- Born: c. 1552/1553, London, England
- Died: January 13, 1599 (aged 46-47), London, England
- Notable Works: The Faerie Queene (1590)
Edmund Spenser (c. 1552/1553 – 13 January 1599) was an English poet, and is best known for his epic poem The Faerie Queene, which he wrote for Elizabeth I. Spenser is often remembered as one of the most important poets in the English language, using an interesting writing style that became known as the Spenserian stanza and a voluminous vocabulary.
Spenser lived most of his life in Ireland, where he opposed certain aspects of society. He married twice and had at least two children. He died in London in 1599, at the age of 46-47.
Edmund Spenser – Early Life and Education
Edmund Spenser was born in East Smithfield, London, in either the year 1552 or 1553. His exact date of birth is unknown, as is his parenthood, although it is thought he was probably the son of John Spenser, a journeyman clothmaker.
Spenser was educated in London at the Merchant Taylors’ School and later attended Pembroke College, Cambridge as a sizar. Here, he became a friend of Gabriel Harvey, although they had differing views on poetry.
In 1578, Spenser became secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester, for a short time. In 1579, he published The Shepheardes Calender.
Following this, a year later, Edward Spenser was serving under Lord Deputy, Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton. He was sent to Ireland and served under Lord Grey with Walter Raleigh at the Siege of Smerwick massacre. However, when Lord Grey was recalled to England, Spenser stayed on in Ireland, because, by this time, he had acquired other official posts and lands in the Munster Plantation. He remained in Ireland for almost all of his following years.
Sometime between 1587 and 1589, Spenser acquired his main estate at Kilcolman, near Doneraile in North Cork. He later bought a second holding to the south, at Rennie, on a rock overlooking the river Blackwater in North Cork, where its ruins are still visible today. A short distance away grew a tree, locally known as “Spenser’s Oak” until it was destroyed in a lightning strike in the 1960s. It is thought that he wrote some of The Faerie Queene under this tree.
Spenser published the first three books of his most famous work, The Faerie Queene, in 1590. He travelled to London to publish and promote the work and was successful enough to receive £50 a year from the Queen.
A year later, he published a translation in verse of Joachim Du Bellay’s sonnets, Les Antiquités de Rome (1558). This work, entitled Ruines of Rome: by Bellay, may also have been influenced by Latin poems on the same subject.
In 1596, Edmund Spenser wrote another of his famous works — a prose pamphlet titled A View of the Present State of Ireland. It wasn’t published until the mid-seventeenth century, probably due to the content of the pamphlet and so circulated as a manuscript at first. It was written in the form of dialogue and argued that Ireland would never be totally “pacified” by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed, if necessary by violence.
Marriages and Children
Spenser married his first wife, Machabyas Childe, in 1579, around the same time he published The Shepheardes Calender. Together, they had two children, Sylvanus and Katherine.
By 1594, Edmund Spenser’s first wife had died, and in that year he married a much younger Elizabeth Boyle, a relative of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. He addressed to her the sonnet sequence Amoretti, and the marriage itself was celebrated in Epithalamion. Together, they had a son named Peregrine.
Following his death, Elizabeth Boyle remarried twice.
During the Nine Years’ War in 1598, Spenser was driven from his home by the native Irish forces of Aodh Ó Néill. His castle at Kilcolman was burned and it is thought that one of his infant children died in the blaze.
After this, he travelled back to London, where he died aged forty-six or forty-seven. His coffin was carried to his grave in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey by other poets, who threw pens and pieces of poetry into his grave.
Famous Works Of Edmund Spenser
The Shepheardes Calender
The Shepheardes Calender was published in 1579 and was Spenser’s first major work. Spenser wrote it in emulation of Virgil’s first work, the Eclogues. The series of pastorals introduces Colin Clout, a folk character originated by John Skelton, and depicts his life as a shepherd through the twelve months of the year.
Spenser purposefully used archaic spellings in the work and the writing to suggest a connection to medieval literature, and to Geoffrey Chaucer in particular. It is in this work that the term sarcasm is first recorded in English, too.
