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Edmund Spenser

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English Literature

England has a good deal of great poets. You've heard names like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or Wordsworth. But you've probably never heard of Spenser. Edmund Spenser that is. Though widely unread, he is one of England's great national poets, and his work rivals that of those mentioned before. In fact, his Faerie Queene (1590) was the most extensive and groundbreaking work of the sixteenth century. However, much of the work from this time is overshadowed by the fourteenth and seventeenth century.

Spenser was for some time a contemporary of Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare's work at the end of the sixteenth, and beginning of the seventeenth, century often leaves little room for a focus for others like Spenser. In his own time he was not set aside so easily, and we owe his influence as inspiration to those who came after him. After all, Milton praised Spenser as his greatest teacher.

In addition, Spenser's style and romance inspired Romantic Poets like John Keats. His continuation of the medieval romance tradition inspired authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and his epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1954), who in turn created a whole new genre of medieval fantasy that is still popular today.

Edmund Spenser, Portrait of Edmund Spenser, StudySmarter

The master of the Spenserian Sonnet, wikicommons.

Spenser's biography

Let's look at his life.

Merchant Taylor's School

Edmund Spenser was born sometime between 1552-1553 in the city of London. His father was a clothmaker for Merchant Taylor's Company. In 1561, he entered the newly founded Merchant Taylor's School, admitted as a 'poor scholar' which cut the cost of fees and payments.1 There he studied and suffered under the cruel teacher Richard Mulcaster.2 Spenser was taught both Latin and more importantly English, as Mulcaster, "who was a strong defender of the English language [said], 'I honor the Latin, but I worship the English.'"1 Mulcaster's approach to education may have had a strong impact on Spenser's later work. Although it was common to be a prominent Latin poet in this period, Spenser's work is overwhelmingly and thoroughly English.

Cambridge

When Spenser was 18 he finished studying at Merchant Taylor's and entered into Pembroke Hall at Cambridge. In three years, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts, graduating as the 11th foremost scholar of his class of 120. He stayed at Cambridge two more years and earned his Master of Arts in 1576. During this time, public life at Cambridge was embroiled in two intellectual schools of thought: Puritanism and Humanism.

Puritanism and Humanism were not thought of in the way that we think of them today. They were not at odds with one another, and both views could be held by the same individual. Puritanism was not so much concerned with the sexual purity of individuals. Instead it was a religious and political mode of thought. Puritans wished to maintain the purity of theology, church discipline, and establish "an all powerful Presbyterian Church, a church stronger than the state, set up in England."2

Likewise, Humanism was the study and focus on works from antiquity, predominantly Latin works. Humanism wished to abandon the medieval romances, or more simply adventure stories, and didn't like the use of rhyme in poetry because they believed it was derived from barbarian cultures, like the Goths.

The Humanist would rather have poetry mimic the style and form of ancient Latin literature, replacing rhyme with Latin meter and replace romance with the poetry that reflected Aristotle's unities.

Spenser, however, was concerned with neither of these intellectual movements. His work is a continuation of the medieval romance tradition and utilizes rhyming. This, of course, caused Spenser's work to receive harsh criticism, but his work was successful in spite of this. Spenser's continuation of medieval romance is what makes him unique and timeless as "John Milton... called him, 'our sage and serious Spenser, whom I dare to name a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.'"3

Secretary to The Bishop of Rochester

Upon the reception of his Master of Arts, Spenser began his first job as a secretary to the Bishop of Rochester, John Young. During this time Spenser published his first notable work, the Shepheardes Calender (1579), and he even gained the attention of Sir Philip Sydney. At the time, being a good poet could gain a man a place in court, as Spenser for most of his life tried to gain the favor of Queen Elizabeth I. He succeeded in some respects and was given the position as secretary to Lord Gray Wilton, Deputy of Ireland. Spenser would spend the rest of his life in Ireland. It was there he would compose his greatest works yet, and even had already begun his most extensive work and masterpiece, The Faerie Queene.

Edmund Spenser's Works and poems

Spenser's two major works were The Faerie Queene and Amoretti and Epithalamion (1595). Interestingly, both works were created in dedication to two different women, one of political importance and the other Spenser's passion and love.

