A glimpse of Spenser’s audacious plan to help provide England with a great national literature appears in an appendix printed in the 1590 edition of the first three books of his most important work, The Faerie Queene. In a letter addressed to his neighbor Sir Walter Ralegh, Spenser sets out to explain the “general intention and meaning” of his richly elaborated epic. It is “an historicall fiction,” written to glorify Queen Elizabeth and “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” In pursuing this latter aim, the poet explains that he has followed the example of the greatest epic writers of the ancient and the modern worlds: Homer and Virgil, Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso. Now, to set out to depict the queen herself and to “fashion” members of her nobility in virtuous and well-bred discipline was certainly a bold undertaking for the son of a London weaver. For him to compare his work with the most exalted poetry of Italy, the glittering center of European culture in this period, must have seemed to many of his readers mere bravado or self-delusion.
The attempt to write a neoclassical epic in English was without precedent—unless, perhaps, one includes Sidney ‘s Arcadia (1590), which was begun at about the same time. Among the heroic poets named in Spenser’s Letter to Ralegh as worthy practitioners of the form, Virgil was generally regarded as the greatest, and Spenser, like Dante and Petrarch before him, seems to have taken Virgil as his personal mentor and guide. From the Proem to Book I of The Faerie Queene, the reader may infer that Spenser sometimes thought of his entire career as a recapitulation of that of his illustrious Roman counterpart. He began, as Virgil had begun in his Eclogues, with pastoral poetry, which Spenser published in his first major work, The Shepheardes Calender . A decade later, in The Faerie Queene, he graduated to poetry on martial and political subjects, as Virgil had done when he wrote his great epic, the Aeneid, for the court of Caesar Augustus. Spenser’s opening lines, which echo verses prefixed to the Aeneid , announce his intention to exchange his “Oaten reeds” (or shepherd’s pipes) for “trumpets sterne.” Although he transformed the traditional epic introduction to include an invocation to Cupid, god of love, along with the more traditional address to the Muses and although the poem actually resembles the quasi-medieval romance epics of Ariosto and Tasso more closely than it does classical epics, the poet’s claim to follow in the great line established by Homer and passed down by Virgil was altogether serious.
Conscious self-fashioning according to the practices of ancient poets, and also of more-recent ones on the Continent, was an essential part of Spenser’s project—but only a part. With his eye frequently turned to Chaucer and other English authors, he set out to create poetry that was distinctively English—in religion and politics, in history and custom, in setting and language. For example, he mentions in the Letter to Ralegh that he designed his epic to depict “twelve private morall vertues, as Aristotle hath devised.” In reality, however, just three of the six books that he lived to complete revolve around virtues that Aristotle would have recognized, and even those three—temperance, friendship, and justice—were greatly altered by Spenser’s Anglo-Protestant form of Christianity and by other elements in his English background. The other three—holiness, chastity, and courtesy—have little to do with Aristotle but much to do with England in the high Middle Ages. In the best sense Spenser’s art is syncretistic, drawing together elements from many traditions. Its aim, however, was to enrich the culture of his native land.
The process by which he realized this aim was neither rapid nor predictable. Comparing Spenser with Sidney , C. S. Lewis has written that he was “a more ordinary man, less clever, less easily articulate,” and he succeeded by working harder. For that very reason, perhaps—along with his understated humor, his deep understanding of human psychology, and his easy humanity and good sense—Spenser has been closer than Sidney to the hearts of many of his countrymen.
Edmund Spenser was born into the family of an obscure cloth maker named John Spenser, who belonged to the Merchant Taylors’ Company and was married to a woman named Elizabeth, about whom almost nothing is known. Since parish records for the area of London where the poet grew up were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, his birth date is uncertain, though the dates of his schooling and a remark in one of his sonnets (Amoretti 60) lend credence to the date traditionally assigned, which is around 1552. Just which John Spenser was his father is also uncertain, since there were at least three men of that name working in London as weavers at this time. If the poet took his lineage from John Spenser of Hurstwood, then he derived from a well-established family that had lived in Lancashire since the thirteenth century. If he was the son of the John Spenser mentioned in John Stow’s Survey of London (1603), then his father was a man of some prominence who in later years bought a house that had once belonged to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and who was knighted in 1594 by Queen Elizabeth upon his election as Lord mayor of London. In any case, from the poem Prothalamion (1596) reveals that Spenser thought of himself as a descendant of “An house of auncient fame,” namely the family of the Despencers. There, is no evidence, however, that he could claim to be a gentleman, and that fact alone made his rise to prominence more difficult in a class-conscious age.