While all twelve eclogues come together to form the full work and year, each month can also stand alone as a separate poem. The months are all written in a different form and Spenser uses rhyme differently in each month.
The Faerie Queene
The Faerie Queene is Spenser’s masterpiece. The first three books of this epic poem were published in 1590, and the second set of three books were published in 1596, although Spenser did indicate that he originally intended the work to be twelve books long, so the work we see today is incomplete.
The Faerie Queene is one of the longest works in the English language and is the work in which Spenser invented the verse form known as the Spenserian stanza.
The poem follows several knights as a means to examine different virtues, and though the text is primarily an allegorical work, it can be read on several levels of allegory, including as praise (or, later, criticism) of Queen Elizabeth I.
Spenser presented the first three books of The Faerie Queene to Elizabeth I in 1589, probably sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh. The poem was a clear effort to gain court favour, and as a reward Elizabeth granted Spenser a pension for life amounting to £50 a year.
A View of the Present State of Ireland
Spenser wrote A View of the Present State of Ireland in 1596, however, it wasn’t published until the mid-seventeenth century. In the pamphlet, Spenser discussed future plans to establish control over Ireland, in aim of showing that Ireland was in great need of reform.
In the work, Spenser categorises the “evils” of the Irish people into three prominent categories: laws, customs and religion. According to Spenser, these three elements worked together in creating the supposedly “disruptive and degraded people” which inhabited the country.
It is for this reason that A View of the Present State of Ireland was not published until much later. It circulated as a manuscript in Spenser’s lifetime.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Spenser published numerous relatively short poems. Almost all of these poems consider love or sorrow. The first was Complaints, published in 1591, which was a collection of poems that express complaints in mournful or mocking tones.
In 1595, Spenser published Amoretti and Epithalamion, which contains eighty-eight sonnets commemorating his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle. Amoretti is composed with subtle humour and parody while praising Spenser’s Petrarchism in his treatment of longing for a woman. Epithalamion was written for Spenser’s wife after their marriage and also deals with the unease in the development of a romantic and sexual relationship.
The following year, in 1596, Spenser published Prothalamion. This was a wedding song written for the daughters of a duke, allegedly in hopes to gain favour in the court.
Spenser’s writing style stood out because he used a distinctive verse form, called the Spenserian stanza, in several works, including The Faerie Queene. The stanza’s main meter is iambic pentameter with a final line in iambic hexameter (having six feet or stresses, known as an Alexandrine), and the rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc.
Spenser also used his own rhyme scheme for the sonnet. In a Spenserian sonnet, the last line of every quatrain is linked with the first line of the next one, making the rhyme scheme ababbcbccdcdee.
Edmund Spenser – Historical Significance
Spenser was one of the great poets of the English Renaissance and his work has been studied and enjoyed ever since. He is remembered for the Spenserian stanza, as well as for reinventing the classic pastoral and for using a heightened and enlarged poetic vocabulary. His work often reflects the religious and humanistic ideals as well as the intense but critical patriotism of Elizabethan England, and poems such as The Fairie Queene remain some of the most renowned epic poems in the English language.
List Of Works
- Jan van der Noodt’s A Theatre for Worldlings (1569), including poems translated into English by Spenser from French sources, published by Henry Bynneman in London
- The Shepheardes Calender (1579), published under the pseudonym “Immerito”
- The Faerie Queene, Books 1–3 (1590)
- Complaints, Containing Sundrie Small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie (1590), 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 a pseudo-Platonic dialogue from the original Ancient Greek; published by Cuthbert Burbie
- 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), containing:
- 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) dedicated from the court at Greenwich; published with the second edition of Daphnaida
- 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.
- 1609: Two Cantos of Mutabilitie published together with a reprint of The Faerie Queene
- 1611: First folio edition of Spenser’s collected works
- 1633: A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande, a prose treatise on the reformation of Ireland, first published by Sir James Ware (historian) entitled The Historie of Ireland
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Edmund Spenser" https://englishhistory.net/poets/edmund-spenser/, November 18, 2021