Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

By Judith H. Anderson; Donald Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

Foreword

JUDITH H. ANDERSON

Although Edmund Spenser is the major nondramatic poet of the Tudor period, less is known about his life than about that of Sir Philip Sidney or even of William Shakespeare, the contemporary artists whose achievements are comparable to his. Few personal documents such as letters written by him survive, and the traces of his life in other kinds of records are meager and often ambiguous. Spenser's life, far more than Sidney's, affords a situation in which we confront with unusual clarity the issues that the death of an author presents and the problematics of biography.

In Spenser's case, the most basic problems include historical reference (both the few "facts" and their many interpretations) and the relations of his voluminous writing (his fiction) to his sparsely documented life. Although little has been added to the record since Judson's biography in 1945, even a limited reexamination of his factual sources suggests how extensively dated his interpretation is and not merely his more obvious embroidery of the "facts." Both the factual and interpretative contexts in which we should be reading such records of Spenser as do exist have changed dramatically since Judson's review of them, yet these changes have barely been registered on the actual accounts of Spenser's life. From the standpoint of history, we need both to verify the claims made about this life (e.g., about Spenser's "exile" to Ireland) and to experiment with a variety of approaches to them, including the illumination available from recent social and political histories and from the better documented lives of relevant contemporaries, such as Gabriel Harvey or Spenser's colonial associates in Ireland.

While several of the essays we have invited for this volume directly address such historical questions in various ways, our major focus concerns the most vexing question of all about Spenser, one that involves fundamental biographical theory: precisely what bearing might the poetry have on his biography? Here the relation of life to writing and fiction to history

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