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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XI. The Poetry of Spenser

§ 1. Spenser’s family

THE LIFE of Spenser extended from the years 1552 to 1599, a period which experienced a conflict of elementary intellectual forces more stimulating to the emotions and imagination than, perhaps, any other in the history of England. Throughout Europe, the time-honoured system of society which had endured since the age of Charles the Great was undergoing a complete transformation. In Christendom, so far as it was still Catholic, the ancient doctrines of the church and the scholastic methods of interpreting them held their ground in general education; but the weakening of the central basis of authority caused them everywhere to be applied in different ethical senses. A change of equal importance had been wrought in the feudal order of which the emperor was the recognised, but now only nominal, chief, since this universal constitution of things had long been reduced to insignificance by the rise of great independent nations, and the consequent beginning of wars occasioned by the necessities of the balance of power. Feudalism, undermined partly by the decay in its own spirit, partly by its anarchical tendencies, was giving way before the advancing tide of commercial intercourse, and, in every kingdom of western Europe, the central authority of the monarch had suppressed, in different degrees, the action of local liberty. In a larger measure, perhaps, than any country, English society was the stage of religious and political conflict. As the leader of the protestant nations, England was surrounded by dangers that presently culminated in the sending of the Spanish armada. Her ancient nobility, almost destroyed by the wars of the Roses, had been supplanted by a race of statesmen and courtiers called into existence by the crown, and, though the continuity of Catholic tradition was still preserved, the sovereign, as head of the church, exerted almost absolute power in the regulation of public worship. The conscience of the nation wavered in this struggle between old ecclesiastico-feudal forms and the infant ideas of civil life; and confusion was itself confounded by the influence of art and letters imported from the more advanced, but corrupt, culture of modern Italy. To the difficulty of forming a reasonable view of life out of these chaotic conditions was added the problem of expressing it in a language as yet hardly mature enough to be the vehicle of philosophical thought. Wyatt and Surrey had, indeed, accomplished a remarkable feat in adapting to Italian models the metrical inheritance transmitted to them by Chaucer; but a loftier and larger imagination than theirs was required to create poetic forms for national aspirations which had so little in common as those of England with the spirit of Italy in the sixteenth century.

The poet whose name is rightly taken as representative of the general movement of literature in the first half of Elizabeth’s reign was well fitted by nature to reflect the character of this spiritual conflict. A modest and sympathetic disposition, an intelligence philosophic and acute, learned industry, a brilliant fancy, an exquisite ear, enabled Spenser’s genius to respond like a musical instrument to each of the separate influences by which it was stirred. His mind was rather receptive than creative. All the great movements of the time are mirrored in his work. In it is to be found a reverence for Catholic tradition modified by the moral earnestness of the reforming protestant. His imagination is full of feudal ideas, warmed into life by his association with men of action like Sidney, Grey, Ralegh and Essex, but coloured by a contrary stream of thought derived from the philosophers of the Italian renascence. Theological conceptions, originating with the Christian Fathers, lie side by side in his poetry with images drawn from pagan mythology, and with incidents of magic copied from the medieval chroniclers. These imaginative materials are, with him, not fused and assimilated in a form of direct poetic action as is the case in the poetry of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton; but, rather, are given an appearance of unity by an allegory, proceeding from the mind of the poet himself, in a mould of metrical language which combines native words, fallen out of common use, with a syntax imitated from the great authors of Greece and Rome. An attempt will be made in the following pages to trace the correspondence in the work of Spenser between this conflict of external elements and his own poetic genius, reflecting the spirit of his age.

In respect of what was contributed to the art of Spenser by his personal life and character, it is often difficult to penetrate to the reality of things beneath the veil of allegory with which he chooses to conceal his thoughts. We know that he was born in London in (probably) 1552, the son of a clothier whose descent was derived from the same stock as the Spencers of Althorp. To this connection the poet alludes in his pastoral poem Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, when, praising the three daughters of Sir John Spencer, he speaks of

  • The honor of the noble familie:
  • Of which I meanest boast my selfe to be.
  • We know, also, that he was one of the first scholars of the recently founded Merchant Taylors’ school, from which he passed as a sizar to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, on 20 May, 1569. Furthermore, it is evident, from the sonnets contributed, in 1569, to A Theatre for Worldings, that he must have begun early to write poetry.