastic narrative, especially chivalric romance, makes the FQ popular with today’s undergraduates, while maturer scholars admire its intertextuality, its interlaced plots, its symbolism, and its political cunning. While Sidney wrote individual passages that are more powerful, Spenser’s scope is more comprehensive; he gets more things into his poetry.

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