Although connected to a “house of auncient fame,” that of the Spencers of Althorpe, Northampton, Edmund Spenser entered Pembroke College, Cambridge as a poor scholar. There he benefitted from the Renaissance concept of the perfect courtier and studied Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, vernacular English, and vocal and instrumental music. He also acquired proper deportment by acting in annual plays performed for the court.
He published his first poetry while at Cambridge, including translations from Petrarch (1304-1374) and Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560). He also became friends with the poet and scholar Gabriel Harvey (c. 1552-1631) who later published his correspondence with Spenser and whom Spenser later portrayed as Hobinol in Shepheardes Calendar (1579). After earning his Master of Art degree, he returned to London where Harvey introduced Spenser to Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and secured him a place in the household of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (1532-1588). Although he may have traveled to various places, including Ireland—likely serving as private messenger to Leicester— Spenser spent most of his time at the homes of either Sidney or Leicester. Sidney’s Defense of Poesy as well as his Protestant advocacy seem especially to have influenced Spenser. And it is Sidney to whom Spenser dedicated his pastoral eclogue (classically-styled poem on a pastoral subject) Shepheardes Calendar.
This work was modeled on Greek, Italian, and French pastorals but was particularly indebted to Chaucer, as appears in its use of archaic language. It establishes and builds on the growing interest in native poetry. Interest in native, or vernacular, English literature was growing due to increased education, Renaissance learning, and increased nationalism. Spenser’s poetic fame grew as he circulated several of his poetic works among friends. For a short time, Spenser was a member of the “Areopagus,” a group of writers including Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke (1554-162) that promoted English as a literary language. Among Spenser’s important contributions to this endeavor are the ABAB BCBC CDCD EE rhyme scheme of what came to be known as the Spenserian sonnet as well as the Spenserian stanza, comprising eight lines in iambic pentameter with the final line in iambic hexameter.
In 1580, Spenser was appointed private secretary by Arthur Grey, Baron Grey de Wilton (1536-1593), the new Lord Deputy, with whom Spenser traveled to Ireland. Grey actively suppressed Irish rebels and attempted to do the same to Roman Catholicism in Ireland. After Grey left Ireland, Spenser remained there as a civil servant, acquiring property in County Kildare, Cork, and Munster. Sir Walter Raleigh, who had extensive property in Munster, visited Spenser in 1589. Raleigh encouraged Spenser’s literary ambitions, and the two returned to London where Raleigh presented Spenser to Elizabeth I. In 1590, Spenser published the first installment of The Faerie Queene, dedicated to “the most mighty and magnificent Empresse Elizabeth, by the grace of God, Queene of England, France, and Ireland; Defender of the Faith, &c.” He prefaced his epic with sonnets commended to such important figures of his day as William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-1598), Raleigh, and Mary (Sidney) Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke.
The Faerie Queene won Spenser immediate acclaim and a pension of fifty pounds a year, but not the preferment at Court to which he aspired. He returned to Ireland, to his duties as clerk, to the management of his estate, and to his writing. In 1594, he married Elizabeth Boyle, who was related to Sir Richard Boyle, later created the first Earl of Cork. The next year, Spenser commemorated his courtship and marriage in his Amoretti and Epithalamion, the latter after the classical celebration of a bride and bridegroom.
In 1596, he published the second instalment of The Faeirie Queene at the Stationers’ Hall. The following year, Elizabeth I recommended him as Sheriff of Cork in Ireland. The tone of his Mutability Cantos, the last cantos of The Faerie Queene he wrote, was justified by the final events of his life. During Tyrone’s Rebellion, his castle at Kilcolman was sacked and burnt to the ground. Spenser and his family escaped to Cork. He then traveled to Westminster with dispatches for Elizabeth I, including his own policy statement on the “recovery of the Realme of Ireland.” Whatever role he may have played in that recovery was cut short by his death, following a sudden illness soon after his arrival in Westminster. He died on January 16, 1599. He was buried at Westminster Abbey, next to Chaucer.
Envisaged as a national epic, The Faerie Queene draws on Arthurian legend and includes elements of romance, fable, and allegory. Although he completed only six of the twenty-four books he projected, Spenser seems to have offered a completed poem through which he declared himself to be a Poet, that is, his country’s Virgil. Indeed, the body of Spenser’s work as a whole follows Virgil’s, who wrote in the order of the creation of the arts: pastoral, romances, and epics. The opening of The Faerie Queene echoes Virgil’s Aeneid, as does also its overall structure with twelve cantos similar to the Aeneid’s twelve books. Each book of the Faerie Queene is dedicated to a single virtue: Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. As a national epic, The Faerie Queene is also a religious and moral work, an embodiment of its dedicated virtues, the forms of which we cannot actually see. However, we can see beauty (with which we can fall in love), so Spenser presents these virtues as beauties, as abstract ideals made concrete.
Each book also has its own hero, beginning with the Redcrosse Knight, the knight of holiness. The technical hero is Prince Arthur, who connects with each book’s hero, traveling through their lives and assisting them as he searches for his beloved, Gloriana, who first joined him in a dream. Prince Arthur represents the complete gentleman, for each virtue is magnified in him in the appropriate book, and at the epic’s end, Arthur will be the perfect (or perfected) knight. The real virtue needed to read the epic is constancy, which is the virtue announced in the Mutability Cantos, the fragment that “completes” the epic.
The conception of the poem, the twelve virtues formed in Prince Arthur, is found in Sidney’s Defense of Poesy which declares the intent of poetry to be making the reader virtuous. Prince Arthur models the perfect gentleman and courtier for England, and the grand intent and effect of Spenser’s poem is to produce a similarly-perfected reader.
The Faerie Queene is also an allegory, writing in which the subject and object are both divided and brought together. One of the first people we meet in Book I, Canto I is a beautiful virgin named Una whose parents (Adam and Eve) are held captive by a dragon (death); Una represents Veiled Truth, and allegory is a form of Veiled Truth. The allegory in Canto I represents not only the one true (Protestant) church—that frees all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from death—but also Spenser’s literary art. The Redcrosse Knight mistakenly defends unveiled truth in the figure of (the Roman Catholic, Whore of Babylon) Duessa, the “two-faced,” not-at-all virgin, false mirror of Una. Veiled and unveiled Truth thus represent how allegory can be two things at the same time: truth and fiction (or “lie”). Like a labyrinth, this epic leads the reader past images and symbols of art to truth itself.