Verse > Edmund Spenser > Complete Poetical Works
Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599).  The Complete Poetical Works.  1908.
Critical Introduction




  1. The Ruines of Time.
  2. The Teares of the Muses.
  3. Virgils Gnat.
  4. Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberds Tale.
  5. The Ruines of Rome: by Bellay.
  6. Muiopotmos, or The Tale of the Butterflie.
  7. Visions of the Worlds Vanitie.
  8. Bellayes Visions.
  9. Petrarches Visions.

  SINCE my late setting foorth of the Faerie Queene, finding that it hath found a favourable passage amongst you, I have sithence endevoured by all good meanes (for the better encrease and accomplishment of your delights,) to get into my handes such smale poemes of the same authors as I heard were disperst abroad in sundrie hands, and not easie to bee come by, by himselfe; some of them having bene diverslie imbeziled and purloyned from him, since his departure over sea. Of the which I have by good meanes gathered togeather these fewe pareels present, which I have caused to bee imprinted altogeather, for that they al seeme to containe like matter of argument in them, being all complaints and meditations of the worlds vanitie, verie grave and profitable. To which effect I understand that he besides wrote sundrie others, namelie, Ecclesiastes and Canticum Canticorum translated, A Senights Slumber, The Hell of Lovers, his Purgatorie, being all dedicated to ladies, so as it may seeme he ment them all to one volume: besides some other pamphlets looselie scattered abroad: as The Dying Pellican, The Howers of the Lord, The Sacrifice of a Sinner, The Seven Psalmes, &c., which when I can either by himselfe or otherwise attaine too, I meane likewise for your favour sake to set foorth. In the meane time, praying you gentlie to accept of these, and gracious-lie to entertaine the ‘new poet,’ I take leave.
Critical Introduction

  THOUGH Complaints was not published till 1591, a year after the first issue of the Faery Queen, the poems of which it is composed are more properly to be classed with the Shepherd’s Calendar. Most of them might have been printed, though perhaps not exactly as they now stand, before 1580; the others are best understood in company with these. The Calendar and Complaints, indeed, taken together, are the record of Spenser’s growth to maturity.
  The circumstances of the publication are very oddly confused. In the opening address the credit for the whole enterprise is assumed by ‘the Printer,’ Ponsonby, who, we are told, hunted the poems out and made up and issued the volume by his own efforts. This work, we gather, was mainly prosecuted after the poet’s ‘departure over sea’—his return, that is, to Ireland early in 1591. And the volume certainly was published after his ‘departure.’ Yet we know that it had been made ready for printing while he was still in England. It appears on the Stationers’ Register for December 29, 1590, as approved by one of the official censors: at that time, therefore, the copy must have been at least approximately complete. Three of the poems, moreover, ‘The Tears of the Muses,’ ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale,’ and ‘Muiopotmos,’ the central poems of the volume, bear signs of having been prepared for the press by himself and issued individually—‘Muiopotmos’ in 1590. The plausible address of ‘the Printer,’ in fine, is not wholly to be trusted. What, then, is to be made of it? According to Dr. Grosart, it was devised by the poet as a blind, in the manner of Swift. For such a device one seeks a reason. May this be that, as, in 1579 (by the first letter to Harvey), he was shy of ‘seeming to utter his writings for gaine and commoditie,’ so now, but a year after the issue of the Faery Queen. he was loth to accept the full responsibility of a second considerable volume? Any account of the publication, however, must be very largely conjectural.  4
  The chronology of the poems is less in doubt. Though two or three of them are somewhat hard to place, the majority can at least be grouped in certain main periods with reasonable probability. First of all is the group that belongs to his university days, 1570–1576, and his subsequent sojourn in Lancashire: ‘The Visions of Petrarch,’ ‘The Visions of Bellay,’ ‘Ruins of Rome,’ and, perhaps, ‘Visions of the World’s Vanity.’ Following upon these days is what may loosely be called his first London period, during which, until it ended with his departure for Ireland in 1580, his headquarters were probably in the capital. These three years were of marked literary activity. To them belong most, if not all, of the Calendar, and presumably the greater number of his so-called ‘lost works,’ besides the beginnings of the Faery Queen; to them belong also some of the most important ‘complaints,’ ‘Virgil’s Gnat,’ ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale,’ and, less certainly, ‘The Tears of the Muses.’ Then follow the years of service in Ireland, till Raleigh brought him back in 1589. During this period he would seem to have given his leisure for poetry almost exclusively to the Faery Queen. Of the two remaining ‘complaints,’ ‘The Ruins of Time’ was written shortly after his return to England, and ‘Muiopotmos’ perhaps at about the same time.  5
  ‘The Ruins of Time’ and ‘Muiopotmos’ were composed not long before publication and probably needed no retouching. ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale’ and ‘The Tears of the Muses,’ early poems, were to some extent revised for the press. The others, one may think, were allowed to appear as first finished, or were at most but casually retouched. For, from the general tenor of his output, one infers that Spenser was not very sedulous in the revision of work once completed, and these poems were relatively unimportant—all but one, translations. They are not, like their companions, dedicated to people alive and influential in 1590: their chief function, indeed, would seem to be to fill out the volume. If Ponsonby really had a share in the collecting of Complaints, it must have been these, or some of them, that he gathered.  6
  To the reader of Complaints one name recurs more frequently than others, that of Joachim Du Bellay, who, from 1549 to his early death in 1560, was one of the leaders of the new school of poetry in France. From him Spenser translated ‘The Visions of Bellay’ and ‘Ruins of Rome,’ and from him chiefly he must have acquired those poetic theories of the Pléiade which are the staple of ‘The Tears of the Muses.’ Du Bellay is a personality of great attractiveness. Not so distinguished an artist as his colleague Ronsard, he had qualities of mind and character that win us more: dignity untouched by arrogance, guarded from it by native sense of fitness, the distinction of a finely congruous nature; in especial, a singularly penetrating and human melancholy. On any Elizabethan author of a volume of ‘complaints’ his influence might be among the deepest of that day. It is noteworthy, however, that his really central work, the Regrets, does not seem to have touched Spenser at all. And indeed, the ‘life-long vein of melancholy’ which Dr. Grosart detects in ‘the newe poete’ must have been, at best, rather thin. His elegies are hardly convincing. When he strikes the note of personal disappointment, his verse occasionally betrays a feeling akin to sadness, but the bulk of his really characteristic and genuine work is anything but sad. In the Faery Queen one may search far and wide, in vain, for a touch of that peculiar feeling which pervades the romance-epic of the genuinely melancholy Tasso. His most constant mood would seem rather to have been a serenity neither sad nor cheerful. In any case, one will not infer his temperament from the professed melancholy of his earlier work. That much of the Calendar is gloomy, that he wrote a whole volume of ‘complaints,’ was to have been expected: work in that vein was a convention of the days into which he was born. The cosmopolitan pastoral invited, if it did not impose, a strain of lamentation, and in England, since the days of Sir Thomas Wyatt, love-poetry in the manner and tone of the plaintive Petrarch, meditations upon the vanity of life, elegies, stories of the falls of the mighty had formed, in good measure, the staple of serious poetry. Spenser’s early work but continues a convention already well established.  7

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.