English Literature
Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser

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Discovering England's Unsung Treasure: A Look into the Life and Legacy of Poet Edmund Spenser

When thinking of great English poets, names like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Wordsworth often come to mind. However, one name that often goes unnoticed is that of Edmund Spenser. Though not as widely read, Spenser is considered one of England's greatest national poets, with his work comparable to that of his more famous contemporaries. In the sixteenth century, Spenser's epic poem Faerie Queene (1590) was a groundbreaking masterpiece. Sadly, much of his work during this time is overshadowed by the popularity of poets from the fourteenth and seventeenth century.

Despite being a contemporary of the renowned Shakespeare, Spenser's work during the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century was often overlooked due to the former's dominance. However, in his own time, Spenser was highly praised, with his influence serving as inspiration for many who came after him. The great poet Milton himself even proclaimed Spenser as his greatest teacher.

Spenser's unique style and romantic themes also influenced Romantic poets like John Keats. His continuation of the medieval romance tradition also left a lasting impact on renowned authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, who later penned the epic fantasy masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (1954), introducing a whole new genre of medieval fantasy that continues to captivate readers today.

Master of the Spenserian Sonnet, wikicommons.

Early Life of Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser was born in the city of London in either 1552 or 1553. His father was a clothmaker for the Merchant Taylor's Company. At the age of 9, he began attending Merchant Taylor's School as a "poor scholar," which gave him access to discounted education. There, he studied both Latin and English under the strict supervision of Richard Mulcaster. The English language was highly revered by Mulcaster, who famously stated, "I honor the Latin, but I worship the English." This may have greatly influenced Spenser's later works, as it was uncommon for poets of that time to primarily write in English instead of Latin.

After completing his education at Merchant Taylor's, Spenser enrolled at Cambridge University's Pembroke Hall at the age of 18. In a remarkable feat, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in just three years, ranked as the 11th foremost scholar in his class of 120. He continued his studies for another two years and obtained his Master of Arts in 1576. During this time, the intellectual climate at Cambridge was heavily influenced by two opposing schools of thought: Puritanism and Humanism.

Puritanism and Humanism were not as distinct from each other as they are perceived today, and individuals could hold beliefs from both movements. Puritanism was a religious and political ideology that aimed to maintain theological purity and church discipline, seeking to establish a powerful Presbyterian Church in England, even more dominant than the state itself.

Meanwhile, Humanism emphasized the study of ancient works, particularly those written in Latin. Humanists rejected the medieval romance tradition and were not in favor of using rhyme in poetry, viewing it as a form derived from barbaric cultures such as the Goths. Instead, they preferred Latin meter and poetry that adhered to Aristotle's unities.

However, Spenser did not align himself with either of these intellectual movements. His work continued the medieval romance tradition and prominently utilized rhyme, drawing criticism but not hindering the success of his works. In fact, it is this unique blend of old and new that sets Spenser apart and cements his lasting impact. As the great poet Milton once proclaimed, "our sage and serious Spenser, whom I dare to name a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas."

From Secretary to Poet

After earning his Master of Arts degree, Spenser landed a job as a secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester. During this time, he published his first notable work, the Shepheardes Calender (1579), which caught the attention of esteemed literary figure Sir Philip Sydney.In the Renaissance era, being a skilled poet often meant gaining favor at court. Edmund Spenser dedicated a large part of his life to winning the approval of Queen Elizabeth I, rising from humble beginnings as a "poor scholar" to becoming one of England's greatest national poets. Despite not being as well-known as some of his peers, Spenser's distinctive style and emphasis on romantic themes cemented his place in English literature.Edmund Spenser's Literary Legacy and Influence

Through hard work and talent, Edmund Spenser achieved success in his career, eventually becoming secretary to Lord Gray Wilton, Deputy of Ireland. He spent the rest of his life in Ireland, where he produced his most significant works. Among these are The Faerie Queene, his magnum opus, and the collection of poems, Amoretti and Epithalamion.

The Faerie Queene: A Tribute to the Queen and Allegory of Christian Virtues

Spenser's most extensive and sophisticated work is The Faerie Queene. He began writing it before his appointment as secretary, and continued publishing volumes until his death in 1599. The collection consists of six books, each representing a distinct story and together forming a complex allegory of Christian virtues.

The character of Queen Glorianna in The Faerie Queene is a tribute to Queen Elizabeth, but also symbolizes divine glory. Each book follows a knight on a quest, with each knight representing a specific Christian virtue. For instance, the first book features The Knight of the Red Crosse, who embodies holiness. As he sets out on his journey, he faces obstacles that symbolize the challenges of living a virtuous life.

Aside from being a tribute to the queen, Spenser's allegory also serves as a critique of the Catholic Church. Characters like Lady Errour represent the false propaganda spread by the church, while the friar who betrays Red Crosse is portrayed as a sorcerer, representing the church's apostasy. Spenser's allegory also incorporates elements of Arthurian legend, featuring a variety of magical creatures as a nod to the medieval romance tradition.

