“Sidney is dead,” wrote Spenser, “dead is my friend, dead is the world’s delight.”29 It was Sidney who had given Spenser the courage to be a poet. Edmund had begun unpropitiously as the son of a journeyman clothmaker, too distantly related to the aristocratic Spensers to allow the boy to be noticed. Charitable funds sent him to the Merchant Taylors’ School, then to Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, where he worked for his board. By seventeen he was writing—even publishing—poetry. Harvey tried to guide him into classic molds and themes; Spenser tried humbly to please him, but soon rebelled against the bonds that uncongenial meters placed upon his muse. In 1579 he showed Harvey the first portion of The Faerie Queene; Harvey had no fancy for its medieval allegorical content, no appreciation for its fine metrical form. He advised the poet to abandon the project. Spenser continued it.

It was the gruff and bellicose Harvey who secured for Spenser a place in the service of the Earl of Leicester. There the poet met Sidney, loved him, dedicated to him The Shepherd’s Calendar (1579). The form echoed Theocritus, but followed the plan of popular almanacs, allotting the tasks of shepherds according to the season of the year. The theme was the unrequited love of the shepherd Colin Clout for the cruel Rosalind. It is not recommended reading, but Sidney’s praise won Spenser some acclaim. To butter his bread, the poet accepted the post of secretary to Arthur, Lord Grey, the new Lord Deputy of Ireland (1579); accompanied him to war, and saw and approved Grey’s slaughter of the surrendering Irish and Spaniards at Smerwick. After seven years of clerical service to the English government in Ireland he was granted, from the confiscated property of Irish rebels, the Castle of Kilcolman, on the road between Mallow and Limerick, and three thousand acres.

There Spenser settled down to gentleman farming and genteel poetry. He commemorated Sidney’s death in an eloquent but lengthy elegy, Astrophel (1586). Then he polished and elongated The Faerie Queene. Warm with enthusiasm, he crossed to England in 1589, was presented by Raleigh to the Queen, and dedicated the first three “books” to her “to live with the eternity of her fame.” To ensure a wide reception he prefaced the poem with laudatory verses addressed to the Countess of Pembroke, Lady Carew, Sir Christopher Hatton, Raleigh, Burghley, Walsingham, Lords Hunsdon, Buckhurst, Grey, and Howard of Effingham, and the earls of Essex, Northumberland, Oxford, Ormonde, and Cumberland. Burghley, feuding with Leicester, called Spenser an idle rhymer, but many hailed him as the greatest poet since Chaucer. The Queen relaxed enough to award him a pension of fifty pounds a year, which Burghley, as Lord Treasurer, delayed in paying. Spenser had hoped for something more substantial. Disappointed, he returned to his Irish castle and continued his idealistic epic amid barbarism, hatred, and fear.

He had planned the poem to be in twelve books; he published three in 1590 and three more in 1596, and proceeded no further; even so The Faerie Queene is twice the length of The Iliad, thrice that of Paradise Lost. Each book was offered as an allegory—of holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, courtesy; the whole was intended “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline”30 by giving him formative instances; all this accorded with Sidney’s conception of poetry as morality conveyed by imagined examples. So dedicated to decency, Spenser could allow himself only a few voluptuous passages; he glances once at a “snowy breast bare to ready spoil,”31 but goes ne plus ultra. Through six cantos he sings the high note of chivalric love as unselfish service to fair women.

To us, who have forgotten chivalry and are bored by knights and confused by allegories, The Faerie Queene is at first quaintly delightful, at length unbearable. Its political allusions, which contemporaries enjoyed or resented, are lost upon us; the theological battles that it adumbrates are the subsiding tremors of our infancy; its narratives are at best melodious echoes of Virgil, Ariosto, and Tasso. No poem in the world’s literature surpasses The Faerie Queene in artificial conceits, awkward inversions, pretentious archaisms and neologisms, and romantic grandiosities unleavened with Ariosto’s smile. And yet Keats and Shelley loved Spenser and made him “the Poets’ poet.” Why? Was it because, here and there, some sensuous beauty of form redeemed a medieval absurdity, some splendor of description adorned an unreality? The new nine-line Spenserian stanza was a difficult medium, and Spenser often startles us with its rounded perfection and flowing ease; but how many times he spoils its reason for a rhyme!

