This edited article about Edmund Spenser originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 742 published on 3 April 1976.
Around an open grave in Westminster Abbey stood a small group of sad men, dressed in the fashion of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. They included Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and half a dozen other famous Elizabethans who had come to pay their last respects to their friend Edmund Spenser.
As the coffin was lowered into the Abbey floor on that bleak January day in 1599 those great men of letters dropped their pens and their poems into the grave as a sign of homage to their friend. And at that glorious time when English literature had reached a pinnacle never known before or since, someone remarked: ‘He will be remembered as the greatest poet of our age.’
No doubt as William Shakespeare himself walked out of the Abbey into the cold, his greatest fame still ahead of him, he agreed with that view.
The fame of Shakespeare, as we all know, overtook that of Spenser; nonetheless, Edmund Spenser ranks among the world’s greatest poets for his mammoth work ‘The Faerie Queen’.
To appreciate this long poem – so long that Spenser planned that it should fill twelve books – we must first realize that the poetry of his age never dealt with real human life and personality: instead, it was all fanciful and concerned with dream-like creations of the mind.
In ‘The Faerie Queen’ Spenser took certain virtues, and their opposing vices, and gave them human identity in the form of knights and ladies, or monsters and witches. These characters were pitted against each other in adventurous stories which, of course, always had a moral. The more prominent of the gallant virtues were also intended to represent living people – the most prominent character of all in the poem, Gloriana, representing Queen Elizabeth.
At the time when Spenser began writing his epic he had already been introduced to the court of Queen Elizabeth. He had graduated from Cambridge University and had met the Earl of Leicester and his nephew, Sir Philip Sidney, powerful friends who had brought him to court on the strength of his poem ‘The Shepherds’ Calendar’, which brought him immediate fame.
Spenser then became what we would now call a civil servant and was appointed secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He hated his work and his enforced stay outside England. Nevertheless, he impressed his superiors sufficiently to be rewarded with an estate in Cork and a castle, called Kilcolman.
One day Spenser’s friend Sir Walter Raleigh, visited him at Kilcolman Castle. In the evening Spenser took out the first three books of ‘The Faerie Queen’ on which he had been working and began reading them to Raleigh.
Sir Walter was impressed. He bade Spenser to return to London with him and read his poem to Queen Elizabeth. She, of course, was delighted with the flattering references to herself in the poem and awarded Spenser a pension of £50 a year.
Spenser went on adding to his ‘Faerie Queen’, finishing six books in all.
Two years after Spenser’s visit to London there was a rebellion in Ireland and Kilcolman Castle, his home, was burned. It is said that one of his very young children died in the flames. Spenser, who had always lived in the twilight of romance, was shattered. He returned to London, arriving in the city ill and poor. Before his plight was properly appreciated by his influential friends, he died.
You can see, from the few verses of ‘The Faerie Queen’ quoted here, that Spenser’s great poem, written in Elizabethan English, is not easy to read nowadays. We need to study it carefully and, indeed, in any good copy of the poem you will find explanatory notes. Even so, we can at once appreciate the sweetness of the pure poetry and extraordinary melody of the words.
Living as he did in his own world of mellow fancy, Spenser’s poetry combines the ardour of chivalrous romance with the awakening national pride of the Elizabethan age in a supreme, unequalled manner.
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