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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

§ 17. The later Hymnes

These strokes seem to be aimed partly at the degraded vein of Petrarchism, manifested abundantly in the sonnets of this period, and partly at the style of Italian romance, brought into fashion by Greene and his disciples. Spenser himself yielded not a jot to the fashion of the times. It is true that his Amoretti, written in honour of the lady to whom he was married in 1594, are conceived in the most conventional Petrarchian spirit, as what we may suppose he thought most likely to please his “Elisabeth.” But the description of “perfect love,” and the praises of Rosalind in Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, breathe the same heroic Platonism as his Hymnes to Love and Beautie; while, in his Prothalamion, and, still more, in his Epithalamion, he carries the lyrical style, first attempted in The Shepheards Calender, to an unequalled height of harmony, splendour and enthusiasm. In 1595, he again came over to England, bringing with him the second part of The Faerie Queene, which was licensed for publication in January, 1595–6. While at court on this occasion, he seems to have resolved to oppose his influence, as far as he might, to the prevailing current of taste in poetry, by publishing his youthful Hymnes in honour of Love and Beautie. Lofty and Platonic as these were in their conception, he protests, in his dedication of them to “The Right Honorable and Most Vertuous Ladies, the Ladie Margaret, Countesse of Cumberland, and the Ladie Marie, Countesse of Warwicke,” that he desires, “by way of retractation, to reforme them, making, instead of those two Hymnes of earthly or naturall love and beautie, two others of heavenly and celestiall.” In the later Hymnes, he identifies the doctrine of Platonic love, in its highest form, with the dogma of Trinity in Unity:

  • Before this worlds great frame, in which al things
  • Are now containd, found any being-place,
  • Ere flitting Time could wag his eyas wings
  • About that mightie bound which doth embrace
  • The rolling Spheres, and parts their houres by space,
  • That High Eternall Powre, which now doth move
  • In all these things, mov’d in it selfe by love.
  • It lov’d it selfe, because it selfe was faire;
  • (For faire is lov’d;) and of it self begot,
  • Like to it selfe his eldest sonne and heire,
  • Eternall, pure, and voide of sinfull blot,
  • The firstling of his joy, in whom no jot
  • Of loves dislike or pride was to be found,
  • Whom he therefore with equall honour crownd.
  • With him he raignd, before all time prescribed,
  • In endless glorie and immortall might,
  • Together with that third from them derived,
  • Most wise, most holy, most almightie Spright!
  • Whose kingdomes throne no thought of earthly wight
  • Can comprehend, much lesse my trembling verse
  • With equall words can hope it to reherse.
  • Finding still no opening for himself at court, Spenser returned, once more, to Ireland, in 1597, where, in September, 1598, he was appointed sheriff of Cork, as a man fitted to deal with the rebels of Munster. These, however, proved too strong for him, and, at the rising under Hugh O’Neile, earl of Tyrone, his castle of Kilcolman was taken and burned in October, 1598. He himself, escaping with difficulty, was sent by the lord deputy to London with despatches about the rebellion. His calamities seem to have broken his spirit. In spite of the favour extended to him by influential courtiers like Essex, he is said to have been oppressed by poverty; and, very soon after his arrival in London, he died in King street, Westminster, on 16 January, 1599.