Spenser, Edmund

, a justly celebrated English-poet, descended from the ancient and honourable family of Spenser, was born in London, in East Smithfield by the Tower, probably about 1553 In what school he received the first part of his education, has not been ascertained. He was admitted, as a sizer, of Pembroke-hall in Cambridge, May 10, 1569, proceeded to the degree of bachelor of arts, January 16, 1572-3, and to that of master of arts June 26, 1576. Of nis proficiency during this time, a favourable opinion may be drawn from the many classical allusions itv his works, while their moral tendency, which, if not uniform, was more general than that of the writings of his contemporaries, incline us to hope, that his conduct was irreproachable. | At Cambridge he formed an intimacy with Gabriel Harvey, first of Christ’s-college, afterwards of Trinity-hall, who became doctor of laws in 1585, and survived his friend more than thirty years Harvey was a scnolar, and a poet of no mean estimation in his own time. He appears also as a critic, to whose judgment Spenser frequently appeals, looking up to him with a reverence for which it is not easy to account. We are, however, much indebted to his correspondence with Spenser, for many interesting particulars; relating to the life and studies of the latter, although some of them afford little more than probable conjecture?. It is now fully disproved that Spenser was an unsuccsssful candidate for a fellowship in Pembroke-hall, in competition with Andrews, afterwards successively bishop of Chichester, Ely, and Winchester. Hie rival of Andrews was Thomas Dove, afterwards bishop of Peterborough. But from one of Harvey’s letters to Spenser it appr;,rs that some disagreement had taken place between our poet and the master or tutor of the society to which he belonged, which terminated his prospects of farther advancement in it, without lessening his veneration for the university at large, of which he always speaks with filial regard.

When he left Cambridge he is supposed to have gone to reside with some friends in the North of England, probably as a tutor. At what time he began to display his poetical powers is uncertain, but as genius cannot be concealed, it is probable that he was already known as a votary of the Muses among his fellow-students. There are several poems in the “Theatre for Worldlings,” a collection published in the year in which he became a member of the university, which are thought to have come from his pen. The “Visions,” in this work, were probably the first sketch of those which now form a part of his acknowledged productions. Absolute certainty, however, cannot be obtained in. fixing the chronology of his early poems; but it may be conjectured, with great probability, that his muse would not be neglected at an age when it is usual to court her favours, and at which he had much leisure, the scenery of nature before his eyes, and no serious cares to disturb his enthusiasm. His “Shepheard’s Calender” was published in 1579. The tenderness of complaint in this elegant poem, appears to have been inspired by a mistress whom he has recorded under the name of Rosalind; and who, after trifling with his affection, preferred his rival. He is supposed | also to allude to the cruelty of this same lady in book VI. of the “Faerie Queene,” under the name of Mirabella.

The year preceding the publication of this poem, he had been advised by his friend Harvey to remove to London, where he was introduced to sir Philip Sidney, and by him recommended to his uncle the carl of Leicester. There is a wide difference of opinion, however, among Spenser’s biographers, as to the time and mode of the former of these events. Some suppose that his acquaintance, with sir Philip Sidney was the consequence of his having presented to him the ninth canto of the “Faerie Queene.” Others think that his first introduction was owing to the dedication of the “Shepherd’s Calender,” but a long letter from Spenser to Harvey, which Mr. Todd has preserved, proves that he was known to Sidney previous to the publication of the “Shepheard’s Calender” in 1579.

It is certain that in consequence of this introduction, by whatever means procured, he became a welcome guest in iir Philip’s family, and was invited to their seat at Penshurst in Kent, where it is conjectured that he wrote at least the ninth eclogue. Under such patronage, the dedication of the “Calender,” when finished, to “Maister Philip Sidney,” became a matter of course, as a mark of respectful acknowledgment for the kindness he had received. The praise, however, bestowed on this poem was but moderate, and the name of the author appears to have been for some time not generally known. Dove-, whose translation of it. into Latin is extant in the library of Caius college, Cambridge, speaks of it not only as an “unowned” poem, but as almost buried in oblivion. On the wther hand, Abraham Fraunce, a barrister as well as a poet of that time, selected from it examples to illustrate his work entitled “The Lawier’s Logike;” but Fraunce, it may be said, was the friend of sir Philip Sidney, and would naturally be math; acquainted, anil perhaps induced to admire the productions of a poet whom he favoured.

