Edmund Spenser: A Biography of the Poet’s Poet

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Edmund Spenser is an English poet known primarily for his epic poem The Faerie Queene. He lived from the mid to late 16th century, and was a contemporary with Queen Elizabeth I and other celebrated artists like Shakespeare.

The Faerie Queene is his magnum opus, and was never finished in his lifetime. It presented an allegorical fantasy tale set in King Arthur’s Britain, representing much of the religious and political climate of the time.

Today, Edmund Spenser is recognized as one of the best poets of his time, even going so far as to invent the Spenserian Stanza, his own rhyme scheme and structure for poetry.

  • Born: c. 1552/1553, London, England
  • Died: January 13, 1599 (aged 46-47), London, England
  • Notable Works: The Faerie Queene (1590)
  • Buried: Westminster Abbey
  • Alma mater: Pembroke College, Cambridge
  • Wives: Machabyas Childe (married from 1579 to her death in cerca 1593) and Elizabeth Boyle (married from 1594 to 1599 upon his death)
  • Children: 2

The Early Life of Edmund Spenser

In 1552, Edmund Spenser was born into a poor family. While he was related to a noble family that raised sheep, his immediate family did not have much.

As a boy, he was entered into the Merchant Taylors’ grammar school as a “poor boy”, meaning his family did not have a lot of money. At the school he would learn Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and the musical arts.

In 1569, as a teenager, Edmund Spenser translated some French poems, written by Joachim du Bellay, into English.

Later, his translation of a poem by the Italian poet Petrarch was published at the beginning of an anti-Catholic publication “A Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings”.

Beginning in May 1569, Spenser attended Cambridge University at Pembroke Hall, now known as Pembroke College. Once again, he was not a wealthy student, he was labeled a “sizar”, which is a student who had to perform menial tasks in order to make up for the financial disparity.

In 1573, he received his Bachelor of Arts.

In 1574, he left the college due to an epidemic (many can relate).

In 1576, he received his Master of Arts.

In 1578, he spent some time as a secretary to the Bishop of Rochester, a man named John Young.

And it was in 1579 that he published his first major work: The Shepheardes Calender. Around this same time he married his first wife, Machabyas Childe. Together, they would have two children: Sylvanus and Katherine.

His Time at Cambridge

While at Cambridge, he became good friends with a man named Gabriel Harvey, a fellow student who was enthusiastic about literature, but also had a bit of a wild side. Some of that may have rubbed off on Spenser and his writing, though this is debated.

While at Cambridge, Spenser would be thoroughly introduced to a wide body of literature from Ancient Greece, to Italian classics, to the literature of his own tongue. Judging by his work, he had an impeccable knowledge of various forms of poetry and narrative style, all of which influenced him to create his own.

His work, The Faerie Queene, would be heavily influenced by Virgil’s Aeneid, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, the works of Homer, and other mythological epics. All of that would have stemmed from Spenser’s study at Cambridge.

Concurrent Religious Influences

At the time when Edmund Spenser was learning and growing, there was severe religious turmoil in Britain, with the tension stemming from the Roman Catholic Church on one side and the Church of England on the other. He would’ve been exposed to countless debates on the virtues and vices of these two religions, and that has significantly influenced his work.

Ultimately, Edmund Spenser seemed quite favorable towards the Elizabethan church, frequently going out of his way to praise Queen Elizabeth and what she represents as he wrote The Faerie Queene.

The Early Career of Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser’s true career started in 1579 with the publication of The Shepheardes Calender, a work largely considered to be the first work of the English Literary Renaissance.

The work borrowed largely from Virgil, but unlike the epic of the Aeneid, Spenser chose to set his work in a pastoral setting, using the seemingly innocent locale as a way to tackle larger issues.

Side note: one of the characters in The Shepheardes Calender, Colin Clout, would go on to make an appearance in The Faerie Queene.

The Shepheardes Calender was praised at the time of its publication, and both lauded and criticized for its archaic language, harkening back to older English traditions of poetry, especially those of Geoffrey Chaucer.