The Faerie Queene and Contribution to Literature

The Faerie Queene is Spenser's longest and most extensive poems. He began writing it prior to his appointment as secretary to the Deputy of Ireland, and he continued to write and publish volumes of it until his death in 1599. Spenser's work includes six books, each one a work in itself.

Spenser only accomplished half of his goal, as he intended to write twelve books. They were dedicated to the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. The ‘Queene of Faerie Lond,’ Glorianna, is homage and flattery to her. Spenser composed this work, in part, to gain favor with the Queen and obtain a position at the royal court. However, Elizabeth was happy to compensate Spenser with a pension.3

Spenser is notable for his prolific use of allegory.

Allegory is the use of imagery to endow moral, philosophical, religious, or political meaning.

Queen Glorianna is a homage to Queen Elizabeth, but more importantly, she represents the divine attribute of Glory (Lewis 136). Each book follows a knight on a journey, each knight representing one of the Christian virtues. For example, the first book, and the most well-known, follows The Knight of the Red Crosse, or of Holinesse. The knight must face foes that represent the things that get in the way of living a good life2.

The allegory is blatantly critical of the Catholic Church and is anti-Catholic as lady Errour spews pamphlets on The Knight of Holinesse, representing the false propaganda of the Catholic Church. In addition, the friar that betrays Red Crosse is a sorcerer, representing the apostasy of the Catholic Church. Many of the religious and political messages are closely-knitted in Spenser’s allegory.

Regardless of religious messages, Spenser's allegory is set in the time and realm of Arthurian legend, and he makes use of many fantastic beasts, elves, dwarves, giants, monsters, and sorcerers, which is a continuation of the medieval romance tradition.

One of the most significant things about Spenser is his adaptation of Courtly Love.

Courtly Love is love that is passionate, takes place in the court, and was historically idolatrous. It was characterized by four marks: Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and a Religious Devotion to a lady.2

However, Spenser's work shows a change in the idea of Courtly Love because although his characters show courtesy to damsels and pursue passionate romance, passionate love becomes confined and attributed to Christian marriage.

Finally, one of the most memorable aspects of The Faerie Queene is Spenser's development of a new form in poetry, now known as the Spenserian stanza. It has been mimicked by few, such as the Romantic John Keats.

Spenser arranged every stanza to contain nine lines. The first eight were written in iambic pentameter, and the final ninth line in iambic hexameter (known as an Alexandrine). The rhyme scheme was ababbcbcc.3

Amoretti and Epithalamion and Contribution to Literature

Amoretti and Epithalamion is similar to The Faerie Queene because it was dedicated to woman. However, Spenser did not write this to gain political favor, to teach, entertain, or gain fame. Spenser wrote Amoretti and Epithalamion to his wife Elizabeth Boyle. Amoretti means 'little loves' in Italian, and it is composed of a series of Sonnets in the Petrarchan tradition.

This is not unusual for the time, except for the fact that Spenser wrote sonnets for his wife. Typically sonnets were written for an unattainable, cruel, and distant lady, and they were always written to someone who is not the writer's wife (Oxford Reference, 2022). However, Spenser breaks this tradition by celebrating Courtly Love in his courtship with Elizabeth Boyle.

The Spenserian Sonnet boasts a different rhyme scheme from that of the famous Shakespearean Sonnet, as it is an earlier adaptation of the Petrarchan Sonnet. However, the form of the Spenserian Sonnet is not unique to Spenser as contemporaries like Sir Philip Sydney use the exact same meter and rhyme scheme. It is different in the content because poets like Sydney continued the Petrarchan tradition of Courtly Love, whereas Spenser dedicated his sonnets to his wife. Moreover, sonnets typically described the beloved's physical beauty, and although Spenser does so, it's a common theme for him to praise her mind and virtue her most important qualities.

Spenserian Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of abab bcbc cdcd ee. What makes them unique is their content, in that although they deal with themes of courtly love but are not adulterous. They also tend to focus on both the physical and the inner beauty of the lady.

Spenser's most famous sonnet, Sonnet 75, describes how he writes his loves name in the sand, but the sea washes it away. His love says that her life is just as brief and when she dies, her name will disappear from the world. Spenser rebukes her and tells her that her name and their love will be immortalized forever in his song. Spenser was correct, as his sonnet is still read today, and Elizabeth Boyle has not been forgotten, nor has Spenser's love for her.

