Edmund Spenser: Achievement in literature

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      Edmund Spenser was born about 1552 in "Merry London, my most kindly nurse". He was the greatest poet of Elizabethan England. The most outstanding of his works are the Shepheard's Calendar, Faerie Queene, Amoreti, Astrophel The Epithalamion, Four Hyns, The Prothalamion.


Edmund Spenser was born about 1552 in "Merry London, my most kindly nurse". He was the greatest poet of Elizabethan England.
Edmund Spenser


      The Shepheard's Calendar (1579) is modelled on the artificial pastoral popularised by the Renaissance and inspired by Virgil and Theocritus, Bion and Marot. It is a pastoral, a poetic genre which is in the spirit of the Renaissance. It is a series of twelve eclogues, one for each month. Spenser's dominant theme is the unrequited love of Colin Clout for Rosalynde, but the eclogues are also opportunities for comment on political and religious problems of the time. Technically it is a poem of considerable merit and shows great power in dealing with various old time metres in a fresh and masterly way. His love of allegory leads him to pretty pieces of word. Comparing this poem with the verse preceding it, one realises the richness, the warm pictorial beauty and sense of amplitude hitherto foreign to English poetry. Never before there was an English poem in which the combination of lines and rhymes was so variously rich and novel. It is the first English pastoral compositions modelled on Spenser, and as such exercised a great influence on subsequent literature.

      But it was the Faerie Queene which was his masterpiece. The poem sets out to be a story with twelve Knights of Elizabeth who undertook various enterprises in her honour. The poet had, unlike Chaucer, little gift of lucidity and soon wanders off the main road into the flowery meads of fancy. The poem is merely a lovely mosaic into which are woven deeds of chivalry and pictorial fantasies and great moralisings. He is not merely content to tell an entertaining story as Tasso and Ariosto had done but to present this vision in a framework of high and noble purpose. He declares his purpose "to fashion a gentleman in virtuous and gentle discipline". The plan of the poem is explained by Spenser. Prince Arthur has seen in a dream Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, and ravished by her beauty resolves to seek her out in fairy land; the adventures that befall him are to form the main plot, and to serve as the connecting link between the different parts of the story. Now the Faerie Queene has an annual feast which lasts for twelve days, and on each day she sends forth a Knight to help someone in distress. It so happens that the redress of each wrong calls forth the exercise of a separate virtue. A book was to be devoted to the adventure of each Knight, and in the adventure of each Arthur still in the quest of the lady, is to participate, thus gaining experience in all that befits a perfect character.

      Its chief characters are dragons, Knights and enchanters. It is a mediaeval romance but Spernser also carried out his moral purpose through the allegory. Thus the poem fuses the spirit of the Renaissance and the spirit of Reformation. The Faerie Queene is an allegory. The Knights and ladies of the poem stand each for a Christian virtue and their trials and sufferings stand for man's spiritual experience. The form is that of mediaeval romance dealing with the adventures of the Knights. The whole poem consisting of twelve cantos breathes the air of romance. He devised a stanza afterwards known as the Spenserian stanza. The first eight lines are iambic pentameter while the concluding is an Alexandrine (iambic hexameter). The allegory is continuous and the moral is very prominent. In the latter books of the poem allegory gives place to romance.

      The Faerie Queene is essentially a picture gallery. He paints a large number of characters and the pictorial details of the poem are vivid. The poem reveals a sober, chaste and sensitive spirit, one keenly alive to sensuous beauty. Beauty for him was of the supremest value in lite. Keats was fired by his verse.

      The Amoretti are love poems. These sonnets have that undernote of melancholy which sounds through most Renaissance poetry. The Amoretti sonnets were addressed to Elizabeth Boyle. In these sonnets Spenser expresses his feeling without recourse to allegory. Sonnet in Elizabethan time was the sole medium of direct effusion and personal expression. Wyatt and Sidney with the glorious Astrophel and Stella was the first to use it. Spenser's sonnets came between those of Sidney and Shakespeare from which they are distinct in form and sentiment. His three quatrains linked by an artistic arrangement of rhymes and followed by a couplet make a harmonious whole. Spenser's sonnets are unique by their purity. They tell a story of love without sin or remorse, its varying fortunes, the lover's sorrows and his final joy. The Amoretti have the charm of a harmonious and pure atmosphere. They show better than anything else the quality in Spenser which Coleridge names maidenliness.

      Spenser wrote elegies, The Complaints makes a long lamentation over the ruins of Verulam. In the poem, The Tears of the Muses, each of the Nine Sisters sighs and declares that barbarism has returned and knowledge is scorned. Besides the Complaints Spenser wrote Astrophel which is an allegory of the life and death of Sir Philip Sidney. The Epithalamion is the most beautiful nuptial poem in English. It celebrates the wedding of the poet to Elizabeth Boyle, who is symbolically the eternal spirit or nature and fertility. The lush pastoral imagery is organised as a masque or tiymn. The twenty-three stanzas by Spenser are a free adaptation of the Italian Cnozone derived from twelfth century Provence,

      He wrote Four Hymns (1596)- An Hymn in Honour of Love, An Hymn in Honour of Beautie, An Hymn of Heavenly Love, An Hymn of Heavenly Beauty. Spenser's sources range from Plato through the host of Renaissance neoplatonists, especialy Ficino, Castiglione and Bruno. The Prothalamion is another wedding song. The poetry of Spenser marks both a culmination and a new beginning in English poetry. It is the culmination, (specially the Faerie Queene) of the allegorical verse tradition exemplified by Pearl, Piers Plowman and by Chaucer and the Chaucerians. But Spenser excels his predecessors in the complexity and richness of his allegory. Spenser was the 'New poet'. He proved to be the poetic master. His facility in language blended the best of the old and the new vocabulary. His fluency in many metres and stanzaic forms demonstrated that English was at least the equal to any other language as a vehicle of great poetry. In content he proved the synthesis of the age-romantic ideas within classic structure, nationalistic sentiment and idealistic expression, and the spirit of the Reformation and the spirit of the Renaissance.

      To subsequent generations, Spenser was the "Poet's poet". His fertile imagination, his sensuous imagery and melodic language have enchanted and influenced his poetic brethren. Milton paid him warm tribute and Pope admitted to his compelling magic. Keats, Tennyson and Rossetti are greatly indebted to him.

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