The patronage of men of genius in Spender’s age was frequently exerted in procuring for them public employments, and Spenser, we find, was very early introduced into the business of active life. In July 1580, when Arthur lord Grey of Wilton departed from England, as lord lieutenant of Ireland, Spenser was appointed his secretary, probably on the recommendation of the earl of Leicester, Although the office of secretary was not at this | time of the same importance it is now, and much might not be expected in official business from a scholar and a poet, yet Spenser appears to have entered with zeal into political affairs, as far as they were connected with the character of the lord lieutenant. In his “View of the State of Ireland,” which was written long after, he takes frequent opportunities to vindicate the measures and reputation of that nobleman, and has, indeed, evidently studied the polities of Ireland with great success.

After holding this situation about two years, lord Grey returned to England, and was probably accompanied by his secretary. Their connection was certainly not dissolved, for in 1586, Spenser obtained, by his lordship’s interest, and that of Leicester and Sidney, a grant of three thousand and twenty-eight acres in the county of Cork, out of the forfeited lands of the earl of Desmond. As far as sir Philip Sidney was concerned, this was the last act of his kindness to our poet, for he died in October of the same year. Such were the terms of the royal patent, that Spenser was now obliged to return to Ireland, in order tO cultivate the land assigned him. He accordingly fixed his residence at Kilcolman, in the county of Cork, a place which topographers have represented as admirably accommodated to the taste of a poet by its romantic and diversified scenery. Here he was visited by sir Walter Raleigh, with whom he bad formed an intimacy on his first arrival in Ireland, who proved a second Sidney to his poetical ardour, and appears to have urged him to that composition which constitutes his highest fame. In 1590 he published “The Faerie Qneene disposed into Twelve Books, fashioning XII Morall Vertues.

This edition contains only the first three books. To the end of the third were annexed, besides the letter to Raleigh, the poetical commendations of friends to whose judgment the poem had been submitted. The names of Raleigh and Harvey are discernible, but the others are concealed under initials. These are followed by his own “Sonnets” to various persons of distinction, the number of which is augmented in the edition of 1596. Mr. Todd remarks that in that age of adulation, it was the custom of the author to present, with a copy of his publication, a poetical address to his superiors. It was no less the custom also, to print them afterwards, and, we may readily suppose, | with the full consent of the parties to whom they were addressed.

It appears certain that these three books of the “Faerie Queene” were written in Ireland. In a conversation, extracted from his friend Ludowick Bryskett’s “Discourse of Civill Life,” and which is said to have passed in that country, Spenser is made to say, “I have already undertaken a work in heroical verse, under the title of a Faerie Queene, tending to represent all the moral virtues, assigning to every virtue a knight, to be patron and defender the same; in whose actions feats of armes and chivalry, the operations of that virtue, whereof he is the protector, are to be expressed and the vices and unruly appetites that oppose themselves against the same, to be beaten downe and overcome.

Such was his original design in this undertaking, and having prepared three books for the press, it is probable that he accompanied Raleigh to England, with a view to publish it. Raleigh afterwards introduced him to queen Elizabeth, whose favour is supposed by some to have extended to his being appointed poet laureate; but Elizabeth, as Mr. Malone has accurately proved, had no poet laureate. Inileed, in February 1590-1, she conferred on Spenser a pension of fifty pounds a year, the grant of which was discovered some years ago, in the chapel of the Rolls, and this pension he enjoyed till his death, but the title of laureate was not given in his patent, nor in that of his two immediate successors.