However, Epithalamion is Spenser's greatest work, outside of The Faerie Queene. It details Spenser's wedding day, comprised of 24 stanzas, each one documenting an hour of the day, from beginning to end. The meter and varying lengths of lines is what makes Epithalamion musical. What truly sets this poem apart from all other English poetry is Spenser's ability to convey and express joy.

Spenser's final days

Edmund Spenser, Irish Landscape, StudySmarter

The Irish landscape was a great inspiration for Spenser, pixabay.

Spenser's joys were short-lived. The relationship between the Irish and their English colonizers was contentious in the 16th century. Spenser, though he loved the Irish countryside and pastoral life, did not care for the Irish people. He likely saw them as Papists, therefore enemies of the state. He eventually became the Sherriff of Cork and owned the small castle of Kilcolman. He returned to England to publish his second volume of The Faerie Queene in a final attempt to gain a seat at the royal court. However, he was unsuccessful, and while he was away the Irish rebelled and burned down Kilcolman.

Ben Johnson reported that he and Elizabeth's infant daughter died in the fire. Spenser and Elizabeth returned to London in poverty, and Spenser died in the winter of 1599. It is said that he died of starvation. Spenser was honoured at his funeral and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Edmund Spenser - Key takeaways

  • Spenser was one of England's greatest poets who

  • Spenser spent much of his life in service of the Queen in Ireland.

  • He wrote The Faerie Queene as an allegorical medieval romance, based on Arthurian legend.

  • The Faerie Queene was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.

  • His courtship to Elizabeth Boyle inspired his other greatest work, Amoretti and Epithalamion

Works Cited

1 Hamilton, A., et al. Spenser: The Faerie Queene, Longman Annotated English Poets, (2001).

2 Lewis, C. The Allegory of Love. Cambridge University Press, (2013).

3 Black, Joseph, et al. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Edition, Broadview Press, (2007).

Edmund Spenser

After his castle was burned by the Irish, Spenser returned to England with his wife and family in poverty. He died later that winter from starvation.

Sonnet 75 is about Spenser's wife and her imminent death. However, Spenser immortalizes her in his poetry.

Spenser is most famous for his allegory The Faerie Queene where he developed a new form of narrative poetry called the Spenserian Stanza. He is also notable for dedicating his sonnets to his wife and for praising her inner beauty, alongside of her outer beauty.

Spenser was born anywhere from the years 1552-1553.

He is known for his works The Faerie Queene, Amoretti and Epithalamion, and his service toward Queen Elizabeth's estates in Ireland.

Final Edmund Spenser Quiz

Question

When was Edmund Spenser born?

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Answer

1552-1553

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When and how did he die?

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Answer

1599 of Starvation

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Question

What are his two most significant contributions to English literature?

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Answer

The Faerie Queene and Amoretti and Epithalamion

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To whom was The Faerie Queene dedicated?

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Answer

Elizabeth I, Queen of England

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To what lady did Spenser dedicate his Amoretti and Epithalamion

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Answer

To his wife, Elizabeth Boyle

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Question

Where did Spenser spend most of his life?

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Answer

Ireland

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Question

What is Allegory?

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Answer

the use of imagery to portray moral, philosophical, religious, or political meaning 

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Question

What is Courtly Love?

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Answer

love that is passionate, takes place in the court, typically adulterous 

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What happened to Spenser's castle Kilcolman?

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Answer

It was burned by Irish rebels

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What university did Spenser earn his Master of Arts from?

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Cambridge

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Who is the Knight of Holinesse?

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Answer

Redcrosse

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What virtue does Britomart allegorize?

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Answer

Chastity

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What genre is The Faerie Queene written in?

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Medieval Romance

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What is the primary literary device used in The Faerie Queene?

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Allegory

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What real life queen does Queene Glorianna allude to?

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Answer

Elizabeth I

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On what island did Spenser spend most of his life?

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Ireland

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What patron saint does Red Crosse embody?

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Answer

St. George

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What is St. George the patron saint of?

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Answer

The patron saint of England

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What beast does Calidore defeat in the final book?

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Answer

The Blatant Beast

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Archimago is a dark sorcerer, but what does he disguise himself as?

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Answer

A Hermit

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