The Shepheardes Calender, 1579
The Faerie Queene, 1590, 1596
Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, 1595
Fowre Hymnes, 1596
The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, 1912 (J. C. Smith and Ernest de Selincourt, editors)
Three Proper, and Wittie, Familiar Letters, 1580
Foure Letters and Certaine Sonnets, 1586
A View of the Present State of Ireland, wr. 1596, pb. 1633
The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, 1932-1949 (Edwin Greenlaw et al., editors)
Edmund Spenser was one of three children born to John and Elizabeth Spenser. He wrote in Prothalamion that London was his birthplace. With his brother he attended the Merchant Taylors’ School under the famous progressive educator Richard Mulcaster. Under Mulcaster the principal studies were Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, English, and music; the students also practiced acting, which the master believed to be of considerable educational value.
When Spenser was still in his teens, his first published poetry appeared in A Theatre wherein be represented . . . the miseries & calamities that follow voluptuous Worldlings (1569). In the same year he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge. At college he was apparently a wide reader rather than a profound scholar. Among his favorite classical authors were Plato, Aristotle, and Vergil; his later favorites included Geoffrey Chaucer and Ludovico Ariosto. At Cambridge began his lasting friendship with Gabriel Harvey, the pedantic target of much Elizabethan wit and barbed satire. Also at Cambridge Spenser imbibed Puritan leanings. As both Mulcaster and Harvey were staunch advocates of English composition rather than Latin specialization, Spenser was a worthy protégé of both men. He received his M.A. degree from Cambridge in 1576 after an undistinguished academic career and left to visit some of his family in Lancashire.
He probably made his first trip to Ireland, the scene of much of his mature life, in 1577. In 1578 he worked in London as secretary of Dr. John Young, bishop of Rochester. In 1579 the first major event of his literary career took place, the publication of The Shepheardes Calender. Looking back over the great peaks of Elizabethan drama, the modern reader can hardly realize the impact The Shepheardes Calender must have had on the poetic circle of its day. The Shepheardes Calender, published anonymously, was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney and was furnished with notes by a mysterious E. K.–supposedly a close friend of the author–with great inside knowledge but with very convenient ignorance about any matter that might have political repercussions. In general, scholars assume that E. K. was Spenser’s friend Edward Kirke but that Spenser himself furnished or inspired most of the notes. The pastoral names of the characters sometimes cloak actual individuals, but some may have been entirely fictitious. The Shepheardes Calender contains twelve eclogues (which Spenser wrote to establish his reputation as a poet and acquire patronage) concerning love, the pastoral, and the role of the poet.
As the dedication of The Shepheardes Calender indicates, by 1579 Spenser was acquainted with Sir Philip Sidney and knew Sidney’s uncle, the earl of Leicester, who had a distinguished career as a patron. For some reason the earl did not take the interest in Spenser that the latter hoped for–or, indeed, that his ability justified. It is ironic that today Leicester is more remembered for his halfhearted patronage of Spenser than for his wholehearted patronage of many others.
In 1580 Spenser ventured to Ireland as a secretary of Lord Grey de Wilton, the lord deputy of Ireland, whose policies he defended in verse and prose for many years to come. For about eight years he lived in or near Dublin. During this period the friendship between Spenser and Lodowick Bryskett developed. Bryskett’s Discourse of Civil Life (1606) contains an account of a courtly conversation with Spenser in a literary company. Bryskett also contributed poems to Spenser’s Astrophel, the memorial volume on the death of Sir Philip Sidney. Spenser served as clerk of the Council of Munster, in which province he lived from 1588 to 1598, serving for part of that time as Bryskett’s deputy.
In 1589 Sir Walter Ralegh visited Spenser in Munster. The visit was recorded in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, the dedicatory letter of which is dated 1591. Spenser returned Ralegh’s visit and took with him to London three books of The Faerie Queene, on which he had been working for about a decade. (Although conceived to be twelve books, Spencer would finish only these six.) To his great disappointment the visit did not lead to an eminent position in court, but he did gain a pension of fifty pounds, by no means a negligible amount if the poet ever collected it. The first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590. The next six years proved productive, climaxed by the publication in 1596 of the first six books of the masterpiece, bringing it to the halfway point. The Faerie Queene dramatizes in each book a virtue that a knight (or in Spenser’s time, a courtier) should embody. The first six books cover the virtues of holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy. Spenser’s seventh and uncompleted book, called “The Mutabilitie Cantos,” concerns constancy. The poem employs allegory to illuminate the aforementioned virtues and offer the poet’s social and political commentary. Spenser’s poem “Mother Hubberds Tale” satirizes the Elizabethan court. These productive years of writing and publishing, however, were filled with turmoil and disappointment. For ten years Spenser was harassed by lawsuits instigated by Lord Roche of Fermoy.
The final decade of Spenser’s life was not, however, a period of unmitigated gloom: In 1594 he married Elizabeth Boyle and celebrated his love and marriage by publishing his sonnets, Amoretti, and his magnificent marriage hymn, Epithalamion. Some skeptics believe the sonnets were originally written to another woman, but the general view is that the sequence is unique in the Tudor period in being written and addressed to the poet’s wife. The couple had three children.
In 1598, in Tyrone’s rebellion, Spenser’s Irish home, Kilcolman Castle, was sacked. He and his family escaped first to Cork and then to England, but within a month after his return to his native land Spenser died. He was buried near Chaucer’s tomb in what is now known as the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.