By 1580, Edmund Spenser was serving the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, and had also become part of a esteemed literary circle led by Sir Philip Sidney, the nephew of Robert Dudley.

In short, he was moving up in the world.

By this time, he had already started work on The Faerie Queene, though it would be another 10 years before the first three books of that epic were published.

In July of 1580, Spenser began working under the service of Lord Deputy Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, which led to him traveling to, and spending time in, Ireland.

Which leads us to one of the more influential portions of Edmund Spenser’s life…

Edmund Spenser in Ireland

While serving Lord Grey, Edmund Spenser had the chance to work with Sir Walter Raleigh, was likely a witness to the Siege of Smerwick massacre, and acquired lands of his own.

In fact, after Lord Grey was recalled back to England, Spenser stayed on in Ireland for some years.

By 1589, he had acquired over 3000 acres of land at Kilcolman, near Doneraile in North Cork, later purchasing another holding at Rennie, overlooking the river Blackwater in the same region. You can still see the ruins of his dwelling today.

It was in Ireland that Spenser completed the first three books of The Faerie Queene, after which he would then travel to England to promote it in 1589, eventually gaining the favor of the Queen who awarded him a lifetime pension of 50 pounds per year.

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We don’t know when Edmund Spenser’s first wife died, but she must have done by 1594, when Spenser remarried a woman named Elizabeth Boyle, a woman related to the Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, making her well positioned in society. Together they would have at least one son, Peregrine.

By this time, Edmund Spenser had established himself as a powerful presence in Ireland, something that would show in his writings, particularly in A View of the Present State of Ireland (written in 1595–96, but published posthumously in 1633), where he advocated for a typical English view of Irish rule: the need for firmness, enforced ruthlessly, and only showing gentleness for those who showed complete submission.

Spenser would eventually be driven out of Ireland by the native Aodh Ó Néill and his forces. His castle in Kilcolman was burned to the ground, and it is believed that an infant child, presumably belonging to Spenser and Boyle, died in the blaze. This comes to us from Ben Johnson, another famed poet of the era, who may have had insider information.

Later Life and Death of Edmund Spenser

Spenser would publish three more books of The Faerie Queene in 1596, and he returned Ireland to continue writing in 1597.

However, most of the work he completed after that was lost, and we do not know the full extent of what he wrote. All we have are two Cantos from book 7 of the Faerie Queene.

In 1598, he was named Sheriff of Cork, but it was in the same year that he was forced to flee Ireland with his family.

Later in 1598, he arrived in London, presenting his situation to the Queen, but it was soon after this that he fell ill, and he would eventually die in London on January 16, 1599.

Like many other poets, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

edmund spenser's grave in poet's corner
Edmund Spenser’s Grave in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

The Family Life of Edmund Spenser

Little is known about the family life of Edmund Spenser, other than the fact that he was married twice and had three children.

His first wife was Machabyas Childe, whom he married around 1579, roughly around the same time that he published The Shepheardes Calender.

They had two children: Sylvanus and Katherine. We know that Sylvanus died in 1638, but we know little other than that.

We also don’t know when Machabyas Childe died, but in 1594 Edmund Spenser remarried a younger woman named Elizabeth Boyle. There is a sonnet sequence in Amoretti that he would address to her.

Together, they would have a son named Peregrine.

Boyle would eventually outlive Edmund Spenser, and remarried twice after.

Notable Works by Edmund Spenser

While Edmund Spenser had a number of publications (see the list below), he is most well-known for the following:

The Shepheardes Calender (1579)

This was Spenser’s first major work that he published. It was done in imitation of the Eclogues, the first work written by Virgil. It fit in the “pastoral” genre, which was popular at the time.

The story surrounds a character named Colin Clout, and follows him throughout the 12 months of the year. Each month stands alone as a separate poem, but all work together as well. Spenser would also employ a different form and rhyme for each of the months.

Spenser purposefully used archaic language in this work (so no, it’s not just you who has a problem reading it). This was intentional, as Spenser was a huge fan of Geoffrey Chaucer, and Spenser really wanted to make that connection with the well-respected, medieval literature.

