Edmund Spenser

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Edmund Spenser, 1552(?)–1599, was a major English poet, known particularly for his incomplete allegorical epic The Faerie Queene.


His life is known chiefly from official records, allusions in his poems, and some unreliable anecdotes. There is no verified portrait. He was born in London, probably in 1552.[1] He attended the Merchant Taylors' school, and went to Cambridge, where he struck up a friendship with Gabriel Harvey. He was later secretary to the Bishop of Rochester, and in 1580, after his marriage to Machabyas Childe, he was appointed secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton, on his appointment to be Lord Deputy of Ireland. When Grey was recalled, Spenser stayed on in Ireland, holding a variety of official posts and acquiring land as part of the English settlement of Munster. On the death of his first wife, he married Elizabeth Boyle. He died during one of his visits to England, following the overrunning of much of the Munster settlement by Irish rebels during the Nine Years War, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.[2]

Principal poetical works

  • The Shepheardes Calender, 1579
  • The Faerie Queene, 1st edition, books I-III, 1589; 2nd edition, books I-VI, 1596, making a poem of 33588 lines.
  • Complaints, bringing together various shorter poems, including satires, 1591; Colin Clouts come home againe, 1595;
  • Amoretti (sonnet sequence) and Epithamalion, 1595.


Spenser wrote in several genres and forms. His first published work, The Shepheardes Calender, was in the pastoral tradition, but included satires as well as seasonal and love poems. Supposedly in the same mode was Colin Clouts come home againe (first dated 1591 but not published till 1595), disparaging life at Court. Colin Clout was the name Spenser gave himself as the poet-shepherd, appearing first in The Shepheardes Calender and later, extraordinarily, in the sixth book of the Faerie Queene. Astrophel, A Pastorall Elegie (for Sir Philip Sidney) was in the same convention. Spenser showed his lyrical ability in Epithamalion, celebrating his second marriage, and Prothamalion, which celebrated the double marriage of two daughters of the Earl of Worcester. He also wrote sonnets in his own rhyme scheme, and used a variety of other forms and metres. The Faerie Queene (see separate article) is an allegorical epic, in which several layers of moral and political allegory have been identified. It employs the Spenserian stanza which consists of eight iambic pentameters and an alexandrine, the rhyme scheme being ababbcbcc.[3][4][5]

Wordsworth wrote of "Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven/With the moon's beauty and the moon's soft pace."[6] Spenser's verse characteristically has an easy flow, despite the difficulty of conforming to a demanding rhyme scheme, a difficulty reduced by the use of archaic words and inventive spellings. In some passages the poetry achieves striking images of vividly imagined scenes.[7][8]

Influence and reputation

According to C. S. Lewis, "Among those who shared, or still share, the culture for which he wrote, and which he helped to create, there is no dispute about his greatness."[9] He adds that in that tradition, he is only less secure and central than Shakespeare and Milton.

Spenser regarded himself as the heir of Chaucer, and had a major influence on Milton [10] and the English Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Keats and particularly Shelley who used the Spenserian stanza for Adonais. His reputation suffered from the elaborateness of his allegory, his archaic language, and his strong advocacy of drastic measures to subdue Ireland, shown both allegorically, and in his prose work View of the Present State of Ireland, distributed in manuscript during his lifetime.


  1. Andrew Hadfield, ‘Spenser, Edmund (1552?–1599)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 17 Nov 2012
  2. Hadfield, Andrew. Edmund Spenser: a Life. Oxford University Press. 2012
  3. Lewis, C S, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. 1954. Oxford University Press
  4. Hadfield
  5. De Selincourt, E, Introduction to The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed Smith, J C and De Selincourt. Oxford University Press. 1912
  6. The Prelude, 1850 version, Bk III, 280-81
  7. Lewis
  8. De Selincourt
  9. Lewis p 393
  10. Hill, Christopher. Milton and the English Revolution. Faber and Faber 1977