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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by James Douglas Bruce (1862–1923)
 
EDMUND SPENSER was born in London in or shortly before the year 1552. Although the obscurity which hangs about the life and circumstances of the poet’s father has never been quite dispelled, it seems at least certain that he belonged to the Lancashire branch of the Spensers; and the family was connected with the “house of auncient fame” of Spencer, which, down to our own day, has continued to bear so honorable a part in the public life of England. The first event in the poet’s life of which we have definite knowledge—although even here the precise date is wanting—is his admission to the Merchant Taylors’ School of his native city. This event is probably to be referred to the very first year of the existence of this famous school—1560; but however this may be, in 1568 we find his name in the list of “poore scholers” who were assisted in obtaining their education by the charities of Dean Nowell,—a list, it may be added, which in the subsequent years of the same century was destined to include still other names hardly less illustrious than Spenser’s own. To Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, the poet was transferred in the spring of 1569; and there, amidst studies which apparently were often interrupted by ill-health, he passed the next seven years of his life, receiving in due succession the degrees of bachelor and master; but—owing to some disfavor with the authorities, it would seem—making no application for a fellowship, such as would probably otherwise have been made by a student whose tastes were so scholarly and whose means were so limited.  1
  The years of the poet’s life which immediately follow his University career are again involved in obscurity. Shadowy, however, as are both the lady and the circumstances, we know that this period was marked by the love affair with Rosalind,—more famous, perhaps, than is justified by the quality of verse which it called forth. To these years too, most probably, we should refer the beginning of Spenser’s fateful connection with Ireland, since in 1577 it appears that he accompanied to that unhappy country the then Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, father of Sir Philip. Two years later he is again in England, and in the house of the powerful Earl of Leicester, brother-in-law of the Lord Deputy Sidney. From here we find him carrying on a literary correspondence with his former college-mate, Gabriel Harvey; in which the perverse metrical theories and insufferable pedantry of the latter are almost atoned for by the genuineness of his friendship for the poet, and the stimulus he afforded to his literary activity. For this must indeed have been with Spenser—if we may judge by the list of works which are mentioned in the course of this correspondence, many of them lost—a period of such intense activity as can be paralleled from the lives of but few poets. The range of his literary experiments extended even to the drama,—the branch of literature which of all seems most alien to his genius; and we hear of the Nine Comedies by the side of the work with which he was about to open the great age of Elizabethan literature.  2
  This work,—the ‘Shepherd’s Calendar,’—appearing towards the close of the year 1579, justified in the minds of contemporaries as well as posterity the title of “The New Poet,” which the author tacitly accepted from his friend and commentator, “E. K.” To say nothing of the varied command of metrical forms and of the music of verse which the eclogues in this collection revealed, readers of native poetry recognized in the ‘Shepherd’s Calendar,’ for the first time since Chaucer, a work exhibiting the sustained vigor which is an essential of verse that is worthy of the name of literature. A plan had been adopted of no inconsiderable scope,—one which admitted the treatment of a great if somewhat singular variety of subjects and situations; and notwithstanding occasional grotesqueness of diction or injudicious choice of material,—matters as to which contemporary taste was by no means the same as our own,—or even a curious deficiency in that imaginative glow which the poet was afterwards to exhibit so pre-eminently, this plan had been executed without flagging from beginning to end.  3
  But the year following this great literary success saw Spenser finally drawn into those circumstances which were to determine the sum of his happiness and sorrow during the rest of his too brief career. In the summer of 1580, as secretary to the new Lord Deputy,—Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton, the stern Arthegall of the ‘Faery Queen,’—the poet once more turned his face toward Ireland; in which country, as a servant of the English Crown in various capacities, he was destined to spend the remaining years of his life. Only twice during this period did he revisit his native land before the final year of 1598; when, swept away from Ireland like many another Englishman by the storm of rebellion and devastation, he returned to die in London a broken man, in fortunes if not in spirit. In this savage and untamable Ireland of the closing sixteenth century, the poet who in his works stands furthest aloof of all men from the actual world, was called on to be a witness, and finally an actor, in some of the sternest of the world’s work. He was in reality, however, not less an English gentleman than a poet; and possessed not only the sense of civic duty characteristic of his class, but the fibre necessary to support the burdens of public service. Accordingly, by a striking coincidence, we find him at the end of his career, like the other great master of romance in our own century, filling the prosaic yet responsible office of sheriff, at the time when the rebellion of Tyrone burst over Munster, the province of his residence.  4
