Our book today is most likely called Edmund Spenser: A Life, and, as the hilarious critic-speak malapropism goes, it fills a much-needed void. It’s a fully-researched, lustrously energetic, beautifully crafted (deckle edge, dozens of spot illustrations, flourished margins), and unapologetically literate full-dress biography of Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599), the great Elizabethan poet.
There’s ample material for such a biography. Spenser was born in London and educated first at the Merchant Taylor’s School (where the grants of money he received instilled in him both an appreciation for simple kindness and an appreciation of the material dimensions of humanism that he’d carry with him – in one problematic way or another – for the rest of his life) and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he made the acquaintance not only of several of his future employers but also of Gabriel Harvey, the scholar and litterateur who first fanned Spenser’s own literary gifts to life. Harvey was a bit prone to pomposity and had only mediocre literary talents himself (neither of these things was forgivable by a scalding wit like Nashe, but they don’t in themselves condemn a man, after all – he was an oddity even by the standards of his very odd time, and he richly deserves a rattling good biography of his own), but the field of literature is forever in his debt, for giving us Spenser. The two collaborated on a series of public letters about the state of English poetry, and Harvey is the guiding animus in Spenser’s first major work, The Shepheardes Calendar, which was published in 1579 to an acclaim – a kind of acclaim – no previous work in English had ever received. Instantly it was seen that an epoch had begun.(To be fair, Spenser considerably helped that perception along by ‘annotating’ his own poem-sequence under the pseudonym E. K.) It had been two centuries since Chaucer, and in that time England had come into her own as a country and an identity and had begun to yearn, Augustan Rome-style, for its own literature, for the sense that its own literature was possible.
The Shepheardes Calendar is dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney. In all likelihood, Spenser had met the younger poet-courtier the year before while serving briefly in the household of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who was Sidney’s uncle. In 1580, Spenser went to Ireland as Secretary to Lord Grey De Wilton, who’d been appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland, and it was in Ireland that Spenser was to spend most of his time and make most of his fortune, eventually becoming master of Kilcolman, an estate in County Cork. It was in Ireland that he would meet and marry the lovely Elizabeth Boyle (and it’s Elizabeth Boyle he would celebrate in his gorgeous Amoretti and Epithalamion), and it was from Ireland that he would always look with longing toward the court of Elizabeth I in London.
It was to flatter (and guardedly, fashionably chastise) this court that Spenser crafted the first three books of his masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, an extended allegory and a heartfelt act of homage to Spenser’s beloved Chaucer. Our big, beautiful biography would owe a good part of its length to the fact that it would have to grapple with The Faerie Queene, a work that’s longer than War and Peace (and Spenser, like Chaucer with his own masterpiece, planned for it to be four times as long) and more easily misunderstood than the Bible. It’s safe to say The Faerie Queene is the single greatest work of English literature absolutely nobody reads anymore, and our biographer would not only have to explain why that is but also correct it – no mean feat.
Spenser travelled to London in 1589 (in the company of his County Cork neighbor, Sir Walter Ralegh) to present those first three books of The Faerie Queene to their exemplar, Queen Elizabeth I, and although she was appreciative (measuredly so – she never had the temperament for extended allegories – ironically enough, considering the fact that she fashioned her entire life into one) and pledged Spenser a fairly decent pension, her chief councillor, Lord Burghley, disliked the poet and successfully scuppered his future at court. Spenser returned to Ireland, married, and kept writing. By 1596 he had a gigantic amount of new work done, including the next three books of The Faerie Queene and a bit of literary payback for Burghley in Mother Hubberds Tale. There was a great deal of verse besides this, and copious letters, and a pile of Irish documents (indeed, a vast amount of good work on Spenser awaits our biographer in Ireland alone) – our poet was a busy man, a contented man who was nevertheless convinced he was not as happy as he would have been living a different life, a glorious courtier’s life like the one being enacted by his friend Sidney. Our biography will necessarily deal with the ugly sin of ambition.
In 1598 it all came crashing down. Tyrone’s rebellion reached Spenser’s castle, ransacked and burned it, and Spenser fled, eventually all the way to London, to the tender mercies of the court that had spurned him. Our present biography will perforce have much to say on the subject of the English occupation of Ireland and Spenser’s place in that story. The poet’s A View of the Present State of Ireland is by any reckoning a vile and provoking document (it was published posthumously), and our biographer will need to take account of it – the more arresting and original the account, the better.
Spenser died in London in 1599 – ‘for lack of bread,’ as Ben Jonson famously lied. He was buried in Westminster Abbey (hard by Chaucer, fittingly enough), and his fellow poets tossed verses and pens into the grave before it was closed.
They hailed Spenser as “the Prince of Poets” (our biographer at the last minute will very wisely choose not to make that the title of the biography), and that praise only grew stronger in the following decades and centuries. Dryden ranked his pastorals among the finest of their kind ever written, and Pope echoed and amplified that verdict. In 1875 the great, much-missed James Russell Lowell wrote a typically learned and magisterial essay on Spenser, according him that highest of all Boston Brahmin compliments, being capable:
We can trace in Spenser’s poems the gradual growth of his taste through experiment and failure to that assured self-confidence which indicates that he had at length found out the true bent of his genius , – that happiest of discoveries (and not so easy as it might seem) which puts a man in undisturbed possession of his own individuality.
“Before his time,” Lowell writes, “the boundary between poetry and prose had not been clearly defined. His great merit lies not only in the ideal treatment with which he glorified common things and gilded them with a ray of enthusiasm, but far more in the ideal point of view which he first revealed to his countrymen.” “His natural tendency,” Lowell continues, “is to shun whatever is sharp and abrupt. He loves to prolong emotion, and lingers in his honeyed sensations like a bee in the translucent cup of a lily.”
Our biographer would also be well advised to study the 1909 essay on Spenser by J. W. Mackail, who sets a stern warning early in the piece:
The fatal tendency of classicism is to see life through books, and to take it at second hand. Its natural instinct is to copy, and in doing so, to copy the inferior classics, who are more copiable, and then to go on copying itself.
Mackail strikes a generally elegiac tone throughout his essay:
Thus Spenser, like so many other great poets, represents the late splendour of a descending and fast disappearing tradition. The realm in which he was so great an innovator, so wide an explorer and conqueror, was even before his death passing into other hands.
But even so, Mackail is heartfelt in his praise, as discusses the Epithalamion: “For sustained beauty of execution, for melodiousness in which the most melodious of English poets excels even his own standard, for richness of ornament that stops just short of excess, and does not either blur the outline or clog the movement, it easily takes the first place, not only among Spenser’s own lyrics, but among all English odes.”
Edmund Spenser: A Life will draw on a vast array of sources, including many previously either unknown or underexamined; it will make such spirited and sharp-minded use of the vast corpus of Elizabethan literature that readers will feel as though they’re sitting in the very taverns and ale houses, listening to a mighty new age shape its literary responses to itself. But the book won’t owe its enormous general popularity and critical praise to its research, nor to its extensive bibliography, no – this book will be bought and read and talked about and treasured and revered and reprinted because it will have that perfect combination of acumen and dramatic assurance that so few biographies managed to achieve. It will go on the same shelf as Caro’s The Power Broker or Bate’s Samuel Johnson or Milford’s Zelda or Bainton’s Here I Stand – a great biography of its subject, yes, but also a great book in its own right.
Edmund Spenser: A Life hasn’t been written yet. I’ve been waiting patiently for a very long time, and I’ll continue waiting. Anybody out there who’s game for giving it a try has my enthusiastic encouragement.