Spenser, Edmund

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Spenser, Edmund

Edmund Spenser, 1552?–1599, English poet, b. London. He was the friend of men eminent in literature and at court, including Gabriel Harvey, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Robert Sidney, earl of Leicester. After serving as secretary to the Bishop of Rochester, Spenser was appointed in 1580 secretary to Lord Grey, lord deputy of Ireland. Afterward Spenser lived in Ireland, holding minor civil offices and receiving the lands and castle of Kilcolman, Co. Cork. In 1589, under Raleigh's sponsorship, Spenser went to London, where he apparently sought court preferment and publication of the first three books of The Faerie Queene. After the Tyrone rebellion of 1598, in which Kilcolman Castle was burned, he returned to London, where he died in 1599. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. Recognized by his contemporaries as the foremost poet of his time, Spenser was not only a master of meter and language but a profound moral poet as well. Patterning his literary career after that of Vergil, Spenser first published 12 pastoral eclogues of The Shepheardes Calender (1579), which treat the shepherd as rustic priest and poet. His Complaints and Daphnaida, the latter an elegy on Douglas Howard, both appeared in 1591. In 1595 Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, a pastoral allegory dealing with Spenser's first London journey and the vices inherent in court life, and Astrophel, an elegy on Sir Philip Sidney, were published. In the same year Amoretti, Spenser's sonnet sequence commemorating his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle, and Epithalamion, a beautiful and complex wedding poem in honor of his marriage in 1594, were also published. Fowre Hymnes, which explains Spenser's Platonic and Christian views of love and beauty, and Prothalamion appeared in 1596. Also in 1596 the first six books of The Faerie Queene, Spenser's unfinished masterpiece, appeared. Although the poem is an epic, his method was to treat the moral virtues allegorically. The excellence of The Faerie Queene lies in the complexity and depth of Spenser's moral vision and in the Spenserian stanza (nine lines, eight of iambic pentameter followed by one of iambic hexameter, rhyming ababbcbcc), which Spenser invented for his masterpiece. Spenser's only extended prose work, A View of the Present State of Ireland, was first printed in 1633.

See variorum edition of his works (ed. by E. Greenlaw et al., 1932–49), the three-volume edition of the poetical works (J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt, 1909–10), and the four-volume edition of the minor works (W. L. Renwick, 1928–34). See biographies by A. C. Judson (1945) and A. Hadfield (2012); studies by W. Nelson (1963), W. L. Renwick (1925, repr. 1965), D. Cheney (1966), P. Bayley (1971), A. L. DeNeef (1983), and H. Berger, Jr. (1988); C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936, repr. 1958) and F. Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne (1971).

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