The Complete Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser

By Edmund Spenser | Go to book overview

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

WHEN we read, toward the close of Hesperides,

'A wearied pilgrim, I have wandered here
Twice five-and-twenty, bate me but one year,'

we are sure that at the time of so writing Robert Herrick was forty-nine years old. If we could put equal trust in the similar record of sonnet LX of the Amoretti, we should know the exact year of the birth of Edmund Spenser, for beyond reasonable doubt that sonnet dates from the closing months of 1593. The record is, that

'since the winged god his planet cleare
Began in me to move, one yeare is spent:
The which doth longer unto me appeare,
Then al those fourty which my life outwent.'

In prose: it is now a year since I fell in love; that twelvemonth seems longer to me than all the forty of my previous life. To deduct 41 from 1593 is to get 1552, which has accordingly found general acceptance as the poet's birth-year, and indeed is not in any respect improbable. One need only note that 'al those fourty' is a phrase somewhat too conveniently round to inspire confidence, that it might serve equally well for thirty-nine or forty-one, and thereby spoil the foregoing calculation.

The place of his birth is recorded in the classic passage of the Prothalamion: --

'At length they all to mery London came,
To mery London, my most kyndly nurse,
That to me gave this lifes first native sourse;
Though from another place I take my name,
An house of auncient fame.'

That is, though he was born, and presumably bred, in the capital, his paternal forbears were not Londoners. What was their native seat he nowhere tells us, but his most assiduous biographer, Dr. Grosart, has collected sufficient evidence to place them in eastern Lancashire, where, among many families of the name, were the Spensers of Hurstwood, lesser gentry of that region. These might well enough stand for the 'house of auncient fame.' It is likely, though, that this phrase includes a more distinguished family, the Spencers of Althorpe, with whom the poet frequently claims kinship. To the three daughters of that house are dedicated 'The Tears of the Muses,' 'Mother Hubberd's Tale,' and 'Muiopotmos,' and they are the 'Phyllis, Charillis, and sweet Amaryllis' of Colin Clout's Come Home Again,

'the sisters three,
The honor of the noble familie
Of which I meanest boast my selfe to be,
And most that unto them I am so nie.'

In any case, it is obvious that Spenser held himself to be of gentle birth. He never felt the need of establishing his gentility after the manner of Shakespeare.

That the name of his mother was Elizabeth1 is all he tells us about either parent. We know, however, that his father most probably belonged to the guild of the Merchant

____________________
1
See Amoretti LXXIV.

-xi-

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