Spenser’s parents took what may have been the most important step in advancing their son’s fortunes by enrolling him in the Merchant Taylors’ school in London. During the early 1560s, when Spenser began his studies there, it was under the able direction of a prominent humanist educator named Richard Mulcaster, who believed in thoroughly grounding his students in the classics and in Protestant Christianity, and who seems to have encouraged such extracurricular activities as musical and dramatic performances. Mulcaster was also important to Spenser’s career for purely pragmatic reasons, since he had good connections with the universities and sent students of modest means such as Spenser on to them with some regularity. The poet later expressed his gratitude to Mulcaster by depicting him as “A good olde shephearde, Wrenock” in the December eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender and by naming his first two children, Sylvanus and Katherine, after those of his master.”
The only glimpse that survives of the young poet at school comes from financial records indicating that in 1569, when he was in his last year, he was one of six boys given a shilling and a new gown to attend the funeral of Robert Nowell, a prominent lawyer connected with the school. This connection with Nowell was to prove important to Spenser’s later development, for the lawyer’s estate helped support his subsequent education.”
In 1569, at the usual age of sixteen or seventeen, Spenser left the Merchant Taylors’ School for Cambridge, where he enrolled at Pembroke Hall. Even before he arrived, however, he was already composing poetry and attracting the attention of other writers. Perhaps with the help of Mulcaster, who had friends in the Dutch immigrant community, he had recently arranged to publish thematically linked sets of epigrams and sonnets entitled The Visions of Petrarch and The Visions of Bellay, which appeared in the collection commonly referred to as A Theatre for Worldlings (1569) by the Dutch poet Jan van der Noot. Even in his maturity Spenser seems to have thought well of these early translations of French and Italian poetry, for he revised and reprinted them among his Complaints in 1591. Although not original, they nonetheless shed light on Spenser’s interests at the time which were directed toward poets of the Continent and had already settled on themes that would surface again in his later poetry, namely the tragic precariousness of life and the impermanence of things in the material world.”
Such scraps of reliable information as are known about Spenser during his university days suggest that he served as a sizar (a scholar of limited means who does chores in return for room and board) and that he received his B.A. in 1573 and his M.A. in 1576 with no official marks of distinction as a scholar. He regarded the experience as vital to his development, however, as can be seen in his later reference to the university as “my mother Cambridge” in The Faerie Queene (IV.xi.34). Little is known of his friendships at Pembroke. He must have been acquainted with Lancelot Andrewes, two years his junior, who later became a bishop and was well known for his sermons and for his part in translating the King James Version of the Bible. Clearly, Spenser had also gained the confidence of the master of Pembroke, John Young, who later became bishop of Rochester and gave the poet his first post as a personal secretary. Most important for Spenser’s literary career, however, was his close friendship with Gabriel Harvey, a professor of rhetoric who served initially as his mentor and ultimately as his literary promoter. Spenser later celebrated their friendship in The Shepheardes Calender, in which he appears as Colin Clout and Harvey is represented as the wise shepherd Hobbinoll.”
Though a lackluster poet himself, Harvey seems to have encouraged Spenser in many of the aspirations that later shaped his career. Harvey was characteristically effusive, for example, about the need to ground English poetry on the great models of Greco-Roman antiquity, both by shaping its versification on Latin principles and by undertaking classical genres that had not yet been attempted in English. In the late 1570s he composed a vernacular epic (now lost) and a work on the ancient Muses of poetry that is similar in outline to Spenser’s Teares of the Muses (1591). At about the same time, he may have played a part in introducing Spenser to Sidney and in securing for his friend a position in the London household of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth as well as a key figure in the radical Protestant faction at court and one of the most powerful noblemen in the realm. The connections with Leicester and Sidney helped to launch Spenser’s career, both as a poet and as a government official. Finally, in 1580, just before circumstances forced a separation between the two friends, Harvey gave Spenser’s prominence as a writer a boost by publishing a set of five high-spirited letters that had passed between them, which helped to establish his friend’s public image as England’s “new poet.”
