Edmund Spenser

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Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–13 January 1599) was an English poet and Poet Laureate. Spenser is a controversial figure due to his zeal for the destruction of Irish culture and colonisation of Ireland, yet he is one of the premier craftsmen of Modern English verse in its infancy.

Spenser is best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic poem celebrating, through fantastical allegory, the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Trivia
  • 3 List of works
  • 4 External links


Spenser was born about 1552. As a boy, he was educated in London at the Merchant Taylors' School and matriculated as a sizar at Pembroke College, Cambridge. [1]

In the 1570s Spenser went to Ireland, probably in the service of the newly appointed lord deputy, Arthur Grey. From 1579 to 1580, he served with the English forces during the Second Desmond Rebellion. After the defeat of the rebels he was awarded lands in County Cork that had been confiscated in the Munster Plantation during the Elizabethan reconquest of Ireland. Among his acquaintances in the area was Walter Raleigh, a fellow colonist.

Through his poetry Spenser hoped to secure a place at court, which he visited in Raleigh's company to deliver his most famous work, the Faerie Queene. However, he boldly antagonized the queen's principal secretary, Lord Burghley, and all he received in recognition of his work was a pension in 1591. When it was proposed that he receive payment of 100 pounds for his epic poem, Burghley remarked, "What, all this for a song!"

In the early 1590s Spenser wrote a prose pamphlet titled, A View of the Present State of Ireland. This piece remained in manuscript form until its publication in print in the mid-seventeenth century. It is probable that it was kept out of print during the author's lifetime because of its inflammatory content. The pamphlet argued that Ireland would never be totally 'pacified' by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed, if necessary by violence. Spenser recommended scorched earth tactics, such as he had seen used in the Desmond Rebellions, to create famine.

The paradox proposed by Spenser was that only by methods that overrode the rule of law could the conditions be created for the true establishment of the rule of law. Although it has been highly regarded as a polemical piece of prose and valued as a historical source on 16th century Ireland, the View is seen today as genocidal in intent. Spenser did express some praise for the Gaelic poetic tradition, but also used much tendentious and bogus analysis to demonstrate that the Irish were descended from barbarian Scythian stock.

Spenser was driven from his home by Irish rebels during the Nine Years War in 1598. His castle at Kilcolman, near Doneraile in North Cork was burned, and it is thought one of his infant children died in the blaze - though local legend has it that his wife also died. He possessed a second holding to the south, at Rennie, on a rock overlooking the river Blackwater in North Cork. The ruins of it are still visible today. A short distance away grew a tree, locally know as "Spenser's Oak" until it was destroyed in a lightning strike in the 1960s. Local legend has it that he penned some or all of "the Faerie Queene" under this tree. Queen Victoria is said to have visited the tree while staying in nearby Convamore House during her state visit to Ireland before she died. In the following year Spenser traveled to London, where he died in distressed circumstances, aged forty-six. It was arranged for his coffin to be carried by other poets, upon which they threw many pens and pieces of poetry into his grave with many tears.

Spenser was admired by William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, among others. The language of his poetry is purposely archaic. It reminds readers of earlier works such as The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, whom Spenser greatly admired.

Spenser's Epithalamion is the most admired of its type in the English language. It was written for his wedding to his young bride, Elizabeth Boyle.

Poetic Extracts

  • Faerie Queene. Book v. Proem. St. 3.
Let none then blame me, if in discipline
Of vertue and of civill uses lore,
I doe not forme them to the common line
Of present dayes, which are corrupted sore,
But to the antique use which was of yore,
When good was onely for it selfe desyred,
And all men sought their owne, and none no more;
When Justice was not for most meed out-hyred,
But simple Truth did rayne, and was of all admyred.
  • Faerie Queene. Book iii. Canto xi. St. 54.
And as she lookt about, she did behold,
How over that same dore was likewise writ,
Be bold, be bold, and every where be bold,
That much she muz'd, yet could not construe it
By any ridling skill, or commune wit.
At last she spyde at that roomes upper end,
Another yron dore, on which was writ,
Be not too bold; whereto though she did bend
Her earnest mind, yet wist not what it might intend.


  • Blatant Beast was a phrase Spenser coined for the ignorant, slanderous, clamour of the mob. However, the Blatant Beast from The Faerie Queene is clearly shown to indicate slander in general, and a large part of the final complete book (Book VI, although the Blatant Beast first appears towards the end of Book V) shows how thoroughly the Blatant Beast ravages the world, first spreading from the Court (not the villages or slums) and causing havoc everywhere it goes until it even penetrates into the monasteries and causes great distress there. Only Calidore, the most courteous of knights, was able to tame, chain, and imprison the Blatant Beast, which eventually would break free and, as The Faerie Queene concludes by saying, still ravages the world today since only two Arthurian knights ever even came close to doing what Calidore did and even The Faerie Queene, the text asserts, shall become a target for the Blatant Beast.
  • Houses at two well-known English Public Schools are named after Spenser - Merchant Taylors' School, which he attended, and Dulwich College.

List of works

  • The Shepheardes Calender (1579)
  • The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596, 1609)
  • Complaints Containing sundrie small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie (1591)
    • The Ruines of Time
    • The Teares of the Muses
    • Virgil's Gnat
    • Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale
    • Ruines of Rome by Bellay
    • Muiopotmos, or the Fate of the Butterflie
    • Visions of the worlds vanitie
    • The Visions of Bellay
    • The Visions of Petrarch
  • Daphnaïda. An Elegy upon the death of the noble and vertuous Douglas Howard, Daughter and heire of Henry Lord Howard, Viscount Byndon, and wife of Arthure Gorges Esquier (1594)
  • Colin Clouts Come home againe (1595)
  • Astrophel A Pastoral Elegie upon the death of the most Noble and valorous Knight, Sir Philip Sidney (1595)
  • Amoretti (1595)
  • Epithalamion (1595)
  • Four Hymns (1596)
  • Prothalamion (1596)
  • A View of the Present State of Ireland (ca. 1598)
  • Edmund Spenser at Luminarium.org
  • The Edmund Spenser Home Page
  • A View of the Present State of Ireland
  • Project Gutenberg edition of Biography of Edmund Spenser by John W. Hales
  • Poetry Archive: 154 poems of Edmund Spenser
  • Cambridge site about Spenser

    Preceded by:
    John Skelton
    English Poet Laureate Succeeded by:
    Samuel Daniel
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