He interrupted the Queene to write some briefer poems that perhaps justify his fame. His Amoretti, “little loves” in sonnet form (1594), may have been Petrarchan fantasies, or may have reflected his year-long courtship of Elizabeth Boyle. He married her in 1594 and sang his wedding joy in his finest poem, Epithalamium. He shares her charms with us unselfishly:

Tell me, ye merchants’ daughters, did ye see

So fayre a creature in your towne before,

So sweet, so lovely, so mild as she,

Adornd with beautyes grace and vertues store,

Her goodly eyes like saphyres shining bright,

Her forehead yvory white,

Her cheekes like apples which the sun hath rudded,

Her lips like cherryes charming men to byte,

Her breast like to a bowl of cream uncrudded,

Her paps like lyllies budded,

Her snowie necke lyke a marble toure,

And all her body like a palace fayre …

When the wedding and feasting are over he bids his guests depart with-out delay:

Now cease, ye damsels, your delights forepast;

Enough is it that all the day was yours;

Now day is doen, and night is nighing fast.

Now bring the bryde into the brydall bowres …

And in her bed her lay;

Lay her in lilies and in violets,

And silken curteins over her display,

And odoured sheets, and Arras coverlets …

But let the night be calme and quietsome,

Without tempestuous storms or sad afray,

Lyke as when Jove with fayre Alcmena lay …

And let the mayds and yongmen cease to sing;

Ne let the woods them answer, nor their echo ring.

Was ever maid brought to fulfillment more melodiously?

Spenser sustained this flight in Four Hymns (1596) honoring earthly love, earthly beauty, heavenly love, and heavenly beauty. Following Plato, Ficino, and Castiglione, and leading to Keats’s Endymion, he cried peccavi over his “many lewd layes,” and bade his soul pierce through physical loveliness to find and feel the divine beauty that hides in divers degrees in all earthly things.

Living on a volcano of Irish misery, Spenser’s life was every day near death. Just before the volcano of resentment erupted again, he wrote in fine prose (for only a poet can write good prose) his View of the Present State of Ireland, advocating a better deployment of English funds and forces for the thorough subjugation of the island. In October 1598 the dispossessed Irish of Munster rose in wild revolt, drove out English settlers, and burned down the Castle of Kilcolman. Spenser and his wife barely escaped with their lives and fled to England. Three months later, all funds and passion spent, the poet died (1599). The young Earl of Essex, destined soon to follow him, paid for the funeral; nobles and poets walked in the procession, and threw flowers and elegies into the Westminster Abbey grave.

A craze for sonnets now ran through England, rivaling the drama’s fury—nearly all excellent in form, stereotyped in theme and phrase, nearly all addressed to virgins or patrons and bemoaning their strait-laced or tight-fisted frugality. Beauty is urged to let itself be reaped before it rots on the stalk; sometimes an original note intrudes, and the lover promises the lady a child as reward for expeditious conjugation. Every poet seeks and finds a Laura—Daniel’s Delia, Lodge’s Phillis, Constable’s Diana, Fulke Greville’s Caelia. Most famous of these sonneteers was Samuel Daniel; however, Ben Jonson, who was more tough than “rare,” called him “an honest man, but no poet.”32 Michael Drayton’s Pegasus roamed through all forms of poetry with his feet of prose, but one of his sonnets struck a fresh note, stinging the lass out of her stinginess by bidding her farewell—“Since there’s no help, come, let us kiss and part!”

All in all, outside the drama, Elizabethan literature was still a generation behind the French. The prose was vigorous, flexible, often involved, verbose, and fanciful, but sometimes moving with a royal dignity or a stately rhythm; it produced no Rabelais or Montaigne. The poetry echoed foreign models timidly, except for the Epithalamium and The Faerie Queene. Spenser never found an audience on the Continent, but neither did Ronsard in England; poetry makes of language and feeling a music that cannot be heard across the frontiers of speech. Ballads noticed and reached the people more intimately than the poetry of the palace and the court; they were posted on house and tavern walls, and were sung and sold in the streets; “Lord Randall” still moves us with its dirge.33Perhaps it was this popular poetry, and not the pretty artifices of the sonneteers, that prepared the Elizabethans to appreciate Shakespeare.

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