Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

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

"All his minde on honour fixed":
The Preferment of Edmund Spenser

JEAN R. BRINK

Anecdotal evidence and scholarly conjecture have compounded the inconsistencies and overshadowed the importance of the one contemporary statement that offers a concise summary and interpretation of Spenser's life -- that of William Camden ( 1551-1623). Born only a year before Spenser, Camden was the principal contemporary historian of sixteenthcentury England, and an authority whom Spenser himself celebrates as "the nourice of antiquitie, / And lanterne unto late succeeding age" ( Ruines of Time169-70; in Spenser ed. 1912, 473b). This contemporary witness interprets Spenser's Irish appointment, on which Camden's remarks focus, as a preferment that will assure Spenser's having the time and means to concentrate on his verse:

by a fate peculiar to Poets, he alwaies strugled with poverty, though he were Secretary to the Lord Grey, Lord Deputy of Ireland. For scarce had hee there gotten a solitary place and leisure to write, when hee was by the Rebels cast out of his dwelling, despoyled of his goods, and returned into England a poore man, where shortly after hee dyed. ( Camden ed. 1635, 501)

Camden gives no indication that Spenser's appointment in Ireland was perceived as a punishment imposed as a result of official or unofficial reaction to political allusions in his verse. Nevertheless, the idea that Spenser was shunted off to Ireland by Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, for writing an impolitic work ( Mother Hubberds Tale or perhaps The Shepheardes Calender) has influenced our perception of his Irish appointment through much of the twentieth century ( Greenlaw 1910, 556-57; Oram 1989, 327- 29; Lewalski 1990, 534-35).

This negative view of Spenser's employment as Lord Grey de Wilton's secretary is not only opposed to that of Camden but is also unsupported by any other contemporary testimony. Further, the notion that Spenser's

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