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Outlines of English and American Literature
Edmund Spenser
by Long, William J.

Spenser was the second of the great English poets, and it is but natural to compare him with Chaucer, who was the first. In respect of time nearly two centuries separate these elder poets; in all other respects, in aims, ideals, methods, they are as far apart as two men of the same race can well be.


Very little is known of Spenser; he appears in the light, then vanishes into the shadow, like his Arthur of The Faery Queen. We see him for a moment in the midst of rebellion in Ireland, or engaged in the scramble for preferment among the queen's favorites; he disappears, and from his obscurity comes a poem that is like the distant ringing of a chapel bell, faintly heard in the clatter of the city streets. We shall try here to understand this poet by dissolving some of the mystery that envelops him.

He was born in London, and spent his youth amid the political and religious dissensions of the times of Mary and Elizabeth. For all this turmoil Spenser had no stomach; he was a man of peace, of books, of romantic dreams. He was of noble family, but poor; his only talent was to write poetry, and as poetry would not buy much bread in those days, his pride of birth was humbled in seeking the patronage of nobles:

      Full little knowest thou, that hast not tried,
      What hell it is in suing long to bide: ...
      To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
      To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.

To the liberality of a patron he owed his education at Cambridge. It was then the heyday of Renaissance studies, and Spenser steeped himself in Greek, Latin and Italian literatures. Everything that was antique was then in favor at the universities; there was a revival of interest in Old-English poetry, which accounts largely for Spenser's use of obsolete words and his imitation of Chaucer's spelling.

After graduation he spent some time in the north of England, probably as a tutor, and had an unhappy love affair, which he celebrated in his poems to Rosalind. Then he returned to London, lived by favor in the houses of Sidney and Leicester, and through these powerful patrons was appointed secretary to Lord Grey de Wilton, the queen's deputy in Ireland.

Spenser's Exile

From this time on our poet is represented as a melancholy Spenser's "exile," but that is a poetic fiction. At that time Ireland, having refused to follow the Reformation, was engaged in a desperate struggle for civil and religious liberty. Every English army that sailed to crush this rebellion was accompanied by a swarm of parasites, each inspired by the hope of getting one of the rich estates that were confiscated from Irish owners. Spenser seems to have been one of these expectant adventurers who accompanied Lord Grey in his campaign of brutality. To the horrors of that campaign the poet was blind; [Footnote: The barbarism of Spenser's view, a common one at that time, is reflected in his View of the Present State of Ireland. Honorable warfare on land or sea was unknown in Elizabeth's day. Scores of pirate ships of all nations were then openly preying on commerce. Drake, Frobisher and many other Elizabethan "heroes" were at times mere buccaneers who shared their plunder with the queen. In putting down the Irish rebellion Lords Grey and Essex used some of the same horrible methods employed by the notorious Duke of Alva in the Netherlands.] his sympathies were all for his patron Grey, who appears in The Faery Queen as Sir Artegall, "the model of true justice."

For his services Spenser was awarded the castle of Kilcolman and 3000 acres of land, which had been taken from the Earl of Desmond. In the same way Raleigh became an Irish landlord, with 40,000 acres to his credit; and so these two famous Elizabethans were thrown together in exile, as they termed it. Both longed to return to England, to enjoy London society and the revenues of Irish land at the same time, but unfortunately one condition of their immense grants was that they should occupy the land and keep the rightful owners from possessing it.

Work in Ireland

In Ireland Spenser began to write his masterpiece The Faery Queen. Raleigh, to whom the first three books were read, was so impressed by the beauty of the work that he hurried the poet off to London, and gained for him the royal favor. In the poem "Colin Clout's Come Home Again" we may read Spenser's account of how the court impressed him after his sojourn in Ireland.

