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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2011

8 - Spenser


Edmund Spenser (1552–99) may well have been the most influential and innovative poet who ever wrote in English. Just after Spenser published The Shepheardes Calender in 1579, Sir Philip Sidney, reflecting gloomily on the dearth of English poetry in the 1580s, thought that only the work of Chaucer, the lyrics of the Earl of Surrey, A Mirror for Magistrates and Spenser’s poem were worth reading. Sidney was exaggerating for polemical effect, of course. But in an astonishing publishing career of seventeen years Spenser transformed the range, nature and potential of English letters. He produced three new versions of the pastoral (The Calender, Colin Clouts come home againe, Virgils Gnat); published letters with a friend, Gabriel Harvey (Three Proper, and wittie, familiar Letters); a beast fable (Mother Hubberds Tale); a sequence of secular and sacred hymns (The Fowre Hymns); a sonnet sequence and other collections of sonnets (The Amoretti, Visions of the Worlds Vanitie, The Ruins of Rome, The Visions of Petrarch); a dream-vision (The Ruines of Time); elegies (Daphnäda, Astrophel); an epyllion or little epic (Muiopotmos); a lament (Teares of the Muses); a marriage hymn (The Epithalamion); an epideictic poem (Prothalamion); a collection of Complaints; and a new form of epic romance, The Faerie Queene. Ben Jonson famously commented to William Drummond that Spenser ‘in affecting the Ancients, writ no Language’, a comment which gives us an idea of what a dominant anomaly he seemed to his contemporaries, and that we should see him as a forcefully experimental poet eager to transform the landscape of English poetry. It is more than a little ironic, then, that Spenser has most frequently been regarded as a conservative figure, a slavish adherent of the Queen’s court, or as Karl Marx rather more colourfully put it, ‘Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet’.