The discovery of this patent by Mr. Malone, is of farther importance, as tending to rescue the character of Lord Burleigh from the imputation of being hostile to our poet. The oldest date of this reproach is in “Fuller’s Worthies,” a book published at the distance of more than seventy years; and on this authority, which has been copied by almost all the biographers of Spenser, it has been said that Burleigh intercepted the pension, as too much to be given “to a ballad maker,” and that when the queen, upon Spenser’s presenting some poems to her, ordered him the gratuity of one hundred pounds, Burleigh asked, “What! all this for a song!” on which the queen replied, “Then give him what is reason.” The story concludes, that Spenser having long waited in vain for the fulfilment of the royal order, presented to her the following ridiculous memorial:


"I was promised on a time,

To have reason for my rhime

From that time unto this season

I receiv’d nor rhime nor reason."

On which he was immediately paid; but for the whole of this representation, there appears neither foundation nor authority.

After the publication of the “Faerie Queene,” Spenser returned to Ireland. During his absence in the succeeding year, the fame he had now obtained, induced his bookseller to collect and print his smaller pieces, one of which only is said to have been a republication. The title of this collection is, “Complaints, containing sundrie small Poemes of the World’s Vanitie, viz. 1. The Ruines of Time. 2. The Teares of the Muses. 3. Virgil’s Gnat. 4. Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberd’s Tale. 5. The Ruines of Rome, by Bellay. 6. Muiopotinos, or the Tale of the Butterflie. 7. Visions of the World’s Vanitie. 8. Bellaye’s Visions, 9. Petrarche’s Visions.

Spenser appears to have returned to London about the end of 1591, as his next publication, the beautiful elegy on Douglas Howard, daughter of Henry lord Howard, entitled “Daphnaida,” is dated Jan. 1, 1591-2. From this period there is a long interval in the history of our poet, which was probably passed in Ireland, but of which we have no account. It would appear, however, that he did not neglect those talents of which he hacl already given such favourable specimens. In 1595, he published the pastoral of “Colin Clout’s come home again,” the dedication to which bears date, Dec. 27, 1591, but this Mr. Todd has fully proved to be an error. The pastoral elegy of “Astrophel,” devoted entirely to the memory of sir Philip Sidney, and perhaps written on the immediate occasion of his death, was published along with this last mentioned piece.

It is conjectured that in the same year appeared his “Amoretti,” or “Sonnets,” in which the poet gives the progress of his addresses to a less obdurate lady than Rosalind, and whom he afterwards married, if the “Epithalamion,” published along with the “Sonnets,” is allowed to refer to that event. Mr. Todd deduces from various passages that his mistress’s name was Elizabeth, and that the marriage took place in Ireland, on St. Barnabas’ day, 1594. Other biographers seem to be of opinion that he had lost | a first wife, and that the courtship of a second inspired “Amoretti.” Where we have no other evidence than the expression of a man’s feelings, and that man a poet of excursive imagination, the balance of probabilities may be equal. Spenser was now at the age of forty-one, somewhat too late for the ardour of youthful passion, so feelingly given in his sonnets; but on the other hand, if he had a first wife, we have no account of her, and the children he left are universally acknowledged to have been by the wife he now married.

The “Four Hymns on Love and Beauty,” which the author informs us were written in his youth, as a warning to thoughtless lovers, and the “Prothalamion,” in honour of the double marriages of the ladies Elizabeth and Catherine Somerset to H. Gilford and W. Peter, Esquires, were published in 1596. In the same year the second part of the “Faerie Queene” appeared, with a new edition of the former part accompanying it. This contained the fourth, fifth, and sixth books. Of the remaining six, which were to complete the original design, two imperfect cantos of “Mutabilitie” only have been recovered, and were first introduced in the folio edition of the “Faerie Queene,” printed in 1609, as a part of the lost book entitled “The Legend of Constancy.