The publication of the first parts of The Faery Queen (1590) raised Spenser to the foremost place in English letters. He was made poet-laureate, and used every influence of patrons and of literary success to the end that he be allowed to remain in London, but the queen was flint-hearted, insisting that he must give up his estate or occupy it. So he returned sorrowfully to "exile," and wrote three more books of The Faery Queen. To his other offices was added that of sheriff of County Cork, an adventurous office for any man even in times of peace, and for a poet, in a time of turmoil, an invitation to disaster. Presently another rebellion broke out, Kilcolman castle was burned, and the poet's family barely escaped with their lives. It was said by Ben Jonson that one of Spenser's children and some parts of The Faery Queen perished in the fire, but the truth of the saying has not been established.

Soon after this experience, which crushed the poet's spirit, he was ordered on official business to London, and died on the journey in 1599. As he was buried beside Chaucer, in Westminster Abbey, poets were seen casting memorial verses and the pens that had written them into his tomb.


In character Spenser was unfitted either for the intrigues among Elizabeth's favorites or for the more desperate scenes amid which his Lot was cast. Unlike his friend Raleigh, who was a man of action, Spenser was essentially a dreamer, and except in Cambridge he seems never to have felt at home. His criticism of the age as barren and hopeless, and the melancholy of the greater part of his work, indicate that for him, at least, the great Elizabethan times were "out of joint." The world, which thinks of Spenser as a great poet, has forgotten that he thought of himself as a disappointed man.

Works of Spenser

The poems of Spenser may be conveniently grouped in three classes. In the first are the pastorals of The Shepherd's Calendar, in which he reflects some of the poetical fashions of his age. In the second are the allegories of The Faery Queen, in which he pictures the state of England as a struggle between good and evil. In the third class are his occasional poems of friendship and love, such as the Amoretti. All his works are alike musical, and all remote from ordinary life, like the eerie music of a wind harp.

Shepherd's Calendar

The Shepherd's Calendar (1579) is famous as the poem which announced that a successor to Chaucer had at last appeared in England. It is an amateurish work in which Spenser tried various meters; and to analyze it is to discover two discordant elements, which we may call fashionable poetry and puritanic preaching. Let us understand these elements clearly, for apart from them the Calendar is a meaningless work.

It was a fashion among Italian poets to make eclogues or pastoral poems about shepherds, their dancing, piping, love-making,--everything except a shepherd's proper business. Spenser followed this artificial fashion in his Calendar by making twelve pastorals, one for each month of the year. These all take the form of conversations, accompanied by music and dancing, and the personages are Cuddie, Diggon, Hobbinoll, and other fantastic shepherds. According to poetic custom these should sing only of love; but in Spenser's day religious controversy was rampant, and flattery might not be overlooked by a poet who aspired to royal favor. So while the January pastoral tells of the unhappy love of Colin Clout (Spenser) for Rosalind, the springtime of April calls for a song in praise of Elizabeth:

  Lo, how finely the Graces can it foot
    To the instrument!
  They dancen deffly and singen soote,
    In their merriment.
  Wants not a fourth Grace to make the dance even?
  Let that room to my Lady be yeven.
    She shall be a Grace,
    To fill the fourth place,
  And reign with the rest in heaven.

In May the shepherds are rival pastors of the Reformation, who end their sermons with an animal fable; in summer they discourse of Puritan theology; October brings them to contemplate the trials and disappointments of a poet, and the series ends with a parable comparing life to the four seasons of the year.

The moralizing of The Shepherd's Calendar and the uncouth spelling which Spenser affected detract from the interest of the poem; but one who has patience to read it finds on almost every page some fine poetic line, and occasionally a good song, like the following (from the August pastoral) in which two shepherds alternately supply the lines of a roundelay:

  Sitting upon a hill so high,
      Hey, ho, the high hill!
  The while my flock did feed thereby,
      The while the shepherd's self did spill,
  I saw the bouncing Bellibone,
      Hey, ho, Bonnibell!
  Tripping over the dale alone;
      She can trip it very well.
  Well deckéd in a frock of gray,
      Hey, ho, gray is greet!
  And in a kirtle of green say;
      The green is for maidens meet.
  A chaplet on her head she wore,
      Hey, ho, chapelet!
  Of sweet violets therein was store,
      She sweeter than the violet.