In the letters Spenser and Harvey chat happily about their contacts with great men and their various works in progress, including Spenser’s Faerie Queene and a surprising array of his other early works that were later lost–or perhaps silently incorporated into those that were published. These works included ten Latin comedies, several dream visions, an epithalamium celebrating the “marriage” of the rivers of England, and a work of literary criticism entitled The English Poete. The letters are even more interesting for their revelation that Spenser and Harvey had recently become involved in a literary circle gathered around Sidney . The group, which called itself the “Areopagus,” was short-lived, and though it may have been formed with playful reference to the great literary academies of France and Italy, it seems to have been better known for its high spirits and good conversation than for its seriousness. The writers involved–including the learned diplomat Daniel Rogers, Sidney ‘s friends Sir Edward Dyer and Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke, and the academician Thomas Drant–seem to have occupied themselves primarily with experiments in Latin prosody, attempts at various genres of new poetry based on classical models, and the promotion of English as a literary language. Rogers, however, also mentions grand discussions “of the law, of God and of the good,” which may have had some effect on the heroic works that occupied Sidney and Spenser in the years that following.”
Spenser’s direct involvement with Sidney and his circle in 1579-1580 set him on a literary course that he would pursue for the rest of his life. Though the two men never saw one another again, they adopted remarkably similar literary agendas, writing mainly in genres that Sidney had encountered among prominent neoclassical and religious poets on the Continent. Both men, for example, wrote works of literary criticism addressing the current state of poetry in England, and both devoted most of their creative energies to pastoral poetry and romance epic, to sonnets and epithalamiums, and to religious hymns or psalms. Both also wrote political tracts about Ireland, where Sidney ‘s father served for more than two decades and where Spenser was soon to become a government official. Expressions of admiration for the Sidneys and the Dudleys appear repeatedly in his works, from early poems such as his Stemmata Dudleiana (now lost) to late ones such as The Ruines of Time (1591), Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), and Astrophel(1595).”
Through his contact with men such as Sidney and Leicester, who were deeply involved in affairs of state, Spenser may have been emboldened to publish his Shepeardes Calender, which was dedicated to Sidney and dealt with sensitive political controversies of the day. Appearing in six editions before the end of the century, it became a milestone in the English literary renaissance because it was the first major published work of new poetry written along the neoclassical lines advocated by nationalistic poets such as those of the Areopagus. With a flair for self-promotion reminiscent of Harvey, Spenser–or perhaps his publisher–arranged to bring out the volume as if it were a venerable and ancient text. The archaic language of the poems, which Sidney impugned in his Defence of Poetry, may have been adopted in part to heighten this effect. Beautifully illustrated with woodcuts, the poems appeared from the outset already encrusted with learned prefatory matter and a running gloss by an unidentified scholar designated only as “E. K.” Most likely, this was Spenser’s friend Edward Kirke, whom he had known since their days together at Pembroke Hall in the early 1570s. Whoever he was, however, he shared Spenser’s views that English poetry was in disarray and that it should be reestablished on “an eternall image of antiquitie”–an argument that is repeated in the eclogue for October. In his prefatory epistle to the volume, E. K. lauds Spenser as “this our new Poete,” who will be “beloved of all, embraced of the most, and wondred at of the best.” If he had been writing of Virgil or Petrarch, rather than an obscure English poet, he could hardly have said more.”
Spenser’s skillful literary borrowings contributed to the volume’s impressive effect. From the Italian poets Petrarch and Mantuan he adopted a variety of pastoral that conceals beneath its surface biting political allegories and topical allusions to prominent figures in the church and the state. From the more traditional Eclogues of Virgil and from ancient writers such as Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, he took other features, such as the curiously static sense of time characteristic of classical pastoral. His rustics debate and sing, love and despair, but there is no real narrative progression in the Calender and very little action. Variety is introduced in the subjects that the shepherds contemplate and in the poetic forms that they employ, which include amorous complaints, fables, singing matches and debates, an encomium, a funeral elegy, and a hymn to the god Pan.”