It is necessary, however, in this place, to notice a question which has been started, and contested with much eagerness by Spenser’s biographers and critics, namely, whether any part of the “Faerie Queene” has been lost, or whether the author did not leave the work unfinished as we now have it. Sir James Ware informs us that the poet finished the latter part of the “Faerie Queene” in Ireland, “which was soone after unfortunately lost by the disorder and abuse of his servants, whom he had sent before him into England.” The authority of sir James Ware, who lived so near Spenser’s time, and gave this account in 1633, seems entitled to credit, but it has been opposed by Fenton, who thinks, with Dryden, that “upon sir Philip Sidney’s death, Spenser was deprived both of the means and spirit to accomplish his design,” and treats sir James Ware’s account as a hearsay or a fiction. Dr. Birch, on the other hand, contends that the event of sir Philip Sidney’s death was not sufficient to have prevented Spenser from finishing his poem, since he actually gave the world six books of it after his patron’s death. The author of Spenser’s life in | the “Biographia Britannica,” after gaining some advantage over Dr. Birch’s inferences from incorrect dates, argues against the probability of a manuscript of the last six books, principally from the shortness of the poet’s life after the year 1596. The late Dr. Farmer is of the same opinion, but appears perhaps somewhat too hasty in asserting that the question may be effectually answered by a single quotation. The quotation is from Brown’s “Britannia’s Pastorals,1616, and merely amounts to this—that Spenser died

ere he had ended his melodious song.

Mr. Todd has advanced a similar evidence from sir Aston Cokain, in 1658, intimating that Spenser would have exceeded Virgil, had he lived so long

As to have finished his Faery Song.

But Mr. Todd produces afterwards a document, more to the purpose, in support of the belief that some of Spenser’s papers were destroyed in the rebellion of 1598. This is an epigram written by John (afterwards sir John) Stradling, and published in 1607, and plainly intimates that certain Mss. of Spenser were burnt in the rebellion. Two years after the publication of this epigram, part of the “Legend of Constancy,” the only manuscript that had escaped the fury of the rebels, was added to the second edition of the “Faerie Queene.” It appears therefore highly probable that among the manuscripts destroyed was some part of the six last books of the “Faerie Queene,” although they might not have been transcribed for the press, nor in that progress towards completion which ran in Fenton’s mind when he contradicted sir James Ware with so little courtesy.

The same year, 1596, appears to have been the time when Spenser presented his political, and only prose work, “The View of the State of Ireland,” to the queen. Mr. Todd, having seen four copies of it in manuscript, concludes that he had presented it also to the great officers of state, and perhaps to others. Why it was allowed to remain in manuscript so long as until 1633, when sir James Ware published it from archbishop Usher’s copy, has not been explained. If, as Mr. Todd conjectures, it was written at the command of the queen, and in order to reconcile the Irish to her government, why did it not receive the publicity which so important an object required? It appears more probable from a perusal of this work as we now have it, that it was not considered by the court as of a | healing tendency; and the extracts from some of the manuscript copies which Mr. Todd had an opportunity of procuring, seem to confirm th s conjecture. Viewed in another light, it displays much political knowledge, and traces the troubles of that country, in many instances, to their proper causes. It is valuable also on account of the Author’s skill in delineating the actual state of Ireland. “Civilization,” says Mr Ledwich, the learned Irish antiquary, “having almost obliterated every vestige of our ancient manners, the remembrance of them is only to be found in Spenser, so that he may be considered, at this day, as an Irish antiquary.” It ought not to be omitted that in a note on one of the manuscript copies of this work, Spenser is styled, “Clerke of the Counsell of the province of Mounster.

In 1597, he is said to have returned to Ireland, and by a letter which Mr. Malone has discovered from queen Elizabeth to the Irish government, dated Sept. 30, 1598, it appears that he was recommended to be sheriff of Cork. The rebellion of Tyrone, however, took place in October, and with such fury as to compel Spenser and his family to leave Kilcolman. In the confusion of flight manuscripts would be forgotten, for even one of his children was left behind, and the rebels, after carrying off the goods, burnt the house and this infant in it. Spenser arrived in England with a heart broken by these misfortunes, and died January 7 following, 1598-9, in the forty-sixth year of his age.