The Faery Queen

Let us hear one of the stories of this celebrated poem, and after the tale is told we may discover Spenser's purpose in writing all the others.

Sir Guyon

From the court of Gloriana, Queen of Faery, the gallant Sir Guyon sets out on adventure bent, and with him is a holy Palmer, or pilgrim, to protect him from the evil that lurks by every wayside. Hardly have the two entered the first wood when they fall into the hands of the wicked Archimago, who spends his time in devising spells or enchantments for the purpose of leading honest folk astray.

      For all he did was to deceive good knights,
      And draw them from pursuit of praise and fame.

Escaping from the snare, Guyon hears a lamentation, and turns aside to find a beautiful woman dying beside a dead knight. Her story is, that her man has been led astray by the Lady Acrasia, who leads many knights to her Bower of Bliss, and there makes them forget honor and knightly duty. Guyon vows to right this wrong, and proceeds on the adventure.

With the Palmer and a boatman he embarks in a skiff and crosses the Gulf of Greediness, deadly whirlpools on one side, and on the other the Magnet Mountain with wrecks of ships strewed about its foot. Sighting the fair Wandering Isles, he attempts to land, attracted here by a beautiful damsel, there by a woman in distress; but the Palmer tells him that these seeming women are evil shadows placed there to lead men astray. Next he meets the monsters of the deep, "sea-shouldering whales," "scolopendras," "grisly wassermans," "mighty monoceroses with unmeasured tails." Escaping these, he meets a greater peril in the mermaids, who sing to him alluringly:

      This is port of rest from troublous toil,
      The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil.

Many other sea-dangers are passed before Guyon comes to land, where he is immediately charged by a bellowing herd of savage beasts. Only the power of the Palmer's holy staff saves the knight from annihilation.

This is the last physical danger which Guyon encounters. As he goes forward the country becomes an earthly paradise, where pleasures call to him from every side. It is his soul, not his body, which is now in peril. Here is the Palace of Pleasure, its wondrous gates carved with images representing Jason's search for the Golden Fleece. Beyond it are parks, gardens, fountains, and the beautiful Lady Excess, who squeezes grapes into a golden cup and offers it to Guyon as an invitation to linger. The scene grows ever more entrancing as he rejects the cup of Excess and pushes onward:

      Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound
      Of all that mote delight a dainty ear,
      Such as at once might not on living ground,
      Save in this paradise, be heard elsewhere:
      Right hard it was for wight which did it hear
      To read what manner music that mote be;
      For all that pleasing is to living ear
      Was there consorted in one harmony;
      Birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters, all agree.

Amid such allurements Guyon comes at last to where beautiful Acrasia lives, with knights who forget their knighthood. From the open portal comes a melody, the voice of an unseen singer lifting up the old song of Epicurus and of Omar:

      Gather the rose of love whilst yet is time.

The following scenes in the Bower of Bliss were plainly suggested by the Palace of Circe, in the Odyssey; but where Homer is direct, simple, forceful, Spenser revels in luxuriant details. He charms all Guyon's senses with color, perfume, beauty, harmony; then he remembers that he is writing a moral poem, and suddenly his delighted knight turns reformer. He catches Acrasia in a net woven by the Palmer, and proceeds to smash her exquisite abode with puritanic thoroughness:

      But all those pleasaunt bowers and palace brave
      Guyon brake down with rigour pitilesse.

As they fare forth after the destruction, the herd of horrible beasts is again encountered, and lo! all these creatures are men whom Acrasia has transformed into brutal shapes. The Palmer "strooks" them all with his holy staff, and they resume their human semblance. Some are glad, others wroth at the change; and one named Grylle, who had been a hog, reviles his rescuers for disturbing him; which gives the Palmer a final chance to moralize:

      Let Grylle be Grylle and have his hoggish mind;
      But let us hence depart while weather serves and wind.

