Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2011
When The Shepheardes Calender, Spenser’s first major work, appeared in 1579 it did so anonymously, but when its author died a mere twenty years later he was widely recognized as ‘the Prince of Poets in his time’. The various stages in that rapid journey from anonymity to fame trace the trajectory of a very public and highly controversial career. Spenser conducted his relationship with his readers, and indeed with his patrons, through a series of carefully manipulated personae. He was constantly auto-referential but seldom autobiographical. The ‘selves’ that he offered to public view were richly complex, poetic constructs acutely responsive to the demands of genre. And his generic range was dazzling: he wrote pastoral, heroic, mock heroic, panegyrical, satiric, visionary, and amatory verse.
Spenser introduced himself to the reading public in 1579 as the ‘new poet’, and innovation is the hallmark of his canon. He experimented with a wider range of metres, dialects, and stanza-structures than any English poet prior to John Donne, and his stylistic and generic inventions invariably purveyed unsettling social or political comment. Although he has frequently been accused, most notably, perhaps, by W. B. Yeats, of producing propaganda, it would be truer to say that his relationship to contemporary power-structures was one of conflicted fascination.