|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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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.]
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.
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
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."