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Edmund Spenser Biography And Visits

Penshurst Place

When I was at university I wondered why Spenser received such little attention. Wordsworth viewed him as one of the big four, up there with Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer. We had only one tutorial on Spenser, given by a panicky graduate student who didn't seem to know much about him. I didn't know much about him either. But reading Spenser later on, I realised what the problem probably was. Spenser was one of those writers, particularly from a modern point of view, who led a questionable life, but who also awkwardly, had great talent. Spenser worked for the Elizabethan government of Ireland which pursued a scorched earth policy against the catholic Irish and left tens of thousands dead. Towards the end of his life Spenser wrote his A View of the Present State of Ireland which subscribed to what amounts to genocide in controlling Ireland. Genocide is hardly fashionable these days, and after reading his biography I approached Spenser like one of his knights approaching a dragon. But the poetry was beautiful, enchanting, and I felt like the Redcrosse Knight, who is enchanted by the poetry of Despayre:


And to his fresh remembrance did reverse

The ugly view of his deformed crimes

(Faerie Queene 1. 9 48)


Using contemporary documents and Spenser's own writing, it seems he was born around 1552 in London. His parents were described by Spenser as being from a "house of auncient fame," the family referred to being the Spensers of Althorp near Northampton. Edmund's father John Spenser was from north-east Lancashire, and moved to London to work for the Merchant Taylors Company. He lived in East Smithfield near the Tower of London with his wife Elizabeth and their three children, Edmund, John and Elizabeth. The family clearly had little money, the boys attending school as "pore schollers" with sponsorship from the Nowell's, a rich Lancashire family, who knew their father. The boys did well at school, and went on to Pembroke College Cambridge, Edmund studying there between 1569 and 1576. At Cambridge Spenser seems to have read avidly, but not perhaps in a very intellectual spirit. He was usually described as rather a dreamer. Periods of illness possibly contributed to his dreamy and reflective nature. I wonder if it isn't too fanciful to recall a famous photo of Edmund's distant relative, Diana Spencer, lost in a romantic novel, and find a parallel. In his later writing career Spenser would combine classic myth along with English legend. He was once described as "Hobgoblin runne away with the garland from Apollo" (Introduction Spenser Poetical Works E de Selincourt).


Penshurst Place

In 1576 Spenser left Cambridge and went to live in Lancashire. It is probable that he fell in love at this time. The object of his affection appears as Rosalind in his first major work, The Shepheardes Calender. Meanwhile a promising career at the court of Elizabeth I was taking shape. A supportive tutor at Cambridge had introduced his young protege to Elizabeth's favourite, the Earl of Leicester. Leicester employed Spenser as a private messenger. Most of the young man's time was now spent in London, or at Penshurst, the Kent home of Leicester's father in law Sir Henry Sidney. Henry Sidney's son Philip Sidney was already a poet, and talking together at Penshurst Spenser and Sidney discovered they had similar views about poetry. Neither saw it as an intellectual pursuit, but as something far more elemental. In Sidney's wonderful poem Astrophil and Stella a pair of lovers have to avoid the learned types who belittle their dramatic emotions. Poetry itself, in the view of these two young men, also had to avoid being trapped by the learned types. Ironically of course, as "English Literature" became an academic subject, Spenser would become, at least in the first part of the twentieth century, a fixture of an academic syllabus which generations of young people felt they had to plough through. Spenser's greatest work The Faerie Queene, along with the rest of what was considered English Literature, became a kind of arduous intellectual assault course. Kingsley Amis is supposed to have discovered a pencil note by Philip Larkin, scribbled at the foot of the final page of his Oxford college library copy of the Faerie Queene, which read: "Now I know that the Faerie Queene is the dullest thing out. Blast it" (quoted Oxford Short History of English Literature P10).


Portrait of Spenser. This image is copyright free

Spenser had faced his own canon of learned literature when he was at university, but the sixteenth century was a time of great cultural change. The Renaissance was leading to a more open view of what culture was about, and a growing national consciousness had started to create a market for new writing. Nobles competed to demonstrate their wealth and taste as patrons of the arts. Spenser realised that the time had come for a new poetry, and set out to create something that went beyond the learning and academic study he had been brought up with. Spenser, in his more worldly moments, also saw an opportunity to use his poetic talents to further his career at Court. By October 1579 he was confident that writing would propel him to high office. Writing with the aim of finding political office is probably not the best idea, and perhaps Spenser got his just desserts in the way one of his poems actually damaged his courtly career. Spenser was a puritan, and like many puritans, and many more moderate people, there was great concern over Queen Elizabeth's flirtation with the Duke of Alencon. The Alencon royal family of France had been implicated in the St Bartholomew Massacre of 1572, in which 50,000 protestants had been killed in France by catholics. Elizabeth's senior advisor William Cecil, desperate to see Elizabeth married, nevertheless favoured the match, thinking that marriage to Alencon was preferable to no marriage at all. Spenser's poem Mother Hubbard's Tale suggested that the Earl of Leicester would heroically oppose this potentially disastrous marriage. Leicester was displeased with the suggestion. A puritan pamphleteer had already had his hand cut off for expressing similar views. The punishment meted out to Spenser was a fall from favour, and a posting to Ireland.

