Edmund Spenser: Biography & Sonnets

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  • 0:00 The English Renaissance
  • 0:42 Edmund Spenser's Biography
  • 2:38 The Faerie Queene
  • 4:34 Other Works by Spenser
  • 5:39 Three Well-Known…
  • 7:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrienne Maher
Edmund Spenser was one of the great poets of the English Renaissance. He is most known for his fantasy poem 'The Faerie Queen,' an allegory of Queen Elizabeth's reign. He is also known for his cycle of love sonnets, including 'Epithalamion,' a long traditional poem he wrote in celebration of his marriage.

The English Renaissance

Edmund Spencer, who lived from 1552 until 1599, was one of the key literary figures of the English Renaissance. A Renaissance is a time in which major changes occur in government, science, technology and the arts, and a culture flourishes. England's Renaissance took place in about the middle of the 16th to the early 17th centuries, spanning most of the reign of Queen Elizabeth l. Key figures of the English literary Renaissance were Shakespeare, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Jon Bunyan, John Donne and John Milton.

Edmund Spenser's Biography

The exact dates and location of Spenser's birth are not precisely known, but it is believed that he was born in East Smithfield, London, around the year 1552. His father was a weaver who worked for the Merchant Taylor's Company. As a boy, he was educated in the classics at Merchant Taylor's school, in a humanist environment where music and dramatic performance were encouraged.

An interesting fact we have about the young Spenser is that in 1569, his last year at Merchant's, he and five other boys were given a new gown and a shilling to attend the funeral of a wealthy lawyer who was involved with the school. Later, this lawyer's estate helped to support Spenser's college education.

At the age of 16 or 17, Spenser left Merchant Taylor's to attend Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1569. There he was supposedly a sizar, which is our modern day equivalent of a work study student. He was already translating and writing poetry at that time.

Spenser published his first poetic work, The Sheapheardes Calendar, ten years later. He then began work on The Faerie Queene, which was published in 1590. Spenser was awarded a B.A. in 1573 and an M.A. in 1576. In 1580, he became the secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland. In 1581, he made Ireland his home, and Kilcolman, an estate with a castle, outside of Cork.

Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle in June of 1594. In 1597, Spenser's home in Ireland was sacked and burned during an Irish Rebellion. He fled back to London, financially ruined, where he remained until his death in Westminister, on June 19th, 1599. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer's grave.

The Faerie Queene

Spenser is most well known for his book-length epic poem, The Faerie Queene. It was one of the first attempts at an English epic poem, which he based on the Italian classics. An epic poem is a long, historical work that attempts to document the events and heroes of a time and place, a country and its culture. Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid are examples of classical epics. Spenser and his contemporary, Philip Sidney, wrote the first English epics, distinguishing them as poets who fundamentally defined and shaped a distinct English poetry of their time.

Spencer wrote the The Faerie Queene in honor of Queen Elizabeth, who was characterized as the Faerie Queen Gloriana, his heroine. His ambition was to write a beautiful work that exalted her reign, while creating a poem cycle of fantasy adventures rooted in the Arthurian legends of knights, damsels and dragons, and whose characters exemplified Spenser's definition of virtue.

This type of symbolism, where a character or place or event represents or parallels an idea, is called an allegory. In this case, Queen Elizabeth's kingdom is allegorized, and major figures in her kingdom are allegorized as certain virtues, such as friendship, courtesy and justice.

Spenser also hoped to gain patronage by the court for his writing career. In other words, he was trying to flatter the court so that he could gain recognition and monetary support for his writing. He accomplished this to some extent, but not enough to quit his day job, which was to serve the crown by protecting its interests in Ireland. His genocidal views on Ireland, as written in his A View of the Present State of Ireland, published 1633, postmortem, are brutal and incredibly disturbing, but that does not detract from the rich body of poetry he has left us.

Other Works by Spenser

In addition to The Faerie Queene, Spenser wrote the very romantic cycle of sonnets called Amoretti, which he published in 1594 with his Epithalamium.

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