Five Fascinating Facts about Edmund Spenser

Fun facts about the Elizabethan poet

1. The word ‘blatant’ was invented in Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. Spenser coined the word ‘blatant’ when he came up with the fictional many-tongued creature, the Blatant beast, in his epic poem. The Faerie Queene is a vast allegorical work of fantasy which mythologises England (using native myths, such as St George, alongside a sort of Chaucerian English) as a great Christian nation, ruled over by ‘Gloriana’ (i.e. Queen Elizabeth I). In the second book of his poem, Spenser mentions the ‘Blatant beast’, a thousand-tongued creature which is the offspring of Cerberus and Chimæra. (The Blatant beast actually has a hundred tongues when it first appears in the second book; when it reappears in the sixth book, though, it’s grown another nine hundred.) In time, this vast, babbling animal became the common adjective we use today to refer to something obvious and obtrusive – as, one suspects, a large beast with lots of tongues would be in any room.

2. Despite running to over 1,000 pages, The Faerie Queene was left unfinished. Spenser died suddenly in 1599, and left his great work only partially completed – he’s written only six of the projected twelve books, so he never got round to writing the entire second half of the poem. The Faerie Queene introduces the stanza form Spenser himself invented, and which is named after him: the Spenserian stanza comprises nine lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, though with the final line having an extra foot (this twelve-syllable line is known as an alexandrine).

edmund-spenser3. According to one theory, the phrase ‘going for a song’ originated in a reference to Spenser’s most famous poem. The story, recounted by Thomas Fuller in his Worthies of England (1662), goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so pleased with The Faerie Queene that she commanded that Spenser be paid £100 for his trouble. The Lord High Treasurer, Lord Burghley, upon hearing that such a huge sum was going to be given for a mere poem, exclaimed, ‘What? All this for a song?’ The meaning of the phrase became distorted (indeed, inverted) until it came to refer to something valuable that was going cheap – though this theory remains speculative.

4. Many of his other works are lost. As well as writing his epic, The Faerie Queene (or writing half of it anyway), The Shepheardes Calendar, the Prothalamium and Epithalamium (poems celebrating a marriage), and his sonnet sequence Amoretti, Edmund Spenser wrote a number of other poems and prose works, many of which are now lost. These include The English Poet, which is thought to have been a prose work about poetic technique and prosody, and a translation of the Book of Ecclestiastes.

5. It’s rumoured that many leading poets of the day attended Spenser’s funeral in 1599 – including, perhaps, Shakespeare. Spenser was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside his literary hero, Geoffrey Chaucer, in the area of the church that was to become known as ‘Poets’ Corner’. According to the historian William Camden, the poets in attendance all threw elegies into the grave. If this story is true then the poet who had strewn poems upon others in life was, in death, literally covered with verses. It’s a nice thought.

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Image: Portrait of Edmund Spenser (picture credit: Frederic), via Wikimedia Commons.

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