  After a more than ten years’ interval, covering the earlier years of Spenser’s life in Ireland,—an interval in publication though not in composition,—in 1590 the ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’ was followed by the first three books of the ‘Faery Queen.’ Six years more elapsed before the remaining books saw the light; but this latter period, including the final year, was marked by the publication of those minor poems, which—in beauty of form at least—constitute a no less precious inheritance of English literature than the ‘Faery Queen’ itself. In surveying this great body of work, the impression one receives of its variety is hardly less than that of its power. ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale,’ ‘Colin Clout’s Come Home Again,’ the marriage songs,—to speak of no others,—represent achievements, in the last case of the first rank, in the others of all but the first rank, in their respective literary forms; achievements all the more remarkable, one might say, in view of the absence of English models at the time. Who, for instance, would have suspected in the author of the ‘Faery Queen’ one of the keenest of satirists, but for the existence of the first of the above-named poems? Reflection upon the range of power which works so different exhibit, causes us to regret even the loss of those earlier dramatic experiments.  5
  But to the mind of the modern reader the name of Spenser is apt to call up simply the poet of the ‘Faery Queen,’—a work indeed which filled more completely the intellectual life of its author, during a larger proportion of the years of his maturity, than has been the case perhaps with any other poem in literature of equal rank; and it is this work alone which we shall be able to consider, briefly, within the limits of this essay.  6
  We may perhaps best attain a just insight into the nature and essential characteristics of the ‘Faery Queen’ by a consideration of its relation to its undoubted model, the ‘Orlando Furioso.’ It was unquestionably the example of Ariosto which led Spenser to dedicate his genius to this new representation of the idealized life of chivalry; and it was his object no less than that of his exemplar to render in his pages all the immemorial charm of romance. But the absence of one element from the Italian model could not but be keenly perceptible to the grave, even Puritan, nature of the Northern poet: the element of moral seriousness, which hardly less than the love of beauty was of the very essence of Spenser’s genius. To give then a moral basis to this ideal world seemed to Spenser necessary to render it complete even in its beauty, to say nothing of any more directly didactic object he may have had at heart. The method of allegory by which he attempts to supply this basis to the romance-epic, with his plan of the knights representing the twelve Moral and twelve Politic Virtues, seems a mechanical device for effecting his purpose, and indeed soon breaks down of its own weight; yet the nobility of Spenser’s nature, his high moral seriousness from which the conception of the allegory sprang, diffuses itself through the whole poem, so that after all he might rightly appear to the great Puritan poet of the next generation as “a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.”  7
  Even superior to these qualities of moral earnestness and purity, as an element of power in the ‘Faery Queen,’ is the passionate love of beauty to which the poet here gives the most luxuriant and vivid expression to be met with in English verse. In no English poet until Keats do we again find this pursuit of ideal beauty in the same degree the dominant element in the poet’s genius; and here the superior moral vigor of Spenser supplied a check on the tendencies to sensuous excess, which was wanting in the case of Keats. It is especially in the management of his verse, and in the exercise of his unequaled powers of description, that Spenser’s sensibility to beauty and capacity for its expression appear most striking. From no metrical instrument, perhaps, has a poet drawn richer harmonies than Spenser from his immortal stanza; and his descriptive powers, whether applied to the heroic figures who are the actors in his story, or to such splendid conceptions as the Cave of Mammon or the Bower of Bliss, mark the limits perhaps of the achievement of poetry in this direction.  8
  But after all, it is doubtless the ideal aloofness of the world of the ‘Faery Queen’ from that which lies about us, that gives its greatest charm to the poem. From this new world of the imagination the commonplace is excluded; and if we encounter here again evil and ugliness, they have taken on forms of terror which are hardly less ideal than those of purity and beauty. We wander on at will amidst this endless variety of incident and figure, all steeped in the colors of the imagination, without being reminded that there are bounds to the world we have entered, such as are recalled to us even in the depths of the Forest of Arden.  9
  And finally, the ‘Faery Queen’ is not without its philosophy,—a philosophy in conformity with the unsubstantiality of its world. In accordance with the nature of Spenser’s genius, we must not expect to see him present the problems of destiny and moral evil with the direct and tragic power of the chief masters of human character, as exemplified above all in the dramas of his great contemporary. No other poet, however, has expressed with equal power the mystery of change as the most fundamental of all the conditions of existence, as subjecting to its law the very heart of the world. This mystery of “mutability” seemed to lie like a burden on Spenser’s spirit; and it is the depth of his feeling and reflection on this idea which has imparted an incomparable sublimity to the posthumous cantos of the ‘Faery Queen,’ where the solution to the mystery which Nature proposes, differs perhaps but little after all from that of ages maturer in science.  10
 
 
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