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Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century

Critical Introduction by John W. Hales

Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599)

[We have Spenser’s own authority for stating that he was born in London (see Prothalamion),

  • Though from another place I take my name,
  • An house of ancient fame.
  • He claimed relationship with the Spencers of Althorpe, Northants (see Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, 1537–72, and the dedications of The Tears of the Muses, of Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubbard’s Tale, of Muiopotmos), and the claim was allowed. But the connection must have been distant. His own branch of the family seems to have belonged to Lancashire, to the neighbourhood of Burnley; and there are several signs that his father, who by the time of Edmund’s birth had migrated south, was not in prosperous circumstances. Of his mother we know nothing but her Christian name, which was Elizabeth (see Amoretti, lxxiv.) From Amoretti, lx., written it is fairly certain in 1593, it is plausibly concluded he was born in 1552.

    He was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School, then recently founded; and with the help of a Lancashire gentleman, Mr. Robert Nowell, went as a sizar to Pembroke College, Cambridge. After seven years at the University, where, though he gathered much sound learning, he did not academically distinguish himself, he probably passed some time with his family, or family connections, in Lancashire. But he was soon called back to London. The Earl of Leicester and his nephew, Sir Philip Sidney, now became his patrons; and with Sidney, at least, he formed a cordial and lasting friendship. Probably through their influence he at last, in 1580, obtained some preferment; he was appointed secretary to Lord Arthur Grey of Wilton, who was then proceeding to Ireland as Lord Deputy. He had already made his mark as a poet by the publication of The Shepherd’s Calendar; and had already begun to compose The Faery Queen (see his friend Gabriel Harvey’s letter, dated April 7, 1580, and his own to Harvey of April 10).

    Lord Arthur Grey, after suppressing the current insurrection (that of Shan O’ Neal and the Earl of Desmond) with an iron hand, was recalled in 1582. But it seems clear Spenser did not return with him. In fact Ireland was to be his home for the rest of his life, though there are several indications that he was far from content with such a lot; nor, the state of Ireland at that time considered, is his dissatisfaction to be wondered at. However, he held successively the clerkship of Degrees and Recognisances in the Irish Court of Chancery, and that to the Council of Munster; and after some years of service he received a grant of land in Cork county—of some 3000 acres, out of the forfeited estates of the Earl of Desmond. Certainly by the year 1589 he was settled in the old castle that will always be associated with his memory—Kilcolman Castle.

    In that year Sir Walter Raleigh, whom he had known personally since 1580, if not earlier, and whom a grant from those same forfeited estates as he himself was sharing brought again across St. George’s Channel, visited him at Kilcolman, and read the first three books of The Faery Queen. The result was a visit to England and their publication in 1590, and the establishment of Spenser’s fame as the chief poet of the day. See Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, a poem written on Spenser’s return, and giving a full account of that famous expedition. The following years, to say nothing of his official duties, were occupied in the composition of the next three books of The Faery Queen; and also in paying his addresses to a certain lady whose name has at last been ascertained to be Elizabeth Boyle. Of this courtship and its hopes and fears he, after his manner, furnishes a complete record in the sequence of sonnets entitled Amoretti. In the Epithalamion he celebrates his own marriage. He paid another visit to England in 1596, to publish the second instalment of his great work, and probably also to make suit for some more congenial appointment, or an appointment amongst more congenial surroundings (see Prothalamion, stanzas 1 and 9). As a poet, he was greeted with enthusiasm; but the Court did nothing for him, or nothing of importance and of the kind he wished. Lord Burleigh, there is reason to believe, was not disposed in his favour. And so, perforce, he betook himself back to Ireland.

    But in that ill-governed and unhappy country a fresh insurrection was being fiercely plotted and organised. In 1598 it broke out with fury. Spenser, whose possession of a part of Desmond’s forfeited estates had all along made him detestable to the natives, and whose attitude and conduct seem indeed to have been by no means conciliatory, was one of its first victims. His house was burnt over his head, and he had to fly for life. He reached London in extreme poverty and distress. And there, in King Street, Westminster, he died January 13, 1599. He was buried by the side of Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.]

    SPENSER’S one important prose writing is The View of the Present State of Ireland; but we have also some Letters, and some Dedications. The View of the Present State of Ireland was, it seems fairly certain, written during his stay in England in 1596. In the Lambeth Library is extant the copy sent in to the Archbishop of Canterbury along with the application for a licence to publish the work. It is initialled E. S. and dated by the author, as Dr. Grosart reports; and the date given is 1596. Again, in one passage in the text the year 1595 is referred to as “this last year.” Several phrases in the work indicate that Irenæus, the chief speaker, who is Spenser himself, was at the time in England. Thus, on p. 61 of Dr. Grosart’s edition we read: “And this right well I wot that even here in England there are in many places as strange customs as Coigny and Livery.”

    Certainly the work is the result of long experience and a matured study of the country of which it treats. As we have pointed out in the sketch of his life just given, Spenser was resident in Ireland for some eighteen years, with probably not more than two short intermissions. And, though this residence was far from congenial to him, yet he by no means wasted the opportunity of thoroughly acquainting himself with manners and customs and a general condition of things that were so strange and also often so picturesque and fascinating, however wild and perilous. The political problem, too, seriously occupied Spenser’s attention; and his work aims at being not only scholarly and descriptive but effective and practical. The power and vigour of his mind is illustrated in every part. Those who think of the author of The Faery Queen as a mere dreamer of dreams will find him here presenting himself in a very different aspect. He is here a man of business—a most careful collector of facts, and an eager deducer and resolute advocate of certain definite conclusions. He is both an ardent and an intelligent archæologist and historian, and also a vigorous and peremptory statesman. The policy he advocates is one of the severest repression and suppression; he has no sympathy with the cause of the nation; perhaps we might say he has no understanding or even apprehension of it; but what else could be expected from the intimate friend of Sir Walter Raleigh and the faithful admirer of “the good Lord Gray”? We do not now turn to Spenser’s treatise for political guidance, and it would be absurd to blame him because of his Elizabethanism in this or any other respect. The Faery Queen not less than The View breathes throughout the spirit of the age that produced it.

    With scarcely an exception—perhaps Pope is one—all our great poets have also been great prose-writers; and naturally so, for the mastery of rhythm and language which distinguishes the poet must inevitably display itself in whatever literary form he adopts. Indeed it may be urged that one of the best ways of learning to write prose is to practise verse-writing; and it will be found that almost all great prose-writers have so trained and disciplined themselves. However this may be, the author of The Faery Queen writes an excellent prose style. It is unaffected, clear, vigorous, straightforward. It exactly suits and serves its purpose. It does not play with words, or cultivate any verbal artifices. It is perfectly simple, and by its very simplicity impressive and forcible. Spenser “only speaks right on.” He is too much in earnest to be decorative or florid. He wishes to definitely instruct, and to move in a special direction those whom he addresses, not merely to entertain and please them. But being a great master of expression he accomplishes this latter end also, though it is not his prime object. His well-formed sentences and his trenchant phrases continually remind us that we are listening to an artist born and bred.