There are some circumstances respecting Spenser’s death which have been variously represented. Mr. Todd, from unquestionable evidence, has fixed the day, January 16, 1598-9, and the place, an inn or lodging-house in King-­street, Westminster; the time therefore which elapsed from his arrival in England to his death, was very short. But it has been asserted that he died in extreme poverty, which, considering how recently he was in England, and how highly favoured by the queen only a month before he was compelled to leave Ireland, seems wholly incredible. The only foundation for the report appears to be an expression of Camden intimating that he returned to England poor, which surely might be true without affording any reason to suppose that he remained poor. His pension of fifty pounds, no inconsiderable sum in his days, continued to be paid; and why he should have lost his superior friends at a time | when he was a sufferer in the cause of government, is a question which may be asked without the risk of a satisfactory answer. The whining of some contemporary poets*


Phineas Fletcher, in his “Purple Island,” speaks most decisively in favour of Spenser’s poverty at the time of hie death.

affords no proof of the fact, and may be rejected as authority; but the reception Mr. YVarton has given to the report of Spenser’s poverty is entitled to higher regard. It might indeed be considered as decisive, if Mr. Todd’s more successful researches did not prove that he founds all his arguments upon the mistaken supposition that Spenser died in Ireland. Nor will Mr. Warton’s agree with the lamentations of the poets, for they represent Spenser as poor by the neglect of his friends and country; and Mr Warton, as dying amidst the desolations of rebellion.

Spenser’s remains were interred in Westminster Abbey, near those of Chaucer, and the funeral expenses defrayed by the earl of Essex, a nobleman very erroneous in political life, but too much a friend to literature to have allowed Spenser to starve, and afterwards insult his remains by a sumptuous funeral. His monument, however, which has been attributed to the munificence of Essex, was erected by Anne, countess of Dorset, about thirty years after Spenser’s death. Stone was the workman, and had forty pounds for it. That at present in Westminster Abbey was erected or restored in 1778.

It does not appear what became of Spenser’s wife and children. Two sons are said to have survived him, Sylvanus and Peregrine. Sylvanus married Ellen Nangle, or Nagle, eldest daughter of David Nangle of Moneanymy in the county of Cork, by whom he had two sons, Edmund and William Spenser. His other son, Peregrine, also married and had a son, Hugolin, who, after the restoration of Charles II. was replaced by the court of claims in as much of the lands as could be found to have been his ancestor’s. Hugolin, however, attached himself to the cause of James II. and after the Revolution was outlawed for treason and rebellion. Some time after, his cousin William, son of Svlvanus, became a suitor for the forfeited property, and recovered it by the interest of Mr. Montague, afterwards earl of Halifax, who was then at the head of the Treasury. He had been introduced to. Mr. Montague by Congreve, who, with others, was desirous of | honouring the descendant of so great a poet. Dr. Birch describes him as a man somewhat advanced in years, but unable to give any account of the works of his ancestor which are wanting. The family has been since very imperfectly traced.

It remains to be observed, almost in the words of Mr. Todd, that Spenser is the author of four Sonnets, which are admitted into the late editions of his works, of which three are prefixed to separate publications, and the fourth occurs in letters by his friend Harvey. He is conjectured to be the author of a sonnet signed E. S. addressed to Master Henry Peacham, and entitled “A Vision upon his Minerva,” and of some poor verses on Phiilis, in a publication called “Chorus Poetarum,1684. The verses on queen Elizabeth’s picture at Kensington have been likewise given to Spenser, hut lord Orford ascribes them to the queen herself. As “Britain’s Ida” iias been usually printed with the works of Spcenser, it is still retained, although the critics are agreed that it was not written by him. The lost pieces of Spenser are said to be, 1. His translation of Ecclesiasticus. 2. Translation of Canticum Canticorum. 3. The Dying Pelican. 4. The hours of our Lord. 5. The Sacrifice of a Sinner. 6. The Seven Psalms. 7. Dreams. 8. The English Poet. 9. Legends. 10. The Court of Cupid. 11. The Hell of Lovers. 12. His Purgatory. 13 A Se’nnight’s Slumber. 14. Pageants. 15. Nine Comedies. 16. Stemmata Dudleiana. 17. Epithalamion Thamesis. If his pen was thus prolific, there is very little reason to suppose that he might not have had leisure and industry to have nearly completed his “Faerie Queene,” before the fatal rebellion which terminated all his labours.