In Ireland, banished from court life in London, Spenser settled into working for Lord Grey of Wilton. Grey was engaged in a brutal suppression of Ireland, spurred on by zealous anti-catholic feeling. Spenser worked diligently in supporting Grey's policies which killed thousands, and left some parts of Ireland virtually uninhabited. Eventually Grey was called back to London when the harshness of his policy apparently caused government concern. Whether there was real concern about morality, or whether the real problem was the expense involved in killing lots of people, is an open question. Whatever the answer, Spenser remained in Ireland, and was rewarded for the help he gave Grey with a castle and manor at Kilcomen in county Cork. Then in autumn 1589 Spenser got his big break, in the form of a visit from Sir Walter Raleigh, who was looking to add the distinction of being a patron of the arts to his accomplishments. Raleigh picked on Spenser to receive his attentions, after realising that Spenser's new poem The Faerie Queene was a masterpiece. Together patron and artist set sail for London. Raleigh presented Spenser to the Queen, and by early 1590 The Faerie Queene had been published to great acclaim.

Spenser now waited for some recognition of his achievement. A post of great responsibility was hoped for, although exactly what role the poet wished to play remained dreamily vague. Quite how writing a great poem made someone fit to be a statesman wasn't clear. Spenser was already in possession of an estate in Ireland, and he was granted a pension of £50 a year, a substantial sum at the time. But greedily Spenser wanted more and fell into some bitterness when nothing happened. In 1591 or 1592 he returned sulkily to Ireland, where he managed his estate, wrote poetry, and slowly came to realise the blessing in his frustrations. He had the money to write all day, and a nice castle to live in. What more could a writer want? The fluctuating emotions of this time are described in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. Marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, a relative to the Earl of Cork followed in 1594, their relationship described in Amoretti and Epithalamion. The wiser Spenser seemed to be winning out over the greedy, career minded Spenser.

Westminster Abbey

But as Spenser became more settled in Ireland he became fearful of a reaction building against English rule. To head off the convulsion that he felt was coming Spenser recommended in his A View of the Present State of Ireland the complete destruction of indigenous Irish language and customs using, if necessary, the scorched earth tactics he had seen Lord Grey employ. This pamphlet was not published at the time, and had no effect on policy in Ireland, but it reveals the attitudes of a man who had played a role in the sort of policy described. So once again it is clear we are dealing with a real man, not an idealised poet. Soon after writing his View the rebellion which Spenser feared took place. His castle at Kilcomen was sacked and burnt down, forcing Spenser and his family to flee to Cork. A story grew up that Spenser lost a child in the fire at Kilcomen, perhaps as part of a propaganda exercise to cast the rebellion in a bad light, but in reality the family seems to have reached safety. From Cork Spenser travelled to London with dispatches from Sir John Norreys calling for firm action to bring Ireland back under control. Once in London Spenser became ill, and died on January 16th 1599. He was buried in Westminster Abbey close to the grave of Chaucer in what would become Poet's Corner.

When Spenser died there was no suggestion that he had lived a bad life. He was honoured after all with a burial in Westminster Abbey. Nevertheless Spenser himself seemed to realise that even though his actions were accepted, and rewarded, during his life time, judgments are always changing. In Canto 9 of the first book of the Faerie Queene the Redcrosse Knight tries to resist Despayre's beguiling descriptions of the sweetness of giving up. Despayre wants the knight to lie down in the snow, as it were, and go to sleep:


The lenger life, I wote the greater sin,

The greater sin, the greater punishment:

All those great battels, which thou boasts to wise

Through strife, and bloud-shed, and avengement,

Now praysed, hereafter deare thou shalt repent:

For life must life, and bloud must bloud repay.

Is not eough thy evill life forespent?

For he, that once hath missed the right way,

The further he doth goe, the further he doth stray.



In Tudor England, and in life generally, loyalty is a great virtue and disloyalty a great sin. But people in displaying loyalty are often led astray. Often loyal, talented, hard working people become criminals when they show loyalty to the wrong cause. And right and wrong causes are often likely to change places. This was particularly true of Tudor England where people had to show loyalty to Catholicism or Protestantism, depending on which monarch was in power. And being on the wrong side of this violent divide could easily mean disaster. Right at the beginning of The Faerie Queene the Redcrosse Knight and his lady Una get lost in a wood. They follow endless confusing paths which never seem to end. Finally they decide to follow the path that "beaten seemed most" and continue following it until "some ende they finde or in or out". The path most travelled does not lead to any satisfying end. Instead it leads to Errours Den where the knight has to fight a terrifying serpent. People usually define right and wrong in terms of what most people around them consider right and wrong. But this can lead into terrible error. Spenser knew that. He also knew that there was no final judgment to be made in these things. The knight tries to reach the end of his confused path, but life does not allow for endings, a theme which runs throughout The Faerie Queene. The poem also shows that there is no final cause to be loyal to, no final end to confusion. There is no such security, and out of this endless chaos comes a strange stability, a promise that life will endure through it all.


Horse Guards Parade

Why not visit Horse Guard's Parade, on the site of the tiltyard of the former Whitehall Palace, where knights jousted for the honour of a jewel presented to them by Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth was careful in the cultivation of her image as an immortal queen. She was Spenser's Faerie Queene, and it was at the tiltyard that fantasies of knightly valour in her honour were acted out. Echoes of those romantic displays of knightly skill survive today in the tradition of trooping the colour, which takes place every year at Horse Guard's Parade.