Spenser's Take on Courtly Love

Spenser deviated from the traditional notion of Courtly Love, which typically involves passion and takes place in courtly settings, by limiting passionate love to the institution of Christian marriage. This approach is evident in how his characters demonstrate courtesy towards women and pursue romance, which is attributed to their devotion to their partners.

The Spenserian Stanza and Sonnets

Besides his literary innovations, Spenser was also renowned for his unique poetic form, now known as the Spenserian stanza. This form consists of nine lines, with the first eight in iambic pentameter and the final ninth line in iambic hexameter. The rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc, and it has been imitated by poets like the Romantic John Keats.

In addition to The Faerie Queene, Spenser's other notable work is Amoretti and Epithalamion, a collection of sonnets dedicated to his wife, Elizabeth Boyle. These poems follow the Petrarchan tradition, with Spenser's unique twist being that they were composed for his wife, unlike most sonnets of the time, which were written for unattainable women. This display of Courtly Love in his relationship with Elizabeth Boyle is a testament to Spenser's unconventional approach to literary conventions.

In Conclusion

Edmund Spenser's works continue to receive recognition for their literary merit and significant contributions to literature. His use of allegory, incorporation of Courtly Love, and poetic innovations make his works timeless and impactful, laying the foundation for future writers to follow in his footsteps.

The Lasting Impact of Spenserian Sonnets in English Poetry

The Spenserian Sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser, was not exclusive to him in the 16th century. Other contemporary poets, such as Sir Philip Sydney, also used the same meter and rhyme scheme. However, what sets Spenser's sonnets apart is their unique content, which focuses on courtly love without being adulterous. Unlike other sonnets of the time, Spenser's poems praise both the physical and inner beauty of his beloved, making them stand out among the abundance of literary works on courtly love at the time.

The Essential Elements of Spenserian Sonnets

Spenserian Sonnets, written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of abab bcbc cdcd ee, were more than just a representation of courtly love. They held a deeper significance, as demonstrated by Spenser's renowned sonnet, Sonnet 75. In this piece, Spenser outlines his love's name in the sand, only to have it washed away by the tide. His love responds by recognizing the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of her name fading away. In response, Spenser rebuts her and assures her that their love and her name will forever be immortalized in his poetry. To this day, Spenser's sonnets are celebrated and remembered, keeping his love for Elizabeth Boyle alive.

Epithalamion: Spenser's Melodic Masterpiece

Considered his most brilliant work outside of his renowned poem, The Faerie Queene, Epithalamion chronicles Spenser's wedding day in 24 stanzas, each representing an hour of the day. The varying lengths of lines and meticulous use of meter make this poem a musical masterpiece. However, what truly sets this piece apart is Spenser's adeptness at conveying and expressing joy in every stanza.

Spenser's Final Days

While the Irish landscape served as a great source of inspiration for Spenser's work, his joys were short-lived. In the 16th century, the relationship between English colonizers and the Irish was fraught with tension. Despite his love for the Irish countryside, Spenser did not hold a favorable view of the Irish people, likely considering them adversaries of the state due to their Catholic faith. He eventually became the Sherriff of Cork and even owned a small castle. However, his return to England to publish his second volume of The Faerie Queene was met with failure, and while he was away, his castle was burned down by Irish rebels.

According to Ben Johnson, Spenser's infant daughter and Elizabeth also perished in the fire. The couple returned to England in poverty, and Spenser died soon after from starvation in the winter of 1599. He was honored at his funeral and laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, where he remains to this day.

Edmund Spenser: A Pivotal Figure in English Poetry

Edmund Spenser was one of England's most celebrated poets, renowned for his contributions to English literature. He spent much of his life in service of Queen Elizabeth in Ireland, where he penned The Faerie Queene, an allegorical medieval romance based on Arthurian legend. This work was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, demonstrating Spenser's admiration for her. Additionally, his courtship and love for Elizabeth Boyle inspired another one of his masterpieces, Amoretti and Epithalamion.

Works Cited

  • Hamilton, A., et al. Spenser: The Faerie Queene, Longman Annotated English Poets, (2001).
  • Lewis, C. The Allegory of Love. Cambridge University Press, (2013).
  • Black, Joseph, et al. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Edition, Broadview Press, (2007).

Edmund Spenser's Enduring Legacy

  • How did Edmund Spenser pass away?

After his castle was destroyed by the Irish, Spenser returned to England with his wife and family, living in poverty. He died shortly after from starvation.

  • What is the meaning of Sonnet 75 by Edmund Spenser?

Sonnet 75 is a reflection of Spenser's wife and her imminent mortality. However, Spenser ensures her name will live on through his poetry.

  • What is Edmund Spenser's contribution to English poetry?

Spenser is most renowned for his allegory The Faerie Queene, in which he developed a new form of narrative poetry known as the Spenserian Stanza. He is also remembered for dedicating his sonnets to his wife and exalting her inner beauty, alongside her outer beauty.

  • When was Edmund Spenser born?

Spenser's exact birth year is uncertain, but it is believed to be between 1552-1553.

  • What is Edmund Spenser famous for?

He is famous for his works The Faerie Queene, Amoretti and Epithalamion, and his service to Queen Elizabeth's estates in Ireland.

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