The Faerie Queene (Books 1-3 in 1589, Books 4-6 in 1596)

By far the most famous of all of Edmund Spenser’s work is The Faerie Queene, an enormous poetic epic written entirely in Spenser’s own invention, the Spenserian stanza.

And the fame is much-deserved: The Faerie Queene is a masterpiece of Reneissance literature. It is also one of the longest works in the English language up to that point, rivaling such pieces as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The story follows several knights, each of which embody a certain virtue. It is set in Arthurian England, with King Arthur being one of the principal characters.

The entire poem is allegorical, with various characters representing people like Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, and the tumultuous relationship between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

It is clear that The Faerie Queene was written to gain favor at the Elizabethan court, and it obviously worked when Queen Elizabeth gave him a 50 pound pension each year for the rest of his life.

A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)

While Edmund Spenser wrote this treatise in 1596, it wouldn’t be published until after Spenser’s death in 1633.

Spenser seemed to believe that Ireland had a great need for reformation, throwing full support behind the English endeavor to dominate the island.

The work contains some descriptions of native Irish people that would be quite distasteful today, calling them “disruptive and degraded people”, and spending a lot of time discussing the “evils, of the Irish people, notably their laws, customs, and religions.

It is due to these inciting opinions that the work was not published until decades after Spenser’s death.

Short Poetry Collections

In 1591, Spenser published a collection of short poems, most of which dealt with various grievances in either mournful or mocking tones. Most of these poems dealt specifically with love or grief.

In 1595, Spenser published two more collections called Amoretti and Epithalamion, containing 88 sonnets devoted to his wife Elizabeth Boyle.

One year later in 1596, he would publish Prothalamion, which was a wedding song originally written for the daughters of a duke, once again to gain favor in the court.

You get the sense that Edmund Spenser might have had a little brown on his nose…

Writing Style and the Spenserian Stanza

Spenser invented his own distinctive form of poetic verse, now known as the Spenserian stanza. He used it in multiple works, most notably in The Faerie Queen.

The stanza is 9 lines in total, has a metre of iambic pentameter for the first 8 lines, with the last line in iambic hexameter.

It also has a distinctive rhyme scheme of ababbcbccdcdee.

Here is an example taken from the first Canto of The Faerie Queene:

A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,

Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,

Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,

The cruel markes of many’a bloudy fielde;

Yet armes till that time did he never wield:

His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,

As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:

Full jolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,

As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.

Spenser would also adapt this form into a longer “Spenserian sonnet.” Here is a prime example from Amoretti, a poem addressed to his second wife Elizabeth Boyle:

“Men call you fair, and you do credit it,

For that your self ye daily such do see:

But the true fair, that is the gentle wit,

And vertuous mind, is much more prais’d of me.

For all the rest, how ever fair it be,

Shall turn to naught and lose that glorious hue:

But only that is permanent and free

From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.

That is true beauty: that doth argue you

To be divine, and born of heavenly seed:

Deriv’d from that fair Spirit, from whom all true

And perfect beauty did at first proceed.

He only fair, and what he fair hath made,

All other fair, like flowers untimely fade.”

Major Influences of Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser was well read in the classics, particularly those of Rome and Ancient Greece, as well as British classics. Some of his most notable influences are:

  • Virgil
  • Ovid
  • Homer
  • Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales
  • Il Canzoniere of Francesco Petrarca’s

But while Spenser did show a propensity for these authors, his own style remains distinctive and unique, leading some to argue that he suffered from a lack of comprehension of these classics (my high school self can relate), despite revering them.

Spenser was also highly influenced by the religious turmoil of the time. He was a devout supporter of Queen Elizabeth, and was therefore greatly troubled by anti-Elizabethan propaganda circulated by the Catholics.

Like many of his time, he saw the Church of England as the answer to the problems of corruption that the Catholic Church, whether true or not, seemed to embody in the minds of the people.

