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"Sweet Spenser, moving through his clouded heaven
“The gentle Spenser, Fancy's pleasing son:
“The love of beauty, however, and not of truth, is the moving principle of his mind; and he is guided in his fantastic delineations by no rule, but by the impulse of an inexhaustible imagination.”
- Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets.
In the region of poetry, Spenser stands at the entrance of this high-souled and adventurous time. As he was slightly older than most of the famous writers of his day, — two years older than his friend, Sir Philip Sidney, nine years older than Bacon, and twelve years older than Marlowe or Shakespeare, - it is not surprising that he was the earliest of the greater authors of the reign to begin his work. Bacon was about to enter upon the study of the law, and Shakespeare was still a country boy, roaming through the woods and leafy lanes of his native Warwickshire, when Spenser had already won an enduring place for himself in the literature of his country.
Yet while Spenser was the first of the greater poets of his epoch to win recognition, while he was, in this sense, the forerunner of a great poetic era, he was only to a very small extent the model, or the master, of those who immediately succeeded him. Spenser's great
est work, The Faërie Queene, is a long narrative poem of chivalric adventure and high ideals. But in this kind of poetry Spenser had practically no followers or competitors among the poets of his own age. Both the demand of the people and the genius of the time
were above all for the drama, and Spenser's greatest contemporaries in poetry, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and many others, gave by far the larger part of their time and energy to the production of plays. Spenser's masterpiece, indeed, is closer to the old romances of the past than to the dramas which were the delight of his own age, and while he is the first of the great Eliza
bethans in time, in the nature of his genius and in the character of his work he stands among his great contemporaries almost alone.
Life. — Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552, six years before the opening of the reign of Elizabeth. He belonged to a respectable Lancashire family. His father is believed to have been a journeyman clothmaker, who came up to London shortly before the poet's birth. Whatever his ancestry may have been, Spenser's family had apparently but little means, and he was forced to make his own way in the world. He attended the Merchant Taylors' School, then just opened in London, as a “poor scholar.” In 1569 he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, as a sizar, or one who is relieved of certain payments. While at college, Spenser studied Aristotle and Plato, the Greek and Latin poets, and parts at least of the literatures of France and Italy. There he became acquainted with Edmund Kirke, who afterwards wrote an introduction to The Shepherd's Calendar, and with Gabriel Harvey, who figures in the literary history of the time as a learned if somewhat formal and narrow-minded critic, deeply interested in the development of English poetry. Spenser left Cambridge, after taking his master's degree, in 1576, and spent two years in the north, probably with his kinsfolk in Lancashire.
London. The Shepherd's Calendar. - About 1579 Spenser settled in London, where he became acquainted with Sir Philip Sidney, the mirror and pattern of the English gentleman of the time. In 1579 Spenser published his Shepherd's Calendar, which he dedicated to Sidney, and which, tradition says, was written during a stay at Penshurst, Sidney's country-place. The poem received immediate recognition as a work which marked
the coming of a new and original poet. It is a pastoral poem in twelve books, one for each month of the year. Spenser hoped to push his fortunes at court, it seems, and to remain in England. He had Sidney's friendship, and he had won the patronage of the Earl of Leicester. It was probably through the influence of these powerful patrons that Spenser was appointed secretary to the new deputy sent by the Queen to govern Ireland. However this may be, in 1580 the young poet left the brilliant England of Elizabeth, with its gathering intellectual forces, for the barbarous and rebellious colony of Ireland. This event determined the course of Spenser's life, and largely, too, the nature of his work. In that lawless and miserable country he spent the rest of his days, except for brief visits to England; “ banished," as he bitterly writes, “like wight forlorn, into that waste where [he] was quite forgot.”
Ireland. — For eight years Spenser remained in Dublin, first in the capacity of secretary, and afterward as clerk in the Chancery Court. In 1588 he removed to the southwestern part of Ireland, within the present limits of County Cork, where, as a reward for his services, he had been given three thousand acres of the forfeited estates of the Earl of Desmond, with the old castle of Kilcolman. There, on the north shore of a lake, in the midst of a plain watered by the winding rivers Mulla and Bregog, and surrounded by hills and mountains, the poet lived his life of the imagination and wrote his masterpiece, The Faërie Queene. There Sir Walter Raleigh visited him,
“Amongst the coolly shade
Of the green alders of the Mullæ's shore,” and heard from the poet's own lips the first three books of the work. Raleigh, a poet himself, was filled with
admiration. He prevailed upon Spenser to go with him to court and bring his poem to the attention of the Queen. There was more than one reason why Elizabeth should look with favor upon the work. It was glorious poetry, and in one respect was perhaps the most elaborate compliment ever presented by a poet to his sovereign. It was dedicated to “ The most high, mighty, and magnificent Empress,” Elizabeth, " to live with the eternity of her fame;" it was a stupendous monument of flattery. The Faërie Queene herself was both the type of Glory and the special revelation of it in the person of the poet's “ most excellent and glorious Sovereign.” Moved by the merits of the poetry, or by the extravagance of the praise, Elizabeth rewarded Spenser with a pension of fifty pounds a year (which he is said to have found difficulty in collecting), and the first instalment of the Faërie Queene was published in 1590.
Suitor at Court. — Spenser remained in London about a year, learning the miseries of a suitor for princes' favors, and then returned in bitter indignation to his provincial seclusion. His keen sense of disappointment and neglect found utterance in a passage in Mother Hubbard's Tale (1591), which brings us very near to the inner life of the poet himself.
“Full little knowest thou, that hast not tride,