Of the personal character of Spenser, if we may be allowed to form an opinion from his writings, it will be highly favourable. With a few exceptions, their uniform tendency is in favour of piety and virtue. His religious sentiments assimilate so closely with those of the early reformers, that we may conjecture he had not only studied the controversies of his age, but was a man of devotional temper and affections.

Of Spenser, as a poet, little can be added to the many criticisms which have been published *


Jortin, Hurd, Church, Upton, but above all, Mr. Thomas Warton, in his Observations on the Faerie Queen. There are also some ingenious re-


marks in Pope’s Discourse on Pastoral Poetry, and indeed in every writer who has treated the subject of English poetry.

since his | importance in the history of English poetry became more justly appreciated. His lesser pieces contain many beauties. Dryden thought the “Shepheard’s Calender the most compleat work of the kind which imagination had produced since the time of Virgil.” It has not, however, risen in estimation. The language is so much more obsolete than that of the “Faerie Queene,” the groundwork of which is the language of his age, that it required a glossary at the time of publication. It is, however, the “Faerie Queene” which must be considered as constituting Spenser one of the chief fathers of Engiisn poetry. Its predominant excellencies are, imagery, feeling, taste, and melody of versification. Its defects are partly those of his model, Ariosto, and partly those of his age. His own errors ace the confusion and inconsistency admitted in the stories and allegorical personages of the ancients, and the absurd mixture of Christian and heathenish allusions. Mr. Spence has fully exemplified these in his “Polymetis.” It is, indeed, impossible to criticise “The Faerie Queeue” by any rules; but we find in it the noblest examples of all the graces of poetry, the sublime, the pathetic, and such powers of description as have never been exceeded. Bishop Hurd has therefore judiciously considered it under the idea of a gothic rather than a classical poem. It certainly strikes with all the grand effect of that species of architecture, and perhaps it is not too much to say that, like that, its reputation has suffered by the predominant taste for the more correct, lighter, and more easily practicable forms of the Grecian school.

Hume was among the first who endeavoured to depreciate the value of the “Faerie Queene,” by asserting that the perusal of it was rather a task than a pleasure, and challenging any individual to deny this. Pope *


There is something,” said Pope, “in Spenser that pleases one as strongly in one’s old age as it did in one’s youth. I read the Fairy Queen when I was about twelve with a vast deal of delight; and I think it gave me as much when I read it over about a year or two ago.” Spence’s Anecdotes quoted by Dr. Warton, who very justly censures Pope’s Imitation of Spenser. See Pope’s Works, Bowles’s edit. vol. II. 289.

and lord Somers are two who might have accepted the challenge with hope of success. But in fact Spenser will not lose much if we admit the assertion. That the perusal of the Faerie Queene must be at first a task, and a very irksome
| one, will be confessed by all who are unacquainted with any English words but what are current. If that difficulty be surmounted, the reader of taste cannot fail to relish the beauties so profusely scattered in this poem. With respect to the objections that have been made to the allegorical plan, it is sufficient to refer to its antiquity; it was one of the earliest vehicles of pleasure blended with instruction, and although modern critics object to a continued allegory, which indeed it is extremely difficult to accomplish without falling into inconsistencies, yet specimens of it, detached personifications, aiming at the sublimity of Spenser, still continue to be among the efforts by which our best writers wish to establish their fame. Perhaps the same remark may be extended to the stanza of Spenser, which critics have censured, and poets, praised by those critics, have imitated. After all it is to the language of Spenser that we must look for the reason why his popularity is less than that of many inferior poets. Spenser, Chaucer, and indeed all the early poets can be relished, not by common readers, but by students, and not separately but as connected with times, characters, and manners, the illustration of which demands the skill and industry of the antiquary. 1

Todd’s Life of Spenser. English Poets, 1810, 21 vols. 8vo.