Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography

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

Questionable Evidence in the
Letters of 1580 between Gabriel Harvey
and Edmund Spenser

JON A. QUITSLUND

Scholars interested in the private life of Spenser, in the public career that was the context for his pursuit of fame, and in the friendships and other dealings with people that help us to understand who Spenser was and what he thought at various points in his life, have few documents to work with. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that much has been made of the information contained in the exchange of letters between the poet and his friend Gabriel Harvey that was published in 1580, not long after the appearance of The Shepheardes Calender. 1 Like the apparatus enclosing Spenser's poems in the Calender, this pamphlet gathering five heterogeneous Letters contains several references to unpublished poems and the interests of a literary coterie, to current events and affairs of state, and to well-placed people in public life. The Letters testify to the credentials of the "new Poete" and his movement toward the "somewhat greater things" implicitly promised in The Shepheardes Calender, and they also show us, in the self-revelatory terms proper to the discourse of intimate friendship, glimpses of Spenser at an important juncture in his life: the end of the beginning of his double career as a poet and a public servant.

As soon as we recognize, however, that the Letters are public rather than private documents, we have placed their evidentiary value in doubt. The efforts to fashion a poetic persona that had motivated the Calender's elaborate program are also evident in the Letters. Why should we expect these texts to provide trustworthy information about the private person Edmund Spenser, whose life and literary endeavors are only hypothetically related to the textual figures of Immerito and Colin Clout? We tend to think of the pen and its creations as dependent on moves made by a mind and hand enjoying an independent and individual life, but is the shape of that life ascertainable, either as a cause or an effect of writing, as it is represented in

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