Edmund Spenser was one of the great poets of the English Renaissance. He is most known for his fantasy poem ‘The Faerie Queen,’ an allegory of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. He is also known for his cycle of love sonnets, including ‘Epithalamion,’ a long traditional poem he wrote in celebration of his marriage.
The English Renaissance
Edmund Spencer, who lived from 1552 until 1599, was one of the key literary figures of the English Renaissance. A Renaissance is a time in which major changes occur in government, science, technology and the arts, and a culture flourishes. England’s Renaissance took place in about the middle of the 16th to the early 17th centuries, spanning most of the reign of Queen Elizabeth l. Key figures of the English literary Renaissance were Shakespeare, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Jon Bunyan, John Donne and John Milton.
Edmund Spenser’s Biography
The exact dates and location of Spenser’s birth are not precisely known, but it is believed that he was born in East Smithfield, London, around the year 1552. His father was a weaver who worked for the Merchant Taylor’s Company. As a boy, he was educated in the classics at Merchant Taylor’s school, in a humanist environment where music and dramatic performance were encouraged.
An interesting fact we have about the young Spenser is that in 1569, his last year at Merchant’s, he and five other boys were given a new gown and a shilling to attend the funeral of a wealthy lawyer who was involved with the school. Later, this lawyer’s estate helped to support Spenser’s college education.At the age of 16 or 17, Spenser left Merchant Taylor’s to attend Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1569. There he was supposedly a sizar, which is our modern day equivalent of a work study student. He was already translating and writing poetry at that time.Spenser published his first poetic work, The Sheapheardes Calendar, ten years later.
He then began work on The Faerie Queene, which was published in 1590. Spenser was awarded a B.A. in 1573 and an M.A.
in 1576. In 1580, he became the secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland. In 1581, he made Ireland his home, and Kilcolman, an estate with a castle, outside of Cork.Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle in June of 1594. In 1597, Spenser’s home in Ireland was sacked and burned during an Irish Rebellion.
He fled back to London, financially ruined, where he remained until his death in Westminister, on June 19th, 1599. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer’s grave.
The Faerie Queene
Spenser is most well known for his book-length epic poem, The Faerie Queene.
It was one of the first attempts at an English epic poem, which he based on the Italian classics. An epic poem is a long, historical work that attempts to document the events and heroes of a time and place, a country and its culture. Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid are examples of classical epics. Spenser and his contemporary, Philip Sidney, wrote the first English epics, distinguishing them as poets who fundamentally defined and shaped a distinct English poetry of their time.Spencer wrote the The Faerie Queene in honor of Queen Elizabeth, who was characterized as the Faerie Queen Gloriana, his heroine. His ambition was to write a beautiful work that exalted her reign, while creating a poem cycle of fantasy adventures rooted in the Arthurian legends of knights, damsels and dragons, and whose characters exemplified Spenser’s definition of virtue.
This type of symbolism, where a character or place or event represents or parallels an idea, is called an allegory. In this case, Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom is allegorized, and major figures in her kingdom are allegorized as certain virtues, such as friendship, courtesy and justice.Spenser also hoped to gain patronage by the court for his writing career.
In other words, he was trying to flatter the court so that he could gain recognition and monetary support for his writing. He accomplished this to some extent, but not enough to quit his day job, which was to serve the crown by protecting its interests in Ireland. His genocidal views on Ireland, as written in his A View of the Present State of Ireland, published 1633, postmortem, are brutal and incredibly disturbing, but that does not detract from the rich body of poetry he has left us.
Other Works by Spenser
In addition to The Faerie Queene, Spenser wrote the very romantic cycle of sonnets called Amoretti, which he published in 1594 with his Epithalamium.An epithalamium is a long poem which traditionally celebrates a marriage, in this case, Spenser’s to Elizabeth Boyle. He courted her for a year, and that courtship is commemorated in the sonnets.The Amoretti are sonnets whose form combines both Shakespearian and Petrarchan structures. Like a Shakespearian sonnet, it generally has three stanza of four lines and then a couplet. It is like the Petrarchan sonnet in that the final lines conclude the subject from the previous lines.The poems deal with aspects of a passionate courtship from the poet’s male perspective: being entranced with his lover’s beauty; unrequited, unrewarded love; the inability to find words to express how wonderful she is, or how much he loves her; arguments in favor of their love; joy over conquering her devotion; and suffering over separation from her in the time before the wedding.
Three Well-Known Spenserian Sonnets
‘Happy ye leaves, when as these lilly hands,’ is a poem about unrequited love, and the poet’s dedication to expressing his love in words; ‘Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone,/Whom if you please, I care for other none.”Fair is My Love,’ is a poem in which the beloved’s many beautiful attributes are but ‘nature’s wonders,’ while the words that express her ‘gentle sprite,’ or spirit, are the ‘works of the heart’s astonishment.’ After praising many aspects of her beauty, he says:‘The gate with pearls and rubies richly dightthrough which her words so wise do make their way‘In other words, he is most in love with her mouth, and the things she says.
One of the most popular poems is ‘One day I wrote her name upon the strand,’ a poem about the impermanence of life, beauty and love, but how the poet can capture and immortalize these experiences with his words:‘One day I wrote her name upon the strand,But came the waves and washed it away:Again I wrote it with a second hand,But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.‘The waves symbolize how all that lives is eventually washed away, but the poet tells his lover that her virtues and their love will be ever renewed, in his verses both on Earth and in heaven:‘My verse your virtues rare shall eternalize,And in the heavens write your glorious name;Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue,Our love shall live, and later life renew.‘
Edmund Spenser, who lived from 1552 to 1599, was one of the key literary figures of the English Renaissance. Spenser’s early education was provided by Merchant Taylor’s school, though he gained formal education at Pembroke College, Cambridge, starting in 1569.
He is best known for his epic poem, the Faerie Queene, an allegory of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, published in 1590. His courtship with his wife Elizabeth Boyle inspired a series of very romantic sonnets, which he title Amoretti and served as an epithalamium to their union. They were married in 1594, the same year that the sonnets were published.