Edmund Spenser's the Faerie Queene: A Reading Guide

By Andrew Zurcher | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Mapping and Making

Spenser’s writing life

Very little can be said with certainty of the particulars of Edmund Spenser’s life; no reliable contemporary account survives, so any picture must be compiled from meagre and scattered evidence. He was born to a family of modest means in London, in or around 1552, and matriculated at the new Merchant Taylors’ School some time shortly after its foundation in 1561; in 1569 he departed London for Pembroke College, Cambridge. In this year, too, Spenser published his first poetry, translations from French and Italian poems for Jan van der Noodt’s A Theatre for Worldlings. Between 1569 and 1576 Spenser appears to have remained mainly resident in Cambridge, for he took degrees in 1573 (BA) and again in 1575 (MA).1 He finally left Pembroke as private secretary to its departing Master, John Young, who had been appointed Bishop of Rochester. But by 1580, immediately after the publication of his first masterpiece, The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Spenser claimed to have been living under the roof of the Earl of Leicester in London. The capacity in which Spenser served Leicester is not clear,2 but whatever his position, it did not last long; in August 1580 he departed for Dublin as the personal secretary to the newly appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland, Arthur Lord Grey of Wilton, a post he would hold until Grey’s recall two years later.3 Spenser spent the better part of his life’s remainder in the ‘New English’ service in Ireland, first as a private secretary, and later as a planter or ‘undertaker’ on the Munster plantation near Cork. While he was certainly in London for the printing of The Faerie Queene in 1590 (Part 1) and in 1596 (Part 2),4 and perhaps at other times, too, Spenser appears to have lived primarily at his plantation estate at Kilcolman, in Munster, between about 1587 and the outbreak of the Munster revolt in 1596. This period coincides with an enormously productive decade of poetic composition: not only the first and second halves of his ambitious romance epic, but a short book of Complaints (1591), a sonnet

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