Other Stories

Such is Spenser's story of Sir Guyon, or Temperance. It is a long story, drifting through eighty-seven stanzas, but it is only a final chapter or canto of the second book of The Faery Queen. Preceding it are eleven other cantos which serve as an introduction. So leisurely is Spenser in telling a tale! One canto deals with the wiles of Archimago and of the "false witch" Duessa; in another the varlet Braggadocchio steals Guyon's horse and impersonates a knight, until he is put to shame by the fair huntress Belphoebe, who is Queen Elizabeth in disguise. Now Elizabeth had a hawk face which was far from comely, but behold how it appeared to a poet:

  Her face so fair, as flesh it seemėd not,
  But heavenly portrait of bright angel's hue,
  Clear as the sky, withouten blame or blot,
  Through goodly mixture of complexions due;
  And in her cheek the vermeil red did shew
  Like roses in a bed of lilies shed,
  The which ambrosial odours from them threw
  And gazers' sense with double pleasure fed,
  Able to heal the sick and to revive the dead.

There are a dozen more stanzas devoted to her voice, her eyes, her hair, her more than mortal beauty. Other cantos of the same book are devoted to Guyon's temptations; to his victories over Furor and Mammon; to his rescue of the Lady Alma, besieged by a horde of villains in her fair Castle of Temperance. In this castle was an aged man, blind but forever doting over old records; and this gives Spenser the inspiration for another long canto devoted to the ancient kings of Britain. So all is fish that comes to this poet's net; but as one who is angling for trout is vexed by the nibbling of chubs, the reader grows weary of Spenser's story before his story really begins.

The First Book

Other books of The Faery Queen are so similar in character to the one just described that a canto from any one of them may be placed without change in any other. In the first book, for example, the Redcross Knight (Holiness) fares forth accompanied by the Lady Una (Religion). Straightway they meet the enchanter Archimago, who separates them by fraud and magic. The Redcross Knight, led to believe that his Una is false, comes, after many adventures, to Queen Lucifera in the House of Pride; meanwhile Una wanders alone amidst perils, and by her beauty subdues the lion and the satyrs of the wood. The rest of the book recounts their adventures with paynims, giants and monsters, with Error, Avarice, Falsehood and other allegorical figures.

It is impossible to outline such a poem, for the simple reason that it has no outlines. It is a phantasmagoria of beautiful and grotesque shapes, of romance, morality and magic. Reading it is like watching cloud masses, aloft and remote, in which the imagination pictures men, monsters, landscapes, which change as we view them without cause or consequence. Though The Faery Queen is overfilled with adventure, it has no action, as we ordinarily understand the term. Its continual motion is without force or direction, like the vague motions of a dream.

Plan of the Faery Queen

What, then, was Spenser's object in writing The Faery Queen? His professed object was to use poetry in the service of morality by portraying the political and religious affairs of England as emblematic of a worldwide conflict between good and evil. According to his philosophy (which, he tells us, he borrowed from Aristotle) there were twelve chief virtues, and he planned twelve books to celebrate them. [Footnote: Only six of these books are extant, treating of the Redcross Knight or Holiness, Sir Guyon or Temperance, Britomartis or Chastity, Cambel and Triamond or Friendship, Sir Artegall or Justice, and Sir Calidore or Courtesy. The rest of the allegory, if written, may have been destroyed in the fire of Kilcolman.] In each book a knight or a lady representing a single virtue goes forth into the world to conquer evil. In all the books Arthur, or Magnificence (the sum of all virtue), is apt to appear in any crisis; Lady Una represents religion; Archimago is another name for heresy, and Duessa for falsehood; and in order to give point to Spenser's allegory the courtiers and statesmen of the age are all flattered as glorious virtues or condemned as ugly vices.

The Allegory

Those who are fond of puzzles may delight in giving names and dates to these allegorical personages, in recognizing Elizabeth in Belphoebe or Britomart or Marcella, Sidney in the Redcross Knight, Leicester in Arthur, Raleigh in Timias, Mary Stuart in Duessa, and so on through the list of characters good or evil. The beginner will wisely ignore all such interpretation, and for two reasons: first, because Spenser's allegories are too shadowy to be taken seriously; and second, because as a chronicler of the times he is outrageously partisan and untrustworthy. In short, to search for any reality in The Faery Queen is to spoil the poem as a work of the imagination. "If you do not meddle with the allegory," said Hazlitt, "the allegory will not meddle with you."

