Edmund Spenser, 1552?-1599

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Biographical note

Poet, was born in East Smithfield, London, the son of John Spenser, described as gentleman and journeyman in the art of cloth-making, who had come to London from Lancashire. In 1561 the poet was sent to Merchant Taylor’s School, then newly opened, and in 1569 he proceeded to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar, taking his degree in 1576. Among his friends there were Edward Kirke, who ed. the Shepheard’s Calendar, and Gabriel Harvey, the critic. While still at school he had contributed 14 sonnet-visions to Van de Noot’s Theatre for Worldlings [1569]. On leaving the University Spenser went to the north, probably to visit his relations in Lancashire, and in 1578, through his friend Harvey, he became known to Leicester and his brother-inlaw, Philip Sidney. The next year, 1579, saw the publication of The Shepheard’s Calendar in 12 eclogues. It was dedicated to Sidney, who had become his friend and patron, and was received with acclamation, all who had ears for poetry perceiving that a new and great singer had arisen. The following year Spenser was appointed secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton, Deputy for Ireland, a strict Puritan, and accompanied him to Ireland. At the same time he appears to have begun the Faerie Queen. In 1581 he was appointed Registrar of Chancery, and received a grant of the Abbey and Castle of Enniscorthy, which was followed in 1586 by a grant of the Castle of Kilcolman in County Cork, a former possession of the Earls of Desmond with 3000 acres attached. Simultaneously, however, a heavy blow fell upon him in the death of Sidney at the Battle of Zutphen. The loss of this dear friend he commemorated in his lament of Astrophel. In 1590 he was visited by Sir Walter Raleigh, who persuaded him to come to England, and presented him to the Queen, from whom he received a pension of £50, which does not, however, appear to have been regularly paid, and on the whole his experiences of the Court did not yield him much satisfaction. In the same year his reputation as a poet was vastly augmented by the publication of the first three books of the Faerie Queen, dedicated to Elizabeth. The enthusiasm with which they were received led the publisher to bring out a collection of other writings of Spenser under the general title of Complaints, and including Mother Hubbard’s Tale (a satire on the Court and on the conflict then being waged between the old faith and the new), Teares of the Muses, and The Ruins of Time. Having seen these ventures launched, Spenser returned to Kilcolman and wrote Colin Clout’s come Home Again, one of the brightest and most vigorous of his poems, not, however, published until 1595. In the following year appeared his Four Hymns, two on Love and Beauty and two on Heavenly Love and Beauty, and the Prothalamion on the marriage of two daughters of the Earl of Worcester. He also published in prose his View of Ireland, a work full of shrewd observation and practical statesmanship. In 1594 he was married to Elizabeth Boyle, whom he had courted in Amoretti, and his union with whom he now celebrated in the magnificent Epithalamion, by many regarded as his most perfect poem. In 1595 he returned to England, taking with him the second part of the Faerie Queen, published in 1596. In 1598 he was made Sheriff of Cork, and in the same year his fortunes suffered a final eclipse. The rebellion of Tyrone broke out, his castle was burned, and in the conflagration his youngest child, an infant, perished, he himself with his wife and remaining children escaping with difficulty. He joined the President, Sir T. Norris, who sent him with despatches to London, where he suddenly died on January 16, 1599, as was long believed in extreme destitution. This, however, happily appears to be at least doubtful. He was buried in Westminster Abbey near Chaucer, and a monument was erected to his memory in 1620 by the Countess of Dorset.

The position of Spenser in English poetry is below Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton only. The first far excels him in narrative and constructive power and in humour, and the last in austere grandeur of conception; but for richness and beauty of imagination and exquisite sweetness of music he is unsurpassed except by Shakespeare. He has been called the poets’ poet, a title which he well merits, not only by virtue of the homage which all the more imaginative poets have yielded him, but because of the almost unequalled influence he has exercised upon the whole subsequent course and expression of English poetry, which he enriched with the stanza which bears his name, and which none since him have used with more perfect mastery. His faults are prolixity, indirectness, and want of constructive power, and consequently the sustained sweetness and sumptuousness of his verse are apt to cloy. His great work, the Faerie Queen, is but a gorgeous fragment, six books out of a projected twelve; but probably few or none of its readers have regretted its incompleteness. In it Protestantism and Puritanism receive their most poetic and imaginative presentation and vindication.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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