List of Works by Edmund Spenser

  • Jan van der Noodt’s A Theatre for Worldlings (1569), this includes French poems translated into English by Spenser
  • The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Spenser published this under the pseudonym “Immerito”
  • The Faerie Queene, Books 1–3 (1590)
  • Complaints, Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie (1590), which includes:
    • “The Ruines of Time”
    • “The Teares of the Muses”
    • “Virgil’s Gnat”
    • “Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale”
    • “Ruines of Rome: by Bellay”
    • “Muiopotmos, or the Fate of the Butterflie”
    • “Visions of the Worlds Vanitie”
    • “The Visions of Bellay”
    • “The Visions of Petrarch”
  • Axiochus (1592), a translation of an Ancient Greek text
  • Daphnaïda. An Elegy upon the Death of the Noble and Vertuous Douglas Howard, Daughter and Heire of Henry Lord Howard, Viscount Byndon, and Wife of Arthure Gorges Esquier (1592)
  • Amoretti and Epithalamion (1595), includes:
    • “Amoretti”
    • “Epithalamion”
  • Astrophel. A Pastorall Elegie vpon the Death of the Most Noble and Valorous Knight, Sir Philip Sidney (1595)
  • Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595)
  • Fowre Hymnes (1596)
  • Prothalamion (1596)
  • The Faerie Queene (1596), Books 4–6
  • Babel, Empress of the East – a dedicatory poem prefaced to Lewes Lewkenor’s The Commonwealth of Venice (1599)

Posthumous:

  • Two Cantos of Mutabilitie (an unfinished portion of The Faerie Queene) published together with a reprint of The Faerie Queene (1609)
  • First folio edition of Spenser’s collected works (1611)
  • A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande, a prose treatise on the reformation of Ireland, first published by Sir James Ware (1633)

The Legacy of Edmund Spenser

Even in his time, Spenser was known as “the Poet’s Poet”, so named by Charles Lamb. Other acquaintances like Walter Raleigh commended The Faerie Queene, as well as Spenser’s work as a whole.

Since then, he has been revered by authors such as John Milton, William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The Faerie Queene is often looked at as a masterpiece of English literature, not just for its technical prowess and length, but in the way he glorifies Britain in the same way that Virgil glorified Rome in the Aeneid.

During the 19th century his work received a revival, with multiple works of art based on the poem produced, and even children’s books summarizing the tales for younger readers.

Today, he is widely studied in colleges and English classes around the world. In fact, I was one of those people. I studied The Faerie Queene in college, which is what led me to investigate it further, and eventually write my own fantasy books loosely based on the epic.

In short, Edmund Spenser was a master of the English language, of storytelling, and the written word.

FAQ about Edmund Spenser

What is Edmund Spenser known for?

Edmund Spenser is known primarily for The Faerie Queene, which he wrote in six volumes. Originally there were going to be 12 volumes, but he sadly died before he could complete it. The Faerie Queene is still studied extensively in colleges and by academics today.

Why is Spenser called the poet’s poet?

Edmund Spenser was known as the “Poet’s Poet” for a few reasons. One, he was a really good poet. Two, he elevated the strength of the English language in the eyes of his contemporaries, making the tongue comparable with Latin. He was a man who loved “the pure artistry of his craft”.

What is Spenser’s greatest contribution to English poetry?

Edmund Spenser’s greatest contribution to English poetry was his epic poem The Faerie Queene, as well as contributing the Spenserian stanza. This unique stanza contained 8 lines of iambic pentameter, followed by a line of iambic hexameter, with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc.

How did Edmund Spenser contribute to the Renaissance?

Edmund Spenser contributed to the Renaissance by elevating the power of the English language, particularly in poetry. His use of allegorical devices to fiercely defend the morals of Protestantism, along with his invention of the Spenserian stanzas and the Spenserian sonnet, would go on to influence poets for centuries.

What is the Spenserian rhyme scheme?

The Spenserian rhyme scheme includes eight lines of iambic pentameter, one line of iambic hexameter, with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc. He would use this rhyme scheme in both his Spenserian sonnets and his Spenserian stanzas used in The Faerie Queene.

Cite This Article

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Bibliography

See also my ever-expanding list of primary and secondary sources.

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