Minor Poems

The minor poems of Spenser are more interesting, because more human, than the famous work which we have just considered. Prominent among these poems are the Amoretti, a collection of sonnets written in honor of the Irish girl Elizabeth, who became the poet's wife. They are artificial, to be sure, but no more so than other love poems of the period. In connection with a few of these sonnets may be read Spenser's four "Hymns" (in honor of Love, Beauty, Heavenly Love and Heavenly Beauty) and especially his "Epithalamium," a marriage hymn which Brooke calls, with pardonable enthusiasm, "the most glorious love song in the English language."

A Criticism of Spenser

In reading The Faery Queen one must note the contrast between Spenser's matter and his manner. His matter is: religion, chivalry, mythology, Italian romance, Arthurian legends, the struggles of Spain and England on the Continent, the Reformation, the turmoil of political parties, the appeal of the New World,--a summary of all stirring matters that interested his own tumultuous age. His manner is the reverse of what one might expect under the circumstances. He writes no stirring epic of victory or defeat, and never a downright word of a downright man, but a dreamy, shadowy narrative as soothing as the abode of Morpheus:

  And, more to lulle him in his slumber soft,
  A trickling stream from high rock tumbling downe,
  And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,
  Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
  Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swowne.
  No other noyse, nor people's troublous cryes,
  As still are wont t' annoy the wallėd towne,
  Might there be heard; but careless Quiet lyes
  Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemyes.

Such stanzas (and they abound in every book of The Faery Queen) are poems in themselves; but unfortunately they distract attention from the story, which soon loses all progression and becomes as the rocking of an idle boat on the swell of a placid sea. The invention of this melodious stanza, ever since called "Spenserian," was in itself a notable achievement which influenced all subsequent English poetry. [Footnote: The Spenserian was an improvement on the ottava-rima, or eight-line stanza, of the Italians. It has been used by Burns in "The Cotter's Saturday Night," by Shelley in "The Revolt of Islam," by Byron in "Childe Harold," by Keats in "The Eve of St. Agnes," and by many other poets.]

Spenser's Faults

As Spenser's faults cannot be ignored, let us be rid of them as quickly as possible. We record, then: the unreality of his great work; its lack of human interest, which causes most of us to drop the poem after a single canto; its affected antique spelling; its use of fone (foes), dan (master), teene (trouble), swink (labor), and of many more obsolete words; its frequent torturing of the king's English to make a rime; its utter lack of humor, appearing in such absurd lines as,

  Astond he stood, and up his hair did hove.

Moral Ideal

Such defects are more than offset by Spenser's poetic virtues. We note, first, the moral purpose which allies him with the medieval poets in aim, but not in method. By most medieval romancers virtue was regarded as a means to an end, as in the Morte d' Arthur, where a knight made a vow of purity in order to obtain a sight of the Holy Grail. With Spenser virtue is not a means but an end, beautiful and desirable for its own sake; while sin is so pictured that men avoid it because of its intrinsic ugliness. This is the moral secret of The Faery Queen, in which virtues are personified as noble knights or winsome women, while the vices appear in the repulsive guise of hags, monsters and "loathy beasts."

Sense of Beauty

Spenser's sense of ideal beauty or, as Lanier expressed it, "the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty," is perhaps his greatest poetic quality. He is the poet-painter of the Renaissance; he fills his pages with descriptions of airy loveliness, as Italian artists covered the high ceilings of Venice with the reflected splendor of earth and heaven. Moreover, his sense of beauty found expression in such harmonious lines that one critic describes him as having set beautiful figures moving to exquisite music.

In consequence of this beauty and melody, Spenser has been the inspiration of nearly all later English singers. Milton was one of the first to call him master, and then in a long succession such diverse poets as Dryden, Burns, Wordsworth, Scott, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Tennyson and Swinburne. The poet of "Faery" has influenced all these and more so deeply that he has won the distinctive title of "the poets' poet."


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